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Posts Tagged ‘Art’

Exhibitions at the Saatchi Gallery are usually very uneven. It’s worth seeing the current PAPER exhibition for one artist alone.

Yuken Teruya takes paper shopping bags, cuts out the silhouette of a tree from one side, and folds this tree into the interior of the bag – creating a magical space, an enchanted forest, an unexpected sanctuary. It’s not unusual for a contemporary artist to re-use discarded materials, but there is something extraordinary about these exquisite creations. It’s impossible to capture the depth and light on camera.

They remind me of the creations we would make as children – imaginary world’s in boxes – and of the window displays you see in some of the fancy department stores.

tree1 by SW

tree2 by SW

tree3 by SW

tree4

The second photo shows you the McDonald’s bag from above – how two sides of the tree are cut out and folded down separately (back and front) and then merged into a three-dimensional form, still attached to the side of the bag, so that it really is a single bag still. All of this with just scissors and glue.

Do take a look at his website. And do visit the Saatchi if you are around central London (it’s free and 2 minutes from Sloane Square).

Here is the blurb from the Saatchi Gallery site:

The detritus of urban life has long provided material solutions for artists; in Yuken Teruya’s work, the discarded becomes the site of poetic transformation. Shopping bags – in some ways the emblematic item of rampant consumerism, one-use receptacles quickly ditched – are placed within the gallery at a ninety-degree angle, their ends to the wall, becoming peepholes for one viewer at a time. Their dark interiors are speckled with light from holes cut into the bag’s paper surface; the shape of the hole is that of a full-grown tree, so the bag becomes both stage (with its own lighting) and source of imagery.

Stooping to encounter each work, the viewer is obliged to reimagine the nature of the receptacle: it’s changed from a passive to an active space. Each tree is painstakingly cut, its leaves and branches described with exceptional care, and each bag derives from a slightly different source (sometimes highend fashion boutiques, others McDonald’s), which stages the tree’s connection to the natural world in divergent ways. At times, as inGolden Arch Parkway McDonald’s (Brown), the bag’s mellow ochre tones evoke autumnal shades; at others, such as LVMH Mark Jacobs, the black bag lends the tree a doomy and gothic aspect. Reversing the flow of industry from tree to paper, Teruya’s work has an environmental sensitivity that’s hard to miss. It’s also a poignant assertion of the role of the creative artist: as someone who finds meaning amid the morass of stuff we leave behind.

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Just to update you on the exterior of the chapel at Allen Hall: The scaffolding has now been taken down and the ‘new’ crucifix has been ‘unveiled’.

‘New’ is in inverted commas because it has simply been put back in the very spot where it was originally hung in the 1950s (see my previous post here); and ‘unveiled’ because this happened without much ceremony: I’ve been away for a few days and when I came back the builders had just taken everything down. Maybe we will have a proper unveiling ceremony when the new academic year begins in September.

Take a look at the photos here. You get the best view from the top of the bus.

Allen Hall Chapel 2

A close up of the new crucifix: it’s been hanging inside against the back wall of the sanctuary for the last few years

Allen Hall Chapel

The view from across the street

 

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I managed to get a ticket for the very last day of the Ice Age Art exhibition at the British Museum on Sunday.

At one level, the works are extraordinary. To stand in front of a 40,000 year old Lion Man carved in ivory; to see a flute from the same period made from the bone of a griffon vulture, with six carefully spaced holes waiting to be fingered; to pass from one exhibition case to the next, a succession of statues, figurines, etchings, carvings, tools, weapons, most of them with some form of figurative imagery, thousands and thousands of years old. And to think that for some reason it was in this period in Europe that figurative art first developed.

At another level, it’s extraordinarily ordinary. These are images and carvings that could have been created yesterday, in the local art college, or even the local school. They clearly have a huge and unknown symbolic value, but as examples of figurative art they are simply very graceful and well-kept examples of the human urge to represent what is real.

This is what the human mind does. It produces images of what is out there in the real world (an etching of a lion jumping). It forms imaginary creations by playing with these images mentally and combining and recreating them (the head of a lion on the body of a man). It makes tools (a carefully carved stone core), weapons (a small pouch to launch an arrow), and musical instruments (the vulture bone flute). The mind or imagination works symbolically, and this is what allows us to transform the world, because the symbols don’t just stay in the mind – they change how we relate to the world and what we do in and with it.

It’s the lack of distance between then and now that is so extraordinary. If we could meet these ancestors of ours, and have just a few weeks of contact, perhaps just a few days, we would have learnt their language, and they ours, and we would be communicating as neighbours, as brothers and sisters. And yes, we would be working out whether they were friends or enemies, and the whole of human history would unfold once more…

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I’ve just seen the Lichtenstein exhibition at Tate Modern; it’s on until 27 May if you want to catch it. It’s interesting as a lesson in art history, but disappointing as an artistic experience. Not many of the paintings have any real power or beauty; the tones and colours (from all the different periods) are so limited; and even in terms of line and draftsmanship the images seem either simplistic and without much grace or overcomplicated and unbalanced.

The exception is the famous comic book art from the early 1960s, and I’d almost call these masterpieces: “M-maybe he became ill and couldn’t leave the studio”, “Whaam”, “Oh Jeff I love you too but…”

whaam - roy litchenstein 1963 by oddstock

The history is important. When the Western art establishment was locked into abstract expressionism (which I love), along came Lichtenstein and WHAAM: he put some energy, drama, line and subject matter back into painting. You can argue as much as you like whether it was celebratory or ironic or just commercially clever. The fact is that in almost a single gesture it brought Western art back to where it had been for three thousand years: using images to tell stories. Lichtenstein’s pop art is about recovery and restoration. In the late 1950s, comic books were more in the mainstream of the Western canon than the studios of Manhattan and Chicago, and it took Lichtenstein to remind everyone of that.

IMG_0395 by clare and ben

It is the aesthetic of the ‘pregnant moment’. If you already know, more or less, the story, then you don’t need to read the whole comic. You just need to choose a single frame, a pregnant moment, which captures the drama and allows us to insert ourselves into the story. This is as true for WHAAM and M-maybe as it is for a painting of the Nativity or the Birth of Venus. The narrative fans out, forwards and backwards, from that key moment, just as the future and the past are continually fanning out from the present in ordinary human experience. We are only ever within a single moment, but we can’t experience or interpret that moment without being conscious of some kind of story.

Laura Cumming has a gushing review here. But Alastair Smart is more critical. Info and tickets are here.

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It’s good to be ambitious in a film. It takes a lot of courage to deal with sickness, mortality, bereavement, love, friendship, marriage, parenting, creativity, culture, fame, failure – oh, and Beethoven – in under two hours.

An acclaimed New York string quartet have been playing together for twenty-five years. The cellist is diagnosed with Parkinson’s. And with this unexpected crisis everything else starts to unravel – the music, the relationships, even the past.

Most of this works. There are some powerful scenes. But somehow it didn’t quite fit together for me; I didn’t quite believe in the characters. It felt contrived.

Now surely this is an unfair criticism. The whole point of a chamber piece like this is that it is contrived: five characters (there is a daughter too), on stage before us for two hours, everything as carefully constructed as Beethoven’s quartet itself (op. 131).

It made me wonder about what was missing. Why is it that in a classic Woody Allen film (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and her Sisters, etc), however extraordinary the characters, and however overwrought the plot, you still believe that they have an existence beyond the film, that you are stepping into their life rather than seeing a life momentarily created for your entertainment?

