Parr Displaying His Humanity at National Portrait Gallery

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Porthcurno, Cornwall, England, 2017. Martin Parr/Magnum Photos/Rocket Gallery

In the same week I watched Don McCullin, photographer extraordinaire, take pictures of fox hunts and Eastbourne in the rain, in the BBC’s Looking for Britain, I find myself at Martin Parr’s Only Human show at the National Portrait Gallery.

In it, Parr also explores identity and what it is to be British.

McCullin has been lugging his old cameras for far longer than Parr. Nearly two decades separate the two men in age. When Parr was about to leave Manchester Polytechnic in 1973, where he studied photography, McCullin (best known for his war photography) had already documented homelessness and gangland London, as well as life in the failing northern mining towns. The images were lovingly hand-produced by McCullin in monochrome in his studio.

To this day McCullin chooses to print in black and white, which give his images a timeless quality. His retrospective at Tate Britain at the moment is a joy to behold.

By contrast, Parr, arguably Britain’s most famous documentary photographer of the British (certainly he seems the most prolific having produced many books over the years on the subject), has fully embraced colour. Think of Polaroid colours, and then a hundred times more vivid!

The central theme of Parr’s show is Brexit Britain in all its garishness.  Colour works especially well in this context, setting each image in a particular time and place.

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Stone Cross Parade, St George’s Day, West Bromwich, the Black Country. 2017. Martin Parr

Nationalistic images such as Stone Cross Parade, St George’s Day, West Bromwich pack a punch. A man and a woman, draped in the St George flag, lean against a low, turreted wall. In the foreground, a benign-looking white dog stares at the camera. He has been dressed up in a red jacket emblazoned with a small shield. On a lead, which resembles a chain, he looks vulnerable. The more you focus on the dog, the more you feel sorry for the innocent animal and understand Parr’s intentions.

Even more telling of Parr’s uneasiness regarding Brexit is Porthcurno, Cornwall, England, 2017 (see Title photograph)  On a sunny day, people gather on the shoreline of a beach. They have their backs to us and stare out to sea.  Just one little boy has turned back to the camera. He is minuscule next to a red flag flying at full mast over his head. The strange thing in this image is that the sea doesn’t look rough. Have the holidaymakers been hoodwinked into believing in the dangers of the unknown? (ie foreignness across the seas)

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Another photograph captured my attention. Not really to do with Brexit but with  Parr’s on-going exploration of identity and class. We are presented with two images of a  Harrow school boy, one in uniform and top hat, the other, he is covered head to toe in mud after a football match which he has won. I thought he was in fact a statue at first!

An image of a school youth of a different order draws my attention. A peroxide-headed young man with a Goth or New Romantic haircut leans over his work at the renowned Christ Hospital School, known for its outstanding music programme.  He could be a scholarship youth – we don’t know. All we can see is the hair, which hangs down like a straggly curtain. Here we get the sense of a world-class school opening its doors to creativity and diversity.

 

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The show spreads out into other rooms: celebrity portraits which if you go to the National Portrait Gallery, you have all seen before. Vivienne Westwood stands out and Gordon Banks sitting down in his chintz sitting room.

In another room Parr shows the British, drinking or at play. It is a little predicable, except for the woman at the Aintree races, dressed entirely in shocking pink. She’s carrying her own supply of champagne in a plastic cool bag. Glasses, programme, bumble gum pink pompom scarf, and clashing red handbag. The cropping (we only see her from the neck down) gives this picture several interpretations. Either the headless woman is to be lauded for having her own idiosyncratic style or she is being exposed as having no taste. She has come to the races to get plastered and intends to completely ignore the race. Who knows?

 

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There was an extraordinary room dedicated to Martin Parr’s self-portraits that he has made throughout his career. For 30 years he has visited studio photographers, street photographers and photo booth across the globe. I find his obsession with his own image both curious but understandable. Like so many photographers who have spent so much of their lives hidden behind the camera, Parr has wanted to keep a personal record .

