Tuesday, 29 October 2019

'Gauguin Portraits' at the National Gallery

The big new exhibition at the National Gallery is of Gauguin's portraits. He did portraits throughout his life so there are lots to choose from. He did self-portraits, portraits of friends and associates, commissions, and, when he was in Polynesia, lots of paintings of local islanders and it's these that are more controversial. Some I liked, some I didn't and some I was ambivalent about. He's not an artist I particularly like or admire but he has his place in art history and it's important to respect that.

Gaugin wasn't a terribly attractive figure, not particularly handsome or charming, his colour palette is a bit dull, he decided to become an artist and promptly left his wife and children to start living the life of an artist, used his position as a 'superior' white an to have lots of sex with underage Polynesian girls, did whatever he wanted and blamed the world for not welcoming him as a genius. No, not a  terribly nice man. But he did take art to a different place. And he painted portraits, lots of portraits.

I wasn't very keen on any of his self portraits. He looks arrogant and unpleasant, painting himself with a crucified Christ in the background is a bit of an oddity, his trademark moustache and staring eyes not really welcoming you into his world. Did he mean to do this, to present this image above all others? Paint his superiority to other men who didn't have the insights into life that he had and didn't have his skills? I don't know, but I suspect he did want to give that image, Gauguin as a leader of men except he didn't lead and wasn't particularly followed in his life time.

One of the portraits that I did like was 'Portrait of an Old Man' which is exactly what it states in the title. An old man, white hair and grey beard, neckerchief and walking stick all painted in muted creams and browns. The man looks old and looks frail, squashed into too small of a portrait, again suggesting age and forced compliance.

A simpler frame would probably help in looking at this painting. Too many of the paintings had inappropriate frames, ornate and florid whereas more basic frames would've shown off the paintings to better effect. I suspect there's an element of the current owners of the paintings wanting to show them off as great paintings rather than as appropriate paintings.

One painting I really did like was in a room dedicated to 'symbolic' paintings in which objects represent the sitters. I liked this painting for Vincent van Gogh painted ten years after his death. The painting includes two of Gauguin's favourite prints that he took everywhere with him - demonstrating love - and a bowl of sunflowers to represent his former friend. The frame overshadows the painting a bit but it's still a lovely work, quite delicate and carefully done.

The last few rooms are given over to Gauguin's paintings from his final stay in Polynesia, and the colours start appearing. This is also a rather dodgy period when he appears to have used his status as a French citizen to have sex with the locals and marry a 13 year old local girl. There are certainly improprieties going on here and the booklet about the paintings explain this and attempt to put them in context. This is a portrait of his wife.

The exhibition includes his last self-portrait, which you're not allowed to take a photo of, which he gave to his carer at the time. This is the only self-portrait - to my eyes, at least - that makes him look like a sympathetic and warm human being.

I can't say that I liked this exhibition but I can say that I saw more paintings by Gauguin than I've previously seen in my whole life. As usual these days, the National Gallery has a strange idea of what sort of merch to include in the exhibition shop and doesn't sell individual postcards, just books of cards. O well, at least I've seen the exhibition.

'Come From Away' at the Phoenix Theatre

'Come From Away' is a great new musical that's won lots of awards on both sides of the Atlantic despite being a bit of a strange beast. It's sort of inevitable that there would be a musical about 9/11 when the Twin Towers in New York were destroyed by aeroplanes and that's the background to this musical. It doesn't deal directly with the attack, its focus is on one of the consequences of the attack that few - if any - of us would think about. That is the closure of American airspace in the wake of the attack and what happens to all those aeroplanes full of people that were in the air and heading for America.

