The ArtMuseLondon team ventured to Rotherhithe Wednesday night for a fine concert in a most unusual venue – the massive iron shaft down to the Thames tunnel, the first road tunnel under the river, conceived and built by Marc Brunel, and his then unknown son, Isambard Kingdom. Known as the Eighth Wonder of the World, the tunnel – the first in the world under a major river – opened in 1843 and hundreds of thousands of people walked through it in its first weeks. Originally the entrance hall to the tunnel, the shaft later provided ventilation from the steam trains which ran beneath, and many vestiges of its earlier role remain, from the soot-scorched walls with their crumbling stucco to the rumble of Overground trains which now run below in the original tunnel. The space was converted to a performance venue in 2016, complete with a freestanding cantilevered staircase (designed by architects Tate Harmer) of which Brunel, father and son, would be justly proud.
The space has a surprisingly good acoustic – with such a high ceiling it’s akin to a large church – and is atmospherically lit to create an intriguing and intimate concert space. But take a cardigan or wrap as, despite the warm evening, inside the shaft was distinctly chilly!
Formed in 2017, Eos Trio (Angela Najaryan, Paul Evernden and Jelena Makarova) are a violin, clarinet and piano trio, all alumni of the Royal Academy of Music. They have a passion for both new and older repertoire, and their programme for the evening reflected this, beginning with a Sonata by CPE Bach (arranged for their combination of instruments by Paul Evernden), Arvo Pärt’s Frâtres for violin and piano, a new work by Greek composer Dimitris Maragopulos for clarinet and piano, and Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (for which the trio were joined by Canadian cellist Daryl Giuliano).
This was a most interesting concert, and once one’s ears had tuned in to the rather unusual, echoey acoustic and the strange rumblings and other “noises off” from the railway beneath, it proved an absorbing evening of music, sensitively and imaginatively played. Being so close to the music made it all the more powerful, especially the Messiaen, where the stark venue served as a reminder of the place where the Quartet was originally composed and premiered (a German prisoner of war camp). But this concert wasn’t just about the music – the venue was an integral part of the performance, providing a dramatic backdrop to some of the most spiritually profound music of the 20th century.
Monet was born a city-boy, in Paris, but grew up to be the great philosopher-artist of the rural (haystacks) and the bucolic (his lily-pond). Aside from his mirage-like studies of the front of Rouen cathedral, you don’t think of him in relation to architecture, or as having been inspired by the hustle and bustle of city life. Correcting that impression (forgive the pun) is just one of the reasons to visit this deeply satisfying, gently surprising show.
A while ago, it seemed any London gallery finding itself short of cash would schedule a ‘can’t fail’ Impressionism show – until some of them did. The public, it turns out, does know when a pot of paint is being flung at them. But the National Gallery’s show – carefully considered, strongly themed, beautifully paced, and including a number of works rarely if ever seen in London – demonstrates how it should be done. It also rather daringly does it without wall-text. So if it’s important to you to know the title or date of what you’re looking at, you’ll need the audio guide. The show, however, makes perfect sense without.
“I want to paint the air”, Monet declared in 1895, and in works such as Fog Effect of 1875, a painting which I simply fell in love with, there and then, did just that.
His words might put you in mind of Hockney’s Yorkshire landscapes, painting the atmosphere weighing down on the land; the painting certainly will. Suddenly Monet stands in a new relation not only to Hockney but to Millet, and Millet’s scenes of stubbly French fields. Other bits of artistic connective tissue, made visible here, link him to Dutch landscape painting, to Turner, and to Whistler’s London riverscapes above all – indeed, you start to imagine that the two of them must almost have been painting away on the banks of the Thames, easels almost side-by-side, even if a good couple of decades separate their river-scapes.
