Sunday, 30 September 2018

The Scottish National Galleries in Edinburgh

There are three Scottish National Galleries in Edinburgh: the Scottish National Gallery, The Scottich National Portrait Gallery and the Scottish Museum of Modern Art. The National Gallery and Portrait Gallery are about 10 minutes walk apart, with the Modern Art museum about 45 minutes walk away.

The Scottish National Gallery is a few hundred yards walk from Waverley Station, on the other side of the incredibly gothic memorial to Sir Walter Scott. It's small (-ish), but it really is quite lovely. The Renaissance rooms were closed for re-hanging when I was there otherwise my view might have been totally different. It has a nice selection of works, lots of Scottish themed works (as you'd expect) but lots of international works as well.

There were paintings of heroes and battles, of history and antiquity, a bit of this and a bit of that from named artists and those you've probably never heard of, but all interesting and worth seeing. I was enchanted by the painting of Oberon and Titania and their realm of fairy folks by Sir Noel Paton, a very Victorian fascination with the faerie world and Shakespeare. The rooms were smallish and comfortable and I was pleased it was so full on a weekday afternoon. Free entry helps, of course.

The best room, in my view. was the late 19th Century room of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists with it's Van Goghs and Sargent and Gaugin. I loved Vincent's twisted, tortured 'Cyprus Trees' and Sargent's beautiful and serene 'Lady Agnew of Lochnaw'. These paintings were worth seeing so why were there no postcards in the shop? So typical of galleries these days.

About 10 minutes walk across the road and over a hill (there are lots of hills in Edinburgh) is the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, a rather lovely gallery, much smaller than the National Portrait Gallery in London but, I think, better, Whenever I think of the London gallery I think of rooms full of old Victorian men with beards wearing black frock coats. That's not a real reflection of the gallery but it's what my head summons up about it. The Scottish gallery is full of colour and light and I loved the different colours on the walls, the strange range of portraits and the attempt to make them relevant to the viewer. I'm really pleased I visited the gallery.

The entrance hall was rather splendid, a painted Victorian gothic hall with statues of the Scottish great and the good, marvellous painted walls with their strange tales of an invented past. On the sides of the balcony is a procession of men and women through the ages leading up to the (present) Victorian day. I loved the hall and the incredible contrast with the very modern cafe through a door on the right. The entrance hall alone could be the subject of a blog post but I must move on to some of the paintings in the gallery rooms.

The first painting that grabbed my attention on entering the galleries proper was a portrait of 'Tom Derry or Durie' by Marcus Geeraerts the Younger dated 1614. What an astonishingly real portrait this is, especially for portraiture in this country at the time. Look at that face. That man lived and could live today - watch out for him on the 159 bus tomorrow because he could be there, only dressed in a jacket and shirt rather than a ruff.

I also loved the full-length portrait of 'Kenneth Sutherland, 3rd Lord Duffs' by Richard Waitt with his wig and mini-kilt and his faithful hound. I couldn't help but crack a smile and wonder what on earth was going on back in those days to wear that get-up.

It was also a pleasure to see Dora Carrington's portrait of Lady Strachey (Lytton Strachey's mother) and the self-portrait by a young Duncan Grant.

All in all, I was very pleased with the Scottish National Galley, it's well curated and the works are well hung - there's something there for everyone to engage with. It's not just showing old paintings, it's trying to tell a story of particularly Scottish history through portraiture and it succeeds very well in doing that. It doesn't overdose on any particular period or theme but calmly moves the viewer forward through history into different coloured rooms with some great portraits. The shop beside the entrance hall has a great guide to the gallery with some lovely reproductions and text - I bought it. I think a lot of galleries could take lessons from this gallery. Well done people.

The third gallery was the Scottish Museum of Modern Art which is split over two buildings about 45 minutes walk outside the city centre, down roads of lovely old stone buildings but with the endless traffic of all modern cities. Having spent a lot more time in the Portrait Gallery than anticipated, I didn't have time to explore the modern art and focused on the Emil Nolde exhibition that I've already blogged about. It's in an old country house in its own grounds so is limited to what it can do by the architecture but I was impressed by the Nolde exhibition and, if that's an example of the kind of exhibitions it puts on, I'd be more than happy to return again. Preferably in sunshine rather than rain.

I'm very pleased to have visited the Scottish National Galleries and would be happy to explore them again, preferably when they're fully open next time. The Scottish Portrait Gallery was my favourite on this visit, for the colour and the story-telling, but I'd still like to see the Renaissance collection in the Scottish National Gallery. Next time...  