Why does the willing suspension of disbelief sometimes work and sometimes not? I think this was too actorly, in a self-conscious way; verging on the melodramatic; and simply not as funny as Allen. And without the ragged edges that allow the film in front of you to fade into an imagined reality behind the screen. All of this, somehow, takes away from the authenticity that is the mark of a great film.

So it’s a good film! Go and see it. But with something missing…

Here is the Beethoven:

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What did we do before the iPad? (By ‘we’ I mean ‘you’, because I’m the dinosaur stuck with the lap-top). The answer: We played all day on the Etch A Sketch.

"Say Anything" on an Etch-A-Sketch by methodshop.com

Hours and hours of my young life wasted/gained/lost/liberated: on the sofa, in bed, in the back of the car.

It has everything the iPad has: text (writing ‘STEPHEN’ in large, uneven letters across the screen); images (all those pictures of stick-men, houses, battle-fields, random animals and geometric patterns); video (the pictures morphed and developed in the making); audio (the faint screech of the wires, the white noise of shaking the filings back into place, using the screen as an improvised drum). It even had wifi: the fact that if your little brother was just finishing his Etch A Sketch masterpiece on the other side of the living room you could use a carefully thrown basketball to edit or delete the image at will; no troublesome wires, no worry about incompatible sockets.

And perhaps all of my present obsessive-compulsive tendencies stem from my discovery that if you systematically rubbed out every millimetre of the screen by bringing the horizontal line back and forward and edging it down incrementally, you uncovered the inner reality of the mechanism: the wires, the pulleys, the metal filings piled up below. This took about half an hour, and I couldn’t stop until not a single filing remained on the underside of the screen. A first taste of mystery, of engineering, of taking things just a little bit too far…

Why this reverie? I just discovered that André Cassagnes, the Etch A Sketch inventor, died last month at the age of 86. This is from Margalit Fox:

A chance inspiration involving metal particles and the tip of a pencil led Mr. Cassagnes to develop Etch A Sketch in the late 1950s. First marketed in 1960, the toy — with its rectangular gray screen, red frame and two white knobs — quickly became one of the brightest stars in the constellation of midcentury childhood amusements that included Lincoln Logs and the Slinky.

Etch A Sketch was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in Rochester in 1998; in 2003, the Toy Industry Association named it one of the hundred best toys of the 20th century. To date, more than 100 million have been sold.

The toy received renewed attention in March, amid the 2012 presidential campaign, after Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney, described his boss’s campaign strategy heading from the primaries into the general election thus:

“Everything changes,” Mr. Fehrnstrom said. “It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”

The quotation, pilloried by Democrats and Republicans alike, was widely interpreted as an acknowledgment by the Romney campaign that its candidate had no fixed political ideology.

The complete eradicability of an Etch A Sketch drawing is born of the toy’s simple, abiding technology.

The underside of the screen is coated with a fine aluminum powder. The knobs control a stylus hidden beneath the screen; turning them draws the stylus through the powder, scraping it off in vertical or horizontal lines that appear on the screen as if by magic. (An early French name for the toy was L’Écran Magique, “Magic Screen.”)

To erase the image, the user shakes the toy, recoating the screen with aluminum; tiny plastic beads mixed with the powder keep it from clumping.

That is essentially all there is to an Etch A Sketch, and though the toy now comes in various sizes, shapes and colors, its inner workings have changed little since Mr. Cassagnes first touched a pencil to a powder-coated sheet on an otherwise ordinary day more than five decades ago.

And the discovery itself?

One day in the late ’50s, as was widely reported afterward, Mr. Cassagnes was installing a light-switch plate at the factory. He peeled the translucent protective decal off the new plate, and happened to make some marks on it in pencil. He noticed that the marks became visible on the reverse side of the decal.

In making its faux finishes, the Lincrusta factory also used metallic powders; Mr. Cassagnes’s pencil had raked visible lines through particles of powder, which clung naturally to the decal by means of an electrostatic charge.

Mr. Cassagnes spent the next few years perfecting his invention, which was introduced in 1959 at the Nuremberg Toy Fair. (Because the toy was patented by Arthur Granjean, an accountant working for one of Mr. Cassagnes’s early investors, Mr. Granjean is sometimes erroneously credited as the inventor of Etch A Sketch.)

After Ohio Art acquired the rights to the toy for $25,000, Mr. Cassagnes worked with the company’s chief engineer, Jerry Burger, to refine its design. Where Mr. Cassagnes’s original had been operated with a joystick, the final version mimicked the look of the reigning household god of the day — the television set. It soon became the company’s flagship product.

In later years, Mr. Cassagnes designed kites; by the 1980s, he was considered France’s foremost maker of competition kites, which can perform elaborate aerial stunts.

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There’s a polar bear in Sloane Square. No-one told me about it! I just stepped off the bus, and there it was, in the snow, opposite Peter Jones. It’s magnificent.

2013-01-18 15.04.27

2013-01-18 15.04.00

I was enjoying the ‘thisness’ of the bear, the pure ‘being-there’ and ‘being-a-bear-there’ of the sculpture, the art that shows without the need to tell; but then I found it also has a purpose. Camilla Horrox explains:

A SPECTACULAR 12ft polar bear sculpture called Boris has been unveiled in London’s Sloane Square to symbolise the plight of the critically endangered animal.

Boris Johnson’s father Stanley unveiled the statue on Monday in one of the capital’s most iconic locations, Sloane Square where the ‘new’ Boris in town will reign until February 10.

Throughout the 28-day period the public, celebrities, organisations and corporations will be encouraged to register their support for the campaign online and visit Boris in person if they are able to.

Adam Binder said: “If people stop for just a moment to contemplate Boris and the plight of the polar bear, it will have served a purpose. Art should make you think. Wildlife art, particularly a piece on this scale, will hopefully be poignant and remind us that we’re all part of nature and have a responsibility to every creature on our planet. The endangered polar bear symbolises this better than anything else and Boris carries an important message for us all.”

Adam Binder, Jim McNeill (founder of the Ice Warrior Project) and environmentalist Stanley Johnson (father of the other Boris) unveiled the sculpture on Monday.

Throughout the 28-day period the public, celebrities, organisations and corporations will be encouraged to register their support for the campaign online and visit Boris in person if they are able to.

Boris, who is cast entirely of bronze and weighs 700 kgs is the brainchild of the award-winning artist Adam Binder, whose work in ceramics and sculpture has won him critical acclaim throughout a career spanning 20 years. Adam won the David Shepherd Wildlife Artist of the Year in 2010, and was elected a Member of the Society of Wildlife Artists in 2011.

Conservationist, David Shepherd CBE FRSA said: “It is fitting that Adam Binder’s first monumental sculpture should be this beautiful polar bear, a species that is, quite literally, on thin ice. If Boris’ lonely vigil in a London square makes people stop and think, even for a minute, Adam will have achieved his aim.”

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Friday, 21st September, is PARK(ing) DAY. You put some coins in a parking meter of your choice, take possession of the carefully defined space in front of you, and (as long as it is without a car and for the general well-being of the passing public) do something or create something wild or beautiful or calming or bewitching or anything at all that falls under the category of ‘San Francisco-y’.

This is the photo that started it all off, when for two hours someone put a lawn, a tree and a public bench in a San Francisco parking bay – all completely legally.

Here is the ABOUT section from their website.

