Sunday, 26 May 2019

New Loans at the National Gallery, London

The National Gallery has two new loans on show: ‘Flora’ by Francesco Melzi, one of Leonardo da Vinci’s favourite pupils, on loan from the Hermitage in St Petersburg; and ‘Tbe Sea at L’Estaque’ by Paul Cezanne, on loan from a private collection. Both are pretty fab so see them if you can.

'Flora' has recently been cleaned and this is its first outing from Russia in its newly-cleaned form. It was thought to be by Leonardo for many years but experts now attribute it to Melzi who is also credited with keeping Leonardo's notebooks safe for posterity (Vasari comments that Melzi treated them like sacred relics). The young Melzi followed his master to France and, when Leonardo died, returned to Milan with the notebooks. Just looking at that face it's easy to see how people might think it's by Leonardo.

Flora sits in a grotto surrounded by plants and has one breast on show, a symbol of fecundity, while she gazes at a flower. I wonder who commissioned this and first hung it on his/her wall? The blue of the cloak is gorgeous as are the purple spots that make up the small flowers. I'm not sure about the frame which seems to be a bit over-powering to me.

'Flora' is part of a small exhibition of the Leonardeschi, the pupils and followers of Leonardo da Vinci, to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Leonardo's death. There are about 10 paintings in all, including a couple by Bernardo Luini that are very influenced by his master's style. The paintings are hung down one side of Room 12 and well worth a look.

The other new loan is a lovely landscape by Cezanne of 'The Sea at L'Estaque', with all the foliage and house roofs as Cezanne looked towards the sea.

It's a lovely little painting and that's what surprised me most - how small it is. He sent this to the third Impressionist exhibition in 1877 which shows that he considered it a worthy painting and I have to agree, with it's lovely colours and simplicity - a few daubs here for a tree and a few daubs there for a roof - and the lovely, clear light of the south of France. The painting is almost lost in one of the Impressionist rooms (Room 41 I think?) but it's well worth hunting out and taking a gaze at it.

Monday, 20 May 2019

'Identity! A Poly Styrene Retrospective' at 198 Gallery

This afternoon I went to the new exhibition about and by Poly Styrene at the 198 Gallery (the 198 Contemporary Art and Learning Centre) at Herne Hill, up Railton Road from Brixton. Poly grew up in Brixton so the location is appropriate. The exhibition is small but contains some fascinating works by Poly herself from different stages of her life and career. I was particularly pleased to see her little red typewriter that she used to type up her lyrics and, in the typewriter, were the lyrics to 'Plastic Bag' after which this blog is named.

The exhibition has a range of works from some very early photos of X-Ray Spex and Poly's designs for covers of singles to the large works of her as Marie Antoinette that she gave away as cards with her last album, 'Generation Indigo'. I like those images and they show her being playful and cheeky but I've only ever seen them small, as postcards, so it was great to see them full sized as A1 works of collage and they look great. There's also her iconic punk frock that I never guessed would be green since all the photos I've seen are in black in white.

I loved her designs for the cover of 'Transluscence', her first solo album and would never have guessed that she was playing around with the design since I've only ever thought of the record with her in bedouin garb and scarves.

There are a few letters she wrote (including a particularly sad one that shows her state of mind as a young woman), doodles of Johnny Rotten, typed lyrics sheets, screens showing the 1979 Arena documentary and a video for 'Genetic Engineering' that I've never seen before, tour posters and loads more. All of this shows what an all-round creative person Poly was, not just a great songwriter and singer in a punk band. There was clearly so much potential in her that never got to be released or realised. The beauty is in the detail.

Something I learned about Poly is that she clearly loved collages. Punk was, amongst other things, about do-it-yourself so she designed the record sleeves and posters as well as her own clothes and there are some very colourful and expressive artworks here, some with cut-out photos stuck onto newsprint and daubed with paint or ink - it would be great if these could be made into prints. I'm sure they'd raise money to complete the new documentary about Poly to be released next year.

If you get the chance go and see this exhibition. It's only in two rooms but there's a lot packed into those rooms and a lot to love if you like Poly Styrene. I couldn't help but grin as I walked round and then backtracked to look again at some of the exhibits. It's about 20 minutes walk from Brixton tube station and five minutes from Herne Hill overground train station. Ring the bell to get in and you'll be welcomed with open arms.

