Saturday, 31 December 2016

A Night At The Theatre Compendium

I've done it again, haven't I? Fallen behind with my blogging about nights out and now I'm running out of time before the year ends. So, here's a compendium of all the shows I've failed to blog about in the last month or so...

Side Show @ Southwark Playhouse

A musical tail of conjoined sisters in a freak show in early 20th Century America discovering love and fame. Really enjoyed this show and the production at Southwark, some great songs and great moments.

Chroma/Multiverse/Carbon Life @ Royal Opera House

A triple bill by the Royal ballet celebrating ten years of association with Wayne McGregor and it was marvellous. 'Multiverse' is a new ballet and was hard but I loved 'Carbon Life' and would happily see it again.

The Peony Pavilion @ Sadler's Wells

The National Ballet of China is on tour and stopped at Sadler's Wells for this production of great visual moments and a very confusing story. The moment when a million red rose petals dropped on the dancers will remain in my memory for a long time.

Dead Funny @ The Vaudeville Theatre

A comedy in the West End? Really? Yes, really, and about time too! This is really is laugh out loud funny and I thoroughly enjoyed it although it probably plays best to people of a certain age who know who the dead comedians are. The theatre looked about a third empty on the night I went which was a shame.

The Human League @ Royal Festival Hall

How have I not blogged about The Human League? Surely that's illegal! They were fab. Hit after hit after hit with a stunning light show, Phil striding round the stage and Susan and Joanne being lovely. Yes, we still love you!

Peter Pan @ National Theatre

 I was *so* looking forward to this show. We'd booked tickets ages ago and then heard that Sophie Thompson was pulling out from playing Mrs Darling/Capt Hook but I was still looking forward to it. There's be flying and shadow chasing and pirate battles and all sorts! And there was, but ... Expensive tickets and rather cheap-looking production.

The Red Shoes @ Sadler's Wells

The new Matthew Bourne production based on the film of the same name and, while I've never seen the fillum I loved this production! Very effective use of the very simple trick of turning the proscenium arch round to show front of stage and behind the scenes as necessary. Great characterisation and dancing (naturally) that draws you into the plot, lots of more 'formal' ballet steps given the story and a lovely set. Another hit for Sir Matthew and I look forward to seeing it again!

The Nutcracker @ The Royal Opera House

A perennial Christmas favourite from the Royal Ballet with Clara and the Nutcracker battling the Mouse King (and Clara clobbering him with her slipper) and then visiting the Land of Sweets through a cloud of snowflakes (I love the snowflakes) as guests of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince. Marvellous (even if the Tree didn't quite work as it should).

She Loves Me @Menier Chocolate Factory

What's a show about a perfume shop got to do with Christmas? Because it's about love and the run-up to Christmas, that's what! And it is lovely on the small Choccy Factory stage with Scarlett Strallen as out heroine. It's an old fashioned Broadway show and is perfect to end this year with - the good guys win, love triumphs and some laugh out loud moments. I thoroughly enjoyed this show and will be happy to see it again. It was unapologetically charming and lovely and other such words as is right and proper.

Dreamgirls @ The Savoy Theatre

You've probably seen the film with Beyonce but this is the first time the show has been staged in London and about time too.  It's very glam and glitzy and doesn't stop to take breath but I do wonder if using talent show winners is the best way to find the right voices for the show. Still, it got a rapturous sting ovation so good on it!

I promise to be more up to date next year, honest! 

Monday, 26 December 2016

George Michael

'George Michael?' I said, heavy on the interrogative. *The* George Michael? Now, I'm not a great fan of George but I was really shocked. Out of the blue, he's died. No car crash, train derailment or fallen aeroplane, he died at home on Christmas Day. He's younger than me and I'm shocked and I don't know why. Maybe it's an age thing.

I'm not keen on all this 'curse of 2016' stuff that people post about on Twitter and Facebook. Famous people die all the time and always have done so maybe it's just that people of cultural significance to my generation (and younger) are  reach the ages when people do start dying. I don't really know, but I'm sure someone has done some research into it. Rick Parfitt yesterday and now George. Rick was a decade older than me but George was younger and that feeds the sense of your own mortality.

George was a product of the '80s, firstly with Wham! and then going global in his own right as a hugely successful solo artist, continuing into the '90s until he got arrested in some toilets in LA that sort of 'outed' him as gay. It was his response to the arrest and publicity that made me notice another 'celeb scandal', his 'yeah I did it, so what?' approach and going on talk shows with that attitude. No shame but full throttle attack mode. He even featured the episode in a video for his next single where the urinals turn into a disco heaven. That's when I thought 'good on you!'.

