Monday, 24 June 2019

'Rutherford and Son' at the National Theatre

'Rutherford and Son' is the latest revival at the National Theatre, a play from 1912 by Githa Sowerby, partially based on her own family experiences in Gateshead. It's the tale of old man Rutherford who rules his factory and his home with an iron will, dominating everyone around him, alienating his children and, as the local 'big man' keeping his family a step above everyone else.  This isn't good for anyone except him.

We meet Rutherford's eldest son that he's sent to Eton for a posh education and that ruins him - he has grown up with all sorts of expectations but none of the skills to achieve those. He's married beneath him, in his father's eyes, and it seems that he didn't marry for love, but only because he got his wife pregnant. We meet his daughter who is there solely to look after the house and her father, kneeling before him to take off his boots on command, alienated from the other local young folk but looking for a life of her. And we met the youngest son, who has become a member of the clergy but is laughed at by the locals. Rutherford also has a widowed sister and the foreman of the factory who he treats more like a son than his own sons.

The play is claustrophobic and tense, an intake of breath held far too long as the family wrangles and submissions continue until too much is said and done. The youngest son escapes in the early morning without saying goodbye and the eldest sone steals from his father's safe and leaves his wife and baby son to the mercy of his father. The daughter is banished for daring to have an affair with the factory foreman, who is also sacked. The daughter has nowhere to go since her lover doesn't come to her aid, but still bravely marches out into the world to create her own future. That only leaves the daughter-in-law who shows that someone in the family has some spine but I won't spoil it for you.

I'm pleased the National Theatre chose to revive this play, give it an airing and reacquaint theatre-goers with the work of Githa Sowerby - I'm very pleased to have seen this powerful drama. Roger Allam was great as the domineering father and I liked Justine Mitchell as the daughter. It's always nice to see Harry Hepple who had the minor role of the youngest son and Anjana Vasan as the strong daughter-in-law with brains and a spine was excellent. It was a very strong ensemble performance from all of the cast.

'Fra Angelico and the Rise of the Florentine Renaissance' at the Prado, Madrid

This is the second great exhibition this year about the Florentine renaissance (the first being at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich) but this exhibition at the Prado focuses on Fra Angelico in the years 1420-1430 and his contribution to getting the renaissance underway in Florence, both in terms of developing new ways to paint and to his triumphs of storytelling. The centrepiece of the exhibition is the Prado's newly restored 'Annunciation' altarpiece and it is a glory to behold with Gabriel's glittering wings and the bright colours - we can only be grateful to those apprentices that would've spend days pounding rocks to extract the colours and prepare them for the Fra to carry out this amazing work. And, of course, to the restorers who've done such an amazing job.

One of the things that made this exhibition special for me was the number of Fra Angelico works on loan from all around North America and Europe, from places I would probably never go to and so never see the paintings. Paintings are loaned from the Hermitage in St Petersburg ('Virgin and Child' opposite, an early painting with gold background), from Fort Worth and Houston in Texas USA, from Yale University and San Diego in the USA, from Rotterdam and Frankfurt and Remagen. Paintings are also on loan from the great museums of the Met in New York, the National Gallery in London, the Vatican in Rome, the Uffizi in Florence and, of course, from Fra Angelico-central, San Marco in Forence. Works by other artists of the time are also on loan, of course, including a lovely little 'Annunciation' by Uccello from the Ashmolean in Oxford.

It's such a privilege to see the wide range of works exhibited and we should be grateful to the curators and teams that must've spent years preparing for this exhibition and negotiating the various loans.

The exhibition is about Fra Angelico and the vast majority of exhibits are by the good Fra. However, it also includes works by other contemporary artists to provide a more rounded picture of the time and how artists were developing and influencing each other. We see bas-reliefs by Donatello to illustrate how the Fra started to depict a more playful baby Jesus in paintings for the first time, paintings by his master Lorenzo Monaco, and examples of the gorgeous Florentine cloths that were being weaved and which the Fra depicted as clothes and drapery in paint.

