Sunday, 24 January 2010


24/1/10, Tate Britain

A selection of Turner paintings alongside the Old Masters on which he modelled them, or the paintings by contemporaries with whom he competed. Pleasing to report that, for the most part, the Turners on show were superior to their opposite numbers... except when it came to the human figure, where Turner's clumsiness (for such a fine draughtsman and artist) is astonishing.

A few highlights:
A large van der Velde in the first room of a sailing boat in stormy weather, sailing away from the viewer, its triangular sail tilting sharply to one side in the centre of the composition, a few larger ships in the distance; a Turner painted as a companion piece, the boat's sail tilting in the opposite direction, his sea more fluidly painted and more convincingly stormy than the original.

A Claude of Jacob, Laban and his Daughters, figures in a landscape with town in the background; and Turner's Palestrina Composition, a picturesque village in the Italian mountains, so much brighter, bolder, more painterly, a landscape (albeit hot and dusty) which looks really enticing. And was it this one with a very striking composition, a series of vertical divisions? A road between an avenue of trees leading away on the right; a river in the centre; a bridge leading to the town on the right...

Poussin's The Deluge, a rather polite affair of sombre colours and stagey figures; Turner's version all action, turmoil, naked bodies and swirling waters.

Watercolour interiors of churches, borrowed from Piranesi: monumental arches, diagonal shafts of light.

Titian's Virgin and Child, strong, bright colours; Turner's Holy Family an awful daub, dull colours, the figures clunky and unfinished-looking.

Turner's Jessica from Taming of the Shrew, throwing open her Venetian window, dressed in gorgeous reds, her hair luxuriant, the room behind her a swirl of gold. I thought it beautiful and striking. A contemporary critic called it "lady getting out of a large mustard pot", and Wordsworth thought the artist had eaten more chopped liver than was good for him.

Rembrandt's Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, apparently deemed a marvel by contemporaries when first exhibited in London; Turner's Pilate Washing his Hands, in which Pilate is quite invisible in the general explosion of light and colour... but what colour! Gold, red, yellow, white and the sense of people and spectators jostling one another, all piled up amongst the light in the centre of the picture. Infinitely superior, I'd say, to Rembrandt's much more conservative and cautious treatment.

Venice pictures: a Canaletto, precisely drawn but with unconvincing muddy green water with little white wavelets painted on top; Turner's water a spectacular mirror, reflecting the buildings and boats, his sky a pure Bonington blue in an 1833 picture; and in 1841 a fleet of golden boats floating on a golden sea, the buildings in the background becoming pale and insubstantial.

Turner's homage to Raphael: a vast picture looking down from some high point in the Vatican to the piazza in front of St Peter's, Raphael himself and his model/muse, the baker's daughter, small figures standing in a loggia with a collection of R's finest paintings piled up in front of them.

De Loutherberg's Glorious First of June, a brilliant, scary, awe-inspiring picture of battled, detailed and realistic and one of the few instances of one of Turner's models being superior to his version; T's Battle of Trafalgar tries too hard to be monumental, with a single battleship in the centre of the frame, four-square and undeniably impressive but somewhat unconvincing, with sailors from wrecked ships piled up on spars and wreckage in the foreground (rather than all over the place, as in the de Loutherberg).

Constable's fussy, overdone Opening of Waterloo Bridge, a river crammed with boats and waves and red and gold and people; Turner's much more modest ships at sea in Helvoetsluys, shown alongside at the RA... the one with the red buoy added on varnishing day, an understated but attention-grabbing device which completely upstaged the much more ambitious Constable.

Late Turners: all swirls and a blaze of colour and light and semi-abstract, their alleged debts to Claude, Ruysdael and others hanging alongside them hard to spot.


22/1/10, Barbican

2 hrs 30 mins. Radical feminism revisited. This the one in which a bunch of female volunteers all take their clothes off and dance around the stage, while at the end female volunteers from the audience are encouraged to strip off and belt out Jerusalem. Two coups de theatre with undoubted impact, though the rest of this three-part exercise was a baffling mess.

