Tuesday, 31 March 2009

John Constable the Portraitist - National Portrait Gallery, London - The Independent, 31 March 2009

Can an art critic necessarily dance the tango? Can someone be good at everything? In the case of the Suffolk-born painter John Constable, we approach this show of his portraits with our minds already made up. We know that, like J M W Turner, who came just after him, Constable was no good at people and that he was good – in fact, he was amongst the best - at landscape. In fact, his brilliant skills as a landscape painter – they are often as much moody sketches as paintings - helped to raise the genre to new heights of acceptability. And desirability.

  So when we walk around this fairly modest show at the National Portrait Gallery – there are about fifty things to see in all, from the most hasty and impromptu pencil sketch of a soldier casually playing a guitar in front of an admiring female onlooker, to fully worked up, fully made-for-the occasion oils (the occasion was most likely to have been one of those ever pressing bills) of worthy burghers and burgheresses - we know that we are going to come away feeling just a bit disappointed.

   Nevertheless, let us look on the bright side. What is there to be praised about this show? Well, it is firmly rooted in the artist’s own biography, as shows of portraits often tend to be, and it tells its story affectingly and entertainingly thanks to a welter of well written captions.

   Were you aware that Constable was a delightful writer of English prose? You will be reminded of that fact as you read the various extracts from his notebooks and letters which keep popping up in these captions. Here, for example, is his comment upon an unsaleable etching that was based upon a portrait (executed by himself, and displayed here) of a senior member of the teaching profession called the Revd Dr John Wingfield: ‘No one will buy a schoolmaster. Who would buy the keeper of a treadmill, or a turnkey of Newgate, who has been in either place?’

   And then there is the affecting story of John’s often difficult life – his parents’ extreme reluctance to support his wish to be a landscape painter; his long courtship of Maria Bicknell (due to prolonged opposition from the in-laws-to-be), which finally ended, defiantly, and after seven long years, in marriage, in 1816. And then those few brief years of love, which terminated in his wife’s death from tuberculosis, and a heart-rending legacy of seven young mouths to feed. It is all interesting, and humanly moving, and we are genuinely curious about all these things because Constable is a part of our cultural heritage.

   But, oh dear, we do keep coming across reminders of the fact that quite a number of these portraits are very bad indeed, wincingly so, and at such times we also marvel at the skill with which the caption writer, seated at his desk in the Circumlocution Office, has managed to avoid quite saying so. Several portraits are described as ‘engaging’ for example, which means that you sort of quite like them, but you know that they are not really very good at all, not really. One portrait of a beefy faced female is praised for its ‘splendid truthfulness’, and we marvel at the length of the caption writer’s life. We look at a painting of a house at sunset, and we are reminded that it was at this very place that Constable made an avowal of love to his young life. ‘It is hard not to see it suffused with emotion’, comments the guiding hand, all a-tremble, of the caption writer.

   So in what exactly consisted the incompetence of Constable when he came face to face with living and breathing human flesh? He paints children as if they are rouged dolls, often very stiffly and awkwardly. The worst of all is perhaps his portrait of Master Crosby, dated 1808. Goodness knows what age this boy is meant to be. His stomach has the broad-sweeping girth more appropriate to some fifty-something-year-old port-wine-bibber, while his hands are those of a woman pushing seventy. How many people was Constable staring at when he was scrutinising this boy with the hectic cherry lips?

   Fortunately, there are some landscapes nestling amidst these portraits, where we can stand and marvel to our heart’s content. 

Monday, 30 March 2009

The Whitechapel Re-Opens - The Times, London 30 March 2009

The Whitechapel, one of London’s most important public galleries, re-opens next week after a two-year, £13.5 million refurbishment. By expanding into the building next door which used to be occupied by a public library, exhibition space has increased by more than three quarters, and the new gallery will now be able to accommodate a whole range of different kinds of shows, from site-specific commissions to displays of public and private art collections. The ten galleries are well lit, and flow easily into each other. The Whitechapel, which was founded in 1901, has been one of the most curatorially adventurous public exhibition spaces in London – it was the first to show a retrospective of Jackson Pollock, for example.

   The re-opening kicks off with four exibitions, all eye-catchingly different from each other. One of them, an installation by the Turner-Prize-winning Polish artist Goshka Macuga, brings back to London a work which first went on show here seventy years ago.  

   It was in 1939 that Picasso’s Guernica, a painting he had made in his Paris studio in 1938 as a howl of anguished protest against the bombing by Franco’s forces of the village of the same name. Guernica, which had been painted on cloth as a huge banner, travelled to the Whitechapel Gallery in East London to draw the public’s attention to the Spanish Civil War. The painting itself now hangs in a museum in Madrid, too fragile to leave home any more.

   This is not quite the same Guernica, but its impact remains almost undiminished. In 1955, Nelson Rockefeller commissioned Picasso to make a tapestry based on the original painting. And it is that tapestry, which usually hangs in a corridor outside the Security Council Chamber in the UN building in New York, which will be in London for the next twelve months.

