Monday, 18 June 2018

'Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire' at the National Gallery

Last week I popped in to the new Thomas Cole exhibition at the National Gallery. I've never heard of Thomas Cole (although the exhibition tells us he is or was a big influence in America) so I had no preconceptions other than the poster for the exhibition. He worked in the early-mid 1800s, a period I don't know much about really, and was influenced by Turner and Constable in his landscape paintings. The painter I'd most associate him with is John Martin who was a bit older than Cole and there is one Martin painting included in the exhibition.

I quite liked what I saw, especially the series of 'The Course of Empire' paintings that showed the same landscape over a millennia or so as it turned from a sylvan paradise into an empire and ending with the destruction of that empire. It's quite a grand idea to present empire as here today but gone tomorrow as America was growing up and moving to begin to take its place on the world stage, a sort of warning of what was inevitable. Empires rise and fall and that's the nature of the beast.

The large paintings are presented chronologically from left to right ('The Savage State', 'The Arcadian or Pastoral State', The Consummation of Empire', 'Destruction', 'Desolation') with 'Destruction immediately above where the population is annihilated by barbarians. It's very odd but seems quite modern in their own way, a sort of early political theory of the rise and fall of nations.

A painting I was quite struck by was his 'View of Florence from San Miniato' form 1837, five years after he left Florence and so painted from sketches and memory. I was in Florence quite recently and have been to San Miniato in the past so this painting made me smile. It's a lovely view of Florence, not altogether accurate and these days there are more bridges across the green Arno, but I liked it.

None of the other works on show made me go 'wow', however. Cole was self-taught until he went to Florence and took some anatomy lessons and his paintings are good but they don't have that extra something that makes them belong to a master. It was relatively easy to recognise the other paintings in the exhibition by Turner, Constable. Lorrain and Martin as belonging to different and more experienced hands. It seems like Cole has a fan somewhere in the hierarchy of the National Gallery to get this exhibition. He reminded me so much of John Martin whose paintings are so much bigger in size and scale and who's works Cole probably saw at some point since they went on tour in America as well as around Great Britain. On the other hand, you've got to say well done to a Bolton lad who went to America when he was 17 and made it big time there. It's an interesting rather than an essential exhibition.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Domenico Ghirlandaio in Florence

Frescoes and paintings by Domenico Ghirlandaio can be seen all over Florence, sometimes assisted by his brother Davide and. later, his son Ridolfo and there are paintings by Ridolfo in the Accademie. Where does one hand stop and another take over? I don't know, but all the great masters had studios and assistants and apprentices to fill in the backgrounds and suchlike. The real joy of Ghirlandaio's works is his skill with faces and his compositions of scenes and settings for his paintings. He's not necessarily a big 'name' but he ought to be - Michelangelo was a pupil for a while and he was a contemporary of Botticelli and Verrocchio (Leonardo's master).

My first stop on my recent visit to Florence was San Marco to visit the wonder that is Fra Angelico. Although the museum and convent is mainly dedicated to the works of Fra Angelico there are other painters represented in the building, including a marvellous 'Last Supper' in the former refectory of the convent which is now the gift shop (and one of the best gift shops in Florence). It's a delicate and finely detailed fresco and similar in design to the fresco in Ognissanti mentioned below.

After visiting San Marco I headed over to see Santa Maria Novella with its crucifix by Giotto, the trinity crucifixion fresco by Masaccio and a lovely little nativity scene by Botticelli above the large, main door (one of my favourite nativity scenes). It also has one of the most complete and beautiful fresco cycles by Ghirlandaio in the chapel behind the high altar.

On the left (as you look at the altar) are scenes from the life of the Virgin and on the right are scenes from the life of St John the Baptist. There are four levels of story-telling on each side so there's a lot to see and interpret. These are very popular with tour groups so make sure you've got time to wait for them to vanish before another appears so you can look at the frescoes in peace.

There are more frecoes and a gorgeous altarpiece painting in the church of Santa Trinita. This is a lovely small church and here you need to feed the light machine some coins to see the frescoes properly. I never mind doing this since it gives the church a small income from tourists and art-lovers and the church is, after all, looking after these wonderful works of art.

