Thursday, 19 October 2017

Fra Angelico 10/12

On the 18th of each month I'm posting a painting by Fra Angelico that I've seen to celebrate his feast day. For October I've chosen 'The Last Judgement' altarpiece from the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin that I saw a month or so ago for the first time.

It would benefit from a cleaning which would make it sparkle and gleam like the version in Rome but it's still an astonishing sight just as it is. In particular, I liked the ranks of angels in the painting.

The middle panel of the altarpiece shows Christ in judgement while the panels on either side show angels escorting the blessed to Heaven and, on the other, sinners in various punishments in hell. I'm quite partial to the angels in the left-hand panel performing a stately dance with the blessed friars and monks being danced towards Heaven.

The Dominicans dominate in terms of numbers in the painting, as they would with the good Fra being a Dominican himself, as they move through paradise towards the golden Heaven above. The angels' robes are gorgeous  and their wings are multicoloured (as are all angel wings, as the Fra would know). They also brighten up the rather dull robes of the friars and monks.

I'd love to know enough about the flora at the time to know which flowers are shown in paradise - they will be real flowers and will, no doubt, have a meaning like purity or wisdom or something.

The other group of angels I particularly like are those at the bottom left of the main panel, greeting the blessed and the saved and leading them towards the angels dancing to Heaven. I like the intimacy of these angels with their arms around the saved, cuddling them, escorting them almost as equals towards Heaven.  I think this is lovely and something I've not seen in paintings by other artists.

The Fra was inventing new ways to depict traditional subjects that had been painted loads of times - and he will have seen loads of versions of the Last Judgement in Florence - and trying to come up with a new way of showing them, a human way to better engage the viewer. On that final day I wouldn't want to stand aghast at the sight of angels, I'd want them to welcome me with open arms and that's what the Fra is doing here.

It really is an astonishing paint8ing when you start looking at the details and start wondering about it. If you ever get to Berlin then you could do a lot worse than go to the Gemaldegalerie and see this glorious altarpiece and the other amazing works in the gallery.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

'Here To Be Heard: The Story of The Slits' at the British Film Institute

On Saturday night I went to see 'Here To Be Heard', a new documentary about The Slits, as part of the London Film Festival at the BFI on the Southbank. It's not only new, it was the world premiere.

I go way back with The Slits, to the first John Peel session when he played these weird and challenging songs with this odd lead singer. I taped it. Hearing 'New Town' or 'Shoplifting' whiz me back to my teenage years even now. Sadly I never saw them play live and didn't even see the Clash tour when they were one of the support bands (how did that happen?).

But I bought 'Cut' and, when the new version of The Slits got together in the '00s I bought 'Trapped Animal'. When I heard that Viv Albertine was back I supported her crowd-funder and contributed to her promo gig at the 12 Bar Club in January 2013 (sending a cheque to her home at the time). Then we had Viv's first album and book, with another book on the way. I even supported the original crowd-funder for this film on Kickstarter back in 2015. People need to know about The Slits.

The documentary takes as it's core a scrapbook kept by Tessa Pollitt as she leafs through the pages and provides a narrative, showing film clips from the time, photos and, of course, the music. There are some great clips from their early gigs - the sound isn't too good but that doesn't matter, it's astonishing that there's actually any film material at all. It's lovely to hear Tessa telling The Slits story, along with interviews with Viv and Paloma (Palmolive) thinking back to those younger days and their experiences. And Ari, of course, is never far from their memories.

Fast forward to the mid-00s and Ari and Tessa got a new version of The Slits together to tour and then release a new album. Ari wanted their last tour of America filmed so there's footage from this and then, of course, there's the news of Ari's illness and her death and the end of The Slits.

It was great to see some of the interviews with people like Paul Cook, Don Letts, Dennis Bovell and even with Budgie harking back to those wild days. It's a shame we didn't hear anything from Nora Lydon, Ari's mum, but you can't have everything.

After the screening there was an impromptu Q&A with the director and producer who then invited Tessa and Paloma onto the stage to great applause. Cue the usual 'it's all about me' questions and comments from the audience. It was livened up a bit by Dennis Bovell who was also in the audience (and, later, behind me in the queue for the toilet) - Dennis, of course, produced 'Cut' and I saw him play with Linton Kwesi Johnson a few years back at the Barbican. Sadly, Spizz was also there (sitting behind me for the screening) who did his usual 'it's all about me' thing and told everyone that Paloma was the drummer in his first band - I wanted to tell him to shut up and stop trying to steal their big moment.

