Philip Glass’s Akhnaten at ENO

The house lights dim, the audience settles, music begins to build ominously in the 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 Glass fan to enjoy the journey, but it probably helps. In my case, the connection is through David Bowie, Brian Eno, ambient music and more recently trance. As well as, yes, the familiar soundtracks: Mishima, Notes on a Scandal, The Hours. Like Handel (another personal favourite), Glass’s work has a pleasingly austere quality, in the best sense of that word.

‘Akhnaten’ is the last of Glass’s ‘portrait’ trilogy, following ‘Einstein on the Beach’ and ‘Satyagraha’, and it’s generally thought to be the ‘easiest’ of the three. There are few of the experimental touches that you find in ‘Einstein’, for example: no ‘Knee plays’, no nonsense tales, 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 may explain 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 with an attention to detail that this sort of music demands if it’s going to work.

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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 call. This is opera without pain.

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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

 

Dior and the Story of the Perfect Dress

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In his autobiography Christian Dior tells the story of a fortune teller he met at a 1919 charity event for veterans of the Great War. He was an impressionable, imaginative young man. The fortune teller told him that he would suffer poverty earlier on in his life but that his luck would change and that he would make ‘a great deal of money out of women’. Needless to say, he ran home to tell his family. His father, Maurice, an affluent industrialist, laughed the loudest.

His childhood spent in Normandy by the sea with his brothers and sisters was happy. Life was full of parties and friends. Despite being shy and reserved, Christian knew how to make good friends.

In 1931 disaster struck. Christian’s father’s enterprise went bust and Christian lost both his brother and beloved mother, Madeleine. Penniless, Christian wound up the art gallery he had set up with a friend and fell gravely ill with TB. If it hadn’t been for the friends rallying round to raise money for the sanatorium, we would have probably been deprived of one of the greatest dress designers of the twentieth century. Dior recovered and returned to Paris to embark on a career in haute couture.

In 1946, aged forty-one, Maison Christian Dior was born, thanks to the financial backing of an important French industrialist named Marcel Boussac. Nicknamed ‘the cotton king’, Boussac had made money out of two world wars and had become the richest man in France.

At the V and A’s exhibition: Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams. I  joined a traffic jam of people and circumvented the cameras, a television presenter and a small army of photographers, who had parked their tripods in front of the choicest Dior creations and were refusing  to budge!

I imagined Christian Dior peering down at us from his cloud, in his habitual grey suit, looking every bit the plump French priest, shaking his head and floating off into oblivion. He cherished his privacy and was happiest sketching at a café table, well away from the fashion circus.

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I finally slipped into Room 1 of the exhibition, which is devoted to Christian Dior, the man. The display cabinet was full of photographs of his childhood. Dior as a boy in a sailor suit. We have a portrait of Christian as a young man. He has bright, sensitive, kind eyes and he’s sitting on a divan with an open book. Like Proust, he was a great watcher. A watcher of women at the balls and parties his mother and others held in his circle.  When she died so suddenly something must have broken inside of him. He consciously strove to recreate her world, her liking for the eighteenth century furniture and dress.

All these things are implied and shown in the ball gowns in the Historicism room. Christian Dior was drawn to the sinuous lines of the Belle Epoque dress (late 1880s), the sumptuous silks, and the tightly waisted mid-19thcentury fashion. His fashion showroom at 30 Rue Montaigne was made up in the same style – but in muted grey, so that the furniture and soft furnishings wouldn’t detract from the beautiful models circling the drawing room.

A crazy John Galliano gown embroidered with aqua marine flowers dominates the room. In the background stands an 18thcentury folly with formal garden. Galliano was the great-great grandson in the Dior designer dynasty if we are to view it as a family. I overheard someone say: ‘Galliano is not necessarily the best but he is the most interesting after Dior.’ There is no doubt, Galliano’s theatricality and his exuberance and colour brought magic to the show.

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For me, the real highlights were Dior’s impeccably tailored suits of the early nineteen fifties, the cinched waists, soft shoulders, the skirts coming down below the knee moulded to the figure were the height of femininity and sophistication.

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Memories of a Dior-inspired Agnes B suit I had bought in the early nighties surfaced. Charcoal grey, fashioned in flannel with fitted jacket, lots of buttons, and figure-hugging skirt. With it, I had positively sailed into business meetings. My Agnes B suit was my lucky suit. The one that pulled in the big contracts – strict but feminine, professional but comfortable. It lasted me ten years and I am so sorry I didn’t have a copy made of it!

Aside from the tailored suits, tailored dresses, such as Dior’s Tulip Dress from the Spring 1953 collection or the chic H-line dress, sheathed at the chest of Autumn 1954, stopped me in my tracks. They are still so timeless, so beautiful.

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H-line Dress

There are five hundred objects on display in this exhibition but I didn’t feel overwhelmed by them. This is all due to Oriole Cullen’s careful curating and also Nathalie Crinière’s artful exhibition design. The themed rooms, eleven in all, showed off the clothes to their best advantage in their different settings. The labelling meanwhile provided just enough information to retain our interest.

