Sunday, 24 November 2019

Anthony Gormley at the Royal Academy

Finally got round to seeing the Anthony Gormley exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts - it's big and it's bold and it's great fun. Gormley is someone I've grown to appreciate slowly over the years and, for me at least, his most famous work is the Angel of the North that stands alone on a hillside in Gateshead that you can see from the train going up to Newcastle. The Angel is even better up close (get the number 21 bus from Newcastle).

The exhibition is spread out over the whole first floor exhibition space, room after room full of metalwork, drawings, sketchbooks, giant conkers hanging from the ceiling, tunnels and naked gentlemen dancing on the ceiling. You never know what you might see next.

It starts off gently enough with a sleeping man-shape in a lightly toasted bread duvet hanging on the wall. I've no idea what that is about but it made me smile. Next door is room full of thick strands of industrial sized bent metal wire, floor to ceiling and wall to wall, that you need to walk round the edges of the room, sometimes ducking to get under it and sometimes stepping over it and into the art itself to walk past. Weird and wonderful at the same time. It was fun hearing a 'clang' sound every now and then as someone mis-stepped and caught the thick metal wires as they stepped into it. I wonder how long it took to construct this work to fit the room?

Further along was a room full of sketches and drawings and cabinets full of Gormley's small sketchbooks. Most were A6 size or smaller, with drawings in pencil, pen and ink of all sorts of things, random ideas he was thinking about at the time. On the walls hung all sorts of works in various media including a couple drawn in his own blood. I dread to think what other body fluids might've been used in other drawings.

There's a room with two giant conkers suspended on sturdy ropes from the ceiling (or rather, something holding them beyond the ceiling) that were swaying slightly. They were metal and probably very heavy. This is part of the joy of the exhibition, not knowing what you might see next and then coming face to face with something you never expected or imagined. And then you find Gormley dancing on the ceiling.

This, I think, was my favourite room with a couple of dozen statues dotted about the place, standing on the floor, on the walls and on the ceiling - I've got no idea how they're suspected from the ceiling and I don't want to know since that'll spoil the magic. I think they're based on casts of Gormley himself and they're about six feet tall so they're pretty solid. What do you do with them? Why are they standing in those specific positions? Are we supposed to interact with them? Hold a conversation? Who knows? I wonder how many people accidentally bump into a statue not expecting it to keep standing there as the crowd moves and shuffles around?

It was very crowded when we visited and I suspect that room feels very different when it's empty, just you surrounded on all sides by these silent statues. Or maybe they're whispering amongst themselves?

The next big thing was an installation that filled another room and you walked through it in pitch blackness apart from a section in the middle with a few shards of light. It was a tunnel that most people had to lean over a bit to get in. I didn't go into that but walked round the outside. I'm a coward like that.

The following room was full of drawings and sketches and paintings and it was nice to see some of art that can hang on an ordinary wall - even my walls can take a nail and hang a painting but they wouldn't survive having one of his statues on them. I really liked some of the drawings and it would be interesting to see what sort of drawings or paintings he'd make if he spent a year doing nothing but paint. That would be an exhibition worth seeing.

All in all it's a great exhibition, lots of works to please everyone, lots of weirdness and lots to make you smile and think. I'm pleased I saw it.

Friday, 22 November 2019

Favourite Paintings: 'Portrait of a Man (Self-Portrait?)' by Jan van Eyck

One of my favourite paintings is 'Portrait of a Man (Self-Portrait?)' in the National Gallery in London by the great Jan van Eyck from 1433. It's a portrait of a mature gentleman, obviously well-to-do from the rich clothes and his very fashionable red hat and, because of the inscriptions on the frame (which is original), is thought to be a self-portrait of van Eyck himself. The words on the top of the frame state 'Als Ich Kan' ('as well as I can') and along the bottom says 'Jan van Eyck made me on 21 October 1433'.

The painting is only 10"x7" so is very small but look at the detail van Eyck has managed to get into that face. The taut skin, the bold look, the wrinkles and shadows all say that this is a man who knows what he wants and he knows how to get his own way. Not very much is known about van Eyck and he is first referenced in 1422 and a few years later he became court painter to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. It's not known when he was born but he died on 9 June 1441 in Bruges.

It's an astonishing painting, full of the details of a mature man's face. The composition is quite stark with the face emerging out of that dark background, quite dramatic, and it's clearly the face the viewer is meant to focus on, with no rich adornments or jewellery, props of any kind, other than the trendy hat. On the same wall, a few paintings along, is a portrait by Robert Campin of a man wearing a similar hat from about 1435, so van Eyck was obviously on trend.

