Friday, June 27, 2014

For Art's Sake 2: "...the God-given genius of certain individuals..."

There have been quite a few visits to galleries this year, some more memorable than others.

We went to the Dulwich Picture Gallery to see their exhibition titled DAVID HOCKEY: PRINTMAKER and while not making me any more of a fan, it certainly showed the breadth of his ever-roaming interest in creating art - the show even ended with artworks he has created on a photocopier. The colours were particularly vibrant and lush...

We also saw the exhibition at the National Gallery, STRANGE BEAUTY: MASTERS OF THE GERMAN RENAISSANCE.  Again it didn't exactly rock my world - once you have seen one North European wizened, monkey-like face you have seen them all.  But there were some that I really liked... Jan Van Eyck's famous "Arnolfini Portrait" of the named couple looking very stately yet mysterious, Lucas Cranach the Elder's enigmatic "Portrait of A Woman" and Hans Holbein was well represented by a cameo of Anne of Cleves as well as "A Lady With A Squirrel And A Starling" - the squirrel was particularly lovely!

At Tate Britain, there was a very interesting exhibition called KENNETH CLARKE: LOOKING FOR CIVILISATION which was an overview of the wide-ranging art collection which belonged to the art historian and broadcaster, whose 1969 BBC series CIVILISATION was one of the first 'personal view' arts series.

Across the exhibition you follow Clark's life, from his privileged upbringing to his remarkable ascension to being, at 30, the youngest ever director of the National Gallery.  He used his influence - and private wealth - to help artists on their way (particularly during WWII).  Also during WWII, he saved the National Gallery's finest works from the London bombings by hiding them in Welsh caves while keeping the building open for free lunch-time recitals. 

The show has been criticised for showing his traditionalist interests - he was famously dismissive of the 1950s explosion in Modern Art - but there was plenty to enjoy.  It is unsurprising however that Clark himself remained an elusive, anonymous subject - can you understand anyone simply by their interest in art?

Clark was a particular fan of Bloomsbury and in one of the rooms Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell's self-portraits are close to each other, as well as Vanessa's portrait of daughter Angelica as a Russian princess and home furnishings designed by them too for Roger Fry's Omega Workshop.

 I was particularly excited to see two paintings by Seurat which I had never seen before: the mysterious and hazy "The Forest at Pontaubert" from 1881 and the glorious "Le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp" from 1885.  The reproduction really does not do it justice - his remarkable use of colour in his pointillist style was hypnotic and I stood for a long time in front of it, lost in it's rhythm.

I was hugely engaged walking around the exhibition and among other fine works were a glowing Samuel Palmer painting from around 1830, some moody works by Victor Pasmore and John Piper and Paul Nash's epic BATTLE OF BRITAIN from 1941.

Sharing the space with this huge canvas were smaller, more painful works based on the human experience of conflict.  Henry Moore's cramped and gloomy sketches of people huddled together in the tube stations during the Blitz and the evocative and haunting works of Mary Kessell, a WWII accredited war artist who was based in Europe at the end of the conflict and was well-placed to document the refugees and the revealed horrors of the concentration camps.

I particularly liked her 1945 work "Refugees: '... pray ye that your fight be not in the winter...' Matthew XXIV, 20" of refugees trudging through an impenetrable winter.

This hugely enjoyable exhibition is on until 10th August.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Dvd/150: LIFE WITH JUDY GARLAND: ME AND MY SHADOWS (Robert Allan Ackerman, 2001)

This tv movie biopic of Judy Garland, based on the memoir of her daughter Lorna Luft, is an oddly muted affair, not so much access-all-areas as a sad-eyed guided tour.

Both actresses - Tammy Blanchard as Young Judy, Judy Davis as Star Judy - start off oddly.  Initially Blanchard looks more like a young Midler than Garland but in the recreations of her film roles she is uncanny.

Davis looks odd in her first set piece, "The Trolley Song" from MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS but once she settles into the troubled Judy of the late 1940s onwards, she looks more like the real thing.

