Archive for the ‘art’ Category

Pictures of the Month

Autorretrato con Chango y Loro (Self-portrait with Monkey and Parrot) – Frida Kahlo

frida kahlo painting artist painter

Skrik (Scream) – Edvard Munck

munch skrik

Joie de Vivre – Picasso

Joie de Vivre - Picasso (1946)

Portrait Surrounded by Artistic Devices – David Hockney

Portrait Surrounded by Artistic Devices (1965)

Portrait Surrounded by Artistic Devices (1965)

Merry-Go-Round – Mark Gertler

Merry-Go-Round by Mark Gertler

Merry-Go-Round by Mark Gertler (1916)

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère – Edouard Manet

Un bar aux Folies Bergère

Un bar aux Folies Bergère – Edouard Manet

Picture of the Month: Autorretrato con Chango y Loro (Self-portrait with Monkey and Parrot) – Frida Kahlo (1942)

Self-portrait with monkey and parrot frida kahlo 1942

I’ve never written a Picture of the Month in situ before but it’s a rainy Spring afternoon in Buenos Aires and I feel so inspired by this painting in the Malba gallery that I feel compelled to get a bit of energy out of the system. I’m dedicating this one to Una who would love this painting.

Worth making the trip to Buenos Aires for this alone

Worth making the trip to Buenos Aires for this alone

What’s unusual is that in many ways it’s a very simple painting, not much to work with – the artist, a monkey, a parrot and a background of wheat. Usually I pick images with more complexity to focus on in Picture of the Month.

I’m about 20 inches away from it now, phone in hand to jot this on.

It draws people to it

It draws people to it

The eyes make an equilateral triangle which is the heart of the composition. Frida’s look slightly left like she doesn’t give a monkey’s about the viewer. Her lips are tight. Her cheeks red. There’s a bit of anger or disdain or probably defiance there.

The parrot looks straight out with both of its side-mounted eyes looking directly at the viewer – the only one of the three doing so. I saw a green parrot like this yesterday up in the trees at the bird sanctuary across town by the port, the Costanera Sur ecological reserve at Puerto Madero. Incongruously some distant relatives, also bright green, hang out occasionally in the allotments beside my house.

The monkey is looking out of the frame to the artist’s left – only one black eye visible like a Jack of spades.

Frida’s hairband is green and yellow like the parrot. Her hair is black like the monkey. She is integrated with them. Are they two aspects of her? Talking and thinking or feeling? Her parents? Her children? Two people she knows? Two aspects of Mexico? No clues really – maybe they are just two animals or familiars.

The parrot sits on her shoulder. Not much sense of its weight. The yellow and maroon dress she is wearing is flat and unruffled, making the parrot not quite of this world.

The monkey is embracing her, an arm behind her back and one on her shoulder. They look close whoever he/she is. It’s got a little quiff. Its face is at once baby-like and old, more the latter.

His (why do I keep thinking it’s a male?) fur links to her amazing gull-shaped monobrow through the shared colour and her unflinchingly portrayed moustache. She has black eye-liner echoing those eyebrows. The lip hair reflects them. So some strong X-shaped geometry is the focus of her face.

The background of wheat reminds me of Van Gogh. The yellow is related to his sunflowers. The tendrils at the top suggest growth and something of the jungle. The shapes also remind me of Rousseau’s vegetation.

…on reflection, I don’t think it’s wheat. I think it’s some kind of exotic jungle plant. So we’re in a Latin-American jungle world albeit of a light and limited kind, no sense of enclosure by trees.

frida kahlo painting artist painter

After 20 minutes standing here what do I take away about this beautiful picture? It’s more for Frida than for us – or at least she’s giving us only so much. The rest is hers.

A touch of defiance?

A touch of defiance?

Never looking directly at you

Never looking directly at you

What's with the monkeys?

What’s with the monkeys?

...And the feathered friends?

…And the feathered friends?

self-portrait-with-monkey-by-Frida-Kahlo

frida kahlo painting monkeys

self-portrait-with-necklace-of-thorns-1940

Here’s the last Picture of the Month – as you can see the series title has a touch of irony about it.

