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. 

Degas at the National Gallery - 'Drawn in Colour from the Burrell'

Yesterday afternoon I went to a preview of a new exhibition at the National Gallery - 'Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell'. The 'Burrell' refers to the Burrell Collection in Glasgow that is currently closed for refurbishment. The National Gallery seems to have a policy of showing exhibitions in unusual locations at the moment and this exhibition is in the ground floor galleries near the Getty entrance, usually galleries B, C and D (I think). I like this approach that forces us to go to parts of the Gallery we might not normally visit.

The exhibition is made up of various works featuring dancers, horses, intimate moments with women after a bath and combing their hair and some of everyday life such as a pastel of laundry women and others looking at gem stones. My favourites were the dancers. Apparently, Degas attended 54 ballet performances in 1885, many at the Paris Opera. I've got a long way to go to catch up with that kind of record. I particularly liked 'The Rehearsal' with ballet dancers hidden by the spiral staircase and another cut in half by the edge of the paper. These are very specific compositional decisions to achieve the 'modern' effects he wanted.

Another work I really liked about dancers was 'The Red Ballet Skirts' featuring three dancers in their deep red costumes, limbering up and getting ready for a dress rehearsal or a performance. This is a later work and these are not lithe young women - look at the sturdiness of those legs with muscle and power. This is quite a startling work and really stands out in the room of dancers. It's the poster for the exhibition and rightly so.

In contrast see the more delicate and less monumental 'Dancers on a Bench' with the dancers almost like delicate birds fluttering and flapping on a tree branch. You can almost see the quick movements and hear the chatter as the dancers relax during a rehearsal and get ready for the next section of the dance. You just know that the girl sitting down with the fan is the ring-leader of the group, chattering away ten to the dozen.

In the next room are a few works showing women in intimate situations and positions and the most famous is one of the National Gallery's own works, 'After the Bath, Woman drying Herself'. It's always a fascinating work to see, pastel on several sheets of paper. That pose looks uncomfortable so is probably meant to show movement as the woman rocks forward for a moment. All we really see is a naked back with reds and blues of slight shadows as well as flesh tones. It does make me wonder how many towels the woman actually needs after a bath. It's a good job there are some laundresses pictured in the first room of the exhibition to take care of the towels.

It's a relatively small exhibition spread over three of the ground floor gallery rooms so doesn't take a long time to see it but it's good to see these works that rarely leave the Burrell Collection in Glasgow,

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

'Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael - About 1500' at the National Gallery

I was in the National gallery today so popped along to Room 20 to see the new mini-exhibition in one room, 'Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael - About 1500'. It's an opportunity for the National Gallery to show off it's collection of the triumvirate of masters of the High Renaissance and their works from around 1500 when they were all working. All the works on display are in the National Gallery's collection (other that the 'Taddei Tondo' which is on loan from the Royal Academy round the corner) so I've seen them all before (many times) but it's great to see them together.

Between both doors to Room 20 is Raphael's large 'Ansidei Madonna' with John the Baptist and Nicholas of Bari. I've never quite understood why the Virgin has to climb those steps to get to the throne - they look a bit steep to me, especially in a long frock. Nicholas is reading a bible while Mary seems to be reading to the Child. St John is gazing up at the cross he's holding and pointing to the Child in a rather obvious gesture showing the destiny of the baby in Mary's lap. It has Raphael's trademarked high-gloss finish without a brush-stroke in sight.

Also on show by Raphael are the 'Madonna of the Pinks' and 'Saint Catherine of Alexandria'.

The exhibition then moves on to Michelangelo and two paintings that shown in the recent exhibition about Michelangelo and Sebastiano, also a High Renaissance painter. Both 'The Entombment' and 'The Manchester Madonna' are on show and here's the Madonna. Both paintings are unfinished but I prefer the Madonna because of the two angels to the left where one has his arm round the other and hand resting on his shoulder - this always makes me think of David Bowie and Mick Ronson on 'Top of the Pops' in 1972 playing 'Starman'. I can't help it.

As ever, it's the detail you need to see and, in this painting, we see the Child reaching out for his mother's book without a care in the world while the babe St John, already clad in animal skins, looks off into the middle distance. He doesn't seem to be looking at anything in particular, perhaps he's just experiencing a passing moment of sadness since he sees his cousin's destiny.

Opposite the two Michelangelo paintings are two by Leonardo, 'The Virgin of the Rocks' and 'The Burlington House Cartoon'. There's a version of the 'Virgin of the Rocks' in the Louvre since Leonardo painted two very similar versions because he wasn't satisfied with the first version. I've never worked out why the Virgin is in a cave but that's Leonardo's business, not mine, and he was a lot cleverer than me (and had a bushier beard).

The light source comes from the left of the painting and uses Leonardo's pyramidal structure. There are strange plants flowering in the foreground and a distant sea peaking between the rocks of the cavern. What a strange landscape in which to place the holy family.

The final artwork on show is the 'Taddei Tondo' on the wall between the Michelangelo and Leonardo paintings, and opposite the Raphael altarpiece. The Tondo is on loan from the Royal Academy and is, I think, the only Michelangelo sculpture in this country. It's rather lovely.

The jury's out on whether the piece is actually finished or not, given how rough some of the parts are, but the baby Jesus seems to be complete and, let's face it, he's the main character in any Christian painting or other artwork. My eyes kept going to the hand of the baby John the Baptist who is holding a goldfinch out towards his cousin, a symbol of suffering. The Child is flinching away from it while acknowledging his destiny. It's the skill of Michelangelo that's wonderful here since he defines the trapped bird with just a few chisel strokes but beak and feathers are clearly there if you look closely. It's a wonderfully simple piece of carving.

It's lovely to see the works of these three masters together, with both Michelangelo and Raphael learning from Leonardo. If I was in charge of the National Gallery I think I'd show them off too. They're all in one room for a change so pop along and enjoy them while you can.

I have seen the tombs of all three masters. Michelangelo's huge tomb in Santa Croce in Florence that I suspect he'd hate, Raphael's modest plaque in the Pantheon in Rome and Leonardo who was buried in a chapel at Chateau d'Amboise in the Loire Valley in France. I've only seen the chateau from a  distance but I'd like to visit one day.