Orphée – Philip Glass’s mesmerising homage to Jean Cocteau

Orphée – Philip Glass

English National Opera, 15 November 2019

After the technicolour excesses of The Mask of Orpheus, English National Opera’s season of operas inspired by the Orpheus myth closes with Philip Glass’s 1991 Orphée, a mesmerising, monochrome hommage to Cocteau’s eponymous film of 1950.

The operas of Philip Glass have proved a rich seam for ENO, with a sold out revival of their award-winning Aknaten (2016), and Satyagraha (2017) – both sumptuous, absorbing productions. For those of us attuned to the slow-mo unfolding narratives and choreography of these operas, Orphée by comparison positively jostles – at least in its opening café scene, the influence of French music and Glass’s studies in Paris evident in this sequence. It is also considerably shorter at only two hours, with a small chamber orchestra, though the music is no less satisfying and I was surprised at how texturally rich it was even with reduced orchestral forces.

This new production of Orphée is directed with great imagination and thought by Netia Jones, who combines live action and projection, including fragments of Cocteau’s film, and a constantly counting digital clock, to compelling effect, continually reminding us of the illusory-versus-reality nature of film. This, along with almost entirely monochrome costumes – black with white details redolent of Cocteau’s own line drawings, and only occasional flashes of colour in the red socks of the waiters, Eurydice’s chintz dress or the vivid fuschia pink costume of the Princess in the closing scenes – creates a highly concentrated effect, allowing one to focus on the drama. And then, of course, there is Glass’s hypnotic, spooling music, its unexpected harmonic shifts creating moments of tension and release, as richly-hued and emotionally varied as Schubert (for this reviewer at least!).

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Jennifer France as The Princess (photo © Catherine Ashmore)

Here the Orpheus myth is given a more relatable, contemporary reading: set in post-war Paris, Orphée is a self-absorbed poet who has become passé, who writes but “does not write”, and who has lost his creative impulse. He craves immortality and believes this can be achieved through his implication in the death of Cégeste, a young, successful poet, played with an appropriately teenage sulleness by Anthony Gregory. Though married to Eurydice, who is expecting their child, Orphée falls in love with the enigmatic Princess (Jennifer France), who, representing Death, lures him into the Underworld, via Resistance-style radio broadcasts, and with the assistance of the chauffeur Heurtebise (Nicky Spence). After the vivid black and white of Paris and its noisy bustling cafés where the poets, artists and intellectuals hang out, here the Underworld is a strange shadowy place of crumbling, bombed out buildings and crazed souls (Albert Einstein makes an appearance, a pleasing nod to Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach).

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Nicholas Lester as Orphée with Sarah Tynan Eurydice (Photo: DONALD COOPER/PHOTOSTAGE)

“We watch ourselves grow old in mirrors. They bring us closer to death,” wrote Jean Cocteau – and in this production the mirror, as both a reflection of ourselves and our own immortality, Glass’s reflection on Cocteau’s film and Cocteau’s reflections on notions of fame and reputation, becomes central to the visual narrative. Physically, a mirror is the entrance (and exit) to the Underworld, and it becomes a perilous piece of interior decoration when Orphée and Eurydice are allowed to return from the Underworld on the condition that Orphée does not ever look at Eurydice’s face. A large empty frame, which glides across the stage at intervals, serves the double purpose of “framing” the narrative while also reminding us that this opera is based on a film: in effect, it acts as a freeze-frame to capture significant moments; the projections reinforce this.

Although conceived on a small scale, Netia Jones’ production turns this intimate, intense drama into a cinematic spectacular. While some of the vocal colour of the original French libretto is lost in this new English translation, there are some entertaining, witty and genuinely poignant moments, and given the profound, philosophical nature of the Orpheus myth, and Cocteau’s eccentric film, this retelling is satisfyingly human and accessible. There is also a fleeting reference to Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice, a fragment of the famous ‘Dance of the Blessed Spirits’ in a flute solo, which neatly connects this to the opera which opened ENO’s 2019/20 season.

