Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Gothic London


Image not from the Museum
In the thrub of the city, there are quiet, small spaces of calm if you know where to find them. Take Lincoln’s Inn Fields on a Saturday morning when the law is at rest, for example, or the imaginary monk’s cell and parlour in the basement of the Sir John Soane Museum that abuts the park.

It is wasteful, almost profligate to spend the hours of sunshine on a winter’s day indoors in the semi-dark amongst gargoyles, a marble skull, heavy furniture and blood red walls. But with my teenage Goth daughter in tow and delighted by everything here from the architectural ‘specimens’ to the fabulous sculpture packed into every square inch of the house, there was no choice. And more, it was a positive choice to keep from the Arctic cold that arrived with insufficient notice for me to pack properly last weekend.


As usual, I wanted the fires lit, everyone else banished and the place to myself, a good tome from the library and a pot of tea. My needs are fairly simple, no? Barring that, free entry, an exhibition on death and architecture and four of Hogarth’s paintings from the Rake’s Progress kept us more than happy for the morning.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Nous sommes Parisians, but I’m not gawping

It’s been ten days since the terrorist attacks in Paris. A week and a half in which something approaching life has continued, but people have become variously scared, defiant, distrustful.

The present concerns are whether the political response of bombing the hell out of Syria is wise, and resistance to the French government’ s move to constrain personal freedoms. For the French, Liberté is a very serious tenant, even in a state of emergency.

On a daily basis these things concern me much less than my neighbours. Je suis Paris, but I have long since given up on active political engagement as it does no good to my health. I cannot over-fill my mind and heart or they will break completely. That’s why I will not be going to Place de la Republique to look at the growing shrine to the dead. It’s the reason why I do not join the collective mourning.


My only contact with public expressions of grief and outrage was the floral tributes at the school gate next to my apartment building  It was hard to avoid the white flowers, candles and messages from the pupils for their murdered music teacher. And impossible to side-step the girl walking towards me one morning last week, carrying a perfect rose, her expression of sadness not one any child should know.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Four good reasons to go to Birmingham

Southerners are pretty snobby about Brum, so here's a finger to them and four good reasons to pay our second city a visit, even on a grey and drizzly day in November:

1. Anthony Gormley - check out this huge Iron Man stuck just there in the pavement outside the City Art Gallery and Museum, and Town Hall.

2. The Staffordshire Hoard - a cache of over four thousand pieces of Anglo Saxon gold, some with marvellous garnet inlay. It's in the museum in a purpose built gallery. Bling.

3. The Pre-Raphaelites - there are several rooms full of Holman Hunt, Bryne-Jones, Rosetti and Millais, which you have to trip past on your way to the Hoard. Some of these paintings are so famous, you'll find yourself saying something like, 'Oh so that's where this one belongs'.

4. The new New Street station - shopping and travelling under one rather shiny roof. Great for reflections.

Ai Weiwei at the RA

This is not the first time I have been to an Ai Weiwei show, but it may be the last. In a word, disappointing. I get it now, actually I've got it for a long time. The message is wearing thin and this is not art that I have to think very hard about.

Yes, it is important that he continues to show up the Chinese government and its secrecy, duplicity, control, hypocrisy and so on, and yes, it is appalling the way Ai has himself been treated, but I think he has reached the point now where politics has over taken art if it takes an army of people and three studios around the world to create his works. Take for example the steel rods from the earthquake destroyed schools and the number of workers needed to straighten them. Yes, they are nicely arranged and fitted together in a pleasing wave form, but really, is that it?

Such were my feelings as I toured Ai's latest show. Yes, it's good to see the drip vases and marble camera, the jade handcuffs and the enormous cube of tea, but I wanted more. It's a function of the size of the works and the relative lack of space in the RA to do them justice.

Go if you've not seen these in the flesh before, but if you have, beat the long queue and perhaps save those 17 good British pounds for something else. The porcelain crabs though are cute.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Chiswick House and Gardens


Many are the times I have roared passed the turn off on the A4 on my way out of London, yet I have never visited this lovely park and its beautiful buildings before. As well as a general interest in the idea of the garden and the re-sculpting of the British landscape that took place in the 18th century, started here by a certain William Kent, and a desire to take a stroll around a lake, admiring bird life, including a triumvirate of cormorants drying their wings, there was another reason for visiting that my companion wanted to share.