Dream #311

northern_pike

1

I’m at my book group. A few more people there than usual. There’s stuff going on around gay issues with some gay people (I think one may be Boyd). We’ve got an hour slot and I’m starting to get concerned we’re wasting too much time. Una is with me. When 45 minutes have elapsed I get up and have a row with Jon, storming out in a huff.

2

I’m at a party. Jon is leaning against a wall and I approach him from behind along the hallway. I say I must tell you about this dream I had that you were in and I start to tell him…

3

I’ve made a music documentary about Radio 5. A senior producer tells me I can get it on air but it has to be today or never. The producer I’m working with has the extra material and music needed to finish off the documentary to make it suitable for airing today. Somehow this material and this colleague are impossible to pin down and I pursue them in vain. This brings me to a situation where I am in a bed. Near a river. I’ve taken my shoes off on the river side. They become lost or washed away. The water comes up half under the bed. A huge pike swims under me.

SOURCES

1

I’m at my book group. [I finished a novel last night and was wondering whether to read a play next or my book group book which I'm not in the mood for.] A few more people there than usual. There’s stuff going on around gay issues with some gay people (I think one may be Boyd). [I was in bed early with the radio on and the legalisation of gay marriage was the lead story in the news.] We’ve got an hour slot and I’m starting to get concerned we’re wasting too much time. Una is with me. When 45 minutes have elapsed I get up and have a row with Jon, storming out in a huff.

2

I’m at a party. Jon is leaning against a wall and I approach him from behind along the hallway. I say I must tell you about this dream I had that you were in and I start to tell him… [dream within a dream - pretty far out. See Dali below]

3

I’ve made a music documentary about Radio 5. [Radio 5 was on as I half-slept.] A senior producer tells me I can get it on air but it has to be today or never. [Today is the 20th anniversary of Radio 5.] The producer I’m working with has the extra material and music needed to finish off the documentary to make it suitable for airing today. Somehow this material and this colleague are impossible to pin down and I pursue them in vain. This brings me to a situation where I am in a bed. Near a river. I’ve taken my shoes off on the river side. They become lost or washed away. The water comes up half under the bed. A huge pike swims under me. [This is the interesting bit for me that prompted me to write this post – I came across the word Pike three times yesterday – (1) Yesterday I was finishing off ‘New Boy’ by William Sutcliffe, a novel set in my old school, which would actually explain why Jon was in my dream. At one point the two friends at the centre of the book walk out of school to a place called Pike’s Water. I would have gone there with Jon at lunch breaks very occasionally. (2) Yesterday evening I was writing my book, the chapter about Joan Littlewood. In it I was mainly writing about Brendan Behan. Behan’s play The Quare Fellow [quare - queer - perhaps another link to gay issues though I think that mainly came from the radio news item] was originally put on in Pike’s Theatre, Dublin. (3) Actaully I think this one was after the event and therefore not source but Serendipity. The blog post just before this which I wrote Around Midnight last night was Liked shortly after midnight by Timothy Pike, Freelance (Editor? – the text of his name is harshly curtailed by WordPress ironica…) – I didn’t see the Like alert email til this morning, though within an hour or two of the dream. So none of my three pikes were fish as such, though (1) contained fish perhaps.] Fish, staple diet of the Surrealist.

Salvador Dalí - 'Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening'

Salvador Dalí – ‘Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening’

P.S. I once saw this painting, about the moments before waking and the way one dream fragment arises from another, in the same way this memory is arising from my recounting of these dreams, in an exhibition in London – at the Tate or Royal Academy, I can’t quite picture it. A teacher was standing in front of the painting talking about it to his pupils. With a Bic biro in his hand. I saw him point something out with the biro and touch the canvas. No way! I went to check after the group moved on. No shit, that scrufosa just put a blue mark on a Masterpiece! How delicate is even great art…

Manchester, so much to answer for (Day 30)

