Friday, November 27, 2009

Art Review : Turner and the Masters - Tate Britain (September 2009 - January 2010)

JMW Turner was a combative character, who frequently set himself up in comparison to both contemporary artists and established Great Masters. He famously demanded in his will that two of his best works were to be given to the new National Gallery, on the proviso that they were permanently hung between two paintings by his great predecessor as an interpreter of landscapes, the Frenchman Claude Lorraine. This splendidly instructive exhibition looks at how Turner learnt from, and attempted to supersede, his illustrious forebears.

The comparisons with Claude are direct, and brilliantly illustrated in the exhibition. Turner knew Claude’s “Landscape with Jacob, Laban and his Daughters” from the collection of his patron, the Earl of Egremont. In protest at the conservative policies of the British Institution who encouraged artists to model themselves directly on the painters of the past, Turner submitted “Appulia in Search of Appulus Learns from the Swain the Cause of his Metamorphosis”, which copied the Claude almost exactly except for the central characters, who point to a shepherd who was turned into a tree for copying the dancing of the nymphs of Pan. Untalented mimicry has its pitfalls.

Turner saw “Seaport at Sunset” (left) by Claude in the Louvre in 1821. In 1828 in Rome, he fashioned his response, “Regulus” (right), which stuck closely to the mirror image of Claude’s composition but which transformed the central narrative. Regulus was a captured Roman General who had his eyelids removed and then pointed at the sun. Turner replaces Claude’s warm glow of sunset with a blaze of brilliant yellow light which dazzles all who gaze at it. The genteel seaport has been transformed into a place of searing drama.

Likewise, Turner engaged directly with Dutch masters of the seascape such as Jacob van Ruisdael and Jan van de Velde. In another brilliant pendant, Turner transforms Van de Velde’s “A Rising Gale”, a clear and precise depiction of a storm-tossed boat, into “Dutch Boats in a Gale: Fishermen Endeavouring to Put their Fish on Board”. The composition is similar, but Turner’s looser brushwork and delicate highlights of the breaking waves give the painting a much greater sense of movement.

However, it is equally illuminating to look at examples where Turner tried and failed to emulate his great predecessors. Titian may be considered a natural point of departure, as his use of colour and his late brushwork have many similarities with Turner. Yet when one looks at Venus and Adonis, whose head is turned away from the viewer and whose shoulder is obscuring the face of Venus, one can only wonder if there is a more poorly composed painting in the canon. Similarly, an attempt to paint the Holy Family offers a vision of an oversized baby somehow suspended in mid-air. In fact, one has to conclude that Turner is a poor figurative painter. For me, his one such success is Jessica, peering out of her Venetian window – a painting which was pilloried for its overuse of yellow when it was first produced.

Turner’s relationship with his contemporary David Wilkie is illustrative. Wilkie’s painting “Village Politicians” had been the success of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1806. This piece was a directly based on genre pieces by Dutch artists of the late 17th Century such as David Teniers the Younger. Turner’s immediate instinct was to try to do better, and in 1807 he presented “A Country Blacksmith disputing upon the Price of Iron, and the Price Charged to the Butcher for shoeing his Poney” at the Summer Exhibition. Yet despite its fine execution, the painting is a failure. The charm of Wilkie - and of Teniers - is in the detail, in the personalities represented and in the incidental vignettes scattered throughout their pieces. Turner’s blacksmith needs the overlong title to explain the topic under discussion, and none of the people are recognisable as characters. Wilkie exhibited “The Blind Fiddler” the same year, where every character from the dull-eyed nursing mother to the expansive man clicking his fingers to amuse the child has a reality to them which Turner lacked. Wilkie won this contest hands down.

This fine exhibition brings its paintings together with intelligence and clarity, setting out a compelling story of how Turner defined himself in relation to others; yet ultimately Turner’s distinct vision is very much his own. By examining the similarities between Turner and other artists, the ultimate revelation is the extent to which Turner’s later vision of light and haze and water was actually a transformation from inside out of the gentle landscapes of Claude. It is to him that he constantly returns, to his classical forms and elegant compositions, even if they are but shadows in a miasma of blinding light. His final exhibited works in 1850 once again echo, however indistinctly, the format of Claude’s seaport works.