   In certain respects what we can see in London is better than what we experience in Madrid. It’s the same size, exactly. We can get up closer. We can scrutinise it face on. We can stand back to get a better look at this extraordinary, ferocious, collage-like depiction of human anguish. So many hands reach out, imploringly. So many mouths hang open...The tapestry does not have the range of colours of the original – it is woven in quite low, muted tones of browns and creams and blacks and beiges, but that does not in any way reduce the impact. In fact, if anything, it feels as if it helps to focus and to funnel all that raw anguish. The tapestry is the focal point of a room in which the visitor will be encouraged to meditate upon the nature of conflict: a UN-style, circular table at its centre will be used for debates; and other artworks include a Cubist-style sculpture of Colin Powell – the Guernica tapestry, for the first and only time in its history, was covered up before Powell dleivered his UN speech in support of the war in Iraq in 2003 – and there will be an ongoing programme of archival film about warfare.

  In addition to Guernica you can also enjoy a retrospective of work by the German sculptor and installation artiste Isa Genzken, whose work moves from the sombre and intensely cerebral minimalism of her early youth to an almost crazed degree of exuberance as she matures, with the top floor showing her at her most rackety and hysterically kitschy and colourful.

   Over in Gallery Seven you can see a selection of works bought by the British Council over a period of about three-quarters of a century, all penned into quite a small space. There are some gems here, from an early Lucien Freud – one of those bulbous-eyed young women, this one holding a flower as if it were an unexploded symbolic device – to a painting of Dalston Junction by Leon Kossoff, with the paint trowelled on thick and dense as treacle. Give it a lick.

   The fourth show, The Whitechapel Boys, draws on the gallery’s own rich archives, and it takes us back to the very beginnings, when three local Jewish artists – Mark Gertler, Isaac Rosenberg and David Bomberg helped to found the Vorticist Movement in the former Whitechapel Library. One hunded years later, the Whitechapel is still powering on.


Saturday, 28 March 2009

Dancing to the Precipice - Lucie de la Tour du Pin and the French Revolution Caroline Moorhead Chatto & Windus The Tablet, 28 March 2009

Some biographers circle the same historical period again and again, vulture-like, picking over the bones. Such is Richard Holmes, who has written – and continues to write – so brilliantly on the era of Romanticism, with his exquisite studies of Shelley, Coleridge and, most recently, his exploration of the relationship between the writers of that period and scientific discoveries.

  Caroline Moorhead is quite a different kind of biographer. She moves around, ever restlessly eclectic in her tastes and interests. Her subjects have included a study of refugees, a biography of the celebrated journalist Martha Gellhorn, an account of the life of the great short story writer Freya Stark (together with an edition of her letters), and a life of one the twentieth century’s most eminent philosophers and most glittering sexual predators, Bertrand Russell. All those subjects helped to define the cultural and intellectual life of the 20th century, and to bless us with the children that we probably deserved.

   Now she has stepped back almost two hundred and fifty years, to illuminate a period in the history of France which has been trampled over again and again by many great writers, like the ghosts of Napoleon’s great armies, from those who were alive at the time, to those who came after. It is the period between 1770, when the promise of revolutionary ferment was already in the air, and, eighty years on, the beginnings of the Second Empire in the middle of the nineteenth century. Those who  witnessed it, helped to bring it about, or reflected upon it with great or lesser degrees of wisdom have included some of the celebrated writers of the last two hundred and fifty years: Goethe, Michelet, Voltaire, Carlyle, Chateaubriand, Rousseau... The list just goes on and on.

   What new element can Moorhead herself bring to this oft told story? Moorhead re-tells the history of the period from the perspective of a an aristocratic woman called Lucie de la Tour du Pin. Lucie was born in 1770 and died in 1853, and so the span of her life exactly coincides with this period of extraordinary ferment, when France itself passed from absolutism to bloody anarchy, from empire to republic to constitutional monarchy, and then back to empire again. For a person of aristocratic birth to succeed in remaining alive throughout these decades required the canniness, the fortitude, and all the good fortune required to remain standing upright on Medusa’s Raft in the North Sea during a Force Nine gale. Lucie was such a woman, and this is her story.

   Now the story of Lucie de La Tour du Pin is not a new one by any means - the celebrated volumes of memoirs which she began to write at the age of fifty have seldom been out of print since her death, but her name in the English speaking world is must less well known.

   She was born in Paris, in the Rue du Bac, the pretty, precocious, only child of a well born soldier. She spoke good English. She possessed intellectual curiosity in abundance, and qualities of strength and fortitude upon which she would need to draw throughout her long and often fortune-blighted life. She witnessed the great turbulence of those years and suffered accordingly. She knew Marie-Antoinette and Napoleon at first hand. She was, in short, at the beating heart of things, an eye witness to half a century of unceasing political change .

