Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Dude! Dudamel!

The most fantastic young conductor (I say young - he, at 26, is the elder here) has been blazing a global trail in the past few years, scorching his way up from Venezuela's sistema of musical education (a one child, one instrument policy) to the concert halls of Lucerne and London. His name is Gustavo Dudamel and he is at once enlivening and sensitive, leading his orchestra - the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra - on like Diana in the dance.

The NYT has just done a long profile of Dudamel, which inspired me to search out some of his work online, so - for your listening and viewing pleasure - here are the three parts of Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, as performed by the SBYO at this year's Proms. (Tip: cue up all the performances so you can switch straight from one to the next).

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Frieze on ASmallWorld

Modern art’s most glamorous patrons combed the 150 galleries of London's Frieze Art Fair in search of the next Damien Hirst and Chapman Brothers last weekend. And of course, when they weren’t looking at the art, they were attending the countless events held to coincide with the fair.

From a small affair five years ago, Frieze has turned into ‘the start of the season’ for the art world, according to Amanda Schneider of the Jablonka Galerie, whose highlight was a stunningly erotic David LaChapelle photomural. Set in London’s beautiful Regent’s Park in a custom-built marquee of over 20,000 square meters, the galleries came from nearly 30 countries, representing over a thousand artists.

Galleries, which had been at Frieze last year, reported a definite upturn in attendance and business this time around. The Gagosian Gallery, one of modern art’s powerhouses, sold out its edition of Tracey Emin’s neon sculpture 'I could have really loved you' in a few hours. Indeed, everywhere you went, countless tiny orange dots indicated that work had been snapped up.

Photographer and ASW member Hugo Tillman, whose work was shown by Nohra Haime at the Bridge Art Fair, got to the major Frieze event this year – the party that followed Saturday’s Phillips de Pury & Co auction. “It was the place to see and be seen,” said Tillman. “Everybody was there but the mood was very serious due to the lack of alcohol for the first half of the party.” In the art world, this is a serious complaint.

The celeb art fans were certainly out in force for the first two days of the fair. Dennis Hopper was seen pacing the aisles and regular Friezer, Claudia Schiffer, prowled the booths. One of the Olsen twins put in an appearance while Kate Moss and Hugh Grant were also spotted at the fair.

When you were worn out from all the art – and with 150 galleries, it did get exhausting – Frieze laid on the most luxurious facilities for VIPs and patrons. Mark Hix, legendary chef of The Ivy and Le Caprice in London, brought his kitchen to the fair, while the VIP lounge was luxury defined, with its glamorous denizens – ASWers certainly among them – and fabulous furnishings.

Some galleries reported that they did most of their business in the first couple of days of the fair. Others noted that there were far fewer Americans present compared to previous years because of the weak dollar. Still, judging by the number of people present from across the world, Frieze is firmly on the art world’s calendar.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Ophelia, Iphelia pain

Sorry for the shoddy pun but I was trying a little William Wycherley out on my prose (see The Country Wife review below). Better without, I think.

Tate Britain's winter exhibition is far more comprehensive than it needs to be: John Everett Millais (1828-96) is not a sufficiently inspired or inspiring artist to warrant over 120 paintings and drawings through seven rooms. Worse still, the exhibition does not build to a climax where we see Millais' artistic genius manifested in late career masterpieces after honing his skill over many years; disappointingly, his greatest works are his earliest, a not uncommon occurrence (ask Orson Welles).

Almost his earliest work on show was perhaps my favourite, Bust of a Greek Warrior (from the Antique) (1838-9), an impressively precise study in chalk. Millais was clearly an extraordinary draughtsman with great technical skill, which happily does not here lead to a soulless but neat rendering - on the contrary, the warrior's sternness is neatly evoked. The shock is that Millais was 10 when he drew this, showing the preternatural talent that would see him to the Royal Academy of Arts schools at 11.

