Sunday, 21 February 2016

Late developments

The V&A's free exhibition of Julia Margaret Cameron's ground-breaking, slightly out of focus, scratched, and even smudged photographs celebrates the bicentenary of her birth in Calcutta as well as marking 150 years since her first public show at the same venue. Then known as the South Kensington Museum.

Fifty may seem relatively old to be hosting your first show but she'd only taken up photography seriously two years earlier when she'd been presented with a camera as a present by her daughter. By then she'd been educated in France, moved back to India, married Charles Hay Cameron (twenty years her senior and a member of the Law Commission), then to London, before finally settling in the Isle of Wight in a home they named Dimbola Lodge. So, in fact, her progress was actually pretty rapid.

Her first subjects, like most snappers, were family and friends. But she experimented with dramatic lighting and close up composition thus forging what was to become a signature style. A portrait of her grandson, Archie, in the guise of the Christ child foretold her habit of placing her subjects in biblical and allegorical settings.

Another of Alfred Tennyson, her Isle of Wight neighbour and friend, positioned her neatly in the nascent field of celebrity portrait. This area of her work also took in images of playwright Robert Browning, violinist Joseph Joachim, the astronomer Herschel, and, perhaps most notably Charles Darwin. There was even one of Prince Dejazmatch Alemayehu, the son of the Ethiopian emperor.

Society figures too like Lord and Lady Elcho. Lady Adelaide Talbot as Melancholy (from the Milton poem Il Penseroso) could almost pass as a still frame from a Carl Theodor Dreyer film.

Unperturbed by conservative observers who suggested that photography should only be used to document truthful subject matter she pushed forward with interpretations of works by Michelangelo, Raphael, and Guido Reni proving photography could operate equally both as art form and reportage.

Inspiration too came from Homer, Keats and Coleridge. Even the sentimental genre paintings of the time. Whilst one eye looked back another was focused on the horizon. She gently pushed at prevalent gender stereotyping. Her women posed in what was then seen as traditionally male fashion, men appeared as historical female figures, and an 1865 shot showed Cameron's maid, Mary Hillier, not for the last time, as Sappho.

Despite the taboo testing her devout Christianity was often to the fore. Not least in a series of Madonna groups featuring, again, Mary Hillier. That maid earned her keep. Mangers, crosses, drapery, flowers, and other signifiers of the holy life were all employed to emphasise the virtuous nature of her beliefs. To modern eyes these are among her weaker works, moralising and twee with a hint of the dreaded chocolate box, but it's worth a deeper look. Incremental technological innovations had come into play whilst darkness, and even some good old fashioned Old Testament death, lurked in the murky margins.

In 1874 Tennyson invited Cameron, and she accepted, to provide illustrations to his Idylls of the King. There's a kind of Moondog vibe to the above piece and it bears witness to her increasing confidence. As did her brave use of soft focus, multiple negatives and combination prints.

Though not to the liking of many critics at the time she had still become both a successful and a commercial artist unashamed, and unabashed, in using her connections to increase her capital. The fact her high society chums were able to sign the portraits before sale didn't hurt none either.

Then, at the height of her fame in 1875, the family moved to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where, due to a whole host of logistical problems, her artistic career ended as abruptly as it had began. She'd had barely more than a decade of notoriety and four years later she passed away at the age of 63.

This exhibition does a good job of shedding some light on a photographic pioneer who was certainly not well known to this writer prior to his attendance. It could, perhaps, have compared and contrasted her against contemporaries and gave a better understanding of the time and milieu in which she worked. Then again that could be another show for another day - and probably not a free one either.

Friday, 19 February 2016

A French revolution?

Ferdinand Victor Eugene Delacroix was born in 1798 in the southern suburbs of Paris. Into a country that had recently seen the storming of the Bastille, the Terror, and the executions of Louis XVI and Robespierre amongst countless others. He lived during the first half of a nineteenth century which saw the reign of Napoleon and the later restoration of the French monarchy. Tumultuous times by any reckoning.

