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When I'm photographing landscapes I like to expose for the sky. I don't want my clouds all wishy washy. I want them  to dominate the picture.

Which means that my  foregrounds are usually rather dark. 

I was browsing  through my galleries just now and it suddenly hit me  that the Impressionists got it wrong. Nature isn't all red and mauve and green and yellow. In fact She's mostly brown- as in an old master painting. 

Constable, Ruysdael, Poussin are closer  to the appearance of things than Monet or  Van Gogh.

Which isn't at all what the art historians say.
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The Scottish artist Ian Hamilton Finlay just died. I knew him once. Back in the early 70s. He was already a burning light and I was a a drippy kid. We fell out; he fell out with most people sooner or later; He was a very combative man.

Implacable.

I have a bunch of letters from him. He was a very good letter writer. I guess my collection of Finlayiana constitutes an archive.

OK, future biographers: here I am. You may get in touch.

My parents commissioned a sun-dial from him. It still stands in my mother's back garden. But aligned wrong, so it's useless for telling the time.

(I am a sundial and I make a botch
Of what is done far better by a watch
Hilaire Belloc)


Ian's farm at Little Sparta- with its landscape full of significant sculptural objects (to call it a sculpture park would be to miss out a dimension or two) has been called the single greatest work by any Scottish artist.

My most precious memory is of him saying goodnight to his kids. "If you lie very still you'll hear the wind blowing across the world."
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Purchas and her friends are headed for Orvieto. It's not a place I've ever visited, but I've Googled it and looked at pictures and now I've created a version of it in my head. I hope my version isn't too far removed from the real thing.

Unfortunately Purchas has arrived too early to bump into the painter Luca Signorelli who isn't going to be commissioned to paint his fabulous murals in the cathedral until a decade later.

Signorelli's murals depict the End of the World. They're full of muscular writhing bodies. Michelangelo saw them and they inspired his much more famous Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel in Rome.

I like Luca's version better.

Check him out here
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The Greeks fixed our standards of what is beautiful. There is a certain blandness about the Greek ideal. Everything is standardised.

In recent times the Greek ideals have appealed mainly to totalitarian regimes.

The Romans were the first people to practice portraiture. When I pass from the Greek to the Roman galleries and see all those quirky and ugly faces I feel like I am coming home.

Beauty is in denial.

"Beauty is truth", but the truth is ugly, so ugliness is beauty.

Day 4

Jun. 18th, 2005 03:12 pm
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This is where the holiday proper starts. Up early and off to Figueres- Salvador Dali's home town.

The little theatre at Figueres got smashed in the Civil War. Dali rebuilt it and turned it into a shrine to himself which is part art gallery, part House of Fun and part mausoleum (he's buried in the cellar.)

I took pictures, but they're not very good. For a virtual tour click here

Dali was a very shy and inhibited man who disappeared into his performance of himself. I don't think he's a great artist, but he was always interesting and entertaining.

Most of his work looks better in reproduction.

Figueres itself is very attractive and very smart.

We had lunch in a cafe next to the church of Sant Pere.

When we got back to the hotel Ailz went for a swim while I explored the hotel grounds and- looking over the garden wall found we had a Roman villa next door.

To be continued...

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Interesting TV documentary last night in which Waldemar Januszczak got to demonstrate that Julius II, the warrior Pope who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine chapel ceiling, was a loonie who thought he was the Messiah.
Mchelangelo was his propagandist. Decode The Sistine Chapel and it's telling us a story about how Julius is really Jesus.

Waldemar didn't push the contemporary parallels, but in some ways it's reassuring to be reminded that George Bush isn't the first world leader to base his foreign policy on a skewed interpretation of the Bible.

And Michelangelo? Did he know what he was doing? Probably. Did he believe in what he was doing? Probably not. But what the hell- it was an excuse to paint lots of fit young men in the raw. Even so, it's a bit like discovering that Picasso did his best work while in receipt of generously filled brown envelopes from the Jehovah's Witnesses.
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Up to London to look at art.

