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!


Picasso in 1932 at Tate Modern

Picasso has not been one of my favourite artists.  The distorted figures that I saw in pictures of his pictures put me off.  However, I went to the Tate Modern The EY Exhibition Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy with an open mind.  I returned with a much greater appreciation of Picasso’s skill at painting and of his work.

The exhibition continues in the Eyal Ofer Galleries on the third floor of the Boiler Room in Tate Modern (the building nearer the river) until 9 September 2018.  To find out more about it, click here.

The conceit of the exhibition is that it covers one year in Picasso’s life, 1932.  We are told that “1932 was an intensely creative period in the life of the 20th century’s most influential artist.”  The rooms are organised in chronological order for the most part and it is striking just how many paintings and other artworks Picasso created in a year.  He said, “I paint the way some people write an autobiography. The paintings, finished or not, are the pages from my diary.”

The curators “cheat” a little in that they include works from before and after 1932 but that is partly to show the contrast and how Picasso changed through the years.  For example, they tell us that in the 1920s Picasso used black & white and a limited palette and started to use a lot of colour in the 1930s and that he sculpted a lot in 1931 but we can see that he painted in 1932.  The other (good) excuse for cheating is his Retrospective exhibition, which he organised in the Northern hemisphere’s summer months.  This included older work and so the central room of the current exhibition provides examples of his Blue Period and cubism and realistic family portraiture.

Picasso started the year in Paris, painting many different versions of a woman sitting in a chair, indeed almost swallowed by the chair.  In them, he experiments with different styles – cubism and surrealism.  The women in them have dark hair or, increasingly, blond hair.  They are deemed to show his inner turmoil about the two women in his life: his wife, Olga who has dark hair, and his mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter who has blond hair.  They are also full of symbolism of sexuality, some more obvious than others.  I saw the symbolism only after it was pointed out to me but I can’t say I read all these meanings into the works without help.

However, I did feel discomfort and maybe even disgust when viewing Le Repos from January 1932 (there’s another later one so don’t confuse it!  This one was sold by Christies in New York in 2006 for US$34m!  See here for a picture.)  Then I felt comforted and affection when looking at Le Rêve, painted in the same month. You can see the latter here and it is the lead image in most of the advertising for the exhibition.

Le Repos (Rest in French) seems ironic since there seems little rest in the picture.  It shows a dark-haired figure sitting in a chair but grotesquely distorted with boobs flying and a screaming mouth.  The background, though roughly painted with thick brush-strokes, is more realistic with a dark patterned floor and walls.  The impression is dehumanised and I can’t imagine Olga was too pleased with the painting, if or when she saw it.  It has lots of energy though, just unpleasant energy.

Le Rêve (The Dream in French) provides a contrast.  The figure of the woman, while not entirely realistic, is much more so.  Cradled in a red chair, her head is laid back in sleep.  The paint is smooth, applied with a palette knife, apparently.  The colours are soft and gentle.  Her hair is blond.  (This whole saga of dark hair and blond hair reminded me of Tosca, jealous when she sees Cavaradossi’s painting of Mary Magdalene, based on an aristocrat he has seen come to pray.  He tells Tosca he loves only her but, after all his protestations, her last words on exiting the scene are: “Ma falla gli occhi neri!” (But make the eyes black!).  I wondered whether Olga ever asked Pablo to make the hair dark.

Another work on display is Girl before a Mirror, 14 March 1932.  There’s a good image and short description here on the site of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  This is an acknowledged masterpiece.  It reminded me of stained glass windows.  I appreciated the quality of the painting and recognised the voluptuousness of the woman (her hair is blond) but it didn’t speak to me of any of the ideas that are suggested in the guides.

As well as all of the large-scale paintings, there are some enchanting smaller pieces.  Amongst those, I particularly liked the views of Boisgeloup, his Normandy country house.  They are small and they are almost sketched, sometimes with cubist portrayal of the buildings.  The ones painted at the end of March 1932 show rain and in May there is also a rainbow.  They are not quite realistic but they are figurative and I think, all in all, this is my preference still.

In the same room, Room 5, there are some other paintings showing distortion of the human shape again.  They look like octopuses and are quite disturbing.  There is also a film, made in 1928, of octopuses, just to highlight the similarity.  The film disturbed me further, in large part because these octopuses are scurrying over land.  Shiver!

The current exhibition’s recreation of a little of the 1932 Retrospective was good.  It had examples of earlier work and styles, which highlight just how versatile Picasso was.  I really loved Girl in a Chemise ca 1905.  It has very little in the way of background but you can see his ability to paint realistic faces.  I thought this was lovely and peaceful which is slightly different from the general interpretation of melancholy and pain, arising from the choice of blue paint.  See what you think here.

There are a series of family portraits including Olga in an Armchair from 1917 or 1918.  It showed a beautiful form and details of the fabric even though the background is rough and unfinished.  It is a lovely portrait of his first wife around the time he married her.   See it here.

