LOVE IN A CREATIVE CLIMATE

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Artistic duos tend not to receive the attention they deserve in art history. We often read about the art movements and the artists who create them. The artist’s partner or lover meanwhile is often overlooked, or simply seen in terms of a muse.

An ambitious exhibition at the Barbican, entitled Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde seeks to explore the subject of couples and to show how spouses and lovers have had a lot more to bring to the creative pot.

I stepped in room 1 of the show where the pairings of Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel and Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp were considered. Both couples had passionate affairs – it seemed a good place to start.

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I was called upon to contemplate Auguste Rodin’s exuberant sculpture, Je Suis Belle. A beautiful naked young woman, bunched up into a ball, is held aloft by a tall, muscle-bound Adonis (In reality Auguste Rodin was small and lame!) The energy of the piece perfectly encapsulates love’s rapture and exemplifies Rodin’s superhuman passion for his eighteen-year old assistant.

Camille Claudel’s letters on display reveal her minx-like hold over him in the early years of their affair. In one she asks Rodin to buy her a two-piece bathing suit in serge from Bon Marché so that she can swim in the lake and avoid the public baths! And to excite him further she states: ‘I go to bed naked every night to make me think you’re here’.

The correspondence in this show is riveting  and should not be overlooked even though it may slow your progress through the rooms!

Though the odds were stacked against Claudel, she was a mere woman after all, Claudel’s talent was recognised by her mature lover. He allowed her to fashion the hands and feet of his statues. In the show we see the clay head Claudel produced of him. I found it disappointing and decided to go to the Rodin museum next time I was in Paris to investigate further.

I turned to another female artist, Maria Martins, occupying the same room. Before meeting Marcel Duchamp in New York in March 1943, she was already a sculptor in her own right. Her bronze cast entitled  Le Couple , produced in the same year, is impressive. Two animalistic male-female forms rear up and spew tendrils. Their bodies arch away from each other (Martins as a married woman clearly had some reservations about the affair!) In contrast, Marcel Duchamp’s artistic offering is less showy. Five mysterious artefacts are displayed in a glass case. One resembles part of a bronze shoe, Feuille de Vigne, 1950. I read the explanation and find that it is in fact an imprint of Martins’s female genitalia! The five pieces together are all imprints of Martins intimate parts. They are strangely elegant, oddly moving.

 

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Sexual desire and the artistic impulse are of course closely linked. I am drawn to the Surrealist section entitled Mad Love where André Breton, founder of the movement, encourages his male followers to go out into the street in search of love. Breton saw women as innately ‘surrealist’. The theme of the female muse resurges. The women associated with Surrealist artists were no shrinking violets however. In the photographs they come across as wild and free. In one they are relaxing at a picnic, sheets draped over their  intimate parts. Their male friends meanwhile are fully clothed! The photograph is no doubt the surrealist take on Manet’s painting,  Dejeuner sur L’Herbe.

One of these women is the American photographer Lee Miller. Early on in her career she teamed up with avant-garde artist Man Ray. In the show they occupy a room of their own. Their homage to the Marquis de Sade seems tongue in cheek. A very young Miller wears a thick iron collar around her neck. In another very strange image Lee Miller and Man Ray have placed a glass dome over their heads! I can’t help but laugh!

Lee Miller’s photographs could also be moving and poignant. In the Dora Maar-Picasso section, we see an older Dora Maar sitting alone in her apartment looking into space. In the centre of the picture hangs a painting Picasso made of her. It is a rare portrait of her facing out at the viewer (rather than in profile), and it is the only portrait she liked of herself. She dismissed the others as ‘lies’. They may be ‘lies’ but Picasso’s Portrait de Femme 1938, of Maar, is still a wonder to behold on an adjacent wall, as is Frida Kahlo’s oil painting entitled The Wounded Deer 1946 located in the same room

 

 

To counterbalance the theme of suffering female artists, Maar’s own photo images of Picasso have been included in the show. A glass plate negative of Picasso caught my eye. Around his face Maar has scratched a halo or crown of thorns of black ink. It gives the painter the air of a saint or more worryingly, the appearance of Jesus Christ bound for crucifixion. It is unusual to see Picasso objectified in this way. So much with Picasso was on his terms.