   Moorhead manages, in her book, to do two things at once, very expertly. She offers us an intimate account of Lucie’s thoughts and feelings as a player on this great stage, and she is also able to step back and set the general scene for us, from  broad-brush accounts of civil turmoil, to descriptions of the course of battles, and to give us a general feel for the current of ideas within which all these things were happening, pell mell, and at such frightening speed. Occasionally she fails. When she writes ‘Consular Paris smelt delicious’, the brush stroke feels too hasty, too brisk, too superficial. Generally speaking though, her ability to summarise complicated arguments swiftly and cogently or to describe ever shifting scenes with clarity and forcefulness is expertly done.

   And through it all moves this lonely, proud, confident woman. And we feel moved by her in our turn, saddened by her loveless childhood, and somewhat buoyed and cheered by the fact that she enjoyed a happy and long lasting marriage to a stubborn man of great integrity whose dearest and most profound wish was that France would settle, in the end,  for a constitutional monarchy of some kind.

   Alas, it was a wish never to be realised.  



Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Picasso's Guernica Tapestry returns to London The Independent, 24 March

Welcome back! Picasso’s ‘Guernica’, that supremely sombre evocation of the destructive powers of war, first went on show at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1939, after it had been exhibited in Paris. It was there to help raise fighting funds for the Spanish Civil War. Pairs of boots were called for. Four hundred pairs were donated. The painting itself, a commemoration of the destruction of the small village of Guernica by Franco’s forces, had been made by Picasso in his Paris studio in 1938, in a furious outpouring of pity and anger.

   Now a version of Guernica is back at The Whitechapel once again, as part of an installation by Goshka Macuga, to celebrate the re-opening of the gallery after a major refurbishment. This is not the painting you would have seen in 1939. That one is now permanently installed at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, too fragile to travel. What we can see at the Whitechapel over the next twelve months is one of only three tapestries that were made from the painting in the 1950s, executed by Parisian weavers. The other two are in France and Japan. The Japanese Guernica is blue.

   In some respects, the installation at the Whitechapel is more impressive than what can be seen in Madrid. Here in London you approach it face on, and you can get up really close. In Madrid, you come at it side on, like a listing ship. There is no way in which you can walk directly back a pace or two to take in the enormity of the terrible message. The tapestry itself is woven in tones of brown and cream and black, which adds a strange degree of intensity to the image. When you look at it, you experience a near riot of movement and agitation. Nothing ever stops. Everything seems to be decomposing before our very eyes. Arms are reaching out. Impotent hands claw at nothing. A disembodied head floats. Mouths yawn open in inaudible screams. The heads of mythic beasts skew violently.

   And we – the merest we - approach this monumental distillation of human suffering like petty-minded voyeurs. We are suddenly plunged into the midst of it, without introduction or explanation of apology, all this jaggedness, all this laceration, all this falling away and falling apart. Human experience seems to be scarified, to the bone.

   At the Whitechapel, you approach it up the length of a curiously ceremonious blue carpet. It is the same blue as the curtains that hang behind the tapestry. This is close to the blue of the United Nations, where the tapestry usually hangs, and it is here to remind us of that moment in 2003 when some goon ordered that the great tapestry be covered over because Colin Powell was about to deliver a speech in support of the invasion of Iraq.

   Did Picasso’s ferocious minotaur rage back in the muffled dark? Or did Colin Powell just dream that later? 

Sunday, 22 March 2009

The Blain Game - Haunch of Venison moves into Burlington Gardens The Independent, London

Once upon time there was a great institution, tucked in just behind London’s Royal Academy, called The Museum of Mankind. For thirty years it showed off the British Museum’s extensive collective of ethnographical objects. About ten years ago it closed its doors, and the building’s been looking pretty woe-begone ever since then, used for just a few days once a year to house the Zoo Art Fair. Otherwise, it’s been empty and in serious need of refurbishment. Now a man called Harry Blain has brought it to life by leasing it from the Royal Academy and turning it into a private gallery. Except that it doesn’t look and feel like a private gallery. It has all the panache of a museum space.

   Blain’s the name. Harry Blain. But who is this man? Harry Blain runs a gallery called Haunch of Venison, which until this week operated mainly out of an historic building in Mayfair’s Haunch of Venison Yard, a former home of Lord Nelson. A former stockbroker who was born in Australia and grew up in Surrey, Blain went into dealing in 1992. He operated out of a first-floor mews space at first, and then opened a gallery in Bruton Street.

   In 2002 he went into partnership with a former Christie’s dealer called Graham Southern. Since then it’s been growth, and more growth. After London came galleries in Zurich, Berlin and, since last September, New York, in the Rockefeller Center on the Avenue of the Americas.  

