Lenin’s Finger

The Design Museum’s Imaginary Moscow exhibition recalls a lot of points from the Royal Academy’s Revolutionary Art exhibition that I’d attended the week before; suprematist inkwells, ‘Those who do not work do not eat’ porcelain or the film of the destruction of Moscow’s cathedral to build the Palace of the Soviets (although the film of the freezing cold swimming pool Brezhnvev converted the aborted construction project into is new). A suprematist children’s book featuring the adventures of two squares is also something of a novelty.

This exhibition dwells on unbuilt aspects of Moscow; the Palace itself (including a fullsize model of the finger from the Lenin statue),  designs for Lenin’s mausoleum, the Lenin institute, communal housing and government buildings. Architectural blueprints from Lissitzky and Melnikov are punctuated by suprematist drawings from Popova and propaganda posters. Leonidov’s Lenin Institute and Lissitzy’s Cloud Iron designs are utopian gravity-defying designs that would be challenging now, while Vesnin’s Commissariat of Heavy Industry and Iofan’s Palace are much more similar to buildings that were actually constructed at the time (in concept if not in scale). The designs for Lenin’s Mausoleum are rather more fantastical given that many of those submitting designs worked in professions like carpentry; in one such concept Lenin is precariously balanced on top of a large globe surmounting the building. A film showing all of the planned construction in Moscow sits alongside Aelita Queen of Mars, and much of it does indeed look like a set of model for a science fiction film.

Afterwards, I walk round Holland Park, looking at the lovely Kyoto and Dutch gardens; the waters in the pond are perfectly clear and carp can be seen swimmingly lazily about below. I also run into a squirrel and encounter a peacock before walking down the Thames to Albert Bridge and then back to Victoria.

The following week I go to the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition. As one might surmise the interest is as much in a social history than in art; items include the fatal calling card from the Marquess of Queensbury (unsurprisingly his handwriting was as terrible as his spelling), physique magazines, Wilde’s cell door, stills from Victim, Noel Coward’s dressing gown, a copy of the Wolfenden report and (most entertainingly) a set of over two hundred buttons collected as trophies from guardsman a gay couple had slept with. Much of the exhibition dwells on theatreland and music hall; there are probably few exhibitions where photos of historical drag acts sit alongside the Bloomsbury Group.

The exhibition begins in the Victorian period with Simeon Solomon, Edward Leighton and Henry Scott Tuke; I’d previously been unaware that Evelyn de Morgan’s relationship with Jane Hales is often interpreted as like that of Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal, with Jane’s face recurring on paintings like that of Aurora, shown here. Interpretation plays greatly here; if Meteyard’s painting of Love in Bondage was not intended as an allegory of forbidden love, it gains that interpretation by the association of its context here. Equally, figures like Semele and Endymion take on a same-sex aspect purely due to Solomon’s androgynous rendering (which is not intrinsically all that different to someone like Burne Jones) rather than by the specific subject matter. Even so, it’s often a rather mournful section; a Solomon drawing shows a male bridegroom holding the hand of his melancholy lover behind his back as he embraces his bride. A cup is dedicated ‘on the mournful occasion of his transition into matrimony.’

In a lot of cases, the gay element is the subject rather than the artist; the next room features paintings of Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis along with a series of beautifully elaborate miniatures designed for a lesbian couple (one of the many reminders that while figures like Solomon and Wilde loom large so many people quietly lived, loved and passed away unremarked). Two portraits of Radclyffe Hall and Oscar Wilde stand near one another. Both are dressed similarly but where the Wilde portrait is a full length depiction of a confident and successful man (auctioned after his disgrace), Hall’s is more emphatic. She looks away from the viewer and her expression is somber. Much of the exhibits are much defiantly pagan; Beardsley’s Yellow Book illustrations, Cecil Beaton’s glittering photos of figures like Stephen Tennant through to Duncan Grant’s paintings of bathers.  A painting of Laura Knight painting a female nude is another example of the layers of meaning being accrued to a work rather than something inherent in it, in contrast to the more explicit intention behind a similar nude by Dora Carrington.

I’m surprised to see examples of Halliwell and Orton’s legendary defaced library books and equally surprised by how funny they are; there’s also one of Halliwell’s paintings. For all his reputation as an artistic failure, it’s rather good. Finally, the later sections are taken by with Hockney and Bacon alongside less well known artists like Keith Vaughan, John Minton and John Craxton. The Minton paintings particularly interest me; I also like some of John Deakin’s photographs of London’s gay scene, from Francis Bacon to a woman dressed as a drag queen, Afterwards, I go to the David Gwinnutt photos at the National Portrait Gallery, extending the same theme into the eighties. I also note one of Grayson’s Perry’s drawings; Map of Days. It uses a medieval town map as a model for mental states, including pastiches of a range of architectural styles. Not sure I’ve liked all of Perry’s work, but I like this.

