Friday, 27 February 2015

'A Favourite Custom' by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

As part of my 2015 quest to find as many paintings as possible by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema I ventured along to the Tate Britain this afternoon to see 'A Favourite Custom'.  The custom in question is the ladies bath in Pompeii. The painting is in the 1890s room at Tate Britain despite it being completed in 1909.

It's quite typical of Alma-Tadema's works with it's incredible attention to detail as well as the wonderful feeling of atmosphere, all light and airy. If you look closely you can see slight cracks in the tiles and repairs to the steps.The two ladies in the front of the paintings are supported by others further back in the baths changing clothes and others coming in from the bright sunshine in the street.

It's that detail and light that makes me look again at Alma-Tadema's paintings. He visited ancient sites like Pompeii to draw the ruins and study the buildings so he could accurately include them in his paintings.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema was born in 1836 and died in 1912. Vincent Van Gogh was born, pushed his art as far as his vision allowed and died within Alma-Tadema's lifetime. Isn't that a strange thing to think? Van Gogh created his amazing paintings while Alma-Tadema still painted his scenes of ancient Rome in a traditional style. There's more than enough room for both styles of paintings and so many more.

Alma-Tadema painted his exotic scenes in London while 50 miles or so away Stanley Spencer was painting like this in 1909, his 'Those Couple Things'. And further away a young artist called Picasso was painting 'Woman and Pears' in 1909.

How different and how wonderful that we see all these styles being developed in the same year. 1909.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

The Big Painting Challenge

A new series started on BBC1 this evening, 'The Big Painting Challenge' hosted by Una Stubbs (who is lovely) and Richard Bacon (who I've never heard of). In a trusty format, 10 amateur artists compete against each other by doing three paintings at Alnwick Castle, and , at the end, the experts let one go so nine go through to the next episode. There are also short masterclass sessions with experts to pass on some hints and tips.

The first challenge was to take a photo of a room or object in the Castle and paint that. The second was to paint flowers in the Castle gardens. The third was outside the Castle and across the River Aln to do a landscape with the castle as the focus. Who will win? Will any of them get thoroughly positive feedback after each painting? Will any crack under the pressure of competitive painting in a given timescale?

It was actually thrilling in a very calm and measured way, very gentle and perfect for the Sunday tea-time slot on the Beeb. I loved it. Consider it a success, O Beeb!

I thought Una was perfectly cast as the host of this series as an amateur artist herself. Her approach was to support as well as challenge the contestants a bit and she's obviously the 'goodie' here. Soft spoken and elfin, she has a lovely presence. Una's been around forever of course, starring in films in the early '60s to playing Alf Garnet's daughter in the late 60s and she's still on the go as Mrs Hudson in 'Sherlock Holmes' and I've seen her on stage in the West End. This new series will, I hope, lead on to other things for her.

Of course, I couldn't help but be reminded of 'Watercolour Challenge' hosted by Hannah Gordon on Channel 4 back in 2000. I remember it well because I watched it on weekday afternoons while I was recuperating from an operation on a slipped disc. I recall boredom hanging heavy and daytime telly being awful until I found this series by accidentally flicking through the channels (and there were only 5 channels back then).

One episode was all it took to draw me in and pay attention to the amateur artists in the competition and Hannah's gentle and soft spoken hosting of the show. It was just what I needed at the time, especially since I didn't have a laptop or access to the Internet back then (isn't it odd that something so ubiquitous today wasn't in my life 15 years ago?). I loved that programme!

The new Challenge seems to be part of the BBC's new 'get creative' theme for the year so there's a parallel competition called The Little Painting Challenge for the audience to send in their own paintings or drawings on a postcard. I might give it a go!

Anyway, that's my Sunday early evenings sorted for the next six weeks! And here are our contestants that we'll get to know better - and they all seem terribly nice so far - on the rolling hills outside Alnwick Castle with Una and Richard. And yes, Alnwick featured as Hogwarts in the 'Harry Potter' films (or, at least, bits of it did).