I believe it is a self-portrait for no other reason than I want it to be true.

'Hansard' at the National Theatre

'Hansard' is a new play by Simon Woods playing in the Lyttelton at the National Theatre starring Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan. It seems to be part of the recent trend for short plays with no interval and this one is only 90 minutes long. It's a double-header between the two main characters but I'm not sure why it's called Hansard - Hansard is the official record of debates in the Houses of Parliament and, other than the male character being an MP I didn't really notice anything that might link the play to the official record.

The play is set in 1988 and the male lead is a junior minister inThatcher's Tory government who arrives at his Cotswolds home after a hard week of interviews and votes in the House. His bored wife still hasn't dressed yet or prepared for his little birthday party and the bickering starts. Snipes here and snipes there, snide language from both in what seems like a regular argument they have each weekend when he arrives home.  

This time the sniping takes a different turn when the wife seems to have discovered that her husband has been away overnight and his secretary thinks he's been away with her. But she spent the night alone in their London flat. O dear, he's not just another lying, cheating politician is he? As it turns out, he's not, and the thing they've managed to not talk about slowly comes out after years of silence. It's quite touching in that respect but I won't say what it is - see it for yourself.

It's an odd play and it wasn't too subtle in signposting the '80s with loads of references to the miners strike, AIDS, clause 28, Thatcher and everything except tucking your jumpa into your jeans and electronic music. What's wrong with electronic music? I did think it was nicely plotted - but possibly over-plotted? - and led to an interesting discussion afterwards.

It was all set in a very large kitchen - I bet that kitchen gets really cold in winter.

Thursday, 21 November 2019

Ballet Black at Stratford East

I saw Ballet Black dance at the Linbury Studio in the Royal Opera House and loved their dance, 'Ingoma' so when I saw they were doing it at Stratford East I had to get tickets. They were dancing a title bill and the first piece was a duet called 'Pendulum' followed by two ensemble pieces, 'Click' and 'Ingoma'.

'Pendulum' felt a bit too traditional for my tastes but I loved 'Click' with it's fast pace and dramatic costumes and lighting. Each dancer moving in a world of their own to a snap of the fingers in different coloured suits, sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs and other times as an ensemble. I thought it was greta fun and was incredibly effective.

'Ingoma' was a longer piece telling the tale of a miners strike in South Africa in 1946 and the choreography and performances were excellent but it highlighted the narrowness of the Stratford stage for dance pieces - they needed more space for this production. There is high drama in this piece with the bravery of the striking miners, the effect on their families and drawing them into the dispute. Great choreography and music, excellent dancing and lighting and an exhausting piece to watch. How can they keep up that intensity night after night.

I was mightily impressed by Ballet Black - I expected technical proficiency but the selection of dances and the different productions served to underline that they're a force to be reckoned with in dance circles. They're a small ensemble group so it's not really fair to single anyone out but I loved Isabella Coracy as the lead dancer in the yellow suit in 'Click' and Mthuthuzeli November's choreography was spectacular in 'Ingoma'. Someone to watch out for. Well done people! 

Sunday, 17 November 2019

'The Sleeping Beauty' at the Royal Opera House

The autumn season is well underway at the Royal Opera House so it must be time for 'The Sleeping Beauty' which has a special place in the repertoire of the Royal Ballet. It was the production that re-opened the Opera House after the war and has been performed many times. I was lucky enough to see the 910th performance at the Royal Opera House. Like most of the classic ballets, it was choreographed by Marius Petipa and this ballet has music by Tchaikovsky. It also has additional choreography by Frederick Ashton, Anthony Dowell and Christopher Wheeldon.

This production is designed to be loved. It has a cast of thousands, loads of pretty period costumes and lots of costume changes, gorgeous music and lovely solo and ensemble dancing. Spectacle from start to finish. What's not to love about it? A story we all know of the princess being cursed and pricking her finger only to be awoken one hundred years later by loves first kiss from her prince and they live happily ever after. There are  adventures aplenty along the way with the evil Carabosse's rat attendants, the fairies and their gifts for the baby princess and, of course, the brave Lilac Fairy who defends our princess from the evil witch.

There are very few slow movements in this ballet, constant movement is the theme and it must be very tough on any ballerina who dances Princess Aurora since she spends so much time on tippy, particularly during the Rose Adagio when she's en pointe for several minutes as four princes try to win her hand. Luckily for us, she meets the right prince 100 years later when he wakes her with a kiss. The princess only appears in Act Two since she's a baby in Act One and the Prince appears in Act Three so it's not too strenuous.