The show also makes you reconsider quite how deliberate and structured Monet’s works were, for all their evanescent, catch-the-moment qualities. He worked out what he wanted to do and how to do it in canvas after canvas, in a series of precise experiments – portraits of backyards, of train stations, of churches and boulevards in different lights, palettes, and weather. What the city and its architecture gave him was life and energy and movement on the surface; the work all goes on underneath. It also gave him steam, rain, snow, fog and pollution – water in every scintillating, evanescent, structure-dissolving form. When he retired to Giverny (the show ends of course with the National Gallery’s own Water-Lily Pond of 1899), you wonder if this was because with failing eyesight, the softer forms of nature were easier to interpret than those of hard architecture. But even there, water was still the key.
The Jazz Room in Barnes, SW London, affectionately known as “the suburban Ronnie’s Scotts” (and almost as longstanding as the eponymous Soho jazz club), resonated to a different vibe on Sunday evening when internationally-renowned pianist Anthony Hewitt – an artist more used to playing in hallowed gilded spaces such as the Wigmore or Carnegie Halls – gave a concert of classical music by Bach, Brahms, Debussy, Ravel and Gershwin – all performed on the Yamaha upright piano which resides in the Jazz Room. It’s a very good piano, but it ain’t a Steinway model D!
Yet such is Anthony’s skill and sensitively that he wrought myriad sounds and colours from the modest instrument – and somehow listening to Bach (Partita No. 1) in a venue normally reserved for jazz, one suddenly becomes hyper-aware of all the jazzy syncopations and offbeat rhythms inherent in Bach’s writing.
The piano music of Brahms, more usually heard on a modern concert grand, had a lightness which lent a greater poignancy and tenderness to his Op 119 piano pieces; while in Debussy’s Estampes multi-layered lines and textures were revealed.
The second half of the concert swung to the sounds of Ravel’s decadent and sensuous La Valse and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in blue, his vibrant and exhilarating evocation of the melting pot of America and the sounds of the big city. Anthony did a remarkable job in drawing so much colourful sound out of the Yamaha upright to achieve brilliant results.
For the audience, the small size of the Jazz Room means one gets up and close and personal with music and performer in a way which is never possible in a larger or more formal venue. Such closeness creates a very special sense of communication and shared experience between audience and performer, and throughout the concert there was a very palpable sense of people listening really intently – a great compliment to the music and the pianist. In addition, Anthony introduced the music engagingly and audience members were able to meet and chat to him after the performance. As one audience member remarked “the Jazz room is a real gem and now to start a classical series there is an added bonus”.
The concert was billed as “Iconoclassics”, paying homage to the Jazz Room’s iconic status as one of London’s leading jazz venues. More like this please!
The Iconoclast returns…… Anthony Hewitt performs at the Jazz Room on Sunday 26th August. Further information and tickets www.7stararts.com
7 Star Arts says: audiences can enjoy more classical music, fused with jazz, world and original compositions on 10 April when pianist and composer Helen Anahita Wilson makes her Jazz Room debut. Book tickets
Picasso’s output was so vast and diverse that exhibitions invariably deal with just one aspect of his work. In 2016, for example, the National Portrait Gallery covered his portraits, while more recently ‘Minotaurs and Matadors’ at the Gagosian Gallery was about his fascination with bullfighting. Now Tate Modern – in what, astonishingly, is its first solo Picasso show – has gone one better by concentrating on a single year of his artistic production. The result is the best art exhibition that I’ve seen in London since the same gallery’s ‘Henri Matisse: the Cutouts’ four years ago.
There are good reasons for choosing 1932 as Picasso’s ‘year of wonders’. Just turned fifty and approaching the summit of his career, success had brought fame and riches, including a château in Normandy and a chauffeur-driven Hispano-Suiza. In June of that year there was a retrospective of Picasso’s work in Paris – rare for living artists in those days – and in September another major show in Zurich. The Zurich exhibition was notable for an excoriating review by C. G. Jung, who concluded that ‘the pictures immediately reveal their alienation from feeling’, suggesting that Picasso might be psychotic.
Picasso’s private life, meanwhile, was as complicated as ever. By now his marriage to the Russian ballerina Olga Khokhova was more or less on the rocks, and unbeknownst to Olga he had started an affair with a girl nearly thirty years his junior, Marie-Thérèse Walter.