'Come From Away' is the tale of the small town of Gander in Newfoundland in Canada and how it coped with having 38 international jet planes diverted to land in its small airport, how the random passengers that effectively doubled the size of the town overnight and how they were clothed and fed, entertained and finally sent on their way again. It's a bit of an Everyman tale and is populated with characters to represent everyone from the kindly school teacher and trainee reporter on the local TV news to the gay couple from San Francisco and the first female pilot on American Airlines. Some characters find love, some get over their fears and gain in confidence, all sorts of things happen to engage the audience - it is entertainment after all.

The musical drew me in from the opening number with it's stompy, folksy, Irish jiggery of it all, rousing music and vocals, loud and happy. The actors were townsfolk one moment and aeroplane passengers the next, swapping roles on the flip of a coin and belting out those songs, happy and sad, worried and confident. The characters are well sketched and slowly draw you in to their stories like the lad who is fearful that the locals will steal his wallet and who is given the freedom to finally grow away from his family and stand on his own two feet, or the worried mother of a fire-fighter in New York  who frets about the safety of her son. These are all human stories in the middle of extraordinary events. The planes are eventually allowed to fly off to America as the airspace opens again just before a storm hits Newfoundland. Some lasting friendships have been made and the story ends with the anniversary party ten years later with yet more Irish jiggery and bouncing songs.

I loved it. The tale is one of compassion and basic human kindness, a tale of holding out the hand to help someone in need - in this case, a lot of someones in need - and is definitely in feel-good territory, but what's wrong with that?  Us humans can rise above our squabbles when we need to and it would be nice if we did it more often.

The cast were great and it's a true ensemble piece including the band which was on stage the whole time and taking central stage for the final song. It's a small cast of 12 actors playing all the parts and all have an opportunity to shine - it would be unfair to name only a few of them. Well done everyone!

Favourite Paintings: 'The Snail' by Henri Matisse

One of my favourite paintings is by Henri Matisse, 'The Snail' in the Tate collection. It's a huge painting and  fills any wall it's hung on, one of Matisse's famous 'cut-outs' made from seemingly random shapes of paper stuck together on a canvas. Today it's on display in Tate Modern but I first saw it 40 years ago when it hung in what was simply known as the Tate (now Tate Britain) along the road from Parliament. I have vague memories of standing in front of this giant painting and puzzling over why it was called 'The Snail'. Now I don't puzzle at all, of course it's a snail and all he's looking for is a bit of lettuce to nibble on - what's wrong with that?

Late in his life that wily old magician, Matisse, started to create a series of works that came to be known as his 'cut-outs' where he assembles different bits of coloured paper in various layers to create astonishing works of art. His assistants assembled the pieces for him to his design and there's even video of him making pieces. Tate Modern held a big exhibition of these works a few years ago, a huge blockbuster of a show, some works were huge and some small. I loved that exhibition and saw it several times. I never got over my astonishment at how beautiful the works were, ragged bits of paper in many colours pulled together to create beauty. 'The Snail' had a wall to himself, rightly so since he was one of the stars of the show.

I most recently saw 'The Snail' last Friday when I wandered into a series of galleries in Tate Modern that I hadn't visited for a while and thought I'd see what was on show. And there he was, sitting on the wall waiting to say hello. He was surrounded by young children on half-term break from school and they seemed to be enjoying him immensely. I visited him again later when it was more peaceful to say hello. If you look carefully you'll see me reflected in the glass protecting the painting - I've been in that glass many times over the years, 'The Snail' is an old friend.

I once made a copy of 'The Snail' using Opal Fruits sweets while on the train to Chichester.  The sweets didn't last very long and it wasn't a very good copy but he is a bit of an inspiration.

Bonjour Monsieur Le Snail.

Monday, 28 October 2019

Rock Follies at the BFI London

Yesterday (Sunday 27 October) I joined a small group of people to see the whole of the first series of 'Rock Follies' at the British Film Institute in the NFT3 cinema. It was a newly digitised version of the series and the quality was very good indeed, so well done BFI restorers. There were six episodes with short breaks and a lunchtime plus a Q&A with the stars and writers. The whole binge took seven and a half hours and it was worth every minute.