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air

The day was centred on non-writing activity – namely a speaking event at the Radio Festival 2013 in Manchester where I participated in a discussion on Democracy, Radio and the Media with Bea Campbell (writer and feminist) and Rod Liddle (journalist, columnist in The Spectator, former editor of Radio 4’s Today programme). The session in The Lowry theatre in Salford was chaired by radio presenter Peter Curran and produced by Radio 4 Today Editor Peter Hanington. I traveled up on the train to Manchester with Rod. The last time he came on my radar was when I read a piece of his in The Spectator about Channel 4’s decision to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer during Ramadan. His view of Channel 4 commissioning editors was expressed thus: “The suspicion persists that over at Channel 4, in the commissioning departments, it is forever Wank Week. A perpetual circle jerk of low-achieving white middle-class males tugging away like there’s no tomorrow. The latest spurt of fatuity comes from its Head of Factual Programming, a very pleased-with-himself little semi-bearded monkey…etc. etc.” Other than his being apparently down on monkeys (which I love and are only 0.4% different in their DNA, or so I heard on Radio 4 last Sunday [from evolutionary anthropologist Professor Volker Sommer on The Museum of Curiosity - presenter John lloyd was someone I was thinking about for the Comedy chapter], and apparently men and women can be 4% different), other than the monkey thing  and his being too down on Crouch End (he uses the word “bien-pensant” a lot, deliberately pronounced in an English accent), he proved a very affable chap with a voice fit for the stage. He knew a lot about the landscape we were trundling through from the Welsh borders to Stockport viaduct (which later showed up in an exhibition I went to, see below). He was helpful sharing his experience of book writing and publishing.

Once in Salford, at Media City in the shadow of Old Trafford, both very ugly, we hung out in a strange long curved back-room getting our heads together and broadly discussing the issues at hand. Bea was very friendly and easy to connect with. She now does a lot of her writing in South-West France which she balances with Camden Town. She has a great passion about her which explains why my Other Half has been so inspired by her over the years. Peter Curran did a grand job holding the whole thing together so the session proved smooth and not narrow, three clear perspectives on the topic, mine focused very much on the multiplatform potential of radio, the medium I love most (I listen to over 20 hours a week).

Once over I high-tailed it into town to the Manchester Art Gallery to see the Jeremy Deller exhibition I missed previously at The Hayward in London. I was fortunately alerted to it by the art collector at The Groucho on Day 29. It’s a tremendous exhibition – All That Is Solid Melts Into Air is Exhibition as Art Work, a reflection on the Industrial Revolution created from existing artworks and artefacts arranged to give maximum illumination to experiences and phenomena which remain central to our lives. It only opened on Friday so time was on my side. Time was one of the most revelatory themes for me – the regulation of time through industrialisation – working hours, clocking on, time off. The most disturbing object on display was a contemporary device from Motorola which is affixed to the wrist (where, having listened recently to an extract from Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary, the nail went in to fix Jesus to the cross) to monitor the efficiency of warehouse picking workers at Amazon and similar workplaces. That kind of thinking, zero hours contracts, and you can see the Industrial Revolution is not played out. At Peter & Shelagh’s wedding on Saturday in the church where Milton, inspiration for the ridiculously long sentences in this post and the insane sub-clauses, we, heavenly muse, sang Jerusalem so this whole thing has been in the air all week.

Jeremy Deller is the subject of my Art chapter so it was brilliant being able to tune into him through such an inspiring show. I saw him talk about it once at a small conference while he was creating it, focusing on the above image of a miner and his returning prodigal son. What a perfect capturing of the tension of industry – connection and alienation, love and fear,  old and new, monochrome and colour, manual work and non-manual.

I enjoyed the people-watching as I walked from the gallery to the station – everything you’d expect from the city of Lowry and The Smiths.  And of Tony Wilson, the subject of my Music chapter.

The  journey home allowed for a bit of writing, carrying on with Paul Arden to the rhythm of the train and the Talking Heads.

Picture of the Month: Is he screaming?

Going, going...

Going, going…

I’m in the office, it’s mid-afternoon and a gap’s appeared. I’ll nab it to dash across the park to Sotheby’s to take a look at The Scream. It’s a version in pastels, not oil, on board, not canvas, in private hands for years, Fred Olsen the shipping magnate, unseeable til now. I ring up to see what time they close. Half an hour ago and today was the last day of the viewing in London – it’s off to New York now. I let out a little Skrik. Bugger, bugger, bugger, I’ve been meaning to take a look for weeks. As Nietzsche would have said, you’ve got to be philosophical about it. I’m trying – but struggling. Soooo disappointed. I’ve seen most of the other versions, three in paint, my first time was in Oslo around 1987.