Millais was a founding Pre-Raphaelite, rejecting Mannerism and its artifice in favour of detailed naturalism in brilliant colours. This is perhaps one of the reasons why his earlier pictures find most popular and critical acclaim - they are wonderfully vivid, with jewel colours and swathes of intricate scenes from nature. The most famous (and, I believe, the most popular poster in the Tate's shop) is Ophelia (1851-2), which has the poor girl half-submerged in a lake.

What the awful representation to the left doesn't show you is the success and the failure of the painting. To his credit, Millais had developed a technique for making his pigments retain their brightness, so Ophelia almost seems alive, glowing despite her watery bed. The problem is that she seems to have been imported from a different painting. Millais - here and in other paintings like Mariana (1851) - ends up with several layers (to the eye, at least), where the foreground character and the background never gel. I could never escape the feeling that the model and the rest were painted separately; this sounds foolish but better artists make you believe that they weren't, that they have captured one complete scene. With Millais, you can always see everything being painted arounded the centre.

This expresses itself in Isabella (1848-9) too, which is almost a triumph of failure of perspective. The painting does not show that this is a table of people interacting with one another and visually receding but looks like each person has been cut and pasted onto the background in the same position. Millais never wholly convinces that his painting are, well, whole.

If only Millais had stuck to his drawing: we would have more pictures like The Disentombment of Queen Matilda (1849), a small gem of macabre humour, where he populates a crowded scene with darkly comic activities. This humour is virtually completely absent from the rest of his work, most of which brim with a desire to be taken seriously or a cloying sentimentality. (I have to brush my teeth just thinking about The Blind Girl (1854-6), with its double rainbow and - uch, it's too awful to go on.)

After his Pre-Raphaelite phase wound down in the mid-185os, there are still six large rooms to go. Six! We've already had his most interesting works - now there is just room after room of paintings largely dull in content and in execution. There are portraits painted for patrons stuffed with angelic children and respectable adults. There are only occasional reminders of his real talent, such as his pen-and-ink illustrations for the Moxon Tennyson (1855-6). Millais could have made a draughtsman of unsurpassable skill and wit, but instead he turned to paintings with a vaguely numinous atmosphere which do not stand up to scrutiny.

The scale of the exhibition is just as oppressive as some of the pictures. It is not a new theme for me, complaining about exhibitions which aim to conquer through quantity, not quality, and this is another perfect example. Yes, it is a curatorial feat, and yes, it provides an unrivalled opportunity for the serious Millais-head, but it is an ordeal for everyone else - we are supposed to maintain interest and excitement for over a hundred pictures when this is nigh on impossible, even when you love the artist. A smaller, more representative selection would have worked in Millais' favour - as it is, the pile-up of lesser works constantly threatens to crumble.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Country Wife should stay in the country

I very rarely walk out of anything. I once ran out of Paradise Lost, but it was am-dram and my laughter was probably disturbing the actors, what with all the echoes in the apse and all. This failure to rush to judgment was corrected this week with a rush to the exit during The Country Wife, William Wycherley's almost entirely laugh-free comedy at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket.

You really have to hope that the pun was an invention of the Restoration (hardly going to be Cromwellian, really) since this 1675 play dependes so heavily on it. Not a line goes by but there's some saucy pun, a frequency surely only justified by punning being an innovation. Sadly, this is not the case and puns which must have seemed dated by James II are positively fossilised by now.

The other aspect of this bludgeoning - this is humour as a blunt object, not a thin blade - is that Wycherley thinks that wit is saying the opposite of what you mean. How cunning it is to have a character say one thing and mean another! The audience was underwhelmed by this strategy; I was practically in a comedy coma.

The plot is itself not wholly unpromising. There must be some mileage in having a lothario pretend to be a eunuch, although when played with the sort of desperate sexual abandon and innuendo of Toby Stephens as Horner it loses all point. Who would trust his wife to a man with a perpetual verbal hard-on? He is so sleazy that you could hear Hugh Hefner saying he'd gone too far.

