Friday, 28 September 2012

Leighton House

Open House weekend in London is one of those things I find easier to like in theory than in practice. Lots of cool buildings are open, some of which you can't usually get into, but you have to queue up for the best places, or book long in advance, or enter your name into a ballot. I wasn't successful in the ballots I had entered so I only went to one place, Leighton House in Kensington, which I wanted to visit anyway.

Leighton House was built by Frederic Lord Leighton, the nineteenth-century painter. Apparently he amassed a huge varied collection of art objects, but after his death it wasn't possible to keep them all together. The contents of the house now were put together quite recently, with the exception of the Narcissus Room. This is a high square room with a little square pool and fountain in the middle of the floor. It's set all around with a collection of seventeenth-century decorated tiles from Damascus; apparently Leighton showed the tiles to a friend who was an architect, who gave him the idea of building a place to put them in. Some of the tiles are skilled copies to complete the pattern, but most are original, and the one room constitutes an important British collection of Islamic ceramic art. High up in the walls it has bright glass windows also from Damascus. There's also a gorgeous mosaic frieze designed by Leighton but made for him in Venice with three different colours of gold, and the tiles set out of alignment so it sparkles. Actually gorgeous is the word for the whole room. The rest of the house is less remarkable but quite likeable, and there's a lovely garden. When I went there was an exhibition of pre-Raphaelite paintings, which was pleasant enough.

It's open all the time but with a charge, and it might be nicer to go when it's less busy than Open House weekend. But because of the event there was an expert there who explained to me why there was no Lord Leighton in the Tate Britain exhibition. Apparently although Leighton got on with the Brotherhood in a rivals sort of way he had a very different background and ethos. When he first exhibited at the Royal Academy summer exhibition the critics specifically lauded him as a young painter who wasn't involved in the newfangled pre-Raphaelite thing. But to me his work looks quite similar to theirs.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

British Museum part 2: Shakespeare

The second exhibition which I saw at the BM was "Shakespeare: Staging the World". I wasn't hugely attracted by it but I could get in for free, so I thought it was worth a try. (It's their current big charging exhibition.)

The first two things I encountered set the tone for the whole. There's a long corridor to get in, with recorded noise of people talking -- I think I'd read or heard somewhere that this was a deliberate attempt to recreate the hubbub of a theatre before curtain-up. Then the first actual object I saw was a clock, annotated with this quotation:
The clock struck 9 when I did send the nurse -- Romeo and Juliet.
Apparently Shakespeare uses clocks to indicate urgency or the passing of time.

There's actually something quite merry about the attempts to shoe-horn in sort-of relevant Shakespeare quotations all over the place, or at least to get the word "theatrical" into the label. The contemporary objects from Shakespeare's world are the best bit of the exhibition. I particularly liked the maps and prospects, including some interesting tapestry maps. There are rooms which deal with the main settings of Shakespeare's plays -- the medieval past, the classical world, and Venice -- but these weren't quite as successful for me. By far the most interesting object is the Robben Island Bible, a complete works of Shakespeare smuggled into the South African prison, disguised as a Hindu text, and signed by many political prisoners including Nelson Mandela.

But I don't think I did the exhibition justice at all, for one simple reason -- it was really really noisy. Each room has one or two looped recordings of actors doing some Shakespeare. The excerpts are short and the actors act away prettily heartily, plus I'm not a huge fan of the art of Thespis anyway. By the time I had looked at one item in a room the chances were that I was already becoming irritated by the repetition of the same piece of material nearby, and also unable not to hear the recordings from the last room and the next one. This drove me round the exhibition at a great speed and made me tetchy. (Except that I love Harriet Walter and think she can do no wrong.)

Really the exhibition is not for me, anyway. It's for GCSE students to go to (not for pleasure); it's for people who visit perhaps from a long way away. It's part of the 2012 Arts Festival and was presumably deliberately chosen as a topic that might be interesting to a large number of visitors from all over the world. If I went to China, for example, I would love to see an exhibition like this about some major Chinese author.

British Museum part 1: Horses

I love the British Museum. I love walking towards it, I love the airy courtyard, I love the objects and the way there always seems to be a corner I haven't discovered yet. I went to look at two exhibitions there.