Particularly bizarre were the Photo Escultura– shrine-like carved photo-sculptures based on Parr. These were quite amusing and were commissioned by the last traditional craftsman specialised in them, in Mexico City.

 

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It was an odd finale to an exhibition on Britishness, as was the pop up seaside café complete with Battenburg cake and the National portrait shop full of Parr pseudo retro memorabilia. Would you buy flip-flops superimposed with Parr’s feet?

 

Most strange. But we have to allow for his eccentricities. It is exactly these peculiarities, which make Martin Parr human!

 

 

 

KH

 

 

Martin Parr: Being Human is on at the National Portrait Gallery until 27 May 2019

 

 

PRIVATES ON PARADE: The Renaissance Nude at the Royal Academy

The naked is sacred, as someone once said, but the nude is rude. The RA’s new show, in its Sackler Wing, offers plenty of both in an exhibition that (with a very few splendid exceptions) is not titillating in the least, but is thought-provoking in a most enjoyable way.

The show covers the period from 1400 to 1530 when, so the curators suggest, the ‘appearance, meaning and culture of the nude’ were still being worked out and explored by artists of the period, but in truth we’re still asking ourselves the same questions about nakedness and nudity, the sacred and the rude, today. What, for example, is ‘nude’? Does a half-length bust with one exposed breast count, if that breast is small to the point of androgyny? Is a Christian martyr nude, no matter how ferocious the thorns upon which he is being impaled, if he’s wearing a drapery version of boxer-shorts? Is the naked human body the ideal, as in the Garden of Eden; or frail, vulnerable, and an instrument of sin, to be punished in hell eternally? Indeed, is the naked human body always there to suggest our vulnerability? The poignant yet still lovely boxwood sculpture of an aging female bather, shielding herself like Botticelli’s Venus, says yes, it is; while the gigantic

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man and woman in Dosso Dossi’s Allegory of Fortune of c.1530 are anything but. And how many of these nudes, in our LGBTQ, #MeToo world, are to be seen as straight, and how many should we be interpreting as gay? Bronzino’s curly-headed St Sebastian, for example, absurdly calm and coy, and apparently wholly oblivious of the arrow sticking out of his ribs, has everything to do with the naked young male body and nothing at all to do with martyrdom; while Titian’s irresistible Venus Rising from the Sea is so very un-immortal, and so very much a human being placed there for the viewer’s pleasure, that she’s even wringing out her wet hair.

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Exhibitions in the Sackler tend towards the unexpected and the fun – the space is small, and the experience of going round it always more satisfying, and the shows themselves stronger than the padded-out blockbusters in the cavernous galleries downstairs. In The Renaissance Nude, many of the works are small as well – tiny, even, in the case of the illustrations from illuminated manuscripts, and the exquisite relief by Donatello that opens the show – and pretty small where the panel paintings are concerned, too. By no means all are top-rank, but the sheer anatomical daftness and psychological weirdness of some of the works here, especially those from the Northern Renaissance, only add to the exhibition’s fascination. One of the most winning is Lucas Cranach’s A Faun and his Family of c.1526 – Mr Faun the Hunter, Mrs Faun the Trophy-Wife and Master Faun the Toddler, with Mrs Faun’s modesty being preserved by a long2-a-faun-and-his-family-with-a-slain-lion-lucas-cranach-the-elder stray tendril of hair that curls round from that on her head to both hide where her pubic hair would be, and to substitute for it. Surely no-one ever viewed this painting without finding themselves cracking a grin?

And while the mechanics of the gaze may not have changed much in the 500 years since, taste certainly has. The ideal woman, in the 15th century, was short in the leg, wide in the hip, and so small in the bust that sometimes it’s only the elaborate hairdo that tells you the body below the neck was meant to be seen as female at all. The ideal man, meanwhile, was muscle-bound as Schwarzenegger, ‘a condom stuffed with walnuts,’ in Clive James’ memorable phrase. You can be staggered by the beauty of some of the works – the Durer engravings, the Raphael Three Graces, the Leonardo Anatomy of the Shoulder and Neck – but if any of this was the pornography of its day, it’s now not so much soft as flaccid. The human body might have been regarded in the Renaissance as the measure of man, but if skill at depicting it was the measure of the artist, most of those included here fall short by a country mile.

