WHAT do we look for in a great artist? According to John Murdoch, the erudite director-designate of the Courtauld Institute Galleries, it is that ability 'to do funny things' to the observer, to instil 'intimations of great significance' in the art form. But sometimes, as he told The Diary yesterday, that intimation may not be quite enough. Every so often, the observer also needs some explanation.
At the risk of upsetting those people who like the present dignified, if rather staid, way of doing things at the Courtauld, Murdoch is planning some changes at the galleries, including the introduction of
new technology, such as headphone commentaries. He also wants to overhaul the method of labelling pictures.
At the moment, visitors get something like this: 'Edouard Manet 1832-1883, A bar at the Folies- Bergere 1882, oil on canvas, Courtauld gift 1934'. Murdoch would prefer to be more expansive. As he puts it: 'I want to get people to see and understand the paintings, not just gawp and tick them off as another Great Master 'done'.'
When The Diary spoke to Murdoch in his office at the Victoria & Albert Museum, where he has worked for nearly 20 years, latterly as director of collections, he was slightly frazzled, having been held up on the melting M4 while driving to work. But there was nothing frazzled about his enthusiasm for the job, which he starts in October.
He has already decided on his first exhibition - a celebration of the 200th anniversary of Sir William Chambers, the architect of Somerset House, in which the Galleries now reside - and is mulling over changes to the way the paintings are laid out (particularly in the Royal Academy Great Room, where the present layout is provisional).
All this will not help the gallery's finances, however, which he says are currently 'teetering on the brink'. Don't be surprised, therefore, if the pounds 3 admission fee goes up, because he did not rule this out yesterday as one way of financing his 'expanded operations'. He is, however, very much 'in listening mode'.
MURDOCH'S appointment is yet more evidence that not all the top jobs in the art world go to Courtauld graduates (he is an Oxford and King's College, London man). However, it is true that the Courtauld name does open doors, regardless of the damage Anthony Blunt did to its reputation. One former teacher, Anita Brookner, is now a best-selling author, although you won't be able to read her latest offering for a while. Review copies of A Family Romance have been recalled by Jonathan Cape following reservations about the book's 'production quality'. According to one insider, whole pages were missing, and thousands of copies of the book are being pulped. The new publication date is 1 July.
The art of intolerance
CARICATURE can be a deadly art. The latest example comes from Tehran, where the Iranians continue to extract the maximum mileage out of the Salman Rushdie affair.
To celebrate (sic) the fourth anniversary last February of Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa against Mr Rushdie, the Kayhan group of publications is offering a first prize of 16 gold coins worth dollars 1,600 and a pilgrimage to Mecca for the best entry in a 'Satanic Conspiracy Caricature International Competition.'
According to the ad, the winning caricature will be the best illustration of the 'firmness and strength of Imam Khomeini's historical decree on this futile piece of imbecility' and the 'ballyhoo after ballyhoo' stirred up by the 'universal movement against Islam'.
FOLLOWING my note yesterday about Ted Dexter, the oft-criticised chairman of the English cricket selectors, I hear MPs are none too impressed with his football equivalent, Graham Taylor.
Earlier this month, the England manager was invited to address the all-party soccer committee, the MPs seeking reassurance that the team was in good hands (and that was before the last two World Cup games: I don't advise Taylor to go near Westminster for a while). All he could come up with, I gather, was a lecture on how the rules should be changed. By the year 2000, he suggested, teams should be reduced by two players and goals should be bigger. They still don't know whether he was joking or not. Probably not.
A DAY LIKE THIS
10 June 1902 Joseph Conrad writes to Edward Garnett: 'In so far as writing is concerned I hardly dare look you in the face. The times indeed are changed - and all my art has become artfulness in exploiting agents and publishers. I am simply afraid to show you my work; and as to writing about it - this I can't do. I have now utterly lost faith in myself, all sense of style. My expression has become utterly worthless; it is time for the money to roll in. The Blackwood volume shall be coming out in two, three months: Youth, Heart of Darkness and a thing I am trying to write now called The End of the Tether - an inept title to heartbreaking bosh. I am ashamed of them all; I don't believe either in their popularity or in their merit. My mind is becoming base, my hand heavy, my tongue thick - as though I had drunk some subtle poison, some slow poison that will make me die, die as it were without an echo.'