In dialogue with Martin Roth, the man who is conceptualizing the V&A

Martin Roth, copyright V&A ImagesLOWRES

Martin Roth, copyright V&A ImagesLOWRES

After ten years at the guidance of the Dresden State Art Collections, in September 2011 Professor Martin Roth was appointed Director of the V&A Museum, London. Also thanks to ambitious exhibitions like the current one dedicated to Chinese painting, or the one by the daring contemporary artists duo Elmgreen&Dragset, he has been turning an historical museum, somehow a little dusty, into a cool cultural hot spot.


What do you consider special about the V&A?


The V&A’s collection is very special. It started in the 1850s and just over 160 years later we have around 2.5 million objects. It’s extremely high quality, very diverse and full of surprises. Some parts of it are well known, such as fashion and jewelry or Islamic design. But not everyone knows that the V&A also has a great art collection, for example. You can find paintings by John Constable, prints by Picasso and Warhol, street art and much more.


All these incredible objects are part of the story of design. Design shapes our world, and we all have an interest in kind of questions the V&A asks – what is the process that takes you from design idea to finished object? How have designs changed over time? How can we design the future?


Since the 1850s young students, designers and artists have been using the Museum as their toolbox. Anish Kapoor, Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen, Jonathan Ives, and more, all came to the V&A to study the collections. Seeing how historic objects were made and designed took their work in new directions. And there will be some famous creative artists of the future standing right now in the galleries and study rooms – we just don’t know their names yet.


What would your ideal museum be like?


It comes back to the collection. Any museum, but especially an ideal museum, needs an outstanding collection. And the right people to study, preserve, interpret and display it. The collection and the work that goes on around it give a museum meaning and purpose, connect it to the past and take it into the future. An ideal museum also needs to be flexible and it needs to respond to the world outside. So it’s a combination of a solid, high quality collection and expertise, infused with a kind of experimental, alert, risk-taking spirit. And the less red tape the better. We’re talking ‘ideal’ here, of course…


What is the best way to link fine arts with contemporary art? Is it a new trend?


I’m not sure we need to work too hard at it – there has always been a link. Art history is a continuous story; though it’s not a story of progress so much as one of inspiration and evolution. A few weeks ago I heard a lecture by George Steiner, one of my heroes, and he made a striking comparison between art and science. Science, he pointed out, always moves forward – theories are disproved, knowledge advances. But one artwork doesn’t invalidate the one that went before. So there’s always the possibility of an exciting exchange between past and present. At the V&A we often show contemporary and historic works side by side so you can see that exchange happen – at the moment we have an installation in the garden by contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing, created in response to the historic works in our major exhibition Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900.


Should European countries share their artistic heritage? Could it be a way to promote their integration?


Yes, for sure. That’s something I believe strongly in. While we continue working with Shanghai or Rio de Janeiro, let’s not forget Milan or Vienna and the incredible shared heritage that we, as Europeans, have here on our doorstep. People have been trading and travelling and exchanging art and design across Europe for centuries. You only have to ask that Monty Python question, ‘what did the Romans do for us?’, to realize the truth of that. To understand the history of opera you have to understand how it evolved in cities across Europe – and that’s just one example.


Could you link an old master to a living artist and explain the link?


If you walk through the main entrance of the V&A you’ll see an instruction in the mosaic of the floor – it tells you to look up. And then, looking up, you see through several floors to the ceramics galleries and a circular red shelf filled with white porcelain ceramics. It’s a permanent installation called ‘Signs and Wonders’ by the artist and writer Edmund de Waal. He calls it part of his love story with the ceramic collections at the V&A, which he used to visit as a child of 7 or 8. After climbing up endless stairs to look at endless rows of pots – European porcelain, Japanese porcelain, Chinoiserie – he somehow, maybe unlike most other children, became fascinated. He’s just influenced by one old master – unless it’s the V&A! – but several. I think that’s often the way influence works, it comes from many different sources before it’s channelled through one person.


What have you learned from the exhibition on Chinese painting?


There’s so much we can all learn. Years of research have gone into making this exhibition and its curator, Hongxing Zhang, is one of the world’s experts. Perhaps that’s one of the lessons – never hesitate to invest time and money in pioneering, quality research. And I think visitors are surprised to see how Chinese painting has evolved, how dynamic it is, and the humour in it. There was a popular misconception that the tradition was a stable and recognizable one and rather serious. But this exhibition surprises you constantly.

July 15, 2015