Friday, December 11, 2009

The Art of Russia, BBC Four


Andrew Graham-Dixon at the Hermitage in front of David and Jonathan by Rembrandt

Andrew Graham-Dixon at the Hermitage in front of David and Jonathan by Rembrandt
BBC/David Williams

If Andrew Graham-Dixon's arts career ever goes belly-up, there is surely a microphone with his name on it at Radio 4, so warm and confident and trustworthy is his voice. Judging, however, by his new three-part programme on BBC Four, The Art of Russia, there is no chance of this happening soon.

The first episode is entitled "Out of the Forest", describing how the Russian people under Ivan the Terrible emerged from their wooded subjugation by the Mongols, but the story Graham-Dixon starts with - how they got there in the first place and how they survived - is at least as interesting.

It was - as so often seems the case in Russia - the idea of one man. In the late 10th century AD, Vladimir of Kiev decided that there had to be a way of unifying the tribes scattered across thousands of miles. As is also so often the case in Russia, Vladimir imported his solution: Byzantine Christianity.

Russian Orthodoxy brought the flourishing of two great art forms, one it made its own (icons) and one it borrowed (books). Graham-Dixon makes a thoroughly compelling case for the transcendent passion embodied in and evoked by icons (paintings on wood) and the iconostasis (a wall of icons) by observing a service in progress in the Holy Trinity Monastery, where whole walls of the master Andrei Rublev's icons loom, golden, beatific presences. I have tended (through my own ignorance and atheism) to devalue icons, but Graham-Dixon so spiritually conveys what they mean to contemporary and modern Christians that you are moved.

The books are another import: Byzantine scholars developed a written language for the unlettered peoples based on Greek characters, with mystical crosses and circles added. Russian illuminated manuscripts do not match up to the splendours of their Renaissance counterparts, but the letters themselves, Graham-Dixon says, are an art form.

After the Mongols pillaged and burned, the Christians hid out in forests and built churches with onion domes, and only emerged when Ivan let his own brand of violence do its work. At this point, the programme becomes rather too much like a lecture on the history of Russia: art did not develop under Ivan, and although the folk tradition of luboks (popular satirical or fairy-tale prints) continued, Graham-Dixon cannot avoid this change of tone. Thus, it is rather contrived when he says that an old lady (who survived the era of Stalin) with whom he's spent the afternoon has turned her house into a work of art, given that it is no more or less decorated than yours or mine. The idea that portraits of Lenin and Stalin were icons themselves is interesting, but it does not warrant this tenuous connection.

Finally, when Peter the Great came to the throne, his European travels led him to found that most European of cities, St Petersburg, with its hideously over-gilded Baroque Cathedral of St Peter and Paul. Peter also brought with him a fine Rembrandt, sparking a new era in Russian painting, for realistic space, psychology and colours had never before played a part.

What is most interesting is the role of Europe in Russia and the insecurity-disguised-as-pugnacity this engenders in some Russians. Graham-Dixon interviews a rich collector of icons and inadvertently gets involved in an argument when he suggests that one piece of painting is rather Persian. The collector loses his temper and starts yelling about how "we have everything our own" in Russia - he denies any foreign influence at all.

This is fascinating because it both reflects a resurgent Russian nationalism (stoked by previous humiliations and current power) and a complete ignorance of the truth: as Graham-Dixon astutely shows - but does not make too much of - Europe has been everywhere in Russia. From the religion to the script to Rembrandt to (ironically) the arch-nationalist Ivan's adoption of the title "Tsar" (derived from "Caesar"), you cannot tell the story of the art of Russia without the influence of Europe. No doubt the next two programmes will bear this out too.

The Art of Russia continues on BBC Four on Wednesdays at 9pm. Watch it on BBC iPlayer.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Why Beauty Matters/Ugly Beauty, BBC Two

From an interesting thread of comments on the linked article is worth following.

Waldemar Januszczak at the Anish Kapoor retrospective at the Royal Academy

Waldemar Januszczak at the Anish Kapoor retrospective at the Royal Academy

The battleground: beauty. What’s at stake: our souls. At least on these two things philosophy don Roger Scruton (presenter of Why Beauty Matters) and art critic Waldemar Januszczak (presenter of Ugly Beauty) were agreed in the Modern Beauty season. For despite very different ideas of beauty, they both reached the same conclusion: it is there to nourish the soul.

Which is why it may seem odd that their programmes consider the same examples and yet reach very different conclusions. Jeff Koons to one is shallow and materialistic, to the other a source of self-knowledge. Scruton finds Damien Hirst a soulless, abominable trickster, Januszczak a poet of death in the tradition of the Baroque.

Scruton’s is a philosophical essay set to pictures and music. He starts with the importance of beauty in art up until the 20th century, and says its purpose was to transfigure the real in the light of the ideal: that is, to make us consider reality and how it relates to our higher ideals. The problem of the 20th century is that we have no ideals any more except for utility, and what is useful is invariably ugly and eventually useless. (Take Reading town centre, he says.) What beauty does is connect us directly to the spiritual, in the manner of religion, and thus nourishes the soul: this is Plato’s idea, and Scruton is a fan.

(Scruton argues that creativity is important in beauty, differentiating Michelangelo’s David from cemetery copies of the statue. This does make it slightly unfortunate that one of his jumping-off points is Oscar Wilde’s quotation, “All art is quite useless,” which is a paraphrase of John Ruskin’s “The most beautiful things in the world are useless.”)

Januszczak’s is a much more irreverent tour around Venice’s Biennale, with over-dramatic narration and on-screen antics, slopping dead fish everywhere and gesticulating like a bull at Pamplona. He – like Matthew Collings in the same season – outlines his vision of aspects of beauty, which include death, motherhood, texture, emptiness and kitsch. (This last is where Koons comes in.) Except, unlike Collings, he interviews many artists to provide us with the knowledge to understand their works and find them more beautiful. His roll-call is starry – Koons, Hirst, Anish Kapoor, Yoko Ono, Carl Andre (who refuses to appear on screen) – and the explanations provided may convert even the sceptical to viewing their work as beautiful.

The problem with Scruton’s argument is that it is old-fashioned, not just in the authorities it cites (Plato, the third Earl of Shaftesbury, Victorian poets), but when he says that beauty is meant to console the afflicted and reinforce the joyous, as if beauty is visual Prozac. This negates the message of the 20th century, which is that sometimes there is no consolation, no joy.

If two world wars and existentialism and the double helix showed us anything, it is that the world does not exist for a higher, affirmative purpose, and thus beauty should not try to make us feel good. The world is bad, so beauty can show us the bad.

This "bad" beauty nourishes our souls – or at least stimulates them to thought or emotion – in the same way as "good" beauty. Scruton does not realise, or refuses to accept, that the notion of beauty has been extended to reflect the world as we know it, not as we would like it.

That said, the underlying message of his principle is not wrong, nor is it rejected by Januszczak, who quite clearly believes that modern beauty is there to touch the soul: he just does not believe it must be a comforting touch.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

What Is Beauty?, BBC2

From May I recommend you look at the comments under the original post, from the bottom up?


As questions go, "What is beauty?" is quite possibly only second to "What do women want?" in the frequency of its asking and in the difficulty of its answer. As the first programme in BBC Two and BBC Four’s Modern Beauty season, What Is Beauty? features Matthew Collings skirting around the edges of an answer and in doing so inadvertently hitting upon one.

Collings tries to identify ten different components of beauty with reference to some of his favourite artworks. Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto from Monterchi is beautiful because of its simplicity, Robert Rauschenberg’s Charlene because its components are carefully selected, Norman Foster’s Millau Bridge because it returns to nature.

