Saturday, 6 November 2010

Alisdair Gray, Blake and cigarette cards

I must come clean. I am a fan of Alisdair Gray. As an artist, a writer and also as benign and wickedly unconventional character, who likes to play 'the holy fool'. Like the disingenuous boy who cried that the Emperor had no clothes, Alisdair states what others think but do not say, in childlike simplicity, knocking pretention in himself as much as in the art, and literary world or exposing inhumanity caused by the political powers that be.

Alisdair will admit that he is as influenced by cigarette cards his dad gave him in his childhood as much as by Blake (and the latter's Book of Job because 'I liked the naked bodies of men and women who flew through the air'); he tells us (at the launch of his autopictography, 'A Life in Pictures' (Canongate) at the Scottish National Gallery recently) that they didn't much like his drawings at Glasgow Art School, so were quite happy to let him do murals, which removed him from attending the painting class at the school; who is pleased that the Scottish establishment are at last putting on exhibitions of his work (having largely ignored him for most of his life) because they would not want to admit that one of their artists has been left to die in penury (a throwaway line on a Scottish TV News clip).This last said in a melodramatic falsetto rise and basso profundo fall of voice for which Alisdair is famous. This histrionic performance is as much self-mocking as self-defence. His sense of humour is always self-deprecating.

I must also declare a personal interest. I am privileged to have been one of Alisdair's C/W students. Having a drink and chat with him after a seminar, I remember him saying something profound about the practice of writing and then adding, in mounting falsetto, '..but I would say that, as Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow.' (This was when the professorship was held by the triumvirate of Alisdair with Jim Kelman and Tom Leonard, instigated by Kelman so that each of them could share the administrative load and free up time for their own writing and, in A's case, art-work.)

Renowned as the author of 'Lanark' , the great Glasgow novel of the 20th c, (the Scottish answer to Joyce's 'Ullysees') and now in his 70's, it is about time Alisdair Gray's art work was recognized. Better known, as a writer, Alisdair has never stopped working on his artwork - and indeed, his magnificent autobiography/pictography not only includes both text and illustrations by Alisdair, but he was involved in every detail of the design, layout, typesetting etc, just as every other book published by Alisdair: text and art a unified whole.

The publication is twelve years' after the deadline originally given by Canongate, said Francis Bickmore, his latest editor (one of a series over the years) at a talk yesterday at the Talbot Rice Gallery (See podcast link below) but its appearance now happily coincides with two current exhibitions in Edinburgh of his work - one of graphics (posters and illustrations for his own novels ) at the Talbot Rice and a room of portraits at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art. Of course, the murals have to be seen in situ, (where possible - many are in private homes), the most famous in Oran Mor, a former Gothic church, with Alisdair's mural making it the Sistine Chapel of Glasgow.

Alisdair is famed for his line, his playing with perspective, acute observation of character in his portraits, achieved through line again (to rival Hockney) - my favourite is perhaps a portrait of Jim Kelman, sitting leaning slightly forward, conveying the intensity of his intellectual scrutiny of ideas and of any co-locutor. As well as portraits of friends, which he often gave as gifts, and tender wee portraits of his son as a child, there are his vast, public murals which are semi-realist and semi-fantastical, often full of mythical and biblical references...when asked why he painted murals, Alisdair has said that he wanted to be seen by as many people as possible. A way of reaching out to the people.

In other words, Alisdair's work celebrates all those things that went out with Modernism. Don't get me wrong, I love Modernism but there does seem something wrong with the state of contemporary art, that traditional skills in art, such as life drawing, are not taught in Art School - at least not in Glasgow. At the launch of his book at the Scottish National Gallery recently where Alisdair was interviewed by the Director of SGOMA, Simon Groom, it was rumoured by someone in the audience that there are a group of current students at Glasgow School of Art who are hiring a room and life models themselves, since this is not provided as part of their course. If this is true, good for them. Alisdair, tactfully, declined to comment.

Back to Alisdair - the disingenuous honesty of his revelations, also involve his private and sexual life. First, I must point out that Alisdair is never unkind, nor does he say anything about people he has known, other than what they would say about themselves.

Quoting from Simon Groom's interview, here are some examples of Alisdair's ability to be humourous and uncomfortably honest at the same time:
AG: 'I find it quite easy to like people. It's less bother.... I have to confine my inherent nastiness to pornographic elements of my writing, and to my wife and best friends.'

SG:' Did he draw to impress the opposite sex?'
AG: 'Yes, but I was not successful. I only got lucky later in life, mostly through marriage.'
SG : 'I don't want to go into your sexual history but (I ask more concerning) the development of your art.'
AG: 'Sorry, I've wandered from the point again.'