My mother’s uncle, Joseph Southall, who was a Quaker and a late-flowering pre-Raphaelite (he died in 1944), has an exhibition at the Fine Art Society. He was good at what he did. Apparently, implausibly, he was admired by Picasso. Anyway, we paid our respects, then went and had lunch at the Wallace Collection. My favourite painting at the Wallace is Poussin’s Dance to the Music of Time- a lovely quiet thing in grey and olive with touches of bitter orange- showing four women, who represent Poverty, Industry, Wealth and Pleasure, going round in an endless circle, while Father Time, looking gleeful, strums his harp and Apollo drives his chariot through the sky. Poverty leads to Industry which leads to Wealth which leads to Pleasure which leads to Poverty- you get the idea.

Why is melancholy so enjoyable? What is it about the dying fall- the sunset touch? Is it because we’re flattered? Humanity is stupid and sad and we (that’s you and me and Poussin and Poussin’s aristocratic patron) pity it from our glacial peak of detached understanding.

Coming out of the Gallery, Ailz and my mother were strolling down the middle of the road and I was so eager to shepherd them onto the pavement and out of harm’s way that I didn’t look where I was going and almost walked into an oncoming car myself. What a useless baby I am!

Day Two

Jan. 21st, 2005 09:48 am
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We were stopped on the embankment by a young chap with a beard who promised us free tee shirts if we visited the Saatchi gallery. Saatchi is the advertising man who sold Mrs Thatcher to the British nation, then cornered the market in Brit Art. OK, not my favourite person, but I probably wouldn’t have liked Lorenzo De Medici either, or Pope Paul II or any of history’s other great art patrons if I’d been living in their time and with the consequences of their politics.

So we took the offer. The Saatchi Galley occupies floorspace in County Hall, the building that used to house London County Council, until Mrs Thatcher closed them down because they were too left-wing for her. Kinda fitting that her man Saatchi should be in residence now. To the victor the spoils.

So we saw the art and they gave us the tee shirts. The tee shirts have the motif of a heart pierced by a dagger and the Saatchi name underneath. I guess we’ll be advertising him on a Spanish beach this summer.

And the art? I liked the work by Marlene Dumas best. She has a picture of a very disturbing baby with a direct, adult gaze. We looked to see if it was a portrait of young Adolf. It wasn’t but it might have been.

We had lunch in the Royal Festival Hall, then went a few doors down to Dali Universe. It’s a very different kind of gallery. Saatchi’s place is like a temple- white walls, an atmosphere of awed hush- whereas this is kitsch and tatty and cheerful. Come and see the giraffes on fire! Come and see the naked ladies! Dali is fun. He digs into his toybox and brings out a soft watch, then he brings out a human torso with drawers in it, then he brings out a lobster, then he brings out a soft watch and then….Yeah, it’s fun being with Dali, but don’t expect much too variety. He recycles the same few images/obsessions again and again in painting, jewellery, sculpture.

They had some Picassos in the cellar. Picasso is another kind of artist altogether. Dali had ideas and got other people to execute them, but Picasso liked to get his hands dirty. The best things here were a couple of vitrines full of the lovely chunky pots he made in the 40s and 50s.

If I had a few hundred thousand pounds to spare I would buy myself a Picasso pot.

The rest of the afternoon we spent walking in the streets surrounding the Royal Courts of Justice. Lincoln Inn Fields is very pretty and shut-away, like a misplaced Oxford College. We went into the Church of St Mary Le Strand and the female verger offered us a cup of tea. There was a lovely deep smell of incense and we lit a candle in front of the virgin and child. All gods are one god and all goddesses are one goddess.

