Tuesday, 3 June 2008
Feliks Topolski's Memoir of the Century lurks under the railway arches near Waterloo. It's a space to kill time between journeys, and a meditation on time - described by the artist as 'freewheeling imaginings... detached from an explanatory habit of mind.' The 600 foot long canvas labyrinth leads the wanderer through an ill-lit record of events of the twentieth century, which seems all the more harrowing on account of the increasing decrepitude of the display, left unfinished by an artist whose style always resisted completion.
It is a place to tread cautiously - the tall murals seemed inclined to keel over. One panel of images bleeds into the next in rough, unresolved brush strokes - Hitler's Germany, Franco's Spain and Mussolini's Italy combine with the London of Dockers and Bohemians. Topolski also used collage and print, and played with the idea of music and moving elements in the installation. Part of the power of the experience is the apparent 'artlessness' of it all: I feel as if I'm a voyeur watching the arguments of oblivious couples through windows lit at night, or seeing right into the mechanics of the artist's mind. The very absence of self-consciousness, an honesty of purpose, makes the historical events depicted feel like part of the present.
Walking past a few days ago I noticed that the museum has closed and the old signage is being replaced with a stylish glazed design. The new entrance, still hidden behind corrugated railings, is evidence of a major conservation programme and rebranding. The original typography was designed by the artist and constructed by Alistair Flint. The ascenders and curves interlocked like the bolts and cogs of a vast futurist machine; there was also something space-age about those convex moon-white spheres. The new sans serif will make the museum look more in keeping with the stylish bars around it, but gestures fashionably towards the past with a chunky grotesque reminiscent of wood type used on political posters. I hope the user-friendly conversion will likewise respect the dark and foreboding atmosphere of the work itself.