Svetlana Alpers on the life of painting

I WENT TO SEE “The Triumph of Painting: Part 1” at the Saatchi Gallery on a morning in February. (There will be three more installments this year and next of this vast survey of some 350 canvases from Charles Saatchi’s collection.) I went out of curiosity about seeing the works, of course, but also out of curiosity about the site—the old London County Hall (opened in 1922; until 1986, the seat of the city’s government), which had been vacated, sold, and converted into a leisure complex with hotels, an aquarium, and, eventually, the gallery. As it turned out, the paintings and the site had an unexpected relationship to one another.

For all the elegance of the refurbishing, there is an unreality about the Saatchi rooms. The present has not quite taken over; the past still lurks. A series of small galleries had been offices before. Freshly painted walls, dark woodwork, a window, a fireplace,

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