Sun, 19 Apr 2015
BBC Secret Knowledge : Body Beautiful

The BBC have a program in their Secret Knowledge series about the Defining Beauty show at the British Museum.

If you can, catch the program on iPlayer.


Wed, 15 Apr 2015
Dream Time

The Lathe of Heaven
By Ursula Le Guin

It took me a while to get into this book, the first third seemed a little slow. Thankfully though, it got a lot better and by the end I found it moving.

George Orr's dreams change waking reality, and all of history making up this reality. A gift? No a curse. Wanting to be "cured" of this terrible burden, he is given therapy by William Haber, a scientist and sleep researcher. The talented, well meaning but somewhat megalomaniacal Haber decides to use Orr instead, directing the dreams himself using a machine of his own design. Whatever good intentions Haber has, dreams are far from logical and things do not always go to plan. The world goes through a number of (sometimes) radical changes throughout the book as a consequence, until Orr discovers some understanding of his place in the world.

There's a fair amount to digest here, not least the nature of reality. Le Guin weaves in some Chinese style mysticism, from the novel's title, the Lao Tse aphorisms that often head the chapters and the toying with the dream versus the real. Much the sort of thing Philip K. Dick was always juggling in his books.

Those whom heaven helps we call the sons of heaven. They do not learn this by learning. They do not work it by working. They do not reason it by using reason. To let understanding stop, at what cannot be understood,is a high attainment. Those that cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.
-- Chuang Tse: XXIII

This quote gives the novel its name but it's a misquote apparently.

A bit of a slog to start but in the end worth reading, with some thought provoking ideas. You have to be careful what you wish for.


Sun, 12 Apr 2015
Stories of Your Life and Others

Stories of Your Life and Others
By Ted Chiang

I saw Ted Chiang's work come highly recommended online but had never heard of him. When I saw a very cheap kindle version of a book of his, I took the chance and bought it.

A small book of (eight) short stories, Stories of Your Life and Others was well worth downloading and reading. It starts with a story set in the (supposed) past with the builders of the Tower of Babel, reaching the sky and beyond. From there, it covers stories dealing with the consequences of a massively enhanced intelligence, alien contact and communication (and how it changes one person's own thought processes), a problematic maths discovery and other off-beat and thought-provoking stories. They often have a fascination with maths, language, discovery and our future trajectory given the many changes we see around us.

Here's an article onine about the author

He's not very prolific and this seems to be because he sticks with another job he likes (technical writer) and likes to think through his writing deeply. This seems to work very well.


Wed, 08 Apr 2015
Portrait Sketch v1

It's been a while again (almost 12 weeks!) but I finally sat down to do a bit more painting, again following the path of least resistance and using a Will Kemp tutorial.

Many of these portrait painting tutorials use something called a "Zorn Palette", after the 19th Century Swedish painter Anders Zorn, someone I'd not heard of before. A limited palette using only ivory black, titanium white, yellow ochre and cadmium red (although some raw umber is also used for the ground).

Zorn painted Portrait of Emma Zorn and my small, cropped copy is below.

If you follow the linkt, try to ignore the (probably) great difference in colour you'll see. Colour calibration needed as always.

This is a small painting (6"x8") in acrylic on Daler board.

This is "version 1" - version "2" has turned out much worse unfortunately. It was supposed to be am improvement but it looks like I'll abandon and junk.

Kemp paints this Alla Prima, apparently in one go, under an hour. I took two or three sittings, one about 20 minutes for the greys and base, then a couple more of 20 or 30 minutes each for the skin tones and the completion.


Mon, 06 Apr 2015
Defining Beauty

A good visit to the new British Museum exhibition Defining Beauty, a look at how the Ancient Greeks represented and viewed the human body. Mostly beauty here but there are some contrasting views of the uglier, whether the satyr, centaur or Socrates himself.

Socrates was famously quite ugly, although very appreciative of the beautiful young male athletes he watched in the gymnasium. Hmm. Ahem, anyway, the inimitable Brian Sewell talks about this side of the show.

It was quite a revelation a few years ago when it became apparent that the pure white marble we're familiar with was anything but pure and white when first erected.

Researchers have come to the conclusion (since backed up conclusively) that the Ancient Greeks painted their sculptures and statues in bright colours, perhaps to a garish degree to the modern eye. This was on display in the second room of the show and was startling to see for a change. Very different.

Right: Restoration of the polychrome decoration of the Athena statue from the Aphaea temple at Aegina, c. 490 BC. See wikipedia.

Below: Trojan archer from the Temple of Aphaia on Aegina, Greek, c. 490-480 B.C. As it exists now on the left and on the right, as it would have looked (and as displayed in Defining Beauty).

Some more examples of what the old statues might have looked like in place, and discussion :

Leaving aside the colours, most displays were the normal grey and white stone (with some bronze) but there is some amazing work here.

This includes the very beautifully carved drapery on Iris, from the west pediment of the Parthenon.

Iris was a messenger god and was placed to accompany Poseidon. With her wings now missing, she was carved as if just coming in to land on the building.

