31 December 2014

Kilpeck Church, Herefordshire

I have wanted to visit Kilpeck Church in Herefordshire for some time to see its fine Norman carvings. I finally managed it on a cold but sunny December morning.

Although not part of South West England by normal definition, as Simon Jenkins comments in his England's Thousand Best Churches:
[Kilpeck’s] motifs are drawn from Scandinavia, Germany, Spain and Italy, and display the Severn Vale as a cultural crossroads of Romanesque richness.
The carvings date from the middle of the 12th century and are to be found around the south doorway:

The west side:

The chancel arch:

And remarkably in the corbels, mostly undamaged, which appear all round the exterior:

Simon Jenkins again:
The Kilpeck carvings demonstrate the vigour of the Saxon-Norman sculptural tradition. Themes and styles are drawn from the pilgrim routes across northern Europe, from Vikings, Saxons, Celts, Franks and Spaniards, the entire 'Northmen' diaspora.
Only some have much Christian significance. The interpretation of the carvings, the identification of similar works by the “Herefordshire School” of stone carvers and of analogues in other parts of Europe is a subject for serious scholarship, not a blog. Though I could imagine one devoted to nothing else. For the merely interested, Jenkins’ book is a start and Pevsner's Herefordshire (latest edition 2012) should be the next call. Visitors can find some useful information in the church.

The nearby and neatly extended Kilpeck Inn is of a much higher standard that might be expected in a fairly remote spot and its menu is a “cultural crossroads of Romanesque richness” too – focaccia, ciabatta, porcini, brioche, mozzarella, olives … and local suppliers, of course.

26 December 2014

Randall Wright’s ‘Hockney’

Randall Wright’s documentary might well have been called ‘Hockney’s People’. It is an account of the artist which is only approximately sequential and in which we see as much, if not more, footage of people who know Hockney well talking about him, as of the man himself. But the director was probably fairly sure that most of his audience would already possess the biographical outline of his subject – born in Bradford in 1937, the RCA in London in the early 1960s, Los Angeles in the 1970s and 80s, spending time back in East Yorkshire since the mid-1990s, and latterly on the West Coast again. Moreover, when Hockney is on screen, the evolution of his carefully cultivated appearance, particularly when he was younger – the hair, the glasses, gives a good indication of the period in question.

Hockney’s best-known later work (much viewed at the Royal Academy and elsewhere in 2012/13) has been of landscapes, but throughout his career he has produced portraiture and part of the value of Wright’s film, which is more about people than places, is to learn something about his subjects. Hockney’s UK admirers know all about the sitters (Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell) in the Tate favourite, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970-71, below): 

but less perhaps of Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, 1968:

Bachardy is one of the documentary’s interviewees, as is Marcia Weisman, also probably not so well-known in the UK, who locates herself in Beverley Hills Housewife (1966, below top) but is just as familiar from American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman), (1968, below lower):

One of Hockney’s closest friends was the late Henry Geldzahler (art historian and critic, referred to in the film only as Henry, I think), recognisable from Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott (1969, below top). Again, both subjects of George Lawson and Wayne Sleep, (1972-75, below lower) feature in the film.

Of course, as might be expected, most of Hockney’s people, excepting his mother and sister and Celia Birtwell and Marcia Weisman, are male, an aspect of his life apparent from his twenties, for example in We Two Boys Together Clinging (1961, below left) and Oh, for a gentle lover (1960, below, right):

The film provides an unrushed chance to see these and other works from five decades of Hockney’s drawings, paintings and experiments with photography, faxes, iPads and so on. Not all are equally familiar, for example the stage sets for the Metropolitan Opera House in the 1980s (Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias, The Breasts of Tirésias, 1983 below:

and the Blue Guitar prints from 1976/77 - The Poet, from The Blue Guitar (1976-77 below). For an excellent description of Hockney’s prints (as shown at Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2014) see this post by one Gerry, on his blog which I happily defer to - you might prefer his review of Hockney, as well.

Anyone who admires Hockney’s “ways of looking” and ways of recording what he sees – a vision which most of us don’t realise without his assistance - will like this film. It is currently available in the UK on Curzon Home Cinema and will be shown by the BBC in 2015. The best way to see it might well be in HD on a quality home system from Blu-ray (if available), to be stopped, started and repeated as the viewer wants.

