November 23, 2014 § Leave a comment
A long overdue post: three weeks ago, inspired by my visit to the London Canal Museum, I set out to walk the entire length of the Grand Union Canal. I naively assumed that I would be able to cover the distance from Paddington to the Thames before it got dark, and perhaps I could have done had I started at sunrise, but as it was, I found myself around 4 o’clock in a corner of darkest northwest London where I’d never set foot in my life, with the sun sinking rapidly. I had to admit defeat and turn off the canal path toward the nearest Tube station.
Greenford is on the branch of the Central Line that goes to Ruislip, the one that I’ve never, in all my years in London, had any reason to take. I found myself having to turn my A-Z round and round to try to figure out which route to take, so alike did all the streets look, and when I eventually made it to the station, it stood among a clutch of shops and houses so drab and undistinguished that it could have been anywhere. (The only at all distinctive one among them was a Polish delicatessen, but it was closed so any hopes of rounding off my walk with some poppyseed cake were immediately dashed.)
But the platform at Greenford is above ground – and when I got upstairs, I found myself surrounded by one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen in London.
As good an object lesson as any on how, no matter how well you think you know London, it can always surprise you.
November 23, 2014 § Leave a comment
Last weekend my friend K and I went to see The Nakeds, a show of (mostly) contemporary drawings of the nude, at the Drawing Room in Bermondsey. I’d most been looking forward to seeing the three works by Egon Schiele, but as is often the case, my expectations were upended. The Schieles – a print and two drawings – were merely okay. (Not an adjective I normally apply to Schiele, as any regular visitor to this blog well knows.) No, what really grabbed my attention – and hasn’t let it go since – was a drawing by Marlene Dumas called Bonnard’s Wife.
Dumas’s figures, whether nude or clothed, are usually earthy and in-your-face; they glower and swagger and don’t much care if you like them or not, as long as they have your undivided attention. Bonnard’s Wife couldn’t be more different – though it’s over life-size and the broad brushstrokes are similar to those in Dumas’s other work, the figure is rendered in watercolour, in such a pale grey-blue that it’s almost colourless, fading into the paper. It’s substantial and voluptuous and yet it’s barely there at all.
The marriage of medium and subject can’t have been an accident. Even without the title, I’d have been able to see the allusion to Pierre Bonnard’s countless paintings of Marthe Boursin, his long-time companion and eventual wife, before, during or after a bath. Taken individually, they are beautiful paintings. Together, there’s something quietly but profoundly unsettling about them – whether because they seem to reveal one obsession (Marthe’s seemingly constant need to spend time in the bath – probably because of some mysterious malady, but no one is entirely sure) begetting and feeding another (Bonnard painting her), or because in a number of the later paintings, Bonnard has rendered Marthe’s flesh and the water in such a similar palette that the distinction between the two erodes: a woman who spends so much time immersed in water that she is dissolving in it.
But Bonnard always painted Marthe in oils. Dumas, by choosing watercolour instead, suggests that she has become water – just a few particles of pigment suspended in water streaked across the paper.
She is no longer in her element, she is her element.
The Nakeds is on until 29 November.
November 8, 2014 § 3 Comments
London’s canals – specifically, the Regent’s Canal – have been one of my favourite things in the entire city for most of the time I’ve lived here, starting when I first discovered the elegant bend of canal snaking along the northern curve of Regent’s Park nearly 15 (!) years ago.
For a long time the only stretch I knew was the section that runs between Camden Lock and Little Venice, and it was where I’d go when I needed quiet, inspiration, exercise (I prepared for walking the Dingle Way by walking the canals, which sounds counterintuitive but was surprisingly effective) or simply the sense of escaping the bustle of London. Then, just last year, I started exploring new sections, new canals – the half of the arc from Limehouse to Camden, then the Hertford Union Canal, the lower part of the River Lea where it meets Bow Creek, Limehouse Cut, the beginnings of the Grand Union Canal from where it branches off of Little Venice to Golborne Road.
