Sat, 18 Feb 2017
Wild Swans

Wild Swans
By Jung Chang

Score: 4/5

In Wild Swans, Jung Chang tells the story of her family over the course of the 20th Century in China. This was a century of massive change and calamity in the Middle Kingdom: from "warlordism", to civil war, the cruelty and corruption of the Kuomintang and then the victory of the Communists under Mao. At first a lot of idealism as the Communists took over: stability returned, some prosperity. But over a short time things changed greatly for the worse again.

The book is a moving and fascinating account of China and the Chinese people and culture, and Ms Chang's love of the country and its history shines through, whatever the appalling hardships and cruelty she describes. Her youthful adoration of Chairman Mao slowly turns to anger and shock at the realisation of his central and personal role in the destruction of the country: its people, material and spirit.

Perhaps the saddest part of the book is about her father, a communist "true believer" in the ideals the party said it stood for. Incorruptible, and so straight and fair that he antagonised and caused many in his family (especially Chang's mother, his wife) to despair and anger Not willing to bend the knee as the party became deranged and things descended to chaos and brutality, he paid a heavy price.

In the end, once Mao was gone, things could open up a bit and Chang escaped to London and academia. Even though things are materially much better in China now, the country has not come to terms with the Mao legacy still and there are many people who still worship his memory. They are still denied a true account of their history.


Sun, 12 Feb 2017
Art and Aeons

If you like geology and also a bit of art, you'll like Jill McManners watercolours at the Mall Galleries. McManners is fascinated by the wild rock formations making up some parts of the Scottish Hebrides, here the Galta islands and the Shiants; wild and primeval landscapes in the Atlantic Ocean. Her own web site is good at showing off her work.

Jill McManners: Sea of Crises


Tue, 07 Feb 2017
Picasso

The name "Picasso" is synonymous with Modern Art. Everyone know's his name, although perhaps few will be able to name anything he did now. My younger self was a little dismissive of some "modern" art, including Picasso I'm sad to say, but now I'm older, I see things a bit differently (and now dismiss a whole new class of modern art).

I went to the National Portrait Gallery's Picasso Portraits on Saturday morning, for the second time. Although there are still many works of his I don't like, what I see now is also one of the greatest artists we've seen. Picasso was so prolific, always trying something new and always interesting.

This show displays portraiture work from his very earliest days, with his father's realist (genre) style (see above), all the way to his last works, covering abstract and cubist, naive and realistic.

To the right and below: what would people have made of these last century? Both portraits, both shockingly new and different.

Below: Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, 1910, Oil.

Above: Woman with hat (Olga), 1935, Oil.

A lot of these works are portraits of his wives, muses, children and friends. But a few are self-portraits, the last being poignant, as he faces his mortality. A great artist.

Another great, and very prolific artist, is having his place in the sun again. David Hockney at The Tate is bound to be busy. I'm looking forward to the visit.


Sun, 29 Jan 2017
Visitations

Roadside Picnic
By Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky

Score : 4/5

This is a short novel by the Strugatsky brothers, written in the 1970's in the Soviet Union. The book was filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky as Stalker.

The premise is that aliens have visited Earth but no one saw them, and all that's left of their visit are a number of "zones" spread across the world, areas now contaminated with very strange and sometimes dangerous artifacts. The main character is Redrick "Red" Schuhart, a stalker, someone who goes into a zone to find and extract things to sell. It's like prospecting. It's a dangerous job because the objects might be very strange and possibly lethal: instantly or at some later time. The zone itself is full of almost supernatural elements and has effects on visitors, their minds and bodies, and also their children. Red's daughter is born with fur and referred to as the "monkey". This is all a bit strange, but compelling.

The story is almost a "hard-boiled" tale of misfits, criminals and police in a gold mine boom town but the unsettling strangeness and horror of the magical landscape at the centre makes the novel unique. Of course, Red makes a last expedition into the zone, in search of the wish-granting "golden sphere". At this point you also have a glimpse of the "meat-grinder".

A short book and a quick read, but something that will stay with you.


Tue, 24 Jan 2017
East of The Shard

Not far from Tower Hill, and East of The Shard, lies the Wapping waterfront. An interesting area with a bit of history and character attached: and increasingly expensive like a lot of London. Having said that, when you are priced out of central London, expense is relative.