Corbet’s Childhood of a Leader is something of an oddity; an attempt at depicting the childhood of a future fascist leader during the drafting of the Versailles treaty. Some of the incidents used echo actual events (Mussolini would throw stones at a church in his childhood just like his proxy here) but the comfortably bourgeois background as the son of an establishment diplomat looks little like those of Hitler, Stalin or Mussolini, who all came from rather more lower class milieu. The abstraction is something of a problem; it doesn’t really tell us much about the likes of Franco or Mosley and doesn’t really seem to apply well to contemporary demagogues either; it would work as well as a frame for a serial killer film as for the purposes devised for it here. The film intends to show how power changes depending on the social status involved, with this being paralleled to the peace conference; the sacking of an elderly servant forming one of the key events.  Nonetheless, the film mostly stresses the personality traits that go into the development of such a mentality and decentres social or economic elements (perhaps this is rather welcome given the contemporary tendency to stress the former above all else). The film is loosely based on a Sartre story showing such a scenario in Freudian terms; The boy’s infatuation with his tutor turns to anger when he discovers her alone with his father; the plot does deviate from the straightforward Freudian line when  his conspiracy against both of them to end in an act of violence against his mother whose absence had previously given him nightmares.  The child’s feminine appearance is often commented on (with the boy’s long hair he looks a lot like Bjorn Anderson in the film of Death in Venice). The use of the same actor to depict both a family friend and the adult dictator (this time with his hair entirely cropped) further suggests the issue of paternity is complicated.

I get taken to a couple of plays as well; firstly, The Miser at The Garrick. Played as a straightforward farce with plenty of topical references (trickle down economics, boom and bust) and audience interaction (mostly to an unnamed banker in the front row), it works very well. A pointed reference to the Guardian’s three star review (on the grounds that all the characters were played as grotesques, not just the Miser) doesn’t really diminish this. By contrast, Salome at the National Theatre is plain dire; the staging is often very imaginative (as a character walks along a ladder into the light or as a curtain of sand falls in the background) but even the incessant wailing in the background and the turning of the circular stage are just plain annoying but its turned from an exercise in eroticism into rather trite political agitprop.

Pastoral and Industrial

With a few exhibitions that I wanted to visit closing shortly, I had something of a marathon session in London today. At the Royal Academy, I started visiting the Russian Revolutionary Art exhibition. The main interest of the exhibition is perhaps historical rather than artistic (having already seen more than a few of the works by Rodchenko, Malevich, Popova and Vertov), showing responses to the revolution from a range of different schools operating in different media. For example, the first room shows 19th century style historical paintings of the revolutionary demonstrations,  iconographic style depictions of Lenin, Wedgewood style figures sewing pro-Soviet banners (not nearly as good as a later figurine of a bourgeois woman selling her possessions), realistic portraits of Lenin and naif portraits of Stalin that were judged suicidal to attempt to present to him.

The later sections are mostly organised thematically rather than chronologically; paintings of factories and workshops, photography of construction sites, textiles replacing bourgeois Accanthus leaves with tesselated patterns of machinery; Arkady Shaiket’s photos particularly stand out. The agriculture section counterposes Malevich’s faceless peasants with rather sentimental images from collective farms. Other section dwell on nostalogia for the Russia that was lost; images from expatriate journals printed in Berlin, scenes of birch woods and cathedrals from Konstantin Yuon and Igor Grabar. Other sections include Lissitsky’s architectural designs, a glider design from Tatlin, Petrusov’s architectural photography, models of Iofan’s designs for the Palace of the Soviets and Shchusev’s designs for Lenin’s mausoleum. Other sections counterpoint this with pure artistic subjects; a recreation of Malevich’s room at the ‘Thirteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic’ along with paintings submitted by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. I hadn’t see his work before, which comprises a set of still lives defined by odd angles and a series of rather spiritual portraits, like the Petrograd Madonna.