Paint is just coloured mud and glass is just sand that’s been melted and stone is just stone- but we dig these things up from under out feet, mess with them some and use them to create things that will outlast us and which make us think of God. In St Mary Le Strand they have a coffered ceiling with lovely plaster rosettes (plaster is what? Chalk that’s been processed or something like that) I’ll swear every one of them was subtly different.

And that’s about it. We had supper in an Indian restaurant and came back to the hotel in a jam-packed tube train.
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I’ve been looking at art of the First World War. Nothing changes. The artists tried to show things as they really were and officialdom tried to stop them.

C.W.R Nevinson put a little picture of dead Tommies into an exhibition in 1918. http://www.art-ww1.com/trame/090text.html. He was told to remove it. Instead he covered it over with brown paper and wrote "censored" across it. The War Office issued him with a reprimand. Not only was it forbidden to show pictures of dead bodies, it was also forbidden to draw attention to the rules that forbade it.

Nerves were very raw. When Frank Brangwyn was commissioned to paint murals in Westminster Palace in the mid 20s one of his offerings was this boys own image of tanks going into action. http://www.art-ww1.com/trame/022text.html. It was rejected as too morbid.

William Orpen painted this picture as a comment on The Peace of Versailles. http://www.art-ww1.com/trame/097text2.html. The nation refused to buy it, so he painted out the ghostly soldiers. http://www.art-ww1.com/trame/097text2.html. Actually I think the second version is an improvement, but it's nice to know that with the process of time and the thinning of the paint the two spooks are now beginning to show through.
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I had to share this.

http://www.reuters.co.uk/newsArticle.jhtml?type=oddlyEnoughNews&storyID=7010695

[livejournal.com profile] amritarosa put me onto it.

This medieval mural in the Italian city of Massa Marittima shows a bunch of women standing under a tree full of penises. According to a British academic, it illustrates a passage from the Malleus Maleficarum and is the earliest representation of witches in European art.

The Reuters article gives a full explanation.
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When the painter J.M.W Turner died, his executor, the great critic John Ruskin, went through the archives and made a bonfire of a lot of stuff he disapproved of- "painting after painting of Turner's of the most shameful sort - the pudenda of women - utterly inexcusable and to me inexplicable".

Or at least that's what we were told. And Ruskin's memory has been tainted with an acrid whiff of burning art-works ever since.

But now it seems as if the bonfire never happened. Ian Warrell, the Turner expert at the Tate Gallery, has been through the huge Turner collection and, checking and counter-checking, reports that there's nothing missing. Instead of burning the erotica, Ruskin sort of "lost" it in his highly complicated filing system.

And the bonfire story? Who knows? I guess Ruskin put it about to bolster his image with the Victorian public as a righteous arbiter of public taste. It's what he wanted people to believe he'd done.

I'm so glad he didn't.

He was a weird, prissy, ridiculous man. Also a genius- a visionary. One could write a play, a TV play perhaps- about good Ruskin and bad Ruskin fighting it out over Turner's porn stash.

Which leaves one final question: when are we, the British public- the ultimate owners of the Turner collection- going to be allowed to see this stuff?
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I walk back through the door and straight into my big, padded body-warmer. It's cold up here.

London enjoys its own artificial micro-climate. The trees in Regents Park are still shimmering with autumn colours. Elsewhere it's winter.

We saw three exhibitions in London.

Eyes, Lies and Illusions at the Hayward Gallery. Optical art, peepshows, magic lanterns etc. Essentially a prehistory of the movies.

Christopher Dresser at the V & A. Dresser was a late-Victorian designer notable for championing form over decoration and for his committment to mass production. His square teapots and minimalist toast racks are about forty years ahead of their time. And some of his ceramics reminded me of Picasso's.

Encounters at the V&A. The meeting of Asia and Europe 1500-1800. The very beginnings of globalization. Did you know that an 18th century Chinese Emperor employed an Italian Jesuit as one of his court painters? No, Neither did I.

Art Fair

Oct. 30th, 2004 10:26 am
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We were at the Manchester Art Fair yesterday afternoon.