PARK(ing) Day is an annual open-source global event where citizens, artists and activists collaborate to temporarily transform metered parking spaces into “PARK(ing)” spaces: temporary public places. The project began in 2005 when Rebar, a San Francisco art and design studio, converted a single metered parking space into a temporary public park in downtown San Francisco. Since 2005, PARK(ing) Day has evolved into a global movement, with organizations and individuals (operating independently of Rebar but following an established set of guidelines) creating new forms of temporary public space in urban contexts around the world.

The mission of PARK(ing) Day is to call attention to the need for more urban open space, to generate critical debate around how public space is created and allocated, and to improve the quality of urban human habitat … at least until the meter runs out!

And here is the history:

Rebar’s original PARK(ing) project in 2005 transformed a single metered parking space into a temporary public park in an area of San Francisco that the city had designated as lacking public open space. The great majority of San Francisco’s downtown outdoor space is dedicated to movement and storage of private vehicles, while only a fraction of that space is allocated to serve a broader range of public needs. Paying the meter of a parking space enables one to lease precious urban real estate on a short-term basis. The PARK(ing) project was created to explore the the range of possible activities for this short-term lease, and to provoke a critical examination of the values that generate the form of urban public space.

Our original PARK stood in place for two hours – the term of the lease offered on the face of the parking meter. When the meter expired, we rolled up the sod, packed away the bench and the tree, and gave the block a good sweep, and left. A few weeks later,  as a single iconic photo of the intervention (left) traveled across the web, Rebar began receiving requests to create the PARK(ing) project in other cities. Rather than replicate the same installation, we decided to promote the project as an “open-source” project, and created a how-to manual to empower people to create their own parks without the active participation of Rebar. And thus “PARK(ing) Day” was born.

PARK(ing) Day has since been adapted and remixed to address a variety of social issues in diverse urban contexts around the world, and the project continues to expand to include interventions and experiments well beyond the basic “tree-bench-sod” park typology first modeled by Rebar. In recent years, participants have built free health clinics, planted temporary urban farms, produced ecology demonstrations, held political seminars, built art installations, opened free bike repair shops and even held a wedding ceremony! All this in the context of this most modest urban territory – the metered parking space.

And this is the true power of the open-source model: organizers identify specific community needs and values and use the event to draw attention to issues that are important to their local public—everything from experimentation and play to acts of generosity and kindness, to political issues such as water rights, labor equity, health care and marriage equality. All of these interventions, irrespective of where they fall on the political spectrum, support the original vision of PARK(ing) Day: to challenge existing notions of public urban space and empower people to help redefine space to suit specific community needs.

In addition to being quite a bit of fun, PARK(ing) Day has effectively re-valued the metered parking space as an important part of the commons – a site for generosity, cultural expression, socializing and play. And although the project is temporary, we hope PARK(ing) Day inspires you to participate in the civic processes that permanently alter the urban landscape.

Read more about the original PARK(ing) installation on the Rebar website, or to delve deeper into the theoretical framework of the project, consider downloading the PARK(ing) Day Manifesto.

From the map, the only official UK venues seem to be Falmouth and Leeds. But I prefer the idea that it is uncoordinated. I think I’m free on Friday 21st – I’ll have to see what springs to mind, if I can find a space on the King’s Road (and if I can afford one!). I’m thinking bridges, tangents…But where can I find some grass?

(But what are the laws in the UK? When you pay for your space, are you obliged to put a car there?! Are our legislators so generous and open-minded as the Californians? You can see I am worried about whether I will get into trouble!)

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I was sad to hear that Tony Scott has died, and even sadder to discover that he seems to have taken his own life by jumping from a bridge in Los Angeles. May he rest in peace.

He was one of my favourite directors, and in my mind a much better film maker than his brother Ridley. Recent highlights include Unstoppable and Deja Vu; there are classic thrillers like Enemy of the State and Crimson Tide; and of course it all started in 1986 with top Gun. I’ve never seen True Romance – it was the Tarantino connection that put me off, and I think it would be too violent for my taste.

Why do I like him as a director? Because he knew, like Hitchcock and David Mamet, that film is film; that the point is to take you somewhere within the film. A good plot does not need to have a profound external meaning, but it does need to keep you moving forward within the parameters of the set-up, with your heart and mind and senses fully engaged and desperate to know where it is all going.

He’s dismissed for making films that are merely entertaining, and criticised for being at heart just an ad man – as if his skill lies in creating flashy images and cutting between them quicker than anyone else. Yes, he created some of the flashiest images on screen – what wonderful cinematographers he had, together with his penchant for hyper-saturated colours. But it’s the nature of the cut that counts, not the speed. And he was a master.

He could create incredible tension, and beauty, by cutting from one shot to the next, and thus allowing the viewer’s heart and mind to travel an infinite distance that could never be conveyed with a panning shot. This is film as film. It’s Eisenstein, it’s Hitchcock. It’s all in David Mamet’s seminal book On Directing Film (which is more easily available in this collection).

He also knew that every element of plot had to fit together into a satisfying whole at the final denouement; and that we don’t care how ridiculous it is as long as it makes sense in its own terms. How few scriptwriters and directors seem to know this! The obituary in Tuesday’s Telegraph gets it completely wrong when it says he was all external sheen without a grasp of narrative.

Not everyone is into Sci-Fi, but if you want to get a taste of pure Tony Scott then get hold of the DVD of Deja Vu.

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Wow! It is absolutely breathtaking, and well worth a detour if you are passing nearby on the tube, or even a dedicated trip! The new Kings Cross concourse, stuck on the side of the station in the most unlikely manner, somehow works; and of course it’s all in the roof. I wandered round with neck craned upwards like a child seeing stars for the first time. It’s awe-inspiring, and intimate, and gloriously silly and funny at the same time.

Here are some of pictures:

Here is a more sober but equally positive reflection from Rowan Moore:

With the new western concourse at King’s Cross station, designed by John McAslan and Partners, the big metal roof is coming home. It is sited between two famous examples of the genre, King’s Cross station of 1852 and the later, more daring, St Pancras station, of 1868, and it is part of the £500m creation of a “transport super-hub”, completed in time for the Olympics, when hundreds of thousands will pass through here on their way to the Javelin train from St Pancras to Stratford.

It is a large semi-circular addition to the flank of the old station, with a basic if essential purpose: to allow enough space for increasingly large numbers of passengers to move freely and smoothly as they emerge from the underground or enter from the street, buy tickets and catch their trains. It is a departures space only, as in airports, with arriving passengers exiting through the original front door of the station. It replaces the existing concourse, a low, crowded 1970s structure of dim design, that has never been loved for the way it blots the view of the plain, handsome twin-arched front of the original station. This structure will disappear later this year, allowing the creation of a new forecourt.

The concourse distributes people in one direction to the main line platforms, in another to suburban lines, and also allows a more leisurely route up some escalators, along a balcony where you can dally in various restaurants and on to a footbridge across the tracks of the old station, from which you can descend to your platform. It smooths out knots and anomalies in the previous arrangements and triples the space available for circulation. It also has space for shopping, without which no contemporary public work would be complete.

Meanwhile, the original glass roof has been cleaned up and had its glass restored, while unnecessary clutter in the space below has been removed, making it more bright and airy than it has looked at any time since it opened, 160 years ago. The effect is dazzling, of seeing this familiar, eternally grubby place transformed. It is as if you had just popped a perception-enhancing pill or been granted an extra faculty of sight.

