Tuesday, 21 November 2017

ECM


Southampton Sports Centre

A wonderful thing has just happened. To quote from the email I found in my inbox on Friday:
Dear friends of ECM,

Over the past week ECM begun the process of entering streaming, and from today, the full ECM catalogue is available to subscribers to services including Apple Music, Amazon.com, Spotify, Deezer, TIDAL and Qobuz.
That's .... amazing! There are so many ECM albums I've wanted to hear over the years, but couldn't possibly have afforded to take a gamble on, so this is like receiving the ultimate Christmas present. Let's see... There are the early Bill Frisell recordings, all that Jan Garbarek and Keith Jarrett, those intriguing combinations of world music virtuosos with musicians from the "jazz" tradition, the modern "classical" recordings by the likes of Arvo Pärt , beautiful polyphony from the Hilliard Ensemble... Oh yes, and John Surman and Terje Rypdal, I'd always meant to check them out, and I might even take a cautious look into the world of Carla Bley... The list just goes on.

I know that, for a lot of people, a little ECM goes a long way – "chilly" and "cerebral" are sometimes the words critics reach for, though I prefer "serene" and "uncompromising" – but if I had to nominate one label whose output I would like to be able to sample whenever I felt like it, that label would have to be ECM. So, thanks, Manfred Eicher! Let's hope you (or your artists) don't come to regret this, sales-wise.

So, now may be the time to put some decent Bluetooth speakers on my list for Father Christmas... Any recommendations?

 
Avonmouth from Clifton Downs, Bristol

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Sour Grape Juice (Best Served Cold)

A while ago back in the summer, I decided to enter three prints for the Royal West of England Academy's open exhibition. I realise this might look as if I only submit work to the exhibitions of bodies with "royal" in their name, but it is simply that the RWA is based in Bristol, and their gallery is a nice space in which to show work.

I had quite a number of candidate pictures so, having done the hard work of making a shortlist, I decided to try an experiment: I solicited the views of a select panel of notorious aesthetes as to which three of my six shortlisted choices they would choose. The results were interesting, in that they more or less coincided with my own top three choices. Make of that what you like. I'm inclined to think that all it demonstrates is that people whose judgement you trust tend to think the same way as you. It's "confirmation bias", or some such phenomenon.

Most interesting of all, though, 100% of cats who expressed an opinion (which was all of them) liked this image, which I titled "Southampton Water", and which was my own no-brainer candidate:


The signs were good. However, in the end, although two of the three (including "Southampton Water") made it into the final round of judgement, neither made it onto the wall. Disappointing, obviously, but these things are always a bit of a lottery. I bear the judges no ill-will, though if bad things have subsequently happened to them, their families, their pets, and their homes, then they only have themselves to blame.

As it happens, I am currently in Bristol for a few days, so I decided to drop by the RWA and take a look at the exhibition, if only to sneer at the work that did make it onto the gallery walls. Well, it turns out I didn't have to try very hard: although there is some excellent and interesting work on show, the overall impression is rather mediocre, and there is quite a lot of work that is so awful you have to wonder what on earth the judges were thinking. This showing of "bad" work was a feature of a couple of rooms in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, too, so I have to conclude there's a thing going on here. As well as just a little touch of sour grapes on my part, of course. Like revenge, I discover, it is a dish best served cold.

Now, obviously, ever since modernism began, there has been a bit of a cult of the "naïve" painter. In reaction to the sterility of academic painting, painters came to distrust their own facility with draughtsmanship and composition – natural skills refined, technically, by the disciplines of the academy – and deliberately made use of awkward and "unrealistic" lines, shapes and colours, often mimicking the bold and expressive work of untrained folk and "outsider" artists. The paintings of Alfred Wallis, for example, exercised a huge influence on the professionally-trained sophisticates of the St. Ives school. As with Derain's Fauvist work that I saw recently at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, there was a certain shock value at the time, but these faux-naïve moves soon became as formulaic as academic realism itself. However, the work I'm seeing on the walls of these open exhibitions (the idea of an "open" exhibition being that anybody may submit work) is not naïve, faux-naïve, bold, or expressive, it is simply bad: poorly executed and poorly conceived work by people not remotely in command of their materials, with no sense of design, line, or colour, often merely illustrating some half-baked political idea, or transparently imitative of other work.