Alma Mahler in another room seems to be made of sterner stuff. The exhibition focuses on her relationship with husband Gustav Mahler and lover Oskar Kokoschka. Long suffering muse, she was not! A photograph of her shows a Valkyrien woman in a corseted dress and dark, expressive eyes.  She was a talented pianist and composer when she met Mahler. It is surprising to read therefore that at the beginning of her marriage to Mahler she gave up her musical career at his request. It was a big mistake of course; outwardly acquiescing, Alma soon grew bitter. When she was on the point of running off with Bauhaus architect Gropius, Mahler agreed to play and help publish his wife’s lieder which are on show.

 The painter Kokoschka, seven years her junior, filled the void after Mahler’s death. ‘He painted me, me, me!’ Alma Mahler exclaims in a quote on the wall. Kokoschka joined up as a soldier in WW1, perhaps to escape her intensity and jealous nature. On his return however he underwent a change of heart. By then Alma had gravitated towards Gropius again. Kokoschka spent the next few years trying to win her back. The painted fans he produced, depicting their life together, are on display on one wall. We read about a doll he had made in her image. ‘I must have you for my wife or my genius will self-destruct’, he says in a letter. Alma’s power over men was astounding!

The Sapphic section entitled Chloe liked Olivia, was not only illuminating but revealed a whole host of new writers for me such as Natalie-Clifford Barney and painter Romaine Brooks. I was already aware of the love affair between blue stocking Virginia Woolf and aristocrat Vita-Sackville West, but it was interesting to learn of the influence each woman had on the other’s work. The desire Sackville-West ignited in Woolf powered Woolf’s Orlando. In this tale a young man transforms into a woman and retains his love for women. Sackville-West’s writing meanwhile became more experimental. Her book Seducers in Ecuador is on display together with Orlando and Woolf’s wonderful extended essay, A Room of One’s Own.

By the time I reached the painter Klimt and designer and fashion muse Emily Flöge (also fascinating if I had had more time) I was replete with information. I had only covered the first floor of the exhibition! (There are two!)

The show warrants a whole afternoon with two tea breaks!

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Modern Couples is an exhilarating show. A real curatorial tour de force. I am now keen to read up about L’Académie des Femmes (the feminine equivalent of the all-male literary Académie Française), and to explore the art of lesbian painter Romaine Brooks whose self-portraits reveal a growing confidence in her new sexuality. From a timid, thin-faced girl in a graceless hat she evolves into a beautiful, bright-eyed woman with wind-swept hair. I felt happy for her.

Hats off to the Barbican for a thought-provoking and rich experience! Worth joining the Barbican Centre membership scheme methinks!

 

KH

 

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde is on at the Barbican (Floor 3) until 27 Jan.

 

 

 

 

 

The Sound of Silence. Cage and Rauschenberg Take On A New Life With MusicArt.

During the summer of 1952, composer John Cage staged a happening that was going to change the world of music and art forever. At Black Mountain College in North Carolina, in the college dining hall, the audience listened to Cage read from an essay he had written on the relationship between music and Zen Buddhism. He punctuated his talk with long silences. It must have read like an extended poem.

Cage’s preoccupation with silence as musical form lead to his publishing of 4’33’’, his silent work, that same year.

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At that same college event, four white paintings had been suspended in the air above the audience. Robert Rauschenberg’s pristine White Paintings incarnated what Cage had expressed in words and in silence, namely painted space onto which the outside world could be projected. These paintings could change according to where they were hung; daylight, nature, harsh light spots could cast various shadows across the work. The canvas was a receptacle. A living tableau even, which changed from minute to minute – if only we were attentive enough. And that was the point – conceptual art as it came to be known, required us to think and to fine-tune our senses. And senses are at their most acute in stillness and space.

Knowing this, Cage in his 4’33” silent composition, drew our attention to ambient sound. For him there was no difference between sounds and music.

To this day, these ideas seem radical!

 

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Inspired by Cage’s and Rauschenberg’s works and ideas, pianist Annie Yim invited an audience to attend the premier of ‘Conceptual Concert in Three Acts’, at the Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery, London the other evening.

The concert room could barely accommodate the fashionable crowd that gathered for the event. Many had to make do with standing at the back, for along the walls, either side of them, precious Rauschenberg paintings had been hung. They formed part of a wonderful exhibition entitled Spreads 1975-83, the Thaddaeus-Ropac Gallery is putting on at the moment.That there wasn’t a white painting in sight was no bad thing and was consistent with the artistic layering that was about to take place in an evening of music, art and poetry.

At the front, a shiny black piano waited to be played. It was positioned between what seemed to be two huge canvases covered in sheets.

A tape recorder was switched on. ‘Nature is better than Art,’ said a gentle voice from the past belonging to the inimitable John Cage.