But the main event of the new work is the half-cylinder of the new concourse and its roof, which has a span of 52 metres. Its structure, engineered by Arup, rises up a great steel stalk in the centre and then spreads into a tree-like canopy of intersecting branches, before descending into a ring of supports at the circumference. In so doing, it avoids the need to drop columns into the ticket hall of the underground station underneath the main space. Beneath the canopy, a sinuous pavilion in glass and tile takes care of the retail.

“It is the greatest station building, ever,” declares architect John McAslan, who is not shy of speaking things as he sees them, and it is certainly impressive. Its main effect is a mighty oomph as you enter, from whatever direction, caused by the abundance of space and the unity of the structure. It is big and single-minded and has a generosity to which we have grown unused.

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Great news for Hitchcock fans: a massive retrospective at the British Film Institute this summer.

Mark Brown reports:

Alfred Hitchcock is to be celebrated like never before this summer, with a retrospective of all his surviving films and the premieres of his newly restored silent films – including Blackmail, which will be shown outside the British Museum.

The BFI on Tuesday announced details of its biggest ever project: celebrating the genius of a man who, it said, was as important to modern cinema as Picasso to modern art or Le Corbusier to modern architecture. Heather Stewart, the BFI’s creative director, said: “The idea of popular cinema somehow being capable of being great art at the same time as being entertaining is still a problem for some people. Shakespeare is on the national curriculum, Hitchcock is not.”

One of the highlights of the season will be the culmination of a three-year project to fully restore nine of the director’s silent films. It will involve The Pleasure Garden, Hitchcock’s first, being shown at Wilton’s Music Hall; The Ring at Hackney Empire, and Blackmail outside the British Museum, where the film’s climactic chase scene was filmed in 1929, both inside the building and on the roof.

For me, the excitement is not really about the restorations, it’s simply about seeing all the classics on the big screen. Can you believe that I have only ever seen Rear Window on DVD?

Between August and October the BFI will show all 58 surviving Hitchcock films including his many films made in the UK – The 39 Steps, for example, and The Lady Vanishes – and those from his Hollywood years, from Rebecca in 1940 to Vertigo in 1957, The Birds in 1963 and his penultimate film, Frenzy, in 1972.

And Psycho, of course. “Psycho is a great work of modern art,” said Stewart. “Who hasn’t stood in the shower and had a little moment.”

Special guests during the Genius of Hitchcock season will include Tippi Hedren, the hapless victim of bird attacks in the film of the same name, and Bruce Dern who starred with Hedren in Marnie

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I can’t say I have read many graphic novels, but this is an extraordinary book. It tells the tale, as you would expect from the title, of Simone Lia’s search for a husband, and her struggle to understand God’s plan for her life. It’s Cosmopolitan meets St John of the Cross via Snoopy and the Far Side. The cartoon-like illustrations are endearing, funny, and often beautiful. Her emotional honesty is sometimes heartbreaking. But you have the sense of listening in on the inner dialogue of a soul – one that is innocent, wounded, brave and slightly quirky – rather than intruding or being the recipient of a clunky disclosure.

There is a moment of grace and enlightenment near the end of the book (I’m not spoiling any plot) that is both profoundly moving and presents a spiritual insight that is worthy of the contemplative masters, and that I don’t think could have been communicated so effectively in any other medium. It takes a lot for me to say that, as a cinema fanatic; but perhaps there is something in this graphic novel thing.

You can buy it here on Amazon.

I’m delighted that Simone has done the illustrations for the parents booklet I have been working on with Ten Ten Theatre. I’ll post about that when it is published in the next couple of weeks.

Just in case you think I am only writing this because I’ve got a vested interest in promoting Simone, or in promoting any artist/author who is bringing Christianity into the mainstream, here are some paragraphs from Rachel Cooke’s review in the Guardian:

Lia is a Catholic – a devout one: the kind who goes to confession and has nuns for friends – and when she asks God to find her a husband, she really means it. Standing in the middle of Leicester Square, having recently been dumped by email, she looks up at the sky and says: “To cut to the chase, God, I’m going to be 34 in two weeks’ time and if you want me to marry someone you’re going to need to get a bit of a move on.” Does he reply? Not exactly. But she experiences, as people sometimes do, a kind of epiphany. She decides to go on an adventure with God.

How Lia pulls off what happens next without ever seeming a) repulsively pious or b) stark staring mad, I do not know. It’s partly her tone, which is inquiring and funny, but never hectoring; and partly it’s her drawings, so heart-stoppingly neat and expressive. Mostly, though, I think it’s down to the disarming feeling that creeps over you as her sincerity (not such a rare thing in comics as in some other realms, but still pretty rare these days) quietly hits home. Lia is a knowing artist – flirting with a riding instructor in the Australian outback, her self-portrait transmutes into a luscious drawing of Penélope Cruz – but she has a vulnerable innocence that puts you firmly on her side.

And what of her “adventure”? Well, she spends a fortnight in a nunnery, where she takes comfort in routine and quiet, and then she takes a trip to Oz in search of a hermit and a hunk (naturally, she tells her nun advisers only of her desire to find the former). Nothing dramatic happens, though she does get to play Operation – yes, I do mean the battery-operated game – with Jesus (and even the son of God, it seems, struggles when it comes to extracting the tricky spare rib). I must not reveal, here, whether her travels result in the bagging of a husband. But I will say that this is a brave and beautiful book, and Lia is lucky to have a publisher who, though he must secretly have longed for another volume of Fluffy (her 2007 hit about a talking bunny and the neurotic man it takes for its father), has allowed her so intimately to follow her heart.

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I’d forgotten what a beautiful collection of paintings there is at the Courtauld Gallery. The tag-line on its website reads ‘one of the finest small museums in the world’; and I can vouch that in my small experience of small museums it comes pretty near the top. Do pay a visit if you have never been (information here). It’s housed in Somerset House on the Strand in central London.

It was the Mondrian-Nicholson exhibition that took me there on Friday. I’ve always enjoyed the Mondrian grid paintings, but I came away with a much greater admiration for Ben Nicholson.

The Mondrian paintings feel like studies, ideas, or speculative essays. They make you think about balance, harmony, relation and discord; how a particular colour and shape relates to another; and there is certainly an aesthetic response. But it feels more like thinking than seeing, as if you are somehow detached from your own experience.

[The two pictures here are not from the current exhibition.]

I think it’s the thickness of the black grid lines. It’s as if Mondrian is saying, ‘I’m telling you how the colours relate’, instead of just letting the relationships speak for themselves. I’m not criticising the project – I’m sure he knew what he was doing. I’m just responding to it.

Nicholson’s geometric abstractions, as well using a greater variety of colours, and daring to incorporate the odd circle here and there, are without the black grid lines; so the patches of colour and space touch each other and seem to grow out of each other. The paintings seem more alive, more organic. They seem to have greater presence.

There is an incredible beauty about two or three of the canvases here, and it helps you to understand the significance of the whole abstract movement in art. The relationship between abstraction and realism is like that between metaphysics and the world. In Nicholson’s geometric paintings you can see what it is for something to be there and not here, to be what it is and not what something else is, to support or oppose or surround or frustrate or liberate or oppress – but all of this now without content. It’s like a dance without the dancers.

It’s not just the art itself that becomes abstract; it’s a means of contemplating in abstraction so much that takes place within human experience and so much that is experienced of the world. One painting took my breath away, and held me there almost in suspension - Painting, Version I, 1938 – heartbroken that it is from an anonymous private collection and I may never see it again in my life. I wish I could find an image to show, but it wouldn’t capture it. You will have to go yourself.