Now, you may say, that is merely your opinion, and of course you'd be right. The challenge to elitist opinions and canons is a significant feature of our times. And I think therein may lie the problem. Like those modernist painters who disavowed their own skill-set, I suspect the judges of open exhibitions (often artists in their own right) are increasingly reluctant to impose their own sophisticated frame of judgement on the work presented to them, and as a consequence give the nod to work that, if they had produced it themselves, would have gone straight in the bin. This is deeply patronising, I think, and also profoundly unfair and confusing to the Sunday painters whose cack-handed daubs are being given prominent gallery space.

Don't believe me? Here's just one example of many:


I mean, honestly! Am I being unfair? Or is it the judges who are being unfair to the painter of this work, by exposing it to the ridicule of everyone I witnessed standing in front of it? I suppose it's a valid question to ask, whether this is (a) the work of a person who can't paint, (b) the work of a person who is artfully pretending not to be able to paint, or (c) the work of someone who doesn't care that you think they can't paint, because they are making a point in a visual language that your bourgeois, stuck-in-the-past imagination can't grasp. Whichever answer you go for, it is merely your own opinion, of course.

It has to be said that some of the most egregious and/or dull work in the show was actually by artists with the letters RWA after their name, which surprised me. I was also very surprised by how little of the work on show has actually been sold with only a couple of weeks to go before it all finally comes down off the walls. Which, as you can imagine, gave me absolutely no pleasure at all.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Old and New



Don't get me wrong on the nature of my proposed Southampton "quest". Although I am a self-declared admirer of the worn and torn over the brand spanking new, I'm not saying that "old" has any necessary correspondence with "soul". Quite often, the appeal of such battered remnants is quite the opposite of that, a sort of orphaned incongruity that is far from comforting, and that expresses the feelings of alienation in a world that is becoming inhospitable and incomprehensible that most of feel from time to time as we get older. We're not talking about favourite old sweaters here; we're talking about the coherence and continuity of civic awareness and culture that make, say, Liverpool "Liverpool", or Bristol "Bristol".

The feeling that Southampton is not, or is no longer "Southampton" may be purely personal, of course. Certain crucial areas of experience are off-limits to me. I will never know what it is like to have grown up here, to have extended family nearby, to have played in these parks and streets, or to have attended local schools, with strong views on their relative merits and mythologies. I cannot enter the thriving docks as I don't have any business there that would get me through the security gates. I have no interest in the lively clubbing scene that emerges between 11 p.m. and 3:00 a.m., leaving its unmissable traces in the streets of the city centre, although I suppose if I wanted to risk life and limb I could attempt to document the late-night mayhem that, I am told, erupts reliably when the clubs shut. Even though I arrived here in 1984, the year the Saints were riding high in the old First Division, I have never once attended a football match, either at the Dell or the new St. Mary's Stadium, and probably never will; I cannot even be bothered to check the team's latest performance on a Saturday. Does this make me less of a "Sotonian"? Probably yes; incomers generally remain incomers. But then I also cannot know what that fully 10% of our population who have come from Poland and other Eastern European countries in recent years make of the city. They already have their own network of shops, and so overfill the local Catholic church at Christmas that the congregation congregates out on the street. Obviously, there are many versions of the city, some more authentic than others, but I have never sensed that they cohere into anything resembling a true civic identity.



I don't think this was always the case, however, and this is where "old" does come in. There are stretches of the city centre where buildings that were not destroyed by the 1940 Blitz or the redevelopers of the 1960s still stand, and many of them are truly outstanding examples of civic architecture. Once, on this evidence, there was money and pride to spare. There are some elegant Georgian terraces, for example (now mainly occupied by legal firms); there are marvellous pubs and hotels and shops and banks with elaborate exteriors, sometimes surviving with their original function and context intact, but more often than not repurposed as clubs and restaurants and sitting uncomfortably next to the thoughtless, off-the-peg architecture of modern retail outlets.

