Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Definitely Worth Watching

-    the new BBC4 three-part series on the History of Art Collecting in Britain, which started last week with the Earl & Countess of Arundel in 16th century and continues tonight with the more familiar C18 Grand Tourists.  It has a rather silly title 'Bought with Love : the Secret History of British Art Collections', given that the motivation was aesthetic, and Charles I's purchases were hardly secret, but it's so rare to see scholarly information intelligently presented to a mass audience.  Specialist commentators  have rightly described the first programme as enjoyable, informative and well shot; in fact their comments also pay the programme makers the compliment of correcting incidental inaccuracies (a wrong portrait ID) and adding qualifications that are probably hard to include in sixty minutes. So hats off to producer Franny Moyle and colleagues.  Hopefully the series will re-air outside the summer holiday season.
Immediately following that, BBC2 tonight has 'Who are you Calling an African Artist?' featuring Ibrahim El-Salahi and Meshac Gaba, whose work is at Tate Modern. 
In today's international art world, national or ancestral origins are only one form of identity, though often foregrounded  - think Sonia Boyce or Yinka Shonibare - and here is critic Jonathan Jones's trailer for the topic: 'In the case of 82-year-old El-Salahi, his is a tale of reconciling modernism as well as his own heritage.  But why is his work, along with Africa's wider art tradition, so often ignored in the west?  It's a  question tackled by Gaba, whose Museum of Contemporary African Art is an idea for an institution that doesn't yet exist.'

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Laura Knight's People

Largely because her work was untouched by any European avant-gardes, or maybe because she was the first woman elected to full membership of the Royal Academy in modern times, but at a time when the RA approached a nadir of esteem, Laura Knight has generally been patronisingly dismissed by critics, in rather similar terms to those used to sideline L.S.Lowry and other unrepentantly figurative artists.  In recent years  Knight's forceful drawing and muscular compositions have received some critical revaluation, the latest example being a selection of portraiture at the NPG, starting with the well-known Self-Portrait of the artist in black hat and long red cardi painting the back view of a female nude, colourfully subverting the hackneyed motif of ‘artist and [sexually available] model’ of age-old familiarity, and also brilliantly referencing the shapely bum of Velasquez's 'Rokeby Venus', and the here explicit act of painting. Knight depicts herself, because otherwise the view of a model imaged in a mirror would implicitly be by a male artist - neatly self-assertive, as she seems to have been temperamentally.

As she put it: 'An ebullient vitality made me want to paint the whole world, and say how glorious it was to be young and strong and able to splash with paint on canvas.'   Perhaps as a result, Knight’s vigorous brushwork verges on bravura, clumsiness the occasional price of direct attack. One sometimes wishes she had followed a more Expressionist mode, but in fact her rendering of women and men at work - in factory, backstage, in aircraft - benefit from their manifest realism. 

Highlights of the exhibition include sitters from two marginalised communities – those of Travellers, whom Knight called Gipsies, and African-Americans, whom she called Negroes or ‘darkies’. 

Tate N05330 © The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA RWS

First encountering Romany travellers at race meetings, Knight set up a mobile studio in the back of a spacious vintage Rolls Royce (!)  and got to know the family of matriarch Lilo Smith.   Of Lilo's son Gilderoy, she  later wrote: 'one wet day, at Iver, Bucks, in the camp there near the railway, [he] posed for me in a little lean-to tent - just a corner in shelter, crowded by a big double bed where an old gipsy and his wife slept. I painted it in 3 or 4 hours'.
The curator's account is here 
Knight's African-American sitters – female – were portrayed with greater suavity.


© The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA
Accompanying her husband Harold, commissioned to paint leading [male] medics at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in the late 1920s, Knight sought out the shadow side of that divided city, finding sitters among the nurses – apparently to her surprise. 'The babies of American darkies are among the most beautiful things in the world,' she wrote. ‘In fact, to the artist there is a whole world of beauty which ought to be explored in negro life in America.'
One of the most stunning results is a portrait of Pearl Johnson, a long-serving hospital nurse and campaigner against segregation, who took Knight to lectures and concerts devoted to this  phase of the Civil Rights movement.   It would be good to know more about Johnson. 
© The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA RWS
Of course, Gypsy and Black models frequently feature in early C20 British paintings, but seldom as named portrait sitters.

And a postscript, from Knight's later phase as a conventional portraitist, a little-known depiction of Vijay Lakshmi Pandit, ambassador to the USSR, USA and UK, Nehru's sister and Indira Gandhi's aunt, a portrait  probably unfinished owing to the sitter's travels, and now in the RA Collection.