The National Gallery's new exhibition 'Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art' eschews the obvious temptation of a chronological approach and instead attempts to reposition our titular hero as one of the fathers of modernism.

Despite his almost permanent ill health and/or hypochondria he was known to his friends as a tiger and appropriately enough did not want to be caged in by the strict parameters of the French academic system which demanded monochrome drawing be mastered before artists were let loose on the colour palette. Instead he looked to contemporary British art of the time (Richard Parkes Bonington, Constable) and, particularly, back to the seventeenth century Flemish artist Rubens. You can see the influence in his Death of Sardanapalus (1846). A picture condemned in the harshest terms by critics of the time for it's sense of improvisation and ambiguity. Too modern perhaps?

Delacroix was not immune to the exoticising orientalism so prevalent then. Following France's invasion of Algeria he travelled to Morocco where his depictions of Jewish weddings and views of Tangiers both inspired Renoir and brought a new dimension to his oeuvre which had been hitherto dominated by historical works. In fact his earlier north African scenes were inspired by readings of Byron rather than visits to the Maghreb. My favourite in this section is 1838's Convulsionists of Tangiers.

Delacroix also helped revive the genre of flower painting. It had become seen as purely decorative (though surely all art is to a point?) despite its historical associations with the philosophical tradition of the memento mori. He set his baskets in gardens, rather than interiors, and incorporated prickly foliage into his canvasses. All the better to bring out the essential untamed nature of his subject.

Romantic myths and heroic tales were his pain et beurre though. From Shakespeare and Byron to the (supposedly) greatest story ever told. His imagination contrived and his technical virtuosity rendered vivid tableaus of Christ on the cross, Ruggiero rescuing Angelica, and the third siege of Missolonghi. His Christ on the Sea of Galilee from 1853 anticipates the looser expressive brush strokes of the Impressionists whilst, at the same time, nodding in the direction of his prematurely deceased contemporary and countryman Theodore Gericault.

His landscapes further inspired artists like Monet, Cezanne, and Whistler. The belief in synaesthesia he shared with Richard Wagner and, perhaps most of all, the Journal published after his death in 1863, gained him yet more admiration from Renoir, Moreau and Fantin-Latour as well as the poet Baudelaire and the novelist Henry James.

Delacroix pointed the way towards modernism. But to these eyes he was not, himself, a modernist. This hits home on entering the gallery's final rooms where you encounter Manet's realism, Gauguin's primitivism, Signac's pointillism, and, most strikingly, Van Gogh's violent expressionism. See below for 1889's Olive Trees. Van Gogh kept a Delacroix in his bedroom in Arles. Gauguin took one to the South Seas with him as he pioneered his early form of sex tourism.

We all need signposts but they shouldn't be confused with destinations. The tour, and it is a worthwhile one, ends with a Kandinsky. Suggesting, possibly, that Delacroix in some way paved the way for pure abstraction. A leap too far, maybe, but an interesting contention and it's a favourite trick of this writer to end on a question rather than an answer. Or is it?

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Dear green place,

I went to Scotland at the weekend. To see my friend Dan who moved there in January. He'd scheduled in a pretty full programme of events for us. I'd even worried the agenda would be as non-negotiable as the one lined up for Candice by Keith in Nuts in May. I needn't have been concerned. He was an excellent host meeting me off the train at Queen Street station and proffering regular cups of tea and porridge every morning.

Friday evening we ate in Usha's in the West End of the city. Indian street food. The emerald green decor gave the illusion, from the outside, of an Irish pub and although the atmosphere was as convivial it was considerably less boisterous. I had a malai paneer tikka washed down with a mango lassi.

After a failed attempt to locate an improv gig taking place in a chapel within the university grounds we took a saunter down Sauchiehall Street where we were either too English, too sober, or, most likely, too old to be offered flyers for the nearby clubs. Instead we retreated into the Saramago cafe bar in the Centre for Contemporary Arts. The advertised African music wasn't happening but it was nice enough and I wasn't too put out watching Dan sample their ale as they had Erdinger Alkoholfrei lager in big bottles so I felt I was getting a 'proper' drink. This forced abstinence malarkey hasn't been hard work as such but I'll be happy when it comes to an end.