At the more monumental end of the spectrum, there is an extraordinary sculpted memorial to the many Southampton crewmen who went down on the Titanic in 1912, just across the road from an elegant cenotaph inscribed with the names of the men who died in 1914-18, designed by Lutyens and the model for the larger version in London's Whitehall. Then, looming gigantically but somehow hidden in plain sight, there are the remnants of the original mediaeval city wall and the twin drum towers of the Norman Bargate, which was at some point chosen by the Council as the city's logo (accompanied by a tower-block and a tree – ah, symbolism!). This odd device has replaced the city coat of arms on everything from council vans to headed notepaper. In fact, look, there it is on the rubbish bin at the extreme bottom right in my panorama of that magnificent tiled pub frontage below, a stone's throw from the waterfront – where ferries used to leave for France and passenger boats sailed for the farthest reaches of the Empire – and opposite the original railway station, where passengers and, at times, soldiers from all over the country arrived before embarkation. It's not hard to imagine taking pride in a prosperous and purposeful city that once looked like this, though, is it?


Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Soul Quest



In a previous post (Solent Soul Suite) I described a potential project, a tentative search for the "soul" of the city of Southampton, which seems to have gone missing somewhere around 1960, having received a bit of a pasting during the Blitz of 1940. It seemed one good initial search strategy would be to become a tourist in my own town, and to do the things I would do if, by some miscalculation, I had ended up here on holiday. So, a couple of times in recent weeks, I've taken myself down to that part of the waterfront which is under development as a residential, business, and leisure district, and relatively open to mooching about with a camera.

It seems quite a transformation has been going on. It's been a while since I was last down in Ocean Village, as it is known, and the developers have been busy. Where there were once wind-blown vacant lots huge high-rise blocks have appeared, with bars and restaurants at ground level, and upscale apartments and office space above. Private residential estates have been packed in around the old dockside, which has been rebranded as a "marina" and now gleams with the hulls of yachts and cruisers, including some Trump-sized vessels that could accommodate a lobbying-party for the entire House of Commons. The only things missing are (a) tourists, and (b) a suitable climate. Admittedly, the centre of Southampton is Party Town for a substantial stretch of the South Coast, but why anyone would want to freeze their kneecaps off in a brisk onshore breeze carrying fumes from the Fawley Refinery while being deafened by the tintinnabulation of halyards slapping a hundred-odd metal masts is a mystery to me.



Soul-wise, whether this makeover will ever become the "real" Southampton only time will tell. Out of sight, round the bend, and behind razor-wire topped fences the business of docking, resupplying, lading and unlading improbably large cruise and container ships carries on regardless. You can still be held up for 10 minutes or more as an endless freight train rumbles into the docks across the only road into the area. On the other side of Southampton Water sits the industrial sprawl of Fawley Refinery. Further round the other way the mighty curve of the Itchen Bridge carries commuter traffic over the river, and near and beneath the bridge little industrial units continue to make and fix things. A little further up the Itchen the enormous St. Mary's Stadium of Southampton FC is located. It's hard not to feel that true traces of a city's soul may be more reliably sensed in these places, rather than down by the marina. But it's a start.

The Itchen Bridge and the new stadium are both emblematic of the continual process of change from "old" Southampton to "new" Southampton; a process which, obviously, is going on in all towns everywhere all the time, but which, here as elsewhere, seems also to have broken some essential element of civic pride and continuity. Any genuine local of my age would recall that, before the bridge was opened in 1977, there was a chain ferry across the Itchen, the so-called Floating Bridge. It had been there, in various incarnations, since 1838, which would make it venerable by most standards, but was clearly inadequate for the needs of modern-day traffic. In fact, the Floating Bridge was itself a compromise, a substitute for a bridge proposed in 1833, but opposed by other local interests, not least the company operating the rival bridge a little upriver at Northam.