Thanks to Celeste for sharing so much of her mum's work, some joyous and some sad but all fascinating!

Saturday, 18 May 2019

'A German Life' at the Bridge Theatre

The Bridge Theatre pulled off a coup last month when it managed to get Maggie Smth back onto the stage for the first time in over a decade to perform the one women play 'A German Life'. The play is by Christopher Hampton and is based on a documentary about the early life of Brunhilde Pomsel who was living in an old folks home in Munich and recounts the stories of her life growing up in Berlin after the First World War. A very ordinary girl who grew up to be close to the centre of very extraordinary times when she became a typist in the office of Joseph Goebells during the Second World War.

The play is basically one long monologue by Maggie, sitting in her room in the old folks home as she tries to remember what happened all those years ago. As such, it's full of pauses, of ums and ahhs as she tries to remember the past as accurately as she can but there was very little of significance for her to latch onto at the time since she wasn't interested in politics and her job was just a job. It's a very clever piece of writing. And, of course, a clever piece of acting.

She talks about her best friend Eva now and then, who was Jewish, and we hear about how her friend's life became worse with losing work, lack of food, no money for rent and other things. Towards the end of the play we hear how Brunhilde goes to the Holocaust education centre many years after the war to find out what happened to Eva to be told that she died in Auschwitz. There are lots of little tales and reminiscences, of Brunhilde going to great lengths to get back to Berlin as the Russians advanced rather than staying safely in the countryside, and that's how she was arrested and imprisoned for five years. There's very little directly said about the nazis or her job but a lot is implied and hinted at through her rambling chatting about the past.

The play was only on for a short run and has now finished but it was great to see Dame Maggie on stage again. She had a definite presence on that small stage, emphasised since she was the only one there so all eyes were on her.

Friday, 17 May 2019

'Van Gogh and Britain' at Tate Britain

The new blockbuster at Tate Britain is 'Van Gogh and Britain' and, as you'd expect, it gets very crowded but is definitely worth it. It's quite a large exhibition with around 50 paintings and drawings by Vincent with lots of others from artists in Britain he's influenced, such as Vanessa Bell, Bomberg, Epstein, Augustus John and many others.

Vincent lived in London for a few years and this exhibition aims to show how he was influenced by British culture and how he influenced British artists. So we see how he admired Charles Dickens and Constable and Millais, and then how he, in turn, influenced others following exhibitions of his works. We see paintings that he mentions in letters that have particularly inspired him in some way and see prints of paintings and engravings that he collected himself. All in all it's a fascinating exhibition and I will go again but, on this first visit, it was to see his works and what a glory they are.

It never ceases to amaze me how naive I can be about artists, how I know what their works look like and they always have done. And that is totally wrong. We're all on a journey and so are the artists we admire. Vincent didn't start off painting in glorious colours, he started trying to find his own path, his own style, his own way of painting that felt right to him. Some of his early works in this exhibition show him drawing and painting lone figures walking through an avenue of autumnal trees, rather melancholy and so not the Van Gogh we've grown to love. One of my favourites of his early works was an incredibly detailed view of an urban back yard - how on earth is it by Vincent Van Gogh? But it is. It's called 'Carpenter's Yard and Laundry' in the Hague in late May 1882. Artists evolve, few spring fully formed from the head of a god.

A drawing that I instantly recognised was 'Sorrow' that Vincent did in graphite and ink. I did a copy of this drawing in ink back in 1977 for my 'A' level art course and it unleashed a flood of memories when I saw it - suddenly I was 17 again. A seamstress model who needed the money, so much sorrow and hopelessness in that pose and, of course, Vincent found it.

He was looking for the ordinary, the everyday, and, sadly, a lot of what he was looking for involved poverty and hardship. He was a nice middle class lad himself - how could he be an international seller of art otherwise? - but he chose to look at and depict ordinary life for most of us.

We start seeing the Van Gogh we know and love with 'Starry Night' where we see the celestial night sky contrast with the articial lights along the waterfront at Arles. It's easy to see the brush-strokes in the thick oil paint , the gentle dabs of paint to show reflections in the rippling water and the rough characters in the foreground that help to give depth to the painting. You can almost feel the confidence of someone who knows what he wants to do and how he wants to paint - no-one had painted like this before but there's no hesitation in this painting. 

