Trafalgar Square is in many respects a rather drab affair, its austere neo-classical architecture being composed of shades of grey (comparing Nelson’s Column to the Siegessaule in Berlin, for example, or even the Houses of Parliament visible in the distance). The National Gallery is not an especially striking building from the outside; the marble columns and damask hangings on the inside much more so.
Comparing this visit with my last one is rather interesting; I still enjoyed the paintings by Velazquez, Goya, Caravaggio and Friedrich but was more struck by Murillo (one self portrait in particular, with the nice touch of having his hand resting on the oval frame, bring the artist outside the art) and Hogarth (amidst otherwise interminable Reynolds paintings). Like George Eliot, I found the Dutch paintings particularly engrossing (for example, the ingenious Hoogstraten peepshow, a box with two peepholes whose inside is painted in the manner of a home; looking through the holes creates an illusion of three dimensions; a typically Dutch conceit as with Dou’s framing of his paintings). Though Ruysdael or Hobbema’s landscapes were excellent as was de Hooch’s town scenes, the most interesting was Frans Hals, and his shunning of traditional poses for portraiture as well as almost impressionistic brushwork. I also found myself appreciating Van Dyk and Turner more than was hitherto the case, particularly the documentary aspect of Turner’s paintings; the Great Western Railway and the Temeraire being towed to harbour by a modern steamboat, for example. The same applied to Claude and Canaletto, perhaps out of liking for the subjects as much as the portraits (Canaletto’s paitnings of England are certainly very forgettable), though Claude’s paintings of classical scenes with contemporary sailing ships rather than triremes seem rather odd.
In terms of modern paintings, I still find it difficult to appreciate Monet, preferring Manet and Renoir (perhaps because although their landscapes have similar qualities to those of Monet but a broader range, such as Manet’s paintings of Parisian society). Still, I preferred Cezannes (particularly the use of angular and geometric brushstrokes on landscapes) and Van Gogh; I could have stared for hours at the handful of Van Gogh paintings on display.
That evening, I crossed the Millennium bridge to Tate Modern and the Globe Theatre. The <a href="http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/1868426.stm
” target=”_blank”>new skyscraper being built along there looks a great deal better than I had thought it would, as does the bridge itself, but it’s reassuring to see that St Pauls is still the dominant feature along there. It seems somewhat incongruous to visit an Elizabethan theatre next to the 1930s art gallery (frankly, I still expect it to have Nazi banners displayed on the chimney stack). The design of the theatre is certainly a much more intimate experiences than with modern theatres (with the actors cut off from the audience), in spite of the rather cramped conditions. Another odd thing is that they have clearly gone to great lengths to reproduce the original theatre (e.g. the marble effect on the wooden railings) but have neglected to season the wood, much of which is cracking. Finally, the three stage doors for props and scenery introduce a new dynamic into the performance in which, masque like, the choreography of actors moving around the stage becomes much more important.
However, the play, Marlowe’s Edward the Second was nothing short of exemplary, enacted in Elizabethan costume and an all-male cast (Queen Isabelle had all the melodrama of a professional drag queen; the audience smirked when ‘she’ was advised to "be not so passionate"). The play (or masque perhaps in this context?) was perfectly choreographed in terms of changing scenes, assisted by an excellent musician’s company (the drumming being reminiscent of that at the coronation re-enacted at the Proms last year). Edward the Second is a particularly difficult play to perform in modern times; originally it ran the boundary of the homosocial and homosexual (i.e. platonic and sexual love), but that type of careful coding is difficult to replicate today. The Globe solution was to make the play as explicit as Derek Jarman did, which resulted in a vein of black humour becoming apparent (or perhaps more Carry-On innuendo than the The Jew of Malta; the audience laughed at many references that would have been innocent to an Elizabethan audience and missed others, such as Edward’s question to Gaveston whether he ‘knows’ Spencer; an ambiguous phrasing). Perhaps that’s why today, it’s rather more reminiscent of Antony and Cleopatra than Richard the Second. Later, I walked along the side of the Thames as the water lapped against the bank, the city lights danced in their reflections and St Pauls lit up the skyline. A good day.
As far as reading is concerned, I’ve finally read L’Etranger. The notion of failing to adhere to social conventions through pretence is sufficiently striking to explain the book’s reputation, but not nearly as interesting as La Peste, or even Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels (since the moral indifference of the novel does remind me of Highsmith somewhat).
A couple of weeks later, arriving at the Albert Hall, I was struck by the new entrance hall, which surprised me by not being utterly malign. The abstract iridescent design in lieu of a fresco on the portico is actually rather pleasant, though the plain glass sheeting on the windows and doors seemed a bit out of keeping with its surroundings. Entering the Hall I was able to get a place at the very front of the arena just in front of the orchestra, which I meant I could see the musicians pulling faces whenever they fluffed something. Since the overture to Tannhauser is one of my favourite pieces I was possibly a little fussy about the performance, since the string section seemed a little too restrained and the horn section a a little too vigorous at places. I wasn’t quite as familiar with the seven Berg songs and Brahms Symphony no.1 in C minor that followed on, the former quite gentle and lyrical, reminding me of Mendelssohn, the latter reminding me of Schubert and Beethoven. A second concert began the following week with Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor, a rather fine piece, and ended with Mahler’s Titan Symphony No. 1 in D Major, which seemed somewhat piecemeal; good in places, sketchy in others. Two encores followed; Haydn, and a rather fine rendition of an overture from Lohengrin.