There is a strong misogynist element to the treatment of Pinchwife's new bride, whom Horner is trying to seduce - Pinchwife constantly threatens his wife with violence, then locks her up, always manhandling her. While we are meant to find David Haig's hammy rage hilarious, this strand is much darker than director Jonathan Kent appears to believe. Any subversion inherent in the text is lost, or if none is intended, it is an interpretative opportunity lost.

Wycherley's text seems beyond redemption for today's world. Every other sentence, one of the witty rakes who are our heroes will remark that he is "off to the play", for that is where the true wits can be found and where the true brilliance of the intellect of the age can be found. This was surely true under the Restoration, recovering from the Puritans, but it makes such grand claims for the theatre that they are doomed to fail today - it simply isn't the centre of the intellectual world any more. There is no theatre which can live up to Wycherley's text, and no stage which deserves it either.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Shelfish pleasures

I’ve got wood – and I can’t wait to tell everyone. I talk, of course, about the antique oak bookcase of monstrous size which is the newest occupant of my bedroom. Why, what did you think I meant?

There are so many pleasures to be derived from a bookcase, yet they are certainly overlooked most of the time in favour of their contents. Far too often, in fact, bookcases can be afterthoughts, mere planks pinned together to support the far more carefully chosen books they bear; I suspect that sometimes bookcases may even be more interesting than their books.

And now I am the possessor of a proper piece of furniture, a 1920s oak bookcase with a dark stain, taller than most of the population and at least twice as wide as an All Black prop forward. Even as it sat waiting to be filled, it was already generating pleasure, the kind that comes from appreciating any well-made item.

As I started to unpack my boxes of books and install them, I got much too distracted flicking through them. There is a positive nostalgia which comes from all the memories associated with each volume, like the gargantuan Classical dictionaries I bought before going up to university or my first edition Dorothy Parkers located pawing through antiquarian after antiquarian. This dallying delight is inherent in the purchase of a bookcase.

Once I had got them all on and sorted them into semi-respectable order, it was time to sit back and look at the finished article, which sent shivers of aesthetic pleasure around my nervous system. Just to see the shelves laden with all different hues of dust-jackets, abutting one another like a very blocky and beautiful abstract painting, is joyous. There is room for all media too – my Vanity Fairs are piled up a couple of shelves beneath the DVDs.

It’s a reflection of all that I have accumulated over the years (not too many in my case, but it’s a start), which in turn reflects my personality and my interests. A bookcase is like a body, the physical container for your self – my bookcase, c’est moi.

A tree died to make my bookcase and I feel sure it would willingly have sacrificed itself if it knew the pleasure I would get out of it.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Philosophy on 4

KNTV is perhaps the most bizarre thing I have ever seen on television, and that’s saying something for someone who used to watch Eurotrash. It is a cross between the computer cartoons of Max Headroom, the great ideas of Radio 4’s In Our Time and the totalitarian setting of 1984, and is easily brilliant.

The premise is that two animated teenagers in the Communist state of Slabovia (“When the Iron Curtain fell, Slabovia was under it”) live in a warehouse and explain the theories of great thinkers to the audience. Subjects include Darwin, Einstein and Marx, pretty hefty names with pretty hefty ideas usually tackled in late-night documentaries, not mid-morning cartoons. Even the name suggests a great philosopher.

The one I caught was on Freud, but instead of fixating (as Freud might say) on all the sex, it actually gave lucid explanations of his background, his theories and his afterlife. They covered his predecessor and major influence on the talking cure Josef Breuer, explaining what the case of Anna O’s hysteria meant for psychoanalysis. There was discussion about Freud’s personal neuroses and obsessions, and there was even a neat diagram to explain his concept of id-ego-superego.

But just in case this seems either unbearably dense or unendurably dry, it is leavened with a sprinkling of cheesy yet hilarious jokes, illustrative videos and sly English voice-overs from the suspiciously-named Burgess McPhilbin (how many ten-year olds off school sick get that joke?). The videos are particularly weird – they look like rejects from the Estonian version of You’ve Been Framed, c.1997 (according to the clips’ timestamps) – but nicely serve to illustrate the origin of phobias or OCD behaviour.

