Wednesday, 13 February 2019

'Vienna 1934 - Munich 1938' at the Rose Theatre, Kingston

On Saturday we went to see the third and final performance of a play written and directed by Vanessa Redgrave at the Rose Theatre in Kingston. It was billed as 'a work in progress' so we knew this wasn't finished product by any means, it was an acted reading to try out the piece in front of an audience. Vanessa came on at the start to begin chatting to the audience, introduce the piece and give us some background to it, to the family friends featured in the work and some of her own memories of the war when she was a child.

The play's theme is the rise of fascism in Europe and the nazis in Germany in particular. There's a lot going on in the play - and I think that is one of it's problems, it needs to be simplified - but I thought of act one as being about Stephen Spender, act two about her dad Michael Redgrave being gay, and act three showing how fascism spread to Italy and a long speech delivered by Thomas Mann after he left Germany (her dad was a fan of Mann).

Although it didn't really hang together as a play there were some fascinating insights into the characters and the thinking at the time. It was all based on journals, news reports, diaries and autobiographies of the people involved, often with personal photos of them projected on the back of the stage. This is clearly a labour of love and Vanessa has put a lot of work into it.

In the evening there was an interview with Vanessa and a Q&A which we also attended and it was lovely to just hear her talk and reminisce. At one point there was a short film about her from the late '60s/early '70s showing us radical firebrand Vanessa marching under banners, being chased by the police and with Tariq Ali. It was an extract from a film her husband pulled together for her 80th birthday. The most pertinent piece of the segment was when she went up to receive her Oscar in 1978 and she reiterated her dedication to fighting anti-semitism and fascism. That's what the play had been all about. All these years later and she's true to her word. Well done Vanessa,

Monday, 11 February 2019

The Alte Pinakothek in Munich

I visited the Alte Pinakothek in Munich to see its great 'Florence' exhibition so, while I was there, I needed to look round its collection, up the long, long staircase to the first floor. It's Florentine Renaissance paintings were downstairs in the exhibition so I was expecting gaps in the collection but it was still surprisingly good and the rooms were mainly surprisingly empty of visitors - I was the only one in some rooms - since everyone was downstairs in the crowded exhibition.

The first few rooms were interesting enough with large early northern paintings, all rather similar in style and content. But it pays to keep your eyes peeled since I found this lovely little painting of the 'Tower of Babel' by Lucas van Valkenborch, a copy of the painting by van Eyck. I quite like the idea of copies being in museums in their own right as works of art. It's very small and easily missed.  Further along were large paintings of the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, also copies of van Eyck, this time from panels in the Ghent Altarpiece. They were really good, almost life-sized and quite jewel-like to see (my photo doesn't do them justice).  They were painted by M van Coxie in the mid-1500s.


Keep walking and you'll find paintings by Lucas Cranach, quite a few by Rogier van der Weyden, Hans Memling and others - it's almost a who's who of northern Renaissance painters. The northern painters used oil to mix their paints well before the Italian painters and their paints still glow with colour and life as they strove for ever greater realism and accuracy in their paintings. Here's a rather lovely 'Adoration of the Magi' scene by van der Weyden. There are many great paintings from the northern Renaissance and it was difficult to choose just one and I picked this for the colours. It was painted in 1455 and it's a tribute to him and his workshop that the colours remain so vibrant.

Then you come across one of the most wonderful paintings in the collection, a self-portrait by Albrecht Durer, resplendent in his expensive coat and his carefully coiffed ringlets. What a dandy and what a handsome man he was. My photograph is awful and has caught too much light but trust me, this is a beautiful painting and one of the highlights of the collection. By any standards, Durer was a great painter and a great draughtsman and he did this painting when he was only 28. To give it its full title, this is 'Self-Portrait with Fur-Trimmed Robe' from 1500. It's inscribed with the words in Latin, "I, Albrecht Durer of Nuremberg, portrayed myself in appropriate colours aged twenty-eight years". Is this a tribute to overwhelming vanity or is this an advert that says, 'give me a commission and this is what you'll get from me'. I suspect the latter. It really is an astonishing painting.