It’s wonderful that the two rooms of this temporary exhibition lead into the small but exquisite selection of early German expressionist paintings in the Courtauld collection. You see artists like Jawlensky and Kandinsky around 1910/11 almost slipping into abstraction, seeing the possibilities of actually breaking free from representation and leaving themselves with form alone – the formality of colour, shape and space. And seeing how much could still be ‘said’ and expressed solely with the formal elements.

It’s just a short step from Kandinsky’s Improvisation on Mohogany, 1910, to the Mondrian-Nicholson paintings of the 1930s next door.

This is the wall commentary from that painting:

By 1910 Kandinsky has developed his art to the brink of abstraction… emphasising the sensation of colour, line and form, freed from their descriptive functions. Here, isolated details can be identified, such as the figure of a woman and the outlines of a walled city to the right. However, the textured patches of brilliant colour generate their own energy and harmony.

So I am now a huge Ben Nicholson fan. Does anyone know where I can see some of his other paintings?

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I love the new statue on the fourth plinth. It is well worth a visit whenever you are passing through central London.

Ostensibly, it’s about innocence, joy, hope, and (as one of the artists says) ‘looking to the future’: a young boy, slightly older than I expected (is he about six or seven?), leans back in delight on his golden rocking horse, held in suspension before he lunges forward again.

But there is the rub: ‘looking to the future’. What future? It’s impossible not to compare the rocking horse with the military horses that adorn various other plinths round London, and with George IV’s horse on the third plinth just the other side of Trafalgar Square. And that sets up three implicit meanings to the statue that perpetually jostle with each other and create an incredible hermeneutical tension.

Is it saying: Forget the military heroism, the cult of the strong leader, the violence of war – there is something simpler and purer here, the innocence of childhood, which should lead to a brighter future without the disfigurement of war?

Or is it saying: Look at the heroes around you, the iconic warriors, and all they have done – for good or for ill. Look at them, and see how they were once as innocent as this young boy. See how innocence can be corrupted. See how quickly childhood disappears.

Or is it saying: Look at the heroes around you, the warriors, the liberators, the tyrants, the demagogues, the nameless horsemen who have led others into battle over the centuries. Look at them, and see how they were never innocent, because their aggression and their posturing started in the nursery, when they played at soldiers, and when their mock heroics – like this rocking horse moment – cast a psychological mould and set them on a trajectory that would lead to a thousand battlefields.

In other words, do you see in this boy an innocence that need never be corrupted, or an innocence that will one day be tragically corrupted, or a faux innocence that hides a corruption that has always been there and will one day wreak havoc?

In theological terms: Do you believe that there is no such thing as the Fall (that we live in and will continue to live in a time of Original Blessing), or that since the Fall we are prone to corruption and affected by it in different ways depending on our circumstances and our reactions, or that we are fundamentally corrupted by the Fall and without innocence or hope from the very beginning?

In psychological/sociological terms: Do you think that the harm we suffer or do is avoidable, or the inevitable result of our nurture, or the inevitable result of our nature?

Is it anti-war or pro-war or pre-war or indifferent-to-war or post-war or just a boy on a rocking horse?

Aside from these slightly heavy puzzles and provocations, it is an absolutely beautiful object, a joy to behold! And if you want to forget all the references to war and corruption and the Fall and just enjoy it as a celebration of the innocence of childhood – that’s fine…

Some words from Mark Brown’s article:

The 4.1-metre golden boy was unveiled on the fourth plinth on Thursday to whoops, aahhs and confused looks from foreign tourists in passing coaches. The reaction from Scandinavian artists Elmgreen & Dragset was one of immense relief.

“You’re not allowed to make tests, so it is a bit of a gamble,” said Ingar Dragset. “It’s installed the night before – it’s nerve-racking.”

The boy’s formal name is Powerless Structures, Fig 101, and he sits on top of a plinth designed to host a bronze equestrian statue of William IV by Sir Charles Barry, which was never installed.

More than 170 years later the boy becomes the latest in a series of contemporary art commissions that has included Marc Quinn’s pregnant Alison Lapper and, most recently, Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle by Yinka Shonibare.

The statue was unveiled by Joanna Lumley who said she was thrilled to be revealing what was a “completely unthreatening and adorable creature” to the public.

Lumley said the plinth was great because it gets people talking. “What I love about this plinth, which is extraordinary because it’s empty, is that everybody is waiting to see what comes next … and everybody becomes an instant art critic. Everybody knows what should be there, what’s better than last time, what’s marvellous, what’s wonderful, what’s dreadful.”

Michael Elmgreen said it was deliberate that you have to walk around the square to meet the boy’s eyes and to see his expression – he is looking away from George IV “because he is afraid of him”.

While the other statues in the square celebrate power, this work celebrates growing up. He is a “more sensitive and fragile creature looking to the future”, said Elmgreen. The hope is that it might encourage people to consider less spectacular events in their lives, ones which are often the most important.

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Following on from the Elephant Parade two years ago, when over 250 brightly painted life-size elephants were displayed throughout London, multicoloured eggs have been appearing around the city as part of the Faberge Big Egg Hunt. Despite the apparent ‘commercialisation’ (I mean sponsorship), I was excited about the idea and longing to get my first sighting.

The problem is that the eggs simply aren’t big enough. They are not so much ‘public works of art’ (as the elephants were), but ‘works of art that happen to be displayed in public’. Maybe the criticism is unfair, and it reflects my own unrealistic expectations. But I went in expecting something as stunning and provocative and bold as the elephants.

They are about two and a half feet tall, mainly on a podium or even in a display case. Some of them lovely objects, but none quite huge enough for the full, glorious impactful ridiculousness of having gigantic coloured eggs scattered around London. How tall would they need to be, in my humble opinion?At least four feet, maybe five. Six would be getting a bit scary…

So yes, it’s a fun venture, a nice addition to London life, a pleasant distraction, and I’m sure it’s all for good cause. But it could have been so much more!

What do you think? Am I being churlish?

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The Guardian asked various artists, playwrights, musicians, dancers, etc. to give their top tips for ‘unleashing your inner genius’. Take a look here. It’s a great way to decide on some new year resolutions if you wish you could be more creative and adventurous over the coming year, even if the only ‘canvas’ you have to paint on is the day ahead of you

Here are some of my highlighs:

Guy Garvey, musician:

Spending time in your own head is important…

Just start scribbling. The first draft is never your last draft. Nothing you write is by accident.

Don’t be scared of failure.

The best advice I’ve ever had came about 20 years ago from Mano McLaughlin, one of Britain’s best songwriters. “The song is all,” he said, “Don’t worry about what the rest of the music sounds like: you have a responsibility to the song.” I found that really inspiring: it reminded me not to worry about whether a song sounds cool, or fits with everything we’ve done before – but just to let the song be what it is.

Mark-Anthony Turnage, composer:

Forget the idea that inspiration will come to you like a flash of lightning. It’s much more about hard graft.

Find a quiet studio to work in. Shostakovich could not have composed with the telly on.

Try to find a studio with more than one window. I work best when I have windows in two walls, for some reason; maybe it is because there is more light. At the moment, I’m working in a room with no windows. It’s not going well at all.

If you get overexcited by an idea, take a break and come back to it later. It is all about developing a cold eye with which to look over your own work.

Rupert Goold, director:

The best ideas are tested by their peaks and troughs. One truly great  image or scene astride a broken mess is more intriguing than a hundred well-made cliches.