Some nearly fifty years ago a rather famous group of musicians used the grounds to shoot a promotional film for their new single. The band was The Beatles. The single was Paperback Writer (with Rain on the B side). You can find it on the internet these days, but it was the start of something visually new in the pop world. The fab four sing and play around a huge Cedar of Lebanon, the semi-circle of 'Roman' statuary and the conservatory, which houses a collection of century old, huge camelias, whilst also looking into the mid-distance and 'oozing cool' as the information poster has it.

Best enjoyed on a sunny autumn Sunday when everyone else is somewhere else. Look out for gnarly ash trees, the Indian Bean tree that despite almost falling over in a long ago storm now grows partly along the ground, the noisy cascade and the Japanese maples turning bright gold. The perfect place for a historical stroll.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

The Grayson Perry House, Wrabness

Wrabness is a small nowhere kind of a place on the incredibly beautiful Stour estuary in Essex, blighted only by views of Feilxstowe, but docks and container ports have to go somewhere now,  don't they? There is a railway station, a pub or two, a community shop and the Grayson Perry House.

Nothing to see inside unless you book it at vast expense from the Landmark Trust, but it's free to walk around the garden fence and take a few photographs of this amazing confection for Perry's fictional all-Essex woman, Julie. Go on a sunny day when the roof is positively golden and it is something of a marvel.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Richard Long at the Arnolfini


I state my bias right away: Long is my hometown artist who I most admire.  His word work is poetry pared down to its most simple essence: the significant things we notice along the way.

And moving throughout the landscape is what this work is all about. The walk. Everything else is just recording and documenting. Which makes it rather difficult to mount an exhibition.

Happily the words on the walls work their magic, as do the site specific mud paintings and the slate cross.

New mud thumb prints are charming in their aboriginal patterning.

Meanwhile out of the gallery up on the Downs is Boyhood Line, which is worth finding (one third of the way up Ladies Mile on the right as you leave Clifton, if you want directions, as I had to ask three gallery staff before finding one who could show me, but not furnish me with, a map). The grass is overtaking the white stones and there is a certain amount of public interference going on, as Long expected.

My only quibble, and it's not a small one, is that the Arnolfini does not have anywhere near enough gallery space to do Long's work justice. Not by a long chalk. There simply wasn't enough of on show to make a trip from anywhere other than Bristol worthwhile. Luckily, I was passing, otherwise I would have been sorely disappointed. But if you are local and like your art conceptual and constrained, enjoy this this summer.

Monday, 3 August 2015

France Profond


The usual wind takes the heat out of a sunny day on the first weekend in August. Northern France. The wheat harvest is in full swing - combines and grain carriers churn across the land with all the efficiency mechanized agriculture can afford. In the sea of golden grain, patient maize and two-tone cattle lie different plots. At regular intervals British and other cars stop beside the fields of white and green that dot the Somme landscape every quarter of a mile or so.

The curious, the buffs, the just-passing, the serious historians, the searches of family history, whatever their motives the passengers spare the time to stand in the corners of these forever England places. Of course, they are more than forever England as the Welsh, Irish, Scots, Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, Indians, French, and Germans will attest.

We came to the Le Tournet Monument in search of one particular grave. And that’s a thing in itself. Not all the men slaughtered in this place a hundred years ago were afforded such. The names on the monument, just 13,400 of them here, are all that there is to mark these men. 

My relative on the other hand has a headstone, a beautiful piece of creamy marble, kept moss and lichen free by the commendable Commonwealth War Graves Commission.  On it, under the Prince of Wales feathers of the Welsh Regiment and above the simple cross are his name, J. Lewis, his rank – Private, his army number and the date he died, 13 February 1916.

What is missing is that he was John Lewis, my great, great uncle, and that he was only twenty when he was the target of a German sniper early on a Sunday morning in the bitterest month of winter. I remember my great grandmother telling me about her lovely brother when I was a small girl. We have photographs of him. We have a geology book he inscribed.


