The Secret History
By Donna Tartt
Quite a cult book and one I've been tempted to read for years. Now I've read it, I know why it's so highly regarded. I really enjoyed it and it turned into one of those rare books you recognise as special as you read it, and one you don't want to finish.
Right from the start, you know the name of the victim and the perpetrators; the rest of the book is a slow but fascinating exposition of why this happened. As Tartt has said, this is a whydunnit not a "whodunnit". We know all the details of the crime and what led up to it half way through the book and are left with the consequences.
The novel follows a group of six students at a Vermont College through the eyes of Richard Papen, a newcomer and outsider. From California, he invents a more privileged back-story to cover his humble origins and to try and fit in with the others. They're East coast and richer. One or two are extremely well off, although there's a bit of an aura of dissolution around. Henry is the dark core of the group: tall, strong and a language savant, in love with the ancient world but cold and a bit odd. This group are "elite" in that they decide to drop almost everything except Classics, studying with one teacher only, the charismatic scholar Julian Morrow. They live and breathe in Greek and are submerged in a world very different to the modern. In fact, for much of the book, the world I felt submerged in was more F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and the "gilded" 20's rather than the 1980's. The occasional reminders that the world we're in is actually the modern one was a jolt sometimes.
Great characters are the centre of the book and the story is driven forwards to an unexpected conclusion; you see things are starting to fall apart somewhat but never know where the pieces might end up.
I have also bought Tartt's The Goldfinch and look forward to reading it.
At a recent visit to the RA, I saw the book The New English, a history of the New English Art Club, on sale at half price and bought it. I read it before visiting the NEAC annual exhibition at the Mall Galleries at the weekend and it was a good background. The art world is often full of strange characters and competition, and also some biting criticism. The NEAC often had to contend with the same question asked every few years: is it "new", and what makes it "English"? A worthwhile read but with some great pictures of course.
And so to the 2017 exhibition. Very good as usual and a stand out painting is one others also picked out. This was a large Peter Brown painting, really capturing a very rainy street in Bath :
Above: Absolutely Chucking it Down, George Street, Bath, Peter Brown, Oil, 152x191cm
This was awarded the "The NEAC Critics'" prize for 2017. Very deservedly I think.
The LLEWELLYN ALEXANDER gallery at Waterloo is having its annual show of RA Summer Show rejects, Not the Royal Academy. Always worth a visit anytime, the show this year is full of some wonderful stuff. What gets in to the RA show is very subjective obviously: they don't always get it right.
This painting is not on their web site but I liked it so much they sent me a copy.
Tiptoe Through the Tulips, Oliver Canti, Oil pastel on board.
A really lovely painting and a snip at £1250.
I've seen a few funerals at St Patrick's Church in Wapping since my work moved here in January. One funeral had a bit of an entourage, including a horse and carriage for the coffin, but nothing was like the recent funeral for Willie Malone.
The Malone funeral was on a very hot day, so I felt some sympathy for everyone in a suit and tie and there were a lot of people around dressed up. In the café, I was told a bit of background about the deceased, being well known and referred to as "Mr Tea". A real "East End" mix of people, and there were also a couple of (what I guessed were) press photographers. In fact, a report was in the East London Advertiser, with lots of pictures. Apparently, there was a bit of "colour" in his life.
I came by it because the church is across the road from The Turk's Head, a good café/bar I often go to for a coffee at lunchtime. I took my main camera that day, planning on a walk around the sights and taking some pictures.
From the Turk's Head web site :
the original building was once famous for being the local inn where the last quart of ale was served to condemned pirates on their way from Newgate to the Execution Dock
This is the larger acrylic painting, completed following a recent Will Kemp tutorial video course (also see A Rough Venice a few days ago). This is the largest painting I have done, and should have been even larger. The course has a canvas at 24x24" but I used a 16x16" one, which seemed large enough to me at the time! I've been doing my painting in oils recently, so using acrylic again was a refreshing change.
Overall, I am happy with it even though I didn't really get to the end of the painting I think. I did up to the "glazing" part of the course but didn't do the palette knife work: a bit afraid I'd mess up something up that wasn't too bad at the time (I took a photograph of it before and after the glazinng anyway, just in case). I even debated stopping before the glazing work but decided to try and finish the course and I'm glad I did.
