Two Thirds Majority Needed, eh? #ge2017

In the event, the vote (in the UK House of Commons to call an election) passed like a damp squib.  I supposed politicians can’t resist the chance to go out and campaign on doorsteps, rallies and debates.  However, when the Prime Minister first mentioned it on Tuesday 18 March, the irony of the need for a two-thirds majority made me smile, ruefully.

The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011 was introduced to the House by Nick Clegg, when he was Deputy Prime Minister in the Liberal Democrat – Conservative coalition and was hailed as a remarkable modernisation brought about by that coalition and by the Liberal Democrat influence on policy.  It took away the ability of a Prime Minister of the day to call an election whenever he or she wanted, taking advantage of a fair wind for the government’s Party.  It was expected to make it easier to govern when the biggest party doesn’t have a huge majority.  It reduced the ways that parliament could be dissolved and created a new normality that governments should last the full five-year term for which they had been elected.

Reinforcing the principle that this should be not easily overridden, the Act contained only two exceptions to the full term, both involving votes in the House of Commons.  In the first, the House must pass a vote of no-confidence in Her Majesty’s Government.  The second is what has happened today, 19 March 2017: the House has passed a motion that there should be an early parliamentary election.

Neither exception is a simple first-past-the-post, one-off vote.  If the House passes a vote of No-Confidence in HM Government, MPs then have 14 days to think a bit more about it and pass a vote of Confidence in HM Government.  Only if that fails is parliament dissolved.  And, for the motion for an early parliamentary election to pass the House it must have the support of “two-thirds of its total membership”, not of those voting but of the total membership.

So, when it comes to having a regular election, which can be repeated again if the right terms are met and, in any case, in five years’ time, there are special rules and higher than usual bars to clear.  But, for a one-off referendum that would radically change the direction of the UK and the individual rights of its citizens, a simple majority of those voting was considered appropriate.  Fiddle-di-dee!

David Hockney at Tate Britain

@Tate Britain’s David Hockney exhibition is in its last weeks.  It’s open until 29 May 2017 and has late night opening in the final weekend: Friday 26, Saturday 27, and Sunday 28 May 2017 until midnight and Monday 29 May 2017 until 21.00.  If you can find a way to go, it’s definitely worth the effort.  And, if you can find a moment that is less busy, that will be a blessing since it can be hard to move around and even harder to find space in front of the pieces you wish to view.

What an overwhelming and fabulous exhibition!  It’s probably not done to complain but there’s almost too much to see, too much of a good thing.  There are 12 rooms, spanning his whole life, showing how his art has evolved, using different media: oils, acrylics, drawing, painting, print, photography, video and iPad.  Unifying the whole is the question: how does the artist capture the real world in 2D?

There is pretty minimal interpretation in the rooms.  Even the AV guide, although very good, selects only one or two pieces in each room to discuss in any detail.  It does include audio and video clips of David Hockney discussing his work and that is very interesting especially when juxtaposed with the views of one of the curators on the same piece.

The first room is on the theme of “a play within a play”, demonstrating how Hockney has raised questions about picture-making and perspective across his career.  After that, the material is mostly presented chronologically, starting with his demonstrations of versatility in his early work and moving through the famous swimming pool pictures and portrayals of people in his life and places in his life, including the Yorkshire Wolds, to video pieces and art created and played back on iPads.

I appreciated the cleverness of the work in the first few rooms.  I thought the story behind the painting of the view of the Swiss Alps in Room 2 was amusing.  But the exhibition started to come alive for me in Room 4 with the pictures of California, exploring the straight lines of the buildings and quality of the bright light.

I could have stayed in Room 4 a long time but my companion reminded me there were eight more rooms to go!  I liked The Bigger Splash as well as Peter getting out of Nick’s Pool.  Hockney asks how you capture something that is constantly moving and has no surface, light on the pool and on the window, and gives a good answer in the picture.

Room 5 has some huge pieces, many portraits and paintings with people, including Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) from 1972 which I found very beautiful with its backdrop of lush vegetation.