'Rock Follies' was broadcast in 1976 when we still only had three TV channels and the only pop music show was Top of the Pops on Thursdays so 'Rock Follies' brought some much needed music to our screens. Even back then it was a bit dated in some respects, particularly the use of the hippyish language by some of the characters and fat old men being spaced out ma a an, but none of that really mattered. It's a tale of the rock business versus the power of rock and the business wins out every time. A cynical - and probably very accurate - view of the rock business in the 70s and, probably, in every decade since.

However, what we wanted was to follow the trials and tribulations, the highs and the lows, the loves and the spectacle of The Little Ladies - Dee, Anna and Q otherwise known as Julie Covington, Charlotte Cornwall and Rula Lenska. *Presses play*

I loved it back in the day and still do. I was 16 and punk hadn't exploded yet so what else was there to do but watch a telly show about a group being pulled together and working to get rid of their rough edges, getting close to making it but not quite. I watched the series and bought the album when it came out. I bought the CD when that was finally issued and the DVD. I hope there's a new DVD now that the show has been properly digitised - I'll buy it again. On the back of the show Julie Covington had a hit single with Alice Cooper's 'Only Women Bleed' and the first version of 'Don't Cry for me Argentina' from 'Evita' and found stage stardom with 'Guys and Dolls'.

It is, of course, of it's time, with all the casual sexism of the '70s, the superiority of men as the natural order and that's portrayed very graphically in the show given that it's about three women. They're perpetually being told what to do by men, being threatened, potential violence, demeaned and all that but they fight back - it's quite feminist in a way despite being written by a man.

One thing that was really quite noticeable was the continued supremacy of men in the Q&A that was held between episodes five and six. One of the big knobs at the BFI asked questions of Howard Schuman (who wrote the show), Andy Mackay (of Roxy Music who wrote all the music), Rula Lenska who played Q and Charlotte Cornwall who played Anna. Given that we'd just seen five episodes of the show showing men trying to be in charge and then here we had the interviewer pointing the majority of questions towards Howard and leaving the women on the panel out of the discussion. It was very noticeable. And Howard in turn chipping in on virtually every question whether it was relevant or not. I quite understand that fans of old TV shows wanting to probe the background and motivations behind the series and all that but listen to yourselves... Rula and Charlotte were very patient.

The digitised 'print' and sound were excellent and are now preserved forever in the BFI archive. More people should see this show - it's obviously aged but is still relevant in many ways, particularly given #metoo. It's the best Sunday afternoon I've had in a long time! Now, we just need a similar screening of 'Rock Follies of '77' and have Julie Covington join the panel discussion. Thanks BFI!

Friday, 11 October 2019

New Films: Suzi Q, Seberg and White Riot

I don't often go to the cinema the days - there's not much on that I want to see, really - but there's been a few new films that I couldn't stay away from recently, beginning with a new documentary about Suzi Quatro.

'Suzi Q' is a full length documentary about the life and times of Suzi Quatro. I was lucky enough to see a screening followed by a Q&A with Suzi herself. I nearly saw Suzi for the first time back in 1972 when she was third on the bill behind Thin Lizzy and both supported SLADE on tour - I saw nearly since my parents decided I was too young to go to a gig on my own back then. 1973 was Suzi's year when she broke into the charts around the world with 'Can The Can' and went on to have a string of hits followed by acting in 'Happy Days' on TV and then on stage with 'Annie Get Your Gun' and all sorts of adventures.

It's a very thorough document of Suzi's early years, firstly as a member of the Pleasure Seekers in the late '60s and then coming over to London with Micky Most to start a solo career in the early '70s. There's a lot about her family and the jealousies that created when she broke away, and that's understandable. It did rather skate over the later years with only brief mentions of her continuing touring in Europe and Australia - she still sells out huge gigs in Oz on her tours there - and records and her autobiography over the last decade or so.