He travels around Europe (presumably the recession put paid to an American jaunt), from the new Brandhorst Museum in Munich to the gilded Norman Monreale Cathedral in Sicily, to illustrate these points.

From a technical perspective, there is not much wrong with the show, although he does tend to over-address the viewer ("you" should do this, "you" can do that), as if we actively need to be engaged.

But it is his argument which is pointed in the wrong direction. When Socrates asked people, "What is bravery?" and they responded (according to Plato) with examples like "running into a burning building to save a child" or "fighting well in battle", he pointed out that they were giving him accidents of bravery, not a definition of it. It is exactly the same here: Collings’s ten factors are accidents of beauty, not a definition of beauty.

Magritte_-_Reckless_SleeperSo Magritte’s Reckless Sleeper (in the Tate) may be beautiful because it is surprising (another factor), with its sleeping man and the banal tokens of everyday life in an amorphous grey dream below, but what about a work that is not surprising (eg a still life of fruit)? Collings says something is beautiful because it tries to (or just does) imitate nature, but what about the unnatural idea of acceleration? Art Deco is concerned with mechanics, rejecting the natural.

The problem is that for every factor Collings suggests is beautiful, its absence or its opposite can be equally beautiful. He implicitly admits this too. At the end of the programme, he urges you to make your own list of what is beautiful, but what I find beautiful may not fit into his categories, or if it does, it may be entirely opposed to them. There are limitless categories, and we all find different things beautiful. Collings does not address or even seem to understand that we will not all agree with him: beauty, if it is anything, is relative.

Despite the relativity of these factors, Collings does help us to answer "What is beauty?" What he is doing is asking questions, which in turn cause us to know more and thus gain a greater appreciation, which is surely what makes something beautiful: our understanding of it. The more you know about the technique Monet used or the subject of Guernica or the materials of the Parthenon, the more likely you are to understand the work and find it beautiful because you comprehend its complexity and the intelligence behind it.

large_pollock8So, instead of saying that something which adheres to nature is beautiful, he should say, "What was the artist intending to say about nature with this work?" The answer could be something or nothing, but in asking it, we learn a little more and will think more about the picture. Don’t ask "Is this Jackson Pollock patterned?" (as he does) but "Why was Jackson Pollock trying to create (or avoid) pattern?"

The answers to these questions cannot necessarily be found in the pictures – a study of history and biography and art history and psychology and pop culture will help us answer them. This then leads to the perhaps perverse conclusion that the question "What is beauty?" is best answered not by looking at beautiful things (such as in a TV documentary) but by reading: the surface becomes deeper when you know more.

But what about when one first looks at a picture and is struck dumb by its beauty? For example, new artists I know nothing about can stop me in my tracks with the appearance of their work. A Raphael Christ made me cry. If this is anything, it is art touching our emotions. We do not consider its spontaneity (another factor) or relationship with nature but there is an almost atavistic reaction: this is emotional, mental, psychological – not words which get much play in Collings’ film. His factors try to intellectualise these emotional experiences, but their intellectual dimension is not quite enough either.

One further complaint is that he also hardly touches on any art form but painting: there is the Laocoon sculpture and Matisse’s paper snail, but what about photography and film? Do these have their own kinds of beauty? If we follow Collings, we could find different types of beauty in them: the truth of a photo (but a staged one can be beautiful too), a film of a meadow (but not one of a city?).

Collings sets out to answer "What is beauty?" but the best answer to this that he provides is implicit in his questioning, not explicit in his answers.

Today's Mother Courages

I've never seen an entire row of people leave during a play. Singles, couples, parents with screaming brats in tow, but never ten people at once. They were quite clearly a coach party, or corporate hospitality gone wrong. Mother Courage and Her Children at the National evidently proved too much for them.

And why shouldn't it? Brecht's 1939 play features a woman (Fiona Shaw storming the stage) who drags her caravan of provisions to sell across the battlefields of the Thirty Years' War, accompanied by her children, who are gradually conscripted, raped or killed. She sells because she wants to and because she has to, and every move she makes takes her closer to safety and to ruin. Her choices are impossible, and we feel pity, anger, grief and love at the same time. It is a complex masterpiece.

It also a prime exponent of Brecht's Epic Theatre, which tries to convey moral messages through a variety of unsubtle ways, so Mother Courage had scene titles on canvas flags (which were read out by Gore Vidal) and plenty of rock songs. It was during one of the songs - which were by no means discreditable or unlyrical - that the row got up and left. It's a little too in-your-face for those more used to revivals of My Fair Lady.

One of the best things about the show was the light Mother Courage shed on today's banking crisis (much more, to judge from critical reaction, than the speed-written reaction to the recession, Power of Yes). What we see is a woman who ploughs on much further than she ought to because she feels that she cannot stop: there is money to be made, even if you do have to cross (not metaphorical) minefields.

This is surely not unlike what those who followed derivatives pioneers experienced: with some knowledge of the danger, they kept going. Perhaps that is too kind to the bankers - most people would propose that they had no knowledge of the danger, which gives Mother Courage one up on them. The play stands for our appetite for risk and our stomach for failure, and how well we can ever reconcile the two.

What happens to Mother Courage in the end? I don't want to ruin the play, but suffice it to say, bankers ought to look around themselves before deciding that forward is always best.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A gold medal for the Cultural Olympiad?


Detail of a crocheted lioness by Shauna Richardson
Detail of a crocheted lioness by Shauna Richardson Matthew Andrews

Worries that London 2012’s Cultural Olympiad had fallen at the first hurdle – as it seemed when the proposed Olympic Friend-ship, carrying a cargo of British artists and philosophers around the world, was scrapped – can be assuaged. The organisers of the London Olympics have, in fact, turned their course around: instead of this monumental, nationalistic, elitist, pretentious idea, they have moved to the local, the inclusive, the relatable. Artists taking the lead, a co-production of Arts Council England and London 2012, has announced the 12 public art projects it is commissioning for a total of £5.4 million, all to come to fruition by the Olympics.

There are certain projects whose boldness or silliness make them tall poppies, visible and ripe for a critical scything. Shauna Richardson, representing the East Midlands, will create the Lionheart installation, exploring the values lions and the Olympics share (supply your own qualities here) through the medium of crocheted wool, one of the chief exports from Richard the Lionheart’s heartland. (It all comes together.) Three lions, each 30 feet tall, will be displayed in Nottingham, to loom over the city.

Scotland will see the destruction of part of a forest for Craig Coulthard’s Forest Pitch, where a football pitch will be created deep within a forest by felling trees. After one match has been played, the forest can reclaim its space.

The environment is at the centre of the North-East’s project, FLOW, a floating watermill and mill house, which will power itself and some musical instruments. FLOW, by Owl Project and Ed Carter, aims to examine how local industry and the river have sustained and exploited one another. Quite what is artistic about this apparent science project is not clear.

Alfie_Dennen_and_Paula_Le_Dieu_Artists_taking_the_leadLondon_cMatthew_Andrews_2009Other artists take the term “public art” to mean “art created by the public”, which – as Anthony Gormley’s One & Other on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square has demonstrated – can be provocative and kaleidoscopic. London probably has the most kaleidoscopic project, called Bus-Tops: bad pun, good idea. Alfie Dennen and Paula Le Dieu (pictured right) will install LED panels on top of 40 bus shelters in London, and the public can submit their own ideas for images, text and animations through the web, mobile apps and other media.

This concept seems much more consciously ‘artistic’ than many of the other projects: there are ideas of beauty and image, contemplations of the aesthetic, as much as of community (as with other projects). Bus-Tops engages with both words in “public art”, since it is concerned with what those outside the art world think is beautiful, an approach which is much more likely to provoke a public dialogue on art than the aforementioned mill.

