The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!

Grayson Perry at Serpentine Galleries (until 10 September 2017)

Britain’s favourite transvestite potter and national treasure Grayson Perry RA once again casts his astute eye over contemporary society, its exigences and preoccupations, in a new summer show at the Serpentine Galleries in the heart of London’s Hyde Park.

I am in the communication business and I want to commnicate to as wide an audience as possible

– Grayson Perry

Perry is a sharp observer of contemporary life, using his art (or rather traditional crafts of pottery, metalwork, tapestry, and woodcut print) to comment on class, gender, sexuality, galleries and the art market, and notions of populism and popular culture. A benign modern Hogarth, his observations are insightful and witty, but never cruel. He is interested in people and the “tribes” and classes of Britain, the small differences and identifying markers which are unique to each group, while reminding us that we are not so different from one another after all. Central to this in the new exhibition is a pair of beautifully-crafted decorated pots, Matching Pair (2017), which featured in a recent Channel 4 tv programme about responses to Brexit. The pots are decorated with images supplied by the British public themselves, those that voted Remain and those that voted to Leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum. The images were sourced via social media and Perry charted the progress of the creation of the pots via his own Twitter profile, which I follow. The amount of work and craftsmanship which has gone into these pots is remarkable: in addition to photographic transfers, they include sgraffito drawings, handwritten and stencilled texts, and other decorative elements. The two pots are identical in size and shape, mostly blue, and contain images of typically “British” things such as the seaside, bacon and eggs, the local pub, and walking the dog. The figures, whose models are real British people, on each pot are remarkably similar, yet they represent the most bitter political debate in our lifetime. Through these vessels, Perry demonstrates that despite being on opposing sides of the argument “we all have much more in common than that which separates us.”

What endears Perry and his art are his benign wit and humour and his ability to observe but never patronise. He also turns his gaze on himself and his gender in his examination of masculinity and male stereotypes, explored in this exhibition through tpically “male” pastimes and objects, such as a skateboard (which becomes the “Kateboard” with Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, and baby depicted like a Medieval brass) and a gaudy motorcycle, specially made for Perry and painted in childish ice-cream colours.



The role of art and the artist in today’s culture, in particular the celebrity status of the contemporary artist, has long been one of Perry’s preoccupations, and the exhibition title is a playful provocation encouraging visitors to consider what makes art popular and how such populism threatens the “exclusivity” of art. Perry is an enthusiastic advocate of art for all and believes galleries and exhibitions should be places where people feel welcome and comfortable, rather intimidated by “international art speak” and obfuscating captions and displays. The works in the first room of the exhibition explore the relationship between the artist, gallery, the public and the critic. The large woodcut Reclining Artist (2017) examines the artist’s relationship to the public and their interest in him. It is a powerful monochrome contemporary homage to Goya’s ‘La maja desnuda’ and Manet’s ‘Olympia’, with an androgenous Perry at the centre, surrounded by his stuff.

Other works look at contemporary British society,  the mores and markers which define its class structure and the status anxiety of, for example, the middle classes. These aspects are explored in large, colourful tapestries, once the cloths which adorned the walls of the great houses and palaces of the aristocracy. Throughout these works, it is not the differences between us but our shared fundamental values which come across most strongly.

It is not a large exhibition but it is satisfying, enjoyable and humorous. Perry appropriates traditional crafts for his own ends and creates artworks which are colourful, playful and entertaining. I walked round the show with a permanent smile on my face – and goodness knows we need some good cheer in these troubled times.

Interestingly, whether by deliberate design or coincidence, the exhibition opens on 8 June, the day of the General Election, an occasion when once again sharply defined differences and similarities between us are exposed and rejected, embraced and befriended.


Grayson Perry: The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! Serpentine Galleries, London

Further reading

Grayson Perry: “I am nostalgic for a time when art galleries were empty”


Matching Pair (2017), Victoria Miro Gallery

Grayson Perry, Installation view, Serpentine Gallery, London (08 June 2017 – 10 September 2017). Image © 2017 Robert Glowacki

A Messiaen double bill at the Barbican

Messiaen L’Ascension
Messiaen Turangalîla Symphony

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo
Steven Osborne piano
Cynthia Millar ondes martenot

Wednesday 24th May 2017

The authors of ArtMuseLondon must confess to a certain fascination with the Ondes Martenot, that strange early electronic instrument which stars in Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony. We first encountered the instrument at an earlier performance of the same work at the Proms a couple of years ago, but found it hard to hear its swooping, Sci-Fi sounds in the cavernous, acoustically-dodgy Royal Albert Hall. So we were pleased to have another opportunity to hear the work, and the instrument, in the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s all-Messiaen concert at the Barbican this week.

