Saturday, March 31, 2007

Book Review : Hogarth : A Life and a World by Jenny Uglow (Faber & Faber 1997)

One cannot dissociate Hogarth from 18th Century London - he was its quintessential chronicler, his paintings and prints encapsulating the teeming bustle, the filth and grime, the political chicanery, the lies, hypocrisy and sexual adventure that made up this brash and busy age. Therefore it is appropriate that Jenny Uglow, in this splendid, compendious biography, should choose to focus on the historical context as much as on Hogarth's life, since, fascinating though it is, without an understanding of the politics, of Walpole and Fox, Bute and Pitt, and of the characters, such as Mother Douglas the Bawd, or Jenny Tofts who gave birth to rabbits, one cannot fully appreciate the true depths of Hogarth's wonderful "progresses" and other satirical paintings and prints.

London itself looms large as a character, Hogarth's Smithfield with its fair and sidestreets being readily recognisable today. Covent Garden was largely disreputable, but Leicester Fields was a prestigious address for a young artist and engraver to set up shop. Further afield, the leafy villages of Chiswick and Islington provide respite for Hogarth and his characters.

Hogarth himself was proud and prickly, yet at the same time a tireless worker for the public good. He never had any children in his close and loving marriage with his wife Jane, and much of his paternal instincts were channelled towards Thomas Coram's Foundling Hospital. He painted for it, was a committee member and took an active interest in the children. At the same time, he founded Britain's first Academy of Fine Art and was involved in the Society of Artists.

Yet it is as a private individual that Uglow's portrait is most vivid. Hogarth appears as a kind man who loved his wife and cared for animals, yet popular and clubbable, with a keen sense of humour and an appreciation for life. The description of the "peregrination" around North Kent that he and some friends undertook is delightful, full of drinking, practical jokes, singing and general foolery - immediately recognisable to any young man who has gone on a short holiday with friends today. As he aged and his health diminished, however, he became more and more temperamental. The last years of his life was overshadowed by his disappointment with the reception of his painting Sigismunda which he couldn't move on from, and by his vicious feud with Wilkes and Churchill. This decline is sensitively documented by Uglow.

However, the greatest part of this book is given over to discussion of Hogarth's work - his portraits, his history paintings but especially his progresses and satirical engravings. All his published engravings are reproduced (albeit in a format which could have been larger) and described in detail. It is this detail which is telling. When looking at the first print of "The Harlot's Progress" a 21st c. viewer can see the fresh young Moll Hackabout arriving in London to be greeted by the bawd Mother Needham and overseen by a somewhat lascivious-looking character with his hand thrust deep into his pockets. But when one understands that this gentlemen is Colonel Francis Charteris - convicted rapist, fraudster, libertine and political associate of Walpole - the character takes on new dimensions.

Hogarth did not waste strokes of his burin. Virtually all the detail in his prints has some significance - some lost in the mists of time but much of it decodable by Hogarth's contemporaries and by the Art Historians of today. It is Jenny Uglow's ability to bring this detail alive that makes this such a good book. Hogarth's London is brimming with life and controversy, with political debate and satire, and with friendships and feuds. It really is an exceptionally good book.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Theatre Review : Attempts on her Life by Martin Crimp - Lyttleton (dir Katie Mitchell 29/03/07)

A line of scriptwriters - or film executives - toss around the elements of a plot. A middle European city - a river - a cluster of angled rooftops - a balcony, high-windowed, Art Nouveau maybe, perhaps it is the Ringstrasse in Vienna. And a woman, Ann, beautiful, smoking, with her lover...They describe a mood as much as a film - black and white, grainy, intense. Maybe subtitled, almost certainly low-budget.

BRRR. Cameras are moved centre-stage, lights are shone and screens descend. The cast busily film and light and act the images that are being projected above, in real time - scenes from the life and death of Ann. But nothing is quite as it seems - the windblown hair is billowed by a sheet of card, the woman in the mirror is not a reflection but a lookalike and clever lighting.

And the lighting and camerawork is very clever considering it is being shot in real time, referencing freely. Peter Greenaway stripped bare, Kyslowsky's there too, and a brilliant Abba video. Meanwhile, Tom Paulin and the Newsnight review team (audience laugh of recognition) discuss pretentiously the significance of it all.