The long third act introduces us to the special guests at the betrothal of our princess and prince, fairytale characters from old stories, like Puss in Boots and Little Red Riding Hood. It may be high end ballet but it's not above having a bit of fun with the production. The amazing leaps of the bluebird, the cat-licking and jumps of the cats and the attacks of the Wolf all add another layer to the ballet, showing it's grounded in deeper, old, folk tales. I admit to loving the felines as they lick themselves and jump and skip every time they take the stage.

If you want to see a classic ballet for the first time then you can do a lot worse than choosing this one. Lasses in tutus and lads in tights, colour and spectacle, everything you think might be in a ballet is in this production. It's gorgeous.

In a late change due to injury our Princess Aurora was the excellent Fumi Kaneko and Prince Florimund was Reece Clarke, the evil Carabosse was Christina Arestis and the heroic Lilac Fairy was danced by Itziar Mendizabal. The licky cats were Leo Dixon and Ashley Dean.  They were all dead fab but it's always good to see Itziar do her stuff, since she is so graceful as well as technically perfect. Well done to Fumi for stepping up with only a couple of days notice, she gave a very impressive performance and is definitely someone to watch.

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Leonardo da Vinci 'Virgin of the Rocks' at the National Gallery

The new exhibition at the National Gallery is 'Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece' about his painting, 'Virgin of the Rocks' which is the National Gallery's collection. They've taken over most of the ground floor galleries for this exhibition and reconfigured them so you walk from one immersive room into the next as you get closer to the actual painting. There is only one painting in this exhibition and that's the 'Virgin of the Rocks'.

The 'Virgin of the Rocks' is one of the highlights of the National Gallery collection, one of the few Leonardo da Vinci paintings that exist. There's an earlier version of this painting in the Louvre but I prefer the London version as a more aesthetically pleasing composition.

The first room you go into doesn't really seem to serve any purpose, a stack of boxes looking at a big projection of a mountain with some of the boxes blocked with copies of Leonardo's famous backwards 'mirror' writing. Why? I don't know. Next you go into a room that's set up partially like an artist's studio and partly like a conservation room with text books and technical journals. Most people hovered by the door looking in at a video projection about he painting when I was there rather than walking right into the room. It wasn't clear if you could touch things on the desks or not so I didn't.

The next room was far more playful and interesting, a room of light and shade, but still a bit puzzling.  There's a life sized photo of a woman dressed like the Virgin in the middle of a big circle that lights up and shines in different directions that you control with your finger on a large dial in front of the  photo. It's fun to play with it but only one person can play at a time. Also in the room are three smallish boxes with different things inside and with six levers with which you control the direction and intensity of light to create different shadow effects. I really liked playing with this piece, especially on the man's head.

Another box had a large rock inside and the other had various geometric shapes. It was fun to play with the lights but it raised a few questions for me. Only one person can play at a time so is the National Gallery assuming there'll be a queue to play with the exhibit, in which case why plan for an unsatisfactory experience for punters? Or is the assumption that not many people will go into the exhibition? In which case why give over so much space to it and have the large room at the end as a shop? It wasn't very busy when I was there which was good for me but not good for the exhibition given that it's only just opened and, generally speaking, the busiest time for an exhibition is when it's just opened.

The next room was dark and empty - literally - except for some gauzy material suspected in mid air showing designs for the church the painting was designed for and a projector that seemed to be on a one minute repeat showing the building of the church in Milan. This was nice enough but very short. The most exciting bit was when I stepped forward into the line of the protector and waited for the floor to explode around me as the church columns sprang into life. That was almost a disorienting experience and I loved it. I went back to do it again.

It did raise questions about 'why?' again. It's a large virtually empty room. While I was enjoying the church exploding into life around me a guard felt th need to tell me that there was another room at the end of the room with the actual painting in it - there was no sign that there was another room but I sort of guessed that there was since I had't seen the painting yet. If a guard has to tell you where to go next then that's not really a good look.

The final room includes the actual painting at the centre of various projections of what the original altarpiece it was part of might have looked like. There are no records of what it looked like and the church no longer exists so it's anyone's guess really., The National Gallery has used its experts to re-imagine what the altarpiece might have looked like and developed some video projections to show it to us.

This exhibition seems to be the National Gallery's foray into the use of technology in an art exhibition and is trying to make it immersive so that you experience the exhibition rather than just look at it. There is only one painting on show but lots of technology in the forms of lights and projections. Someone has spent a lot of time developing these special effects in an attempt too look at a work of art in a different way. In principle I approve of it but it still left me puzzled and wondering if there'd been any user testing at all. This video projection lasts for about five minutes, showing different versions of that the altarpiece might have looked like and I really enjoyed this bit, going back for seconds.