Saturday, 29 September 2018

'The Importance Of Being Earnest' at the Vaudeville Theatre

Last week we went to see the last play in the year-long season of Oscar Wilde plays at the Vaudeville Theatre, 'The Importance of Being Earnest'. This is probably Oscar's best play, far more subtle and funny than his earlier plays and I can quite imagine him keeping a notebook specially for his wittiest lines to save them up for this play. It has all the social commentary and absurdity you expect from Mr Wilde and it's effortlessly funny. So why were there empty seats?

This is the tale of Jack who wants to marry Gwendolen but there's a problem since he's pretending to be called Ernest and his best friend Algie, Gwendolen's cousin, finds out there's something afoot and quizzes him about his life in the country. It turns out that Jack is upright Jack in the country but pretends to be his younger brother, the rake Ernest, in town. And that's where the confusions starts with Algie travelling down to the country to pretend to be Ernest and falls in love with Jack's ward, Cecily, and the story gets more complicated.

Of course, Jack is an orphan who was found in a handbag in Victoria station by a kindly old man who adopted him and left him his wealth. If we know anything about this play it's Dame Edith Evans' rising shout of 'a handbag????''. There's so much more to the play than just that line. There are twists and turns aplenty in this play and the production does them proud. Double identities, put upon servants, the power of money, society, town versus country and the clergy, it's all in there somewhere.

While the play is fab and some of the performances were great, I wasn't all that taken with the cast as a whole or with some of the direction. Sophie Thompson was a joy as Lady Bracknell and I loved her under-playing of the 'a handbag' line (you just know that most of the audience - including me - was expecting the Evans outburst at that point). Everything worked so well when Sophie was in control of what was happening on the stage. Less so when other characters and actors took the lead.

I wasn't terribly keen on the male leads and don't understand why Ernest turned into John Cleese in the 'Ministry of Silly Walks' in the final scenes with his silly and unnecessary jumping, and the young ladies could've done with some real backbone. That might be why there are some empty seats, it's the cast not the play.

Still, it's been a great year for this season and more theatres ought to take the plunge and dedicate a year to productions of a specific playwright. This season has demonstrated how effective this can be and it's been a breath of fresh air in the West End. Well done to Classic Spring and the Vaudeville, I hope to see more in the future!

Mantegna and Bellini exhibition at the National Gallery

The new exhibition at the National Gallery is a joint one about the paintings and drawings of Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini, brothers in law and painters from the second half of the 15th century in north eastern Italy. The National Gallery is lucky to have a number of their paintings in its collection including paintings of 'The Agony In The Garden' they each painted separately.

It was these 'compare and contrast' elements of the exhibition that I really liked. I'm very familiar with the two 'Agony in the Garden' paintings but it was interesting to see how they dealt with other themes, such as Christ's descent into Limbo and the 'Presentation of Christ in the Temple' - I really liked at the intricate detail in Mantegna's version, such as the gold thread on the hems of clothes. It was also good to see their different treatments of the Crucifixion.

Bellini's version is stripped back and personal, setting the scene in an Italian landscape whereas Mantegna's is a much bigger scene with crowds, a fainting Virgin and soldiers gambling at the foot of the cross. Same story but very different treatment.

One painting that really captured my attention was Bellini's 'Lamentation Over The Dead Christ' which, I think, was painted with ink on a base of gesso. A simple composition completed with a minimum of fuss but it is incredibly powerful. Just look at the faces of the three men in the background, how individual they are and admire the skill that takes. They're distinct from one another, not generic faces - those men lived.

As well as the inevitable religious paintings both artists lived at a time when the classics were being rediscovered and paintings on classical themes were popular so we have a number of those on display. There are three very large paintings by Mantegna that are part of his nine painting series on the 'Triumph of Caeser' (my favourite was the one with the elephants) which are full of classical detail. There is also Mantagna's 'Minerva Expelling The Vices From The Garden Of Virtue'.

I first noticed this mad painting while wandering around the Louvre a few years ago and it grabbed my attention - what on earth is going on here? what are these strange creatures and why is that fat man being carried away? I don't know the story this painting is telling and part of me doesn't want to know. I like the madness and mystery of it as a rather over-dressed warrior Minerva chases all the weirdos out of her garden.

Bellini also explored classical themes and my favourite was his 'Feast of the Gods' that later had bits added to it by Titian. Here we see the gods having an outdoor party in the woods and the men are feeling amorous, one with his hand at the crotch of his female companion and another lifting the hem of a sleeping woman's robe. I loved the satyr on the far left whose goats body seems to begin just under his bare bum. I wonder who commissioned this painting and what was specified in the contract?