The altarpiece is a lovely nativity scene showing the 'Adoration of the Shepherds'. I'd love to get closer to this painting to see the detail but the altar is roped off. You can see one of the shepherds pointing downwards towards the Christ child but he's actually pointing towards the garland on the manger - Ghirlandaio's family name is 'garland-maker' after his dad's job - effectively saying, 'I made this painting'. Is that really what he looked like?

There are, of course, lots of other great paintings by masters in all the churches I'm mentioning but this is about Ghirlandaio rather than the art to be found in the churches.  

A few minutes walk further along the Arno is the church of Ognissanti where there are other frescoes by Ghirlandaio. One of my favourites was a small fresco in the nave of the church, quite high up on the right wall that shows the Madonna of Mercy protecting the Vespucci family who are sheltering beneath her cloak. It's a bit damaged but it's quite a gentle painting, with the family clustered around the Virgin praying to her. I like the two little angels holding her cloak open.

The grandest painting at Ognissanti is a large 'Last Supper' by Ghirlandaio which is in the former rectory in the quiet cloister beside the church. It's a most impressive sight. Sadly, something about the lighting has turned my photos yellowish which you don't see when you actually view the fresco. 

The fresco is painted on the end wall to look like it's an extension of the room with the table set on a small stage to raise it up. It's full of colour and vibrant detail and is similar in construction to the San Marco 'Last Supper' (above).

As ever, look at the detail in the fresco, the fruit trees in the background, the birds flying in the sky, the peacock that's come inside and sits in the side window. It's full of symbolism, of course, with hints at the garden of Eden being on the other side of the wall with the apostles being so close to heaven in the shape of the Christ who sits in the middle. The garden isn't just on the other side of the wall for the apostles but also for the monks who commissioned the painting since they were eating in this same room as well.

Further along the table we see two apostles having a chat but look at the detail on the tablecloth, at the fringes, look at what's on the table, the half empty glass bottle and the random grapes and fruit. The skill needed to accurately portray glass in fresco is really quite astonishing but, look closely, and it works. The yellowing in the photo doesn't show you what it's actually like, the colours and sharp details bringing the whole scene to life.

The room is set up with a few rows of chairs in front of the fresco for visitors to sit and contemplate the beauty and meaning of the painting. It's also roped off so you can't get too close. That's a good thing.

Neither  Ognissanti or Santa Trinita  have a shop as such but they do have some postcards which are left near the objects they show with either donation boxes or little baskets for money. That's very trusting and I approve. The cards are good quality too, so, if you go, please pay generously.

So there you have it, some of the paintings by Domenico Ghirlandaio I saw in Florence. There are others, of course, including a grand Virgin and Child in the Uffizi and other frescos in the churches I mention but haven't included here. I'll also mention Ghirlandaio's proper name of Domenico Bigordi but he'll always be known as Ghirlandaio, the garland-makers' son. 

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

'The Rink' at Southwark Playhouse

Last week we went to see 'The Rink' by Kander & Ebb at Southwark Playhouse. Yes, the same Kander & Ebb that did 'Cabaret' and 'Chicago' and no, I hadn't heard of 'The Rink' either. I now understand why.

Southwark Playhouse has a good track record of putting on little played musicals in recent years and I particularly remember 'Grand Hotel', 'The Life' and 'Pippin'. All well worth seeing (I think we saw 'Grand Hotel' three or four times) with solid production values. And that's the same with 'The Rink' - great cast, great production, good band - but, well, it's just not the greatest show that Kander & Ebb ever did.

It starts off with the demolition crew arriving at the roller rink in some anonymous American east coast seaside resort that's seen better days. The owner has sold up and is leaving for a retirement in Florida when, unexpectedly, her 30 year old daughter turns up out of the blue to throw a spanner in the works with her rose-tinted memories of the place. The owner is the mother but the roller rink was left to both mother and daughter and she has forged her daughter's signature since she's only seen her daughter once since she ran away when she was 16.

We then get the story of their relationship in flashbacks to the daughter's childhood memories of her dad and the reality of the situation from the mother. The daughter runs away to find her father and she does eventually, only to find that he's started a new life with a new family and wants nothing to do with her. The arguments and memories continue and then we find out that the daughter actually has a young daughter of her own and she reconciles things between her mother and grandmother. Happy ending all round. But what a journey to get there.