His success continued beyond that episode in his life which is a testament to his talents and skills that it didn't kill his career.

No doubt there'll be an outpouring of grief from fans and admirers, from pop stars talking about their friend and from social commentators. No doubt stories will come out of the woodwork and there'll be speculation about the possible causes of his death. I'm sure some will be linked to his being gay and his lifestyle, inevitable really. Will any of them hit the right note for the people that really matter - his family and friends. Possibly. Who knows?

As I said, I wasn't a great fan but his death made me stop and notice. And that's important.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

'The Madonna of Humility' by Fra Angelico at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

On Sunday I visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to see great paintings from the Northern painters  over the centuries and in particular to see a small altarpiece by Fra Angelico, 'Madonna of Humility'. The good Fra painted a number of small, devotional altarpieces with the Virgin and Child that we call 'Virgin of Humility' but they were probably called something very different at the time, more likely named after the donor who commissioned the work, either an individual, a family or an institution of some kind. The relatively small size of this painting suggests it was either for a small private chapel or for a domestic altar in a private home. I don't know who or what institution this altarpiece was painted for but, whoever it was, they were very lucky to have such a gorgeous work from the Fra.

Exploring and wandering past early Dutch and Flemish paintings you see a wall with a small group of golden paintings glowing in the gallery lights. These are early Renaissance Italian paintings with the Fra Angelico in the middle, the pride of this collection.  They have the gold leaf gilding and glowing colours that is the tell tale give away of when they were painted and this is also the most obvious difference with the Fra's works as he moved away from the plain gilded background to his richly textured cloth of gold that has a lovely warm glow.

This is where you can notice the big difference with similar paintings by the Fra. How is the cloth of gold held up and where are the angels? Look at this 'Virgin of Humility' in the Thyssen-Bornemesza  collection and the composition is very similar to the Rijksmuseum version and here you can see the cloth of gold being held by three angels, framing the holy family. This suggests to me that the Rijksmuseum panel has been cut down from a larger altarpiece so that the angels are removed and so is half of the Virgin's halo. I suspect (and hope) that there are some angel heads framed in gold and in a museum somewhere that belong with this altarpiece. Maybe I'll find them one day.

The frame it is currently in is very nice, reflecting the colours of the painting, with stars against a blue sky painted around the curved top of the frame and the golden detail of the side panels. I would be very happy to have this painting on my wall.

It's a very gentle and peaceful composition that works well as a whole, with the slight blush on the Virgin's cheek and the infant reaching out to his mother. One of the joys of seeing paintings 'in the paint' in front of you is that you can examine the detail which you often can't by looking in books or online reproductions. Look at the folds in the Virgin's blue cloak and pink dress and the detail of the hem in which the golden pattern continues and reflects the folds. Given how relatively small the overall work is, this is incredibly detailed work that blurs even just standing a few feet away. This is partly the fine finishing detail of an important commission but also suggests the altarpiece was meant to be seen quite close-up.

Similarly the detail on the cloth of the golden cushion the Virgin sits on and the cloth of gold behind her which folds over to indicate it is being held in three dimensions rather than being hung as a prop. It's this detail that marks a great painting by a master who has the vision for the overall composition but who can also see the detail that brings the work alive.

My recent course at the National Gallery in London included a session on how paintings are hung in galleries and this is something I've started to notice. The Fra's altarpiece here is screwed  to the wall with heavy, thick bolts that you can just see in the shadow in this photo. Unusually, it's possible to get a view of the side of the frame from the doorway just a few yards away from where it hangs. It'll take time and effort to remove this painting from the wall!

It was lovely to see this wonderful altarpiece by Fra Angelico. I smiled when I saw it across the gallery and headed straight for it. The clever people at the Rijksmuseum have thoughtfully placed a comfortable bench in front of it so you can sit and gaze up at it. It's also a joy to get right up close and admire and enjoy the delicate details in the painting. Thank you Brother John for bringing more light into our lives.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Anne Frank's Huis, Amsterdam

On my recent trip to Amsterdam I went to visit Anne Frank's House. It's not ordinarily something that I'd do, visit a house of someone 'famous', but I'm so pleased that I did.

We all know Anne Frank - or should do. The young Jewish girl who kept a diary while hiding from the nazis in Amsterdam in the Second World War when Holland was invaded. I've never read her diary but I saw the film back in the late 60s or 70s. I suspect that I've always just thought of it as another sad tale, a life needlessly cut short due to war, and not thought beyond that. Visiting the house makes you think. You can't help it - or, at least, I couldn't. And it worried and scared me.