Room 6 is like a respite – smaller drawings, created on Hockney’s travels, capturing a moment on the page – and then it’s on to Room 7 where we see how Hockney has used photographs, not just to capture people and scenes for later portrayal in oil or acrylic, but to create the pictures.  He takes photographs of multiple angles or snapshots across time and then lies them side by side to make up a multidimensional picture or takes close-ups of the different bits of the scene then reassembles the whole picture.  We really liked the Scrabble Game, showing multiple angles and capturing the passage of time in a still image, and Bolton Abbey, using the photographs to build up the collage.  Gregory Swimming, LA March 1982, is interesting because captured in the photographs are the same wavy interference patterns that he had previously portrayed in his paintings.

If I’d appreciated the art in the first rooms, I loved the last four rooms.

Room 9 shows paintings made in and of the Yorkshire Wolds, particularly of a road he drove again and again – The Road Across the Wolds and The Road up Garrowby Hill.  One painting, impossible to photograph, because it is a series of images from a long journey, all placed on the canvass, each mini scene seeming to form part of the whole but with its own perspective.

Room 10 contains paintings made after he moved back to Yorkshire for about 10 years from 2003.  They were painted en plein air with vibrant crazy colours.  Elderflower Blossom Kilham 2006 reminds me of my childhood.

Room 11 contains video art, The Four Seasons.  Hockney mounted 9 video cameras on a rig and drove it down a field in Yorkshire once in each of the four seasons.  On each wall in the small gallery, there is a group of 9 screens, each showing the film from one camera.  The films are synchronised so you can see a slightly different aspect of the view and you can see the same piece of road in each of the seasons.  The key to getting the most out of this work is to get into the centre of the room and look around the space.  It’s very special.  Spot the bird flying across summer, I think it was, and the snow falling from the trees in winter.

The final room is split into two.  The first has charcoal drawings of Yorkshire and then more paintings of his house in California.  The drawings of Yorkshire, The Arrival of Spring 2013, are a paean to the experience of seeing the countryside awakening to the Spring, an experience we can take for granted but which Hockney found he had missed while living in California.  They show five places at five moments between the first shoots and the verdant full blossoming.  Fabulous!

In the second half of the room we see the iPad art, shown on screens bigger than the original iPad.  What I had not realised was that the iPad not only becomes a canvas but it also records how a drawing or painting is made.  You can play back the creation of the piece, seeing how the artist paints, gradually building up the, and correcting, the image.  It was fascinating.

I really enjoyed the exhibition and only wish you a quiet moment to appreciate it fully.

Review of “Family Shadows” by John Nixon (not the man who interrogated Saddam Hussein!)

Family ShadowsFamily Shadows by John Nixon

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I found “Family Shadows” when looking for a genealogical crime novel after I ran out of my favourite such series. It was a good idea for a story and, given that I find it very difficult to come up with good plots, I appreciated that. However, it was very poorly executed.

I myself had feedback on one of my 100-word pieces that said, “It didn’t read like a story; it was like reading a news report.” Now, of course, I don’t agree about my story but I do see how I can use that criticism about Family Shadows! It is as if John Nixon had this idea for a narrative and he’s basically told us what happened, rather than revealing it to us through what his protagonists do and say.

He did open the novel with a scene set in the past, but he then failed to follow through on that narrative device and dramatized none of the historical scenes. Even the dénouement is told as reported speech. It was as if he just wanted to get the story out of the way.

It is a first novel so I thought I’d go back and check out another first novel – Nathan Dylan Goodwin’s “Hiding the Past”. (Hence, my flurry of activity on his books in What I read there really increased my admiration for Mr Goodwin and showed me what could be done. Now, if only I can get an idea for a plot, I can try and emulate him and ‘show not tell’, as the instruction goes. It did however harden my resolve on “Family Secrets”. Having decided what the story was he wanted to tell, Mr Nixon would have done well to go back and think about an intriguing and thrilling way to tell it.

I also think he might then have wondered if he had quite the right characters in place to tell the story. This is quite a brutal story at heart. I didn’t think the psychology of the main characters was true to what they were being asked to experience or given what they were supposed to have done.

