Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Petula Clark at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane

I went to see Petula Clark in concert at the venerable old Theatre Royal Drury Lane on Sunday and she was in fine form.  To me, Petula has always been around singing her heart out and she's part of the background to my childhood, hearing her on the radio and on the TV shows in the late 60s and early 70s. She's the ultimate '60s girl' to me, followed by Dusty, Lulu and the rest, but for me, Petula is No 1. I first saw her on stage in 2007 in Croydon of all places, followed by Cadogan Hall and then Drury Lane in 2013 and here we were again, three years later, at Drury Lane with a new record, 'From Now On', to promote.

Pet has been a star since before I was born and she knows how to enjoy it. The five-piece band walked on and started playing and then suddenly there she was standing at the side of the stage, hands clasped in front of her, in a sparkly frock with a red flower and the audience erupted to their feet clapping and welcoming her to the stage.  That's the welcome she deserves, particularly on the last night of her tour.

The show took the format I'm familiar with, of about an hour and then a short interval followed by another hour. She sprinkled the hits with the new songs from the new album, plus songs she just fancied singing and they were all worth hearing. To pack in more of the songs that we all wanted to hear quite a few of the hits were segued together so she started off with one blockbuster and then morphed into another. They all seem to have been re-arranged in some way for this tour that made them sound fresh while being very familiar at the same time.

Favourites on the night included 'Don't Sleep In The Subway', 'Who Am I' and 'Colour My World'. From the new record Petula introduced 'Blackbird' (by Stella McCartney's dad, as she noted), 'Sacrifice My Heart' and 'From Now On', the title song. I was delighted that she sang her two songs from 'Finian's Rainbow', her film with Fred Astaire, 'Look To The Rainbow' and 'How Are Things In Glocca Morra' - those songs whiz me back to a Sunday afternoon in the early 70s seeing the film on telly. She also did her great version of 'Crazy' and the autobiographical 'Reflections' (both from her 2013 album). The penultimate song was a big singalong of 'Downtown' - as if it could be anything else?

The songs were peppered with anecdotes and stories of tea with Charlie Chaplin, dancing with Fred Astaire, a young Jimmy Page playing on one of her studio recordings, and telling us about songs she wrote and co-wrote, particularly with Tony Hatch. It looked like she was loving every moment. There was a lot of love for Petula in that theatre.

Petula has been a star for so long it's difficult to think of anyone else at her particular level and certainly her longevity. In a few weeks time she will turn 84 (very ungallant of me to mention it) and it's wonderful to see her still commanding an audience the way she can.  I wonder if any of today's "superstars" will have any of her staying power, still performing and producing new music and still enjoying it. At the end she received another standing ovation as she picked up yellow roses from the stage, offerings from delighted fans.

Come back soon Petula.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Heironomous Bosch: 'El Bosco' at the Museo del Prado

It's the 500th anniversary of Heironomous Bosch so how do you celebrate it? If you're the Prado in Madrid, you put on an exhibition using your own Bosch paintings as the centrepiece and there we have the 'Garden of Earthly Delights' by El Bosco. It's been phenomenally successful, posters all over Madrid, tickets hard to come by and I only saw the exhibition in it's last few days thanks to an extension to the original closing date due to demand. How could I be in Madrid and not see it?

That in itself should've sent a signal - what does it mean if it's that popular? It probably means that it's going to be crowded, perhaps, that it'll be difficult to see some of the paintings and that, possibly, it won't feel terribly comfortable. Yes, that was exactly right.

Timed entry helped, of course, but the crowds inside the exhibition were ridiculous in front of the 'star' paintings that everyone wanted to see (and much less busy in front of others). At times they were six deep in front of the biggies that meant waiting ages to get close enough to stand a chance of seeing any detail. I do think the audio-guides were part of the problem, with people hanging around, not necessarily looking at the paintings, listening to the commentary. Double the size of the crowd and this is something like I found it. It also gives you an idea of the size of the painting.