Once you have an idea, scrutinise the precedent. If no one has explored it before in any form then you’re 99% likely to be making a mistake. But that 1% risk is why we do it.

Make sure you are asking a question that is addressed both to the world around you and the world within you. It’s the only way to keep going when the doubt sets in.

An idea is just a map. The ultimate landscape is only discovered when it’s under foot, so don’t get too bogged down in its validity.

Love the effect over its cause.

Isaac Julien, artist:

I have a magpie attitude to inspiration: I seek it from all sorts of sources; anything that allows me to think about how culture comes together. I’m  always on the lookout – I observe people in the street; I watch films, I read, I think about the conversations that I have. I consider the gestures people use, or the colours they’re wearing. It’s about taking all the little everyday things and observing them with a critical eye; building up a scrapbook which you can draw on. Sometimes, too, I look at other artworks or films to get an idea of what not to do.

Lucy Prebble, playwright:

Act it out yourself. Draw the curtains.

If ever a character asks another character, “What do you mean?”, the scene needs a rewrite.

Feeling intimidated is a good sign. Writing from a place of safety produces stuff that is at best dull and at worst dishonest.

Write backwards. Start from the feeling you want the audience to have at the end and then ask “How might that happen?” continually, until you have a beginning.

Break any rule if you know deep inside that it is important.

Susan Philipsz, artist:

If you have a good idea, stick to it. Especially if realising the project is a long and demanding process, try to keep true to the spirit of the initial idea.

Daydream. Give yourself plenty of time to do nothing. Train journeys are good.

Keep it simple.

Be audacious.

It doesn’t always have to make sense.

Polly Morgan, artist:

Don’t wait for a good idea to come to you. Start by realising an average idea – no one has to see it. If I hadn’t made the works I’m ashamed of, the ones I’m proud of wouldn’t exist.

Be brief, concise and direct. Anyone who over-complicates things is at best insecure and at worst stupid. Children speak the most sense and they haven’t read Nietzsche.

Don’t try to second-guess what people will want to buy. Successful artists have been so because they have shown people something they hadn’t imagined. If buyers all knew what they wanted before it had been made, they could have made it themselves, or at least commissioned it.

Don’t be afraid to scrap all your hard work and planning and do it differently at the last minute. It’s easier to hold on to an idea   because you’re afraid to admit you were wrong than to let it go.

Ian Rickson, director:

You cannot overprepare. Enjoy being as searching and thorough as possible before you begin, so you can be as free as possible once you’ve started.

Lots of this, of course, can be applied to preaching. In fact, wouldn’t our preaching take off if we really took some of this to heart (and kept praying and meditating on the scriptures and deepening our faith etc…).

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I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love and treasure books. I still have the first book I ever possessed: a pocket King James Bible, given to me on the day of my baptism by my maternal grandparents. I still have the first book I remember ‘reading’ (meaning ‘looking at’ or ‘being read to me’): an illustrated life of St Francis of Assisi for children. And, by the way, the most recent book I bought was Volume 3 of the Collected Works of St Teresa of Avila – ordered on Amazon on Monday evening. I suppose there is a religious thread here…

When I was old enough to get the train to London on my own I spent hours in the second-hand bookshops around Camden Town and Charing Cross Road, snapping up all the hippie books that were de riguere for any self-respecting teenager at the time – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Rules for Radicals, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, The Tao of Physics, The Faber Book of Modern Verse, etc. This is what formed me! But even while I was hunting out paperback bargains to sit under my Athena posters, I had one covetous eye on the small collection of Folio Society books that sat in the corner of every bookshop.

They were and still are the most beautiful books in the world. The covers, the binding, the print, the paper, the illustrations. And the box cases, with that distinctive curve at the front edges so you can pull the book out without having to shake it. Every one a work of art.

I dreamt of having a whole library of Folio Books. I own one now, Augustine’s Confessionswhich I blogged about last year. The second-hand bookshop round the corner here in Chelsea has its own Folio Society shelf – I might pop round tomorrow and see what I can find.

I write all this simply because there is a feature on the Guardian website about Folio books – more an advertisement really. But it does give a glimpse of what delights exist behind the covers – a taster for anyone who hasn’t come across them before. Here is the main feature. Here are ten classics, with examples of their illustrations. Here is the Folio Society site itself.

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You know about my love of prehistoric cave paintings. The famous images at Chauvet were painted over 30,000 years ago – quite a distance in time. This makes it all the more astonishing that painting kits used about 100,000 years ago have been discovered in a cave in South Africa, evidence not just of the production of art and the presence of a symbolic imagination, but also of an ability to mix chemicals and store materials.

Etologic horse study from cave at Chauvet

This is the abstract describing the research in Science.

The conceptual ability to source, combine, and store substances that enhance technology or social practices represents a benchmark in the evolution of complex human cognition. Excavations in 2008 at Blombos Cave, South Africa, revealed a processing workshop where a liquefied ochre-rich mixture was produced and stored in two Haliotis midae (abalone) shells 100,000 years ago. Ochre, bone, charcoal, grindstones, and hammerstones form a composite part of this production toolkit. The application of the mixture is unknown, but possibilities include decoration and skin protection.

Ian Sample comments:

Two sets of implements for preparing red and yellow ochres to decorate animal skins, body parts or perhaps cave walls were excavated at the Blombos cave on the Southern Cape near the Indian Ocean.

The stone and bone tools for crushing, mixing and applying the pigments were uncovered alongside the shells of giant sea snails that had been used as primitive mixing pots. The snails are indigenous to South African waters.

“This is the first known instance for deliberate planning, production and curation of a compound,” Christopher Henshilwood at the University of Bergen told Science, adding that the finding also marked the first known use of containers. “It’s early chemistry. It casts a whole new light on early Homo sapiens and tells us they were probably a lot more intelligent than we think, and capable of carrying out quite sophisticated acts at least 40,000 to 50,000 years before any other known example of this kind of basic chemistry,” he added.

“You could use this type of mixture to prepare animal skins, to put on as body paint, or to paint on the walls of the cave, but it is difficult to be sure how it was used,” said Francesco d’Errico, a study co-author at the University of Bordeaux. “The discovery is a paradox because we now know much better how the pigment was made than what it is used for.”

So we were there, we Homo sapiens, 100,000 years ago – imagining, thinking, planning, cooperating, collecting, mixing, experimenting, storing, painting; and whatever else this painting led into…

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It’s not a great film. And, despite what the reviewers say, the 3D cinematography doesn’t work – the images lose their sharpness, the focus of the eyes never quite stabilises, and you constantly feel that you are in a cinema struggling to see the screen rather than in a French cave dancing with your paleolithic ancestors. (See my previous rant about 3D cinema and the decline of human civilisation.)

But Werner Herzog’s new documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams is still a wonderful way of experiencing the Chauvet paintings ‘at first hand’. I think I’ve seen reproductions of them before (although perhaps I’m muddling them up with the images from Lascaux). They are astonishingly beautiful. The YouTube trailer above gives you some good glimpses of the main walls – and without the 3D!

What struck me in the film was their size. They are huge! The fact that there was no space to hide the film crew actually helped, because you kept being reminded of the scale of the paintings – the sound man bobbing in and out of the images with his boom like the stone-age hunters with their spears.

