Posts Tagged ‘Exhibitions’

Bram Bogart at Vigo Gallery

September 20, 2017

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It feels a long time since I wrote about something other than food on here. Not because I’ve been culturally droughted of late, I’ve just been writing other things. I’m also preparing a fairly chunky piece recommending membership of the London Library in the semi-flippant style of my Southwark Jury Service post.

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An old-fashioned desk in the London Library. I think someone stole my laptop?! Just kidding.

So this is a quick post to recommend the Bram Bogart show at Dering Street’s Vigo Gallery. This isn’t the first time that I’ve written about Vigo; due to a family connection it’s a gallery whose fortunes I follow more closely than most. However, that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t flag up things that they do that I think a wider public might enjoy. As I’ve said before the private galleries of London are an intellectual resource that is underused by those not in the art world but who have an interest in culture.

And the Belgian artist Bram Bogart is a case in point. Bogart developed as an artist after World War Two and was part of the move of Arte Povera (which reminds me I should get to the Estorick sometime) towards simplicity of colour and radical interventions on the plane of the canvas. While some, like Fontana, went in for slashing the canvas in order to break the surface Bogart treats the canvas as a basis for sculptural creations, pushing the paint out towards the viewer in a more extreme version of, say, Van Gogh’s heavy impasto.

The works collected in the two rooms at Vigo come from a later stage in Bogart’s career when he had moved away from the minimalist colours of AP and embraced vibrant colours, mixing paint with glue to achieve billowing effects on the canvas. If you visit the show, and I hope you will, you’ll be met with a riot of colour that would elevate even the lowest spirits crushed by a combination of a rotten global outlook, the cruel chill of September in London and the very hell that is trying to walk on Oxford or Regent Street.

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Bram Bogart, ‘Zonzucht’

You can see the sculptural aspect to his work in the above photo but as ever I advise you to see these works in the flesh if you can. Taking photographs of paintings really is the most redundant thing in the world. If you want a record of something write about it, or pull a more professional image down from the net for your personal use. Unless you want to illustrate a hurriedly written blogpost of course! But do go to the Vigo if you can, they have an excellent booklet to accompany the show which talks far more articulately about Bogart’s work than I can!

#Art #London

Resto 43 Caffè la Serra, Venice 

August 15, 2017

Having consumed plenty of hotel buffet breakfast we were looking for a quick bite, and more importantly cold beer, in between Biennale sites. Talk of dick-walloping muppets* in the Finnish pavilion put us in a merry mood and so when it came to ordering we weren’t organised at all.

But rather than getting the rats our waitress was charm itself and returned when we’d focused attention on the important stuff.

This was a good slug of draught lager with a  sandwich classico (or croque monsieur) for me and Kas, and ‘salad pies’ for the rest. We speculated about what salad pies could be. Turned out they are a kind of quiche so all good. As was the croque. We sat half shaded, half scorched in the garden with other Biennale goers.

So, the Biennale? I might blog on it if I can summon up the energy. My top three were the Finns (natch, I didn’t know what the sh*t it was about but it was a fun ride), the Austrians (interactive sculptures are always a winner in my book) and the Uruguayans, who followed up last year’s hole in the ground with a wooden animal pen this.

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*Kas’s summation. I think it was described  as a playful investigation of contemporary society or some such in the blurb.

To see which other restaurants I’ve visited in 2016/7 check out my GoogleMap

#food #BiennaleArte2017

Two exhibitions at the British Museum

March 26, 2017

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All the publicity for the British Museum recently has been for The American Dream, a show about prints from the past sixty or so years in the States. If you pair it  with America Between the Wars at the RA you can get a pretty good overview of the art of twentieth  century America. At the cost of quite a lot of shoe leather – neither show is negligible.

The BM’s is the more extensive however, more extensive and more comprehensive than I’d imagined it would be. Up front are the star names – Warhol, Rauschenberg (haven’t we seen enough of him lately?), Johns and Jim Dine.

The last I admit was new to me, which made him the most interesting of the nominated big three, who get their own rooms pretty much. Dine’s Red Design for Satin Heart was truly a thing of beauty. I won’t reproduce it here because as a digital image it looks a bit Clintons Cards. You have to see it in situ. Dine is more interesting than Oldenburg (who has a few prints up front) in his monumentalisation of the ordinary, for example with his print of paint brushes. He makes his re-contextualised implements living subjects whereas Oldenburg it seems is more concerned with artifice.

Then up comes Ruscha. Was I rattled by the Ruscha? (There’s one for all the Pavement fans out there.) Well, not really, it seemed that his processes – for example his use of gunpowder in print-making – were more interesting than the things he produced. Once you’ve seen three or four rooms half-full of slick stuff satirising ad-land you start to wonder whether the satire was ever there in the first place, except as a counter-cultural rhetorical device.

It was at this point (about halfway through) that I came to the opinion that the exhibition was far too big to take in in one go. But I ploughed on because in London, with so much going on, one’s best intentions of going back to a place rarely see fruition. And this is where I got a bit annoyed.