I also go to their other exhibition, American painting in the 1930s. Some of it rather reminds me of the Russian exhibition (not least the picture of Lenin placed in a post-industrial wasteland by Gugliemi); Charles Sheeler’s industrial paintings mirror similar Russian paintings. The pastoral paintings seem rather different though; Russian paintings operate in a romantic or impressionistic mode, whereas someone like Grant Wood operates in a mode that is more reminiscent of Stanley Spencer. The landscape undulates and flows in a strange fashion  and Grant’s paintings focus on details like imminent car crashes rather than Spencer’s mystical pre-occupations. There are also some interesting American responses to European art; Ilya Bolotowsky’s Miro style paintings or surrealist paintings by Gugliemi or Castellon. There are also two very striking paintings by Hopper (a gas station and the interior of a cinema) and a familiar painting by Georgia O’Keefe. I don’t really care for a lot of the paintings, but it’s worth it if only to see Wood’s American Gothic.

Lastly, I make my way to the V&A for an eleventh hour visit to their Lockwood Kipling exhibition, which includes a range of Indian textiles, jewellery and arms he brought back from Lahore and Bombay, his arts and crafts designs, paintings of the Great Exhibition,  drawings of Indian craftsmen, illustrations for his son’s book, koftgari plates, illustrations of Islamic architecture, a beautiful wedding chest  and Indian wooden door carvings.

 

Unity for Europe

About 9 months ago, I wrote a piece here about the horror and despair I felt about the outcome of the EU referendum. Have my feelings changed at all in the intervening time? In all frankness, no. Brexit is proving every bit as bad as I had feared. In the time since the referendum we’ve witnessed attempts to undermine the independence of the Bank of England, the judiciary, the civil service, the BBC and the sovereignty of Parliament. The integrity of the United Kingdom is threatened. The fall in the value of the pound is now feeding inflation into the economy while financial services firms begin to enact plans to move operations into the European Union.  Racism is normalised into the political mainstream even as the first warnings of job shortages begin to set in as people choose not to stay in the UK. We’ve seen the early signs of the promulgation of a Dolchstoßlegende from a Leave camp that had never believed it would win and seems keen to pre-emptively lay blame for their own failure. The putative benefits to Brexit have begin to dissipate while the risks begin to crystallise.

That’s why I found myself at the Unity for Europe March to Parliament today. Getting on the Tube at Marble Arch I  joined the Liberal Democrat contingent, managed by a minor miracle to meet up with a friend on Park Lane before walking through to Parliament Square.  We watches speeches from Nick Clegg, Alastair Campbell, Peter Tatchell and David Lammy; Lammy is surprisingly blunt in saying his own leadership is now following the UKIP line as much as the Tories but the best speech is from Clegg in making clear how many of the wounds since the referendum have been inflicted by the government on itself. It’s noticeable that the Liberals are very visible throughout; Labour much less so. At one point the arrival of a sound system playing ABBA makes me wonder if I’ve stumbled into a Pride march by mistake. We bumped into a few famous faces like Tim Farron  along the way and enjoyed quite a lot of the placards – ‘Hurdy Gurdy Players Against Brexit’ and ‘Botanists Against Brexit’ (complete with Rafflesia hat) probably deserve to win some form of award, although my personal favourite remains the concisely eloquent ‘Tut.’ The one that sticks in my mind though is a banner that looks like an old NUM banner. It reads ‘Our Yorkshire Rose:Jo Cox.’

Parallel Lines

The Hockney exhibition at the Tate is one of the most popular exhibitions I can recall there, with a long queue snaking round the central hall. We wait for our time slot for a while wondering around the permanent collection; a few things that leap out are Sunil Gupta’s photographs of gay couples, Wolfgang Tillman’s photographic series around Heathrow, a Bridget Rile line painting, Chair by Allen Jones and a sculpture of Saint Sebastian by Eric Gill.

When we do get in, it’s interesting how although Hockney’s style changes over time, the focus on perspective remains consistent; early works showing a flattened box of tea or a flat figure pressed against  an illusionary window foretell the compound eye approach to photography and painting later adopted. Some of the early works fit into a whimsical approach to trompe l’oeil; an abstract painting of geometrical objects that is actually a realistic depiction of a red rubber ring floating in a swimming pool or a Hogarth parody where a woman holding a candle out of a window can have it lit by a figure standing on the hill behind her. The early work that most predicts his later work shows his boyfriend sleeping while Hockney is shown behind him sketching; only for this to become clear as an unfinished self portrait hung behind the figure.

