American Dream: the best designed exhibition I’ve ever been to

The American Dream: Pop to the Present is, I think, the best designed exhibition I’ve ever been to. (I may, of course, forgotten better designed ones.) The exhibition at the British Museum tells the recent history of the United States through prints. It’s in 12 sections, each beautifully laid out so that everything can be seen clearly and logically. You move effortlessly through the story. Cuts in the walls mean you can look backwards and forwards as you move through the exhibition, recognising how new periods are inspired by old periods and how old prints look forward to new ones. In one room images from recent American history (the assassination of Kennedy, man landing on the moon, etc) are projected on one wall while another wall shows prints reflecting those times and events. There are short films of artists speaking about their work and films about techniques.

It’s more than a month since I visited the exhibition but only now have I found time to write about it. Photographs were not allowed, but I made notes of pictures that attracted me and have now found them (or a closely related picture) on the web. I encountered many artists I didn’t know at the exhibition, and reviewing the pictures now has been like revisiting the exhibition; and I’ve already blogged twice about the exhibition–once about a lecture before the exhibition opened and once about a chilling print of the American Medical Association.

The exhibition begins with this quote from Andy Warhol about the American Dream:

“Everybody has their own America, and then they have pieces of a fantasy America that they think is out there but they can’t see…So the fantasy corners of America…you’ve pieced them together from scenes in movies and music and lines from books. And you live in your dream America that you’ve custom-made from art and schmaltz and emotions just as much as you live in your real one.”

After probably more than a hundred trips to the US and having lived in California for a year, I certainly have my own ideas of America–bit this exhibition enhanced them. Here are the artists and prints I picked out.

I’d never heard of Tom Wessellman, but his prints in primary colours manage the unusual combination of being both funny and erotic.


Jim Dine’s print of an empty raincoat is an unusual self-portrait. There are days when we all feel like an empty raincoat.

Dine empty coat

In his self-portrait Robert Rauschenberg, whose recent Tate exhibition I liked , depicts himself as a skeleton. We all need to be conscious of the skeleton inside us, our own death waiting to emerge.

Rauschenberg self portrait

Ed Ruscha’s Big Dipper Over the Desert celebrates the wide open spaces and big skies of America’s West.


Bruce Nauman presented the word “malice” in many forms. There is and was malice in America.

Nauman malice

Richard Estes presents a shiny America full of empty doors but devoid of people.


I’d never heard the term “figurative expressionism,” but Chicken could wear the mantle. Richard Artschwager is an example.


Perhaps Philip Pearlstein is one too.

Phillip Pearlstein

Warhol’s picture of Mao and Johnson, two clown tyrants, packs a tremendous punch, as does Chris Burden’s Atomic Alphabet. These are both Cold War prints.

Drag - Johnson and Mao 1967 by Jim Dine born 1935

Atmic alphabet

I enjoyed Holzer’s inflammatory essays–“Ruin yourself before they fucking do”…”Rejoice our times are intolerable”–might right now be posted in West London. But they were originally posted around Manhattan at the end of the 70s.

Holzer inflammatory essay

Dottie Astie was another artist I’d never heard of, but I liked the book she had prepared from one of my favourite paintings, Bronzino’s Allegory of Love. The pages carried prints of bits of the painting and worked well.

Dottie Attie1

Dottie Attie 2

Mel Bochner’s glorious colour print Going Out of Business is another print for our times. The impact comes from the contrast between the gloom of the message and the joy of the colour.

Going Out Of Business

The Guerrilla Girls poster made me laugh and think, a good combination.

Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum? 1989 by Guerrilla Girls

And last of all Jasper Johns’s Numbers, which looked beautiful in the exhibition.








“Everybody has their own America, and then they have pieces of a fantasy America that they think is out there but they can’t see…So the fantasy corners of America…you’ve pieced them together from scenes in movies and music and lines from books. And you live in your dream America that you’ve custom-made from art and schmaltz and emotions just as much as you live in your real one.”




Quotes from Proust XXXX: Impressions “deepened, illumined, transformed into equivalents of understanding”

Was not the re-creation by the memory of impressions which had then to be deepened, illumined, transformed into equivalents of understanding, was not this process one of the conditions, almost the very essence of the work of art as I had just now in the library conceived it?

This notion of Time embodied, of years past but not separated from us, it was now my intention to emphasise as strongly as possible in my work.

