Monday, July 20, 2009

Breaking with Britain

As my train rolled back towards London I realized I didn’t really know much about English art (Feel free to gasp in horror). I can rattle off the names of famous Spaniards, Italians, Germans, and Dutchmen (I really am the coolest kid at every party), but I was at a loss when it came to my direct cultural ancestors. It was time to remedy the situation, so I pointed myself towards the Thames and the Tate Britain, the home to British art preceding the 20th century.
The imposing facade of the Tate Britain. You know you're in London because they're are more columns than they have in Greece.

One of the advantages here was I could briefly drop my bag. They suggested a two pound donation at the bag check. Someday I will come back with many more pounds in my pockets. But today I was running low and the bag check man got merely a sheepish smile of thanks.

The exhibit moved chronologically through art history, demonstrating how trends on the Continent affected the British Isles. The staples of British art are the portrait and the landscape. Britain had a wealthy middle to upper class and it cherished a good family portrait over the mantle.

The landscapes reveal the deep British love of the natural world. Parks today are maybe cynically seen as a kind of human domination over nature. I think the English garden gets at a deeper British desire not to dominate nature but to interact with it. There’s a reason wealthy gentlemen occupied their lazy days by playing naturalist. Catching butterflies and identifying mosses allowed a gentleman to get outside to explore the countryside. As Americans, lovers of open spaces and natural beauty, I think we own our British cultural ancestors our thanks. Even if it means looking at a lot of landscapes in oil paint.

In the 18th century British nobles, especially young men, started taking jaunts across the European continent. This gave them a taste for Classical and Renaissance art. Over the last couple of years I’ve become a happy advocate for the Grand Tour. It’s been a blast and listen to learn to ramble about art and culture.
A 19th century sculpture outside the Tate Britain that was...

Clearly inspired by this massive sculpture of Dirce on display in Naples. The Brits know how to take notes.

The Brits started fusing all these influences, creating compelling sculpture and luminous Pre-Raphaelite images that sought to throw out Renaissance and Mannerist ideals, creating “true” images that captured Nature as it is. They also started illustrating British mythological and legendary figures, seeking a rich ancient English culture that was as fascinating, but distinct from, the mythology of the Continent. J.R.R. Tolkien might have been influenced by such thinking when he wrote The Lord of the Rings, his version of English pre-history.
Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse. This is Pre-Raphaelite painting at its pre-est Raphaelite-est. Anne of Green Gables was a fan.

Then I wandered into the William Blake room. My first encounter with Blake came at the Cincinnati Zoo where they have his poem “The Tyger” on display in the Cat House. In seventh grade we belted an arrangement of this poem. Somehow I missed this man’s biography. I just thought he liked “Tygers.”

He was a painter, poet, and printer who is probably best known for this iconic image of God (or Urizen) as the divine clockmaker:

He was a proto-Romantic in the mid 1700s who held an intense, spiritually infused perspective on the world. He saw contemporary figures like Nelson, Pitt, and Newton as Biblical warriors in combat with chaos and evil, so he illustrated them as such. In a dim room above his print shop he exhibited a series of 17 paintings depicting Biblical scenes, historical scenes, and images from his own rabid imagination. Each image was accompanied by a poem or extended, rambling essay. At the time he was basically considered a nut. Now he’s a genius.
Nelson taking on the Biblican Leviathan (and Napoleon) while whereing his briefs.

The Tate exhibits many of these 17 pictures with better lighting and excerpts from his original descriptions. Wandering through that room was a chance to immerse myself in the mind of a creative personality who I hope to get to know a little better when I get closer to an English language bookstore or library.
My final goal for my day was a trip to the National Portrait Gallery. In my previous trips to the city I heard the name and ran the other way. Who wants to spend their afternoon looking at a bunch of blank faces? Well, either I’ve gotten wiser or just more boring (you don't need to weigh in on that). Now this sounds like a great way to while away some time in London and maybe brush up on my English history.

The walk from the Tate Modern leads along the Thames, past the Houses of Parliament and through Trafalgar Square. I passed monuments and hoards of tourists on my walk.
A memorial to the women of world war two who hung up their hats and gave the Nazis the old one, two.

I felt exhilaratingly independent following my feet. Please note that I enjoy the company of a travel partner, but there’s something to be said for an unanalyzed reaction to a new place. There was no effort to discuss where I was going or how I would get there. I could simply act without justification.
Nelson holding court over the double-decker busses and wandering tourists.