Obviously, there are far more works in the exhibition and I did find some of the more cubist or surreal works were interesting and attractive in different ways.  What I appreciate is that Picasso is almost always figurative.  He may use modern, distorting techniques, rather than realistic portrayals of people and objects, but he is providing more information about the subject matter or about the psychology of the subject matter.  I did not always see what the curators said I should see but I start to enjoy the work more.

The work of the last quarter of 1932 is much darker.  There are a series of works exploring the crucifixion and, indeed, the familiar shape of the crucifix.  Several of the studies are stripped down to be only bones on a cross.  In amongst all these darker pieces was a little collage, using a real leaf and a butterfly captured forever on the little canvass.  That was a quirky, witty piece.

I thought that the audio guide was very good and worth the extra pounds on top of the entrance fee.  It has not only the curators, Achim Borchardt-Hume and Nancy Ireson, talking about the work and its place in Picasso’s life but also paintings conservator Annette King and cultural historian Andrew Hussey.  Annette King speaks about several of the works, pointing out the techniques and materials used.  Andrew Hussey provides the social and political context, e.g. how there was unrest in France and the growing influence of the right across Europe.

The curators claim that through the more than 100 paintings, sculptures and drawings, mixed with family photographs and rare glimpses into his personal life that the exhibition gives, “the myths around Picasso are stripped away to reveal the man and the artist in his full complexity and richness.  You will see him as never before.”

In some ways, this was easy to achieve for me in that I’ve not really seen Picasso much before.  But, certainly, leaving the gallery I knew a lot more about his life, his apartment in Paris and his country house in Normandy and the chauffeur-driven car that shuttled him between the two; his dark-haired wife and his blond-haired mistress; and his habit of painting or sculpting or making art every day, as a response to his life, as a diary.  I think therefore the curatorial claims can be said to be met.

Broken Skin by Stuart Macbride

My review, posted on Goodreads.com on Friday 17 August 2018, of the third in the DS Logan Macrae series.

Broken Skin (Logan McRae, #3)Broken Skin by Stuart MacBride

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Broken Skin has a great opening. The reader sees through the rapist’s eyes as he pursues his next victim (and he’s entirely sure of the number she will carry) through the streets of Aberdeen. This gives the reader an uncomfortable advantage through the book: we know who did it and why the investigation hits problems. It should perhaps give us more sympathy for PC Jackie’s reactions but, in the end, we have a choice to agree with her or with Logan’s dismay.

There is an interesting portrayal of the response of the media, public opinion and the family to serious crime and to accusations against people in the public eye. Even individual police officers have reasons if not to doubt the accusations then to wish the accusations might not be true. Of course, the novel’s opening gives the reader an advantage, as I’ve said, although, to be fair and despite that, I began to doubt at one point what I thought I’d understood about the guilt of a certain party.

Meantime, at the start of the book we arrive in the middle of things – right at the end of a long investigation and yet at the start of another. That sense of there being competing investigations for the police to undertake. There isn’t a lot of catch up but quick sentences fill in how the people relate one to the other, in case the reader has forgotten or is new to the series. It is cleverly done. Aberdeen is in the middle of winter but the weather is less intrusive than it was in the first book. I’m glad about that. It needs to be there (and it is) but I don’t want it to dominate. The unhealthy habits of the senior detectives seem to be getting worse not better so the force’s latest initiative is a bit of a casual joke.

I really enjoyed the book. I was a little worried in the middle about the ability to solve the cases but there is enough movement on one or other case to keep hope alive. And, the idea that restarts the main investigation is one that I had much earlier so I liked that momentary feeling of being better than them. (Is that just me?)

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Book Reviews

I post book reviews on GoodReads.com. Now they are no longer loading directly to Facebook, I thought I’d try posting them to my own blog too. Here’s today’s: The Somme Legacy.

The Somme Legacy (Jayne Sinclair Genealogical Mystery, #2)The Somme Legacy by M.J. Lee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this very much. It is a genealogical mystery with Jayne Sinclair undertaking an unpaid investigation into a marriage that doesn’t appear to have taken place!

I like the mixture of historical and present-day scenes. I also like the fact that, all in all, most of the historical scenes were accessible from the information that she finds in the course of the investigation, or possibly from general historical knowledge. The story covers the period of the First World War and topics which are pretty familiar at the moment with the centenaries we are marking. I recognised the meaning of certain findings before Jayne did but I think that is because she is coming to genealogical investigations from a career in the police, rather than from a background in history. It is a good job that she has friends and family that she can call on for more insights.

It is an engaging story with a hard deadline to rush around for and a mixture of sad and happy parts. There are rounded characters with interesting characteristics and a fair share of good and bad ones. There is an adequate smattering of driving around to undertake research in various genealogical archives, including Gretna Green, which is new for me. Genealogical mysteries often depend for their excitement on interference and sometimes violence from those in the present who do not want the truth to be out. This book follows that convention to a certain extent. However, the present day aggro is psychologically believable and Jayne deals with it all sensibly without jumping to crazy conclusions about the perpetrator and without holding up the story.

