Saturday, May 4, 2013

London's Hampstead Heath: Nature, Art, and Artifice

This is an excerpt from a post on my other blog, Urban Wilderness. To start at the beginning, click here.

I've entered Kenwood Estate, a park within a park at Hampstead Heath. A map conveniently points me in the direction of Kenwood House, a neo-Classical country estate designed by Robert Adam in the 18th Century. The guidebook tells me it now houses, along with period furniture, a remarkable collection of paintings, including—yes! Turner—and “Frans Hals, Gainsborough, Reynolds, and more.” I learn later that there is an important Rembrandt self-portrait here, too. Curious omission, Frommer!

I am thrilled by the prospect of thus discovering art amongst nature. But long before I get close to the house I can see that I am to be disappointed. From far off it is clear that the house is entirely enclosed, as if in a shroud. No part of the façade is exposed. Life inadvertently imitates art, for this shrouded monument echoes, at least for me, Christo’s wrapped Reichstag in Berlin. An exoskeleton of scaffolding doesn’t destroy the impression.

The interior is being renovated along with the exterior and so I am denied the pleasure of seeing the paintings as well as the architecture. I must satisfy myself with a solitary Henry Moore bronze. This “Two Piece Reclining Figure, No. 5” is solitary in more than one way. The only outdoor sculpture in the vicinity, “she” overlooks a vast open field identified as the “Pasture Ground.” Moore varied his treatment of the figure, of course. This figure is not recognizably female, though one can assume it based on other more representational versions. Indeed, “she” is scarcely recognizable as human, Moore accomplishing in bronze what the magician only suggests when slicing an assistant in two. The two bulky forms appear more similar to rocky outcroppings than human anatomy. The figure is objectified to the point where is to more akin to some “natural” feature of the landscape than to a human being, let alone an individual person. Kirk Varnedoe asserts, in his treatise Pictures of Nothing, “Abstract art absorbs projection and generates meaning ahead of naming.” An intriguing explanation of the power of abstraction. If true, however, then by naming it Moore forces an interpretation of his sculpture that may not match one’s first impression of it, especially when one encounters it out here in the landscape.

Similarly, where a construction contractor has erected utilitarian scaffolding, I see abstraction imposed onto the named structure of Kenwood House, which sits in uneasy alliance with its pastoral landscape.

Art and artifice derive from the same Latin root. Their meanings continue to overlap. Turning away from the shrouded, temporarily abstracted Kenwood House, I spy across the curiously named “Thousand Pound Pond” what appears to be a bridge. Two short spans flank a wider central one and the whole thing is topped with a balustrade. It is painted stark, Classical white that seems almost to glow on this gloomy day. Unaware that it is called “Sham Bridge” and for good reason, I make my way around a thicket behind it in order to take advantage of the view from the bridge. Except there is no bridge. It is a conceit, a visual folly, designed to be viewed from the terrace or lawn, creating the illusion that the pond extends farther into the wood. Artifice and abstraction.

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