Unfortunately my glowing sense of independence was quashed when I got to the Gallery. They would only be open for another half-hour and they didn’t want new ogglers clogging the guards careful removal of patrons from each gallery. Oh well, there was walking to be done. Unfortunately storm clouds were gathering ominously as I walked through the theater district one more time.

Bent over a map I heard an American family debating the merits of a cheap theater ticket kiosk.

Dad: It says ‘official seller’ over the door, Honey.
Mom: Yes, but this place has too much…glitz. It’s supposed to be less…glitzy.
Me: Are you looking for the half-priced ticket booth?
Mom: (A little confused about this American-accented loner suddenly imposing himself on a domestic dispute) Yes we are.
Me: Well if you go back to that big square (waving towards Leicester Square) that’s a big, wood-paneled…kiosk. It’s called TKTS and I think they’ll have what your looking for.
Mom: Well, we walked by that, but the guidebook says there’s a clock tower, and we didn’t see a clock (subtext: You’re holding a damn map and all your luggage. You clearly have no idea where you are let alone where we are.)
Me: Oh, well, I know you’ll find half-priced tickets there. Good luck!

If they didn’t want my advice, let them wander through the storm. I toyed with asking what show they were going to see. Probably Grease or We Will Rock You. Yes, I judge people for such things. Let them get soggy. I had a train to catch. Oh, and there was a clock on the roof of the kiosk in the square. It even had a half-crazy homeless man staring up at it trying to get his watch to match the second hand.

One last ride through the underground and into St. Pancras where I blew my final pounds on a meat pie because Sweeney Todd is never far from my mind when I’m thinking about his city. I also made the key decision to grab a pre-packaged sandwich and a package of digestive biscuits (in classic British fashion, these mealy cookies taste better than they sound).

The best part of my return via the Chunnel was the security check before boarding that got me a French passport stamp. One of the tragedies of modern Europe is open borders have largely obliterated passport-stamp collecting. Any excuse to get more ink in my book is welcome.

Three hours and one time zone later, I was back in Brussels and hustling towards the long distance train tracks, hoping I wouldn’t have long to wait before going East towards Cologne. Turns out I did have some time.

Normally I’m on top of my train schedules, but I guess when I scheduled my return from Britain I just assumed there would be German-bound engine waiting for me. While I can’t praise German rail enough, their personal door-to-door service has a ways to go. Apparently the last train to head for Germany left at 7:20. I was somewhere under the English Channel when that thing took off for home. There had to be a way to escape Belgium via night train or regional rail, right? It wasn’t that late.

Maybe Belgians just see Brussels as a place you would never want to leave. The next train leaving for anywhere else in Europe wouldn’t depart until 6AM the next morning. I was stuck in Belgium, information that was presented on a confusing French and Dutch chart in a dark corner of the station. I weighed my options. I could stay in the station. I had friends who had done as much in Munich and Bern and had lived to tell the tale. Then I saw two thugs start to tussle and frantic security guards sprint down the terminal. Hmmm.

Then a gentlemen who hadn’t bathed in three months sat down next to me and hungrily eyed the laptop I had opened to double check train times. Yeah, not staying. It was also a Saturday night. Hostels would likely be booked. I only had a few cents on my cell phone anyway and only a few cents in my pocket. So I made a last-minute decision to get out of the train terminal. I would head for the airport terminal and never tell my mother until I safely survived a potentially stupid decision.

The final express train for the airport was leaving in a minute. Hobble-running up the stairs, I dove onto the last car as the tired ticket-checker gave the engineer the “all clear” whistle. For fifteen minutes we chugged through Brussels and finally pulled under the International Airport. I checked my morning schedule and rode the escalator into the departures terminal with bored business travelers who were catching the Red Eye for parts distant. I was just looking for a bench.

Behind the elevators I found a secluded ring of lightly padded seats for weary fliers. One row was already taken by a young couple who appeared to be backpacking Europe. She was lying across several seats with a sheet pulled up to her neck. He was on the floor in a sleeping bag, already snoring. Perfect.

I found a vacant spot, ate a few necessary digestive biscuits and lashed all my luggage to the bench. My original plan was to be secure in my bed in Bonn by this point but I had to break the oath I had made to myself that morning. I set my alarm for 6AM. I had a train to catch…

Stay tuned for the epic struggle to break across the Belgian/German border and finally return to my much-neglected fossils!


Tim said...

I can't say Michael and I are too dissapointed that we missed out on the digestive biscuit experience :P

Matt said...

Hey, there was plenty of room on the bench for other weary travelers. It was the cheapest night of the trip!