I did finish the book. It wasn’t that hard to read and I quite liked the main protagonist, Fiona, who was researching her step daughters’ family histories. I also liked Madeleine Porter who had a small role but is the protagonist of his next novels and I’ll give one of those a chance.

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“The country is coming together..”? Pull the other one, Prime Minister! #ge2017

Oh, Mrs May, I know you have developed the politicians’ habit of saying something with feigned conviction in the apparent belief that saying it will make it so, but I’m not too keen on a leader who lives in fantasy land.

The country is divided.  The referendum demonstrated that half the people think one thing and half the people another.  Nothing has happened since to change that.

The referendum also uncovered an underground reservoir of bile and hatred that has since inundated the landscape of political discourse and not yet receded.  It showed that none of us has the resources to debate the differences between us and to forge solutions around which we can unite.

This General Election campaign seems like to make that worse not better.  Even in announcing the decision to call an election, Mrs May demonstrated that.  Instead of acknowledging that members of parliament, Commons and Lords alike, have a constitutional job to challenge the activity of the government to improve the quality of legislation and decision making, she cited the actions of the other political parties and of the lawful upper chamber as examples of their failing to come together and, thereby, of their doing the wrong thing.  Who’s playing the game of politics now, Prime Minister?

Shame on you, Mrs May.  You set the scene for the Daily Mail’s use of the word “saboteurs” on their front page on Wednesday.  I applaud that, when asked on BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme about the tone of that, you said you “absolutely” did not agree with it and are quoted as saying: “Absolutely not, politics and democracy are about, of course, people having different opinions, different views.”  But we, the people of the United Kingdom, need you to do more than protest after the event.  We need you to lead.  We need you to demonstrate that you truly believe what you say.

We need you, and everyone else in public life, to stand against the flood and to debate the substance of what people are saying rather than attacking their right to say it.

My Review of Closed Casket, the new Hercule Poirot Mystery by Sophie Hannah

I posted this review on

Closed Casket: The New Hercule Poirot MysteryClosed Casket: The New Hercule Poirot Mystery by Sophie Hannah

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a great whodunit. It is a complete page turner. Indeed it quickly becomes a “page re-reader” as you reach certain points where a revelation sends you back to re-read the pages with the knowledge you now have. In the grand tradition of golden age detective novels, the possibilities and impossibilities posed by the strange group of characters, gathered in an isolated mansion, boggle the mind as you try to work out who could have committed murder and why. Even psychology itself is under attack during the novel.

I’ve thought quite carefully about what else I can say without being accused of spoilers and, really, there’s not much! The blurb on the book itself talks of a house party at the Irish mansion of Lady Athelinda Playford, described as one of the world’s most beloved children’s authors, and of her announcement that she is cutting off her two children without a penny . . . and leaving her vast fortune to an invalid with weeks to live. Everything springs from that and you find that out in the first few pages of the book.

The book was commissioned by Agatha Christie Limited to extend the adventures of Hercule Poirot and follows the success of The Monogram Murders, also written by Sophie Hannah. In that book, she introduced a new foil for Poirot, Detective Inspector Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard. He reappears here, one of the guests at the house party, to narrate the tale.
The only thing I found slightly curious is that Poirot himself is absent for pages of the book, his enquiries visible only in his reports to Catchpole. However, that was less frustrating than the fact that I wanted Catchpool to ask questions like, what happened six years ago, and he never even acknowledged my request!

The setting is in the classic well-to-do late 1920s but I’ll close with a comment from one of the characters that has some resonance today: “After all, without the occasional solid fact, anyone could ask one to believe anything, and then no story is better than any other.”

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America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s at Royal Academy #AmericaAftertheFall

As well as Russia, @RoyalAcademy has America on show this spring, until 4 June 2017.  The exhibition shows artists’ responses to the deprivation and changes that took place in the 1930s, through seven themes covering city, industry, countryside and the future.  I really enjoyed seeing the paintings and recommend it to all!

The exhibition is in the Sackler Wing.  This is 2 floors above the main entrance in Burlington House but they are high floors!  Take the lift (turn right in the anteroom at the top of the main staircase) unless you feel really fit!

