Friday, March 11, 2011

The Impossible Question

The Impossible Question

“So you like art, do ya luv?”
My gregarious cab driver posed the question as he drove me across London, from The Wallace Collection to The National Gallery, through the teeming traffic of the afternoon.
"Well, yes. I suppose you could say that I do”, I replied, reluctantly turning my gaze from the window through which I’d been admiring the amusing juxtaposition of a round little woman being yanked up Regent Street by three sleek whippets at the end of a long red lead.
And then came the next impossible question.
“What sort of art do you like then, luv?”
My head clouded.
I mumbled something about the Pre-Raphaelites and Atkinson Grimshaw as all through the boundaries and balconies of my brain a host of heads turned to gaze pointedly into my mind’s eye. A variegated assemblage, they defied any coherent categorization.
Several elegant ladies of Sargent who sat beside a bouquet of O’Keefe flowers that rested in a vase by Chihuly.
Scores of French bathers from Monet and Seurat and a crowd of lush Tahitian natives, their bronze arms smoothed by the brush strokes of Gauguin.
There was Howard Pyle’s Mermaid and N.C. Wyeth’s Giant, and Lord Leighton’s Flaming June even awoke from her nap.
All the while, a rather imposing horse named Whistlejacket cantered round the periphery underneath a flock of Van Gogh crows that swung and swooped in the foggy air.
All these, and many more, were waiting expectantly, certain they would be mentioned.
Too much, too much.
The cabbie’s question hung in the air and, as I teetered precariously close to the edge of a nonsensical babble, his phone suddenly rang, and I was spared the embarrassment of attempting to speak coherently about art, which is, after all, totally exhausting in scope and a highly subjective concept besides.
There is just too much.
How can I possibly narrow it down?
Let me share just three of my encounters during my recent trip to London and I know you'll see what I mean.

1. Brizo
My trip to the old city had been a personal quest for inspiration, and of course, London is incapable of falling short in that department. In just a slight span of days, I was rocked back on my heels by astounding art. Some I gazed at with affection, like Rosa Bonheur’s lovely portrait of the shepherd’s dog, Brizo, that hangs in a stairwell at The Wallace Collection and is shown here at the top of this post. As I was, at the time, especially missing Edward’s soulful gaze, there is no doubt why that picture spoke to my heart, now is there? Sweet and sincere, it beautifully captures the dignity and the devotion that shines in the eyes of a beloved dog.
Just gorgeous.
2. Isabella
Then later that same afternoon, I entered a tiny, closet-like space off one of the contemporary rooms at the National Portrait Gallery and simply stood there, quietly stunned. In front of me was an object which at first (and even second) glance was simply grotesque. Resting atop a wooden stake was a taxidermied glob of rats and ravens, magpies and snakes, all held together with faux moss and wood. I had not read of this piece, didn’t even glance at the title before entering the room, so I came to it cold, which is almost always the preferable way to approach something extraordinary. I stared at it in silence and then, suddenly, I noticed the shadow on the wall. Oh my goodness! It was Isabella Blow. Wearing one of her infamous Philip Treacy hats. Her shadow, at once flamboyant and unmistakable, was emblazoned on the stark white wall, a striking sum of parts both morbid and macabre. A startling work, it stood in flagrant defiance of the expected and banal, a fitting testament to a woman who did exactly the same.
I saw many wonderful portraits in the gallery that afternoon, but it was Isabella’s head that I remembered most.

3. The Dennis Severs' House
I had stood before paintings and objects of wonder, but a couple of days later I entered into both, as a wanderer in another age, a breathing spectre in a time-traveling tale. I had waited on the cobblestones of Spitalfields for the opening of a polished black door and, when allowed admittance, I entered the world of The Dennis Severs’ House and left my role as observer behind, for I was now a participant in the art around me.
I was in the painting, an actual visitor in the candlelit rooms of the long ago.
The spicy fragrance of pomanders flooded my senses as I tip toed through the bedroom of the lady of the house. I spied the sugar mice hiding amongst the teacups in a kitchen redolent of fresh baked scones and pies. And later, in the bleak, Dickensian attic bedroom, I could hear the bells from Kensington tolling the death of King William IV, signaling the birth of the Victorian age.
When I left this place, it took me a while to regain my emotional footing in my own century, and I am dazzled by the experience even now.
It is a work of art as enthralling as it is unique.

