A sonic sculptural wrapping: Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet at Tate Modern

Guest review by Doug Thomas

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Gavin Bryars

In 1971, the British composer Gavin Bryars looped the recording of an unknown homeless man singing what was thought to be the religious hymn “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” over a dense minimalistic orchestral arrangement. The result is a mesmerising musical experience; first limited to twenty-five minutes on LP, then sixty minutes on cassette and finally seventy-four minutes with the CD version. Unfortunately, it appears that the old man never heard Bryars’ composition – and the composer himself later came to conclusion that the hymn had actually been improvised by the unknown man. Last Friday, 12th April 2019, a handful of lucky people gathered in the Tanks at London’s Tate Modern to experience for the very first time for a full twelve-hour live performance of the piece.

The event, scheduled at eight in the evening and running until the early morning, was organised so that the audience could stay for the entire duration of the concert, but with constant open doors to allow people to come and go throughout the night. Contrary to Max Richter’s eight hour lullaby “Sleep”, no beds had been arranged; actually no seating had been arranged at all. The audience spontaneously sat, and later lay down, in a semi-circle in front of the orchestras, while some people stood up and moved around, as one would do in a museum room. The orchestras were the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Southbank Sinfonia and the Gavin Bryars Ensemble (including my arranging teacher at university, Audrey Riley). On the side of the orchestras, Street Wise Opera, a choir of people with experience of homelessness, and in the middle of all that, on contrabass and later on the conductor’s seat, Gavin Bryars himself.

The piece started quite spontaneously with no announcement or introduction. And then something happened. To the words of the old man’s voice and the sweetness of the instruments, the entire audience remained silent and immovably mesmerised. Stanza after stanza, the instruments introduced themselves, then the choir started singing. There was the beauty of the music, the honesty of the musicians and the singers, the admiration and attentiveness of the audience. When I checked the time, I realised that what felt like minutes had actually been hours. Throughout the night, members of the orchestra took turns in performing while part of the audience remained, as night owls, until the early morning.

Everything about this experience was right. The venue, which broke with the austere standards of classical concerts venues, and allowed everyone to come, and go. The spontaneous audience: musicians, curious wanderers or simple art and music lovers. The performers: amateurs and professionals gathered around a communal sense of honesty and authenticity. And of course, the music. What had always seemed to me like a beautiful two-dimensional musical painting became a sonic sculptural wrapping, and a unique musical experience. How lucky I feel to have been a little piece of history of minimalistic music.


Doug Thomas is a French composer and artist based in London.

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Munch’s Scream Revisited at the British Museum

 

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The Sick Child by Edvard Munch 1885

You wouldn’t wish Edvard Munch’s childhood on your worst enemy. Munch was brought up in Kristiania (as Oslo then was) in a strict Lutheran family in the second half of the 19th century. Aged five, Munch lost his mother to TB and nearly succumbed to the same illness himself eight years later. As he lay on his bed coughing up blood aged thirteen, his father, a medical officer, told him to prepare for death. Severals years later, his beloved older sister was the next victim to die of consumption in their family. 

Most understandably, Munch escaped this house of doom as soon as he could. His art studies and student life put him in touch with local bohemian circles. What a breath of life-affirming air that must have been even if it meant teaming up with the local nihilist who advocated suicide as an affirming fingers up to society!

Munch survived and took to drinking, brawling and tortuous love affairs. Like a modern-day Instagrammer, Munch transformed his personal life into an art form.

The prints on show at the British Museum are the products of the formative years he spent in Kristiania, Berlin and Paris, right up until the end of WW1. 

Love is the overriding theme. The Kiss (1895) shows a naked couple in passionate embrace by a window with the curtains drawn back. Their complete disregard for privacy shows the all consuming aspect of love which ignores any rules of propriety. It’s Rodin’s passionate Kiss statue taken one step further. A wood cut alongside the print, repeats the theme but this time the couple is fused together, into a twisted opaque block. The print in this instance has become an abstract work.

 

 

 

 

The Kiss

 

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 In Vampire II a red-haired woman buries her face into her male lover’s neck. Her long strands spill over his shoulder, his hair and face. The print was originally called Love and Pain. Women as seductresses and destroyers of men was a familiar theme with artists at the time and it was one which proved popular with the art-buyers.