The Scream sold

…gone!

And then I got a second chance I never expected. I pictured this pastels version of Munch’s The Scream disappearing back into some mansion. But the new owner is evidently an enlightened person, s/he put it on public display at MoMA in New York (with which I heard s/he has a close connection). I was in NYC a few weeks ago talking at the Impact Media conference. The day after I went on a pathetically shallow quest in search of a particular watch made in New York. One of the few places you’re supposed to be able to get one is in the MoMA design shop – drew a blank there (out-of-date websites are so annoying, Nooka) – but the upside was I spotted the poster for The Scream exhibition.

The 1895 pastel on board version at MoMA

The 1895 pastel on board version at MoMA

Made a bee-line for it. It sat in the centre of a semi-darkened room. Surrounded by various works which shed some light on it, relatively minor, thoughtfully displayed. And here’s the thing…

the-scream-comes-to-MoMA

He may well not actually be screaming. It’s called The Scream/Skrik. It’s got a man in the middle of it. Somehow an assumption had fixed itself in my mind that the man’s screaming. But first and foremost he’s covering his ears to block out a scream. A scream Munch heard in Nature that evening he went out walking along the edge of Oslo fjord and the sunset turned the sky blood red. His two friends were a bit ahead and he found himself alone in the face of Nature’s infinity.

I’ve experienced that myself but in a more benign way. I used to have an album by ABC called ‘Beauty Stab’ (used to because it was on cassette, a format well capable of prompting shrieks). It was a phrase that really resonnated for me. Those moments when you’re somewhere in Nature and it’s so beautiful it hurts. Occasionally I’ve had it though where it tips into an anxiety in the face of Nature’s depths – I had that once alone in a natural pool in Jamaica. For Munch it’s angst all the way on an overwhelming scale.

Skrik was one of six paintings making up what the artist dubbed the ‘Frieze of Life’. He was responding to (German dramatist) Lessing’s assertion in Laocoon that literature could tell a story over time where painting had to rely on a single moment. Munch wanted to create what the German’s called a ‘gesamptwerk’, a total work of art. The six paintings were displayed together and offered a coherent overview of life as a human being. Wanting to keep them together explains Munch’s willingness to reproduce his own paintings, avoiding breaking up the set.

One of the four versions made by Munch between 1893 and 1910

One of the four versions made by Munch between 1893 and 1910

On a tangent my limited Norwegian vocabulary is dominated by words like Skrik, Kvinne and the like, picked up from Munch’s titles. I was actually one of only two people in my year at Cambridge doing Norwegian (for me it was a third, subsidiary language which I was studying for all the wrong reasons and without seriousness, unlike the other student who quickly left me behind like Munch’s friends on that fateful walk).

munch skrik

So I battled my way through the crowd to get a close look at this 4th version of the iconic image, displayed like an icon in a fancy frame (Munch wasn’t keen on frames, or even on canvas, often painting on board or cheap materials) in a reverent penumbra, and drank it in, left above all with the impression of the mad swirls. Pencilled on to one oil version in the Oslo Museum is the sentence (in Norsk of course) “only a madman could have painted this”. To what extent this reflected his fear of madness in his family or was a bit of a pose cashing in on the Nordic rep for depressive nuttiness is difficult to say for sure.

Any way, I made my way literally round the corner to bump into another display of mad swirls. Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’. (MoMA is like that, a too-rich mix of masterpiece after masterpiece, difficult to consume much of in a sitting.) What an illuminating face-off that was – Skrik vs Starry Night. Munch drew inspiration for his expressiveness from Vincent’s quickly growing impact in the wake of his death in 1890. But Vincent’s nightswirls are expressions not of madness and the chaotic expanse of Nature but of the raw energy of its infinity. Van Gogh’s image is the culmination of the 19th century in wonder and dynamism. Munch’s is the quintessence of the 20th century in its anxious horror.