It is a small space, 3 rectangular rooms, two joining at their long side and the third fitting along their joined short sides.  The walls are white.  The material is hung at a reasonable head height, catering to the average human.  There are information panels close to each picture providing at least the artist and the title and materials.  The audio guide was clear and useful.  All in all, I found it a friendly space and the art felt accessible.  There was only one piece, Thanksgiving, where I had to bob down a little to get a good look at all the detail.

You enter one of the side-by-side rooms.  As you come through the entrance you are guided to the left into the end of the room.  That created a bunching of people which didn’t work too well for me.  And, across from the entrance is an opening to the final section.  I found that confusing.  I guess you could be maverick and go backwards round the exhibition but I’d prefer not to, at least the first time.  I wouldn’t object to more signage.  Of course, if you have the audio guide, it includes a little plan to help you.

Let’s start at the top of the first room.  Aspiration, by Aaron Douglas, a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance, was created for the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas.  It features in the education guide for this exhibition and the difficulty of reproducing artwork in print meant that I really wanted to see the original.  I thought the hands at the bottom were applauding but in fact, like it says in the text, they were manacled, a reminder of the slavery from which the figures at the top, with their learning, were escaping.

Working down the room, there is Industrial Life on the left and City Life on the right.  I liked so many of the pieces here that it is hard to pick out one or two.  American Landscape, a 1930 painting by Charles Sheeler of Ford’s River Rouge plant, includes hard edges and precision on the buildings and train but the reflection is softer and more sympathetic.  The soft pastel palette reminded me of Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin in the Russian exhibition.

Then there’s Alice Neel’s portrait of Pat Whelan, a trade union leader.  It is not quite photographic realism but the way she has portrayed the face conveys the character and passion of the man.  It looks like he’s just slammed down his fist on the table.

Gas by Edward Hopper shows a petrol station (to give it its British name).  It is at the forest edge and the road bends away to the right into the unknown.  The lighting is amazing with sunrise or sunset from the natural world and artificial light spilling from the building.

The cityscapes are generally ambiguous.  Are the people happy or caught up in something miserable?  In The Fleet’s In, Paul Cadmus exaggerates the figures and shows them rearing backwards.  It’s uncomfortable.  Phil Evergood’s Dance Marathon 1934 is a danse macabre.  The men or women at the front are caught in a spider web of the markings of the panels on the floor.

There are two images of cinemas.  Reginald March’s 20¢ Movie is busy with people outside the theatre dressed like the people in the movie posters, all glammed up.  But the titles of the movies: ‘The Joys of the Flesh’, ‘Who is Without Sin’, ‘Damnations or Hell?’, ‘Dangerous Curves’, etc. suggest a world that you might not want to be part of and make me think it is more about the dangers of the movies than the cheap innocent escape it might seem.  I did think my mother would like the fashion portrayed.  Meanwhile, New York Movie, another Edward Hopper, is a much larger canvas to show a much less busy scene.  The inside of the theatre is luxurious and the usherette is dressed in a correct but plain dress.  It is impressionistic giving a real sense of the place but quite sketchy and soft detail when you look closely.

Moving into the second gallery, there is Looking to the Past at the nearest end and Country Life begins half way along the room on the bottom wall and works around the far end to the doorway to the third gallery.  Here you will see perhaps the most famous piece in the exhibition, Grant Wood’s American Gothic.  But, don’t rush, wallow a little in the past, in the nostalgia for a past that maybe never existed.  This is another reminder for me of the Russian Exhibition and the sled rides, birch forests and onion-shaped church domes of their artists’ memories.  In this case it is more the founding myth of the revolution and the cosy hospitality of the past.

Several of the pieces here are also by Grant Wood.  I very much liked The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.  It is moonlit with people emerging in their night shirts from the houses.  To the right in the distance up a long and winding road are the lights of the pursuers.  There are New England houses and a church but they are almost cartoonish.  I thought there a little too much light in the houses for the late 18th century.