Below: Venice Sunset, acrylic, 16x16" - pre-glazing
Below: Venice Sunset, acrylic, 16x16" - post-glazing
After the glazing I think I petered out at the end and then stopped. I'm slightly tempted to go back to it but I think that's it; you move on. Painting a sunset, or Venice, can also be a dangerous thing; a sunset picture can always veer into a lurid, colourful monstrosity. Hopefully not here! On to the next work ...
The painting called for some strong cadmium orange. I had some Winsor and Newton but it never stood out like the orange I saw on Kemp's video. I bought some Golden brand and it was stronger and worked better. This is not to knock W&N (good paints) but does highlight colour range per brand and how important any one particular colour can be to the overall effect.
I had another colour problem with another painting, a copy of one by a well known artist. The background blue was of a certain shade, I only had ultramarine blue and didn't think anything of it. But you discover that you cannot mix the right shade at all. Sometimes you really can't get there from here mixing colours! I found an old W&N cerulean blue which worked nicely.
This is a small acrylic painting done following a recent Will Kemp tutorial video course. There's a larger main painting to come (which I've "completed") and I'll post that separately. This study is quick and rough but still presentable I think, even if not originally designed to be a fully finished "proper" painting.
Below: San Giorgio Maggiore, acrylic on board, 6x8"
There is a very textured surface. This is an acrylic coarse modelling paste mixed in with the ground colour used, and adds the rough texture you can see. This can make for a more interesting painting experience sometimes.
On my way to the RA last week, I did some art gallery window shopping in New Bond Street and saw a notice in the window of the Richard Green Gallery about an S.J. Peploe exhibition coming up. Peploe's a well known Scottish Colourist painter of the early 20th Century; an artist and a group of artists I like. The Glasgow and Edinburgh Galleries have a few but you do not get many opportunities to see more unless you do much more travelling.
A good small exhibition of some lovely paintings, particularly the still lives. If you're in the area pop in. You can also see the catalogue online.
Still Life of Pink and Red Roses in a Chinese Vase
Oil on canvas, 25x25", 1918-1922
Some were from a private collection, some for sale. The price for a larger canvas like this was getting close to a million (pounds sterling).
Apples and Pears
Oil on canvas, 18x21.5", 1918
By Emily St. John Mandel
Existence is very fragile, as is civilisation, and few think about the perils of living without running water or electricity. They are exactly the sort of thing you need to do if you're writing a book like this though. If a virulent flu virus was ever to sweep the world again, as one did in 1918, civilisation might come to crashing halt.
Emily St. John Mandel's novel tells the story of some people caught up in such a calamity, as things fall apart after a new flu epidemic kills most of the planet's inhabitants. There is enough realism here to make you face the likely effects, a horror or what it means as everything stops working and people die, but she doesn't dwell on the horror and this is not a horror story. Switching between a select few characters whose lives intersect in some way pre and post-fall, the story never becomes morbid or hopeless. Kirsten, one of the main characters, acts in a travelling theatre and orchestra, staging Shakespeare to scattered survivors living in various settlements in the American and Canadian heartland. There is no one main character but enough characterisation is done to create believable people.
When I got to the end of the book, there was some sort of "study guide": questions a teacher might ask students to think or write about. Although the book does not seem to have a "young adult" label anywhere I could see, it had that feel about it. I think I started to consider this about half way through; perhaps the lack of swearing. This was nothing I missed.
A good novel and one I enjoyed.
The RA has another "Academician in Focus", Fred Cuming. I'd never heard of him, but this means nothing: there are so many great but unknown and to-be-discovered artists in the world, dead and alive. I really like his work and made sure I had a good look before my visit to the gallery today. He's over 80 now and still going strong.
To see larger versions, and more, visit the RA site.
A useful blog post went over similar territory recently and it's worth a read. It explains the reason why this learning method is so good, including mention of the actual research behind it. We all know that to hold a piece of knowledge in your head requires you to "imprint" it; then occasionally reinforce the memory. But how often and when should this be reinforced, for the best results? This is where the research comes in handy, distilled into an app :
Noise of Time
By Julian Barnes
When you chop wood, the chips fly: that's what the builders of socialism liked to say. Yet what if you found, when you laid down your axe, you had reduced the whole timberyard to nothing but chips?