Anne's very literate and mature thoughts were captured in her diary, a diary she made her father promise not to read and, as we hear from his own lips, he didn't during her life. There are video clips of her father talking to camera about how he survived Auschwitz but his daughters didn't survive Bergen-Belsen. He made his way back to Amsterdam to be given his daughter's diary and a box of photos the nazis missed when they cleared out the house. I can't imagine what it must have been like to be him, to see his family and friends wiped out and yet he remained, a solitary man who's seen so much and has to go on living.

The house is incredibly popular as a tourist attraction and is booked online up to 3:30pm after which it's open to buy tickets on the door. Don't wait - the queue at 3:30 was huge so it's best to book online if you want to visit. You're let in in small groups to walk up the incredibly steep stairs and around the small flat shared by the Frank family and their friends. The rooms are small and claustrophobic with carefully noted exhibits and quotes from Anne's diary about life in the flat. It's not actually the house she grew up in in Amsterdam, it's a series of rooms above a warehouse owned by the company of which her father was a director. There are also some small video installations showing films of some of the people who remembered the Franks including people who kept them supplied with food at the risk of their own lives. Such brave people and it's good to see and hear the story from them forever captured by video.

Walking behind that bookcase and up those stairs was quite an eerie experience, treading the same floorboards and stairs that Anne and her family walked on. Very strange and emotional.

I got to the stage when I couldn't just follow the slow moving queue around the flat looking at the exhibits, particularly due to a loud group of laughing Spanish lads, and wandered round drinking in the atmosphere with tears never far from my eyes. How on earth did this happen? How did we allow it to happen? Anne was almost the same age as my mother but my mother didn't have to hide from her neighbours and foreign enemies who hunted people down without thought, like animals. This isn't right. This can't be right, but it happened.

On the way out you pass a video installation in which lots of famous people talk about the influence of Anne's diary, which is nice, but more powerful to me was seeing Shelley Winters' Oscar statue won for her performance in the film about the diary that she donated to the house. It's in a glass case beside the cafe before you go downstairs to the book shop.

Anne isn't faraway history to me. She's a contemporary of my parents and died only 15 years before I was born. She was born in Germany in the late 1920s and was Jewish and that sealed her fate. What would I have done if I was in her position or if I went to school with her in Amsterdam? I don't know.

Despite all the platitudes about understanding history to make sure it doesn't repeat itself I can''t help but feel the circle is turning with votes against migrants and foreigners. In this day and age it's called 'populism' but that doesn't make it any less fascist. Fascism was 'populist' in the 30s in so many countries - including Britain with Moseley's brown shirts - and it must always be fought head on. It's insidious and we can turn round and suddenly realise that it's the norm and wonder what went wrong. We see it too often in the national newspapers owned by multi-millionaires, picking on the minority, the defenceless, and it's up to us - the majority - to defend them at the risk of history repeating itself.

That is why I'm pleased I went to Anne Frank's Huis in Amsterdam. Sometimes we all need to be reminded about what is important and that small warehouse did it for me. I bought her diary and will read it. I will speak out when I see fascism rear it's ugly head when I can and I will support those with louder voices. To quote the cliche, there is one race and it's the human race and we're all part of it.

On the banks of the canal near the back of the house is another monument, this one called the Homomonument. It's in the shape of three triangles, the shape the nazis forced gay men to wear on their clothes to indicate what they were. The triangles represent the past, present and future. The sign beside the monument reads, 'Commemorates all women and men ever oppressed and persecuted because of their homosexuality.' There weren't any queues to see this monument but people had left flowers on it. There are many forms of oppression and hate and all must be resisted. It's quite powerful to find two such monuments mere yards away from each other. Trust those Nederlanders to make an already powerful statement even more powerful.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

The Tale of the Christmas Squirrel

The little squirrel was busy picking flowers in the woodland glade not far from his favourite tree. He needed the pretty, fragrant flowers to decorate the tree to attract the bumble bees to pollinate the tree so it would produce lots of nuts. Some of the other squirrels and woodland creatures were just lolling in the sun as the squirrel neatly decorated his favourite tree and then started on the tree next door. He was a busy little thing.

Then Autumn came and the leaves began to glow as the nuts and berries ripened and the squirrel tended them carefully, encouraging the growth and looking forward to a bumper harvest. When the nuts were ready he quickly picked them while allowing some to ripen fully and drop to the ground but the choicest nuts were taken to his many secret larders. And he collected the best fruits from the bushes and small trees to make blackberry cordial and other delicacies to see him through the hard winter.