   With growth came its natural bedfellow,  controversy. Haunch of Venison got sold, lock, stock and barrel, to Christie’s in 2007. Is it right for a dealer to be in bed with an auction house? Whatever the ethics, the fact is that the billionaire French industrialist Francis Pinault, chairman of Christie’s, may be the real power behind the throne. Is the strategy deployed over at the Museum of Mankind Pinault’s, at least in part?

   This is what Blain has been asking himself: in these tough times, how do you lure the collectors to Haunch of Venison and away from, say, White Cube in Mason’s Yard, or Larry Gagosian’s warehouse-size space in Britannia Street, or Michael Hue-Willams’ sassy Albion Gallery in that handsome Norman Foster building just beside Chelsea Bridge on the south side of the river? All these are just as big and brash as Haunch of Version, and stuffed full of big-name artists too. So what else do you need?

   You make sure that the new work you are showing is in an historic building, with some fine detailing to remind you of its venerable history. Pinault did this when he acquired the 18th century Palazzo Grassi in Venice, to show off his own collection of contemporary art. It feels as if Blain is doing much the same here.

   An historic building, especially one still very much associated in the mind with a great museum, makes the collector begin to think not only that the work may be of museum quality, but that he himself could perhaps display it in a similar way in his own more modest home. Call it added gravitas if you like. You simply don’t get this when the walls are as seamless white, and the floors polished concrete.

   The dealer is leading the collector by the hand. I saw it yesterday, in action. Harry was leading them round. Some of them looked pretty awe-struck. The staging is brilliantly persuasive - the lighting; the use of space; the careful deployment of intellectually high-toned wall texts by the likes of Sir Thomas Browne, alter Benjamin, Italo Calvino. The collector begins to think that he’s a bit of an intellectual too, that he’s buying into intellectual seriousness. The show comes with a hefty catalogue, in which parallels are repeatedly drawn between ethnographical displays of the kind that you used to see here, and what you can ogle here now. So contemporary art links hands with priceless objects from the past, and gets a corresponding lift in value, seriousness and credibility.

   I ask Harry whether all the work is for sale. Practically everything, he tells me. Of the hundred or so, all but four. And what percentage of these artists do you represent? Between a third and forty per cent. The global turnover  was ‘several hundred million’ this year, he lets out, under a certain amount of pressure. He was sorry that he couldn’t be more specific than that, but one has to be discrete about such things.

  The big question that hangs in the air is this: is Blain, by this master stroke, now the most important dealer on the block? And what exactly would that mean anyway? All dealers are notoriously cagey about talking cash and collectors, and Blain is no exception to this rule. Consider these factors though. By occupying this institution, he raises his profile and his own credibility hugely. What is more, he has done it in partnership wit its owners, the Royal Academy, so he gains by a little reflected glory. The Royal Academy may even snatch the building back in three years’ time - that’s how long his current lease runs. On the other hand, they may not. It rather depends, at that point, how attractive the partnership is looking to them, and whether Blain is then in a position to make it an attractive proposition that he should stay on because he is, in some way, helping to raise their profile..

   All imponderables of course, and light years away. But Blain has in some respects done better than all the others, even than Saatchi. The Royal Academy helped to pay for this re-furbishment, so the cost to him was less than £500,000 – which is little more than the cost of the staging of a major show. What is more, Saatchi’s new space in Chelsea, though handsome, doesn’t profit by its age – the building inside has been gutted. Only  when we stand outside and look back outside do we really recognize that it was once a splendid nineteenth century pile. So Blain has been lucky – but he has one other advantage too, and this may be an odd one to mention, but it is undeniably true. He is more personable than Hue-Williams, Jopling and some of the other big, bad boys of this world. He doesn’t seek out media attention for his private affairs. He has none of that odious, Old Etonian swagger. He is surprisingly humble and even congenial to talk to – which comes as something of a shock. He doesn’t try to fob you off with half truths. When he doesn’t want to tell you something, you feel for his evident embarrassment.

   Maybe a decent man has the capacity to make it all the way through this world of intrigue and nastiness. Let’s not wax too lyrical though. There’s still Pinault in the back room, watching his every move on the screens. And Pinault buys hugely from Haunch of Venison, which is an entirely independent subsidiary of course, hem hem..

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Van Dyck and Britain Tate Britain The Independent, London

The artist immigrants came pouring in from the Netherlands in the 1620s. Their role was to give brilliant visual definition to an English court which would soon collapse. The painting of royality before this time had had a strange stiffness and unreality to it. It had specialised in wooden, rather doll-like images. With the advent of Van Dyck and others, a new style, much more dashing, robust, supple and loose, was struck, which persisted, in various different manifestations, for centuries. Even John Singer Sargent, as this fascinating exhibition demonstrates, was still painting a la Van Dyck at the beginning of the 20th century.