I liked the production, it was serious and fun by turns and it's quite nicely constructed given the basic material but my problem was and is that I can't remember a single song. I left the theatre thinking that too. Not every song in every musical works and is memorable but there needs to be at least one really.  I can forgive many things for a good song but there weren't really any in this show.

Another thing that sort of turned me off were the costumes, particularly for the 30 year old daughter, Angel. Given Angel's age and the dad going off to fight in Korea after her birth then that places the show sometime in the early-mid '80s, so why is Angel wearing an early '70s tank top and green flared jeans? No-one dressed like that in the '80s, even in America. I know that's a silly point but it doesn't half draw the attention away from the singing and acting and the show when you're sitting there thinking 'that's just so wrong'.

Well done to Caroline O'Connor and to Gemma Sutton at the centre of the production as the mother and daughter. My overall verdict is well done to the cast and crew for their work and well done to Southwark Playhouse for putting it on, but it's a shame the material just isn't that good. Still, it was good to have an opportunity to see it. 

Sunday, 10 June 2018

'As You Like it' at Shakespeare's Globe

Last week we went to the new production of 'As You Like It' at Shakespeare's Globe, the first time I've been in well over a year. This is Michelle Terry's first season as artistic director at the Globe so it's interesting to see what sort of direction she is taking the place. If 'As You Like It' is anything to go by, then it's in broadly the right direction for me. The season is gender-blind and that worked well enough for this production.

The last time I saw 'As You Like It' was at the National Theatre a few years ago and I loved the trees of the Forest of Arden in that production - in this one, there are no trees, just a bare stage, but I still saw a forest. Sometimes less is more and the imagination is a powerful tool.

It's the tale of Rosalind and Orlando, one the daughter of a Duke banished from her home and the other has been done out of his inheritance by his brother. They meet brief and fall in love before they have to flee separately into the Forest of Arden for their lives. To ensure her safety, Rosalind dresses as a young man and that's where things start getting strange since she meets Orlando in the forest and urges him to live out his love for Rosalind by pretending that she is, well, Rosalind. Which of course she is. But ... It gets complicated.

It's even more complicated since Rosalind is payed by a tall man and Orlando is played by a small woman - I'm sure their relative height difference was an influence on the casting. I didn't mind the gender-blind casting at all and, if anything, it actually brought some nuances to the play that we wouldn't have otherwise had. Of course, way back then, Rosalind would've been played by a boy anyway.

A bit more challenging was casting a deaf woman as Celia, Rosalind's cousin and partner in crime, who has quite a bit of explanatory dialogue in the first few acts. The actor signed her lines rather than speak them and I think she did really well in this, maintaining the drama while her hands were working overtime to sign the words. The only problem there was that there weren't any surtitles so there were chunks of speech I missed because I didn't have the text in front of me. There must be a common-sense solution to that.

All in all, I have to say that I thought it was a great production and a big return to form for the Globe. I liked the bare stage, the simple lighting and the absence of amplifiers - this is simple Shakespeare that uses those immortal words and the imagination to bring it to life. The costumes were lovely, especially the mad costumes for the clown figures and the floral gowns of the two ladies. It all worked very well for me and, for a Shakespeare comedy, even got me laughing out loud.

The only real downside for me was Bettrys Jones who played Orlando and who seemed to have difficulty projecting her voice - for chunks of the first few acts I could hardly hear her. I don't know if it simply takes time for her voice to warm up or what but it was rather frustrating. Other than that, she was a great Orlando scampering around an imagined forest pinning poems to trees. However, a great new find was Tanika Yearwood who had great projection and a good singing voice too. I also liked Nadia Nadarajah as Celia.

Jack Laskey played Rosalind with some great comic timing and moments but it seemed as if he was channeling a manic Jack Whitehall at times so maybe calm that down a bit. I also really liked Pearce Quigley as the melancholic Jaques in his back suit. He had some inspired moments, not least eating a banana and then starting into the 'All the world's a stage' speech with his mouth full. Naturally he swallowed and started again for such a great speech but it's the little touches like that that help to bring the play to life, to make it part of the here and now.

Well done to Michelle and to the ensemble, I think this is possibly my favourite version of 'As You Like It' so far. It was great fun and, I suspect, truer to the spirit of the play that other versions. I'm seeing a few other plays in this season so I'm hopeful for good things. Looking forward to the next one now!

