Troy: myth and reality

Terrific exhibition at the British Museum, which, among other things, tells the stories of the Iliad, the Odyssey and, to an extent, the Aeniad, through the artefacts of the ancient world, I recommend it very highly. Beginning with the marriage of King Peleus and sea-nymph Thetis, to which the goddess Discord was not invited, through to depictions of the characters in the Trojan epics in more recent art, this exhibition immerses the visitor in the world of Troy, the imagined as well as the archaeological city.  I spent several happy hours in it yesterday (and will be returning next week).

The words of Homer’s epic poems feature through-out, as you would expect, though Virgil gets a look-in too. The exhibition begins appropriately, with the opening lines of the Iliad ‘Rage – Goddess sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles‘.  Quotations sprinkle the show and there are recorded readings, in Greek and English.  The Roman bust (left) of Homer as blind poet can be found at the start, it is a copy of an older Greek original.  Statuary, in marble and, on a smaller scale, in metal and on stone sarcophagi features.  So do ceramics.

I had forgotten just how exquisite the painted decoration of Greek ‘red ware’ and ‘black ware’ was, from the coloured figures, like those on the large two handled pot depicting Achilles killing Amazon Queen Penthisiliea (right) or the Judgement of Paris on a wine krater, to the delicate line drawings showing Briseis being led away from Achilles’ tent.  I will also remember the stone bas relief showing this scene, with Achilles looking away in anger, but Patroclus placing a consolatory hand on Briseis’ shoulder as she is collected by Agamemnon’s soldier. A tender gesture.

It is testament to the power of the ancient story that the characters live so vividly again. But then, the story has been told and retold, as evidenced by the lines from the epics scribbled by ancient Roman children on the papyri copy books displayed. Its retelling is brought bang up to date with the poster from the, much derided, 21st century Hollywood film Troy and modern versions of The Judgement of Paris – photographic – and The Siren’s Song ( see left for the ancient depiction, below for the modern collage by Romare Bearden ).  Aficionados of the male body please note, Brad Pitt has quite a lot of competition in the buffed masculinity stakes, though it’s interesting that, even where a ‘hero’ such as Odysseus is obviously beyond youth and is depicted on artefacts with an older face, his body is still drawn as youthfully ideal. Hollywood’s fixation with perfect bodies is nothing new.

There is a very interesting section on the real city of Troy, or what we now believe is the real city. Not Schliemann’s much too early, if appropriately burnt, discovery but a later version. I didn’t realise just how many Troys there were, built on top of one another, but there are informative graphics showing just how these cities developed and when.  Indeed the whole exhibition is  well organised, with clearly written and illuminating captions. Technology, from the annotated drawings in light of various pieces of complex decoration to help the viewer unscramble some of the detail, to the videos showing the massing levels of the different Troys is used cleverly and well.

Personal favourites – the bas relief in which Paris looks thoroughly bored as Helen is loaded, along with the other treasures, on to his ship and the wonderfully evocative Fuseli drawing of the grief of Achilles as he kneels over Patrolus’ body.

The exhibition runs until 8th March and costs £20 to enter ( concessions £17 ). It is popular, so don’t leave it until the last minute, it will be very crowded. It took us two and a half hours to go round, taking a look at just about everything, ( though there were at least two school parties to deal with ).  It may take longer if it is even more full.

Very last chance to see…. wonderful…

…exhibition by Olafur Eliasson In Real Life at Tate Modern. It ends on 5th January, so if you live in or near to London and have a little spare time I strongly recommend that you go (but check ticket availability first, this is a VERY popular show and there are only a few days left so tickets might be hard to come by ).

People may remember Danish-Icelandic Eliasson’s brilliant, single The Weather Project bringing sunrise to the Turbine Hall of this same gallery some years ago and he has returned since then with his blocks of Greenland ice melting on the Thames-side forecourt in Ice-Watch to illustrate and draw attention to global warming, but this is a major show. It can be found on Level 2 of the newer part of the Tate ( although there is also a waterfall/fountain to be seen outside in courtyard ).