A painting I was really attracated to (and which I hadn't seen before) was 'Hospital at Saint Remy' from 1989, a year before he died. The hospital is very much in the background, what he's painting are the writhing trees in front of the hospital. Van Gogh painted a lot of trees - there's probably a book about it somewhere - and sometimes they seem tortured and sometimes joyful. There are lots of trees in this exhibition, including the painting of gorgeous olive trees on loan from the National Gallery of Scotland.

I'm not sure why, but I think these trees are my favourites in this exhibition. They're not tortured or ailing, as you might think for a scene of a hospital, these are vigorous and growing, reaching up to the sky, possibly reflecting how Vincent was feeling after his recuperation there? The red earth, the green leaves and blue sky make such a powerful statement that this painting attracted me from across the room to go and look at it.

Another painting I liked was what I think of as 'smart Vincent', a self-portrait from 1887. He's showing himself in a suit and tie for a change, rather the usual workaday clothes in other self-portraits. I suppose when most of us think about Van Gogh we think of poverty, ears and dying in obscurity and this self-portrait is the very opposite of that. He looks healthy, he's smart, there's still a little wildness to the eyes and hair but he is an artist after all. He knows what he's doing and where he's going with this painting. All of us can have moments of confidence in our otherwise drab and ordinary lives, moments when we're special, and this is Vincent's moment.

The sign beside the painting noted that this was in the first Van Gogh exhibition in this country in 1923 and it was the cover of the catalogue for the exhibition. It also noted that the Tate tried to buy it for the national collection but failed.

This is a very interesting exhibition, with a whole range of things from copies of books by Dickens and others to paintings that influenced Vincent and to paintings by later British artists that were influenced by him. And, of course, a grand selection of works by Vincent himself. It's well worth seeing. I'll be going again.

Within The Golden Hour/Medusa/Flight Pattern at the Royal Opera House

This week we went to see a triple bill of one act ballets danced by the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House: 'Within The Golden Hour'. 'Medusa' and 'Flight Pattern'.

I've seen Christopher Wheeldon's 'Within The Golden Hour' before and this time it was just as mesmerising with its series of ensemble dances and duets, constant movement only slowing down to give you a chance to catch your breath. This time the dancers were in matching sparkly outfits which, I think, enhanced the performance. The repetitious and constant movement, the quick changes from one scene to the next and the excellent music all serve to draw you into the dance. Favourite dancers Sarah Lamb, Lauren Cuthbertson and Alexander Campbell all helped to lead the small troupe of dancers.

The second ballet was a new one and this was its third ever public performance, 'Medusa' by Sidi Larbi Cherkoui. It tells the tale of Medusa, a priestess of Athena who loves Perseus but is seduced by Neptune, cursed by Athena and then killed by Perseus. Not a happy tale. Enjoyable as it was, and with some excellent dancing, this ballet didn't quite work for me and I felt the staging and dramatic lighting sometimes seemed to over-shadow the dance. It'll be interesting to see what changes are made when it's revived in a few years time.

The final ballet was Crystal Pite's astonishing 'Flight Pattern'. I saw this ballet on its first run a couple of years ago and, when it was announced that it would feature in this season, it was the main reason for booking tickets. It's an incredibly powerful piece about forced migration, people fleeing their homes for their lives and seeking a safe haven. Virtually the whole piece is made up of a mass ensemble of dancers moving together, repetition and repetition, the huddled masses in grey all moving together, slowly but surely, with sometimes one or two dancers breaking away and taking a step forward or backwards, but always dissolving again nto the mass of dancers. The movement is relentless and powerful with messages of sorrow, hope and death and the survival of the human spirit. It's very contemporary, of course, and I think should be televised at some point to bring the tragedy of forced migration into our living rooms. There were 36 dancers on that stage led by Kristen McNally and Marcelino Sambe. Well done people.

This was a very successful evening and my favourite was 'Within The Golden Hour' for its joy and energy but 'Flight Pattern' will remain in my memory for a long time since it was staggeringly powerful and is an astonishing piece of work.