I'm not quite sure what I thought about this exhibition. I suspect it needs a bit more of an explanation in the promotional materials as to what you can expect and I'd hate to be there when it was busy since you wouldn't be able to really enjoy the experience. Good on the National Gallery for being brave enough to try this kind of "immersive" exhibition but I'd really recommend some user testing and testing how crowds might work in something like this.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

'Manon' at the Royal Opera House

The Royal Ballet's 'Manon' is a staple in their repertoire and is a sad tale of love and loss. There are energetic ensemble dances and gentle, poignant duets between our lovers, pain and despair, rape and murder, poverty and riches, it's all in there. It's a grand tale spanning class and continents. We were there to see the return of Steven McRae in his first show since recovering from an injury that's kept him off the stage for most of the year.

We meet young Manon when she arrives at a coach station outside Paris, fresh from a  convent and naive. Her brother spots an opportunity to make some money since a rich gentleman is instantly taken with her and, while they discuss prices, Manon meets the student Des Grieux and they fall in love. They run off to Paris but are tracked down by Manon's brother and the rich man and she is seduced by the jewels and furs he offers and she goes off with him. They meet up again later at a party and Manon and Des Grieux agree to run off again together but they're caught again and her brother is shot by the rich man and she's arrested as a prostitute. She's deported to a penal colony in New Orleans with other women in the same position and there, yes, you guessed it, the commander takes a shine to her, arrests her and has her delivered to his office to rape her. Des Grieux has traveled with her, kills the commander and they escape into the everglades where Manon dies and leave his alone for the last time. The message here is not to get seduced by wealth because it'll end badly.

This is the Royal Ballet so it's expected that the dancing will be excellent and it was. I particularly liked the ensemble dances which were really quite exceptional with great synchronisation, such as the dance of the strumpets at the party where they show off their wares - themselves - to the guests and then later the women coming off the ship in New Orleans, distressed and ashamed, dressed in rags and with their hair cut off. That was a particularly moving dance with the women almost fainting, unsure and confused - a beautiful bit of choreography and performance.

Akane Takada was a good, waif-like  Manon and Steven McRae danced Des Grieux with all the skill and vigour we've come to expect from a  dancer at the top of his game. It was great to see him bring his skills in dance and in characterisation to the stage of the Royal opera House again.

All was going well until the start of the last scene in Act Two when Des Grieux comes on alone to dance and, after a couple of leaps, something obviously was wrong as Steven stood still on one leg and then hopped off the stage to protect his injured leg. The curtains closed and the show stopped as we were told there was a problem and then told that Steven was injured and the production would continue with Reece Clarke dancing his role. That must've been a terrible moment for Steven, back to dancing only to face another injury. It must've been difficult for Akane as well, used to dancing with Steven and now having someone much taller stepping in to finish the show. Well done to Reece for stepping in.

It turned out the Steven snapped an Achilles tendon, has had an operation and now faces a long recovery again. As is typical of him, he's already posted photos of himself exercising and determined to recover and get back on stage. When you're ready to get back on that grand stage we'll be there to see you again.

Kelli O'Hara at Cadogan Hall

On Sunday evening I had the pleasure of seeing Kelli O'Hara in what I think was her second solo show in London, the first being that afternoon, also in Cadogan Hall. Kelli has been a big name on Broadway for a long time now but only came to London in 2018 to reprise her role as Anna in 'The King & I' at the London Palladium. I first came across Kelli in 2010 when I saw the hit revival of 'South Pacific' at Lincoln Centre in New York - Kelli had left the cast when I saw it but it was her voice on the cast recording that I bought immediately after seeing the show. I obviously saw her in 'The King & I'.

She has a soprano voice and originally trained in opera. She told us she had a degree in opera and then moved to New York to train in acting and musical theatre and it's lucky for us that she did. She's been in loads of shows on Broadway over the years and I didn't realise that she originated the role of Francesca in 'Bridges of Madison County', a show I saw over the summer with Jenna Russell in the role of Francesca.

Kelli was surrounded by a five-piece band on Sunday to provide a rich sound. She sang songs from her big hit shows and from her solo records. We were treated to 'Getting To Know You' ('The King & I'), 'Wonderful Guy' (South Pacific) and 'To Build A Home' ('Bridges of Madison County'). She told us about deciding to sing songs usually sung by men and gave us a lovely version of 'Finishing The Hat' from Sondheim's 'Sunday in the Park with George' (as well as other Sondheim songs). She also gave us a touching version of 'This Nearly Was Mine' sung by Emile in 'South Pacific' about losing Nellie, the character played by Kelli.