The advance publicity mentioned Damien Hirst and I thought oh goody, pickled sharks, cabinets full of prescription drugs, but all we got was a single, innocuous little print. I enjoy Hirst when he's trying to make our flesh creep, but I don't rate him as a painter or graphic artist.

Most of the stuff on show was decorative and unambitious- the kind of thing you could hang in the board-room and not scare the money away. And most of it was a version of something someone else had done (and better) twenty, fifty, a hundred and fifty years ago. Frankly, I was disappointed. But I let my expectations sink and enjoyed what there was to enjoy. One exhibitor was selling a whole lot of Beryl Cook's fat ladies. They're fun (and expensive.)http://www.berylcook.org/desktopdefault_BC.aspx?

The one artist I got excited about was Agnieszka Swoboda. She paints domestic interiors. The vision is childlike and her own. She isn't copying someone else and she doesn't ingratiate. I would have loved to own her Big Red Chair- but it was far out of my price range. She said she hadn't been doing too well because her work isn't very commercial. "That's why I like it," I said.

Her website is worth a visit. The pictures reproduce well, and there's a charming soundtrack of children singing Polish nursery songs. http://www.agnieszkaswoboda.com/

Turing

Sep. 2nd, 2004 05:33 pm
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There's a man sitting on a bench in a Manchester park, just accross the canal from the gay village. The first time I saw him I reckoned there was something not quite right about him. When I got closer I saw he was made of bronze. The effect is creepy.

So it should be. This is the monument to Alan Turing, the father of computing and (by virtue of his work on Axis codes at Bletchley Park) one of the heroes of the Second World War.

Turing was gay. The police harassed him. He avoided prison by agreeing to submit to oestrogen injections. The establishment turned its back on him. He committed suicide aged 42.

He committed suicide in rather a novel way (he was, after all, a genius.) He injected cyanide into an apple, then ate it.

The bronze man is holding an apple in his hand.

A few posts back I said we can't do public sculpture any more. That wasn't entirely true. The Turing monument is a great piece of public sculpture. Mike wanted to see it so I took him there this afternoon. We sat on the bench across from Turing and and he looked at us and we looked at him. The face is bland. It doesn't accuse. It doesn't ask for pity.

Turing's wartime work was hushed up for the longest time (national security don'tcha know) but he did as much to defeat Hitler as Churchill, Montgomery, the Battle of Britain pilots or anyone else you care to mention. He was a very great scientist. He was hounded to death.
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High Culture. I hate that phrase. Culture is what people do. It’s a living thing. Start tiptoeing round it and you kill it. An attendant at the National Gallery told Ailz she couldn’t use her mobile on the premises. The art gallery is the new church. Keep the kids under control, turn off your mobile, speak in whispers.

Look at the pictures. Mostly they’re about sex and violence. My mother asked me to explain a Poussin to her. Since it showed nymphs and satyrs wanking, I pretended to be as baffled as she was.

Rembrandt is the Victorian idea of what an Old Master ought to be. He’s pompous, sentimental and humourless and he paints in shades of brown. Most Old Masters are nothing like him, but the contagion of his Protestant righteousness seeps out into all the adjoining galleries.

Reverence and received opinion keep us from seeing what is really there.
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The Wallace collection was assembled by members of one family (the Hertfords) over the course of four generations. The last of the line was Sir Richard Wallace (famous in Paris for gifting the city with fifty ornate public fountains.)

It’s a quirky collection. The Hertfords were Francophiles and they were buying in the wake of the French revolution. Hence the preponderance of 18th century French painting and furniture. If you like Boucher then this is the world’s number one pilgrimage site. The best single piece from this period is Fragonard’s The Swing- you know, the soft porn image of the guy reclining in a rose bush, looking up his girlfriend’s billowing skirts while she swings out over his head.