There are fine performances by all the lead parts. Nicholas Lester as Orphée is petulant and narcisstic, though increasingly sympathetic towards the close. Sarah Tynan plays Eurydice as the vulnerable, wounded, ignored wife, while Jennifer France as the Princess is haughty and histrionic. But it is Heurtebise the chauffeur, sung by Nicky Spence, who really steals the show, at once obsequious in his duty to the Princess but also tender and caring in his love for Eurydice.

In sum, this is an exquisitely playful, poignant production, with some genuine hair-standing moments, and an accessible, convincing drama that may leave you wondering what really lies on the other side of that mirror in the hallway……

Recommended

Orphee continues at ENO/London Coliseum until 29 November


FW

 

Baroque in our time

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Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-36)

Christmas is nearly upon us and time for the Requiems, the Stabat Maters, to be performed in concert halls and churches up and down the country. Now, more so than ever, audiences, can’t seem to be able to get enough of these religious works. Their familiar musical settings are popular for a reason. Audiences are of course drawn to the sheer gorgeousness of the music. Both lyrical and dramatic, and accessible, even for the first-time concert goer, it is no surprise that Vivaldi, Pergolesi and Handel form an essential part of the choral cannon.

I took myself off to the Queen Elizabeth Hall for an evening of ‘Sacred Baroque’ featuring Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and Vivaldi’s Gloria. Seeing the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment perform together with opera star, Iestyn Davies, was an enthralling prospect . I had recently seen Davies in Handel’s sell out Agrippina at Royal Opera, had been transfixed by his Ottone and his duet with the wonderful Lucy Crowe.

The Stabat Mater is a choral work however, but with noticeable operatic frills. A sober start develops into one of the most dramatic pieces of its kind. It is a medieval hymn about the grief the Virgin Mary felt for her son at his crucifixion. There have been many Stabat Mater musical settings but it is Pergolesi’s composition which most people remember. My first experience of the sublime work was  in sensurround sound in a cinema in Paris. I still remember my teenage mind been blown away by hearing it in Milos Forman’s Amadeus.

At the Queen Elizabeth Hall the OAE musicians walked out from the wings. There is something so aesthetically pleasing about a compact baroque ensemble, the period instruments, the neat harpsichord with tiny keyboard; the violins, violas with their reddish hues, wind instruments. All of this in a beautiful setting. I hadn’t been to the QEH auditorium since its tasteful restoration. Wood panelling everywhere and walls that stretch back in accordion-like fashion from the stage to sharpen the acoustic.

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Queen Elizabeth Hall

A man walked out, clearly not a member of the ensemble. Had Iestyn Davies, ‘the star draw’ bowed out at the last minute? I held my breath. Soprano, Katherine Watson, was nursing a cold, we were told. But she had decided to go ahead and sing the Pergolesi and not Vivaldi’s Gloria, scheduled after the interval. 

The audience’s relief was palpable. Would Watson’s voice hold though? She appeared in a ravishing dress of midnight blue, putting on a brave face. Davies meanwhile, with gelled, sticking out hair, looked positively boyish in his close-fitting suit. With a poppy in his lapel to remind us of Armistice Day, he was all set for Pergolesi’s melancholic piece.

The opening section of Stabat Mater set the sombre mood with each voice taking turns to express sorrow in ever rising and interlocking dissonances. In the duets, Davies, seem to display great emotional intelligence, careful to calibrate his voice with Watson’s soprano. Cold notwithstanding, Watson’s voice is outstanding; lyrical, with a divine quality, and yet she was singing at three-quarter mast. I made a mental note to keep an eye out for her in 2020.

As you would expect, Iestyn, made light of the tricky vocal ornamentation and acrobatics that Pergolesi’s music demands. The counter-tenor’s mastery is awe inspiring, his enunciation superb and all the while he manages to maintain that centred core. Even more fascinating however was to see him connect with the audience, swivelling his body round almost one hundred and eighty degrees, working the whole room. You cannot underestimate the impact of really engaging with your audience these days. It is the secret to building up a solid following which Davies has done and needs to continue to do as he’ll be leaving these shores for a while to sing in the US.