He was diligent and worked hard at filling his larders and sharing some of the bounty with the other squirrels and creatures since he had more than enough for his own needs. And the leaves turned golden and gently fell down in the breeze into great drifts of gold on the woodland floor and the days became shorter and colder

One morning he looked out of his snug den and saw that all the leaves had fallen on the nearby trees and only the deep green spiky leaves of the fir trees at the centre of the forest were still resisting the urge to fall. There had been frost and the squirrel could see the tiny paw prints of the hedgehog who lived in the roots of the tree and the larger prints that told of Reynard's passing as he slinked around the woodland in search of his breakfast. The squirrel grabbed his muffler and wound it round his neck to keep him warm as he breakfasted on a nut sitting on his favourite branch and dangling his legs over the side to swing them in the morning light.

He spent the day chatting to his neighbours, making sure they were warm and snug in their burrows and nests and leaving them a shiny chestnut as a gift before making is weary way back to his own snug den where he fell asleep with his bushy tail wrapped around him.

But something woke him, the sound of hooves and a great weary sigh and a swish and he looked out from his den to see a great sleigh had pulled up in the clearing near his den and a great big man looked weary. The squirrel tied on his scarf and scampered down his tree to welcome the old man and make sure he was all right. The old man turned to the squirrel and gave him a weary smile as his eyes twinkled and he leaned against a pile of colourfully wrapped boxes. He let out another sigh and that decided the squirrel - this old man needs some cordial and nut, he thought, and I have just the right food in my larder in that tree over there.

The squirrel scampered away and poured some cordial into the biggest nut shell he could find and piled some nuts into a sack he carried over his shoulder and returned with his offering to the strange old man with the bushy beard. When the squirrel hopped up onto the sleigh to offer the old man a nut shell of delicious cordial the old man roared with hearty laughter that made the stars twinkle and look down on the woodland glade as he bowed his head to the generous squirrel and accepted the cordial and nuts and his cheeks became rosy and his laughter even more infectious. The squirrel couldn't help but feel the joy from the old man and his bushy tail whisked from side to side as he joined in with the old man's great merriment.

Lifting the squirrel gently off the sleigh and returning the nut shell, the old man bowed and said, 'Thank you Master Squirrel' and flew his sleigh off into the night with a great roaring laugh and a sprinkle of stardust. Well I never, thought the squirrel as he scampered back to his den to continue his sleep but, when he got there, he found a tiny package waiting for him. Hesitantly he opened it and found a lovely new scarf in all the colours of Autumn and Winter and he knew it would be the warmest scarf ever made. He held it close as he snuggled into it and drifted off to sleep to dream of great chestnuts and raspberries.

The Spring melted into a glorious Summer that led to a fruitful Autumn and the squirrel's harvest was good and fulsome. He wore his old muffler as the days got colder. And one day he knew it was time to get out his special scarf with all the colours of Autumn and Winter and he prepared a shell of his best cordial and a little pile of the most tasty nuts and he sat patiently waiting for the old man to return. And return he did with a twinkle of light and a great roar of a laugh and his sleigh pulled down into the woodland glade for a rest on a busy night. He looked over at his little friend and laughed with such joy that that squirrel immediately scampered over and up onto the sleigh and sat on the old man's knee offering him a nut shell of cordial. As the old man drank and chewed the nuts the squirrel told him about the flowers he'd found to sweeten the cordial and how the nuts came from the best crop he'd ever harvested. And all the while the squirrel's bushy tail whisked and twitched from side to side in his excitement.

And so it happened every year on that special night when the stars twinkled brightly and there was joy in the air. The squirrel always greeted the old man with his special cordial and some nuts and the old man sought the squirrel's help to deliver tiny parcels to the woodland creatures and then the humans in the nearby village. The squirrel looked forward to his special work on that night and noticed that the creatures of the woods, and then the villagers, started leaving gifts of food and drink to keep the old man refreshed on his busy night. The squirrel helped the old man when nut or cordial was involved.

The years passed and the squirrel's coat turned from red to rust tinged with frost and his eyes grew weaker but he still wound his special scarf round his neck on that special night and he was warm again. The old man saw that the squirrel could no longer scamper onto his knee so he picked him up and placed him on the warm blanket on the seat so he could sleep a while and the old man delivered the tiny presents to the woodland creatures and accepted their gifts of food and drink, saving some cordial for his little friend.

Before he flew off again the old man asked the elderly squirrel if he'd like to come with him this time. The squirrel smiled and nodded, wanting to see the flowers and nuts that grew in the world outside his beloved woodland and the old man brushed his hand over the squirrel's now thin tail. The frost flew from his tail and it bloomed in its previous bushiness and the squirrel felt the sap returning to his bones and he perked up and jumped onto the old man's knees again and whisked his tail energetically in the starlight. He was ready to travel and off they flew into the night sky, lit by the stars and joy and to the sound of great laughter.