Minimalists were up next but then what’s this? The last three rooms are dedicated to Aids, women artists and black artists. And I question the whole basis of that. Because your average punter is likely to be art blind by the time they get to these rooms and therefore possibly miss some compelling work.

If the curators were going to switch to such an explicitly thematic approach I wished they’d front-loaded these rooms so that they were the first things that the public sees. Were they scared that if the punters couldn’t see a friendly Warhol from the door (well, not that friendly, it’s an electric chair) that they wouldn’t dare venture inside? Do the public have to be sold the familiar constantly?

I’m not arguing that Raschenberg/Warhol/Johns et al aren’t interesting or important, just that their work is so familiar that you only need to close your eyes to conjure it up. On the other hand I hadn’t seen ANY work by the artists in the last two rooms devoted to women and ethnic minorities (oh, except for another Warhol, who is represented by a depiction of a race riot, which seemed banal in the extreme next to much more complex work by less famous artists on the same subject of racial tension and radicalism in late twentieth century America). The unfamiliar isn’t necessarily obscure because it’s less interesting. As the Guerilla Girls point out.

So I would recommend going to the exhibition and starting at the last room. Your mind will be freshest to soak up the wonderful work of unfamiliar artists. If you’re as ignorant of American art as I am. Do not miss Kiki Smith’s Born 2002, which has the best wolf ever. Or Dotty Attie’s Mother’s Kisses which the label po-facedly informs us ‘hints at incest.’ Hints at like the Sistine Chapel hints at Christianity.

And the other show? Well, you’d hardly know it was there given the lack of press attention or indeed publicity for it in the museum itself. Just a discreet sign pretty much by the door of the prints gallery if I’m not mistaken.

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It is a wonderful thing. You might at first glance think it’s just for the connoisseur when you see Victorian depictions of the English countryside by the yard as you enter the room. But anyone could find something to their taste in here as the art gets far more radical as you progress around the room. Which is not to say that there aren’t things of genuine beauty – of course Turner, Constable and Cotman blow everything else away.

But I was taken by the unexpected depictions of London in watercolour. Especially this week. A Nevinson of Air Street and Piccadilly Circus tube under construction has a bus fleetingly viewed through a half-built Regent St Quadrant. Joseph Parnell’s Balloons Over London showed barrage balloons over the Thames at Battersea during WW1. But not barrage balloons as I imagine them – big fat silver sausages. These balloons are dainty Montgolfier affairs. Montgolfier turned sinister.

And best of all Henry Moore, London Skyline. St Paul’s is central to an extraordinary composition of a sheltering family, seemingly sheltering in the womb of London while wraiths stalk a fractured landscape. But St. Paul’s, like The Dude, abides. London is the place for me in good times and bad. Oh, and the watercolours are free.

#BritishMuseum #AmericanDream #London #Art

Francis West at Megan Piper

September 18, 2016

Following on from a great evening at Vigo I was fortunate enough to be invited to another art show just around the corner from the library in Jermyn Street. Within Harris Lindsay Works of Art lies the Megan Piper Gallery and it was Megan herself who introduced me to the work of Francis West, an artist recently passed away whose work deserves wider renown.

West grew up in Scotland before coming to London to study at Chelsea College of Art. The exhibition is concerned with showing his late works which I could broadly divide into two broad categories – day and night. Or those largely grounded on black and those whose blue speaks of the ocean near where West stayed when visiting France.

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One of West’s sea/dreamscapes

Once you know the connection to Menton and the South of France then all sorts of reference points spring to mind (Picasso, Dufy, Matisse, Mirò … ) but as we were discussing while walking from painting to painting this business of referencing can be insidious. Certain elements or motifs of a style may be reminiscent of other artists but if the work is strong (and in West’s case I believe it is very strong) one overcomes the references to concentrate on the artist’s individuality, the elements of the painting that convey their personality, their way of seeing the world. And so once I’d gabbled about what the canvases reminded me of I tried to slow my mind down and let the art speak for itself.

Because these are complicated pictures. This is not minimalist art. There is a proliferation of life depicted in the paintings. People, dancers, lovers, bathers, gamblers, drinkers. Creatures, birds (lots of birds, fantastically depicted), creepy crawlies and in the illustration above a wonderful crab (I was told that West’s wife is a Cancerian) holding a note with ‘W’ inscribed up on it. Each painting is a richly complicated composition that your eye can pore over and enjoy because as much as the life teems thickly across the surface so does the colour grab you and make you like life. Which is what I want from art.

It’s worth pushing the button on the door and getting inside. I’m told that during Frieze week that Piper, like a cuckoo, will take over the whole of Harris Lindsay’s nest and bring West’s work to the shop window.

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In passing Megan told me about another project she works on that was equally interesting called The LineTo my shame I’d never heard of it but it concerns a series of outdoor works by leading contemporary artists strung along a walking route from the Olympic Park to the Greenwich Peninsula. It seems a boon for guides and I can’t wait to visit.

