The Emperor’s new clothes

January 15, 2009

One of the joys of living in London is the close proximity of all that delicious culture. Naturally, I make absolutely no use of it unless I have to, when guests appear. Then I thumb feverishly through the review sections to get a crash course on what the latest must-see is, how on earth you get to that bit of the city and, most importantly, what I ought to be thinking about it when I get there.

Of course, it is also my sacred duty as a Mummy to expose my treasures to as many good influences as possible. Having signally failed in my private life (My dearest darling True Love! Sniff!), I Must Try Harder to nurture my darlings’ tiny brains and fill them brim-full with a cornucopia of, er, learning, or something. Thus I have dragged my children around countless cathedrals, museums and galleries in a wide variety of European cities, effortlessly putting them off, in no particular order, great art, religion and music. Oh, and walking too. They really, really hate that.

No-one can say I am not persistent, though, so when one of my far-flung relatives came over last week, bringing with her a delightful selection of cousins, neices, nephews and aunts, there was only one thing for it. An exhibition.

Tate Modern was the obvious place. So big! So, er, modern! So concretey! So handily on the 68 bus route from Herne Hill!

Except that it isn’t really that near a 68 bus stop, and after a 20 minute walk to meet the relatives, my little treasures were fit to be tied already, and that was before we’d even got in to the Rothko exhibition, the Tate’s current big show.

I have to admit I’ve never seen the point of Rothko. It is maddening when people say of Jackson Pollock, for instance, ‘that’s not art, a child of two could do it!’, and I tend to brush off my best sneer and dismiss them instantly as philistines. When it’s Rothko they’re talking about, I put my head on one side, muse for a nanosecond, and think, ‘actually, they have a point. And never mind the treasures. My cat could do that.’ Not that Mme Bovary would ever deign get paint on her fur, you understand.

Anyway, there we were, a bunch of teens and pre-teens, me and my darling relative, and deep, dark, gloomy old Rothko. ‘A lot of people find him very, very moving,’ I said, hoping to inspire some sort of interest in the children. ‘Let’s all go in and see if we can feel the emotion!’ Many pairs of cool, near-teenage eyes flicked fractionally upwards to signal a lame adult alert, but I pressed on regardless and we strolled in to a room full of large, looming, red and black canvases. The children made to stroll straight out again, but they were forcibly encouraged to come back and have another go at emoting. No luck. We hurried onwards, tried the slightly smaller, slightly more colourful canvases, then the big purply ones, the half-black, half-white ones (I’m sure Mme Bovary would have got the demarcations clearer) and, finally, the large battleship grey ones. Here, we collapsed onto the bench. Just as I plunged into a despair almost as impenetrable as Rothko’s own, as all the children failed to evince a single, solitary flicker of feeling, my adorable niece piped up. ‘I like that one over there. It’s neat!’

I perked up instantly. ‘Where? Where??’ I shrilled, looking down the long line of steely, cold canvases. I couldn’t quite believe she had found something to love here, but I was certainly willing to make all the other children stand in front of it and try and catch a bit of feeling, too.

‘That one, way down there, right at the end of the gallery,’ she said, gesturing to a grey rectangle a bit longer and wider than the rest.

I looked a bit closer, full of hope and excitement. Then my shoulders sagged. She was pointing to the exit.

But she was quite right, we did all feel an exciting rush of emotion as we rushed through the grey door and straight into the gift shop. It was relief.

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  • Jennysmith January 16, 2009 at 9:27 am

    Good one,DD. I have to say my heart lifts when i see that gift shop. Even at an exhibition that i’m passionate about – eg Warhol or someone.

    I always liken galleries to Kew Gardens – knackering!

    Took kids a couple of years ago to Warhols exhibition at the Tate Modern (ugly place) with all his Brillo boxes and everything. What a disaster! They didn’t even like the silver pillows.

    And i took daughter to the ballet to see Swan Lake when she was 9. What a blunder! Three acts and two intervals. It scarred her for life. No Royal Ballet school for her I can tell you.

    But your post has shamed me into trying again.

    hope you’ve had a rest now xxxx

  • splodge January 17, 2009 at 10:18 am

    I’m with your very sensible niece! I detest being told that some rubbishy paint daubs which could’ve been completed by a four year old – is art.

    Most of me just sits back and marvels at an entire culture in awe of an unmade bed, a pile of old bricks or a…toilet!

    Oops! I got a bit carried away there. Time to get off my hobby horse.

  • rosiero January 17, 2009 at 10:33 am

    KAY took ME to the Tate Modern a couple of years ago in search of GCSE Art material. We wandered around the colossal rooms and I must admit some it left me a bit lacking in the emotion department! I remember as a child my best friend’s father – an amateur artist – entering a painting competition. He deliberately threw paint at a canvas in a random fashion and then for a joke entitled it “Still Life”. He won first prize, a tidy sum of money and feasted on the fact that as a joke he had concocted a modern painting which the experts had seen all kinds of meaning in. Ever since I have often wondered if some artistes are taking the mickey.