And the significance is...? Like the Abba video, the Anny car and the "porno", the film being made is empty and vacuous. For all its expressionist lighting and referentiality it is an empty shell with no coherence, no heart - a movie by committee, which is why Ann is a cipher.

The talking heads discuss who discuss their work at the end are not so idealistic, yet the image still triumphs over substance. As they postulate, the stage descends taking them away to join Don Giovanni in that circle of Hell reserved for those whose lives are without meaning.

The ensemble cast are uniformly good, the lighting and video design utterly breathtaking. "I didn't have a clue what it was about" said a voice overheard as I was leaving. But that is missing the point. The film wasn't about anything really, just a grainy - but stylish - collage of images. Peter Greenaway exposed.

But it had zip, humour, energy, ideas, despite being at the same time difficult and intense. Who said that Post-Modern theatre cannot be fun?

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Aside - The Picasso Museum in Malaga

To Marbella for a Management Conference, with, as a cultural interlude, a visit to the Picasso Museum in Malaga. Now, I'm not a great fan of being herded round museums en masse - I prefer to take my time. But I do remember similar events where the knowledge and perception of the tour guide has transformed the experience.

However, this was not one of these occasions. Our guide was correct in stating that everyone can see something personal in Picasso's work; however, to ask everyone whenever they gathered around a painting what they can see whilst not sharing any enlightenment on the contextual significance of the work is simply not doing one's job. When we were led to a picture of "Susanna and the Old Men", for example, he had no awareness of the fact that this was a biblical reference, or a reference to any Old Master, but simply an example of Picasso's love of women.

The museum itself was set in a pretty 17th Century mansion house, and its collection - based mainly around that of Picasso's family, was interesting without being inspired. If I visit it again at length I may write about it, if I have anything I can add to the Tour Guide.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Theatre Review : A Midsummer Night's Dream - Roundhouse (dir Tim Supple 16/03/07)

When the British Council decided that it wanted to present a multilingual production of a Shakespearean play using many of the languages of India and Sri Lanka, A Midsummer Night's Dream was a logical choice. For one thing, it is so familiar that the lines spoken in unfamiliar languages wash over the audience without interrupting their comprehension of the story line. In addition, the storyline is so magical and strange that the transmutation to the subcontinent seems entirely reasonable.

It very nearly succeeded.

Right from the start, the fusion of Indian music and stunning visuals meant that this was going to be a feast for the senses. Puck squats by an Indian musical instrument which he rubs with water and it emits a strange harmony.

But the visual pyrotechnics begin when we venture into the woods. Fairies burst through the 5m high paper backdrop revealing a frame of bamboo which all the cast clambers nimbly around. Ropes drop from on high which Puck and Titania's little Indian boy nimbly clamber. And red silks provide a convenient cocoon for Titania's slumbers. The athleticism and daring of the cast was breathtaking, as the heavily choreographed scenes unravel.

The visual Tour de Force was the fight-scene between Helena, Hermia, Lysander and Demetius where Puck swathed the stage in elastic, causing an extra layer of chaos as the characters rushed to and forth.

The adaptation was done with great skill, so that one did not have any feeling of loss when certain lines were transposed to Hindi, Urdu or even Sanskrit. It makes one think about how closely one normally listens to Shakespeare's words, and how often one lets them wash over you, risng and falling with the rhythms but not the sense.

Bottom was played by Joy Fernandes, a massive lugubrious presence. He is a man of the soil, earthy and visceral, and, when translated, a phallic squash dangles between his legs, his animal sexuality more overt than usual. This production plays hard, the grappling, groping and scrapping in the woods being done for real.

P R Jijoy and Archana Ramaswamy as Oberon and Titania are sexy and athletic, and the little Indian boy adds to the cuteness factor, but the standout character is Ajay Kumar as Puck - a constant mischevous presence in red loincloth, shinning up ropes and across silk drapes.