I'm really pleased I got to see this film - and I'm pleased that it was finally made and released. There are many stories and angles to punk and music in the '70s and the story of The Slits needs to be included. It was also lovely to see Tessa and Paloma on the stage. The film should get a theatrical release in early 2018 and DVDs will be available in 2018. If you'd like to pre-order the DVD then go here: https://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/the-slits-here-to-be-heard. I'm looking forward to seeing it again.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Jasper Johns: 'Something Resembling Truth' at the Royal Academy

As well as exhibitions about Matisse and Dali/Duchamp, the Royal Academy also has an exhibition about Jasper Johns at the moment. It's subtitled 'Something Resembling Truth' part of a quote of Johns talking about his art. This is the largest of the three exhibitions and takes up most of the first floor galleries. It's the first exhibition I've been torn a long time where the artist is not only still alive but is still working.

I'd been looking at the poster for the exhibition and wondering why anyone would paint a broom? What's that about? Of course, that work - titled 'Fools House' - is included in the exhibition and I was surprised to see that it's not a painting of a broom, it's an actual broom hung in front a painted background. I am, of course, still none the wiser.

Something I found odd about the exhibition was the repetitive nature of the works. There were a few versions of his American flag paintings but it was when we moved on to his numbers paintings that it was really noticeable. I really liked '0 through 9' as a clever and very colourful painting and quite liked the black and white version hung close to it but the next room was full of different paintings of numbers, single numbers, groups of numbers, in this colour and that, some black and white and some grey, numbers in aluminium or bronze, big numbers and small, lots and lots of numbers.

I can see that if this was the sort of work Johns was producing then that should be represented in the exhibition - but do we need to see so many of these works? Wouldn't a few serve just as well to be representative of his work?

There are a few 'big splat' paintings with bright, bright colours and the use of words to both illuminate and to title paintings. There are paintings with balls (literally) and other objects, such as plastic arms or legs attached in some way, making the flat painting more cultural and three dimensional. Some used long pieces of string to deliver this three D effect, draped across paintings to direct the eye or simply to confuse.

In another room we see some of his sculptures of objects, such as beer cans and a vase made to resemble a jar with paint brushes sticking out the top. And then, of course, he paints them as well so we get a painting of the sculpture. It gets odder and odder.

A painting I was taken with was 'The Dutch Wives' from 1977, painted using a cross-hatching style, filling the canvases with lots of short lines in shades of grey, moving this way and that, very busy and strangely compelling. I have no idea why it's called 'Dutch Wives'. And then I turned round and saw the room was full of paintings in a  similar cross-hatching style, sometimes colourful and sometimes not. It's almost as if Johns has decided that's the only way to paint so he kept on using that approach until he got bored with it. As with the number paintings, why so many in the same style?

I think my favourite paintings was the series collectively known as 'The Seasons'. Four large paintings in a similar style but each representing a different season. In each, Johns uses his own shadow to provide the figurative aspect to the painting and includes various objects, presumably that represent the seasons in his own mind. 'Winter' and 'Fall' were my favourites (possibly because we're in autumn at the moment) and I liked the muted colours and the shapes he created on the canvas. He produced a fifth painting, a cruciform work that combined the motifs from the four seasonal paintings. I preferred the four large season paintings in the order in which he placed them.

One of the final paintings was 'Green Angel' from 1990 and it rather stood out from the crowd for various reasons, not least that he's included sand in the surface of the painting. I don't know if he mixed it into the paint or scattered it onto the wet canvas later but it creates a really interesting texture to the work.


So there we are. I didn't find this the most satisfying of exhibitions but it's nice to see so  many of his works collected together - even if they are occasionally a bit repetitious. The exhibition is on until December so there's plenty of time in which to see it if you're inclined.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

'Dali/Duchamp' at the Royal Academy

The new exhibition at the Royal Academy is about Salvador Dali and Marcel Duchamp, possibly best known for melting clocks and urinals. I've seen quite a few Dali paintings over the years (most recently at Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid) but, despite knowing his name and knowing of his art, I don't recall seeing any works by Duchamp at all. I must have seen some of his work, of course, since it's in many museums I've visited, but it hasn't registered with me. So it's time to put that right and start learning.

Dali and Duchamp were friends throughout their careers and this exhibition pulls together a variety of their works including some correspondence and gifts, photographs by themselves and of them by Man Ray, reconstructed sculptures and some really interesting paintings by Duchamp. It's not a big exhibition but it kept me intrigued.