Only the old hedgehog that lived in the root of the squirrel's tree saw what happened and he was happy for his old, kindly friend. He told all his neighbours and his grandchildren the following day and word spread far and wide about the honour shown to one of their own, the squirrel who flew with Santa Claus.

So, if you see a squirrel on Christmas Eve wearing a scarf in all the colours of Autumn and Winter, give him a cheery wave and remember to leave out some nuts as well as a mince pie for the old man. I will.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

'Rodin and Dance' at the Courtauld Gallery

This afternoon we risked the pre-Christmas Sunday crowds to see the current exhibition at the Courtauld, 'Rodin and Dance: The Essence of Movement'. It's a joint exhibition with the Rodin Museum in Paris and is the first time Rodin's small models of dancers have been assembled since his death.

The exhibition is small, the usual two rooms at the Courtauld, but is worth seeing particularly since you can then wander round the excellent standing collection from the 1200s to the mid 1900s or thereabouts. Starting with the exhibition on the second floor you work your way back in time as you descend, from 20th century paintings on the top floor down through the centuries to the medieval and early Renaissance works on the ground floor. It's quite an exciting journey given the vast range of works on display.

On entering the exhibition, by the time I saw the third drawing (the Cambodian dancer to the right) I wished this exhibition had been on over the summer before I did my short course in drawing movement at the City Lit - on reaching this third drawing I felt I had already learned so much about how to draw movement. From this drawing in pencil and watercolour you can clearly see the dancer is dancing but the background also indicates movement. It's not just the dancer that is moving, it's the whole sketch moving and gyrating in time to some unheard music.

Just seeing this sketch gave me an insight into drawing movement that made me want to start my summer course again with those huge sheets of paper and charcoal and ink. This dancer is drawn on paper about A4 size but is incredibly powerful when you look on it in it's richness, far richer and more vibrant than this image.

There were a series of drawing of a nude woman in various poses, some more explicit than others, of the acrobat Aldo Moreno in extreme and exaggerated poses. There were a few drawings of men, including of Nijinsky who posed for Rodin when the Ballet Russe was in Paris, but the majority of drawings - and the small statues - were of women.

I particularly liked the series of drawings, some more and less finished and rough - of the woman holding her leg behind her. Some drawings expressed this in a few rough lines and others had blurred lines to emphasis shape and contour, give the figure more volume. They are all terribly expressive and a couple looked as if he'd caught the model as she let go of her foot, almost about to topple to the floor on losing her balance. I'm probably reading oo much into these drawings but I was very impressed with the drawings and wished there were more.

As well as the drawings there are some bronzes of dancers and the glass cabinet full of the small statues of dancers. It's a small exhibition but is fascinating. The exhibition is open until 22 January so there's still plenty of time to see it.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

The Tale of The Christmas Whale

Do you know the tale of the Christmas Whale? A tale told in coastal communities the world over and in the Court of the King of the Whales? Well, sit back and relax, for here it is...

A long, long time ago, a whale was basking under the moon and stars and singing a song of love of the oceans he had swam through when he saw a movement in the heavens. A star was moving. How odd, he thought. He was used to the heavens moving just as he moved and he saw different stars in the sky as he travelled round the oceans, but he'd never seen a star move as he watched it. So he decided to follow it.

And he gradually heard a choir of voices singing praises in a far off land and that intrigued the whale, so he swam faster. The choir grew louder and clearer and he could hear them singing of a new-born king and joy filled his heart and he sang along with the choir as he drew closer to the amazing sound. But then he could swim no more since he was close to a beach and he could see no way of swimming closer. So he raised his voice to welcome the new-born king on behalf of the creatures of the ocean.

The angel Gabriel with his many-coloured wings heard the whale and smiled and looked over to the infant king who reached out his hand towards the joyful singing of the whale. Gabriel picked up the babe and, in a thought, flew to the beach where the whale was singing and laid the baby in the sand to enjoy the whale's song. And the babe reached out again and was miraculously lying on the back of the whale to feel his song reverberating through his body. At the babe's touch the whale felt peace and understanding, joy and love, and wanted to share these marvellous feelings with the ocean peoples.

The whale looked at Gabriel and the angel nodded and the whale turned and swam out into the ocean with the infant king giggling and gurgling on his great back, careful to keep the king dry and safe. And he passed chattering dolphins and octopuses and squids, great fish and small, and seals and sealions roaring and shared his joy and honour at carrying the new-born king and the creatures of the ocean shared his joy and joined in his song that night. Eventually he reached the Court of the King of the Whales who surfaced to witness this unseen event of a baby king riding a great whale and, as he witnessed the babe, he bowed his great head. The babe giggled and gurgled and reached out his hand to bless the King of the Whales as starlight skittered and flashed about the sky.