Although Turangalila is probably Messiaen’s most popular and accessible work, a whole evening of the composer’s music is clearly too esoteric for most people: the hall was less than half full. A great shame because the first piece, L’Acension, was very beautiful and also very accessible, and provided the perfect foil to the excesses of Turangalila.

I don’t agree with The Times’ reviewer, who declared Turangalila “silly” and “sexless”. I find the work excessive, but not in a bad way. It is exuberant, enthusiatic, ecstatic, celebratory and uplifting. And yes, I do find it quite sexy – or rather sensuous – too…… For me, it’s one of those works where you just have to surrender to the music, a little like Scriabin’s later piano sonatas. And perhaps being a fellow grapheme synaesthete with Messiaen, the colourful blocks of sound, which are most significant than melody in Messiaen’s music, appeal to my sensibilities.

Composed for Yvonne Loriod, a student of Messiaen’s and a remarkable pianist who became his second wife, Turangalila was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzsky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but was actually premiered with Leonard Bernstein at the helm. Listening to the exuberant jazzy rhythms and brass fanfares, one can well imagine what Bernstein made of this work. Sakari Oramo and the BBCSO brought vibrancy and colour to this sprawling work. The gleaming brass section, first heard, magnificently, in the opening bars of the first work, were complemented by haunting woodwind and sparkling percussion. Add to this lush, silky strings, the spooky sounds of the Ondes Martenot, and tinking celesta. Steven Osborne, a pianist remarkable for his clear affininty with Messiaen’s music (seek out his Hyperion recording of the Vingt Regards – it will leave you reeling, I guarantee), brought crisp articulation and glorious timbres and textures to the music: with him at the piano, Turangalila becomes almost a piano concerto.

In contrast to the exuberant excesses of Turangalila, l’Ascension, composed in 1932 and one of Messiaen’s most important early orchestral works, was reflective, meditative and absorbing. Performed on the eve of Ascension Day, appropriately, it is a work which reflects the compsoer’s deep Catholic faith and each movement is prefaced with a quote from the Gospels or Psalms. The opening movement, scored only for brass, set the tone for the rest of the piece and immediately revealed the BBCSO’s precision and control, and Oramo’s understanding of this carefully crafted music.

The Ondes Martenot does rather sound like something from The Clangers” remarked NM as we walked back to the station from the Barbican. It certainly is a strange instrument: whether it makes any real contribution to Messiaen’s music is of course open to question.


(picture: Cynthia Millar at the Ondes Martenot, BBCSO)


Giacometti at Tate Modern

Alberto Giacometti Woman of Venice V 1956 Collection Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, Paris © Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017

Tate Modern is billing this exhibition as the first major retrospective of the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) for 20 years. That’s a bit rich, given the substantial shows devoted to his work at the National Portrait Gallery and the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich only last year. Neither of those institutions, though, has Tate’s clout when it comes to dealing with the key collection and archive, the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti in Paris. Not surprisingly, then, there are some eye-popping loans here, including previously unseen or recently restored works, even a chunk of wall from Giacometti’s Swiss studio.

Early rooms cover Giacometti’s involvement with Cubism, and later Surrealism, after his arrival in Paris in 1922. The pivotal work is ‘Suspended Ball’, which caused a sensation when it was exhibited at Galerie Pierre in 1930: Dali wrote an article extolling it as the prototype Surrealist object. Five years later Giacometti was summoned before the group for making ‘realist’ work; he walked out in the middle of the interrogation.

By the end of the 1930s Giacometti had began to produce his famous elongated figures, which seem to epitomize post-war alienation and despair, although their main inspiration was in fact Egyptian art. The centrepiece of the show is the series of six plaster sculptures, ‘Women of Venice’, created for the 1956 Venice Biennale and reunited here for the first time in 60 years.

Nowadays Giacometti is considered the archetypal existentialist artist, his work situated ‘halfway between nothingness and being’, as Sartre put it. With his wild hair and rugged good looks, and a cigarette permanently dangling from his lips, he certainly looked the part. Seldom getting up before midday, he would spend long hours trawling the cafés of Montparnasse before returning to his near-derelict studio, usually with only his devoted brother Diego for company.