   As with so many talented immigrants, Van Dyck, who had started out as a pupil of Rubens, soon learnt to play the game of being every inch the Englishman. You can see this happening in the gallery which shows off his great, formal royal portraits of King Charles II and his aristocratic retinue. And Charles rewarded him handsomely for his talents. Van Dyck became a courtier, a knight, official court painter, with ready access to the king. He lived in a fine house at Blackfriars. The king had a set of steps built up to the house from the Thames so that he could pay his courtier regular visits. All was set fair in a world of marvels.

   And so it seems, in part, when we look at these portraits. The largest and most celebrated of these images shows the king on horseback, bursting through a triumphal arch as if into your own living room. It is a magnificent piece of political theatre. The king looks as kingly as you could ever imagine – a glacial aloofness proclaims the degree to which this armoured warrior is set apart from the mortals who can only stand and stare, awe-struck. Look around this room, and you see the same kind of atmosphere. The aristocracy of Britain stand here for our delectation, striking poses, supported and enhanced by objects of huge symbolic significance. You wonder. You marvel.

   But, alas, you do not feel a great deal other than sheer admiration at the calculated, studied deployment of so much raw talent. Yes, this is the tragedy of Van Dyck, and even of those who came after and thirsted to emulate him. There is little intimacy here. There is an atmosphere of glacial, opulent brilliance, but we are not touched as we were, say, by the portraits of Holbein that were exhibited in these very same galleries relatively recently. With Holbein, we are in touch, always, with the vulnerable, beating heart of the person behind all the pomp and the mask of dignity. This is seldom so with Van Dyck. It is the look in the eye which so often defines the nature of the problem. The eye has no wish to engage us at all. It says: I am not you, and you will never be who I am, even though you may hopelessly aspire to such an elevated condition. There is a tremendous coldness and aloofness in the eyes of so many of Van Dyck’s sitters. They possess that cold glitter of the eye of the fish on the fishmonger’s wet slab. And Van Dyck himself has put it there. His role was to flatter and to raise up, to set apart a court which would be so magnificently aloof that it would soon be on a par with god himself. This king was a little like god himself in human form. And so the flattery is unrelenting, all this strangely unreal  enhancement of earthly beauty. We see that in the way these aristocratic women are represented. We know that they were not like this in life, that they were rended shapeless and pitted by too much child-bearing and the pox.

   And this is why Van Dyck, finally, fails as a great portrait painter. He was too, too keen to reflect back at his self-satisfied clients the image of themselves that they yearned to believe was true. He was, in short, a profoundly political animal who served his master to the best of his tremendous abilities.

   Unfortunately, this is never quite enough. We seldom fully enter into these portraits. But remember: that is what they would have wanted, this gallery of the puffed up doomed. They do not crave intimacy. They ask only for awe and admiration. And that is what we give them. Then we pass on by.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

A Countryman in Town - Robert Bevan and the Cumberland Market Group The Independent, London 19 March 2009

Exactly a year ago, a large exhibition at Tate Britain – perhaps, on reflection, over-large, given the dismal quality of some of the works - reminded us all of the existence of the Camden Town Group of painters. Their art, urban in its subject matter to a large degree, represented a fairly low-key, British version of post-Impressionism, and it sputtered into - and out of - life just before the First World War.

   One of the painters represented in that show was Robert Bevan. After the collapse of the Camden Town Group, Bevan and a handful of others set up another tiny faction, and they named it after a place called Cumberland Market, the London square, just to the east of Regents Park, where Bevan himself happened to live. This group – it consisted of Bevan himself, Harold Gilman, Charles Ginner and John Nash (younger brother of the much more famous Paul) – could loosely be described as neo-realists.

   Bevan was a well-to-do, well connected countryman from a banking dynasty – his well appointed ancestral acres, all one hundred of them, were in Sussex – who was doomed to live the life of a thoroughly modern man in the racket and the stink of town, and photographs generally show him dressed as if still living in, and perhaps yearning for, the countryside. For all that, he was no gentleman ignoramus of a Sunday painter. He was not that kind of a countryman. He was very serious about his art, and in the 1890s he had spent some time with the Pont-Aven group in France. He learnt from the likes of Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne. You see it in the way he paints a wind-lashed, tortured tree (Van Gogh), the wonky angle of a roof (Gauguin) or an apple on a plate (Cezanne). He was keen to absorb the lessons to be learnt from what was then the newest of the new.

   He was also a bit of a depressive, as you can guess from a broody and rather austerely quizzical looking self-portrait in this show, who agonised long and hard over how to make a painting. Each painting shows us a slightly different cast of mind, a slightly different way of absorbing and re-working his influences. There is no complacency about this work. Perhaps he had a temperament somewhat akin to L.S. Lowry’s, who once wrote: ‘Had I not been lonely, none of my works would have happened.’  

   This show, in the entirely suitable Lakelands setting of Abbot Hall Gallery, Cumbria, enables us to examine more of Bevan’s work than we have seen in one gallery for more than forty years, and it is well worth a long, slow look. Bevan was passionate about horses, and horses play a crucial role in some of his finest works. In a sense, Bevan was recording a world that was vanishing before his eyes – horse-drawn omnibuses were finally withdrawn from service in the London streets in 1911, and Cumberland Market itself, which existed to provide hay for the nags that needed to munch on it, was in terminal decline, and would disappear altogether not too long after the German bombers of World War Two had done their worst.  