Moving forward to the end of the 1500s we come across loads of astonishing paintings by Rubens. Painting after painting - he was obviously a favourite of whoever developed the collection. I really need to do some work on Rubens one of these days.

There's a great painting of the 'Drunken Silenus' (there's a different version in the National Gallery in London which I prefer), a portrait of Rubens and his wife as a wedding portrait (and they made a handsome couple indeed), but the painting that stopped me in my tracks was 'The Death of Seneca'. It's an astonishing painting in which the teacher of stoicism accepts his fate and commits suicide. The body is based on a classical statue Rubens drew in Rome and the head and face are based on a bust of Seneca. I was browsing round the paintings, this one's a Rubens, that one's a Rubens and then I saw this and stopped dead to gaze at it. What a powerful painting, almost life-sized and very difficult to ignore. A moment in time captured by Rubens forever in incredible detail.

Another painting that stopped my perambulations was 'Two Satyrs'. Just look at that satyr in the front and tell me he's a saint in disguise. No, *that* satyr understands getting drunk and rutting with whoever is around and will enjoy it immensely. From the look of him he's just been very naughty and plans to be naughty again quite soon.


But let's not forget that Rubens is also justly famous for his religion works and this crucifixion caught my eye. Just look at those arms being stretched and pulled down by the weight of the body, putting more pressure on the nailed feet. A very simple and very effective composition to meditate on.


There are, of course, many more great paintings than I can cover in this short blog about the museum, but I'm pleased I took the time to explore it. I was visiting to see the 'Florence' exhibition (one of the best I've seen in a long time) and I was almost expecting the collection to be rather provincial with the truly great works being in the Gemaldegallerie in Berlin, but I was wrong. There are more than enough great works to keep any art lover happy in the Munich Alte Pinakothek. I hope to visit again one day.

And then down, down, down the stairs to the ground floor...

Sunday, 10 February 2019

'Asphodel Meadows'/'The Two Pigeons' at the Royal Opera House

The current double-bill of ballets at the Royal Opera House is the one act 'Asphodel Meadows' and the two act 'The Two Pigeons', an interesting mix or an abstract and a narrative ballet. I like the double and triple bill programmes the Royal Ballet performs since they're a great opportunity to see different styles and dancers on the same evening. I've seen 'The Two Pigeons' before (with Steven McRae dancing the lead) but 'Asphodel Meadows' is a new one for me.

According to Wikipedia, Asphodel Meadows is the part of the ancient Greek underworld where ordinary go when they die. I've got no idea if that was in Liam Scarlett's mind when he choreographed the ballet but I suspect it might have been when, as the ballet opens, three dancers walked slowly backwards to the centre of the stage to begin the dancing. We see solo's, duos and groups dancing, ever changing and mixing up the pace, creating a strange vision in an abstract dance.

At one point, during a particularly jerky sequence, I was reminded of the 'Choreography' piece in 'White Christmas' while Danny Kaye sings about 'chaps who did taps aren't tapping anymore they're doing choreography'. But, you know what, I loved this short ballet in all it's weirdness and sometimes disjointed movements, it drew me in and made me wish it was longer than its 25 minutes. It was very elegant and I hope to see it again one evening.


'The Two Pigeons' is a more traditional ballet by Frederick Ashton with a straightforward story of young lovers. It opens in a Parisian artist's garret with a young artist painting his beloved who can't stop fidgeting. He's already feeling frustrated when his girlfriend's friends arrive so, when he sees a troupe of gypsies he invites them in as well and that's when he sees a beautiful gypsy girl. He's enchanted and leaves his girlfriend to run off to the gypsy camp to see his new girl. The girl's lover fights him (in dance form, of course) and he loses and is kicked out of the encampment. While walking home a pigeon lands in his arms and he takes it home with him. He makes up with his girlfriend and then a second pigeon flies into the garret as a lovebird. The end. So, not the most complicated of plots but, as ever, it's the dancing that matters.

