Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Favourite Paintings: 'Bacchus and Ariadne' by Titian

'Bacchus and Ariadne' by Titian is a large painting in the National Gallery in London that I've seen many times. It tells the tale of when Bacchus first saw Ariadne and fell in love with her and he leaps from his chariot as his party chums come lumbering out of the forest after carousing all night. A small detail towards the back of the revellers shows Silenus, Bacchus's tutor, drunkenly riding on a donkey surrounded by satyrs. Ariadne is, understandably, terrified of this motley crew appearing out of nowhere. It's not every day that a naked god comes leaping off a chariot drawn by leopards in front of you.

We see satyrs waving raw haunches of venison in the air and a boy satyr dragging the deers' head along on the dirt to eat later. The dogs scavenging and the nakedness of the male characters while the females are in billowy clothes. They're all drunken and debauched and who knows what's been going on back in the dark woods. But here they are, in the bright light of morning after the night before, and their lord, Bacchus, has found a human female to love or lust after. What would you think if you saw this scene unfold in front of you? I think I'd be a trifle concerned to say the least.

Most of the woodland characters, the satyrs and dryads are in the shadows of the woods, but Bacchus and Ariadne are light skinned, under full sun, and clearly the focus of the painting. There's obviously a stiff breeze blowing to create the billows and shapes in their respective drapery. You'd think a god would be able to do something about that but no, he suffers the vagaries of the weather like anyone else. The books always go on about how there's a constellation of stars above Ariadne's head (top left) but I'm not too bothered about that detail - there's so much else going on in the painting.

I've known the painting for 42 years since a detail from it was the cover of the first big art book I ever had, a book about the National Gallery my mother bought for me from her book club. I lost that book many years ago but I managed to track down online a first edition from 1977 and it now sits with my other art books.

Titian's proper name is Tiziano Vecellio - I've no idea why we call him Titian in this country - and today is the anniversary of his death on 27 August 1576. 'Bacchus and Ariadne' was painted between 1520-23 and was bought by the National Gallery in 1826. It's inventory number is NG35, i.e. the 35th painting in the collection.

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Favourite Paintings: Sketch 3 for 'Composition VII' by Kandinsky

Wassily Kandinsky is one of the great painters of the early 20th Century who went on an astonishing journey from representative painting into the far reaches of abstraction in a very short time. He was one of the founders of Der Blaue Reiter movement in Munich and that was the launchpad for his journey via colour theories, manifestos and intellectual treatises. There was a rationale behind much of what he painted and a lot of sheer joy in the use of colours and dynamic shapes.

One of my favourite paintings is a sketch for 'Composition VII' that hangs in the Lenbachhaus in Munich. Up on the second floor there is a large room full of paintings by Kandinsky and I couldn't help but grin widely when I walked into it for the first time, delighted at being surrounded by so much colour. There are two sketches from 1913 for 'Composition VII' side by side on the wall, Sketch 2 and Sketch 3, similar in some respects but different in others, and the one I've chosen is Sketch 3 (above).

Kandinsky was born in Moscow in 1866 and gave up teaching to study art when he was 30, later moving to Munich where developed his art and began a friendship with Paul Klee. He returned to Russia during the First World War and the early years of soviet Russia but returned to Germany in 1921 to teach at the Bauhaus. The Nazis closed the Bauhaus in 1933 and Kandinsky moved to Paris where he lived until he died in 1944.

The Lenbachhaus has both sketches hung side by side in it's Kandinsky room. This is Sketch 2, very similar to Sketch 3 but with subtle differences. I spent quite a while looking at both, comparing details and looking for differences. There is a bit more detail in Sketch 3 and that means more colours and shapes and that's probably why I like it slightly more. I respond to the painting by being absorbed into the colours and the swirling movement, an emotional response rather than anything else. Just look into it and lose yourself.