Turner wasn’t being arrogant when he wrote his will, he was acknowledging a debt.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Theatre Review : Pains of Youth by Ferdinand Bruckner - Cottesloe (dir Katie Mitchell 23/11/09)

Desiree loves Marie, who used to love Petrell, who now loves Irene but is trying to seduce Lucy the maid. Meanwhile, the malevolent Freder, sometime lover of Desiree, is also trying to corrupt Lucy whilst persuading Marie to marry him. Or something like that, as to be honest the love lives of this group of angst-ridden medical students in 1923 Vienna became somewhat bewildering after a while.

Desiree (Lydia Wilson) is impulsive, a slave to her passions, wanting it all – to sleep with Marie, or to try being a prostitute like Lucy, or to indulge herself in the ultimate act of will. Meanwhile Freder (Geoffrey Streatfield) is persuading Lucy first to steal, and ultimately to go on the game, simply because he can. There is no motive, other than to control. “Bourgoise existence or suicide – there is no other choice” intones Alt (Jonah Russell), the intellectual.

Katie Mitchell directs, overlaying the action with menace-laden electronic sounds and flashy scene-changes. But she never manages to fully engage with the nihilism at heart of the play. The characters are not so empty that they become pure ciphers, but neither do they engage so that you care about their fate. Freder is disturbing, but he is not Aaron the Moor or Barabbas, an embodiment of pure evil. Desiree becomes tiresome. Lucy the maid-ingenué is a cliché long predating Moll Hackabout.

Ferdinand Bruckner’s play is an attack on the spiritual vacuum of a generation who have ill-absorbed the intellectual currents of the early 20th Century. Sexuality has been liberated by Freud. Twelve-tone music plays on the gramophone. Freder is a partially-developed Dostoevskian existentialist-nihilist. But this production didn’t leave you feeling sick and empty, or angry, or provoked. It was all too slick and efficient, just too much like a comfortable bourgeois night out with some ideas thrown in, and I really can’t think of anything further from what Bruckner must have intended.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Theatre Review : Roman Tragedies by William Shakespeare - Toneelgroep Amsterdam - Barbican (dir Ivo van Hove 22/11/09)

To be perfectly honest, Shakespeare's Roman Tragedies are my least favourite part of his canon. I find Coriolanus's shifts in loyalty difficult to come to terms with and the politics of Julius Caesar leaves me cold. Antony and Cleopatra has some magnificent set pieces, but large parts - unless well-directed - can be quite static. So signing up for 6 hours of Roman Tragedies, in Dutch with no interval, was an explicit act of faith in the Barbican BITE's production team's continuing ability to bring the absolute best in international theatre to London.

My faith was fully justified - this was superb.

In the programme, Ivo van Hove talks about how he wants to focus on the politics and relationships. He cuts the crowd scenes and replaces the battles with tremendous explosions of percussion, composed by Eric Sleichim. The cast wear modern suits, except when in the more intimate surrounds of Cleopatra's court. The set is an expansive arrangement of angular settees, like a conference centre or airport lounge, surmounted by a screen on which real-time video of the actors is projected Katie Mitchell-style (see along with the surtitles.

I have written elsewhere how performing Shakespeare in a foreign language gives the director a freedom with the text that is usually missing when it is performed in English. To judge by the surtitles, significant liberties had been taken with the text whilst keynote speeches remained unchanged. By necessity, one loses the poetry of Shakespeare's language when performing in translation, but in this case the poetry was replaced by a drive and immediacy appropriate to the modern setting.

Coriolanus was the weakest part of the trilogy, and could have been cut completely and not impacted the whole. There is a major historical discontinuity between this play and Julius Caesar and, whilst interesting in paring down some of the baggage of this messy play, it never scaled the heights emotionally or politically.

Julius Caesar, however, was a different matter. Cutting the crowd scenes gave the political machinations a clarity and immediacy which brought the play to life. Hans Kesting played Marc Antony from a wheelchair, having injured his foot the week before. When asked to reply to Brutus' funeral oration, he wheels himself to the lectern. The camera, shows only the top of his head, making him look faintly ridiculous. He hauls himself to his feet, staring at the audience in a silence which seemed to last for ever. Then he thows his text to the floor, grabs a microphone and wheels to the front of the stage, where a handheld camera zooms in as he splutters "Friends... Romans... countrymen...". Electrifying.