 

James Capper at Vigo

September 14, 2016

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It’s not often that I get to go Exhibition openings so it was with genuine excitement that I strolled down to Dering Street in the company of a few fellow flâneurs to see James Capper’s Porta Carve at Vigo. Vigo is tucked away in the armpit of Oxford and Regent Street, hard by a Crossrail building site but don’t let this put you off visiting – Capper’s work is well worth the trip.

The opening night was a spectacle. We arrived to find plaster-spattered canvases arranged around the walls, menacing power tools snaking across the floor and a smattering of fellow sophisticates clutching cold Coronas on a hot September evening. And we thought we’d missed the main event.

But no, we were assured that James would be back to do his thing at 7 and 8 o’clock so in the meantime we mingled, looked at the works and learnt a bit about Capper’s process.

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The finished work is pleasingly (to my taste anyway) minimalist. The crunchy impasto of the plaster making a rhythm on the bare canvas.The tonality, if not the structure, put me in mind of Park Seo-Bo whose work was exhibited at the White Cube earlier in the year. Of course there is an enormous contrast in mood. Whereas Park’s work is contemplative Capper makes a restless crust of forms across the canvas that you want to drag your hand across and feel as much as see.

And then there’s the machines. The plaster is applied to a glue-prepared canvas from blocks which are attacked by the artist with a kind of menacing home-made chainsaw. Which action is a spectacle worth seeing (and hearing) if you get the chance. Its controlled chaos put me in mind of Jackson Pollock’s method, albeit with a radically different outcome.

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After which you’re left with not just the work on the canvas but also the sculptural forms of the blocks, their carved up innards spilled over the walls and the floor. As you can see this process attracted not only the cognoscenti but also a few curious onlookers from the pub across the road.

So in anticipation of the RA’s colossal Abstract Expressionism down the road I’d recommend getting along to Vigo to see work which seems to have direct inspiration from some of those artists in its energy and its stripped down rawness.

Øve Arup at the V&A

August 6, 2016

With an hour to spare before meeting for a pre-Proms dinner I thought I’d have a look at what was on at the V&A. I wasn’t tempted by the knickers show but Øve Arup was definitely my bag and delivered an hour-sized piece of intellectual entertainment.

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The show only opened in June, as part of the V&A’s engineering season, but I don’t recall any publicity about it on my usual cultural channels. Which seems a shame as it’s a gem. Arup, despite being Danish, was a man whose history was inextricably bound up with London. Indeed the firm that he founded, which is now the leading engineering practice of its kind in the world, continues to be so after his death.

You can find out about the modern practice and its cutting edge development of the fields of crowd flow studies and acoustic engineering in a hi-tech, interactive section that works via a wifi linked app on your phone and touchscreens. Or at least you could if they all worked! The irony of the first touchscreen I tried to use not working wasn’t lost on the gallery assistant.*

But that was just a glitch – the show gives a good overview of Arup’s career from his arrival in London in the 1920s, through working in London during the Blitz to making his international reputation with high profile projects such as the Sydney Opera House and the Centre Pompidou. What is more it brings across the personality of the man with humorous sketches from his personal notebook and memorabilia from office parties and awards dos.**

I hope you’ve already decided to go and visit so I won’t describe the exhibits in detail but will pick out two titbits of particular interest to Londoners. Arup, together with Lubetkin, was the man behind the pioneering modernist masterpiece of the London Zoo penguin pool and it was a real treat to see the plans outlining the geometric and technical conception of one of the greatest sculptures in London.***

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Secondly, there is a fascinating section devoted to Arup’s work on air-raid shelter during World War 2. I’ve been guiding and teaching on the Blitz for a few years now and it was quite exciting to see the correspondence between Arup and various committees about the necessity for deep level shelters, as well as various publications that he produced for the public sphere. Perfect for someone with an interest of life during wartime in London.

It was also a delight to find a display on one of my favourite pieces of architecture – the King’s Walk Bridge in Durham. This elegant sliver of brutalism spanning the deep gorge of the River Wear has been a favourite since childhood and remains my top piece of concrete. The video of the two halves being swung into place and Arup himself the first stroller across is mesmerising and brought a sharp tinge of nostalgia for the most beautiful city in England.

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*Perhaps this was a sly reference to one high profile Arup project that is curiously neglected – the Millennium Bridge between St Paul’s and Tate Modern.

**This contrasts significantly to a similar show at the RA a year or two ago about Richard Rogers which was a long on on pompous hagiography and short on charm.

***I say sculpture because it was notoriously unpenguinny.

 

 

Missoni in Bermondsey

May 22, 2016

Being confined to SE1 in many of my waking hours there have at least been two consolations this week. Borough Market of course is the destination of choice for lunch, even if it means having to walk past The London Bridge Experience and its shit-tackularly spectral shoite there and back.

The other consolation this week has been a visit to a new museum (to me I mean, I think it’s been there for a decade at least), the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey Street. A friend of mine, who is very much not a fashionista, makes it his destination of choice when visiting London and had been pressing me to go for ages. So I did.