So you see, even though I knew he wasn’t expecting an exhaustive answer,
when my cab driver asked me what sort of art that I liked... I just didn’t know what to say.
Should I bring up the works I find beautiful - the ones known to bring a tear to my eye and cause me to sigh? Or do I mention the ones I find challenging and, perhaps, a bit disturbing? The ones that push me outside the gilded doors of beauty and force me to reconsider its very definition?
And what of photography, or sculpture, or fashion?
I just cannot narrow it all down to encapsulate into one casual answer. There is too much that astonishes, too much that stretches my imagination and renders the world amazing.
I am still grateful for the ring of that phone.

If you find yourself in London, you must not miss:
the utterly amazing Dennis Severs' House

and don't forget to enter the giveaway in the post below.
The drawing is on the 17th.


  1. I love the top portrait. I can see why you were drawn to it.

  2. That is an impossible question!

    I have admired many works of art in books and slides,but there is NOTHING that can compare to seeing the original. I was never a fan of Van Gogh until I saw his painting, Noon: Rest from Work at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. The colors! The brushstrokes! Renoir's Young Woman with a Veil, Michaelangelo's The Dying Slave at the Louvre. I could go on and on about all the work I have been so fortunate to see that absolutely took my breath away.

  3. oh darling the sever's i'd love to spend some time there...thank you for sharing your adventures with us...

  4. Ah this is inspirational! I keep visiting my daughter in London and still haven't made it to the Wallace or the Dennis Severs House! Now feel really really must go! So happy you had a wonderful time in London!

  5. I might have said that, roughly speaking, I prefer art that bears at least a vague resemblance to what it is supposed to represent. Then, I would have said that I'm especially fond of the Impressionists. Finally, I would have asked about his taste in art because I would have been curious if he was himself an art lover or if he was just making conversation.

  6. I'm glad the National Portrait Gallery has mounted a fitting tribute to the late Isabella Blow -- surely one of the most complicated and charismatic English eccentrics.

    I didn't know about Dennis Severs' House. That is a GREAT tip, and I feel rather thrilled that I will be able to follow it up. It's been too long since I discovered something new in London!

  7. Wonderful!

    You were saved by the bell. I hope I would have been as fortunate for if I had been asked I would have reacted in much the same way as you did.

    Thank you for taking us with in words and photos and for bringing the art alive on the screen here.

  8. Yes, I would have been horribly conflicted with that question. Your picks are meritorious! Though fascinated by the Isabella that conflicts me as well, but that as we know is another mountain that moves us when Art is the question. beautiful post- and of course Edward's soulful eyes at home await your tales of London.

  9. I love your snippet of London, so well captured in a black cab ride. I also would have trouble answering that art question succinctly. Thanks for the tour. I shall have to reference this post next time I return to London.

  10. Dennis Sever's House is new to me and is now on my "Next places to Visit" list.

  11. What a lovely dog he is,such an expressive face you want to give him a hug!

    Wow, I was staring off and on at the crows statue and reading your words as well...when she suddenly revealed herself to me.....! Stunning! So clever.

    I'd heard of David Severs house before, I'd LOVE to visit it, so thank you very much for the wonderful description and great photos!

    I've just finished reading Isabelle Blow's husband Detmar's biography of her so seeing that sculpture was kind of spooky and coincidental, almost like she was reaching out from the shadows. Poor damaged Isabelle there will never be another! So much lost and too soon.

  12. Although not every expression of art is what I like, I love the idea of it! Therefore I love it all: The beautiful and the ugly, the inconceivable and the outrageous!
    So it goes....
    But to find words for it does not come easy!

    Love your inspiration and I can't wait to London again one day!

    Thanks Pamela for stopping by! After tomorrow I post on a painting dear to me, come and see it then!

  13. Just think Pamela - Brizo, immortalised for ever - and what a look on his face.

    I think we all have our favourites. I love the Seurat paintings in the National Gallery and go in to look at them each time I go toLondon.

    I do agree about trying to see too much - one just gets satiated.

  14. I know what you mean, I hate it when people ask me what music I like or which writers/poets or my favourite book, food or whatever, it is impossible to say.
    I must go to that house in Spitalfields, thanks for alerting me.

  15. thank you for this thoughtful piece. i felt the magic of your experiences as if i had been there.