   Bevan’s best works in this show are of horses – horses ploughing; horses in cab yards; horses being offered for sale at Tattersall’s - and they date for the most part from between about 1911 and 1916. One of these paintings, ‘Under the Hammer’ (1913), shows him at his best. A gaggle of men are sizing up the quality of a frisky looking horse. We see many of them from the back, in their long coats, which are often surprisingly bright in colour. The subject matter sounds potentially rather dour and grey, but Bevan has transformed it into the polar opposite of a dour, grey scene.

   It’s a beautifully balanced and integrated composition, which perfectly fills the space allotted to it, and the colours, which have a lovely, airy lightness to them, quite unexpectedly so, give the scene an unusual grace and buoyancy. Dead centre stands a small girl in a blue coat and blue hat, the ends of her pigtails secured by a pair of rich red ribbons. That little detail, so tellingly right, makes the heart skip. 

Dame Polly Syllabix appointed England's new Poet Laureatesse - The Independent, London 19 March 2009

Oh woe is me, the wretched Poet Laureateship is up for grabs once again! Was not William Burroughs, that ghoulish, gun-toting Beat, right for once when he wrote: ‘A flawless poet is fit only to be a Poet Laureate, officially dead and imperfectly embalmed. The stink of death leaks out’?

   But the rusting wheels of official procedure will crank on, have no fear. Some halitosis-breathed toady over at the Poetry Society will whisper a name into some runner’s ear, and that name will be whispered into the ear of the PM’s representative, and that same name - provided that it has not been misheard - will be written out in long hand for the Queen’s representative to squinnny down at through some horn-handled lorgnette...

   Yes, When Andrew Motion throws in the damp, sweaty towel after ten ever lengthening years on some unspecified date later this spring, someone will step into those creaking shoes once occupied by John Dryden (he was the first, in 1670) and, later, by such tin-eared poetasters as Colley Cibber, Nahum Tate and the appalling Sir John Betjeman. Why would anyone agree to limpingly eulogise mewling royal babes about which they care not one toss?

   Unsurprisingly, a great hue and cry has gone up this time about the 340-year-long exclusion of women from the frame. Surely they too deserve to have their talents prostituted! Some of the sane ones don’t – or at least they say they don’t. Fleur Adcock has ruled herself out. And Wendy Cope, with a kind of characteristically breezy sanity, has said this about the job: ‘the best way for a poet to serve the art is to remain free to get on with writing the poems that he or she wants to write.’ Quite so.

   So what better way to greet the coming announcement than by sending the whole thing up? Last week, the official inauguration of The Bow-Wow Shop, an online, international poetry forum, took place at the Foundry in East London. Many poets read their poems on that night, including Dame Polly Syllabix, England’s very first Poet Laureatesse, a character I invented for the sheer hell of poking fun at the absurdities of the Laureateship game. I wrote a speech for Dame Polly, which she delivered on that night.

   The question from the start had been: who could best embody the idea of such a ridiculous creature? Which actress had the comic panache to look and sound a bit like a combination of Edith Sitwell and Max Wall?

   There was one natural choice: the great Fenella Fielding, veteran star of Carry On Screaming. I sent her the speech, and we met in her favourite café one Saturday morning in Covent Garden, where she does a dance class. She flew at me over our cappuccinos: ‘I just can’t do it,’ she said. ‘I don’t know how. How can I possibly combine those two?’ She was barking at me with tremendously engaging imperiousness. ‘How can I possibly be two people at once?’ I felt cowed, horrified, humiliated. Fortunately, she agreed to read the speech out loud in the café in order to get the tone of voice, that mixture of ludicrously deluded self-importance, tetchiness, vanity and soaringly misguided self-confidence. ‘Is there a near perfect congruence’ she declaimed, flourishing her arm to an ever swelling audience, ‘between the rutting of dogs and the antics of poets? I leave that question to hang in the air, tellingly…’

   To judge for yourself whether Dame Polly Syllabix truly deserves to be the new Poet Laureatesse, whether that exalted position is robust enough to contain her superabundant talents, look at her performance on YouTube. Just tap in her name.

   And now, having breathed life into this wonderfully impossible creature, Fenella tells me that she is quite keen for me to do more. She told me so, last Saturday, as we talked in the middle of Endell Street, defying the worst that the Saturday morning traffic could throw at us. I told her that I was now thinking of writing a full-length monologue for stage or television. ‘Do it,’ she said. ‘Just do it. While it’s hot!’ And now it’s done.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Mythologies - Haunch of Venison, London The Independent, 18 March 2009

It is ten years since the Museum of Mankind in Burlington Gardens, that fabulous cabinet of curiosities which had served for almost thirty years as the repository of the British Museum’s extensive collection of ethnographical objects, closed its doors. Now they are open again, and, wow, the space has been brilliantly refurbished.