There is a single painting by Masaccio, 'Saint Paul' (opposite)  since it's thought that his 'Adam and Eve' in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence influenced how the Fra depicted Adam and Eve in the 'Annunciation'. There is also an 'Annunciation' by Robert Campin to demonstrate how the scene was viewed differently in the traditions of the Northern Renaissance. There are many others, of course. The Fra was open to influences and he absorbed the ones that helped him develop his art and pave the way for subsequent artists. 

The first painting in the exhibition is a small 'Virgin and Child Enthroned' from 1411-12, i.e. before the Fra was ordained as a friar and took the name Giovanni, back when he was a teenage apprentice called Guido. This devotional piece was painted by the young Guido di Pietro while he was in Lorenzo Monaco's workshop, to Monaco's design but  painted by Guido. It was probably commissioned by the Alberti family in Florence since its coat of arms is prominently displayed at the bottom and may have been the central panel of a triptych. It's a lovely little painting and it's nice to see very early works from the Fra to begin to trace his development as an artist and story-teller.

Another early painting that I really like is the 'Crucifixion' from the Metropolitan Museum in New York. it was probably painted in 1418-20 so the Fra was still a very young man but, although it has a traditional golden background, he was already experimenting with the figures and positions he paints them in. Look at Mary Magdalene bending down behind the Virgin so you see mainly the top of her head and the head of the man holding the pole looking up at the daed Christ, head tilted right back. Something I always find strange is the little tuft of hair on the man's chest since body hair was so rarely included in paintings. The group is arranged in a circle around the base of the cross with the figures looking up while the Virgin collapses in shock at the front.

The next room is what I thought of as the London room since it included three golden panels with seven roundel paintings from the Courtauld collection and the five-panelled San Domenico predella and small roundel of St Romulus from the National Gallery. 

My favourite of the five panels is to the right of 'Christ in Glory' and shows the forerunners of Christ, saints and virgin martyrs. Out of all the many figures painted in the five panels only one looks out at the viewer and that is Moses, to the left of centre in the top row. I've never seen an explanation of why this is - it's not unusual for the Fra to paint a character looking out at the viewer but out of all these people, why only him? A reminder of the Old Testament commandments would be odd given that Christ came to provide a new Testament but there's probably a theological reason for it.


One thought I had about this predella and it being full of different biblical and historical characters was suggested by the label that said it was the Fra's first work after being ordained as a friar - is this a 'show off' painting? I think of 'show off' paintings as those that advertise the artist's skills - look what I can do and if you commission me I can do something of this quality for you. The Fra was demonstrating his painting skills but also his understanding of theological studies, putting characters in the right order of importance in the paintings. One of the many joys of the exhibition catalogue is that it attempts to name each character in the five panels, something Dillian Gordon did in the National Gallery catalogue (which is no longer in print for some reason).

The panels from the Courtauld are made up of seven small roundels (about four inches in diameter) with gold background. The choice of saints to portray is a bit unusual but the panels were commissioned for a convent so that might help explain it. I've always been quite fond of the Mary Magdalene figure who looks quite cross and is gesturing to her lord almost to say to the viewer, 'look at what you've done'. I also rather like the painting of an almost imperious St Catherine of Alexandria resting against her wheel.

In the next room there are two gorgeous Virgin & Child panels on adjacent walls, the 'Virgin of the Pomegranate', acquired by the Prado a couple of years ago, and the lovely 'Virgin of Humility' from the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection on loan to MNAC, Barcelona. 

The 'Virgin of the Pomegranate' is full of gorgeous blues and reds and gold, with the two angels holding up the cloth of gold wearing green. The rather chubby baby Jesus is helping himself to pomegranate seeds from his mother's hand (the baby is the image on the front of the plan of the museum for visitors at the front desk). The cloth of gold almost shimmers as you look at it and you can almost see the rich stitching if you look closely, the heavy drapery falling in complex folds around the Virgin. I particularly like the two angels whose job it is to hold that heavy cloth for all eternity, the green of their robes works well against the gold cloth, as they both look towards the Virgin and the playful baby. It's interesting that their wings are also painted mainly green. It's a very peaceful, contemplative painting and it's astonishing how those colours have stayed rich and bright over the nearly 600 years since it was painted.