Other highlights were oboe-player extraordinaire, OAE’s Katharina Sprekelsen, showing mastery of her instrument in Albinoni’s Oboe Concerto in D minor.

Soprano, Rowan Pierce meanwhile demonstrated a purity and sweetness of voice in Domine Deus, rex coelestis (O Lord god, heavenly king) in Vivaldi’s Gloria.  Vivaldi’s upbeat, celebratory composition was the perfect antidote to the heart-rending Stabat Mater.

The Choir of the Age of Enlightenment, many of whom are soloists in their own right, showed complete command of their craft and their voices were well-balanced throughout. Together with the OAE orchestra, and under Steven Devine’s direction, the overall effect was a heady combination of professionalism and soul.

I very much look forward to the continuation of Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment’s Salvation and Damnation season in 2020. See here https://oae.co.uk/season/2019-20-season/  Highly recommended.

 

KH

 https://crosseyedpianist.com/2019/11/06/early-music-is-getting-younger/

Monumental Messiaen: Steven Osborne at Queen Elizabeth Hall

Olivier Messiaen’s monumental and profound work Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus (Twenty Gazes on the Infant Jesus) is one of the greatest works in the pianist’s repertoire, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with such titans as Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas in terms of its scale. It is one of the most extraordinary and ground-breaking works in twentieth-century piano repertoire, a work which has accrued iconic status and deep respect. That such a work was created at a time of great human suffering, and personal privation (it was composed in 1944, when the German occupation of Paris was in its closing stages), and yet expresses such joie de vivre, conviction, love, hope and ecstasy makes it all the more remarkable.

It is, above all else, an expression of Messiaen’s deeply-held Catholic faith – even more so than the Quator pour le fin du temp – a faith which involved sound and silence, beauty and terror, joy, love and an all-embracing sense of awe. It is music that puts listener and performer in touch with something far greater than ourselves, and yet one does not have to have religious faith to appreciate the enormity and emotional breadth of this work. Messiaen has an unerring ability to “ground” the music in a way that makes it more accessible through his use of recurring motifs and devices, in particular his beloved birdsong. These elements also give this tremendous work a cohesive, comprehensive structure – and it is only by hearing the work in one sitting, as opposed to listening to individual movements from it, that one can fully appreciate Messiaen’s compositional skill and vision. Like a great symphony, the work moves inexorably through its movements towards a gripping finale.

The Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus is Messiaen’s highly personal celebration of the Nativity, and, as a devout Catholic, the significance he placed upon Christ’s birth. It is not the stuff of cheery Christmas carols and chocolate-box cards: in it, Messiaen draws on the iconography of Medieval and early Renaissance religious art and literature in the telling of the Christmas Story in which the birth of an extraordinary infant is marked with joy, love and awe tempered by a portentous sense of what is to come in adulthood. The individual movements, with their special titles, and Messiaen’s own short, poetic explanations, are like staging posts in the great theological story, musical “stations of the cross”, if you will, leading to a conclusion which is both terrifying and redemptive.

All twenty movements are constructed around three distinctive themes. The first, the Theme of God, a slow-moving chordal motif, heard first in the opening Regard (Regard du Père/Gaze of the Father). It recurs in V, XI and XV, and is always sonorous, luminous and profound. The second theme, the Theme of the Star and the Cross, first appears in Regard II. Turbulent and fractured, it signifies the beginning and the end of Christ’s life. The final theme, the Theme of Chords, is a sequence of four chords which are used in various ways throughout the entire work, most obviously in Regard XIV. In the final movement, all three themes are brought together.

Silence also plays a significant role in the music, never more so than in the penultimate movement where the sonorities, resonance and sound-decay of the modern piano are utilised with highly arresting effect. In some movements, the silences are like breaths or moments of hushed contemplation. Birdsong plays a meaningful part in many of the movements too (Messiaen was a devoted ornithologist), with chatterings and squawks, trills and shrills in the upper registers, yet always used melodically rather than for pure effect. There are even references to Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’, a joyous, jazzy outpouring in Regard X (Regard de l’Esprit de joie/Gaze of the Spirit of Joy), and later a hint of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’.