The Bangladesh Parliament: the world’s most impressive modern building?

The Bangladesh Parliament building, known in Bangla as Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban, is perhaps the most impressive modern building I’ve encountered. The Sydney Opera House might be more striking from the outside, but doesn’t match the Bangladesh Parliament overall. The Pompidou Centre is tired. London’s National Theatre has similarities with the Bangladesh Parliament but falls well short. The Guggenheim buildings in New York and Bilbao and the Shard are all based essentially on one idea, but the Bangladesh Parliament has many ideas.


The building is perhaps the masterpiece of Louis Kahn, but he never saw the completed building.  I learnt some of this by watching the film My Architect, in which Kahn’s son goes in search of his father and his work. The building was commissioned as the Eastern Parliament of what was then one country, although geographically divided into West Pakistan and East Pakistan. But when it was finished, after the War of Liberation in which millions died, it became the Parliament of the new country of Bangladesh.

Kahn designed not just the main building but the whole complex, which comprises the lake in which the Parliament sits, the trees around the lake, and a cluster of buildings that originally were houses for MPs but now are mainly offices. Originally he was to have designed more, a whole capital.

When I arrived I saw the pale grey concrete towers of the Parliament across the greeny brown waters. The building has one central tower and eight surrounding towers; and it has nine floors, nine must be significant. As I look at the towers across the water I think of Mogul buildings, and they were clearly an inspiration to Kahn. But I think too if moated Norman castles.

We enter the building along a walkway. There are two levels, and evidently Kahn’s idea was that the MPs would enter on the lower level and the people above, reminding MPs that they are servants of the people not the other way round. That idea seems to have lapsed, as, indeed, has democracy in Bangladesh.


As we enter the building we see a picture of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh. The picture is in the centre of a round space, one of the towers, that has on the walls the plans for the building and pictures of the completed building.

We start our tour, and we see at once how Kahn has sculpted light in creating the building. Natural light comes from different angles, often through large geometric shapes–circles, triangles, and ovals–cut into the concrete. On every level there is ample space, and I know that I’m walking inside a magical building that celebrates calm, reason, democracy, law, justice, and free speech.


Often as when walking through a rocky landscape a view opens up. From the seventh or eighth floor we stand on a wooden balcony looking down six or seven floors. One of the towers contains a mosque, where a shaft of light enters and reaches the ground, surely making everybody think of their God. We can’t enter the mosque as it’s the time for prayer: I glimpse rows of the backs of men on their knees with their faces to the ground and arms outstretched.

Much of the beauty of the building is in the careful use of materials. The grey concrete is left exposed with thin lines of marble running through it. The concrete has a softer feel than the concrete of the National Theatre in London, but the two buildings are the same in that the inside of the building is more important than the outside. The concrete and marble complement beautifully the dark wood that is used for doors, banisters, railings, and balconies. The use of wood reminds me of the palaces we saw in Mysore.

We visit the library, which is at the heart if the building, emphasising the importance of study and learning, but the climax and centre of the building is rightly the huge space where the Parliament sits. We enter what is a round space, the central tower, high up and look down on the MPs. There must be as many seats for the public and press as for the MPs.


The chamber doesn’t use the confrontational face to face style of the British Parliament but rather a semicircle facing a bench topped with the speaker’s chair as in Congress in the US. The Awami League, the government party, has around 260 of the 330 or so seats. At the back of the semicircle is a block of some 50 seats reserved for woman who are appointed rather than elected as MPs, in the same proportion as the elected parties.

It’s a wonderful open space with a high ceiling, contrasting with the claustrophobic atmosphere of the British House of Commons. MPs are allocated 15 minutes to speak, and we watch an MP from the Awami League rant through his 15 minutes while MPs come and go, chat, and read newspapers.


Our tour complete we leave the building, and I’m left with the glow that wonderful architecture can produce. It’s a glow I associate most with ancient cathedrals. When creating the building Kahn described how he wanted to use space, light, and Bangladeshi heritage to create a “poetic entity.” He succeeded handsomely.

Unintended consequences: suttee

Most actions have unintended consequences, and sometimes they can be catastrophic. Ask Theresa May: she called an election to strengthen her hand in Brexit negotiations ( or so she said) and destroyed her credibility. I’ve long favoured all scientific research being open access (free to read and to reuse), but unintended consequences have been predatory journals (scams) and hybrid journals ( journals making money than ever by continuing with subscriptions but also charging some authors to pay for open access). But both of these examples are trivial compared with what an Indian anthropologist told me about an unintended consequence of the British trying to strengthen the position of women in India.