The wandering from the point is the joy of any interview with Alisdair, as anyone who has heard him knows. Which reminds me, if you have not already read Rodge Glass' biography of Alisdair, then you are in for a treat: a secretary's account, in other words, Boswell to Alisdair's Dr Johnson.

A selection of Alisdair's work is also included in the British Art Show now touring the UK, co-curated by Lisa Le Feuvre, whose brilliantly incisive and witty comments can be heard on the Talbot Rice podcast below - along with other well-informed and thoughtful panellists. A fascinating talk.

Some examples of Alisdair's art work, interviews in press etc here:

Monday, 2 August 2010

Anthony Gormley 6 Times

I'm looking forward to tracking down all six of Anthony Gormley's statues along the Water of Leith. Unfortunately, I'm still convalescing from a hip op, so the steps down from SGOMA are beyond me as yet. The only one I've seen in the flesh (cast-iron) is the waist deep one on the pavement outside SGOMA. What? Why? It's nowhere near the river. I can't see the rationale. Good for balancing handbags on, or leaning on when you take a stone out of your shoe - as I saw people do the other day. He wants people to interact with his work, he says.

However, I'm sure the others are atmospheric going by the photos in the Scotsman. There had to be stories of members of public phoning police to report a nude man, or possibly a potential drowning one, of course.

I do feel a bit ambivalent about the whole thing - the Water of Leith is a well-kept secret to Edinburgers and now the World (well, art lovers) will invade it tho....possibly they'll amble along, and it makes it safer if there are more people on this rather deserted, isolated river walk. Maybe I'm coming round to it.

The last figure (or first depending on your direction of travel) looking out to sea in the port of Leith looks deeply significant tho - AG seems to have a thing about figures (himself) looking out to sea (the Crosby Sands near Liverpool), or to open spaces (the figures on top of New York skyscrapers) the Angel of the North - tho the latter is supernatural and the others scaled down to human size. .

Not the Impressionists, AGAIN

Actually, I enjoyed 'Impressionist Gardens', the other main 2010 Int Edinburgh Festival's offering As Michael Clarke, the new Director of the National Gallery said at the Members' preview event we went to the other evening, if you were putting on operas you'd have to include Verdis and Puccinis as well as other stuff, so why not the Impressionists again, but this time with the added bonus of gardens. (And why not, say I, especially for those like me who love gardening for colour.) Surprisingly, he said, this theme has not been put on before.

The early section, precursers to the Impressionists looks fascinating - especially the botanical sketch books and engravings of early private and public gardens - and conservatories, where assignations took place. I say, 'looks' - impossible to get more than a taste with the crush of the Edinburgh Great and Good there but the beauty of being a Member and living here, is we can revisit as many times as we want for no extra cost.

The other section I will go back to are the rooms on the Post-Impressionsts or movements that came out of the Impressionists such as the Luminism which was new to me. I was particularly stunned by Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida's The Garden of Sorolla's House, 1920 where the colours were indeed luminous.

There's all the kitsch you could possibly want. (The Fragrant Air by Leon Frederic is probably the worst example but good for sales on tea-towels, cards, mugs and notebooks in the shop no doubt. )But there are also more subtle works such as the lovely dappled light of Manet or Berthe Morisot. The usual suspects (Renoir, Manet, Monet, Sisley, Bonnard,Van Gogh, Gauguin, Klimt) but other lesser known, or at least to me, such as the Belfast John Lavery's My Garden in Morroco, the Scottish , James Guthrie's Midsummer, or the German Fritz von Uhde's The Artist's Daughters in the Garden. All with a wonderful atmospheric light. ‘Mood' Impressionism I gather it was called in late 19th c Germany and Austria (Stimmungsimpressionismus- what a word. I just love German.))

As a gardener, I was delighted to see that there is an attempt in the catalogue by the curator of the exhibition, Clare A.P. Willsdon to identify some of the plants. In the shop a book on Monet's plants in Giverney looked rather tempting. I'll put it on my Christmas list. Happy memories too. I persuaded my Hub to visit Giverny on a day-trip from Paris on our honeymoon. Gone are the days I can drag him round gardens! Surprisingly, he enjoyed this exhibition too. So it's not just for kitsch lovers or gardeners.

Exquisite Corpse, and Bodies in Suitcases

'Another World' , on the Surrealists, is one of Edinburgh 2010's festival offerings.