21 December 2014

Egon Schiele at the Courtauld

In a post here last year about the Viennese portraits show at the National Gallery, I pointed out that:
There are no works by Egon Schiele (1890-1918) in UK public collections, so we should take the opportunity to view The Family (Self-Portrait) 1918 and Erich Lederer, 1912 while we can 
Perhaps one day we will get a chance to see Schiele’s landscapes eg Landscape at Krumau (1916, left) as well as portraiture. For now, the Courtauld Gallery in London is exhibiting Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude, a selection of the nude studies which were his predominant legacy. Schiele was only 28 when he died (in the H5N1 influenza pandemic, eight months after his mentor, Gustav Klimt) so most of his work dates from the ten years following his first exhibition in 1908. In 1911 he began a relationship with Wally Neuzil who had modelled for Klimt. Neuzil walked out in 1915 when Schiele decided to marry Edith Harms. She would die of influenza three days before her husband. Wally and later Edith modelled for Schiele.

The works on show at the Courtauld are all on paper, mostly of women and “some drawings of an explicit nature” are more so than others. Woman with Black Stockings, 1913 is not being shown in this post, but it can be found on the Guardian website. Schiele’s ability to combine very fast line sketching in black chalk or pencil and vivid watercolour or gouache as outline or contrast is far more impressive in the reality than in reproduction, for example, Seated Nude Girl with Pigtails (1910, below left) and Before the Mirror (1913, below right):

and Standing Nude with Stockings (1914, below left and detail in the poster above) and Crouching Woman with Green Kerchief (1914, below right) are definitely worth seeing in the original: 

His self-portraits are no less unsparing - Kneeling Nude with Raised Hands (Self-Portrait) (1910, below left) and Nude Self-Portrait in Grey with Open Mouth (1910, below right):

and the overt sexuality of his ‘friends’ pictures must have been on the edge even in Freud’s Vienna - Friends (1914, below left) and Two Girls Embracing (Two Friends) (1915, below right):

Schiele’s life was cut short, but perhaps it is not too fanciful to think that if he had painted for another forty years (possibly as a refugee in the US by 1935), these “radical nudes” would be seen as one aspect of a lifetime’s work rather than the artist’s major preoccupation. Anyone interested in Egon Schiele should try to see this exhibition, possibly not everyone’s first choice for a family outing during the holidays though. The captioning of the exhibits is unusually helpful and informative, an encouragement to buy the catalogue but at £25 for a 160 page paperback, it seems rather expensive, as usual at the Courtauld, I’m afraid.

Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude continues to 18 January 2015.

15 December 2014

Could David Miliband do a Boris (part 2)

Previously on Western Independent: 