Van-Gogh-Starry-Night

The face at its focus is simplified, universalised in the way Klee stripped back his imagery to a powerful child-like lingua franca. In this way it is the head of Everyman, almost back to the skull beneath the skin, and that is the secret of its power – it is a kind of blank canvas, like Room 101, where we each impose our own meanings onto it. A scream at the horror of the holocaust. Despair (its original title) at the godless world post-Nietzsche. A cry for sanity as we pollute the waters, the countryside, the sky – tearing the earth to bloody pieces. A shriek at the advent of the A-bomb. A man screaming …who isn’t.

abc beauty stab

One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord – the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The colour shrieked. This became The Scream.

Munch’s diary – 22nd January 1892

The last Picture of the Month

Son of a Beach – Picture of the Month: Joie de Vivre – Picasso (1946)

I’m writing this post on a Mediterranean beach in Greek Cyprus as that is the essence of this painting: Mediterranean light and sensuality, Classical culture, family fun and frolics. It is the beating heart of the Picasso Museum in old Antibes, the single work which captures the spirit of the collection based in a beautiful grand old house overlooking the sparkling sea.

The Musee Picasso in the Marais of Paris is a wonderful collection cutting across the great man’s lifetime of work (I consider Picasso alongside Bacon as the greatest of 20th Century artists). This collection is far more specific, capturing a brief period after the war when Picasso was in effect artist in residence on a floor of the Chateau Grimaldi, which in 1966 was renamed the Musee Picasso, Antibes. This month was my third visit – I was hooked by the vibe of the place when I first visited about a decade ago with my other half. I was back again last year when I walked over the hill from Juan Les Pins whilst over for the International Digital Emmys. I was back again for those and a speaking sesh at MIP this year and spent a marvellous Sunday there. As I walked up the hill from the old covered market I coincided with the Palm Sunday congregation exiting the resonant ochre church opposite the museum, carrying a variety of symbolic, palm-related plants including woven crosses of palm. I sat myself down on the stone bench in the square separating the church and the Chateau Grimaldi, a stoney canyon giving on to the sea between high walls and blocks of shadow, and sketched the view from the sail-boats flowing across the waves to the students sitting looking out to them, bathed in the bright Mediterranean light.

Without having done any biographical research, I get the impression Picasso was recharging his batteries here after the war, delighting in the Simple Pleasures, from fish to music, from sea urchins to women in all their complexity, from good food and wine to friendship. The photos beside his studio floor by Michel Sima show him with Francoise Gilot, mother of his children, with Paul Eluard (Surrealist poet) and Nusch Eluard (his wife, Surrealist muse), in local restaurants along this bit of coast, working away in the cool shadows of the top floor of this building in sandals, bare torso, bullish like his Minotaur characters who seem confounded, in the line drawn illustrations on display, by the naked women in their lives and their own hairy nature.

The painting depicts a scene from the Classical age of the Mediterranean. It is part of a process Picasso seems to have been going through to extract the essence of the Classical past for his modernist age, to reinvent it for a world post A-bomb, post-Holocaust, post-Guernica, post-mechanisation and industrialisation, to use it to reconnect with the Simple Pleasures and the world of light.

The scene is centred on the family, with a nuclear family of the average 2 point whatever kids cavorting on the beach. The colours are the muted earth colours of Mediterranean pottery, a not too distant relation of the five earthy colours of ancient Egyptian tomb art which were picked up by Bridget Riley in the late 80s (I was fortunate to attend a lecture by her in Cambridge in about 1986 when she talked through her process of adopting that ancient palette, then I saw them for real in tombs along the Nile to Aswan the following decade).

At the centre of the picture is a woman with big knockers. So far, so Picasso. She’s suitably distorted/multi-angled though well beyond the Cubism – she’s Cubist plus 1920s Classical phase plus a sprinkle of Blue Period, all simplified towards Klee territory. Not only are those big bazookas symmetrical but so are her legs and locks so she is very much the centre line of the composition. To her left are the kids (literally – half goat) and a musician with ancient Greek pipe thingies – again, child-like in Klee style, fat fingers and circle head. To her right is a musical centaur, perhaps the Great Man himself in his combination of animal passion and artistic sensitivity. With his bestial four legs he’s that bit smaller than the woman. But it’s all pretty tension free, music, dancing, Mediterranean fun and frolics at the seaside. Those two vertical halves are divided into thirds horizontally – land / sea / sky – dominated by blues which are the hues of peace and infinity. The earth and ocean are a collagy style of painting, direct descendants of his Cubism. The sky is dominated by a classic sail boat in Vermeer blue and yellow. It’s pretty big in the greater scheme of things and for me represents Picasso’s escape route and back-of-the-mind sense that fun and family, luxury and high life by the Med are all well and good, but he has other stuff to go out and explore…