The painting that greets you as you walk into the exhibition is a large one by Duchamp, 'The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes'. There's not a nude in sight and the royalty refers to chess pieces. The 'nudes' are referred to in the notes as electrons. If you say so. I wasn't particularly bothered, I just liked the shapes and the interactions between them. To the right of this painting is another one of two chess players in a similar style by Duchamp and, to the left, are portraits of Dali and Duchamp's dads by the respective artists, painted about ten years apart. I thought Duchamp's was the better of the two and it's such a shame that he effectively gave up on painting shortly afterwards.

One thing I wasn't expecting to see were photographs by Man Ray of Duchamp's alter ego as Rrose Selavy. There's nothing to explain why Duchamp felt he had a female alter ego but why should there be? If he wanted to explore another side of his personality then that's okay. There are a few photos of Rrose and, apparently, he sometimes signed work documents using that name.

One of my favourites of his 'readymades' was a small white birdcage filled with what looked like sugar cubes with a mirror underneath reflecting the words 'Why not sneeze Rose Selavy?'. It was so unexpected and such fun, something you wouldn't see if you stand too close to it since the mirror is underneath the cage and hidden form view. It takes some real thinking to come up with that.

What I liked was the large glass case that included a lot of 'readymades' and other creations by both artists, including the white cage. Pride of place is, of course, given over to 'Fountain', the urinal Duchamp submitted to an exhibition and which was hidden behind a screen. Beside it was Dali's lobster telephone. There's also a bicycle wheel on a stool and a garden shovel hanging downwards. I have to admit that some of these items were more curiosities than artworks but I'm not sure that that matters in context really. I enjoyed seeing them and puzzling over them.

Another photograph by Man Ray that I liked was of Duchamp and Bronia Perlmutter as Adam and Eve. It's such an odd photo to come across - I don't know why I found it odd but I did. It's hung beside Duchamp's drawing of Lucas Cranach's 'Adam & Eve' and the pose in the photo tries to replicate this. It sort of succeeds in replicating the painting but what isn't clear is why? Was it just a bit of fun, a poke at the artistic audience to say 'anybody can do this if they want' or is it meant as another statement. Who knows, but I like that and its irreverence.

I'm more of a paintings man really so it was the Dali works that I spent most time looking at. Leaving aside the subject matter and his love of self-promotion (of which he was very good), he's actually a very good painter. Most of the works on show were small and I hadn't seen any of them before.

Dali has to have his joke with us and that comes out with his 'Couple With Their Heads Full Of Clouds' in which the frames are of two heads and shoulders with the painting contained within those shapes. Although these could be front or back views I see them from the back so we're seeing what they're looking at. That's a dessert scene with a giraffe on fire (for some reason). It's great fun and a very delicate painting.

I was also really taken by 'Exploding Raphaelesque Head' in the same room. It does have a hint of a Raphael Madonna about it but what really grabbed me were the panels in the crown of the head and the circular hole at the top that refers to the ceiling of the Pantheon in Rome in which Raphael was buried. Other than the imagery there's no hint of that in the painting but, once you know that, it shouts out to you. I suspect there's more in that painting than I've seen so far, but it kept my attention.

The exit from the exhibition is through/under a reproduction of Duchamp's piece 'Twelve Hundred Coal Sacks Suspended from the Ceiling Over a Stove'' from 1938. I loved it. Wondering what on earth was this thing and was anything going to fall on me? It's the experience that matters.

It's a relatively small exhibition for the Royal Academy but I found it to be really fascinating with so much to see and wonder about. These artists are so much more than urinals and meting clocks, they continue the grand tradition of the evolution of art who simply took us up a slightly different path of their own inventing. Where would we be - not just in art but more widely - without them?

I think I need to go back to see this exhibition again. I've got no doubt I'll see something very differently.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

'Soul Of A Nation' at Tate Modern

'Soul Of A Nation' at Tate Modern is subtitled 'Art in the Age of Black Power' and covers art produced by black or Afro-Americans between 1963-1983, the peak years for the civil rights movement and black consciousness. It includes all sorts of exhibits from paintings to photography, sculptures and mobiles, screen prints, big chunks of cloth and even a couple of dresses. There's all-sorts to look at and explore and the poster boy for the exhibition (and cover of the catalogue) is a self-portrait by Barkley Hendricks titled 'Icon for my Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People - Bobby Seale)' from 1969. My powers of observation must be waning because I didn't realise until I read the notice beside the painting that he doesn't have any pants on.