'Happy Days' at The Young Vic

Chris took me to see 'Happy Days' at The Young Vic with Juliet Stevenson. A Samuel Beckett play isn't going to be a happy go lucky song and dance extravaganza so I reconciled myself to that early on. This is that rare beast, a play that went down so well it's been brought back a mere 7-8 months after it closed, with the same cast and production. That alone says it's probably worth seeing.

It's not a play I'm familiar with so it was intriguing and puzzling by turns. It's virtually a long monologue for a single actress with the odd minor interjection from a largely hidden man every now and then. And that actress is buried up to the waist in the first half and buried up to her neck in the second half. What's that about? It means, of course, that the actress is very limited in what she can do to project her character and move the story along, particularly when buried up to the neck!

The stage is set as a gravel pit with a wall of rock behind down which, every so often, gravel slips and slides. Above is a white on white canopy representing a blinding sky. And there, in her nice blue patterned frock is Juliet Stevenson buried up to her waist in the gravel. When you first come in that part of the stage is covered by a tent under which she gets into place and then it's removed and she just sits there as the audience comes in. That must be incredibly tiring to be stuck in place the whole time. At the half time the tent comes out to cover her again and when she's uncovered she's buried up to her neck. I hope she hasn't been there the whole time.

It's that 'why' moment that lasts so long (and still goes on to be honest). Why is she buried in a gravel pit and why doesn't she get out? Is she trapped? Has there been an accident? What's going on? Is it a metaphor for something or a symbol of the state of modern society? Has the world ended and these are the last survivors? It's never explained or commented on so we just have to accept that she's buried in a gravel pit and that's the way the world is. Equally odd is her (presumably) naked husband who's hidden behind a rocky outcrop and we see his sunburned red raw shoulders and head every now and then with a few grunts and phrases and then he goes quiet.

Winnie and Willie are husband and wife  and we learn from Winnie's never ending chatter that they've had a life outside the gravel pit but we don't learn how they end up there. Winnie wakes and says her prayers, brushes her teeth, worries that she can't read the small writing on her tooth brush and tells us of the contents of the black bag beside her. The black bag that reassures her in ways that Willie can't. Every now and then she reaches in to remove some item or other and, every so often, she picks up a revolver which she returns to the bag. And she doesn't stop talking and the phrase 'happy days' keeps cropping up as she remembers happier times.

The second half opens with Winnie buried up to her neck, looking haggard and with the revolver in the gravel in front of her. She still talks to Willie but she assumes he's either left or died since she never gets a reply. How long has she been there? She still talks in her clipped middle class accent and then Willie comes crawling out from behind the rocks, fully dressed in a morning suit and hat as if it was his wedding day and crawls slowly towards her. Is he really there or is this Winnie transposing the present and her wedding day?

We'll never know because that's when the lights go out and, when they come back on, Winnie is still buried and Willie is lying there on the gravel, both still. We clap and clap and they stay perfectly still, and then we leave and they're still there. That must be one punishing play to put on night after night and being always on display to the audience. All I can say is 'wow'. It' a marvellous performance by Juliet Stevenson, ably supported by David Beames.

We left the theatre a couple of days ago and I'm still puzzling over the play - what's it about? what's it for? what am I meant to think? That's the sign of good writing and a good production. It's made me think and ponder. I've still got no idea what it's about but can accept that it just is so that's good enough for now. Y'know what? I think I'd like to see it again.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Buffy Sainte-Marie and Morrissey

If you are tuned into any of the Buffy networks on Twitter, Facebook or elsewhere then you'll know that Buffy Sainte-Marie is joining Morrissey on his UK tour in March. He's only playing a few dates so Buffy can slot these in after her sojourn to Australia. Unfortunately there's no London gig so I'll have to see what I can do to shift things round and see her somewhere around the country.

I've seen Morrissey a few times but I'd be going to see Buffy.