So, given my love of canals, how did I manage to miss a museum devoted to them? To my everlasting shame, I didn’t even know the museum existed… until last December, when it was far too late to add it to my list for the London Museum Challenge. I resolved to visit it later – which turned out to be last Saturday.
The London Canal Museum stands on a basin of the Regent’s Canal (appropriately enough) but the location is only one of its attractions – the building that houses it is a marvellous and unusual relic of the trade and industry that once flourished along the canals. It’s an icehouse, built by Carlo Gatti, an Italian-Swiss entrepreneur who built an empire of cafés, entertainment venues and ice (several of the former used to stand around what is now Charing Cross Station – I’ve been walking past their former sites for years without knowing it) in the nineteenth century that lasted well into the twentieth. From the outside it looks like any other canal-side warehouse… on the inside, however, you can gaze straight down into one of the ice pits, whose brick walls still glisten with moisture even if the pits have long stood empty.
The first exhibit that greets you is half of an old narrowboat, the Coronis, which you’re welcome to enter and explore. I must admit to having long entertained romantic notions about life on a canal boat – they were swiftly destroyed. Calling the living quarters cramped and spartan is being charitable. The beds are so tiny that an adult of average height probably could never have stretched out fully. There was no running water. If you wanted a bath, it was down a rope into the canal (no matter what time of year). And yet whole families used to live and work in them. They found ways to make their boats bright and cheerful (painting them with roses and castles, decorating the walls with plates whose surfaces brightened the interior with reflected light). The children invented games to play on the boats and towpaths, scrumped apples from nearby orchards and picked blackberries along the towpaths to supplement their families’ otherwise limited diet. What this part of the museum made abundantly clear (with the help of some fascinating oral history recordings) was that the canal workers took tremendous pride in their work and their own distinctive culture, even if (or because) their lives were harsh and they were often regarded with disdain or mistrust by others. (I couldn’t help thinking of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore, which I read a few months ago, whose characters are part of a similar subculture, caught between land and water, neither wholly belonging to one or the other.)
The rest of the museum (which is not huge – two storeys of a not particularly massive warehouse – but more than enough to keep you enthralled for a couple of hours) will enlighten you about the lives of the horses who pulled the barges (nasty, brutish and short), the engineering of the locks (much more interesting than I would have imagined), the canals’ industrial past and the history and geography of the canal network, both within London and across the rest of the UK. One of the many interesting titbits I picked up is that there used to be canals in south London too – one of them (the Croydon-Surrey Canal) quite close to where I live – but they have long since been filled in. Another was the extent of the Grand Union Canal within London – I was so inspired by this that the very next day I set out to walk the entire length, from Paddington to where it joins the River Brent and empties into the Thames (which was naïve and overambitious – it’s over 20 miles long and I only made it as far as Greenford before the failing light forced me to stop).
The London Canal Museum may look and feel quite modest, but it succeeds brilliantly at giving a sense of the rich human dimension of the life and history of the canals. I doubt I will ever walk beside one again without this knowledge at the back of my mind, without feeling the memories of two centuries crowding around me.
One quote among the various wall texts has stuck in my mind ever since. Unfortunately I didn’t think to note down the exact words or their speaker, but this wise and perceptive person – whoever he or she was – noted that the joining of the Regent’s Canal and the Grand Union Canal, both of which link to the Thames, effectively turns London into an island. An island within an island.
By the time I emerge from the museum, the light is fading fast. I cast one last glance at the converted warehouses lining the canal basin and turn inland, toward Kings Cross, further into the heart of the Island London that I have made my home.
October 25, 2014 § Leave a comment
Three weeks ago I went to an opening at Sir John Soane’s Museum. It was my first time there in a shamefully long time (especially shameful given that a. I love the place to bits and b. I work so nearby that I really have no excuse), and while I was getting reacquainted with one of my favourite places in London I learned that there is in fact a Sir John Soane’s Museum Part II in Ealing – his country house, Pitzhanger Manor. A little internet research later that evening told me that it will be closing in a few months for extensive restoration. And what better way to appreciate ‘after’ than to see it ‘before’? (A bit of further research proved that I actually had heard of it before – it appears in my ancient, battered Dorling Kindersley London guide as Pitshanger Manor, a spelling disagreement which crops up in my A-Z as well as a few street signs. Should we split the difference and call it Pitszhanger instead? Come to think of it, that looks vaguely Hungarian.)
