Both proud & ashamed of the Empire?

I’m both proud and ashamed of the Empire, Matthew Paris writes in today’s Times (of London) – link here (behind a paywall).   Reading the piece, I wondered: should emotion (like pride or shame) be part of this? I believe we bear no personal blame for the actions of others for whom we did not vote.  (And, the piece ends with a call to our consciences about the present day and about the actions that our governments are taking, actions, for which we might not like to be blamed but for which we have to take responsibility as citizens of the United Kingdom.)

So, I believe we have no personal blame for those past actions but I believe we can bear blame for our current actions.  This may include asserting our current position in the world based on an incomplete understanding of our people’s past.  We have to be honest about the extent to which our country’s past successes were dependent on the harm its people did to others and on the wielding of might rather than right.  We have to be open to the achievements of people who have not previously appeared in our history books and lessons and to recognise that discoveries and inventions were the fruit of the labours and insights and skills of women of all colours and of men of colour, working people and colonised people, not just of white men of the ruling class.  

Tearing Boris Down

I subscribe to The Telegraph (in an attempt to extend my bubble). As a result, I had the privilege of reading the Prime Minister’s proposals on responding to the recent developments on race relations, all 1,052 words of it. It took me a while, because it was full of emotional triggers and non-sequiturs and wind-ups. I’m going to exercise my own narcissist tendencies and make some comments on my blog – lacking as I do the wider platform of a national newspaper.

Firstly, let us be clear. Coverage of the piece on Monday centred on the proposal it contained, a proposal to set up a commission to look at the issues raced by the demonstrations. But this “proposal” takes up a bare 27 words of the 1,052. His seventh paragraph is, in its entirety: “It is time for a cross-governmental commission to look at all aspects of inequality – in employment, in health outcomes, in academic and all other walks of life.”

Others, particularly David Lammy MP, have made better responses to this idea than I can. All I will say is that, frankly, it looked like an afterthought, thrown into the article to give some rationale for writing it.

The piece opens with a statement that it was “utterly absurd” for people to have gone to London at the weekend to protect the statue of Winston Churchill; and also “absurd and deplorable” that the statue might have been the subject for an attack. He then includes a sentence so reasonable and so different in tone from the rest of the article that I suspect that it was written for him. That sentence recognises that “the monument has been covered up several times before”. It made me wonder what all the fuss was. What I did think betrayed his leanings was his concentration on this one statue. He never mentioned the other statues – those of Gandhi and Mandela – that were also protected.

What would be funny if it wasn’t coming from our sitting Prime Minister was the fact that he writes, “We need to tackle the substance of the problem, not the symbols.” Then he spends the vast majority of his thousand words focusing on the symbols, mostly Winston Churchill, and playing what-aboutery with great aplomb: “Are we supposed to haul down Cromwell who killed so many … in Ireland” or “Nelson and other innumerable reminds of our imperial past”? The answer to which is: well, yes, maybe. Shouldn’t we at least think about it?

He then raises “the case of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, … a native of Gambia … admired … as a translator of Arab texts. He was also, originally, a slaver himself. Does that mean he should be purged from the (National G)gallery?” The answer to that is: no, he’s in a gallery. That is a word for a museum of pictures. Context can be provided for him. Just like those seeking to move statues of figures like Colson and Rhodes want to do.

It is sad that the Prime Minister is so focused on symbols. He wastes so much time and energy arguing against attacks on them that he doesn’t seem to have noticed that the activists are NOT calling for statues to be torn down. They are asking for them to be moved to a place where we can provide more context. He asks “Would it not be better and more honest to ask our children to understand the context, to explain the mixture of good and bad in the career of Churchill and everyone else?” Yes, Prime Minister, it would and that is what the activists are asking for. Why don’t you make some concrete proposals to support an idea with which you clearly agree?

Instead, after he has spent an inordinate amount of ink on a defence of Churchill, the Prime Minister focuses on statues and comes up with another proposal, which has gleaned less coverage than his commission, although on Thursday 18 June, when sent out to do the daily media round, the Foreign Secretary Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP, claimed the idea for his own. Their proposal is: don’t knock these down; put more up! “Take the great courtyard in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (sic),” he suggests, “where stone statues of British explorers and imperialists look down from the niches. Many of the niches are for some reason unfilled. … Rather than tear down the past, why not add some of the men and women – most often BAME – who helped to make our modern Commonwealth and our modern world? Isn’t that a more cheerful approach?” A cheerful approach? Is cheerful what we are going for? Isn’t it a more balanced, honest and comprehensive approach?

The piece is badly constructed. It doesn’t provide a coherent argument for anything in particular. It exposes a man whose ability to think clearly is easily distracted by quite a small attack on his hero, Winston Churchill. (Enemies, take note.) He uses colourful, careless language to describe citizens as “far-right thugs and bovver boys” and “BAME people” who “go around mutilating statues”. He talks about “our modern Commonwealth” as if it belonged to us rather than being an international organisation of which we are one, equal member. He seems to care more about what he himself calls “cultural relic(s)” than the diverse, thoughtful, passionate people he lumps together as “BAME people”.

He talks about “a distortion of our history” while demonstrating in his own small way how our history has been distorted. He takes the rhetorical flourish that Britain stood alone in the Second World War and tells us that Winston Churchill “stood alone against a racist tyranny”. No, Mr Prime Minister, Mr Churchill didn’t stand alone. My father stood with him. My uncle stood with him and died for it before his 21st birthday. The population of these islands stood with him and many of them died for it – at home and abroad. Europeans stood with him and helped to free their countries from occupation. And, perhaps more importantly for this debate, men and women from across the Empire stood with the peoples of these islands and have, over the years, received scant recognition for their sacrifice. They all stood against a great power because it threatened the United Kingdom and her Empire. If Herr Hitler had stayed in Germany, it is likely that Mr Churchill wouldn’t have stood against him and his treatment of his own peoples, even if it were racist. Let us not start this new dialogue by overstating the contribution of one man and by reframing it as an anti-racist campaign.

I must admit I let out an ironic laugh when I read that he “will resist with every breath in my body any attempt to remove that statue from Parliament Square”. Given his history in living up to promises to lie down in front of bulldozers to prevent the third runway at Heathrow, I don’t think anyone should worry about his following through on this pledge.