The Horse exhibition is free but nearly over. It starts with some really lovely Mesopotamian objects, some showing mules, like the Royal Standard of Ur. There are also finely-carved Mesopotamian reliefs showing the horses of the king's lion-hunting chariots. (The Assyrian lion hunts, like this one, are one of my favourite bits of the BM, just off the busy Egyptian statuary galleries.) The next room deals with early Arabic horses and horses in Islam. It has some truly beautiful miniatures, some of the best things in the exhibition. There's also a Rembrandt copy of a Mughal miniature now in the Bodleian.

It was at around this point that I started thinking the selection of objects perhaps a little odd. The next room is about the Arabian horse, and the final rooms about how the Thoroughbreds of modern racing all trace their ancestry to the three foundation stallions brought to England from the Middle East. There's not a mention of other breeds, like the native British horses, of the many other types of horse used for work and competition. The exhibition is supposed to have been put on as a tribute to the Queen's Jubilee year, but the Queen's involvement in equestrianism does go a lot further than just racing. One of the things I do like about the royal family is that they are very good with horses. It's true that they are privileged to have the opportunity since horses are expensive animals -- though I think in Devon it would be cheaper for me to keep a horse than a car -- but these are still really tough things to do, and a horse doesn't know you're royal. Eventing, for example, is frankly terrifying, and the Duke of Edinburgh was still competitively driving Fell ponies in his 80s. (I assume he's stopped now.)

Anyway, the exhibition is sponsored by Saudi Arabian institutions and is in conjunction with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities. This explains why there are quite so many Korans in it, I suppose -- it's essentially a Saudi oil prince's idea of the horse. And if I had paid more attention I would have noticed that it's entitled "The Horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot". It's a pretty fair description without the colon. It's free so worth popping into for the Mughal miniatures, but otherwise it was very disappointing, essentially highlighting one particular horse cliche, the sport of princes thing -- the same exhibition could have been laid on in the eighteenth century more or less.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Bronze at the Royal Academy

If the Tate likes to have a thesis for its exhibitions, the Royal Academy's thesis for its shows seems to be "Look at all these things!" They have a show at the moment which is about looking at things made of Bronze. And because it's at the Royal Academy it's rather larger than is sensible. If my civilised aunt hadn't come to London specially to see it (and bought me a ticket) I might not have bothered to go. But I'm very glad I did because some of the things made of bronze are really worth looking at.

There's no attempt at all to put the objects into any sort of historical, cultural, or technical groups, and no sense that you're supposed to learn anything from it, or have any response more intellectual than the occasional "ooh, look at that!" The rooms are called simply "Animals" or "Objects". This makes the show oddly restful, and helps with the sheer quantity of things on display. There isn't even a definition of what bronze is, as opposed to, say, brass -- I think they were using it as a catch-all term for brownish metal alloys. There is a room that tells you about different bronze-casting techniques, with videos and displays of the same object at various stages, which was very interesting indeed. But this was not laid on heavily, and isn't referenced in other parts of the show. I overheard some people who I think were from the RA talking about trying to get people to look at the objects not the labels. I have mixed feelings about this approach, and I would probably have found it frustrating if it had been a show where I felt there was something available to be learnt and taken away. But just relaxing and looking at nice things is actually probably a good discipline for someone like me who finds it hard to appreciate images without the help of words.

The things I particularly liked were: an etiolated 2nd-century BC Etruscan figure which I thought at first was a Giacommetti (I found later that it inspired him); some beautiful fifteenth-century weeping figures from the tomb of Isabella of Bourbon, Duchess of Burgundy; the African bronzes from Nigeria, especially the leopards; and some Greek and Roman bronzes, especially a surprisingly art-deco style Roman candelabra in the form of a bare-branched tree. There were some interesting modern pieces too, including one of Louise Bourgeois's spiders, and forms by Brancusi and Picasso.