Here we are then, nearly one hundred years later, taking a pause in our busy lives, feeling rather goose bumpy, writing a message in the visitors book, taking pictures, and making a mental note of where he is. If you stand one meter to the left of the right hand pillar at the entrance to the monument and look towards the oak tree, his grave is directly in front of you in the fourth row in front of the tree, beside four other Welsh boys, all about the same age, all killed days apart. 

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Musee Albert Kahn

When the heat bouncing off the stone is too too much, it's time to seek out the shade. In all sorts of hidden places in Paris there is plenty of greenery, as in here at the end of line 10 at Boulogne Billancourt.

As I am currently plotting a small Japanese creation, this was the spot for a little gardening homework, rest and reflection. Not only is it a lovely stroll garden, but there is also a French fruit and roses garden and a more classically English garden with some fine specimen cedars and conifer wood.

Water is everywhere as pond, rill, stream, waterfall and cascade, all controlled to fall in pleasing harmony. Enormous koi cruise the main pond. A fringe of tadpoles edged a runnel.

It's the perfect place to forget the city, if you can close your ears to the traffic noise for a while, sit back and dream. Super Sunday.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Mona Hathoum at the Pompidiou

Ha! So Paris gets an astonishing show before London. Happiness all round and bad luck the Tate, you have to wait until 2016.

Mona Hatoum's work, in one hundred pieces here is wonderful. But then I am a sucker for anyone who does things with maps. I recall first coming across her many years ago - the film of her colon, I think as a Turner prize contender - it is challenging and well executed, and here it is again in it's own little round space in the first gallery.

Here are videos (not often enough with seating, so mind your back if you want to watch them all, or make like the 60s and sit on the floor), installations, photographs, drawings and for some reason, some enormous cheese graters. You may groan a little at her terrible punning titles (Grater Divide, and Light Sentence), but there should be something for everyone, except the squeamish. Those not fond of offal should look away now.

Her life story and the exploration of her Lebanese identity and the violent dislocations of her homeland are the major subjects of her work. She uses all kinds of materials including human hair, woven, balled and embroidered with - watch our for the gentle tickle as you walk through one of the rooms.

Her fascination with mapping is displayed in projections on paper, glass beads, bars of olive oil soap and thread bare carpets. We didn't learn to do anything so ingenious when I studied cartography at University, more's the pity.

Not that I could exactly sneak it out under my coat, but the red globe I would happily take home and I admired the craft and tapestry skills of the women who made Twelve Windows.

It's on all summer, so pick a less than scorching day if you don't want to get heat stroke making your way to the top of the building (the exhibition space is air conditioned) and hithee.  Enjoy. I will be doing so many times in the coming weeks.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Marche de la Poesie

Every June all the editors of poetry in France gather in the place outside Saint Sulpice (nice Delacroixs inside fyi) in the 6eme for the grand showcase of their wares.

Beautifully designed books and books as objets d'art abound. Whilst the poetry is still a little beyond my grasp language wise as I wrestle with meaning rather than being able to appreciate its elegance, I spent a sunny afternoon enjoying the general hubbub.


The poetmaton was fun. Enter booth, listen to two poems read by a real person, in this case a lovely lady who takes a good look at you and then decides what to read to you, enjoy, exit collecting your poems before leaving. Very cool.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

The Sunken Chip

Be warned, I am not given to writing restaurant reviews, but about twice a year I have the over-whelming desire to each fish and chips. Before being overtaken by Chicken Tikka Massala, it was our national dish. Funnily enough, it is not the national dish of France.

Until now I've had to put up with Belgian chips, all very good and you can even buy them by the kilo at the chip shop near the Pantheon, but no battered fish, not anywhere. French fires are not the same, not in the slightest. 

Hello, The Sunken Chip. To my knowledge, it is the only place in Paris where you can get real fish and chips in a real (bar the fat filled air) fish and chip shop. Although in this one you can sit down and it doesn't have the stainless steel counter and they don't cook before your eyes, but still.

Friday night and that longing comes over me, so off we go. There is a choice of fish, but sadly no plaice, they never have that, and surprisingly no cod (whaaat? that's the basic one)  The haddock was excellent though, the chips perfect - not a soggy tattie in sight, and the mushy peas were minted and fresh. Home made mayonnaise? Yum. 