On top of the brilliant Penrose collection already housed at the Dean (opposite the SGOMA), the curators have amassed works from all over. Packed rooms, with sculptures on plinths or in glass-topped cases and walls lined with hundreds of paintings and prints against dark walls, rather like being in a Victorian library or Freud's study in Vienna. One could spend hours there, recognizing old favourites (one of Duchamp/Mutt's urinals is there natch) and discovering new.

One of my favourites is the 'Exquisite Corpse' based on a game invented by Breton and others. We played this game as children and called it 'Consequences'. Draw head, fold, pass to neighbour, who draws the body, folds, passes on, who draws the feet. Unfold the whole thing to reveal your peculiar result. You can do it with poems or stories too. Write a line etc. The Surrealist version below is probably a bit more professional than we ever achieved.

My other favourites, which were new to me, were two boxes, one was filled with engravings, letters etc with random bits of information that could be read in any order by Duchamp. One is called La Mariee mise a nu par son celibataires, meme 'Boite verte' ( 'The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even 'The Green Box') .The aim is to bypass the intellect (like most Surrealist work.)The other was Boite-en-Valise (Box in a Suitcase) where the contents are mini- reproductions of his own work, apart from one on a transparent piece of plastic which is an original.

You may have noticed the Mona Lisa in there. No, not Duchamp passing it off as his own work - the repro is moustachioed by him.

Duchamp is the Grand-Daddy of it all. 'Is it Art etc?' No one's bettered him really. A pity so many contemporary artists seem to be unaware it's been done before, but I guess 'epater le bourgeoisie' still has its place.

The Boite-en-Valise reminded me of 'dramas in a suitcase' which I first saw in Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis , Minasota (USA) where, in-between the main show, members of 'In the Heart of the Beast' Mask and Puppet theatre company gave performances to one or two people, sitting on the grass. Inside the suitcase were miniature sets and characters or even just objects which they manipulated like puppets. Show over, they would wander off and perform to a new small group.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Louise Bourgeois dies, end May 2010

Photo: Louise Bourgeois, Arch of Hysteria, 2000.Courtesy, Galerie Karsten Greve, Köln, Paris, Milano, St Moritz and Cheim &Read, New York. Photo: Christopher Burke

A late tribute to Louise Bourgeois who exhibited aged 71 in New York died end of May aged 96 and was working within days of her death. That gives hope to all us late starters, apart from the extraordinary quality of her work dealing mainly with women's experience through their bodies. 'The Arch of Hysteria' (photo above) as you can see is made out of fabric. I chose this version rather than the bronze and steel sculpture of the same title she made in 1973, since I saw this at an exhibition of her work called 'A Stitch in Time' at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinbury in May 2004 and to me, fabric speaks much more expressively of women's work. Is it an arch of pain or orgasm? I like the ambiguity.
Her giant spider might be more well-known but it says very little to me - it is just a spider (whatever the title 'Maman' might suggest of a mother as a weaver/seamstress who repairs and protects but is also inescapable and maybe devouring). The sculpture itself does not make me feel that. Whereas her fabric sculptures have something visceral and tactile and get under my skin too. Incidentally Bourgeois' fabric work has influenced Tracey Emin's work with similar effects.

Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci
29th March, 2009 There is something to be said for looking at only one picture in a gallery visit. Or even on a visit to a city! In our case 'Lady with an Ermine' by Leonardo da Vinci in the Czartoryski Palace (Museum). There were a handful of other famous old Masters but this one almost leapt off the wall. Kept in a darkened room, the only picture hung there, her skin colour glows - in particular the too large hand stroking the ermine. I found myself alternating between gazing at her guileless face, imagining the silky feel of the net(silk?) veil fitting the shape of her head exactly and then feeling rather repulsed by the sinews of her hand. A very real hand - not some tiny effete blob too small for the body which is the mistaken amateur painters make in life drawing. But this is striking in its over-size. And so close to the ermine, with its delineated muzzle and the protruding sinews of its leg. Physicality of real bodies, not just some untouchable saint. But somehow rather creepy too.

Murano glass and Venice: Ca'Rezzonico, marionettes, horses and spiders

October, 2008

though I learnt nothing new about glass, a trip out to the island of Murano was an absolute Must, given my glass research at ECA, poems and work-in-progress novel. I was snootily amused to note that the demonstrators did not advise visitors not to look at the furnace and no green tinted glasses were provided. One of their party tricks was to place a glass jar, still molton, on the marver only a few feet away from the visitors and not to give any warning. When it shattered, making us all jump, the demonstrator just smiled. So? This is Italy. No Health and Safety obsession as in the U.K. (For that matter, no notices anywhere warning one that one might fall in the water, keep away from sloshing wakes, why, you might even slip on wet quaysides etc. OK, I'll stop now.)