Photographically, this sort of thing is hard to express. Bits and pieces of "old" Southampton survive, but need substantial interpretation. A case in point: towards the end of my recent explorations down near the Itchen Bridge, a guy pulled out of a nearby gate in his car and, seeing me, slowed to a halt and rolled down his window. It turned out he was the Scoutmaster of the local Sea Scouts, and was worried I might be sizing the area up for yet more development. On hearing about my actual mission, he started to fill me in on the significance of the local remains. Those tracks on a ramp running into the water? That's where they built Mulberry harbours for D-Day. And that bus-shelter thingie over there? That's the Cross House, built as a place for people waiting to be ferried over the river, back before land was reclaimed to make the current shoreline. It was first mentioned in the sixteenth century, but is probably mediaeval, possibly repurposed from a boundary cross. Now that's old. But it's also isolated nowhere near anywhere any tourist would ever show up: at the side of a dead-end road running through industrial units to a car-park. Which is where I came in.


Friday, 10 November 2017

Scribble, Scribble, Scribble



I spent a useful, if dull, afternoon this week scanning in pages from various sketchbooks. I have always loved scribbling away with a pencil, although it's an aspect of my "creative life" that doesn't get much of a public outing. I wouldn't often compare myself to Henri Cartier-Bresson but, like him, I'm privately convinced my drawings are far better than my photographs, even though, inexplicably, no-one else seems to agree.

It only takes a visit to a gallery or two (I was in the Royal Academy on Monday to see the Matisse in the Studio exhibition) to spark the thought, common to all third-rate artists, that surely my stuff could be as good as that? Yeah, right. Only fifty years too late. Nonetheless, I thought it was time I did the chore of some long-overdue scanning, so I would have some new raw material to play with.

Some scribbles just need a little bit of presentation:



Others invite the full Photoshop treatment, like those in the previous post (yes, underneath all the gilding and garish paint-job there is a simple drawing, sometimes two or three combined), while others just need a light touch, rather like hand-tinting an engraving:




The tricky bit is knowing which are which, and how far to go. As Alberto Giacometti said, "That's the terrible thing: the more one works on a picture, the more impossible it becomes to finish it." Tell me about it, Alberto!

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Leave It Out



Hey, language watchers, have you noticed the new "out"? No, not that one, that's ancient history, by contemporary standards. Nobody cares, any more, whether you're "out" or not. In fact, being out is very "in", as we used to say. No, it seems "out" is being attached to verbs to create, well, what? These are some examples from the radio this week:

To build out ("The important thing is to build out the public housing stock")
To drive out ("My job is to drive out these changes")
To push out ("We need to push out these policies")

My suspicion is that "out" has detached itself from expressions like "to roll out" (as in "make this product available") or "to work out" (as in "systematic exercise") as a signifier of corporate or personal dynamism. An expression like "to build out" has a literal meaning, a metaphorical meaning, and some modishly muscular usages that hover somewhere in between. As well as houses, you can build out your team, your muscles, or your brand.

The trouble is, "out" is already heavily over-booked, verb-wise, and has been doing a lot of useful work for a long time, so I doubt this new trend has much wider application or even much future. I mean, here I am, writing out my blog, whilst eating out a biscuit, which I bought out at the weekend, after driving out to the supermarket, where I shopped out my weekly groceries. Hmm, those don't really work out, do they?


And another thing. The eighth letter of the alphabet: H. Now, I was not exactly brought up in a snobbish or pretentious environment – far from it – but to pronounce that letter as "haitch" was seen as a marker of unlettered ignorance on a par with eating rice pudding with a biro. I was furious when my children came home from primary school having been taught that "haitch" was "correct", because to say "aitch" mean you were dropping your, um, "haitches". Grrr.

Now, I'm aware that certain regions have always used "haitch"; most notably in Ireland. But it seems this pronunciation is gaining ground as simply an unremarkable variation, like northern versus southern vowels. I hear it often now even on BBC Radio 4, whenever the bank "HSBC" or the shop "H&M" are in the news, or even – and this one really grates on my ears – the "NHS", which is to say, most days. I suppose as a signed-up descriptivist I shouldn't mind, but I do. It's probably a class-and-aspiration issue – I hate it when people disadvantage themselves out of smugness – but may also have to do with the rice-and-biro related scoldings I 'ad to endure t' learn me better.