And yet, two cavils. I should struggle to deliver blank verse with the multilingual versatitly of the cast, but I felt that the English lines were difficult to follow because of thick accents, rushed delivery and the Roundhouse's appalling acoustics. And the venue itself. This play should have the audience in its hand with its constant invention. I don't know if I just went on a night with a bad audience, but for me, all the atmosphere disappeared into the Roundhouse's cavernous roof. There was little sustained laughter, even as the Rude Mechanicals go through their paces.

Which was a shame, as the sheer exuberance, invention and spectacle of the production deserved better. Perhaps the audience was too much struck by the visuals to absorb the humour; perhaps I simply had a bad seat on a bad night - as other reviews have verged on the ecstatic. But it is certainly worth seeing as a fresh and original take on an old favourite.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Theatre Review : Platonov by Anton Chekhov - Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg - Barbican (dir Lev Dodin 16/03/07)

Ever so rarely one is fortunate enough to experience that union of text, action and music which elevates a night at the theatre into the realms of the extraordinary. This was one such night: three and a half hours of constant, captivating brilliance, of the finest acting and astonishing staging, which swept the naturally reticent London audience into a breathless standing ovation.

Not that I was expecting anything better than an extraorinary crick in the neck when I settled into my seat at the Barbican and realised that the surtitles were almost directly above me, necassitating a constant movement between the text and the action. Whilst Chekhov's Russian has some beautiful rhythmic sonorities, my unfamiliarity with the text necessitated constant reference above my head.

The stage itself was split in three levels, the upper two like a wooden Russian Dacha (plus piano an drumkit), the lowest covered in sand. It was quite a surprise when Sergey Pavlovich pulled off his shirt and executed a perfect swallow-dive into the pool of water which ran the length of the stage beyond the sand just out of my sight. The pool is integral to the staging, and characters dive in and out as they dive into and out of situations - but water is a constant recurring theme throughout the play and adds to the typically Chekhovian steamy claustrophobia of the Country estate.

Platonov is a schoolteacher, a would-be intellectual and cynic with a gift of the gab that makes him irrestistable to the ladies. His is a life of promise which has dissipated into failure - he never passed his exams at university, to everyone's surprise, and isn't even qualified to be a schoolteacher. His friend Voinitsev has returned to his estate with his beautiful new bride, a former lover of Platonov's. Meanwhile Voinitsev's predatory stepmother has also set her sights on Platonov, to the consternation of his allsuffering wife.

Chekhov's original text was sprawling, and it is remarkable that Lev Dodin removed 9 characters and many subplots in order to make the production manageable for the stage. Maybe that accounts for the pace of the staging, which, whilst dwelling langourously over certain scenes, never slackens. As ever with the Maly Drama Theatre, the characters play their own instruments, and raucous, joyous, anarchic ragtime frames the action - even playing whilst marching through the pool, all adding to this barrage on the senses.

Whilst all the cast was brilliant, Sergey Kuryshev in the title role was extraordinary. He is a tall, rough, untidy character, not a looker, but whose presence is magnetic whenever he is on stage. As he drawls out his clever, cynical words one can see the effect that he has on those around him. Platonov's tragedy is his weakness, that he can resist everything except temptation, and Kuryshev captures that weakness perfectly. He is a totally different type of womanizer to Rhys Ifans in the recent Don Juan in Soho - whereas Don Juan is utterly selfindulgent and doesn't care about anyone, Platonov does but can't help himself. Maybe he is a Russian type? - think of Dmitry in the Brothers Karamazov. He is well-complemented by Ksenia Rappaport as the young wife of Voinitsev who realises her mistake when she sees Platonov again. Sexual energy crackles through the air as they embrace in the pool.

Inevitably everything resolves itself into tragedy, the pool's presence becoming increasingly more malign. The cast pick up their instruments and play a final haunting theme that lasts all the way home along with the many remarkable images of this wonderful production.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Book Review : Hang-Ups : Essays on Painting (Mostly) by Simon Schama (BBC Books 2004)

There must have been a point in Simon Schama's life when he stopped being a good writer and became a great one. His voice is now so familiar, his vision of Art so personal with that characteristic touch of informality which is necessary to prick the pomposity of the art critic's puff. Yet it was not always so. In this collection of essays from throughout Schama's writing career, one notices that, whilst the early writing is good, his voice has developed with growing fame and confidence.