My favourite image of Mr Kandinsky is of him in his allotment leaning on a spade, wearing shorts and with a cigarette in his mouth. I saw it a great exhibition about paintings of flowers and gardens at the Royal Academy a few years ago. It's such an unusual image of a very cerebral artist that it really sticks in the memory. Here again is Sketch 3 for 'Composition VII'. Enjoy.

Monday, 19 August 2019

Matthew Bourne's 'Romeo & Juliet' at Sadler's Wells

A new Matthew Bourne production can be a worrying thing - will I like it? Is this the one that goes wrong? Will I love it? You won't know until you see it, so, avoiding reviews and production photos as much as possible we went off to Sadler's Wells to see the Capulet company dance his new version of 'Romeo & Juliet'. There are two sets of dancers named after the quarrelling families from the play, the Montague Company and the Capulet Company and we saw the Capulet's dance.

We all know the story of 'Romeo & Juliet' with it's rival families where the children fall in love, Juliet's big brother Tybalt kills Romeo's friend Mercutio and Romeo must take revenge for the honour of his friend. Romeo and Juliet secretly marry but end up committing suicide. OK? Forget that. Forget the MacMillan ballet. Forget the market place and the Happy Trollops, the sword fencing and the grand costumes. This version is set in an institution for teenagers with security guards patrolling the hallways and acres of creamy white institutional tiles on the walls to make it easy to clean. This is not the Verona we know, this is Verona Institute.

We meet Juliet early on while one of the guards is picking on the girls and she intervenes so they can escape but she's caught and led off the stage to do what? The guard is nasty Tybalt, a giant compared to little Juliet and they reappear going through more doors in different parts of the stage. What is happening? The clear inference is that he intends to abuse Juliet in some way away from prying eyes.  This institute is not a nice place.

Romeo appears, consigned to the institute by his parents and, at a party for the teenagers, he meets Juliet and the inevitable happens. By now, of course, he's met Mercutio and his boyfriend Balthasar and the boys are busy having a dance-off while he sees Juliet and asks her to dance. Their fate is set, the only question is how do we get to the inevitable tragedy at the end? I did wonder a few times whether the ending would be changed as well and it was, but I won't say how. I'll save the surprise so you need to see it for yourself.

I liked the new, feisty Juliet who jumps on Tybalt to pull him off Romeo, a great twist to the character. Romeo was more hesitant than the brash young man we normally see, clearly troubled but delights in his new-found love. Mercutio is still the dashing young man and in the dance scene delighted in wearing a kilt. And Tybalt? He's a nasty piece of work. I liked the set and seeing reflections of the dancers flash across the tiled walls - was that by design or was it a happy accident? I did yearn now and then for one of Lez Brotherston's more elaborate sets to ease the starkness of the institute but, then again, this was perfect for the setting.

Our Juliet was danced by Cordelia Braithwaite and Romeo was Paris Fitzpatrick, with Reece Causton as Mercutio and Dan Walker as Tybalt. There some nice little touches of normalcy like when, after the other kids have seen them kiss, the girls all gather round Juliet to get the details and the boys all clown around Romeo seeing it a bit of fun. The fight with Tybalt was also very well done, with lots of the kids involved and Juliet helping Romeo but the fatal stroke was Romeo's alone. Honour has to be restored.

After it's short residency at Sadler's Wells the production goes on tour and, in each location a half  a dozen or so of the dancers will be local kids, giving them an invaluable chance to dance alongside professionals in a big production. I wouldn't have been able to identify the 'amateurs' from the professionals from what I saw the other evening at Sadler's Wells. Well done all.

So, is this the production that doesn't work and the I don't like? Most certainly not! It took me a while to get into it and understand who was who on the stage but it ticked all the right boxes for me! It doesn't have the immediacy of 'Swan Lake' or 'Sleeping Beauty' but it's a very different show to both of those. The music by Prokofiev was re-arranged and re-ordred and played live, which was great fun. Go and see it if you can - I think the Sadler's Wells run is sold out but it'll be playing around the country. Oh, and Sir Matthew was in the audience as well.

