Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Prado Itineraries and the Great Court of London, by the Windowless Consultant

We still don't know what the city is. Flesh, stone, or idea, space or word, practice or representation, a mixture of these or something else that they result from, more spiritual, more instinctive or explained by an enlarged idea of the biological, encompassing the social life of ants. Ultimately definable or not, though, it must be lived, and, as part of that life is its description, definitions, however partial, must be attempted.

The solution found by our fellow citizens at Oxford is a 750 word preamble, a grand tour of historical uses before so much as entering the treacherous terrain of definition proper.

Those seeking to establish whether it's stone or idea might visit the British Museum's Great Court. With this rebuilding, the architect, Norman Foster seeks to draw a line through central London, between the British Library to the North, and the riverside/Trafalgar Square attractions to the South: a 'New Heritage Route', he suggests, shading it onto a map in demonstration. An idea, a name, practices, a long line through stone, processional route for tourists, crossed daily and unperceived by inhabitants, recognised only by the relevant planning bodies or those seeking their language to commission, build or describe.

I came here via Madrid, the Passeo del Prado, at first sight a more identifiable entity in its Baroque rhetoric, linking the Reina Sophia to the Thyssen-Bornemisza around the Prado itself.

The idea was inspiration for a London window on a historical Spanish theme, the paintings there to help me, a flamenco night, the streets, plazas, bars, the food, habits, conversation.

My work in windows is self-assured, as it must be if I'm to survive by it, hence this blog, where everything less certain is collected, conglomerates, everything of or pertaining to the city.

The standard Prado guide is admirable in its clarity and, within reasonable limitations, detail. There's no such thing as Spanish painting, any more than there is Italian, Flemish, French or Dutch, as the Passeo del Prado complex is one of the best places to discover. Rather, there are tendencies, investigations, exchanges, discoveries shared, interpreted, forgotten or relearnt by more or less itinerant workers responding to the needs of more or less international clients, working, within and across ever-changing borders, under the rambling movements of battling dynasties.

El Greco's colours, we come to see, came from Venice, where they landed with the dyes from the trade overseas, his space, tormented, fragmented, and without centre, more a spiralling Tintoretto than anything closer to his anyway adopted Toledo. Goya looked to the Flemish, of course, especially to the works garnered by dominating Spain, not only for the portraits, but even in his darkest nightmares. Velasquez' proximity with Rubens is well documented, with Titian, and if there's one certainty to lie in Las Meninas, it concerns the fluidity of space, its changes over time, the defining place of perspective, representation, in who you are, of where you stand. The monarch is standing before it, the viewer, being painted, Philip IV in flip flops and shorts, unconsciously posing for Thomas Struth, wondering whether they grasp it, before the next one, with an audio guide.

I can't be the only one going abroad who on arriving experiences uncertainty about whether they've left. The language is different, the buildings, faces, streets, practices, space, but it's still language, building, streets, practices, space, still here. Whatever the Dutch at Breda made of their Spanish conquerors, the Spanish of the conquering French, may have been largely irrelevant to the maps being drawn and redrawn around them. The places would stay there, the stones, not least the practices, the stories told there and about them, would develop as they remained the same.

The great museums and galleries of Europe perhaps invite, though each in their own way, each just like the others, the same populations, trading flip flops in one place for umbrellas in another, restless drifting sitters, to tableaux musical chairs. Viewed from what perspectives do the cities expand around them mere wings?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Putney Debates, with Sally@StMary's by The London Archaeologist

Putney appears from across the bridge very much what it is. This illusion can only be dispelled by the closest inspection and a degree of luck.

My own encounter, though perhaps not repeatable, may serve as example.

It's clear from even across the river that this is a village encased in the city, the swelling city as yet unable to smother the village life out of it as long as the church, increasingly small in its little yard, continues serving tea, maintains the final barrier against the rising tide of chains, holds in barrista Sally that trump card, over Starbucks' biometric product personalisation or Carluccio's sheer nationality, beyond any froth or twist, which is faith.

As a parish, Putney is devoted to the river sports of a type unseen east of Wandsworth, aligning itself less with what might to the more central Londoner seem Thames proper than the upstream back-formed Isis or indeed the Cam, the soul of the place dependent on the hardy rowing of the crews to maintain sufficient westward pace never to hit land on a genuine London shore.

My latest visit was my first solely intended to gather information for the blog.

The only way you can know London is by exploring. To investigate, seek to ascertain or find out, search for, search out, to look into closely, pry into, scrutinize, examine by touch, to probe (a wound), to conduct operations in search for, hence explored. To explore has as many definitions as you might expect, from the talented crew of the OED, and, as usual, enough to make you hesitate: if each individual word in their volumes depends on so many others, are any to be trusted alone? Has nobody thought to seek out words sufficient to themselves? Not even proper nouns?

And so it is with London. To explore in use is open, requires no foreclosed knowledge, a certain blindness, touch. Where what is to be explored appears familiar, this appearance first, before exploration can begin, must be dispelled, and with the appearance the reality, the illusion of familiarity itself, must be foregone.

Putney, then, is not a parish ensconced in a city, the church not a parish church. This would be where investigation could begin and end, prejudice perhaps dispelled, perhaps in the church itself.

It is in large part thanks to the Guardian that, tucked in the heart of the church, the size of a passport photo booth, is a wonderful little museum in itself, where, alongside a (very) potted history, videoed politicos, historians, the parish vicar, and local students discuss the meaning, for the present, of the Putney debates.

At Putney, we know, one of the peaks in that peak moment that was the English Revolution occurred, the notion floored that political representation should be detached from property, at the time expressed most powerfully simply in land. In part as a result of world exploration, the rise of the new empires, in tune with increasing migration, the growing cities, but in tune also, as Tony Benn points out in his televised contribution to the display, with the still more radical notions floated elsewhere by the Diggers, that all private stake in the common property which is the earth is unacceptable domination, Putney briefly put itself at the centre of a rethinking of the meaning of land itself, its relation to representation, commonality, justice and truth.

The overall display is everything you might expect from its host, the Anglican church: space for most of the less radical positions, and even some of the more is found, politely contained in a central message only gradually put, that, in the opinion of the vicar, the men, if somewhat fanatical, were clearly Christian, ergo, the whole thing really came down to religion. Even at Putney, however, of course, the church being on the retreat from the high street, from encroaching chains trying to crowd the café and the church attached into the river with good riddance, what appears to have been the key funding had to come from the Lottery fund, the nation's money tossed into the hat of chance, and, despite the guiding hand of the minister, the visitor's basically free to decide.

As the defensive position of the church on the banks seems, though it can't, to imply, the titular Putney in Rainsborough's time was a village, the city only after grown around it. The revolutionary meaning of the word long since having drifted away from the place, the Guardian, Lady Antonia Fraser, the lottery, Benn, the local vicar have sought to bring it back, to return the debates to Putney, where they can be contemplated over a cup of Sally's tea.

Of course, I myself reflected, as I tossed a tip into a discreet little bowl at the till, that little Putney should have been, centuries ago, briefly at the centre of ideas beyond history even to the present to apply shouldn't surprise me as it must, with the differences in the land from place to place being themselves so different from what they might be. But until such a time as it doesn't, the little church with its gentle dogma must perhaps remain the basis of exploration.