There's a lot to see in this exhibition and it's worth taking your time to drink in the detail. There's a lovely catalogue in the exhibition shop but the postcards are a disappointment, only available as packs rather than individual cards. The National Gallery has done this for its last few exhibitions and that's a shame since everyone likes to take something home from an exhibition and postcards are ideal, but not necessarily a pack of them. I'll be returning to the exhibition again to see what else I can spy that I missed on this visit.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

'The Merry Wives of Windsor' at the RSC Stratford-upon-Avon

Strangely, I'd never been to Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare's home town, so when I did finally go I wanted to see a play and it so happened that 'The Merry Wives of Windsor' is on at the moment, a play I haven't seen before, so why not? This one seems to have been updated to Essex and has wheelie-bins, swimming pools, golf buggies and all sorts of modern stuff but it still hits its pompous mark. The mark is that everlasting epicurean rascal, Sir John Falstaff and everything he stands for. Poor Sir John.

Falstaff is a bit short of the readies so he cocks his hat at the two richest women in town, ignoring the fact that they're both married, because, after all, why let technicalities get in the way. He's a fine figure of a man, in the most rotund and beer-sodden meaning of man, so what's not to like. The two ladies are best friends and confide to each other that they've received letters from Sir John professing his love and, when they see the letters are identical, decide to play a prank on their would-be lover. Several pranks, in fact. And so falls our noble knight.

 Poor Sir John suffers indignity after indignity but pursues his beloved - or rather her money - like a true Englishman and never gives up. It's this dogged persistence that means you've almost got to admire him, going back time and again to be humiliated but always with the hope of success. A bit like Brexit really.

His final humiliation is in the town square when he's dressed in furs and horns as Herne the Hunter and he's taunted by the great and good of the town. I'd question their goodness, to be honest, but this is Shakespeare. If you ignore the rather unpleasant bullying and humiliating of one person then it's a very enjoyable play about relationships, social mores and gentlemen. For a Shakespeare comedy it even had me laughing and my favourite line was when, after asking for an egg to be in his beer in a time of need he asks for another beer and says he'll have "no pullet-sperm in my brewage". I went into one at that!

It was rude and so unsubtle it should win awards but, you know what? I enjoyed it immensely. Effective, simple sets and lighting, modernised language where appropriate, talk of wheelie-bins - it all worked for me. David Troughton was excellent as our Falstaff and he must be exhausted every night when he gets out of that fat-suit. I also liked Rebecca Lacey as a no-nonsense Mistress Page that reminded me of Prunella Scales. It was great fun and I'm pleased that I've seen it.

Friday, 14 September 2018

'Courtauld Impressionists' Exhibition at the National Gallery

I went to a members' preview of the new exhibition at the National Gallery about the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings collected or payed for by the Courtauld family. It's made up of a selection of 40 paintings picked from the collections of the Courtauld Gallery, the National Gallery, the Tate collection and a few private collections. The exhibition is in three rooms normally assigned to the Impressionists in the National Gallery collection, and the paintings not associated with this exhibition are currently on show in the Central Hall of the Gallery.

I've seen the majority of the paintings many times - and so will you if you've visited the National Gallery or the Courtauld Gallery - but I haven't seen them hung in this particular way and that made it a very pleasant experience. They're hung by artist rather than chronologically or by theme and that added to the pleasure of seeing them showcased in the exhibition. So we have four Van Gogh's hung together and nine Cezannes, as well as other artists.

There were giant photos of some of the paintings hung in situ in the Courtauld's house before they found their way onto the walls of galleries and this was  bit of a thrill. Imagine being a visitor and being able to see all these glorious paintings, maybe even touching them? Wouldn't that be an amazing experience?

There are paintings (and sometimes rows of paintings) by Manet and Monet, Renoir, Degas, Pissaro, Seurat, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, Bonnard and more. It's not a huge exhibition by any means but there's a great selection of paintings, all of which can be traced back to the Courtauld family. It's nice to see the notes telling us that 'X' was the first by him in the collection or that 'Y' was bought several months after it was completed. It's one of the things about 'modern' art that so much is documented about it that you can trace it back to the studio on a specific date in some cases to provide a history.

The exhibition coincides with the closure of the Courtauld Gallery for two years while it refurbishes the building, so it's one way of seeing some of its great collection in the paint (always so much better than seeing reproductions). It's also very nice to see the collections of different galleries 'merged' in this way so you see the works by the artist as specifically collected by someone rather than just a random hang on a gallery wall (if they're ever 'randomly' hung!).

The exhibition opens on Monday 17 September and is bound to be popular so book your tickets in advance.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Fra Angelico Exhibition at the Prado in Madrid in 2019

Next year will see a new Fra Angelico exhibition as part of the Prado's 200th anniversary celebrations. Called, 'Fra Angelico and the Rise of the Florentine Renaissance', the exhibition seems to use the good Fra as the jumping off point for the exhibition and will focus on his two masterpieces in the Prado collection, the 'Annunciation' altarpiece and the recently acquired 'Virgin with the Pomegranate' (or 'Alba Madonna').