This theme continues in the Californian paintings; the various pools occupied by naked men tend to be shown as flat blue planes whose surfaces are covered in snaking lines t reflect the play of light. The buildings are always modernist structures characterised by rigid lines; even lawn sprinklers spout water in precisely triangular shapes. The turn towards naturalistic painting maintains this focus; in each portrait the two figures are essentially shown at right angles to one another; often a figure stares out towards the viewer while the other figure looks at the first. Mr and Mrs Clark are unusual in both looking out at the viewer and it is appropriately left to Percy the cat to turn his back on the viewer and stare out of the window instead.

The compound eye approach I spoke of becomes evident in the photographs; the photo of Gregory Swimming replaces the intersecting lines of the pool paintings where the water, the building and a diving board converge with a series of fragmented moments in both time and space, concurrently showing Gregory at multiple points. The same follows as Hockney’s interest in landscape emerges with photos of the Grand Canyon, Ryoanji and Yorkshire. The landscape paintings differ from the photographs in deliberately warping space; a painting of the Wolds piles each field up in a series of vertiginous planes. The result looks more like one of Escher’s Italian drawings than traditional English pastoral. Something similar goes for the Grand Canyon paintings’ it’s noticable that a forced restriction of Hockney’s palette (to Red in this case or Green for England) is helpful in counteracting the surfeit of primary colour in some of his Californian paintings. His further series of Yorkshire paintings and videos (some of which I’d seen before at the Royal Academy) are always split between multiple canvasses, even where one large canvas would be perfectly possible. In the video series, each screen represents  a different camera showing slightly different angles.

A few weeks later and I visit the Ashmolean’s Degas to Picasso exhibition. A lot of this consists of drawings; Gericault’s equestrian drawings, Daumier’s satirical drawings of the French assembly, a Manet drawing of his mistress, studies for his paintings of Berthe Morisot and The Execution of Maximilian, an Ingres study for his Odalisque painting and Millet drawings of shepherds and sailors. Paintings tend to be from more minor artists; a Cubist city view from Gleizes, a Mother and Child from Leger, a Villon Cubist portrait of his father or a Metzinger landscape. More diverting is a smaller exhibition showing Hiroshige views of Mount Fuji; I especially like an unusual urban scene showing a Tokyo street stretching off into a vanishing point with Fuji appearing to rise up at that juncture.

The following week and I go to London to see a performance of The Taming of the Shrew at the Globe. It’s perhaps played a little too much as a comedy for my taste, with frequent interludes of modern music, whereas arguably it’s better to treat it as a problem play. The production tries to soften some of the problematic aspects of the text; for example by interpolating a puppet sequence to draw out some of the abusive implications of Katherina’s last speech; Gloria Onitiri certainly plays it as a tragic role.  I have a brief look around the Tate afterwards, looking at some of Agnes Martin’s white paintings, Anish Kapoor sculpture, Bridget Riley op-art, surealist paintings and work by the New Tendencies group.

Totes Meer

Much like the Rauschenberg exhibiton I visited last year,  the Tate’s Paul Nash exhibition illustrates the various facets of a particularly complex artist whose work varied from landscape painting, collage, surrealism, found objects, sculpture and war painting. The initial sections show the influence of Blake and the Pre-Raphaelites; the work divides between mythical paintings (from an angel fighting a birdlike demon to pyramids in the ocean) and landscapes that dwell on a mystical but inherent genius loci (as with Wittenham Clumps or Whiteleaf Cross).  Paintings of Dymchurch Steps with its pill box on the beach begin to show a Chiricoesque sense of the strangeness of everyday objects. A very English building shows an infinite regress inside it while a blue house on the shore emerges as a series of Eschersque angles. You also see how in spite of the notional realism, his work shares some cubist pre-occupations with geometry; clouds show as icebergs in the sky rather than as whisps of vapour while the sea emerges as a series of lines.  The war paintings show a similar style, although the strangeness here often comes from the quotidian rather than the exceptional, as with a sun blazing out over the new world of a barren battlefield.

Pre-occuptions also begin to emerge with framing, with landscapes seen from an open window so as to bisect the scene.  A view from Nash’s St Pancras flat out through scaffolding achieves the same thing in a unusual urban setting; later this feeds into works like his Mansions of the Dead painting. The landscapes become more obviously surrealist, with an infinite regress with Convolvulus at the centre. Others dwell on objects, as with scenes showing a petrified tree in a landscape. Objects begin to loom particularly large from this point onwards, with an emphasis on incorporating found objects as sculpture; glove stretchers assembled into a forest, photographs mixed with rocks in display cases, a skull painted gold and coated with shells in remembrance of The Tempest and Ernst style frottage drawings. His paintings begin to dwell on objects like dead trees and Avebury monoliths; the parallels between the tree paintings and his Totes Meer paintings of wrecked German bombers seems clear. Paintings of flowers in the sky recall the Spanish describing parachutes as flowers of the air. The last paintings return to landscapes and re-capture some of his original sense of mysticism, as with a painting of the sun as a flower.