I don't know if it counts as a plus or minus point for a show when you find yourself taking little notes about things to google when you get home. Things I found out later included: the definition of bronze as opposed to brass (they're both copper alloys but bronze has more tin and brass more zinc); who exactly Isabella of Bourbon was (she was the wife of the last Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold, and mother of poor old Mary of Burgundy); what the inscription is on the Asante ewer (a little moralistic poem); where Luristan is (part of modern-day Iran); whether Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden was the father of the excellent Queen Christina (he was). I would be interested to know whether the curators would feel good about provoking me to further enquiry or bad about not having told me what I wanted to know. They may have assumed I would have a smart phone, though I don't know how easy it would be to use one in there since photographs and phone calls are not allowed. Or they might feel disappointed in me, with my failure simply to look at all the lovely bronze things.

Monday, 24 September 2012

London Guildhall Art Gallery and Amphitheatre

The London Guildhall is in the middle of London City proper, and I took the Waterloo and City line to get to it, which was mildly exciting because I think that's the only tube line I'd never used. I went mostly to see a temporary exhibition, but there is an Art Gallery with a permanent display, and underneath you can see the ruins of London's Roman Amphitheatre.

The exhibition was called "Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker: 850 Years of London Livery Company Treasures". I've come across the Skinners and Girdlers at Corpus feasts, wearing their skins or girdles as appropriate, and exuding the confidence of members of a very very old Rotary club. There are surviving gild documents from Anglo-Saxon England, mostly involving clubbing together to brew beer and bury their dead, and perhaps with extras like an agreed donation to anyone who set out on a pilgrimage to Rome. The surviving guilds are later, but they are mostly very rich by dint of sheer long-term existence.

The exhibition was very likeable and interesting. The oldest thing was a charter of Henry II from 1155 to the Weavers, and there were lots of excellent fifteenth- and sixteenth-century illuminated manuscripts of guild membership and such-like. But there was also a general mixture of old and new objects that reminded me of Corpus's collections of silver. There's something amiable about having a seventeenth-century coffee pot with pineapples on it next to an early twenty-first ewer incorporating the structure of DNA. There were lots of small likeable things -- the Innholders have a "Sweete Salt", given by Anne Sweete in 1614, and the gloves from the coronation of Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II were shown side by side. A Holbein of Henry VIII giving a charter to the Barber--Surgeons is still owned by the Royal College of Physicians. Guilds are still being set up today -- the list of 108 full guilds starts with the Mercers, the Grocers, the Drapers, and the Fishmongers, and ends with the Management Consultants, the International Bankers, the Tax Advisors, and the Security Professionals.

The Art Gallery and Amphitheatre were interesting to see, but I'm not sure they would have supported a special trip very well. The Art collections are mostly nineteenth-century society or sentimental paintings, inoffensive but unsubstantial. There are some interesting pictures of London through the last few hundred years, and a lot of paintings of pageants. The Amphitheatre is down in the basement. Some of the wooden drainage system survives, and parts of the gateway at the entrance. Obviously you need a bit of an imagination to make much of it, but all the stairs you go down make a dramatic point about how London has risen, and outside a large oval set into the paving traces its extent. I've seen lots of bigger amphitheatres abroad -- a reminder that London was only the capital of a very far province.

As a visitor attraction I would recommend going either when there's an interesting exhibition on or when you're in the area already. Or, you could take a youth on an educational visit to the amphitheatre. When I was young people were constantly dragging me to see hypocausts, so it might at least make a change from that.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Pre-Raphaelites at Tate Britain

Tate Britain currently has an exhibition about the pre-Raphaelites. It's subtitled "Victorian Avant-Garde" because the Tate is not the sort of place that feels comfortable having pretty pictures up without a thesis. So the thesis, such as it is, is that they were pretty shocking in their day, and I suppose it does manage to convey this a bit. What I mostly came away with was a sense that their works were tremendously diverse, and that after their initial idea about painting nature I would find it hard to define them in any way.

I'm not a huge fan of the Pre-Raphaelites in general. Like with the Impressionists, I adored them when I was about fifteen, and then felt that I had grown out of them. (I made an attempt recently to like the Impressionists again, and I realised that I do really like their work on the rare occasions when they're not painting flowers or pretty ladies.) Pictures of dense-haired women holding pomegranates leave me rather cold. But there were enough interesting or unexpected things in this exhibition to make me glad I went.

