Life at the end of my lane, my pastoral patch with it's meadow grazing milkers grows less tranquil by the day. The growing clamour beyond the orchards and pastures is now difficult to ignore. The boil that is Brexit is reaching it's lancing head. " How can a poor man stand such times and live". They are gathered on the distant horizon, Farage and his Falangists, Johnson's Jingoists and Rees Mogg and his Mosleyites, all intent on creating a freebooting, carpetbagging Brexit, poor Britain, desperate and sinking and where to look for an image to conjure the moment. It takes an overwrought johnny foreigner to provide that perfect, all encapsulating vision.
'The Raft of the Medusa', the young Gericault's masterpiece, painted in 1818 a hundred years before the present calamity it so perfectly mirrors. It depicts an historic disaster, 147 survivors of a terrible sinking, adrift and clinging to a hurriedly constructed raft. Fifteen were rescued, the remainder perished. A great disaster and a national scandal ensued when the blame was attributed to the poor captaincy of the sunk vessel. Ring any bells! This French masterpiece won't cause the Brexiteers to blink, you won't find a print of this hanging on the walls of Johnson Villas. Closer to home of course you could reference the work of a truly British genius, Turner. His greatest work 'The Fighting Temeraire', a celebrated gunship that had fought at Trafalgar is being towed away to the breakers by an ugly little tug boat. One suspects that the consuming poignancy of this great image would not penetrate the rhino hide of the bigoted right.
I would go to an old friend for my prophetic viewing, James Pryde. The Scottish artist conjures perfectly for me the depressed, troubled and gloomy Brexit Britain steeped in it's dilemma's and moral decay. Pryde is often dismissed as a 'one trick painter' but it's a classy trick. His fantastic interiors and cityscapes are filled with uncertainty, tiny figures dwarfed in ominous murky interiors or diminished by towering buildings in varying states of disrepair and collapse. The conjured landscapes are not ones where optimism thrives, paintings for our times I would suggest.
I find myself so often disappointed when coming across a new artist and their work when a little research quickly reveals them to be what is best described as a 'one trick pony'. The work of committed and talented artists reaches a maturity, a level of intellectual insight and profundity that stirs, challenges and inspires, and it rewards more with each visit. This has always been my belief, but I find myself of late challenging the rigorous personal standards I have always adhered to. I have begun to suspect that much can be forgiven if the trick is a really good one. So, abandoning decades of dogged adherence in the winter years, hopefully not, I tell myself it's merely re-calibration. If a trick is truly a good one then there is a desire to see it again and it should sustain all the magic of it's first outing.
I remember when this went up and how I was affected by it, brilliant work, Rachel Whiteread. It was always destined to be a temporary work and was demolished a few months after it's completion. You really would have thought someone would have had the sense to recognise this was a work of international importance, but perhaps it's disappearance has enhanced it's iconic status, it did however launch Rachel Whiteread's career and deservedly won her a Turner prize. When you consider how the slick infantile work of Banksy is scraped off walls to be treasured and lauded well it beggars belief that the House was lost. But then your bubble could be burst, because just when you think you missed the bus along come a dozen more, and you do wonder, is this one of those tricks that is diminished by repetition, I suppose we could pose that question to many, Mr Gormley for one, but I'm not going there.
I suppose if you only want to see a trick once, you shouldn't hang around magicians.
I made several mistakes on the Haarlem trip but the decision to visit theTeylers Museum was not one of them. The Teylers is running through the winter an exhibition of drawings by Leonardo da Vinci. It's a fascinating and informative show, it has to be said that it looks like the English royal family might have scooped up the best of the drawings over the ages, you could certainly drop a couple of these and keep Meghan in frocks for at least one season. The chalk drawings from Windsor are incredible, technically superb and the scale of many of the works comes as real surprise, hatching with a microscope. One of the highspots for me is the inclusion of two drawings by Michaelangelo, they are the first 'live' drawings of his that I have ever seen and the hairs on the back of my neck stood to attention, so exciting, beyond brilliant.
As good as the show was, the real joy was the museum, it is everything an old curmudgeon would wish a museum to be. There are acres of cabinets and endless vitrines stuffed with wonder, mammoth skulls, fossils galore, coins and medals, fine paintings and scientific stuff to make your head spin, it's brilliant. Press your nose to the glass and wonder.