We were up early Saturday morning and heading for the highlands. The West Highland Line had been voted the most scenic railway journey on Earth in the Wanderlust Travel Awards (beating the Trans-Siberian and Machu Picchu) so it was time to put it to the test. It didn't disappoint.

From suburban Glaswegian stations it soon headed up into the hills and, then, mountains. After Helensburgh the scenery starts to get really spectacular. Views over the Gare Loch, Loch Long and Loch Lomond. By Fort William some of the other passengers were getting stuck into their booze. Well, it was the day before Valentine's.

Lochs Eil & Shiel are next up before the sea looms into view with the snow covered peaks of Skye looming up across the water from the isles of Eigg and Rum.

It's more about the journey than the destination though Mallaig itself is a presentable enough fishing village with ferries departing for the islands, a Co-op, a second hand bookshop, and a place selling such tat as tartan patterned heart shaped confetti. We dipped into the Marine Bar for a drink. A pub where approximately 80% of the floor space was taken up by a pool table that no-one was playing on. On the train back I read a Guardian piece about brutalist architecture which seemed, in retrospect, inappropriate.

Sunday began with a stroll along the winding Forth & Clyde canal. Swans on ice are only marginally less graceful than those on water. The tower blocks standing proud against a bright blue sky persuaded me to take a few snaps.

We saw the recent art installations by Neil McGuire, Nick Millar and Minty Donaldsenior before reaching Partick Thistle's Firhill stadium.

From here we headed to the Kelvingrove. Outside of London it competes with the National Museum of Edinburgh for the title of the most visited musuem in the UK and it's easy to see why. There's something for everyone. Natural history takes up a big chunk but it's for the art that it earns most plaudits. We restricted ourselves to a brief tour of the work of the Glasgow Boys. Echoes of the Pre-Raphaelites permeated their work as did the Post-Impressionists though it's to Whistler to whom they owe their greatest debt.

If you want to see Whistlers in Glasgow, though, you need to go to the Hunterian - which we did. He's one of my favourite artists and it was great to see one of his nocturnes nestling amongst other lesser known pieces. Another interesting feature of the Hunterian (which also doubles as both museum and gallery) is its collection of birds nests and wasps bykes. I didn't know that word before and I didn't know magpies sometimes used coat hangers for construction. You learn something new every day and all that.

After three visits to Glasgow I finally got to see the 13th Note - and it was marred only slightly by a dog barking throughout the duration of our visit. I was told they'd won an award for their chips and having tried them along with a veggie burger that seems fair enough.

On Glasgow Green we looked at the stone spiral with its plaques telling of momentous events in the history of the city. The ones representing Celtic and Rangers had both been vandalised. Across from the green stands the Carpet Factory. In a city full of amazing buildings this one truly stands out. The architect William Leiper was asked to design an edifice so grand the town planners couldn't reject it so he took unlikely, if fruitful, inspiration from the Doge's Palace in Venice.

There's a very homely bar in there now so I looked lovingly at Dan's pint of stout and sampled a Nix wheat beer. The nearest thing to a non-alcoholic real ale I've yet to encounter. We returned via the Barras (and Barrowlands) to Mono for more food. A delicious vegan ham and pineapple pizza with tunes from Stephen Pastel's incorporated Monorail store playing in the background. I browsed the aisles for a while but I couldn't settle on a purchase. Not for lack of choices but because there was too much. An odd aside as regards Mono was its toilet facilities. 11 urinals. 3 cubicles and 7 sinks seemed a little over the top even for the no doubt incredibly hygienic vegetarians that frequent the place.