The public are intimately involved in Robert Pacitti and the Pacitti Company’s project, in the East region. The Pacitti Company will produce a feature film whose material is drawn from "a series of large-scale participatory, outdoor events, exploring themes of trade, defence and migration".

This is another project which is driven by the community, but some of the happenings proposed are terrifyingly anaemic: 205 black flags along the coast will be gradually replaced by the flags of the 205 countries attending the Olympics. This is fine for vexillologists, but what do we learn about the local community from this? It is a vapid gesture, which will work visually for the film but not intellectually.

Marc_rees_crop Marc Rees’s project for Wales is in danger of being the most condescending of the lot. Titled Adain Avion, it is a DC9 fuselage converted into a "mobile art space", which will be pulled across Wales as a "social sculpture". The towns it visits will welcome it with a festival and will engage with it through artistic, sporting and community activities, which ought to be praised.

Unfortunately, however, this is reminiscent of nothing so much as missionaries landing their planes in Africa, Bible in hand, to the whoops of astonishment of the "natives". The Welsh have seen planes before – they are not as wide-eyed as this project would make them seem.

All of these projects are aimed at taking art outside (even if many of them struggle to qualify as art). London’s Dennen and Le Dieu say, “The ‘art public’ is a new audience for art, one that looks for artistic expression that touches on their world,” and this neatly captures the direction public art is taking us in: art is not just what one finds inside a gallery, but should invade the public sphere too. In this way, these projects are perfect embodiments of our time, art reaching out.

If we contrast these projects with previous commemorative grand artistic schemes in Britain, we have to wonder whether it will have the same effect. Consider the pleasure and enlightenment still available from the museums in South Kensington founded after the Great Exhibition of 1851, or from the Festival of Britain’s impact on the South Bank.

This will leave us, by design, with nothing permanent, which suggests a worryingly evanescent conception of British society. Large museums or concert halls would not be the only way to fix the Cultural Olympiad in the national memory: encouraging a whole generation of children by spending this £5.4 million not on incidents of "art" but on instruments in schools, not on watermills but on watercolour paints, would also have a long-term positive effect.

The reason people enjoy involvement with public art is because they so often feel neglected by the rest of the culture, especially its artistic side. Public art projects are partially used to unify communities, and indeed, one of the key reasons for London bidding for the Olympics was so that East London could be regenerated, building 21st-century communities. What we should be considering, however, is not what wacky sculpture will bring people together but why we have not brought them together in the first place. Public art is a sticking plaster for our wider failures.

While London seems set on the most temporary form of Olympic public art, Olympic public art projects can involve the contrary danger too: Barcelona ossified in its 1992, with its large-scale Miro-esque projects which now dominate the skyline yet mean very little. Britain's, perhaps happily, are temporary. Still, only after 2012 will we be able to tell whether we have been left with a cultural legacy.

Middle picture: Alfie Dennen and Paula la Dieu by Matthew Andrews

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Frieze Week: Thursday

Héctor de Gregorio

Go to the Fair? Now why would I do that? After a few frenzied hours at the Fair on Wednesday, the call of actual work cannot be ignored. The call of several good post-work parties, however - that's a different call altogether.

First was the most newsworthy of all things happening this week: the Trafigura Prize in association with the Cynthia Corbett Gallery at the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane. The show is called Young Masters and features artists who take inspiration, techniques or subjects from the old masters.

There are the Renaissance pictures updated with modern young men by Hector de Gregorio, who paints and varnishes over posed photographs; Alice Evans' Easel, a lightbox which recreates a Vermeer-like aura; and Constance Slaughter's Invasion, a modern Bayeux Tapestry where soldiers are surrounded by assaulting pencils.

There are lots of excellent pictures, and I would encourage you to go, but it is one of the sponsors which is proving particularly interesting at the moment. In case you haven't been following (tho' if you're on Twitter, you will have been), Trafigura, an oil shipping company, obtained a super-injunction to prevent the Guardian reporting a Parliamentary question about a report into a company Trafigura hired dumping (allegedly) toxic waste on the African coast. With me so far?

After several thousand people had Tweeted about where said question could be found online, the injunction was effectively broken and Trafigura's solicitors (the eminently loveable Carter-Ruck, no enemies of freedom they) withdrew the injunction. Victory for the untraceables of the internet.

Well, as part of their PR effort to pour oil over troubled waters (sorry), Trafigura has sponsored this prize, and when I caught up with Cynthia Corbett last night, she confirmed that Trafigura had come on board "two months ago", a relatively short time in the two years she had been planning this show (which you really should go see). I would never suggest Cynthia had done anything wrong or improper: no, it is Trafigura who are trying to paint over (oil paint, I'm guessing) their bad PR.

If we've learned one thing this week, it is that art audiences aren't especially stupid, Trafigura.


And now a happier topic. The Embassy is an installation of work by the 20 Hoxton Square gallery at the former Sierra Leonean embassy (and afterwards alleged swingers' venue) at 33 Portland Place. It had its opening last night and after hotfooting it from the Trafigura Prize on Brick Lane, I managed to grab fifteen minutes amid the complete frenzy. The congestion on the staircase was so hip, so chic, that you could have thrown a paper plane and hit a Vogue model.

The idea behind the Embassy, according to Alex Dellal, whom I spoke to yesterday afternoon, was formed after hearing how modern embassies (such as some of those being built in Dubai) are using some of their premises to promote national artists. Alex wanted "to do the exact opposite by inviting artists from all over to recreate the national identity of an anonymous country". Instead of having an embassy defined by artists' nationality, the artists would definte the embassy's nationality.

So the Embassy has everything from a flag to an anthem. Alex says that plenty of research went into the anthem: 'From America to Europe to South-East Asia, there's this very repetitive feeling you get from national anthems: they sound fairly similar, all in four-four beat. They often sound like a backing track reminiscent of a James Bond theme.'

The recession has made it more difficult to sell works, Alex, the brother of noted denizen of the gossip columns Alice, concedes, but he says that 'people are now more open to seeing new things. [They don't want to see] a lot of these huge artists who get huge sales, they want to see things beyond that. People are going to more art fairs, they've got a better understanding than ever before.'

It is that sort of sophistication which makes a conceptual project like the Embassy more approachable. It is (just in my view) not a wholly successful project: while there are some very interesting pieces, too many seem to be a simplistic reaction to America. I am not passing judgment on America one way or the other, but I think a post-national embassy could cease fighting the battles of 2001-8.

For example, Wolfe von Lenkiewicz's melange of art history features Jesus' head on an American eagle while the Lincoln memorial sits on top and a plane crashes into it. I believe Rufus Wainwright best encapsulated this approach in his song Going to a Town, which was also a lot more timely. At least Alastair Mackie's Mud Hut, a model of the Capitol Building made from mud, straw and horse manure, was made as sectarian violence in Iraq was rising.

Still, I particularly liked Michael Lisle-Taylor's Crossing the Line and Black Knight Square Away, two miliarry uniforms turned into straight jackets, which are direct but quite moving.


And after all that, I turned down my chance to go to the Omega party with Cindy Crawford because I spent the rest of the evening (and early morning) at the Paramount Club with some good friends over from New York. Cindy Crawford is one thing, but friends - that's what Frieze Week is about.


Tonight, the Kandinsky Prize and the Art Review Power 100.