And, maybe that is the final lesson to be drawn from this. The Prime Minister can dash off a thousand words, not caring that it is ill-argued, inaccurate and vaguely insulting. All he wants is to distract us and, after dashing off my own thousand words, maybe he has succeeded. However, maybe it will give the reader a small view through the paywall to the original article.

The Senselessness of Common Sense

Common sense. That’s all we need. Common sense? Common sense! Should I use a sense common with Boris that had him working through a virus and saw him ending up in hospital needing precious resources to save his life? Should I use a sense common with Boris that had him happily travelling to the second home in the country – put at his and his fiancée’s disposal by the state – even as he encouraged the country to stay at home? Should I use a sense common with Boris that had him missing every opportunity to find out about this threat we are facing (and thus failing to educate his common sense about the best way to act)?

Common sense. Common sense. Common sense. Clearly at the top of the talking points for the minster sent into the fray today. I’ve done enough work on policy making, risk management procedures and internal control to know two things: common sense doesn’t exist and citing it as a policy is lazy policy making. Common sense doesn’t exist?

Rubbish! The reader scoffs. However, I tell you. If you can get a group to talk about a topic that they said could be managed by common sense, you find very quickly that the sense they show is far from common. They have different ideas on the right thing to do and that’s even when the group itself is quite homogeneous (so you’d think that they think the same way) and even when they talk about something with which they are familiar – their industry, their organisation, their values statement, objectives, policies and procedures.

Given all of this, citing common sense as a way to manage something means that the person citing it is passing the responsibility for to every individual person. If you fall sick, it’s your fault. If too many people try to board a train, it’s their fault. If you make a decision based on your common sense and it doesn’t tally with the common sense of the parrots of the Cabinet, it’s your fault. Of course, in law, that is far from the truth. If an employee is fired for doing something wrong and it goes to tribunal, being able to show that the only guidance was “follow your common sense”, is a strong defence.

Many things have been missing from the government’s response to Covid-19. One key missing item is education: explaining strategies for managing and living with infectious diseases. I suspect that the communications genii at the Prime Minister’s beck and call have been steered away from such topics in case it gives us all more cudgels with which to beat him. But, it is a shame because the reactions of people and the media during the crisis do seem to suggest that most don’t understand. For example, remember the outcries when passengers were left on the cruise ship because they might catch it? No-one seemed to know – or to be willing to say out loud – that the point of quarantine is not to protect the people in quarantine but to protect the people in the wider world. Another example is the outcry about not being allowed to travel to a different region – to second homes or to take in natural beauties. People focused on their right of free movement and seemed to have no sense that what they were doing was spreading an infectious disease.

I’m not sure why I understand some of these things. Perhaps I’m just old enough to remember strategies like getting all the toddlers together if one had German measles – get them to catch it and build immunity – and I had older parents who talked about TB Sanatoria and then I worked on contingency planning for Bird Flu. Whatever the reason, somehow I have picked up some sense of the measures needed to tackle an infectious disease. I really believe that we would all benefit from a little more education on these matters.

Without education on how to manage outbreaks of infectious diseases we are not just ill-equipped but completely unequipped to apply sense to the problems that will face us over the coming years as we accommodate Covid-19 into our world. The government has talked down to us through a flailing media, setting “stretch” targets and hiding behind misusing R, instead of setting out the facts. That’s how bad their common sense has been.

Edward Burne-Jones at Tate Britain

Edward Burne-Jones was a theological student at Oxford University, a fellow student of William Morris, a lifelong collaborator, before he turned to art.  He was a serial adulterer and had a tendency in his art to depict women as passive beauties and mean as active heroes.  And yet, and yet, the pictures are beautiful with vibrant colours, rich fabrics, engaging detail and plants and flowers and birds adorning the scenes.

Tate Britain has a massive exhibition of his art, on until 24 February 2019.  To find out more, click here.

I loved the exhibition and could have spent hours in front of each picture.  There was so much detail to absorb and appreciate. The exhibition is divided up partly chronologically and partly by theme.  The first room shows output from the first half of his life as he developed and matured while the third room shows paintings from the second half of his life.  There are rooms devoted to his skill as a draughtsman, his portraits, two of his great series of paintings and to his output as a designer for tapestries and stained-glass windows.  Apart from the pale grey of the draughtsmanship room, the gallery is presented in dark colours – grey and blue but also damson and purple – which provide a warm background for his art.

Room 1, Apprentice to Master: 1856 – 1870, in some ways would have been enough for me.  It contains some of the most amazing work in the exhibition so don’t be afraid to linger or to plan on returning.

He was inspired by fiction and poetry, by romances and sagas, setting illustrations in a lush Northern European natural world.  The richness of the colours and the details are just astounding.  They draw you into a different world.  That is what illustrations should be about: bringing to life works of literary art.

I found the 1861 work Merlin and Nimue quite enlightening – that’s who “Nimue” is, I thought.  In The Wine of Circe 1900 I loved the brightness of the sunflowers and the drapes of the cloak and the sleek, black panthers.  Circe stands in what seems to be a signature pose, bending at the waist in a flat-back position.  But also 1858’s Going to Battle entranced me and this time it wasn’t the colours because this is a pen drawing.  You could spend a day just looking at this drawing and not see all the detail.

Room 2 focused on Burne-Jones as a Draughtsman.  I spotted studies for stained glass windows in St Martin’s on the Hill, Scarborough.  Since I’m about to move to live near there, I filed that away as the destination for a future outing and there is more information here.

In amongst all the high romance of his serious art are examples of caricatures, including self-caricatures, gleaned from his letters.  I loved the humour and the self-deprecation.  It must have been wonderful to receive one of these letters.

There is a huge piece called The Pilgrim outside the Garden of Idleness and it made me think of a visit to the British Museum or the Victoria and Albert Museum, except the statues are moving in their niches – or at least they seem to be: they certainly are not pushed back in a well-behaved manner.

Make sure you take a look at the study for the head of a mermaid because you are about to see the final version and I thought the contrast between the two versions was interesting.

Room 3, Exhibition Pictures 1877 – 1898,  is full of large scale pieces, again based on myth and stories.