In one sense it’s breathtaking that the images are so old. That’s what makes them interesting - beyond their artistic merit alone. This is just one manifestation of ‘the cognitive leap’, when modern human beings ‘emerged’ (whatever that means) onto the scene, and began to paint, decorate, adorn themselves, make musical instruments, honour their dead, and carve those well-known Venus figurines.

Yet in another sense, why should it astonish us? It seems to be the beginnings of what we would call civilisation, or modern human culture, but as far as we know these Cro-Magnons, these Early Modern Humans, were just like us – the same species, the same human nature. And human beings paint.

So the fact that you walk into a cave hidden for 30,000 years and discover a painting of a horse that looks just like one of Franz Marc’s (one of my favourite painters) shouldn’t surprise us. But it does. And they are astonishing. As is Franz Marc.

Children's interpretations of Franz Marc

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Take at look at this YouTube demo for Google’s Art Project, which uses high-definition photography and Street View technology to allow you to walk around some of the world’s great galleries and put your nose right up against the pictures. You can see the detail better than you could with your unaided natural sight.

Jonathan Jones blogs about the project here:

This is a revolutionary age. New innovations change the way we communicate, think and live, and at breakneck speed. What happens to history in such a time? The Google Art Project offers a glorious and exhilarating answer: in this century, it seems, high art will be more accessible and more beautifully available to more people than ever before.

For this virtual tour of great museum collections, contemporary work can be seen among world art treasures – all photographed in magical detail…

You can home in on Seurat’s paintings in New York’s Museum of Modern Art so closely that you can study the dots that create his dappled effects in colossal focus. Only a visit to the museum itself would give a comparable intimacy – and even then you might need to take a magnifying glass.

If it is the high-definition photography of paintings that makes this such a radical moment in the history of art reproduction, the project’s Google Street View-style tours of galleries are not to be sniffed at either. I was able to stroll, on screen, through the rooms of the Uffizi gallery as if I were there in Florence, then focus on favourite pictures – getting a powerful sense of their physical reality, their frames and their scale – before switching to the macroscopic pictures of isolated works…

Google’s Art Project is a profoundly enriching encounter, one that really starts to break down the difference between viewing a reproduction and seeing it in the flesh. It deserves to succeed.

You see everything, but somehow you don’t see all that you wish you could. It’s mysterious – what is it that’s missing on the screen even when you can see more than you could see if you were there yourself? Perhaps it’s a question of monitor size. If I had a 2 metre high-definition monitor on my wall I might feel differently. I’m not sure.

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If you are looking for something intelligent and thought-provoking to read on the net, and haven’t yet discovered it, then visit Arts & Letters Daily - an ‘aggregator’ that collects the best articles in the fields of:

Philosophy, aesthetics, literature, language, ideas, criticism, culture, history, music, art, trends, breakthroughs, disputes, gossip.

Dennis Dutton, it’s founder, died a few weeks ago. This is from an obituary by Margarit Fox.

Professor Dutton was perhaps best known to the public for Arts & Letters Daily, which he founded in 1998. The site is a Web aggregator, linking to a spate of online articles about literature, art, science, politics and much else, for which he wrote engaging teasers. (“Can dogs talk? Kind of, says the latest scientific research. But they tend to have very poor pronunciation,” read his lead-in to a 2009 Scientific American article.)

Long before aggregators were commonplace, Arts & Letters Daily had developed an ardent following. A vast, labyrinthine funnel, the site revels in profusion, diversion, digression and, ultimately, the interconnectedness of human endeavor of nearly every sort, a “Tristram Shandy” for the digital age.

As one of the first people to recognize the power of the Web to facilitate intellectual discourse, Professor Dutton was hailed as being among “the most influential media personalities in the world,” as Time magazine described him in 2005.

Arts & Letters Daily, which was acquired by The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2002, currently receives about three million page views a month. The site is expected to continue publishing, Phil Semas, The Chronicle’s president and editor in chief, said in a statement on Tuesday.

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There’s a wonderful exhibition at the Royal Academy, running until the end of January. I’d never heard of the Glasgow Boys before, but I was struck by one of the posters on the tube, and found the time to go this week.

These comments are from the Royal Academy website, where you can also find the opening times, etc.

The Royal Academy of Arts presents the first major exhibition in London for over 40 years to celebrate the achievement of the Glasgow Boys, the loosely knit group of young painters who created a stir at home and abroad in the final decades of the nineteenth century.

The exhibition features over 80 oil paintings, watercolours and pastels from public and private collections by such artists as Guthrie, Lavery, Melville, Crawhall, Walton, Henry and Hornel. Together they presented a new art, which had a major impact at home and abroad in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. The resultant works were, from c. 1880 to 1900, among the most experimental and ambitious to be produced in the UK.

Taking inspiration from such French Naturalist painters as Bastien-Lepage and also from Whistler, the Glasgow Boys produced some of the most revolutionary painting in Britain, drawing praise in London, Munich, Vienna and further afield. Their symbolist pictures were admired and emulated in secessionist circles in Germany and Austria.

The exhibition maps the Glasgow Boys’ responses in both subject matter and technique to developments in art which were taking place in Paris in the 1870s and 1880s. These artists sought to liberate their art from the staid, dark toned narrative paintings being produced in Glasgow and Edinburgh in order to explore the effects of realist subject matter and the particular effects of light captured through working out of doors, directly in front of the motif.

The themes of the earlier works were certainly naturalistic, but many of the figures had a formality and stillness that reminded me of the paintings of Piero della Francesca.

Here are people caught up in the most ordinary activities (waiting for a ferry, digging potatoes, walking home from the fields), yet somehow involved in a hidden ritual, a carefully choreographed dance – as if their inner poise resulted from an assurance that they had a place in a larger order. Something contemplative about them. I don’t think this is just the artist (or myself) romanticising rural life. I think it’s about a human dignity that has been rendered visually through the individual compositions.

And I loved the colours. As maymay1 commented on the Guardian website (see below): “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many beautiful shades of green.”

There are interesting reviews here from the Guardian, and the Telegraph; and you can see a slide show here of eight of the pictures.

It’s well worth seeing.

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Why is it that tourists want to see Michelangelo’s Pietá in St Peter’s Basilica and Leonardo’s Mona Lisa in the Louvre, but show little interest in searching out other staggering works by the same artists just a few minutes away? Only certain stellar works have this mysterious power to attract huge crowds.

Tourists in St Peter's Basilica, Rome

Martin Gayford thinks it’s because contemporary cultural tourism is not about our appreciation for art or the pleasure we take in visiting new places, it’s about a raw obligation we feel to pay homage to certain objects, and to tell ourselves and others that we have fulfilled this obligation. He recalls standing in front of the Pietá:

Around me there broke a ceaseless tide of humanity. Some, a minority, simply looked at it, one touching family — from, I think, South America — holding tiny children up to gaze at the distant Madonna with her dead son. Most simply took a photograph, often on their mobile phones. As I stood there, a burly American shouldered his way forward, bent on displacing a small man of East Asian appearance who was busily snapping on his iPhone, and as he did so he assertively barked out, ‘Next!’

He had, I realised, understood precisely what was going on. This mêlée in which we were jammed together had nothing to do with art appreciation. It was a queue to take a photograph. The urgency of the desire to capture the famous object on your camera makes it nearly impossible to contemplate. Every day at the height of the season, thousands of pictures are taken of this object, all largely identical and all bad — since it is impossible to get a good image of a work like this from 20 feet away through glass.

Gayford notes the suffering that the tourists have endured to get this close to the sculpture: the Roman heat, the queues, the airport-type security. It’s like Dante’s Inferno.

