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In search of art during lockdown

4 May 2020

The following is the editor’s letter from the May 2020 issue of Apollo.

By the time our lockdowns are over, most of us won’t have entered a museum for two months, probably more. For the majority of our readers, that will be unprecedented: an enforced distance from the art that sustains and inspires us, a detachment from the cultural achievements that make us feel most human. But in reality, though some will work in them and a few may have museum-worthy collections, none of us actually live in museums. We are already accustomed to spending more time with art in our minds, and turning over its imaginative possibilities, than with our feet moored in front of it.

Writing in this issue, Glenn Adamson celebrates the MFA Boston, in the year of its 150th anniversary. At a remove, Adamson returns to the paintings and objects that exhilarated him while growing up in the city, and which he still holds as touchstones in his work as a writer and curator. Many readers will, no doubt, be finding some solace in their own museums of the mind, calling up images of favourite works and fathoming once again their personal significance.

Of course, museums around the world have declared that they are open to audiences through their websites and social media accounts. In our Forum pages this month, Thomas Campbell and Adam Koszary explore whether during the health crisis the digital museum has finally come of age, be that through the reproduction of collections online or through innovative modes of public engagement. My own feelings are ambivalent, although not sceptical. The information, communication and creative potential of digital museum platforms are all welcome; but such digital spaces often seem more like portals than destinations, directing us to worlds that are currently inaccessible elsewhere. (Then again, one might say the same about museums themselves.)

Among the most satisfying digital excursions that I’ve taken in recent weeks has been to watch a short film made by Gabriel Le Parc, focusing on the life in quarantine of his father, the veteran Argentinian artist Julio Le Parc, and posted on the latter’s Instagram account. This is a three-minute comic blast, in which a day in the life of Le Parc père plays out in fast-forward like a Buster Keaton movie, as he shuttles around the studio, doing pull-ups, preparing lunch, drawing, sweeping the floor and rigorously scrubbing his hands. It is an effervescent little film, as full of optimism as the artist’s work. Le Parc is interviewed by Gabrielle Schwarz in this issue.

There is a moment in the film in which Le Parc pauses beneath a skylight, resting for a time in the shafts of sunlight that stream through it into the studio below. For all our screens and books, and for all the jaunts we may take in our minds, it is perhaps the prescribed opportunity to notice and know our immediate surroundings with more care that offers the greatest consolations during this period – whether that is the people we may live with, if we have that luxury, or those we neighbour; or, even in cities, the local felicities of the natural world. In the weeks that the Apollo team has been working on these pages, dispersed across London in our houses and flats, I have watched the London plane tree outside my study window in slow time, as the twigs have thickened with buds and lately put out fledgling leaves – yellow-green, almost autumnal, as if readying themselves for chlorophyll to jump-start them into summer.

And this evening, since we are authorised to take fresh air once a day, I stepped out in search of art on my doorstep: across the road to a hexagonal red postbox, a design from 1866 with acanthus leaves decorating its crown and the like of which I’ve never seen elsewhere; down Highbury New Park, past the blue plaque for David Gestetner, inventor of the stencil duplicator, to the church of St Augustine, its polychrome brickwork somehow more colourful in the yellow evening light; I stood in the middle of an empty road to photograph it, outside the unobtrusive studio built by M.J. Long for the graphic artist Gordon House, and now used by another artist, Andrew James; then on to Aberdeen Park, and the great neo-gothic St Saviour’s, designed in the 1850s by William White and still (as John Betjeman had it) ‘tall, unbroken and bright’. There was more, of course – stucco surprises, and other artists’ studios. But I will leave you, for now, to your own local pleasures.

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