Another important aspect is Messiaen’s “flashes”, colourful chords and clusters of notes or fragments which reflect Messiaen’s belief that it was only possible to comprehend the totality of God in “flashes”. To me, these are akin to the lines of stigmata found in paintings of artists such as Giotto, as well as the golden halos and symbolic devices found on Greek and Russian Orthodox icons. In the music we also hear tolling bells and carillon chimes, complex rhythmic motifs, and references to devotional texts, numerology, and Hinduism, as well as deeply portentous passages, suggesting Jesus’s fate. These aspects informed much of the composer’s thinking and became recurring elements in his later works. It was the last piece of sacred music Messiaen would write until 1960, and is the only sacred work he wrote for solo piano. It also holds the rather special distinction of being the longest piece of solo sacred piano music ever written (Liszt’s Harmonies poetiques and religieuses is the next longest, at 90 minutes).

The composer gives very clear directions and markings in the score to help the performer understand both the context of the music and the kind of sound he envisaged. For example, the recurring themes are marked each time their appear, and Messiaen indicates particular instruments too: the xylophone Regarde de la Vierge, bells in Noel, and the tam tam (a gong-like instrument) and oboe in Regard des prophetes, des bergers and des Mages.

At two hours in length, it is not for the faint-hearted, and it takes a special kind of performer who has the physical and emotional stamina to undertake such a task for it places immense technical and musical demands on the pianist. The expressive sweep of the work is vast, from the intimate, aching tenderness of Regarde de la Vierge (IV) to primal brutality of Par Lui tout a éte fait (VI) and the concentrated stillness of Je dors, mais mon coeur veille (XIV). As a consequence the work is rarely performed in full.

British pianist Steven Osborne has been playing this work for around 20 years now (and has made an acclaimed recording of it as well for Hyperion) and believes that it should be played without interruption to create “a deeper sense of engagement with the work as a whole, for both myself and the listener.” Becuase of his long association with the music, Osborne plays with an assured “settledness” and his deep understanding of the work enables him to create a cohesive whole. As a listener, one feels at once totally at ease with him on this epic musical and emotional voyage yet also acutely alert, as he is, to every shift in harmony and tonal colour, every nuance and emotion. Thus, the music feels freshly wrought, as new sonorities, new meanings are revealed.

He has a restrained virtuosity which puts the music front and centre, and his every gesture is freighted with meaning. He creates an extraordinary range of colours and tone – translucent filigree arabesques, shimmering, flickering trills, brilliant chirruping birdsong, plangent bass chords, rumbling, rolling Lisztian arpeggios….. And all despatched with an almost effortlesss sprezzatura. The performance was perfectly paced, Osborne’s clear sense of continuity allowing each movement to be heard as a statement in its own right, while also contributing to the extraordinarily powerful cumulative and architectural effect of the whole. The rapture and ecstasy of Messiaen’s faith was captured in a profoundly concentrated performance that reverberated with passion, spirituality, awe and joy. The long silence at the end before the applause, as we meditated on what we had heard, was a mark of our respect for performer, music and composer, further confirmed by a standing ovation.

Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus – Olivier Messiaen

Steven Osborne, piano

6 November 2019, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre


FW

Umpteenth revival of Jonathan Miller’s Mikado at ENO

 

1986 wasn’t a particularly memorable year in the grand scheme of things. In January Spain and Portugal joined the European Community (as it then was), in July Prince Andrew married Sarah Ferguson at Westminster Abbey and in October Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher officially opened the M25 motorway. I seem to remember spending a large part of it looking for a job. Nor was I the only one on his uppers: the English National Opera was going through one of its periodic financial meltdowns and badly needed a sure-fire hit to keep the bailiffs away. Fortunately Peter Jonas, then running ENO, had already met with Jonathan Miller to discuss a new version of Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘The Mikado or the Town of Titipu’. The rest, as they say,  is opera history.