Back in August I pulled together two stories in the UK press to address the question “Could David Miliband do a Boris?”.  Boris Johnson had just announced his intention to stand as Tory candidate in the 2015 election and The Times had run an article on 7 August, Still smiling, but it hides the battle of an alien in New York, about David Miliband which suggested that things weren’t all that they might be over there:
… Despite being in the midst of a complex and difficult reorganisation of a big international charity, as well as the usual problems of settling a family into a foreign city, Mr Miliband still pays close attention to British politics down to the fine details. etc, etc.
A few days later the Observer ran an “exclusive interview” with Miliband, possibly to get the record straight:
"Both Ed and I want the other to succeed," he said. "Strongly, passionately. And we also both work hard to keep personal lines open and private. I'm focused in succeeding in my job … and I want him to succeed in his job. And I'm sure it's the same for him." Yet on the subject of whether the Ed-led Labour party will win next year's election, he was not emphatic: "I think that it's really open. I think we can." Then he hedged. "I never say we will win. Because I'm a protagonist, not a commentator."
On 20 August The Times Red Box came up with another twist:
Labour MPs hoping to bring David Miliband back into the fold have an idea for his brother Ed. They say that Ed should make David British ambassador to Washington if he wins the general election, as reported in The Times Diary this morning.  It would be the ideal way of rehabilitating him, paving the way for a later return to British politics after a spell in the US capital, they say.
Boris Johnson is now the Conservative candidate for the safe seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip. But four months later, we seem to be going around the same buoy again with Miliband D. The Financial Times has selected the charity he directs (the International rescue Committee) as its charity of the year. (Miliband had told the Observer that it was a $500 million organisation, but no doubt every little extra helps). So its deputy editor, John Thornhill, went to New York for Lunch with the FT with Miliband as guest*, and authored the feature on 13 December. Personally, I find this weekly format a tired and tiresome way to report an interview:
He opted for a simple salad to start while I go for the kale salad. “It’s much more edible than you think. It’s not like chewing cardboard,” he reassures me.
But later:
As I sample my mound of kale, sprinkled with a few roasted nuts [$16.00], I conclude he was wrong about the cardboard.
Never trust a politician! Eventually:
Now that we are on to the red meat, I ask him about the bloody issue of British politics. … I ask him who he thinks is going to win the next election. “I passionately want Labour to win – and Ed to win,” he says. And would his brother make a good prime minister? Without hesitation, he shoots back: “Of course. I would know that better than most.” What are his qualities? “What I would say is that the clarity, the vision, the determination, those are all important qualities. But, equally, I have made it a rule not to insert myself into the political dynamic for two reasons. One, I have got a job that requires me to work with the current government. And, two, I am trying to run a charity, not a political party. My experience is that anything I say gets taken out of context. While it might not be twisted in your hands, it will be twisted in the re-spinology that goes on. So we should probably leave it at that.” 
Miliband drinks a double espresso while I sip on a green tea and ask him whether he could ever envisage a return to UK politics. He says he has made a big commitment to join IRC and is fully dedicated to his job. But, he adds, he does not intend to become an American citizen and spend the rest of his life in the US. Life is unpredictable, he suggests. Two years ago, he had no idea he would now be in New York running the IRC. “You just don’t know, do you?” 
It seems unlikely that someone who has devoted most of his adult life to Westminster would be content to see his political career finished before the age of 50. Perhaps, I venture, it would be a good thing if British politicians had multiple careers — as is so often the case in the US. “Tony Blair and John Major have said that they wish they’d done their post-premiership jobs before they became prime minister,” he says. 
Maybe, I suggest, he is learning from their experience and doing a pre-premiership job outside politics? He guffaws with laughter. “That’s not the way I conceived it.”
Comparing the FT interview with the Observer one, and both are, presumably selections from what was said, albeit one would like to think unvetted, David seems more enthusiastic about Ed than in the summer. There is little point in speculating at length as to why this might be the case. But currently the odds are just about on Ed Miliband as PM. If that were so, putting David in the Washington embassy might offer parallels with Churchill’s despatch of his rival Halifax in 1941. However, in the event of Hilary Clinton, who has a high opinion of David, becoming 45th president in 2016, that might put him in too powerful a position. And would it be appropriate anyway for a former Foreign Secretary to take up an ambassadorial post, even in Washington or Paris?

But what if Ed isn’t PM next May? He might not go, nor may his party want him to. For example, if Labour fail to secure the seats they need because of the rise of the SNP, it would hardly be Ed’s fault. Or if Cameron cobbles together a tottery government with Ulster Unionist and/or UKIP support? On three occasions since 1945 there have been general elections soon followed by another to resolve an unworkable situation: 1950/51, 1964/66, and 1974/74. But if he failed to become PM after a second election Ed would certainly have to go . No wonder David is happy to go on record as thinking life is unpredictable, “You just don’t know, do you?”.

*At the David Burke Kitchen, 23 Grand Street, NY10013.

13 December 2014

Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’

This post is a bit late in the day for the UK where Mr Turner went on general release on 31 October. However, I believe the limited US release (outside film festivals) will start on 19 December, so some readers there may find it of interest. 