Think about Bosch and I suspect that most of us conjure up images of tiny, often naked, figures scrambling round a nightmarish landscape like in his 'Garden of Earthly Delights'. Paintings like this often show the perfection of Eden, the temptations of Earth and the pain and horror of hell since we, inevitably, take the wrong path and end up suffering for our sins. It's always worth looking at the detail in Bosch paintings, even the detail of a story we all know so well, such as the adoration of the magi when the foreign kings pay homage to the newborn Christ.

In Bosch's version of the story we see the kings in the three ages of man (young, middle aged and old) in their grand clothes and we have a Virgin and baby out in the open beside the stable. But who are the characters leering from the inside of the barn or crawling on its roof? If you look even closer you can see people dancing in the fields in the distance. What's this all about? It's not in the traditional story of the way the scene is usually painted. That's where Bosch brings his artist's eye and his story-telling to the fore. It's all there for a reason and it's our job to work it out.

Similarly in his 'Ecco Homo' we have a crowd shouting for Christ's punishment while Christ cowers on the ledge as he's pushed forward. Wouldn't you if you had a crowd baying for your blood? And again, look at the detail, look at the cityscape in the distance. Look at the hats and clothes, fantastical but some are remarkably similar to what people wore when this was painted. Are we still baying for blood or are we grateful for the Christ's sacrifice for our sins? Look at those faces and expressions and I suspect it's the former. Bosch is always telling a story that would've been obvious and powerful when these paintings were first unveiled but which we now need to try to piece together.

A painting I was pleased to see was 'Christ Mocked' which is normally in the National Gallery but is on loan to the exhibition. I'm familiar with this painting, with Christ gazing peacefully out at the viewer while he suffers the mockery of the crowd and is about to be crowned with thorns. Christ's face is rather ethereal compared to the more earthly faces around him.

One of the reasons that I like this painting is that there are only five characters in it as opposed to the untold numbers in many of Bosch's other works. It's small and intimate and implies that you are present and watching what's happening. Will you stand up for your Lord or pass on by? That's an age-old question and is current with the present day attacks on immigrants and others and the need for right-thinking people to support their fellow human beings. There is always someone that the majority needs to protect and cherish because they enrich us all. Bosch tells us that through his works.

A painting I wasn't familiar with was another triptych, 'From Paradise to Hell', with multiple scenes. The left panel shows Eve being created from Adam's ribs, meeting the snake and apple and then being expelled from Eden. The central panel shows the multiple ways that mankind can sin and, obviously, we're at all of them! The inevitable result is condemnation to a fiery hell. Just when you think there's ambiguity in Bosch he goes all literal on us again!

This was a great exhibition despite it's uncomfortable popularity. So many Bosch paintings of all sorts brought together in tribute to his great artistry and story-telling at a time when the majority of people couldn't read letters but could read a painting.  I'm so pleased I managed to get into the exhibition and I hope something like it is put on in London one day. The exhibition has now closed but it'll linger in the memory.

Hieronomous Bosch will now always be El Bosco to me.

'Ragtime' at Charing Cross Theatre

Last week we went to see the new production of 'Ragtime' at Charing Cross Theatre. I saw a production of 'Ragtime' at the rather larger Piccadilly Theatre back in 2003, it's premier in the UK. It's based on a book about turn of the century America, the early 1900s and follows the tale of three groups of people that represent the America of the time in different ways.

We have the affluent upper middle-class of Mother, Father and Younger Brother who live outside New York in a nice house and have a nice life. Father can indulge in going away for months on end as an amateur explorer and Younger Brother is still trying to find himself and escape his pointless life. Mother is, of course, Mother, keeping the household together.

We have Coalhouse Walker a ragtime piano player and writer in Harlem who falls for Sarah and, when he's away on tour, she finds she's pregnant so runs away to have the baby in secret. The third group are immigrants from eastern Europe represented by Tateh, an artist fleeing Jewish persecution with his daughter who comes to America to start a new life. These three groups all interact in different ways against a backdrop of unthinking racism, political movements, early moves for civil rights and a young America finding it's way. We also see historic figures popping up as the story progresses with Harry Houdini, JP Morgan and Henry Ford, Emma Goldman and Booker T Washington.