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, the first Julian Barnes I've read. It tells the story of Dmitri Shostakovich, the famous Russian composer, in his own words, as he lives and tries to survive the calamitous 20th Century. Born before the Bolshevik Revolution, he lived his entire working life in Soviet Russia, much of it under Stalin, with all that meant.
The book is very funny in parts, but also sad and poignant. There are some beautiful descriptions of the strange life one has to lead in such a world and the contradictions he faced. And of course, the compromises made. A wonderful book about a man who knew his limitations and struggled to create his art under the most trying circumstances.
By Michel Houellebecq
Quite a timely novel, and it caused a bit of stir on release a year or so ago. In the near future (I think 2020 or so in the book), the French Presidential election run-off comes down to Marine Le Pen of the Front National and an Islamic Party. In this alternate election, both the Right and the Left in France have imploded and the Muslim Brotherhood party just pip the Socialists to the run-off. France looks to be headed to civil war and to stave off calamity, the Socialists and Islamists strike a deal, win the election and form a government. Crazy?
It's very funny in parts, and Houellebecq writes a very good, jaded French Professor, an expert in a particular 19th Century French writer. The ennui of an academic. He's apolitical and uninterested in much of what's going on, other than it distracts from chasing girls. In the end, big changes actually happen and the French establishment seem to accept it.
Maybe a bit far-fetched but Houellebecq has fun with it and the book's a quick and easy read. It's interesting reading a French perspective but also quite unsettling in the matter of fact way a societal change like this might get rationalised. On the big day, the media seems to have a bit of a blackout, and mobile communications go down. There's a hint of smoke in the distance, gun shots and one or two bodies seen; but then maybe we can get used to the new order?
For the Professor, a large pay rise is one welcome thing on the cards, but what really sets him thinking about the future is the dangling of the likelihood of an arranged wife, maybe more than one. All satire of course, and it is funny in parts, which makes up for the fact that it's only a slight "novel" and many characters are only hooks for him to hang some political and economic background..
So, finally Le Pen is crushed again and President Macron takes the crown. But as Peter Hitchens writes, what happens next time around?
His column is worth a read and very thought-provoking. Houellebecq's novel worries you in a similar way.
At the Mall Galleries for the Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibition 2017, I saw the usual amazingly wide selection of portraits of all types and sizes. It is always very humbling seeing such a selection of beautiful art. A couple of pieces struck me in passing.
The first, Becky by Raoof Haghighi, is so detailed it is astonishing. It is not a large painting, but he even paints the small fine hairs on her face. The second is The Four of Us by Leslie Watts, an amazing pencil drawing, again highly realistic and beautifully finished.
Below: Becky, Raoof Haghighi, Acrylic, 40 x 30 cm
Below: The Four of Us, Leslie Watts, Graphite & wax, 50 x 40 cm
A few weekends ago, I happened to walk past the Cartoon Museum near the British Museum. I've often thought about visiting (when I remember it exists) and saw there was an exhibition on called Future Shock! 40 Years of 2000 AD. I have fond memories of 2000 AD, so this was a great opportunity to have a look at the place.
I just about remember buying the first issue of 2000 AD and was hooked. It came out in 1977: an annus mirabilis for science-fiction fans and small boys (Star Wars was released the same year). Saturday mornings stepped up a gear. There was another man in the museum with his children and I mentioned buying the first issue to him, and he said he had as well (they had issue number 3 on display I think).
With 2000 AD costing 8p, I also remember the shock I had getting to the counter at the big London comic book shop Dark They Were and Golden Eyed (in a much seedier St. Anne's Court) and realising I couldn't afford the comics I wanted (at all of 35p each, if I recall). The difference here was they were US imports. My grandad didn't have an extra couple of pounds on him either, if I recall, and no plastic cards in the wallet either. Those were the days, and Soho's changed a lot since then as well (never mind inflation).