In Antony and Cleopatra, suits are swapped for joggers and pyjamas at Cleopatra's sexually smouldering court. Chris Nietvelt plays Cleopatra as willful and passionate but lacking proper emotional intelligence, screaming when she doesn't get her way. With Marieke Heebink as Charmian barely able to keep her hands off Cleopatra herself, the court is a pressure-cooker of the passions which stifles as the battles plans of Antony and Cleopatra go awry. The long final scene became almost unwatchable as the intensity mounted.

Whilst all this was happening, the audience were invited to mingle with the actors on the settees on the stage. At the side of the stage, in keeping with the conference centre theme, was a bar and food stalls, and a computer where you could type comments which were displayed on the rolling infobar along with news updates, footballs scores and updates on the historical background under the main screen. This sounds gimmicky, and was to a certain extent - but it fitted well with the modern setting of the production.

This was adventurous theatre which took apart Shakespeare and put him together anew for the 21st century, making him modern, accessible and very much relevant. It was quite simply the most eye-opening reimagining of his work that I have seen - fresh, clear, lucid and exciting.

This production ran for only three days at the Barbican, barely time to make the reviews before it finished. Once the word is out, it must return...

Art Review : Turner and Venice - Tate Britain (October 2003 - January 2004)

Curators must normally face a difficult task in balancing how they choose to develop the main intellectual themes of an exhibition with the cost and availability of the artefacts that they wish to bring together. However, such is the scale of the Turner bequest, the problem that Ian Warrell faced when setting up the Turner and Venice exhibition at the Tate Britain in 2003 must have been to decide what to omit.

A visit to the recent Turner and the Masters exhibition at Tate Britain (see ) has sent me back to the Catalogue of Turner and Venice, which had lain unopened on my bookshelves for the past six years. I remember my impressions at the time: a compendious overview of the sketches, watercolours and exhibited works which arose as a result of Turner’s three short visits to Venice. The sketches were of marginal interest, the oil paintings were, of course, superb, but the highlight for me was the revelatory display of exquisite watercolours.

The problem at the gallery though was one of scale. 185 exhibits can challenge the stamina of the most dedicated aficionado, and I do remember flagging towards the end as I fought through the crowds.

No such problem with the catalogue, which examines Turner’s response to Venice in even greater detail – one has the time and space to peruse it at leisure, and it is well worthy of detailed examination. Turner, who lived his life by the Thames, was always drawn to water, so it is natural that Venice was included in his first major tour of Italy in 1819 (he had briefly crossed the Alps in 1802), although he only spent five days in Venice out of a six month trip. The impact was not immediate, as it was not until 1833 that he spent a week there and thereafter until 1846 he sent at least one view of Venice in all but two years to the annual exhibition at the Royal Academy. His third and final visit was in 1840 when he stayed from the 20th August to the 3rd September.

The catalogue is comprehensive. It sets out the historical context – Venice, after years of decline was broken by Napoleon and has now become a client of Austria, the wealth from trade long-since dissipated, and with it the glories of Titian, Tintoretto and Bellini. Canaletto and his followers had painted both Venice and London in precise detail and, by the 1820’s, with Byron’s romanticised vision of the decayed glories of Venice in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage riding high in the public consciousness, British artist such as Clarkson Stanfield, William Etty and Richard Parkes Bonington had started to respond in turn. By 1837, Thackery was able to complain that he was “weary of gondolas, striped shirts…and too many white palaces standing before dark purple skies”. Turner employed a similar viewpoint to that of Stansfield for their respective paintings of the Doge’s Palace both exhibited in 1833. But whereas Stansfield architectural lines echo the precise draughtsmanship of Canaletto, Turner’s smaller painting is focussed on the loose jumble of boats and the hazed reflections of buildings on the water.

However, the main body of the Exhibition focuses on the sketches and watercolours produced during Turner’s visits, and how some of these scenes were turned into full oil-paintings for exhibition. In the case of Turner’s 1840 visit, we are taken down the Grand Canal and across the Giudeca, stopping to look at how Turner responded to each scene in turn. The watercolours are superb, the watery light being subtly conveyed by delicate washes and a few deft flicks of the brush, many having the detail added in pencil or in pen dipped in watercolour.