On an adjacent wall is the most lovely 'Virgin of Humility' in it's golden tabernacle-style frame. I first saw this painting a few years ago at an exhibition of the Thyssen collection in Barcelona and have loved it ever since. We see the baby resting his head against his mother's cheek and gazing up at her, offering her a lily while the Virgin holds a vase of roses with a single lily. The cloth of gold is intricate in the way the folds fall and, again, is obviously rich and heavy. Three angels hold the cloth while two more sit at the Virgin's feet playing instruments. The angels holding the cloth aren't as prominent as those in the 'Pomegranate' panel and look rather too delicate to hold up that obviously heavy cloth but they manage to do so effortlessly. It really is a lovely painting.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is the newly restored 'Annunciation and Expulsion of Adam and Eve' altarpiece for San Domenico, the Fra's home church at the time and for which he completed three altarpieces. The restoration was carried out to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Prado and no better painting in the collection could have been selected.


The altarpiece is a perfect example of the Fra's great contribution to pushing forward the Renaissance in Florence as well as his skilful story-telling. Brunelleschi's theories of perspective are evident in the architecture of the Virgin's room and the innovation of having the altarpiece as a square without gothic arches is the first example of this approach, soon to be followed by almost every artist. The prominent addition of Adam and Eve leaving the garden and, in effect, walking through the Virgin's garden, is another first for the Fra. 

I was particularly taken with Gabriel's golden wings that glittered with new life after the restoration. You can clearly see each individual feather in his wings and and they glow and glitter almost as if they're becoming still after flying. I stood there swaying from side to side to watch the feathers move and take turns shining - I don't know what the guards must have thought I was doing. I also liked the graceful folds in his robe and then lime green lining that shows at the bottom and the blue under-robe.

It was also lovely to see the bright light coming through the window in the room beyond the doorway and see the leaves of the trees in the garden outside. 

I suspect that when most people think of the 'Annunciation' they think of the Angel and the Virgin - I certainly do - so it was inspired to use the Adam and Eve section of the painting as the face of the exhibition. It features on the posters for the exhibition and is the cover of the catalogue. What a great idea. It also helps to emphasise that these characters are actually one third of the painting and are an important part of the biblical story, with the Virgin wiping away original sin and the baby to be born is the ultimate descendant of Adam and Eve and is the one who will eventually free them from eternity in Limbo. There's a lot that can be read into this painting.
Near the altarpiece was a copy of a contemporary book illustrating trees and flowers, showing that the detail the Fra included in the garden was part of a tradition and the flowers were real, not simply made up to look pretty. 

The restoration work is incredible, with the colours almost luminous, making the altarpiece much brighter than it was previously, almost like a veil has been lifted and we can see it properly for the first time. Thank you Prado and thank you Almudena Sanchez for carrying out the restoration. Thank you also to the American Friends of the Prado and the Friends of Florence for donating so much to the cost of the restoration.

The predella of the altarpiece has been removed and hung at eye height so we can more easily look at it and appreciate the smaller paintings showing scenes from the life of the Virgin. They are lovely little paintings and I really liked the Nativity scene with the kings obvious in their crowns and the lookers-on in contemporary Florentine dress just as the scene is set in a Tuscan landscape. Something I hadn't noticed before but now can because of the hanging of the predella is the small angel flying over the hillside at top-right calling to the shepherds. It's always worth looking at the details in paintings by Fra Angelico.

Further on through the exhibition you come to a three dimensional painting, almost life-sized of a 'Crucifixion with St Nicholas of Bari and St Francis'. This was exhibited in Florence for the first time after being restored and I saw it there last year. It puzzled me at the time, wondering what it had been cut out from but, it seems, this is how it was originally done, as a piece to stand out so that viewers can get closer to the crucifixion and almost be part of it. Sadly there's a lot of damage to the figure of St Nicholas but the red of the blood dripping from the cross is as bright a scarlet as you could want.