And something else unusual has happened here. A private gallery called Haunch of Venison has taken over the space – ten large galleries - in its entirety, and it is showing about one hundred works by a range of modern artists from all over the world. Some of them are very well known – Sophie Calle, Damien Hirst and Tony Cragg, for example – others less so. The small boys profit by being able to stand on the shoulders of their elders. It’s a cunningly curated show too, in so far as it extends the conversation about the nature and purpose of ethnographical objects that visitors to the old Museum of Mankind would have been having with each other.

   When you conduct the re-furbishment of a space on this lavish scale, not only restoring the detailing of a fine historic building, but also putting in a great deal of additional gallery paraphernalia - false walls, well hung lights, plus a great deal of hard thinking about colour, darkness, the importance of sudden moments of illumination – you raise the value of the objects that are on show. In fact, you museum-ify them if you like. Why not though? This is a private gallery after all, even though it may look like a museum. Big collectors get a buzz out of such things.

   This is exactly what has happened here. So the key question is: once you have set aside the brilliant seductiveness of its staging and setting, how good is the work which is on display here?

   Some of it is not very good – we yawn over Hirst’s two skull panels (how many more skulls can we bear to see from Hirst before we die back to skulls ourselves out of sheer boredom?); Tony Cragg’s ‘African Culture Myth’ a huge, wall-hung fabrication of an African figure, made out of all sorts of broken bits of detritus, looks and feels unconvincing.

   Some of the less well known artists, on the other hand, have made some very thought provoking pieces. Look out, in Gallery Ten, for a table full of haunting, voodoo-like sculptures, all very crude looking, made from scavenged bits and pieces of wood and metal from goodness knows, where by Haitian artist, Jean Herard Celeur. Cragg’s piece hangs on the wall very near to this table. Glance from one to the other. Cragg’s work looks as if he is faking something, as if, as its title suggests, he is satisfied with something which looks vaguely generic - and nothing more. Celeur is right inside his work, digging every deeper.

   The further you go into the building, the better the show gets, and it reaches its high point with a series of cunningly manipulated photographs of what look like brilliantly colourful, nastily pinioned butterfly parts by Mat Collishaw at the very end of a gallery (5) devoted to a prolonged meditation upon the unnaturalness of nature.  

   In fact – and this is a serious planning error – the only serious one, as far as I can see - the only point where the masterplan fails is as we enter the building. The works which face us in the lobby as we sweep up the steps from the street need to make a tremendous impact. They need to say: this is what this show is all about, and this is as good as it will get. They fail miserably at this task. They feel too small, too insignificant, too imaginatively impoverished. In fact, their impact is wholly undermined by the splendour of the newly furbished entrance, with its sweeping double staircase.

   Yes, an historic building can be potentially good for business - but it can also possess a donkey’s kick if you don’t stroke it in quite the right way.        

Van Gogh and the Colours of Night - The Times, 18 March 2009

In spite of all the torments of a life which ended, all too soon, in suicide, the painter Vincent Van Gogh enjoyed at least one, albeit intermittent, source of solace: the night, and what it represented. Call it, if you like, the comfort blanket of night.

   There was something about the idea of the onset of darkness that nourished and calmed and also protected this so often tortured and febrile being. The fall of night set him to dreaming. When he was agitated, it served to calm him. It was a time to ponder and to reflect, to weigh up the happenings of the day just passed. Night too was a moment for the sudden bursting forth of creative energy – he often painted at night. And the extraordinary extent to which Van Gogh poured his creative energies into scenes of night and twilight is newly revealed in Van Gogh and the Colours of Night, a new show at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

   What exactly was the matter with Vincent Van Gogh though? There was just one official diagnosis during his lifetime – that he suffered from epilepsy. But even as early as 1881 – ten years before he committed suicide - his parents were recommending that he go and see a doctor in The Hague because they were worried about his mental state. And what did Van Gogh himself think about it? ‘Well, he described his mental state in one letter as “vague,” Martin Gayford, a recent biographer, tells me. ‘The fact is that he behaved very oddly from early on in his life.’

  After his death, and once he was proclaimed a genius, the theories came thick and fast, and they have never stopped coming. Madness. Terminal Syphilis. Alcoholism. Poison due to various ingredients in the paints that he used.  Martin Gayford himself opts for a slightly different analysis. ‘I think that everything points to bi-polar syndrome,’ he told me this week. ‘Think of the range of his symptoms: hallucinations, depression, followed by exaltation and bursts of high energy, followed in their turn by troughs of despair, and spasmodic alcoholism. Yes, if he were alive now, perhaps bi-polar syndrome would be the diagnosis.’