Sunday, 18 August 2019

'Once On This Island' at Southwark Playhouse

The latest show at Southwark Playhouse is 'Once On This Island' by the British Theatre Academy. It's all about young actors starting out and that, in itself, is an interesting thing - will any of them still be working in ten years time? There was a lot of energy and enthusiasm in the show but not always a lot of skill. It's a strange show to put on, not a well known show by any means and a calypso musical is a bit unusual but hey, why not?

It's an odd story that mixes traditional Caribbean island beliefs and gods with modern day French imperialism with the rich white folks on one side of the island and the black "peasants" on the other side, But then there comes a storm to mix it all up. The local gods intervene to save a child who later goes on to save the life of a rich white man and she is then challenged by the god of death to either offer up her life or his? I won't spoil it by revealing what the decision is.

It was interesting enough and quite different and, at only 85 minutes running time there's no time to get bored. I think it's an odd show for an mature/student company to put on. There's no denying the energy of the actors but sometimes it seemed like they were singing simply to be loud without remembering their diction so I couldn't make out the words - all there was was a loud noise. The very energetic dances also seemed to take its toll on a few of the actors who were clearly out of breath and sweating at the end of the later numbers. I only want to see exhausted actors when they're acting exhausted, not when they are exhausted. One who really caught my attention was Chrissie Bhima who played the lead role of Ti Moune and she is definitely worth watching for. At one point her singing voice reminded me of Linda Lewis, not so much Linda's range as the warm tone and quality. I also liked Aviva Tulley as the goddess of love.

There you have it, my first encounter with the British Theatre Academy. The actors all seemed to be having a great time and that's part of it - it they're enjoying what they do then that's half the battle. Well done people!

Friday, 16 August 2019

'Blues in the Night' at the Kiln Theatre, Kilburn

Last week we went to see 'Blues In The Night' at The Kiln theatre in Kilburn (formerly the Tricycle Theatre, a much better name). It's not one of my regular haunts but I wanted to see Sharon D Clarke in her latest role as a blues singer in a boarding hotel back in the day with a score made up of classic blues songs from the canon. It's a sort of review show with songs by different people pulled together and worked on to tell the stories of three women and one man who seems to have something to do with each of them. But what?

The play is set in a boarding hotel and the stage is et with three separate rooms with a bar where the band play. The rooms are on risers around the stage and we meet an old blues singer, a woman of the world down on her luck and a young girl disappointed in love. The four-piece band play in the bar with a compere who visits the women at different times and for different reasons, maybe to seduce one or to deliver heroine to another. They each sing songs that illustrate their position and are surrounded by things in their rooms that show their position - the blues singer is waiting to make it big again, the women surrounded by furs that she gradually sells for drugs and the young lady by her one good frock. And the man? Well, he's the one with the drugs.

I quite like this kind of show since you're not constrained by the book or plot, the songs tell you enough to build your own picture of who these characters are and make up their back stories. I do that anyway. The old blues singer has seen it all over the years and is straight forward and the mother of the place, the young lady has clearly had a failed love affair but what about the worldly women with her furs? She was someone's mistress clearly, but what happened for her to end up in this low rent hotel and selling her furs for the next fix? I think she's the one who's back story I wanted to explore most.

The four main characters all have about the same time to shine and sing but the whole thing was dominated by Sharon D Clarke's presence - which is fine by me. Clive Rowe played the man, Debbie Kurup the lady and Gemma Sutton the young girl and they all shined at different times but it must've been a bit daunting to share the stage with Ms Clarke. She was on blistering form.

It would be good if the show transferred into the West End, that would probably galvanise the rest of the cast to up their game a bit to try to challenge Ms Clarke (and I don't think she'd mind in the slightest). I'd certainly go to see it again.

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Frank Bowling at Tate Britain

Frank Bowling has a major retrospective at Tate Britain at the moment and you'll be forgiven for asking Frank who? I know, I hadn't heard of him before this exhibition but I'm very pleased to know the name and the works now. The exhibition has been on for a couple of months but was over-shadowed by the Van Gogh exhibition at Tate Britain that has just closed. I immediately warmed to the exhibition when I saw that the wall outside the entrance to the exhibition had been painted pink to match one of his paintings.