I’m finishing writing this post a couple of weeks later back in London with a print of Guernica as reimagined by Pure Evil on the wall behind me. As far as that Paphos beach is from this North London suburb, so is this Joie de Vivre from the explosive hell of Guernica – separated by a monstrous war and yet in the forms and techniques, the animal imagery, the faceted design, they are not that far apart. Under a decade separates the two (9 years) – by road 9 hours or 900 kilometres (an almost straight line through San Sebastian, Bayonne, Toulouse, Montpelier, Nimes, Cannes; a gently undulating line like the horizon of the ocean in the painting). The son of a beach would really have had the feeling that time heals all wounds.

Guernica to Antibes

Previous Picture of the Month: Portrait surrounded by Artistic Devices – David Hockney (a huge Picasso fan)

Gabba Gabba Hay

a laid back event

Had a good role in the Hay this week, doing a speaking session chaired by Sky News’ Political Editor Adam Boulton with the likes of Dr Who director Euros Lyn and ITV Wales news and sports presenter Frances Donovan.

As I was driving towards the Hay Festival from Hereford train station in my chaffeur-driven Jag (could easily get used to that) I leafed through the programme. I kept seeing the name Peter Florence which seemed very familiar for reasons I couldn’t figure. It turned out Peter, the founder of the Festival, was at university with me and a fellow linguist. We had a nice chat when I arrived at the Festival site and I recognised him easily enough after all these years, an affable fella. It’s quite an event he’s built up over the years (with his dad originally I think) and well worth his MBE.

I nabbed a delightful hour trolling around the second-hand bookshop in the former cinema – I came away with a perfect crop: a novel about Manet, a Pierre et Gilles picture book, a Phillip Kerr thriller and a signed Martin Gilbert history book.

My one evening there I spent delightfully with an author friend of mine met thanks to Wikipedia (but that’s another story).

I got the chance to take in a couple of events (on the look out for arts presenting talent) – a session on the forthcoming British Art Show 7 featuring three of the selected artists and the two curators. BAS 4 in 1995 (it’s a 5-yearly review show) was the one that showcased the YBAs. 2009 Turner Prize nominee Roger Hiorns, famed for his copper sulphate council flat (Seizure) and pulverised jet engine, cut an intriguing Hockneyesque boyish figure. I also caught a lecture on Henry Moore by the curator of the current Tate Britain show, Chris Stephens, which was fascinating, prompting us to refresh how we see Moore and to appreciate his radical edge and dark side more. The comparisons he made by juxtaposing Moore sculptures with Robert Capa photographs was convincingly illuminating.

I spent a good part of the afternoon hanging out in the Green Room, tapping away beside Adam Hart-Davis in dubious shorts/boots/socks combo. Highlights of the passing faces ranged from Ian McEwan (I’m a big fan of Atonement) to Andrew Marr (I mainly catch him on Start the Week). I also enjoyed chatting with Adam Boulton’s wife, Anji Hunter, formerly Tony Blair’s aide. Likewise it was great to get an insight from Adam on his recent, already legendary clash with Alastair Campbell. It didn’t feel like the time&place to raise the issue of that sneaky non-viewer question to Nick Clegg during the Sky leaders debate.

Headed home in the company of the Derek Browne, former British triple jumper and investment banker, now focused on encouraging entrepreneurial initiative in the country’s young people through his outfit Entrepreneurs in Action.

Bookishness is what I’ve always loved about Cambridge (where I first met Peter Florence) and Hay has the same vibe in its own way – a particular kind of tranquility and a top Simple Pleasure. It’s a real battery-charger to immerse yourself for 48 hours in art and books.