It was designed for a boys club at the time in Florence where the boys could channel their energies into singing religious songs and chants with this work in the background. I wonder what it must have felt like to be there at the time?

Also on display is one of the four reliquaries Fra Angelico painted for Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The four reliquaries were brought together in Boston, USA, last year for the first time in several hundred years.  Three of them can be seen in San Marco in Florence and the fourth is in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. This reliquary is the 'Coronation of the Virgin' in which Christ crowns his mother as queen of heaven. It's very colourful and can almost glow under the right lights. St Thomas Aquinas looks out at the viewer, presumably exhorting the viewer to read the Bible or his other works. Along the bottom of the frame is a scene of six angels, the holy couple and the baby all in blue. The reliquaries are quite small so it's a testament to the Fra's skill that he can get so much detail into small paintings.

In the final room of the exhibition were two halves of what was thought to be a small, portable diptych, brought back together again - the two halves are in different museums in Detroit and in Newark. The paintings are pocket sized, just about the size of a modern day postcard, and one shows the Virgin and Child with Angels while the other shows St Dominic witnessing St Francis receiving the stigmata from the flying seraph. I couldn't find a photo of this work online so this is a photo I've taken of the piece from the catalogue. I thought the diptych was delightful and am grateful to be able to see these works when I am unlikely to ever travel to the museums that now hold them.

The final works in the exhibition are two luminous panels depicting the 'Marriage of the Virgin' and the 'Dormition of the Virgin', both in the bright colours I've come to expect from the Fra.

There is a lot going on in the 'Marriage' painting, with the young men on the left breaking sticks to try to find the new growth that will win the hand of the Virgin, the men pounding Joseph's back in jealousy that he won her hand, the priest looking sideways at Mary, presumably checking that she really wants to Mary the much older Joseph, so much storytelling. The colours are gorgeous with so much detail included, such as the gold embroidery on the priest's green robe. I suspect this is one of the problems of looking at paintings by Fra Angelico - we risk seeing only colourful, pretty pictures without recognising the complex storytelling and innovations in terms of how to tell the story, how he developed new approaches that subsequent artists took on and used and how he developed new ways of painting these stories.

I haven't really commented on the works of other artists included in this exhibition since I wanted to focus on the works by Fra Angelico - there are about 60 of his works in the exhibition so I've only scratched the surface and included some of my favourites. The focus on his work between 14-20-1430 helps to illustrate that the Fra was still a young man and still learning and developing his art, soaking up and contributing to the artistic life and development of Florence which was bursting with new ideas at this time. This is all ably demonstrated by this exhibition and by the careful work of its curator, Carl Brandon Strehlke. Although you can't take photos in the Prado, where possible I've used my own photographs when I've seen some of the works elsewhere to illustrate this blog. Other photos are taken from the web.

This is a great exhibition and, if you're in or planning to visit Madrid over the summer, it's certainly worth seeing. Well done Prado and happy 200th birthday!

Saturday, 15 June 2019

'The Suit' and 'Ingoma' by Ballet Black at the Linbury Theatre

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing a double bill of ballets danced by Ballet Black in the Linbury Theatre underneath the Royal Opera House. The two ballets were 'The Suit' based on a novel and choreographed by Cathy Marston, and 'Ingoma' (which means 'song') which was based on the miners strike in South Africa in 1946 and was choreographed by Mthuthuzeli November, one of Ballet Black's dancers. While I really liked 'The Suit', I loved 'Ingoma'.

'The Suit' is the tale of a man, a woman and a suit. We meet the couple waking up in the morning while the man gets ready for work but he forgets his briefcase and has to return home to find his wife in the arms of another man. He soon scarpers leaving behind his suit, shirt and tie. The man then chooses to rub his wife's nose in her infidelity by keeping the suit on display in their home so she can't put it behind her. It gets to be too much and she hangs herself with her lovers' tie. There's a lot more to this ballet than that since Ballet Black is a troupe of seven dancers so, while the couple are dancing, the other five members play as a washbasin, a toilet. random people in the street on the man's way to work, a really inventive approach to minimal staging  but a lot going on.