The exhibits are grouped by theme or by art group, generally based in a particular city. My favourite was in Room 5 of the exhibition that displayed works from AfriCOBRA in Chicago. AfriCOBRA stands for African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, a title I love. I also loved the colours of their works which were glorious. I immediately thought of Fahrelnissa Zeid (whose exhibition was on in the other Tate Modern building and which I'd just seen) and of the Delaunays, of course. But I suspect the real influence is late 60s psychedelia.

AfriCOBRA wanted their works seen by the most people possible so they were reproduced as posters so people could buy them for their walls at home, a good move that must've also brough in some much-needed revenue. They incorporated words and slogans in their painting to hammer the message home, such as 'Uphold Your Men' by Carolyn Lawrence, 'Wake Up' by Gerald Williams and 'Unite' by Barbara Jones-Hoga (all from 1971 and pictured above).

My favourite in this section was a painting from a photo of Angela Davis that was circulating while she was in prison in 1972. It's titled 'Revolutionary' by Wadsworth Jarrell and shows Angela speaking into a hand-held microphone at a rally and all the swirling colours around her make up words and phrases from that speech she was making. I would've had that poster on my wall back then if I'd known it existed. Can you see the bandolier across her left shoulder? That was on display in a glass case beside the painting and, rather than be filled with bullets it's filled with different colours of chalk - ammunition for an artist.

A similar type of painting from AfriCOBRA is 'Black Prince', again by Wadsworth Jarrell, from 1971 that shows Malcolm X. Perfect for a poster.

This room - and the works - seemed to be among the most overtly political and challenging, possibly because of incorporating words into the paintings. They are also, possibly, some of the proudest paintings, depicting people of intellect and influence and displaying some of their words in bright and evocative paintings. I think they're actually very clever, a very good way of spreading their messages.

Another great painting in this AfriCOBRA room was 'Black Children Keep Your Spirits Free' by Carolyn Mims Lawrence from 1972 that actually uses the title of the painting as its centrepiece.


There's a lot more going on in this exhibition than riots of colour. There's a lot of politics and this was summed up for me by the rather harrowing work by David Hammons from 1970 called 'Injustice Case'. It shows Bobby Seale, a co-founder of the Black Panthers bound and gagged during his court case at which he couldn't choose his own attorney or even represent himself. The image is, I think, a screen print within a frame of the American flag. His arms and legs are bound, a gag around his mouth at his own court case. It's a difficult image to look at.

There are a few painful images to confront and it's important that we look at them, but they're not all painful. Towards the end of the exhibition is a panting by Emma Amos called 'The Babysitter' from 1973. Look at that relaxed posture and smile - this is a happy person who looks after the artists' daughter so that the artist can paint. It's lovely.



One of the oddities of the exhibition is the inclusion of Andy Warhol's 'Muhammad Ali' which, as far as I'm aware, was the only work by a white artist. Is it there to include Ali as a big public figure back then speaking out for black consciousness or to show that white artists were influenced by black power? Who knows. But it's nice to see Ali included.

There's a lot going on in this exhibition and it shows us a lot of different types and movements of art. It was very busy and there seemed to be  few groups of students going round the exhibition with their guides, so I might try to go back when it might be quieter.

It was fascinating to see these works by artists and groups I'd never heard of before - and why would I, I'm in London and this is American modern history?  The comments board outside the exhibition included a couple saying that the exhibition should be taken to New York - I wonder how it would go down there in the age of trump?

The shop (in the standard 'exit through the shop' mode) has a great catalogue costing a rather silly £29.99 but the cards are 75p (although there's not many of them). The shop is flooded by groovy, funky early 70s music which you can buy on LP or CD. It has lots of books about black power but none by Angela Davis which was disappointing. I read her autobiography of life on the run from the FBI for her communist and Black Panther activities in about 1975 or 1976 and it would be good to stumble across a copy of that book again.

And, to finish off, here's the photograph that I think was used as the basis for Jarred's painting of Angela Carter. On the way into the exhibition is a row of TV sets showing footage and sound-clips from influential people and one of them is Angela. After an interview with her this photo popped up of Angela speaking into a hand-held microphone. Who knew that photo would go round the world?


The exhibition is only on for another few weeks so, if you're interested or intrigued, now would be a good time to visit the exhibition before it closes.

Friday, 29 September 2017

'Reflections: Van Eyck & The Pre-Raphaelites' at the National Gallery

This afternoon I visited a preview of the latest exhibition at the National Gallery, 'Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites'. It's in the Sunley Room so isn't very large - the space is divided into an entrance hallway introducing and explaining the exhibition and four small rooms. Here we see three early northern paintings by Memling, Bouts and Van Eyck.