Bowling was born in Guyana (then British Guinana) in 1934 and went to the Royal College of Art with David Hockney. I quite like that he came to London to become a poet but joined the RAF and then switched to painting - I don't know if he still writes. He's had studios in London and New York for the last 60 years and he paints big abstract expressionist paintings, mainly in acrylics, and he likes experimenting with the paint and the way it's applied. Most of his paintings are far too big to hang on your living room walls but they look pretty damn fab on the walls of the Tate.

The exhibition is largely chronological, with examples of his early works in the first rooms and his most recent works (including a painting from 2017) in the last room. His early works are semi-figurative and always seem to have had a yearning for abstraction, but it's interesting to see his move from figurative to non-figurative on the walls in front of you. My favourite of his early works was the colourful 'Mirror' painted in oils over 1964-66 with the central spiral staircase. Something I really liked were the tiles on the floor, some painted in 3D and other flat on. It's a very striking painting and is hung in a room with other paintings about his mother and his home, with images of a map of Africa somewhere in the paintings.

I don't know when he moved to mainly work in acrylics but it seems fitting for his style of painting, not the traditional oil paint, but let's try something new and different. On his move to abstraction he still included some figurative elements, such as images of his children peeking through the washes of paint, almost as if they're in one world looking through the painting into another world. It's a bit odd to be looking at a painting, scanning it from top to bottom and then spotting a face in the midst of all that colour, and then another face - you have to really look at these paintings, rather than just the surface colour, to see what's really going on. I wonder what his grown up children thought of seeing themselves when they were really young when they saw these paintings on the walls of the Tate? They'll be my age now with a life behind them.

Bowling seems to just love the medium of acrylic paint and how you can use it. He experimented with it in so many ways, how it's mixed and how it's applied. He apparently built a contraption in his studio so he could tilt his canvases to allow the paint to drip and flow over the canvases in different ways to create new landscapes of colour. He seems to have bene fascinated by paint and what you can achieve with it. Mix it *this* way to achieve this effect and *that* way to achieve that. The message is that you're not limited to what is in the tube or the pot of paint, you can create your own, which he did. Some of the colours he creates are astonishing, adding different things to the paints to create different effects.

Then, not satisfied by that, he started adding things to the canvas to create more textures to paint, all sorts of stuff glued to the canvas, including the collar of one his grandson's shirts. Looking at the labels of some of these later works I loved seeing the list of materials he'd made a painting with, almost always starting with acrylic paint and adding things like acrylic foam, plastic toys, shells and ending with "other materials", ie too many to mention. I think that's when I stopped marvelling at the colours he found to marvelling at the things he created and "got" Frank Bowling in my own way. He's not so much a "painter" as a "creator", he needs to create something new using his favourite medium of acrylic paint, something the world hasn't seen before and so enhance the options we have for seeing things. We cans see things differently if we want to.

One of my favourite paintings was 'Orange Balloon (4 Paul Adams)' from 1996 where you can see a deflated orange balloon bottom left but the rest of the painting is a riot of colour. Bowling was a political painter and the title of this one reflects that it was dedicated to Paul Adams, the first Black player on the South African cricket team after apartheid. I'd love to know what Adams thinks of this and the singular honour he's given. The painting is over six feet tall and covered in splodges of colour, with a bit of everything in there, deliberately.

Staying with politics and freedom, I also loved his painting 'Silver Birch (No Man, No Vote)' from 1985 that shows his support for the African national Congress and Nelso Mandela's call for 'one man, one vote'. The birch trees are made from acrylic foam and other stuff with paint dripped and splurged onto the canvas.

The final room of the exhibition brings us up to date with his works, still experimenting and still creating. I particularly liked 'Remember Thine Eyes' from 2014 with the round 'eyes' created by buckets of paints left on the wet canvas to create the effect of staring eyes. And why not? It's good to be able to see the physical aspects of creating a painting along with the actual finished painting.