The Depths of the Sea 1887 was his only piece, exhibited at the Royal Academy, of which he was not a fan.  A mermaid drags a dead sailor into the sea.  The tall, narrow format and bright colour would have been striking and eye-catching in the Summer Exhibition.  Although the mermaid does look straight at the viewer, I thought the study of the mermaid’s head in the draughtsmanship room was much more sinister than the final version.

The Wheel of Fortune 1883 shows Fortuna standing draped in grey to the left of the great wheel she is turning and on the wheel are a poet, a king and a slave with his feet pushing down on the king.  This reminded me of the use of the wheel of fortune in the Phillipa Gregory’s Cousins’ War series of books.

King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid 1884 hung in the family home and the AV guide includes a descendant of Burne-Jones talking about what it was like growing up with such a painting.  It shows the lovelorn king of Ethiopia, solid and real and richly dressed in ornate armour, gazing adoringly up at the beggar maid looking rather ethereal and pale and completely unaware of his love.  I was glad to hear the story had a happy ending.  The different spaces, with the vertical story-telling, seemed almost Asian, like Japanese prints.  How amazing to live with something like that!

In Love Leading the Pilgrim I loved the birds that are emerging from the undergrowth on the left and flying all around, creating almost a halo over the figure of love.  Burne-Jones’s work doesn’t seem to reproduce too well.  The picture in the link is nowhere near as vibrant as it was in real life.

Love among the ruins 1894 was his first work to receive critical acclaim.  It was inspired by a Browning poem of the same name, which you can find here.  Essentially, all else fades but love remains.  A nice sentiment but the thing I loved most about the painting was the nature – the wild roses, in particular.

Room 4 is Portraits and shows Burne-Jones doing reality.  I couldn’t decide if he really created individual looking people.  He gives his subjects this pale, smooth skin which makes them look alike especially from a distance and their eyes all seem very large, creating a suspicion of caraciture.  However, when you look more closely, the subjects do differ one from another.  His painting of hands isn’t good but the way he paints cloth! Oh, wow, it is exquisite, showing different textures and the way the material drapes.  Very beautiful.

One work that showed absolutely none of that is a head of the Ignacy Jan Paderewski.  He was a Polish pianist, a celebrity of the late 19th century and later served as prime minister of a newly independent Poland.  The oil sketch showed shone a great character with his shock of unruly red hair. I loved it.

It is definitely worth seeing the 1883 Portrait of Georgiana Burne-Jones showing the artist’s long-suffering wife, staring out at the viewer with her children in the background, the son playing the piano (active), the daughter observing (passive).  Another picture that is difficult to reproduce, in photographs the light room where the children are dominates the portrait.  In real life the face and hands of Georgiana draw the eyes of the viewer, against the draw of the light.  I found her face haunting but whether solely from pain – from his adultery and from losing a child and being advised to have no more – or also from wry humour, I wasn’t sure.

Room 5 shows the first of two Series Paintings, this time Perseus.  There is a selection of the unfinished canvasses of Perseus.  I didn’t warm to this immediately – maybe it needed a longer view.

The best for me was The Baleful Head where Perseus is showing Andromeda (whom he rescued from the sea monster) the head of the Medusa, whom he killed, in a mirror of water.  The water is in something that looks like a church font but it is in the middle of a rich garden.  Tracey Chevalier, novelist, in her commentary talked about the beauty of the pictures but the way he objectifies women and renders them passive.  I agree to a certain extent although I felt that the last painting shows some female agency – Andromeda wanted to see the Medusa and she did.

Room 6 shows the second of the Series Paintings, The Briar Rose.  In this case, the whole series is presented, in a small room, replicating how they are normally scene.  There are four large paintings with infill paintings connecting them and verses of the story of Sleeping Beauty in gold writing below the pictures.  Here you can find the reproduction of one of them, The Council Chamber, showing Sleeping Beauty’s father on his throne.  The Wikipedia entry here provides the whole context and the text of the verses on the walls.  I just loved this room – all the colours, the details and the natural world with lots of birds and flowers.

The final room considers Burne-Jones as Designer.  It includes one of the pianos he decorated, this one with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and, on the inside of the lid, the Earthly realm.  I liked the inside of the lid a lot.  It might have been a cheerful companion to piano practice.

Those were my highlights and I really couldn’t recommend it enough if you like figurative art.  There is more information, with pictures of some of the works, in the exhibition guide on-line on Tate’s website.  Find the link here.  Maybe as a final warning: it shows a very romantic vision – it’s not real life, it’s a beautiful dream.  If you like your art grittier, perhaps not the show for you.

Turner Prize 2018 at Tate Britain

The exhibition at Tate Britain of the nominees for the 2018 Turner Prize is on until 6 January 2019.  To find out more, click here.

The first room you enter is a lobby.  It is a square lounge with seating and a low table with books, presumably related to the nominees.  It is a space for contemplation.  Somewhere we should spend time to appreciate the art.  In three walls of the lobby are doorways leading into the spaces taken by the nominees to show off their wares.

All the nominees have chosen video art.  Two – Forensic Architecture and Naeem Mohaiemen – provide a little something else but it is basically a video art exhibition.  I have no criteria to apply.  Is it art?  Shouldn’t it be documentary films?

I struggle with video art perhaps because it is high-stakes and low-control! In a gallery you walk amongst the art, pausing and moving on as you wish.  For video art, you must go into a darkened or low-light room, stand or sit on the provided seats, however comfortable, listen to the sound track ant eh volume chosen by others and dedicate time to something unknown.  It all puts me off.

What follow are brief observations of a perfunctory visit.

Charlotte Prodger gave us the most comfortable space with rows of seating in front of a wide video.  There was a view of an inter-island ferry ploughing through a restless sea.  Charlotte narrating.  At the front it would probably feel as if you were there on the ship.  Attractive and haunting – and possible nauseating if you were prone to sea-sickness.  Hers was the piece that has followed me home.  I wish I could buy it or stream it from somewhere.

Naeem Mohaiemen showed two films, one per room, both rooms with seating.  There was also a concertina book to take away.  I liked that.  I liked having a take-away.

