Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Lightly Peated

Whisky, Blabber 'n' Smoke


Rothko Drinks Whisky


Before it opened its Bankside building the Tate Gallery at Milbank was strangely schizophrenic. To the right were galleries of modern art, international and cosmopolitan,  white walled, showing off big bold abstract works, sculptures  and installations; to the left British historical works – many of them dull narrative paintings from the 18th & 19th Century, which felt dark, musty and rather oppressive. I always headed directly to my right. In the beginning I was a young man still discovering the world but yet full of prejudices about the new and the future, with an underlying faith that there was such a thing as the avant-garde that actually showed the way forward. I only made one concession to the British side and that was for a ‘Blake and his followers’ gallery sunk in a basement. Blake was fashionable at the time as his mysticism and anti-industrialism hit a chord but to be honest that was not me. I resisted the room because I was enchanted by two small paintings by Samuel Palmer.

Now I don’t want this piece to be an account of how my tastes and attitudes have developed over the years or the fact that I have spent far too much time examining my assumptions before modifying or discarding them. Such an essay would be both tortuous and embarrassing. Instead I just want to make clear my outlook in the 1970s and how I was primed to enjoy the right hand side and prejudiced in favour of what I saw. I was open to the experience but mostly my visits were unremarkable. If you enjoy galleries and exhibitions you know how this works – you are stimulated and engaged to a greater or lesser extent. Sometimes you are interested in things that don’t engage you; sometimes it is the reverse. Mostly this is how it happens but occasionally, just occasionally, you come across something that stops you in your tracks and this happened to me in 1971 when the Tate opened a special room with only the paintings of Mark Rothko commissioned for the Four Seasons Restaurant. The large canvasses surrounded you, almost closed in on you. The walls were grey and the light was dim. The atmosphere was sepulchral,  which was enough to slow you down, and  pause to look closely at the paintings. This I did but instead of pausing I came to a dead stop – mesmerised. In front of me nothing remained static. I couldn’t fix the elements of the paintings as the edges came into and out of focus. The texture of the paintings was fascinating – the paint had been worked and reworked many times so there is a depth and a sense of mysterious melding. Mostly it was a sombre matt but with flashes of  gloss. The plain shapes of darker colour were either background of or foreground but they reminded me of Stonehenge and a misty, remote Neolithic past. That might have been fanciful –  but it was part of letting my mind around the picture. It did not coalesce around a firm opinion and when I moved on I was unsure about what I had seen, except that there had been majesty.

Over 45 years on and I can still remember it.

That is all well and good, you might be saying, but what place does a personal recollection about art works have in a whisky blog? There is a simple answer and its all about appreciation and evaluation. That day taught me something about how to approach things I don’t understand. A way of putting initial judgements to one side until more information, or impressions had been gathered, letting things roll around in the mind, formless, bit gradually acquiring a shape, giving space to fanciful thoughts, waiting until you can decide what has substance. This is also the way I approach whisky tasting. As I approach every glass it is as if I know nothing (this is not a stretch, I am not an expert, I am an enthusiast – a completely different category). A state of prepared emptiness, if you like. I then try to engage as many senses as possible and let impressions form and reform until there is some sort of shape. When it is my mouth I am not only searching for taste cognates I am thinking about shape and texture. The best whiskies are a bit like those Rothko canvasses, impressions change and overlap to give both depth and elusiveness that suggests much more than can be explained.

P.S The photo I have used at the head of this post was ripped from the net (http://olilyon.myblog.arts.ac.uk/2014/11/20/mark-rothko-seagram-murals-1958/) It shows the paintings hung in the Tate Modern, a different experience from seeing them at Milbank where the room was taller but smaller.

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