So last Saturday I trekked out to Ealing. Sir John would probably have been shocked and dismayed by the scene outside Ealing Broadway station – the fields and groves he knew have disappeared under shops and crowded pavements – but the house itself is still surrounded by parkland, even if terraced streets run almost up to the gate.
Once inside the gate I was hit by déjà vu. The façade looks like a copy of the house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, complete with haughty goddesses perched on a row of four neat Ionic columns. Nor surprising when you consider that Sir John was working on both houses more or less contemporaneously.
Unlike the house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which became a museum almost immediately after Soane’s death, Pitzhanger Manor has undergone multiple incarnations – local library, museum, events venue, art gallery – so you have to peel back a few more layers to try to regain a sense of its original appearance. The current entrance is through an art gallery which, when I visited, was hosting an exhibition of contemporary craft which, despite the elaborate guidebook, I found totally incomprehensible. I didn’t particularly want the visit to end prematurely with my brain imploding, so I left the gallery as quickly as possible and, one narrow passageway later, I found myself at the bottom of a spiralling staircase looking up at a skylight… remarkably like the skylight-topped staircase in Sir John Soane’s Museum. All that was missing was an enormous sarcophagus in the basement.
Two of the main rooms aren’t Soane’s work – they’re all that’s left of the house that originally stood on the site, designed by George Dance the Younger (Soane’s teacher), which Soane kept as the core around which he built the rest of the house. They’re light and airy, with beautifully preserved plasterwork. (This, unfortunately, is where my camera batteries gave up the ghost, so you’ll have to use your imagination for what follows.) Pass through them and the sense of déjà vu returns – the dining room and the library show many of the same quirks and preoccupations of their twins in Holborn, the same clever and disconcerting handling of space, the same idiosyncratic use of classical motifs.
There is one important difference, though – where Sir John Soane’s Museum is gloriously overstuffed with the results of his inveterate collecting (I remember thinking when I first visited it that it felt like the British Museum’s attic or junk room and I still stand by that), Pitzhanger Manor’s rooms are mostly empty – of both objects and visitors. I wasn’t the only visitor that afternoon, but I still found myself alone in most of the rooms for minutes on end in near-total silence broken only by the ticking of a clock or the cough of a bored warder outside the door. The profusion of weird and wonderful objects in the Museum might surprise and delight, but I found the emptiness and silence of Pitzhanger Manor offered much freer play to the imagination.
That of emptiness and quiet continued into the surrounding garden, but perhaps that was mostly down to it being a cloudy autumn day (it might well be different in midsummer). But then, I do have a thing for gardens at the turn of the season (I am the only person I know who enjoys going to Kew in winter as much as spring and summer), withered and rain-battered.
The one thing Pitzhanger Manor lacks is a café (apparently this is something that will be remedied in the restoration), and as everyone knows, visiting museums is thirsty work, but fortunately there’s Caffé Magnolia, a marvellous Polish café, a stone’s throw from the house. The coffee wasn’t extraordinary but the makowiec was the best I’ve ever had and had me simultaneously wishing they would open a branch in Crystal Palace and feeling grateful that it was too far away to make going regularly very practical.
Perhaps Sir John would be dismayed to see how his country retreat has been swallowed up by London… but who knows, maybe he’d consider having such excellent cake on his doorstep adequate compensation.
Or just plain dangerous.
October 17, 2014 § Leave a comment
Remember how last year I set myself the task of visiting 23 London museums (and historic houses and gardens) that I’d never made it to before… and succeeded?