It gives an insight into Turner’s creative process, obsessively sketching detail and capturing the effects of light in the watercolours for later reworking in oils in the Studio. For example, an 1833 pencil sketch of the Bacino with some hasty blue, brown and white highlights added, is believed to have become “Venice from the Canale della Giudeca, Chiesa di S. Maria della Salute etc”, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1840. Even the great later works where the buildings of Venice barely emerge from a haze of mist and light are firmly rooted in Turner’s sketches and watercolours, and these connections are clearly set out in this illuminating exhibition and its exceptional catalogue.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Theatre Review : Life is a Dream by Pedro Calderon de la Barca - Donmer Warehouse (dir Jonathan Munby 9/11/09)

It has been prophesised to Basilio, King of Poland (Malcolm Storry) that his son Segismundo (Dominic West) will be an evil and capricious monarch - as a result, the King imprisons his son and tells his subjects that he has died. However, as the King ages and worries about his succession, he decides to test his son to see his suitability for the crown. So he drugs him and when he comes round he is in his rightful place as the Crown Prince. However, it is not long before the prophesy appears to be correct as Segismundo defenestrates a recalcitrant courtier and forces himself on a lady of the court. Basilio realises he has made an error, drugs Segismundo once again and returns him to his prison, where he is left to reflect if what he had experienced was reality or a dream. But then rebels once again free him from prison -will he have learnt from his experience, or will the prophesy prove to be true once again?

Pedro Calderon de la Barca was one of the great playwrights of the Spanish Golden Age, and this is generally accounted one of his finest works. Its exploration of the nature of dreams and reality is very much attuned to modern sensibility, although Basilio's attempt to thwart fate echos that of Laius, father of Oedipus. However, it is an uneven piece of work. The subplot, where the wronged Rosaura (Kate Fleetwood) dons breeches in order to infiltrate the court and confront Astolfo (Rupert Evans) who has failed to honour his obligations to her, fails to engage at the same level.

Dominic West is magnetic, capturing the despair and elation of Segismundo as his is imprisoned and then freed, and then explores the limits of the power that he wields. As he wakes once again in prison, and tries to understand if he had lived or dreamed his moment of freedom, is the one moment where the play attain a truly Shakespearean level of self-reflectiveness. All other cast members impress, especially Kate Fleetwood as a believably muscular yet vulnerable Rosario.

Yet despite all these positives, and a dark and atmospheric design, somehow, for me, the play never completely came to life. Maybe it was because of too much tedious exposition of the back-story and the weakness of the sub-plot, or maybe a certain amount of intellectual disengagedness which divorced the ideas from the narrative drive and which not even Dominic West could overcome.

Or maybe it was simply that I had an appallingly uncomfortable seat at the end of the back row at the side of the circle, which does divorce one from the action somewhat. The Donmar's great virtue is top quality, challenging productions at affordable prices in a wonderfully intimate theatre. The drawback is that - consequently - tickets are like gold dust and sometimes one has to go with whatever ticket one can get, so perhaps that is why I was never truly able to immerse myself into the drama.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Book Review : The Golden Bough - A study of Magic and Religion by Sir James Frazer (Wordsworth 1993, first published in this edition 1922)

In classical times the priest of Diana Nemorensis at Aricia did not enjoy a comfortable tenure. Any challenger who broke a bough from the trees in his grove could challenge the priest in mortal combat, and if the challenger won, he would become the next priest. In “The Golden Bough”, Sir James Frazer studies the origins of this custom. The study runs to ten volumes, and virtually invents the science of comparative anthropology in doing so.

Frazer’s thesis is that this ancient Roman custom displays traits inherent within the beliefs of indigenous communities throughout the world, and that by studying these customs, one can start to explain – despite the lack of written evidence – how such a tradition came into being.

The argument is complex. Essentially, Frazer believed that the custom has arisen from ancient ceremonies of agricultural fertility. Primitive tribes believed in magic which would assist their crops to flourish and their hunting to be successful. As society developed, magical customs became institutionalised as religious ceremony. The priest / king as guarantor of the wellbeing of the tribe was particularly subject to custom, and in some cases answerable with his life for the success of the crops and the wellbeing of his people. However, powerful kings tried to offset this responsibility onto family members, sacrificial substitutes and ultimately to proxy deities. The cycle of death and rebirth was incarnate within the ancient deities such as Attis, Adonis and Dionysus. Within Greek religion, the cycle became refined as the myth of Demeter and Persephone, the mother / daughter relationship reflecting the old woman / maiden of agricultural fertility ceremonies throughout Europe.