'An hours run from Haarlem to the Fundatie Collection in Zwolle. An old attractive and unspoilt town and it's museum has been transformed with an ingenious and intriguing architectural intervention and the current exhibition sounded intriguing and ingenious,
"Giacometti- Chadwick, Facing Fear". Chadwick and Giacometti crossed paths in 1956 when Chadwick won the 'Grand Prix for Sculpture' at the Venice Biennale. Giacometti much the senior of the two and with a considerable reputation in Europe had been considered the favourite for the prize.
At the 1952 Biennale, along with Moore, a clutch of young British sculptors, Armitage, Chadwick, Clarke, Turnbull, Meadows, Butler and Paolozzi also exhibited, they were all rceived with critical acclaim with Chadwick drawing most of the plaudits. Reg Butler's piece however, a maquette for the Unknown Political Prisoner Monument, created controversy and was vandalised by an Hungarian artist who had been a prisoner of war. Chadwick's subsequent return to the Biennale in 1956 was a triumph and made his reputation, he became Britain's pre-eminent sculptor.
And so to the intriguing and ingenious exhibition which I'm afraid was neither. The gallery is large, on several floors, and the large and spacious top gallery with it's scattering of sculpture had the feeling of a clearance sale. The more intimate galleries were a greater success, this in part to the fact that they held the more interesting and fascinating work. A wonderful Giacometti from 1926, Man and woman, and the best of Chadwick's bronzes from the late fifties. The Giacometti Woman of Venice still radiates her charm but the row of standing figures brought to mind a sale of Cotswold boot scrapers. The later stainless steel Chadwick's are truly disappointing, parodies of the work that brought him to eminence and do little for his legacy but would grace the forecourt of any Japanese car plant. So turn your back and concentrate on the brilliant work of the fifties and early sixties, work of great originality that deserves a place in the pantheon, work that stirred the pot of European art.
Sunday to Paris, the evening at the Olympia for Ry Cooder. Monday morning the Thalys for Schiphol and then a hop and jump to Haarlem. Ry Cooder cannot disappoint, he has nothing to prove having reached legend status. The rarity of his appearances brings out the devoted and packs the house, the musicians in the crowd all giving it large. Cooder belongs to the golden age when the guitar was king and great music relied on great instrumentalists. Cooder's playing is peerless and his signature bottleneck brings whoops from the crowd. This concert showcases Cooder's first album release for six years,'The Prodigal Son', it's a mix of standards, spiritual and roots blues. He takes centre stage, circled by his many, some legendary, instruments all of which get played. His voice, live, is impressive and there are several stomping showstoppers that Cooder drives along,'Jesus is on the main line' and 'Everybody ought to treat a stranger right' are stand out numbers. The Cooder crankiness comes through and standards such as 'How can a poor man stand such times and live', highlight the humanity and political anger for which he is renowned. It's a great show, a legendary and very relevant musician meditating on mortality and spirituality in a changing landscape.
My near neighbour has a fine spreading Indian bean tree under which in the warm evenings we sometime sit and take our apperitifs. Storms in the early part of the year brought down a great many old trees in our region and my neighbour considered the lean on the bean and it's proximity to his french windows and decided to err on the cautious. A large heft of oak was purchased and fashioned to act as buttress for the old bean, and the crutch as it were, has I think, added enormously to the charm of the garden. It also put me in mind of the work of an interesting Italian sculptor, Giuseppe Penone, who is currently showing his work at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
Penone has had a long and successful career, born in 1947, he actively continues his practice. He has certainly done all the 'right stuff', getting impaled on barbed wire, crawling around in the dark, lumps of concrete in streams, loaves containing metal letters, and so on. It's all so bloody significant, it may do it for you but for me it's same old same old, artifice, clever and smart deception. A nomination for the Turner says it all. I do have a but, for despite my cynicism there are moments when Penone takes a piece of wood, a few twigs, a branch or often a tree and does, makes, concocts some thing brilliant. You have to be some kind of city rat pigeon not to love a good tree, wood has few rivals, and Penone can really do trees.
The works on paper don't bear a lot of scrutiny, a bi-product, but if you can get to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park soon, you really should, right now wood is king.