Mr Turner is a biopic of the English painter JMW Turner (1775-1851), famous for his land and seascapes. I’m no expert on Leigh’s work, but I think that his only other film which is historical, and also biographical, was Topsy-Turvy about Gilbert and Sullivan. This film, set earlier in Victoria’s reign, follows the life of Turner (Timothy Spall, erstwhile Mikado) over the period from not long before his father’s death in 1829 to his own death. Much of the cinematography is sympathetic to Turner’s style and subject matter and the film is as good to look at and as well-acted, as the critics say. Many of the cast are long-term associates of Leigh. How well-founded Spall’s grunting interpretation of Turner may be, as opposed to just idiosyncratic, I can’t say, but it worked convincingly in his relationship with Marion Bailey’s Mrs Booth, Turner’s Margate landlady and companion in his later years.

Leigh’s film is essentially a sequence of vignettes, undated and unlocated, which also offer few clues about some of the characters. Not everyone may know that Turner’s first mistress and the mother of his two unacknowledged daughters was Sarah Danby, a woman 15 years older than himself. Or that his housekeeper was her niece, Hannah Danby, a psoriasis sufferer. Or that his great patron was Lord Egremont of Petworth House in Sussex where Turner, when not abroad, spent most of the 1830s. And there may be other things, for example about John Ruskin, or John Constable and the other eminent painters of Turner’s day or the Pre-Raphaelites who came after them, which it might be helpful to know about before seeing the film, rather than discover them afterwards from Wikipedia or from some of the knowledgeable commentary, not all of it uncritical, which the film has generated. Otherwise the 150 minutes (surely one death bed scene too many) might drag a little. Some background pieces which I liked:

A brush with Mr Turner, in the Guardian by Andrew Wilton, chairman of the Turner Society.

John Ruskin: Mike Leigh and Emma Thompson have got him all wrong, also in the Guardian, by cultural historian and defender of Ruskin, Philip Hoare.

Mr Turner: Recreating the Royal Academy Show of 1832, Amy Raphael’s interview For Christieswith the film’s production designer Suzie Davies. (below)

Impressions of Mr Turner, again in the Guardian, by the film’s researcher, Jacqueline Riding.

I found the portrayal of Turner’s father by Paul Jesson unconvincing, his being only 10 years older than Spall, who looks all of his 57 years, probably didn’t help, and Jesson's Mummersetshire accent might have been more appropriate for Constable’s East Anglian father than Turner’s Devonian one. On a West Country note, anyone searching for the location of Mrs Booth’s house in Ramsgate should instead try the most south easterly part of Cornwall with its views east across Plymouth Sound, not the Channel!

More filmic licence applies in the scene when a clunking link is made between two of Turner’s most famous paintings: The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, (1838 below top) and Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844 or earlier, below lower).

But then Turner never witnessed Temeraire under tow to the breaker’s yard. Pre-release, there was a lot of publicity about the effort Spall made in learning to paint, eg How I became Mr Turner (BBC) and Timothy Spall spent two YEARS learning to paint like Turner in order to play him, (Daily Mail). I don’t recall seeing that much paint being applied, nor am I any judge of the effect all this effort achieved, but Grayson Perry (@Alan_Measles on Twitter on 8 November) certainly is:
Just seen Mr Turner. Very good, but he holds his brush like a shovel and his pencil like a spoon, which disturbed me.

Spall won Best Actor award at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. In France Turner is an exception in being a British painter who is fairly well-known - how much the debt which Monet and the other Impressionists owe to Turner, Constable and Whistler is appreciated is another matter. It will be interesting to see how Mr Turner gets on in the 2015 Oscars.


Mr Turner received four Oscar nominations:

Cinematography - Dick Pope
Production Design - Suzie Davies & Charlotte Watts
Costume Design - Jacqueline Durran
Original Score - Gary Yershon

8 December 2014

Constable at the V&A

Constable: The Making of a Master at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London aims:
… to offer a new interpretation of Britain’s best-loved artist. ... For the first time, Constable is presented alongside the old masters of classical landscape whose formal values he studiously assimilated. By combining the authority of their compositional ideas with a breathtakingly naturalistic vision that was entirely his own, Constable would ultimately transform the genre of landscape painting, and in the process shape the enduring popular image of the English countryside.
I wonder how many visitors will be surprised to learn that Constable (1776-1837), like other artists of his day, studied and emulated works by his distinguished predecessors. In his case these included Claude Lorraine (who influenced Turner), Rubens, Titian, Jacob van Ruisdael and, closer to home, Gainsborough and Thomas Girlin (an artist unknown to Your Paintings, it seems). The argument is manifestly well-made, for example by putting Claude’s Landscape with Hagar and the Angel (1646 left), with Constable’s Dedham Vale (1802, right):