Forensic Architecture provided a small lobby without seats, showing a film about a police raid, into a white room full of a more extensive exhibition of maps and videos.  I want to see a documentary on them.  It is worthy and fascinating, analysing situations and gathering evidence where abuses of power are alleged.  They are changing perspectives as much as Charlotte Prodger wants to.  But, is it art?

Luke Willis Thompson showed a work about victims of police brutality in UK and USA.  It appeared to have no sound although the room, an unforgiving rectangular space without seating, was dominated by the sound of the overly loud projector.

Emerging from the exhibition, visitors see a stock of postcards on which they can comment on various aspects of the Turner Prize with some exam questions to help them.  There were a couple of contributors who ignored the questions posed to write: “Where are the paintings? Where is the sculpture?”.  This gave me as much to think about as the exhibition itself.

The announcement of the winner is next Tuesday, 4 December 2018, so it will be interesting to see who wins and what the media make of it all.

What is art? Musings #1

What is art? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot after a couple of years of gallery visits.  On a recent visit to Tate Britain I heard Tracey Chevalier, the novelist, differentiating between art and decoration, art and craft; and then I went to visit the Turner Prize contenders, all displaying their wares with videos and, again, I (and many others from their comments outside the gallery) wondered if it was art.  Where are the paintings?  Where are the sculptures?

I guess the big question is whether it matters or not.  If someone likes what is on display as art, if it speaks to someone, maybe that is enough.  But that implies that many human endeavours can be seen as “art”, however far from pretty pictures they are.  And, as for art vs craft well, why distinguish?  The greatest human artefacts are both beautiful and functional.

What is art? I feel no closer to knowing the answer.  What does strike me is that the state of the debate is a supreme example of what happens when humans can specialise (when we are living in a wealthy-enough culture).  The subject moves further away from what a non-specialist can comprehend.  And each generation of artists is standing on the easels and chisels and dark rooms of those who went before.  They start from the past and move out from that and want to differentiate themselves. They want to do something new, to innovate.  And so art evolves further and further from the figurative representation of a young human and of humanity’s youth.  As a result, it moves further away from what lay people can easily understand.

What is art?  I’m still asking myself the question and I suspect I will for a long time.

Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One at Tate Britain

Tate Britain is currently exploring the impact of the First World War on British, German and French art.  The exhibition, Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One, is on until 24 September 2018 in the Lower Floor Special Exhibition space and it is definitely worth seeing.  To find out more click here.

The exhibition is spread over eight rooms.  It starts with a reminder of how artists documented the destruction of the war itself.  There are paintings, sculpture, photographs and video; contributions from British artists such as Paul Nash and William Orpen and German sculptor, Wilhelm Lehmbruch.  There are familiar images of skeletal trees, crosses marking graves and dead bodies or simply a discarded helmet to represent the dead.  Seeing these images, makes me wonder how anyone thinks that war is an acceptable thing or, at the very least, how we cannot allocate at least as much money to peacekeeping and peacebuilding activities as we do to war machines and training men and women to kill.  In general, I found it difficult to approach the exhibition as art, looking simply at the aesthetics.  It felt more like pain and definitely history.

The second room looks at how artists remembered the war, particularly their contributions to public memorials in France and Britain and Belgium.  Germany did not have a national memorial until 1931.  I wondered all the way through whether there was a difference in the way the victors responded compared to the defeated but that idea wasn’t tackled explicitly so it was left to my interpretation of the images chosen by the curators.

In July 1919 acts of remembrance took place in both London and Paris.  Frank Owen Salisbury painted The passing of the Unknown Warrior showing the gun carriage carrying the coffin passing the Cenotaph, accompanied by HM King George V and his most senior military men and politicians.  They were all old white mean and I wanted to ask them: what are you doing to keep the peace?

William Orpen painted To the unknown British soldier in France.  A coffin, draped in the Union Flag, sits in the splendour of the palace at Versailles.  It is an impressive piece of work but also, beside it, you can see the original version with a cherub above the coffin and two nearly naked skeletal figures wearing soldiers’ helmets flanking it.  These were painted out but the image on the right is starting to be visible again through the covering paint.  You can see what they used to look like if you look in Room 3 for the same painter’s Blown Up from 1917,  This shows an image of a soldier, his clothes almost all blown off, what’s left hanging in rags around him, still holding his rifle in the middle of the battlefield.

This shows the sort of censoring and self-censoring that occurred in all the countries.  Civilians did not want to keep being remembered about the horror of war.  The military did not want civilian morale to be adversely affected.  Everything needed to look glorious.

There were other reasons for censorship.  Ernst Barlach (born & worked in Germany), created the horizontal statue Der Schwebende (The Floating One) for a memorial.  The image was seen as an affront to military rectitude and power because it is horizontal.  Hence, it was “degenerate” to the Nazis who had it melted down in 1937.  It was recast after WWII.

This may be a sobering topic but there are some beautiful pieces of figurative art, portraying the detail of soldiers’ uniforms and kit.  For example, Charles Sargeant Jagger’s figures for the memorial in Hyde Park London, which I recently noticed from a bus and gave it more thought.  You can see one, Driver, leaning back, his arms stretched out almost as if he were on a cross, a great cape covering him and also Letter from Home 1922.  I could imagine the soldier looking up from reading his letter and starting to talk, to complain about the cold and the wet, no doubt.

The interpretation points out that most of the images are of white men; nothing commemorates the soldiers of the Empires who fought for the mother countries of Britain, France and Germany.  There are some women artists, for example, Käthe Kollwitz (born & worked in Germany).  In room 2 you can see her designs for and pictures of Die Eltern (The Parents), for Roggeweld military cemetery, in Belgium.  She focussed on the grief of those left behind and ended up creating two separate statues, one of the mother, one of the father, to show how isolating grief is.  Later in the exhibition, you can see her print series, War, which again focuses on the effect the war had at home.

I was pleased that I recognised Stanley Spencer’s style when I saw his Unveiling Cookham’s War Memorial 1922.  The interpretation tells of the reading out of the names of the dead.  This was apparently done at war memorials around the country for a long time.  This is not something I have ever experienced myself.  I thought the reading out of the names – recently associated with post 9/11 terror attacks – was a new idea.