The exhibition has only just been announced so there aren't many details yet but click on the exhibition page on the Prado website. The exhibition will be on from 28 May - 15 September 2019.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Emil Nolde at the Scottish Museum of Modern Art

The two big exhibitions in Edinburgh at the moment are about Rembrandt and Emil Nolde and, with limited time, I chose Nolde. And I'm so pleased that I did. Rembrandt is brown but Nolde is every colour of the rainbow and a few more and that's why the exhibition is titled 'Colour Is Life'. Colour is, indeed, life and we need more of it, as the sandstone front to the gallery clearly shows.

The exhibition presents works from across Nolde's life and I was pleased to see that one of the constants was his paintings of plants and flowers, from the early paintings of his gardens to later paintings of poppies. Such gorgeous colours and compositions. Paintings of parties and nightclubs in Berlin in the '30s, showing the colour and glamour and the decadence. And paintings of his trip to the South Seas and the tropical vegetation and peoples and his return to Europe during the First World War. There's a lot going on in these works.

It was odd to read about his life alongside his paintings and see that he lost thousands of his own works along with those he'd collected by Klee and Kandinsky when his Berlin apartment was bombed in the Second World War. Who knows what we're now missing? It was also disturbing to read of his support for the Nazi Party which was offset by his being banned from being a painter and having more works than anyone else exhibited in the first 'Degenerate Art' exhibition. Since he was banned he found it difficult to buy canvasses and oil paints so he honed his skills with watercolours and paper and produced some astonishing works. I'm new to painting with watercolours and don't understand how he produced such deep colours in the medium. I need to experiment more, obviously.

To illustrate Nolde's anti-semitic support for the Nazis the exhibition includes a painting in a room of religious paintings (rather than political paintings) of Jewish elders gloating over the crucifixion. The museum even has a paragraph on its website warning about this painting and saying it doesn't support the views expressed in the painting. I won't show the painting here but it's pretty obvious what it's about. His saving grace is being banned by the Nazis, I suppose. Instead, here's a painting of Adam & Eve after the fall. I'll stick with the colour and inventiveness of his paintings.

One of the last paintings on display was a small watercolour of a skater which really caught my eye. The strange composition with extreme foreshortening, arms behind his back and clear movement, all off which show athleticism and thrusting his way forward on the ice. That muscular body growing out of the touch of skate to ice and the bulging shadow, such a great composition in such minimal colours.

There was also one late painting of poppies, presumably from his garden, in the exhibition, and plastic poppies for sale in the gallery shop (I didn't buy any). I like his paintings of poppies and have used his paintings as the basis for my own versions of his poppies..

The Museum is about 45 minutes walk from the Scottish National Gallery so you need to want to go there rather than just drop in on your way to somewhere else but this exhibition is worth it. I'd be quite happy to see it again if it transferred to London.  

'The Humans' at Hampstead Theatre

Last week we went to see 'The Humans' at Hampstead Theatre. This is the play I saw in a touring version in Boston back in March this year with the last of the winter snow piled up outside the theatre doors. I was muffled up in a scarf and big coat but I was in sandals and shorts to see this version which was played by the Broadway cast on a much smaller stage in Hampstead.

It's the tale of the Blake family's first Thanksgiving dinner at Brigit, the youngest daughter's new apartment in Chinatown in New York. Brigit and her partner have just moved in and haven't finished unpacking yet but they host Brigit's grandmother, parents and older sister for the traditional dinner. We see traditions and hear home truths, long-standing jokes and family niggles, the awkwardness of the new member trying to fit in (Brigit's partner) as well as the grandmother suffering from dementia. Transpose this to a Christmas dinner in the UK and you have the equivalent.

As soon as I saw the set showing two floors and a spiral staircase it all came flooding back from when I saw it in Boston. But this was a different cast, a cast that had worked together for a long time and lived the play in a different way and that was obvious after the first few minutes. Even though this was a preview, the cast gelled in a good way, they were a family already and acted like it, playing off one another. I particularly liked the relationship of sisters Aimee and Brigit, sharing cares and jokes, the religious mother Deidre and the stoic father Erik. They were very believable as a family with the little jokes and hurts that define families. I loved the way that Aimee's loss of her girlfriend is treated like any family break-up and the grandmother having dementia is just another trial thrown at the family by life. Neither are pointed at or made special in way and Erik, the father, consoles Aimee after an awkward phone call.

The writing by Stephen Karam is spot on and very naturalistic and the acting was excellent. I particularly liked Cassie Beck as Aimee, Jayne Houdyshell as the mother and Reed Birney as the father. The writing and the winning performances drew me in and made me a silent viewer to the family scenes I watched. I thoroughly enjoyed this production and might well go back for seconds later in the run. Go and see it if you can.