30 April 2013

For once, British politics and art

This blog has pretensions which include UK politics and British art but only occasionally does one post manage to cover the two. Back in February a post about Spielberg’s Lincoln mentioned that Tony Blair’s wife, Cherie, is probably a descendant of Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth. Weeks later, wandering through my local branch of Poundland (a chain in the UK pricing all items at £1, ie about US$1.50 or €1.20) I came across a copy (a lot of copies to be honest) of Cherie’s autobiography, Speaking for Myself. I thought it would be interesting to see if she acknowledged her reputed notorious ancestor – not a mention. But I did come across something which was just as interesting.

Euan Uglow (1932-2000) was a British painter who specialised in the human figure, particularly female nudes, and also still lifes and landscapes. His work in UK public collections (eg Zagi 1981-2 right and owned by the Tate) can be seen on BBC Your Paintings. In her autobiography (pages 62 to 64) Cherie Booth, as she was at the time, explains how she met Uglow and agreed to sit for him:
… [he] handed me what he called "a blue dress" that he wanted me to wear. The blue dress turned out to be just a piece of material he had stitched together, almost like a hip-length waistcoat. It was completely open down the middle. The pose he wanted was very straightforward. I had to have one leg out in front and the other behind, as if I had been caught in the middle of a stride. It had never occurred to me that I would be expected to pose naked, or as good as.  
… During the first few sessions, as I stood desperately trying to hold the pose, I thought, 'What on earth am I doing this for? But at the same time it went through my head that one day I might want my children to know that I wasn't such a dull-o, bluestocking Goody Two-shoes after all.
Eventually other demands on her time forced Booth to give up the sittings:
[Uglow] told me not to worry and that he'd get another dark model to take my place. He had never got round to doing my face, though you could still see it was me. I think he did try to get a replacement, but it didn't work out, so he decided to leave my painting unfinished. It still exists somewhere, but where I don't know. I would love to have it, of course, but his paintings are very valuable, even more so now that he's no longer alive.
There doesn’t seem to be that much mystery about the unfinished painting’s recent location. Earlier this year Striding Nude, Blue Dress 1979-80 was one of the Uglow works on Marlborough Fine Art’s website (below).

Uglow paintings don’t seem to come up at auction very often – I can find nothing comparable to the one Booth sat for since the rather smaller Beautiful Girl Lying Down went for £22000 at Christie’s in 1993. Nonetheless, even at a likely six figure price now, it seems surprising that the Blairs have never bought Striding Nude, Blue Dress given their wealth. A reason might be:
In all the time I was going to Battersea to model for Euan, Tony never knew that I was posing nude. … Tony, when he eventually learned the truth, was very uncomfortable with it. He still is.
But we are told later that the Booths’ first child is called:
… Euan, after Euan Uglow and also a school friend of Tony's who had died far too young. (page 105)

UPDATE 21 MAY 2014 

Lot 97 at Bonhams auction of Modern British and Irish Art on 28 May is listed as Euan Uglow’s Striding Nude, Blue Dress, painted 1978-80, provenance The Artist's Estate and estimated at £60,000 to £80,000.


"Sold for £74,500 inc. premium"

28 April 2013

A New New Franc!

Posts here in the past have raised the possibility of France leaving the Eurozone or the euro’s collapse (eg in 2011 and most recently in 2012) but raising the subject has always seemed more “raving” than “droning”. So I was surprised to see the essay article below in the current issue of Le Figaro Magazine:

Speech by the President of the Republic
It was written by Philippe Villin, énarque, banker and journalist and, according to Wikipedia, a member of Le Siècle, so a man firmly embodied in the French elite. In his article Villin imagines the speech which François Hollande would give at 11pm on 7 July 2013 announcing this revolution:
Françaises, Français, chers concitoyens, l’euro est mort. A minuit, le nouveau nouveau franc, le NNF, sera notre nouvelle monnaie. …
And he goes on to explain the background to his decision to introduce the NNF* at parity with the euro. It is primarily due to the double problem of French economic competitiveness in the euro – with Germany internally and in US$ terms externally. A ‘euro of the south’ was ruled out as too weak for France and Italy and too strong for the others. France’s euro debts would be repaid in NNF.  Hollande ends with a passage reminiscent of Harold Wilson’s 1967 sterling devaluation “pound in your pocket” speech:
Demain matin, la vie sera normale: transports, téléphone, télévisions fonctionneront, les magasins seront ouverts … les vaches auront donne du lait, le soleil brillera selon Metéo France …**
There is a satirical element to the whole piece, which, incidentally, describes Villin as a staunch supporter of returning to the franc, for example its annotation as “PCC François Hollande” (pour copie conforme being the French equivalent of CC, once known in English as 'carbon copy').