My workplace is now on the river front amongst the wharves and warehouses of the 19th Century city.

A lot quieter than Soho, it will take a bit of getting used to but it has its advantages. After the hustle and bustle of the West End, a quieter environment might even be one of them. Home on the bike via London Bridge and Elephant and Castle is a bit of a rat race though. Cycle routes to and from Wapping is a work in progress! A lot of regeneration has been going on down by the river for quite a while.


Wed, 18 Jan 2017
All Roads

The Restoration of Rome
By Peter Heather

Score : 4/5

Heather's history book looks at three main characters who, wittingly or not, almost managed to restore a Western Roman Empire to existence after its dissolution in the mid-5th Century. Much of the huge amount of disruption of the 5th and 6th centuries was first caused by the eruption of the Huns into Europe, and subsequently the fighting over the spoils Attila and his tribe had accumulated. Enter the Goths.

Starting with Theoderic, King of the Ostrogoths. His high water mark covered all of Italy, Southern Gaul, Sicily and Spain, but it all disintegrated after he died in 526 AD with internecine fighting and the deaths (mostly unnatural) of successors.

Next we have Charles the Great, Charlemagne, King of the Franks and crowned Western Emperor in Rome in 800 AD, by the Bishop of Rome no less. His empire covered vast tracts of Europe (minus Spain, conquered by Islamic armies), including the Germanic heartlands over the Rhine and Northern Italy. But once again, family feud and a chronic inability to settle inheritance problems caused much to fragment a few generations after his death.

Heather then comes to the third "character", the Papacy. Initially content to play a small role in the Empire, and taking a subservient role to the Emperor even on matters of faith, the later Papacy truly found its voice. This was in large part due to the money and reformation initiated during and after Charlemagne, many changes in education and policy driven by northern Popes (the "barbarian popes" Heather mentions in the book title). Churchmen and educators were reacting aganist some serious Roman corruption in the 9th and 10th Centuries (the so-called Pornocracy).

Peter Heather doesn't shy away from using modern vernacular, or cultural references when explaining the way the world worked back then. His more laid back style might not always work but he pulls it off because he obviously knows his history and he manages to be both serious and sometimes funny. History should not be a dry discipline and this book isn't. It is a very good read because of that.


Tue, 10 Jan 2017
Injection Moulding

Until fairly recently, I'd never been all the way to the top floor of the V&A, where the furniture and ceramics are displayed. The top floor is much quieter than a lot of the rest of the museum but has a fascinating mix of art, craft and education.

I watched a few short videos on some new (20th Century) manufacturing techniques using PVC, Acrylic and other plastics, incuding injection moulding the Panton Chair (pictured below). An iconic design made out of molten plastic all in a single moulded piece.

The actual video is available on Vimeo.

In addition to the industrial manufacturing processes, there are many educational videos on a lot of other things e.g. the dove-tail wood joint, another short video I watched and enjoyed. The classic production and decorative processes are well represented.

The V&A has a YouTube channel with lots of great videos that seem to cover almost everything : here.


Fri, 06 Jan 2017
Location Location Location

A post on Thrillist (as linked on Ann Althouse's blog) is about a bubble in the US restaurant market that might be about to pop. It mentions some problems of running a business and made me think of many bits of London, and in particular Soho.

There's a Massive Restaurant Industry Bubble, and It's About to Burst

In the restaurant world, rent always sucks. Unless you manage to play it perfectly, as a restaurant owner you're either moving into a sketchy or "emerging" neighborhood where the rent is cheap but few want to go there, or you're overpaying for an established 'hood and need to be a runaway success from day one. And even if you do manage to make it in the former type of neighborhood, your success often ends up pricing you out of the 'hood you helped revitalize.

In Miami, Michelle Bernstein's Cena by Michy helped rebirth the MiMo historic district but was forced to close this year, after the landlord attempted to triple the rent. And even Danny Meyer had to close and move Union Square Cafe in New York, which, since 1985, had served as one of America's culinary landmarks, when he couldn't rationalize paying the huge rent hike the landlord proposed.