And from Dulwich Picture Gallery, Jacob van Ruisdael’s Landscape with Windmills near Haarlem (c.1650-2, left) and Constable’s Landscape with Windmills near Haarlem, after Jacob van Ruisdael (1830:, right)

The exhibition also provides a chance to see some of Constable’s masterpieces in their original form, images that sadly are dulled by over-reproduction, for example The Hay Wain 1821:

and Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Ground, 1823:

There is much else that is far less familiar, for example the oil sketches which seem so ahead of their time like Brighton Beach (1824, below top) and Rainstorm over the Sea (1824–8, below, lower):

Constable tends to be associated with East Anglia (‘Constable country’), but, although he was not an adventurous traveller like Turner, he painted in the South West region beyond just Salisbury, for example nearby at Stonehenge, 1835:

and at Gillingham Mill, Dorset, (1827, below, top) and Weymouth Bay with Approaching Storm (1819, below, lower):

Constable: The Making of a Master ends on 11 January 2015. Although enjoyable and informative, a full ticket price of £14 seems high when so many of the works have come from public collections, particularly the V&A’s own.

4 December 2014

Sigmar Polke at Tate Modern

Tate Modern is now showing the retrospective Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010, previously at MoMA, New York. Polke, who died in 2010, was born in Silesia in 1941, fleeing west with his family as the Red Army advanced in 1945. In 1953 they left East Germany and settled in Düsseldorf. By the time he was a student alongside Gerhard Richter and others, the German economic recovery (Wirtschaftswunder) was under way and he responded to the rise of they saw as an American-style consumer culture with pop art works like The Sausage Eater (1963, Der Wurstesser, below left) and “raster drawings” made up of dots like Portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald (1963, below right):

The dot drawings were far less mechanistic in appearance than Lichtenstein’s and part of a social commentary (Capitalist Realism) on German affluence and tourism, for example Girlfriends (1965-66, Freundinnen, below left), and fabric paintings like The Palm Painting (1964, Das Palmenbild, below right):

Also in the 1960s he took to criticising modern art in its various forms, whether abstract or conceptual – Solutions V (1967, Lösungen V, below left), even ridiculing artists in general - Polke as Astronaut (1968, Polke als Astronaut, below right):

During the 1970s Polke experimented with hallucinogenic drugs and went on the hippie trail through what is now called AfPak, and then further afield, making films (there are three at the Tate) and colouring in photographic images - Untitled (Quetta, Pakistan), (1974-1978 , below top)- but also painting works like Supermarkets (1976, below lower) which are a continuation of earlier preoccupations:

After the 1980s Polke began experimenting with unusual pigments – dye extracted from snails or heat and humidity sensitive substances as he used at the Venice Biennale in1986. A raster painting Police Pig (1986, Polizeischwein, below left), was hung outside the German pavilion. At that time he also made a series of Watchtower paintings which evoke both divided Germany and the Nazi camps, Watchtower (1984, Hochsitz, below right):

In the 1990s he experimented even more widely with soot paintings, distorted photocopying , resins, the effect of radiation on photographic materials, 3-D lenses and holograms, all explored in the Tate show. At the end of all this in 2007 he created The Illusionist (below), a work which I will not attempt to interpret but instead reproduce what Tate Modern had to say about it:

Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010 continues in London until 8 February 2015 and will be at Museum Ludwig in Cologne from 14 March to 5 July.

I have now posted here about all three of the most highly regarded German post-War painters, Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer being the others.  For what it’s worth, my personal preference is for Richter.

