London Trip 2

When we arrived yesterday at St. Paul’s, we discovered that it was closed to tourists. So after snapping a couple pictures, we headed south, taking the millennium footbridge across the Thames to the Tate Modern. For the last half-century the building that now houses the Tate served as the Bankside Power Station; fully renovated in the late-1990s it is more impressive than any of the pieces installed there. It is a massive structure — and I mean 4.2 million bricks massive.

We didn’t stay at the Tate for long. Because it’s undergoing its first major re-installation since opening in 2000, much of the building is closed to visitors. We did take a quick stroll through the main collection, though. The painting I was most struck by was Naked Man with a Knife (1938-40), an early piece by Jackson Pollock. I don’t believe I’d ever seen any of the work he completed before he began pouring, dripping, and throwing paint. Naked Man is representational by comparison, a violent and frightening piece. Seeing it side-by-side (almost literally) with Summertime: 9A (1948) and Yellow Islands (1952) was helpful. Summertime strikes a balance between the two extremes: the dripped paint still finds a pattern and form there.

When we left the Tate, we walked west along the river until we hit the National Film Theatre. From there we hopped back on the underground at Waterloo, headed north, and stopped for lunch in Covent Garden: lamb souvlaki at The Real Greek. Covent Garden was packed with people — too many, actually, for Joanna, who tends to get anxious in crowds. We browsed at a couple shops there before heading back to the hotel.

Last night we walked again to Covent Garden for a great meal at a place called Cafe Pasta. By “great meal” I don’t necessarily mean that we had exceptional food. Instead, we had good food with great wine served by a charming waitress in an inviting room accompanied by pleasant music. Until this week, I don’t think I’d realized how quickly we eat in the States. For our first few meals here, I found myself becoming annoyed by our servers, who, for some reason, didn’t bring us our check within minutes of our finishing the last bites. Eating takes longer and is more of a social occasion here, as it should be. We’ve already planned our return to Cafe Pasta and this time we’ll be sticking around for coffee and desert.

We spent most of today in South Kensington, wandering through the miles and miles (and miles and miles) of galleries at the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. The whole concept of “the museum” had never seemed so, well, Victorian until we stepped into the Natural History, with its macabre menagerie of taxidermied animals. It’s a very strange and discomforting place. We did get a kick, though, out of the human anatomy exhibition, which reveals, much too obviously, its debt to the kitschy charms of Alex Comfort’s Joy of Sex. Again, I liked the building better than its collections.

The Victoria and Albert is another story completely. After four hours of near constant movement — and fast movement at that — I think we saw about one-fourth of it. I spent much of my time exploring their special exhibition, Modernism: Designing a New World, 1914-1939. It’s a really remarkable collection of paintings, drawings, sculptures, photos, models, posters, costumes, and furniture, along with a car, several films, cookware, book jackets, and — I kid you not — a kitchen. Anything and everything, really, that reflected the major and still-influential turn in post-WWI European aesthetics. (The NFT is hosting a film series as well.) I’ll never look at a Volkswagon Beetle or the London Underground Map the same way.

I was also completely undone by the Raphael Cartoons. Unbelievable.

When we left the V&A, we took a quick stroll up to Hyde Park, though by that time we were both exhausted from all of the walking, and so we didn’t manage much more than a twenty-minute rest on the stairs below the Albert Memorial. A nice view, on a sunny and surprisingly warm day, surrounded by skateboarders and kids playing street hockey.