Every so often a fearsome general’s voice will sound out over a loud-speaker, telling the boys – named Kierky and Nietzsche, by the way, to bang home the theme – they must conform or else. It’s a nasty jolt that creates a much more rounded world within the show.

This type of programme is what Channel 4 specialises in – odd educational programmes and documentaries in the mid-morning hinterland between reruns of American sitcoms and Krishnan Guru-Murphy on the 12 o’clock news. Tune in any morning during term-time (holiday stand-by ER is off air) and you can find five-minute tours around the National Gallery or Tate Modern and shows about young adults which actually talk to young adults.

Channel 4 knows who its audience at this time is – school pupils who haven’t gone in, hung-over university students, the post-university unemployed – and it suits it perfectly. The programming is not patronising but is amazingly edifying without the Open University’s beardiness or BBC2’s infantilising. KNTV is the perfect example: as a lucid primer on great ideas, it certainly beats the nine o’clock lecture (whether from a tutor in a hall or Melvyn Bragg on R4).

Carry on, Channel 4 – the education you’re give the nation goes some small way to making up for the intellectual void that is Big Brother and its cronies.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Terracotta tease

There is no denying that the First Emperor exhibition at the British Museum is a rare gift - many of us will never go to China (I think I'm first in the line marked 'Loud-mouthed dissident')
- but it is not an experience commensurate with its uniqueness.

The terracotta diplomacy practised by China in loaning 20 figures from the tomb of Qin Shihuangdi to London is both generous, in that this many figures have never left China at once before, and underwhelming, for there are 7,980 which are not here. This is not churlish, because I'm not expecting them to send over a fleet of 747s with the rest on, but the scale of the Emperor's project, which is a large part of its magnificence, is wholly lost. This is revealed most tellingly when you walk up to the central pit where the warriors are lit like cars in a showroom and a photo alongside them shows them in situ, rank after rank after rank, stretching back beyond vision.

The figures are certainly remarkable, the first incidence of a production line in history. The fact trumpeted about them is that each is personalised, with a moustache here and a pot belly there, and with 8,000 to be given their own faces, it is certainly an achievement. They are imposing too, standing tall for today, let alone for our smaller ancestors. However, they never entirely come to life, for individuality is not the same thing as animation. You could say that impassivity is the point, but why personalise if only to stand still? There is not sufficient artistic skill in a machine to imbue them with spirit.

There is some compensation for the sparseness of the figures and their unprepossessing gazes in the background the BM provides, which shows the achievement of Qin Shihuangdi in uniting the warring kingdoms of third century BC China. Essentially just a greater warlord rather than an enlightened unifier, Qin managed to standardise much within his new great country, including the abolition (unhappily, I think) of dagger-shaped money for your standard round coins, although with a rather natty square hole in the middle to represent earth in the universe.

Some wonderful examples of armour are present, including a still-glinting dagger which could give a nasty nick if you even so much as contemplated nicking it. It is a model of economical design, made from one piece of steel, tapering down to its fine point.

Even the very conception of the terracotta army gives me pause. As we stood under the Reading Room's rotunda, on the scaffold erected over the desks (which cannot be moved, as they are listed), it occurred to me that the British Museum was the gift of monarchs to their people, a fulfilment of the promise of the Age of Enlightenment. The terracotta army, however, took 300,000 slaves dozens of years to create, all to be stored away in a warlord's tomb, however magnificent with its rivers of mercury and recreated palace. The selfishness of the project would never have benefited the people, unlike contemporary Rome's public buildings, paid for privately.

When we are asked to admire our twenty warriors, we are asked to thank a warlord for his self-concern in wanting protection from his enemies after his death. We are asked to praise a man who took this project to his grave. But worst of all, we are asked to ignore the abuse that created them - and the abuse that lives on in the Chinese government which is trying to blind us with them.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Art attack

This weekend’s attack on Monet’s wonderful Le Pont D’Argenteuil is a terrible act against a masterful work, with its glorious shimmering sea, and it is also a sharp angle into the question of why people attack art.