Well, I have a confession to make. There were a handful of places that I wish I’d added to the list but didn’t think of until it was far too late (and one of them I hadn’t even heard of until last week… that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!). So I’ve decided to set myself a miniature version of the original challenge, because 1. it’s always nice to tie up loose ends; 2. the weather lately hasn’t exactly been conducive to hiking and 3. in a couple of weeks I’ll have to send my passport off into the ether (well, actually the Home Office) to get my visa renewed and the knowledge that I won’t be able to travel makes me deeply anxious, so going on a few local voyages seems like a good distraction.
So here are the candidates this time:
…and the deadline is 15 December – I’d better get started!
October 12, 2014 § 2 Comments
I have never before written a blog post in anger. But there’s a first time for everything.
So what’s got me so het up?
A week ago I came across a column by Jonathan Jones in the Guardian on the ten best works of erotic art.
Now what you need to know about me and Jonathan Jones is that even on a good day, he infuriates me, to the point that I generally avoid reading him because I don’t particularly enjoy getting pointlessly angry. His criticism is, for the most part, lazy, pompous and ignorant. Much of it perfectly illustrates Barthes’s definition of ‘blind and dumb criticism’. His exhibition reviews often read as if he didn’t actually see the show but just decided to write about what he imagined it was like, and it always conforms to his prejudices; his writing in general reads like that of someone who hasn’t cracked an art history book in years and – an even worse sin, in my view – someone who does not look at art with sensitivity, curiosity and a desire to understand, with open eyes and open mind. (I have never understood why the Guardian, which boasts a fleet of thoughtful theatre, music, literary and architecture critics, can’t find someone to do similar justice to the visual arts.)
So now you know why I normally give Jones a wide berth. But then the other week I was innocently perusing the Guardian and clicked the link to the fatal article before I realised what I was doing. And, much as you can’t look away from a car crash, I kept reading.
By the time I got to the end, I was seeing red – as an art historian, as a woman, as a feminist, as a thinking person who doesn’t like to have my intelligence insulted. Where to begin? The blatant sexism? (Not a single one of the artists Jones chose was a woman.) The blatant heterosexism? (Yes, two of the works he chose ostensibly depict pairs of female lovers, but if Jones had bothered to do his research he would have known that the drawing by Egon Schiele actually shows a woman and… a doll. Well hey, JJ, if that’s what floats your boat…) The ham-fisted interpretation of his choices? (How on earth can he plausibly argue that Jeff Koons’s Made in Heaven is erotic? Cheap, nasty, cynical, yes – erotic, hell no.) Or maybe more than anything, the extreme narrowness of his definition of what makes an erotic work of art, which, based on his list, is a naked man and woman (or two women, but – perish the thought – never two men) very graphically getting it on. What a sad and limited way to look at one of the richest and most complicated aspects of human experience!
But rather than simply get mad at Jones, I decided to get even. Top 10 lists are by their very nature reductive, but with that caveat in mind I put together a riposte to his. (I did actually agree with a handful of his picks, as you’ll see below, but not always for the same reasons.) Here it is, in no particular order – comments, additions and disagreements welcome and no disingenuous attacks of the vapours please – you should have known what to expect…
1. Kitagawa Utamaro, Lovers in an upstairs room, from Poem of the Pillow (1788)
One of the most extraordinary shows I’ve seen in recent memory was the British Museum’s 2013 exhibition of shunga (Japanese erotic prints): hundreds of gorgeously realised images of couples making love with a lack of shame or inhibition that one seldom finds in western art before 1900 (although there are obviously some exceptions to that rule, some of them included here). The majority of them are quite explicit, sometimes comically so, but to my mind some of the most powerfully sensual shunga are those that hide more than they reveal (quite literally, in this case – the way the woman’s leg is veiled by a swathe of gauzy fabric is stunning) – and Utamaro’s Poem of the Pillow just might be the best of all.
2. Marcantonio Raimondi after Giulio Romano, I Modi (The Positions) (1524)
I Modi was one of the most scandalous sets of prints ever produced – a set of sixteen engravings illustrating different sexual positions. So scandalous, in fact, that the entire original edition was destroyed by the Church, and of the second edition, only these nine fragments survive.