Lauren Cuthertson danced the girlfriend as a playful and elegant young woman, very precise as always. The dancing was very pretty and delicate but I think I preferred the passion of the gypsy girls' dances and leaps and almost aggressive approach to dancing. I can quite understand the artist running off to the gypsy camp to escape the borderline annoyances of his girlfriend.

Of course, the gypsy girl turns out to not be very nice at all, taunting and teasing him during the fight with her lover so it's a hard lesson for the young artist. He goes home with his tail between his legs while his soppy girlfriends mourns the loss of love only to regain it a couple of minutes later.

I liked the playfulness of some of the dancing and Lauren was great as ever but, you know what? I preferred 'Asphodel Meadows' with its abstract patterns and dancing that kept my attention at all times. Well done Royal Ballet people!

Saturday, 2 February 2019

'Trio ConcertDance' at the Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House

The Linbury Theatre has re-opened in the Royal Opera House, newly refurbished in glowing wood in the basement of the building, a far more intimate space for smaller dance and music pieces. The opening show was 'Trio ConcertDance' with the wonderful Alessandra Ferri dancing so I had to get tickets. One of the really good things about the Linbury is that you can sit right in front of the stage, mere feet away from the dancers, and can see the focus and emotion on their faces as they dance. The programme was devised by Alessandra and Herman Cornejo (our dancers) and by Bruce Levingston (solo pianist for most of the performance).

It's made up of four joint dances and one solo dance but both dancers, contrasting movement and stillness, silence and music, minimal costumes and no scenery or background expect for that created by the very subtle lighting. We were in the fifth row from the stage and had a perfect view of the stage. The sound is perfect in the Linbury, purpose-built for that. Other than the endless stairs going down, down, down to the stalls, it's a great venue for music and dance.  

From those opening moments I knew we were in for a treat. Alessandra is a delight to see dance, all grace and precision  and perfectly accompanied by Herman, who I haven't seen dance before. A selection of choreographers and music pieces working together with the solo piano and the dancers moving around the stage, using every inch. It was really quite astonishing, just two dancers and a piano creating do much on an otherwise empty stage.

Oddly enough, Bruce Levingston was on stage and playing far more than the dancers danced. Some of the breaks were simply him playing different pieces with an otherwise empty stage and that break from movement really helped to emphasise one of the themes of the work, that sometimes you need stillness.

The performance ended to huge applause for the three leads but where were the flowers for Alessandra? I've grown used to the lead ballerinas getting flowers at the end of the performance that it was very odd to see Alessandra leaving without flowers. I would've brought some if I'd known.

Der Blaue Reiter at the Lenbachhaus, Munich

A trip to Munich wouldn't be complete without a visit to the yellow Lenbachhaus to see the fabulous collection of works by the Blue Rider group of artists. This is where the group formed in the early years of the 20th Century and the collection really is quite extraordinary in its scope. The ground floor is where the exhibitions are, the first floor is for contemporary art, but the prize is on the second floor, so just keep walking up those steps, where you're confronted with more colour than exists in the world - Der Blaue Rieter!

The first room at the top of the main stairs is a collection of early paintings by Kandinsky and Gabrielle Munter (his first wife) and I was surprised at how figurative they were. I shouldn't have been since everyone has to start somewhere, but I was. The paintings are small and jewell-like and I loved the almost Impressionistic landscapes he completed in this period, with vibrant colour as well as exploring the make up of the landscape in shapes.

The largest room has a collection of Kandinsky paintings grouped together and what a riot of colour they present. What is it about colour and shape that can bring joy and a smile to the face? It made me wonder what an astonishing journey those artists took, moving from figurative works to abstraction in such a short time. What was the thought process behind that journey and how did it start? For some artists it was an intellectual journey and for others it was emotion and the emotional intensity colour can produce when used in different ways.