I didn’t really know what to expect as I’m not much of a fashion person myself either. I vaguely thought it might be a space devoted to the history of fashion in London. Well, it’s not that but that’s not a criticism. You can get that (or a great part of it) in the V&A. No, the FaTMu is a lunchtime-sized exhibition space dedicated to a rolling programme of one-off shows.*

So it was pot luck that I got Missoni, a label that I’d vaguely heard of but really knew nothing about. Well it turns out they’ve done a whole lot of shit, and most of it tremendously good shit. Italians, Rosito and Ottavio Missoni were inspired by the Futurist art movement and their Italian successors to use ‘Made in Italy’ fabrics to produce some quite stunningly beautiful clothes. As you can see from the header image one of their distinctive design features is to use brightly coloured bands that have a musicality and rhythm that is unique to their look in spite of much imitation.

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The central hall of the exhibition space has a slightly sinister array of mannequins wearing clothes from a range of years of Missoni’s collections.

IMG_4294What’s missing in the photograph though is the musique concrète that is piped through the gallery. Unlike the Russians at the NPG this music enhances the work displayed since it is assembled from the factory sounds where the fabrics are produced. The machine noises pulse and throb industrially but also suggest something organic; blood pumping through arteries or the sound of your own lungs when resting. It emphasises the way in which the fabrics Missoni use combine artifice with nature. You’re not meant to touch the hairy walls but I couldn’t help myself just once.

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Like me you might not be a fashion nut but fear not, there is more to the exhibition than fashion. As mentioned the original Missonis were inspired by Italian artists and before you get to the clothes you have a very high quality selection of Italian fine art of the twentieth century. There are big names that were familiar to me from visits to the Estorick, such as Severini, Balla and Lucio Fontana. But also unfamiliar names – Gottardo Ortelli, Tancredi and many more.**

This I would argue makes it a show not to miss for the art lover. Although not displayed in the best of circumstances (basically in gloomy corridors) the paintings have so much energy and colour that they light up the building by themselves.

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And it’s hit after hit after hit. Sure, you could probably see many pieces in this style and of this quality down the road in Tate Modern but there you’d have to elbow your way through rucksacks, shooting sticks and class 3c. Here, all is tranquillity save for the blast of fierce beauty on the walls. The exhibition runs to September so I think I’ll pop back when I’m feeling glum and need cheering up.

*It also has an excellent café which you can visit without entry to the museum. Quiche, salad and wine for a tenner isn’t a bad deal.

** I wanted to put the Estorick into this review as its stuff is so complementary but I haven’t had the time to go there. But if you have the time do that thing, it is a great museum.

Back in the north

November 28, 2015

A couple of weeks ago I went back to the north for a conference in Middlesbrough.* Some academics complain about having to go to conferences but for me, no matter where they take place (even Holloway Road), there’s always something to be learnt by getting out of the conference and having a good wander around.

This was a particularly tough week for the people of Middlesbrough as the planned closure of the local steel plant had just been announced, an action which would result in the loss of thousands of jobs. I’ve been to a lot of conferences in random British and Irish cities over the last few years, and have visited others in the course of researching prospective universities with my eldest son and while doing my own research. This has taken me to Newcastle, Sheffield, Leeds, Belfast, Dublin, Leeds, Luton, Portsmouth, Coventry, Durham, Southampton, Birmingham, Liverpool and others that I can’t remember off the top of my head right now. I have to say that of all these Middlesbrough felt the most bleak.

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The Captain Cook. Fairly bleak.

One of the themes to come out of the conference (where the majority of the papers addressed local history) was that Middlesbrough was once a town that was centred around the river, in fact was born of the river. For those not familiar with the area Middlesbrough was the original industrial boom town, even more so than its more famous contemporary Manchester. While Manchester was an established conurbation at the onset of industrialisation Middlesbrough was practically non-existent. It was built from the establishment of the iron industry in the mid-nineteenth century and grew at such a rapid rate, exporting processed iron and then steel to a global market, that it became known as the ‘infant Hercules’ or ‘Ironopolis’. The river was central to exploiting the export market for such goods, as it was for the chemical plants that also became established throughout the twentieth century.

What is less well-remembered, but was brought up by several papers at conference, was that the river was also during the boom-times absolutely central to the recreation of the townspeople with rowing, sailing and even swimming (hard to believe given the filthiness of the water in those days!) competitions being annual festive events that drew hundreds of participants and thousands of spectators. I was glad to be reminded of this because arriving in the town now (by train at least) there is little encouragement for the modern visitor to go to the river.

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Bottle of Notes by Claes Oldenburg. Getting in touch with his Teesside roots.

The University campus is centred away from the river, south beyond the town centre and mima.** There are signs of a town turning a corner around the University campus. There’s the University itself, which like the University of Bedfordshire seems to be making a good fist of bringing Higher Education to a part of the world that old fashioned élitists would like to think isn’t suitable for it.*** And there’s a smattering of businesses in Baker Street, like Sherlock’s micropub, that show an entrepreneurial culture getting established that was largely absent in my North-East town up the road when I was growing up.

But mima? Hmm … a trick has been missed. Look at the Oldenburg that they planted outside the Euroarchitect-designed purpose-built shed that houses the gallery. On his website the artist claims to have been inspired by Middlesbrough’s riverside location and its links to Captain Cook, Gulliver’s Travels, a short story by Poe about a sailor caught in a maelstrom, the local steel industry and much other guff besides.