Annie Yim, founder of MusicArt which brings different art forms together, walked on stage to perform The Seasons composed by Cage in 1947. Sitting down at the piano she launched into winter: stark chords; spring: frolicking and skittering notes across the keyboard and summer: lyrical melodies, interspersed with mischievous interludes. Nuanced, precise playing of what is still considered to be experimental material is often hard to pull off and Annie Yim did so with gusto! The composition ended abruptly.

Act 11 was given over to new music by distinguished composer, Raymond Yiu which contained jazz elements and a beautiful duet played by Yim and the composer himself.

Meanwhile, Kayo Chingonyi, award-winning poet, read his own compositions. His poem entitled Matrix – Who’s to say, a tribute to Cage’s reverence for everyday (musical) sounds was particularly memorable and pertinent.

The latter part of the Act was devoted to Cage’s wonderful musings on the creative process: ‘I am trying to change my habits of seeing. I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I’m doing’ (what dedication to permanent invention!) and poem To Whom which he read out at opening show of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings at the Stable Gallery in 1953. For me, one of the highlights of the evening was to listen to him speak.

And finally Act 111 unfolded. The sheets were removed to reveal two large mirrors. Pianist Yim sat down at the piano and as instructed by Cage in the 4’33” score, didn’t play a note.

Silence prevailed for 4’33’’. It was an entrancing experience. At first, time really did seem to stand still. As the performers froze, so did the audience. Very soon bemused expressions started to reflect in the mirror, bobbing heads looked this way and that.  Others, worn out by the lead up towards Christmas no doubt, simply closed their eyes and napped. Tiny sounds started to emerge from the stillness: nails clinking a wine glass, creaking chairs, stifled coughs. As if on cue, a rasping motorbike broke into the space. A tiny part of me felt it had been orchestrated but it didn’t matter for the mirrors revealed a room of smiling faces.

Cage had woven his magic as had MusicArt. It had been a bold enterprise by Yim and her team. She risked putting too many eggs into one basket. But overall, the project was cohesive, expertly performed by all and thought provoking, shedding further light on two iconic figures.

 

KH

 

Catch Rauschenberg Spreads and John Cage Ryoanji exhibitions at the Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery, 37 Dover Street, London. On until 26 January 2019.

How To Get Out of the Cage. Engaging documentary featuring John Cage by award-winning film-maker Frank Scheffer on Youtube.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sax and Jazz. Jean Toussaint Still Has Youth Appeal

 

Sunday night in Camden. The temperature has plummeted and there are few people about on the high street.

Outside the Jazz Cafe however there is a queue forming. I rush to join it and edge my way forwards between the metal barriers to get my wrist stamped. A young man runs alongside us peddling his own CDs; £3 for an EP, £10 for the album. ‘I’ll have the EP,’ says the man in front of me, visibly sorry for the musician pounding the pavement on such a night.

We enter the venue and step out into a spacious bar area. Up ahead, the dimly lit dance floor, stage filled with instruments and leads, and running around them above, a buzzing mezzanine restaurant. The Jazz Cafe is a slick operation. Professional with friendly staff. It is the perfect venue for Jean Toussaint’s Allstar 6tet tonight.

I spy front man, Jean Toussaint, chatting with someone in the audience off stage and walk over and shake his hand. He hasn’t changed a bit since I last saw him play in the Bass Clef (sadly closed) almost three decades ago. He is tall, dressed in a suit, polite and still possesses that old-world charm. For someone who has spent most of his life playing in smoke-filled jazz clubs (no longer thankfully), his face is remarkably smooth and unlined.

He beams at the floor now filling with young people in their twenties. Women with afro hair dos and batik hairbands, young men dressed in dark jeans, clutching pints of lager. By their age, Toussaint was already touring the world with the famous drummer, Art Blakey, who had played with everyone, from Charlie Parker all the way through to Thelonious Monk. Toussaint was one of the ‘Messengers’.  In the late eighties he alighted in London, drawn by its effervescent jazz scene and settled here. With his own line up, Toussaint spent the next decade performing in London’s top music venues, Ronnie Scotts, Jazz Cafe, Pizza on the Park, Dingwalls and the 606 club.

At 9.20pm, a little early, Toussaint walks on stage with Andrew McCormack, a talented British pianist and composer. In interviews, McCormack is quick to mention Toussaint as having taking him under his wing. Toussaint takes his mentoring role seriously. He remembers what Art Blakey did for him. But having a band is not a charitable project, Toussaint only picks the best: Byron Wallen on trumpet, complete with studded cap, Dennis Rollins, trombonist. Double bass player Daniel Casimir slips in behind, together with Shane Forbes on drums.