The centrepiece is, of course, one of the National Gallery's own works, the marvellous 'Arnolfini Portrait' by Van Eyck. The painting was bought in 1842 when half of the main building was allotted to the Royal Academy and that's where the students first saw the painting. It was a group of these students who, a few years later, declared themselves to be Pre-Raphaelites and used Van Eyck's painting as their inspiration.

That would be a bit too straight forward to be the basis for the exhibition, however, and the curators have pushed deeper and focused on one aspect of the painting. The clue is in the title of the exhibition - 'reflections'. The theme of the exhibition is the influence of the mirror in the centre of the 'Arnolfini Portrait'. The mirror is incredibly detailed and, seen up close (very close) you can see the backs of the couple and also the artist painting them as well as the other side of the room. It really is splendid. That's the theme of most, but not all, of the paintings in this exhibition, and others focus on replicating the kind of detail and gloss that were Van Eyck's trademark.

The first painting to catch my eye was 'Mariana' by John Everett Millais from 1851. It's full of gorgeous, deep colours and has the kind of detail that shouts its influence by Van Eyck. Apparently, early sketches for this painting included a mirror on the wall reflecting Mariana's right side but that was changed for the final painting. The detail doesn't really come across very clearly in this reproduction but it's worth examining the painting up close if you can. The stained glass windows, the table-cloth, the sheen on Mariana's dress and the leaves strewn about the place are all worth noting. The good thing for me is that this is a painting I'm not familiar with unlike quite a few of the other paintings that come from the Tate collection (the exhibition is jointly put on by the National Gallery and Tate Britain).

Another painting that caught my eye was in a room full of paintings about the Lady of Shallott, and this painting was called 'I Am Half Sick Of Shadows Said The Lady of Shallott' by Sidney Meteyard from 1913. Yes, 1913 is a bit late to be considered a Pre-Raphaelite but at least the style is consistent. The Lady must make a tapestry of everything she sees in her magical mirror and this is what she's doing. The thing I liked about this one is simply the gorgeous blues of her dress (which aren't really adequately shown in this reproduction).

So yes, there are lots of paintings of mirrors and a few antique mirrors scattered about. I liked the use of long thin mirrors at the corners of some walls as part of the exhibition - glancing up and seeing a reflection of a painting behind you was a nice surprise.

The final painting of the exhibition is 'Still Life With Self Portrait' by Mark Gertler from 1918.  I was really surprised to see a painting by him as part of the exhibition but it fits in perfectly as we see his reflection in a mirror surrounded by fruit and other stuff.

A painting I was really puzzled by was 'Partial Copy of Las Meninas' by John Phillip from 1862. 'Las Meninas' by Velazquez hangs proudly in the Prado in Madrid and is one of the artists greatest works. Phillip's copy is only of the left-hand side of the painting and, on the wall in the centre of the painting, is a mirror showing the reflections of the king and queen of Spain. Ah, so that's the link and why this painting is included in the exhibition! But then I learned that the 'Arnolfini Portrait' was actually in the royal collection of Spain before Napoleon Bonaparte's brother stole it and so Velazquez almost certainly would have seen it and adopted the motif of the mirror. How intriguing. You never know what you might learn at an exhibition.


So there you go, some first thoughts on the exhibition that opens on Monday. It's not one of the best but there was enough of interest to keep me engaged.

The final exhibit that I looked at was a reproduction of the Ghent Altarpiece by Van Eyck and his brother. I assume it was there as another example of the incredible detail Van Eyck included in his painting and it is a marvel to see, especially since it includes the back of the wings (not shown here in this reproduction) that you see when the altarpiece is closed. Now, if you could put on an exhibition with this altarpiece...

Thursday, 28 September 2017

'Follies' at the National Theatre

We went back to see Stephen Sondheim's 'Follies' at the National Theatre again the other evening - we'd seen it in preview with a few technical niggles so it was good to see it in its more finished form. It was great! It's such a well-constructed piece of story-telling and a musical that it can't really fail when done right and the National Theatre is certainly doing it right. It's on the big Olivier stage and it works its magic to great applause.

'Follies' is about life and love, about growing old and growing apart, about hopes and dreams - youthful and those belonging to a more advanced age - and about personal stories intertwined to tell a bigger tale.