There’s a problem with this. The local elements which would really anchor the piece in the history of Middlesbrough – the sea, Cook and the steel industry – are not within staggering distance of the gallery.**** They’re disconnected from it. Or rather the gallery is disconnected from them. It’s in the wrong place.

Look at the picture of Bottle of Notes. It’s set in a nondescript park beside a sub-Stirling lump of 80s Post-Modernism. Look the other way and you have the (magnificent) 19th C Town Hall dwarfed by some beige 70s garbage. I won’t trouble your eyes with the gallery, the building holds no interest.***** Where’s the river? Where’s the steel? Where’s the chemicals? Where’s Middlebrough?******

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Victorian town hall from ‘mima’

Inside the gallery interesting things are happening. There’s a smattering of good modern art (a lot of it prints and drawings, which is telling), a temporary exhibition by a politically radical British feminist artist (interesting but not exactly uplifting on a cold November day) and a nationally important jewellery collection (sure it’s good but not my bag).

The main exhibition, Localism, is the interesting part. Its prospectus is worth quoting in full,

‘Localism’ is an ambitious project telling the story of art in Middlesbrough from its beginnings in 1829 to now. It takes a radical approach to exhibition making, inviting the public to help write the narrative with workshops that grow the show, adding to it as we go, thus creating an encyclopaedic family tree of creativity on Teesside.
It’s also more than just an exhibition as we join up people and places across the region to celebrate and debate our own cultural history and its impact on the wider world. Topics include Christopher Dresser and the Linthorpe Pottery, bridge building, the remarkable Boosbeck Industries in the 1930s and the existence of mima itself. In a thoroughly internationalised world, Localism restates the vitally important role of the local in the development of art and society.

Basically they’ve realised that the people of Middlesbrough are not especially fussed about radical feminist politics, nationally important jewellery collections or much modern art. I’m sure that quite a few people in Middlesbrough (and environs) are, just not the people of Middlesbrough. Looking at what the people of Middlesbrough ask to be displayed in the gallery through Localism they’re concerned with jobs and industry, football, crafts, education and the countryside, i.e. the things that they love about their city and of which they are proud. And they’re slowly repurposing the gallery as a museum about their town’s history, told through documents, ephemera and artworks. And it works. Localism is a perfect exhibition for the outsider to Middlesbrough. It contextualises the town. It tells you why you should visit the place and why the closure of the steelworks, while making cold economic sense, is a tragedy. The dismal walk from station to gallery past the usual signs of economic decline does not.

Walking the other way from the station, away from the town and towards the river is a bit dismal too. There are many maltreated buildings (like the Captain Cook above) which are splendid things but have no investment. They remind you that this was once one of the wealthiest towns in England and indeed the world.

 

Which one (or collection of several) of these solid Victorian buildings could have been the home for a combined museum of Middlesbrough and modern art? Buildings that would have connected the museum directly to the river, to the sea, to the world? I walked past half a dozen candidates at least on my way to the riverside. And once you’re there you arrive at a view of one of the great kinetic sculptures of the nineteenth century in a setting to make an aesthete’s heart skip.

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Transporter Bridge. The greatest sculpture in Middlesborough

Who needs Oldenburg? You can chuck that bottle in the sea and ask for your money back.

*At the University of Teesside, for their conference on sport and urban history. I talked about a French sportsman, Frantz Reichel, and the history of his statue in Paris. You can find the paper (or the bare bones of it) here.

** note The Artful Way They’ve Avoided Capital Letters? the Initials Stand For middlesbrough institute of modern art. The avoidance of capital letters stands for Nothing.

*** When people attack previous governments’ aspirations to get a greater percentage of young people into university-level education it’s places like Teesside that they’re thinking of as being a ‘waste of money’. In fact by bringing universities closer to the homes of more and more people you  make education more affordable for those from lower-income backgrounds, even if they have to pay for the course itself. Universities like these act as drivers of the local economy and points of aspiration for post-industrial communities in a function that ‘traditional’ university towns’ communities take for granted.

**** Although Cook is a bit of a stretch, the town didn’t exist when he was around and he’s more connected with Stockton-on-Tees upriver.

***** Oh, go on then – here’s a really long staircase with a fire extinguisher at the bottom. Worth it.

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****** Where’s the people too?! It was lunchtime on a Saturday.

On two excellent exhibitions

September 6, 2015

A brief post after yet more Waterloo action this week following the photography at Somerset House I mentioned before. With an hour to spare after finishing in the library I thought I’d catch the Joseph Cornell at the Royal Academy before it closes in a couple of weeks time. My wife not wanting to see it for some reason (and she’s the one with the membership card!) it was an opportune moment to see it while she was out of the country.