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The most intriguing part of this show is not the art on display in any case, but the attitudes. There is, for example, an engraving of the little-known legend of St John Chrysostom. It has the saint in the background, a homunculus crawling through the undergrowth on hands and knees like an animal, while in the foreground is a naked mother nursing her child – any excuse to show a buxom nude, you may think, as with so many Biblical/mythological scenes. But the legend behind the image is startling.  The mother was raped by the saint – and then in an excess of shame, he threw her down a precipice and thus never knew he had fathered a child. You can’t put on a show like this without provoking the odd giggle, but The Renaissance Nude will also have you pondering, especially in today’s context, what our attitudes toward sex and nudity and gender were in the past, and even what, were such an exhibition to be re-staged in 500 years time, they might have evolved into then.

 

JCH

The Renaissance Nude, Royal Academy, London to June 2, 2019

Raphael, The Three Graces, c.1517-18. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Unknown artist, Elderly Bather, c.1480. Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, Frankfurt am Main

Titian, Venus Rising from the Sea (‘Venus Anadyomene’), c.1520. National Galleries of Scotland. Accepted in lieu of Inheritance Tax by HM Government (hybrid arrangement) and allocated to the Scottish National Gallery, with additional funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation), and the Scottish Executive, 2003.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion, c.1526. The J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Art Museum Council Fund. Photo: © Museum Associates/ LACMA.

 

 

 

‘The Merry Widow’ Comes of Age

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‘Can you hold my drink so that I can leap over you,’ bellows a middle-aged woman in front of me to perfect strangers. Friday night at the Coliseum and some of the punters in the dress circle have been overdoing the Sauvignon. It’s also the opening night of The Merry Widow and all this boisterous behaviour seems de rigeur.

Franz Lehar’s operetta was considered licentious and shocking in 1905 when it was first performed at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna. Soon the word spread like wildfire and its melodic tunes such as The Merry Widow Waltz, Vilja and Chez Maxim’s were hummed in the street and played on every home piano around Europe.

My eye is drawn to a well-built male in a theatre box adjusting his bright pink feather bower, hair net and diamante hair clips.

The whole of humanity it seems has shown up tonight: opera buffs, young couples with plastic flutes of prosecco, coach parties up from the shires (The Sauvignon crowd). Having arrived on my tod, I am soaking in the mirthful, irreverent atmosphere. The Opera Comique in Paris would have been like this in its heyday.

Operetta is not usually my genre. A mixture of singing and speaking (it is after all the precursor to musicals) tends to grate on me – especially when the dialogue is antiquated and out of synch with today’s sensibilities.

But I have heard Richard Thomas, the librettist, speak recently in interview about his new English translation (from the German). Thomas is used to working outside the box, having being involved in Jerry Springer: The Opera (2003) and Anna Nicole (2011). The dramatist, April de Angelis, also has been employed to modernise the dialogue. Thomas speaks compellingly about The Merry Widow. He claims that it is now fit for the me-too generation (well perhaps not quite).

It is the story of a fabulously wealthy woman, Hanna Glawari, who has recently been widowed. The Baron Zeta, ambassador to the impoverished Balkan state of Pontevedro, wants to marry her off to a Pontevedrin citizen, so that her much needed cash doesn’t leave the country. The lengths he goes to find a suitor, the misunderstandings along the way, create the comedy.

An operetta has to be funny to work. It is, aside its music, its raison d’être.

In this respect, the libretto and spoken dialogue worked well, sometimes a little cheesy but most of the time very funny. A few Brexit jokes and the clerk, Njegus, played by Gerard Carey, was hilarious. In a surreal moment he tries to prevent the Baron Zeta from discovering his wife with her lover under a banquet table. To distract the Baron he grabs a lobster from a dish: ‘I’m being attacked by a lobster and I’m vegan!’ I was reminded of Manuel from Fawlty Towers. As for the song with the seven males lined up in front of their urinals, bemoaning women – well you have to see it. I wasn’t the only female to laugh and then cringe as things got out of hand!