Exploring Garland's rollercoaster life, one wishes for more insight at times.  With understated support from Marsha Mason, Hugh Laurie, John Benjamin Hickey and Victor Garber - an obviously uncritical portrayal of Sid Luft, Lorna's father - it's the blazing and commited performance of Davis one remembers.

Shelf or charity shop?  I think it has to be charity shop...

14 years later...

Yep, for the first time since May 2000 I found myself sitting in the splendid auditorium of the Shaftesbury Theatre!  It's a nice place - although, for all it's much-vaunted renovation. the stalls seats were still a bit low to the ground and uncomfortable.

The last show I saw there was the flop LAUTREC and since then it has had the odd hit - HAIRSPRAY, ROCK OF (ugh) AGES - but it has also had an embarrassing history of duds: FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, FLASHDANCE, DADDY COOL, THE FAR PAVILIONS, BAT BOY, THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE, PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED, NAPOLEON...  oy.  At times the Variety wartime gag "In case of a bomb attack, seek shelter at the Nora Bayes Theatre as it's never had a hit" has been applicable to the Shaftesbury.

But there I was on Tuesday to see the Chichester Theatre's successful revival of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross' THE PAJAMA GAME.  Not a musical I am overly keen on but it had 5 star reviews and any musical directed by Richard Eyre must be seen as his production of GUYS AND DOLLS in 1982 at the National Theatre started me on a new life as an ardent theatregoer.

I think my anathema to the show is down to the woeful production by Simon Callow that played for 3 months at the Victoria Palace in 1999 with Leslie Ash, Graham Bickley, Anita Dobson and John Hegley.  It just lied there and died there, it's jolly but dated book's jokes landing with a thud about 3 rows from the orchestra pit.

Despite the several charms of this production I must again say that on the whole I am baffled at the acclaim.  George Abbot and (original source material writer) Richard Bissell's book is still dated while most of the score is fairly routine.  Luckily in 1954 it was still the era of show tunes being covered by pop acts so there are four big hits within the score - HEY THERE, ONCE-A-YEAR DAY, STEAM HEAT and HERNANDO'S HIDEAWAY.

Two of the lesser-known songs - THERE ONCE WAS A MAN and A NEW TOWN IS A BLUE TOWN - stand out from the others for a good reason, they were 'donated' to the show by Adler and Ross' mentor Frank Loesser.  What I found so lame about the book is that it sets up it's at-odds hero and heroine only to dismiss that and plunge straight into the love story with no reason other than it's 25 minutes in and time for them to fall in love.  The songs too also have a by-rote feel to them - opening ensemble number, hero solo, heroine solo, comedy number, hero love song, ensemble number etc.  True not every show can be GUYS AND DOLLS but it's also true that what was funny in 1954 isn't necessarily what's funny now.

It deserves snaps however for being a sympathetic show about Unions!  The Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory workers are threatening to strike as their tyrannical boss Hasler is refusing to give them a 7 1/2 cent pay rise that other factory workers are receiving.  Union rep Babe Williams has to negotiate not only with Halser but also with the over-zealous time & motion man Hines and the factory superintendent Sid Sorokin, newly arrived in the job and trying to stamp his authority on his mullish co-workers.  Babe and Sid of course fall in love but when she persists in leading her team in a go-slow he fires her.  Interval.

The second act is an exercise in treading water until the inevitable reuniting of Babe and Sid with the supporting characters getting a lot of attention namely Hines and Hasler's secretary Gladys, of whom he is obsessively jealous - the writers give him a previous job as a knife-thrower for no other reason than he can chuck a few blades about when roused.  Yeees.  There is also a further sub-plot between Sid's secretary Mabel and the Union boss Prez that hangs around going nowhere.

However what this production does have is Eyre's direction - in his enjoyable programme notes he explains that, when he was young, he became word perfect with the score because his sister had the London cast recording which she played constantly although he never saw it onstage until he finally directed this production.