It's 1971 and the night before an old New York theatre is about to be pulled down and become an office block. The theatre used to hold the Weismann's Follies spectaculars between the wars and, as a farewell, Mr Weismann has invited his old leading ladies back for a last party. It's a chance to relive the old days, for old friends and rivals to meet and remember when they were young and for old loves to emerge. It's a theatre of ghosts and dreams that we see to start the show, the younger selves of our leading ladies in all the glamour and glitzy costumes as they grace the stage before the 1971 reality hits.

The core of the story belongs to Sally and Buddy and to Phyllis and Ben who were friends before the war and married their respective spouses and went their separate ways. Sally and Phyllis were in the Follies show and Buddy and Ben were their suitors who used to come to the theatre after the performance to take their girls dancing. We gradually learn that neither couple have had it easy and that Sally still has an unhealthy love for Ben who used to play around with her behind Phyllis's back. Buddy knows, but can't help loving Sally. Throughout the show, whenever we see the 50 year old leads we also see their 20 year old younger selves somewhere in the shadows, watching and reliving their experiences. It works really well.

This is the case for the whole cast - whenever we see the 1971 version of them their young version  is also on stage. It's a trick that works really well, reminding us that these 'old ladies' were once glamorous but that life passes us all by. And the ladies also have their stories to tell. We have the Parisian chanteuse who uses her former Broadway fame to sell cosmetics, the dancing couple who set up a dance studio, the vamp who went on to star in films and now has her own TV show but still lives it up. There are some great performances in these vignettes into other lives and it all works very well indeed.

One of my favourites was seeing Heidi as Miss 1918 who had a song written for her by some famous composer in Vienna (who she can't quite recall) and the stage goes silent as her 1971 self sings the song in her operatic soprano, later joined by her 1918 self. It's a song of love long gone, of lovers parting and wanting just one more kiss, one more attempt at life. It's a great moment and gets a huge reaction from the audience. It's even more special since we have a genuine opera star on the stage playing the role in Dame Josephine Barstow who used to sing lead with the Royal Opera.

Another great sequence was when the 'girls' perform one of their old numbers involving both singing and dancing and, understandably, their younger selves take over the dancing after a while. Dawn Hope leads this section with style, grace, a big voice and excellent timing.


It always circles back to our main players of the two couples, all of whom have their star moments (or two). One of my favourites from this show is 'In Buddy's Eyes' sung by Sally about how the husband she doesn't really love still sees her as a young and perfect princess despite being married for 30 years. It's such a lovely song and I grew to love it through Barbara Cook's version of the song. In this production it's sung by Imelda Staunton who plays Sally. She also gets to sing another 'biggie' later in the show, 'Losing My Mind'. It's good to see where and how this song fits into the show and we can see that she's been losing her mind for a long time, sadly.

Janie Dee, our other leading lady, plays Phyllis and she gets her own big songs and an extended dance sequence and my favourite of hers was 'How Could I leave You?' sung after an argument with husband Ben who asks for a divorce. It's a very clever song and Janie pulls it off excellently. She also exhausts by watching her energetic dancing in 'The Story of Lucy and Jessie' which she dances with her younger self.

Philip Quast and Peter Forbes play our leading men, Ben and Buddy respectively. They get their own songs both together and alone, old friends who met their wives when they were showgirls at that theatre. Ben suave as the former diplomat and Buddy the clown who still loves Sally despite having a mistress when he's out on the road. I particularly liked Buddy's 'The Right Girl' about the two women in his life when he realises that he doesn't love the right girl for him.

I also liked Ziti Strallen as the young Phyllis who yearns to be worthy of Ben and, later, outshines him. I also liked Leisha Mollyneaux who played young Stella (Dawn Hope's character), particularly for her dancing behind the mature Stella reflecting her arm movements in reverse - that must've been incredibly difficult to get right but she performs it really well.

The set looked like the demolition of the theatre had already started but, as it moved around and created larger spaces its versatility became obvious. The glamour of the show rests with the young ghosts of the past as they sing and dance in their glitzy costumes and outlandish headdresses - it's odd that all the fancy costumes are worn by the chorus rather than the lead characters but it works.

This really is an excellent show and, if you can get tickets, grab them with both hands.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Memorials in Berlin

There are so many memorials to the war and the wall in Berlin that it's difficult to know where to begin. My recent trip to Berlin was my first time there so I had no idea what to expect but it soon became clear that there are memorials of sorts all over the city, even if it's just seeing some of the bare, functional buildings from the former East. In a sense, even all the new building in what were bomb sites and the no-man's land either side of the wall act as reminders. The gleam of Potsdamer Platz and the shopping arcades are only there because the land was left empty and in rubble for so long.