I hope Villin's article gets translated and appears in the UK media.  The NNF may not impossible, but its announcement on 7 July 2013 seems highly unlikely.

* The last new franc (nouveau franc NF) was introduced in January 1960 by revaluation from 100 old francs.

** Tomorrow morning, life will be normal***: transport, telephones, television will work, the shops will open ... the cows will give milk, the sun will shine according to France Metéo …

*** In the presidential election in 2012, Hollande was sold as ‘Monsieur Normale’, in contrast with his predecessor.

24 April 2013

The South West was Yellow in 2010

Recently a Graphic detail post on The Economist website made the well-known point that:
… identifying the political affiliation of parliamentary constituencies by colour on an ordinary, geographic map doesn’t quite work: not all constituencies are the same area, though each represents roughly the same number of people. As a result, expansive rural constituencies appear far larger than small but densely-populated urban ones. Thus, a geographic map appears very blue (for Conservative) because it over-emphasises rural constituencies. And Liberal-Democrats (in yellow) look as if they hold sway over one-fifth of the country, when in fact it is visually skewed by some big, sparsely-populated places. Labour's presence seems meagre.
The Economist’s remedy:
… was an equal-area "Dorling" cartogram (below), named after Danny Dorling of the University of Sheffield. Part map, part graph, it let us depict every constituency at the same size, while keeping them in the approximate position and retaining the overall shape of the country. Because the variations in size of rural and urban constituencies are eliminated, the eye gets a far better sense of the actual distribution of political party representation.
The Economist also:
added another layer of information: the strength of political support, by shade.

In the South West region however, the original geographic problem doesn’t really apply. There are only four urban Labour constituencies so the Lib Dem and Conservatives share the low density rural areas and the visual skew is small (detail below from the Daily Telegraph).

In fact the Dorling cartogram (detail above) introduces distortions of its own in the South West by putting Labour-held Exeter and Plymouth in adjacent hexagons while separating the two contiguous Bristol Labour seats.

The Economist didn’t state that the results they were presenting were for the 2010 election. If the Conservatives are to form a majority government after the 2015 election, as well as taking Labour seats in the North West and North East, they will have to take many of the 15 Lib Dem seats in the South West. My feeling is that the Tories will find that difficult and it will be interesting to see if the local elections next week support my view.

17 April 2013

The Arts Council’s Henry Moores in Bath

The Arts Council Collection of works by British sculptors includes 11 sculptures and 15 works on paper by Henry Moore purchased between 1948 and 1963. Not for the first time these are on a UK tour which on this occasion has reached SW England at the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath. In the Bath show the Arts Council’s collection is supplemented with a loan of etchings by Moore from a local gallery.

One of the earliest works on paper on display is Standing Nude 1929 and the newest Women Winding Wool 1948 (below left and right). Regrettably the Arts Council collection does not include any of Moore’s World War 2 shelter drawings.

The sculptural works offer an opportunity to see one of Moore’s pre-War bronzes with strings, Stringed Figure 1938 (left).  Moore had met the emigré constructivist Naum Gabo by then but such works were as much surreal as abstract.  There are also some working models, the latest being Working Model for Knife Edge Two Piece 1962 (below left). The models are interesting but lack the monumental quality of the full size works in the open, for example the similar Knife Edge Two Piece (below right at Kew in 2008) which is familiar from another cast near Parliament in London, often a background to television interviews and currently under restoration.

