Yesterday, we went to the Royal Acadrmy in London to look at the exhibition of pictures by James Ensor. His pictures are very odd and interesting and one day soon I must go down to Ostend again and do a blog post about Ensor and his home town.
But for now I don't want to talk about Ensor and his paintings but about something that was happening at the exhibition when we visited. Normally, the Royal Academy is a rather sedate place so it was surprising to hear, as we went into the exhibition, a lot of incoherent howls and squeaks and shouts coming from the room containing the centrepiece of the show, which is this:
We went into the room containing the picture, where the hubbub continued. The end of the room where the painting hangs was full of people in wheelchairs and their companions. The people in the wheelchairs were not looking at the painting, partly because they were probably the most severely disabled people I have ever seen - in one case, very, very nearly unrecognisable as a person - and appeared to be lost in their own humming and yipping and growling realities, partly because they - or their carers - were being encouraged by a presumably well-meaning man with a singsong voice and a camera to crowd together, "closer, closer", for a group portrait in front of this strange work. He did try to engage them with the piece, "some things are smooth and some are not, some are bright and some are not", but not one of the wheelchair bound glanced in the picture's direction, or appeared capable of that kind of attention.
I knew I should admire the dedication of all the able-bodied who had brought about what must have been a real logistical miracle so that all those wheelchair-bound individuals could be gathered there but instead, being a narrow minded, conservative old bigot, I could not suppress doubts. Was the outing really of any significance to those it had apparently been designed for? Is it a dreadful thing to wonder if they were really capable of understanding any element of what was happening to
them yesterday morning? Was it possibly even a bit confusing and exhausting? Or was the aim perhaps simply to remind comfortable middle-class stuffy souls like me that exceptionally damaged human beings are born and some people have to carry the burden of their care and we ought to never forget that?
Either way, the choice of artwork provided for the outing seemed either absolutely apposite or in very very poor taste..