Read Monday's diary here
Read Tuesday's diary
Read Wednesday's diary here

Pictures from top: Héctor de Gregorio - Absinthes, Alice Evans - Easel, Constance Slaughter - Invasion, Wolfe von Lenkiewicz, Michael Lisle-Taylor - Crossing the Line

Frieze Week: Wednesday

So important my camera can't even capture it all

Cometh the day, cometh the fair: Wednesday saw the official exclusive preview of the Frieze Art Fair. It was indeed an exclusive, rarefied group of five thousand* international collectors, journos and bon vivants who thundered round the 165 stands, causing gallerinas to tremble and artists to thank god. Orange stickers appeared on labels across the fair like a rapidly-spreading outbreak of chicken pox. (Of course, the real collectors were allowed in at 10.30 and had disappeared by the time we were let in.)

And that wasn't the only piece of good news: as well as seemingly buoyant sales, the work this year, like at Art Basel, was much subtler, much more subdued. There was not even a Pharrell Williams-Takashi Murakami bejewelled frog to relieve the parsimony. This meant that there were fewer look-at-me million-dollar pieces and the great works of the greatest contemporary artists were by and large absent: there may well have been a revolt if a spot or spin painting had turned up.

There were, of course, plenty of pleasant discoveries, among whom I would include Hiroyuki Masuyama's lightboxes layered with modern photographs which, taken together, recreate Turner's paintings; Jim Hodges' That day (Blue) I through X, ten swirling blue pastels mixed with saliva which resemble Raphael's sketches for heaven; and Lucy Williams' Reading room (seinajoki), a piece of craft truly, where bookspines in a bookshelf are slivers of paper.

One new aspect to Frieze is Frame (Frieze Frame, geddit?). This is dedicated to solo artist presentations from galleries under six years old, curated by Daniel Baumann and Sarah McCrory, and is a genius way of drawing attention (admittedly, at the rear of the fair) to those who could not afford a White Cube-size stand or position. Gareth Moore at Lüttgenmeijer from Berlin had a field full of flags, where the flag was black zig-zag material or think pink sheeting or wooden sticks. It was a witty way of playing with nationalism and representation.

Pommery broke out the champagne at 5.30 although some had broken out the vodka even earlier. Spotted earlier that day were Grayson Perry, looking like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane if Bette Davis had been a YBA; Lily Allen; and Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Galleries.

Despite tremulous qualms about whether the recession would condemn Frieze to the abandoned paint-pot of history, it is clear that its influence - and more importantly, its rejuvenating creativity - has been maintained.

* Author's estimate based on number of times his toes were trodden on.


Later that evening, the Frieze hordes descended on church. Not for religion, of course. (Well, not a religion with a bible, unless you count the Art Review Power 100, more of which in Friday's diary.)

Just across from Regent's Park is One Marylebone, a deconsecrated church by Sir John Soane, he of the museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields. This regularly hosts events (I once went there for the launch of what I thought was a TV series but was in fact for a series of TVs) and now is showing The Age of the Marvellous, an exciting and refreshing exhibition of the collection of All Visual Arts.

There are some thrilling pieces of work. Not so much Paul Fryer's ape on a crucifix, which (if we're being honest) is rather obvious, but Ben Tyers' Breathe, an egg-shaped container wherein water falls and rises at the rate we inhale and exhale at. It is an understated, contemplative piece, even among the crowds grabbing cocktails from the waitress' tray before she even leaves the kitchen.

Alastair Mackie's Amorphous Organic is a chessboard whose pieces are small amber columns with insects suspended inside and a lightbox-board to illuminate them. It is a Darwinian version of the match with Death in the Seventh Seal. Indeed, Darwin's presence is very much felt: there are monkeys, feathered Möbius strips, Alyson Shotz's Helix (outside the church) and (the most beautiful work in the show) Paul Fryer's Venus and Mars, an orrery (look it up here) with just mythical lovers Venus and Mars orbiting yet never meeting.

All Visual Arts is a joint project between former LA gallerist and director of ArtNet Joe La Placa and the founder of Europe's third largest hedge fund, Mike Platt, utilising the art smarts of the former and the business smarts of the latter to amass a collection of works produced especially for it. This art and financial nexus makes it the perfect combination for Spear's, and so I caught up with Joe as he fended off crowds of admirers.

What is their collecting philosophy? 'The theme of the collection is a not very used word, consilience. Consilience is the unity of knowledge. Edmund O. Wilson wrote a book in 1998 that called for the unification of the sciences, which were the chopping up of knowledge.

'I’m very much influenced by the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century method of collection where you can have in one room a cosmological vision of the knowledge of mankind, like the Pitt-Rivers Museum. I think that art unifies knowledge and I’m interested in artists that look outside the normal aesthetic criteria to things like science, like anthropology, like the humanities and unify them.'

What about the business side? 'I used to direct ArtNet and I was an expert on art as an asset class. My partner Mike Platt is the third-biggest hedge fund in Europe. People mistake us for a fund – we’re absolutely not a fund. Our business model is a long-term strategy over five year to make a collection so we’re not interested in any of the methodology that a fund or a hedge fund would follow.

'Mike often says, "Joe’s forgotten more about art than I’ll ever know." The thing about Mike is that he’s an autodidact, and he wants to learn, and the way to learn is to take a plunge, so what I rely on Mike for is financial expertise and acumen, and Mike relies on me for the art side and the production side. We don’t raise money – just he and I.'

On their method of collecting: 'The concept of the AVA collection is that unlike a lot of other collections which go around to galleries and buy things, I produce things because I love working with artists and have done so for 30 years. It’s not commissioned, because that would imply we’ve bought it – ‘produced’ I like to say. We’re like Hollywood producers: someone pitches me an idea and I say, "That’s fantastic, how much do you need?" and they say, "Fifty grand," and I say, "Let’s go for it'."

How has the recession affected AVA? 'I have to say for me, "What recession?" I’ve been doing this for a really really long time. I think the point is that great art, meaningful art that people connect with, you’re always going to have a market for. Even in a recession, it’s not the high-quality works that suffer, it’s the middle ground that actually suffers.

'For us, it hasn’t really affected us. My collaboration with Mike has made us recession-proof, because the way we’ve designed All Visual Arts as a hybrid organisation, without a gallery for instance, clocking 250 grand a month overhead. We have a nice humble production office, but when we do shows, we go for it.'


Tonight: Trafigura Priza, The Embassy of 20 Hoxton Square and more.

Read Monday's diary here
Read Tuesday's diary

Frieze Week: Tuesday

Damien Hirst - as may well have become evident in the past decade - is not a man to do things by halves. Not a skull with zirconia, not a cabinet of real pills, not a pickled terrier, and now not a normal white-walls-and-bare-brick Soho gallery. No, Damien has paid £250,000 to refurbish rooms in the Wallace Collection, hanging them with his own blue silk as a backdrop to his 25 new paintings. And last night everyone came to see, spectate and gawk.

Damien was keeping well away from the throng upstairs, almost all of whom were talking about whether he would turn up or not, looking gleeful at both possibilities. It was pure luck that when I went in search of a drink, I found him in the courtyard, which was mostly empty; he was looking much more relaxed than he would once word spread and the photographers realised.

His new paintings - all done by Damien himself, rather than his previous production-line approach - are not a wholly-new departure for him, since they feature his favourite motifs: skulls, butterflies, spots. They float on deep blue backgrounds with thin white cages locking them into the plane. There is some terrific brushwork and not a little Francis Bacon.

'Bacon? Who's he? Never heard of him,' says Damien when I ask him about his influences. 'I prefer eggs and beans.'

Setting himself against the old masters of the Wallace Collection - Gainsborough, Velazquez, some great Murillos - creates a grand prospect for failure. I'll leave his degree of success up to you.