Sunday, 5 November 2017

Noise v. Signal


Detail of installation by Charlotte Moth
Pompidou Centre

Our beliefs –  our true beliefs, I mean, not the sort of rote professions of faith that society demands of us – can be hard to identify, simply because they are the air we believe we breathe, and the solid ground on which we trust we walk. However, it did occur to me recently that for my entire life I have held a profound but irrational belief in the idea of "tempting fate". Profound because it has directed so much of the way I have conducted my life; irrational because, well, it's a pretty insane idea, isn't it? However, recognising the irrationality of this belief is not going to stop me behaving as if it were true; that would be tempting fate.

Equally paradoxically, the idea that art should question our beliefs has become one of the unquestionable core beliefs of contemporary art. No self-respecting contemporary artist is going to stop behaving as if this were true, even though it self-evidently isn't. That is, until some true mould-breaker gives everyone permission to drop the ridiculous pretence that art students have greater insight into the nature of Life, the Universe, and Everything than "ordinary" people. I'm not going to rehearse how and when this belief came about (mainly because I'd have to look it up) but I'm pretty sure all those artists in the Louvre did not have their fingers crossed behind their back as they delivered yet another crucifixion scene to the service door of the cathedral. Neither did Holbein, by drawing the Tudor aristocracy of England with such breathtaking realism, or John Constable, with his endless studies of clouds, intend to challenge anything more than the inability of previous painters to get things right. That  desire to get things right may in itself be quite subversive in an unfair world – the truth will set you free – but that is a different matter.

A camera is quicker...


Hans Hartung in La Musée d'Art Moderne
(I think I'm a fan)

People of an artistic disposition, in my observation, tend to fall into two categories. Consider the way red-headed, pale-skinned folk know, or are advised, how to dress (I recall many such conversations between my mother and sister). Essentially: if in doubt, wear green, and never, ever wear red. It just works, looks right, and is in accordance with some unwritten folk theory of colour. Those who value such practical wisdom are the instinctive artists, the colourists, the lovers of shape and form, often with a conservative preference for "natural" beauty. On the other side, there are the contrary red-headed folk who insist on wearing whatever they like, decking themselves out in red and purple stripes precisely because it's what they're not supposed to do. These are the conceptual artists, whose work is all about transgression, challenge, and rejection of norms, who tend to celebrate the urban and the artificial, and reject "natural" categories (like, say, gender) as constructed impositions on their liberty. In the past, the latter won't have got much work; today, they run the show.

I think this is what can make a contemporary art gallery such a confusing place. It will quite likely be full of work that, like some deeply conflicted and angry teenager, is simultaneously demanding your love and attention while telling you to piss off. Look, I'm turning the lights on and off! Isn't that brilliantly annoying, you boring scumbag? I hate you! Now please give me prizes and money!! Unfortunately, those of us who venture into art galleries (as opposed to the sort of people who own or fill them) generally have a craving for something visually exciting, and are not looking to get an angry lecture from some self-righteous trustafarian on our complacency. However, like the parents of that angry adolescent, we sigh deeply, suspend judgement, and look for something to like. After all, as I have said here before, we should all be alert to that "Hendrix Moment", when something is so new that it makes no sense yet, and seems to be all noise and no signal.

Derain, Le Quai Victoria, 1906-1907
Hard to imagine, now, how outrageous this was in 1907.

Such was certainly the case when Henri Matisse and André Derain hit the scene in 1905, earning themselves the label of "fauves" (wild beasts) which they immediately adopted as an ironic badge of honour. There was an excellent show of Derain's work at the Pompidou Centre while we were in Paris, and it was fascinating to get to see the full length of a painter's career who seemed, like a weathercock, to change styles depending on who he'd been hanging out with – Matisse, Picasso, Cézanne, and many others all seem to have had a transformative effect on him. But there can be little doubt that those earliest "fauvist" works have now moved decisively from "all noise" (wild beasts!) to "all signal" (lovely paintings!). Who wouldn't want to have one of his paintings of London on their wall?

