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Vol. 6 No. 7 · 19 April 1984
Diary

English Romanesque at the Hayward Gallery

Lawrence Gowing

In the future, when people are wondering whether they ‘like’ that cyclopean mass of concrete, the Hayward Gallery, or how they can endure the dictates of British Gaullism, or whether they love that faithful wing of it that is charged with cultural governance, I hope they will remember the successive anxiety, bafflement, reassurance, and ultimate aesthetic conciliation, which chased one another across their hearts in this cold spring of 1984. They should think of the sensation, as if of coming home, of the enormously affecting rediscovery, in the concrete gallery, of the beauty – itself both gigantic and delicately faithful – of English Romanesque.

Certainly, I shall try to. I can forget that I ever worried that British Gaullism lacked its Malraux, because I am no longer so sure. I am more worried now that it may have too many, a multitude of complex, sophisticated people, all ravaged by the fate of idealism in these cold springs that we are getting, while the rest of us accuse ourselves of not having proved sophisticated or complex enough for the perplexities of our time in the public administration of the arts.

The reflection that is worth holding on to, as we make our buffeted ways to the Hayward (or across town to the Serpentine Gallery, where an epochal exhibition of Anthony Caro is brewing, as if to complement it and demonstrate how various the subject and the Arts Council are), concerns the real present content of the act of devotion and insight in which the professionals of the Arts Council, known with a happy irony, which they are too modest to notice, as the Art department, have led us this spring. An exhibition like the Hayward’s ‘English Romanesque’, which assembles things that no one has seen together before and uncovers the beauty they owe to their context in a single, unfolding process, achieves something that only an exhibition can offer and only one gallery in the country. The building looks good as never before; we shall value it better for this experience. There is a delight in it, as always in the communal life of art, that is at once private and common, a material and visual poetry that is both stony, with the sense of British stone, and precisely linear as British drawing and cutting are, a delight that we insist on recapturing across nine hundred years.

What is the present content of that insistence? I find myself reflecting on the part which renaissance and renascences perennially take in imaginative life, because this is an exhibition of originality as resurgence. This past that we recapture – and why now? – was in Britain the definitive realisation of a heritage that the Imperial tradition abroad never lost. Yet the Northumbrian formulation was none the less original and felt to be infectious in the Norman dominion. Durham inaugurated the international fashion for the British style of big-church building.

If you drive from Durham, as I used to when I lived in Northumberland, straight down the west side of France, you experience the correspondences with a pride you did not know you possessed. I reluctantly notice a congruence with the perplexing British-Gaullist mood, and dismiss it – yet still recognise in recent building a bigness and native zigzag grooving. Is not the shuttering of concrete at the Hayward, glimpsed in the moulding of monster soffits, itself a Romanesque quality? Is that why the gallery suits its contents so well? Anyone who thought London could do without the Hayward must have imagined that we could do without, not only exhibitions like this (there can never be an exhibition quite like this because there was never before such a coming-to-life of native lyricism and staunchness, nor perhaps will there be quite so freshly again) – not only this but its counterpart, the modern exhibitions that the Hayward gathers and mounts. Or rather, did not imagine, never realised that the visual culture of a country, its internationalism as well as its visible nationality, has always these two alternate, complementary prongs. Reaching the Hayward, gathering up the catalogue, and the report which announces that the Council will not seek to reduce its commitment,* we enter the exhibition through Pre-Conquest alcoves, with reminders of what was generated as well as preserved in Hiberno-Saxon fastness. I should not be surprised if visitors remembered the lamented Kenneth Clark, transported to whatever northern and wind-buffeted island to tell us ‘we came through by the skin of our teeth.’ Knowing a little of the determination needed to accomplish this project, set back once at least by the financial buffeting, one feels one has come through oneself. Nothing alloys the gratitude for exactly the right exhibition.

If Malraux keeps coming to mind, it is not only because this art before nationality makes one think of France. The splendid conception of the Hayward exhibition, and the design by Paul Williams, remind one continually that the musée imaginaire need not be imaginary – in fact, cannot be. The content, the senses and perceptions of the art it brings together, are about exactly those values that we can only hold before the eye and in the mind through art, and not by any other less material, more verbal means. This exhibition is the ideal non-imaginary museum, replete with scholarship, under the always acute and genial leadership of George Zarnecki, who tells us time and again exactly what the rest of us need. In some sense, the whole project must be due to the influence of this great and friendly teacher. And thus to the perceptiveness of Anthony Blunt.