During an interview Toussaint accords me the following day, he tells me a Miles Davies story. ‘Miles Davies’s approach to his band members was always the better you play, the better I gotta play. It’s not always like that in jazz. I allow my players space for their music.’

The gig at the Jazz Cafe is the occasion to perform pieces from his eleventh album, ‘Brother Raymond’  – and to combine it with new material: Gatekeeper, Missing of Sleep and Mandingo Brass.

thumbnail-300x269Toussaint nods to his own engineer brought in especially to do the live recording. In a beautiful baritone, Toussaint announces their first piece: Amabo, Obama spelt backwards. ‘I shall love in Latin he explains.’ It’s a musical fingers up to Trump. Refusing to give in to doom and gloom, Toussaint enters upon a joyous, irreverent piece. African rhythms abound (in honour of the first African, American President) and the 3 horn frontline beeps out the New York car horns. Two young men in front of me, bob up and down with their iPhones aimed at the stage. The rest of the floor is engaged in frenetic dancing.

Gatekeeper which follows, composed by trumpeter, Wallen, is a darker, introspective work, reminding us of effort and struggle in an unpredictable world.

In marked contrast, Doc is a tender, mellow composition by Toussaint. A gentle melody of three rising notes, smooth piano exploration, muted trumpet, played exquisitely by Wallen. The melody crescendos, becomes more urgent. Two thirds of the way through, Toussaint breaks in on tenor sax with a rollercoaster of notes suggesting pain, excitement, impatience and finally gratitude. His sax solo spills into the two other horns – a gorgeous musical moment!

Annoyingly I have to leave just as the sextet are about to embark on Mandingo Brass.

In our interview I ask Toussaint about ‘Mandingo Brass’.

‘It was the name of my first band in the US Virgin Isles where I was brought up.’ Calypso underpins the piece. Aged fourteen I started playing saxophone. I took to it immediately.’

Music was in the genes. Toussaint’s father had his own group and played trumpet but was forced to give it all up. ‘A sad time for him,’ says Toussaint in a reflective tone. Toussaint eventually left the island to follow his own musical path. He attended the very prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston and from there New York and fame beckoned.

I ask Toussaint about his work ethic. ‘I am pretty disciplined these days. I practice three to four hours a day and sit down to some daily composition.’ Musical influences? So many. Jazz greats like Davies and Ellington. He listens to a lot of classical music: Messiaen, Chopin, Prokofiev, Stravinsky – an interesting mix! ‘Good music is good music,’ he insists.

And the future of jazz? Toussaint is optimistic. The students he has mentored at the Guildhall School of Music and Trinity Laban are starting to come through and make a name for themselves he tells me proudly. He mentions Shabaka Hutchings, Nubya Garcia but there are many more. ‘The more bands you have out there, the better it is for jazz.’

And judging by Jean Toussaint’s enthusiastic fans at the Jazz Cafe, it is clear that his young audience will grow.

 

KH

 

Brother Raymond album can be found in the ITunes store. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Soprano Romaniw Sparkles in Miller’s Revival of La Bohème at ENO

Jonathan Miller was one of the reasons I started to take notice of opera in my early twenties. On camera, Miller spoke impressively of his aims to change opera for the better. Inventor of the time-shift opera, he was bent on creating better, more authentic drama. Out went the kitschy costumes, bad acting and antiquated sets so often associated with the opera genre.

In the 1980s Miller’s cinematic staging drew new audiences and his innovative stage direction breathed new life into iconic opera characters. People wanted to be entertained as well as hear the greats sing but predictably some opera stars were reluctant to change and refused to take orders from Miller. After many successes and a few run-ins with management and stars, Miller announced his departure in 2004, aged 74. Five years later however he was back staging La Bohème for ENO in 2009. His production was repeated a year later and in 2013, with Natasha Metherell in charge of the revival’s direction, the production was deemed flawless on every level by opera critics.

As the curtain went up on the opening night of the fourth revival of Miller’s ‘La Bohème’, I sighed with pleasure as I took in the 1930s artist studio with its high, narrow windows, lit to perfection. Rodolfo and Marcello working at the window in the dwindling light, painted the perfect picture of Bohemian Paris. Marcello, artist, had been stripped of his beret and smock and his thumb was not pointed at an easel. No easel in sight. Miller had spirited away all the embarrassing clichés of previous 19th century-inspired productions.