It was our final night so we stopped in a converted library in Hillhead for a drink. The non-alcoholic beer of choice was Tennent's Hee Haw. Not a company I'd hitherto imagined moving into that market. It was a big spacious pub full of couples out to mark the Saint's day of a 3rd century Roman and, oddly enough, a pub with a caged off ping-pong table and 21-a-side table football seemed a pretty damned good place to be doing it.

That brought my time north of the border to an end but I returned to London refreshed and educated and disappointed to find it was just as cold there as in Scotland. Dan proved an excellent host. There's not many people who can wax lyrical, and at some length, about subjects as diverse as the German romantic notion of the sublime, the dominance of the Lutheran tradition in Norwegian society, Nuneaton's contribution to the post-punk scene, and the disappointing tactics in recent North London derbies. Thanks mate. It was a pleasure.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

The futuristic dreams of Mr & Mrs Eames.

Thursday night at the Barbican is late night opening for their art gallery. I find it a good time to visit, enjoy an overpriced mocha and a lemon drizzle cake, and take in whatever they've got on.

Tonight it was The World of Charles and Ray Eames. A look back at the life and works of two of the most famous designers of the last century. American designers for an American century.

Charles Eames was born in St.Louis in 1907 and Bernice Alexander 'Ray' Kaiser in 1912 in Sacramento. They met in 1940 at Cranbrook Academy in Michigan and fell in love. Charles was already married but he divorced his first wife and married Ray in 1941. They didn't waste much time. Maybe the war raging across the Atlantic made them realise how short life could be.

The US's later participation in that war affected the nature of their initial work together. They designed plywood glider noses and stretchers and as America was coming out of the great depression budgetary requirements became a consideration in their work. Something that remained with them as hardships were gradually lifted.

You can see it in their early designs for chairs. It's chairs they're most famous for and, man, are there a lot of them in this exhibition? Leather ones, plywood ones, fibreglass ones, kids ones, bloody loads of them. Enough for a school assembly. They didn't all look particularly comfy but they did, mostly, look stylish. Certainly dapper enough for film director Billy Wilder (The Spirit of St.Louis, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, Double Indemnity) to appear in a 1950 copy of Life magazine relaxing into one.

After Ray had designed some memorable covers for Art & Architecture magazine, lovingly displayed in the first room, the couple moved into architecture combining their studies of the Arts and Crafts movement and the Bauhaus with the influence of Eero Saarinen (Gateway Arch, St.Louis - again), Buckminster Fuller (he of the geodesic domes) and Mies Van Der Rohe (Barcelona pavilion, Farnsworth House & the IBM plaza in Chicago) whose aphorisms included 'less is more' and 'God is in the details'.

Case Study Houses 8 & 9, the former of which Charles and Ray would live in, resembled three dimensional Mondrians and were both beautiful and functional and allowed generous amounts of southern Californian sunshine into their Los Angeles settings.

The mid-sixties saw the IBM pavilion at New York's World Fair - an intentionally friendly building aiming to cool fear about the dawning of a scary new computer age. Inside the pavilion visitors were introduced to such concepts as algorithms and multi-media presentations. Stuff we take for granted now but there's a great room showing how they looked then. The banks of screens are something like The Grid would've used for a Megadog gig in 1995.

At the same time the Eames's were popularising maths and science with major shows inspired by Isaac Newton, probability machines, Mobius bands and multiplication cubes. Other installations focused on Copernicus and Fibonacci. There were also histories of Jefferson and Franklin for the American Revolution Bicentennial and photographic projects just in case they got bored.

They worked on the National Fisheries Center and Aquarium in Washington DC. They made toys that could be adapted throughout a child's life so that infant and toy would grow together. They saw celebration as a basic human need and, as such, collected masks, kites, toy boats etc; from around the world and incorporated them into the films they made.

One was about a sumo wrestler preparing his hair for a bout. Another saw a mechanical boy on a journey through circus related environments. There was even an educational short about the cyclical nature of the banana leaf in Indian culture.