The second ballet was a lot more abstract and very imaginative. All seven dancers were on stage for most of the time in one of the most energetic performances I've seen in a long time. How on earth they do that is beyond me. It was a mix of ballet and African dance along with some acting and wielding pick axes since they were miners and wore wellies. Yes, wellies, but imaginative wellies that at one point also served as drums. I told you it was imaginative.

Two moments. There was a really tender pas de deux near the start when two lovers dance together when he gets home from working in the mine. They're clearly lovers and you can tell it a mile off as she wraps herself around him and he carries her before she exits on pointe, backwards diagonal tippy. Another when the four women dancers are energetically thrilling in African dance mode and then suddenly lift up on pointe and totally change the mood of the dance. I was all 'wow' what can possibly happen next? It's a serious piece about a serious subject but I was enthralled by it and would love to see it again.

The lighting was excellent, based around the light from pit helmets, the staging was great with one area roped off as the mine and filled with coal and rocks, but it's the dancers that make it work. I think Mthuthuzeli November, the choreographer, was dancing the lead male role but I'm not sure since I didn't buy a programme. I loved it and want to see it again. I hadn't heard of Ballet Black before but, now that I have, I'll keep my eyes open for more performances. Well done people!

Saturday, 8 June 2019

'Sweet Charity' at the Donmar Warehouse

'Sweet Charity' is on at the Donmar Warehouse at the moment so we went along to see what was to be seen and what was to be seen was the stage and all the props spray painted silver. How strange, I thought, starting to look forward to what else what might be strange about the production.

Of course, we all know the story of Charity Hope Valentine, the hapless dance-hall hostess who just wants to find love and who finds it quite easily, it's just a shame the men she falls in love with don't love her in return. What's a girl to do, just keep on trying I suppose. Then she meets a man when a lift breaks down and could it really happen, could they both love each other? Well, know knows, there's a lot of story to get through before we find out what happens. I've always liked the story of 'Sweet Charity', with some great songs and characters and a lot of optimism. Maybe next time she'll find the right man.

Anyway, back to the silver production. To signal the show is about to start one of the dancers comes on with a record player and begins to play 'Venus in Furs' by the Velvet Underground ' shiny shiny, shiny boots of leather... OK, the show is set in 1966 so the Velvets were contemporary but there's no music in the show even vaguely like this, what's going on? Then some of the cast walk round with signs saying 'The Park' to let us know we're in Central Park in New York and a giant tub of silver balls is wheeled on the be the lake that poor Charity is pushed into when her boyfriend steals her bag. That giant tub of balls must take up a lot of space in the rather small backstage area and it's only used for a couple of minutes. A few songs and some exposition later and we're into 'The Rich Man's Frugg' with all the dancers in black with Andy Warhol wigs and sunglasses and I'm wondering what's going on.

I don't want to be overly critical of the show since I really liked it, but it sometimes felt like I had to work to like it. 'Sweet Charity' is a standard musical that could, really, have been written at any time in the last 70 years or so, with only a couple of songs pointing to the '60s, so starting out with the radical sound of the Velvet Underground send very strange signals. The sparkly silver set and Frugg dancers point to Andy Warhol's Factory but Charity lives a million miles from that world, in a grubby dance-hall in a cheap part of town and that's her life. I suppose it's the mixed messaging I'm questioning. Why? What does it add to a basically sound show that can be adapted in many ways? Something that just irritated me was using the cast to hold up placards or letters to spell out words every so often - very unnecessary and just filled up space. I also got bored quite quickly with the use of ladders in the dance scenes - why?

Yes, I have criticisms of the show but, overall, I really liked it. I liked Anne-Marie Duff as Charity and I liked her throaty singing voice. Theres nothing in the rule book that says Charity has to be a good, conventional singer, and I thought Anne-Marie was just right as a dance-hall hostess that spends most of her time in a smoky environment with a rasp to her voice. I also liked Arthur Darvell as Oscar, the man Charity falls for and expects to marry. I didn't realise it was him at first but he was quite engaging.