But in a way, modern tourists are more like pilgrims than the damned. They share the same focus on a few closely defined sights. I saw a similar torrent of humankind — indeed much greater — at the shrine of the eighth Shia Imam at Mashhad in eastern Iran, all bent on getting to the grill that surrounds his tomb. Once there — a place too sacred for unbelievers to intrude — they cling on to ironwork, which is worn away steadily by their touch so that every few decades it has to be replaced.

The contemporary tourist-pilgrim must visit Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling, ‘Pietà’, and ‘Moses’, just as in France they must form a crocodile round the flower beds of Monet’s garden at Giverny, or in Egypt sweat it out at the Pyramids of Giza. Enjoyment has little to do with it.

The mystery, perhaps an insoluble one, is what anyone gets out of mass cultural tourism. The appeal of other varieties of popular travel — the beach, the pool, the ski slope — is obvious enough. But what satisfaction can be found in pounding round hot and packed streets, probably following a guide with a little flag, and stopping at certain points to take a photograph of something the appearance of which is completely familiar to almost everybody alive in the first place?

The difference between modern tourists and the visitors to shrines and relics is that religious pilgrims get some spiritual benefit — at its most concrete, so many years less to spend in Purgatory, a step towards salvation. Whereas the 21st-century, postmodern tourist gets nothing but a digital photograph, perhaps to be posted on a social-networking site sometime later. As a reward for the expense, the weariness, the sunburn, the boredom, the hours spent at airports and in coaches, the sore feet, the headaches, it just doesn’t seem enough.

It’s the same for me whenever there is a new ‘five-star’ exhibition in London. Yes, a genuine excitement, but also a sense of obligation, and a fear that if I miss it this will be a failure of duty, and I will be forever relegated to the ranks of the culturally unwashed – those who were simply ‘not there’. Our language reflects this, when we talk about a ‘must see’ event.

I’m getting better at saying to myself ‘What would you actually like to see this afternoon? What would you enjoy?’ Perhaps this is just part of growing up.

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In my previous post I used a photo of some London graffiti by Banksy to illustrate the theme of surveillance. It’s of a child painting an enormous political slogan about Big Brother society on a wall that is being scanned by a real CCTV camera! (See the images below.)

This is how he did it:

Banksy pulled off an audacious stunt to produce what is believed to be his biggest work yet in central London.

The secretive graffiti artist managed to erect three storeys of scaffolding behind a security fence despite being watched by a CCTV camera.

Then, during darkness and hidden behind a sheet of polythene, he painted this comment on ‘Big Brother’ society.

Yesterday the scaffolding gang returned to remove all evidence – again without the camera operator stopping them.

The work, above a Post Office yard in Newman Street near Oxford Circus, shows a small boy, watched by a security guard, painting the words: ‘One nation under CCTV.’

Andrew Newman, 35, a businessman from Dulwich, who works locally, said: ‘It was only on Sunday morning that the Post Offices guys realised what had happened.’

One nation under CCTV by David Boyle.

And then, of course, it got removed, and the camera could get on with its business again:

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It’s six months since I started the blog — so I’ve kept my resolution, and seen this experimental period through to its end.

I won’t give another profound reflection here on the nature of blogging, the transformation of human identity wrought by the internet, the psychology of self-doubt experienced whenever the stats page opens up, etc. This is just to say that I’ve decided to keep going and see where it all ends up.

I thought of changing the name to ‘Bridges, Tangents, and Piers’. I was in Llandudno this morning; a beautiful seaside town on the north Wales coast. It’s got one of those classic British piers, beloved of so many childhood holidays.

Llandudno Pier by Welshdan.

Llandudno pier

As a child, for me, piers were up there with bridges and tangents as objects of fascination and awe. I suppose a pier is quite literally a bridge to nowhere, a tangent caressing the curvature of the earth’s surface. It’s a suspension of disbelief — walking on water, gliding with the seagulls, and for just a moment believing you could keep walking and step out into the beyond.

My first ever screenprint for O-level art was a pier. The first layer of ink created a dark and slightly frightening latticework of pillars and crossbeams reaching down into the waves. And then in the next layer of colour, leaping from the end of the pier, was an Icarus-type figure — his wings splayed behind him like an angel, caught in that split second of uncertainty before he discovers whether he will sink or soar.

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The art of drawing lies more in being able to see the world as it is than in having any special technical ability with the pen or pencil. This was the idea put forward at an exhibition I went to last week of the New English Art Club.

It runs like the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition: Any artist can submit their own work. They pay a small fee, face a panel of judges, and see if they are lucky. A friend from my home parish was delighted to have one of her collograph prints accepted (see it here) - and so I got an invitation to the private view.

The New English Art Club is committed to figurative art. There is a range of media and styles, and not every work contains the human figure; but they are all realist works that have some recognisable subject.

drawing in colors by Bern@t.

The reflection on ‘seeing’ came as one of the members did a plug for the classes put on by the New English Drawing School. What he said applies to writing and thinking as much as drawing. I’m paraphrasing from memory:

We teach people to draw what they see, and this involves an education in seeing. We teach people to look, to concentrate. People have to be trained to pay attention and to notice things. When children come to the classes I don’t sit them down on the floor with a sheet of paper and a big stick of charcoal and tell them to express themselves. They are already very good at expressing themselves! Instead, I teach them to observe what is there, to make distinctions within their field of vision, and then to put this down on paper. The rest will follow.

The exhibition is well worth a visit – it runs until 7th December. It’s at the Mall Galleries in London, on the Mall, at the end near to Trafalgar Square.

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Kate Wong brings us up-to-date on the latest research into the Neandertals in this month’s issue of Scientific American.

I’ve always been fascinated by ‘Neandertal Man’ as he/she used to be called. We think about what it would be like to meet aliens. (Well, I think about what it would be like to meet aliens!) Would we be able to communicate? Would we be able to understand each other? Yet here in our own back yard, in Europe and the Near East and much of Asia, modern human beings were living side-by-side with another hominid form, meeting and presumably trying to communicate, only 30,000 years ago. I refrained from saying ‘another human species’ because the great and still unresolved question is whether we belonged to distinct species, and whether or not modern humans and Neandertals could interbreed. And despite the theories about genocide (by humans), climate change, and diet – we still don’t know why they became extinct about 28,000 years ago.

Grottes de Lascaux II by davidmartinpro.It seems that they had jewellery and bone tools and made sophisticated weapons; but modern human beings had the edge – in their social organisation, in the efficiency of their physique, and in their sheer intelligence and creativity. ‘The boundary between Neandertals and moderns has gotten fuzzier’, writes Christopher B. Stringer – but there is still a boundary. There is something radical and new about human intelligence, a leap and not just a lurch, that gives rise to art, creativity, sophisticated language, morality, and some more reflective kind of self-consciousness. And, interestingly, one of the key markers for paleoanthropologists is the emergence for the first time among human beings of symbolic customs surrounding the burial of the dead. Human intelligence seems to go hand in hand with an appreciation of the significance of death.

Neandertals, we presume, in some way asked questions about how to live; human beings, as far as we can tell, are the only creatures to ask questions about the meaning of that living, and the possibility of living beyond death.

Prehistoric Painting by Klearchos Kapoutsis.

[A wonderful book that first got me interested in human uniqueness in relation to Neandertals is Becoming Human by Ian Tattersall, OUP 1998. It's probably a bit old now, but it is still in print]

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