Cornell first caught my attention when reading Phaidon’s book on Surrealism while I was training to be a guide, part of which involved getting under the skin of a selection of works in Tate Modern. I’d never heard of him but as I remember (and memory is fickle isn’t it? I’ve just been reading a thesis using oral history sources where that point was brought home to me once more) there was an illustration of one of his pharmacy cabinets where I thought, ‘That’s Damien Hirst’. And of course Cornell was there first, Hirst as is his wont appropriated his idea and turned it to a more sinister end.

After that I forgot about Cornell. A brief search didn’t turn up anywhere that I could see more of his work in the flesh rather than on the page and he went to the back of my head as ‘the cabinet guy’ who I could reference when doing a bit of one-upmanship about the origins of vitrines, taxonomies, stuff of that sort (which a lot of contemporary art seems to ‘play’ with).

So to see not just an individual work but 5 or 6 rooms of his pieces was too good an opportunity to turn down given that I’m unlikely to go to the States any time soon (which reminds me of how grateful I am to the clout that London’s museums and galleries have in being able to assemble agglomerations of the best of what the rest of the world has to offer and put it in one building for a three month stretch). And he’s unlikely to make a return journey for a generation.

One reason for this may be that the works are so delicate. Collages and clippings of paper, boxes and cases of fragile intricacy that make you wonder at the imagination of a man who built fabulous stories that traverse the world without leaving his home state. All of it is superbly impractical, of an illusory reality. Objects allude to games with no rules, journeys without destination, biographies without substance. Often you come across something that transports you to your own past. Such as this parrot.

Cornell parrot

Cornell parrot

I once had a parrot. Go there and see what you once possessed or imagined amid the marché de puces of Cornell’s objects.

But after that descend the stairs (or take the lift) to Daniel Maclise’s cartoon for the fresco of the Battle of Waterloo that was made in preparation for a site in the Palace of Westminster. You can see the finished article on a tour of Parliament, opposite a similar piece describing the Battle of Trafalgar. But of course this is the bicentenary of Wellington’s and Blücher’s great victory so London is full of Wellingtonia for a year, or at least even more that it is normally. Prior to this exhibition I knew nothing of Maclise, his cartoon or the fresco. Walking in public buildings such as the PoW it’s easy to be blind to the individual artworks, often monumental, that contribute to the grandeur of the whole. This exhibition is welcome in that it forces you to focus on just one of those pieces and reflect on what it is saying.

For myself I was surprised at the lack of triumphalism in the work. This is no celebration of a great victory won, or at least it’s not a revelling in the event. True, Wellington and Blücher form the central figures with a band trumpeting their meeting to one side. But this picture portraying a moment of world history from fifty years ago would surely have come across to contemporaries as a portrait of something far closer to their own lives.

There is national pride in the painting but more strongly resonant is a sense of pity for the fallen. Not maudlin pity but that classical pity and stoic acceptance that the price of victory is paid in the blood of the common man. Each fallen French soldier resembled a portrait of Napoleon in my mind, as if to comment on the fact that so much of the slaughter was a consequence of the actions of one man. The lack of blood only adds to the austere nature of the sorrow. It was drafted only a few years after the end of the Crimean War. Isn’t it a portrait of that futile conflict?

Looking at the cartoon I was reminded of seeing captured French eagles at an exhibition of Napoleonic prints that was on at the British Museum over the summer. The eagles (there were two of them) feature in Maclise’s cartoon and are in the collection of Apsley House at Hyde Park Corner (the seat of the Dukes to this day and open to the public – recommended). I’ve been to Apsley House many times but in amongst the brilliant collection I never noticed the eagles. In a sea of pencil and ink in the drawings gallery of the BM they stood out as physical objects in the world and formed a powerful link with the events of that day in Belgium.

I was reminded of this history coming alive when looking at the small collection of prints by French artists alongside the cartoon at the RA. One, by C. de Last. shows the Affaire d’Astorga en Gallice in which a French soldier, while holding a captured English soldier aloft, is stopped in his tracks by a bullet amidst hand to hand fighting. The pose of two struggling men, through accident or design I don’t know, exactly replicates the pose of a struggling Lapith and Centaur to be found in the Parthenon Sculptures at the British Museum. And it reminded me of how little has changed in three millennia of warfare even to the present day. It should be the historian’s job, and the artist of war, to remind us that nothing that we see nowadays is uniquely horrific; neither is it insurmountable. Hirst and his chums the Chapmans play at dealing with death. Maclise treats it with respect.

On the less visited things of Paris

June 22, 2015

No, it's not la Sainte Chappelle

No, it’s not la Sainte Chappelle

Having been in Paris for a week, for pleasure with a tiny bit of research thrown in (mostly involving tracking down a statue of a feller that I want to write about (I’ll probably do something about him in a future post too when I’ve actually done some of the work)), this post is to talk about places in and around Paris that merit more attention from the curious tourist. Leave the Tour Eiffel to the bus parties and the pickpockets; the Champs to the consumers and the cars; the Sacre Coeur (the most chillingly sterile blot on any landscape) to the Amelieites.

My mission on this trip was to go to places to which I’d never been before – places that might appear in guide books but to which very few people actually go. Places that offer an alternative view of Paris, open up new ideas and resonances, or in the case of the Fondation are brand new. This was also the case with bars and restaurants, and if you want to ask for recommendations (or places to avoid) consult this GoogleMap and get in touch. This post is about things to do rather than things to eat and drink.