After the memorialising, rooms 3 and 4 look at Traces of War, starting with wounded soldiers in room 3.  This was mostly French and German artists who portrayed soldiers with disfigurements and missing limbs out and about in the street or trying to learn a new trade.  Meanwhile, in Britain, Henry Tonks who was a surgeon and artist drew before and after pictures of facial reconstruction surgery to be included in patients’ notes.  It seemed a very different response.  Did we British treat our veterans better or keep them better hidden?

Room 4 covered Surrealism and Dadaism, which were artistic responses to the trauma.  Placing these art movements in the context of the war made them suddenly make more sense to me, although I’m still not sure that I particularly like them.  There was one British artist, Edward Burra, the rest being mostly German.  I wondered whether this was a fair representation of the active artists or not.  Room 5 covered The Print Portfolio, an important medium for artists in France and Germany, but not in Britain, where you can see the artist as activist, protesting about political matters or illustrating injustices and dangers.

The German art is often a statement against the military and artists were prosecuted for “slandering the military”.  I wondered whether this is evidence that there might have been a second war, even without the Nazis taking power, because the German state was heavily influenced by the military and militarism.

There were more British artists on display in Room 6, which looked at the Return to Order movement.  This returned to more classic genres of landscape and portrait although rejecting the geometric and mechanised forms that were common before the war, or so I’m told.  They produced more precision and clarity amidst the “chaotic economic and political climate”.  Here there are paintings by Paul Nash and his brother John, Henry Moore, George Clausen and David Jones filling maybe a bit less than half the room with the rest German, French, Swiss and Spanish (Picasso).

Rooms 7 and 8 then look at the way artists imagined the post-war society, first the people and then the cities.  Works from different countries are often hung in pairs, suggesting a contrast in the different treatments of subjects in the different countries.

I enjoyed the exhibition very much and was moved by many of the artworks.  I particularly enjoyed seeing art from the three countries.  I did find it a history lesson, as much as an art exhibition, and I did wonder whether I was seeing a truly representative sample of the art from the three countries.  From this exhibition, it seems that Germany in particular but also France were in turmoil in the inter-war period and that Britain had the leisure for nostalgia and a more positive, forward-looking attitude.  And, yet, I know that Britain faced turmoil itself: Irish Independence, movements for workers’ rights and the great Depression to name but three elements of that.  I wonder if there are more stories to be told about the aftermath of war.

For those who want a longer read, what follow are my highlights from the different rooms starting back in Room 4 on Dadaism and Surrealism, where one exception to the weight of German artists was Frenchman, André Masson.  You can see his La Route de Picardie (The Picardy Road) 1924. Based on his memories of serving on the Western Front, this is recognisably a landscape but it is painted with strange shapes, including bare trees in the foreground, painted in a soft Autumnal palette – pastel greens and browns.  I actually found it quite peaceful not at all sinister as the interpretation suggested.

After painting from his memories, Masson turned to “automatic painting”, “a way of releasing a flow of images from the unconscious”.  For Lancelot 1927, he applied glue randomly, cast sand on it and then added paint in response to the resulting shapes.  He saw a warrior but I’m not sure I did – maybe not as automatic as he thought – his vision still clouded by his memories.

In Room 6, I really liked George Clausen’s The Road, Winter Morning, from 1923.  I could feel the cold of the morning as I looked at the cart driving away from me, the driver huddled down, the sun from the left, and bare trees reaching up into the sky. Actually, it says winter morning but the picture shows some flowers – maybe it is early spring, late February.

There were two sculptures of women providing an interesting contrast.  Briton Eric Gill produced Mankind 1927-28 showing a female form, with a fashionable slim figure, like a flapper.  Frenchman Aristide Maillol Produced Vénus au collier (Venus with a Necklace) c.1918 –28, cast 1930 which was distinctly more curved and rounded in a more classic style.  I think it was the contrast and the presence of the pieces that stopped me seeing the irony of a statue called “Mankind” being in the form of a woman.  Humankind maybe?

I liked Morgen an der Friedhofsmauer (Morning at Cemetery Wall) with its amazingly lifelike and detailed red brick wall above the top of which you can see monuments and statues.  The artist, Franz Radziwill, was born and worked in Germany and in the 1930s became a strong supporter of Nazism.  So, should we no longer appreciate his art?

A piece by another German, Franz Lenk, called Old Military showed a wooden structure in the foreground, water filling it; a bare trunk of a tree; and a red house with a steep roof behind them.  The foreground structure is supposed to be a vestige of the war, now decaying.  I didn’t see the decay, although, thinking about it, if this is a trench then the fact that it is full of water means it is in disrepair.  I’m not sure it worked for me now, looking back from 2018.

Quite a few of the pieces seemed to be hung in pairs, contrasting styles between countries.  There were two portraits of women.  In the first, by Briton Meredith Frampton of Marguerite Kelsey is a fine portrait of a woman with her knees bent under her sitting on a large comfortable armchair.  Her cream dress looks like heavy woollen crepe and her skin tone and the curves of her neck and the hands are photographically real even though it is painted in oils.  In the second, by German Rudolf Schlichter is Jenny, greyer and bleaker.  I couldn’t decide if it was about the style of the two artists or if it pointed to the substance of life the 1920s in Britain and Germany?  Looking at this array of art, the impression is that life was wonderful in post-WWI Britain and not in France (also victorious) nor Germany (defeated).

I rather liked the drawing by George Grosz, from Germany, showing large fat and balding men smoking cigars and counting their money at a table while in the background soldiers, including one with crutches, and working men in caps and an old lady with a small child wander aimlessly.  It is called Die Besitzkröten (Toads of Property) 1920.  So, not Fat Cats, but Property Toads, in German.  I wonder if that is still an expression in Germany?

There is some parallel with a painting by Briton Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson.  Called He Gained a Fortune but He Gave a Son from 1918 it is said to be a rare British portrait of profiteers.  The man is fat and balding but he is not counting his money.  He is in his parlour and has a picture of his son in uniform on his mantelpiece to remind him of his loss.  This creates a shared experience between him and the viewer and softens the idea that he might have profiteered.