For Star Wars, I remember the special trip (twice) to London's Leicester Square to see the film and being awe-struck with it, from the thunderous first shot through the big cinema sound system. Science-fiction and comics are so mainstream now but back then it was all very new. 1977 was the birth year of a massive new media industry of films, comics, TV and technology. Back then there was no internet, and only three TV channels; now we have wall to wall media saturation. In some ways, not altogether better for it.
By William Golding
From Milton's Paradise Lost:
No light; but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all, but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed
With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed.
Golding's novel is a tale of good and evil, morality and immorality. The nameless young boy who survives the Blitz though horribly burned down one side of his face and body is given the name "Matty", and we follow his odd progress through life. There's something strange with him: he sees "ghosts" and has memorised the bible. He does not know "what he is". The second strange character is Sophy, one half of a set of twins. Her sister Toni grows up, runs away and seems to be some sort of terrorist. There also seems to be something wrong with Sophy. Not only does she see a "Sophy-thing" inside her head, she can play act an innocence and take advantage of a keen intelligence, and a female body. Matty and Sophy are unsettling protagonists and it makes for uncomfortable reading being in their heads sometimes.
I had quite a bit of trouble with Darkness Visible, sometimes losing the sense of the narrative and re-reading a section to try and pick it up. I often couldn't, especially the strange inner landscapes of Matty's or Sophy's head. The last Golding book I read was Lord of the Flies, a long time ago for a school exam and I felt I needed crib book with notes again. This might explain some of my difficulty here; or maybe I'm a bit denser than I used to be. However, the book had a power that kept me reading to the end even though I knew that I probably would not understand it.
Nobel Prize winning authors are definitely trickier to read sometimes.
A Long Way to Shiloh
By Lionel Davidson
This novel should have been great: an author I know can write absolutely stunning adventure books full of great characters and action, and a backdrop of ancient history, Jewish scriptures, archaeology and treasure hunting. Unfortunately, the book is quite lacklustre. It really must have been an off day for Davidson. The main character, an English academic and archaeologist, is also quite an unlikeable man: a drunkard and a sexist. Not an awful lot happened really, and you were in his company all the time.
John Singer Sargent's Lady Agnew of Lochnaw is a very famous and accomplished painting, now hanging in the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh. In this YouTube video, American artist John Howard Sanden paints a copy of it over the course of about three hours (split over two videos) :
It is fascinating watching him do this, also a little hypnotic seeing the painting come together. He explains his thought process and what he thought Sargent did at the time he painted the original in 1892. There are many art tutorial channels and videos on YouTube and this is one of the best I've seen. As Sanden says, all the great art masters copied the great works of past masters, including Sargent. I think the final result is extremely good.
The video itself seems to be from an old tape video from the The Portrait Institute in New York. Unfortunately, it might well be an illegal upload because it starts with a warning about "duplication". So the YouTube video might disappear. In some ways this would be a shame: I had never heard of Sanden, or the Institute, but now I know what a good painter and teacher he is.
Edit: Fixed spelling on Sargent's lastname.
by Bram Stoker
Dracula is a book impossible to come to without preconceptions today; it has been read, adapted and discussed so much that it has seeped into the modern imagination almost completely. I disliked almost all the film adaptations over the years, particularly the Hammer versions, and for many years these killed the character and any desire to read the book. However, a few weeks ago I found myself wanting to pick up the book for some reason and I am very glad I did : I thoroughly enjoyed it and it really is a classic.
The initial arc of the story: the eerie journey through the dark forest, wolves and strange coachman, the forbidding castle, creaking and rusting doors, superstitious peasants, all seem so familiar today. One might even groan a little inside recalling a satire like Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein film. So much cliché; but the story soon forges on and becomes exciting. This was quite new and fresh when written all the way back at the end of the 19th Century.
This is at heart a great adventure book, with action and drama, and above all, fright. Surprisingly, given how much the story's been rehashed, it still has a huge power to shock and surprise with real horror. Some of this is due to the characters themselves; characters I actually cared for, particularly the stricken Mina Harker herself. A very good book with some great and powerful moments; and still not for any faint-hearts.
A History of Christianity
By Diarmaid MacCulloch
This is the reason there was a significant hiatus on any reading updates recently. An immense subject and a very big book is to blame!