The following week I go to the Estorick Collection’s exhibition of WW1 British artists in Italy.  Much of the first room is taken up by Sidney Carline’s paintings; showing Sopwith Camel dogfights above the Veneto, Austrian prisoners being driven towards the Italian lines and British artillery in Vicenza. The other half is taken up with photos taken by William Joseph Brunell; I especially like his photos of ruined castles damaged in the war.

The following week, I go to the new Design Museum in Holland Park. The old Commonwealth Institute building is rather impressive with its sweeping lines; the vast empty interior seems somewhat anti-climactic by comparison. The permanent exhibition is on the second floor on a wending path up past an auditorium; once inside it is a rather cramped and rambling stretch through Harry Beck and Memphis to Zaha Hadid and Jonny Ives. After this, I visit the Sussex Modernism exhibition at Two Temple Place. The ground floor here is mostly occupied by Eric Bell’s commune at Ditchling and the Bloomsbury Group at Charleston. Covering Gill sculptures, Bell paintings and a coffer by Gauder Brzeska, I especially like Grant’s decorated Leda and the Swan chest and his homoerotic version of a Seurat painting, Bathers by the Pond. The upper floors are rather less coherent; the Mae West lips sofa by Edward James and Dali, Piper paintings of Chichester cathedral and Dover cliffs, Lee Miller photographs and Edward Burra paintings.

Reading LP Hartley’s The Harness Room leaves me wondering why its currently out of print, in contrast to Forster’s Maurice, another late gay novel from a writer who had only written previously of heterosexual themes. I assume that whereas Maurice had an ending in the greenwood that tallied with gay liberation themes, The Harness Room reflects a rather darker tone that is rather more in keeping with Hartley’s other work (or even with Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask). The boxing training offered by the bisexual Carrington to the soft youth Fergus does begin to toughen and ‘masculinise’ Fergus in the way his father intended, but as the two begin to sleep together, it also leaves Fergus unsympathetic to the feminine world denoted by his stepmother’s unwelcome attentions. Homosexuality becomes a rejection of the feminine rather than an expression of effeminacy. The parallels between boxing and fucking in the novel begin to take on a sado-masochistic tone; when Carrington accidentally kills Fergus in a boxing match,  the ending is redolent of Freudian explanations, from internalised homophobia, through to Carrington  unconsciously attempting to spare Fergus from a conventional heterosexual life, and whether the action was simply that of a jealous lover.

I’ve also read John Rechy’s City of Night. Most of the text is essentially a picaresque series of depictions of the narrator’s life as a hustler across different American cities, reflecting little on his own motivations until his rejection of an offer of love towards the end of the book. The book repeatedly uses two contrasting metaphors throughout; the mask and the mirror, reflecting the extent to which gay identity is either something constructed or something imposed.  Gay identity is something that is a parody of both masculinity and femininity but also something inescapable. The life of the hustler is at turns either a tragic and nihilistic existence that is fated to fail as the hustler ages and as a form of incipient counter-culture in revolt from society. Comparing City of Night to Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn though and the shift from first (gay) person to third (straight) person does make a marked difference; Selby’s tale of the transvestite hopelessly in love with an indifferent straight man casts her as a victim in a way that Rechy’s narrator doesn’t accept.

Aciman’s Call be Your Name has a Proustian obsession with time; the novel draws an anaology between the church of San Clemente’s Mithraic past, its Christian present and between the gay affair of its narrators and the later marriage and parenthood of at least one of them. Prelapsarian metaphors abound, albeit with apricots (as much in apricating as in the actual fruit) and clementines (as in Clemente as much as in the actual fruit) replacing apples. Gayness seems oddly transient in a novel where both of the main characters are bisexual, and the novel often dwells on the idea of existence as a series of parallel lives (which gayness largely figuring as the road not taken) and the idea of gay love as a blurring of the boundaries between two selves; Elio and Oliver do indeed call each other by their own names as well as wearing each other’s clothing (although the only explicitly gay couple in the novel are mocked for wearing matching clothes). A poet in Rome tells of a visit to Thailand and his confusion over the gender of someone he drank with, but the novel does seem to imply that such confusion is as temporary as a holiday, whether to Rome or to Bangkok.