  16. Oh Pamela,
    I have to gloss over the love of art, as I'm so excited that you went to Dennis Sever's house. It is one of my favourite things to do in London and, it is so different, depending on what time of year that you visit. At Christmas, the whole house is filled with presents, Christmas decorations and the smell of turkey.I think that, maybe, when that huge door opened, you were greeted with candlelight. That was one of the best parts for me. My sister went before me, and, she had the pleasure of Dennis Sever's himself, to show her and her husband around. Sadly, he has passed on but, she said that he made it the most wonderful experience.
    David Hockney described the house as one of the world's greatest work's of Opera. I'm so glad that you loved it.
    So sorry that I have been somewhat computer just gave up the ghost and went to the shop for a week for a complete overhaul !!
    Back to the art.....the Brizo must have had you missing Edward and, I love the Isabella Blow...fantastic.
    Next time you come to London, I will not let you get away without meeting up !! XXXX

  17. Well Pamela, I would say that rain today served you very well! I love all the images that come to mind as you described your favourites. Talk about a loaded question! Most wonderful of all is that you have a memory like that. I imagine you will be talking about that cab driver and his ponderous question for some time to come, right luv?

    Thank you for all the fantastic ideas you have provided here. I spent the afternoon at the Courtauld gallery yesterday...truly wonderful. I am ticking off my list..and fortunately, I now have more to add to it.

    Thank you! (luv)

    Jeanne xx

  18. When you start, how do you stop?

    That Severs house is astonishingly beautiful.

  19. what a delightful tour pamela. the portrait of the dog spoke to my heart, as i am still in the english countryside missing the love of a dog.

    now i am wondering if i should venture to london for a day. adore the national portrait gallery but you have introduced additional recommendations i was not aware of....THANK YOU

  20. The cabbie needs to read this! Art is much too grand a topic for generalized, small talk, blanket statements...which you proved magnificently here.
    Love Brizo...and what a treat to have visited the Severs' House, a dream destination of mine.
    xo J~

  21. Dear Pamela, Brizo is a wonderful painting and I'm friends with Tim Noble and Sue Webster who did Izzie's head. They've done some amazing stuff with animals, including a bust of themselves.

    It's so hard when someone asks you about art. I often pretend I'm listening on the phone when I'm in a cab ; )

    I'm so pleased you saw so many great things in London xx

  22. Amen! i would go on, but someone is at the door....hehe!

  23. i like the top portait. lovely greetings

  24. I love that house,I´m just knocking at the door.

    Wonderful post!

  25. Oh I understand completely! Pamela I love so many different kinds of art and seeing the originals of the finest never ceases to amaze me.

    I just discover one over at Art by Victoria I adore since I don't do portraits or figurative.

    Art by Karena

    Last week for my fine art giveaway by Carol Schiff!

  26. Thank you for these wonderful recommendations Pamela....I shall be off to see them when I can...xv

  27. Pamela, you write SUCH captivating posts, so interesting, so clever, so rich. I love this one. Love your fleeting impressions of the London streets contrasted with the slow pace through the museums. I knew nothing of the Severs house, will definitely go when next in London.
    Thank you
    PS I would just say how often I have been surprised by taxi drivers and their wealth of knowledge!

  28. Oh. That house. I imagine no one can walk through it and not be affected one way or another.

  29. I love your description of the host of paintings rising up in your mind.
    London also has the Chris Beetles Gallery of book illustration - but then what doesn't London have? (Well - obviously - a certain dog that was very glad to have you home again!)

  30. I adore London taxi drivers- where else would they start to talk to you about your favourite art- I think it's fine to like thousands of things- and in different moods our favourites change- or for different things.

    So for example my favourite comfort book is not the same as the book I most admire in the world. I find enormous solace in the work of Van Gogh but the coldness of a Hermmshoi moves me more on certain days

  31. Hi's me, sending you and Edward a little Blog Love xx

  32. Trying to simplify the cottage bedrooms - plain linens, French grain sacks, no dusty curtains just shutters.........however that bed at the Dennis Severs' house could just about make me do a 360 and start all over - romantic bohemian perhaps!!!

    Great post is so important and, whether you love or hate a piece, it's so important to understand how much of the artist has gone into creating a one of a kind painting, sculpture etc. Life is more than just a wall of pretty pictures!!

    Lovely hearing more of your London stay - any more will be icing on the cake!

    Happy weekend - Mary

  33. I could never answer that question either! I adore way too much...and when I see something new it is my new favorite...I have a new favorite in Brizo:)

  34. This is one of the nicest blogs I've seen. Thank you for posting!


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