In a departure from previous practice the Victoria Art Gallery has started to charge for admission to special exhibitions, in this case £3.50. The Bath and North East Somerset local authority which owns the gallery no doubt had their financial reasons for making this change. But perhaps this wasn’t the best exhibition to start with. Firstly, the taxpayers of Bath and beyond in the past supported the Arts Council in the original purchase of some of these works and subsequently in their conservation and in providing insurance through the Government Indemnity Scheme. Secondly, there was no charge to see this exhibition in its previous tour stop in Canterbury, nor will there be at its next in Limerick. More generally, Bath is a leading UK destination for cultural tourism with millions of visitors a year who bring obvious economic benefits to local businesses and employment. Is it appropriate for a city with UNESCO World Heritage site status to be charging £3.50 to see only 26 works, even if they do provide a useful survey in miniature of a major British artist?

Henry Moore In the Arts Council Collection continues in Bath until 23 June.

UPDATE 24 MAY 2013

On 17 May the Victoria Art Gallery retweeted:

Here are the forthcoming temporary exhibitions:


National Art Pass holders are now receiving a 50% discount on Victoria Art Gallery admissions.
Next summer's exhibition schedule has been revised.

13 April 2013

George Bellows at the RA

As soon as I walked into George Bellows (1882-1925): Modern American Life at the Royal Academy I had a feeling of déjà vu, or more accurately déjà vu all over again. Was it having seen a Hopper retrospective last year – he and Bellows were both pupils of Robert Henri at the New York School of Art? And then I remembered a small exhibition at the London National Gallery in 2011, An American Experiment George Bellows and The Ashcan Painters. That show, like the one now at the RA and Tate Modern’s current Lichtenstein retrospective, benefited from the support of the Terra Foundation for American Art. Their objective is “Bringing American Art to the World and the World to American Art” and hopefully the reach of their activities in the UK will spread beyond London in due course.

It’s the early parts of this exhibition (a version of earlier incarnations in Washington DC and New York which have been reduced to 70 works in London) which make the best impression on the visitor. Realist works like Stag at Sharkey’s 1909 (above and detail in the banner) and the wintry scenes of parks (Blue Snow the Battery 1910, left) and construction sites convey the energy and rawness of New York a century ago. World War 1 propaganda pieces like Massacre at Dinant 1918 (below) have little appeal to modern eyes forgetful of their context. The war had begun in Europe in July 1914 but the USA did not enter until April 1917 and then after a fierce national debate to overcome isolationist objections.

After the war Bellows and his family (the subject of late portraits like Emma and Her Children 1923 below) lived in an artists’ colony in New York State at Woodstock until his death from appendix-related peritonitis, not uncommon in the pre-antibiotic world (or, as we may discover, in a future post-antibiotic one). Perhaps if Burrows had lived beyond 42 and had ventured abroad to, say, Paris in the 1920s, his art might have developed in new and less retrospective directions. Not for the first time here, it is hard to disagree with one of Brian Sewell’s conclusions, in this case that “This exhibition is unlikely to convince an informed London audience that Bellows was a great painter.”

George Bellows (1882-1925): Modern American Life continues until 9 June 2013.

Yaron Zilberman’s ‘A Late Quartet’

Back in January I described Dustin Hoffman’s film Quartet, set in a retirement home in the English countryside in summer, as British cinema geriatrica. Although A Late Quartet is similar in name and again is about a musical quartet, the resemblance stops there. The members of Zilberman’s Fugue Quartet are at their professional peak and his film charts their way through interlocking personal and professional crises. A Late Quartet is set in the sort of Manhattan winter which Bellows would have recognised and in the sort of affluent and cultured milieu (a glimpse of Holbein’s Thomas More at one point) which is familiar from Woody Allen’s more serious pieces. I lack the musical knowledge to fully appreciate the metaphorical significance of Beethoven’s Opus 131 String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor and I’m too ignorant to be distracted by the actors having to mimic playing. Anyone interested in such issues should read elsewhere, eg Clarrissa Tan’s review in the Spectator and the comment on it by “Salieri”. But I can offer comment on the acting which I thought was uniformly good, in particular it was a pleasure to see Philip Seymour Hoffman again after 2011’s Ides of March.