Meanwhile in Madonna, a bare-breasted woman, stripped to the waist, is presented as a life-bearing vessel. A strange foetus peers out at you in the bottom-left hand corner and swimming sperm inhabit the frame. The swirling paint making up the background is reminiscent of Van Gogh, who Munch much admired. It is interesting to note that in 2010, a Madonna print attained the highest price ever recorded in the UK £1.25 million, double its estimated value.

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The Americans and Europeans have been great collectors of Munch prints and we can see why. The emotion they ignite in the viewer is immediate.

Jealousy for instance below. The bespectacled  man in the foreground stares out pale-faced at us, encased in a black background. His eyes express the shock and despair of one’s first encounter with sexual betrayal. It is a magnificent portrayal of perhaps the most destructive of emotions.

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Other prints depict other violent states of mind: madness, despair, separation and illness. All universally potent themes.Most moving was one of the few paintings in the exhibition showing a young woman lying, pale-faced and in profile against her pillow (see Title heading). Her mother, head bowed and hands clasped prays at her bedside. The print version is even more harrowing. The young woman, still in profile, is alone now staring out at death. It’s a haunting image for any adult to behold. Munch returned to the image of his consumptive sister often.

Unknown-1The British Museum prints on show make up part of the collection that Munch called The Frieze of Life.

Probably the most arresting and most notorious image he produced in this collection was the iconic Skrik (Shriek), or The Scream. The skull-like being holding his ears with his mouth wide-open caused a furore in Munch’s Berlin solo show. He was forced to wrap up his canvases and prints after only a week! The young artists however loved it as you would imagine they would latch on to anything so radically new and unsettling. 

The print in the exhibition is a rare, black and white lithograph. It includes a faint inscription, absent in the colour versions: ’I felt a great Scream pass through nature.’ Nature seen as the screamer puts a whole new slant on things and sends a chill through me now.

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Munch was very much buoyed by the controversy sparked off by The Scream at his Berlin show. He knew that such adverse publicity would launch him in the art world and he wasn’t wrong.

 

 

KH

 

The exhibition Edvard Munch: love and angst will run to 21 July 2019 in the Sir Joseph Hotung Great Court Gallery at the British Museum.

Mary Quant retrospective at the V&A

The Victoria & Albert Museum always excels in its presentation of fashion – from the memorable Vivien Westwood exhibition back in 2004 to Balenciaga (2017) and the current blockbuster Dior show. Smaller in scale than the lavish Dior exhibition, but no less significant, this is the first international retrospective of iconic fashion designer Mary Quant, who, like Dior before her, shaped fashion and social mores for a new generation. Her colourful, witty clothes challenged conventions, encouraging women to abandon the traditional, ultra-feminine and often restrictive clothing of their mothers and grandmothers, and liberated them, literally and metaphorically, at a time when feminism and gender identity were of huge significance to many women (and men too) and social commentators. And by making her clothes accessible and affordable, she democratised fashion, prompting a retail revolution on the high street that has had a lasting impact today.

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Mary Quant at her apartment in Draycott Place, Chelsea, London, about 1965. Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

Quant herself personified the energy and fun of swinging London in the 1960s and as a successful designer and businesswoman, with a keen eye for promotion and the creation of a distinct corporate identity, she continually responded to and reflected the zeitgeist. She herself was the greatest ambassador for her brand, with her chic Vidal Sassoon haircut which matched the playful simplicity of her clothes.

The exhibition is organised chronolgically, beginning in post-war London and the opening in 1955 of Quant’s experimental shop Bazaar on the King’s Road. School girl pinafores and masculine tailoring, wittily “repurposed” for the female body, brought an entertaining and playful slant to fashion, at a time when dreary wartime utility clothing and clothes rationing were an all too recent memory. From these modest beginnings, Quant’s empire grew quickly into a wholesale brand available in department stores across the UK – the antithesis of couture and the beginning of mass-market fashion. With the widening of her empire into the US market, Quant’s clothing was accessible to a new generation of eager fashionistas.