Matisse by Derain
(Whatever is in that pipe, it works...)

Also in the Pompidou was an exhibition of the contenders for the Marcel Duchamp Prize (yes, there really is such a thing, and it is not a gold urinal). Here, I found myself distinctly back in noisy territory. It's antediluvian, I know, but I do like my art to be two-dimensional and framed; yes, well, I suppose I do find it hard to separate "art" and "interior decoration". But I get impatient with large-scale, immersive installation work that can only be successfully experienced in a gallery setting. How is it that white-cube galleries and pitch-black projection rooms are the only spaces where contemporary art can exist? I mean, does any wealthy private individual even have their own installation space? It just seems so elitist, and so completely reliant on institutional support and funding.

Wait... Isn't that an underpass cinema??
(Pompidou Centre video installation)

Anyway, for what it's worth, I did enjoy the work by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige (core samples from Athens, Paris, and Beirut hung from the ceiling in long glass tubes) who, in fact, turned out to be the prizewinners, though I would have enjoyed it equally as much if it had been a display of core samples hanging from the ceiling of a geological museum. In fact, I think I would have enjoyed it more, because then its aesthetic qualities would have been my own discovery, and I would have been spared the statements of the sociologically and archaeologically bleedin' obvious that accompanied it. As Keats wrote in one of his letters: "We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us — and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket." Which is a nice way of saying, "Give me the art, but spare me the statement." Telling me what I should think about your work is just tempting fate...

Ah well, enough of Paris. Southampton awaits!

Paris from La Butte Montmartre

Friday, 3 November 2017

A Barbarian in the Church of Art



In Paris for five days, I visited four art galleries. No big deal; that's the same as the number of restaurants I ate in. It's what you do, isn't it, when visiting Paris, or Florence, or anywhere that looms large on the cultural map? It's what I do, anyway, along with the thousands of others queueing for tickets, and walking the parquet floors in an arted-out trance. Cultural heritage is big business.

But, art... It may be big, but it's a funny old business, too, isn't it? At some point in the 18th century, painting and certain allied trades began to throw off the label of mere "decorative crafts" and became the focus of a new but ill-defined set of attitudes in European society around talent and individual genius, and also of certain yearnings towards transcendence that were, at about the same time, shaking themselves free from religion. Like paper money, works of art by bankable names came to be regarded as objects that embodied certain values greater than themselves, and – for as long as that faith and bankability remained good – assigned a monetary value that far exceeded the net worth of their actual canvas and paint or billable hours of labour. To own a Rembrandt and to be Rembrandt were rather different things.

Arted out

This revaluation was applied retrospectively to works made in the past, so that former jobbing painters became "artists", and were ranked according to their relative endowment of "genius". Thus, painting acquired both a history and a hierarchy, the administration and authentication of which inevitably gave rise to a new priesthood. As a consequence, although the great galleries of Britain and France are, essentially, bank vaults for the trophies brought home from abroad by aristocrats on their Grand Tours or looted by their invading armies, they function more like churches of art. We tourists shuffle reverently from chapel to chapel within the great cathedrals of art such as the Louvre, mentally genuflecting before, say, the Mona Lisa, although we may often be as baffled by the unspeaking physical actuality* of such a famous painting as any peasant hoping for a few intimate words of advice or comfort from the Virgin Mary.

Almost a perfect "Mona Lisa selfie scrum" picture...
Can you believe that guy's bag? And can you see
 anyone looking at the damn picture?
Sadly, it's not as sharp as I'd like.

On the evidence of the Uffizi in Florence last summer, and the Louvre this year, such world-famous paintings actually serve mainly as ticks on a bucket-list, or as a backdrop for a selfie, on a par with the Eiffel Tower or standing in front of an impassive sentry at Buckingham Palace. If you want to know where the Big Pictures are just follow the crowd; the rest are just handy space-fillers to spread the Big Ones out a bit. And let me be perfectly honest: I wouldn't care in the slightest if 80-90% of the paintings in the Louvre were stolen tonight (you'll be needing a very big van). I wouldn't contribute one Euro to the ransom. Much as I love the enamelled perfection of a mediaeval altarpiece, I have no interest whatsoever in the repetitive, unimaginative, grandiose, post-Renaissance art that occupies wall after wall after wall. It puts me in mind of the racks of suits, shirts, and ties in Marks & Spencer: nothing here for me, let's move on.

