Jerry Saltz, senior art critic for New York Magazine, detects a torpor around the “Tropic of Curating”, where he looks for the “uncanny alchemy” of good curating. So as I approached York Art Gallery through the mist of the first Sunday in March, I was alert to know what Saltz describes as “the things you didn’t know you needed to know until you know them”. The gallery is exhibiting “Paul Nash and the Uncanny Landscape”: you may need to know that the exhibition is curated by John Stezaker and continues until mid-April.
When Michel Ciment interviewed Stanley Kubrick about his film “The Shining”, the late director made reference to Freud’s observation that the uncanny is the only feeling which is more powerfully experienced in art than in life. Kubrick tells Ciment that the ultimate test of the rationale of a story of the supernatural is whether it is good enough to raise the hairs on the back of your neck.
On this occasion, of course, I was enjoying not the group experience of being a member of a cinema audience, but the individual one of walking around a gallery. Although I had a companion, our respective responses to the exhibition as a whole depended on our personal histories. The hairs on the back of my neck were not raised: but I was reminded of a visit to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool not six months ago, when a picture produced exactly this response.
The picture was “The Falling Star” by James Hamilton Hay. Until today I had no inkling that, of the nine artists who became members of the London Group of artists in 1914, one was Paul Nash and another James Hamilton Hay.
As we left the Minster that afternoon, following Evensong, a lone busker was performing “Starry, starry night”. He earned his coin.