And so to the vocalists. Hannah, played by Sarah Tynan, is a superb soprano. Her version of Vilja, was quite spell-binding. The audience hung onto her every word as she performed the aria sitting on a suspended crescent moon.

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Paired with baritone Nathan Gunn in the role of the Count Danilo, she seemed to lose her sparkle however. The romantic duets did not move me as much as I would have wished. Gunn’s voice thinned out on the higher register. And yet he played the reprobate well and seemed more comfortable singing bawdy songs and Chez Maxim’s.

The more successful romantic pairing was that of Rian Louis, Valencienne, and Robert Murray’s Camille. Both sing beautifully and are wonderfully funny and touching. Their duet in a broom cupboard was most memorable, especially as they emerged from a giant painting of a beaver. Not very subtle in its erotic intent but amusing all the same!

The choreography was also slick and designed to amuse. The grisettes dancing in their Doctor Martin boots, the male dancers in their satin shorts straight out of La Cage Aux Folles. I couldn’t help but laugh at the old men with their Zimmer frames scuttling across the stage. Heaven knows why that was funny but it was!

All in all an entertaining new production with great musical highlights.  I left the Coliseum humming the The Merry Widow Waltz and dived into the St Martin’s Lane crowds with a light heart.

 

 

 

The Merry Widow runs for 12 performances: 1,6,8,9,13,15,22,27 and 29 March and 1 and 4 April at 7.30pm and 13 April at 3pm

 

KH

 

Diane Arbus: In the Beginning

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Diane Arbus in Washington Square Park, New York City, 1967. Photograph: John Gossage

 

Diane Arbus remains a giant in the photography world. Her suicide at the age of 48 has contributed to her legendary status. Hailed as a tormented genius, much has been written about her psychological fragility and her obsession with documenting New York’s outcasts.

She wasn’t the first to focus on the rough bars, strippers and burlesque performers. Documentary photography was well established as a genre by the time Arbus took to the streets in 1956, leaving the world of fashion photography behind her. Many male photographers had already revealed the underbelly of New York society. Magnificent photographers like Walker Evans, Weegee, Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, all of whom Arbus much admired. Her way of working however was different.

Whereas her male colleagues sought to make themselves invisible to the subjects they snapped, going to great lengths to bury their cameras inside their coats or install false lenses, Diane made no effort to hide what she was doing.

It was hard for her at first. She was of a shy disposition, a lone woman. She had to conquer her fears, her prejudices in pursuit of her art. She struck up conversations with the people she photographed. Some of the relationships she formed with them lasted for years.

In a show entitled diane arbus: In the beginning, the Hayward Gallery, with the aid of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, has focused on Diane Arbus’s early years, when she was prolific and trying to develop her own particular brand of portraiture.

The first room of the show surprises with the compact sized black and white prints Arbus produced herself. Arbus’s images are smaller than an A4 size sheet of paper but are displayed artfully on separate rectangular panels. Very soon my eye adjusts to their dimensions.  Arbus’s subjects appear in half-shadow in bars, shabby hotel rooms and burlesque shows. I soon grow restless. Have I seen too many of these sorts of photographs over the years? I remind myself that at the time, Arbus’s photographs of female impersonators making up in front of a mirror would have been groundbreaking and shocking.

However the daylight shots catch my eye. Kid in black face, NYC 1957 stops me in my tracks. A blacked up boy in the street. Is he going to a black and white minstrel birthday party? Has he fallen down a coal hole? The only white we can see is the slits of his eyes, his lips and a slither of shirt. An arm is tugging at his shoulder. Not only is the image shocking but it is mysterious.

In Five members of The Monster Fan Club NYC1961 a group of boys sit on the front steps of a house. The humorous title shows Arbus in a more playful mood but then we focus on the sinister masks.

images-2Arbus was a devoted mother but her pictures of children are for the main part unsettling. Child teasing another. NYC 1960 is at first charming but the more you look, the more the little boy hunching his shoulders as an older girl whispers in his ear, looks uncomfortable.