Coming soon on Simple Pleasures 4: My latest project about to enter private beta – a literary one.

Gabba Gabba Hey

a laid back look (in a nervy kinda way)

Picture of the Month: E for Enigma – A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

Un bar aux Folies Bergère

Un bar aux Folies-Bergère - Edouard Manet (1882)

The most striking thing for me about Un bar aux Folies-Bergère, the last masterpiece by Édouard Manet, painted in 1882 for exhibition at that year’s Paris Salon, are the green booties. What on earth are they doing up there? What kind of night club were they running? Some wild place that they’ve got trapeze artists flying about overhead and no-one gives a monkey’s – no-one is even bothering to look up at them. Circus Circus 90 years ahead of its time. That pair of bright green booties top left and the pink leggings – some kind of surreal joke on the part of M. Manet? Always gets a wry smile out of me. You can see this painting in the Courtauld Collection in London’s Somerset House, London.

I’m currently reading Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge (appears on a lot of people’s Books That Changed My Life list so thought I’d give it a bash) which includes a scene of a visit to the Folies in post-Global Economic Meltdown Europe i.e. the early 30s . It’s in the context of a bit of a night crawl where a bunch of posh folk trawl the nighttown for thrills from the rough. The sense of classes colliding is strong in this picture, questions of power balance looming large.

Looking and not looking seems to be a preoccupation of Manet.  The barmaid stares straight out at you the viewer – the last of a long line of such enigmatic stares. Olympia gives a challenging enigmatic stare in the eponymous painting [below]. As does that cheeky naked picnicker in Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’Herbe [below] (a quick tribute here to recently, dearly departed Malcolm [McLaren] who had fun with Manet’s woman in his Bow Wow Wow period). Manet gets his female protagonists to give as good as they get from staring males, no matter how much at a disadvantage they are (e.g. a bit light on the clothes front).

Now in this picture, Manet puts us, by a bit of mirror jiggery-pokery, in the position of said staring male. You, evidently, are that moustachioed, top-hatted, red-nosed chap reflected in the right-hand corner. Whether you’re more interested in the young barmaid or a bottle of Bass Pale Ale (spot that familiar logo, Britain’s first trademark) is debatable. But she is evidently giving him a run for his money on the gazing front, much like naughty, bold Olympia and the naked picnicker (though interestingly not the woman on The Balcony [below] who is altogether elsewhere – this barmaid’s stare is not quite as bold as picnic woman, not as insouciant as the odalisque, a tad more vulnerable and a little bit less there. That is where my fascination for Manet resides – it’s all in the eyes, eye and eye, and I and aye, what a rich mix of stories contained in the women’s eyes, looks and stares.)

Also in common (and common is the operative word – to reiterate, there’s a lot of class stuff going on around here) in common with Olympia is the fact that the barmaid is wearing a black ribbon. Why is Olympia wearing just the ribbon and the odd adornment – a bracelet, a hair ribbon, slippers? The answer can be found in the writing of poet Charles Baudelaire, a contemporary of Manet, just some ten years older – he had a conviction that Nature is much enhanced by Artifice – whether that artifice (Paradis Artificiels) is a ribbon or a reefer doesn’t much matter, it is the contrast which enlivens.

Interest in Manet should be livelying up in certain quarters with the announcement this week that one of the only two self-portraits of Manet (Self-Portrait With A Palette) was put up for sale this coming June, also staring in the mirror but without quite the enigma of E. Manet’s women…

Olympia-1863

Olympia (1863)

Manet Picnic on the grass

Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (1863)

Le Balcon (1868/69)

Enigmatic Malcolm, you done good

Last Picture of the Month: Merry-Go-Round

Picture of the Month: Merry-Go-Round

Merry-Go-Round by Mark Gertler

Merry-Go-Round by Mark Gertler (1916)

With The Hurt Locker vying for the Oscars and a new offensive under way in the dragging out war in Afghanistan, Mark Gertler’s Merry-Go-Round seems an apt, timely starting point for this occasional series. I first came across Gertler at the Ben Uri Gallery in Dean Street, Soho in the mid-80s, such an old school collection that I was shown around the wooden racks in the backroom where Gertlers and valuable masterworks of other prominent Jewish artists lay idle, waiting for space in which to be brought to light. The collection, which I believe had origins in the East End – like Gertler himself – has since moved to St John’s Wood. This painting had only recently been acquired by the Tate when I first came across the collection – it was purchased for the nation in 1984. Back in 1916 D.H. Lawrence (with whom I share a birthday) had written to his friend Gertler: “Get somebody to suggest it be bought by the nation – it ought to be”. It took seven decades for Gertler to be recognised in this way, he is still not widely known and this, arguably his masterpiece, got little recognition at the time, other than from the likes of Lawrence.