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Three patterned ensembles, Mary Quant, 1964 – 1971, London ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In addition to the fashion displays, with many items drawn from the V&A’s own Mary Quant archive, there are photographs, films and other ephemera which set the clothing and the brand in context. Many of the outfits are displayed with a note about who owned and wore then, further connecting them to a real people rather than the couturier’s poker-faced mannequin. There are also displays of Quant’s make up range, with her iconic daisy logo, and the Daisy doll, her rival to Barbie, who wore doll-sized versions of some of Quant’s most recognisable clothes, from mini skirts and hot pants to baby doll dresses or full-length boho gowns.

It’s an enjoyable and uplifting show, and refreshing to note that few of the outfits on display appear dated; many of the shapes and styles, fabrics and tailoring are found in today’s fashion – especially fast-fashion – proof of both the enduring nature of “good” , democratic fashion, and Quant’s forward-looking artistic and business vision.

Until 16 February 2020, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Further information


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A Riveting Ripper at the Coliseum

 

'Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel' Opera by Iain Bell performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK

Jack the Ripper’s frenzied killing spree in Victorian London has never ceased to fascinate and appall. 

Iain Bell, composer of the ambitious new opera of the same name, and his librettist Emma Jenkins, decided, when creating their new work, to rid the stage of his presence altogether and to focus instead on the Ripper’s female victims, the women of Whitechapel.

In the opera Jack exists merely in song, most memorably in the scene with the Pathologist, when Ripper’s grisly acts are revealed in minute detail.

The curtain rose on a doss house, resembling both prison and morgue, with its macabre drawers and recesses. The higher drawers slid back and out popped a row of heads belonging to Victorian undertakers in top hats, like clients at a peep show. 

Surreal yes! This strange scene also reflects the reality of doss houses at that time which not only attracted prostitution but also provided strange bedding arrangements. Ropes were on offer for tuppence a time, for those prepared to flop over them and sleep standing up. Coffin beds were the upgrade for a few pennies more.

What we see on stage are not coffins however but open graves, from which the female occupants rise, like the dead in Stanley Spencer’s famous painting, ‘The Resurrection’.

The stage was so starkly lit that at first we were unable to distinguish the main female protagonists hiding in shadow. Nor could we see who was singing!

The interval was the time to check the cast list so as to make quite sure that we were seeing who we thought we were seeing!

No doubt this was a ploy to show the anonymity of women living in the sprawling slum. In the 1880’s Whitechapel, one-in-four women were obliged to take to the streets when money was short.

I had recognised Natalya Romaniw playing the part of Mary, daughter of Maud, the doss-house proprietress. Romaniw, I am delighted to say, fully embraced her character. Her acting was assured in this opera and her voice – well what a voice it is. Mournful, pitch-perfect, the sort of voice which astounds and moves at once.

Romaniw was really convincing in the role of anxious mother trying to protect her daughter, Magpie, from prostitution.

 

'Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel' Opera by Iain Bell performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UKNatalya Romaniw Ashirah Foster Notice.

It helped too that Romaniw’s stage mother, Maud, was Dame Josephine Barlow, who disturbs in her evil, matriarchal role. (Think Flora Robson in Wuthering Heights with the strict hair bun, wiry figure in black with her cold, dead stare). 

Maud reminds us throughout the opera that she was raped aged eight, (‘the rasp of carpet under my cheek … it is with me always’). Hopelessly damaged, she can only think about herself, her suffering, her pain! 

The confrontational scenes with Romaniw and Barstow were tense, exciting and marvellously dramatic.

But all ‘six little trollops’ (their words not mine) were played convincingly. I particularly enjoyed Liz Stride’s comic character, sung by Susan Bullock. She was a humorous drunk as she belted out, ‘God, I love a fireman!’

'Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel' Opera by Iain Bell performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK

An interesting, and for me, essential part of this opera, was its portrayal of men, who are not all hypocritical, sexual predators. Some are vulnerable.

Nor are all women victims. Maud is the ultimate female abuser. It is she who procures young flesh for the Victorian establishment and who wants her granddaughter to enter the profession so that she can earn her way.