The first room is a collection of Eliasson’s models for larger works, often created with mathematician collaborator Einar Thorsteinn. Many of them are beautiful in themselves with lots of natural shapes, based, one imagines, on fibonacci sequences.  One model is of a finished work Your spiral view (2002) shown later in this exhibition. Room 2 contains early works and already we see the cleverness and simplicity of Eliasson. Window projection (1990) has the silhouette of a window shone, in light, on to a wall. At first sight the viewer imagines the light is coming through a window from outside, but no, there are no windows it’s just a lamp with a cutout on its lens. In Rainwindow (1999) the artists uses a real window but recreates the effect of the weather. These are typical of Eliasson’s interest in light and weather.

Room 2 also contains trickery in mirrors and glass, an insect’s eye glass and a mirror which is actually a hole.  This leads on to the Kaleidoscopes Room ( via a very interesting corridor which challenges the senses – I’ll say no more ). Here there are hanging reflective spheres and a walk-through corridor of reflections. Thence to a room with a projected, slowly transmuting image – all calm and tranquillity – followed by a room full of energy in which viewers find themselves part of an ever-changing art work on one of the white walls. It is so simple it seems effortless, but of course it isn’t.  Like Big bang fountain which is found in a small curtained-off room with no light at all save for a periodic strobe which illuminates a fountain, freezing the water into silver metallic images before the viewers’ eyes.

This exhibition is child friendly and there were plenty there today, many eagerly experiencing the changing light and reflections, most especially in the room with the mirrored ceiling and an, apparently, circular sculpture. This exhibition is also great fun (but heels are not a good idea ).

There are serious points to be made with the twenty year sequence of photographs showing the withdrawl of the ice-cap in Iceland and very beautiful works capturing the impact of melting ice on paint wash and colour discs which use the palette from two of Caspar David Friedrich’s romantic nature paintings. In The Expanded Studio room we see the genesis and development of a number of projects, the design and creation of a solar powered light, the measuring of the disappearing ice and other environmentally engaged work, through film, artefact and notes.

It’s impossible to describe it all. Suffice to say that the visitor will come away with a new perspective on how one uses one’s senses, especially sight, as well as having learned a lot ( I certainly did ).  I have been wanting to see this exhibition since it opened and I’m glad I caught it. I’m only sorry that I didn’t go before and could return again!

Olafur Eliasson In Real Life is at Tate Modern until 5th January. It costs £18 for non-members and is worth every penny.

For more on Art see    Portrait of an artist        Bonnard Colours       Zubaran Impossible Light 

Less than two seconds….

… that’s the time a potential reader gives to the cover of each book when scanning a bookshop display or online screen.  So say the publishers. In that time the individual takes in the design, the title and whatever is written – tag-line or glowing review – on the front cover. If it doesn’t get their attention, their eye moves on to the next. So the pressure to make the cover arresting and appealing is intense.

The new novel from yours truly – a contemporary political thriller set in Westminster, entitled Plague – is due for publication in the Autumn of 2020, with review copies available in the Spring.  So I am currently engaged with publisher Claret Press and designer and artist Petya Tsankova in deciding upon the cover. Petya is a freelance graphic designer who frequently works with Claret Press.

I am used to working with cover designers. Readers of my blogs at The Story Bazaar will be familiar with the work of Andrew Brown, who designed the cover for Reconquista  see ( Reading a Book by its Cover ) and that of Dan Mogford ( Final Touches ) who designed the cover for The Silver Rings. Both are excellent designers who created covers which, in my humble opinion, have stood the test of time, with arresting images, bold and interesting lettering and sufficient of a theme to link the two together. Credit for this must go to Dan who designed the second of the two  and continued the pattern – quite literally when it came to the tracery at the foot of each cover.

Incidentally, both books in the Al Andalus series can be had half-price, for less than the price of a cup of coffee, at the Smashwords Christmas Sale which runs from Christmas Day until the New Year.

This time around, however, it’s not just the cover for Plague ( a very early version of which can be seen above left ). Plague is the first in a series of novels with the same protagonist, so there must be commonality in the designs for each of the covers, thereby establishing a brand. A quick visit to Amazon or any other online bookstore to take a look at a long running series will show how that translates in design terms.