 

Child teasing another, N.Y.C. 1960

 

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With ‘Girl and governess with baby carriage, 1962, a blonde toddler pushes her own baby carriage in a park. Alongside her governess, neatly dressed in a winter coat, hat and sensible handbag helps her push the carriage along. Far on the horizon the New York skyscrapers rise up in the early morning mist. Here the mood is nostalgic rather than uneasy.

It makes me think of the biography I have just read on Diane Arbus. Arbus felt neglected by her parents growing up in New York. Her father David Nemerov, owned an opulent department store in Fifth Avenue. Intent on keeping up appearances, her father was always working and entertaining. Her mother meanwhile, the beautiful Gertrude Nemerov, spent her time shouting at the servants in their grand apartment or chatting on the phone. The only person who seemed to show any interest in Diane was Mamselle, a cool, undemonstrative, beautiful French governess. Seven-year-old Diane loved her walks in Central Park with her and was inconsolable when her nanny left the Nemerov household.

There is no doubt that this picture meant something to Diane. It speaks of security and growing independence under the watchful eye of a loving, responsible adult. It speaks of snatched moments of happiness in an otherwise lonely childhood.

The iconic Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park 1962 follows. A bony-legged boy with claw-like fingers grips a grenade in his right hand. I know where I’ve seen those wild-staring eyes before – in war photography. This famous picture still packs a punch. The larger square format Diane uses marks a change in direction. Using a Rolleiflex camera she has now produces direct eye contact with her subject.

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Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C 1962. 

The exhibition builds up to a crescendo in a separate gallery entitled A box of ten photographs. These last images taken by Arbus in the late 60s and early 70s form the pinnacle of her work. Identical twins, a giant stooping over his tiny parents in their sitting room. A couple in a nudist camp, the man sitting in an armchair with his legs apart. Young parents with children – their little boy is blind. A Mexican dwarf, sitting up in bed and proudly displaying his smooth chest. The subjects seem more at ease in front of Arbus’s camera, as if now, they have come of age.

Sadly these beautiful photographs were developed after Diane’s death for a retrospective of her work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This is a thought-provoking show but for me it was lacking in something. That something was more about Diane Arbus herself. The catalogue on sale contains her notebooks where she scrawls her inner thoughts. It would have been useful to have these on display.

An American friend of mine recently spoke of an Arbus retrospective in San Francisco way back in 2003. At the show they had reconstructed Arbus’s studio, showed her working notes, cameras and also the books she read for inspiration. I would have loved to have had glimpses of her inner world.

That said, the Hayward has produced a neat exhibition with a clear purpose. Some of the photographs on display have never been shown in Europe before and they clearly chart Arbus’s evolution from street photographer to a portrait artist of immense vision.

 

KH

 

diane arbus: in the beginning runs until 6thMay 2019 at the Hayward Gallery.

If you want to learn more about Arbus’s life : Diane Arbus, a biography by Patricia Bosworth is an excellent read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SCANDI-NOIR IN SE21: Harald Sohlberg the Dulwich Art Gallery

Ah, Norway. Fjords, trolls, Ibsen; and birthplace in 1869 of Harald Sohlberg, whose atmospheric and alluring landscapes are on exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery until June. If you like Scandi-noir, you will love this.