Schama writes passionately, and his tastes are diverse. He seems equally at home speaking of the Masters of the Dutch Golden period or of modern abstract artists. But some stand out. His lecture at the New York Metropolitan Museum 0f Art in 1999 demonstrates a deep love of Keifer and Schama's unfailing ability to bring difficult, complex art to life.

Keifer can be a difficult artist for the layman to penetrate - his constant re-explorations of his roots, his Germanness and his relationship to German soil and forests and history. Schama acknowledges this. "For Keifer, the Holzweg is, as it is often understood in vernacular German, a dead-end, and instead of the slaughter being aesthetically euphemized in truncated trees and the inevitable raven, the dead-end is defiled by drops of blood dripped onto the begrimed snow". However, in rebutting a fellow critic who refers Keifer's "humour", Schama notes that "I don't exactly see him as the stand-up comedian of late 20th century art, a Teutonic Seinfeld."

This is the essence of Schama, his ability to puncture the pretentiousness that surrounds the Art world whilst simultaneously respecting and writing lucidly and vibrantly on it. He can penetrate the seriousness with which art tries to respond to the society around it, comprehend and summarise it, throw in the most perfectly balanced phrase - "the dead-end is defiled by drops of blood dripped onto the begrimed snow" is close to perfection - then puncture the seriousness by a reference to a "Teutonic Seinfeld."

It is difficult to summarise this diverse collection of journalism and lectures, there is no unifying theme, except to note that Schama's enthusiasm for fine art shines through consistently. There are no negative pieces included until the final article - a review of the 1492 exhibition in Washington. This commemoration of the discovery of America by Columbus manages to do so with only one exhibit out of 569 directly relating to the explorer - the rest cover 1492 in a multitude of cultures throughout the world, but excluding all unpleasantness such as the expulsion of the Moors from Spain which happened in the same year. Schama deplores this pusillanimous revisionism, a year cast adrift from its cultural moorings in a desperate desire to be all things to all men whilst offending no-one.

It is all that Schama is not - vague, generalist, unopinionated. For, as he is primarily a historian, Schama has rooted his art criticism directly into the culture of the painter. His vision is almost that of a gifted amateur, enthusiastic but learned of the context. And with that one great advantage - he can write.

Art Review : Hogarth (Tate Britain 16/02/07)

It is a pity that Hogarth did not anticipate the 21st Century blockbuster exhibition (and if he had, he would have probably captured the peering, jostling crowds to perfection). The pleasure in Hogarth's magnificent satirical paintings and prints lies in the detail, and, judging by the numbers thronging this magnificently-collated overview of Hogarth's work, he strikes a chord with many people. Unfortunately, such is their enthusiasm to see the original prints in detail that it can be difficult to get close to the works themselves without resorting to some elbow-work.

All the great series are here - The Rake's Progress, Marriage a la Mode, the Four Stages of Cruelty, alongside, in certain cases, the paintings upon which the engravings were based. Hogarth has a busy style, cramming the frames with colour and detail. Yet the revelation for me in this exhibition was his other paintings, the Conversation Pieces, the Historical works and especially the Portraits. I hadn't realised to what an extent that he was one of the great portraitists of the 18th Century, a worthy precursor to Reynolds, Gainsborough and Ramsey.

Take his portrait of George Arnold, for example. He is a solid man, radiating straightforwardness and honesty. His eyes are acute, with a trace of a smile around a set mouth. He seems an approachable man, someone with whom you can do business. Most of Hogarth's sitters were of a similar background: the successful middle classes rather than the aristocracy.

Justifiably famous as well is his portrait of apothecary Daniel Graham's children. Not only do the children come alive as lively individuals, the portrait itself is full of entrancing detail - notably the eager-faced tabby poised to pounce on the caged goldfinch (not a bullfinch as it erroneously states in the otherwise splendid catalogue. Neither is the young lady on stage in "The Indian Emperor" Lady Catherine Lennox (cat pg 108), but Lady Caroline Lennox, future wife of Henry Fox). Maybe this is a portent of the tenuousness of our hold on life, since, as the winged-figure of a golden, scythe-wielding Death above the baby Thomas symbolises, Thomas was dead before the painting was finished.
But above all, Hogarth was a connoisseur of London life in all its varieties. His great series depict the decline and fall of the gullible and foolish, drawn in by the cheats and charlatans of 18th Century London. Innocent and fair Moll Hackabout arrives in London looking for her cousin. She cannot find her, but Mother Needham is ready to offer assistance. Moll has brought a goose for her cousin, but she is the goose herself - as the notorious rake and rapist Colonel Charteris looks on, hand jigging in pocket.