The show also has Stephen Mear's energetic choreography which certainly make the dance numbers one of the show's successes and while his STEAM HEAT steps cannot equal the original, amazing Bob Fosse moves, they still make it a memorable set-piece that starts the second act on such a high.  I suspect Eyre's hand in the reprise of I'LL NEVER BE JEALOUS AGAIN in Hernando's Hideaway as it descended into a Latino riot which heavily echoed the 'low dive' from GUYS AND DOLLS - even down to the butch transvestite. 

Tim Hatley's set is rather pedestrian - although I liked the neon parrots in Hernado's Hideaway.  His costumes however evoke the period well.  Although it was a joy to hear the orchestra belting it out to the balcony, the sound was so off that at times they drowned out the performers.


Luckily the show's problem areas were kicked to touch by the perfomances of Joanna Riding and Michael Xavier.  Joanna Riding, a surprisingly unstarry musical leading lady, sings so well that it does make you realise that Babe could do with a few more songs.  It must be nice for her to be out front in a star role again after her thankless one-song-and-a-cough as Valerie Hobson in STEPHEN WARD.

No such problem for Michael Xavier who oddly has his two big numbers within minutes of each other but he delivered excellent renditions of A NEW TOWN IS A BLUE TOWN and HEY THERE.  Xavier radiates charisma and although there is a slight mis-match in their ages, he and Riding made a winning couple. I have not seen him since his Olivier-nominated turn in the Regent's Park INTO THE WOODS and I am sure another nomination will be his next year.

Gary Wilmot was an energetic Hines and made what is a rather dubious character interesting.  I also liked Colin Stinton as Hasler the sneaky boss man and Claire Machin certainly made the most of Mabel the secretary although the character would benefit from a rewrite.

The 1954 Broadway production is famous conversely for launching Shirley MacLaine's film career.  MacLaine was in the chorus and understudying Carol Haney who was a sensation as Gladys and in particular for STEAM HEAT.  A month after the opening, Haney broke her ankle and MacLaine, who was delayed getting to the theatre after dropping off her c.v. for another chorus job, arrived with minutes to spare to find directors George Abbott and Jerome Robbins, choreographer Fosse and producer Hal Prince anxiously waiting by the stage door.

Barely rehearsed she went on, dropped her bowler hat in STEAM HEAT - becoming the first person to say 'shit' on a Broadway stage - and was still playing the role when producer Hal Wallis saw the show.  He signed her to a film contract which led to her first film, Hitchcock's THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY.  Although winning a Tony Award and recreating her role in the THE PAJAMA GAME film, Haney developed stage fright so badly she switched to being a choreographer.  Sadly personal demons led to alcoholism and six weeks after choreographing Barbra Streisand in FUNNY GIRL she was dead aged 39 from pneumonia.  She is seen here in ONCE-A-YEAR DAY with MacLaine seen at the left. 

I mention this because, bizarrely, both times I have seen the show I have seen the understudy play Gladys!  This time Helen Ternent was on and although I suspect a huge Oscar-winning film career is not in the future, she certainly gave a nice performance and danced up a storm in STEAM HEAT.

In 1955, Adler and Ross' next musical DAMN YANKEES was just as successsful, again winning the Tony Award for Best Musical but tragically, Jerry Ross died six months after the opening from lung disease.  Adler never had another successful musical.

But in their musicals, there was always a happy ending...

Friday, June 20, 2014

Dvd/150: THE LONG DAY CLOSES (Terence Davies, 1992)

The opening credits - Boccerini's 'Minuetto' plays over a painterly composition of a bowl of roses that imperceptibly decay - suggest a film will be emotionally uninvolving but Terence Davies' dreamlike memoir of being a loved but solitary lad in the 1950s is an emotional powerhouse if you surrender to it's pace.

Liverpool, a boarded-up house dissolves in the rain to 1955 when it was occupied by young Bud (Leigh McCormack), his beloved widowed Mother (Marjorie Yates) and his three grown siblings.  Sensitive and bullied at his new school by kids and teachers alike, Bud is never happier than being at home with his family and friendly neighbours.

