20 September 2016

Woody Allen’s ‘Café Society’

September in the UK often marks the general release of the Woody Allen’s most recent film, this year’s being Café Society, written, directed and narrated by Allen and also his first digital shooting. Set in the 1930s, it’s the story of a young New Yorker, Bobby Dorfman from the Bronx (Jesse Eisenberg), who sets off to Hollywood hoping for a job with his maternal uncle, Phil Stern. Phil is an agent with an impressive office and a secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), to match his success. Bobby turns out to be a dependable gofer and also starts to secure Vonnie’s affections, despite her already having a boyfriend in town. But before too long, Bobby discovers the identity of Vonnie’s on-off lover and abruptly returns to New York. Thanks to his gangster brother Ben, Bobby becomes a manager of a high society night club. He meets and marries one of the clients, another Veronica. One night, who should come into the club but Vonnie, now married to her lover. Bobby and Vonnie meet later and talk things over against the Manhattan backdrops Allen has made his own. Both being too sensible to jeopardise what they have, nothing worse befalls them than some bittersweet regrets for an unrequited love, whereas Ben gets his just deserts.

I thought Eisenberg was convincing as the ingénu in Tinsel Town, but lacked the presence needed to manage a high-class New York night spot. Stewart (last seen here as the PA in Clouds of Sils Maria) took every advantage offered by the part of Vonnie and carried the film. There were some vintage lines from Allen. The Dorfman family are probably stronger on one-liners than theology, for example when Bobby’s mother points out that “Too bad Jews don’t have an afterlife. They’d get a lot of business.” Another: “Socrates said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ But the examined one is no bargain.” The West Coast provided some splendid 1930s exterior locations, but some of the shots there and in New York were on the point of being overstocked and over-frocked with the period.

As for the ending, well there’s been a three hour time difference between the US East and West Coasts since the 1880s, even on New Year’s Eve. But then Allen’s Depression America, affluent and colourful, is not too constrained by the realities of the times, probably better depicted recently in Genius. Café Society is reportedly Allen’s 48th film. By comparison with his recent work, it’s a lot better than Magic in the Moonlight, and better than Irrational Man, but not as good as Blue Jasmine.

19 September 2016

The Henry Moore at Gernika

Large Figure in a Shelter, 1986, Gernika, Spain
On 26 April 1937 the town of Guernica in the Basque country of Spain (Gernika in Basque) was subjected to aerial bombing by the German Luftwaffe with Italian air force support. Hitler and Mussolini’s forces undertook the operation on behalf of the nationalists under General Franco in the Spanish civil war (1936-39). Guernica was being used by Franco’s republican opponents as a communications centre near the front line. The destruction of the town with much loss of life was immortalised in one of the twentieth century’s most famous paintings, Picasso’s Guernica, now in the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid. Henry Moore, like most of the British intelligentsia, was anti-fascist and a supporter of the republican cause:
Most artists were of the same mind about Spain – I remember that when Irina and I were in Paris in the summer of 1937 Picasso invited a whole lot of us to go along to his studio and see how ‘Guernica’ was getting on. (Reference below)

In 1939 Moore began the first of his Helmet works (The Helmet, 1939-40, above left) in which an outer figure contained an inner one. One development of this theme would be Figure in a Shelter (1983, at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, above right) and Large Figure in a Shelter of 1986, according to the Henry Moore Foundation:
… the last monumental work to be produced during his lifetime, scaled up to this immense size from the smaller version of 1983. Due to Moore's increasing illness, Bernard Meadows, who had become his first assistant in 1936 and later Professor of Sculpture at the Royal College of Art, was instrumental in seeing through the completion of the work - carried out by Moore's assistants. The initial cast was sited in woodland at Perry Green, and in 1990, negotiations with the Basque and Spanish governments by Sir Alan Bowness led to the second bronze being installed in what is now the Parque de los pueblos de Europa at Guernica. This was a fitting tribute by both artists to the memory of those who perished for the Republican cause, which they had strongly supported during the Spanish Civil War.
The Foundation’s description of the Perry Green cast adds:
Moore's continuing interest in the idea of an inner form protected by, but also contained within, an outer form is explored here with two monumental bronze forms that enclose the solitary figure of a third. Large Figure in a Shelter weighs over 21,000kg and was cast at the Morris Singer Foundry in Basingstoke. A second cast of this work stands in the Peace Park at Guernica in northern Spain. 
In accordance with his wishes, The Foundation ceased all casting when Moore died in 1986. Large Figure in a Shelter, however, was at the foundry at the time of his death. Under these unique circumstances, a clear protective lacquer was applied to the sculpture. With time and weather, the lacquer has degraded, leaving the base metal vulnerable to environmental damage. An ambitious project to restore the sculpture has now been completed. The restoration was led by James Copper who trained with Moore's own assistants for more than 12 years. In the course of the restoration, a rich gold-brown patina, in keeping with the majority of Moore's monumental bronzes, has been applied to the sculpture and polished with beeswax in order to allow the patina to develop naturally over time, in accordance with Moore's own approach.
This restoration was carried out in 2011 and was documented by Film Infinity:

However degraded the Perry Green version was prior to restoration, it is unlikely to have been in anything like such a poor state as the cast at Gernika is at present. As the photographs below (taken in August 2016) show, this is not only adorned with surface graffiti but has been subjected to deeper and more damaging vandalisation.

Many visitors to the Parque will conclude that it is beyond the capability of the local authorities in the town of Gernika-Lumo and the Biskaia province to look after this major work properly in its present location. April 2017 will be the 80th anniversary of the destruction of Guernica. It may also be an appropriate time to consider whether Moore’s work would be more appropriately sited and conserved elsewhere. An obvious location would be at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, less than 40km away, an institution which did not exist at the time of Moore’s death.


Henry Moore Writings and Conversations, ed Alan Wilkinson, University of California Press, 2002, page 166.

Previous posts here about Henry Moore:

Moore Rodin at Compton Verney
Bacon and Moore at the Ashmolean
The Arts Council’s Henry Moores in Bath
Henry Moore’s ‘Memorial Figure’ at Dartington Hall

13 September 2016

Hockney Portraits at the Royal Academy

Back in 2012, the Royal Academy in London put on a very popular show of David Hockney’s landscapes which, as it turned out, marked the end of his revisiting of his Yorkshire roots and his subsequent return to Los Angeles. Last year, Annely Juda Fine Art’s exhibition, David Hockney Painting and Photography, gave his UK admirers a chance to see some of his recent work including group and single portraits. Some of the latter have now re-appeared in David Hockney RA: 82 Portraits and 1 Still-life.

All these works (and another 10 or so not at the RA) were executed in acrylic on canvas taking two or three days each between July 2013 and March 2016. To be exact, there are 81 single portraits and one double, Augustus and Perry Barringer 16th, 17th June 2014, in this show. One subject, Bing McGilvray, appears three times, and J-P Gongalves de Lima and Jonathan Mills, twice each, so there were 79 different sitters, all being friends, family or acquaintances of the artist. As well as there being three portraits of members of Hockney’s own family, the same fairly distinctive surnames often appear more than once, for example Velasco, Schmidt, Pynoos, McHugh and Perlman. Hockney painted the still life, Fruit on a Bench 6th, 7th, 8th March 2014, when a sitter didn’t turn up.

The pictures are identical in size, with all the sitters in the same chair against a background divided blue green. Hockney didn’t specify what his sitters should wear, but nonetheless they are all rendered in vivid colours. A lot of the subjects were unknown to me and I suspect would also be to many of those visiting the show. Barry Humphries 26th, 27th, 28th March 2015, (above right) is, of course, an exception, recognisable from television but looking here more like Sir Les Patterson than Dame Edna Everage. All Hockney fans will know Celia Birtwell 31st August 1st 2nd September 2015, (above left).

Larry Gagosian 28th, 29th September 2013 (above left) and Benedikt Taschen 9th, 10th, 11th December 2013 (above right) are familiar as names but not as faces. Photographs of Jacob Rothschild 5th, 6th February 2014, (below right) have been in the media recently because of his views about Brexit.

On the whole, Hockney’s older sitters seem more interesting, or perhaps inevitably more characterful, than young ones and in general male sitters seem to engage Hockney more than females (disclosure: an old male speaks!). So, and just for example, Frank Gehry 24th,25th February 2016 (below left) made more of an impression on me than Chloe McHugh 9th, 10th, 11th November 2013 (below right).