Reportedly, Miller’s response when he and Jonas first toyed with the idea over dinner at the Camden Brasserie was: ‘it’s pure Duck Soup!’ He decided to jettison all the Japanese stuff which had plagued most productions, amateur and professional, since the D’Oyly Carte days. Out went the kimonos, kowtowing and tea ceremony, in came tuxes, Busby Berkeley dance routines and palm-court orchestra. The late Stefanos Lazaridis’s all-cream set locates the action to a swish resort hotel circa 1930. Sue Blane’s costumes are equally opulent and there are numerous changes: the ENO wardrobe department must work flat out on Mikado nights. The resulting all-singing, all-dancing crowd-pleaser still packs a perennial punch.

 

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ENO The Mikado 2019, Elgan Llŷr Thomas, Soraya Mafi, (c) Genevieve Girling

 

Bestriding this revival like a Colossus, as he has done for nearly thirty years, is Richard Suart, whose Ko-Ko (‘The Lord High Executioner’) channels Max Wall and Leonard Sachs from the Good Old Days in a richly comic performance. Suart freely admits that the role has been the backbone of his career and has now written a history of the production, ‘Mikado Memories’. He gets strong support from Andrew Shore as Pooh-Ba and Jonathan McGovern as Pish-Tush, while Sir John Tomlinson, more used to Wagner than to G&S, dons the Mikado fat suit. Also deserving of mention are the romantic leads, Elgan Llŷr Thomas (Nanki-Poo) and Soraya Mafi (Yum-Yum); I particularly enjoyed their pitch-perfect singing of the first act duet, ‘Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted’. And the ENO orchestra, chorus and dancers are all splendid, of course. For the rest, everyone knows Yum-Yum’s self-congratulatory ‘The Sun Whose Rays’ or Ko-Ko’s arch ‘Willow, Tit-Willow’ but how many people remember Princess Katisha’s moving lament ‘Alone, and Yet Alive’, beautifully sung here by mezzo-soprano Yvonne Howard?

 

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ENO The Mikado 2019, Elgan Llŷr Thomas, Richard Suart, Andrew Shore, (c) Genevieve Girling

 

Truth be hold, Gilbertian Topsy-turvydom does start to wear a bit thin with me after a while, nor is it quite compensated for either by Marx Brothers slapstick or high-kicking chambermaids, although there’s comfort to be had from what must be some of Arthur Sullivan’s best musical numbers. And without doubt Miller’s is a helluva production which should be good for a few seasons yet.

By convention, this Mikado regularly updates Ko-Ko’s recital, early in Act One, of his names of potential victims – ‘they’d none of ’em be missed!’ High on the list this time (Suart writes it himself) are Raab, Rees-Mogg, Bojo, Bercow & Brexit, all of which had them rolling in the Coliseum aisles. It’s a timely reminder that this evergreen favourite is no more about Japan than Brexit, when you really come down to it, is about Brussels. They’re actually both about us.

NM

 

The Mikado at English National Opera to 30 November 2019

Header image: ENO The Mikado 2019, Cast, John Tomlinson, (c) Genevieve Girling

 

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ENO The Mikado 2019, ENO Chorus, Dancers, Elgan Llŷr Thomas, (c) Genevieve Girling

An Electrifying ‘Mask of Orpheus’ at ENO

 

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Aerialists, Matthew Smith (Orpheus Hero) and Alfa Marks (Eurydice Hero)

 

Commissioned by ENO, The Mask of Orpheus, caused quite a stir, when it premiered at the Coliseum in 1986. Some heralded it as a genius work. Others found it difficult, which probably explains why it has not been fully staged again until now.

There is no doubt that Harrison Birtwistle’s three-hour epic composition was a radical musical departure from the opera on offer at the time. Composers flocked to the premiere to hear Birtwistle’s new sound. The use of prerecorded electronic music to supplement the acoustic score  was deemed highly innovative and damned exciting.