I missed the start (work, traffic) and arrived 15 minutes in. Two actresses (performance artist Nic Green and her mate, Laura) were dancing vigorously on stage to loud music in the nude. I arrived just in time for coup no 1: the arrival of the volunteer naked dancers. I'd read somewhere that there were around 30 of them. And to begin with just a couple of dozen appeared. But then more joined them. And more. And yet more, all shapes and sizes and ages, all grinning broadly and clearly having a whale of a time. I estimate 200 or more. End of Part 1. I missed, I gather, the arrival of our two actresses (clothed), some video filmed in a supermarket and some other stuff which clearly hadn't made much sense to D and S and A and Dr T.
Part 2 was long and didn't make much sense either. Five dancers (four women, our two heroines, a tall well-built one and a fat one, and one man) moved rhythmically, chanted and, after a while, took their clothes off. A screen at the back showed two chunky extracts from Town Bloody Hall, the D A Pennebaker documentary film about a women's liberation meeting in New York in 1973 (?), chaired by Norman Mailer, at which the panellists included Germaine Greer. In the first extract the radical lesbian Jill Johnston delivered a sub Gertrude Stein monologue (poem?) full of wordplay and jokes until Mailer in brutal male chauvinist mode told her to stop because she'd exceeded her allotted time. The funniest joke in her tirade had apparently been censored, because the quality audio from the microphone suddenly dropped out, to be replaced by sound from an effects mic near the camera; needless to say, I couldn't catch it! In the second extract Germaine Greer gave a wry talk about the offensive idea of the make artist (plenty of cut aways of Mailer, at one point actually looking sheepish, or perhaps just smiling wrily). The act ended with the credits sequence from the film and our five actors sitting naked on stools with their backs to us, turning to make trivial observations about what we were watching: "Norman Mailer has just scratched his nose"; "the woman in the black dress is very excited", which pretty much summed up the style of the whole thing. At one point (after the actors had told us their ages -- they were all born in 1982 or 1983) we were told they wanted five volunteers from the audience, older, four women and one man. It occurred to me that our party fitted that bill, but mercifully no-one volunteered. Those who did volunteer, we thought, were plants who seemed to have rehearsed (they were asked to rotate one arm slowly backwards and then take 15 slow steps backwards across the stage).

Part 3 consisted of a "lecture" on Herstory by our Nic and Laura who (wouldn't you just know it) took their clothes off after a while. And at the end they invited women from the audience to come up for the Jerusalem sing-song, and loads (mainly young) did so. They went behind the curtain, disrobed, lined up and when the curtains opened sang to the accompaniment of an organ at the back of the stage! They looked to be having a wonderful time too.

So, what was it all about? Nic and Laura clearly think today's women have forgotten what their mothers and grandmothers struggled for, and that the women's movement needs to rediscover a radical edge. Clearly they also think the naked female body needs to be desexualised and freed from all the body fascism and unrealistic expectations that bedevil many younger women: hence the massed nudity, which certainly seemed to free the women taking part of embarrassment and self-consciousness about their bodies. But how did the rest of the evening contribute to the overall theme? Frankly, that one has me stymied.


20/1/10, National (Lyttelton)

Alan Bennett's latest. Entertaining but disappointing. Some very good jokes, but structurally a mess.

He seems to have started with an idea for a play about W H Auden and Benjamin Britten meeting again in Oxford shortly before Auden's death, years after they stopped talking to one another (why? never explained). But then presumably decided that that alone was not enough to sustain a full length play, and perhaps was too weak an idea anyway, so cast around for something to pad it out.

The result is a wonderful play about a play, with a shambling Richard Griffiths (deputising for Michael Gambon, who fell ill when rehearsals were due to start) playing an insecure if successful (Tesco voiceovers) actor called Fitz, and Alex Jennings as a splendidly camp actor called Henry. Fitz is playing Auden, Henry Britten, and Frances de la Tour is playing the stage manager co-ordinating a run-through in the absence of the director, and also playing the parts of absent actors and acting the role of mother hen and confessor to her demanding, raggle-taggle charges. At the end everyone else departs, leaving her alone to turn the lights out (literally): a symbol of all those women who keep the show on the road for little thanks and no recognition in families, businesses and organisations everywhere.

This is all great stuff, with for the most part first-rate performances (only the writer, an unwelcome presence to the actors, fails to have much impact -- is that the writing or the performance?). But there are problems. In the first half there's a running gag about the actors being unable to remember their lines, and Griffiths sometimes chants his lines as Auden as if he's only just learnt them, which doesn't help one grasp the substance of what "Auden" is saying; mercifully the conceit is dropped in the second half for the big encounter between Auden and Britten. I'd have liked more of this, but judging by the coughing the rest of the audience wouldn't. The trouble is there are no jokes in the confrontation (which is mainly about Britten's repressed paedophilia), but the earlier parts of the play have conditioned us to expect comedy, especially from Richard Griffiths whose timing is simply miraculous.