Overall, I enjoyed it and it's nice to have 'Sweet Charity' back on the stage. I've only seen the show twice - here and at the Menier Chocolate Factory a few years ago - both in small venues. It would be good to see it on a larger stage one day with more money spent on it. My view is to go and see it if you can - you might be critical of some of it but I suspect you'll also love other bits of the show.

'Ain't Misbehavin' at Southwark Playhouse

We caught 'Ain't Misbehavin' in it's final week at Southwark Playhouse. It's subtitled 'The Fats Waller musical' and that's exactly what it is, a collection of his songs loosely strung together to tell tales of life in and around the nightclubs of Harlem in New York in the 1920s. There's no story as such but the songs tell the tales of people in the clubs, of racism, domestic abuse, love and the joy of the dance.

Southwark Playhouse is a small space and uses that to its advantage with imaginative staging, moving the seating around to accommodate the action. The 'stage' is just the floor of the theatre but this time it was covered in some shiny, gold material and the focal point was the bandstand at one end with all it's glitter and lights, gold and orange/red - it immediately pulled the eye.

The cast were all excellent singer/dancers, rarely still, belting out the songs with gusto, living the reality of the songs and, every now and then, a slower song to calm things down to allow another build up later.

The energetic cast were Adrian Hansel, Renée Lamb, Carly Mercedes Dyer, Landi Oshinowo, Wayne Robinson and all were on top form. It was quite nice to be able to relax into the show without having to keep track of the plot or what a character might do next because there is no plot, it's a collection of songs telling multiple stories and you never know if the next one will be a ballad, a social commentary or an out-and-out fun-fest with arms and legs flung in every direction. I think I smiled and grinned throughout the whole show, tapping my foot and eager for the next song.

I'm really pleased that I saw this production and was introduced to these dynamic actors who brought it all to life. And great thanks to director Tyrone Huntley, choreographer Oti Mabuse (yes, the dancer from 'Strictly') and the amazing set designed by Takis. Well done all, and well done to Southwark Playhouse for putting it on in the first place.

Friday, 7 June 2019

Favourite Paintings: Sonia Delaunay 'Le Bal Bullier'

One of my favourite paintings is 'Le Bal Bullier' by Sonia Delaunay. It was painted in 1913 and is inspired by the tango craze that swept across Paris in the early 1910s. Sonia used to go to the Bal Bullier dancehall in Paris and sketched the dancers that ended up in this painting.

The painting is 12 feet long and the eye can't help but sweep from left to right as the dancers swirl across the painting. It's often cited as an example of the colour theory of Orphism, using primary colours against secondary colours - Sonia was very hot on colour theories and used them and experimented with them throughout her life in various media. I tend to respond to paintings on a more emotional rather than intellectual level. I don't see the theory, I see life and joy and movement and colour. I see the effect of that theory.

I saw this painting as part of the exhibition of Sonia's works at Tate Modern in 2015 and I visited it many times - I like colour. Each time I saw it I was drawn further into the dance. I stopped seeing blocks of colour and shapes and started to see couples dancing, enjoying the movement and the music and being together, and then started seeing movement as the couples danced across the dance floor. That's one of the magical things about painting - the painter doesn't dictate what you see. We all respond to art in different ways and that's a good thing.

I especially like that Sonia not only used the Bal Bullier dancehall as inspiration but she was part of it and designed her own dress to wear when she went there. That was included in the Tate exhibition.

'Le Bal Bullaire' is part of the collection of the Centre Pompidou in Paris so I'll have to pay it a visit on my next trip to Paris.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

New Loans at the National Gallery, London

The National Gallery has two new loans on show: ‘Flora’ by Francesco Melzi, one of Leonardo da Vinci’s favourite pupils, on loan from the Hermitage in St Petersburg; and ‘Tbe Sea at L’Estaque’ by Paul Cezanne, on loan from a private collection. Both are pretty fab so see them if you can.

