The Week in Arts: Simple brilliance from the National Gallery

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The Independent Online

Which gallery is the gallery runner's gallery? (Don't try that sentence out loud after a night out.) The answer, though, is rather interesting. When the Museum of Modern Art in New York was beginning its recent revamp, all of its curators were asked to name the art gallery where they would most like to spend a day. The MoMA curators answered as one. They all chose the National Gallery in London.

Which gallery is the gallery runner's gallery? (Don't try that sentence out loud after a night out.) The answer, though, is rather interesting. When the Museum of Modern Art in New York was beginning its recent revamp, all of its curators were asked to name the art gallery where they would most like to spend a day. The MoMA curators answered as one. They all chose the National Gallery in London.

This piece of internal MoMA research, reported in the art magazine Apollo, is a glowing tribute, and the reason behind the MoMA curators' unanimity is worth mentioning. They cited the self-contained theme of each room, the ease of circulation between rooms with several entrances so that the visitor was not obliged to follow a "beads on a chain" route, and the overall size of the building that enables visitors to see all rooms in one day.

The new MoMA now has the same floor area as the National Gallery and the same concept of self-contained, single-theme, multi-entrance rooms. MoMA boasts that if one room, a room of Cézannes or abstract expressionism, was dropped in Central Park, it would exist on its own as a perfect mini-gallery.

The praise for the National Gallery is deserved, but a key element is missing; it is one that could, and I think should, inform the revamping of all art galleries in the future. Since receiving praise from those MoMA curators, the National Gallery has made a significant addition to the way it "sells" its collection to the visitor. Its new east-wing entrance has been much remarked upon for its architecture and ease of access from Trafalgar Square. It has been less remarked upon for what adorns its entrance hall.

Quite simply, it is a "greatest hits" sample from its key rooms. Visiting the National Gallery this week, I was impressed by the simplicity yet radicalism of the idea.

Immediately one enters the east wing from Trafalgar Square, one sees a plasma screen flashing up a Rembrandt self portrait, a Titian and so on. There will be critics of this approach. Traditionally, the visitor is supposed to discover paintings in their context, the context of the artist and his contemporaries. But if new entrances, shops and coffee bars are designed to bring in new audiences, then what can be wrong in titillating these new audiences (and old ones too) with the cream of the collection?

A visit to the cinema is not complete without trailers. Now we have a major art gallery with its own trailer. I predict that "greatest hits" in the foyer is an idea that will take off.

No fun when there are strings attached

I sense in the reviews I have read over the past week or so that the critics are falling out of love with Cirque du Soleil. The backlash, such as it is, is not helped by the company's slightly perverse decision to mount exactly the same show in London this year as they did last. I have been a champion of Cirque since it was created, but one aspect is beginning to niggle me.

While the artistry, technical prowess and innovation of the troupe are all undeniable, I do wonder why they wear safety harnesses. They may perform dazzling effects on trapeze, but when the audience can see the harness, those effects are somehow a little less impressive.

With its use of music and choreography, Cirque has taken what we think of as circus to a new level. But there is another word traditionally associated with circus: danger. That is part of the secret thrill for audiences. Cirque du Soleil has lost sight of that, and while I marvel at their artistry, my heart does not skip a beat.

¿ Cultural life, the column that appears in The Independent's Arts and Books Review on a Friday, has figures in the arts revealing current cultural pursuits. It has its intriguing moments. The actress Rebecca Hall says she does not go to opera because it is too expensive. Even the operas directed by her father, Sir Peter Hall?

My favourite so far has been the ballet dancer Carlos Acosta. He cites La Bohème as "a great feelgood family show". Which part, I wonder, makes him feel the most good? The bit where Mimi dies of consumption? On the other hand, you do have a good cry at La Bohème, but leave feeling more than satisfied by an evening well spent. Carlos Acosta has redefined the term "feelgood", but maybe he's not wrong.

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