Click the picture for a slightly larger version (then use the back button to return to this page).

Also on show, the large discus-thrower (discobolus). This is a Roman copy from the 2nd century AD of a bronze original of the 5th century BC. Statue from Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, Italy.

Quite a few on display are actually Roman copies of lost Greek originals. Luckily, the Romans made excellent copies and were great students of the Greek style. This is an amazingly life-like and well made piece.

Perhaps the last thing to mention is the exhibition display. On show in the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, a new space to me I think, the rooms are large and tall, and the lighting dramatic in the dark space. This made a very welcome change from the standard display rooms, brightly lit and against similar grey and white stone and marble floor and walls. The British Museum is lucky to have these works in its permanent collection.

I bought a great book a few years ago that is a very good accompaniment to this exhibition, Art and Archaeology of the Greek World by Richard T. Neer. It's both well written and well illustrated.

The publisher Thames and Hudson have a page on it where you can click the book cover for a look inside. A beautiful large format hardcover like this is beyond the capabilities of an e-book.

If anyone remembers the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts, you might also recognise an echo of the garishly painted statues in the painted masthead of Athena on the prow of the ship, the Argo. Great film! I loved it when I was little, especially the Harryhausen sequences,

The British Museum have a good blog post on the exhibition's design. Worth a look.

Sun, 29 Mar 2015
Experiments in Paint

I've never been a great admirer of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the 18th Century English painter/portraitist, and first president of the newly created Royal Academy. A look around the small exhibition of his work at the Wallace Collection has made me somewhat more sympathetic though.

His paintings often appeared a bit flat, or "dead" to me. I knew his work is well-known as being badly affected by time, deteriorating a lot over the years, but I had not realised that a lot of this was due to his experimentation with the medium. Oil painting is sometimes as much a science as an art, hence the experimentation. It's also another reason many people find oils hard to use.

Some of the pictures are very good but sadly quite faded. Still, there is some beauty here and this (free) show is worth a visit to the superb Wallace Collection to see.

A few pictures I took below, including : a Reynolds self-portrait (downloaded, no photography in the exhibition), some Greek nymphs, a lovely French 18th Century weather gauge ("Beau Temps"?), Pluto abducting Proserpine, The Lace Maker by Caspar Netscher and finally, Madame de Pompadour by François Boucher.


Wed, 25 Mar 2015
Hell Defiled

Matthew Paris, the great medieval chronicler did not think very highly of King John, the English King whose bad behaviour was the catalyst for Magna Carta :

With John’s foul deeds England’s whole realm is stinking - Hell itself is defiled by the foul presence of John

The new exhibition at The British Library, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy takes us through the various ways John was a bad King before following the legacy of this document over the years, from the English Civil War, to the American War of Independence and finally our own troubled times.

If you like medieval manuscripts, the first two rooms are worth waiting for. The actual documents themselves are hard to decipher, impossible if you don't know your latin, but being so close to them is much better than any digital reproduction. On top of the language difficulties however, the writing is often tiny. They must have had good eye sight in the 13th Century.

If you want a short introduction to Magna Carta and its history, the British Library has a good introduction. The "Great Charter" is not unique, and was not the first such document between a monarch and his subjects, but its fame rests on the way it was held up and used in the centuries afterwards. It was important in the transition from the "Kings Law" to the "Common Law", codifying some of the things we take for granted today, such as trial by a jury of peers and no arbitary detention.

Magna Carta is still a rallying cry, and that's a good thing.


Wed, 11 Mar 2015
Doña Isabel de Porcel

Speaking of Goya, this is one of my favourite paintings.

Doña Isabel de Porcel
before 1805, Francisco de Goya

A long time ago, when I first tried my hand at painting in oils, I think I tried to copy this picture. A moment of hubris. I gave up my oil painting attempts quite quickly in fact, and the copy wasn't great as far as I remember. I love the Goya painting though, even though the subject matter is fairly routine in portraiture. There's a vibrancy about her I think and she looks alive.

More about the painting here.


Mon, 09 Mar 2015
Horse of the Apocalypse

London's still toying with the idea of fixing the Fourth Plinth. For a long time, it's been a blue cockerel and now it's a skeletal horse. I have to say that I missed the :

... implied critique of the relationships between power, money, art, privilege and history

I quite like the new plinth for a change.


Sun, 08 Mar 2015
Dark, Very Black

Beyond Black
by Hilary Mantel

True to its title, this is a dark book, but also very funny. But as well as containing well observed comment, great characters and a look at the often mundane nature of life, even for those on the "psychic circuit", there's a lot to unsettle. A ghost story should have a bit of a bite. It's also another beautifully written Mantel novel.

The two main characters are Alison, a psychic, with more than just body problems (she's very large) and her "assistant" Colette, sharp, cold and known as "the monster" at school. Alison Hart had a very murky and extremely painful and brutal childhood, something recollected in snatches throughout the book. A bad past that haunts her present in a literal way, and seems to be getting worse. People can be kind, nasty, maudlin and very cruel. Even when dead.

Very funny, but also very painful to read sometimes. A good book and highly recommended.