I particularly liked two early works by John Everett Millais, which seem to show a sense of humour -- I do not associate the Pre-Raphaelites with a sense of humour. A brilliant pen and ink drawing entitled "The Disentombment of Queen Matilda" which is viewable on the Tate site here; and a scene from the story of Isabella and her pot of Basil, which is from the Walker Gallery in Liverpool and viewable small-size here. It's not just the nasty brother's powerful kick at the dog, and the mild way Lorenzo stoops as, in his pre-composted state, he shares an orange with Isabella, but the excellent serried rows of prim eaters behind them. Millais was only 19 when he did both of these, and they have an interesting energy.

Their religious paintings are a bit more inadvertently funny. I really like Millais' Christ in the House of his Parents, which upset people like Ruskin at the time because it showed a working carpenter's family, but which seems quite innocuous now, even rather kow-towing (as I suspect The Life of Brian will to everyone in a hundred years' time). In it Mary is alarmed because the child Jesus has hurt his palm -- it's prefiguration, you see. Once you've seen several of these sorts of pictures -- a bare-chested teenage Jesus stretches his arms in the middle of his work while Mary reacts in horror to his crucifixion-like shadow on the wall, Jesus fetches firewood to his house while Mary trembles at the two that have fallen down to form a cross -- it's hard not to presume that in the Pre-Raphaelites' mind poor Mary was a nervous wreck constantly starting at every possible prefiguration of the crucifixion. Their sort of piety is the thing that's most hard to enjoy about the Pre-Raphaelites.

William Holman Hunt was certainly the worst culprit. His Light of the World, showing Jesus with a lantern at twilight knocking at an overgrown door in a significant manner, was hugely popular at the time. One of the three versions he painted actually travelled all over the world as a sort of moral booster for the Empire. My mother had a copy on her wall as a child (I saved it for sentiment's sake when she tried to throw it away recently) and there's a print in a dusty corner of the vestry at my parents' church. It's no longer easy to like. Nor is the other famous Holman Hunt, the Scapegoat, showing the poor goat of the Day of Atonement in the desert, fainting and surrounded by the bones of its predecessors. But I had never before come across his Triumph of the Innocents, a remarkably crazy version of the Flight Into Egypt. This contains the traditional elements -- Mary and the infant Jesus flee on a donkey led by Joseph. But surrounding them are strange glowing cherub figures representing the innocents whose massacre by Herod they were fleeing. The cherubs glow with wierd ectoplasm, throw flowers, and dance on top of the water of a stream. Their wounds are healed though their clothes are still slashed. Even odder, they bring with them bubbles, some of them quite large, which apparently represent pious thoughts by the people of the time. This is High Victorian sensibility at its most unconsciously insane. There's an even more lurid version in the Walker. Ruskin thought it 'the greatest religious painting of our time'. (Robertson Davies has some interesting things to say about the power of bad religious art in his Cornish Trilogy.)

There were some other interesting paintings -- I really liked this Burne-Jones now in Stuttgart, where wing-footed Perseus fights a twisting sea-monster to free Andromeda. But by far the most interesting room was the William Morris room, with its different media. There was a fantastic bed designed and embroidered by his daughter May Morris. A tapestry whose design was commissioned by a wealthy merchant took his wife and daughter eight years to complete. There's a gorgeous manuscript copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, written by William Morris and decorated by him, Burne-Jones, and Murray Fairfax. There were some amazing tapestries of the Grail legend. It's the sort of thing that's hideous when badly done by Past Times, but I could have looked at these originals for hours. There's also a great wardrobe painted by Burne-Jones with pictures from the Prioress' Tale.

One thing that did puzzle me at the time was that I thought there were other figures who were part of the whole Pre-Raphaelite thing, particularly Frederic Lord Leighton of Flaming June fame. I did sort this out later, but I will explain in another post since this one is already long enough...

A few links

Ben Goldacre's explanation of how pharmaceutical companies can manipulate research data is very important.

Sarah Silverman makes a persuasive case for American grandmothers getting guns. Blimey America is troubled. I suppose the UK is too.