Norway, like Switzerland, has one of the most beautiful and (you would think) artistically inspiring landscapes on earth; so it’s a puzzle why both countries have produced so few landscape painters. Most of us, I think, would be hard put to come up with the name of any Norwegian painter, beyond that of Munch. Munch was Sohlberg’s contemporary, and there are similarities between the two – the influence of the Symbolists such as Paul Gauguin (much as both men might have denied it); but above all, in this show, the influence of the Norwegian landscape itself. Snow-covered mountains glowing under the Nordic moon, legions of pine-trees, and that Scandinavian relish, product of the long monochrome winters, for deep, vivid colour – red-painted houses, leaning under the weight of snow, the glow of a sunset, distant hills of hallucinogenic violet, and the gold of a candle-lit window. Sohlberg also does a particularly wonderful job of getting onto canvas the luminescence and the colours of the midnight sun, a phenomenon which is completely unbelievable if you haven’t seen it for real, but Sohlberg catches it perfectly. His Fisherman’s Cottage of 1906 is a sort of summation of these traits, and of the cleverness with which his paintings are constructed. The foreshore dips down, the trees, painted with such thick impasto that their trunks have cracked, have just enough space between them to let you through, and there is the little bright cottage, inviting you come in from the cold.

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Harald Sohlberg, Fisherman’s Cottage, 1906, Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Edward Byron Smith.

Sohlberg initially trained as a painter of scenery and there is a scenic sense of layering in his works. The foregrounds have that hyper-detailed, Rackham-esque quality; the mid-ground lures you to walk down that path or up that road; in the distance there is some vast new vista to aim for. You can see exactly why his paintings lend themselves so well to being cover-images for novels; thrillers in particular, perhaps. And nothing in them is there by accident. Winter on the Balcony, perhaps the same balcony from which the artist watched the midnight sun, is so lightly painted that the squaring-up of the canvas is still visible, as is the care with which Sohlberg constructed the wooden exterior of the building and the balcony itself – the tightness of their carpentry hinting at the meticulousness with which you had to create habitations for yourself in this landscape and this weather. There is a sense in these works of the landscape giving form to thought, a quality that puts you in mind immediately of the similarly curious, almost uninhabited cityscapes of Atkinson Grimshaw.

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Harald Sohlberg, Street in Røros in Winter, 1903, The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway.

Sohlberg’s drawings are as cunningly constructed as his paintings. There are two drawings in particular in this show – one, the side of a clapboard cottage in charcoal and pencil, and the other, of a girl, a rare inhabitant, looking over a fence in a backyard – that are quite breathtaking. The backyard is one little world, yet behind it there rears the impervious façade of a 19th-century apartment block, so that you have the entire life and history of a city in just three elements. Sohlberg was painting at a time when the rural industries of Norway – fishing, mining, and the landscapes they existed in – were being transformed by the technological changes of the early 20thcentury, and while there is no consciousness in any of these works of the revolutions and conflict that were going on in the rest of Europe at the time, they have an undertone; there are details that unsettle and perturb. Night, Roros Church, for example, painted looking down into the sleeping town, seems so peaceful, and there is that one comforting beam of light coming from a window at the top of the church itself, but then you look at the tombstones scattered over the uneven ground before you, the rough black crosses, and you realize where the artist had placed himself – back here, amongst the dead.

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Harald Sohlberg, Night, Røros Church, 1903, The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway

Dulwich is on something of a roll with exhibitions such as this – first showings, unexpected works, and unexpected artists, too. There was Escher in 2015, Tove Jansson in 2017, Jusepe de Ribera and Edward Bawden in 2018, and now Sohlberg is another – and another not to miss.

Harald Sohlberg, Dulwich Picture Gallery to 2 June

JCH

At top: Harald Sohlberg, Winter Night in the Mountains, 1914, The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway.

Philip Glass’s Akhnaten at ENO

The audience settles, the house lights dim, ominous music begins to build in the orchestra pit. ‘Opened are the double doors of the horizon/Unlocked are its bolts’, the narrator intones. Welcome to 18th Dynasty Egypt as envisaged by American minimalist composer Philip Glass.

You don’t have to be a fully paid-up Glasshead to enjoy the journey, but it probably helps. In my case, the connection is through David Bowie, Brian Eno, ambient music and yes, the familiar soundtracks: Mishima, Notes on a Scandal, The Hours. Like the work of G. F. Handel (another personal favourite), there’s a pleasing austerity to Glass’s repetitive structures.