Before the British arrived India was, he explained, a feudal society that did not use money. The Brahmins, the leaders, grabbed as much land and as many women and cows as they could. A Brahmin might have 100 to 150 wives (something that causes wonder to those of us who have to concentrate to keep one wife happy). When he died his oldest son would take over, and life would continue as before. Suttee, where the wife committed suicide at her husband’s death classically by leaping onto the pyre at his funeral, was, he said, more myth than reality.


The BritSutteeish stepped into this precapitalist society, and thinking it unjust that wives should have no right to their husband’s property gave them such legal rights. But how could you divide land into 100 or 150 parts? You’d destroy the wealth. (I remember a farmer in Britain explaining to me that farmers couldn’t get divorced because it would destroy the sustainability of a farm–and that was with one wife.) Those who depended on the land, not least the son who expected to inherit, thought this intolerable, and so they simply murdered the wives–and called it suttee.

The British seemed to have the best of intentions towards the women but actually precipitated their murder.

Looking at air hostesses

On the flight from Dhaka to Delhi there are only three of us in business class, but the law requires the air hostess to do her safety performance. The other two never look at her, and I’d rather not. But being British and so never walking on the grass when told not to, switching off my phone on the flight (which the others don’t do), and always going to the back of the queue, I feel I must look at her, intermittently. It’s surely rude not to look. I remember a flight from Brunei to Melbourne when I was the only one in a twenty-seat business cabin: how could I look away?

(This is, I reflect, a version of the well recognised psychological phenomenon that if a a person is attacked in a crowd nobody may do anything, whereas if only one person is present he or she feels obliged to act.)

But on the flight from Delhi to Bengaluru I’m even more conscious of the obligation to look at the air hostess, but there’s extra tension. She’s a beautiful woman, with a warm not a cold beauty. When she brought me a cold towel she smiled at me as if seeing me filled her with sunshine. Plus she’s about two feet from me, with me seated and her standing above me.

She begins her act, and nobody is watching her. Perhaps this is the way she prefers it. It’s an empty ritual: the chance of it saving us as we plummet to the ground is tiny; and surely in the panic of the moment we’ll forget the ritual no many how times we have seen it. But I feel I ought to watch, just as you feel obliged to stay and watch when you are in an audience of three people, an experience I’ve had at the Edinburgh Fringe and at conferences. The experience of watching her dutifully is similar to that of praising a young child’s poem or dance.

But the tension stems from her beauty. We are taught in Britain not to stare. So I must watch her but not stare. Plus I like looking at beautiful women, but I don’t want to seem lascivious or lecherous. If she were a painting in the National Gallery, which she could well be, I could stare and examine her closely without any fear of being misunderstood. But she’s a living woman, two feet away. So I look but make sure that I concentrate on her actions, avoiding her face and body. This is a very British middle-class problem and solution.

Again I wonder how she feels. If she were an actor or dancer, she’d want my full attention, drawing no distinction between watching and staring. But here, I suspect, she’s happiest when nobody is watching. I think that next time I won’t watch, no matter how rude it seems.

Zainul Abedin: famine pictures

One of my greatest discoveries on my visit to Bangladesh’s National Museum were the pictures of Zainul Abedin, who is regarded as the father of modern Bangladesh painting. Born in 1914 he’s most famous for his charcoal drawings of the 1943 Bangladesh famine. There are many of them in the National Museum, and their power caught me.


Our guide told us that the famine was caused by the British in order to get Bengalis to fight for them in the Second World War. The account in Wikipedia suggests that’s an oversimplification, but the war was one of the causes.


Bangladesh has suffered from a series of famines, and I think of how Amartya Senn, the Bengali winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, argues that famine does not occur if there is a free press. No doubt there was not a free press in the declining days of British India in 1943. I always think of Senn’s argument as the most important argument for a free press.




Sheikh Hasina’s Iftar

Dozens of soldiers, many with machine guns, guard the entrance to Sheikh Hasina’s house. She’s the prime minister of Bangladesh, and her father Sheikh Mujibur Roman was the founder of Bangladesh. He was assassinated in 1975, and I suppose I might have my house surrounded by soldiers if my father had been assassinated, although ironically he was killed by soldiers.