Sometimes the abuser-victim lines were blurred. ’Don’t touch me,’ sang a furious male photographer, who produced erotica, when Catherine, his model (played by Leslie Garrett) tried to seduce him. But he is far from squeaky clean since he provides gory pictures of naked victims to Victorian gentlemen. 

Details like this prevented the opera from being overly simplistic in its conclusions and I applaud Iain Bell for that.

It is true that anonymous black-suited men did regularly flood the stage like  locusts feeding on their female prey. 

Two male outsiders come across as sympathetic to women. Squibby feeds the starving girls with scraps of meat he has put aside in the slaughter house he works in. He does have a motive meanwhile; he is passionately in love with Mary.

 The Writer meanwhile is a young, social reformer who has ended up lodging at the doss-house. He pens a letter to Queen Victoria to alert her to the misery of Whitechapel and its women and also undertakes to educate Magpie, Mary’s daughter. 

Sadly both men are not rewarded for their troubles.

 Alex Otterburn (Squibby) was particularly touching in the scenes in which he played with Mary’s daughter, Magpie.

As for the music itself, it is always difficult to review new music, especially opera. It warrants hearing many times over before it sinks in. All I can say is that Ian Bell’s stark composition really evoked the horrors of the slum. At times, the evil, death march sounds and pace seemed almost too much. Sensibly Bell had added humour and pathos to the mix.

Emma Jenkins’s libretto improved as the opera progressed. At first, there was a little too much telling of what was evident. The libretto firmed up, phrases of suffering were repeated over and over, adding urgency and tension to the piece.

There were moments of beauty and reflection as when Lesley Garrett and Janis Kelly sing a melody full of nostalgic longing: ‘I had a man before… I had a life before,’ with the chorus.

Bell and Jenkins must have felt blessed to have such a stellar cast of sopranos to work with. Indeed all the singers and chorus were excellent – not one bad apple among them!

My most vivid memory of the evening was the drinking song, performed in the friendly Britannia Pub. Its amber-lit, stained-glass window of art and crafts design was  a beacon of warmth in an otherwise living hell. 

In stark contrast, the final scene was visually chilling with its horizon of top hats and Victorian matriarch with black plume rearing up like the Queen of Spades in Tchaikovsky’s opera.

'Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel' Opera by Iain Bell performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK

Dame Josephine Barstow (centre) with chorus

 

All in all a fascinating multi-layered work and a rare opportunity to see six famous sopranos sing under one roof!

 

KH

 

 

Jack The Ripper. The Women of Whitechapel is on for a further 5 performances. 03,05,08, 10 and 12 April at 7.30pm

500 tickets for £20 are available for each performance. 

Stop Press – Tate Britain nails it at last!

 

Here at ArtMuseLondon we’ve been less than enthusiastic about many of the temporary exhibitions that Tate Britain has put on of late. Mayhap some imp of perversity has been loose around Millbank these past few years. How else to explain the questionable curatorial choices, the squandered opportunities, the unmistakable signs of hobby horses being ridden and what has seemed at times like a deliberate policy of obfuscation? Probably the lowest point was the exhibition on the Impressionists in 2017 with virtually no Impressionist paintings in it (and who could forget those ghastly lavender walls?).

However, it’s time to give credit where credit is due, because this new show on Van Gogh and Britain is an absolute corker. Thoroughly immersive, scholarly yet accessible, it does exactly what it says on the tin. Best of all, given that it isn’t intended to be a straightforward Van Gogh survey show, it’s packed to the rafters with Van Goghs.

The show is in two parts. The first half deals with the British connection, focusing on Van Gogh’s prolonged stay in 1873-76; the second examines his posthumous influence on British art.

Vincent Van Gogh arrived in London aged 19 and remained, off and on, for the next three years, doing various short-term jobs. He was fluent in English and read voraciously; Bunyan’s ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ was a favourite book. He also loved George Eliot, Harriet Beecher Stowe and particularly Dickens, all of whom shared his concern for social justice. He was already a great frequenter of art galleries, signing the visitor’s book at Dulwich Picture Gallery on 4 August 1873 – a bank holiday Monday – for example. He hadn’t decided to become an artist yet, although he did include one or two tantalising little sketches in his letters back home, and it wasn’t until almost three years after his return to Holland that he took the plunge.