Wondering how to use the telephone? This advice from 1917 is mostly sound. My father in particular could use the page titled "Concentrate while telephoning". Once he got distracted before he had even finished saying "Hello Rebecca" and just sort of trailed off into silence. I think he'd seen a bird.

Also here is an online mind-mapping tool which I keep meaning to try. I'd be interested in comments if anyone does use it. I use MindManager but the problem with paid-for software is that you have to reinstall it and find all the license keys etc every time you wipe or upgrade your computer.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

One Man, Two Guv'nors

Continuing the cultural theme I went to see One Man, Two Guv'nors at the Haymarket, a modern adaptation of an eighteenth-century play by Goldoni, Arlecchino servitore di due padroni. It was very funny in a silly way, with lots of falling over and misunderstandings. It was also quite interesting because I don't really know much about Commedia dell'Arte, and it wore its classical origins very lightly. It's set in 60s Brighton, and had good-humoured skiffle-style songs between the scenes.

But I do find faked audience interaction very annoying, and also when part of the play is to pretend that something has gone wrong with the play -- it's just too tiresomely meta. It also feels like a cheap trick to get audience sympathy -- the less suspicious, older people in the more expensive seats will clap twice as hard for what they think is an embarrassed audience member hauled on stage, and laugh twice as much at what they think is a clever improvised riposte by an actor under pressure. I think most of the audience spent the interval trying to entangle what if anything had been real and what staged. But I think most of them didn't really mind, and the people I was with weren't bothered, so it's probably just me. Judging from this FT review of the Broadway production, which says "the improv is inspired" but mentions something which also happened in the performance I was at, there's probably not really much improv as such.

But then I am not very sympathetic to theatre as an art form any more, and this was by far the least irritating and most enjoyable theatrical production I have been to in many years. I did laugh loads at the time, and my issues with it were mostly retrospective.

Tomb Treasures of Han China, The Fitzwilliam

I'm leaving London at the end of the month, so I've been treating my last fortnight here as a holiday, trying to catch up with people and see some of the things I didn't have the time or energy to do over the course of the year. I was going to blog about cultural things in one big post, but then I thought it would be hideously long, so instead I shall do separate posts about each thing.

The first thing is actually in Cambridge not London, the current exhibition of Chinese tomb goods, mostly from the 2nd century BC, at the Fitzwilliam Museum. The Fitzwilliam Museum is my favourite free-exhibition place now that the British Library charges. (The National Gallery does good free exhibitions too, but small ones.) They tend to get a good balance between spectacle and content too.

I went round with a friend and we agreed how interestingly disconcerting it is to see objects from a culture where neither of us have any sense of time-frames and stylistic changes -- I kept being startled to remember how very old the objects are. There are some really lovely small things, like the gold beasts on the poster, and some carved jade, and disturbing all-over jade burial suits. The terracotta figurines of servants and officials are also very pleasing in their quiet elegance, and for the mulish expressions of the horses. There are also some truly beautiful figures of long-sleeved dancers. I think that dancing with long sleeves or "water sleeves" is a very old Chinese art but I only really know about it from the film "The House of Flying Daggers" and from a google search when I got back. Something to point out that that's why the figures had such extended arms would have been good. (I assume that is why -- I don't know for sure.) I also found out from the website when I got back that I'd missed the exhibition's narrative and that the treasures were from rival kingdoms -- but I'd rather have learnt about the dancing than the politics anyway. But these are mostly little quibbles. Apart from suffering a little from the perennial problem of lighting where you cast a shadow on what you're looking at, it's nicely laid out and a good size, and I really enjoyed it.

The Fitzwilliam also has about the most refined tea room I know, where you can get aromatic rosebud tea made from real rosebuds.

Here's some water sleeve dancing I found on YouTube.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Some pig

Pig saves goat:

Dog feeds lamb.

Ralph Lauren hires plus-size model -- she's 6 ft 2 and a size 12.

Animals are coming off better in today's news. Pick up your game, humanity!