This isn't the first time Morrissey has wanted Buffy on the same stage. I travelled to the little town of Belleville in Ontario, Canada, to see Buffy in February 2005, the first time I ever saw Buffy and she mentioned us from the stage - that people had come all the way from England to see the show. I almost looked round to see who they were before realising she meant me. I met Buffy afterwards and I asked if she ever came over to the UK to play and she said that Morrissey had invited her over to play the Meltdown festival that he curated in 2004 but she wasn't able to make it. That was the festival that brought the New York Dolls back together.

I've seen Buffy on every visit to London since then and was honoured to be on the guest list for her last show at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 2012 during the Olympics. I was on duty as an Olympic Ambassador at the time so did a quick change to see the show and then meet Buffy and her band afterwards.

Buffy has a new album due for release in, I think, April, so it'll be interesting to hear new songs played live. Buffy's vast back-catalogue means that she has a set-list for every occasion and I'm really fascinated to see which songs she picks for the Morrissey shows!

Important UPDATE

It looks like Buffy is playing the Tabernacle in London on 26 March - tickets aren't on sale yet but watch out for further details.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

The Guildhall Art Gallery and more Victorians

After seeing lots of Victorian painters at Leighton House Museum at the start of the week what better way to finish the week with more Victorians and another gallery I'd never visited, the Guildhall Art Gallery in the City. It's recently re-hung it's collection so it's a good time to go, especially on a dreary wet and cold afternoon in mid-February.

The star of the collection is Dante Gabriel Rossetti's 'La Ghirlandata', one of the centre-pieces of the Pre-Raphaelites, with her lush lips and direct gaze. She looks quite cold to me, playing her harp and gazing out at the viewer but, I think, she's gazing through us to something else, something just behind us that we can't see. Is she playing for a lover or is she cursed to play endlessly until the magic of a kiss frees her?

There are a few other paintings that might be classed as broadly Pre-Raphaelite but most of the collection isn't and it's good to see them together, the different artistic movements over the years.

There was a lovely painting by Frederic Leighton (whose home and studio are now Leighton House Museum) called 'The Music Lesson'. I assume the mother is teaching her daughter to play the lute amidst the acres of fabulously decorated fabrics that make up their clothes and their feet bare. It's the feet I first noticed since this painting is hung beside a short staircase and I saw the feet as I went up. The antique or eastern background, coupled with bare feet, suggests tho is meant to be in a far off land long ago to give it a context but I just think it's a lovely domestic scene with a parent and child doing what parents and children have always done. It's a very peaceful and calming painting with no rush or worry, not a care in the world.

Harking back to Leighton House again, I found three small paintings by Lawrence Alma-Tadema  in a little alcove, not terribly well lit or well hung, but it was nice to see them anyway. 'The Wine Shop', 'Pleading' (a very similar composition to a painting at Leighton House) and this one, 'The Pyrrhic Dance'.  The dance of armed soldiers celebrating history in war, performed for the great and the good in the city, a martial dance to show off their superiority. It's an odd composition, with the soldiers taking up two thirds of the available space and the other third given up to the city elders to watch. It's a small painting but quite striking.

The oldest painting I found was in a small underground gallery beside the entrance to the old Roman amphitheatre excavated underneath the Guildhall and this was 'The Thames During the Great Frost of 1739' painted by Jan Griffier the Younger in 1739. The Thames has frozen over in the winter cold and there are people out on the ice, possibly getting ready for the frost fairs that took place on the river. The dome of St Paul's is in th distance so this might have been painted from somewhere around Westminster? The river certainly looks wider the today so it was before the Embankment was built along the Thames. It's a fascinating view.

There's also the hopelessly sentimental and romantic paintings that the Victorians seem to love and we turn into pictures to decorate biscuit tins and Christmas cards. I quite liked this one, a painting by Augustus Edwin Mulready called 'Remembering Joys That Have Passed Away' from 1873. It shows two children gazing up at an old poster of the Christmas pantomime that has now closed while the snow falls around them. C'mon, own up - we've all been there haven't we, wishing that something would come back, some event or special moment and that is depicted in this small painting. Ah… memories…

2014 saw the 120th anniversary of the opening of Tower Bridge so, since this is the Guildhall, there was a small exhibition of paintings of the bridge and the surrounding areas as well a room with various things about the construction of the bridge and the alternative designs that were considered. Rather than show a painting of Tower Bridge I want to show this painting, called 'Chaos on London Bridge' by Harold Workman (undated). I like this, the traffic hell that can be London bridges, with buses all over the place and vans and cars dodging in and out. It reminded me of 'Hammersmith Bridge on Boat-Race Day' by Walter Greaves that I saw at Tate Britain with it's similar theme of crowds and madness on a bridge. Bridges can be special places, a transition point from one place to the next or a change from one thing to another and sometimes that transition is a mess. Welcome to London Bridge!