 

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Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) Sorrowing old man (‘At Eternity’s Gate’) 1890 Oil paint on canvas 810 x 650 mm Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

 

As Tate convincingly demonstrates, however, Vincent may not have been a practicing artist at this stage but he was already thinking like one. The vivid descriptions he gives in his letters to his brother Theo of an autumnal walk along the Thames at Richmond, say, or of a chance storm off the Kent coast, betray the painter’s eye. He was as receptive to Old Master paintings as he was to the art of his own time and London was one of the best places to discover both. What he saw or read about would go into his visual memory bank, often to re-emerge many years later. It’s obvious, for example, once you see them side by side, how much Whistler’s ‘Nocturne: Grey and Gold Westminster Bridge’ laid the ground for Musée d’Orsay’s ‘Starry Night over the Rhone’, 1888 (not the painting that Don McLean sang about, that’s in the Met in New York). Certainly, those early years in London weren’t wasted.

The second half of the show starts with ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’, the exhibition organised by Roger Fry in 1910, which included 20 Van Goghs. Critics of the day tended to employ the ‘artist and madman’ cliché when discussing his work, a disproportionate amount of attention being paid to his time in hospital and to his self-harming as possible triggers for his otherwise unfathomable approach to art. Tate does an excellent job of unravelling how Van Gogh went on to become a recognised modern master even in artistically conservative Britain. so much so that when the first major solo exhibition of his work was held at the Tate in 1947 people queued for hours round the block in the rain.

 

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Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) Starry Night 1888 Oil paint on canvas 725 x 920 mm Paris, Musée d’Orsay Photo (C) RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay) / HervéLewandowski

 

The Bloomsbury and Camden Town artists were probably the ones most directly influenced by Van Gogh but countless others identified strongly with his life and travails (don’t most artists, if they’re honest?). Harold Gilman would begin each painting with a flourish of his brush: ‘À toi, Van Gogh!’. Vanessa Bell and Christopher Wood –  artists with mental health problems of their own – were particularly strong advocates, Wood making a special pilgrimage to Arles in 1927, ‘where Van Gogh, my Van Gogh, painted his best pictures’. This proselytising trend continued into the post-World War II era and the exhibition is rounded off by the series Francis Bacon did inspired by his favourite Van Gogh, ‘The Painter on the Road to Tarascon’.

Earlier, you’ll see Vincent’s famous ‘Sunflowers’ in ‘conversation’ with other flower paintings by the likes of Frank Brangwyn, Winifred Nicholson and David Bomberg. Nowadays the painting normally hangs in the National Gallery but it was originally bought by the Tate and you can read the moving letter written by Van Gogh’s sister-in-law Jo when she was finally persuaded to part with it:

‘For two days I have tried to harden my heart against your appeal. I felt as if I could not bear to separate from the picture I had looked on every day for more than thirty years. But… I know that no picture would represent Vincent in your famous Gallery in a more worthy manner than the “Sunflowers” and that he… would have liked it to be there… it is a sacrifice for the sake of Vincent’s glory’.

 

NM

The EY Exhibition: Van Gogh and Britain until 11 August 2019

Header image: Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) Self-Portrait 1889, Oil paint on canvas 572x 438mm, National Gallery of Art, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney

 

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Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) Path in the Garden of the Asylum 1889 Oil paint on canvas 614 x 504 mm Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light

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The Spanish impressionist artist, Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923), is little known outside of Spain. Half a million flocked to his retrospective at the Prado Museum in 2009. Meanwhile his house in Madrid, now the Sorolla Museum, has become a tourist destination and is best visited, I imagine, out of season.

And yet how strange to think that at the turn of the 20th Century, Sorolla, was considered to be one of the greatest living artists – Monet spoke of him as ‘the master of light’.

Born in Valencia, southern Spain, life for Sorolla had not always been so dandy. He lost both parents to cholera, aged two, and was brought up by a maternal aunt. His love of painting was however encouraged in the early years and following his military service, he managed to gain a scholarship to study painting in Rome.

