Thursday, March 26, 2020

National Gallery, London

‘You’re the National Gallery, You’re Garbo’s salary…

…You’re cellophane…’ says Cole Porter in the song ‘You’re the top’,* rustling up superlatives, but keeping part of his tongue in his cheek.§ One of the superlative stars of the Boris Anrep mosaics in the National Gallery foyer is Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, whose face – and hairstyle – are based on those of Greta Garbo. Garbo was so famous for being famous, so well known for being able to name her price when it came to a starring role in a movie, so notorious for wanting to reject the trappings of fame (‘I want to be let alone’†), that it’s easy to forget how good an actress she was. Boris Anrep, who had an eye for female beauty, must have found her face captivating but, an artist himself,. no doubt responded to her art too.

A couple of weeks before the virus made travel unwise, let alone proscribed, I spent a short while in the National Gallery looking at some Dutch paintings, and made what has become a habitual stop to look at the mosaics on my way out. They have become for me one of the symbols of what this blog is about. That’s to say, they’re not architecture, but one of the adjuncts to or enhancements of architecture; they’re fun and a bit whacky (people playing cricket and Christmas puddings sit near Apollo and the Muses), and they’re not much noticed.

Now the gallery routes visitors in via another entrance, the mosaics are on the way out and people think as they leave that they are done with art and are making singlemindedly for the door. When people did come in this way, they were heading singlemindedly for the galleries, so didn’t notice the mosaics then either. Now of course the gallery is closed to visitors, no one sees them at all and Garbo, along with Anrep’s other models (Virginia Woolf, Anna Akhmatova, Edith Sitwell, Bertrand Russell, and the rest), are let alone at last.

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* From the musical Anything Goes, 1934.

§ Cellophane? Well, although it was invented in 1908, Cellophane was only licensed for US distribution in 1923. An enhanced version of 1927 made it waterproof and suitable for wrapping food. So in 1934, when the Porter song appeared, it was still a modern wonder-material.

† Which everyone remembers as ‘I want to be alone,’ because the actress was later given this line in the film Grand Hotel. Thanks to the Resident Wise Woman, my go-to authority on Garbo (and much else) for helping me get that straight.

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