James Lord’s 1985 memoir gives a vivid description of Giacometti’s working methods, which would involve intense scrutiny and endless re-working. Before resuming work on Lord’s portrait he would announce: ‘It’s hopeless!’ or ‘I don’t know why I’m even trying!’ or ‘It’s impossible! I can’t make portraits, no one can’.

Alberto 5
Alberto Giacometti and his sculptures at the Venice Biennale, 1956 Archives of the Giacometti Foundation

Another aspect of Giacometti’s art that emerges very clearly from this show is his preoccupation with scale. One of the most arresting exhibits is a huge, stand-alone plaster leg, which reminded me a bit of the giant foot of Constantine on the Capitoline Hill. At the other extreme are tiny figurines, some only a few millimetres high, said to have been inspired by a sighting from afar of the artist Isabel Rawsthorne on the Boulevard Saint-Michel in 1937.

Giacometti’s life, like his art, was a gradual paring-down process. In his later years he mostly used just two models, his wife Annette and Diego, although from 1958 he did employ a third, the young prostitute known only as ‘Caroline’, who would become his mistress and muse. Stanley Tucci has just made a film about their relationship, yet to be released in the UK, with Clémence Poésy as the enigmatic Caroline alongside Geoffrey Rush as Giacometti. (I only mention this because I spotted Tucci at the press view).

I have a couple of reservations about this otherwise exemplary show. First, it felt rather cramped. How the organisers managed to fit 250 works into just 10 rooms I can’t imagine. By contrast, the 2013 Klee show at the Tate had just 132 works – and Klee worked small – in 17 rooms.

I would also have liked to have seen a bit more artistic context. There are hardly any works here by other artists, for example, unless you count copies of André Breton’s books. In particular, I think something could have been made of Giacometti’s connection with Francis Bacon. The two artists met in the early ’60s and shared models, although because of Giacometti’s early death they never became close friends. Both worked in filthy, confined spaces and were fond of containing their figures in cage-like structures. I suppose somebody has already written a PhD thesis about the existentialists and their boxes. Rothko too, of course, was very fond of squares and oblongs.


Giacometti at Tate Modern until 10 September 2017

Tate Modern

Alberto 3
Alberto Giacometti The Hand 1947 Kunsthaus Zürich, Alberto Giacometti Stiftung © Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017

Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains – an immersive audio-visual experience

If an exhibition can illicit a Proustian Rush then the new homage to the legendary rock band Pink Floyd at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum did it for me. The opening bars of Wish You Were Here, a simple guitar riff, were enough to send me right back to my black beret-wearing teens, lying on my bedroom floor immersed in the Floyd’s long-form tracks.

Immersion is what this new exhibition is all about – visual and aural immersion. Strip away all the carefully-designed AV tech and you have a simple, but vibrantly-designed walk-through of the history of Pink Floyd, one of the most iconic prog rock bands of the twentieth century, from their beginnings in Cambridge in the mid-60s to their last ever live performance (presented as a completely immersive audio-visual experience using Sennheiser’s ground-breaking AMBEO 3D audio tech). It’s a straightforward chronology presented through album covers, notebooks of lyrics, scores, sketches, gig posters, handbills and all the other myriad ephemera (some never before displayed) of a band whose creativity was in a constant state of flux – and made them all the better for it. In addition, there is a whole room devoted to the band’s instruments and technology, heaven for the rock tech geek and a reminder of how their pioneering use of technology in the 1970s and 80s shaped Pink Floyd’s distinctive sound as much as their musical vision. There’s a mini Moog synthesiser and a veritable treasure trove of effects pedals, hand-painted drum heads, echo chambers (in the old-fashioned sense of the word) and much more. It’s all beautifully, thoughtfully laid out, with mirror floors, light shows and even a hologram of the iconic Dark Side of the Moon album artwork – but it’s also very dark, so watch your step as you walk around…..

Album artwork for ‘Animals’

Later on, recreations of The Wall and Battersea Power Station (which features on the album cover of ‘Animals’) and giant custom-made props (built by Stufish) from the stage shows of The Wall and later albums illustrate the band’s use of dramatic visual imagery to create their grandiose, uber-theatrical live concerts which were the epitome of “stadium rock”. The work of the many engineers, producers, designers, architects and artists who worked alongside the band are celebrated in drawings, blueprints, notebooks and video interviews (including one with Gerald Scarfe who drew the illustrations for The Wall’s album artwork and the subsequent film of the album).