As always with Picasso, art mirrored life, and the recurring theme of the show, organised over ten rooms, is the artist’s infatuation with his young mistress. Picasso’s libido was matched only by his phenomenal work rate; after putting in a full day, followed by a leisurely dinner, he would often go back to the studio for another four or five hours. In the first six months of the year he painted some of the most erotically-charged paintings in the history of art: ‘Sleep’, ‘The Dream’ and the iconic ‘Girl before a Mirror’ from the Met in New York.
Picasso’s inspiration was clear enough, although what Olga thought of it all is anyone’s guess. Olga was a svelte brunette, Marie-Thérèse a buxom blonde; so on the evidence of the paintings alone, how could Olga not have suspected that something was going on? Yet she only found out in 1935, when Marie-Thérèse became pregnant.
Picasso being Picasso, however, there was a flip side to this coin, and as the exhibition goes on it gets darker and darker. In September and October he suddenly changed tack and produced a series of tortuous drawings inspired by the crucifixion scene in Matthias Grünewald’s mighty Isenheim Altarpiece at Colmar. And what is one to make of the canvases and etchings that Picasso produced at the very end of the year, showing women either succumbing to sexual violence or drowning while out bathing? It’s been suggested that the drowning motif may have been triggered when Marie-Thérèse contracted a serious viral infection while swimming in the polluted river Marne. In any case, as the exhibition points out, some of the paintings in the last room, such as ‘The Rescue’ from early 1933, foreshadow the angst-ridden themes of ‘Guernica’ four years later.
‘All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a century of painting life’ at Tate Britain takes its cue from an article written by Walter Sickert for ‘The New Age’ magazine in 1910, in which Sickert called for art to mirror ‘the sensation of a page torn from the book of life’. Unfortunately, ‘All Too Human’ is marred by questionable curating decisions, some of which I found completely baffling.
For one thing, although it claims to span ‘a century of art making’, the exhibition doesn’t really deal with the first half of the twentieth century at all, unless you count the rather perfunctory selection, including two paintings by Stanley Spencer, in the first room. The real starting point is actually Bacon’s brooding ‘Figure in a Landscape’ (1945). A better subtitle might have been ‘Paintings by the School of London’, because, in addition to Bacon and Freud, the big names here are all post-war London artists: David Bomberg, Leon Kossoff, Frank Auerbach, Michael Andrews and Ron Kitaj.
Another caveat that I should enter, because it’s not entirely clear from the title, is that this is a show about painting ‘life’, not painting from life as such. Freud, of course, painted directly from the model but Bacon, for example, worked almost exclusively from photographs. True, there’s a room of paintings by William Coldstream, Euan Uglow and the Slade school, the blurb citing with obvious relish Bomberg’s dismissal of traditional measuring methods as ‘the hand and eye disease’. Otherwise, the emphasis here is firmly on the ‘conceptual’ rather than the ‘perceptual’ .
The selection of artists in the show is frequently bizarre. Where is David Hockney? The only possible explanation I can think of for his absence (he isn’t even mentioned) is Hockney’s lack of a London connection – not a recent one, at any rate. Or perhaps Tate Britain thinks we’ve had enough of him after all the hype surrounding last year’s retrospective. Equally odd is the decision to devote an entire room to the work of the Indian artist F. N. Souza, who, after living in London during the 1950s (he painted a bit like Jean Debuffet) decamped to New York in 1967. Without wishing to sound chauvinistic, why include Souza and not, for the sake of argument, Richard Hamilton, John Minton or Carel Weight? Sticking my neck out still further, why does the final segment of the show, covering the last thirty years, include only women artists: Paula Rego, Jenny Saville, Celia Paul, Cecily Brown and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye? No room here, it would seem, for Julian Opie or Peter Doig or Gary Hume.
Otherwise, Bacon and Freud predictably take centre stage, cropping up not only in each other’s paintings but also in other people’s – Michael Andrews’s ‘Colony Room I’ (1962), for example, although there’s no mention of this on the wall label. The big draw is supposedly Bacon’s seldom-exhibited portrait of Freud from 1964 but I find it rather a comical thing, almost a caricature, reminding you that sometimes Bacon could produce thunderously bad art. There are much better Francis Bacons here.