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Jamaican dancehall

Half of Major Lazer is Diplo, who is most famous for working with M.I.A., and you can hear that in this track although the vocal is softer:

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Two thoughts and an unrelated video

Thought 1: I think being a young unestablished academic in Cambridge is most like being in an abusive relationship in the way it persuades you that any troubles or sufferings you have are your own deserved fault. (Furthermore sometimes not even your fault because of things you have done or chosen, but because of what you are, some quality intrinsic to yourself.) The middle aged men tell you that something always turns up for the good people -- but they're not an imaginative bunch and it's hard to believe that their assessment of someone as good is completely unrelated to whether something turned up for them. Now I have distance it seems odd how completely I bought into it all. Of course I shouldn't be too melodramatic -- obviously no one ever actually beat me up, and I was brought up in an old-school British way so that I feel that an occasional severe pruning of the self-esteem is probably good for me. (If anything this year might have been an over-corrective; I'm feeling quite smug right now.)

Thought 2: I do like how lyric videos have become the standard way to make some sort of video for a new song before the full-on big-budget video comes out. I haven't watched any pop TV recently so I don't know whether they play the lyric video or whether they still say "the song at number 8 doesn't have a video yet so here instead is a new release by X". It must be a huge boon for graphic designers. The first one I remember seeing was for Cee Lo Green's F*** You. I think in that case it was a way of letting the song loose to see if people liked it, and when it went viral they made a full video with the scansion-compromised clean version. This one's good (I don't get all the references though by a long way):

Unrelated video: Robbie William's new song. That's Kaya Scodelario, again.

Monday, 10 September 2012

A pastor's letter about the church and abuse

I find this letter very interesting. It's from the pastor of a full-on every-word-of-the-Bible church in America, admitting a specific way in which they have got things wrong.

I have a few friends (non-Christians) who reproach me with what they see as my unBiblical views. They say they have more respect for the Bible-thumpers who condemn homosexuality for a phrase in Leviticus and women's ministry for a phrase of St Paul. They think all my explanations are just a fudge, a weaseling out of the details of what I profess to believe. I can sympathise with their desire for the absolute; but I also find this attitude thumpingly naive -- like Bertrand Russell's idea that children left to themselves are sweetness and light, or those teenagers who think sex is a physical act with effects only on the physical plane.* I believe that the Bible is the word of God, but the word of God refracted through humanity. As light gets distorted by water or scattered by dust, or coloured by a shadow or a by a puddle of oil, so human mediation distorts truth. It is an obvious folly to concentrate attention on the tone, the texture of the glass's effect and not to seek to get at the pure light behind it.**

The great Methodist campaigners against slavery knew this. I could pick out phrases in the Bible to suggest another attitude -- "Slaves obey your masters" said St Paul -- but they knew that slavery was intensely transgressive of a deeper Biblical message, and they acted on that. The pastor of this church has discovered for himself how an attention to a literal interpretation of sentences can impair attention to the spirit. I'm sorry that people suffered for this to happen, but I'm glad he wasn't too proud to learn the lesson.

* Excellent XKCD cartoon.

** This isn't my metaphor, it's George Herbert's:
A man that looks on glasse,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it passe,
And then the heav’n espie.***

*** Interestingly my Granny was recommended something very similar, in fact an alternation between the two, to improve the strength of her eye muscles.

Thursday, 6 September 2012


It's a shame it's so difficult to let go of pole-dancing's sleazy associations and just appreciate it as an art form. I'm not sure the high-heels and underwear outfits are really any worse than the things ballet dancers wear, and there's a little-girl-ishness about ballet which I find more offensive by far. Anyway, the dancers in this video are pretty amazing, and I really like the song. The video is not actually rude but you might still feel a bit embarrassed if someone saw you watching it at work. (As I watched it just now it came with an advert for a Thomas the Tank Engine DVD which does seem a bit inappropriate.)

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Oh dear

This young man is feeling oppressed by social constructs of gender.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Have I mentioned that I heart the Pet Shop Boys?

I love that
a) their next single includes the word "context" and has seem pretty good lyrics about death
b) Chris Lowe wanted to call their new slower album "Pet Shop Boys Infirm"
c) the new album apparently includes a song based on some Handel
d) they think Facebook is sinister and horrible
e) the (not that great) single Winner wasn't written about the Olympics at all but about Eurovision
(b c d and e are from this interview)