La boheme - Puccini - English National Opera - 26th November 2018  Conductor - Alexander Joel Director - Jonathan Miller Designer - Isabella Bywater  Mimi - Natalya Romaniw Rudolf - Jonathan Tetelman Marcello - Nicholas Lester Benoit/Alcindoro - Simon But
Nicholas Lester, Bozidar Smiljanic, Simon Butteriss, Jonathan Tetelman (photo by Robert Workman)

The scene with Rodolfo and Marcello and fellow bohemians gently ribbing each other and jokingly bemoaning their fate, was authentic and charming. Comedic moments supplied by landlord, Benoît, were a joy. Simon Butteriss in the role was so close to Leonard Rossiter’s character in the sitcom Rising Damp. His boasts and gripes about the female race: “Skinny women are here to spite us“, elicited laughter from a row of girls seated behind me in the dress circle.

A more serious Jonathan Tetelman in the all important role of Rodolfo was making his European debut. His voice, though sensitive and sweet, especially in the upper register, came across as tight alongside Nicholas Lester, whose warm, more assured delivery was perfect for his Marcello role.

In the interval, my neighbours wondered whether Tetelman should have turned to face the audience more. True – the set may have been a little challenging for him. The Paris studio was set back on the stage and Lester and Tetelman were singing from an upper level. Their voices had to carry across the stage, over the orchestra pit, across to us in the dress circle.

That said, the friendship between Rodolfo and Marcello was artfully portrayed. Tetelman is potentially good in a romantic role too but with Natalya Romaniw’s soprano, who sang the part of Mimi, mostly to perfection, his voice was not put to full advantage. The all-important moving arias of Act One were however well executed by both singers.

Rodolfo’s and Mimi’s love is subsumed in the hustle and bustle of Act Two. The stage set was striking: a café, with mirrors down one wall, a row of apartment buildings and roof tops disappearing off into the distance to the right of the stage, giving it great depth and breath. This allowed the chorus room to move around in and for the military band to break through the crowd and march off to great fanfare.

If Act Two is all about lightness and movement, Act Three plunges the audience into an atmosphere of darkness, stillness and hell. Miller’s set does this so eloquently. Two prostitutes straight out of a Brassai photograph loiter for business outside a dimly lit bar. Mimi appears from a partially-lit alleyway looking pale and anxious. The quartet when it came, with Mimi and Rodolpho versus Musetta and Marcello, worked quite well, Mimi and Rodolpho’s poignant lyricism piercing through Musetta’s and Marcello’s bickering. Nadine Benjamin, fresh from ENO’s enormously successful Porgy and Bess, where she played the role of Clara, portrayed a rather pared down version of Musetta. She was not as confidently petulant as I would have liked. Her voice was at its best in the final act when she had given up on flirtatiousness and sung movingly around the dying Mimi.

The star of the evening was without a doubt Natalya Romaniw, who was singing the role of Mimi for the first time. Having already been impressed by footage of her singing in the role of Tatyana in Eugene Onegin at Garsington, I knew I would already be in for a treat with La Bohème. Something in that mournful timbre of hers just seizes your heart. Her portrayal of Mimi has still a way to go, but her voice lingers in your head days after you have heard her sing. A true star, Romaniw brings further magic to what is already an arresting production.

KH

La Boheme continues in repertory at ENO until 22 February 2019

Further information


(Header image: Jonathan Tetelman and Natalya Romaniw)

Britten’s War Requiem finds new life with ENO’s staging

At the Coliseum to watch the first UK staging of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem on its opening night, I was curious to see how Turner prize-winning photographer, Wolfgang Tillmans would tackle this work as set designer.

War Requiem’s reputation has soared since 1962, when it was first performed in Coventry Cathedral. As a choral work, it now enjoys the same popularity as Handel’s Messiah.

The horrors of war remain a compelling theme with modern audiences and Tillmans, who is German and a pacifist, leapt at the idea of staging Britten’s work. It is one thing however to be an edgy artist such as Tillmans, and to stage an opera (plenty do), but War Requiem is hard to define, it is a hybrid choral work drawing its text both from church liturgy, the Mass of the Dead, and Wilfred Owen’s war poems.

So what does ‘staging’ really entail? Isn’t there enough movement and richness in the text and musical score for us to conjure for ourselves the full terror of death and war? The male solo parts are so achingly beautiful and poignant. And if the libretto wasn’t enough, ENO has enlisted 120 singers in the chorus, 3 top soloists and an 85-strong orchestra to hammer the message home. And yet I do understand ENO’s wish to bring another dimension to the work.