There were some lovely moments but it didn't hang together being very much a play of two halves, or perhaps several. In some ways it was a succession of sketches: Jennings and de la Tour as a pair of cleaners, standing in for the absent bit-part actors who have a matinee of Chekhov (we see one of them, dressed in his serf's coat and fur hat, at the start of Act 2, before he's shooed away by de la Tour who tells him he'll miss his cue); Alex Jennings recalling his drama school "friend's" career as a rent boy; the attention-seeking, anxious actor playing the biographer (Adrian Scarborough, very good -- "I still haven't got him, have I?") performing Doris the Goddess of Wind ind rag with a tuba at the start of Act 2; etc etc. The comedy overwhelms the serious stuff, whereas usually in Bennett they're very well integrated.

The set a rehearsal room with Auden's rooms sketched in (labels saying "fridge" and "cooker", bed up some stairs, two doors but no walls) and a grand piano high up on a stage above for Britten to play while rehearsing his young boy singers (and Jennings turns out to be a very accomplished pianist).

As a love letter to Theatre it worked very well. As a fully-functioning play it disappointed.

Sunday, 17 January 2010


16/1/01, Barbican

Entertaining but rather bleak movie starring George Clooney as a man who flies around the States making people redundant. He has no ties, no family, no real home (just a bedsit in Omaha, Nebraska, indistinguishable from a hotel room). He loves that. He is a man without baggage except the carry-on bag we see him wheeling through endless airports. The people he fires all have baggage which hampers them and undermines them (he has a sideline giving inspirational talks in which he urges his listeners to treat their lives as a backpack and empty out the contents). He meets a similarly-inclined woman; their lives intersect at conferences and hotels. She comes with him to an excruciating family wedding where George's character has to persuade the groom not to back out at the last minute, deploying arguments he has hitherto rejected. He comes perilously close to thinking that maybe he could do with some ties and baggage after all; flies to the woman's home in Chicago; stands outside her house and realises she's married.

The many incidental pleasures included the full frame to-camera vignettes by countless Hollywood character actors as the people he fires (his new assistant wants to save money by staying in Omaha and firing them all over the internet, a prospect that evidently horrifies the George character since it would deprive him of his frequent-flyer luxury lifestyle); and also the aerial shots of the cities he visits, looking down at them almost vertically and briefly at the start of each sequence.


16/01/10, V&A

The V&A's latest blockbuster, devoted to the princely courts of India from he late 18th century onwards and their gradual demise under the Raj and later independent India.

Jaw-dropping jewellery: emeralds, sapphires, rubies, pearls... the stuff of cliche, here made real. Fine 18th and 19thC pictures of pageantry, durbars, processions etc, very detailed, full of people in the most gorgeous costumes, though a later black and white photo of a similar scene showed they weren't quite as glorious in reality as they appeared on paper: a bunch of thuggish-looking fellows with big moustaches sitting in two lines fanning out from the throne of a young (14?) prince.

Memorable things included two huge portraits at the end of one prince in western clothes (spats, evening dress with cloak, cigarette holder) and in Indian, plus Man Ray photos of he and his wife in Monte Carlo. This was a man clearly at ease in both worlds, though he chose to build a relatively modest palace-house in India in the 1930s in modernist style with spectacular western art deco furnishings.

There was a fine Rolls Royce c 1929 or so; the exhibition label observed that many maharajahs ordered fleets of the things, one reason why Rolls Royce flourished so between the wars.

The show was stronger on the visuals than the politics. I got lost among the Marathas and Rajputs and what Tipu Sultan did.

There were some silent films of durbars under the Raj which showed the Brits matching pomp with pomp and pageantry with pageantry, presumably so as to be taken seriously by the princes. There was also film of a maharajah parading through his capital in a howdah on the back of an elephant: it looked distinctly dangerous.

There were some (though not many) pictures of intimate scenes: a bare-chested prince at puja (prayer); two erotic pictures including one in what looked like pencil of a maharajah pleasuring three women at once which was impossible to make out; women shooting heron from a palace terrace; scenes of hunting.

There were spectacular swords, highly decorated howdahs and all sorts, and one picture which vividly demonstrated the impact of the west: instead of a somewhat idealised portrait of the prince in profile, his head surrounded by a halo, the maharajah looked straight out at the viewer, his face drawn in enormous detail, for all the world like a figure posed in a photographer's studio.


1/01/10, V&A

We went twice (the second time in Feb). As impressive as they say. I'll copy some reviews.