Hands up who enjoys reading the first chapter of a biography? And, yes, I know there's no way of independently verifying the results of this straw poll, but I hope you'll trust me when I say that I'm not seeing a lot of raised arms in the room. Anything else would be a bit odd,wouldn't it? Because the opening chapter of a biography – occasionally the opening couple of chapters – are all duty and very little pleasure.
The awkwardness can be finessed by a talented biographer but the essential problem is this. We may be passionately interested in Lincoln or George Eliot or Lavoisier. But we don't care much about their grandfathers and grandmothers, however much we understand that ancestry is destiny (to a certain degree). We understand the rules for the orderly recounting of a life, and we know that a biography that kicked off aetat 15 or something like that would be an odd kind of affair. But it doesn't make it any easier to do the due diligence in the opening pages. So Antecedent X ran a flourishing haberdashery business in Market Harborough, did he? Fine, cut to the historic moment please.
Something similar can happen in a big retrospective exhibition -- in what I generally think of as "the false-start room". And the dynamic is the same. However big the name, you really can't pitch in to the Greatest Hits straightaway.
This is partly out of a sense of theatre (something that all really good curators should have). But it's also because it's felt to be important to place those A-list pictures (the above-the-title stars that have drawn us to the exhibition in the first place) in a creative context. So the first room will often present us with the juvenilia that – as is often the case with juvenilia – is imitative of styles and approaches that the artist in question then abandoned.
Indeed the abandonment is often part of the point. This isn't the artist, we understand, it's a kind of pupal shell from out of which the artist will ultimately emerge. So we aren't greatly surprised to find rather drab and ordinary artworks here. I call it the false-start room because quite often you can see an artist hunting for their own vision up a series of artistic cul-de-sacs.
Occasionally though, you get a "room number one" that you can't whisk through. The Miró exhibition, which has just opened at Tate Modern, is a good case in point – and begins with one of the most arresting first rooms I've seen for ages. In one respect it fits the bill for most first rooms. There are a lot of works there, painted very early in his career, that don't fit your mental template for a recognisable Miró. There's a lumpy kind of still life called Nord-Sud, all broad messy brushstrokes. There's an exercise in a sort of Fauve-Cubist style called Portrait of Vicens Nubiola. More to the point, there's nothing in sight that a casual passer-by would be able to easily identify as a Miró. No grand, doodly biomorphs, no wiry, mobile-like constructions or blocks of primary colour. Only those student exercises in style and – far more significantly – a series of very distinctive Spanish landscapes.
Not distinctive of Miró though. Or at least not in any simple way. They're rather naïve in style – a little reminiscent of Indian and Persian miniatures in the way that they take the plants in a landscape and turn them into a kind of decorative embroidery. At the time Miró said that he was interested in "the calligraphy of leaves" and that remark seems exactly right for these pictures, in which varied and natural forms are being turned into symbols for themselves. And this process accelerates from picture to picture culminating in a big painting called La Ferme. What you can see, with an unusual clarity, is a mature style developing in front of your eyes – almost like those speeded-up photographs of buds unfurling. When you turn the corner and encounter the first genuinely Miró-esque paintings in the show – you know where this visual language has come from – and how real objects have fed the abstraction. Not sure the show as a whole is unmissable but if you are going, this room certainly is. Not always the case with opening chapters.
When the play's not necessarily the thing
Talking of inceptions, I went to a terrific first night the other evening, something that requires a special combination of circumstances. You get a lot of good first nights, of course, but a really memorable one is much rarer and, oddly, a terrific play isn't one of the necessary conditions. If you're seeing an established work in the canon – Shakespeare, say – then the performance or the direction will have to be absolutely extraordinary. We already know that the play has stood the test of time, so there has to be something else to generate that satisfyingly smug feeling that you were in at the beginning of something remarkable. But if you're seeing an entirely new work things can be a bit more relaxed – because novelty or experiment may do the trick. My great first night was the National Theatre's London Road, an uncategorisable oratorio/ musical/documentary singspiel about the impact of the recent Ipswich serial killings on the local community. And the final curtain response from the audience was less telling than the indefinable buzz you could hear as people filed out – and you knew that one of the things they wanted to do with the experience they'd just had was to find someone to tell about it. The performances were very good and the drama was genuinely intriguing, but it wasn't perfect and didn't need to be. We just knew that we were lucky to get there early, when excitement was still voluntary.
Tall buildings feed giant egos
Ken Shuttleworth, the architect who designed the "Gherkin" tower in London, has reportedly declared that the "tall glass box is dead". "The age of bling is over", he told Bloomberg News, arguing that austerity had put an end to sky-scraping trophy-building. This isn't just because skyscrapers are expensive but because you're obliged to build them from the bottom up. People don't like renting office space underneath a building site, so the lower floors can't be let until the whole building is finished. The higher it is, the longer the period between investment and return. I'm sure Mr Shuttleworth knows his business well and that he's right in the short term but I think his grasp of human psychology is deficient if he believes that the demand for flashier is permanently dead.
About two years ago, for example, it was reported that the plans for a Mile-High Tower in Saudi Arabia had been shelved because of the economic crisis. Last week, it was announced that the plans had been approved for the $30bn building. This has nothing to do with aesthetics; judging from the artist's impression the Kingdom Tower will be one of the ugliest buildings in the world as well as the tallest. But I doubt that the urge to look down on the businessman below will ever go out of fashion.