Another work by George Grosz is in this room and was also chosen as the key picture in the publicity for the exhibition.  It is now called Grauer Tag (Grey Day) and was painted in 1921.  However, it was first exhibited as ‘Council Official for Disabled Veterans’ Welfare’.  It shows a street scene with quite a flat perspective.  In the front is a plump-looking, well-dressed man with hat and briefcase – and a badge on his lapel.  The original title suggests he is responsible for the welfare of the soldier with a stick behind him.  With just Grey Day it becomes more a documentation of the different people in the city: officials, soldiers, manual labourers and clerks (skulking in the top right).

Across Europe, the working man became quite a hero in paintings.  There is a copy in the exhibition of a famous painting of men singing the communist and socialist anthem, the Internationale.  We are seeing a copy, painted by the Ingrid Griebel-Zietlow, the daughter of the original artist, Otto Griebel, because the original is too fragile to travel.  A group of men stand with their arms by the sides and their mouths open.  They are all individual, dressed according to their trades, including a miner with his lamp.  There are no women and most are Anglo-Saxon, although there may be a Mediterranean or two.  It changes the way we see it today.

There is another portrait of a woman that is worth mentioning: Jeanne Mammen’s Valeska Gert. She was a well-known German Jewish performance artist, actress, artist’s model and dancer in 1920s Berlin who left Germany when the Nazis banned her from the stage and became well-known as a pioneer even to the Punk movement of the 1970s and 1980s, apparently.  The picture does not provide much detail but a great overall impression of the person.  Almost Bjork-like.

The picture of the city that I liked best was another by Briton Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson: Soul of the Soulless City 1920.  It is clearly American with the elevated railway through skyscrapers.  It is all squares and harsh lines but has a palette of soft beige to tan with blue highlights.  I like that.  This, like Grey Day, is another picture where the artist exhibited it first under a different title.  In this case, Nevinson originally entitled New York – an Abstraction when he was enamoured of that city’s energy and dynamism.  He gave it the current title only after he became somewhat disillusioned.

James Cook: The Voyages at the British Library

Nothing to do this weekend?  Can get to London?  Go to the James Cook: The Voyages exhibition at the British Library!  Honest! It’s brilliant.  I know this seems like part 2 of the “Reviews that are too late to be of much use” series, but even so, I’ve only just had a chance to get to see it and it really is worth viewing.

It’s 250 years since the Endeavour set sail from Plymouth for James Cook’s first voyage; hence, the exhibition, which brings together pictures, drawn and painted by naturalists and artists on the ships, maps, handwritten logbooks and journals, artefacts and videos exploring the voyages and their impact not only on the Europeans but also on the peoples of the Pacific then and now.  As such, it is a welcome example of how we can address our history, working with our fellow humans from around the planet.  Everyone emerges richer from the encounter.

To find out more about the exhibition click here.  Also, if you can’t make it to London before it closes on Tuesday 28 August 2018, you can explore some of the material on the James Cook: The Voyages website.

The British Library’s PACCAR Gallery is a subterranean gallery accessed via an anteroom on the ground floor to the left of the Library as you enter.  There is a lift as well as stairs.  The anteroom provides an introduction to the exhibition showing European and Oceania art and a globe with the three voyages marked on it. It is a good way in and demonstrates the idea that this is intended to be a global exhibition, showing all perspectives.

The space has been divided up so that there is a central hub that represents Great Britain and Europe from where the voyages started and where various participants communicated to the public about what they had found.  As you go through the Hub the first time, there is a Joshua Reynolds portrait of Joseph Banks who funded the scientists and artists on the first voyage.  He was a fine looking man with a look of the Ross Poldarks about him – right sort of period too.  This introduction provides context on the Enlightenment, which was driving the development of new ideas in philosophy and science.  It tries to show how science, trade and national identity intermingled in the late 18th Century Britain.  This is why these voyages of discovery were so significant in Britain.

Leading off the central hub are three winding galleries that take you along the route of the three voyages and show you pictures and journals created during each one and the related artefacts.  There are 2- to 3-minute films that give wider perspectives on the voyages.  There are high partitions along each voyage trail, cut in a meandering way at the top.  I think the pattern might be related to the route of the voyages around the Southern Seas.  That is quite poetic if it is but maybe a bit lost on the visitor since it is not explained.

One of the main reasons for the expeditions was the creation of maps.  It is difficult to remember that these regions of our world where members of my family now live were not mapped before Cook went down there.  He mapped New Zealand and the Eastern Coast of Australia.  The exhibition includes the maps that he drew.  They are amazing pieces of work, quite exquisite and painstaking, hand-drawn of course, and showing incredible but necessary detail.  Together with the drawings and paintings of places and flora and fauna, they show “art” where the purpose is most easily identified.  This is art as documentation of new discoveries.  Given that, it was amusing to see how in group scenes, in particular, the artists made the peoples of the Pacific look like Greek statues.  That wasn’t the case for individual portraits where the sitters look just that: individual, but for groups it was as if the conventions and training of their native world weighed too heavily on the artists.

The journals and log books are in horizontal glass cabinets and it can be hard to read them.  Cook’s, in particular, are written in a very small hand.  Others’ are quite florid and the script is difficult to decipher for us.  I noted that Joseph Banks’s journal was very neat.  Even if we can’t read them, there is normally an interpretation providing the key message of the page shown.  It is remarkable how compelling it is to see the log books and journals that these men actually wrote in themselves 250 years ago.

The exhibition presents information about the Polynesian high priest and navigator, Tupaia, who accompanied Cook from Tahiti to New Zealand and Australia.  One of the objections of the Polynesian people today is that the names of the Polynesian chiefs and many of the people drawn by the European artists are not known.  It is good that at least Tupaia’s name is known and that his contribution to the first voyage is acknowledged here.

Researchers are using the journals and logs of the expedition to ferret out information about the life of the peoples they met.  In this way, recently, evidence came to light that some of the pictures in the collection were created by Tupaia, not by Europeans.  His work is correctly attributed to him in this exhibition.  I thought some of his earlier work showed a simpler style than that of the European artists of the day.  They have a flatter perspective.  However, they often show greater detail and more accurate detail, especially where he is capturing costumes and buildings that have specific meaning to his people.