In Daughters of the Revolution, Grant Wood portrays three very proper ladies who can trace their ancestry back to the American Revolution.  They are smiling and yet serious.  One very politely holds a cup.  There is great precision in the painting of the cup and of the lace one of the women wears.  It is a British tea cup, which is an irony.  There is a story in the painting, long enough for a whole article

Similarly, in Paul Sample’s Church Supper, there are several stories.  The big scene of the supper, people seated at tables, is in front of a winding road through fields, people playing baseball in the distance, a car and a horse drawn wagon.  It reminded me of The Waltons.  However, there is also a rather racy lady lifting her skirts to give one of the proper men a view of her legs.

I particularly liked Doris Lee’s Thanksgiving, despite having to dip down to see it properly.  This shows a kitchen with a clock at 10.15, painted in a naïve style.  It won the Logan New Acquisition Prize but even the contemporary scion of the donating Logan family didn’t agree with the prize at the time so it is controversial in artistic circles.  However, it portrays a happy and fecund atmosphere, which is lovely to experience.

As you move through the room to Country life, you see the pain that existed.  In Erosion #2 Alexandre Hogue shows the sand coloured earth shaped in the curves of a female form, Mother Earth figure laid bare by the lack of water.  It is a very powerful image, particularly set against the other paintings showing what the countryside used to look like.

American Gothic is placed at the head of this second room, dominating the space.  It shows very realistic faces except that they are slightly elongated.  Grant Wood has a habit of painting his trees, and even his grass, as collections of green blobs, not painting the individual leaves.  You see them here but mostly behind the house in the background.  The guide talks about the vertical lines that link the parts of the composition.  These extend from the columns on the veranda to the spire above the trees.  Obvious, once pointed out.

The walls of the final room are mostly filled with Visions of DystopiaLooking to the Future takes up the end nearest the doorway back to the exit.  I found the former more interesting and attractive than the latter.  I will not spend any more time here contemplating why; I just offer it as an observation.

There are two very famous pieces in Looking to the Future and you may wish to see them when you have the chance.  Neither, however, did much for me.  Jackson Pollock’s Untitled ca 1938/41 has amazing colours and I could just about make out the shape of the head of a bull, perhaps the shape of a man.  It’s quite pleasant but it didn’t speak to me.  Similiarly, Georgia O’Keefe’s Cow’s Skull with Calico Rose, although possessing an admirably descriptive title, didn’t do much for me either.  I much prefer her landscapes that I saw in 2016 at Tate Modern.

So what Visions of Dystopia did catch my eye?

Firstly, Helen Lunderberg’s Double Portrait of the Artist in Time didn’t just attract me but it taught me a lesson about Surrealism.  The Surreal is about things that cannot happen in our reality.  I didn’t understand that definition (I’ve told you before that I didn’t know much about art) before seeing this piece and this piece is a good way for me to remember it.  A baby sits holding a bud in front of a picture of herself all grown up with the flower in full bloom.  This cannot happen in reality.  The opposite, if you like, can: a person can sit in front of a picture of herself as a baby, but not this way around.  The baby and the picture are linked by a large shadow – of the artist, I thought.  So, if this is a self-portrait, there are in fact three portraits of the artist.

Philip Guston’s Bombardment is probably a response to the bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War and a foretelling of what was to hit other European cities and towns in the following ten years.  It is circular, blasting the bodies of people out towards the viewer and away from the explosion in the centre of the piece.  It is extremely impressive standing in front of it – more so than you can imagine from the picture in a book.

Grant Wood portrays Death on the Ridge Road.  You can see his green grass like a slightly shapeless carpet, in the same style as his blobby trees, and above a forbidding front of black cloud and rain.  A big red truck crests the hill, on a collision course with a black car slewed across the road! I could almost hear the crash and shrieking metal in the moment after the picture.

Similarly realistic was John Stewart Curry’s Hogs Killing a Snake.  It is figurative piece showing a group of pigs and a snake writhing among them.  It portrays an amazing sense of movement.  You can see that the snake is fighting back!