There were some lovely snippets of other 'names' talking about her, from Don Powell of SLADE and Andy Scott of Sweet (with whom she delivered a record a few years ago as QSP), all the Runaways, Debbie Harry, Tina Weymouth and Chris Franz of Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club and others. Her former husband and lead guitarist Len Tuckey featured and it was great to hear his honesty about her career.  There were also some great video clips and photos of Suzi in her heyday that I'd never seen before. I thought it was a very good documentary - surprisingly good - that is well worth seeing. There was also a Q&A after the screening.

Another new film is 'Seberg', a film about three critical years in the life of Jean Seberg in the late '60s when she was hounded by the FBI in America for the crime of having a social conscience and donating money to 'right on' organisations. Jean became an instant hit when she played Joan of Arc on the big screen and remained a star in France while being a 'B' lister in America. In 1968 she started to support civil rights and equality groups including the Black Panthers and that's when the FBI started to take notice of her and decided to discredit her in any way they could. I suppose her only crime was that she wasn't a big enough star to be able to shrug off their attempts to trash her.

It's a sad tale in many respects and is selective in it's portrayal of her life but the facts of what happened are largely accurate. Jean died later in the '70s and is buried in Montparnasse in Paris.  Kristen Stewart plays Jean and she's very effective playing the young actress caught up in a much bigger picture. I saw an early screening at the BFI as part of the London Film Festival and the film will be released next year in 2020.

Another film screened as part of the London Film Festival was 'White Riot' about the Rock Against Racism movement in the late '70s, with the title taken from the song of the same name by The Clash. It tells the story of the rise of racism in the mid to late '70s and the rise of the National Front, the racist, fascist political party that was roundly defeated in the 1979 election. Rock Against Racism was a grassroots movement that  played it's part by mobilising music, bands and their fans to combat the everyday racism of the time. The film culminated with the Rock Against Racism gig in Victoria Park in London in 1978 with X-Ray Spex, The Clash, Steel Pulse and the Tom Robinson Band amongst others - punk and reggae always hand in hand. The sad thing is that there is so little video footage of the gig but we saw Jimmy Pursey singing 'White Riot' with The Clash on stage and some great photos of Poly Styrene and X-Ray Spex.

Rock Against Racism was everywhere in the late '70s, along with the Anti-Nazi League, and this film tells us how it came to be. How do organisations like this come into being? Someone has to have the initial idea, someone has to name it, produce a logo or sign for it, put up the first posters and put on the first gig. And that's what we learn in this film, how a rock photographer called Red Saunders and a small group of friends and activists attracted others and a cause was born.

It was a fascinating film to watch, a bit of time travel back to the '70s. I'd forgotten how grey everything was back then, how casual racism was everywhere, the potential for violence and so-called politicians were able to talk about 're-partriation' of British citizens on TV, it was all very odd by today's standards. It also felt very current in some ways with the racism of brexit and the gradual rise of another grassroots movement in Extinction Rebellion.

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Akram Khan's Giselle at Sadler's Wells

We went to see Akram Khan's 'Giselle' at Sadler's Wells - whenever I've tried to get tickets to see it before it's sold out quickly so this time I pounced and secured tickets at the back of the stalls. I'm so pleased I did. I'm not entirely sure what we saw but it was scary and beautiful.

It's a very different take on 'Giselle' to anything you've seen before and, while the bones are the same, this is an eerie, otherworldly experience not to be missed. There is complex dancing, occasional galloping across the stage, moody lighting and crashing industrial music and it all comes together perfectly.

Giselle falls for what turns out to be a rich boy and, when his family comes to take him home, she dies. Her soul joins the Willis, a group of dead women let down in love who seek to restore balance by killing unfaithful men. Virtually everything else is different - there is no pastoral village where Giselle lives with her family, instead it's a gritty and monochrome workers community, there are no pristine white tutus for the Willis, they're dressed in grey with bedraggled hair and carrying a staff. Scary visions of revenge.

