The Magazine

Art Under Siege

Underground culture against kultur in the air.

Nov 24, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 10 • By EDWARD SHORT
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Not only did Kenneth Clark save the National Gallery collection, he also saw to it that the museum remained "a defiant outpost of culture right in the middle of a bombed and shattered metropolis." Accordingly, in 1941, and with all the Old Masters in storage, he mounted an exhibition of contemporary painting, including works by Clive Bell and Graham Sutherland, which garnered high praise in some quarters but annoyed others: "Another bomb there might save posterity lighting a few bonfires in the future," one diarist wrote.

Also key to keeping the museum's cultural life going was Clark's hiring of the pianist Myra Hess who, he later recalled, had "a jolly, rolling walk, and a strong element of the old trouper." When Clark broached the idea of having lunchtime concerts, Hess thought they might be periodic. Clark insisted that they be daily. Hess took a deep breath and agreed.

Three quarters of a million people eventually attended the concerts. About the music she chose, Hess later remarked: "Everybody was very busy during the war and there was nobody to tell the people that this sort of music was over their heads. So they came and liked it." The courage it took to sit and listen to Myra Hess play Beethoven can only be appreciated by remembering that, in October 1940, a large bomb fell on the National Gallery, ruining Room XXVI (where Room 10 is today). The fact that the building next door, which now holds the Sainsbury Wing, was completely demolished shows how close the Gallery came to a similar fate.

Whatever jubilation Clark felt at war's end was fleeting. Although he took some pleasure in personally choosing the first paintings to be transported back to the museum, including Bellini's Doge Leonardo Loredan and Titian's Noli Me Tangere, events beyond London gave the war's sequel an inexpellable gloom.

"The brutal Russian occupation of Berlin, the discovery and visible documentation of the German extermination camps, these and a dozen other ghastly revelations filled my mind," he wrote. "I felt that European civilization could never again recover its confidence and its equilibrium." Whether this will have been proved right is anyone's guess--though the European response so far to the gathering threat of Islamic terrorism does not augur well.

The National Gallery in Wartime is an entertaining, informative, cautionary book, which everyone interested in London, the Battle of Britain, or art will thoroughly enjoy.

Edward Short is a writer in New York.