I had watched a 1964 black and white BBC film of War Requiem on YouTube. Presented by Richard Baker in clipped British tones at the Albert Hall, it brought back to me how stiff a concert performance could be. The soloists, choirs, musicians all in their appointed place on stage; singers standing to attention when it was their turn perform. I also watched a more recent Festival Hall production, which felt more fluid, less regal and stiff.

ENO’s War Requiem gets off to a terrific start in the opening movement. The pages of Ernst Friedrich’s 1924 anti-war book, entitled ‘War against War’ are projected onto two LED screens with the chorus in darkness behind them. The children’s choir starts up – and at the same moment, illustrations of tin soldiers and toy guns appear, the equivalent of today’s computer war games. David Kramer, Artistic Director, dramatises this point later on in Offertorium, when the soprano, the wonderful Emma Bell, is seen leading a young boy to a grave. A funeral is taking place. He breaks away from his mother angrily to play on his iPad, which he inevitably bashes with his little fist.

But back to the opening. The screen slowly parts and little by little the chorus come through to centre stage singing ‘perpetual light shine upon them’ while the audience is presented with photographs of dull-eyed soldiers with monstrous facial disfigurements – a soldier with a badly grafted nose, another with a gaping hole where his mouth should be. But then the projections cease, the chorus plays dead, and the tenor, David Butt Philip, starts singing Owen’s words taken from ‘Anthem for doomed Youth’. Here the poetry does the talking and we are able to fully focus on his extraordinary expressive voice. David Butt Philip was the star of the night for me.

And this is what Tillmans meant in a recent Times interview. He was keen ‘to leave room for the sung word’. For almost a third of the time, Tillmans sensibly chooses to have a blank stage, most notably in the middle section of the last movement, Libera Me, when the ghosts of a British and German officer meet. ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’, sings Roderick Williams in his gentle baritone.

Although Tillmans is careful not to intrude on our musical pleasure, at times his imagery feels arbitrary, like Tillmans’s photographs of battling football hooligans which although powerful images in themselves, bring nothing new to the equation.

Tillmans is more effective when he focuses his canny photographer’s eye on nature. Branches split in two in the style of Paul Nash, or a giant white chrysanthemum, which might represent a mushroom bomb or be a symbol of regeneration.

I loved the final scene: a lofty, open window suffused with bright green light with a tree filling its frame. Stage lighting moves the audience’s eye to a grave on the stage. The change in emphasis charters the changing mood of Britten’s musical finale.

Equally impressive was the calibre of the ENO chorus. Not only was their sound rich and nuanced but the cast moved and lay down well creating the most ghostly of tableaux. One particular picture sticks in the mind; their piled up bodies in the Srebrenica scene. A flyer commemorating the 1995 massacre is projected on a panel. Or in Libera Me, lying down in the snow. Beautifully lit, they brought to mind the painting ‘Gassed’ by John Singer Sargent.

Less well achieved was the Abraham parable section. Too many cast members swirling around on stage. The dramatic moment of Abraham raising a knife to his son is somehow lost in the crowding. There seemed to be timing issues at this point between the singers and orchestra but this is the only time I felt things might have been a little out of synch in an otherwise fluid staging.

Despite this very minor quibble, I left the Coliseum feeling that the bar had been greatly raised in this staging of War Requiem and that the work had received a new lease of life thanks to inspired direction and stage design.

So does this mean the end of plain old concerts? I doubt it. Certainly I applaud ENO for presenting a musical work in a new light, but equally I believe audiences should be given space to ponder the music. Imagination is a dwindling commodity in this world where everything needs to be explained. It will be a sad day when it becomes redundant.


War Requiem has a further 5 performances on 22nd, 27th, 29th November and 4th and 7th December at 7.30pm.
English National Opera

KH

 

 

Edward Burne-Jones at Tate Britain

It feels like the right moment to reacquaint oneself with the work of Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones. In our uncertain times, escapism provides relief and comfort, and when you enter EBJ’s dreamscape world of myth and fantasy, you move beyond the petty preoccupations and ugly politics of our world now.

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Edward Burne-Jones ‘Desiderium’
(1873), Tate, London

This is the first large show of EBJ’s work in a generation and Tate Britain’s new autumn exhibition offers a major retrospective, plus some unexpected delights. Even if you don’t know EBJ’s work, you’ll be familiar with the style and imagery – his pale, elfin, androgynous figures populate the worlds of Lord of The Rings and Game of Thrones and his angels regularly grace Christmas cards. This exhibition is a chance to get to know him better.