Intense moments of being flow with hypnotic ease such as moving overhead from Bud swinging above the basement steps to a cinema projector beam to a church aisle to a drab schoolroom, all summing up Bud's world.

A deeply personal but universal experience.

Shelf or charity shop?  Shelf!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014


For someone who enjoys films, I don't blog about them much do I?  Shall I have a new discipline?  I shall watch the films I have on dvd and do a 150 word review of them... maybe that way I will convince myself whether I want to keep them!

First one off the rank?  THE PLEASURE GARDEN (Alfred Hitchcock, 1925)

THE PLEASURE GARDEN marked Hitchcock's directorial debut and before it spirals into melodrama in Johnny Foreigner-land, he tells it's backstage story well.  It's like SHOWGIRLS.  Only better.

Virginia Valli and Carmelita Geraghty - I'm a film buff and even I hadn't heard of them - star as chorus-girls at the titular music hall.  Valli is a good-hearted dancer who helps down-at-heel Geraghty to audition for the chorus only to watch her become a selfish diva, dumping her honest Joe boyfriend for high society.

Valli falls for the boyfriend's best friend (deliciously cruel Miles Mander) and they marry just in time before both men leave for their overseas postings.  What Valli doesn't know - but in Hitchcockian style we do - is that he is a dissolute sadist with a native mistress.

Future Hitchcock motifs - murder, suspicion within marriage, the innocent in-too-deep - appear here for the first time.

Shelf or charity shop?  Shelf!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

For Art's Sake 1: "A Line Is A Dot That Went For A Walk"

Well, Constant Reader, here we are, halfway through the year so a good time to look back on exhibitions that I have held off blogging about.  Let's see how many of these I remember...

The first was the National Gallery show FACING THE MODERN: THE PORTRAIT IN VIENNA 1900 which set out to tell "the story of Vienna's middle classes - their rise and fall in political power, their hopes for the future and their claims to the past".  If that was the intention it was unsuccessful.

My memory of it is of the woeful lay-out: three large rooms led into a thin room made worse for being divided in two making it feel like a rat's maze - it was impossible to get a good look at any of the pictures on either side of the space due to the cramped corridors.

After a room full of dreary portraits of the monied classes in various poses of wealth or family groupings, the more interesting expressionistic paintings of Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele and Richard Gerstl appeared.  What was interesting was the way these avante-garde painters were still courted by the middle/upper-classes to paint their portraits and the way the artists responded.

Saying that, one of the portraits I liked best was Klimt's uncharacteristically naturalistic Portrait of a Lady In Black (1884) along with Schiele's fascinating Self Portrait With Raised Shoulder (1912), Kokoscka's fevered Portrait of Hans and Erica Tielze-Conrat (1909), Gerstl's (in all senses) revelatory Nude Self Portrait With Palette (1908) - unhappy after a failed love affair, he stabbed and hung himself shortly after painting it - and Schiele's vibrant Portrait of Albert Paris von G├╝tersloh (1918).

1918 sounded the death-knell not only for the Austro-Hungarian Empire but also for two of it's artists.  In February Klimt died from a stroke while suffering from the deadly Spanish Flu pandemic which swept Europe at the close of the War and which, in October, also claimed Schiele's wife Edith and, three days later, Schiele too.  His last sketch, finished a few hours before Edith's death shows her staring resigned at the viewer as she almost swirls away in a charcoal scrawl.  Looking at these joyless and tortured works one can fully appreciate they were created in the same era as Sigmund Freud's explorations of the psyche.
The exhibition ended memorably with Klimt's Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl, unfinished in 1918 due to his death.  Amalia stares out of her status portrait at the viewer, secure in her wealth and successful marriage, facing the modern world and her future with an enigmatic smile. 

She died in a Nazi death camp.

On the same day as all that miserabilism we also saw the life-affirming HEAVEN IN A HELL OF WAR at Somerset House, an exhibition of Stanley Spencer's large canvas paintings which usually hang in the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Hampshire.