American Justice by Joe Jones shows a house ablaze in the background and, on the left, a group of Ku Klux Klansmen gathered around a candle or lamp, while one of whom holds a glowing brand.  On the right a dog looks up at a noose, seeming to be caught before howling.  The trees surround and press in on the scene.  At the front lies an African American woman, naked from the waist up, her eyes rolled up in her head.  Lighting is used to highlight the key shapes: the woman’s nightdress and whites of her eyes, the white bark of a tree and the Klansmen’s robes, the brand and the fire.  I didn’t think the woman was dead – yet – just in shock from what had happened and was likely to happen.  Either way, it was a sobering and moving piece.

To leave the room on a high note, Arthur Dove’s Swing Music (Louis Armstrong) was an energetic and positive piece.  It captured the sense of rhythm and music with bursts of colour, particularly red, which portrays almost half a face on the right, in the midst of abstract shapes.  It seems to move and change as you watch it: red on black or black on red as shapes merge.

All in all, I enjoyed the exhibition, the different themes worked for me as an organising principle and I found insight into the art of the era.  Royal Academy tells us, “The art of 1930s America tells the story of a nation in flux. Artists responded to rapid social change and economic anxiety with some of the 20th century’s most powerful art.”  I would agree that the exhibition shows us some powerful, lovely and interesting pieces.  The RA goes on to say, “In the devastating wake of the Wall Street Crash, artists sought to capture the changes in urbanisation, industrialisation and immigration that pulsed across the country, resulting in one of the most vital periods for American artists in the 20th century. This was a decade like no other that saw them search for an elusive ‘Americanness’ through realism, populism and abstraction, rural and urban themes, the farm, the new, the traditional.”  What struck me is that ‘Americanness’ means many different things to different artists.  There isn’t much unanimity about it although it contains a strong nostalgia for the past.

There’s always lots of really interesting material on the Royal Academy website to support exhibitions so, if you like to read up about an exhibition before you go, have a look here.  You’ll even find details of a free tour you can join.  The teachers’ guide is really good at giving you something to think about and you’ll find that here.

The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945 at the Barbican Art Gallery

There is a life-sized Japanese House @BarbicanCentre and you can walk through it!  It forms the central part of an exhibition on The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945, on in London until 25 June 2017.  Find out more here.

The exhibition starts on the mezzanine of the 4th floor Art Gallery.  Up there is a lot of material to read and to consider about the theory of architecture, the intentions of the architects and the society in which they were (and are) working.  There are films, written interpretations, plans, architectural models and even the occasional sample of a coffee table or a wall.  All in all, you can spend hours here if you wish.  There are even bean bags into which to sink to watch the films.

I liked having the models and being able to look at them.  We’d have liked to have seen more photographs of all the buildings in situ as well to help the context.

It was interesting to have a glimpse of all the ideas that the Japanese architects had.  I’d have welcomed some other contemporary views to answer questions such as: did this make a difference to ordinary Japanese people or is it just in the esoteric world of the architects? And, do the buildings achieve what they were meant to, in the opinion of those who live or work in them?  And, were the architects doing what society needed?

On the main floor of the gallery is the Moriyama House, a full-sized recreation of a house in Tokyo.  It took me a while to realise what it was and how it related to the other exhibits, a film of Yasuo Moriyama in the original house, for example.  My conclusion is that I’d welcome a little more signage, pointing my way.  However, I concede that the information is there, in the wall panels.  It was a bit more hard work than I wanted to put in at the time.

Having said that, the experience of wandering through the rooms and being in the spaces was quite fun.  They felt welcoming and alien in almost equal parts.  It was a bit like some of the models of other houses, some of which were wall-less or had glass walls, providing no privacy, and others were completely enclosed with few windows to the outside, creating an impression of being shut in.  I came away feeling that, while I wouldn’t choose to live in one of these Japanese homes, if I ever have to live in a small space, I should like my architect and furniture supplier to be Japanese.  They know how to build small!

In the meantime, if you can, should you go to the exhibition?  If you are interested in architecture or Japan, definitely yes.  If different styles of houses interest you and you want to experience Japanese living without flying to Japan, also yes, but give yourself enough time to wander around the house and don’t be put off by the theory.