I included some of Hockney’s earlier portraiture in a post about Randall Wright’s film in 2014. Tate Britain’s David Hockney next year is almost bound to include Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970-71) but I would very much like to see Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, 1968. That would certainly put the works at the RA in perspective, as might this long-forgotten book cover (left). The informative exhibition catalogue by Tim Barringer and Edith Devaney covers Hockney’s evolution as a portrait painter from the 1950s as well as this show and who the sitters are. The Italian printers have delivered at the high standard the authors deserve.  

David Hockney RA: 82 Portraits and 1 Still-life ends on 2 October 2016. The Tate Britain exhibition, David Hockney, will be from 9 February – 29 May 2017.

8 September 2016

Michael Grandage’s ‘Genius’

To describe Genius as unusual would probably be an understatement. It is Grandage’s first film, although he is an eminent director in London theatre. It is set in the USA in the 1930s, but was shot in England in 2015. It includes cameos of two of America's most famous writers, Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald, but these are played by Dominic West (British) and Guy Pearce (Australian). A Brit is cast as the film’s main character, Maxwell Perkins, pre-eminent literary editor of the time at Scribner's in New York but obscure now in the UK and probably so even then. When Genius is released in the UK, Perkins should gain a little more recognition, if only for having been brought to the screen by no less than Colin Firth. To add to the confusion, the film is based on a biography published as long ago as 1978: A Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: Editor of Genius.

Genius is not just a biopic but a bi-biopic of Perkins and of the writer Thomas Wolfe (no, not Tom Wolfe), played by Jude Law (British), covering the years between their first meeting in 1929 and the latter's death in 1938 at the age of 37. Wolfe arrives in Perkins' office with a voluminous and much-rejected manuscript titled O lost. Those (like me) who haven't read anything by Wolfe will just have to accept that his style was prolix before editing and wordy afterwards. Perkins produces his red pencil and convinces Wolfe to agree to the slimming down of the thousand pages of O Lost by hundreds of pages to transform it into Look Homeward, Angel, a best-seller in 1929. An even more epic set of deletions is required in 1935 to turn the four crates of hand-writing constituting the draft of Of Time and the River into something publishable.

Perkins never had, but clearly wanted, a son, despite his wife gamely producing five daughters. So there is an inevitable father-missing-a-son dimension in the close Perkins and Wolfe collaboration, although Perkins was only 16 years older. A classical rite of passage arises when Wolfe, his fame secured by Perkins, departs for another publisher. Not that Wolfe had been too much troubled earlier when he discarded the theatre designer Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman, Australian), his lover and patron in the days of his obscurity. Another theme is provided by Perkins’ musings over the nature of the role of an editor when it involves so substantial an input to a writer’s work. Just which genius should be credited with the outcome? Similar issues arise when artists produce works with the help of “assistants”, but the convention for literary editors is to stay in the shadows.

Many of the US reviewers of Genius did little to conceal their dismay at the film’s UK provenance and, apart from Laura Linney as Perkins' wife, Louise, the absence of a significant involvement by any of their own. Richard Brody in the New Yorker, admitting it was “a facile way to review it”, concentrated on a fact-check of Genius against Berg’s biography, identifying various errors and simplifications. His justification seemed to be the film’s title card describing Genius as “a true story”. However, on even brief consideration this is surely just as ambiguous a phrase as “editor of genius”. It’s a testimony to the craft of the British film industry that  American reviewers didn't seem to think that the realisation of New York and elsewhere in the US in the 1930s lacked authenticity.

Firth is a master of conveying the feelings of inhibited souls (for example in The King’s Speech) in a few words or none. Apparently  Perkins was very reluctant to take his fedora off.  Kidman’s Bernstein is aggrieved but justifiably so – whether Law’s Wolfe is over the top or how the man was, I don’t know. West and Pearce are convincing as the two literary lions of the three whose reputations have endured.  I thought it was one of the best-looking films I had seen since The Two Faces of January. Particularly striking was Perkins’ office at Scribner’s (below) where so many of the film’s key events take place.

Max Perkins (Colin Firth, left) and Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law)