What was a certain success was the party: Tracey Emin, one of the Chapmans, one of the Gallaghers, Alexander McQueen, Patrick Cox, Nicky Haslam, Jay Jopling, Lily Cole (looking like one of the baby-faced Gainsboroughs). Ivor Braka, the art dealer, was almost refused entry because he looked too scruffy.

The core crew peeled off to Jay Jopling's dinner afterwards.


The other big dinner last night was that for Ed Ruscha, who is having a retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, at Skylon. Guestlist to follow...


Afterwards, to the Anish Kapoor after-party at the Royal Courts of Justice. Oh yes, art has invaded the law. (Only a matter of time before there's an art gathering in the PwC boardroom.) Anish had been showing new work at the Lisson Gallery, but many people went straight to the Royal Courts, which looked more like Cannes in July than the Strand in October. There was gentle orange lighting, plenty of trees and sofas, and so many cocktails it gave new meaning to 'being called to the bar'.

The crowd was mainly collectors early in the evening and gallerinas later on. Plenty of people made a beeline for Nick Hackworth of Paradise Row, but there were also notable spots from Sotheby's, Sky Arts and almost every gallery north of the river.


Today: Frieze opens to collectors, Frieze launch party late tonight, the Tatler and Vanity Fair parties, a party at Christie's for their contemporary sales this week and All Visual Arts at One Marylebone.

Read Monday's diary here
Read Wednesday's diary here

Frieze Week: Monday

Frieze Week started last night as it meant to go on: with art, with an auction, with charity, with glamour. Laurence Graff's FACET Foundation (For Africa's Children Every Time) raised over $1.2 million with a sale at Christie's of work donated by Jeff Koons, Ed Ruscha, Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and more.

Laurence Graff told Spear's that he had always wondered what it was like to stand on the other side of the podium instead of sitting in the front rows. He brandished his panel with enthusiasm and alacrity, but also proved a generous consigner: the first lot - Khotsa Nala Earrings - was donated by him.

The actual auctioneer was Jussi Pylkkänen, president of Christie's Europe. At the afterparty at Sketch, Jussi told Spear's: ‘The crowd here is a testament to the pulling power of Laurence Graff, not just with serious collectors but more importantly with artists, who he’s been a big supporter of, hence all their donations.’

Jussi also broke one of his rules when Spear's asked what his favourite picture of the sale was: ‘Anyone who knows me knows that I very rarely announce any sort of personal preference for a picture when it comes up for sale, however I did come out and say I really liked the Lionel Smit.’

The biggest surprise of the evening was that Raqib Shaw's 'Mild-Eyed Melancholy of the Lotus-Eater', an oval of delicate flowers and Hindu symbols rendered in acrylic, enamel, rhinestones and glittery, went for £200,000, well above its £80-120,000 estimate.

Mr Graff set up FACET after his mother's death in 2008 to give back to Africa, the source of most of his diamonds. It is currently funding the Graff Leadership Centre in Lesotho, in association with Help Lesotho. The centre will provide a leadership camp for orphans and vulnerable youth in a country where Aids has reduced life expectancy to 37 and made it the third poorest country in the world.


Tomorrow: Hirst at the Wallace Collection, Anish Kapoor at Lisson and Royal Courts of Justice

Read Tuesday's diary here
Read Wednesday's diary here

Art London looks up


The Frieze Art Fair is a little too contemporary for some tastes: last year’s smoking booths are not what most of the patrons of Art London in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea would consider art. Not art, at least, that one could hang in one’s drawing room. That was the problem Art London had last year: too much drawing-room art. This year, I’m pleased to say, Art London moved out of the drawing room and into a more daring room.

Don’t get too excited – we are still not in a world of neon tubes leaning against white walls or projects so large they have to be installed in a separate building (as at Art Basel). But some of the 60 galleries showing had evidently striven to avoid the staid and give buyers a more exciting choice. (Having said this, there were still a disturbing number of Monet-lite works this year.)

Piers Bourke’s Bhutanese Monastery (Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery) was a tall digital print which seemed to have gone through a shredder before being roughly reassembled in three dimensions. It was challenging in a Cubist manner – the angle of approach is always changing, there is no way to see it all – and looked like it might fall apart at any moment, which gave it a nice tension.

Galerie Olivier Waltman, from Paris, exhibited three interesting artists: Jean-Pierre Attal, with his external photos of occupied office buildings, looking in on at activity within; Tali Amitai-Tabib, showing from her series of libraries, geometrical yet humane in their emptiness; and Charles Fazzino, whose lurid decoupage scenes of metropolitan life seem like novelties but are actually rather neat social commentary.

Irish artist Marty Kelly had a one-man show at BlueLeaf Gallery. His work is Uglow-like and arresting: roughly-painted grey, yellow, blotchy orange humans are caught in black backgrounds. He told me that “there’s an automatic assumption that the paintings are gloomy, but for me the black just serves to illuminate the figure.” And it does: they look like they have been caught in a shaft of light, just beyond our reach. His best painting on show was of one figure turning through five stages, where he convincingly captured the motion of his ballet-dancer models.

There was also a large presence of the work of Frederic, Lord Leighton, a Holland Park resident whose house is now a public museum (closed for refurbishment until 2010). Many Leighton paintings – including a fine and sombre Clytemnestra – were on show, giving the fair an excellent anchor in a serious piece of art history, just in case it ever threatened to blow away in the stormy October weather.

Finally, it is impossible to forget the Tatler stand, which may have been a post-modern joke or indeed a serious business proposition (they were flogging the new issue, out the day after the private view). Celebrating its tercentenary, the magazine displayed some of its finest covers, which really say quite a lot about the modern world – more than many of the other galleries.

From the full-text first cover, promising the best gossip London’s coffeehouses had to offer, through those featuring notable women of the twentieth century to the bland blondes on today’s, you saw the past three centuries flash before you, and the ending wasn’t pleasant.

The art world may have suffered along with everyone else, but it seems to have brought out a little bit of fighting spirit in Art London. It is not meant to be avant-garde – it never has been – but at least it now looks beyond the heavy curtains of Carlyle Square.

Top picture (c) Piers Bourke/Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery
Bottom picture (c) Marty Kelly/BlueLeaf Gallery

Friday, October 09, 2009

Museum of Everything, Primrose Hill


The art world has never been un-self-aware – its navel is deeper and more gazed-at than almost any other art form. So what happens when you bring artists unaware of the art world into the contemplated and contemplating fold? The Museum of Everything, a new space in Primrose Hill, north-west London, which opened this week, is devoted to outsider art and by extension to answering this question.

James Brett is the founder of the Museum of Everything and a keen collector of art made by non-traditional artists; he rejects the term 'outsider art' as being too loose and inaccurate.

He sees his artists as “anyone who’s making art privately – or feels that they have been called”. As he says this, we walk past the work of Hackney medium Madge Gill, who felt compelled to draw over and over a spirit who came to her: the two sides of a corridor contain dozens of these small black-pen drawings.

The main space is hung like a Russian aristocrat’s palace, with pictures jostling on every inch of every wall, from floor to 30-foot ceiling. There is Indian-influenced work and Pop Art-esque work, Incan animals and urban sprawl. By being outside of the mainstream, there is no-one to dictate fashion in their art.

“They are not always artistically talented,” says James, reflecting on the varying quality of the work, “but they tell the truth, and the truth finds the form.” What perhaps unites all of this work is indeed that truth-telling, the lack of restraint. This is not to imply the work is gross or unsubtle, only that you do not feel the artists are holding back through dogma or ‘dignity’.