The story really begins when Mother finds Sarah's baby in her garden - hidden to die or hidden to be found and looked after is never explained. Mother takes in both Sarah and baby and Coalhouse turns up to win Sarah back and start a family with her and his son. Week after week he appears until Sarah gives in and agrees to see him and they fall in love again and start to think about the future.

Meanwhile, Tateh is having a hard adjusting to his new life and cuts out paper silhouettes on the street to earn a crust. His life is no better and maybe worse than if he's stayed at home so he moves from job to job with his daughter, trying to find the America of his dreams. Everything remains happy and contented in Mother's house except for the frustrations of Younger Brother who can't get the girl he loves and keeps on working at the family fireworks factory.

But then it starts to go wrong and as happy Coalhouse and Sarah get into his car to drive back to Harlem with their baby when the local racists stop the car and demand a toll and while Coalhouse calmly leaves to seek the police they destroy his care. He refuses to be quiet about it because he has rights and Sarah is mistakenly shot when she seeks help. That sets Coalhouse off on a spiral of rage and revenge, eventually become an infamous 'most wanted' criminal. Younger Brother wants to try to help and searches for Coalhouse in Harlem. When they meet and Coalhouse asks what he wants he can only blurt out 'I know how to blow up things!' and a sad partnership is formed that can only end in disaster.

Tateh finally makes a break-through and discovers the money-making potential of moving, flicking books and that leads him to moving pictures and he re-invents himself as a a movie producer and becomes wealthy. He's found his place and, after Father dies, marries Mother who he wants to put in a movie when they meet on the beach at Atlantic City.

It's a very touching story and is very timely with the current state of American politics with the Presidential election, Trump and Black Lives Matter. It's very much an ensemble piece and there isn't really a 'lead' story or character - it's about all of them. I particularly liked Anita Louise Combe who played a calm and powerful Mother, Gary Tushaw as a very emotional Tateh, Valerie Cutko as the enigmatic Emma Goldman and Jonathan Stewart as Younger Brother (whose parting lines were that he was heading to Mexico to support the revolutionary Zapata in his struggles against the government - he's found his role in life!). I'd also single out Seyi Omooba  who played Sarah's friend and has an amazing voice, confidently and powerfully singing the final song of the first half - particularly impressive since this is her first professional role. Well done, and someone to watch.

The actors played the instruments and moved the set around for different scenes and it actually worked in this and felt natural. It seems to be a theme in the last year or so for moveable sets and, like 'The Threepenny Opera', this was very effective. The stage occasionally looked a bit too full with so many characters zipping on and off but I'm pleased it's in the smallish Charing Cross Theatre rather than somewhere much bigger since it creates an intimacy and involvement with the show. The final bows were greeted with a standing ovation and, looking back, I think I should've joined in!

Go and see this show - it's excellent!

'Picasso Portraits' at the National Portrait Gallery

We took advantage of the 'Friday late' at the National Portrait Gallery to see the new exhibition 'Picasso Portraits'. I quite like going to 'lates' on a Friday at various galleries and museums because they tend to be less crowded that during daytimes but this exhibition was still quite crowded so it's clearly a hot ticket.

The exhibition's on until February so there's plenty of time to catch it. It focuses on self-portraits and portraits Picasso's family and friends in a wide range of media and styles throughout his long life. There seemed to be a lot of paintings and drawings from private collections so this is a nice opportunity to see works that we otherwise wouldn't have an opportunity to see.

The first painting you see as you enter the exhibition - because it's straight in front of you - is 'Self-portrait with Palette' from 1906, a painting of the young Picasso who was just starting to become well known. It's a simple self-portrait really, just him dressed plainly and with a plain background and that's possibly what makes it so striking since the only thing to focus on is his face and those exotic eyebrows. He uses the traditional thing of showing himself with the tools of his trade, the palette with some smears of colour, and i wonder how many other artists over the centuries have done the very same thing? But where is his brush?

This is followed by roughly sketched portraits of friends, of thickly worked oil portraits and some jokey portraits, all in different styles and different media as he experimented and challenged himself.

A more 'traditional' portrait is one of his wife, a three quarter pose with Olga gazing away to the side, not engaged with her husband at all. She has a very impassive face in this portrait in contrast to the busy-ness of her jacket and dress with the folds and creases lightly hanging off her. Their marriage was deteriorating when this was painted and it certainly projects a cool atmosphere. I wonder how long it took him to complete this painting?