In a well-designed space echoing the chapel's shape, the 16 canvases reflect Spencer's memories of being an orderly in a military hospital near Bristol then a soldier in Salonika.  Spencer painted them all from memory as he started work on the canvasses in 1926 and completed in 1932 and I wonder if that time between experience and representation gave him a chance to reflect more benignly on what he went though than if he had started them directly after 1918.

The works become almost a wartime stations of the cross which start with Convoy Arriving With The Wounded then Scrubbing The Floor, Ablutions, Sorting and Moving Kit Bags, Kit Inspection, Sorting The Laundry, Dug-Out or Stand-To, Filling Tea Urns, Reveille, Frostbite, Filling Water-Bottles, Tea In The Hospital Ward, Map-Reading, Bedmaking, Firebelt and Washing Lockers.

Apart from the sheer pleasure of seeing the works in a bright well-lit room, what made it such a pleasurable experience was to see everyone there - including Alan Bennett - looking about themselves with big smiles on their face, revelling in Spencer's humorous and humane art.

The canvases are filled with large figures that Spencer stretches and bends into each corner, filling them with life and a host of small details which made them fascinating to look at and return to such as in Washing Lockers where the orderly squeezed between the vibrant red tubs is Stanley himself, Tea In The Hospital Ward where a patient painstakingly combs his hair looking in a small mirror at his feet and in Bedmaking a patient lies swaddled in his blanket with his feet on a water-bottle while an orderly makes up his bed. 

In Map-Reading Spencer shows the only officer in the cycle, sitting on a large chestnut horse studying an unfolded map of SalonikaAgain it's full of clever detailing: the soldiers enjoying a moment's peace while laying on the grass or picking bilberries in billowing bushes as well as the doleful horse staring out under the edge of the map while enjoying a chomp on some oats.  He almost seems to be saying "So now I'm a table as well am I?"

The exhibition culminated in a small room with a 21 foot-sized projection of his altarpiece painting The Resurrection of The Soldiers which is painted onto the wall of the chapel.  In an explosion of movement, soldiers appear out of a cemetry, shaking hands with their collegues, looking about themselves bewildered while horses also rear up into life again, a young soldier gazes in sad contemplation at the figure of Christ on his memorial cross as behind him the real Christ collects crosses from the resurrected men like a teacher collecting sports equipment at the end of a game.

It was an exhibition that by turns moved, enlightened and made one happy.

Soon after this we went to the Ben Uri Gallery off Abbey Road - so tiny we walked past it once trying to find it! - to see UPROAR!, a celebration of the first 50 years of The London Group.

The London Group was formed in 1913 in opposition to the Royal Academy because the participating artists felt that the RA had become too conservative and sterile.  They were an uneasy alliance of painters - the Camden Town Group were an all-male collective joining forces with the Fitzroy Street Group which included female artists while, in another corner, the Vorticists continually bitched about the Bloomsbury contingency.

They had no collective style, they were only an exhibiting group staging their own shows but they also allowed open submissions from any struggling artists to be displayed alongside the Group member's paintings.  The first Ben Uri Gallery opened two years after the Group was formed and had a close association with it due to the large number of Jewish artists associated with the Group.

Coming so soon after Dulwich Picture Gallery's excellent CRISIS OF BRILLIANCE exhibition it was good to see some of the artists who had featured there - Gertler's The Creation of Eve (1914) made a reappearance while David Bomberg's oppressive Ghetto Theatre (1920), CRW Nevinson's modernist Returning To The Trenches (1915) and Paul Nash's spare, deconstructed King's Cross Station Northern Adventure (1929) were good to see.

Although the Ben Uri has the cramped feeling of a converted newsagents, they certainly filled it well with 50 works of art and although the quality was varied, on the whole it was an enjoyable experience - Hell, I even bought the catalogue as there were enough works that I wanted to know more about.