Edmund White’s two specifically autobiographical works, City Boy and My Lives, both remind me a lot of Isherwood (albeit White’s tone is considerably more gossipy); both writers re-use material from their own lives but depict it in shards and fragments and never as an entire narrative. City Boy depicts White’s time in New York while My Lives eschews the linear narrative in favour of a series of themes; hustlers, parents, friends and lovers but also places like Paris and concepts like his Genet biography. As White admits it omits as much as it includes; the process of writing his novels, his teaching career or two lovers he frequently references but never devotes chapters to.  One aspect that comes over is the influence of Genet and Foucault; White describes how Genet was an effeminate youth who transformed himself into something more masculine in his thirties, just as White writes that his gym visits predated this becoming a common aspect of gay culture. White seems ambivalent about Foucault’s concepts about the construction of the self, but does share them to some extent; he writes about how gay men in the fifties had no narrative available to them other than those of sin, illness and criminality. The convergence of Stonewall, feminism and black civil rights created an entirely new narrative that transformed self perceptions even as gay men themselves were unsure how much they believed. One consequence was the transformation of the gay male from the sort of gender transgression White had depicted in Hotel de Dream to the hyper masculine clone. Conversely, White spent so much time in therapy, Freudian in particular, to entirely give up on such ideas about the development of the self, with the sections on his parents especially abounding in them.

Food cooked: Latvian fish and mushroom pie, Veal with grapes and apricot, Chicken and preserved lemon pie, Masala Roast Chicken, Wiener Schnitzel, Miso potato salad, Vietnamese lime and coconut curry, Chicken Marbella, Chicken Bastilla, Bouillabaisse, Russian Salmon pie, Chicken cooked in milk, Rakott káposzta, Gammon cooked with cola.

The Radical Eye

On a rare sunny day in early December, I head into London to see the Tate’s exhibition of modernist photography. The first room is dominated by Man Ray’s portraits, contrasting his erotic depictions of Kiki de Montparnasse with Brassai’s depiction of gay nightlife. Later sections dwell on the male body more closely in photos by Lynes, Maar, Kertesz and Drtikol. This section is perhaps also noteworthy for the theme of masks in photos by Sougez, Quigley and Steichen. The next section is dedicated to photographic experimentalism; montages by Bayer and Breitenbach, solarised Man Ray photographs. Then, it moves onto documentary; photos by depression America in the twenties by Adams, Evans and Lange. The penultimate section dwells on perspectives; Rodchenko’s photo of the Shukhov tower and Bourke White’s photos of electricity pylons,the Chrysler Building and the Washington Bridge. The last section features abstracts by Funke and Man Ray again.

I also visit the Robert Rauschenberg exhibition at the same gallery. The main image that sticks in my mind  is a collage showing Bobby Kennedy, Janis Joplin and the body of Martin Luther King; I start to wonder whether Rauschenberg  formed part of the same counter-culture as Joplin or was parasitic upon it. A lot of the propositional aspects of his work stem from the photographs and objects he re-uses in them, while much of his approach to art, especially given his various scientific collaborations, was essentially technocratic, focused on formalistic experimentation. Each section in the exhibition seems an exercise in self-reinvention; the first room dwells on his cyanotypes and Malevich style painting of solid blocks of white and black. The next dwells on his use of collage and real objects in the red paintings and the combines and the increased use of animated objects like alarm clocks, lights and radios. The next covers his use of transfer drawings and silkscreens before showing  footage of his dance collaborations . The next section of technological collaborations is probably the most bizarre, with ‘Mud Muse’ (complete with a sign warning that the mud geysers may splash clothing) probably counting as the strangest thing I’ve seen in a museum.

Some of the pieces I like; boxes filled with surreal objects in imitation of reliquaries (I’m more reminded of Joesph Cornell), a square filled with thickly and coarsely layered gold leaf, his transfer rendition of Dante’s inferno with riot police replacing demons and astronauts replacing angels, the hoarfrost transfer drawing,  the ‘glut’ sculptures of twisted metal made from gas station signs and car parts to showcase the ruin of greed during the oil crisis and lastly a silkscree transfer of his photographs onto aluminium. The most famous piece is obviously ‘Monogram’ – it’s reasonable to conclude that I am unlikely to ever see a piece labelled ‘Oil painted onto a taxidermied Angora Goat’ again.