Though they seemed to lead classic American lives they were internationalists too. They played a role in the formation of India's National Institute of Design, commissioned by Indira Gandhi, in the Gujarat city of Ahmedabad. A quote from the Bhagavad Gita, 'You are only entitled to the action, never to its fruits. Do not let the fruits of action be your motive' echoed their own belief that 'process is everything'. The NID remains one of the foremost schools of design today.

The exhibition is fleshed out with personal artefacts:- love letters between the two, correspondence with their friend Tony Benn, playing cards, and more films than your average visitor has time to watch and wouldn't be able to hear properly anyway. A small complaint in an otherwise excellently curated and enlightening retrospective. I'd have liked a few more architectural models too - but then I always do.

Charles died in 1978 and Ray 10 years later. In their lives they'd brought luxury design closer to the masses, blessed the modern age with a friendlier face, and made learning more fun. They'd jumped from one discipline to another in the style of Renaissance greats and given beauty to functional products. That they'd done it all as a married couple kind of makes it that little bit sweeter. Ain't love grand?

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Heathens in the temple.

It was with some trepidation that I ascended the stairs to the function room of the Devereux pub for my first LAAG (London Atheist Activist Group) event. Not because I feared fellow non-believers but because I'm always nervous meeting new people. But would any even be there and would those that were speak to me? My bottle of Fentiman's wouldn't be company enough and it'd surely be poor form to stare at my phone or do a sudoku.

Not to worry. These atheists were of the friendly variety and I was pleased to see a good spread across the generations. Fiona, a retired lady, talked to me about Gresham college, Hildegard of Bingen, and the acoustics of Bloosmbury churches. Oly, a flaxen haired goth with an ankh necklace and an Eastern European accent I couldn't place, filled me in on LAAG protocol, the little of it there is, and others introduced themselves before Adrian, the 'leader', jovially took the chair.

Tonight's discussion was to be 'Is Tolerance To Blame for Religious Violence' and it soon became clear that that title had been chosen somewhat mischievously. After all, as discussed in my previous post, who could have a problem with tolerance? Cultural relativism may have been a better choice.

People took turns to talk and many, perhaps too many, subjects were covered. From ISIS (well, of course), kosher food, integration, the partition of India, the Armenian genocide, the regressive left, FGM, the enormous wealth of the catholic church and the surprising existence of a Liberal Democrat in Tower Hamlets. It was sometimes hard to keep track of where the conversation was going but it was, on the whole, engaging, informative, and occasionally fascinating stuff.

The debate ran for about two hours with a 15 minute or so break for drinks etc; - about the same as a game of football. The chair (or referee) did his best to let conversation flow but there were times when it was difficult to hear all the competing voices. There were also occasions when the conversation got bogged down in semantics and a few lazy anti-Americanisms were tossed into the mix for easy point scoring and cheap laughs. These were minor quibbles, however, in a well organised, genial evening that flew past.

Obviously nothing was decided and it's highly doubtful anyone left with any radically new perspective. I wonder if these things are simply glorified talking shops and I suspect, in many ways, they are. But what's wrong with that? Better to have the conversation than not and why not choose to talk to people you find interesting about subjects close to your heart?

Though there were no seismic shifts on my moral compass I heard opinions expressed in ways I'd not considered before and I was subjected to debate that asked questions and poked doubt at long held certainties of mine. Most of all I had a fun evening. I even laughed out loud. Will I go again? I bloody hope so.

Next month's talk is from Jon Stewart who is better known for standing behind Louise Wener in mid-table Britpop combo Sleeper. After the band finished he hit the booze in a big way before taking the twelve step program. He became disillusioned with Alcoholics Anonymous and their religious indoctrination before recovering his atheism. His talk is called Inside AA:Can A Non-Existent God Cure Alcoholism? It's on Wednesday March 9th. In The Devereux again. It's a lovely pub but if you think a room full of atheists is ungodly you should get a load of the stench in the gents.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Hello, is this thing on?