Fast forward to today, I can see why The Mask of Orpheus could be regarded as a challenge to stage. Birtwistle’s version of the myth is not linear. Orpheus’s tale of love and loss is played out over and over in Ground Hog day fashion.

There is a further detail to test the patience of the traditional opera goer; in Mask of Orpheus, Orpheus appears under three different guises: Orpheus The Man, Orpheus The Hero and Orpheus the Myth. Birtwistle was obsessed with the classics and was particularly drawn to Orpheus, who has, over time, he argues, come to embody both the hero and the myth. Birtwistle chose to do the same with Eurydice and her seducer, Aristaeus. 

Confused? It all made sense on stage when I saw it performed the night of the 25th of October. Orpheus Man was the young Orpheus in love, Orpheus the Myth, the older version of Orpheus who had taken to drink. In Hero guises, Orpheus, Eurydice and Aristaeus, didn’t sing but mimed and performed balletically on ropes. Former circus performers and aerialists, Matthew Smith, Alfa Marks and Leo Hedman were amazing, reenacting the passion, jealousy, rage and finally tenderness felt by Orpheus for his wife (see header image).

Indeed all the dancers were outstanding in this production, displaying split-second timing, and great versatility and control. The dance troupe performing various mythic characters were extraordinary to watch, their jerky, desperate movements behind a glass wall, mimicking angry, trapped insects. The choreography was underpinned by the bee theme as Aristaeus is not only Eurydice’s seducer but also beekeeper and representative of  nature. Barnaby Booth’s choreography was quite brilliant. He is definitely one to watch out for in future operatic and theatrical productions. 

On the night, Birtwistle’s music still sounded fresh and inventive after all these years. It was accessible and engaging too. In sections, I could distinguish Wagnerian strains and melodies which started off as background sound, only to suddenly swell like waves rising slowly in the deep ocean. Claire Barnett-Jones, playing Eurydice Myth, was a superb ‘Valkyrie’, both in body and voice, and so were the furies. 

Peter Hoare was equally impressive, as Orpheus Man in crimson wrap, decorated with sparkling  lyre. Sporting blonde spiky hair, Hoare bore an uncanny resemblance to comedian Eddie Izzard. He was captivating throughout, dying and being reborn again, repeating the same mistake with Eurydice. His voice and enunciation were superb. I could understand every word that he sung, even when his speech was supposed to be unintelligible! Memorable was his haunting, pared down, jazzy delivery of Cole Porter’s song, ’Every time we say goodbye’ as he slow-danced with Eurydice Woman on the bed. Marta Fontanals-Simmons, incarnating the young Eurydice had tremendous presence and  the purity and passion in her voice, expressed the newness of her love for Orpheus most eloquently.

The staging was a dress designer’s dream. You couldn’t miss the furies with their bright orange beehives, exaggerated posteriors and breasts, squeezed into rubber dresses. They were reminiscent of  Nicki de Saint  Phalle’s swollen statues in the Stravinsky Fountain, Paris.

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Katie Stevenson, Charlotte Shaw and Katie Coventry as Furies.

 

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Nicki de Saint Phalle’s women.

All in all a totally absorbing, ambitious and cohesive production of Birtwistle’s monumental work. The ending was absolutely spell-binding, sweet music finally opening up and spilling out into its ecstatic conclusion.

A unique and unforgettable experience! 

 

KH

The Mask of Orpheus : Remaining performances : 29th October, 7th and 13th November 2019

Inspired by the East at the British Museum

 

 

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Young Woman Reading 1880 by Osman Hamdi Bey

Reading the British Museum press release of Inspired by the East: How the Islamic World Influenced Western Art, I was preparing myself for a big show. The exhibition was promoted as “Covering five centuries of artistic interaction”, and since it was a paying show for the the general public, I expected wall to wall works of Orientalist paintings, myriads of Middle Eastern tiles, and in my wildest dreams, I pictured a  reconstruction of Lord Leighton’s Arab Hall he had built in his Kensington House in the 1870s at huge expense. Having fallen in love with “the East” Leighton sourced hundreds of tiles for his Arab Hall from Damascus.