The following weekend, I visit Dulwich Picture Gallery. When I’d thought of the name van ve Velde  I’d mostly think of maritime paintings by Willem van de Velde, of which the gallery includes a couple. The gallery’s exhibition of paintings by his son Adriaen, dwells instead on landscapes and is more reminiscent of someone like Ruisdael or Constable than the work of his father or brother. Some beach scenes occupy the first room but the focus is on the figures not the landscape. The exhibition feels rather padded, with rather too many sketches and drawings showing his working method and too few paintings.  The highlights are a portrait of a family (erroneously once thought to show Velde himself) staring intently out of the frame while walking in the countryside and a set of ice skating scenes.

Ascending and Descending

I’ve wanted to visit University College for sometime now, mostly because of the Shelley Memorial. Set in a railed off part of the college the memorial is a beautiful piece with the white marble of the naked figure set against spare purple walls. The college chapel is also rather wonderful with a series of stained glass panels showing Genesis and Jonah & the whale. Next, I visit the Blavatnik building. The circular exterior has an amphitheatre as its lecture hall as the base, with concentric ramps up to the upper floors. There’s a series of spiral staircases that lead upwards to a terrace looking out over the city. Later, I go to Pembroke where the chapel has a Bach organ concert.

The following weekend is the open doors days for London. I visit the baroque church of St John Smith Square (an orchestra here is giving a  rendition of the Van der Valk theme tune) before visiting Cutler’s Hall in the city. As one might expect the hall features elephant designs everywhere; in the stained glass, the banisters, cushions and rafters. There’s some rather beautiful stained glass showing a series of industrial scenes; rather unusual for the Victorian period. I then visit some of the Victorian dock warehouses at Wapping before visiting the Royal Society. Exhibits like Newton’s death mask and some of Priestley’s electrical equipment are on display. Lastly, I visit the William Morris gallery in Hammersmith, where a printing press demonstration is being held. The next day, I visit the Sandys Row synagogue. Tucked away in a warren of lanes, the interior is rather expansive, although the combination of an old Bimah with a set of what look like thirties pews is rather odd.

A few weeks later, and I head to Reading for the open day at Reading Gaol.  A tour leads us throughout the original debtor’s prison, through rooms that look like they were only abandoned a few weeks ago.  The highlight of the main prison wings is obviously Oscar Wilde’s cell and the prison chapel, along with photo and video installations by Nan Goldin and Wolfgang Tillmans. Alongside the modern installations are various photographs of the prisoners and of the prison as it originally stood.

A few weeks later and I visit the Royal Academy’s Abstract Expressionism exhibition. The most impressive room is dedicated to Clyfford Still’s work; where Pollock’s work aims to emulate the entropic element of nature, Still’s work does often rather resemble natural patterns; the bark peeling off a silver birch, rust on old machinery or paint peeling off a wooden door. The sense of depth is a lot greater than on Pollock’s accreted layers of dripped paints. The other highlight is the room dedicated to Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt. Reinhardt’s work composites layers of similar paint combinations on top of one another; the black paintings in particular require quite a lot of time for the eye to adjust to see the colour variations. It’s like the visual equivalent of  a Philip Glass painting. The Newman works remind me rather more of Mondrian, with their flat planes of bold primary colour intersected by vertical ‘zips.’ Other things that strike me; Barbara Morgan’s black and white light paintings, Lee Krasner’s The Eye if the First Circle, Kline’s Vawdavitch, De Kooning’s Villa Borghese and a small collection of Rothkos. There’s also a small John Gibson exhibition, showing a range of scuptures and funerary monuments.  A few weeks later and I go to the National Gallery’s Caravaggio exhibition.  Works by Caravaggio are interspersed alongside pieces by his followers.  Some of the earliest works, like those by Francesco Buoneri mirror his master closely. Later works by Gentilleschi, Reni and Ribera, Regnier and Tournier diverge more in their greater use of colour. Later sections record the irony that while Caravaggio never painted a candlelit scene this was arguably  his greatest influence, shown here in works by Honthorst and de la Tour.

Lastly, I find myself spending an afternoon in Cambridge. I visit the chapel at Robinson college, with its wonderful stained glass landscape window by John Piper, before spending a few hours in the Fitzwilliam. Things that catch my attention; a bust of Antinous, Greek dramatic masks, a Roman mosaic, a Gibson Venus, the collection of Egyptian sarcophagi, the spectre of Braze Alonzo, a Burges cupboard and a trillion Dollar Zimbabwean note.

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.