At the grand age of 85 he can't physically handle the paint any more so uses a laser pen to show his assistants where he wants particular colours to go on the canvas. I love these old men that keep on creating despite their age and infirmity, like Monet and Matisse, that just keep on creating for as long as they can. I'll add Bowling to that list.

If you get the chance then pop along to Tate Britain to see these astonishing paintings while you can. I'm very pleased that I did!

Sunday, 4 August 2019

'Spartacus' by the Bolshoi Ballet at the Royal Opera House

Every couple of years the Bolshoi Ballet takes over the Royal Opera House stage to perform a short summer season of ballets from its repertoire. This year they're doing 'Spartacus', a ballet that had it's greatest success with its 1968 performances when student demonstrations swept across the world, the government of France was threatened by popular revolt and more serious revolt in places like Czechoslovakia. So what better tale to tell than that of the original Roman rebel?

'Spartacus' is by Aram Khachaturian (music) and Yuri Grigorovich (choreography) and was first performed in 1968 that made it popular and now a standard of Russian ballet. As with all ballets, it takes liberties with the facts of the story but that doesn't really matter since this is about love and war, freedom against slavery and grand gestures and spectacle. The staging is minimal but someone's obviously been playing with the rather spectacular and atmospheric lighting.

The ballet opens with the triumphant return to Rome of Crassus after his successful war against the pagans and there's  greta scene when he, basically, shows off and lauds it over the mere soldiers that won his victory, flashing his staff of authority all over the place and leaping into the air flourishing his sword. Yes, I get it, you won. Then, as an entertainment, he has Phrygia (Spartacus's wife) dance for him and has Spartacus fight and kill his friend. This is too much for our hero who starts a rebellion and the slave escape into the countryside of Italy.

Rallying his new army, Spartacus leads an assault on Rome and Crassus's estate to free the slave women, including his own wife. Cue an extended pas de deux between them to celebrate their love and reunion. It doesn't all go smoothly, however, and Crassus finds out where they're encamped and attacks, wins and traps Spartacus in a very dramatic scene where he ends up with dozens of spears in his chest lifting him off the ground as his life ebbs away. That image is repeated at the end on his funeral pyre when his followers hands mimic the spears reaching up to him as a hero - that's a very dramatic ending.

Phew! There's dancing and leaping, there's height and speed, romantic interludes and very masculine attacking dancing, it's all in there somewhere and, being the Bolshoi, there's some right old show off segments where the stars get to do their stuff. The last time I saw the Bolshoi I'd have said it was their 'B' team, that is, the dancers weren't fully synchronised and weren't their best, but this time the dancing was far better. This is what you'd expect from the Bolshoi.

The two male leads clearly had their own special skills - Denis Rodkin as Spartacus seemed to specialise in running leaps and Artemy Belyakov as Crassus did lots of spinning round and stopping dead still. We also had Eleanora Sevenard as Phrygia and Yulia Stepanova as Aegina, Crassus's courtesan. They were all technically excellent but strangely cold and not very engaging.

During one of the sword fights I couldn't help but compare them to the Royal Ballet, thinking of the Bolshoi as an early cubist painting by Braque and the Royal Ballet as a warm Titian full of colour and movement. I particularly thought of the sword fencing scenes in MacMillan's 'Romeo & Juliet', that premiered just a few years before this ballet, with the dancers leaping around in a synchronised sword fight with rapiers flashing and slashing at each other.  I don't know if 'Spartacus' is in the Royal Ballet's repertoire but I suspect their version of this ballet would be much more engaging. On the other hand, I'm probably biased in favour of the Royal Ballet whose stage the Bolshoi were dancing on.

So there you have it, the Bolshoi in London again and it's great to see a visiting company put on some of its signature dances, especially one I've never seen before. It was good to see the dancers and the production - and I can only admire Belyakov's ability to spin round and round and stop dead still on a pin. While aspects of the production were technically amazing I missed the warmth and passion I expected (and hoped) to see.