Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Another map of your head

I spent part of Friday evening mooching around the National Portrait Gallery, using it's late night opening to pass the time before my evening's engagement.

The Pet Shop Boys mini-show that was on its last weekend was a bit uninspiring, being mostly very well known shots, but elsewhere in the contemporary galleries there were several new-to-me pieces that I was very taken with (and I always love visiting Andrew Motion's Head - it's so tactile.) As is so typically me, the portrait of Johnson Beharry, which I really liked, isn't on their site, so I can't follow up the reference to a related painting I now can't remember any of the details about (something about a cavalry officer?)

Up on the first floor, you're immediately faced by a wall of Jim Dine's self-portraits - I have to admit I was very taken by a pair, one very dark black and red, full of anger, and then next to it, an etched silver-under-black version that somehow reminded me of ancient gods. The Exceptional Youth set, both sides of one bay of the curved dividers, also grabbed me - beautiful images, but also very narrative, somehow.

Rounding the corner from that first floor gallery I was forcibly reminded how much I love how the NPG uses it's space to orient you - the clean, contemporary, late 20th / 21st century new acquisitions, all curved beech and glass, and then you turn a corner and it's ox-blood walls, gold frames, and Victorians ... The dotty glass dividers in the earlier 20thC gallery pleases me also - and the current focus on women writers was fascinating - so many familiar names and so few familiar faces.

But the hands-down winner for me was Nick Danziger's Blair at War series, which manage to be both documentary, aesthetic, and powerfully moving. There's one shot that could be the image of a dispossessed leader - TB to one side, being made up for the cameras, while the foreground is filled with his staff and advisers, deep in confab. Put next to the shot of TB and Bush, chatting casually on the terrace at Camp David, deciding the course of the war, though, it's just the opposite.

And then I spent Saturday afternoon with a friend braving the closing weekend crowds for the London: A Life In Maps exhibition at the BL. All those reviews when it opened that said it was brilliant? They were quite right, but it's too late now. There were an awful lot of people, and as the maps all pretty much demanded you to get up close and personal to spot road names and landmarks, there were some traffic snarls, but pleasingly, the kind of people who seem to want to spend a chunk of their weekend getting their geek on about the evolution of London place names also seem to be quite friendly and happy to point things out / have things pointed out to them.

It was striking how unrecognisable so much of the pre-Wren city is, not helped by the centre point of many of the maps being Southwark Cathedral / London Bridge, which on a modern map are over to the east. And disconcerting how, in the early maps, you can see the back of London - the point to the North where the houses end. I know it's facing the other way, but I couldn't help remember standing in front of Alexandra Palace on fireworks night last year and seeing the city stretch south into the horizon...

We were going to follow up with a trip to The Building Centre, but we lost track of time both in the exhibition and over coffee, so they were shut by the time we got over there. Another day.

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