However, someone whose opinions I usually respect hated Zilberman’s film. Norman Geras’s post about it on Normblog begins “Spoiler herein, if this thing is capable of actually being spoiled.” so I have been selective:
One of the worst experiences I've had in the cinema in recent times was going to see A Late Quartet on Saturday. It was excruciatingly awful: clichéd, plot-predictable, musically refined sensibilities for those who really know how to feel, and laid on like honey and peanut butter; with one scene in which the movie basically collapses, as mother visits daughter, … . Readers, I cringe to remember it.
And he prays in aid the review in the New Statesman by Ryan Gilbey:
A Late Quartet is a terrible film—it’s like an idiots’ Amour. It does, though, feature an outstanding performance by Christopher Walken. The movie itself is all calculation. It’s achingly, parodically middlebrow in everything from its storyline (the 25th anniversary tour of a string quartet is jeopardised by the illness of its founder, and the tensions between the remaining three members) to the bias of the script, which fondly imagines that passionate young women go helplessly cock-a-hoop for embittered, middle-aged jobbing musicians with an entire airport carousel’s worth of emotional baggage.
but Geras doesn’t even like
… Christopher Walken's performance, which [Gilbey] calls outstanding. Don't believe it. Walken fits right in, with his oh-so-delicate and suffering sensitivity conveyed by a sad eye and a near-sneer.
So let me comment on these criticisms and reveal some of my own views in the process, without, I hope, exposing too much of the plot in the process. For a start, I think any comparison with Amour is ill-founded – the latter is about a long-married couple facing the harsh vicissitudes of old age. Three of the Fugue Quartet are in their professional prime and their problems are both more complicated and less tragic than that of Georges and Anne. I thought Walken was good in his part, but all the main players were convincing - Walken can hardly be blamed for offering a slightly unsettling intimation of Ben Bradshaw MP in years to come. If the New Statesman regards this film as “middlebrow”, I have to wonder where they find something highbrow at the cinema these days. Would they have had any time for Zilberman’s only previous film direction (according to IMDb), a documentary, Watermarks, about the Hakoah Jewish women’s swimming team in pre-War Vienna? Possibly not sufficiently recherché for the Staggers.

Gilbey’s reference to “embittered, middle-aged jobbing musicians” eludes me. The Fugue Quartet – and whether this is realistic I have no idea – are clearly being portrayed as performers of high international standing with incomes and standards of living to match. The quartet’s first violin player, who is the bachelor object of said young woman’s passion, not only owns a BMW but what looked to me like a Gerhard Richter candle painting. Another player was contemplating paying over US $20,000 for a violin. As for young women and middle-aged men, I can well remember from my university days a woman student being involved with a rather older academic – and that was in Britain in the 1960s, not New York now. By the way, if any player in the quartet was embittered, it was the second violin, not the first.

Anyone who has had to earn their living in a team, however prosaic its purpose, will recognise the film’s portrayal of the conflicts that can arise between professional and personal interests. So as far as cinema dramas go, and so far as I can understand the lives of high-flying classical musicians in Manhattan, it seemed plausible enough, and as for the unavoidable preciousness given the subject – well not every film can be about the CIA. Zilberman wrote, part-screenplayed and directed A Late Quartet. I’m hoping he will direct again before long, in the meantime Watermarks is available only on a Region 1 DVD unfortunately.


Anyone who has read this far might find this report on BBC News, Hidden hierarchy in string quartets revealed, interesting!

10 April 2013

The Boris and Pippa Show

Pippa Middleton has emerged as a celebrity on the strength of being the younger sister of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and likely Queen consort circa 2045. Last year, Time magazine considered Pippa to be one of the 100 most influential people in the world and, who knows, she might appear on their list again in 2013. Wikipedia currently describes Pippa as a ‘socialite’ and a perusal of the rest of the entry suggests that her principal achievement so far has been the authorship of a guide to party planning, Celebrate. Despite her book’s mixed reviews, for example in the Daily Telegraph, Waitrose Kitchen magazine has recently recruited Pippa as a columnist.