So I have received not one, but three covers recently, for the first three books in the series. For Plague, but also for Oracle, the second in the series, which is set in Delphi, Greece and Opera the third, which returns to central London ( and which I have not yet started writing – although I know its last line – I have my writing life mapped out until December 2022! )

The covers aren’t final and they will change and develop ( the photo right does not do that cover justice ).  The title needs to be clearer I think, especially of Plague – two seconds, remember, and the eye moves on, the gaze won’t linger to decipher a word which isn’t understood immediately.  I do like the fractured nature of the space in the first set of covers,  the jagged edges which promise the excitement of the thriller within which remind me of film titles of the nineteen sixties.  But there’s a way to go yet….

In the meanwhile Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all readers!

 

Flamenco in north London

So to Sadlers Wells Theatre for the annual Flamenco Festival in north London. This time I had only returned from Jerez de la Frontera the day before and I went to see Santiago Lara and Mercedes Ruiz who hail from that city.  I have written about this married couple before ( see Lamento and The Guitar in Time ) and I listen regularly to Lara’s guitar playing.

On Saturday they were performing with dancers Maria Moreno, from nearby Cadiz, and Eduardo Guerrero, who I have tried to see several times at the Jerez Festival, only to be stymied by the schedule.  Accompanied by rising singing star Maria Fernandez Benitez, known as Maria ‘Terremoto’, and male singers, Emilio Florido and Ismael ‘el Bola’. They were billed as the Gala Flamenca and it was excellent.

Lara was the musical coordinator and he led the musicians on stage, a second guitarist, Javier Ibanez and percussionist, Paco Vega.  The artistic director was Miguel Linan, renown dancer and regular performer at the Jerez Festival ( see Reversible ).  Linan’s choreography is distinctive, although the three dancers were undoubtedly also contributors ( and listed as such ).

The programme began with Morena dancing an alegria. As is always the case with British theatre audiences, while the dancing was well received, there was little feedback between performer and audience until the end of each piece.  This contrasts with watching flamenco in Jerez, when the audience is supposed, even obliged, to clap, shout encouragement and cheer during the performance. I was very pleased therefore when a particularly spectacular series of steps ended with a sweeping flourish and a spontaneous cheer from the audience.  I noticed Lara, who was nearest the edge of the stage, start to smile.  The performance had ‘taken’ and the audience were bound in.

The show continued with a remarkable pas de deux between the young singer,  and Mercedes Ruiz.  Ruiz, dressed in black, male garb performed accompanied only by the singing and her own castanets  and stamping feet. She was outstanding.  The audience was well and truly captured by now, so much so that Ruiz could be playful, making us laugh as well as astounding us with her artistry.  How could anyone top that?

Well, then came Eduardo Guerrero, long black hair flying, in a stunning Cana.  Guerrero’s arabesques were straight out of the Miguel Linan playbook, athletic, fluid and captivating.  What was not was the truly amazing footwork which followed, which had the audience, by now half way to behaving like Jerezanos, applauding and cheering with every flourish.  As a female member of our group said afterwards, he was gorgeous and absolutely commanding ( and the dancing was pretty good too ).

There followed another pas de deux, this time with Moreno and Guerrrero in perfect synchronicity and a final Solea from Ruiz.  All three dancers returned to the stage for a rousing finale and, by the time the stage lights went down, everyone was on their feet and applauding.  At the curtain calls I was pleased to see the recognition of Lara’s stunning guitar playing and Miguel Linan was also invited on stage to take the applause. He brought with him a birthday cake with lighted candles, it was the birthday of one of the company  and he was persuaded to dance along with the mini-encore.

We left the theatre buzzing, but exhausted, that’s what watching flamenco does!

For more articles about flamenco, in London and Jerez, try         2018 Festival Round-up              Flamenco Fix            Paco Pena

Portrait of an artist…

as a young man, not the James Joyce novel but Tate Britain’s summer exhibition, on Vincent Van Gogh and his time in in south London. Van Gogh arrived at the age of twenty in 1873 and lodged in Brixton ( though it’s described here as Stockwell ) where he fell in love with his landlady’s daughter. He worked for two years at the offices of Covent Garden art dealers Goupil, before turning to both teaching and preaching, when he was dismissed from his job.

Any number of Impressionists and post-impressionists fetched up south of the Thames at some point in their lives ( usually during the Franco-Prussian War and the time of the Paris Commune ). So his was a path well-trodden, by his almost contemporary Pissaro in Norwood, Sisley at Molesley, Monet at the Savoy or Tissot in St John’s Wood (okay, that’s north of the river).

