art laura freeman
But Does It Have a Coffee Shop?
The Art Museum in Modern Times
By Charles Saumarez Smith
(Thames & Hudson 271pp £30)
In a famous 1976 New Yorker cartoon by James Stevenson, an astonished-looking guard stands outside the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum as a small boy on a skateboard comes whizzing out of the open door. The grin on his face says it all. He has just fulfilled the wish of every child who has ever visited the Guggenheim: to come down the ramp of the spiral on wheels, at speed.
A child wouldn’t have got very far with a skateboard on visits to the great 19thcentury temple-front museums: the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge or the Glyptothek in Munich. As late as the mid-1930s, Eric Maclagan, then director of the V&A, described the public ‘as a noun of three letters beginning with A and ending with S. We humour them when they suggest absurd reforms, we placate them with small material comforts, but we heave sighs of relief when they go away and leave us to our jobs.’ By then, however, things were starting to change. The museum as ‘Fun Palace’ – Joan Littlewood’s phrase – is a relatively recent phenomenon.
In The Art Museum in Modern Times, Charles Saumarez Smith argues that until at least 1929, when the Museum of Modern Art opened in New York, museums of art were ‘monuments to a certain kind of moral, intellectual and cultural authority. They were designed to impress visitors, not to make them feel welcome. They tended to be bastions of intellectual and scholarly conservatism, dedicated to the understanding and appreciation of the art of the past, much less so that of the present.’ Drawing on more than forty international examples, Saumarez Smith takes us on a historical tour of modern museums and their transformation from fusty into funky. Saumarez Smith, a former director of the National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery and chief executive of the Royal Academy of Arts, knows his onions. As a gallery guide, he is lucid, insightful and orderly. The quotes are judiciously chosen and the illustrations give a sense of each place he discusses. Every entry is a lesson in distillation, covering a museum’s architecture, aims, arrangement and attitude to punters. This is not one of those ‘Forty Galleries in the World to See Before You Die’ coffee table books: it is more likely to appeal to
Sky arts: Benesse House Museum, Japan art and architectural historians than armchair tourists, and it certainly isn’t meant to be a checklist. All the same, I couldn’t help keeping score: seen it, seen it, want to see it. There are big beasts – the Pompidou Centre, Tate Modern, the Guggenheim in Bilbao – and rare birds such as the Benesse House Museum at Naoshima, off the coast of Japan’s main island, and the Muzeum Susch, above the snowline in Switzerland.
We kick off with MoMA and its enlightened first director, Alfred H Barr Jr, who took up the post when he was twenty-seven. Barr held heretical views. In 1925, he set out his stall: ‘I find the art of the present more interesting and moving than the art of the Sung or even of the quattrocento.’ An early exhibition devoted to ‘Machine Art’ included ball bearings, propellers, lavatory flush valves, door knobs, Dictaphones and vacuum cleaners.
Saumarez Smith is good on the often antagonistic relationship between architects and directors, and the difficulties of reconciling fantastical plans with a building that actually functions. Mies van der Rohe was unapologetic about his design for the New National Gallery in Berlin (1968), with its vast exhibition space. ‘It is such a huge hall’, he commented, ‘that of course it means great difficulties for the exhibiting of art. I am fully aware of that. But it has such potential that I simply cannot take those difficulties into account.’ I warmed to Louis Kahn, architect of the Kimbell Art Museum at Fort Worth (1972), who observed, ‘When I enter a museum, I want a cup of tea.’
Every entry has its nuggets. Before Christ Church, Oxford, commissioned the architects Powell & Moya to make a separate – and very special – art gallery, the college’s art collection was scattered across appropriate locations. Annibale Carracci’s The Butcher’s Shop, for example, was hung in the kitchen. During debates in the 1970s about whether the old Gare d’Orsay in Paris should be turned into an exhibition centre for French produce or French painting, Michel Laclotte, a curator of paintings at the Louvre, is reported to have said, ‘Sir, we have to choose once and for all where the future of the Gare d’Orsay will lie. Is it to be with Cézanne, or is it to be with Camembert?’ The critic Rowan Moore is quoted for his remarks on the Louvre’s outpost at Lens, housed in a structure ‘which typologically though not aesthetically resembles a cheap booze shed on the approach to Calais’. Also here is Christopher Booker’s description of Charles Saatchi as ‘a neo-philiac: a perpetual gorger of the briefly new; a junkie for shift and change and forward propulsion’ (Saatchi did not disagree).
At the time of writing, selling galleries are open in the UK but not museums. Not until 17 May. This clever, persuasive book left me raring to go. Rev up the Tate Modern escalators, polish the Turner Contemporary tea urns. Let me at ’em.
Literary Review | may 2021 12