My name is Dave Evans. This is my first ever blog post. I'm still not sure what exactly I'm going to write about on here but chances are music, art and walking will feature prominently. I imagine I'll also be sharing rants about politics, religion, ideologies and other ways humans organise their lives in the 21st century.

Those of you who know me in real life (or on Facebook, and, to a lesser extent, on Twitter) may well think I go on enough as it is. I probably do - but I'm only here once so if I've got something to say I might as well say it. Hopefully, though, not rashly and not without thought and, where needed, research. I might well be wrong a lot of the time and you may well disagree with me but I'll try not to constantly end with 'in my opinion'. It's my blog so everything on it, unless stated otherwise, is my opinion.

On Wednesday I plan to attend my first meeting of the London Atheist Activist Group. Because I'm an atheist and because I like getting together with people to discuss ideas. As it's my first time and I'm not particularly confident when meeting new people I imagine I'll mainly be listening.

The meeting is going under the banner 'Is Tolerance To Blame For Religious Violence?'. A hot topic at the moment since atheists and secularists are being killed for their beliefs in countries where religion is more fundamentally adhered to. The LAAG website cites Bangladesh & Iran as examples of where this is happening. In Saudi Arabia atheism is now regarded as terrorism which carries the death penalty.

A brutal and terrifying state of affairs both for secularists within the country and outside. Also for anyone else within those regimes holding dissenting views and, I'd contest, for the religious majority there as well. Without dissent there can be no dialectic. Dialectics were popularised in classical Greece under the teachings of Plato and Socrates and have been a cornerstone of European and Indian philosophy since antiquity.

This has resulted in untold numbers of advances in our means of communication, knowledge of who we are and where we are, knowledge of our bodies and how they work, understanding how to harness the energy of our planet to fit our needs (both good and bad) and the ability to enhance our own lives and those of others.

It may seem an exaggeration to suggest that banning atheism would bring about an end to human developement - but to make some ideas punishable by death certainly makes everything a lot more difficult. I'm not of the 'we're all going to Hell in a handcart' persuasion and tend to believe that the good will out but, again, that's much harder if citizens are banned access to certain ideas and theories. I think that most religious people wouldn't wish to silence secular voices just as a huge majority of non-believers have no desire to gag those of faith.

So why do LAAG plan to attack 'tolerance'? Surely tolerance is something we could all do with a lot more of?  It's a quandary I'm still mulling over but my current thinking is that all views and opinions should be open to debate. Everyone should be able to say whatever they like and everyone should be able to question, dismiss, or even ridicule those views. Nothing should be sacred. Once an opinion, or an ideology, becomes such then avenues of discussion are closed down and ideas are prevented from coming to the surface.

This should apply to all ideologies. Religions should not be exempt. We rightly criticize the ghastly Roosh V for his disgusting views on rape. We correctly call Donald Trump up on his xenophobia, cheap jibes and scapegoating. Equally if there's some horrific piece of scripture in some centuries old holy books (and let's face it, there's plenty) we should be free to criticise that.

When people start acting upon the words of Roosh V, Donald Trump, Fred Phelps (Westboro Baptist Church) or Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi's that's when, for me, the tolerance ends. A crime's a crime if you're following a woman hating pick-up artist on the Internet, a stump orating demagogue who's using his vast inherited wealth to campaign to build a bigger gap between the haves and the have-nots or a violent hateful fantasist who uses medieval health and safety manuals to justify murder, torture and rape.

Obviously I've not been to the meeting yet but I believe it's going to be held in the form of a debate rather than a rally. Whilst I'd imagine someone will take the chair I also assume everyone will have a chance to put forward their view. Although, referring back to my earlier admission of reticence, I may not.

Anyway, it's all taking place in the Devereux pub in London's Temple. They do a fine range of real ale which, due to a retrospectively rash decision to have a dry month in February, I shall be abstaining from. At least that should leave me clear headed enough to report back.

Apologies if my first post was as dry as my unwetted whistle. I might try to incorporate some jokes and some pictures in the future - and, hopefully, I'll get better at this. We can all suffer from first night nerves you know.