Rent (and rates) is just one of the problems but it's a big one, and affecting a lot of people in London as well. This seems to be especially true around an area like Soho, which has been "improving" for years now, cleaned up and much shinier than it used to be. A glut of new restaurants, food and coffee places come and go regularly, and I often wonder when "peak" food will hit. The rent has exploded as well and forced a lot of closure, or relocation. There is still so much new building and renovation going on and coming online; who is affording all this?


Sun, 01 Jan 2017
Making a New World

Well, happy new year everyone.

The above painting is We Are Making a New World by Paul Nash, painted in 1918. Nash would go on to do some great paintings during the Second War as well (see Totes Meer below). A new world was surely made.

These pictures are part of the Nash exhibition at Tate Britain, a big retrospective of his work. I don't bother with staying up celebrating the new year anymore and for the past few years I've made it a habit of visiting the Tate every January 1st and seeing the current show, having lunch in the cafe and turning my thoughts to the coming year. Nash reminds me of another English artist, Eric Ravilious, someone I wrote about in 2015. Their styles have some similarity and their working lives overlapped; to me, both impart a pre and post-war nostalgia of a lost era. A bit elegiac actually.

Nash's war paintings made his name, but he went on to do much more, including some surrealism (and was influenced by Giorgio de Chirico). I liked the exhibition, and you can see more at the Tate site.

Below: Totes Meer (Dead Sea), 1940-41. Oil.


Fri, 30 Dec 2016
Cat on Cup

This is a small painting done as a Christmas present, set in a fancy frame picked up in a charity shop for £1. The painting is oil, on arches paper and depicts a Jane Foster mug, something I picked up in John Lewis. The mug's small but a perfect size for an expresso, or a child.


Sun, 25 Dec 2016
How to make a wood engraving

This is a short (6 minute) video from the Royal Academy with artist Anne Desmet showing us how she makes an engraving in wood. Using a sketch she made of a town in Italy as a starting point, it is fascinating to see the work involved and the final result is lovely.

Her web site is here, with a gallery of work, some of it award winning.


Fri, 23 Dec 2016
Taking Care of Relations

Not a book review (yet), but I have been reading Peter Heather's history of the early medieval period, post-Western Roman Empire, The Restoration of Rome, and finding it very good. Heather's got a way with words sometimes, putting events of the day into familiar terms, sometimes quite amusingly. It might jar sometimes, but he gets away with it because his book is good history with his own research behind some of it.

Right: A medal minted by Theoderic, King of the Ostrogoths and ruler of Italy, early 6th Century.

The period after the political demise of the Western Roman Empire was full of drama, including a lot of fighting and killing (not much change then, perhaps). This included intra-family decimations. Take Clovis, King of the Franks circa 480 AD. To achieve and cement his power, he killed a vast number of people, including perhaps seven rivals, some of them relatives.

From Heather's book, describing Bishop Gregory Of Tours history of the times :

Gregory closes the chapters with a speech Clovis is supposed to have made at a Frankish assembly

How sad a thing it is that I live among strangers like some solitary pilgrim, and that I have none of my own relations left to help me when disaster threatens!

Gregory's comment on this is typical of his own dark sense of humour

He said this not because he grieved for their deaths, but because in his cunning way he hoped to find some relative still in the land of the living he could kill.

So far, a fascinating book. Now we move from the Ostrogoth Theoderic to the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian.


Thu, 22 Dec 2016
Adorable?

The Victoria and Albert Museum is always worth a visit, and at Christmas they usually have some good decorations up as well. It's a very large stone building, with lots of space, so it can be a bit chilly in winter however.

On the left is a detail of a wooden carving of Jesus, Mary and Adoring Kings of about 1510 from an Austrian church. Unfortunately, as well as missing a hand, the infant Jesus has a decidedly demonic appearance now. The wooden work has not aged well (one assumes the child was more angelic originally, one would hope).

The nearby Jesus, Mary and Family (below), also Austrian from about the year 1510, has a much more presentable Jesus :

If you like the Christmas story, a visit an art gallery or museum is a good way to see it pictured. The National Gallery in London has an exhibition of two massive nativity paintings by an almost unknown (outside Spain) Spanish artist called Fray Juan Bautista MaĆ­no. His paintings here are very beautiful and extremely impressive, not least the size. The paintings are on loan from the Prado in Madrid until the end of January: the link is to the museum's page on the Adoration of the Shepherds and lets you zoom in. In life, the paintings are over 3 metres high!