If you, like me, felt the band was never the same after Roger Waters left (after The Final Cut album of 1983), there is plenty to engage the visitor in the early part of the exhibition. In fact, this is probably the best part and the very earliest displays focus on Syd Barrett’s unique contribution to the band’s original artistic vision and earliest songs (whose lyrics were drawn from children’s literature, fantasy and folk lore). In the 1970s, the band became more preoccupied with the larger exigencies of human existence – politics, conservation, capitalism and the oppressive class structures in Britain at the time – and the exhibition explores how the political and musical landscape of Britain changed, heralding the emergence of Punk, on first sight the polar opposite of Pink Floyd’s conceptual, complex music created by “filthy rich, tastefully bearded” educated people. Yet the two genres had more in common than first appearances as both railed against an increasingly divided class system in Britain and beyond.

The band members remained largely enigmatic, hidden from the public gaze unlike their near contemporaries The Rolling Stones or The Beatles, and today the remaining band members, such as lead guitarist David Gilmour, live in comfortable secluded retirement in the home counties. The exhibition reflects this – only the first room which focuses on the contribution of Syd Barrett offers a real sense of a personality behind the music and the lyrics. Barrett’s absence – he left the band after a disagreement about their creative direction and with concerns about his increasingly erratic, drug-fuelled behaviour – was sorely felt and later albums, most notably ‘Wish You Were Here’ pay tribute to his role in shaping the band.

The early rooms are all psychedelic swirls and trippy lighting effects, while the latter part of the exhibition attempts to convey the vast scale and drama of the band’s live shows. It’s pretty convincing and all fabulously, beautifully presented. But don’t forget to pick up your special audio headset on arrival – without it, the exhibition can seem rather lacking, despite the fancy lighting effects, groovy artwork and giant models. Only the last room, the band’s valedictory performance of Comfortably Numb (from ‘The Wall’) in 2005, delivered in extraordinary Sennheiser surround sound, can be experienced without the special audio headset – and what a room it is. It’s incredible, placing you right in the centre of a truly great piece of music, replete with stunning light shows. Wish You Were Here? Well, get yourself to the exhibition which runs until early October 2017.

It was my loss to view the exhibition first without the interactive headset. I refused it initially because I thought it would be a straightforward audio guide, something I usually find very distracting when most exhibitions are all about visual impact. But you really do need it: thanks to Sennheiser’s bluetooth technology, you are treated to a stunning, ever-changing soundtrack as you move around the exhibition, with songs interspersed with interviews with band members, and many others who contributed to the creation and appreciation of Pink Floyd the legend.

The exhibition marks 50 years since the 1967 release of their first album ‘The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’ and debut single Arnold Layne, and is co-curated by Victoria Broackes, who was also responsible for last year’s So You Want A Revolution? and the exceptional David Bowie exhibition.

I cannot claim to be an avid Pink Floyd fan. I liked their music – especially the long-form nature of it and its preocccupation with more profound or philosophical topics, rather than the usual love songs of pop – and I still hold that Wish You Were Here is the best thing they did, but I really enjoyed the exhibition, not least for the rush of nostalgia it provoked. It will appeal to hard-core Floyd fans and the culturally curious. My hip-hop loving son might even go and see it……


The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains, 13 May – 1 October 2017

Victoria & Albert Museum, London

FW (reviewed 9 May 2017)

A first quarter of fine concerts at St John’s Smith Square

Having declared that I intended to “do less” in 2017 to focus on more academic activities, my concert-going has been as busy as ever, and I have enjoyed some really fine performances in the first quarter of 2017. St John’s Smith Square (SJSS), now my favourite venue alongside the Wigmore Hall, is proving a rich source of fine music – solo piano recitals, chamber and choral music. It really is a wonderful place – easy to get to (within walking distance of Vauxhall, Victoria and Westminster stations), with friendly helpful staff and a welcoming atmosphere. Do seek it out if you haven’t already discovered it.