Friday, 8 June 2018

'Elizabeth' at the Barbican

A couple of weeks ago I went to see a Royal Opera House production of 'Elizabeth' at the Barbican. It was only on for a few performances and I was there for the final performance. It's a tale about Elizabeth I and was first performed at Greenwich where she was born. It's a mix of dance and song, music and spoken word about Elizabeth from her letters and those who knew her and tells the tale of her relationship with the men she was closest to.

It opens with Elizabeth in old age and, as she reminiscences about her life, we're transported back to see the young Elizabeth, our Virgin Queen assuming the throne and command over all English men. We hear how the men closest to her use that very closeness to garner power and wealth for themselves until Elizabeth sees what is happening and ends it. We see Sir Walter Raleigh and Essex, all close for a while and then time moves on. And through this we hear the solo cello, the words read from private letters and the songs. And, of course, the dance.

Elizabeth was danced by Zenaida Yanowsky, a former Principal with the Royal Ballet who retired from the Royal Ballet last year. She has all her skill and charm and kept all eyes on her when she danced. It was nice to see her brother Yuri, as well, who danced all the male parts with brief costume changes. They've danced together since they were children so can anticipate each other and make the whole thing fluid and alive. We also had Samantha Bond narrating some of the performance.

It was a really enjoyable production, only 90 minutes with no interval but that felt about right. The mix of solo cello, songs and readings highlighted by some glorious dancing, sometimes delicate and sometimes robust was all quite delightful.

The cast were enjoying a very lusty applause when Zenaida signalled for quiet and pulled a note out of her bodice and began saying that she was pleased to be dancing this role that was created for her by Will Tuckett since it was to be her last public performance. You could hear the collective gasps of breath at that announcement. I was astonished since I'd been present at her last dance with the Royal Ballet when she was awarded a rain of flowers thrown endlessly onto the stage and the parade of her Principal men dancers and choreographers, all paying tribute. To then be present at her last dance was very strange indeed. It was quite an honour to be able to say farewell to a great dancer who has, no doubt, inspired many others over the years to become dancers.

Farewell Zenaida.

'Red' at Wyndham's Theatre

When it was announced that 'Red' was returning to the London stage I booked tickets simply on the basis that it was a play about Mark Rothko. I don't know anything about the play or much about Rothko but there was a small group of Rothko works at the Royal Academy Abstract Expressionism exhibition a couple of year ago. I go back to the '80s with Rothko and seeing one of his red-brown paintings at the Tate, sitting in front of it and trying to work out what made it art and did that matter? I loved 'Red' and I'm not sure why.

The play is 90 minutes long and is set in Rothko's messy studio. It's set in two years in the late 1950s when Rothko is working on a new commission for a restaurant and he hires an assistant to help him prime his canvases, run errands and do whatever is needed. The assistant, Ken, is, of course, a budding artist affiliated to the new pop art scene where Rothko is part of the old guard of Abstract Expressionists. Cue lots of discussions about the nature of art and about artists. The art arguments are, of course, staged for maximum effect but they mentioned artists and works that I've seen and that drew me in. At one point Rothko talks about visiting an obscure church in Rome to see a dark Carravagio and there's me in the audience thinking, 'I've been in that church and seen that painting'.

One of the memorable scenes in the play is where both Rothko and Ken prime a canvas together, splashing on the dirty-red paint in unison far too quickly but it got everyone's attention. It started a few people laughing for some reason.

Another scene was the one where Rothko talks about how how he and his fellow artists killed off Cubism with their Abstract Expressionism which is returned to later when it appears that the pop artists have killed off the old guard of Abstract Expressionism. True or not, it did seem as if it was just there to provide something else for the two players to argue about. There's a lot of arguing.

One of the final scene's is where Rothko sacks Ken and places his hand on Ken's chest saying, 'Make. Something. New', the benediction of a master to an apprentice who has just completed his master piece. Those should have been the final words of the play but they're not, of course. There are always more words.

This strange play drew me in and made me sit up and pay attention. Not just the writing and name-dropping but also the fine performances of Alfred Molina and Alfred Enoch who worked well together, almost like a master and apprentice. I really enjoyed this play, it struck a chord with me. Well done people!