I have already posted about Boris Johnson’s appearances on the BBC last week. A couple of days later a feature article appeared in the Spectator written by Pippa and mostly about her skiing holiday, but:
Back home in London after my Alpine challenges, I can now pursue less demanding hobbies in my spare time, such as ping-pong. I’m informed that Boris Johnson, former editor of this magazine, wants to be ‘whiff-whaff’ world king even more than he wants to be Prime Minister. I’m also told the Johnsons are almost as competitive as the Middletons. So I’d like to lay down a challenge to the Mayor. My only stipulation is that I can use my favourite Dunlop Blackstorm Nemesis bat, which I used when I played in the Milton Keynes U13 National Championships, don’t you know. Bring it on, Boris.
There was a rapid follow-up from the Spectator’s gossip columnist Steerpike:
Game on: Boris has accepted Pippa Middleton’s ‘Whiff-Whaff’ challenge. The Mayor of London has declared:  
‘I’m game if she is. Happy for Pippa to join me on a visit and see the benefits of our £22m Sports Legacy Fund in action.’  
While Pippa would no doubt enjoy that, the Spectator is happy to set up a ping pong table in our garden. Pol Roger will be served.  
UPDATE: Mr Steerpike has confirmation Pippa is still up for the contest. I hear she ‘sensed some nerves’ in Boris’s reply.
I was half-expecting to see some critical reaction among the commentariat along the lines of the importance in a constitutional monarchy of members of the royal family keeping out of politics. Of course, Pippa Middleton is not a member of the royal family, but who would have heard of her if her sister wasn’t? And with Boris Johnson Pippa is linking herself to one of the biggest political personalities in Britain, seriously discussed as a future Conservative Prime Minister. But the issue, if it existed, seems to have been overtaken by events, particularly the death of Lady Thatcher. The funeral next week will be attended by the Queen, her second for a former Prime Minister, the first being Winston Churchill's in 1965.

I wonder if any more will be heard of Pippa playing ping pong with Boris.

UPDATE 3 July 2013

As if in belated answer to my last point, Pippa provided another Diary for the Spectator dated 29 June (which becomes available on-line late on 27 June) and concluded:
The last time I wrote in these pages, I issued a challenge to Boris Johnson to take me on at ping pong. The Mayor said he’d be up for it, and his office duly contacted The Spectator to arrange the details. Team Johnson insisted that the match should be held at a venue of their choosing. I said by all means. And then — nothing. The Spectator has tried to follow up, but now it’s radio silence from the Mayor’s office. Is Boris scared or what? He should be.
Should he? Anyway Pippa’s since been getting lots of attention from another quarter, the Mail newspapers: on 29 June, Does Pippa dress in the dark? … Kate's sister can never get her outfit right; on 30 June, Stay out of the limelight, Kate tells Pippa amid concerns she is courting controversy with her high public profile; on 1 July, Peter McKay asked Isn't it time Pippa put her fame to better use?

6 April 2013

Man Ray, Gertrude Stein and Picasso

Last month a post here about the Man Ray exhibition currently at the National Portrait Gallery in London bemoaned the cost of its catalogue. But subsequently I had the chance to browse a copy bought by a less parsimonious friend (people from South West England are notoriously tight-fisted). I was surprised to read that the picture in the background to a Man Ray photograph of Gertrude Stein with Alice B Toklas (below left) was, according to the catalogue, Picasso’s portrait of Stein.

Surely the picture in this photograph, taken in 1922, is one of Cezanne’s studies of his wife - Madame Cézanne à l'éventail (The Artist's Wife with a Fan), c 1878/88 (above lower right) - which was at that time owned by Stein and is now at the Foundation E. G. Bührle Collection in Zurich? A post here in December 2011 about the exhibition Matisse, Cézanne, Picasso… L’aventure des Stein, then in Paris, juxtaposed Picasso’s Gertrude Stein 1905-6 (below left) with the Man Ray photograph of Stein taken in1924 which has the Picasso in the background. In 1946 Stein left her portrait to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Ah well, I’m sure there are far worse errors in this blog.

3 April 2013

Lichtenstein at Tate Modern

Tate Modern’s Lichtenstein: A Retrospective is a show that does what it says on the Warholian can. Roy Lichtenstein (1923-57) was the other central figure of American Pop Art in the 1960s and 70s and one of the best known artists of the last century. After showings in Chicago and Washington, 125 of his works, rumoured to be a worth a billion US$, have arrived at Tate Modern for an exhibition which is mostly chronological. So we see his first experiments with Ben-Day dots and then the renditions of comic book images writ large in blocks of primary colour. A roomful of some of the most familiar of these grouped as War and Romance include Whaam! (the Tate’s own) and Los! (below) and Oh, Jeff … I Love You, Too…But… 1964 in the banner above.