My first visit of 2017 to SJSS was for the first of chamber ensemble’s I Musicanti’s three-concert series. The finest chamber musicians brought together by double bassist and conductor Leon Bosch in programmes which feature well-known works (Schubert’s ‘Trout’ quintet was in the first concert) alongside lesser-known repertoire and new works by South African composers, these programmes (I have now been to two) are intriguing and satisfying, and beautifully presented (review here). The second concert in the series, in March, featured guitarist Craig Ogden, whose genial presence on stage lent an atmosphere of “music at home” to the little-known Terzetto for Violin, Cello and Guitar by Paganini. The highlight of this concert, for me, was the premiere of a new work by Werner Bosch (no relation to Leon Bosch) which contained many melodic, rhythmic and emotional idioms which reminded me of Schubert, whose little-known Quartet in G D96 for guitar, flute, viola and cello followed it. The final concert in this series is on 28th May and includes Mozart’s evergreen Clarinet Quintet in A K581, Schubert’s good-natured Octet in F D803, and the world premiere of a new work by David Earl viola and double bass. Do try and get to this concert to enjoy high-quality chamber music in a most convivial and warm atmosphere.

A return visit to SJSS for a sparkling two-piano concert by husband-and-wife duo Tamara Stefanovich and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who presented two mighty musical edifices in one thrilling programme. I went for the Messiaen, but the Brahms was revealing too, and before the concert I met a composer whose thoughtful minimalist music will be reviewed shortly on this site.

The previous evening I ventured outside my usual comfort zone of piano music to attend a concert by the Elysian Singers at SJSS. One of the UK’s leading chamber choirs, the Elysian Singers have a reputation for adventurous programmes, and their 28th January concert featured music by English composers Elgar and Holst, a new work by Judith Weir (current Master of the Queen’s Music), Bruckner, Bernstein’s vibrant Chichester Psalms (somewhat marred by an out of tune solo cellist), Vaughan Williams, Holst, Elgar and Stravinsky. The common thread was psalms: the choir has been celebrating its 30th anniversary with “PsalmFest 2016”, a year-long series of concerts in which they performed settings of all of the 150 psalms. The concert at SJSS was the culmination of this impressive feat and the programme demonstrated the wide variety and imagination which composers bring to settings of the Psalms in their responses to the language and meaning of each one. This was an uplifting and engaging concert. The works by Bernstein and Stravinksy were undoubtedly the highlights, sung with great commitment and evident enjoyment by the Elysian Singers, but there were some other new discoveries in the programme and I particular enjoyed the Holst setting of Psalm 86.

Another piano recital at SJSS which proved most absorbing was a lunchtime concert by Mishka Rushdie Momen (winner of the Dudley International Piano Competition). The concert opened with Mozart at his most melancholy and introspective – the dark yet achingly lyrical Rondo in A minor K511. It’s one of my favourite works by Mozart, or indeed anyone, and Mishka’s sensitive, thoughtful response to the unsettled character of this music highlighted its many wonders. This was followed by Schumann’s first piano sonata. Rarely performed (this was my introduction to it), it was dedicated to his beloved Clara Wieck “from Florestan and Eusebius”, his alter egos. He described this dramatic work to her as “a cry from my heart to yours”, and it is replete with secret messages to her using her ‘theme’ of a falling scale of five notes. Mishka acute sense of pacing and her varied dynamic palette brought this wonderful piece alive with drama and affection. Two pieces by Albeniz concluded the concert, transporting us to Spain for warm sunshine and holiday rhythms.

Finally, for this quarter’s concerts, a performance of Bach’s magisterial St Matthew Passion by the Armonico Consort and Baroque Orchestra, with Ian Bostridge as guest soloist. Lively tempi, fine diction from the singers and some commendable performances from soloists within the choir created a performance which had much dramatic drive. The orchestra plays period instruments and the muted, warm sound lent an intimacy to this sprawling work. Ian Bostridge’s Evangelist was passionate, emotive and committed, and his performance rather put the others in the shade, though special mentions should be made of counter-tenor Joseph Bolger and Andrew Davies’s lyrical understated Christus.





A young pianist’s thoughts on late style

What is Late Style? It’s a question that has long preoccupied writers and thinkers, from Theodor Adorno to Edward Said. And now Jonathan Biss, an American pianist in his mid-30s, is exploring the concept of Late Style through a series concerts featuring a variety of composers and works. His second London concert was on 27th March 2017 and included works by Schumann, Kurtág, Chopin and Brahms.