The Hayward Gallery – unloved though it may have been (till now), it is so powerful – is the indispensable instrument for bringing together the material presence of that which art makes real. It seems incredible, but until the other day one had never seen enamels and manuscripts together, or book-painting with glass-painting still in the corner of one’s eye. Now the winding-stair at the Hayward (the one without the telephones and the loos) passes and repasses an incomparable suite of glass from Canterbury and York, founding masterpieces of glass-painting from the 12th-century renaissance. Twelfth century: think of the trouble it takes to see that in France, and now one can look at it closely in quantity and unimaginable quality – with the Winchester Bible itself, reunited with a separated leaf or two, just downstairs. One sees the great painting of the 12th century better at the Hayward than one will ever see it anywhere else. It is the invention of something essential in Western painting, a Western awareness never seen before, and never without the Hayward, now forever beloved. What an occasion; what reconciliations! (Why Marghanita, how do you do? Hi Bryan!)

I was rather aware of Malraux at one moment, as it happened. During the Occupation he had hidden out in Roquebrune at La Souco, no doubt imagining his museum and other things, while my cousins-in-law, the Bussys, took refuge near their old friend at Nice. A few years later, clearing up the house, I found traces of his residence among the papers and the books. I packeted them up and forwarded them to the minister’s office, doubting if it would be prudent to leave any possible favour uncurried. Sure enough, some official villainy was presently impending with the car park of that lovely village. We managed to transmit word with unexpected ease and immediately, with one flexing of the ministerial finger, all was set authoritatively and elegantly to rights, to the relief (the habit of leaving no name undropped doesn’t break easily) of Marguerite Yourcenaar across the road. (Why Alastair Forbes, how do you do?)

Where will the authoritative finger of British Gaullism be most benevolently flexed? One cannot doubt, least of all here, the safety of that best-spent part of the Literature grant, which subsidises magazines that alone ensure that indispensable writing, which does not pay for itself, is written and sees the light. There is, I think, an undertaking, or the fat would be in the fire indeed, that the abolition of the metropolitan boroughs shall not endanger the public commitment to art which they hold in trust. I’d like to be sure of the breadth with which that commitment will be defined. Some of the best things the boroughs do are not at all conspicuous.

As it happens (again), I see more than most people of the artistic vitality that is welling up all over the country through the gaps, in the interstices of the educational and cultural plans, because I see a continual procession from many age-groups of new talents who see themselves, sometimes rightly, as prospective undergraduate or graduate students, in fact as artists. Virtually every one of them who is any good has wanted at some stage to draw from life, and lacked access to models. The vast majority have depended on the least conspicuous, least extravagant of all the national artistic resources, the drawing classes at evening institutes. They use the models; they meet artists whom they never lose touch with; they discover themselves. This is one growth-point that really grows. As the less and less distant thunder rolls over further education, let’s be sure this valued and valuable provision is safe.

Next stop (12 April) the Serpentine Gallery, for Anthony Caro, the best sculptor of his day, and incidentally, I expect, another example of Arts Council exhibition-craft – the modern kind, the kind we live by day by day – at its enlightening and poetic best.

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Letters

Vol. 6 No. 9 · 17 May 1984

SIR: Lawrence Gowing’s relief at the mildness of the Arts Council’s purgative draught has overstimulated him (LRB, 19 April). The Romanesque exhibition is splendid, as he says, but two exhibitions of Oriental rugs and carpets had already proved that the Hayward Gallery was, as an exhibition space at least, too swiftly denigrated. Moreover, while the activities of the Serpentine Gallery are worth fighting for, Gowing’s advance puff for the Caro exhibition will give pause to the many who have heard, in the chatter which rose when the bomb had exploded with less loss of cultural life than expected, more relief at the shoring-up of a hermetic sensibility than concern for the generality of intelligent gallery-goers. This point only seems worth making because Gowing’s plea for evening-institute drawing classes is a reminder of a more broadly based interest in picture-making. Surely the threat of a cut in public funding might have led a teacher and painter of Gowing’s abilities and stature to be a little less bland in his implied affirmation of the health of English art.

Nancy Dunstable
Colchester

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