Freud gets a huge room to himself. The overall effect is undoubtedly impressive, although I still prefer the paintings he did before he discovered hog hair brushes, including the two portraits of Kitty Garman, his first wife (‘Girl with a Kitten’ and ‘Girl with a White Dog’) both of which crop up earlier in the show. Kenneth Clark would have agreed, once telling Freud as much to his face (that took guts): Freud never spoke to him again,
The true creative genius here, though, in my opinion, is Bomberg, and this isn’t the first time he’s stood out for me in a survey show of twentieth century British art. Even before he left the Slade in 1913 Bomberg was producing stunningly original paintings with only the merest nod to contemporary Cubism and Futurism. Between the wars he went off to paint landscapes in Spain; of the two shown here, ‘Toledo from the Alcazar’ (1929), in particular, is a knockout. Both in his own work and in his later teaching at the Borough Polytechnic Bomberg was a strong advocate of ‘painterly’ values, and his importance in this regard to Auerbach, Kossoff and indeed Freud emerges very clearly in ‘All Too Human’. (I can’t illustrate his work because the organisers obviously don’t think it’s important enough to be included among their authorised images).
Pallant House Gallery in Chichester recently held a retrospective of Bomberg’s work but the Tate hasn’t had a major show on him since 1988. If anyone epitomises the search for truth through painting – the hallmark, you might say, of the School of London – for me it’s Bomberg. He deserves to be up there with Sickert, Spencer, Bacon and Freud.
Phantom Thread, the latest film written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, The Master) is an intense, beautifully-crafted meditation on creativity and obsession. Said to be Daniel Day-Lewis’s final film before he retires (he has stated this is the case and he’s not given to changing his mind), the film explores the relationship between a man and the women in his life through the lens of a couture house in London in the 1950s. This eye-wateringly sumptuous setting also provides the backdrop for an examination of the nature of creativity and the persona and habits of a creative individual.
DDL plays Reynolds Woodcock, an English couturier to society ladies, princesses and dames. He is fastidious to the point of ridiculousness (and this makes for some wonderful comic set pieces, usually over breakfast). Effete, almost autistically-obsessive and buttoned-up, he rules his workshop and fashion studio with a hawk-like eye for detail and a violent distaste for anything considered “chic”.
The women in his life are the ladies in his workshop who sew and create the dresses he designs, Cyril, his sister and business partner (played by Lesley Manville with a masterfully cool acerbity and authority) and Alma (Vicky Krieps), a pretty young waitress whom he meets at a country hotel and who becomes his muse. Over time, Alma determines to unbutton Reynolds via a sequence of weird and dysfunctional Hitchockian schemes which bring a piquant ambiguity to the narrative right up to the close of the film.
It’s a delicious feast for the eyes, not least the surreally-beautiful gowns which are paraded through the film, and the scenes of 1950s London. DDL inhabits the role fully – just as he did in There Will Be Blood – with a brooding intensity, impossibly controlling and exquisitely bizarre in his appearance, manner and attitudes. The overall feeling throughout the film is one of claustrophobia and neurosis. For example, Reynolds’ intolerance of noise at breakfast when he is trying to sketch new designs, hints at the unsociability and almost pretentious meticulousness of the creative person (traits which I have observed in musicians, writers and artists).
The lavish visual impact and unsettling narrative of the film is further enhanced by the score by Jonny Greenwood, who has worked with Paul Thomas Anderson before, which perfectly captures both the period of the piece (lush, silky strings, touches of popular jazz and dance music) and the obsessive atmosphere – unsettling dissonances, minimalist loops, slithering harmonies, itchy anxious strings, Baroque statements and Messiaen-esque timbres, spiky harp sounds and pearly droplets of piano notes. I was fortunate enough to see a preview of the film with a live score, performed by the London Contemporary Orchestra, which brought film and score to life with an immediacy made the viewing even more concentrated, as if in a state of heightened reality.