‘Akhnaten’ is the last of Glass’s ‘portrait’ trilogy, following ‘Einstein on the Beach’ and ‘Satyagraha’. It has few of the experimental touches that you’ll find in ‘Einstein’, for example: no nonsense tales, no ‘Knee plays’, no ‘Mr. Bojangles’ or ‘baggy pants’, and definitely no yelping or whooping. There’s a conventional three-act format and even a plot of sorts. All of which probably explains why it has greater popular appeal than the other two operas.

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ENO has considerable form with Glass, having staged the UK premiere of Akhnaten in 1985. By all accounts that was a pared-down affair, tons of sand standing in for the pharaoh’s failed desert empire. Phelim McDermott’s production, back after a three-year hiatus, is the complete antithesis, a vast baroque phantasmagoria of colour and spectacle which concentrates on the hieratic and ritualistic elements of the story. A ‘skills ensemble’ of jugglers, perfectly choreographed to Glass’s music, adds further visual interest, with some (male) nudity thrown into the mix as well.

There are at least two outstanding performances, both from Americans returning to ENO from the original 2016 run. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, in the title role, brings an eerie, other-worldly quality to his singing of the (mostly) ancient Egyptian texts; he even looks uncannily like Aknhaten, if contemporary statuary is anything to go by. Karen Kamensek, a seasoned Glass hand, conducts with steely discipline and an attention to detail that this sort of music demands if it’s going to work properly.

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There are few quibbles. As many critics have pointed out, the secondary characters – Queen Tye, Nefertiti, the High Priest of Amon – tend to disappear into the chorus. Conversely, a little of Glass’s narrator (‘the Scribe’) goes a long way, in my opinion. McDermott’s jugglers are also made to carry rather too much – literally – and in any case, you’re always expecting them to drop something, although naturally they don’t. None of this seemed to bother the Coliseum audience, though, which lapped it up all the way to the last curtain. This is opera without pain.

NM

Akhnaten at English National Opera to 7 March 2019

All production images ©Jane Hobson

 

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Don McCullin

Don McCullin, who has a fair claim to the title of the UK’s greatest living photographer, was born in 1935 in Finsbury Park – a bloody tough area of London before the war, and even more so after, when much of it had been bombed flat. The first photograph McCullin was paid for, in 1958, and almost the first exhibit in the Tate’s monumental and unmissable retrospective of his work, was of a neighbourhood gang, peacocking within the exposed rooms of a bombed-out house. This particular gang had been implicated in the stabbing of a local bobby, which gives you two of the most significant themes in McCullin’s photography right there: first, that the more things change, the more they stay the same; and second, that his photographs so often deal with those in uniform confronted by those who are not. Another early shot shows a woman-protestor in late middle-age being carried away from one of the Aldermaston marches by two policeman, both young enough to be her sons, with all three protagonists in the scene registering the ridiculousness of it; and so is the photographer. McCullin’s upbringing was also bloody tough, which could affect you in one of two ways: it could mean you joined one of those knifed-up gangs (in the Finsbury Park of the 1950s, white), or it could foster in you a sense of humour, and of empathy and respect for those around you, whoever they may be. McCullin operates ‘not as a photographer but as a human being,’ he tells us, in the praiseworthily intelligent wall-text to the show. He calls his task ‘being there’, and there is much in his work to make you think of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Cartier-Bresson’s maxim of ‘the decisive moment.’ But McCullin leaves his subjects with a dignity even in death that is, perhaps, unique to him.

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The Guvnors in their Sunday Suits, Finsbury Park, London, 1958

McCullin credits his experiences photographing the Turkish invasion of Cyprus with the development of his sense of empathy with his subjects, but really it’s there from the first, from his early morning image of sheep being driven down the Caledonian Road to a slaughterhouse (McCullin is a terrific photographer of animals, too) to his record of the Berlin Wall going up – the workers toiling away, digging its foundations while being bossed by soldiers in greatcoats (what resonance that combination in that place has, in particular), and the weight of sorrow on the faces of women in the crowd in West Berlin, watching the Wall rise. It’s there too in his photographs of the conflict in the Congo in the early 1960s, especially a sequence of four teenage boys, one already wounded and bandaged, being tormented by soldiers as a prelude to being shot. Everything in the bandaged boy’s face speaks of his determination to rise above the soldier’s behavior.