My real man of wood is Peter Startup. What Penone does is often fascinating, startling, unexpected sometimes heroic but Startup is the real deal, down the line Brancusi, no artifice here, it's head and soul all the way.
Peter Startup was born in Fulham in 1921. I love Startup's sculpture but I really love his C V and I know this is a generational thing, you probably need to be of the time to get it but for some of us it reads like a list of campaign honours.
Studied at Hammersmith School of Arts and Crafts 1935 -1939, studied at Central 1943-1944, Ruskin School of Drawing 1944-1945 and the Slade 1945-1948. In 1948-1949 he studied in Brussels on a British Council scholarship.
He taught at Guildford School of Art 1949-1959, Willesdon School Art 1954-1958, Bath
Academy, Corsham, 1960-1962, Ealing School of Art 1960 and Head of Sculpture at Wimbledon School of Art until his death in 1976. This is dogged determined stuff, teach I will if make I can, brilliant. If all those small locally supported Schools of Art, long since swept up, served a real purpose it was to foster and enable talents like Startup. They were the lifelines, one day's teaching here, a couple of night classes there and you could just stay in business, the art business.
The material can be completely beguiling but Startup was no narrow craftsman, the material does not get treated with reverence, he treats it with a truly creative disrespect. The timber, the wood, was garnered from all quarters, natural timber, discarded furniture, architectural salvage, pine, deal, mahogany, beech all were grist to the endeavour. The works often have a monumental quality but are invariably fractured, broken, teetering totems. The bold statements contrast with the smaller works sometimes plaster or white painted wood, Morandi like. Whatever the scale the works share the same contemplative, ever thoughtful and sometimes mystical qualities, brilliant.
The bitter row over the estate of Lynn Chadwick has finally ground to it's conclusion. Sophie Chadwick, Lynn's youngest daughter had pitted herself against her stepmother Eva Chadwick who controls Lypiatt Studio Ltd, a company set up by Chadwick in 1973. Sophie Chadwick claimed that much of her father's work produced before '73 did not fall within the companies remit and hence her stepmother's control, and that it should be held by the trust set up for his children. Classic scenario and millions at stake, no surprise ending, stepmother's expensive lawyers won the day, Sophie, representing herself in court, lost out, happy families or what.
In the 'olden days' working for Ralph Brown at Oakridge there were times when work was slow and money was slower. On these days I could find myself doing some visiting lecturing at the West of England or constructing faux stone shelves in Laurie Lee's Slad cottage but more likely I would be in Lynn Chadwick's studio at Lypiatt Park. Lypiatt Park was something else, a vast, sprawling historic manor house cresting a valley above Stroud. When I was around the studios were in the towered stable courtyard, the chapel had become a gallery space, it was a splendid environment and I enjoyed the work although I found Chadwick a taciturn character. I worked mainly on small welded maquettes and filling and chasing small sculpture, I had one memorable week repainting the huge winged figures that at the time stood on the valley skyline. I had been, in my growing, fascinated by the 'geometry of fear' sculptors, Armitage, Chadwick, Meadows, Clarke, Butler and so on but the sculpture I was now working on fell well short of the sculpture that had wowed the Venice Biennale, it was well into the process of commodification.
The idea of 'indentured' labour appealed to Chadwick but I was of limited use as I was fundamentally a modeller and caster not a fabricator. I recommended an ex fellow student from Birmingham, a superb welder, and shortly afterwards Chris Wilson, his wife Maureen and their baby were installed in the courtyard tower, it was a classy billet. We accept our millionaire artists live in vast country piles but I'm sure Chadwick was the first contemporary English artist to live in such style, and of course it could then be bought for buttons, happy days.
I am still smarting a little from missing the John Hiatt concert, John Hiatt and the Goners for pities sake. I wanted to wax about the brilliant songwriting, the unique sound and delivery, but I wasn't there, so here are some of his most evocative lyrics.