As an artist, he was an enigmatic figure. A theology scholar at Oxford (where he met his long-time collaborator and friend William Morris), he was largely a self-taught artist (mentored by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood); yet looking at his drawings, redolent of Michelangelo and Raphael in their exquisite craftsmanship and elegance, one can only marvel at the mastery and idiosyncratic technical prowess of this auto-didact. He worked slowly and meticulously with an immense level of detail and care. EBJ did not do spontaneity: continually refining and finessing, his work evolved over many years. Regardless of the medium – oil, pastel, watercolour or chalk – his works are sumptuous, with jewel-like colours, gilding and rich textures.

EBJ was not a realist painter: he preferred the world of Bible stories, classical mythology, Renaissance culture, Arthurian legend and the Medieval romances of Chaucer and Malory (which I studied as an undergraduate, often recalling EBJ’s imagery as I deciphered these Middle English texts), but the rendering of detail in his work – clothing, armour, architecture, decorative details, plants – creates a “hyper-realism” which is immersive and mesmeric, and also curiously soporific. One can almost smell the drowsy scent of roses drifting from his great series Legend of the Briar Rose (c.1890, based on Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty fairytale). Somnolent figures are draped over beautifully-executed furniture, the air heavy with deep sleep and a general sense of inertia – we sense their arousal will be slow, a gentle groping into wakefulness. I last saw these paintings as a child, at their home at Buscot Park, a National Trust house in Oxfordshire: I loved them then, and still do. The other great EBJ series, the legend of Perseus (begun 1875), is also here, revealing the artist’s skill in rendering complex imagery and textures within a limited colour palette. These two great narrative cycles are united for the first time in this exhibition.

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Edward Burne-Jones, Portrait of Amy Gaskell. 1893.
Private Collection

Sensuous beauty oozes from every canvas, from the delicate, pale figures in their classical-style draperies to the furniture upon which they recline, or the foliage from which they emerge, insinuating themselves into view. But it was the drawings that were the real revelation of this exhibition, not just the ancillary or preparatory sketches for the large paintings, but  dashed off humorous vignettes, of his friend William Morris, or fat tattooed ladies (a subject of fascination to EBJ). These are charming, witty and personal and offer a glimpse beyond the fantasies and Medievalism. There are also a number of portraits (displayed together for the first time), more traditional in their presentation (EBJ was a reluctant portraitist), though unmistakably EBJ in their palette. Gone are the draperies and foliage, the gilding and the decorative art, allowing us to get closer to the subject – and perhaps their artist.

EBJ’s long friendship and collaboration with William Morris is also celebrated in this exhibition with examples of decorative art produced by the Morris & Co workshop. Like Morris, EBJ valued the applied arts (and craft) and the fine arts equally, and this respect is evident in his work with Morris & Co, most notably the two stunning Holy Grail tapestries. EBJ described the medium of tapestry as “half way between painting and ornament”, and like his paintings, the detail is incredible (Grayson Perry’s contemporary tapestries echo EBJ’s glorious multi-coloured narratives in their painterly style). Their Medieval imagery, setting and composition immediately reminds one of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries at Cluny in Paris, which I saw as a student. There’s stained glass too, again all glowing colours and delicate grisaille (a grey painting technique). And in the middle of this room is a Broadwood grand piano, its boxy design suggestive of a harpsichord, covered in illustrations by EBJ, as much a fine piece of decorative art as a musical instrument. Other exquisite decorative items are on display – gifts created for loved ones, including a spectacular painted casket given to Frances Graham, with whom EBJ had a long-lasting and intense relationship.

EBJ shared his friend William Morris’s view that art should be for the people, and his work was, and still is, loved by the people. So ignore the sneering review by one critic of this new exhibition and go and lose yourself in EBJ’s sensuous dreamy world for a few hours.

Edward Burne-Jones at Tate Britain

24 October 2018 – 24 February 2019


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Header image: Laus Veneris (In Praise of Venus) by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Bt ARA. 1873-75. Oil on canvas. The Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

The shudder that counts: ‘Salome’ at ENO

In the week of the Brett Kavanaugh hearing in the US, and the ongoing MeToo movement, which both raise potent and complex questions surrounding male power and control, toxic masculinity and the male gaze, and whether women “ask for it” by behaving or dressing provocatively, English National Opera’s 2018/19 season opened with Richard Strauss’s dark and disturbing psycho-drama Salome in a visually striking and elegantly-sung new production.