His duty to the King of the Whales done, the whale turned and sped off toward land and the angel with the colourful wings so the babe could be returned to his mother and in a trice, there they were. Gabriel reached out his arm and retrieved his lord and smiled and bowed to the whale who glowed with the joy of having been of service to the new king, and the angel flew back inland with the infant king.

Now, the whale was so full of joy he decided he must tell everyone about this new baby king who would change the world and so he swam off into the deep ocean telling all the creatures he met about the new king. His song sung loudly and repeated wherever he went. His joy demonstrated the truth of his song and the creatures of the seas and oceans loved the whale for his joy and his tale of carrying the new-born king.

The years passed and the whale began to hear rumours that the young king had been killed but had risen and brought the world a new covenant of life and love. The whale was sad and mourned the babe he'd carried all those years ago but looked to the stars and read their joy that the king had joined them and he was happy again because the baby king still lived. He knew it was his duty and honour to correct the rumours and tell the creatures of the ocean about the new king. So off he swam, his song strengthened with his new-found joy and truth.

The whale swam the deep oceans around the world spreading the word about the king and bringing joy and gladness to the hearts of the creatures of the oceans. The King in the Court changed and changed again and the whale grew old, but still he swam as his skin paled and his tail beat slower. Despite his great age his voice remained as strong as ever and he was welcomed by all the communities of the ocean as he sang his songs of peace and joy.

One night he surfaced to float on the ocean and gaze up at the stars that twinkled down at him and seemed to giggle like a babe. As he looked on a man appeared and smiled down at him and in that man the whale saw the babe he'd carried, oh so long ago. And he raised his voice and sang aloud his joy at once again seeing the king and he woke communities of sea birds and dolphins. The whale swam faster and faster in his attempt to join the king and the dolphins tell tales of the whale who flew into the sky that night to carry the king on his journeys amongst the stars while singing songs of joy and love.

The King of the Whales woke from his deep slumber and knew that the whale had gone. He sent out emissaries to find the whale but they returned only with news that he'd swum into the night sky to serve his king. But every year on the night that the whale first carried the infant king, the whales hear a song from the stars that tells of the whale's great honour and how the whale remains true today, carrying his king around the heavens and singing his song.

And that, dear reader, is the tale of the Christmas Whale. It is also one reason why we should stop hunting whales and let them continue in their majestic ways since, one day, another whale might emerge with a song of peace and joy and we wouldn't want to miss that, now, would we?

Monday, 28 November 2016

'Cubism and War: The Crystal in the Flame' at the Picasso Museum, Barcelona

On my trip to Barcelona last week I popped in to the Picasso Museum to see the new exhibition, 'Cubism and War: The Crystal in the Flame' featuring works during the First World War. It was made up of works by artists in Paris who, for one reason or another, were unable to enlist to fight and so, rather than report on the war. chose to continue experimenting with the Cubist art that had been developed in the year running up to the outbreak of war.

It's quite a small exhibition with a room for each to eh war years and includes a wide variety of works from artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Diego Rivera, Juan Gris, Maria Blanchard, Braque and Fernand Leger as well as others. Some seemed to move deeper into Cubism while others left the movement as the war continued.

The first painting that drew me in was Matisse's 'Flowers and Ceramic Plate' from 1913, pulling at my eyes to sink into the gorgeous colours and shapes on the canvas.  There were only five or six paintings in this first, pre-war room, showing that experimentation was alive and kicking and driving forward their art, and this painting epitomised that for me.

It's a strange still life with a base of blue that draws you into it as you gaze. It's not terribly carefully painted and the paint is quite roughly applied in places but, as a whole, it works in a quite marvellous way. I wonder what those flowers smelled like?

I don't think I've ever seen any paintings by Diego Rivera, who I think of as Frida Kahlo's husband, so it was nice to see some of his works. The painting that most attracted my attention was called 'Maternity' (although it seems to have different names on that theme) that shows a mother and child (so could be quite religious as well as the more clinical 'maternity' title).

I think one of the things that attracted me to this painting is the hairy leg of the mother that made me think of Frida Kahlo even though this was painted years before the pair met and married. It's clearly a woman with a babe in her lap cut up, sliced up, into flat planes and stitched together with colour and a hint of a rocking movement. I actually liked the Diego Rivera paintings that were part of this exhibition and he's someone I ought to look at in other ways other than as Frida's husband. Based on these paintings, he was the one who first returned to realism after his Cubist period.