On the downside, the ketchup was not Heinz - criminal, and they had run out of Magners and Newcie brown - unforgivable.

But if you want battered sausage and picked eggs washed down with R Whites or Iron Bru, hithee to the Canal Saint Martin. Licks lips, wipes grease from chin.

Sur Les Murs

Skates on - this closes in less than two weeks and it has anti-social opening hours in the Credit Mutuel building in rue des Francs Bourgeois, 3eme. It is literally a two minute walk from my house, yet I only managed to get around to it yesterday. Amazing how I don't have an hour or so to spare sometimes.

The issue with mounting an exhibition of Street Art is that you can't. By definition its meant to be in the street, where the walls, pavements, and street furniture are the gallery space or co-opted as part of the work. So what you end up with if you try to bring the whole thing indoors is smaller works on paper, wood, canvas by some of Paris' best known street artists of the last fifty years.

OK, if that is what has to be done for reasons of space, but it loses the grandeur of scale, the danger of executing the work and frankly the surprise of discovering a piece of art as you otherwise busy about the city.

That said, as survey and documentation, it's fine. If you want to match up the names and faces to work you might recognise, off you go. It's a small exhibit and it's free, so no excuse really.  Here you will find work by Blek Le Rat, Mesanger, Ox, Popay, Space Invader, Jeff Aeorsol and Mis, Tic, amongst others. But there's no theme or organising principle, it's a classic mixed or group show.

There's two reasonably priced books to acquire, so you can take things home on an even smaller scale, and a film of the installation of various works at Le Mur, which is a licensed, curated space on rue Oberkamp in the 11eme. With work that changes second Saturday, it's worth checking that out too.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Savage Beauty - Alexander McQueen at the V&A

I have run out of superlatives. For once I was speechless. This show is an absolute must-see, even if like me you are not exactly a fashionista, but admire well made things.

McQueen transcended the cat walk to make clothes that are all theatre and more and beyond. There were just too many marvels for me to talk about. It literally took my breath away and I didn't know where to look next.

I wanted to swish off in so many of these dresses it was very, very hard to leave in the clothes I came in. And with my teenage Goth daughter and huge McQueen fan in tow, I had an absolute ball. Do not hesitate for one moment.

Tracey's Bed and other things at Tate Britain

So there it is again, the sheets are still filthy dirty, the litter, used condoms, tampons and other detritus are still, well, there. Her slippers are still naff and the pair of tights is still slung on top of the duvet. But honestly, what was the fuss all about? It's strange looking at something that caused such a furore at the time. I liked it's iconoclasm when it was first put on show in 1999. I like it still. If you've never seen Tracey Emin's My Bed it in all it's glory, off you go to the permanent collection. Enjoy people's reactions.

But while you are there, think seriously and twice about going to the other current exhibitions. I was pretty underwhelmed by Sculpture Victorious because it is so much of a mishmash: partly about the Great Exhibition, party about sculpture in 1800s, but a bit all over the shop for me. It never does for me to enter an exhibition into a first room of sculpture of a monarch, Queen Victoria in this case. I'm Welsh. We don't do the royal family.

However I was astounded to learn that something like 6,000 elephants were slaughtered for their ivory every year to meet British demand alone in the mid-nineteenth century. The only good things to my jaded eye were a Byrne-Jones I have never before spied of Perseus and the Graeae (part-painting part-metal work, not exactly a sculpture), the Eric Gills and my favourite python-wrestling hero by Leighton.

Salt and Silver sounded promising, being as it is about early photography (salt paper prints) and the works are to be admired for technical achievement, but the subject matter is rather predictable and frankly dull, with one exception. The photographs from the Crimean War are worth a good look. I was especially taken with one of a cantiniere, who despite being in a campaign had time to lace her corset and pull in her perilously tiny waist.