The exhibition is a large one, with nine rooms, containing Van Gogh paintings, drawings and washes, but also many works of contemporary, or near contemporary, artists who were living in London at that time or which Van Gogh would have seen while he was here.  It includes works and prints which Van Gogh owned and there is cross-over here with the Tate’s winter exhibition of 2017/18 The Impressionists in London.

The Van Gogh also includes later, British artists clearly influenced by him.  So, for example, his Sunflowers, in Room 7, is juxtaposed with paintings of sunflowers by William Nicholson, Frank Brangwen and Jacob Epstein, among others.  I very much enjoyed these – the whole is joyous and up-lifting.  I enjoyed too the paintings of later artists, like those of the Camden Town School and David Bomberg and Francis Bacon, who acknowledged their debt to Van Gogh ( see study, by Bacon, left, of his painting of Van Gogh in the sun-bleached landscape of the south of France ).

I am insufficiently knowledgeable to be able to draw any but the most obvious of parallels between Van Gogh and the artists who influenced him while he was here.  That the river-scapes of Whistler, with their floating fogs and twinkling lights, had an influence, especially in the depiction of lights in the Rhone, doesn’t surprise me and there are obvious links to be made with Pre-Raphealite paintings like those of Edward Millais.  Some of the other connections are less obvious, indeed they may seem tenuous to the untrained eye, though I have no doubt that the scholarship behind this exhibition is excellent.

That Van Gogh adored Dickens and his works was new to me, though it fits, some of his portraits have the gnarly yet fluid quality that one perceives in some of Dickens’ descriptions of his characters. That he collected British prints and reproductions – the ‘black and whites’ – over 2,000 of them, often of modern subjects, like the workhouse, the prison or the deprivations of the poor, also feels fitting.  As he said ‘I often felt low in England… but the Black and White and Dickens, are things which make up for it all.’

The exhibition is at Tate Britain and runs until 11th August.  It is very popular, we visited at 4 o’clock on a Friday, when we thought it would be quiet, yet it was anything but.  Afterwards a steward told me that, in relative terms this was quiet!  So beware the crowds.  Entry costs £22, with concessions for students, seniors etc. and if you are not a member you will have to book.  It’s well worth a visit.

For more on art and exhibitions see            Soane and Kapoor          Art on the Underground                 John Ruskin, The Power of Seeing

Not Quite a Fleeting Glimpse….

…is what one gets at the Dennis Severs House, or 18, Folgate Street, Spitalields, E1.  Not quite a fleeting glimpse of those people who have just left the room, who were eating that meal just before you walked in, or smoking that pipe, or baking that loaf.  Whose wig sits on the wing of the chair? Or whose floral perfume scents the formal withdrawing room?

18, Folgate Street is an 18th century house (1724) which has been preserved and restored and, during his lifetime, lived in, by Dennis Severs, the American artist and storyteller, who died, aged only 51, in 1999. Twenty years after purchasing the house he saw the Spitalfields Trust buy the house and commit to keeping it going, when on his death-bed.  It’s still going twenty years later.

The House is chock-full of antique furniture and fol-de-rols, china, costumes, tapestry and tat, but all in period. So is the lighting, mostly candlelight, but some gas-light in the Victorian rooms. We visited on a sunny Monday lunchtime so it was relatively light, but the house is most often open in the evenings, from 5 – 9pm Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and on Sundays ( see Tours ).  I imagine that then it is even more atmospheric, though it would also be more difficult to see the multiplicity of objects on show, often close together.

Severs created an imaginary family of Huguenot silk-weavers called Jervis to inhabit the house and it is their homely detritus (and comestibles) that one comes across as one climbs the narrow stairs, either down to the kitchen and cellar, where there are the supposed fragments of St Mary’s, Spital (1197) and the warmth of an iron range and the smell of…what is that smell?  Or upwards, through fashionable London entertaining to the elaborate boudoir and then up beneath the eaves to the penurious lodgers’ rooms.

Scent is something the House does well, as is sound – the ticking of a clock, the half-caught chatter, like Eliot’s rose garden ‘full of children, Hidden excitedly, containing laughter’ in Burnt Norton. Visitors are asked to walk around the house, on a pre-determined route, in silence, so that this sound track has full effect. There are wordless guiders, who will direct you if you go wrong.