Here’s Biss in his own words about his Late Style project:

It really has interested me that there are so many composers who were already writing great music but still at the end of their lives moved in new directions. For example, with Beethoven because the late works are so special, had he stopped at Op.80, we’d still say he’s one of the greatest, but he still found a new language in later life. This is also true of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and figures as diverse as Britten, Bartok, Shostakovich and Gesualdo. I am just fascinated by this idea that the combination of accumulated wisdom and the sense that time is finite, limited, seemed to have focused so many composers’ imaginations in a very specific way. Either age and/or coming to the end of life it seems you reach the point where you just say what you need to say, you don’t worry about how it will be received. All of these works are very different but I think the link is that these people have the freedom to say what they need to say.

Interview with The Cross-Eyed Pianist

And here is Edward Said on the notion of an artistic late style:

The accepted notion is that age confers a spirit of reconciliation and serenity on late works, often expressed in terms of a miraculous transfiguration of reality.

Each of us can supply evidence of late works which crown a lifetime of aesthetic endeavour. Rembrandt and Matisse, Bach and Wagner. But what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty and contradiction? What if age and ill health don’t produce serenity at all?

Some composers have a very distinct Late Style – Beethoven, for example, who was long lived (by the standards of his time) and whose late works reveal an intensely philosophical other-worldliness and sense of acceptance (but never resignation). For Chopin and Schumann, who both died relatively young and whose music featured in Biss’s concert programme, lateness is relative, almost a philosophical construct. For some composers, it suggests a confrontation with mortality, an expression of the ultimate life lessons; yet for others their late style does not always bring wisdom and serenity. Take Schubert, whose music occupies Biss’s final concert in May: Schubert was dying (and knew he was dying) when he wrote his last works, but rather than express acceptance of his own mortality, these works seem to communicate an “incompleteness”, a sense that he had much more to say, and that he had perhaps reached a moment in his compositional life, freed from the shadow of Beethoven, where he had the freedom to say it without worrying about how it would be received. In the late music of Brahms, one finds an individual facing death without any questioning or belief that there is something beyond, an afterlife. His music is not “anti-hope” but there are motifs and gestures in the late piano music which create a deep sense of melancholy. In his earlier works, one feels he has something to prove – as indeed he did: anointed the heir to Beethoven as a young man, he carried the weight of expectation. This has gone in his late works, replaced by a vulnerability and a wish to speak but perhaps not always quite able to.

For Jonathan Biss, the notion of creative lateness is not only related to physical age but also to an attitude of mind. In composers who died young, in particular, there is the sense of a life lived with intensity, that time is finite, and this seems to have focused composers’ imaginations in a very specific way. For a more senior composer, such as Brahms, the combination of accumulated wisdom and the sense that time is limited produces music which is impeccably wrought yet emotionally unleashed. In his book On Late Style (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), Edward Said highlights a certain “insouciance” or self-confidence in artists’ or composers’ late works, which may stem from a sense of completion, serenity, acceptance, or reconciliation. This “insouciance” – and artistic confidence – was evident in all the works in Jonathan Biss’s programme.

In Brahms’ late piano works which form Opp. 118 and 119, there is a serenity combined with vulnerability, an acceptance that the end is near, yet these are not valedictory works. Biss preceded these pieces with the second movement of Brahms’s Third Piano Sonata, showing how the chain of falling thirds pre-echoes the opening of the Opus 119, the last pieces Brahms wrote for the piano. It was interesting to hear the connections: the piano sonata, written when he was only 20, already sounds fully formed, mature, tightly structured and sophisticated. In the late piano works, there is greater spaciousness, more freedom of expression, a sense of a composer who no longer has anything to prove, an ‘insouciance”. In the post-concert talk, Biss admitted his great affection for Brahms’ music and this was clear in his performance. A generous, warm tone, careful attention to details of phrasing, tempo, rubato and articulation, and a sensitivity to Brahms’ shifting moods – from achingly tender to almost chaotically reckless in the Rhapsody of Op119, made this, for me, the highlight of this interesting programme.

The programme opened with Schumann’s Gesänge der Frühe, composed in November 1853, just a few months before Schumann’s irretrievable mental breakdown. Here is a composer who has turned desperately inward, the “Eusebius” (sensitive, introverted) side of his personality very much to the fore. The music has a bittersweet quality, and Biss’s ability to highlight the lyricism and poetry which overlaid darker undercurrents of emotion made this an absorbing and thoughtful opener to the concert.