Lawrence also wrote: “This is the first picture you have ever painted. …it is the best modern picture I have seen: I think it is great, and true. But it is horrible and terrifying.” Of course, it was not literally Gertler’s first painting, he had been painting since his teenage years and had trained at the Slade with a great generation, the one that crashed into the Great War, including Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash (currently being exhibited at the Dulwich Picture Gallery), Richard Nevinson, William Roberts, Dora Carrington and Edward Wadsworth – but it was his coming of age and his passage to modernity.

The scene is infused with the spirit of Futurism. It was Gertler’s friend and rival in love Nevinson who had most fully embraced the credo of Futurism preached by the Italian Marinetti. But the spirit of it is here in the grinding mechanisation of the fairground attraction, spinning, speeding up, going nowhere fast. Gertler lived in Hampstead and seemingly took inspiration from the annual funfair which still takes place there. (I too found it very striking as a child when my father, who grew up beside the Heath opposite where Ruth Ellis shot her lover and next to the pond with the V1 crater at its edge, drew back his arm to fire the wooden coconut shy ball and whacked me on the head. With funfairs as with art – always think about where you stand.)

Gertler stands at a disorienting Cubist angle, the top is front on but the circular base simultaneously from 45 degrees. The overwhelming sense is of circularity and uniformity – literally, red-blue-yellow in three of the four groups of servicemen. The faces look more like those fairground stalls where you have to fire something into the mouth than normal faces in all their variety – these uniform uniformed men screaming in excitement or terror, who knows which, not even they themselves.

I’ve always found it slightly disturbing that the soldier on the right, coming straight at us, looks like Corporal Hitler. Talking of whom, I don’t think the horse’s arse is an accident. This was a generation being lead by donkeys or horses’ arses into a manic mechanical war which in 1916 – the year of the Somme, 20,00 British lost on Day One, 400,000 British casualties by the time the offensive was abandoned five months later in November, no progress made, a circular campaign of winning and losing ground to no net effect beyond death and destruction of a generation of young men – was grinding. to a. halt.

Gertler had a similar fight on the home front – a can’t live with her, can’t live without her love affair with fellow Slade artist Dora Carrington aka Carrington, her preferred form of address indicative of such a striving to be treated on a par with men that her femininity became confused. She loved Gertler but somehow couldn’t give herself in love, frozen by a highly conservative bourgeois background and the donkey in a carrot field effect of having men falling for her left, right and centre – Nevinson, author Gilbert Cannan, Lytton Strachey et al. Canaan wrote a roman-a-clef (Mendel) depicting Gertler and Carrington’s crazy love before the war drove him into madness himself.

Gertler and Carrington were drawn into the vortex of Bloomsbury, boarding the merry-go-round of Garsington, Lady Ottoline Morrell’s country house salon satirised mercilessly by Aldous Huxley in Chrome Yellow (after having of course enjoyed her hospitality, such being satirists). The Bloomsbury circles were broadly pacifist in inclination so this painting by Gertler is very much in line with their thinking.

So as we watch the bodies cycling back through Wootton Bassett, as we hear the radio report we hear over and again that the family has been informed, as our children level up in Call of Duty and our politicians reiterate the party line that our security depends on some God-forsaken patch of foreign land that is forever being fought over – Britain/Soviet Union/USA Blue/Red/Yellow – Gertler’s picture can remind of where all this ultimately gets us…

Now that’s what I call blue

by Jaume Plensa

Photograph sent to me today by director Mike Christie of Carbon Media

Dream by Jaume Plensa created through Channel 4’s Big Art Project

See Dreaming the Dream

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