For now we know little about this attack. As of Sunday night, the BBC reported that four or five youths came through a back door into the train station-turned-art gallery, then fled after doing the damage. Happily, the French culture minister has said it is reparable, but this is only a positive upside to a miserable situation.

This is just the latest in a long history of attacks on art, where the attackers are driven just as much by politics or religion as aesthetic dislike. Early Christians effaced (literally destroyed the faces of) the pagan Romans’ sculptures and monuments; you can still see this all around the Forum, especially on the Arch of Titus. A comparable incident of religious mania was the Taliban’s 2001 blowing up of the Buddhas of Bamyan.

Religion stirred destruction during the Reformation when churches the length and breadth of Britain were stripped of their stained glass, their plated objects, their altarpieces and icons, to be replaced with more pious plainness. If we consider art in the wider sense, then history’s book-burnings should also be included – from the Satanic Verses’ incineration backwards. Beside book-burnings, Nazism had its way with Cubist and Surrealist art, as well as that by Jewish artists.

These were macro examples, sanctioned by a wider religion or a nation’s politics; there are also plenty of individual cases where someone has had a dislike of the piece or felt slighted by its artist or even has just been drunk and angry, as may have been the case this weekend.
Pierre Ponincelli has made a career out of attacking Duchamp’s Fountain, most recently with a hammer at the Pompidou Centre in 2006, apparently considering it a victim of artistic “abuse”. At least this time he did not use it for its original purpose, as he had in his 1993 attack.

The Royal Academy’s 1997 Sensation exhibition, which propelled several Young British Artists to fame (or notoriety), attracted its own attack: Marcus Harvey’s Myra, which was a portrait of the child-killer made up of children’s handprints, fell victim to ink and eggs. Harvey could hardly have expected a passive acceptance of the piece but the reviled subject and the provocative medium were evidently too much.

In the same way that there may be a temptation to attack – verbally or physically – those we feel are provoking or attacking us, there is a temptation to attack art which outrages us. Since art is a manifestation of particular feelings and ideas, art is too often used as a proxy, the quickest way to show your disagreement with or contempt for what it represents.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Old Smoothie and other types

From the Guardian ArtsBlog.


George Clooney's range of expressions is limited thus: 1) suave amusement; 2) suave distress; 3) suave amusement. Watching him try to pull his features into a rictus of despair in Michael Clayton this weekend I realised that there's no shame in sticking within your range. This is why typecasting is such a success.

Clooney was supposed to be a broken man plagued by his conscience after he realised he was a lawyer for the dark side (like all lawyers, actually). He looked like a GQ model plagued by stomach acid. His face, chiselled out of granite, never came close to expressing the grief he was alleged to be feeling.

When he tries to do suave, though - well, he makes Cary Grant look like Vincent Price. By this measure, the highlight of his career will either be the Oceans trilogy, where his Sinatra-esque charms slick all over the screen, or his Martini ad campaign. He is so good at this one mode that there's no reason for him to move outside it.

This applies to other actors too. Julie Andrews will forever be Maria, even beyond the day she takes her guitar to that Viennese mansion in the sky, so the temptation to escape that must be profound. This must be behind the breast-baring of SOB, which attempted to give her dramatic depth but just made her slightly dirty - Sister Maria Emmanuelle.

Robert de Niro is another good example. As the menacing gangster who always revels in the torture of others, he excels; no one comes close to his sadistic mastery and harsh delivery. But in Analyze This? And Analyze That? Meet the Parents? Meet the Fockers? You get my point.

Vin Diesel - we are perhaps stretching the definition of 'actor' here - every so often gives up his perfectly successful career as a blasting action hero to do turkeys like The Pacifier. Something must have possessed him to think that his ripped abs and stony face would succeed where so many good men have failed.

Typecasting has a bad press - it's a shameful word - but there is certainly something to be said for playing to your strengths: consider all Jude Law's pained metrosexuals and Keira Knightley's many gamine waifs. Moving outside your comfort zone can go terribly wrong - watch Nicole Kidman in Stepford Wives and I'll rest my case.