Many of the paintings are of the women in his life, the ongoing love affairs as they came and went, and not all are terribly flattering. They were his muses as well as lovers and contributed to his continually developing and evolving art.

A painting that grabbed my attention was 'Woman in a Yellow Armchair' (Dora Maar) from 1932 in which Picasso moves away from anything like a graphic reproduction of his sitter and, instead, invests in simple shapes and blocks of colour. It instantly made me think of Matisse and of course, Picasso and Matisse were friends and rivals - remove the figurative elements of the painting and you've almost got Matisse's 'The Snail'. Look at all that rich, warm colour and then notice the simple black and white of the painting on the wall behind the armchair which, once you've noticed it it keeps drawing the eye. Is he, perhaps, suggesting that life is the true art, not the bits of canvas and paper we stick on walls?

The last love of Picasso's life was Jacqueline, whom he married and lived out his last years with. His colour palette changes in those years and I was fascinated by a large painting of her called 'Woman by a Window' in shades of grey, green and brown. It's a complex mixture of shapes slotted together to create the form of a beautiful woman with a rather delicate face, sitting patiently beside a window with a glimpse of a palm tree outside. Picasso used the wooden end of his brush to scrape lines and texture into the paint of the portrait (see the lighter lines running down from the knees, these are scrape marks). Although it's quite dull in terms of the colours used and I'm definitely a creature of colour, it is quite spellbinding and made me go back to look at it several times.

Another portrait of Jacqueline (from 1962 which was one of the later works in the exhibition) was painted onto a standing piece of cut sheet metal with different portraits of his wife on each side, 'Jacqueline with a Yellow Ribbon'. I loved this one and would happily have it standing in my living room. The painting in the background of this picture is his daughter 'Maya in a Sailor Suit'.

So there you have a flavour of this exhibition. There are some lovely and some strange pieces in this exhibition and the curators have obviously put in a lot of work to try and make it different to the 'standard' Picasso exhibition that seems to pop up every few years. Focusing on portraits is a different angle to take and he certainly did enough, including some sculptures that are included in the exhibition. The exhibition is presented in conjunction with the always crowded Picasso Museum in Barcelona. Well worth seeing!

Thursday, 20 October 2016

'The Tempest' by Birmingham Royal Ballet at Sadler's Wells

Last week we popped up to Sadler's Wells to see the Birmingham Royal Ballet's version of 'The Tempest'. They performed a really good triple bill of ballets this time last year so I was looking forward to this full length interpretation of 'The Tempest'. It's one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, full of magic and drama, but I've yet to see a version that blows me away - maybe this would be the production?

It opens with a glistening sailing boat suspended in the sea, rocking gently, and then Ariel swims underneath and lifts the boat up into the sky as he soars out of the ocean (on wires, obviously, rather visible wires) and creates the tempest. This lovely, poetic start didn't continue though. We're introduced to Prospero's island and the characters in a rather literal way, following the play in most respects - sadly including the comedy characters and scenes - which was, I think, a missed opportunity. I was very surprised to see Prospero played as a younger man, tall and lithe, dancing almost like a lover with Miranda, his daughter. And what were the long leather black boots all about? Why would a Duke of Milan wear pirate boots?

I think Prospero is the nub of my problem with the production and the literal telling of the story. It's a ballet so needs to be full of dance. Generally speaking, it's unusual for (ahem) older folks to do exciting ballet moves and Prospero is meant to be an older man - not an old dodderer the way he's sometimes played as, but certainly not in the league of a ballet dancer. And that's partly why I was so surprised by the literal story. The play could have easily been re-focussed on the young lovers so that they (and some made up companions, possibly) could have been the focus for the energetic dancing while the older generation dealt with plot interludes and suchlike. Jenna Roberts and Joseph Caley made a charming couple as Miranda and Ferdinand and they should've been on stage together a lot more that they were.