But there’s other stuff too. Dutch paintings for instance. I lingered with them. There are so many good Dutch 17th century painters that it’s easy to take them for granted. Metsu, Terboch, Steen- they way not be as great as Vermeer, but they’re very, very good. Oh, and Hals’ Laughing Cavalier is here. He’s just so real.
The Hertfords bought a number of Rembrandts. Most of them have since turned out not to be Rembrandts at all. The Portrait of Titus is the genuine article, but the rest are the work of pupils. Two of the best have been attributed to Willem Drost. Now why is a painting a great painting when it’s by Rembrandt but nothing special when it’s by Drost?

I was feeling heretical; I persuaded myself I preferred the Drosts to the genuine Rembrandts. Was Rembrandt a human being of rare depth and spirituality or was he simply a guy who perfected a painterly trick for suggesting depth and spirituality? Did he see right into his sitters’ souls or was he just flattering them with his clever handling of light and shadow?

The two greatest paintings are Titian’s Perseus and Andromeda- a magnificent, melancholy nude with a genuinely scary sea monster- and Poussin’s Dance To The Music Of Time.

We had lunch in the covered courtyard restaurant. I think it was the most expensive meal I’ve ever paid for- but I didn’t feel cheated. The fountain in the centre is a copy of one of the ones Wallace gave to Paris. It pretends to be a tree with a serpent climbing up it.



Ailz lunching at The Wallace
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Odd Nerdrum? It's got to be a wind-up, right? Well, no. It's a Norwegian name. The guy's for real- and here are his paintings to prove it- http://www.nerdrum.com/

Nerdrum paints dream images in a seventeenth century style. It's as if Rembrandt had seen Un Chien Andalou. He's been called kitsch so often that he's adopted it as a badge of pride.

He has a theory that art took a wrong turning back in the 18th century - and it's all Kant's fault. Kant wanted art to be a spiritual thing- nothing to do with all that nasty, sloppy paint. Art was what remained when you subtracted mere craftsmanship from the act of painting or sculpting. Odd points out (with barely concealed glee) that Kant died a virgin.

But Odd's quarrel isn't really with Kant; it's with the current art establishment and an orthodoxy which has turned the artist into a spiritual aristocrat who thinks beautiful thoughts and gets other people- workmen- to turn them into objects. Odd insists on the sensuousness of art, on the primacy of craft. It is by struggling with his materials that the artist pushes himself to greater and greater heights. Look at Titian. Look at Rembrandt. Also (hee, hee, hee) women prefer a man who's prepared to get his hands dirty.

Well, it's an interesting theory, but it's full of holes. Odd overlooks too much, makes too many dubious claims. Picasso wasn't interested in craft?- come off it, Odd! But the man's an eccentric and he's been sidelined and wounded and he's justified in fighting back.

Art or Kitsch? In the end who cares how these images are labelled? I love them. They are straaange. Desert landscapes, in Caravaggio light- with naked and half naked figures lolling about. Many thanks to [livejournal.com profile] amritarosa for drawing my attention to them.
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Last time I was in Amsterdam (about 25 years ago) I went to the wax museum and stood for ages in front of the image of Vincent Van Gogh. He was standing in his cute little bedroom in Arles, looking sorry for himself, while Don McLean's "starry, starry night" played on a loop.

I could have cried.

But Vincent- the real Vincent- was the kind of man you'd have hated to have as a neighbour. Waldemar Januszczak has just completed a series on Channel 4 dedicated to this proposition. He has documented the violence, the drunkenness, the whoring, the syphilis, the paranoia, the attention-seeking, the bad behaviour. Vincent kept being run out of town- and for good reason. In Arles the citizens got up a petition and presented it to the mayor protesting that he was mad and drunk and a molester of women and needed to be locked away.

Just before he cut off his earlobe Vincent confronted Gauguin in the street and threatened him with an open razor. Wake up people, this was not a nice man!