These paintings are both sketches for 'Composition VII' and I'd be delighted to have either on my living room wall.

Walking round the rooms my eye spied some sparkling colours on the wall through a doorway and, like a magpie, I headed straight for it. It's a small painting by Richard Delaunay in 1914 called 'Window Overlooking The City' (there's a similar painting in the Tate collection in London). You need to look at it properly and take your time so start seeing the shapes of buildings hidden amongst the colours, with a church steeple and other buildings gradually becoming clear. I'm a great fan of Sonia Delaunay (his wife) so it was delightful to find this painting.

There was also a small moment of joy to see 'Blue Horse' by Franz Marc, one of the iconic symbols of the Blue Rider painters from one of the founders of the group. It was larger than I expected it to be but he's a quite majestic beast in his uniquely blue way.


There's a lovely small collections of paintings by Paul Klee from different stages of his career and I particularly liked 'The Rose Garden' and 'The Wild Man'. They're both small paintings. 'The Rose Garden' was painted in 1920 and is made of shapes in different shades of creams and reds, sometimes moving to purples, and, put those shapes together and you see a small village overplayed with small, round roses. It's a very complicated painting and must have been quite difficult to create. It works well as a small painting and the choice of frame is quite inspired.

'The Wild Man' from 1922 is a very different painting, again quite small and quite beautiful in its own way. Multiple arms and legs, horns and direction arrows, wild hair and beard, it's an altogether strange painting, a depiction of a dream or vision and clearly quite wild.


There are more wonderful paintings by Mr Klee on display and part of me wondered whether there were any more - and how many - were in safe storage? Klee lived in Munich at the same time as Kandinsky so it's certainly possible.

The Blue Rider collection is extensive and includes paintings by artists who's work I haven't seen before, including a self-portrait by Marianne von Werefkin from 1910. I looked at this painting for a few minutes and couldn't decide if she was a scary lady or not - the red eyes and direct gaze are very confusing. What is she trying to convey through this direct and very colourful painting? Your guess is as good as mine and just as valid. The long neck and thin face, red hat with it's flower at the brow, the red lips and eyes and the blue-green background - what does this say to you. I think I need to try and find a photo of her - I suspect she was quite beautiful and quite driven with her art. I need to do some research.

I was very conscious that I was wandering round this astonishing collection of works and the gallery was almost empty - it wasn't that unusual to be the only person in a room. In a sense that was great since I could enjoy the space and the works, but why aren't people looking at this great art?

Walk on through the rooms and I found yet more paintings by Kandinsky and Klee as well as more works by artists unknown to me, all working in the Blue Rider ethos and taking it forward.

A final painting I'd like to highlight is 'Portrait of the Dancer Alexander Sacharoff' by Alexej Jawlensky from 1909. What a dramatic image with all that red on the body and the black hair, the narrow face and that smile. No 'Mona Lisa' is this. At first I thought it was a painting of a woman but no, this is an athletic man painted in a very gender-neutral manner. The direct gaze and that oddly twisted smile are very noticeable. Is he thinking, 'Yes, got you!' in presenting himself like this for his portrait session? It's the work of an artist painting an artist in a different field, someone who knows how to manipulate and use his body. It's not what I consider to be a beautiful painting but it's certainly very striking.

There are many, many more paintings on display by a much greater range of artists than I cover in this blog in the Lenbachhaus. If you go to Munich then you need to make time to see the collection, it's well worth it and quite an astonishing collection it is. The Lenbachhaus also has a surprisingly large bookshop on the ground floor. If you want to see more Blue Rider works then head on over to the Pinakothek der Moderne for yet more Kandinskys and Klees as well as others. Munich holds a unique place in the history of Der Blaue Reiter and it's only right that it holds such great works.

Photos are by me - sorry they're a bit wonky!