A Picasso painting that caught my interest was 'Still Life with Compote and Glass' from 1914-15 with it's planes of dots as well as trying to show a table top from all directions at once. It's a very 'clean' composition that shows fruit and a glass bowl on top of a side table. I puzzled over the dotted planes seemingly randomly thrown around the painting as they are in a few others in the exhibition (such as "Man in Front of a Chimney-Piece'). I can't recall seeing this in other Picasso paintings - maybe it's an expression of his frustration with the war?

I'll finish with another Picasso painting since this exhibition is, after all, in a museum that bears his name. This is 'Columbus Avenue' from 1917 and, appropriately enough, is set in Barcelona. It's a painting of the view from his window overlooking the Columbus statue pointing west towards the Americas. It's quite appropriate to end with this painting since the statue is still there and my taxi whizzed round the base of the column on my way into Barcelona a few days earlier.

Picasso has largely moved away from his pre-war Cubism and is celebrating his nationalism as a son of Barcelona. The colours are really attractive and this is one of the paintings available on all of the merch in the shop. The Picasso Museum has a great shop but charging €37 for the catalogue is a bit steep considering how small the exhibition is. At least they have the grace to offer a postcard of the gorgeous Matisse that kicks off the exhibition in the first room.

I enjoyed the exhibition for what it is and there were some quite touching explanatory notes in a room full of war photos of the trenches and ruined villages that served to remind us of the war 100 years ago. As ever, there were queues outside to get in (the name 'Picasso' has a certain monetary value) so buy a ticket online if you plan to go, then you can walk straight in. I did. 

Sunday, 27 November 2016

'A Thyssen Never Seen' at CaixaForum, Barcelona

I saw the excellent 'A Thyssen Never Seen' exhibition at CaixaForum on my recent visit to Barcelona. The 'Thyssen' in the title refers to the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection based in Madrid which has loaned 63 paintings to stage this exhibition. The CaixaForum is part of the philanthropic arm of La Caixa bank and I saw an excellent Impressionist and beyond exhibition at it's Madrid branch over the summer. I'm pleased to report that this exhibition matches the same high standard of the Madrid exhibition, really well laid out and thought through, spacious and it has a lovely booklet for visitors. More of that later.

My main reason for going to Barcelona was to see a painting by Fra Angelico, 'The Virgin of Humility' which is on permanent loan from the Thyssen Museum in Madrid to the National Museum of Art of Catalonia in Barcelona. It was further loaned to CaixaForum for this exhibition, so it was to the exhibition I found myself walking on Monday morning.

The CaixaForum is a converted old factory made up of several buildings and the Thyssen exhibition has its own building. The main entrance was busy with people and a couple of school groups, loud and full of life and that was a nice start and the noise dropped as I went into the exhibition building, turned right to walk down a short corridor and, straight ahead was Fra Angelico's 'Virgin of Humility' waiting to be viewed. There were three early Renaissance paintings (including a small Duccio) on the wall before reaching the Fra altarpiece but these were flush to the wall so couldn't be seen until you're right in front of them.

The exhibition is organised around five themes: religious paintings, portraits, objects, landscapes and the city. In part, it's showing off the glories of the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, showing the extraordinary range of works in the collection, from Duccio in the late 1200s to Richard Estes in 1967. And almost every kind of painting in-between.

The painting I really wanted to see was an altarpiece by Fra Angelico called 'Virgin of Humility' with the Virgin and Child flanked by angels holding a gorgeous cloth of gold as a background while seated in the court of Heaven. It's a really lovely painting by the good Fra, delicately painted and full of detail you can only really see when you get up close to the painting.

Gold and blue, with a splash of deep red in the centre as the Virgin's tunic, with the Infant dressed in a related pink holding a lily for his mother. The Virgin is also holding a lily in a vase, one of her symbols of purity. I stood in front of this painting for some time, gazing at the detail of the Virgin's hair behind her ear and her delicate fingernails and trying to work out the Latin inscription in the Virgin's halo without success. If anyone know what the inscription says, I'd love to know.

The next room focused on portraits of people and paintings of characters, from Hans Memlink to Lucien Freud, showing a wide range of styles over the intervening 600 years. I was particularly taken with the painting 'Portrait of a Robust Man' by Robert Campin that I first saw in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid (which is where this photo was taken when I was there over the summer). The painting is possibly of Robert de Jasmines from around 1425.

If you ignore the fur trim around the neck of his coat and the hair style, this man could be alive today and living round the corner from you. It is very realistic with the creases around the eyes and forehead, the fat face and the jowls. Is he happy or sad? I don't know but, on the basis that he probably commissioned this painting himself, I'm happy to contribute to his ongoing immortality. He's not the prettiest or handsomest of men but he's actively saying 'I was alive, I was here' by the very act of being painted and I have to admire that. I don't know anything about him and I think I would like to know a bit about who he was and how he lived.