   Van Gogh speaks of the night time and time again in his voluminous correspondence. In a letter of 15 July 1888, written from Arles to his brother Theo (who himself died of syphilis within six months of the suicide of his brother), Vincent writes, lyrically, ‘there is hope in the stars…’. Here, as elsewhere, he associates the night with the afterlife. A little later on in that letter to which I have just referred, he speculates that after death, one might travel by celestial transport to the stars…

    His reading – and he was, throughout his life, a tremendous devourer of books, and especially of poetry and fiction, in several languages – was often night-related. He sought out and often quoted in his letters, from fiction and poetry which speak of the night, and of its sweet and almost embalming influence. From quite early on in his life, his correspondence begins to refer to the night sky as a path or even as a map. He seems almost to be yearning to travel there. Similarly, buildings at night - a lone cottage in a hamlet, for example - with their tiny, welcoming lights, were, like the stars, a source of solace. Here is what he wrote in a late letter. ‘The sight of the stars always makes me dream in as simple a way as the black spots on the map, representing towns and villages, makes me dream. Why I say to myself, should the spots of light in the firmament be less accessible to us than the spots on the map of France? Just as we take the train to go to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to go to a star.’

   Before he became an artist, Van Gogh had planned to become a preacher like his father before him, and some of his early letters imbue the idea of the falling light of twilight with religious significance. In a letter of 1877, having just made a references to the Gospels, the young man of 23 has this to say: ‘The twilight says such things to those who have ears with which to hear and a heart with which to understand and to have faith in God – blessed twilight.’ This is three years before Van Gogh decided to become an artist. He had already begun to define one of his abiding obsessions as a painter, which was to capture the painted reality of darkness.

   By the summer of 1888, the urge to paint night had passed from being a source of inspiration. It had by then become an obsession. In two letters of April of that year, he wrote to his brother and to his friend Emile Bernard about these yearnings. And then, in June, he said it all over again in the following words: ‘But when will I do the starry sky, then, that painting that’s always on my mind?’ The writers that Van Gogh was reading thought the same way. They too were romantically infatuated by the idea of night. Here is a quotation from a story called Les Etoiles, by Alphonse Daudet, that Van Gogh would have known well: ‘If you have ever slept under the stars, you will know that a mysterious world awakens in solitude and silence as we lie sleeping.’

   One of the portraits in the Amsterdam show is of his friend, the poet Eugene Boch. The poet, who, in the words of the painter, ‘dreams great dreams’ is shown against a rich blue night sky, complete with winking stars. The poet is set against the context of eternity. The presence of the night sky sweeps the poet up into a universal brotherhood of creative spirits.

   But night was not always a source of peace, solace and nourishment to Van Gogh. The night could also be the hiding place of demons. In ‘The Night Café’, a painting made when Van Gogh was living with Gauguin at the Yellow House in the late Autumn of 1888 – the two men lived together for nine turbulent weeks - Van Gogh shows the harsh interior of a village cafe, peopled by drunks, and lit in the most garish of lights. He had stayed awake for three consecutive nights to paint it. It offered solace of a kind to those who needed it, but it was also a place ‘where you can ruin yourself, go mad, commit crimes,’ Van Gogh wrote. That interior possessed all the ‘ambience of a hellish furnace. It was meant to suggest the most ‘terrible human passions’.

  Even more disturbing is a great painting called ‘The Starry Sky’, painted in that same year. Did Van Gogh really paint much out of doors at night? And, if so, how would he know how to differentiate one colour from another? ‘We don’t really know actually,’ comments Martin Gayford. ‘An early biographer talks of his having been seen out of doors with candles stuck in his hat, but later biographers have not necessarily endorsed that story...

   ‘The Starry Sky’ itself is a very disturbing painting. There is no evidence of peace, calmness or solace here. The sky is nothing but a whirling turbulence of hyper-activity. The terrible cypresses seem to be finger-jabbing heaven itself. ‘He did this painting at St Remy, working from his imagination in the manner advocated by Gauguin,’ Martin Gayford comments. ‘It’s straight out of his head. That church spire, and indeed even the landscape itself, don’t really belong to Southern Europe at all.

  ‘No, it’s not a calming image at all. In fact, I think he shouldn’t have worked in that way because it probably had a disturbing effect upon him. When he painted solid objects in front of him – such as a chair – that would be therapeutic. This synthetic image, straight out of a disturbed imagination, is likely to have opened a Pandora’s Box…’

  Within a matter of months of painting ‘The Starry Night’, Van Gogh was dead. Night, so often a sweet and benign presence, had engulfed him at last.

   ‘Yes, and he himself ultimately didn’t think that those late paintings out of his imagination were very successful,’ adds Martin Gayford. ‘He was of the view that he worked better in front of a motif.’ Perhaps Van Gogh knew that it was better for him. Perhaps some part of him finally feared being sucked into the terrible, self-destructive maelstrom of himself. 

Nothing conceals like the truth.