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Sheep going to the slaughter house, early morning, near Caledonian Road, London 1953

Congo in the early 1960s was the political background to Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible. You sense the presence of McCullin’s images behind her writing just as you can see their influence on the 2015 movie Beasts of No Nation. It is astonishing how many of our most iconic images of conflict and human suffering this one man has caught for the rest of us – the shell-shocked GI in Vietnam, the stampeding British soldiers in a Londonderry street; but then McCullin himself talks of his debt to the 18th-century Spanish painter Francisco Goya, and Goya’s images of the Spanish Peninsular War. Conflict, and its costs, and the type of people who end up bearing most of those costs, change very little from age to age, and there is at present a particularly awful relevance to these images: in the headlines this morning the perilous consequences for all of us in reinstating a hard border in Ireland; and Trump, sabre-rattling over sending troops into Venezuela

McCullin is now 83 years old, but to say he would reach his eighties would at many moments in his career have sounded ridiculous. One of the very few non-photographic exhibits in the Tate show is the camera that stopped the bullet meant for McCullin at Prey Veng, east of Phnom Penh, in 1968. Like one of those fabled cigarette cases or bibles from the Great War, it’s an artifact that meant one thing and registers now on an altogether different scale. Another series of photographs, from Cambodia, records the last moments of the young man who had been standing in front of McCullin when a shell exploded near enough to pelt them both with shrapnel. Evacuated together by truck from the scene of the shell-strike, McCullin knew when the man had died by the inert rhythm of his feet, bouncing against the floor of the truck. ‘That could have been my corpse rattling there,’ reflects McCullin, who has as resonant a way with words as he has with a camera.

You wonder how McCullin survived not shells and bullets but the emotional cost of a life spent behind enemy lines. There is a case to be made, looking at his photographs, that he didn’t, that for so painfully engaged a photographer, each photograph he took became as much one of his demons as it was his attempt to defend himself against them. This is not an easy show to view by any means; it’s very long, with a room per chapter of the life, pretty much, and it includes photographs no newspaper would publish then or now. But those images are there because the people in them deserve, as the photographer says, a life beyond his archive.

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The Theatre in the Roman city of Palmyra, partly destroyed by Islamic State fighters, 2017

Aside from all its other qualities, the Tate show demonstrates what a master-technician MCullin is. All the prints are silver-gelatin, printed by the photographer himself, and you have never seen blacks so deep, midtones so lambent or brights so dazzling. There is one view in particular, down the valley of a stream near McCullin’s house, the banks starred with snowdrops, the branches nearest to the photographer as black as veins of blood, that is stand-out wonderful. But even now, when landscape has become one of his major subjects, in shots of Hadrian’s Wall or of Glencoe, there is still the memory of conflict, with enormous, gleaming clouds doing battle above the Somerset wetlands and the fields themselves as dark as those of the Somme. McCullin is a hell of a photographer simply of dirt: the banks of that stream, for example; a mud-spattered infantryman; a grimy, starving child; or decades earlier the dirt surrounding a homeless man sleeping on the ground in Spitalfields, surrounded by derelict Georgian buildings that are now, no doubt, million-pound homes. The man’s body seems to be sinking into the dirt, or it is already rising up mercifully to cover him. The late, late still-lifes, of mushrooms or plums from McCullin’s own garden, tiny good things, seem a part of this homage to the earth, to a world that carries on regardless. The show ends with McCullin’s images of what has been left of battered, shattered Palmyra, since ISIS left the city in its wake. These are the photographs an older man might take, of a conflict that has passed on. ‘I can’t explain why I must turn everything into a somber dark image,’ McCullin says, of his own late work, but thank goodness he can’t. If he could, maybe he would have stopped making these images long ago.  JCH

Don McCullin, Tate Britain, until 6 May 2019

Top: Grenade thrower, Hue, Vietnam, 1968

All images courtesy of Don McCullin