One of Hogarth's great gifts is his accessibility. His prints are rich in symbolism, but one doesn't have to be an Art Historian or to read the detailed notes by each painting to see by the merchant peering at the marriage contract whilst the noblemen points to his family tree that the Marriage a la Mode was not made in heaven. The young couple look on disengagedly - he takes a pinch of snuff whilst admiring himself in the mirror, she glumly plays with her ring whilst their dogs (always a good signifier for Hogarth) show no interest in each other. Soon, she is having an affair with the Lawyer Silvertongue, he has succumbed to the pox - all described in minutest of detail. As the Countess stretches contentedly in the second scene, the dog has sniffed out the ladies undergarment in the pocket of the Viscount.
The teeming, dirty, hypocritical energy of 18th Century London - the Gin craze, the South-Sea Bubble, the threat from the Jacobites and from the French, the fall of Walpole and the rise of Pitt - all is captured by Hogarth and translated into deadly satire with the finest execution. In a way, for a man whose success was founded upon his ability to describe the London crowd in all its variegated glory, it is entirely appropriate that the modern crowds should now be paying their respects in turn to Hogarth.

Theatre Review : John Gabriel Borkman by Henrik Ibsen, translated by David Eldridge - Donmar Warehouse (dir Michael Grandage 5/3/07)

John Gabriel Borkman is a banker who has served 5 years in prison for defrauding his customers. Since his release 8 years ago, he has paced his upstairs bedroom like a caged wolf, his wife Gunhild ignoring him for the disgrace brought upon the family. In Norway, revenge is a dish served very cold indeed. His wife's twin sister, Ella, was his lover before his fall, and still has some warmth in her heart for him. Meanwhile, his son, Erhart, has fallen in love with the smouldering widow down the road.

Borkman harbours Raskolnikov-like fantasies of the good that he could have done with the money he had stolen. If he had more time he could have paid it back, and benefited the people of Norway. He thinks that Erhart can help him recover his position. Meanwhile, Gunhild sees Erhard as the means of salvation of the family name whilst Ella sees him as an emotional substitute - in a maternal way - for Borkman. Erhart isn't up for this - he runs off with his widow and the promise of easy pleasure, taking the pathetic Foldal's daughter along for good measure, the widow's suggestion to tide him bye when the widow has lost her looks.

Not that one blames him, with the prospect of living with a mother whose heart has turned to ice despite the stultifying claustrophobia of the Borkman household. Emotions stretch, as Ella reveals that she is dying, and seeks the affection that she has foregone for so many years. Peter McIntosh's wood-panelled stage captures both the stifling intensity of the household but also the sparseness of the world outside, echoed in the spare beauty of Ibsen's late prose and the largely static staging.

Ian McDiarmid as Borkman displayed the fastidiousness of someone who is totally absorbed in themselves. Cynicism dripped off his finely enunciated phrases. Meanwhile Deborah Findlay and Penelope Wilton displayed the proper range of emotions, Rafe Spall's Erhart was suitably shallow and Lolita Chakrabarti heaved her decolletage as smouldering widows do.

But something was missing - I didn't feel at the end that I had experienced true tragedy. Borkman is an unpleasant human being, but his cynicism made him quite likable. Some lines were quite amusing. One sympathises with anyone living for years with Gunhild, but wonders why he didn't leave earlier. Meanwhile, the scene where Ella, Gunhild and even Borkman himself vie for the affections of the departing Erhart is silly, frankly.

In the end, I didn't care enough for the characters to feel much sympathy at the denouement. They all deserved the portion of misery they have been assigned. All except Erhart, whose prospect of sexual adventure - though no doubt transient and unfulfilling in the end - definitely seemed a better option to suffocation at home.