At over a thousand pages, I picked up MacCulloch's book with some trepidation but having read his history of the Reformation a few years ago, and heard him talk many times on radio, I know how good he is, as a writer and speaker. MacCulloch's history of Christianity covers "three thousand" years because he considers the genesis of the story as starting long before the time of Herod "the Great": with the Jews, and then the Ancient Greek and Roman world. A useful starting point I think because Greek philosophy and Roman mores come to play very important roles in Christian thought and belief. Some might say, too much.
The thought and philosophy of Christians has sometimes been that of extremes, both good and bad. To many people throughout the world, it was literally a matter of eternal life or eternal damnation however, and this mattered a great deal: so much so, that people were willing to kill and be killed. In addition, theology can also hinge on some very subtle distinctions that are hard to grasp now. Be prepared for some theology then, but if you are prepared, this is fascinating and well written. MacCulloch has a dry wit and can sometimes brings a smile (or even laugh) throughout, keeping the narrative alive and interesting.
So far, always an excellent writer and historian.
You can't really argue with Michelangelo (not even Pope's do that successfully), which meant a second visit to the National Gallery for the Michelangelo & Sebastiano show.
Part of the interest here is learning more about some of the daily routine, rough competitiveness and petty jealousies of these top artists. Michelangelo was a notoriously prickly person but warmed to Sebastiano, helping him with his composition and anatomy. This seems to have been driven by his hatred of his younger rival for work, Raphael, who many considered the better overall painter. Michelangelo worked with Sebastiano as a way to win commissions from Raphael, and a form of one-upmanship. No friendly rivalry here.
There are some amazing pieces of work in the show of course, including a cast of Michelangelo's masterpiece Pieta, his Taddeo Tondo and Sebastiano's Raising of Lazarus. One of my favourites is Sebastiano's Judith (below), a smaller painting but with a real character, and beautifully painted.
There's a good overview of the show and the two artists by the curator, Matthias Wivel, on YouTube. The National Gallery has a channel of its own as well, and is well worth a browse. Some great talks in front of various works.
As I stood in front of The Raising of Lazarus, I thought to myself: that's quite an amazing frame! The painting itself is very large, almost 4m high and almost 3m wide, and the frame is impressively large and solid as well :
Looking for some information on the frame,I discovered a very interesting blog all about frames by Lynn Roberts, a picture frame expert. The blog is called The Frame Blog and has a recent post about the Lazarus frame itself, covering the paintings reframing in great detail. It really is a fascinating post, accompanied by a video :
I'll almost certainly return again I think.
The British Museum has a world class collection of Chinese ceramics, the Sir Percival David Collection. Even I, almost completely ignorant of this art and craft, could see how good some of the pieces are. This vase was one small item that took my interest because of its very subtle painting and glazing. This is a Vase with ‘peach-bloom’ glaze and the museum has a page about it here. Qing dynasty, 1662-1722.
This innovative glaze was technically challenging. Potters covered the vase with a layer of clear glaze, followed by a layer of copper-rich pigment, possibly blown on, and added further layers of clear glaze on top. When fired in a reducing atmosphere, this sandwiched colour developed into soft mottled red and pink with flecks of moss-green.
I took a slightly less well composed and lit photograph of it and thought I'd try doing a painting.Below: Peach Blossom, oil, 6x8"
George W Bush, ex-President of the United States never got much good press, and even this New Yorker article on him and his new paintings has a grudging and slightly mean-spirited tone. Leaving politics, economics and war aside though, the author really likes the paintings :
The quality of the art is astonishingly high for someone who—because he “felt antsy” in retirement, he writes, after “I had been an art-agnostic all my life”—took up painting from a standing stop, four years ago, at the age of sixty-six.
I think they're pretty good as well. Paintings of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan :
Garden in Snow, Setting Sun, Judith Gardner RBA NEAC, Oil.
As seen at the Royal Society of British Artists Exhibition 2017.
At the National Gallery for the Michelangelo & Sebastiano exhibition (which I liked), I also took some time to pop into Room 1 and see Guido Cagnacci's Repentent Magdalene, a painting that used to live in the UK but now resides in California at the Norton Simon Art Foundation.