The third exhibition, and yes, I did spent the best part of a day there, is also of photography  - Nick Waplinton's collaboration with Alexander McQueen, no doubt timed to coincide with the block busting show at the V&A. I am a big fan of huge glossy prints and the space to enjoy them, but I was more than a little bemused by the fashion shot, plate, costume  juxtposed (sic) by pictures of rubbish, literally and in close up, by which I mean plastic, broken glass, black bin liners and the like, all in sordid detail. It seemed a bit graduate show to me, but hey, make up your own mind.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Marlene Dumas at Tate Modern

Just a week left to rush to the South bank to see this one. Dark, disturbing, a challenge to your sense of what makes a portrait, this huge retrospective, the first in Europe, is not to be missed.

For the portraits of the famous, it is worth the price of admission alone. Go, go, go. Stop reading this and go.

Dumas crafts from photographs not life and transforms her subjects into something quite other.

Favourite things are the children - more scary than innocent, the Magdelena series, which includes the haunting portrait of Naomi Campbell, and her twists on conflict in the Middle East.

The one I wanted to slip into my bag and take home was Girl with a Skull - I could weave stories from it for days. If you want to see Amy Winehouse in blue, this is where you'll find her. Full of images and not a burden at all. Breathtaking. Hurry.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Indigenous Australia at the British Museum



One of my abiding childhood memories from the three years we lived in Australia is buying a long tailed lizard from the aborigine boy who whittled and polished it. I have packed and taken it right around the world several times and it sits in my cabinet of curiosities still. I don’t recall on which trip out into the bush this was, or even where, beyond the safety of suburban Adelaide, we were, but I do remember the boy’s rough hands and his toothy smile and thinking how very different his life was to mine.



No surprise then that this newly opened exhibition at the British Museum was a must see for me. It is packed with interest, but not quite as extensive as I would have hoped. I would have liked many more paintings rather than the few representative examples. That said, what is there is, is magnificent, even if I do need the legend for their deciphering. Perhaps it is not so curious that I lack the cultural knowledge to tell digging stick women from the Rainbow Serpent or the tracks of a King Brown.

Beyond the paintings, there is much to learn from the artefacts on display. Things I did not know included the number of different types of boomerang there are, the purpose of a biting bag and the existence of a honey gathering hook. There are cross shaped boomerangs for hunting flying foxes. The biting bag or spirit bag is for male use in mortuary rights and initiation, bitten to access spiritual powers. It contains feathers, plant fibres and other objects. The honey gathering hook is used to collect flowers from grevillea trees. Fascinating and each object very beautifully made for its given purpose.

The exhibition tells the story of the oldest continual communities on earth and of their relationship to country, but is misses crucial things. There is mention of aboriginal populations being decimated, but their being hunted to near extinction for sport by the British in Tasmania is side-stepped. The lost generations of forcibly removed children put up for adoption by white families, a policy which shockingly was still going on into the 1970s, are mentioned, but only briefly, as is the current matter of land rights. I would have expected a great deal more of these narratives to take us beyond objects, or rather, to give them fuller context.

Casting around for the most beautiful things, I was taken by the collection of exquisitely fashioned spearheads made in the 1930s from coloured glass bottles, telegraph pole insulators and stone. So much careful work for one throw of the spear at kangaroo bone. Check it out yourself, but be warned, the rooms are very hot, like the red earth country from which these treasures come.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

From Giotto to Caravaggio - Musee Jacquemart-Andre


Meanwhile back in Paris, this recently opened exhibition of Italian mediaeval and Renaissance paintings. And who doesn't love a good Caravaggio, or two or three?

As I have not visited this museum before, I was delighted to see this. But wouldn't you know it, I was entranced by something other: an exquisite Madonna and child by Masaccio.

Mary's face is so gentle and beautiful, it almost made me weep and the lapis of her robe so bright, it looked unbelievable. The infant Christ on the other hand, like all babies in art of these periods, is singuarly dreadful.

Other paintings I for your attention are the large triptych of saints by de Ribera. Each one a stunning portrait of a real individual.

Whilst the subject matter of most of the works is not really in the top ten to my taste or interest, as many have travelled to Paris from Florence, save yourself a trip to Italy and take a look.

The permanent collection is worth your time also with Botticelli, Canaletto and the like to enjoy along with the sumptuous furnishings of the hotel. There is also a lovely cafe for a refreshment break and staircases to swoop down regally.