And there you have it, a selection of paintings and thoughts from the Guildhall Art Gallery. It's all plush and new and has very thick carpets. The main room quite a large space, very light and airy and most of the paintings are well hung for easy viewing. There are smaller rooms to visit as you wander round and you never know what you might stumble across. And best of all, no crowds. I'll certainly be happy to return again.

'Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends' at the National Portrait Gallery

The new exhibition of paintings by John Singer Sargent at the National Portrait Gallery opened on Thursday and I was there on the opening day. I think this is going to be a busy exhibition judging from the level of interest on Thursday. When you go in you get a small booklet with a one page description and background to every painting which is a great idea since most of these paintings are about people and we all like to know about the people in paintings.

Outside the Gallery on a big banner is Dr Pozzi in his lovely red dressing gown - I hope he's not too cold being outside in this weather. He's very on trend with his hipster beard and carefully combed hair. What you see when you look at the painting in the exhibition is that he's wearing glorious slippers (slippers that I want). He is clearly a man of taste and style and the way he's got his fingers tucked into the belt of his dressing gown indicates that he knows how to pose as well. A man of elegance.

It quickly became obvious that what Sargent does well is faces. These are not random people in the paintings, they are specific and real, each looking very different and individual. The portrait titled 'Vernon Lee', the pen name of Violet Paget, a childhood friend of Sargent's who grew up to be a feminist writer. I love the frames of her glasses and the grazes on one of the lenses, her chapped lips and hair not combed, her bright eyes looking at something on the other side of the room - all of this gives a feeling of intimacy and immediacy. It's the face that does it, that tells the story.

There are lots of portraits here, some just head and shoulders and others are full body.  Some have a very odd composition which I assume is Mr Sargent playing with our sensibilities and experimenting in his own way.

Another favourite portrait was one of Robert Louis Stevenson. Sargent did three portraits of Mr Stevenson and two of them are here (the third was destroyed). Stevenson was the author of 'Treasure Island' and 'Kidnapped' and these portraits were painted while his star was rising. They're very brown and Stevenson seems to like wearing flares but I don't care since he created the best pirate story ever and gave us the ultimate adventure yarn. He also seems to like very fluffy and furry carpets and that can't be bad either.

Not all portraits are full face from the front and Sargent liked painting his painter friends. There are two paintings of Ambrogio Raffele in the exhibition and this one shows him in his 'studio', also known as his bedroom in a hotel on a Swiss alpine painting holiday. It's interesting since Sargent is almost looking over his shoulder in the privacy of his bedroom and we see the painting he's working on and his unmade bed. It's hardly luxury but it is real. Raffele is sitting back and looking at his painting - does he like it? is it finished? or might he even scrap it? Who knows?

Sargent also painted his painter friends on their painting trips in groups and I really like this one called 'Group With Parasols'. Painting obviously takes it out of you and they all need a nap. Where does one person end and where does the next begin. A heap of artists in dappled sunlight.

Some of the later portraits were a bit dull - grey men in grey frock coats, stick thin and old, usually with whiskers. They look rather corporate and boring and maybe that's what Sargent is telling us.

And then you come across an over the top portrait of Ellen Terry playing Lady Macbeth in all her shocking majesty. An elongated body and holding the crown of Scotland over her head (which isn't a scene in the play) that just shrieks 'look at me'. The thick cloth of the costume and the long red wig against her pale skin make this terribly dramatic. The moment before she crowns herself as Queen of Scotland. It's a large painting, more than human sized, and is rather over-powering.

