Saturday, 12 April 2014

A plethora of exhibitions

This blog post is a test of many things. Firstly, I'm trying out my new piece of tech, in preparation for Italy. Second I'm testing the ability to talk about exhibitions, something I'm planning on continuing during the MA. Thirdly I'm hoping to test the link up to Facebook I *think* I've set up, but have no idea if it actually works.

I'm a keen exhibition attendee, and there have been a few in recent months that have captured my imagination. The fact I'm still thinking about two of them months after I saw them is testament to their power (and also my excuse if things seem a little hazy!)

On one particularly busy Saturday last year I went to both the 'Elizabeth and Her People' exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery and then dashed next door to the National Gallery for the 'Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900' exhibition. It is hard to imagine two exhibitions that are quite so opposite in theme, and it was certainly fascinating to contemplate the latter exhibit in parallel with the former.

The Elizabeth I exhibition was very intimate, curling back on itself and with 'peep holes' allowing reflection back and forth between the rooms. The Queen's image was closely guarded and very few of her portraitists actually saw her - most copied images that had been 'approved'. This led to a highly romantic view of the queen, particularly in later years. It wasn't just the queen that was a primary focus - as the title suggests, there was a close look at her people - both those close to the crown and the more general depictions of Elizabethan life. There was an amazing rapier, at least a meter long. Beautiful in its craftsmanship, but undoubtedly very difficult to wield.

Sometimes I find myself disappointed with an exhibition - there sometimes seems to be a lack of something ..... often I can't put my finger on it, but with this I knew exactly. Given the fact that it was in the NPG, I could not fathom the reason why Elizabeth I's coronation portrait was not part of the exhibition. It's just upstairs, and would have been a stunning addition to a collection that was so focussed on the importance of image and its dissemination to the masses. Perhaps it couldn't be moved, but the omission glared and I kept wishing for its inclusion.

The Vienna exhibition, in contrast, totally blew me away. I had no expectations (which I suppose helped) and I wandered around drinking in the variety and scope this exhibition had to offer.

Vienna was in the grip of a cultural war around 1900 - the old and the new fighting each other for supremacy. It was a lush exhibition. The old style of portrait executed so well by Ferdinand Georg Waldmuller and then Klimt - pushing on to the scene with informality and brilliant colour. Both those artists deserve a closer look  as well as Auchentaller, who produced a painting in 1912 of a young woman so sharp that it could be a photograph. It's hard to convey precisely what about this exhibition thrilled so much, but a great part of it was the thrill of the new and undiscovered.

More recently, I went to the 'Turner and the Sea' exhibition at the National Maritime Museum. Turner is prolific, and the variety of works that were gathered together were staggering. The battle of Trafalgar being one of his largest canvases, and an event that was an important part of the national psyche. Britain, being the sea fairing nation it was (and is) naturally produced artists who found inspiration in the watery depths. Other artists produced some beautiful works, but when Turner was pushed by his contemporaries he then went the beyond the boundaries and produced something new. It's a fantastic exhibition. I just wish I'd bought the catalogue!

I'm always on the quest to see art I'm not familiar with or great collections that important families have acquired over the decades. Tomorrow I'm off to Hughendon - home of the great Benjamin Disraeli. I'm sure there's going to be some wonderful treasures in store!

Friday, 4 April 2014

Literary festival part deux

Writers, if they are to be really successful, should be excellent verbal story tellers as well as able to paint pictures with their written words. I'm not sure if there are writers with subjects more opposed than Sebastian Barry and John Julius Norwich, but after hearing them speak, I am utterly convinced they share the gift of the gab (as the Irish might say) and the ability to keep their audiences spellbound.

Sebastian Barry's writing is deeply embedded in Ireland and the chaotic world of his family history; his drunken grandparents, his actress mother and poet father. He grew up thinking this chaos was all perfectly normal (as John Julius Norwich grew up believing it to be perfectly normal to have a mother as wildly charismatic as Diana Cooper). He's passionate about his heritage and answered every question Joan Bakewell put to him with an intensity of thought - even if he meandered down an avenue which had nothing to do with what he'd started to talk about. He read a section of his new novel 'The Temporary Gentleman' and I was completely blown away - not necessarily by the writing (which was dynamic and brilliant), but by his wonderfully dramatic delivery. As he read the description of a boat sinking having been torpedoed, the audience held its collective breath as the words tumbled about our ears and we were all transported to that sinking skip. I don't think I'll ever read one of his novels in the same way again and I'm convinced he should do public readings more often.

John Julius Norwich is a different type of storyteller, but just as captivating. He reminds me a little of a clockwork toy - wind him up and off he goes! He spoke for almost half an hour with hardly any interruption from his 'interviewer' Paul Blizzard, charting the intricate relationships of his family history and the locations his parents found themselves during World War II. He interrupted himself at one point to ask permission to read an extract of one of his Mother's letters. 'You do what you want John', Paul Blizzard chuckled, 'It's your show!' It really was. And his impersonations of Winston Churchill are spot on - not overblown, but done by someone who really knew him. Affectionate, but with an acknowledgement of the ridiculousness. 'Darling Monster' sounds like it will be treasure trove of letters, and will further serve to fuel my passion to continue the trend, rather than relying on email at all times.

The day was topped off in rather grand fashion with Philip Pullman, who introduced the music that has informed his life, played by the Orchestra of St John's. The pieces he chose were:

- Mendelssohn: Octet, 1st movement
- Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No 2, 2nd Movement
- Mozart: Void Che Sapete
- Bach: Italian Concerto BWV 971, 1st Movement
- Monteverdi: Si Dolce Il Tormentor
- Hellmann: Away we trot
- Beethoven: Song Er schwur es mis brim
- Debussy: En bateau from Petite Suite
- Brahms: Sextet Op. 18, 2nd movement
- Schubert: Heidenroslein; An Sylvia
- Ellington: Take the A Train
- Tchaikovsky: Serenade for strings, 4th Movement

Mostly familiar composers, but many pieces I'd never heard. I will look them up again though, and a trip to YouTube might be well worthwhile.

Philip Pullman never talks much about his own writing process, but he did reveal he had to work in silence (so much so that he had a shed built in the garden when his son took up the violin) and he is in the middle of a long awaited companion piece to the 'His Dark Materials' trilogy called 'The Book of Dust'. I can hardly wait.