1 December 2014

Anselm Kiefer at the Royal Academy

Within the last three years, London’s gallery-goers have had the chance to see retrospectives of the three German artists who are regarded as the most significant since the Second World War. Tate Modern showed Gerhard Richter in 2011 and now it has Alibis: Sigmar Polke while the Royal Academy is offering Anselm Kiefer. I’m not sure that the RA has used the term “retrospective” to describe their show, and if they haven’t it was a wise choice, because significant pieces of Kiefer’s work are monumental installations fixed elsewhere. Anyone visiting the exhibition should find the recent Alan Yentob programme in the BBC1 imagine series a valuable complement to the RA exhibition because it reveals the scale of the works which remain in Kiefer’s workshops in Germany, southern France and near Paris. As it is, the canvases and installations, some made for this show, fill the RA’s rooms to capacity.

Kiefer was born in 1945 and he emerged as an artist in the late 1960s with Occupations, a series of photographs of the artist performing the Nazi salute while wearing his father’s military uniform. The image appears in Heroic Symbol V (1970, Heroisches Sinnbild V, below):

Landscape is a recurring theme in Kiefer’s work, for example Winter Landscape (1970, Winterlandschaf, below top) and Black Flakes (2006, Schwarze Flocken, below lower):

And so is German history. Kiefer grew up in Germany in the aftermath of the Second World War and his work continues to address this period in works like Operation Sea Lion (1975, Unternehmen Seelöwe, the planned invasion of the UK in 1940, below top), Interior (1981, Innenraum), below middle, the ruins of Speer’s New Reich Chancellery in 1945) and Morgenthau Plan, (2013, bottom and detail in the poster above, the US plan for “converting Germany into a country primarily agricultural and pastoral”):

Other recent works at the RA are concerned with the Atlantic Wall and the Siegfried Line. Inevitably Kiefer has addressed the Holocaust in his work, notably through the poetry of Paul Celan, a Romanian survivor of the camps. His poem Death Fugue (Todesfuge) which ends 'Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland' ('Death is a master from Deutschland') compares the blonde Margarete and the dark–haired Jewess Shulamite. For Margarete (1981, below top) Kiefer attached yellow straw to a painting of ruined fields, and Shulamite (1983, below lower) is printed over an image of the Nazi Funeral Hall for the Great German Soldier, built in Berlin.

Kiefer’s wide interests in history and philosophy are given expression in works like the massive (2.9 x 5 metres) Ways of Worldly Wisdom: Hermann's Battle, (1980 Wege der Weltweisheit: die Hermannsschlacht, below). This is one of several works of similar titles and which require a Neil MacGregor on hand to explain the full significance of the images Kiefer chose to include:

Personally I find Kiefer’s enthusiasm for alchemy and other mysticisms difficult. His preoccupation with lead in terms of “texture, colour, strength and malleability” to quote the RA’s Gallery Guide is understandable but:
He believes it is the only material heavy enough to carry the weight of human history, and that its properties most closely resemble ours. ‘It is in flux. It’s changeable and has potential to reach a higher state of gold.’ This reference to alchemy, the transformation of base metals into gold, a subject that fascinates Kiefer, is perhaps a metaphor for the way his art attempts to transform and redeem the past.
Well perhaps, and better lead than uranium, denser and with a fissile isotope. Lead certainly makes impressive sculptures, overbearing even. For example, installed at the entrance to the show, Language of the Birds 2013:

Equally striking are the contents of the vitrines in the RA courtyard, Velimir Khlebnikov: Fates of Nations: The New Theory of War. Time, Dimension of the World, Battles at Sea Occur Every 317 Years or Multiples Thereof, Namely 317 x 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 . . . . . . . ., 2011-14, though Kiefer is on record as saying that Khlebnikov’s ideas are “complete nonsense”:

Specifically for the RA, and occupying the whole of Gallery 7, is The Ages of the World (2014, below), an installation with a strong geological metaphor –the word ‘Devon’ in one of the accompanying paintings indirectly referring to SW England:

Towards the end of the exhibition, and in marked contrast, are “books” by Kiefer, one-off folios might be a better description, containing among other things some fairly graphic erotica. The Gallery Guide explains their derivation from similar pieces by Rodin, but possibly there is a link to Schiele’s nudes (currently  in London at the Courtauld Gallery).

Anselm Kiefer ends at the RA on 14 December.