Wed, 14 Dec 2016
The Leopard

The Leopard
By Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Score: 5/5

This edition of The Leopard is a beautifully produced hardback Everyman's Library edition. It is also one of the best novels I have read, and something I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

The book is set in Sicily during the 1860's, Garibaldi has landed on Sicily and the reunification (Risorgimento) of Italy has been set in motion. Centred on the aristocratic family of Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, as he struggles to come to terms with the new order and the changes that arrive in a traditional and rural Sicily, the book is funny, sweet, sad and extremely well written (and therefore translated). This is a novel I realised I wanted to savour from the start and was sad to finish.

The introduction by David Gilmour is also well worth reading, as he gives a background to the author. The Prince of Salina, family and household is based on author Tomasi di Lampedusa's similar trajectory :

.. from wealth to penury, from influence to impotence, from an abundance of male descendants to sheer physical extinction. The last Prince of Lampedusa died, childless and impoverished, in Rome in 1957. He left few possessions except the manuscript of a novel which had recently been rejected by two leading Italian publishers".

Similar rejections of what turn out to be classic works is familiar. One wonders how many wonderful works might never find an audience, but must be very grateful that this one did. A wonderful book: I cannot recommend it highly enough.


Sat, 10 Dec 2016
Olwyn Bowey at the RA

Olwyn Bowey is an artist I hadn't heard of or seen until I saw a few of her paintings in the last couple of summer shows at the Royal Academy. I liked them so keep my eyes open. She has a small exhibition on at the RA just now: not in a gallery but in the Keepers House. Actually in the Belle Shenkman Room, part of the café.

Below: Tortoise with Alliums, 2016, Oil on board. 69 x 66cm

Below: Cape Primroses, 2015, Oil on board. 72.5 x 77cm

Normally, you need to be an RA "friend" (member) to use the restaurant or café (some of it is swanky), but entrance to see the pictures is free. So it was good to see the inside of the RA member facilities. It was also very quiet first thing, so a perfect time to visit. See it here.


Fri, 09 Dec 2016
Oil Painters

On Saturday I went to the Royal Institute of Oil Painters 2016 exhibition. Amazing show, lots of different artists and lots of great works.

Getting there on a cold morning, and there must have been about thirty artists arriving to take part in the annual show competition: do a plein-air oil painting within half a mile of the gallery and win a prize. Although cold, it was a good day for it, with the sun out and a crisp, winter light.

It is impossible to pick a favourite, or even a reasonable number! One I liked was the large and imposing : On Time by Richard Combes ROI, Oil, 125 x 150 cm. Stunning realism and beautifully executed.

And for something quite different : Cats and Friends by Susan Bower RBA ROI, Oil, 47 x 53cm. She does these quirky paintings, usually people, often with animals, funny. They seem to sell well. I'm not a big fan but I quite like them and they usually bring a smile to your face.

For a good selection of the work, see the Mall Galleries site.


Sun, 04 Dec 2016
Quantum Ladders

Schild's Ladder
By Greg Egan

Score : 3 / 5

Egan's science-fiction is perhaps the wildest and most speculative stuff I've read, but the wildness comes at a cost: sometimes a lot of exposition of the maths and physics behind it all. Schild's Ladder is a case in point: I have to admit to skimming some of this after a while but still enjoyed the book. This novel perhaps pushed the "hard" science a bit more than usual, even for Egan.

In the far future, a researcher creates a state of vacuum more stable than our own by accident and it starts expanding inside our universe, destroying "normal" matter as it does (at half the speed of light). The novel has two opposing camps of humanity: those that want to reverse and destroy this novo-vacuum, and those that want to stop its expansion and study it.

Right now, both factions are on an outpost (seemingly) pacing the expansion, sitting in front of it and studying it. Fighting, a war of words at the moment. These are not your average humans though: essentially immortal because they exist as information that can inhabit flesh-and-blood artificial human bodies, inhabit artificial exo-skeletons or decide to stay incorporeal. Gender is fluid, AI ubiquitous and everyone seems to know a lot of math! The physics of the new matter inside the expanding new vacuum is described, as well as a mind-bending voyage inside to investigate its secrets. "Normal" space is fairly mind-bending as it is anyway but Egan can stretch things further when we get down to planck scale physics :

The Planck scale is the universal limit, beyond which the currently known laws of physics break. In order to comprehend anything beyond it, we need new, unbreakable physics.