The first memorial I saw was the one to the Holocaust victims or, as the sign says, 'Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe'. I saw it as the sun was setting and that made it strangely beautiful, gleaming gold as the sun shone on the clean stone.

At first I didn't really know what I was seeing - lots of almost coffin shaped stones in the ground. Then you notice that the ground undulates and the stones are different sizes, some almost up to ten feet tall creating a maze to walk though and get lost in. There was no graffiti anywhere, the stones were clean. They were also quite popular.

I wandered through the stones, touching some of them and kept walking. It's a large and spread out memorial. At the far end from the Tiergarten is an underground information centre that I didn't visit. And beyond that were the bars, cafes and restaurants and shops that you always find at tourist sites. I assume the information centre explains what the blocks of stone are meant to represent and why there are that amount of blocks on the land allocated to the memorial.

The cynic in me wondered how many times property developers have challenged the use of the land as a memorial - it's a prime site in the centre of Berlin and must be worth a pretty penny. It's use might not have been challenged but I suspect it will be one day and that's when the intent of Berlin and the German Government will come under scrutiny.

It's quite a touching place, relatively quiet once you're inside it and wondering how many stone blocks you have to walk past until you reach the other side.



Just over the road and in the Tiergarten is the memorial to homosexuals and lesbians. It immediately made me think of the Homomonument in Amsterdam, just round the corner from Anne Frank's House. This is less elegant and is simply a big block of concrete, slightly sinking into the ground on one side. There is no writing on it to explain what it is but there's a small indentation on one side with a window to look inside and see a film on loop of gay men and women kissing - men kissing men and women kissing women.

Just up from the path leading to the memorial is a plaque in German and English that explains the rationale for the memorial and the extreme discrimination homosexuals, particularly men, experienced under the nazi regime. Neither the memorial nor the plaque have any graffiti or other signs of vandalism - although the screen in the memorial is scratched - and I couldn't help but be impressed by that. No graffiti at the Jewish or gay memorials at all - I can't help but think that wouldn't be the same in this country or, indeed, in many others.

Of course, it wasn't long until I saw the wall for the first time. Walking round the side of the Tiergarten to Potsdamer Platz and there were the first slabs of wall I saw. along with text plaining what we were seeing. So, this was the wall?


After a lovely visit to the Gemaldegalerie I came face to face again with the nazis and the war. The nazis seemed to be referred to exclusively as the 'National Socialist Party' but a nazi is a nazi. This was the terribly compelling German Resistance Memorial Centre around the back of the Kulturforum.

The memorial Centre is actually based in one of the German military buildings used during the war and the location is especially powerful since some of the stories of resistance involve decisions made in that building. Including people sentenced to death for their activities against the nazis and the war.

In the courtyard is a statue to the dead and, on one side, is a wreath to the senior army officers who planned to assassinate Hitler in 1944 and who were shot in that courtyard. The exhibition inside the building includes the room where the death warrants were signed for those men and that made it particularly powerful. It was a very sobering experience to read about and witness this.

Inside, you walk up a sterile staircase with black and white photographs of mainly young people - those people who opposed the nazis at various stages. It's quite touching walking past these photographs and I couldn't help but wonder whether their children and grandchildren - and great-grandchildren by now - ever visit to see their grandparents in their youth and rebellion and principle?

I should think it's quite important for Germans to show that not everyone supported the nazis and their policies. Sadly, most did - or at least didn't actively oppose them - otherwise the horrors wouldn't have happened. I couldn't help but reflect on what's happening in post-Brexit UK and Trump's America and think that there's no point in quietly tutting, we all must stand up for what we believe in or evil will return. It's so easy.

Most of the exhibits are made up of photographs of individuals and a short narrative about who they were and what they did. There's something terribly humbling about reading what these ordinary people with a conscience did because they believed it was right, being arrested time and time again but still doing what they felt was right. Such a wide range of people as well, nuns and teachers, engineers and university lecturers, churchmen and army officers. They weren't all politically-driven, they were driven by what was right.

Something I was particularly surprised and pleased to see was the number of youth groups that opposed the Hitler youth in different ways. This was youth rebellion in true rebellion mode and particularly brave. Those who wore short-shorts and colourful scarves, those who insisted on listening to jazz music, those who dressed on overtly British and American styles - that's dangerous during a war but they did it anyway.


Good on ya youth cults, I'm proud of you!

