Land of Darkness

It has been a characteristically English winter; gloomy, dark and drenched with rain. Many of the roads in the Midlands proved to have flooded and the only time I had to go out was a visit to Hanbury Hall and Little Malvern Priory. Back down south, I visit some of the churches at Highclere (Victorian, firmly locked), Padworth and Ashmansworth, the latter having a window designed and etched by Lawrence Whistler.

Snowdrops were starting to come out in Oxford, when I went on a tour of Stirling’s Florey Building. Like many buildings of this period, it’s easy to have mixed views of it. On the one hand, it does still look marvelously futuristic, like a cross between a spacecraft with its landing gear extended or as an inverted gothic cathedral supported by flying buttresses (even down to having a set of cloisters beneath the building). The red tiling stands out in contrast to the honey-coloured Bath stone used around it, while its panoramic internal courtyard looks out across the rivers to the meadows beyond in a particularly picturesque setting. On the other hand, the building has aged badly, with the tiling having fractured and concrete stalactites hanging down from it. The interior felt fairly cramped and claustrophobic. The glass used so extensively means that the building is extremely energy inefficient, with it being difficult to heat in winter and prone to overheating in summer.

Reading Film Theatre have had a very good season to open the year. I first went to see Berberian Sound Studio, Land and Freedom and Aelita, Queen of Mars. Berberian Sound Studio is a critique cum homage to Italian giallo films and their soundtracks in particular; it’s unusual for a film to concentrate so much on sound. Land and Freedom is Ken Loach’s account of the ideological conflicts within the Spanish left at the time of the civil war; particularly how Stalin’s hope that a moderate form of Republicanism would gain more support from the Spanish middle-class and make the Soviet Union more acceptable as an ally for Britain and France, thereby leading him to the suppression of the Revolutionary and Anarchist factions. For all the romanticisation of the Spanish civil war it brings out the aspects of communist that were to become familiar in Eastern Europe; the burning of paintings, summary executions and arrests, the forced expropriation of land and so on. It equally dwells on the revolutionary tendency to value ideological purity over pragmatism; but tin so far as it depicts the revolutionary brigades are characterised by idealism it would have been interesting if the film had included a counter-balancing depiction of fascism, which is essentially absent. Without a counterpoint, the film assumes that communism, for all its failures, was ideologically superior to its missing mirror image. Lastly, there’s Aelita, Queen of Mars. The Tolstoy novel this is based on is rather more straightforward than the film, depicting a communist uprising on Mars, part of the Soviet fascination with science fiction as they sought to reinvent society. The film is more complex; the Martian events are a fantasy on the part of the main character whose suspicion of his pure wife is contrasted to Aelita’s treachery. The gender politics with their virgin/whore dichotomies are accordingly rather crude and the film’s suggestion that dwelling on other modes of life (whether on other worlds or of a lost Imperial Russia) is counter-revolutionary is no better. What is positive about the film are its recordings of street scenes in Moscow from parades in Red Square contrasted to the constructivist set designs. The other thing I especially liked about the film was the electronics and guitar soundtrack performed in the theatre by Minima; I never attended a soundtrack performed as it would have been in the age of silent cinema.

The British Library are running an exhibition of Mughal art, predictably focusing on illuminated manuscripts. There are some objects though; the crown of the last emperor and a jade turtle, for example. The paintings and manuscripts often tend to dwell on landscapes populated with people and animals; in that sense they frequently remind me of Brueghel. The subjects often tend to be domestic; portraiture, court or hunting scenes rather than the mythic or epic; it also succeeds at noting a court that typically tended towards a pluralist viewpoint necessitated by the size of its empire, encompassing artistic influences from Persia and Europe as well as Christian, Sufi, Muslim and Hindu sources. Conversely, the Northern Renaissance exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery includes much that is familiar, such as Cranach’s paintings of Lucretia, Apollo & Diana and The Judgement of Paris or Holbein’s paintings of Erasmus and Henry the Eighth. It also has much that I’m less familiar with, such as Durer’s prints of the Book of Revelations and of a Rhinoceros, Memling’s portraiture, Clouet’s paintings of the French nobility. Rather oddly, it also has some Cellini sculptures. Finally, I went to the Tate to visit its Schwitters in Britain exhibition, encompassing his collages, sculptures and paintings from that period.

Food cooked: Lamb stroganoff, Chorizo and black pudding stew, Waterzooi de Volaille, Turkish menemen with sumac yoghurt, Chicken with chorizo and cider, Colombian pork with lime, Duck and prawn paella, Lamb Navarin, Steak with vegetables and almonds, Creme Brulee, Elizabethan pot-roast chicken with spiced plums, Chicken with dates and olives, Chicken with prawns, Chicken Paprikash, Chicken Marengo, Ghoulash, Alsatian meatballs and pasta, Lamb and prune tagine, Lemon and lavender chicken, Scotch egg with black pudding & chorizo, Swedish sausage hash, Partridge with sweetcorn mash, Tartiflette, Duck a’l Orangina, Paella with barley, Pork with prunes and hasselback potatoes, Columbian lamb and blueberries, Greek style chicken, Pheasant in cider, Bouillabaise, Jansson’s temptation, Cassoulet, Sumac roasted chicken.

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