 

Most memorable was The Garden Room,which draws on Dior’s passion for flowers and gardens. There is a touching story about Dior’s youngest sister, Catherine Dior, who joined the resistance during World War II and was interned at Ravensbruck concentration camp. Christian was so relieved when she returned safely that he named his Miss Dior perfume after her. The stunning Baccarat bottles containing the original perfume are on display. He also designed a Miss Dior dress with tiny silk flowers in her honour knowing that she loved gardens as much as him. Maria Grazia Chiuri’s (Dior’s present Creative director) Garden in Bloom dress from the Dior Spring-Summer collection of 2017 is also worth lingering over. The petal-like flowers ornamenting the gown are in fact cut and dyed feathers.

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I finally entered the Ateliers room with great anticipation for I was setting foot into Dior’s inner sanctum, the workroom. It was filled with dummies in glass cases. They were clothed in white cotton toiles, the test garments made up from Christian Dior’s sketches. Admiring them in turn, I began to appreciate the different panels of a jacket, a dress or skirt, the layering, the stitching and sheathing. Here I started to really see how one hundred hours could be spent hand producing one of these garments.

Christian valued his seamstresses or petites mains for good reason for he was no technician. They cried when he died so suddenly, aged fifty-two. During his ten-year tenure he produced seventy collections. He was an inspiration for the artistic directors who followed. I wonder however whether any of his successors came through the tradesmen entrance as he liked to do at 30 rue Montaigne. I somehow doubt it.

 

KH

 

Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams runs from 2 February – 14 July 2019

 

The very readable, Dior by Dior (The Autobiography of Christian Dior) is on sale at the V and A priced £9.99

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pierre Bonnard: the Colour of Memory

The art of Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) conjures up images of intimate bourgeois interiors suffused with high key, sun-drenched colour. Permeated, too, by the near-ubiquitous presence of Bonnard’s mistress, muse and – eventually – wife, Marthe de Méligny. So omnipresent is Marthe in his paintings, in fact, that Julian Barnes called his 1998 essay on the artist ‘Bonnard: Marthe, Marthe, Marthe, Marthe’.

There is indeed a lot of Marthe in Tate Modern’s new Bonnard show, which, with around 100 works, is the largest in London for twenty years. Here she is taking coffee behind a huge expanse of red-checked tablecloth. There she is petting their dachshund Ubu Roi (named after Alfred Jarry’s play). Above all, she’s endlessly bathing: Marthe suffered from a nervous condition which required frequent washing and, later, courses of hydrotherapy. Variously described as ‘a touchy elf’ with ‘a weirdly savage, harsh voice’, she is said to have ‘hopped about on very high heels like some bright-plumaged bird’. Marthe died in 1942 but she continued to figure prominently in Bonnard’s paintings right up to his own death five years later.

 

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A Ruined Village Near Ham (Un Village en ruine près de Ham) 1917, Oil paint on canvas 630 x 850 mm, FNAC 5891 Centre national des arts plastiques(c) domaine public/CNAP/ photo: Yves Chenot

 

What’s unusual about the Tate show, though, is that it introduces us to aspects of Bonnard’s art that I for one had no absolutely idea about. It turns out that he wasn’t just a ‘painter of happiness’, oblivious to the outside world. He lived through two world wars, after all. Consider ‘A Village in Ruins near Ham’ (above), the outcome of a trip that Bonnard made to the Western Front in 1917, which wouldn’t look out of place hanging in the Army Museum in Paris. Or another curious work, ‘The Fourteenth of July’ of 1918, where the patriotic message is even more overt. If there was less of this sort of thing in the Second World War – just a glimpse of blackout curtain in the back of the self-portrait from 1945 – by then Bonnard was in his seventies and in any case there were severe restrictions on travel during the German occupation.

Even more revealing, and further contradicting the cliché that Bonnard was a mere intimiste painter, are his landscapes, which make up roughly a third of the works shown here. I’m not talking about the glimpses of garden that often crop up in his interiors; I mean stand-alone landscapes, from the modestly-sized, Cézannesque views of the countryside round his home at Le Cannet all the way up to the 10ft-wide ‘Summer’ (1917), which is like an upscaled version of one of Matisse’s Arcadian fantasies. We’re a long way from Marthe’s parlour, at any rate. It’s true, though, that Bonnard, unlike his friend Monet, never actually painted outdoors; he always worked his canvases up indoors from sketches made on the spot. ‘I have all my subjects to hand,’ he once said: ‘I go and look at them, I take notes. Then I go home. And before I start painting I reflect, I dream’.

Throughout the show, you’ll find your sensory system under continuous barrage from Bonnard’s fabulous grasp of colour harmonies and extraordinary range of markings, often verging on abstraction, nowhere more so than in ‘Nude in the Bath’ of 1936-38 (below). Look at the kaleidoscopic effect that Bonnard achieves in the upper third of the painting as golden light shimmers across the blue-tiled wall. Sublime.

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Bonnard at Tate Modern to 6 May 2019

(Header image: Summer 1917, Oil on canvas, 2600 X 3400 mm, Fondation Marguerite et Aimé Maeght, Saint-Paul-France)

 

 

 

 

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.