I loved the sets of sandbanks and broken ships hulls and the lighting was great but there was a lack of magic and spectacle. The marriage pageant scene with goddesses arriving on the backs of peacocks and a green Poseidon leaping all over with his trident was great fun and offered opportunities to go mad and give us sparkle but one scene doesn't make a ballet. It also served to highlight the absence of sparkle in the rest of the production.

Thank you Birmingham Royal Ballet, I enjoyed the show and it was a great night out but this wasn't the production of 'The Tempest' to blow me away and make me walk in magic. Maybe next time...

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

'The Virgin and Child Adored by Angels and Saint Dominic, with Saint Peter and Saint Paul' by Fra Angelico and Studio

Today I went over to Oxford to visit the Ashmolean Museum to see this Virgin and Child altarpiece attributed here to Fra Angelico and studio. It's a small portable triptych, about 18" tall and made of tempera and gilding on wooden panels. These devotional pieces were made for the rich and powerful to use for personal worship as they travelled round their domains and beyond. The most famous one is the Wilton Diptych in the National Gallery, i.e. two panels rather than three, that was made for Edward II. There's no indication who this one might have been made for.

If you look carefully, the hinges are quite intrusive and the two side panels aren't the same size. This really suggests that the panels were added later to make it a triptych. It's a bit of a puzzle really. The notes beside the painting say that the panels 'have been cut down' and may have been 'altered or assembled' at a later date. I don't think there's any 'may' about it, the two wings were added to the original painting. And see below how the cutting gets so close to cutting into the haloes of the saints.

Taking a closer look, it's clear that the central panel wasn't by the good Fra - just look at the face of the Virgin and then at the wings of the angels. The face bears little resemblance to any other faces of the Virgin the Fra painted and the punch work on the gilding of the halo is really quite basic for someone who's supposed to be the mother of god. The Fra also knew that angels wings were multi-coloured and these aren't.

I wonder whether there's been any chemical analysis of the paint. The blue of the Virgin's cloak doesn't resemble the deep, deep blue of the Fra's Virgins or even the blue of the two saints on the wings. That suggests it's not the incredibly expensive lapis lazuli the Fra normally used.

The notes beside the painting say that, 'The central panel may be by an artist close to Benozzo Gozzoli, his senior assistant' and I'd agree with that - not by Fra Angelico but someone who's studied his works. I've no idea what 'close to' is supposed to mean.

Turning to the two saints on the wings is where I have real problems accepting that they might be by Fra Angelico. To be fair, the notes beside the painting state that they are 'probably by Fra Angelico', not definitely. The faces of the two saints are rather roughly painted and muddy, as are their feet, and that's something the Fra never did.

If you've seen the detail of the San Domenico predella in the National Gallery, in which the Fra paints dozens and dozens of figures smaller that the saints in this painting (including these saints), then there's no comparison. Where is the detail and the delicacy the Fra is famed for? I don't understand why the curators at the Ashmolean seem to think that these saints were 'probably' by the Fra?

Also, given that the wings to the triptych were obviously added later, I don't really see why the Fra would have a couple of paintings of saints hanging around on the off-chance that they could be attached to something else at a later date. That makes little sense to me really. Isn't that what apprentices are for?

I'm not a specialist but I have seen a lot of Fra Angelico paintings, numbering into maybe three figures bearing in mind San Marco and the exhibition at the Musee Jacquemart-Andree a few years ago. That makes me consider that this altarpiece is not by Fra Angelico but it does bear enough similarities - the composition and the colour palette - to make me think it is from his workshop. That means he probably saw it (or at least it's component parts) and maybe touched it.

The Big Book of Fra Angelico will note this as from the 'Workshop of Fra Angelico' until I see something to convince me otherwise.

It's still a lovely painting though, and I'm pleased I've had the chance to look at it in such detail. 

Sunday, 16 October 2016

'Tosca' by the English National Opera at the Coliseum

I'm not a great fan of opera. I've seen a few in recent years and the only one that's come close to making me 'get it' was 'La Traviata' at the Royal Opera House earlier this year. That involved me emotionally as well as having sumptuous sets and fantastic singing. Since then I've realised that I can potentially like opera, I just need to be careful which ones I choose to see until I have the magic revelation and I fall in love. I haven't seen any operas since 'La Traviata' until Friday evening when I went to see 'Tosca' at the Coliseum, home of the English National Opera (that sings everything in English).