Kurtág’s miniatures – six fleeting yet highly concentrated pieces from the huge sequence called Játékok  (Games) – revealed Biss’s persuasively rich tonal palette and his appreciation of Kurtág’s understated yet emotionally intense soundworld. These are late works “in spirit” (and for a composer as long lived as Kurtág’, they may well be his “middle period” works!). Kurtag, like Brahms before him, knew he was sitting on top of years and years of so much great music: he had “a super-historical awareness”, yet by the end of the 1960s he had come to a creative impasse as he strove to come to terms with the great Western musical tradition. His response was Játékok: conceived on one level as short playful piano pieces for children, on another fragmented aphoristic or wistful commentaries and hommages to the music and composers which had gone before. Here, the composer’s lateness is expressed in fleeting works. Like the late Brahms there’s an insouciance and confidence in these tiny works: here is a composer who feels no need to speak too loudly to be heard.

Chopin’s mighty Polonaise-Fantaisie Op.61 followed almost without a pause, its drama and fervency providing a striking contrast to the previous works. Out of the entire programme, this was the work which felt less successful for me and it was rather muddled, the clarity of melodic line and musical thought lost in the almost ferociously extrovert passages. The overall effect was one of uncertainty and improvisation, a sense of the composer asking of himself and audience “What kind of a piece is this?”. Perhaps Chopin’s creative lateness was the ability to make extraordinary music out of two genres – a fusing of the Polonaise (a Polish dance) and the fantasy. The end result is a hybrid – a collection of free associations.

If the programme had an obvious theme (aside from Late Style), it would be the intensity of the music performed: four composers who had found a purity of expression in their late works, a compelling need to speak with the freedom to say what they need to say without concern of how their music would be received. Jonathan Biss has been praised for his intellectual and musically curious approach to his programmes and music making, and this thoughtful and highly personal programme suits his musical personality.

In the final concert of this series, Biss is joined by tenor Mark Padmore to explore Schubert’s last songs, and the great A major Piano Sonata, D959 – highly works emblematic of Schubert’s final year which reveal a composer facing death as stylistically as diverse then as he had ever been before.

Lateness is being at the end, fully conscious, full of memory, and also very (even preternaturally) aware of the present

– Edward Said


(Photo of Jonathan Biss by Benjamin Ealovega)




An added poignancy to Howard Hodgkin’s ‘Absent Friends’

Howard Hodgkin: Absent Friends – National Portrait Gallery, London

The title of the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition of portraits by British artist Howard Hodgkin has an added poignancy: called ‘Absent Friends’, the show opens just two weeks after the artist died at the age of 84, and thus Hodgkin himself is an absent friend to this exhibition, with which he was very much involved in the planning. It’s the first ever exhibition of Hodgkin’s portraits and contains over 50 works from around the world, dating from 1949 to the present, including a recently completed self-portrait by the late artist together  early drawings from Hodgkin’s private collection, made while he was studying at Bath Academy of Art in the 1950s, and exhibited for the first time.

Howard Hodgkin has never quite attained the same status nor acclaim in the contemporary British art world as David Hockney or Lucien Freud, yet for me his work seems far superior to the former artist’s later creations, in particular in its execution, imagination and refinement. Compare Hodgkin’s sprezzatura brushstrokes, vibrant dots and exuberant joie de vivre with the clumsy faux-pointillism and migraine-inducing colours of Hockney’s most recent landscapes, currently on display in a retrospective of his work at Tate Britain, and Hodgkin wins hands down in my book.

There aren’t many faces in this exhibition and initially one may find it strange to encounter so many obviously abstract works in an exhibition billed as portraiture. But for Hodgkin, portraits were not about figurative representations of people – friends, lovers, colleagues – but rather the private realm of experience that connects one more intimately with the world and its inhabitants. “I am a representational painter, but not a painter of appearances.” said Hodgkin of his work, “I paint representational pictures of emotional situations.” Hodgkin’s portraits move far beyond literal appearance and instead represent more subjective aspects – memory, experience, emotion and expression associated with the person. Rather like Elgar’s portrayal of friends in his ‘Enigma Variations’, Hodgkin drew on his accumulated experiences and the paintings became the physical equivalent of the artist’s experience and feelings: “they should be like memorials“. These works are highly personal and often intangible, created with wit, warmth and intimacy, whose colours, shapes and brushstrokes express the artist’s evocation of specific individuals in particular situations.

