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Reconnecting with Art in London

Every year I write a Thanksgiving post about things I am grateful for. This year it is rather specific, because recently I had a wonderful opportunity to go on a Market Square Concerts’ 35th Anniversary trip to London. It has been 25 years since my last visit for a performance at the BBC Promps, so it was airport-hotel-Albert Hall-hotel-airport kind of visit.

The richness of cultural offerings fitting to a capital of the formerly largest empire in the world was invigorating and I loved the experience, especially since I was able to share it with my wife!

To me, art in many ways reveals more about the nations’ priorities and culture than historical documents, mainly because history is often written by winners and any verbal documents come through the filter of mind, while works of art reveal (sometimes unintentionally) what people really care about.

For example, the Greek sculpture reveals a real affection for humanity. Even in the formal depictions of statesmen there is a great deal of life and genuine emotions.

sculpture of Pericles

Egyptian art on the other hand has an incredibly imposing air of imperial oppression.

Egyptian Sculpture

To me, this painting by Van Gogh beautifully sums up how a lot of French, Flemish and Dutch art is often fascinated by capturing a detail or a moment in life with great attention and care:

Van Gogh "Crabs"

The various rooms at the Portrait gallery are particularly interesting because while artists are mostly commissioned by the rich and powerful to be portrayed in the best possible light, truly great artists don’t lie in their work. One of my favorite examples is a portrait of Queen Mary, with her prejudice and cruelty captured by the artist so well for posterity:

Queen Mary I

There are, of course, many examples of great art created in service of propaganda, and true talent can never be contained by the commissioner requirements. What I found both really humbling and reassuring though, was the sheer amount of attempts it took someone like Rubens to create a large scale masterpiece. It was fascinating to see a number of not sketches, but fully finished oil paintings increasingly larger in scale done with equal amount of care and detail as the his huge masterpieces.

One of the most surprising experiences for me was the incredible armory at the Wallace collection. The amount of energy and care expanded by all societies on weapons on display is truly revealing. I wonder what went through the minds of 15th century artists lovingly engraving a canon, which would be used to rain down death and destruction on a town some 25 miles down the road, or making a full body armor for this guy:

Full Body Armor

All of this made me wonder about what contemporary art reveals about our priorities as people. To me it feels like we experiencing death of connoisseurship. The value of making something with great care so it can be enjoyed with great care seems to be regrettably going out of style.

I am grateful that part of my time on this planet can be spent with great art, and I am grateful that I have time and space to process these precious experiences.

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