This is another overlap between Jones’s list and mine, but I’ve chosen I Modi for a different reason: I would argue that the fragmentary, censored version is probably a lot more erotic than the original. Rather than spelling everything out, the fragments force your imagination to try to fill in the missing pieces. And isn’t the imagination the most potent erotic force of all?
3. Edward Calvert, The Chamber Idyll (1831)
William Blake may have written eloquently (and radically, for his age) about sexuality throwing off the shackles of religious and societal guilt but it was his follower Edward Calvert (one of the artists who called themselves the Ancients) who gave it the most perfect visual expression: a young man and woman undressing for bed on their wedding night, the cottage interior (not least the overflowing basket of apples) and the surrounding pastoral landscape echoing and underscoring the innocent sensuousness of the pair. The most surprising thing about this exquisite print? It’s tiny – a mere 4 x 7.5 cm. And the small scale, which forces you to look very closely in order to take in every detail, heightens the intimacy of the scene.
The Chamber Idyll is not only Calvert’s masterpiece, it’s also the last print he ever made. Perhaps he feared – or realised – that he would never be able to surpass it.
4. Caravaggio, John the Baptist (1602)
Caravaggio isn’t the first artist to transform John the Baptist from ascetic saint to object of desire (Leonardo got there before him) but he may be the most audacious. He stripped away anything that might have indicated that we’re meant to read this figure as a desert prophet (indeed, the painting is also known simply as ‘Youth with a Ram’) and left a Roman urchin revelling in his own nakedness and blasting us with an impish, knowing grin. Even the traditional lamb has been swapped for a ram – an ancient symbol of lust. And you can practically feel the heat of Caravaggio’s gaze on his flesh.
(Honourable mentions: the Warren Cup, which didn’t make the cut because doubts have been raised about its authenticity; any number of Greek vases, because I had no idea where to begin narrowing down the choice…)
5. Rembrandt, The French Bed (1646)
Despite the trouble Marcantonio Raimondi landed in with I Modi, sex was far from being a rare subject for art in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – it’s just that it was usually given a mythological cloak of erudition and respectability. If you saw a man and woman entangled in bed, it was likely to be Mars and Venus entrapped by Vulcan.
That’s what makes Rembrandt’s etching so effective – and affecting: it’s not a couple of randy gods, it’s two ordinary people you could meet in the street, people who aren’t divinely beautiful and who have to contend with everyday annoyances (in this case, a cold room – they’re still half-dressed). There’s some speculation that the couple are Rembrandt himself and his common-law wife Hendrickje Stoffels, but I don’t feel it matters – surely the point is that they could be anyone. They could be us.
6. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix (c. 1864-70)
Sometimes less is more, and if Rossetti isn’t the first artist whom one thinks of as exemplifying restraint, maybe he should be. Beata Beatrix is an elegy to his recently-deceased wife (and fellow artist) Elizabeth Siddal, depicted in the guise of Dante’s beloved Beatrice at the moment of death. But it’s a highly symbolic death – she’s seated in a garden flanked by Dante and an angel, a bird dropping a poppy into her open hands. She’s usually described as being in spiritual ecstasy, and yes, her expression is ecstatic: closed eyes, open lips, straining throat… does Rossetti mean to show us the moment of death or ‘little death’?
Proof positive that a fully clothed figure can be every bit as erotic as a nude, and then some. (And a great example of Rossetti turning his limits to his advantage – Venus Verticordia, his one major attempt at a nude, is more ridiculous than sexy. No wonder Ruskin directed his ire at the flowers instead.)
(Honourable mention – Rossetti’s Paolo and Francesca.)
7. Edouard Vuillard, The Nape of Misia’s Neck (c. 1897-99)
Right, now you’re probably wondering if I’ve gone off the deep end. No, I haven’t. Admittedly, a large part of what makes this seemingly chaste and restrained little painting so erotic is the story behind it. The Misia to whom the neck belongs was Misia Godebska, a Polish-Belgian pianist married to Thadée Natanson, patron and promoter of the Nabis. She was beautiful, witty, capricious and often cruel, had a genius for friendship with anyone who was anyone in the avant-garde, and Vuillard was hopelessly, unrequitedly in love with her. (He was also terminally shy, and I think it’s fair to speculate that even if Misia hadn’t been married to his chief patron he probably would still have been unable to make a move.) According to Misia’s memoir (which is a cracking read, as long as you take most of it with a grain of salt), around the time he painted this picture, she and Vuillard were strolling through a beet field near her country house and after helping her over an errant tree root, he suddenly halted and burst into tears. ‘It was,’ she wrote, ‘the most beautiful declaration of love I have ever received.’