Very little in the legend is true. He wasn't even as unsuccessful as we like to think. At the time of his death he had just sold his first picture and was being hailed by the Parisian critics as the saviour of modern art. Seeing that he'd only been working as an artist for 9 years, that's pretty good going.

But somehow, we've turned him into an icon of suffering innocence. He's the artist as Jesus Christ. A man of sorrows and rejected by men.

But, oh Vincent, I'd have understood you. I'd have sat by your bedside and held your hand and told you how beautiful you were. Me and Don McLean.
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We saw a lot of art in London.

We got off the train and went straight to the El Greco exhibition at the National Gallery. El Greco is one of the greats. Other artists of the counter-Reformation filled their skies with angels and saints, but Greco's are the the only ones who look as if they might really be able to fly. He's a rare case of an artist who seems utterly in tune with his society- in his case the theocracy of fifteenth century Toledo. It must have been a bit like living under the Taliban- with the difference that these guys were crazy for art. Modern commentators find his portrait of the Grand Inquisitor scary, but what I see is a humorous little chap in specs and a frock. El Greco likes him. Perhaps they were even friends. Anyway, it's gorgeous, not at all the work of a man who was trembling in his boots. And why should he have been scared? He and the Inquisitor were enthusiasts for the same world view. I don't like catholic triumphalism, but Greco almost has me convinced. Those figures like flames, those firework bursts of scarlet and lemon and burnt orange, those melting rocks, those skies that look as though they've been carved out of shell. It's a surreal vision- but one driven by conviction not nihilism.

Then we went to Tate Britain. After Greco it was a let down. British artists paint in shades of mud. The apotheosis comes with Auerbach and Kossof- where the shit-coloured paint is so heavily impastoed that it starts to peel off the canvas under its own weight. The only genius Britain has produced is Turner- and even he, at the mercy of the market, produced volumes of hack-work.

The third day we went to Tate Modern. The gallery itself is the real news here- an industrial cathedral with a view from the top-floor restaurant that beats most of the art. 2Oth century painting and sculpture is mainly a tying up of loose ends. The great names are Picasso and Warhol- with Beuys as an el Greco like visionary operating somewhere at the edge of the map. Picasso's Three Dancers is an astonishing piece of work- as classic as Poussin, as savage as Goya- a grand summation of everything that had gone before.
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Nemesis: She's a big, German-looking lady with a double chin and a pot belly and she's standing on a ball and riding it like a circus performer. In her right hand she has a chalice and in her left she has a bridle. Also she has wings. The ball is pressing down upon whatever barrier it is that keeps her scary supernatural world from breaking through into everyday reality. Just under the straining fabric is a little medieval village. Heavy weather they're thinking, not knowing that Ten-ton Tessie, the Goddess, is pedaling overhead. Rumble, rumble, rumble, rumble. That's my girl!

 

The Knight, Death and the Devil: Think what Millais would have made of this. Yeah, quite. Think soulful; think big, liquid eyes raised to heaven. Durer's knight is a stoic. He looks straight ahead. He is not going to be distracted. Bergman must have had this guy at the back of his mind when he made the Seventh Seal. Death is not just a skeleton- he's a rotting corpse. And the Devil is kinda fun. A comical monstrosity with wavy horns and a pig's snout and little beady eyes. Then there's the alpine castle towering above them all on its hill. What's the word for this? Magic realism? Super-realism? Surrealism? What counts is that everything is utterly real - as though every detail had been studied under a magnifying glass before Durer would trust himself to draw it. It's a lucid nightmare- more real than real.

 

 Melancholia. She's like a Michelangelo sibyl- but haunted. The northern winter has entered into her soul. She is surrounded by the tools of science and creation and she's thinking, 'what's the point?' Her eyes shine in the light of a falling star. She is divine. She is fucked-off divine. She is the greatest single image in western art.

From Mammary Hill

View images at http://www.geocities.com/eleonoreweil//durerus/index.html

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