It is intriguing to see the original sources of these images, not least because of the opportunity to appreciate their size and construction. Two things struck me about reproductions of Lichtenstein’s works which, inevitably, are very much smaller than the originals. Firstly, in the 1960s he used a very pale grey ground which usually appears as white, and secondly, reproductions often fail to differentiate adjacent dark blues and blacks. The paintings are usually described as oil and magna on canvas, Magna being the brand name for the acrylic resin paint used by Lichtenstein for the broad black lines which delineate the monotone areas of his pictures.

After establishing his style, Lichtenstein produced variations on it for decades which are shown in the rooms which follow. His reworkings of Picasso, Mondrian and others, the massive depictions of artists’ studios (Matisse above), the late nudes (below) and the Chinese landscapes, all of which are on a near-white ground, are interesting to see but lack the innovatory impact experienced at War and Romance. The show ends where it might have begun with some of Lichtenstein’s early abstract expressionist pieces alongside small late paintings.

My only reservation about this show is the size of the captions on the wall adjacent to each canvas. These have been confined to a space about 8cm by 10 cm. By contrast, Nudes with a Beach Ball 1964 (above) is 301 cm by 272.4 cm, and so has over 1000 times the area of its caption. The positions which the viewer will find suitable for reading one and for appreciating the other are several metres apart. Now that many gallery-goers carry smart phones, is it not possible to design an app for them which, by accessing local wi-fi perhaps, delivers the appropriate captions to their screens? Then there would be no need to trot forward and back, the risk of collisions with other visitors would be eliminated, and, best of all, there would be more time to look at the pictures.

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective continues until 27 May.

1 April 2013

François Ozon’s ‘In the House’

François Ozon’s In the House (Dans La Maison) is, as the French say, une autre paire de manches in comparison with his previous film, the comedy Potiche. Like his 8 Women, In the House is based on a play, this one Spanish by Juan Mayorga, The Boy in the Last Row. The boy, Claude Garcia, sits in the back row of a literature class in a French lycée (secondary school) taught by Germain, and the film follows the evolution of their relationship. Germain, motivated by good intentions, at least to start with, and by the interest of his galleriste wife, Jeanne, encourages Claude to write about a fellow pupil, Rapha Artole, and his parents in a series of essays, each ending '(to be continued)'.

Early on you feel it’s all going to end badly, and while you wait to find out just how, Ozon explores the relationship between teacher and pupil and the artifices of literature and art (reflecting his apprenticeship with Eric Rohmer), while introducing ambiguities of his own. Of Fabrice Luchini and Kristin Scott Thomas who play Germain and Jeanne (above), Ozon has said:
I have wanted to work with Kristen Scott Thomas for a long time and I just felt that chemistry would work between her and Fabrice because they have the same theatrical background. They also have great comic timing and I think that it works incredibly well. I had in mind the couple of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Manhattan - an intellectual couple who are always speaking about intellectual things - and I thought that it would really work between those two actors.
and it does. Ernst Umhauer is equally convincing as the precocious but naive Claude. However, Emmanuelle Seigner has less opportunity to impress in the somewhat characterless role of Mme Artole.

The subtitles are in American English so instead of second year students we get sophomores. But Claude’s fascination with the Artoles as une famille normale is repeatedly mistranslated by referring to them as a perfect family rather than a typical or average one. They might be perfect in American eyes – Rapha and his father’s obsession with basketball, their sharing the same forename, the Artoles’ house, the one Claude is so keen to get inside – all seem more North American than French. The house’s only odd feature is the set of Paul Klee watercolours whose symbolism is revealed to Mme Artole by Claude and whose presence puzzles Jeanne when she reads about them in one of the essays. The French are just as assiduous in demarcating their properties as the British, so the vagueness of the boundaries between chez Artole and the neighbouring park with the bench from which Claude began his observations seems a little unconvincing on film. I can imagine it having worked better on the stage.

Dedicated cinéastes will have views as to whether In the House contains homages to Hitchcock and Allen as well as Rohmer, but apparently it was the art department that prompted the Match Point poster for the cinema queue! A thought-provoking and well-acted film, definitely worth seeing.