Phantom Thread is strange, beautiful, unpredictable, bizarre, poised and Gothic, very much deserving of its standing ovation at the Royal Festival Hall last night, and its Oscar nominations.
Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’, which last year smashed the record for the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction, was not considered one of the jewels of Charles I’s art collection. During the Interregnum, when ‘the late king’s goods’ were disposed of by the republican government, it was sold to a mason – the appropriately named John Stone – for £30, hardly a princely sum, even at seventeenth century prices. That will be one reason (I’m sure there are many others) why it’s not included in the Royal Academy’s new show, ‘Charles I: King and Collector’.
Sir Oliver Millar, the former Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, thought that the perfect Charles I exhibition could only be mounted in the imagination, because it would mean borrowing some of the most famous pictures in the world. Well, the RA has had a decent stab at that, negotiating impressive loans from the Paris Louvre, the Museo del Prado in Madrid and elsewhere, by artists of the calibre of Breughel, Titian, Van Dyck, Rubens and Velasquez. By far the biggest lender, though, is the Queen: over two-thirds of exhibits on show at Burlington House are from the current Royal Collection; the walls at Windsor Castle must be looking very bare at the moment. After the Restoration, Charles II managed to buy back a significant chunk of his father’s estate, including such iconic images as Van Dyck’s ‘Charles I in Three Positions’ and other, lesser-known works, rarely seen today.
Charles may have been a hopeless king but his eye for fine art was beyond reproach. One of his biggest coups was the purchase of Mantegna’s great cycle ‘The Triumphs of Caesar’ from the bankrupt Dukes of Gonzaga in 1629-32; all nine canvases (and they are huge) have been brought up from Hampton Court for the exhibition. In an adjoining room there’s a selection of tapestries from the Mortlake tapestry workshops based on the famous Raphael Cartoons, which Charles bought for £300 in 1623, when he was still Prince of Wales. Their acquisition demonstrates Charles’s astonishing precocity as a collector, all the more remarkable for having been achieved from a virtual standing start: earlier British monarchs weren’t exactly noted for their interest in the visual arts. ‘But wait’, I hear you say, ‘what about Holbein at the Court of Henry VIII?’ In fact, most of the Holbeins in the Royal Collection were acquired by Charles between 1625 and 1640.
The spotlight in the exhibition falls most dazzlingly of all on two of the biggest stars in the seventeenth century art firmament, Rubens and Van Dyck. Between them, the Flemish duo were responsible for transforming the unprepossessing king – he stood less than five foot in his stockinged feet – into, variously, archetypal country gent, proud family man, Rex Imperator, even St. George saving England from the dragon. The impact of these paintings on later British art would be enormous (on his deathbed Thomas Gainsborough is said to have murmured, ‘We are all going to heaven, and Vandyck is of the company’).’
Lesser talents on show include Orazio Gentileschi, father of the proto-feminist painter Artemisia Gentileschi, who has long been a personal favourite of mine. His seductive interpretations of some of the raunchier stories from the Old Testament (‘Lot and his Daughters’, ‘Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife’) adorned the Greenwich residence of Queen Henrietta Maria, who emerges here as no mean patron in her own right. In a nice touch, the labels on these and other works identify their original location in the collection, where known, according to the original inventories (‘Whitehall Palace, Little Room between the Breakfast Chamber and the Privy Gallery’).
Towards the end of the show, a room has been arranged in the manner of the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ in the Royal Palace at Whitehall. Here the king would withdraw to admire smaller works ‘in the secresie of a retired and more solitary place’; these included drawings, statuettes, miniatures and ‘limnings’ – smaller copies of the highlights of the collection ‘in large’. Just when you think you’ve exhausted the potential of this room, you notice Rembrandt’s ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Mother’ lurking in the shadows…
The RA is launching its 250th anniversary in grand style. And if all this isn’t enough, you might stroll through Green Park to The Queen’s Gallery to see Charles II: Art & Power (to 13 May). Truth be told, the Merrie Monarch wasn’t in the same class as his father when it came to collecting art. Still, it’s a worthy sequel – Charles II: It’s Buyback Time, you might say.