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Fra Angelico in Cortona

Cortona is a charming little town south of Florence, about 1 hour and 20 minutes by train from Santa Maria Novella station. It's built on the top of a hill like so many medieval towns were so you need to get a train to Camucia and then a local minibus up the hill to Cortona. The trains seem to be hourly and the minibus arrived shortly after the train to take you the 4km up the hill to Cortona.

The minibus drops you off in a parking area at the top of the hill just outside town from which you walk along what seems to be the only level street in town to get to the centre. It's a small town, very small, and there's no distance at all to worry about. I was in search of the Fra Angelico Cortona altarpiece so, when I got to the centre of town after a few minutes, I followed the signs to the Museo Diocesano opposite the cathedral.

The museum is on two floors, the ground floor dedicated to paintings and the lower floor to religious artefacts, most of which had been removed when I was there for restoration. There's a room dedicated to Luca Signorelli and his school (a local lad made good) and the next room contains the Fra Angelico masterpieces along with other early religious work by other artists.

I went to Cortona expecting to see one altarpiece so imagine my surprise when I found two! I really must do better homework before I visit places. The painting known as the Cortona altarpiece is an Annunciation with Gabriel visiting the Virgin while in the background we see Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden. The design and size is very similar to the altarpiece in the Prado in Madrid. The predella shows scenes from the life of the Virgin.

On the adjacent wall is another Fra Angelico altarpiece of the Virgin and Child with saints Matthew, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist and Mary Magdelene. The predella shows scenes from the life of Saint Dominic. Two great paintings by Fra Angelico hanging together and they're marvellous to see. I wasn't expecting to see the second altarpiece so I probably spent more time looking at it than at the Annunciation. Above the Virgin and Child, painted on the frame, is a small crucifixion scene with the Virgin and John beneath the cross showing what will happen to the Christ child standing on his mothers' knee and who's halo has a cross inside it, the symbol of  the resurrection.

One of the details I really liked in the Annunciation was seeing that the angel Gabriel is wearing red and gold slippers. I haven't noticed the slippers in other scenes of the annunciation - or on Fra Angelico angels generally - but it's something I'll watch out for. I also liked the labels for both altarpieces that attributed them to Fra Giovanni da Fiesole going on to mention that he is also 'known as' Beato Angelico or Fra Angelico in the English signs. Attributing them to Giovanni, his real name, makes it more human and personal than using his title of Angelico. I liked that.

It was well worth the €5 entry fee for the museum and was nice to see the annunciators angel pictured on the ticket. There's a small gift shop at the entrance with lots of things branded with the Annunciation including a big, glossy hardbacked book in Italian and English that covers both altarpieces by Fra Angelico. Strangely, there was nothing - other than the book - about the Virgin and Child altarpiece, not even a postcard.

Cortona is a nice little town full of old stone buildings, a museum about its Etruscan past and even it's own theatre named after Signorelli. It's full of art and craft shops aimed at the tourist market and the place did seem to full of American tourists doing their version of the grand tour.

After wandering up and down hilly streets for a while I sought a refuge for lunch and settled into La Grotta, a small restaurant off a shady square and tucked into the freshest tomatoes I've had in a long time and some spaghetti, washed down with cold beer of course. This is the view from my table.

Then I wandered back to the car park area for the next bus to the railway station in Camucia. I'd just missed one so waited until the next one (they seem to leave on the hour) with a glorious view out over the Tuscan countryside. The bus ride took about 15-20 minutes and got me to the station early for the train back to Florence. It was a lovely day out with the bonus of seeing two Fra Angelico altarpieces.

'Mitten wir im Leben sind/Bach6cellosuiten' at the Teatro della Pergola, Florence

On Saturday night I joined the goodly arty folk of Florence at the Teatro della Pergola to see a dance piece by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker set to Bach cello suites played by Jean-Guihsn Queyras and danced by the Rosas dance troupe. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect but nothing ventured nothing gained as I took my seat in the grand old theatre (odd numbered seats on the left, even numbers on the right). The production was part of the Festival Del Maggio Fiorentino.