As usual I was letting my imagination run away with me and what I in fact stepped into was a compact show with neatly set out exhibits, key objects from the BM’s Islamic collection and loans from the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, this supplemented with a small collection of paintings by Eugène Delacroix, John Frederic Lewis and Frederick Arthur Bridgman.

In the opening I stared at a map of the Holy Land, drawn in brown ink. It was dated 1486 when Europeans first showed an interest in the Middle East through religious pilgrimages.

A selection of ceramics and accessories in a glass cabinet illustrated Europe’s commercial  exchange with the Ottoman Empire and Iran. There was an assortment of French handbags from the 1600s, fashioned from Safavid silks, and Italian plates, inspired by Ottoman ceramics. They were far less vibrant, than their Turkish counterparts.

More interesting were the beautiful tiles and dishes further ahead. The glassware was particularly eye-catching such as an Austrian-Hungarian blue stoppered jar (1916), which I would have gladly displayed on my mantelpiece at home. 

In the crowds I had to fight to get my perch. The dim lighting didn’t help and made the job of gleaning information from the exhibits doubly trying.

Passing by a section entitled ‘Diplomacy’, I halted before two paintings of diplomatic dinners with ‘Dragomans’ milling around the distinguished guests. These were interpreters who needed a brilliant command of European languages in order to satisfy the Western diplomats populating the city of Constantinople in the nineteenth century. How did I know they were Dragomans? Well they all seemed to be sporting peculiarly tall hats with scooped out tops! Why that shape! For transporting rolled up manuscripts perhaps?

Finally it was to the Orientalist painters we turned. In the late nineteenth century, hoards of light-seeking artists escaped the winter smog in Europe and flocked to the sun, colour and sounds of the East. Some of them painted there, others returned to their Paris studios, furnishing them with carpets, silks and other Eastern props. Some painted from memory, others painted fantasies. Women in harems. I was expecting a lot more of these hidden worlds. 

Instead, I saw mosques in the early morning sun, kneeled men in prayer and Qur’an boy students. I eventually came upon a portrait of a woman, fully clothed and burning incense. The painter, Cesere Dell’Acqua (1821-1905), had never visited the Middle East. The woman is pure fantasy, dressed in a brocaded robe, earrings, with a veil over her dark loose hair. She is thought to be Circassien from the Caucauses. It is assumed that the artist was inspired by a costume book! 

The Orientalist section had been a disappointment. The focus on mosque interiors, prayers and Qur’an reading, had dampened my curiosity. They were of course of great historic interest but where were the harems? These were important for the latter part of the exhibition would contain works of art, which called into question the Orientalist movement with its colonialist and sexist overtones.

The final two rooms of the show were the most compelling, containing works by ‘Eastern’ artists. I loved Osman Hamdi Bey’s Young Woman Reading 1880.  A young woman in yellow brocade, reads the Qur’an in a typical Arabic setting (see Header image). This painting must surely have been seen by Matisse, who, in his odalisque paintings of the 1920s and 30s, put his models in similar ‘oriental’ settings. The fact that Hamdi Bey received his artistic training from the orientalist painter Gérôme, makes interesting reading at the show. 

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Persian Woman by Antoin Sevruguin

Also of note were the black and white images of photographer, Antoin Sevruguin, a Georgian-Armenian nineteenth century photographer who had a studio in Tehran. At the exhibition we see a Persian woman with masculine features, reclining in what resembles a tutu skirt. The semi-erotic “European” pose is unusual, I learn from this fascinating blog post https://www.vintag.es/2018/07/antoin-sevruguins-portrait-photography.html when I get home. It contains forty amazing images of a world we would not normally have access to.

By now I had reached the climax of the show, where contemporary female artists of Arabic background were exhibited.

