Peter Wollen at Tate Modern
The first breakthrough in the transformation of the South Bank of the Thames came in 1951 with the Festival of Britain, which established this stretch of riverside as a public space, and brought in its aftermath the Festival Hall, the National Film Theatre and, on the other side of Giles Gilbert Scott’s Waterloo Bridge, the new National Theatre. The next came in 1977, with the foundation of the Coin Street Action Group when, reacting against a decline in public housing and the proliferation of office blocks, the inhabitants of the area to the east of the South Bank Centre began to organise to defend their homes. In 1984, with support from Ken Livingstone and the GLC, they fought off the property developers, founded housing co-operatives and opened up the area around what are now Bernie Spain Gardens and the converted Oxo Tower Wharf, thus lengthening the Thames Path, so that eventually there would be pedestrian access all the way to Blackfriars Bridge and beyond, to the new Globe Theatre and now, of course, to the old Bankside Power Station – also the work of Giles Gilbert Scott – or Tate Modern. After my second trip to this astonishingly successful museum, I walked back across the slightly swaying Millennium Bridge towards St Paul’s and, looking back towards Bankside, I began to think about the life and work of Hagop Sandaljian.
Sandaljian was born in Alexandria in 1931. His family, who came from Armenia, resettled in Yerevan in 1948, and he embarked on a career as a violinist there, leaving for Moscow to study in the Conservatory and eventually writing an innovative dissertation on the teaching and playing of the viola, based on ergonomic theory. In the 1970s he was introduced to the art of the microminiature by a fellow Armenian violinist. The two agreed to exchange information – the ergonomics of violin performance for the art of making miniatures, almost unimaginably tiny. Eventually Sandaljian became the great master of the craft. As Ralph Rugoff explains in The Eye of the Needle (1996), an enthralling study of Sandaljian’s work, his microminiatures ‘were fashioned from slivers of human hair and motes of dust and glue’. Peering through a 120-power microscope, he carved and painted sculptures measurable in microns and millimetres; his Pope John Paul II
holds a cross crafted from a hair divided into sixths, making its width slightly less than the diameter of two red blood cells. His portrait of Little Red Riding Hood, whose diminutive has never been so well-deserved, features a mere speck of a girl lost amid a towering grove of trees in a needle’s eye; only after one’s eyes have grown accustomed to the microscopic detail is it possible to see that she carries a tiny basket in her hand.
In 1980, sensing trouble ahead in Armenia, Sandaljian gathered up his family and left for Los Angeles. As he left, Soviet customs officials seized his collection of microminiatures (18 in all), arguing that they were a national treasure. Unable to find work in Los Angeles and supported by his wife, who worked first as a seamstress, then as a teacher, he devoted himself once more to his microminiatures. His first exhibition, sponsored by the Armenian Allied Arts Association, was held in 1986 and featured ‘eye-of-a-needle portraits’ of Napoleon, a Spanish dancer, Donald Duck and several other Disney characters, as well as a grain of rice inscribed with verse. The show was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The following year he received a prize from the National Small Works Competition, judged by a curator from the Guggenheim Museum.
In December 1990 an exhibition was planned for the Museum of Jurassic Technology: in effect a retrospective, featuring more than twenty of his works. Sadly, Sandaljian died just before the show opened, but it led to Rugoff’s comprehensive monograph and to a growing enthusiasm for his work. For a while I wondered whether Rugoff hadn’t invented Sandaljian, so extraordinary was the story of his life, but the works certainly existed and were visible, through a microscope, in the Museum. I eventually met his family there, while my eight-year-old daughter was marvelling at his masterpiece, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. It seems strange that an artist such as Jeff Koons can include a gigantic puppy dog in his repertoire, to massive acclaim, while Sandaljian’s minute Disney figures are admired only by a tiny group of cognoscenti. After all, as Rugoff points out, the miniature has a long and distinguished history, from the 16th-century peachstone sculptures of the Stations of the Cross by Prosperzia di Rossi and the art of the great Elizabethan miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard to the inevitable growth of nano-technology in our own time.
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[*] Allen Lane, 332 pp., £20, 6 April, 0 713 99280 8.
[†] Thames and Hudson, 63 pp., £7.95, 8 May, 0 500 28216 1.