We were greeted with a bare stage which was entirely empty of scenery or props, nothing covering the wings or back wall, empty, empty, empty. Just a small pole on the left with coloured sticky tape hanging from it, fire extinguishers and some scaffolding resting against the back wall. Ok, this is a bit different.

Then the first dancers came on to use the coloured tape to make a pattern on the stage and then a woman dancer made signs with her hands and then held up one finger to indicate act one while the cellist settled himself on a stool with his back to the audience. And the dance began.

Each act followed the same pattern with different coloured tape being laid on the stage, the stool moved so the cellist was in different positions, the luminous woman signing the act and then a solo dancer taking off, occasionally being joined by the woman dancer. Leaping, dancing, twisting in mid-air, rolling on the stage, running to the back of the stage and then forward to the lip of the stage, all non-stop movement to the sound of there cello being played relentlessly. Three men and two women (including the luminous sign woman) dancers plus the cellist.

I was quite distracted by the woman dancer who did the signing at the start of each act since her skin tone was so white on luminous white. Now I know what that phrase means. Her skin almost glowed with whiteness, legs, arms, neck and face all really stood out. When it was time for her solo dance the stage lights went off and she danced to two spotlights and even when she was out of the spotlight it was quite easy to see her movements due to her sheer whiteness. I've got no idea if this was a planned part of the performance or merely happenstance but it was quite enthralling. I couldn't understand how anyone could be so white in Florence when simply looking out the window into that glorious sun must induce some level of tan.

The final act involved all five dancers coming on stage and weaving intricate patterns with their bodies. Synchronised walking, jumping, moving together, rolling on the floor, twisting together - it was a sight to see. It wasn't ballet, it was something else and it was a delight. The sheer concentration written on their faces and the sweat standing out on their bodies was incredibly noticeable. This was intense work to create an experience we could all be part of, dancer and observer.

At several points in the performance I wondered how on earth do you write this down so it's the same whenever it's performed by different dancers? Is there a 'modern dance' language that summarises a somersault followed by a leap followed by a twist in the air to land with your back to the audience? I suppose there must be. Whatever it was, it was most impressive.

It's important to not forget the music, the lone cellist on stage with the dancers moving around him. For each act, his stool was moved so he faced a different direction. The sound of the cello was marvellous, deep and sonorous, fast and slow, everything a dancer could wish for. It was played by Jean-Guihen Queyras, a star performer of the cello who was most impressive.

Well done people, I thoroughly enjoyed the performance. You've opened me up to new possibilities in dance and it'll be interesting to see where it takes me. Thank you!

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Fra Angelico at the Fondazione C.R. di Firenze

Any visit to Florence will, by definition, involve seeing some of the works of Fra Giovanni da Fiesole, better known as il Beato Angelico and Fra Angelico. It's especially exciting when there is a new work to see and, coinciding with my trip was a newly restored crucifixion on display at the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze (to give it its full name). The Crucifixion with Saint Nicolas of Bari and Saint Francis is a large work and is especially curious (for me at least) since it seems to have had the background cut away for some reason. It's dated to around 1430 and, after this short exhibition, will be returned to its home at the Fondazione's Oratory in Florence.
It's not that unusual for Renaissance works to be cut down to size or for specific parts of works to be cut out and sold in the 1700s and 1800s and that's why it's possible to see single angels or panels of saints in museums and collections around the world. This, however, is the only Fra Angelico work I'm aware of that appears to have had the entire background cut away only leaving the Crucifixion and major saints. Perhaps there were other saints paying respects and angels flying in the sky around the Christ? I suspect we'll never know.

Beside the restored altarpiece is a small painting showing it's location in (I think) the 1700s, which is a nice touch.  This made me wonder why there aren't more paintings with famous or important works somewhere in the background.

There is some damage to the altarpiece, particularly across St Nicholas's face that the restoration hasn't (quite rightly) tried to fix but it has included plain blocks of wood to help illustrate the size and positioning of the elements of the work. The way it's displayed also means you can see how thick the wood panel actually is which made me wonder how they actually cut it back, perhaps leaving a small gap between the cut and the painting to sand it down? Again, we'll probably never know. It would have been interesting to display it so we could see the back of the work and see how the panels fit together and are held together (there would have been several panels locked together for a work of this size).

It was great to be able to see this little-known altarpiece after restoration. Well done to the Fondazione for sharing it's work.