What a beautiful painting: bright, lively and colourful. Mary Magdalene is caught at her "conversion" as her sister Martha points out the fight between an angel and a devil in the background. Martha's suggesting she ought to hear what a Rabbi she knows is saying. This is quite an unusual representation of the biblical tale (one can question its accuracy).
Below: Guido Cagnacci, The Repentant Magdalene, after 1660 (229.2 x 266.1 cm)
The title of this post GVIDVS CAGNACCIVS INVENTOR is how Cagnacci signed the painting. Am unusual signature because he knew the work was outstanding. See the painting until May 21st 2017.
Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972
I went to the Tate Britain Hockney show, a retrospective of his work from his early art school days to his recent works on tablet. From its first announcement last year, this was going to be a very popular show.
As I've mentioned before, I've come to like his work a lot, his newer works in particular. These are often very large, very colourful paintings, sometimes made up of multiple canvases placed side by side. I think his Yorkshire woods and hills are wonderful, and his big Grand Canyon pictures amazing. He's getting on now (almost 80) but showing no signs of slowing down. Extremely prolific, he can knock them out: and long may he do so.
Back in 2014, I suggested this might be his golden age. Looking back now, I think I was right. I also think he's still at a peak.
Below: The Road Across the Wolds, 1997, Oil.
Below:May Blossom on the Roman Road, 2009, Oil.
Below:9 Studies for the Grand Canyon, 1998, Oil.
A recent BBC documentary (BBC iPlayer) has one of his artist friends mention that Hockney was playing with the colour knob of his recently bought colour TV and cranking it right up: You can have it Fauvist if you want, he said.
It's ironic that, having spoken about his bright colours and these being such a big part of the impact many of his works have, I found that some smaller, black and white drawings he made are so powerful. These Arrival of Spring drawings are arranged in rows on the wall and I found them to be a highlight of the exhibition.
Below:Drawings of the Arrival of Spring
Below:The Arrival of Spring, Charcoal, 2013.
Below:The Arrival of Spring, Charcoal, 2013.
One could go on about him a bit now because he really has become a bit of an icon, a "national treasure" even and a lot of people love what he does. He is as articulate in words as he is in paint, and perhaps the greatest living artist. I hope he keeps going as long as he can.
A classic painting and one I've always liked, although it has been mercilessly satirised over the years (Muppet version from the RA site itself). It is easy to lampoon: prim, proper, protestant.
Right: Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930, Oil.
American Gothic is the poster-image of the Royal Academy's America after the fall exhibition. Grant Wood painted this in 1930 and he has a number of other works on display: before now, I hadn't heard of him.
Wood is the artist who most stood out for me here, with paintings like Death on the Ridge Road, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere and Young Corn.
Right: Grant Wood, Young Corn, 1931
Edward Hopper is a more familiar artist. He has also produced some iconic American pictures and is famous for depictions of truck stops, or diners at night; his work often has an otherworldly quality, an eerieness and, I always thought, a hint of loneliness.
Below: New York Movie, Edward Hopper, 1939
There are a number of other great pictures in this exhibition and it is another very well put together show at the RA. With Revolution on at the same time, Burlington House is well worth an extended visit just now.
Slow to write this down, but I think it is worth a short report.
The Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 show at the Royal Academy is very well put together and includes ceramics, print, film, photography and textiles as well as painting. It covers the style of art that first started to appear during the turmoil of the Bolshevik coup, and the early years of the revolution. Much propaganda of course, but also some real, "pure" art that passed by the watchful government eye unmolested. At least for a time.
A lot of artists here were new to me. The most famous one I knew being Kazimir Malevich, an abstract artist well known for his stark, geometric and flat coloured objects. Other unfamiliar artists I liked included Isaak Brodsky, a much more traditional painter, and Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. Petrov-Vodkin had a whole room devoted to his work, the first time so much has been seen outside Russia. He started off painting religious icons and there is a vague hint of this in later work: a brightness of colour, and magical undertone. Very interesting artist.
There were lots of bad times over the course of the years here: war, famine and genocide. At the end of the show is a small memorial film of some of the victims of the terror: mugshots taken before their murder or deportation to the gulag. Like everyone else, artists were not free to express themselves in the Soviet Union and the initial flowering of creativity eventually dried up, like much else.
The RA have put on an excellent exhibition however.
By Jung Chang
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.