It would be patronising to say that a museum for outsider art is a daring move – we’re very liberal, don’t you know – but art from outside the mainstream by definition is harder to place in context, to assess as part of a wider tradition, and runs the risk of drawing from viewers either blank looks or beneficent glances, not serious consideration.

The crowds milling round the 10,000 square foot former dairy which houses the museum are the Hampstead smart set, which lends a slight air of unreality to a show of work by their social polar opposites: theirs are a combination of polite blankness and genuine enthusiasm. James cannot move for being crushed by an embracing fur coat.

This insidering of outsider art is akin to the tree falling in the forest: is it still outsider art if it’s looked at in a gallery, or does it become just another part of the art world? Some of what makes this art-for-art’s-sake special is that it was never intended for show. In arriving at greater exposure, the semi-illiterate placards quoting the Bible and damning communism and Aleksander P Lobanov’s self-portraits with gun lose a little of their intimacy. Of course, you are trading this for access to unknown worlds, and I think the price is fair: Sister Gertrude Morgan’s visions of her literal marriage to Christ are a beautiful revelation.

The official opening is October 14. James plans to keep the museum open throughout Frieze Week, next week, and depending on demand perhaps Thursday to Sunday afterwards. What is certain is that in bringing the outside in, he has added a valuable new dimension to the London art scene, but not one without its own conflicts.

The Museum of Everything, corner of Regent's Park Road and Sharpleshall Street, London NW1

Conrad Shawcross: Chord

Conrad Shawcross - Chord
Conrad Shawcross - Chord. Photograph by Alex Delfanne

Is site-specific the new collaboration? What I mean by this is that where it was once the fashion for artists and dancers (think Robert Rauschenberg and Merce Cunningham) or film directors and opera houses (Anthony Minghella and the ENO) to mix art forms, now it is fashionable to have work inspired by and installed in a particular place.

Take Punchdrunk with their Faust, which nightmarishly overran a Wapping warehouse, or Turner Prize nominee Roger Hiorns: his Seizure featured a flat in South London whose walls were daubed with liquid copper sulphate, eventually producing a blue crystalline cave. The latest in this line is Chord by Conrad Shawcross, who has installed a rope machine in an abandoned tunnel in Holborn.

chord_4The tunnel itself, opened in 1906 by Edward VII, is of historical interest: through it used to run the Kingsway Tram from Southampton Row to Aldwych; it closed in 1952 as tubes and buses took over. Now it is soaked in an aura of mystery: its entrance gates at the surface are locked and in even the least curious passer-by this is bound to stoke an interest, a question about such a public yet abandoned space. It is, in fact, used by Camden Council to store things, such as timber and recalcitrant workers.

IMG_0407Conrad Shawcross, the young sculptor of abstract scientific ideas, was offered the space and returned to an abandoned technique of his, rope-making: here there are two machines spinning thick thread into a omni-hued cable, retreating along a track as the rope gets longer. “I haven’t made anything with rope for about seven years,” Shawcross says. “It just seemed that the linear structure of the tunnel [suggested] this work. It gradually recedes backwards and will eventually make about 100 metres of rope each run.” As he speaks, the whining and creaking of the machines echo down the tunnel.

The machines fit in quite elegantly. You have to descend far into the tunnel, past the former platform, with its Union Street signs and contemporary posters in tatters on the walls, until you reach a level stretch, where Shawcross has laid down a wooden track. They are beautiful objects: both specially made by Shawcross, from a distance they look like flowers in a Japanese print, a thick stem and regular petals. They whir round rhythmically and the cable produced echoes the tunnel’s shape.

SIMG_0405hawcross is quite keen for visitors to devise their own interpretation of the work: “It’s whatever you want it to be – hopefully it’s quite a conceptually open piece. It is essentially a rope machine and it’s been made in a very neutral, diagrammatic, ethereal way.”

He does concede that it is space-time and visions of time which inspired him: “My original interest in it is to do with space and time and the linear perception of time – whether it’s a line or a cycle. This rope being a linear structure formed from a rotational system, it has quite a good reference to that.” In line with this, when the rope is finished, it will be cut into editions whose length is not measured by metres but by minutes.

IMG_0402Time certainly plays a role, but to me it seems that these machines have been here eternally and we have only just discovered them – they are the spinners of the threads of fate (as the Greeks knew them), churning away as they programme human action. We are observers who cannot interfere. This is in the abandonment of the location too: it is a place untouched now by humans, a melancholy place for a melancholy contemplation of free will.

Bottom three pictures by Josh Spero

Chord, Kingsway Tram Subway, until Sunday 8 November. Book free tickets here

On BBC 3 Counties Radio

Every so often, I get a phone call from BBC 3 Counties Radio to talk about Classics (which is my weekend job - I tutor). This time, it was as part of their Mastermind commentary, where they have someone come on and talk about one of this week's specialist subjects, in this case, Greece from 490-323BC.

It's a bit like choosing Britain from 1509-2009, so capacious a period is it: Persian Wars, rise of the Athenian empire, Peloponnesian War, seventy years of inter-city fighting, rise of Alexander the Great. That's not forgetting the literature, philosophy, art, architecture...

Anyway, here I am wittering on: enjoy.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Friezing Already

I can't quite believe it's got to that point in the year again: 'summer' 'holidays' over, Spear's Awards out of the way (not that they weren't a pleasure) and it's already time for the Frieze Art Fair.

There have been some good private views already (Ryan McGinley at Alison Jacques Gallery was a star turn) but things kick off properly with Frieze (15-18 October): it is the starting pistol for the art world's runners. The interesting question is whether it is a sprint, a marathon or an aesthete's Supermarket Sweep.

A case can be made for each. The last category is not in fact a joke: if you have ever seen the Wednesday preview, which is when celebrities and major collectors are let in to snap up what's good and hot before anyone else, you will note its resemblance to that much-maligned show of the Nineties. Essentially, buyers speed round trying to pick up the most desirable objects, rather than leisurely wandering through, alighting at a gallery here, a gallery there, appreciating the work and coming to a reasoned decision.

You can't blame them: everyone wants to stop the inexorable march of Dasha Zukhova as she strides across the globe, cherrypicking the best on offer. And you know she's serious about Frieze: she even has rollerblades for extra speed.

Sprinting is obvious. Frieze Week consists of a round of parties not seen since VE Day: every hauntable place in London is celebrating an artist or a gallery or their continued existence, and you will run up a considerable taxi bill to get to the best ones. It's the 100m canape-grab.

But it's the marathon aspect which really shows how important Frieze is. It's a bellwether, a harbinger, a sign of art times to come: in brief, it sets the mood for the months to come. If you have a bad Frieze, the talk can turn against you and you may as well burn your canvases. If the whole of Frieze is bad - poor sales, poor attendance, poor quality of work - then the art market may stay depressed into the winter.

It's the major event which launches the year in art, and like the Iowa caucus or the first night at Covent Garden, it may not just herald but influence what's to come.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Ryan McGinley Speaks


Ryan McGinley: Jonas and Marcel (Blue Altar)
Ryan McGinley: Jonas and Marcel (Blue Altar) Alison Jacques Gallery

Surrounded by a heaving, drinking, swooning, sweating blanket of admirers and professional artworld partygoers, Ryan McGinley has come a long way from the caves he shot for his latest show, Moonmilk, which opened at Alison Jacques Gallery last night. He finds it hard to move without being papped or kissed or having a catalogue thrust into his hand for a dedication. He thought about Jonah and the whale when immersed in taking these pictures, so is it like being inside a whale now, at the opening, with churning crowds and this feeding frenzy?