And let's not forget Claus von Stauffenberg who tried to assassinate Hitler and who was shot in the courtyard I'd walked through to get into the building.



It didn't take long to get back to the wall in Potsdamer Platz and some colour. I assume the paintings were made after the fall of the wall but it's still nice to see.

It's that oddity that you're never sure when you're going to come across parts of the wall. In the centre there seems to be bits of the wall all over the place. It's here that I noticed for the first time that the path of the wall is indicated in public spaces by a double row of cobble-stones, across roads and across grass. There's a gap for the tram rails, but the cobbles continue at the other side.

I couldn't help but wonder what Berliners think of these reminders of pain, of the war and the wall, every time you turn a corner and bother to open your eyes. Do older people wonder what their parents did and do younger people even care? I don't know.


The oddity is that you don't know where or when these odd reminders of the past will occur. Even wandering through the Mall of Berlin, built in the rubble left around the wall, who knows that you'll see a bronze plaque enshrining a quote from Ronald Reagan saying 'Tear down this wall!'. Do people under 30 even know who he was?


One of the most touching memorials was to the nazi book-burning in Bebelplatz. This was just a few minutes walk away from our hotel in the former East Germany and it's really quite stunning. 


I saw it after sunset so it was at its most stunning, a shining light coming out of the cobble-stoned ground. It's a square of light in the ground above an empty room of empty white book-shelves. No books. Ever again. It's very noticeable that it's in front of a university building and in sight of the Cathedral of St Hedwig - academia and the Church condoning or at least not opposing - the burning of knowledge. That is shameful. But to the credit of modern Germans that they have created this memorial.

We went back the following morning to see what the memorial would look like in daylight and it's largely the same - a white light in an empty room - but it's surrounded by tour groups. Can't have it all I suppose!

On the pure tourist side of things, there's always Checkpoint Charlie.

Halfway down Friedrichstrasse is the junction with Liepzigerstrasse and that's where we normally turn right to head to Potsdamer Platz. But we decided to head another 100m down Friedrichstrasse to visit Checkpoint Charlie - or at least where Checkpoint Charlie used to be. These days it's a tourist trap where you can have your photo taken with men (German? American?) in period American uniform.

Ignoring the charade I wanted to see what was inside the shop. What is actually sold at a shop about Checkpoint Charlie? The usual tourist tat, of course, plus chunks of concrete that claim to be from the wall.



I found this all really quite disturbing. People died here, the dreams of people died here, and yet here we are, invited to buy everything from a coffee cup about the wall to a tee shirt, a chunk of the (supposed) wall in a glass case, a baseball cap.  What is going on here? People died for this tat.

There was a really weird morbid fascination walking round the shop, looking at the tat and the stuff that claimed to be about the wall. Looking at the staff I'd say that, when I was there, no-one was over the age of 30 so wouldn't have remembered the wall or what it meant. This was all about making money from stupid tourists. I couldn't bear to buy anything there. I'd love to know who owned this shop - an American? A German? Maybe a Russian? Someone is obviously making a killing from history.

Turn right from here and along a side road you come to a long stretch of wall and, beside it, a history of the nazis in Germany. The wall is pretty obvious, and in what was, presumably, the basement of the previous building, a series of panels that explain the rise of the nazis, their policies before the war, the war and the results after the war leading to the wall being erected. The thing that makes it most poignant is that this was, I think, the site of the former gestapo headquarters that has been levelled and left bare as a memorial, with just this covered walkway and a small museum at the other end.

It was a history too far for me. I didn't expect to find this memorial when I walked along a side street and it was too much. Learning about 'Jew-catchers' and entrapping homosexuals, propaganda initiatives, nazi-led protests to get the 'people' on their sides.... there's too much.

I stopped about a third of the way round the displays and just thought 'I can't'. This isn't what I was expecting, I don't want this to cloud my memories of Berlin. But it has. What do Berliners think of all this? Of seeing their grandparents and great grandparents photos all over the place, illustrating lessons from the war or the wall? Do they even notice any more? I don't know how I'd feel about it all.

My parents were alive during the war but too young to participate so, if they'd been German, could so easily have been featured in one of these illustrations. Thankfully they're not.


There's a lot more to Berlin than these memorials and it's that that I'll remember. I'll remember the glory of the Gemaldegalerie as my Berlin, and seeing Nefertiti and the 19th Century paintings in the Alte Nationalgalerie.

Now, of course, I wonder how German and French people see London. Is it a bastion of previous wars and monuments to our past colonialism? I'll probably never see that, at least not the way others might do.