I’ve been invited to Sheikh Hasina’s house for Iftar, the breaking of the Ramadan fast. I don’t know what to expect, but I think it unlikely that it will be me, Sheikh Hasina, and a few others.

Although her house is surrounded by soldiers, security seems much lighter than getting into, for example, the Houses of Parliament in London. I show a card that has neither a picture nor even a name on it; I don’t have to show any identification. I’ve been asked not to bring a mobile phone, and dutifully I haven’t; but once inside I see that most people have. The phones don’t seem to have been detected by the metal detector we have to pass through.

Once through the minimal security I walk with many other on a road through the garden. There are trees heavy with large jackfruits, the national fruit of Bangladesh. The Iftar is being held not in Sheikh Hasina’s house, but in a giant tent in front of it. The tent must be at least 150 yards wide and 80 yards from front to back. Hundreds of fans hang circle our heads, which is just as well as it’s 34 degrees Celsius. Large screens are scattered around, presumably to show us Sheikh Hasina, who will be invisible to most.

The tent is filled with round tables, each with nine places, each with a plate with Iftar foods covered in cling film. Each place has bottles of a sugary drink, water, and something white. There are also large dishes of what I later discover are biryani and lychees.

I’m on my own and unsure where to go. I walk forward uncertainly until somebody says “Down to the front and turn right. That’s diplomats.” I’m not a diplomat (although perhaps I am in some ways), but as I’m white and taller than most I’ll fit in more with them than any other group. So I walk to the front and walk up and down a row, wondering what to do with myself.

Suddenly I think of the Queen’s Garden and Party that Chicken and I went to in the late 80s. At that party people drifted around unsure why they were there or what to do. There may be slightly more point here in that we are breaking fast (although I and probably most of the diplomats have not been fasting), but only a tiny percentage of us will meet Sheikh Hasina, and even if we do there’ll be just a few meaningless words. At the London party, I remember, people clustered around the Royal Family when they appeared and processed slowly to the tea tent at the back of the garden: Princess Diana had a huge circle, whereas the Duke of Edinburgh had only a handful of people.

I recognise the British High Commissioner, but she’s engaged in conversation. I feel it would be above my station to sit with her, and so after more wandering I sit down next to a disconsolate man sitting  on his own. He comes from Egypt. I try conversation, but his English is poor and my Arabic non-existent. I ask him about Egypt and others breaking off relations with Qatar. He grunts and says resolution will be slow.

We sit some more, and then there’s excitement as Sheikh Hasina appears. Dressed all in white (as I think she always is), she is preceded by a scrum of cameramen, most with their videos and cameras held above their heads. Behind her come soldiers and some heavies. We stand, and she passes within a few feet of me. It could even be that she smiled at me.

We sit down again, and the Ambassador of Kuwait, dressed in very fine Arab dress and smelling sweet (like the sugar on Turkish delight) comes and sits next to me. He speaks good English, and we manage some conversation. He knows icddr,b, and the Kuwaiti government may offer us some funding. I ask about Kuwait mediating in the dispute in the Gulf, and he smiles enigmatically. Three other diplomats arrive and say hello, but I don’t catch where they are from. Then comes the Spanish ambassador, who looks as if he’s having great fun, and he goes round the table and shakes everybody’s hand. Later we are joined by another Arabic speaker (this time in a suit) and a bullet headed man whom I guess to be Scandinavian.

A Muslim prayer is sung, and then a cleric delivers what I take to be a sermon. I ask the Kuwait ambassador who says he’s probably preaching about the virtues of fasting.

Sheikh Hasina has something close to a throne at the centre of a long table where she’s surrounded by her cabinet, all men. The people beside her are so far away she can hardly talk to them. There’s more singing, this time by a woman, and then the time has arrived to eat. The timing has to be right.

As I chew on the traditional but not tasty food talking to nobody but with a clear view of Sheikh Hasina I reflect that this reminds me of a giant wedding: the central woman in white, a large tent, cameras everywhere, songs, long dull speeches, indifferent food, and struggling to make conversation with people you don’t know and will never meet again. But no alcohol, of course.

Unlike a wedding it’s brief. After about 20 minutes of eating people begin to leave, even before Sheikh Hasina. In minutes it’s a flood, and we are all leaving. I’m glad I came, but I’ve decided that once is enough.