We did go to one regular, the Musée D’Orsay, but then it was worth breaking the rules to see this cat …

Bonnard cat

Bonnard cat. Psychologically accurate if anatomically eccentric.

I’ve limited it to five places, we visited others but these are the ones that stood out on the trip and that I think may be readily appreciated by a wide range of thinking people.

1. Fondation Louis Vuitton

FLV by FG

FLV by FG

Ok, so let’s start with the big beast. It’s not exactly obscure, having been the subject of a furious amount of media promotion since it opened. But it is quite new so many people will not have been and may be open to some tips about visiting.

The current exhibition, Les clefs d’un passion, was so good that I actually went to the Fondation twice in the week – once on my own and then once again with family. It’s the perfect exhibition in that it combines what amounts to a greatest hits of the twentieth century (Monet Water Lilies, two of them side by side, 7 or 8 Mondrians that give an overview of his career, first class Picassos, Munch Scream, Kandinsky and on and on) with a smattering of works of equally high quality from less well known artists. With our Finnish family connections the best of these was a sequence of four Lake Keitele canvases by Gallen-Kallela displayed along one wall, side by side. Extraordinary and worth missing the D’Orsay, Beaubourg or any other gallery in Paris to go and see if you’re only there for a weekend.

And how could I forget toe toon Delaunay’s colossal canvas of the Cardiff rugby team! The painting I’ve only ever seen in reproduction before but which encapsulates the ideas behind my writing on the relationship between art, modernity and sport in Britain and France.

The only things in there I wouldn’t have wanted to own were the Picabias. Execrable late period kitsch garbage. Oh well, easily forgotten. I can’t recommend the exhibition enough. There’s a also an exhibition of contemporary art that I wandered past but wasn’t engaged by … apart from Gilbert and George.*

The building itself is also a work of art (and don’t they keep banging on about it) by Frank Gehry. I’d never been to a Gehry building before and was a bit sceptical about his fantastical shapes – they have a certain ‘look at me! Look At Me!! LOOK AT ME!!!’ quality to them when seen on a page that is rather off-putting. This one being stuck in the wastes of the Bois de Boulogne means that it doesn’t really have anything to clash with around it and so works as a sculptural form in a open space. Inside the building is functional, airy and rather delightful – the Olaf Eliasson works really well with Gehry’s use of water.

Fondation Louis Vuitton

Fondation Louis Vuitton

The galleries too are perfect for viewing the art and as the price to get in is fairly steep it wasn’t too rammed on either of the occasions that I went; it wasn’t necessary to queue to get a ticket if you hadn’t paid in advance.

The Museum is a bit of a schlep if you’re going to walk it through the park but there is a shuttle bus for €1 from Nation that looks well worth using. I schlepped because that’s what I do. Entry also includes a visit to the Jardin d’Acclimation, which I didn’t take advantage of but has several eateries if you don’t fancy the pretentious looking café in the Fondation.

I’m not sure if it’d be worth making a detour for if they didn’t have such a world class exhib going on but while it is there it’s worth travelling to Paris just to see it.

2. Meaux

Bishop's gaff, Meaux

Bishop’s gaff, Meaux

Meaux was a serendipitous error. We had been planning to go to Champagne but a combination of holiday laziness, a byzantine automatic ticket machine (‘Do you have a war veterans’ discount?’) and extortionate prices for an off-the-cuff TGV ticket meant that we scoured the Gare de L’Est destinations board for other fare. Meaux (at a bargain €40 return for a party of three) seemed ideal for our purposes.

Twenty minutes later we’d left the tourists behind and were in a mid-sized provincial French town with a beautiful mediaeval core. Gothic Cathedral, Bishops Palace, art museum, local museum, smattering of shops and restaurants and all a 5 minute walk from the station. The architecture of the Cathedral and its complex is stunning, and in the summer they have outdoor concerts and theatre in the evening. But there’s more to Meaux than that.

Both museums being shut the guy at the Tourist Office told us to head to the fromagerie to see how Brie is made. We’d hit the motherlode! We’d been planning on a champagne tour but instead we had a cheese feast. Forty minutes tootle round followed by a dégustation of Brie de Meaux (mild) and Brie de Melun (spicy), washed down with some local cider (not authentic but it was free so I wasn’t complaining).

Don't take a wrong turn

Don’t take a wrong turn

Don’t let the sign put you off … it was charming. Outside the fromagerie there’s a curious cemetery with many WW1 graves from all sides of the conflict – British, Belgian, French, German, Moslem, Jewish, Christian. A very moving (and unexpected) thing until we remembered that the Battle of the Marne finished right here in Meaux (they have a museum about that but that was shut too). So Meaux – perfect for a day out of relaxation, thoughtfulness and face-stuffing and I didn’t speak English the whole time I was there.**

3. Longchamps

Longchamps

Longchamps

One of the biggest drawbacks of living in north London is that there isn’t a racecourse that doesn’t take you half a day to get to. I’ve been to Folkestone, Kempton, Sandown, Newmarket and Lingfield, they all involve multiple changes of train or a car journey. And who wants to drive to the races? In Paris there are two courses in the same park!! That’s a superior civilisation. Go to the Bois, we did Auteuil and Longchamps in three days. Of the two Longchamps was my favourite.