Most of the portraits were from Northern painters, which isn't surprising since portraiture was largely developed in the North and one of the poster girls for the exhibition is Ruben's 'Portrait of a Young Woman with Rosary'. 

The gorgeous background of red drapery and the complexity of her shiny bodice and her ruff really enhance the simplicity and realism of her face, passively looking out at the viewer. I wonder if she ever thought that total strangers would gaze on her 400 years after she sat for this portrait? 

There are a range of other portraits on show such as from Andrew Wyeth, Alberto Giacometti and Edward Hopper showing the vast range of the Thyssen collection. 

The next section of the exhibition focused on still lives and objects, starting with the grand old Dutch Masters but the painting that kept my eyes on it was Picasso's 'Fruit and Vases'. This isn't a painting I'd normally be attracted to, with it's rather dull palette and subject matter, but it's a good example of needing to see paintings 'in the paint' to properly appreciate them. There's something about the simplicity of the composition and green/gold/brown colours that really drew me into this one, painting one vase through another with the random fruit to the fore. The vases are simple in design and I like seeing the large vase through the smaller glass vase, such a simple effect and not a new thing at all but it keeps grabbing my eyes. I also can't help but see the front two pieces of fruit almost as a chicken waiting to be cooked. O well, it ca't all be magic! 

Coincidentally, I bought a scarf in the same colours and with an angular pattern the following day. Was that an unconscious influence of seeing the painting that made me buy a scarf that can only be considered dull by comparison with my more normal scarves? Odd that. 

Another painting that caught my eye was this rather small painting by Jan Breughel of Christ asleep in the fishing boat during a storm on the sea of Galilea. As well as the deep colours drawing me into the storm it reminded me of the Delacroix exhibition last year at the National Gallery in London which included one of Delacroix's several copies or interpretations of this painting that was included in the exhibition. So this was the painting that sparked his interest in the theme. It's a very dramatic painting, with the storm gathering and the Disciples starting to panic as the Christ happily sleeps in the middle of the boat. Have faith people, he's saying, it'll all be all right.

The final section of the exhibition focused on 'the city' and this is where it seemed we see the most 'modern' paintings. I really liked Pissarro's 'Rue Saint-Honore in the Afternoon' and even quite liked a Canaletto, but it was 'Architecture II (The Man From Potin)' by Lyonel Feininger, an American painter I haven't heard of before, that I wanted a good look at. It's an odd composition really, almost like you're drawing aside a curtain and looking out of a window at the city scene of angular men in suits busy being busy.

A painting I waited to get a good view of was Kandinsky's 'Johannisstrasse, Murnau' from 1908 with it's gorgeous green and pink houses and a solitary woman with her shopping basket. The muddy-looking ground reflecting the gloomy sky with the bright houses separting them. I wonder where the woman is going since none of the buildings look like shops - perhaps this is a residential district and she's heading off to do her daily shop in town? I don't know but I want to make up stories about the people who live in these colourful houses and their colourful or mundane lives.

The final painting brings us right up to date with Richard Estes' 'Telephone Booths' from 1967. It's a large work that brings New York to mind with it's shiny telephone boxes in a row that we've all seen it gritty films from the '60s and '70s and which you don't often see anywhere these days. The phone boxes reflect the outside world while the women inside are making urgent telephone calls to hospitals and homes or maybe gossiping with a friend about who they've just seen in the street and who she was with. It was, at the time, a depiction of the modern world but now, with mobile phones, it's a bit historical and that adds another layer to the painting. The only thing missing from the painting is the rubbish you'd expect to see in the street outside phone boxes.

So there you have it, this is a really good exhibition with a very wide range of paintings on show ranging from the late 1200s to 1967 - what a span of topics and styles and the thematic organisation of the exhibition helps us to appreciate it more. If you're visiting Barcelona over the next few months then I'd strongly suggest you visit. It's only €4 to get in and there's something there for everyone. Go and see it!

When you go in you can pick up a small postcard sized leaflet explaining the exhibition in Catalan, Spanish and English. It's a sign of the creativity of CaixaForum that it isn't just any old explanatory leaflet, it's made of light card with perforated folds. One side of the leaflet has text explaining each theme while the other has postcard-sized reproductions of some of the paintings on display. What a great idea! I haven't seen something like this before and it looks really good. The CaixaForum is, in effect, giving away free postcards, especially since none of the featured paintings are available to buy as postcards in the shop. I love this idea and I hope more institutions take it up.