The relevance of the whale to his work is that he wanted to know “what it would be like to be inside of a body or inside of a heart”, and these pictures are both satisfactory and contradictory answers: naked figures of brittle young things hold extended poses in unadulterated North American caves, molecules rattling round a vast universe yet closely trapped by the frame.

Inside of a heart is easier: McGinley, 31, a New Jersey native and strikingly, boyishly handsome, makes these photographs tender, the youths exposed by their nakedness yet not punished for it, an Edenic state among million-year old caves. Their colours suggest otherworldliness, with Warholian turquoise and pink and mustard fading in and out, and they have the exquisite textures of the cave walls, brought out by a matte finish. Bright strata are outlined and undulate like in a Bridget Riley.

It’s the intimacy and antique virginity – and the possibilities these entail – which McGinley values: “I like caves because they’re untouched for millions of years. They’re somewhere I can go that’s just a place, that’s meditative. You take blackness and you add a person and all this colour to it.”

Meditation is a quality present in these works which has been noticeably absent in his earlier ones – “I was always doing running and jumping and falling and lots of action in my work and I wanted to slow my role” – which have the same nude youths but frolicking and caught mid-movement. It was the movement which fascinated McGinley, but now it is the stillness. Where does the new direction come from? “Honestly, I always try to challenge myself and I don’t want to be an artist that just does one thing.”

ItRyan McGinley, Blood Falls is no criticism to say that McGinley has not yet established a single style or a thesis: he is following paths which interest him. It’s therefore all the more noteworthy that he has already been lionised by the art establishment: the youngest artist to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art (2003), aged 23, thanks to some assiduous and creative self-publicity; the Kunsthalle Vienna (2006); the New York Times’ Oscar portfolio (2007).

If they were relying on McGinley producing more of the same, sticking to an outrageously successful formula, they have been disappointed, although his obscuring of faces remains. Does he feel any expectation for how his work should be? “Oh no, those days are over. There was a time when I was worried about that, but that was a long time ago. I know now – I have a path and I know my journey, what I’m going to do. I’m not worried about it.”

Perhaps the best piece in the show is Blood Falls, a small human figure surrounded by a starburst of red droplets which coalesce and darken as they expand into a scarlet colour-field. It is the rain-shower of the water, the distance of the figure, the hue which conspire to make it unexpectedly moving. And that’s McGinley: amid freewheeling movement or subterranean grandeur, a touching human sympathy.

Moonmilk is at the Alison Jacques Gallery till Oct 8.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Bonds of blood and snow

There is no author quite like Michael Chabon, a virtuoso who can pick genres which would usually mix like oil and water and make them a thrilling, cohesive combination. The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a good example, putting a noirish thriller, conspiracy theorising, exile, counterfact (a Jewish homeland in Alaska), chess and familial dramas into a compelling, moving mix which is also great literature.

The plot is sufficiently complex that any explanation will result in greater confusion, but let's just say a bum has been murdered in a deadbeat hotel in the godforsaken corner of Alaska that is now (but not for much longer) the Jewish homeland. Detective Meyer Landsman, a man with an alcohol problem, an ex-wife problem and a troubling sense of duty that can't lead to any good, undertakes the investigation, which leads him to an ultra-orthodox and ultra-corrupt Jewish sect.

What shines through the Yiddish Policemen's Union is exactly what made the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay a sterling work (tho' K&C is still supreme): Chabon does not shy away from the darkest moments as Landsman has to investigate his sister's death and contemplate the Jews' imminent exile and whether god is in fact beneficent, but he mixes it with a wry Yiddish irony and a vivid evocation of place, in this case the snow which carpets everything for good or ill.

What could easily be mawkish or empty philosophising makes perfect sense in the heads of his fully-drawn characters. For example, a bereaved mother married to the capo di tutti capi - in this case a 'black-hat' rabbi - ponders where her son went wrong:
But there was always a shortfall, wasn't there? Between the match that the Holy One, blessed be He, envisioned and the reality of the situation under the chuppah. Between commandment and observance, heaven and earth, husband and wife, Zion and Jew. They called that shortfall "the world."
Doubt and faith co-exist exactly in that short paragraph - Chabon is able to describe a difficult idea and make it beautiful at the same time.

There is also perfect noirish narration:
His jaws snap together, making each tooth ring out with its own pure tone as the impact of his ass against the ground conducts its Newtonian business with the rest of his skeleton.
Perhaps even more to his credit, Chabon managed to keep this noirish action in some sort of vaguely comprehensible frame. Everyone knows that Raymond Chandler couldn't plot for toffee (rather, wasn't interested in it), but Chabon ties together his threads into the sort of plot you wish weren't true but can still believe.

After reading K&C, I didn't think the Yiddish Policemen's Union could live up to it, and it's a different book in many ways: K&C will break your heart (if you have one) over and over, whereas YPU is a slower-burn, but it still burns - all the way down to the butt-end of the soul.

Julie & Julia

From the new site

If you tried to cross chefs, romantic comedy and cyberspace, you might end up with a YouTube video of Nigella Lawson recreating the diner scene from When Harry Met Sally. As much fun as that would be, it would hardly justify two hours of screen time. That’s where Julie & Julia comes in.

From the same pen as When Harry Met Sally, Nora Ephron, come the stories of Julia Child (Meryl Streep), the diplomat’s wife who brought French cooking back to America, and Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a frustrated government worker who starts a blog where she records cooking her way through all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s monumental Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Based on Powell’s blog and Child’s memoir, Ephron (who also directs) intertwines these women’s lives, jumping from Child’s revelatory first sole meuniere in Paris, where Streep looks almost inconsolable at her inability to make sufficiently satisfactory moans of delight, to the Queens apartment where Powell and her husband (Chris Messina) live above a pizzeria and Powell cooks away her stress at her job, fielding calls relating to Ground Zero. (Her story is set in 2002.)

Streep – whose comic talents are well-established but often forgotten – raises belly laughs just by incarnating Child, lanky and not that graceful with her oddly-rhythmic high-pitched voice, which bounces up and down off successive syllables, like a hysterical glockenspiel. She manages all the sly glances and fluttering hand-waves of a woman who knows that the French are out to get her yet responds with Yankee bonhomie. Stanley Tucci as her husband Paul is a picture of devotion and support.

Adams, on the other hand, just has to look somewhat fed up at her tedious life and stalled literary career, and occasionally excited when a recipe goes well. It is not her fault that her role is not stretching, and so most of her energy goes into a lovey-doviness with her husband, who is tolerant of her narcissistic quest and grateful for its side effects. She is given, however, the second best lobster scene in film (after Annie Hall).

Given how difficult is to make eating in films realistic, Julie & Julia is pleasingly unvarnished: people talk with their mouths full, stuff their faces, and turn the corners of their mouths up in private delight. Still, two hours is a long time to watch becrumbed lips, and the second half - with added 'drama' - drags.

Perhaps more interesting than the content of their cooking is the fact that Child and Powell are turning inside themselves (even if food can be a source of pleasure to and interaction with others). Child, after World War Two, and Powell, after 9/11, have both had enough of reality: they learn to explore their own interests and talents, both as a way of consuming time and a way of finding fulfilment.

When they spend this much time in the kitchen, they seem to reject the world outside. What that really makes Julie & Julia is not gastroporn, which it could easily have become, but a fight for the self which happens to have some gratuitous baking shots. Perhaps this seems too serious for a film about cooking, but it is much more than that: it is cooking as a window to the soul.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


God, this is going to look ridiculous, but here are some things I've seen but haven't had the time to review, so a mini-review is appended:

All's Well That Ends Well (Olivier, National Theatre): wondrous gothic fairytale staging redeems thin play, reminiscent of Winter's Tale with split between Paris and Florence, one a crystal castle, the other the Costa del Italia. Bizarre and discomfiting are Helena's obsessive love for Bertram and the lengths of deception she goes to, even as he treats her terribly. I assume the title is ironic.