There are other symbols of life lived in the house.  The half lemon on the mantlepiece, the half drunk glasses of sherry on the card and occasional tables, the cheese and bread in the kitchen.  I like to think of the guiders going round each morning setting everything fresh into position, spraying the scents and lighting the candles ( there are piled candle ends in several rooms, today’s occupants being as thrifty as Madame Jervis could have been ).

It takes about 45 minutes to walk through the house and costs either £10 on Monday lunchtimes, or £15 in the evenings ( a guided tour is available for groups at £50 per person ).  We arrived at about 12.45 on Monday lunchtime and had to wait for a further twenty minutes, in a queue, as only small numbers are allowed in the house at any one time.  Once inside, you realise why ( people were smaller then ).

It’s an unusual and, for me, unique, experience and well worth visiting.

For more visiting of history try                        Undiscovered                  The Real Thing      Mother of Parliaments                           An Old Prospect                     Metamorphosis                    Waterloo

All photographs are from the House web-site, photography inside the House not being allowed.

Last chance to see – John Ruskin, The Power of Seeing

This year’s Spring exhibition at 2, Temple Place is a collaboration with Museums Sheffield and the Guild of St George to bring together a range of paintings, drawings, metal works and plaster casts to celebrate the work and legacy of John Ruskin (1819 – 1900).

Ruskin was an only child, his father was a wealthy sherry and wine importer, partner in Ruskin, Telford and Domecq, his mother an innkeeper’s daughter. Both parents were fiercely ambitious for their son and he grew up in a hothouse atmosphere in Herne Hill, south London.  A road there bears his name today.

He first came to the attention of the art world with Modern Painters (1843) written while Ruskin was still at oxford. It was a passionate defence of the art of J.M.W.Turner and redefined art criticism of the day.  It brought him to the notice of luminaries such as Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Bronte. This was followed by Modern Painters II (1846) written while on the Grand Tour with his parents. He married Effie Gray, the young daughter of a family friend in 1847. Together they journeyed to Venice where Ruskin worked on perhaps his most famous three-volume work The Stones of Venice (1851-1853). It was in The Nature of Gothic chapter in Vol II that he set out his belief in artisanal integrity and attacked industrial capitalism which had such an impact on socialists like William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement.

The marriage was, apparently, unconsummated ( though Ruskin contested this ) and was subsequently annulled in 1854, though not before major scandal when Effie left Ruskin for John Everett Millais. Ruskin had championed the Pre-Raphealites and continued to do so, even providing a stipend for Elizabeth Siddal, Rosetti’s wife, to encourage her art.  He also became a firm friend of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. These friendships are documented in the exhibition, as is his late crossing of swords with James McNeill Whistler.  While the case bankrupted Whistler, it also tarnished Ruskin’s reputation and may have contributed to his mental decline. I have never understood how a devotee of Turner’s art could have denigrated Whistler’s and that isn’t something which is tackled here.

The exhibition shows items from the Ruskin collection at Sheffield including his Turner paintings and Durer engravings ( loved the cat ) as well as many of his own drawings and paintings.  In addition there are newly commissioned pieces exploring the legacy of Ruskin, from Timorous Beasties, Grizedale Arts, Hannah Dowling and Emilie Taylor.  I very much enjoyed Dan Holdsworth’s moving image Acceleration Structures, based on the peaks and crevasses of three Alpine glaciers above Chamonix, where Ruskin would sketch and paint.

Ruskin died at Brantwood House, on the shores of Coniston Water in January 1900. Lionised in his lifetime, his reputation suffered in he early years of the twentieth century, but his international influence continued, with his works translated into Russian ( Tolstoy was a fan ) into French by Proust and Gujarati by Gandhi. Architects, writers and educationalists, politicians and thinkers all acknowledge their debt to him.

The exhibition ends on 22nd April, so only three days left. It is FREE to enter.  A very good idea if you want something interesting and stimulating to do on a sunny Easter weekend. More details on the web-site here.

For more on the Pre-Raphealites, Arts and Crafts and earlier Temple Place exhibitions try                Edward Burne-Jones                      Arts and Crafts                      Walking Burne-Jones        Beyond Beauty                    Rhythm  Reaction: the Age of Jazz in Britain