I didn't really care about the characters, and didn't really understand a lot of it, but it is quite a dive into the far future and it is very thought provoking. I hope humanity makes it to the far future.


Thu, 24 Nov 2016
Copper Pot

Above: Copper Pot, Oil on wood panel, 10x8" [larger]

This is a painting done via a Will Kemp tutorial How to Paint a Copper Pot in Acrylics. I painted it in oils instead of acrylics. Kemp's done a very nice reference photograph that's lovely to paint because it's got such beautiful and strong contrasts, both colour and light.

I got some of the pot wrong for some reason (e.g. handle shape) but that's not a problem. I made the background too blue originally as well, and thought I over-worked it to fix, but that's not a problem either and I think it looks OK. The "pot" itself is the star here and it's turned out quite well. I hesitate to add extra highlights to the surrounding metal/cooker in case it detracts, and it is all too easy to mess things up. When is a painting finished?

The painting is on a wooden panel (Ampersand artists panel) using Winsor&Newton Griffin alkyd oils (faster drying oil paints). I used white spirit as a dilutant but also some liquin later. I don't like complexity in the process, especially worrying about medium concentrations (fat,thin etc.). I think some parts of the painting have too little oil and show as matte areas: probably too much solvent (white spirit). I may investigate fixing this, or perhaps varnish will in a few months.

The photograph of the work above was taken in my kitchen under a light bulb, then white-balanced slightly, so the quality is not the highest. By eye on my monitor it seems to be fairly true however.


Sat, 19 Nov 2016
Arrival

Arrival is a new film by director Denis Villeneuve, based on a short story by Ted Chiang called The Story of your Life. I read this last year.

This is a "first contact" with aliens film, where the aliens are very alien, but not obviously threatening, and we are struggling to communicate with them. The "threat" is human competition, fear and misunderstanding. Amy Adams plays a civilian linguist employed by the army to help try and talk to them, alongside physicist Jeremy Renner.

The film was very good, and a refreshing change from a lot of "speculative" (I hesitate to use the description "science-fiction") films made today. Chiang's story is about language and how much language might define us and the way we see (and are capable of seeing) the world. The story and the film are thought provoking, with the film deepening the very moving back-story (or is it?) of Adams' daughter. I have to admit that I haven't really figured it all out but that's part of the fun of an intelligent piece work sometimes. I would definitely watch it again.


Sun, 13 Nov 2016
Darkness and Light

Above: Detail from Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ, 1602

When I first discovered renaissance and post-renaissance Italian art, Caravaggio immediately stood out; he became one of my favourite artists. The sharpness of detail in his paintings, striking use of shadow and light and the realism, almost photographic, all contributed to my admiration. Compared to his contemporaries, the people he painted were much less idealised, much more like the people you would meet in daily life on the street. Many actually were.

The current National Gallery show Beyond Caravaggio is therefore a must see, and I went for the second time this Saturday morning. A very wet day indeed, and I got thoroughly soaked on the bike, but worth it.

Only a few by the famous man himself, the show rather concentrated on the artists he influenced. A couple of my favourite paintings are below. The exhibition is a collaboration between the national galleries of London, Scotland and Ireland.

Right: Christ before the High Priest, Gerrit van Honthorst, about 1617

I find this a very powerful and emotional picture, with Jesus standing before the high priest being interrogated. Christ looks completely worn out, tired and all too human as he faces the questioning. He will soon be taken out, beaten and crucified, and he knows it. The single candle is the only light source, and it casts the Caravaggio-like darks and lights. The candle and the pointing finger. A beautiful and affecting work.

Details at the National Gallery site.

Right: A Man Singing by Candlelight, Adam de Coster, about 1625-1635

Candle light figures prominently in the exhibition, as artists use the light cast to generate the deep shadow and bright light that is often so indicative of the style of Caravaggio.

De Coster is an unfamiliar artist but this painting is masterfully done. The only picture I could find of it is not the best reproduction (too dark) but gives an idea. In life, he uses the strong contrast beautifully, including the detail in the clothes of the singer. A very good painting.