It took him to Paris in 1885 where he was able to expose himself to contemporary painting. In 1889 he married Clotilde Garcia del Castillo, moved to Madrid and had had three children by her by 1895.

We are told at the exhibition that ‘he was a good family man.’ I admit to feeling my enthusiasm wane a little when I heard the guide say this to a group of journalists. I had just entered a room of domestic portraits and feared that the exhibition might be thereafter a tad dull! True, there was a charming oil canvas of his wife, Clotilde, in bed with Sorolla’s third child. Both mother and child were barely visible snuggling in snow-white sheets and covers.

Clotilde is much in evidence at the show, always impeccably dressed and graceful in hats and long, swirling dresses. By all accounts she stayed beautiful throughout her life.

The second room was infinitely more exciting and was devoted to Sorolla’s social realist works. Another Marguerite (1892) shows a woman clad in black, sitting down in a third-class carriage, her head bowed in shame. Behind her, two civil guards look on. A little light slants through a window, lighting a tiny part of her face, her cloth bag and the bare wooden seat in front. Marguerite, was a slang word for prostitutes in Valencia (Sorolla’s home town) or it could be a reference to the Marguerite in Goethe’s play, Faust, where the woman commits infanticide. The spartan interior conveys all the misery of the situation. It’s a good piece and won him his first Gold Medal in Madrid and then in Chicago.

Unknown-4Even more striking is Sad Inheritance (1899). A monk on a beach leads crippled children (polio victims or perhaps children born of syphilitic parents) to the water to bathe. The huge oil canvas fills a wall. The work is heartrending, the boys so painfully thin and vulnerable in their nakedness. Several are blind and their progression towards the sea is laborious. I returned to this canvas several times. By all accounts Sorolla found the scene distressing and after painting these boys never returned to such a painful subject.

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Other social realist paintings, Sewing the Sail (1896), are more optimistic in outlook. A family gathers around a rolled-out sail. It is early afternoon, the sun filters through the veranda and gathers in the sail’s voluptuous folds. (See Title picture)

Packing Raisins (1900) is an equally lovely, peaceful composition, this time women workers are pictured labouring in a cool interior. Fierce sunlight slants through a window reminding us of its presence.

A room of dark portraits followed. The old master Velasquez was very much in evidence here, especially in Sorolla’s painting of his children – Mis hijos (1904).

A room entitled Sunlight and Sea took my breath away. Monet was right; Sorolla’s mastery of painting light on water is second to none. But it was not only that which struck me. Sorolla, I believe, is one of the few artists, who really know how to paint children. In Boys on the Beach (1909) prepubescent boys lie face down on the sand naked. It is a marvellous composition of harmonising hues: violet (for the shallow waters), straw yellow for a boy’s hair and sand, pink and white for the boys’ glistening skin. In Afternoon at the Beach in Valencia (1904), boys paddle in the shallows towards a back-lit horizon of late afternoon sun. The shimmering composition is nothing short of stunning.

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Sorella painted these beach scenes straight off with no preliminary sketches. It is why the brushwork feels fluid, flowing and natural. They were the highlight of the show.

Between 1911 and 1919, Sorolla was commissioned by the Hispanic Society of America in New York to create a body of mural-like work entitled Vision of Spain.

Room Five in the exhibition contains four large studies of people in traditional costume. Seen separately the canvases have little impact. I only know this because I then searched Sorolla’s Vision of Spain on YouTube and watched a detailed film of what is on show at the Hispanic Society in New York. Only then can you fully appreciate the monumental murals Sorolla produced.

The artist was on the road for 8 years. He exhausted himself carrying out the commission but he was determined to capture a way of life that would soon disappear.

Two world wars and a civil war later, Spain was never quite the same.

Sorolla was long gone, having died in 1923.

His panoramic vision of Spain however lives on now that the National Gallery has taken up his cause.

 

 

KH

 

 

 

Sorolla : Spanish Master of Light runs until 7 July 2019. Sainsbury Wing. National Gallery.

The Sorolla Museum, Madrid, might be worth a visit.

To see Sorolla’s Vision of Spain murals: Hispanic Society of America. Upper Manhattan, New York.

 

 

 

McBurney’s Magic Flute Enchants Again.