The Hub manfully took on the Accademia, the Palazzo Ducale and the Peggy Guggenheim but as I had been before (aeons ago as a student) and decided then, if not now, that I can only take so many galleries and in particular, fat reclining nudes, Madonnas, melodramatic and grandiose High Rennaissance and Baroque generally, I declined smugly. However, got caught out in the Ca'Rezzonico

Successfully managing to preserve eyes and sanity, I raced through the endless rooms lined with thousands of paintings and only paused by a few which spoke to me personally. How anyone can cope otherwise I don't know. Anyway, the ones I was drawn to were portraits by the 18th c pastel artist, Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757)- exquisitely life-like flesh tones and capture of character - especially when placed alongside the also-rans of her century. She was an Italian who moved to France, became well-known but went mad....sounds an interesting life to read up on. Just checked Wikipedia - depressive, not mad, and she went blind, (the worst fate for a painter?) possibly as result of all the miniature snuff boxes she painted.) See Two portraits at Ca'Rezzonico Also enjoyed the Gaudi and Longhi which both Hub and I recognized as so well-known -e.g. the masked women and tricorned hatted men viewing a rhinocerous. A snatch of 18th c Venetian life, detailed costumes of day and social scenes a bit reminiscent of Hogarth.

Ca' d'Oro
Deciding that I actually enjoyed the architecture more than the contents of the palazzi, I also ventured inside Ca' d'Oro - exquisite, Gothic tracery, mosaic floors and early Roman and mediaeval art (a relief , it was not Baroque);

Casa Goldoni (The Marionette Museum): a miniature version of Ca' d'Oro but more simple and homely - and if you're interested, as I am as a former marionettist - an 18th c Marionette Theatre and collection of puppets - in costumes of exact detail showing the fashions of the day and even some with expressive faces.

Lastly, a quick visit to Palazzo Grassi with its ornate gold ceilings and 18th c frescos against gold background - the modern art on display (e.g. a giant blue synthetic wool spider) painfully inappropriate! Upstairs (under the eaves - maybe former servants' quarters?) where the rooms were plain white with no fancy ceilings, the modern art could be appreciated better - most striking, the photos of Mafia massacres in Palermo and the Red Brigade members wearing black masks and waving rifles, during demos and on arrest in the 70's - a reminder of the darker side of contemporary Italian political history. Not that all was roses in the past - the expansionist desires of all Europeans - Venice's own part in furthering the Crusades and conquering Constaninople, the snatch and grabbing of the 4 bronze Horses now on the balustrade of San Marco... Still, how beautiful those horses are.

I had avoided San Marco all week - the sight of the crowds on the piazza seen from the vaporetto was enough to make me refuse to step on land but the Hub cunningly took me to San Marco late at night - the deserted piazza, dark except for stars and lamps hanging below each arch of the arcades and the silhouette of the Basilica itself made me agree to go early the next morn (only 9 am but most tourists don't seem to surface till 10 am, except for a handful of Japanese groups). So the queue was bearable and we were shuffled in to the dark interior where the subject matter of the mosiaics is swallowed up in the domes, too high to distinguish much except gold tesserae glinting. But one has to go for the atmosphere. We bought the catalogue to study the mosaics in detail later. But the horses!

First we climbed up to the balustrade and went out onto the roof/balustrade and saw the copies which were beautiful enough, tho you can't see their faces and then we returned (finding ourselves face to face with Judas as you turn to the left - shocking to confront his dark figure with closed face in shadow, hanging from a tree) and so to the original bronzes and a full view. They are covered in scratches (which was apparently on purpose to prevent undue shine) but which added gravitas. The verdigris is somehow much more affecting than the cleaner copies and one can see the amazing detail of the veins in their flesh, the folds in their necks and the softness of the muzzle suggested in contrast to the broad muscular flanks. The eyes, both startled and vulnerable. Extraordinarily affecting. Whoever made these knew horses in both their beauty and power and over-strung fragility. and Scroll down. The scholars seem to have settled on AD 2nd tho no one really knows if they were Greek or Roman or who made them. And to think there was such knowledge and skill then and that whole civilization destroyed - the Byzantine art that followed has none of this realism or sensitivity (moving as it is in its mystical way - concerned with other realities). The rise and fall of civilizations, such are the musings that result coming to Italy..and the benefits of a classical education no doubt. And what if our civilizaton is destroyed and all the material skills/benefits forgotten: no sanitation, no cars or planes, no high tech surgery or drugs, no internet...perhaps no one will regret our Art 'Installations' though. Perhaps we are the new barbarians.