The contemporary journals also provide insights into the differences in culture between Europe and the Pacific.  For example, in Tahiti, during the first voyage, in his journal Joseph Banks wrote about a shooting challenge issued by one of the Europeans.  The Tahitians took it up but then there were difficulties: the Europeans assumed it would be a challenge as to accuracy, which they thought was more important and at which they were better; the Tahitians assumed it would be a challenge as to distance, which they thought was more important and at which they are better.

The voyages were costly in terms of people – several of the artists and scientists, including artist Sydney Parkinson, and Tupaia himself died of diseases as the ship was starting its return to Europe.  This puts into perspective voyages of discovery that we make today into space.

There are also the people killed in the misunderstandings between cultures.  James Cook was not a whole-hearted supporter of the idea of claiming the territories for the Crown.  His secret orders required him to do this although they do say that it should be with the consent of the inhabitants (without perhaps any thought of how to obtain meaningful consent when the parties have no common language nor frame of reference).  From his journals, it is clear that he was keen to develop good relationships with the people he met but also if that failed, he was still ready to use violence and superiority of arms to win out, despite his misgivings.  Expedition members died in these encounters and are named; most of the indigenous people who died were not named.

As you move between voyages, the central hub allows us a glimpse of how the British reacted to the discoveries that the explorers brought back.  They were interested and they were fascinated by Mai, the man from Tahiti who accompanied the second expedition back to Britain.  However, the artists presented their pictures in a European style so that they would be more easily accepted.  Just like James Cook himself, there were some who were unhappy with what we were doing in trying to control and take possession of these far territories.  Satirical writings were published expressing some of the concerns.  It struck me that this is similar to satire and criticism today of our government’s policies.  We even have demonstrations against wars.  All this activity indicates disquiet but doesn’t necessarily change what happens.  Do they absolve us of responsibility for what is done in our name?

The videos as you go around the exhibition are worth watching.  They are only 2 or 3 minutes long and they run on a loop so you don’t have to wait long to see the whole piece.  It is extremely interesting to see how the people of the Pacific feel about Cook.  He has long been feted as a hero of the British Empire and the discoverer of new lands.  The indigenous peoples see him as an invader and an enabler of subjugation and know that the lands had already been discovered.  There are movements in many of these places to remove statues of Cook, just as there are similar movements around the world for other men of the last few centuries.

The last summary video contained some good advice on this topic, from a ranger at the Northern Queensland site where Cook’s expedition landed during the first voyage.  Unfortunately, I thought the videos were online so I didn’t write down his name (yes, I acknowledge the irony and am going to go back to get the information before the exhibition closes).  He said that what happened in the past doesn’t matter because we cannot change it.  There is no use looking to blame those historical figures.  Instead, we need to acknowledge one another in the present and to work together to build the future.  For me, it was a hopeful ending to an enlightening exhibition.


All Too Human at Tate Britain


There are a few more days to catch All Too Human at Tate Britain and, if you are a member, you can go early before the crowds next weekend, including Bank Holiday Monday 27 August 2018, its last day.  However, the question is: would I advise you to spend your time in that way?

It’s a good question.  When I arrived home, still feeling confused, I was glad to find that at least two of the critics agreed with me: both Martin Gayford in the Spectator and Waldemar Januszczak in The Times (of London) thought it was “magnificent paintings, oddly curated”, to borrow Mr Gayford’s summary.

I couldn’t find any articles from the curators, Elena Crippa and Laura Castagnini, and there was no AV guide to provide their vision, just a few introductory remarks on the website, here.  The big idea of “Capturing a Century of Painting Life” seemed lost in a selection of different types of works portraying, amongst other things, the human body, still lives, portraits and street scenes.  It felt as if the central idea was so obvious that I should get it without any help.  I was glad when I got home that I found that experienced art critics didn’t get it any more than I did.

So, what is good?  Well, the core of the exhibition is the work by Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, as the full title, All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life, makes clear.  They have a room each and also a couple of other pieces dotted around.  What comes before attempts to provide some context for what they did, and what comes afterwards shows how more recent artists have portrayed life.  Whether you find it a worthwhile exercise may depend on whether you enjoy seeing the work of these central figures.

As it happens, Francis Bacon’s work disturbs and disgusts me – and not in that good way of making me see something from another perspective.  I find it ugly to no purpose.  I thought that when I saw a far more extensive exhibition in Sydney in 2013 and the few works here did not change my mind.  However, I did realise, looking at it in conjunction with the photographs in the same room, that the pictures are like capturing in one image the effect of flashing a moving image backwards and forwards to distort – a video effect beloved of the era of Tom Baker’s Doctor Who.

Lucian Freud, meanwhile, I’ve not seen much of before so I did enjoy seeing his works.  He first appears in this exhibition demonstrating William Coldstream’s style of analytical work and smooth brushstrokes.  There is Girl with Kitten 1947 and Girl with White Dog 1950-1.  I liked these for the smoothness and the detail but even so, I found them not quite right: the kitten was cartoonish and the girl with the white dog was his wife from whom she separated soon after.  Maybe, unlike Picasso’s mistress, she didn’t enjoy being seen and painted.

Room 7 is dedicated to him with works after 1960 when he had moved away from those smooth effects, painted with a small brush, to coarser brushstrokes, and also to a perspective from above, rather than close to the subject.  I found that I liked most of the material in this room.  The first two pictures are Man’s Head (self-portrait I) 1961 and Baby on green sofa 1961.  These were lovely.  The coarser brushstrokes and the slightly geometric presentation with sharp contrast of dark and light create weight and volume, making the result much more lifelike.  The notes suggest this is grotesque but I didn’t feel it was.  It was what humans look like: planes and hollows as skin and flesh sit across our bones.

