I could quite happily live in some art galleries. On visits to them, when Stendhal’s Syndrome threatens, my diversion is to find an inspiring space and imagine how I would inhabit it. Perhaps my best place for doing this is the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, whose building by Renzo Piano perfectly suits my modern tastes – not to mention its fine collection of Giacometti sculptures.
My chances of doing this are, of course absolutely zero – but I think there are lessons to be learned for the uses we put to our actual living spaces. You don’t have to be a man of Ernst Beyeler’s means or connections (he was a friend of Picasso) to curate a collection and make your home a gallery of your own.
I fear the resolutely lowbrow mainstream in this country would not spare me a disparaging comment were I to admit to such ambitions. Sadly, I suspect the idea of buying art is another thing that many feel is ‘not for them’, conjuring images of rarefied elitism even if they are not terrified by imagined financial nightmares.
It need not be so. The first thing to do is remember that in one’s own gallery, the only person one needs to please is oneself; the second is to realise that neither need the prime consideration be the financial input (let alone output).
What I like about some of those galleries is the monumental quality of the spaces that they, like other good architecture, create. They have a ‘presence’, often found in stillness (but also animation) that is palpable when one is in them, that can make time seem to stand still, and that for a short time removes one’s life from more mundane contexts.
This atmosphere itself can almost count as an exhibit; more than once I have spent more time taking in the building than the collection. It’s hard to capture in words, but this timelessness is something that inspires me when it comes to interior design; a space should have a character and identity that moves it beyond being a mere receptacle or backdrop for prosaic activities; such spaces alter their relationship with the people who occupy them, amplifying a feeling of continuity and the sense that civilisation is bigger and longer lasting than mere individuals. Great architecture is one of the ways in which cultures anchor themselves in time and place – but it need not be limited to the grandiose. I find this most often in the sparse spaces of modernism, but also find in them an affinity with medieval religious buildings and the villas of Herculaneum and Pompeii.
This perceived depersonalisation might turn many people off, but I like it: it can add to rootedness, rather than detract from it. Here, it helps, I suppose, that we live in a building that is 130 years old, and which has had former lives as a school, community rooms and a business centre. Yet in that time, we are amongst the first people actually to live in the building…
From the perspective of creating one’s own art ‘gallery’, it helps us to have a three-metre height to play with, which give our rooms breathing space – but that is not to say that the greater intimacy of smaller spaces cannot succeed in a different way.
I still remember the time we brought our first original piece home and hung it. Bought for a ‘significant’ birthday, the artist-made print from a photograph of the Cambridgeshire Fens utterly transformed the room. A photographic print it may be, but it has the effect of a Rothko-esque abstract, and it seemed to draw one’s vision towards it, while exuding a calm that reached the whole space, in a way my previous more mundane wall-art never had. It had had the same effect when I first saw it from a distance, in the window of a gallery in Cambridge.
Following from this, over the past fifteen or so years, has been a small sequence of other acquisitions. We have tended to buy ceramics; here in East Anglia, there are a good many sculptors and ceramicists if one knows where to look, and we like the tactility and possibility for interaction with three-dimensional pieces. We have bought from galleries in Cambridge, Dedham, and Norwich; other pieces have been found more widely, from London and Manchester to Basel and Copenhagen. Most recently, we acquired two pieces (see header photo) by the local ceramicist Moira Goodall, from Sculpt, a gallery just a few miles from our home, where the Dutch-born artist Maurice Blik has created a lovely, pared-back display space in an out-building of his home.
Being interested in modern design, we have also tended to blur the boundaries – for example, one wall ‘sculpture’ is in reality a newspaper rack by the Danish company Rosendal, bought in Copenhagen, but never used for its intended purpose, and simply appreciated for its form and finish. Similarly, a small inheritance allowed the purchase of a Vitra original of Sori Yanagi’s classic butterfly stool, again more for its form than function. Alongside them are a number of more clearly art pieces, which we like to think sit well in the little personal gallery that we have created.
The process of purchasing an art piece is something of a special experience in itself; by conventional definitions, what one is buying has no purpose other than its own existence, and whatever cerebral or aesthetic impact it can have. Yet it somehow generates a sense of doing something very affirmative. It might easily be seen as a waste of money – but I can say with confidence that each of the dozen or so pieces we have acquired have more than repaid the relatively modest outlays in the beauty and gravitas that they bring to our home, and thence both satisfaction and a sense of wellbeing to those within it. It should also be mentioned that we have never experienced the condescension that might be expected from such quarters, only delight in shared appreciation – even though we only ever spend very modest amounts compared to many of the price tags we see.
I somehow doubt that our collection will ever need its own museum, as Ernst Beyeler’s eventually did when it was bequeathed to the Swiss nation. And yet that rather august individual can also teach us another thing: according to a friend who lives in the same small Swiss town, Beyeler – in the best tradition of discrete Swiss egalitarianism – was an unassuming man who would bid you a friendly Good Morning as you passed him in the street: a fine collection of art need not a superiority complex make.
In a similar way, the existence of the Own Art scheme (which we have used twice) to make purchases of art more affordable, reinforces this message: art should not be only for the wealthy or rarefied few, but can enhance everyday lives in a way that mass-produced trinkets fail to do. Our only rule and advice is to set the bar high and only buy what one really, instinctively likes – but (circumstances permitting) not to hold back when you see it; tomorrow it might not be there.
None of the pieces we have bought cost more than a few tanks of petrol, and none will ever make it into the category of ‘great’ art; But they speak significantly to their owners, and thus they are much greater value than any external utility or recognition requires. And that is surely the first point of art.