At one point we got to see her in true operatic mode when she sang a fun song about being a country singer not being able to break into an opera career until the end when she starts singing up and up and up and then soaring into her upper voice - we've all probably seen that on TV or on DVD but to see it in person in front of you ... wow! Her voice went higher and higher and it was both impressive and exciting to witness.

The inevitable standing ovations happened and she came back twice to calm us down, finishing with 'La Vie en Rose' in French and the audience was all clap clap clap. I was too. It was great to see her sing all those songs with her incredibly versatile voice. If you get the chance then make sure you see Kelli sing when you can. I will!


Tuesday, 5 November 2019

William Blake at Tate Britain

The big exhibition at Tate Britain is all about William Blake, the artist, poet, printer and mystic who was largely overlooked in his lifetime but now has almost mythic status. Born in the mid 1700s and working through into the early 1800s, he predates the Romantic period but is related to it. Blake doesn't really fit comfortably within any particular movement and he stands largely on his own. That does him no harm at all but does present challenges to curators of exhibitions in trying to present 'this is Blake'.

We all know some Blake. You might say 'who?' but you've heard 'Jerusalem', Blake's great poem set to music, and most people will have heard of 'Tyger, tyger burning bright in the forests of the night'. I bought a replica copy of his 'Songs of Innocence and Experience' nearly 40 years ago and that introduced me to Blake's art as well as his poetry since his original books were fully illustrated.

The exhibition is full of pages from his books with his tiny spiderish writing and lovely illustrations. There are lots of editions of his books in glass cases, both small and very large, lots of prints in black and white and in colour, full size plates and paintings but nothing large because he didn't produce large works. That's both a joy and a problem for the exhibition.

Since the vast majority of the exhibits are relatively small, probably averaging about A4 size, then it means there are a lot of exhibits. It also means that you need to get quite close to see them properly and that's a problem in a busy exhibition since there's a queue to see most things, especially in the first few rooms. Luckily, I'm a magpie at exhibitions and go with what catches my eyes rather than religiously following everything on the walls.

Blake was working in the early days of mass produced printed materials so a lot of the exhibits illustrate his printed works. The novel as an art form was still in its infancy, newspapers and journals were starting and the population was becoming more literate so it must've been an exciting time to be involved with printing and the new techniques being developed. He produced loads of stuff but little of it was popular at the time. He illustrated Bible stories, Shakespeare's and Dante's poetry, his own invented mythologies, contemporary science, all sorts. He lived in an age of revolutions in France and America, great political changes across Europe and the creation of a city-based working class. It was all going on back then and Blake had a finger in many pies.

His works are constantly dramatic - there's nothing mundane or pedestrian about his vision and that gave rise to his reputation as a mystic. Whether that's 'Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils' (above) or the 'Rout of the Rebel Angels' (left). You won't see this kind of imagery  in other artists and that's part of the attraction of Blake. He invented his own artistic language rather than using the traditional, inherited forms of presenting stories in paint or whatever the medium. His depiction of the human body is instantly recognisable, whether naked or clothed, but it's often his compositions that intrigues. Look again at his 'Satan Smiting Job' and don't you think that could almost be a super-villian in a Marvel comic or film attacking the good guy? It's all about the drama, it's showing a triumphant Satan with all his power inflicting pain. Because he can. And that could be you if you're not careful.

There's a series of Blake's small paintings to illustrate his vision of Dante's 'Inferno'. I particularly liked his painting of 'Beatrice Addressing Dante' with it's delicate use of colour and almost etherial feel. The griffin drawing the chariot is fab. I want a griffin. His background colour-washes are vibrant and colourful and, in a way, remarkably modern. Who ever painted a sky like that, even a sky set in heaven, back in the day? It makes me wish that Blake had painted bigger paintings and used more oils rather than watercolour and ink.

One of the last works in the exhibition is 'The Ancient of Days', the frontispiece to his epic 'Europe'. This is one of Blake's most famous works and shows Urizen measuring the world. It's a small but dramatic piece coloured in inks and watercolour.  It's not quite A4 in size but imagine its power if it were six feet tall in a gilded frame hanging high and this could easily be god creating the world out of chaos. Maybe in Blake's mind it was?

If you're in the area and have a spare hour or so you could do a lot worse than visit this exhibition. It's on until 2 February 2020 so there's plenty of time for you to see it. I'll be going back to see it again.