Prom 22: MGM musicals (Royal Albert Hall): a joyous evening, starting off with heavy-hitters like Over the Rainbow and the Trolley Song, which Kim Cresswell delivered with aplomb. Curtis Stigers' voice is a little hoarse and he forgot some of the words. Seth MacFarlane (yes, he of Family Guy) has a very passable Sinatraesque voice, and did some of his lines as Stewie. Thomas Allen had a wonderful tone in More Than You Know and Gigi. Slight programme snobbery: Cresswell and Stigers are 'vocalists', Allen and Sarah Fox are 'baritone' and 'soprano'.

Un ballo in maschera (Opera Holland Park): my first full Verdi in my plan of attack for opera (on which craziness more another time). Despite contextual and hence onomastic oddities (Italian opera about Swedish assassination moved to colonial America and here staged in modern America), an enticing mix of love triangle and politics with some powerful music and a clever staging made a good evening. Amanda Echalaz was wonderful as Amelia, powerful and sweet. The music is often confused, however, rendering comic for dramatic moments, and the staging (hokey witch Ulrica is a reality tv star) could be a little too clever and meta.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Hello, Folly!

The title should not be taken as a reference to the whole new production of Hello, Dolly! at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, which opened last night. (The play, not the theatre - the theatre is always open. Except for when it's closed. But even then it's open, if you see what I mean.)

There are plenty of things to admire in this musical on several levels, even if the introductory note in the programme says that it is just a 'romp'. But the folly is the miscasting of Samantha Spiro (no relation - not even a para-relation) as widowed matchmaker in turn-of-the-century-New-York Dolly Levi, who can fix everyone's love life but her own. The show will be most famous as the movie starring iron-lunged and sweet-toned Barbra Streisand (see her do it here), but the original stage show starred, among others, Carole Channing and Ethel Merman. I think the problem is already apparent.

Samantha Spiro cannot match up to any of these, and worse, she cannot even sing well. Sure, she dances niftily and has a neat way with the Jewish shtick, but her voice is not an instrument which can sustain or even reach some of these notes. Vamping your rasping way through the climax of a song is not a subsitute for singing it. There was no point at which she adorned the gloriously bolshie melodies and chewable lyrics of Jerry Herman.

That aside, it was an enjoyable evening. (I think that is called bathos.) There was inventive choreography by Stephen Mear, some of which drew on the movie for classic scenes like the dance of the waiters at the Harmonia Gardens, where all the characters have retreated for an evening of waltzing, stuffed chickens and frenetic wait-service. The cast were put through their paces as whirl followed whirl followed whirl, all perfectly executed, complete with parasols.

For the scene where they all get the train to New York, the danced the train with its engine and wheels and carriage, and the hat of the character representing the smokestack even began to give off smoke. It was a small touch, but reflective of the humour and ingenuity which went into the show.

Director Timothy Sheader started off rather poorly, having Spiro walk through the audience and chat to them as her grand entrance, even as the cast were valiantly singing and dancing on stage and being completely ignored, but it got better with a clever use of the stage, designed by Peter McKintosh.

To return to that troublous introductory note. As penned by Emma Brockes, it is a masterpiece of vacuity: 'There are no subtexts in Hello, Dolly!, no satire nor social critique and certainly no moralising. It is, pure and simple, a romp in the best tradition of the American musical.'

This is fatuous to the extreme. Perhaps Jerry Herman didn't see it as a social critique, but Thornton Wilder, whose play this is based on, certainly did. Take the three principals: Dolly Levi, Horace Vandergelder (the curmudgeonly object of Dolly's love) and Irene Molloy (a milliner who longs to break out of the [hat]box).

All three are widows, advanced in years (relatively, of course), and all have been consigned by society into the box of decorous celibacy and decline - it is only their efforts and Dolly's personality which give them a second chance at happiness. Whereas most art likes the loves of the young, here we have marginalised older people centre-stage.

Another non-existent subtext might be the great clash between city and country. All is tedious and routine in rural Yonkers, where most of the characters live, and it is not until they arrive in New York that all hell breaks loose. This theme stretches back through Midsummer Night's Dream to the Bacchae (where the contrast is the other way round).

I would not claim that this is an intellectual masterpiece, but when you combine the terrific songs and dancing with these subtle themes, then Hello, Dolly! looks more like a work of drama than - as it is regularly perceived - a piece of fluff.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

We're here, we're queer...

and we've got something to cheer.

Exhibitions come in two parts: the art and the theory. You can have brilliant pictures and a slightly ropey thesis, like Citizens and Kings at the Royal Academy, which had Ingres and David but a poor (or poorly interpreted) idea linking all of them, or you can have a spellbinding idea which the works don't support, like the RA's Summer Exhibition. Or you can have both or neither.

Gay Icons at the National Portrait Gallery falls into the Citizens and Kings mould: it has some beautiful images, both aesthetically and emotionally, and you can't deny that a show devoted to gay icons will raise interesting questions about love and family and culture and politics. It's just that no-one is clear on the rules.

Before I saw the show, I assumed that the selectors (famous homosexuals from Elton John and Ian McKellen to Sandi Toksvig and Sarah Waters) would choose gay people who were iconic to them. (The question of what even constitutes an icon is thorny in itself.) I thought these would be the gay icons of gay icons. Meta-gay icons.

However, Elton John and Billie Jean King both chose people who were icons to them, Elton picking Graham Taylor for his devotion to Watford, King her family, among their six choices. These are fair picks when the rules have not been defined.

It makes the show no less beautiful but slightly less coherent. Many of the pictures are indeed beautiful: porn star Jeff Stryker (one of Lord Alli's choices) is captured on his bed, reclining in a non-sexual pose and not even at the centre of the scene (McDermott and McGough, 1990). The innocence of the picture gives a human side to the great gay porn star-businessmen.

Joe Orton (chosen by head of Stonewall Ben Summerskill) emerges out of the darkness, a fine interpretation of his work and ultimately prefiguring his death (Lewis Morley, 1965), while Bessie Smith (chosen by Jackie Kay) looks quizzically, vulnerably at the camera. Harvey Milk (Efren Ramirez, 1978, chosen by McKellen) is at the centre of an applauding crowd in a news shot (rather than a posed portrait), looking serene in the chaos.

The most literary choices come from Alan Hollinghurst, Booker winner for the Line of Beauty. He chose Jesuit priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thom Gunn (a favourite poet of mine), Tchaikovsky and Edmund White, whose A Boy's Own Story is one of the most beautifully-written books I've read. Hollinghurst's choices revealed a clear line between the closet of history and modern hard-won freedoms.

Chris Smith, former Culture Secretary, had perhaps the most poignant of all pictures: a portrait of Alan Turing (Elliott and Fry, 1951), who bit into an apple filled with cyanide after the war because society refused to accept his homosexuality. That Turing had helped Britain win the war by cracking the Enigma code and invented the first computer did not save him: it just made his tragedy greater.

Which could lead to a triumphalist conclusion: "Look how liberal we are now! We would never hound someone because they were gay." We may not, but many around the world would, so while we should ultimately celebrate this exhibition (philosophical qualms aside), we should not think of it as a terminus - but rather a call to action.

Harvey Milk (c) Efren Ramirez, 1978/2008
Joe Orton (c) Lewis Morley Archive/National Portrait Gallery
Alan Turing (c) National Portrait Gallery