There were quite a few of Freud’s full-length nudes, male and female.  Ah, that’s where I feel more uncomfortable.  I don’t like seeing the naked body especially when it is so realistic.  Maybe Mr Freud’s grandfather would have something to say about that.  But, there were also some rather amazing other pictures.  Two Plants 1977-80 is a large canvas, 1.5m by 1.2m, and it is completely filled with leaves, small almost round leaves from one plant extending over the whole space and shading from brown through yellow to green and large succulent leaves growing out like large lily leaves.  I found this mesmerising.  When I sat on the welcome bench, from a few feet away, it looked real.  Then The Big Man 1976-7 seemed so real to me that I expected him to get up and start mansplaining any moment.  (I know, unkind, but look at the date and the self-satisfaction in his three-piece suit and splayed legs).  Freud was never gentle to his sitters.  He shows them warts and all.  Lastly, and certainly not least, I’ll mention the head of Leigh Bowery 1991 .  I was not aware of Leigh Bowery before reading the notes online but the picture was striking.  As I walked around Room 7 it stood out and looked as if it were sculpture, not painting, standing out in relief from the canvas.  The paint is quite thick but not sufficiently so to create that effect.  It is the technique and lifelike portrayal.

The gallery notes mentioned that at this later period he started painting standing up.  This meant that his point of view changed to be above the sitter.  I think this is why his figures often seem distorted – the legs and feet are bigger, monumental even, while the heads seem too small.  It seems slightly odd in a painting but it must be the point of view we have of people in real life.  Maybe this is one of the times when our brains play tricks on us, making us think we see the person in the proportions we know them to have rather than as our eyes actually perceive them.

For me, the discovery of Lucian Freud in the flesh, if you like, was probably worth going to this exhibition, despite its odd curation.  In addition, there were some other discoveries that were valuable to me.

Just inside the first door, there are two splendid Stanley Spencer pieces: if you turn around and look at the door, on your left is Portrait of Patricia Preece (his second wife) 1933 where she is looking feisty, leaning forward and looking out of the picture, and on your right is Nude Portrait of Patricia Preece 1935 where she is a little more languid but still looks as if she is doubtful of the point of the painting.

Then there were a few paintings by David Bomberg around the exhibition, as well as Room 5 dedicated to the way he taught art at Borough Polytechnic in South London, “rendering of the physical experience of a person or landscape, rather than just a recording of their appearance”.  He seemed to have a very autumnal palette, browns and greens and reds, which I liked but his chaotic, geometric treatment meant that the subject was sometimes unrecognisable, for example, I know the bridge at Ronda, Andalucia, very well but I did not recognise it at all from his The Bridge and the River Tajo, Ronda  I did, however, really like his view of Toledo so that was just a one-off.

I thought that Frank Auerbach had prefigured the perspective of many smartphone photographs with his Chimney in Mornington Crescent Winter Morning 1991, looking up from the street, making everything else look a little wonky.  It amused me.

Room 10 was devoted to Paula Rego a painter who ploughed a lonely furrow as a woman continuing to paint canvasses full of people, showing a woman’s perspective on life.  I thought I’d understand these canvasses for that reason, being a woman myself, but I didn’t find them particularly engaging despite being well painted.  One did draw me in.  The Family 1988, painted just before her husband died of a degenerative disease, showed a woman and two other females, dressing or undressing a grown man.  It disturbed me because it is about the small indignities of life with sickness, even though it is also an image of a family caring for its own.

The final gallery, room 11, was another good reason for seeing this exhibition – it contained the work of four current artists, born between 1959 and 1971, and all women.  It was good to see figurative art alive and so well in the present day.

I liked Celia Paul’s Family Group 1984-6.  She uses big brush strokes of contrasting colours, which are not realistic in appearance but which convey emotion.  I also liked Cecily Brown’s Teenage Wildlife, which is quite racy with a glimpse, as if from a passing car, of tangled branches and bare skin behind as two figures embrace.

Jenny Saville’s Reverse 2002-3 is a self-portrait but just of her head, lying down, with a reflection below it.  Her head is huge and it is intriguing and disturbing in equal parts.

Lynete Yiadom-Boakye paints stories, not from life, and gives them interesting titles to make the viewer think and imagine what they are about.  The Host over a barrel 2014 shows three young black women, with their backs mostly towards us and looking to the left.  Their hair is up and they are in short, dark dresses.  Are they dancers, I wondered?   Then her Coterie of Questions 2015 is a portrait black man, seated, his hands held in front making an O shape, dressed in a pink tee shirt.  He has the most expressive face.  It was wonderful.

And, finally, if you do go, watch out for the exhibits “outside the exhibition” in gallery 61.  I didn’t spot those on site, only from the copy of the Large Print Guide that I downloaded.  I’m not even sure where it is except to say it might be at the other end of the gallery into which you exit, which is the shop.  Another point against the curation, for me.

Note: links are to the best versions of the pictures I could find and
they were active on 22 August 2018.

Happiness? from outside or in?

You’ve got to hand it to the editors at The Guardian/Observer, they have provided argument and counterargument to debate this weekend: about whether happiness comes from external things or from inside us.

Firstly, the Guardian’s Saturday section Weekend provided “If you want to have a good time, ask a Buddhist“, in which the Buddhist they asked (or quoted), Ayya Khema, said: “We may believe that it’s the quality of the sunset that gives us such pleasure, but in fact it is the quality of our own immersion in the sunset that brings the delight.”

Secondly, the Observer Magazine gave us “Reasons to be cheerful: why we should look outside ourselves to find joy” and the author, Ingrid Fetell Lee, spent some time showing us how things, like colours, could give us joy, thereby refuting her statement that “The teachings of Buddha advise that happiness comes only from letting go of our attachments to worldly things.”

Ms Lee is a designer and founded The Aesthetics of Joy as a website “to shed light on the relationship between our environment and our emotions”, being “devoted to a simple, powerful idea: that our greatest source of joy is the world around us”.  There is a book coming out in September 2018. The Guardian columnist also has a book out on the topic but doesn’t advertise it in the column.

My conclusion is that they are both right!  Good design, well executed, and the external environment, be it man-made or natural, do give us moments of joy and support our overall wellbeing.  However, I find Ms Lee’s dismissal of Buddhist teaching too simplistic, her stance undermining her main argument.  As the Saturday article explains, the idea is to recognise moments of joy or happiness, however fleeting and wherever they arise, and to focus on the feeling.  Focusing on the feeling helps us remain happier longer and will increase our wellbeing more than focusing only on the specific thing that created the emotion in the first place.

So, bring on the joy-bringing design, Ms Lee, and then let’s focus on the joy and create a joyful life!