The place is set up for the Arc. As you can see from the photo there are colossal, elegant stands geared up for five figure crowds but to go there mid-week lunchtime … well, that’s a bigger treat for the holidaymaker. Because at that time you only see people who are there for the racing – either the wealthy owners, pros (jockeys, trainers, members of the press) and neer-do-wells who know that slinking off to the races when everyone else is working is some form of heaven.

It’s five euros in and for that you get eight races of very good quality. You can walk there if you’re feeling energetic or get the bus with your fellow punters from Porte Maillot. Beer is warm and out of a can but you really shouldn’t be here for the booze (in fact we should have taken our own, everyone else seemed to) … you’re here for character and atmosphere. The atmosphere is smells … horsey smells and grass, faces in the almost exclusively French crowd of ravaged old gamblers, sharp-looking young gamblers, industrially renovated-ageing wealthy old bags and roués, with the odd middle-aged couple having a picnic lunch. Trackside the sound of six horses striving, bloodbursting and winninglosing. The ritual round of newspaper, paddock, Tote (no on course bookies in Paris, alas), track and win/lose is hypnotic until you’ve won enough or you’ve had enough losses.

And all the time Degas in mind.***

Auteuil races ... note the Tour Eiffel in the background - the view from the top of the grandstand is stunning.

Auteuil races … note the Tour Eiffel in the background – the view from the top of the grandstand is stunning.

4. The Commando Museum

Musée Nissim Camondo

Musée Nissim Camondo

Well, not really, that’s in Portsmouth … this is the Musée Nissim de Camondo. Just off Parc Monceau in a very expensive part of Paris and barely a soul in there when I visited. For Downton fans there’s plenty of kitchen-scullery stuff to gawp at. The art is not really to my taste (although they do have a lot of prints of Chardin’s works) but again this place is about atmosphere and backstory. The atmosphere of a perfectly preserved mansion straight out of A la Recherche. And the backstory of a Jewish family raised to the cream of Parisian society by hard work and making the right connections laced with much subsequent tragedy that it’s best left for the individual to come to in their own time.

5. Maison de la Radio France

Maison de la Radio France

Maison de la Radio France

I had a ticket to see Jean-Bernard Pommier for my final evening in Paris but he cancelled. No in fact he didn’t cancel he postponed the concert by two days, which is a curious thing to do.**** But undeterred I hunted out another concert going on that evening at M de la RF, which came in at 40 euros less expensive.

First, the building is a treat. Is this foyer out of a Eurothriller from the late 60s? Possibly starring David Hemmings and Romy Schneider … it’s a stunner anyway and not a bad place to while away the time waiting for the doors to open. It would have been substantially improved by having a bar mind but you can’t have everything.

Radio France. Exhortations over the PA to save the coughing for later were sadly ineffective.

Radio France. Exhortations over the PA to save the coughing for later were sadly ineffective.

The auditorium perfect and then on with the show. It’s nice to know that some things transcend cultures (i.e. inappropriately timed coughing fits and fidgety kids) but this was a very French evening despite the first work being a string quartet by George Onslow. I’d assumed he must be some contemporary Brit or Yank but no, he’s from the Romantic period (‘the French Beethoven’) the son of an exiled English aristo and an Auvergnat inheritrix who grew up in France and despite being renowned in his own life-time has now fallen into obscurity.

The Quatuor Danel are trying to rescue him from musical oblivion. I sympathise with their aims but fear that he’s too anodyne compared to contemporaries Schubert and Beethoven. Sometimes there’s a reason people stay out of fashion. Just ask Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. The real meat came afterwards with a Fauré piano quintet that was hot and dreamy in a way that made my head pound, my soul sing joy and my heart ache.

And who doesn’t want that? All of these places can deliver it.

* I once did a guided tour of Spitalfields that coincided with the G&G retrospective at Tate Modern. Outside their former house I gave a 5 to 10 minute take on their origins, career and current position in the market to a group of largely disinterested teenagers and one grinning group leader. Grinning because unknown to me Gilbert and George had been posing side by side behind me throughout pretty much the whole talk. When I turned to go to the next stop they silently turned round too and strolled off. I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me whole.

** Best of all was a motor-mouthed sports shop salesman in Star Momo Sport, a charming and determined individual who had covered over all the ‘Inter Sport’ logos with a ‘Momo’ label on his Marseille shirts because he didn’t wish to give publicity to a rival. Alan Sugar would approve.

*** That’s ‘Duh-ga’, not ‘Day-gah’. Major irritant.

**** In his publicity he’s claimed to be the most renowned French pianist outside of France. I’d like to know what François-Frédéric Guy, Pascal Rogé, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Anne Queffelec, Alexandre Tharaud (I could go on) think about that. Or if he’s actually been out of France to ask anyone.


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