'Flora' has recently been cleaned and this is its first outing from Russia in its newly-cleaned form. It was thought to be by Leonardo for many years but experts now attribute it to Melzi who is also credited with keeping Leonardo's notebooks safe for posterity (Vasari comments that Melzi treated them like sacred relics). The young Melzi followed his master to France and, when Leonardo died, returned to Milan with the notebooks. Just looking at that face it's easy to see how people might think it's by Leonardo.

Flora sits in a grotto surrounded by plants and has one breast on show, a symbol of fecundity, while she gazes at a flower. I wonder who commissioned this and first hung it on his/her wall? The blue of the cloak is gorgeous as are the purple spots that make up the small flowers. I'm not sure about the frame which seems to be a bit over-powering to me.

'Flora' is part of a small exhibition of the Leonardeschi, the pupils and followers of Leonardo da Vinci, to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Leonardo's death. There are about 10 paintings in all, including a couple by Bernardo Luini that are very influenced by his master's style. The paintings are hung down one side of Room 12 and well worth a look.

The other new loan is a lovely landscape by Cezanne of 'The Sea at L'Estaque', with all the foliage and house roofs as Cezanne looked towards the sea.

It's a lovely little painting and that's what surprised me most - how small it is. He sent this to the third Impressionist exhibition in 1877 which shows that he considered it a worthy painting and I have to agree, with it's lovely colours and simplicity - a few daubs here for a tree and a few daubs there for a roof - and the lovely, clear light of the south of France. The painting is almost lost in one of the Impressionist rooms (Room 41 I think?) but it's well worth hunting out and taking a gaze at it.

Monday, 20 May 2019

'Identity! A Poly Styrene Retrospective' at 198 Gallery

This afternoon I went to the new exhibition about and by Poly Styrene at the 198 Gallery (the 198 Contemporary Art and Learning Centre) at Herne Hill, up Railton Road from Brixton. Poly grew up in Brixton so the location is appropriate. The exhibition is small but contains some fascinating works by Poly herself from different stages of her life and career. I was particularly pleased to see her little red typewriter that she used to type up her lyrics and, in the typewriter, were the lyrics to 'Plastic Bag' after which this blog is named.

The exhibition has a range of works from some very early photos of X-Ray Spex and Poly's designs for covers of singles to the large works of her as Marie Antoinette that she gave away as cards with her last album, 'Generation Indigo'. I like those images and they show her being playful and cheeky but I've only ever seen them small, as postcards, so it was great to see them full sized as A1 works of collage and they look great. There's also her iconic punk frock that I never guessed would be green since all the photos I've seen are in black in white.

I loved her designs for the cover of 'Transluscence', her first solo album and would never have guessed that she was playing around with the design since I've only ever thought of the record with her in bedouin garb and scarves.

There are a few letters she wrote (including a particularly sad one that shows her state of mind as a young woman), doodles of Johnny Rotten, typed lyrics sheets, screens showing the 1979 Arena documentary and a video for 'Genetic Engineering' that I've never seen before, tour posters and loads more. All of this shows what an all-round creative person Poly was, not just a great songwriter and singer in a punk band. There was clearly so much potential in her that never got to be released or realised. The beauty is in the detail.

Something I learned about Poly is that she clearly loved collages. Punk was, amongst other things, about do-it-yourself so she designed the record sleeves and posters as well as her own clothes and there are some very colourful and expressive artworks here, some with cut-out photos stuck onto newsprint and daubed with paint or ink - it would be great if these could be made into prints. I'm sure they'd raise money to complete the new documentary about Poly to be released next year.

If you get the chance go and see this exhibition. It's only in two rooms but there's a lot packed into those rooms and a lot to love if you like Poly Styrene. I couldn't help but grin as I walked round and then backtracked to look again at some of the exhibits. It's about 20 minutes walk from Brixton tube station and five minutes from Herne Hill overground train station. Ring the bell to get in and you'll be welcomed with open arms.

Thanks to Celeste for sharing so much of her mum's work, some joyous and some sad but all fascinating!