The early works from the late 1940s and 50s are far from abstract. These are purely figurative works, but Hodgkin’s interest in colour is evident from the outset. The drawings, on display for the first time, demonstrates key characteristics of Hodgkin’s approach which continued throughout his career. In all three works, including a drawing of his landlady ‘Miss Spackamn’, he evokes the appearance of the sitters very precisely, with confident pencil marks, yet they are based entirely on memory, a factor central to Hodgkin’s work, and reveal his remarkable powers of recall. Two Women at a Table explores the physical relationship between the two sitters, with the underlying theme of the intimacy of their situation. The works from the late 1950s are also the result of recollected images: their subjects are recognisable, but the artist’s expressivity is used to recapture his “original feeling” of recalled experiences with and about that person. In the 1960s, the art critic Edward Lucie-Smith described Hodgkin as “the nearest thing to a classical artist at present working in England” and for Hodgkin the notion of “classical art” was connected with “making art out of feelings”. This psychological dimension – picturing reality as he felt it rather than as he saw it, going into the mind and painting consciousness instead of reality – would assume greater prominence in his later work. The works from the 1960s are witty and affectionate, highlighting aspects unique to their subjects’ lives and work: for example, ‘The Tilsons’ (1965-7) portrays the British Pop artist Joe Tilson, whose handmade, constructed work reflects his background in carpentry. Hodgkin uses bold colour and repeated geometric shapes which recall Pop Art’s appropriation of techniques from advertising and commercial design. Meanwhile in ‘Mr and Mrs Robin Denny’ (1960), a double portrait of the painter Robyn Denny (1930-2014) and his wife Anna, Hodgkin’s bold brushwork and vibrant colours may be an affectionate riposte to Denny’s geometric compositions and restrained palette.

Mr & Mrs Robyn Denny (1960)

©Howard Hodgkin

From the 1970s, Hodgkin’s work moved further into the realms of abstraction, and while these paintings may appear to have been created in a matter of hours or a few days, they are the result of much painstaking work and revisions over many years. Yet they vibrate with an irresistible spontaneity and vibrancy. These are the paintings I remember from childhood visits to art exhibitions with my mother (also an artist and art historian). I was fascinated by Hodgkin’s habit of painting right across the frames of his works, something which seemed highly subversive in a tradition concerned with edges and defined limits. And so just as he challenged the received notion of what constitutes a portrait, he also made a statement about how we define “a painting”.

Going For A Walk With Andrew (1995-98), Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

It is these later works which really sing from the walls – simple in composition with broad bands of colours, dappled surfaces, jewel-like colours – they feel fresh, newly-created and replete with a zest for life. The final room displays Hodgkin’s last major painting, Portrait of the Artist Listening to Music, completed in late 2016 with the National Portrait Gallery exhibition in mind. This large oil on wood painting, (1860mm x 2630mm) evokes a deeply personal situation: the act of remembering memorialised in paint. While Hodgkin worked on it, recordings of two pieces of music were played continuously: ‘The Last Time I Saw Paris’ composed by Jerome Kern (a song about looking back and reliving the past), and the zither music from the film The Third Man. Both pieces were favourites of the artist and closely connected to earlier times in his life that the experience of listening recalled. Surrounded by a hefty frame, which does not contain the picture but rather allows it to extend, its colours and broad gestures invite one to step into it, to explore it further. The colours are more muted than in the other paintings which precede it, but its celebration of the experience of being alive vibrates across the work. This is a work of genuine emotion and integrity.

Paul Moorhouse, the exhibition’s curator says of this picture: “When we look at this painting it’s got such a highly-charged, emotional message which is rather different from the more celebratory pictures elsewhere in the exhibition. To me, it’s a deeply-moving painting and I think it is a painting in which Howard was confronting what he saw approaching. I think he knew.

Portrait of the Artist Listening to Music (2016)

The exhibition begins with Hodgkin’s earliest portrait, and the story ends with this final work. What is in no doubt is that this exhibition is a wonderful tribute to and celebration of one of Britain greatest artists.

FW (reviewed 22 March 2017)

23 March -18 June 2017, at the National Portrait Gallery, London