Strange Matters

The week after the vote I find myself in Oxford for a Philomusica performance at the Sheldonian. I walk around parts of Oxford, looking at the new Blavatnik Building and Bio-chemistry buildings. From the performance I especially liked Bartok’s Romanian Dances, Soloviev-Sedoi’s Moscow Nights and Paganini’s Caprice No. 24.

The following weekend and I’m in London for a performance of Macbeth at The Globe. First, I visit the Tate’s new Switch House. The building is an oddity; a brick extrusion from the original power station that lurches out at odd angles. It looks like some sort of strange growth, towering over the glass and steel thickets of luxury housing around it. The interior is perhaps a bit more nondescript, with many of its floors closed to the public. The viewing platform at the top offers unusual views over the city; looking out over half-completed skyscrapers I find myself wondering how many of them will actually be finished now. Signs not to disturb the neighbours are placed around the platform; presumably in response to complaints from resident oligarchs in the buildings below. The Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at the Tate is rather wonderful. O’Keeffe frequently expressed irritation with sexual interpretations of her flower paintings or attempts to read death symbolism into her animal skull paintings. The implication in both cases is that she was simply interested in their geometry and colour rather than their interpretation. And yet, aside from early synaesthetic paintings dedicate to visualising music, very little of her work is purely abstract. Instead it is rooted in a series of highly specific regions; New England’s forests and oceans,  Manhattan skyscrapers, New Mexican ravines and pueblo churches.

The performance at The Globe is well acted but not brilliantly directed.  The sisters are shown veiled, their parts sung as a chorus rather than spoken. This works well but the soundtrack often drown out the performance and the use of puppetry to suggest the supernatural borders on the bathetic. Parts are often excessively ad-libbed with contemporary jokes. Macbeth is given an unscripted child who appears sat at the end on Malcolm’s throne; I rather preferred the Fassbinder film and its switching to Fleance at the end. This year’s Proms visit begin with Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and Rossini’s Barber of Seville. The Rossini is interesting for breaking a ‘fifth wall’ between performers and orchestra; as when the conductor pauses to correct Bartolo’s singing. Seated for the latter, I noticed how bad the hall’s acoustics were; whenever a performer turned away I stopped being able to hear them. The next performance is Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet Symphony; something of a fragmented piece with parts narrated by a semi-chorus, instrumental sections and a more dramatic finale.

A following weekend and back in London for an exhibition of Georgiana Houghton’s spiritualist drawings at the Courtauld Gallery.  Something of an oddity, it strikes me as a mid-point between William Blake (mostly the detailed annotations on the back of each work) and Kandinsky (given that Houghton is essentially creating abstraction in the interests of showing the other side of the veil). The paintings range from flowers (serving as a spirit avatar) to abstract works that occasionally incorporate realistic elements (the eye of God or, more bizarrely,  a portrait of the then Princess Victoria). After that, I head off to the Newport Street Gallery. I’m mostly interested in the building’s architecture, with its sweeping spiral staircases. The Jeff Koons exhibition is a less enthralling prospect, although some of the silver statues and sculptures are quite intriguing.

With a few days off, I visit Kew Gardens and Chelsea Physic Garden. For the former, I visit the interior of Kew Palace for the first time, the Henry Moore sculpture, Kew church, Princess Charlotte’s Cottage and the views from nearby across the Thames to Syon Park. For the latter, there’s a display of Wardian cases near to a tea plant along with details of the medical properties of the garden’s Cannabis display. The Pomegranate tree near the entrance was fruiting; sadly no Mandrakes in season at this time though.

Lastly, I visit Hockney’s exhibition of 82 portraits and a still life at the Royal Academy. The still life shows a group of fruits arranged after a sitter was unable to attend; probably a rather more innocuous version of the blacking of Marino Faliero’s painting in the Doge’s palace. The portraits are all cast against a set of themed backgrounds in blue and green, with the subjects sat on a yellow chair.  Colourful clothing like red dresses and purple shirts completes the colour spectrum. Most of the paintings clearly form part of a common set, but some stand out; the way Edith Devaney leans forward towards the viewer, Barry Humphrey’s arch pose or the way Celia Birtwell is painted sideways while sat on the edge of her chair. The drafting style is loose and it often seems best to stand away from the paintings and look at them as a group rather than inspecting individual details.

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