Friday, 12 July 2013

Italian Gardens Old and Modern 6

A young gardener with a nine years’ character succeeded him.  He came from a  first-class garden belonging to a wealthy German baron, whose head gardener spoke in the highest terms of him, and at the regret he felt at having to let him god; but there had been quarrels between him and another workman, and the German baron had decided that, under these circumstances, it was better that both should go.
This youth, who was about twenty-seven, had been accustomed to precisely the kind of house work we required from our gardener in the morning, as well as to changing the plants in the sitting-rooms, when he went about in a pair of civilized house shoes, and did not import a barrow-load of earth all over the carpets.  Apropos, I was up at the big villa one day, and saw some curious-looking foliage plants adorning a flower stand.  On taking up my glass to inspect them more closely, I found, to my horror, that they were products of the “Grand Magasin du Louvre”, and on asking the secretary the reason for this new departure, he replied that they were most advantageous, looked quite as well as the real article, stood for months, and obviated the necessity of the gardeners tramping over the numerous valuable old Persian carpets and rugs, with which the rooms were strewn!  Some of the latter had cost hundreds of pounds apiece, and would have been better bestowed on the walls, but these were already filled with tapestries and pictures.

To return to my sheep, by name Angiolino, a more suitable selection did not seem possible, as, on his promotion, a young well-trained servant is generally the ideal article; and so I think he would have proved; but alas! I had not reckoned on female influence.  I was aware that he was fidanzato, and an engagement generally gives a young man a motive for sticking to his work and “getting on”, but I did not know that he was heartily tired of the “object” and had taken up with another woman, and this it was that brought him to grief and ruined his very promising career.

It was autumn when he came to us; and in the following spring he came to me one day, and said that there was a good deal of cutting and pruning to be done; theta  a young friend of his, the son of a contadino in his own neighbourhood, would be very glad to come and help him, if I would allow him, and there should be no additional expense. I gave the desired permission, and the friend, a nice-looking boy and very willing, worked for about a month in the garden.  Easter was close at hand; and a friend from England who had come out to pend it with us, brought me a nice lot of rooted chrysanthemum cuttings.  I handed them over to Angiolino on the morning of Holy Thursday, telling him that, if plunged in damp earth, they would not hurt if potting were delayed till next day, and that I knew he would want to go to the churches, adding that he never seemed to take a holiday off, on his own account.  The man went round to the kitchen that evening and repeated my words to the servants and departed, saying the “Signora had been so kind.” We never saw him again.

Next day, Good Friday, when he did not appear as usual, I concluded that, as he had not availed himself of the permission to go to the churches on the Thursday, he was taking the holiday that day instead.  Good Friday in Roman Catholic countries is not nearly so important as the Thursday preceding it, when it is de rigueur to visit seven churches, and when the “dressing of the sepulchre” in the country districts, is one of the most picturesque sights in Italy.  I saw this and the carrying of the dead Christ round the town, at Assisi, more than thirty-three years ago, and both were most impressive and characteristic ceremonies.
As Angiolino’s friend had come as usual, his absence did not signify; but when Saturday came and  he did not appear, I felt certain something was amiss.  The substitute professed to know nothing of him, and all the little chrysanthemums, which had been left in beautiful order, were waiting to be potted, as I did not care to let this boy touch them.  After lunch I was told that a contadino wished to see me, and I found it was Angiolino’s father, in great trouble about his son, and come to see if he was with us.

It appeared that on the previous morning he had left at his usual hour to come to my house (he lived at a great distance from us) but had returned at ten o’clock, saying that his padrona had given him a holiday, had put on his best clothes and gone out for the day.  He had not returned, and they were in great anxiety about him.  It subsequently transpired that he had gone off, not with the lawful fidanzata, but with her supplanter.  I do not know if his family have ever seen him since, but some two years after he thus decamped they had had only a dateless letter from him, to say he was alive and well.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Italian Gardens Old and Modern 5


I had recourse to one of my many nursery-garden friends and begged him to try and get me a suitable and trustworthy man.  As I had the prospect of spending part of the approaching winter in Rome, it was important t me to put a reliable man in charge.  Just then, a gardener, who had been trained in this establishment, and had gone from there to another part of Italy, was free, and, as he seemed a capable man, I engaged him.  His name was Dante Bacci, and he had many good points, with the great drawback of a physical infirmity that totally incapacitated him for any hard work, such as digging, or moving the heavy conche that twice a year have to shift their quarters.
He could easily have been cured by a few weeks of hospital treatment, but no persuasions would induce him to go into the hospital.  Tuscans have an absolute horror of going into a Florentine hospital, and consider their doom as sealed if they do.  Whether this is a well-founded belief or not, I cannot say; but I do know that many of the regulations of these hospitals appear to us very extraordinary, particularly in matter of feeding, and the way in which the patients’ friends are allowed to convey to them supplies of food and wine.