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Mozart’s Magic Flute is an unusual opera, full of Viennese slapstick, magic and strange journeys through a fairy-tale landscape.

Emanuel Schikaneder, who wrote the libretto, was a theatre-manager, actor and most importantly, Mozart’s friend. The two relished working together and being both a little strapped for cash in 1791, they strove to create an opera that would be entertaining, comical and meaningful. In other words, it had to have everything. And who better than Mozart to convey all of the above in music!

The tale begins simply. Prince Tamino has fallen for the Queen of the Night’s daughter, Pamina, who has been abducted by the High Priest, Sarastro. Sarastro is using Pamina as a hostage to stop the Queen of Night wreaking havoc upon his people.

Sarastro’s character is interesting. He is both evil, having abducted Pamina, and fair, seeing it his duty to protect his community. Nevertheless, he rules his people with a rod of iron and forces Tamino and Pamina to undergo terrible trials before he allows them to be together.

Is Sarastro good or bad? The truth is, he is both. This is exactly what makes this opera so endlessly fascinating.

This is Simon McBurney’s 3rdstab at The Magic Flute since its first outing in 2013 so he has had plenty of practice with this enigmatic narrative and has earned huge acclaim for the fruits of his labour.

The staging is of course superb. You would expect this with McBurney. It is not so complex as to detract from the singing. The direction is fluid, lucid and funny.  Michael Levine’s drawbridge stage design is simple and very effective: hoisted and tilted at an awkward angle it symbolises the character’s psychological turmoil; raised up, it becomes the neon-lit roof of Sarastro’s priestly sanctum. Laid flat it is becomes the high priest’s meeting table.

Special visual projections and sound effects enliven the bare scenery. They are a speciality of McBurney. Most memorable is Papageno’s trial of silence where Papageno’s footsteps and scrunching sweet wrappers are amplified to great comic effect.

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Thomas Olieman’s Papageno was a triumph on the night. Not for the first time I hear. Olieman knows how to appear deliciously absurd or touchingly tragic. His wish to hang himself (because he has no love) is shocking in amongst all the horseplay. Olieman’s marvellous baritone voice seemed happy singing comedy or tragedy. It is clearly a role made for him.

Meanwhile, Lucy Crowe, playing Pamina, was entrancing. Her crystalline, lyrical soprano, enraptured the audience and the pairing with Rupert Charlesworth taking up his first ENO leading role as Tamino, worked like a dream. Their voices melded together beautifully and Charlesworth was convincing as her princely paramour.

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The baddies in the piece were equally good. German soprano, Julia Bauer, making her house debut as The Queen of Night, was a menacing presence in her wheel chair as she held out her knife to her daughter and asked her to kill Sarastro. In the famous, “I’ll have revenge, no longer can I bear it”, her staccato coloratura skills and her four top F’s showed her remarkable vocal control, but she never lost sight of her malevolent, witchy character. Meanwhile, Brindley Sherratt had gravitas as the powerful Sarastro and Daniel Norman, was very creepy as the sexual deviant, Monostatos.

Most bewitching were the three Genii (see title photograph) sent to guide Tamano and Papageno along their journey.  ‘The three boys’, who trotted along with their canes, their long, white hair standing up on end, looked as they had just walked out of a Tolkien novel. Their vocals were brilliantly ethereal, discordant and bizarrely beautiful.

It is rare to be presented with such a perfect operatic production. ENO is having a good run at the moment. Of course McBurney, the singers and orchestra had good material to play with in the first place. But from start to finish, McBurney’s direction not only makes sense but it flows effortlessly. No lulls in this Magic Flute. The special effects provide the necessary magic intrinsic to the work.

And what of Tamano and Papagano? They are not only saved by the power of love. The magic flute and chimes protect them from evil spells. Music becomes their salvation. And strange friends along the way, some with questionable morals, become their mentors and guides. It’s a topsy-turvy world in The Magic Flute, one which we all know too well.

 

 

KH

 

The ‘Magic Flute’ continues : 21, 23 and 28 March and 2,9 and 11 April at 7.30pm. 16 March at 6.30pm and 6 April at 3p