Priestess and worshippers

Obviously, most of us lack the education or background to evaluate or distinguish one royal portrait, martyrdom, Annunciation, or Ovidian transformation from another. I certainly do, and I'm pretty sure that the ever-increasing numbers of gallery visitors from the Far East have about the same grasp of Christian or Classical iconography as the typical western tourist has of those of Angkor Wat or the Todaiji Temple. Although we are free to simply pick out the bits we like and ignore the rest – and I do – you can feel rather like a barbarian stripping the gold and prising out the jewelled eyes of a Byzantine statue. But the only alternative (apart from doing lots of homework) is to take the value and relative merits of what is on display as a matter of faith and, on balance, I'm a happy barbarian: I reject your faith but I have a use for that gold and those jewelled eyes!

This matter of faith is most sorely tested when standing before (or, increasingly, inside) the more baffling manifestations of contemporary art, but that will have to be another post.

Nice frame! I can see a use for that...
(N.B. would you believe this is by Raphael?)

And nice devils! Ditto...

* This is where the audio guide comes in... Only an extra 10 Euros!

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Mystery Companion


Now that's a handbag!

According to the society columns, an eminent blogger and assembler of photo-thingies was seen out and about in Paris last week, accompanied by (in Jackson Browne's phrase) a stunning mystery companion, apparently some 40 years his junior. It later emerged that this delightful young woman is, in fact, blog-blokie's daughter. Her mother, a distinguished professor of Important Studies, was also in town but, having a gig at the OECD (or, as the French call it, perversely, l'OCDE), had little time for leisure pursuits.


Unassailably wealthy, educated beyond all reasonable need, and endowed with intimidatingly good taste, the pair were seen frequenting various really classy establishments, and window-shopping (or, as the French say, faire du lèche-vitrines i.e. "licking windows") for original art, lurid bandes dessinées, and ironically tacky fridge-magnets. Fortunately, the French are respectful of creative genius, and feigned utter indifference to these representatives of such an eminent and cultured British family wandering their capital's streets.

Hmm, signed Henri Rivière prints? We'll take them all!

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Dem Bones!



A prime purpose, for me, of this visit to Paris was to get inside the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle with a camera. It turns out, however, that the MNHN is a multi-site affair – fourteen sites, no less – and even its main presence in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris is split into four separate institutions, plus a zoo. Being mainly interested in stuffed, flayed and excarnated critters, I chose to visit the Grand Galerie de l'Évolution and the Galerie de Paléontologie et d’Anatomie Comparée.


Two more different institutions covering such similar ground would be hard to imagine. The Grand Galerie de l'Évolution, from my point of view, was a bit of a bust. The building has been extensively and expensively renovated and the collection has been re-interpreted to give an educational take on various aspects of evolution. But it is as dark as a church in there, with tiny spotlights barely illuminating the exhibits; partly in the interests of preservation, partly (one suspects) to conceal the tattiness of some of the taxidermy, but mainly to lend a specious air of drama to what is, after all, quite a dry subject. Frankly, it's boring, and the many restless children in there seemed to agree with me. I got a few shots, but nothing of the sort I was after, and left after 30 minutes or so.

Now that's a staircase...

But the Galerie de Paléontologie et d’Anatomie Comparée which I visited next... Oh, my ears and whiskers (not to mention virtually any other conceivable bit of anatomy), what a place! I would guess that the last time it was redecorated would have been around 1957, and the last time the collection was "interpreted" was somewhere in the 19th century. It simply is what it is: a delightful Enlightenment charnel-house of comparative anatomy and fossils, fully lit by natural daylight, and set out in the systematic chaos of Wunderkammer plenitude. You want to compare viscera? Skeletons? Eyeballs? Pulmonary systems? Check 'em out!