The staging is very simple but incredibly effective. A simple wall that the workers are trying to keep closed and a bare stage. Of course, the wall eventually opens and the rich folks appear in their fantastical costumes, secure in their supremacy and it turns out that Giselle's love, Albrecht, belongs to these alien people. Giselle's disappointment is palpable. Of course we know all along that Albrecht is different because his shirt is tucked into his trousers and all the workers wear their shirts outside of their trousers. Watch for the details.

It's when the Willis appear in the second half that the strangeness and madness goes up a level with these vengeful spirits ready to do battle. The first time they put their staff's between their teeth freeing up both arms made me almost scared - they're doing that so they have two hands to shred the souls of any poor man they come across. The sight of them going up on pointe and putting their staffs between their teeth was almost shiver-inducing. This is no joke, no game, they mean it and Giselle is now one of them.

 Of course, Albrecht appears when the Queen of the Willis is present and she looms tall above him - he doesn't stand a chance. How can he survive an encounter with a supernatural being as vengeful as the Queen? I can't spoil that for you, you need to see it for yourself.

It's an astonishing piece and, probably, not to everyone's taste, but it certainly drew me in. Eerie and menacing, very dark and very different. So much energy on that stage, moody one moment and dancers dashing across the stage the next, a very complex dance. There are clearly lead roles but it's very much an ensemble piece for the whole cast so well done all. Giselle was danced by Erina Takahashi and Albrecht by Joseph Caley but it's the scary Queen who deserves most plaudits, Stina Quagebeur, for being a terrifying presence on that stage.

This production is bound to be revived many times so please do go and see it. I'll happily see it again. I wonder what Mr Khan is looking at next? Maybe a reinterpretation of 'Manon'? Let's wait and see...

Keith Haring at Tate Liverpool

Tate Liverpool has a great exhibition of paintings by Keith Haring at the moment. I think most people would probably recognise the works if not be able to name the artist. His style has become quite iconic since the '80s and his name should be better known.

He died in 1990, far too early and with so much potential - I wonder what on earth he'd be producing today if he was still with us and painting or using who knows what to create his art? I was quite pleased that one of the messages I took away from the exhibition is that he seemed to enjoy his work and had fun.

The 1980s were a strange decade - liberating, hedonistic and political and that sums up Keith Haring's work perfectly. He was very political and made this plain in his art. Whether it was about weapons or sex, he made his views known and produced incredibly simple and incredibly effective images to promote his views. He produced posters - as opposed to paintings - to be mass produced and plastered up on street walls, whether this was  about war, the church or AIDS didn't matter, he'd still go there.

Something that annoyed me and then drew me in was that he seemed to call all his works 'Untitled'. Or maybe he didn't name them, we did? Part way through the exhibition I decided to give up looking at the labels and that was an incredibly freeing moment - I don't care what  it's called I'll just revel in the moment and enjoy it for what it is. I'll make up the story that goes with this painting, thank you, and it's just as valid as your story. It was a very 'freeing' experience to visit this exhibition.

It's a very well curated exhibition, nicely spread out on the top floor of Tate Liverpool. There's even a 'disco room' to reflect how his first public sales exhibition looked, with loud music and lights - I did a little dance in his honour. There are a few video pieces to demonstrate was he was doing at the time and show his political leanings.

The later stages of the exhibition got darker when he became active in the AIDS movement and discovered that he was HIV positive himself. If anything, that kickstarted his creativity and he created some big, complex pieces about sexuality and death and who knows what else. Seeing these large pieces started me thinking about Bosch and his mad, crowded paintings full of activity and madness.

There were photos and videos of Keith Haring throughout the exhibition but my favourite photo of him is beside the exit door, this one, having a laugh and being daft in his jeans covered in patches. He created some astonishingly powerful works in his short life and he had fun doing it. Go and see this exhibition if you can and wind your mind back to the '80s.