If I could do a "Supermarket Sweep" of the exhibition - a game Owen and I always play after an exhibition - as well as the four already mentioned, I would nab Gertrude Hermes' flowing walnut sculpture Butterfly (1937), Henri Gaudier-Brzeska's disturbing bronze Bird Swallowing Fish (1914) - he was killed the following year on the Western Front - Edward Wadsworth's evocative Rue Fontaine de Caylus, Marseilles, France (1924), William Roberts' claustrophobic At The Hippodrome (1920), Roger Fry's portrait of Nina Hamnett (1917) - Owen exclaimed "Suzanne Vega!" when he saw it - and, my favourite of all, Duncan Grant's wonderful Window, South of France (1928) where the cool interior of his room, with it's flowered wallpaper and cut flowers in their vase, are seen against the sunlit landscape of Provence.  Gorgeous.

I will end this blog with the truly wonderful PAUL KLEE - MAKING VISIBLE which was at Tate Modern.

What made it so special was that walking through the 17 rooms containing nearly 200 of his works, my eyes were opened to Klee's wonderous world of colour, light and the possibilities of the line - this is the man who wrote that "a line is a dot that went for a walk".

Born into a musical family in Switzerland, Klee switched between music and art as he grew up.  Playing violin brought in money but artistically he struggled to find his own language.  In 1911, he met the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky who was in the process of setting up Der Blaue Reiter, a group devoted to finding new ways to connect modern art to a freer use of colour.  Klee was in good company with fellow-German artists Franz Marc and August Macke.

A trip to France opened his eyes to the new Cubist painters and holidaying in Tunisia made him see colour and light in a new way: "Colour has taken possession of me; no longer do I have to chase after it, I know that it has hold of me forever."  The First World War brought the deaths in combat of his friends Macke in 1914 and Marc in 1916 and, a week after the latter, he too was drafted into the infantry.  But this coincided with an edict being passing whereby artists were given preferential postings so Klee never saw active service.  Oddly enough, the chaos of the War freed him and his work in abstract painting finally found him finding his own artistic voice.  The work poured forth: abstract paintings of small rectangles which create a harmony of colour, abstract landscapes and cityscapes, strangely drawn figures lost in an expanse of canvas, kinetic shapes suggesting fish or flowers circle each other - all the time making him an artist difficult to categorize.

In the early 1920s he was invited to teach at the Bauhaus where he was joined two years later by his old friend Kandinsky and by the mid 1920s his work was being praised by the Surrealists, Louis Aragon pointing out "the lightness, grace, spirit, charm and finesse that are his essential qualities".


But in 1930 Germany became a changed place. He resigned from the Bauhaus - the increased workload was stopping him painting - as well as because of the external political pressures on the school and he started to teach in Dusseldorf but two years later he was dismissed due to his being included in the Nazi's list of 'degenerate artists'.  He emigrated to Switzerland but by now had started to show symptoms of the degenerative illness that would eventually kill him.  

He continued to work on through failing health and his paintings during this decade are remarkably varied including experimenting with abstract pointilism.  I wonder how influenced he was by Seurat - I would like to think he was as Klee's musical sense would chime with Seurat's idea of colours side by side having there own harmony.  Inevitably his debilitating illness led to his art becoming more stark, his colour palatte becoming drained as his lines became heavier.  

The last room were sad to experience, the pure joy of 1938's Park Near Lu (with it's happy tree in the centre) and his largest canvas Rich Port giving way to the coiled, angst-ridden images of 1939 but these too give way to the last painting in the exhibition Twilight Flowers which was also Klee's last ever painting completed a few months before his death in 1940.  A row of flowers, different shapes and colours, stand defiant and in complete harmony.

I left the exhibition exhilarated to have seen Klee's genius at first hand - the colours, the simplicity, his tangible joy of life and the sheer breadth of his talent made it an incredibly moving experience.

Redgreen and Violet - Yellow Rhythms (1920), Static-Dynamic Graduation (1923), Fire In The Evening (1929), The Gaze of Silence (1932), Fire at Full Moon (1933)

Needless to say, I bought the catalogue!