Raeda Saadeh’s 2003 print entitled Who Will Make Me Real?, seems to suggest that even now, Arabic women face a crisis in identity. A woman reclines in a hopeless ‘orientalist’ pose and stares out at me, entirely dressed in Palestinian newspapers. The gesture is both awkward and defiant.

I loved the triptych by Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi (born 1956). A fully veiled woman is seen both in profile and face on. In a monochrome setting, with light Arabic lettering flitting over her clothes and filling the space around her, she seems to disappear. Is Lalla Essaydi bemoaning the invisibility of veiled women, or Moroccan women in general? The conclusions are ambiguous as the overall effect is so aesthetically pleasing.

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Triptych by Lala Essaydi

 

Despite my quibbles concerning the orientalist section, this is a cohesive, unassuming show with a clear narrative. An opportunity to acquaint yourself with exciting woman artists from the Arabic world. Worth a visit.

KH

Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art is on at the British Museum until 26th January 2020.

Bridget Riley retrospective mesmerises and excites at Hayward Gallery

I still remember the first time I saw Bridget Riley’s vivid, abstract paintings. It was at a provincial gallery, Wolverhampton or somewhere similar, in the mid-1970s. Coloured stripes and shapes shimmered and bounced, their contrasting yet consonant colours jostling and vibrating on the large canvasses. I was fascinated by the rhythm and energy of these paintings, but also the meticulous way in which they were created.

Bridget Riley is as ubiquitous as David Hockney and probably almost as popular, and her singing, zinging paintings are familiar and instantly recognisable. The Hayward Gallery’s new retrospective of Riley’s work celebrates the vibrancy and seriousness of her work. It’s her third exhibition at this gallery and the largest retrospective to date, spanning her early forays into the daring juxtaposition of colour and shape and the expressive pointillism of Seurat to the development of her own distinct style which seemed so in keeping with the mood of the Swinging Sixties yet is also timeless and fresh today, the mesmerising effects of her paintings not dimmed by the passage of the years. Now in her late 80s, Riley is still creating and her latest explorations with dots using a limited palette of muted colours are on display in the final room of the exhibition. Their colours are subtle but their impact is just as powerful.

Installation view of Bridget Riley, Rajasthan, 2012 at Hayward Gallery 2019 © Bridget Riley 2019 Photo Stephen White & Co.
Installation view of Bridget Riley, Rajasthan, 2012 at Hayward Gallery 2019 © Bridget Riley 2019 Photo: Stephen White & Co

In the large white spaces of the Hayward Gallery, Riley’s paintings can be viewed to their best advantage. Her black and white paintings – graduated dots and squares, waves and lozenges – trick and disturb the eye and brain, suggesting infinite depth and dimension in their two-dimensional surfaces, as visually cunning as a painting by Escher and equally challenging. Perception and sensation are important in all of Riley’s work, but the black and white paintings really test our ways of seeing. In Continuum, the viewer actually enters the work of art and is encircled by a continuous painted surface which spirals around itself, creating an unsettling immersive experience which Riley rejected as too literal, in favour of the flat canvasses which mesmerise and excite.

Look closer and one appreciates the care and attention which goes into producing these works (Riley uses a meticulous process of studies to work out her paintings, which are then finished by her studio assistants). Structure and process are hugely important to Riley, yet one has the sense that she works by the maxim of “through discipline comes freedom”: each painting has a freshly-minted immediacy.

On the upper floor of the gallery, this important process is examined in more detail with a display of her studies, which reveal how her decisions about colour, contrast, tone, tempo and scale influence the finished work. Here, there is also an opportunity to see her early work, when she was still a student and before she developed her distinctive style. There are some elegant life drawings and sketches of friends, intimate and touching in contrast to the large, vivid canvasses which populate this generous, uplifting exhibition.

 

Bridget Riley, 23 October 2019 – 26 January 2020

Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, London


FW

Header image: Installation view of Bridget Riley, Movement in Squares, 1961 at Hayward Gallery 2019 © Bridget Riley 2019 Photo: Stephen White & Co.