Tuesday, 26 April 2016

A Bard-ass show at Senate House Library


It’s all about the hang. Displaying a work of art draws attention to its context. 

This unlabelled sculpture in Senate House, some way after the Winged Victory of Samothrace, highlights the MK Commando Combination Unit which guards against electric shock. Together they embody the tension in the building between art and function.

I’m on my way to the exhibition Shakespeare: Metamorphosis but I’ll never get there at this rate – the building is booby-trapped with distractions. 


Sir Peter Hall described Shakespeare as the heavyweight champion of the world: no one can go the distance with him. Someone who took exception to Shakespeare’s immortality was Tolstoy, presumably anxious for his own posterity.  In Tolstoy on Shakespeare (1906), he complains of ‘an irresistible repulsion and tedium’.

Hamlet ‘has no character whatever’. ‘During the whole of the drama, Hamlet is doing, not what he would really wish to do, but what is necessary for the author’s plan.’ 

Eh? Watch out for that train, Anna.

He does a hatchet job on King Lear, complaining that ‘all the characters speak in a way in which no living men ever did or could speak.’

He sees veneration of Shakespeare as ‘an hypnotic state’, dismisses the oeuvre as ‘trivial and immoral…aiming merely at the recreation and amusement of the spectators’ and blames the Germans for bigging up the Bard. 

George Orwell, writing while engaged in wartime propaganda, steps in to referee. His essay Tolstoy and Shakespeare describes Tolstoy’s carping as ‘one of the greatest pieces of moral, non-aesthetic criticism – anti-aesthetic criticism, one might say – that have ever been written’ but points out that Tolstoy is on the ropes. ‘Tolstoy criticises Shakespeare not as a poet, but as a thinker and a teacher…’ but ‘Every piece of writing has its propaganda aspect, and yet in any book or poem or play or what not that is to endure there has to be a residuum of something that simply is not affected by its moral or meaning – a residuum of something we can only call art.’

That’s showbiz. Or the tension between art and function.

I mentioned Orwell’s Senate House connection in my previous post: the building was his model for the Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four

The Senate House Library website refers to ‘our infamous Room 101’. But that’s just propaganda. The inspiration for the room which contains the worst thing in the world was not here but in Portland Place where Orwell got bored out of his skull in committee meetings. Still, to reflect the room’s inevitable overtones of psychological manipulation, the exhibition links it to Othello. Its usual tenants have been dislodged.

Today, a photographer is recording the set-up.

The best way to prepare for this beautifully presented compilation of Senate House Library treasures is to look at the engaging miniature films under the Timeline heading made by the curators, Dr Karen Attar and Dr Richard Espley.

The exhibition celebrates how Shakespeare shapeshifts to survive and thrives on reinvention, his and ours. But it isn’t just about Shakespeare. It is about custodianship, which requires discipline, duty and love. 

And it’s a stonking display of world-class scholarly librarianship, past and present, in an age when public libraries are being dumped on well-meaning but untrained volunteers. 

Clear, elegant captions steer you from early sources to the digital era. A taster showcase three floors below starts with Ovid’s Metamorphoses – one of Shakespeare’s lifelong sources, now required to carry trigger warnings by a certain type of student-lite because, like the daily news, it contains strong stuff.

The clever display uses ceiling suspension and screens to crack the problem of the noli-me-tangere Travertine walls. The lighting is tactful and I like the way a shadow falls on Hamlet

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

as Hamlet didn’t say.

The way out takes you past some busts: William Shaen, lawyer and social reformer...










...Augustus De Morgan, mathematician...


















 …and, tucked away behind some hardware, the radical philosopher Jeremy Bentham. His real preserved head and, separately, his auto-icon (the dapperly dressed, waxen-headed skeleton) are just up the road in UCL. 

This bust is inscribed with his motto, plurimorum maxima felicitas – literally, ‘of the most, the biggest happiness’. As Bentham put it, ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation.’

He also pointed out that the smaller the majority, the greater the infelicity. And so we totter, divided and uncertain, towards a referendum – still clutching for moral support at the genius of our global propagandist, our not-so-secret agent of soft power rooted in Stratford-upon-Avon.

For details of Shakespeare: Metamorphosis and related events, please see the Senate House Library website. Back at the kitchen table, something is forming: I have an exhibition in Senate House starting in June, under the auspices of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies.

1 comment:

  1. Luxurious polymathic cruise through the bibliomanic stews of senate house; I can hear the clattery whisper of triffidic librarians in shadowed doorways: "Lookin' for a good read dearie?"

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