  • (Very) Lost in France January 18, 2009 at 5:00 pm

    Nah, don’t get Rothko either. The nearest my two get to kulchur is the second hand agricultural machinery show in the village. They’d probably love to try emoting over a Rothko – damn sight easier than trying to emote over a combine harvester! VLiF

  • DulwichDivorcee January 19, 2009 at 3:55 am

    Dear Jennysmith, feeling so much better now thank you after a long lie down!

    I gave up on the Royal Ballet school when I realised the girls have to have their hair in a bun – every day! Sadly every day is a bad hair day for the treasures, so another promising career bit the dust and we hung up the pointe shoes.

    Isn’t the Tate gift shop fab, though? And I do recommend the Dulwich Picture Gallery one too, lovely and the cafe is great too! If you’re up for trying again you could do worse! xx

  • DulwichDivorcee January 19, 2009 at 3:56 am

    I don’t know, Splodge, I did quite like that bed ….the sense of self-revelation, the honesty, the nakedness …or maybe the fact that it was just like mine! Mind you my neice is completely right about Rothko, bless her xx

  • DulwichDivorcee January 19, 2009 at 3:58 am

    Hi Rosiero, I know what you mean, a friend Abroad’s husband did the same trick, painted a lovely splodgy abstract oil, put it in an antique frame ….and everyone wanted to buy it! We really ought to try it ….xx

  • DulwichDivorcee January 19, 2009 at 3:59 am

    VILF, so right as ever, though I dare say one could emote over a combine harvester if one got anything stuck in it …..xx

  • Thames January 19, 2009 at 12:46 pm

    Ha! Yes, sometimes I wish there could be an exit door at the end of the day, say, about 3 pm!

  • Coding Mamma (Tasha) January 20, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    I have visions of having cultured children, who enjoy walking round the Louvre, going to the theatre and playing Cluedo of an evening… I fear, however, that the amount of TV R has been subjected to since birth will mean she will have the attention span of a fruit fly and I’ll be lucky to persuade her to sit still for popcorn and a movie.

  • nappy valley girl January 20, 2009 at 4:32 pm

    Clever girl for spotting the exit – surely there’s some deep significance in that, art-wise?

    I went to the Tate with four toddlers last summer – described in the post below. Never again…until they are grown up, obviously.

  • Part Mummy Part Me January 21, 2009 at 11:00 am

    I found you through Alpha Mummy’s site and love your blog. Wonderfully written, great humour. I’m about to ‘big you up’ on Alpha Mummy too…keep up the good work.

  • DulwichDivorcee January 21, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    Excellent work, Coding Mama, you are bringing up a child who will have the ideal Simpsons/Friends attention span! You can then make them do tons of homework on either side of episodes – brilliant!

  • DulwichDivorcee January 21, 2009 at 2:22 pm

    Yes, Nappy, I’m sure my niece had found the true meaning of Rothko – or definitely thought she had done once she’d splashed out on a Rothko mousemat and matching notelets in the gift shop …nipping over to see your post now!

  • DulwichDivorcee January 21, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    You’re so right, Thames – and the 3pm door would lead directly to a large glass of wine/cup of tea/doughnut (delete as applicable)

  • DulwichDivorcee January 21, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    PMPM, thanks for your lovely comment, it probably sounds licky but I loved your blog too – your daughter sounds completely adorable

  • Meade January 22, 2009 at 5:34 pm

    So why not take them to see something you like?!

    I was under the impression you were not unfamiliar with National Gallery – would that work any better?

    I’d imagine you like Ingres – perhaps even envisage you as a latter day Madame Moitessier!

    Could you tell us what you do like?

  • DulwichDivorcee January 23, 2009 at 7:58 am

    Goodness, Meade, hello and lovely to see you! I’m not used to real people popping in while I have my DD hat on. Thrilled to be compared with Madame Moitessier (though obviously my elbows are a little more slender) and yes, I am very keen on Ingres, almost the entire contents of the National Gallery and much else besides. But I’ve always felt I was missing something with Rothko and wanted to see if the children would get it and, somehow, help me to see the point. Does that make sense?

  • Meade January 23, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    Yes! I was annoyed about the “my five year old child / pet cat could do better” line – verging alarmingly on Daily Mail philistinism. But the issue about children and art galleries is interesting. I’m fairly skeptical about the value of trying to introduce children to art, modern or not. I always wonder what the groups of school children one encounters in say the National Gallery are really getting from the experience. I never went to art galleries when I was young, and now do so alot. It takes time and a bit of persistence to get the hang of paintings and I’d have thought you’d have to want to do it yourself. In his London Reivew of Books 2008 diary, Alan Bennett recounts overhearing Anthony Blunt address a gaggle of eleven year olds with ‘Shall we remind ourselves of the earlier history of this picture?’. Clearly laughable, but in a way pertinent: you only start to get these things on repeated experience. Anyway, better get back to preparing my two-hour lecture for tomorrow morning!

  • DulwichDivorcee January 24, 2009 at 6:17 am

    Ah yes, if you only start to get these things on repeated experience, isn’t it best to start repeating young? I think I said when we talked that I went to the National a lot as a child and now some of the paintings seem like old friends. I’m not sure my girls will ever be on first name terms with Rothko but I have high hopes that they might be with George (Stubbs) and Thomas (Gainsborough). Hope the lecture was a triumph! Lovely pictures on your biog, by the way.