There's a lipstick sunset
Smeared across the August sky
There's a bitter perfume
Hanging in the fields
The creek is running high
And I left my lover waiting
In the dawn somewhere to wonder why
By the end of the day
All her sweet dreams would fade
To a lipstick sunset
I had conversations this week about Charles Rennie Macintosh. I have to confess that I am not a great fan of the design work and interiors that Macintosh produced, this could be in part to do with over commodification, I have a similar problem with Morris and in terms of the actual architecture I am more inclined to the work of Voysey. There is no doubt that Macintosh was a hugely talented and highly individual artist and his watercolours produced towards the end of his life stand testament to this fact, they are masterpieces, seek them out.
No excuses for this. I had been expecting to post a piece about John Hiatt, he has been a long standing inspiration. I was to see him in concert in Paris at the Alhambra, July 4th. A bug struck me down and I lost the concert, but I want Hiatt on my blog, so here he is.
Saturday, to Paris and the Olympia for a date with a legend. I came here in 2014 to see Joan Baez in concert and she's come round again. This tour is billed as her farewell tour, these Paris concerts some of her last. I never really got the earlier Joan of soaring soprano, I didn't really discover her until 1992 with her 'Play Me Backwards' album, 'Stones in the Road', a Mary Chapin Carpenter number, brilliant, and now she is singing Tom Waits, can it get any better. The Paris crowd adored her, House of the Rising Sun, Me and Bobby McGee, Gracias a la Vida, The Deportee, Diamonds and Rust...................,
we stamped, roared and sang along. At the close of the final encore, a card from the back of the theatre persistently called out 'We shall overcome' and with a great smile she thanked the inspired heckler and led us all in that great protest song, the rafters shook. An unforgettable night of passion and protest, for fifty years she has stood against injustice and been a voice for the oppressed. At 77 she is still beautiful and her voice is strong and probably more compelling than ever, it's too soon to go.
Sunday in the city and I was hoping to see Rothko, but the show which was in a commercial gallery is closed, so it's off to the Pompidou.
It never disappoints. Jitish Kailat is an Indian artist living and working in Mumbai. He is a multi media artist, sculpture, photography, installation and stunning paintings. He is an artist for our times. Much of his work is political and highlights the world of poor migrant workers and lowly paid menial labourers. This painting in the Pompidou is a challenging complex work in composition, content and construction, it's a knockout.
Around the corner is another wonderful encounter, Joan Mitchell is waiting for me. Joan Mitchell is known as a second generation American abstract expressionist painter. Mostly I hate them, daubers all, intellectually feeble, they all rushed through the door opened by Pollock, tosspot Twombly and the boys and couldn't believe their luck. Whatever, she was one of the few women painters around to gain critical and public acclaim, she had her first solo show in New York in 1952 and regularly showed with Pollock and de Kooning. In 1959 she moved to Paris, a studio in the 15th, later returning to New York, she died in 1992. I cannot recommend that you waste your time looking at her work but I have to say this one in Paris is an uncharacteristic cracker.
Down the hallway and around the corner and there is a piece of work to confirm you in the power and potential of painting, Maria Lassnig was the real deal, her work can disturb, amuse, confuse and inform. She paints herself, she paints herself endlessly and in many guises, baby, monster, mother, lover, saucepan, gunfighter, the images are often bizarre sometimes comic but always compelling.
Maria Lessnig was Austrian, she lived and taught in Vienna until her death in 2014, aged 94. Her early work in Vienna clearly shows it's Austrian pedigree, Kokoschka is all over it. In the fifties she was in Paris dabbling with abstraction, then an Austrian return, Paris again in the sixties and New York in the seventies. Her mature style was emerging, the obsessive self imagery, but New York was totally underwhelmed. The critics found it too strange, too morbid, no real surprise there then. She views Americans as simpleminded.
She returned to Vienna to take up a chair at the School of Art, their first female professor. Her star began to rise and in 1980 she represented Austria at the Venice Biennale. Her art was often uncomfortable and confrontational, her subject matter often challenging. She sought to express the plight of women, their role in society through the unflinching examination of self. '' The truth resides in the emotions produced within the physical self'' and it was this internal world she was desperate to express, and only painting could do this. Lessing believed that photography's inability to delve beneath the surface meant as an art form it offered nothing more than a persuasive lie and she even attacked Bacon for his reliance on photographs, bless her. Without any doubt she is one of the most important women painters of the twentieth century, don't miss this one.
AGED AND AWKWARD