However, Bacci was so capable as to his sowings and cuttings and in finer gardening work, that I preferred to keep him and get occasional help when heavy jobs were on hand.  Like many of his countrymen he had an eye for colour and effect, and thoroughly understood displaying his choicest productions to the best effect in the court-yard.  He was also a man of many airs and graces, and English friends when visiting us, used to expatiate on the beauty of his bows and the elegance of his morning salutations. “Where,” they would say, “would you find an English gardener take off his hat and make you a bow like that?”  I thought how much I should prefer the sturdy self-respecting Saxon salutation!
The garden developed a great deal under his care, and it was quite time I had efficient help, for when one reaches a certain “backwater” stage, going down on your knees on gravel walks or stones does not accord well with rheumatic joints.  I never have seen such fine petunias as this man grew, and he had an excellent hand for grafting.

I began with him at a great disadvantage, for, at the time he came to us, I had arranged to spend the best part of the winter in Rome, and it is never wise to leave a new hand without supervision, as he is sure to resent your "interference" on his return.  However, I found the place in good order when we came back n spring, when I had of course to make it clear to him that my wishes had to be respected and my orders obeyed.  I somehow managed to inspire him with considerable affection, and, as the servants said, "Bacci would do anything for the Signora."
But I had had too many lessons on the futility of placing confidence in agreeable "ways" to be able to go away again for any length of time with an easy mind, and when in the early summer of 1895 I found we were likely to be in England for eight months, I was thankful when my Absentee said he would come and "mind the house for me".  On our return he told me he had studies this man's character very closely and found him a curious type, and that it was an absolute necessity for him to have some one with him at his work, a child, or even a bird, would answer the purpose, but a companion of some sort he must have.  To my great regret, Bacci found himself obliged by family circumstance to return to the nursery at Siena, when he had been three years with me.  His wife, who was a Sienesi, had the offer, from the Commune there, of a post which was too good to be refused.  As the nursery where he had worked was glad to take him back, at he same salary he had from me, the family income was more than doubled.


Friday, 5 July 2013

S is for Samora

The first president of independent Mozambique in 1975 was Samora Moises Machel, barely known outside the liberation movement Frelimo.  As was sometimes ruefully remarked, independence came too quickly and too soon, and the flight of European colonialist in its wake left a desperate lack of skills and experience in an impoverished country. International solidarity, with engineers, medics, instructors from the communist bloc and sympathetic westerners helped to some degree. Sarah Lefanu and her husband were among these idealist cooperantes, aiding development in conditions of extreme austerity. 
Underdevelopment was a minor problem however compared with active hostility from neighbouring South Africa and Rhodesia, tacitly supported by the US.  Just over a decade later, Machel and his delegation were killed when their plane was lured by a decoy radio beacon to crash into a hillside.  Nelson Mandela, then still on Robben Island, made his only request to leave prison to attend the funeral, which was refused. In 1999, president Mandela unveiled a memorial to those murdered, saying ‘It is painful that our quest to understand the causes of the crash remains unfinished.’ By this date he was married to Machel’s widow, Graça Simbine who with characteristic grace and dignity is now presiding over another death.

In S is for Samora: a lexical biography of Samora Machel and the Mozambican Dream, Lefanu deftly weaves an irregular text combining life story with political history, past and present personal narrative and documentary evidence. Its patchwork quality reflects the fact that many aspects of Mozambican history remain obscure, forgotten or concealed, but such is also the nature of memory, public or personal – and is moreover the inevitable though seldom acknowledged aspect of the biographer’s craft, which does well to present glimpses of its subject in various places and time, like a photo album.  One of the vivid sequences describes Lefanu’s unplanned trip, driven by the late and then very elderly Malangatana, artist of the revolution, the Machel ancestral home at Xilembene, where mama Graça happened to be visiting.  Initially cool, Graça melts when she learns Sarah was a cooperante (when Graça was in fact her employer as Minister for Education), and declares the visit, prompted by Malangatana’s dream, to be providential.  Sarah also gets to meet Samora’s surviving brothers.

TMalangatana he Mozambican revolution is long over, but this book gives a synoptic view of how it felt then and now.  I don’t think it’s easily available, so here is a link: