Going for the first time to London proved to be exhilarating, daunting and, at the same time, a slightly intimidating experience. I gave myself two full weeks to explore this huge city with all the treasures it offers to an eager visitor, happy to trade habitual car driving for endless walking and strolling through the city.
London revealed itself gradually and not as the city of Dickens' Oliver Twist but, rather surprisingly, as the city of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Along with spectacular views down the Thames and a green haven of luscious parks, there is a maze of narrow streets where, behind a romantic patina of time, I could feel the struggles and hardship that went into making the city what it is today.
People visit London nowadays not only to immerse themselves into its history but also to be titillated by the cutting-edge architecture of the Millennium Bridge, by Sir Norman Foster, and his spectacular Great Court inside the British Museum. Of all the latest developments, I was especially taken by the transformation of the huge, grim-looking power station on the South Bank of the Thames, into an impressive and imposing fortress of a museum, known as the Tate Modern, designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. Since its opening in 2000, it became an instantaneous success with the public, though I found the interior spaces somewhat unfriendly toward the art presented there. It reminded me of the experience I had in the Frank Gehry museum in Bilbao.
The most popular art exhibition in London right now is a huge show of paintings by Edward Hopper at the Tate Modern. It was expected to attract about 400,000 visitors, and 600,000 would be considered a big success. Instead it turned into a blockbuster, selling close to 1.2 million tickets. It's intriguing to contemplate why the British public took this quintessential American artist so close to its heart. Could it be that the wistful loneliness of his stilted characters appeals to the traditional reserve of the British psyche?
Across the Thames, at the National Gallery, I found myself among the crowds contemplating another popular, traveling exhibition; Russian Landscape in the Age of Tolstoy. I know most of these paintings, though I haven't seen them for almost a quarter of a century. The best of them looked surprisingly fresh, reminding visitors that there is more to the history of landscape painting in the late 19th century than the better-known story of Claude Monet and his impressionist friends. For example, exquisitely painted landscapes by the Russian Jewish artist Isaac Levitan, one of the closest friends of Anton Chekov, capture the poetry and melancholy of the Russian countryside and moodiness of Russian character as eloquently as the best pages of Russian literature. With well-known affinity of the British public for Russian classic literature, and Chekov particularly, as well as a love for nature, this well chosen and beautifully installed show has turned out to be a big success with the public, as well as with the critics. I bet my American dollar that if some adventurous curator decides to bring this exhibition across the Atlantic, the American public will respond to it with great enthusiasm as well.
The British Museum
Great Russell Street
The National Gallery