Holy crapauds!

Most encouraging of all, the place was popular (I had to queue for 20 minutes to get in), and full of excited children. I got lots of pictures and, like those kids, was on a mounting high of grisly enthusiasm throughout; this museum pushes the "eek!" factor to 11. If you're ever in Paris, it's a must-see, before some new-broom curator decides the place could do with a bit more atmosphere, and a little less stuff.

Cuvier compared

Never mind the plaster, check out the ammonites

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Iconic Panopticon



I couldn't resist posting this picture today, on the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's kickstart of the Reformation with what our very own Archbishop of Canterbury – along with many, many others – has described as an epic series of 95 tweets that went viral.

I took the photograph in the Basilica of Sacré-Cœur, situated on the highest point of Paris, the butte Montmartre. You probably know that Luther's main bone of contention with the Catholic Church was the selling of "indulgences", a sort of advance loan against the forgiveness of sins (perhaps a more contemporary parallel would be the offsetting of one's carbon footprint in Britain by investing in trees in Brazil). What the picture shows is a row of coin-op vending machines selling assorted souvenir medals (just 2 euros each!) ranging from Pope Francis to Jesus Christ lui-même arrayed in the hushed heart of the church. Hilarious, no? But I can't help thinking that neither Jesus nor Luther would be much amused.

Motmartre seen from the Pompidou Centre

Sacré-Cœur is symbolic of the contradictions in the Parisian spirit in another way that is perhaps not so obvious to the thousands of tourists making the obligatory ascent of the butte, whether on foot up through the narrow streets of Montmartre, packed with shops, bars, and restaurants, or by riding the funicular (in either case, primarily for the spectacular view). For the basilica is, as it happens, no ancient monument, neither does it sit on some long-hallowed patch of ground. In fact, it was begun only in 1875, finished in 1914, and finally consecrated in 1919. Impressionism, Fauvism, and even Cubism were pretty much over before anyone got to celebrate Mass in there.

You can read about it here, but in essence Sacré-Cœur symbolises the re-assertion of dominance by the conservative Catholic establishment after the turbulent years of French revolutionary fervour, and in particular the ignominious defeat of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the Paris Commune of 1871. The building was quite specifically conceived by those reactionaries as an act of penance to expiate what they perceived as a Gallic fall into moral turpitude, and it was placed like a spiritual panopticon (salut, Michel Foucault!) at the heart of that rebellious city's most rebellious quarter.

Montmartre by night

And yet, you ask, is not La Marseillaise still the French national anthem, and Marianne, in her revolutionary liberty cap, the most prominent national symbol? And isn't laïcité (separation of church and state) a fundamental article of French constitutional faith? All true enough, hypocrite lecteur*: they are nothing if not complicated, conflicted, contradictory people, yer French.

But then, aren't we all? In Luther's terms, we are all irredeemable sinners, redeemed, whether we like it or not, by unearned, unbought, unasked-for divine grace. Which is probably not the way most of us in Europe look at ourselves now. Largely, it has to be said, because of the way the door marked "Reformation" led along a smoky, corpse-strewn corridor to the sunlit plaza named "Enlightenment". But 500 years of heritage counts for a lot, and Europe is still a place where it can make quite a difference whether you are a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist.

Other religious heritages are also available, of course, and – in principle, at least – equally welcome in Enlightenment Square. Just behave yourselves, for goodness' sake.

Galerie de Paléontologie et d’Anatomie comparée

* Famous last line of last stanza of Charles Baudelaire's poem "Au Lecteur": 

C'est l'Ennui! L'oeil chargé d'un pleur involontaire,
II rêve d'échafauds en fumant son houka.
Tu le connais, lecteur, ce monstre délicat,
— Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!

[Boredom! He smokes his hookah, while he dreams 
Of gibbets, weeping tears he cannot smother. 
You know this dainty monster, too, it seems — 
Hypocrite reader! — You! — My twin! — My brother!]
Roy Campbell translation