There is a radical subtext. Frazer was convinced that the fundamentals of Christian religion were themselves an extension of ceremony and custom to be found in tribes around the Middle East in ancient times. One can see parallels between the death and rebirth of Attis , Adonis or Isis, for example, and the resurrection. Christmas was timed to coincide with ceremonies to celebrate the renewal of the Sun after the Winter Solstice, whilst Easter coincides with spring fertility festivals of death and rebirth.

For each stage in his argument, Frazer brings to bear an astonishing number of examples, ranging from primitive South Sea headhunters to the agricultural traditions of his native Scotland. To take one example, human sacrifices to ensure the success of crops are referenced by the Indians of Guayaquil in Ecuador, Incas, Aztecs, Pawnees, West Africans at Lagos and Benin, the Bagaboos of Mindanau, the Lhota Naga of the valleys of the Brahmapootra, and the Gonds and Khonds of India. And similar examples are given for the killing of the king if the crops fail, or if he shows weakness, or if the term of his office expires and so on.

The scope of the study is awesome, and the breadth of erudition on display is truly breathtaking. One needs a reference source at hand to be able to pinpoint the islands of the Moluccas, the Native Americans of British Columbia, the African tribes or the Carpathian villagers which are constantly referred to in passing, the reader assumed to be familiar with Thompson Indians or Nuba tribesmen. Yet apparently, Frazer travelled little in remote parts. His encyclopaedic knowledge of tribal customs was based on extensive reading and correspondence.

In fact, the detail is exhausting. One could develop the argument more succinctly with reference to fewer examples. It becomes impossible to absorb paragraph upon paragraph of similar customs from around the world (and I have only read the single volume summary at a mere 700 pages of close type), and it is undeniably depressing to witness the universal scope of human barbarity in propitiation of all forms of deities. But this is Frazer’s genius – by universalising the particular, his investigation into the origins of an arcane Roman custom transformed the way we understand human belief systems and how mankind in every obscure part of the Earth has created its gods in its own barbarous image.

Theatre Review : Architecting by The TEAM and National Theatre of Scotland - Barbican Pit (dir Rachel Chakvin 12/11/09)

Yankee property developer Carrie Campbell (Libby King) seeks shelter in a run-down bar in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Inside, with bar-owner Oasis Melly (Jill Frutkin) is the historian Henry Adams (Jake Margolin) playing with a paper model of Chartres Cathedral, and Margaret Mitchell (Lana Lesley), who is being sought by TV executives wanting to make a politically-correct TV remake of Gone With the Wind.

Carrie Campbell wants to put in place her father's vision of a vast gated development in this neglected traditional neighbourhood. However, this is her first time south of the Mason-Dixon line and she is out of her cultural mileiu. Meanwhile, Margaret Mitchell is trying to preserve the soul of the South as represented in her novel from the odious producer (Frank Boyd) and his black director who has his own vision of the South, which is skillfully intercut with the primary narrative.

The TEAM (Theatre of the Emerging American Moment) are a New York-based company "dedicated to dissecting and celebrating the experience of living in America today." This they certainly do, as this is thought-provoking, visually arresting theatre, strewn with ideas. The reconstruction of New Orleans is paralleled with that of Mitchell's Atlanta; once again Northerners fail to understand the South. The depiction of black characters in Gone with the Wind is challenged strongly, yet Mammy is played by a white man in a giant black bra. Adams' vision of historical entropy stands bleakly over all.

All this is played with vigour by the admirable company, swapping roles with a speed that is occassionally bewildering, as the Oasis bar becomes the set of the remake of Gone with the Wind or a 24 hour petrol station as themes evolve and merge into one another.

However, it is inevitable that with so much in this heady mix, some ideas work better than others. The story of two unlikely lovers on their way to an audition for the role of Scarlett O'Hara has a charm of its own, but doesn't integrate well into the rest of the play - a more brutal director might have wielded the knife to make a sharper whole. The second half didn't live up to the promise of the first, and ran out of steam in the end. But that does not alter the fact that the TEAM have shown that difficult ideas-based experimental theatre can also be fast-paced and thoroughly entertaining.