A man enters a church furtively to find the key his sister has hidden that will let him hide in a small chapel before an artist enters to continue to paint a fresco on the wall. The subject is the furtive man's sister as a madonna. The artist's lover visits him and gets jealous over the blond hair and blue eyed subject but the artist reassures her that it is her he loves and her flashing dark eyes. They arrange to meet later that night. The artist is Mario Cavaradossi and the singer is Floria Tosca, our central characters.

When she leaves the furtive man emerges and it turns out he's a former consul of Rome and has just escaped from prison with the help of his sister. The artist is a supporter and swears to help him escape Rome. They hear police at the door of the church and make good their escape and that's when we meet Baron Scarpia, the chief of police (who I renamed Shitface for his evil nature). Baron Shitface wants to arrest and hang both the former consul and Caravadossi as traitors and he sets his agents to follow Tosca to find them.

Find them he does, through cruel torture of Caravadossi while poor Tosca has to listen to his cries. To save her lover she tells Shitface where the consul is hiding but he wants more. He's already told us that he wants Tosca - not to woo her gently as a lover, but to conquer her, to take her as he pleases and use her for his own enjoyment. To save her love she reluctantly agrees and demands a guarantee of free passage out of the city state of Rome. As Shitface starts to ravish her she stabs him in the heart and proclaims that a woman has killed the monster that all of Rome fears.

The scene moves to Castel Sant'Angelo, the prison where Cavaradossi is to be executed, and she assures him that the police will feign shooting him and he must lie still until she says he can move, then they will escape from Rome. But, of course, Shitface was lying and they shoot him anyway. As brave Tosca mourns her beloved the police appear having discovered Shitface's body and move to arrest her. No, they won't have her, and she throws herself off the battlements of the castle to follow her beloved in death.

This is a magnificent opera of love and passion and Tosca emerges victorious in defeating her enemy and depriving his minions of revenge. Puccini's music is marvellous and the story is told so simply and effectively translated into English by Edmund Tracey. Grand, swelling music one moment, quieting the next as the story progresses. It's such a simple story told so effectively and movingly.

My Tosca was Keri Alkema and Cavaradossi was Gwyn Hughes Jones. Shitface was Craig Colclough and he was righteously booed during the bows at the end. Serves you right! They all played their parts to perfection - especially the dangerous and menacing Shitface - believing the acting and rejoicing in the singing. I guessed that Shitface would lie about saving Cavaradossi but I didn't guess the tragic ending of Tosca throwing herself from the battlement. Such a brave and triumphant hero!

Thank you ENO and Keri for opening my eyes to another opera and introducing me to another hero. Thank you to Catherine Malfitano, director of the original production, and to Donna Stirrup, the revival director. Such a well crafted production with simple sets and lighting that helped focus attention on the story and the protagonists. I loved it!

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

'Caillebotte: Painter and Gardener' at Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

One of the big exhibitions in Madrid over the summer was 'Caillebotte: Painter and Gardener' at the lovely Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza and it's on for another couple of weeks if you're going to be in Madrid. Gustave Caillebotte was an Impressionist but has never really been considered as more than a chum of the main Impressionist painters who bought their paintings (because he had the money) and was considered as almost a hobby painter. He's a lot more than that and this exhibition helps to re-evaluate him and his work.

I was first aware of M. Caillebotte by seeing his 'The Floor Planers' in Musee D'Orsay in Paris hanging amongst the Impressionist paintings. It's not terribly Impressionistic in style, but the theme of depicting common workers is spot on. Other paintings I've seen since then were all urban in theme and then I went to see the 'Painting The Modern Garden' at the Royal Academy earlier this year and saw Caillebotte's lovely and massively colourful paintings of his garden and learned that he used to swap cuttings with Monet. A gardener, indeed, and the Thyssen exhibition focuses on that aspect of his work.

The first room of the exhibition included examples of Parisian street scenes, such as 'The House Painters' (above) and Parisians at rest, such as the 'Oarsman In A Top Hat', the poster-boy for the exhibition and cover of the catalogue. This is a great painting with the reeds along the riverbanks, the ripples in the water and the creases in the clothes of the oarsmen - definitely not the work of a hobby painter. There's also the hint at the working class with the two less-elaborately clothed rowers in the boat in the distance. I wonder if the trendy young man had any inkling that he'd still be looked at 140 years after the painting was made? 

We then head into rooms of lovely landscapes from Argenteuil, of fields and trees, lazy, cloudy skies, mysterious paths and fields of sunflowers. It was lovely getting up close to the paintings to see how many colours he mixed to create his fields and leaves, with blues and yellows and reds mixed in with the greens to create astonishing fields and sun-dappled trees. A dab here and a jot there. 

One of the paintings I loved was 'Forest Path' with its banks of creepers and trees and a hint of Autumn coming as the path quietly turns to the right and you've no idea what's there. The mystery and potential surprise of the painting draws you in. This reminded me of some of my walks over the summer exploring different bits of London and the surprises that can lie around every corner.

The final rooms were filled with paintings of flowers, a series of paintings of daisies and flowers from Caillebotte's greenhouse (I suspect he had large greenhouse). One of my favourites was a painting of different varieties of chrysanthemums in small colourful vases called simply, 'Four Vases of Chrysanthemums'. The different colours of the feathery flowers, and the different varieties just sitting in a typical still-life composition, flowers stuck into small, colourful vases. It's the simplicity and colours of the painting that I loved. I'd happily hang that painting on my wall.

It's a lovely exhibition throwing the spotlight onto a painter who deserves it. It will be nice to see more of his paintings in future, watch his painting develop as he learned to explore his art. Maybe one day we'll be brave enough to mount an exhibition of his works in London? Who knows? It's nice that Gustave recognised the beauty in a garden of daisies.

'Beyond Caravaggio' at the National Gallery

On Monday I went to a preview of the new blockbuster exhibition at the National Gallery about Caravaggio and the artists he influenced, 'Beyond Caravaggio'. It's obviously Caravaggio's year since I saw a similar exhibition in Madrid in September called 'Caravaggio and the Painters of the North' at Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. That exhibition looked specifically at Caravaggio's influence on painters in northern Europe, most of whom I hadn't heard of before, but had the bonus of including Caravaggio's last painting, 'The Martyrdom of St Ursula'. The National Gallery's exhibition goes broader than just northern Europe and includes some astonishing paintings.

Caravaggio is known for his use of light and shade, for the dramatic poses and for his realism. There aren't any idealised people in his paintings, they're ordinary and we can still see them in the street today, with frayed cuffs, unthinkingly dishevelled and with wrinkles. The poses of his people aren't just dramatic, they were also new at the time, a new take on a very familiar story. In his 'Supper at Emmaus' he shows one of the diners about to jump out of his chair in shock and surprise - have you seen that pose before in any painting before Caravaggio? - and another diner throwing his arms out wide in a challenging angle to get right. The magic is that you could almost reach out and grasp that man's hand since it seems to be pressing out of the painting, and, if you did, you'd be in the presence of the Christ. That brings you closer to God.

It's not just the story-telling, Caravaggio is clearly a great painter of people. Just look in the faces of the people in 'The Taking of Christ'- these are real people. The look of almost acceptance in Christ's face is belied by his hands, the twisting fingers suggesting the fear of what he knows will come next. It's a very powerful painting and painted to a high finish, with the sheen in the guard's armoured arm at the centre of the painting rather than the faces of Jesus and Judas.

This is, justifiably, the poster for the exhibition and there's a giant blow up on the hoarding in Trafalgar Square. The man in the top right of the painting holding the lantern is thought to be a self-portrait of Caravaggio, placing himself at the centre of history.

There are works by a range of other painters on display and one of my favourites was a rather un-Caravaggio painting of 'The Rest on the Flight into Egypt' by Orazio Gentileschi. It's very light and airy and has a feeling of the dryness of the atmosphere. Joseph is asleep (as he often is portrayed), bundled in his voluminous cloak and the too-big baby is suckling, sitting on his mother's knee. What attracted me, though, was the magnificent donkey seen on the other side of the wall with his really thick fur and perky ears. Isn't he lovely?

