Thursday, 23 February 2012

Death of Klinghoffer

A curious and ultimately unsatisfactory choice for opera story given that the plot as presented sets the dispossessed Palestinian people against captain and tourists on a cruise liner yet the dramatic conflict is not between them,  but in the immediate events of a hijack with a messy i.e. murderous outcome that the hijackers did not want and tried to obscure.  There are lengthy sur-sur-titles giving the historical facts and disclaiming all attempts at accuracy, but as with many operas, one could almost ignore the story because  the music of Klinghoffer  is so tremendous  in its impact [says I who know nothing about music].  Haunting, loud, intense, compelling. From the comments around me, the music overwhelmed the audience in its clarity and power.   Hugh Davies, violinist in the orchestra, observes that 'Adams has been uncompromising in his technical demands on the players and the instruments needed to achieve the required effects.' With all respect to Alice Goodman, the libretto doesn't seem comparable, though long wordy sentences may be the composer's choice.  Too often the brain had to choose between listening to the music and comprehending the language.   Or maybe that's just my brain.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Wilhelmina Barns Graham

Excellent exhibition and excellent curator's talk by Lynne Green at the Fleming Collection Berkeley St W1J8DU on the work of Barns-Graham, yet another woman artist only coming to prominent attention after her death [in 2004, aged 92 ].  
     Scottish Colourist,  St Ives Modernist and  contemporary Abstractionist, culminating in a late explosion of strong colour and brushstrokes with acrylic paints and prints.  Lots of visual echoes and influences which tie WBG in to mainstream art history and play to her strengths, especially as she got older and bolder.  In 1987 she established a Trust to protect and promote her art, support students and maintain her Scottish home Balmungo House with artistic residencies.  There's a talk on the Trust at the Fleming Collection on 12 March

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Black Visibility and Invisibility

I was at a talk on Black Invisibility in Art, which started with Dabydeen's work and itemised various occasions when critics and curators have wilfully ignored the presence of [often marginal] Black figures when analysing old master paintings - e.g. the right-hand female attendant in Titian's Diana & Actaeon.   
Someone in the seminar then cited the fact that the National Portrait Gallery's Anti-Slavery Trail  for the 2007 anniversary [devised by Caroline Bressey] had been taken down - as an example of brief,  temporary, token  visibility. 
So I should put in a plug for the current display featuring William Cuffay, drawn by Paul Dowling when they were both in Newgate Prison awaiting transportation for Chartist agitation.  As far as I know. it's the only portrait of Cuffay - who settled and died in Tasmania - and was presumably reproduced as a lithograph for sale to sympathizers - i.e. as a political act.  Like most works on paper it won't be on show permanently, but it is permanently visible on the NPG website - search for Cuffay.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Friday, 10 February 2012

Lizzie Siddal anniversary

The 150th anniversary of Elizabeth Siddal's death on 11 February 1862 from an opiate overdose is being marked at her graveside in Highgate Cemetery tomorrow morning, with a display in the newly redecorated funeral chapel in splendid Puginesque style, and a lecture in the evening.  If weather permits - ice and snow create hazardous access to off-path graves - the Cemetery tours throughout the day will visit the Rossetti tomb.

Lizzie died in the early hours of 11 February, having taken an excessive dose of laudanum the night before when going to bed.  The inquest verdict was accidental death, but ever since rumours have persisted that she intended to die.  She was suffering from severe post-natal depression following the stillbirth of her daughter the year before, and friends reported that she was in a highly disturbed state of mind. Rossetti did not like to leave her alone at home in the daytime [so why leave her alone in the evening?] 

On the morning of the funeral 17 February 1862, he placed in the open coffin the manuscript of poems he had been preparing for publication, which was then buried with Lizzie at Highgate.  In 1869, notoriously, he arranged for the coffin to be exhumed and the poems retrieved; with others they wre published the following year.

He declared:
‘The truth is that no one so much as herself would have approved of my doing this. Art was the only thing for which she felt very seriously.  Had it been possible to her, I should have found the book on my pillow the night she was buried; and could she have opened the grave, no other hand would have been needed.’

Thursday, 9 February 2012


So the Royal Corp has agreed that Princess Kate [I can’t be typing Duchess of Cambridge all the time] will sit for a portrait for the National Portrait Gallery.  Which is only to be expected since in some far distant decade she will become Queen Consort and join NPG sitters stretching back to Catherine of Aragon whose key claim to fame is their marriage.  It’s good news for the NPG of course as a nice portrait, or even a nasty one, will attract the public, domestic and foreign, and right now all museums urgently need footfall and postcard sales.
But what kind of portrait?  Let’s hope not a photograph in the Testino-glamour mode, for Kate is already glammed up enough with flawless cosmetics and lustrously styled hair, to the extent of being indistinguishable from scores of current showbiz and fashionista celebs.   And if a painting, in what mode?  Roughly speaking two styles prevail –  flat matt acrylic with variations, as in Nicky Phillips’ portrait of Kate’s husband and brother-in-law, and glossy photo realism which harks back to high-finish painting.   In some ways Kate ought to be portrayed like young Victoria by Winterhalter – appropriate to her public role and appearance.  But that’s essentially the surface-glamour mode and while it’s true that Princess K has only this role to inhabit, nonetheless portraiture that aims below the surface is more interesting, as is that which aims beyond convention.  Paula Rego might portray Princess K well.   Or Allen Jones.  Or Maggi Hambling.   Kate could have choices of her own, which would also enhance the result.   Please, something really stylish, not air-brushed fashion-magazine image.

UPDATE, January 2013
The RESULT  :  more-or-less surface-glamour photo realism by Paul Emsley  that looks a bit like a hologram image
but with a curious half-smiling expression that in course of time may suggest Kate does not take the glossy high-fashion mode too seriously.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012


WHAT is immediately striking on seeing this large group of Freud's works at the National Portrait Gallery  is the diminishing colour range.  Freud was famed for using very few hues, mainly greys, browns, yellows and dusky pink and as the chronology progresses this pastel tone becomes the linking feature whereby the pictures speak to each other, as they say, binding in even portraits like those of Martin Gayford and David Hockney that contain blues and reds.
The second arresting aspect is the paint surface, with thick brushstrokes and concentrated bobbles of oil on certain areas that suggest a move in the direction of literal modelling.  The effect is to force attention on the materials and technique and curiously away from the subject matter of sprawling naked flesh, obese or skinny or canine as the case may be.

Many people regard Freud as a cruel, even sadistic, artist, intent on rendering his subjects and sitters as ugly as possible, but the evidence here is that his concerns first and last were with the struggle to capture visual effects on canvas, using unrelenting observation and slow accretions of oil paint to conjure the illusion of volume.  I wonder if he ever contemplated sculpture - there's something akin to the manipulation of clay in the late works. 


Wednesday, 1 February 2012

In Memoriam Roman Halter

VERY sadly, Roman Halter died on 30 January 2012, in hospital.   Roman was the first sitter and inspiration for the PORTRAITS FOR POSTERITY project.  Without his support it would not have happened, nor grown to its full extent.  He was emphatic that the Holocaust be remembered for its atrocities but at the same time he allowed himself no self-pity as a Survivor and absolutely no vanity when it came to being photographed, refusing to sit to Matt for more than a couple of frames. He had a striking head, fit to be sculpted, and a presence to match.  Always a glass-half-full person, his judgements on people and events were acute, sometimes surprising, never unjust.  One of those whom it was a pleasure and a privilege to know.