Wednesday, February 21, 2007


Ways of Seeing and Kitaj

I re-read John Berger's book Ways of Seeing on the plane back from London recently. It lacked the extraordinary power I remember from the original television series, and as a book felt rather small and cheaply produced. Most photos are in black and white and on fairly ordinary paper. However, I enjoyed once more his thesis that the Leonardo Cartoon in the National Gallery took on a whole different meaning once an American collector had tried to buy it for a record price. It became famous for its price tag and, Berger argues, looked at and treated in a new way. On a different scale, something similar happened at the V&A while I was there. In those days London Underground published a series of destination posters, promoting places to visit by Tube. To the consternation of the V&A's sculpture department, one of these posters appeared featuring a Young Slave by Michelangelo at the V&A. The image was a charcoal sketch of the work by - I think - artist RB Kitaj, and focussed on a detail of the figure's torso. It looked marvellous, significant and bigger than life-size, and it was also delightful that London Underground were promoting the V&A.

The only problem, hence the consternation, was that visitors were turning up to see this great statue, couldn't find it, and noone at the information desk knew anything about it. In fact the work was not, as it appeared from the poster, a huge prominent statue but a small blackened wax model, perhaps 15 cm high, and it was displayed in a badly-lit case with dozens of other wax models, all looking a bit like an Anthony Gormley assemblage. Kitaj had not chosen one of the museum's featured pieces but had plucked one from all-but obscurity and made it a star. He had danced with the wallflower. Somehow the V&A had now to give it the treatment. There was a hurried discussion, and the wax Slave was quickly given a case of its own, still badly lit, but at least easier to find and look at. In its new case it then took on the attributes of a signature object, one worthy of special attention. Later, it was one of the works included in an exhibition of pieces from the V&A's collection that toured North America. Like Leonardo's cartoon it took on new significance, not this time because of a price tag but because someone with an eye plucked it from the heap, and opened other eyes as well. The piece, by the way, is great. You can see the sculptor's thumbprints on it. Had I ever noticed it before Kitaj? No.

Pic courtesy of V&A


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