Another painting that grabbed my attention was 'The Crucifixion of St Peter' by Mattia Preti (Il Calabrese). This shows an aged St Peter upside down and about to be crucified, very off-centre and lit from the left. His position and flailing arm suggests his pain and discomfort in his last moments, a very clever composition that was designed to be hung high so the viewer looks up at it. Peter felt unworthy to be crucified in the same way as his Lord and asked to be crucified upside down and this is what we see. This photo doesn't really show it very well and it's not as dark as this makes it look.  

There is only one Caravaggio painting in the final room and that's 'St John the Baptist in the Wilderness', a painting also part of the Museo Thyssen exhibition. It's obviously John since he holds his trademark symbol of the long thin cross and is wearing animal skins as well as the gorgeous red robe. But what's unusual, and again goes back to Caravaggio's ability to reimagine and re-tell stories we're all familiar with, he paints John as a sullen young man rather than the more mature man he's usually depicted as. The sulky John is sitting there mulling over some thoughts while almost naked and with dirty toe nails. Is he wondering whether he's made the right career choice? Who knows, but it's a very startling painting.

This is an excellent exhibition that shows us Caravaggio and the painters he influenced, enabling us to compare and contrast and think about these marvellous paintings. The exhibition opens today and runs until 15 January 2017 so there's plenty of time to see it. I'll certainly be going back for more.

'La Fille Mal Gardee' at the Royal Opera House

This evening we went to see Frederick Ashton's 'La Fille Mal Gardee' (or 'The Wayward Daughter') performed by the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House, a first for me and I know nothing about the ballet. But I soon fell in love with its charm, its sheer Englishness and its energetic dancing. Dancing chickens, a maypole, clog dancing and a pony and trap, it's all in there and bursting with the joy of a fruitful autumn harvest. And we were lucky to have Steven McRea and Natalia Osipova as our principals, the lovers.

It's the tale of Lise who loves Colas but her mother wants her to marry Alain. Our happy-go-lucky hero and heroine naturally end up together but its how they get there that's the interesting stuff. Or maybe it's the romantic and energetic dancing?

The tone is set right at the start with dawn starting with the cockerel and chickens doing a mad dance before Lise emerges for her morning chores. And that's when we first meet her daft mother, played by Thomas Whitehead in his best pantomime dame drag and big bum. He's really very good at the comic dancing and being the ultimate foil for the lovers who eventually blesses them. He's also pretty fab at the clog dance with four of the milk maids - how on earth do they go up on tippy in clogs? That was astonishing!

The ballet is full of the English season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, starting in the farmyard of Lise's mother before heading out into the glorious fields for the harvest and the post-harvest celebrations (oddly, with a Spring Maypole) before ending with an Autumn storm. I loved the storm scene, with the cast being blown hither and thither on the stage with lightning shooting down and gusts of blustery rain. It was very effective and who could have imagined what happened to Alain just as the curtain dropped to close the first half (and I'm not going to tell you, but it was a great surprise).

The second half is set in the farmhouse when Lise and Colas meet again and Alain comes to claim his bride. Of course, our lovers win the day (but I won't say how) and are finally blessed by Lise's mother.

There's lots more to the story but you need to see it for yourself. It's not the most complex of ballet's but it's really enjoyable and draws you into it. I realised I was smiling ear-to-ear half-way through the first half at the sheer joy of seeing the performance. It lightens the spirits and makes you happy. That's the point surely?

Needless to say, I loved it. What's not to love? Both principals had their turn at doing the spinning round and round and round and round thing, endlessly spinning, arms and legs flying out and perfectly controlled to make us all gasp and applaud. Wonderful solos and duets and the ensemble pieces were marvellous too, all synchronised and perfect. And, of course, we had the fun of Peregrine the Pony (my new favourite ballet dancer) doing his dance steps as well.

I loved this show. Great dancing, marvellous story-telling, excellent sets, costumes and lighting - what more could one want? I enthusiastically joined in the clapping at the end and it was lovely to see this photo of Steven and Natalia taking their bows at the end of the show (tweeted by Steven McRea).  Enjoy the rest of the run people, you bring us joy!