Museums: The V&A's New Europe Galleries

By Bayley, Stephen | The Spectator, January 9, 2016 | Go to article overview

Museums: The V&A's New Europe Galleries


Bayley, Stephen, The Spectator


Before cheap flights, trains were the economical way to discover Europe and its foibles. Personally, I enjoyed the old fuss at border crossings. By the time I was 18, I had memorised those warning notices in the carriages: Nicht hinauslehnen ; Defense de se pencher au-dehors ; E pericoloso sporgersi .

Those three different ways of saying 'don't stick your head out the window', one bossy, the other pedantic, another gently pleading, summarised the nice subtleties of national borders that were philosophical as well as political.

Europe is a marvel. Its busy inhabitants discovered private property, social mobility, romantic love, democracy, secularism, antiquarianism, nationhood, industry, capitalism, technology, domesticity, privacy, vanity, revolution, modernism, exploration and self-expression.

To communicate their beliefs, to give form to their values, Europeans created images and objects of great sophistication. Many of these later became known as 'art', adding further levels of richness and meaning. But because Europeans also invented aggressive colonialism, the continent's values are under attack. And not only from the historically downtrodden and exploited. Expressing his concern at the muddle of contemporary European identity, Kissinger asked, 'If I want to speak to Europe, who do I call?'

Tapestry - The Art of War, Judocus de Vos

So with nice didactic appropriateness, the V&A opened its new European galleries at the end of last year. Arrive at the front door and you will be told 'Turn left for Europe', but that's practical guidance, not a political directive. ZMMA architects has stripped back an unloved and gloomy part of the museum, ripping out crapola Ministry of Works suspended ceilings and exposing parts of Sir Aston Webb's imperious original while adding new finishes in bronze, walnut, stone and leather. Clarity has replaced obscurity. With these sumptuous effects and coruscating display cabinets meticulously crafted by hyper-tech German Übermenschen, the total effect is a little like sitting in an S-Class Mercedes, that sovereign contemporary symbol of European authority in matters of luxury and technology.

Intellectually, there is rather a lot going on: the new European galleries represent a vigorous rethink of the V&A's collections. The museum -- naturally -- has huge British holdings already freshly redisplayed, but its European catalogue has been massively skewed towards France since the 1882 bequest of John Jones, a military tailor who, like Henry Frick in New York, wanted to introduce his new money to old French furniture. What's more, there is no such thing as a synoptic European history of art, since historians still tend to cling to pre-Schengen notions of national identity. …

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