A final painting I want to mention is 'The Fountain, Villa Torlonia' from 1907. The dappled sunlight on their clothes, the fountain and greenery in the background and the languid gentleman beside the lady painter. What is she painting? I want to know.

The languid gentleman has his fingers tucked into his belt just like Dr Pozzi in his red dressing gown, a sign of relaxing perhaps. He's leaning back and gazing at the painting being created. The painter is far more focused, looking at her subject and transferring the vision through her paintbrush while the world goes on around her depicted by the fountain's continuous gushing. And it will continue long after you've packed your bags and paintings and left Italy for home. But what a lovely painting.

So there you have it, Sargent at the National Portrait Gallery. And there are so many more paintings to see, such as a lovely drawing of Harley Granville-Baker looking very dapper, a silhouette of Monet and a brutal full frontal face for Rodin. Different styles and different medium, different shapes and sizes. This exhibition is well worth seeing and I'm really pleased to have seen it on its first day. That means there's plenty of time to see it again later.

Friday, 13 February 2015

'Rubens & His Legacy' at the Royal Academy of Arts

The big exhibition at the Royal Academy at the moment is about Rubens and his influence on other artists at the time and over the years down to Picasso. This is always an interesting idea for exhibitions - show someone with a big name and then hang paintings by other artists near the relevant master to show his or her influence. I saw a great exhibition a few years ago on this theme at Tate Britain about the influence of Picasso on British artists and that exhibition introduced me to some new artists I hadn't really looked at before. Its all about balance.

The exhibition was split into different themes for each room based around one of Rubens' paintings. We see a Rubens landscape and then a Turner or Constable or someone else illustrating the influence of Rubens from a similar composition or use of colours or brush strokes. Some careful thinking has obviously gone into this exhibition.

One of the first paintings that got me looking closely was 'Christ on the Straw', a triptych of Virgin and Child, Christ taken down from the cross and John the Baptist. The thing that really attracted my attention was the simple leaden nature of Christ's arms, the sheer dead weigh of the arms hanging uncomfortably and the body in an unnatural position. The other two panels and the people around Christ don't really interest me, it's the body of Christ and the leaden weigh of it, the embodiment of death. I even waited for a couple to move on so I could get a closer look.

One of the 'big' paintings of the exhibition was 'Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt' from 1617. It's a large painting (taller than me) and was surrounded by slightly smaller paintings of hunt scenes, some of which looked a little too gory for me.

I'm definitely with the tiger in this one - savage him! The painting tells a compelling narrative of a hunt in which the animals fight back. The lion is being killed, the leopard is already dead but the tiger fights back to protect his family - momma tiger is protecting her cubs and has one in her mouth while her mate tries to give her the time to escape the barbarous hunters. I stared at this painting for a while, grabbing a seat opposite the painting ad just looking at it. All the violence, the careful composition and colour palette, the movement and, bottom right, the stillness. It's a great painting but I didn't really look at any of the other hunting paintings.

Another great painting was the far smaller 'Pan and Syrinx' painted with Jan Brueghel. I spent some time in front of this puzzling over how it was painted by Rubens and Brueghel - which one did which bits? It's nice and bright in oils which keep the colour and it looks fab.

One of the great things about exhibitions of this kind is that they introduce you to paintings and artists you might not otherwise come across. There were lots n this exhibition. There was a lovely self-portrait by Elisabeth-Louise Vigee-Lebrun, several Delacroix and Watteau paintings as well as Cezanne and Picassos.

A painting I'd never come across before but fell in love with was 'Drunken Silenus Supported by Satyrs' by Van Dyck. This is such great fun with a fat old Silenus obviously out of his head on a Friday night and getting into bad company with the satyrs. I hope he got home okay.

It's a good exhibition and well worth seeing for the range of artists and styles on display. I can't help but feel it would have been better if there were more works by Rubens on display - his is the name over the door, after all. Some of the links with other paintings also seemed a bit tenuous but that's possibly a bit churlish of me. I enjoyed it and learned from it and that's the main thing.