The narrative is well-known, from the Gospels and the play by Oscar Wilde, from which came Strauss’s influential transformation into an opera, premiered in Dresden in 1905 in that heady, decadent era before the outbreak of the First World War. At its premiere, the opera perfectly caught the spirit of its time – the era of Freud and Jung, Beardsley’s Yellow Book, and the art of Klimt and Schiele – and was an instant success. This new “feminist” production, directed by Adena Jacobs, also catches the zeitgeist. Freighted with contemporary sensibilities and preoccupations, the opera offers a warning about the dangers of toxic masculinity and unchecked female desire. The spare modern setting with references to contemporary life, pop culture and gender fluidity further underline this.

Right from the outset, we know that “terrible things will happen”. In fact, we never actually see the head of John the Baptist (or Jokanaan as he is in Wilde’s and Strauss’s versions), but we know it’s coming. It arrives not on a silver salver but casually chucked in a plastic bag such as the type in which one might carry a takeaway curry. Earlier in the play, a pink horse, its cascading entrails represented by pink and red flowers, is brought on stage. Decapitated, it provides a metaphor for the final denouement.

Strauss’s music is haunting and sensuous, pungent and perfumed, and because the work is organised in one act, with an almost continuous flow of action, one has the sense of the tension-laden drama creeping inexorably to its brutal conclusion. Under the baton of ENO music director Martyn Brabbins, the orchestra shone, bold and beautiful.

Salome herself, sung by Allison Cook whose light soprano seems just about perfect for this role, is a pouty teenager who insinuates her way on to the stage and into the action as Narraboth (powerfully sung by Stuart Jackson) extolls her erotic girlish charms. Largely presented in darkness, Narraboth and his cohort are in a roped off area, as if waiting to spy a celebrity at a red-carpet event or queueing to enter an exclusive nightclub, while Salome remains quiet and aloof in the darkness, the light occasionally catching her pale blonde Ariana Grande-style ponytail.

The voice of Jokanaan is heard first via a loudspeaker. David Soar’s baritone is rich and declamatory, and when the scene shifts to the cistern in which he is imprisoned, strikingly lit from above suggesting a prison grille, we get a close up projection of his mouth forming dark prophecies and stentorian outpourings. Presented initially in monochrome, it changes to colour as the heat of Salome’s desire increases. It’s moist and plump and when the camera turns 90 degrees, it looks like a vagina….. All this, appropriately, while Salome sings of her lascivious desire to kiss Jokanaan’s lips. Narraboth, meanwhile, is voyeuristically filming the proceedings on a hand-held video camera, hardly able to contain his base urges before he kills himself.

salome

The ensuing banquet scene presents Herod (Michael Colvin) as a bumptuous prancing clown, luxuriating in Narraboth’s gore which puddles on the stage. While he drunkenly cavorts, his wife Herodias (Susan Bickley) looks on, haggard and tight-lipped with disapproval. In contrast to the salacious action on stage and the decapitated My Little Pony with its spewing entrails, a giant image of a beautiful blindfolded boy – somewhat androgynous – fills the backdrop. Caravaggio-like, it was, for me, one of the most striking visuals of this visually-arresting production.

Salome’s girl-gang of maidservants perform the Dance of the Seven Veils. Béyoncé lookalikes – all swinging ponytails, golden leotards, face masks and chunky trainers – their dance is a mixture of aggressive pelvis-thrusting body-pump and sensuous masturbatory writhing. While this goes on, Salome tugs her long hair away, revealing a boyish cropped cut, perhaps signalling her appropriation of masculine powers.

And so to that denouement……You know full well what’s in the plastic bag – it has a horrible dread weight about it, palpable even from the Dress Circle. It’s like that scene in the film ‘Seven’, when Kevin Spacey appears before Brad Pitt with the closed cardboard box… We don’t need to look inside to know that something terrible, horrible, and disgusting is in there. The fact that Salome hardly looks at the bag containing the Baptist’s head lends an equal sense of disgust, as if she is cannot bring herself to look at the thing she thought she most desired. This recalls her first encounter with Jokanaan, where, despite her lascivious obsession, she never actually looks at him directly. The kiss, when it comes, is not placed upon Jokanaan’s dead lips but those of Herodias, Salome’s mother (who wanted Jokanaan dead all along). So “the shudder that counts” (Wilde) – maybe it was all in Salome’s head?

Salome continues at English National Opera until 23 October


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(Header image: Allison Cook as Salome; Jokanaan in his cistern by Catherine Ashmore)