Painting with Light

The first room in the Tate’s Painting with Light exhibition is dedicated to photographs and corresponding paintings by Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill; unsurprisingly a lot of their subjects are familiar to me; views of Edinburgh from Calton Hill or from the castle. Hill’s picture of the founding of the Free Church of Scotland was based on photographs of individual subjects combined in the depiction of a single assembly. In the painting the light falls equally on each figure, each of whom looks rather like they have been cut out and overlaid above their neighbours.  Much of the exhibition dwells on the debate as to whether the accuracy of photography ended realist painting and opened the path of abstraction instead, but in reality much of the exhibition shows the two mirroring one another. Ruskin and other Pre-Raphaelites used photographs to record architectural details that would later be painted. Photographic replicas of paintings like The Death of Chatterton spawn court cases. Julia Margaret Cameron and William Peach Robinson’s Arthurian photographs precisely mirror their Victorian counterparts. Comparisons of portraits of the same female subject by Julia Margaret Cameron and Watts favour watts for his elimination of background in favour of the subject whereas Cameron is theatrical in her setting, but her portrait of him succeeds against his own self portrait for the same reasons. When it comes to Whistler’s indistinct nocturnes of Atkinson Grimshaw’s gaslight paintings, photography keeps space with equally numinous photographs of urban scenes by Alvin Langdon Coburn.

The following weekend, I go to the Wallace Collection. From my previous visit years ago, I recall the Vernet and Delaroche paintings, the medieval Europe and Oriental armouries and above all The Laughing Cavalier. The Hals masterpiece still sounds out amidst the surrounding ranks of Rembrandts, for its vibrancy and sense of joie de vivre.  I’d forgotten how much of an oddity it is; it feels a lot more like the Frick Collection or the Musée Jacquemart-André than most London museums. Most of the rooms feel like a time capsule from rococo Paris, with Sevres porcelain and Boulle marquetry displayed throughout. Other things that leap out; Limoges enamel work, allegorical Poussin paintings, maiolica ceramics, a mythological scene from Titian and a room filled with Canalettos. The next weekend, I go to Waddesdon Manor. I’d forgotten the tower room filled with Bakst’s paintings of the Sleeping beauty and items like the Indian elephant clock automata.

I finally got to see the Ben Wheatley film of High-Rise the other night. The novel’s themes of tower block class war degenerating into butchery and violence seem prescient at a time when oligarchic skyscrapers rise in Western cities as their banlieue breed fanatics and terrorists.   This is as it should be; for a novel written in the seventies, Ballard’s work always operates implicitly as science fiction. Which makes the setting of the novel at the time it was written something of an oddity as the film effectively turns into a period drama of a future that never happened in quite that form.  Unlike Cronenberg’s film version of Crash, it also imparts to the film a certain kitsch or even comic aspect absent from the novel, a sort of version of Abigail’s Party with added killings, which sits oddly alongside a novel concerned with the death of affect. Ballardian surrealism is rendered as English eccentricity.

The Gathering Storm

Amidst leaden skies and continual drizzle, a planned visit to Nymans had to be hurriedly substituted for a trip to Chartwell.  Tickets were timed, so I wandered around the grounds with an umbrella for a while, through a series of ornamental lakes lined with Gunera to a kitchen garden. The Ducks and ornamental Carp seem unperturbed by the rain.  The walls of Churchill’s old studio are still lined with his paintings, mostly of the South of France or Italy. A painting of his father still rests on an easel while a painting of the Yalta conference hangs nearby. Walking back to the house, there’s a museum of Churchill memorabilia; carved Russian glass vases, Delft plates in honour of the liberation of the Hague and caskets from Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia. Much of the rest of the interior is perhaps rather drab; a sort of oversized version of an suburban house.

A few days later and I find myself at the Royal Academy’s Giorgione exhibition. Like the previous Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery, this is less about one subject and more about the era, featuring works from Titian, Bellini and Durer.  The most striking works are probably the portraits. Bellini and Durer tend to show their subject against landscapes or plain backgrounds; Giorgione shows a knight in full armour with his groom or a master and his servant, placing the subject into a context.

Later that week and I’m at the Royal Festival Hall. I’ve not been there before; I generally feel that the exterior of the building is nondescript, the interior is maze-like (and leaves you suspecting that you have arrived back in the early sixties) but the actual hall and its acoustics are rather pleasant. I’m here to see a performance of JenůfaAs with my experience of Osud a few years back, I’m struck by how each piece would work as a novel or play without the music; in this case, much of the story seems to recall a Hardy novel but the lack of inevitability in the ending and the avoidance of further tragedy comes as an interesting surprise.