Vuillard had plenty of worthy antecedents in eroticising the nape of a woman’s neck – think of the many women with their backs turned in Watteau’s fêtes galantes, or the beauties in the Japanese prints he and his fellow Nabis so admired. But knowing the emotion underpinning this small, private painting – all that intense, unrealisable desire concentrated on one small, innocent part of his beloved’s person – gives it a charge arguably far greater than any of them.
8. Egon Schiele, Girl seen in a dream (1911)
I wanted to include something by Schiele here (one that didn’t involve a doll), but it was unexpectedly difficult choosing one. The thing about Schiele is that although sexuality is very much at the heart of his art, and his treatment of the nude still looks radical today, his figures often aren’t actually that erotic – despair or angst or alienation (and often all three) tends to take the upper hand.
All the same, there are examples of tenderness in Schiele’s oeuvre, and I could have chosen a drawing or a painting of an embracing couple – but I went for Girl seen in a dream instead, in part because Jones’s only pick representing solo sex was so lame (Dalí? Really, you couldn’t do better than that?). What I find so compelling about Schiele’s drawing is that, despite being searingly explicit, it also acknowledges how private and mysterious and ultimately unknowable a person’s sexuality is. Yes, Schiele may have given us a girl at her most (physically) naked – but we don’t know exactly what plunged her into her erotic reverie, and we never will.
9. Camille Claudel, Sakountala (1886-1905)
I admit it – I’d first been considering Rodin’s The Kiss for this slot. But then an even better candidate sprang to mind. Claudel started working on Sakountala when she was just 22 and it, and iterations thereof, occupied her for much of the remainder of her brutally shortened career. The subject is the denouement of an ancient Sanskrit play, in which the eponymous heroine and her husband, who have endured years of separation and numerous trials, are finally reunited… but even without that background knowledge Sakountala is one of the sexiest and most moving depictions of an embrace in any medium, the pair melting into each other with pure abandon (indeed, Claudel called a later version simply L’Abandon).
10. Pipilotti Rist, Pickelporno (Pimple-Porno) (1992)
Despite the (very tongue-in-cheek) title, Rist’s video piece is definitely not porn – if anything, it turns the conventions thereof on their head. She’s filmed a couple apparently making love, but with a tiny fish-eye camera and in extreme close-up. Far from being voyeuristic and cheap, it evokes – and celebrates – the inherent strangeness of the body (both man and woman come across almost as alien landscapes) and what a messy, awkward, joyous experience sex can be.
Quite unusually for the work of an acclaimed video artist, you can actually watch Pickelporno on YouTube (although you’ll have to sign in and swear on the head of your firstborn (okay, not really) that you’re over 18). Watching it on a small screen won’t really do it justice – like most of Rist’s work, a lot of its power resides in the overwhelmingly immersive experience of seeing it full-size in a large gallery – but it will at least give a taste of what sets Pickelporno apart – it’s erotic art with a generous, contagious sense of humour.
And couldn’t the world do with a bit more of that?
October 2, 2014 § 2 Comments
One of my favourite views in all of London is the one from Waterloo Bridge, looking upriver. And I get to see it twice a day, five days a week, on the way to and from work. Even after nine and a half years in London, I still feel a brief burst of gratitude every time I cross the bridge, wow, I can’t believe my luck, I live HERE!
And yet I’ve never, not once, taken a photo of the view. Until two days ago, anyway. This is that all-too-brief golden time of the year when the sun is just beginning to set when I leave work. So here are three Waterloo sunsets… just because I can.
The Kinks definitely had it right…