A fun, relatively light, book to read if you like genealogical mysteries or even just mysteries.

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The Great Spectacle at the Royal Academy


The Great Spectacle: 250 years of the Summer Exhibition

4 stars – I really liked this exhibition

In this, the Royal Academy’s 250th anniversary, there is a companion exhibition to the annual Summer Exhibition and it tells the story of the Summer Exhibition and provides a survey of British Art over the quarter millennium.

With the Summer Exhibition stuffing the main exhibition rooms with art, the Great Spectacle shows off not just the art but also the smaller suite of rooms that were designed for the Academicians and their Council and their General Assembly. Find the entrance to the right as you walk up the main staircase of the Piccadilly-facing Burlington House and pick up an audio guide if you can since it’s worth the extra cost.

Linger in the first room, the Tennant Gallery, to study William Powell Frith’s Private View from 1881, a gorgeous, colourful view of Victorian visitors to that year’s Exhibition including Oscar Wilde surrounded by admiring women; Millais, the pre-Raphaelite; and Anthony Trollope, taking notes, just like I was!

The exhibition shows views of the Exhibition in all the Royal Academy’s homes: Pall Mall, Somerset House, Trafalgar Square and Burlington House. It also provides an overview of the key moments over the years, including the star paintings of different years and a sense of the ebbs and flow in the popularity and significance of the Exhibition and the Academy. I’m sure everyone will take a different memory away from it.

I was particularly struck by the irony of how women were treated. Two founding members of the Royal Academy in 1768 were women but after that the Academy retreated from its equality and elected a full Royal Academician only in 1936. One work by a woman was the star of the 1874 Exhibition with queues waiting to see it and a battle to own it, which HM Queen Victoria won when the man who had commissioned it ceded the field to his queen. Despite this great acclaim, the artist, Elizabeth, Lady Butler, née Thompson, missed out on RA status two years later by two votes. The work was a painting, entitled Calling the Roll after an Engagement, Crimea and it is a fine painting of a line of men mostly in bearskins, some wounded, all battered, with a mounted officer dominating the left hand side and a flock of birds flying through the air in a tick formation.

Apart from that there were a fair number of works on display by women and also, in this year of celebrating the partial –franchise, a reminder that political events touched the annual art extravaganza: on 4 May 1914 Mary Wood, a suffragette, slashed John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Henry James. She selected that picture because it involved two international figures so brought lots of publicity; and she was protesting not just the issue of votes but also the lack of recognition of women artists.

I enjoyed seeing all the artworks and seeing the evolution from history pictures, through portraits and landscapes and genre paintings to the point where the Pre-Raphaelites arrived and the colours became jewelled and the detail fabulous. There is an extraordinary piece by Rodin, cast in bronze but showing life-like detail of muscle and sinew – Rodin exhibited it first in Paris in 1877 but then brought it to London in 1884. By then, he saw the RA as a key international venue and that would have pleased the founders of the RA who wanted to raise the status of British art.

Then the 20th century brought the treatment of war and the fight between the traditionalists and the modernists of various generations. I loved the satirical piece by the ex-President, Sir Alfred Mummings PRA, called Does the Subject Matter? Exhibited in 1956 in shows 4 elegantly dressed patrons studying abstract art. It is witty and charming but remember, this is also the chap who took advantage of the broadcasting of the 1949 RA dinner (reinstated after the war at Churchill’s urging) to resign as President and to lambast modern art. Munnings probably wouldn’t have been happy with the last couple of rooms of the exhibition, which show how modern art gradually made its way into the Exhibition.

One of the charms of an exhibition like this is that you have a chance to see details in famous paintings. For example, Annigoni’s 1955 portrait of HM Queen Elizabeth II was a familiar image. However, I didn’t know it contained a self-portrait. The piece was commissioned by The Worshipful Company of Fishmongers. In recognition of this, Annigoni painted a small boat in the left-hand bottom corner of the landscape background and painted himself into the boat, fishing!

In summary, it is a lovely exhibition about a 250-year-old Exhibition, giving an insight into art and Britain over those years. It is on at the Royal Academy in London until its last day of 19 August 2018 and you can find more information here.

To Autumn 

What a lovely day to be out and about in London Town!  The leaves are turning, glowing softly in the low morning sun. The thermometer read 11°C but it felt mild and comfortable.

It’s on days like this that my O Level English Literature quotations crowd back into my mind: “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, close bosom-friend of the mmm-mmm-mmm sun”. Well, OK not the whole quotation, eh?

Even so it prompted me to look it up. (Ah there should be an Ode to the Internet!). Reading a poem is a pleasant thing to do on a bus on Shaftesbury Avenue.

The BBC has it here if you wish to enjoy the whole poem and PotW.org (Poem of the Week) tells me it was written on 19 September 1819 so a very timely poem.