Archive for the 'art' Category

On the fire at Notre Dame

April 17, 2019

I’m one of the many millions of people horrified by the fire and destruction of Notre Dame in Paris. The disaster prompted me to remember that it’s almost exactly fifty years since, as a school student on my first French exchange, I was taken to see the cathedral; I’ve been back several times since. For me and others, it’s not the most spectacular cathedral in France, but its unique site does give it a special aura. And I found myself also wondering, what is is about this enormous pile of stones that exerts such an effect on so many people around the world, many of whom will not be catholics?

I was moved by the comments of the former Afghan leader who said that to see the destruction of Notre Dame pained him as much as when the taliban has destroyed the ancient buddhas of Bamiyan in his country, and I remembered, too, the Islamic state’s destruction of the Roman remains at Palmyra; I has been touched last autumn when visiting the Roman sites at Arles in Provence to see that the local archaeologists had erected a memorial to the curator of the Palmyra site who had been brutally executed by the fundamentalists for wishing to protect his country’s heritage.

From one perspective, these are all piles of stone, old monuments, buildings or statues. Once can visualise far better things on which to spend the hundreds of millions of euros already pledged for the reconstruction and restoration of Notre Dame… and yet, I’m in favour of that rebuilding along with everyone else.

The cathedral is part of France’s cultural heritage, part of Europe’s cultural heritage, part of the Christian past of the world. And statements along similar lines can be made about the other destroyed monuments I’ve mentioned above. It’s the nature of our attachment that interested me. There’s our sense of awe at the endurance through so much time of such a place – over eight centuries for Notre Dame – far longer than any of us will endure, even in the memories of our descendants. There is our connection today with people like ourselves who so long ago created such magnificent buildings. The dimensions are awe-inspiring, the physical beauty breathtaking, and the realisation of the colossal amounts of time and energy our predecessors expended to create such places must bring us up short if we think about it. No cost-effectiveness or economic rationales involved there! For me there’s also the sense that nothing we are building today is likely to last anywhere near that long. And if all these relics from our past did not have a special significance for so many of us, would we in today’s world lavish so much time and money on preserving them for the future?

Then there’s the deeper sense of what ‘the past’ means for us as individuals, the way we see ourselves and our world, perhaps against the background of time and eternity, and whatever one’s attitude to religion may be, I think it’s hard to avoid using the notion of the spiritual to describe the feelings of awe and of reflection that such places steeped in history are able to inspire in us: we are taken outside ourselves, beyond ourselves, in the direction of thoughts and feelings that are very hard to understand. And somewhere, it seems to me, we all can tune in to such feelings and perhaps we all have a need to experience them at different times in our lives…

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On photography

September 13, 2018

I’ve been taking photographs since I was 15, when a Polish cousin gave me a basic Soviet 35mm camera on my first visit to Poland. He was a keen photographer who had a darkroom of sorts at home, and when I got back to school in England I spent more time with a friend in the school darkroom learning about processing black and white film.

One of the first things I bought myself when I moved to Lancaster in the late 1970s was a good quality camera, an Olympus OM10, and I’ve never looked back since then. I’ve never been able to get my mind around very much of the technicality of exposure, depth of field and the like, sadly, having been rather useless at physics at school, so I’m sure I’ve never fully explored what this very rewarding hobby has to offer.

Whilst I do take some portraits from time to time, what I really like most is outdoor photography, of landscapes, nature and buildings, and this is where I take most time and care, because I want my shots to be good. I will spend ages waiting for people to move away out of shot so I get my picture without them; the same with trying to avoid having traffic in my pictures. I like to frame my shots carefully: when I used a film camera this was important because it was expensive to waste shots, and I suppose this is where I learnt the little I know about how to get a decent picture; now that it’s possible to take almost unlimited numbers of pictures with a digital camera, I’m still as careful with framing a shot, obsessive sometimes about getting the exact image I want in the frame. I try to remember the effect of a picture taken from a different height, ie not just at eye-level when I’m standing, and I also like shots that aren’t necessarily level, looking upwards in order to capture interesting aspects of an object or building. And finally, of course, photography allows me to create a record of my travels to enjoy later and bring back memories.

I enjoy going to exhibitions of photography, and am often astonished by what true professionals achieve. When I went to the Otto Dix exhibition at Tate Liverpool last autumn, there was an exhibition of portraits from the 1930s by the German photographer August Sander which was truly stunning, and while in Arles the other week I saw some fascinating monochrome landscapes and close-ups by a French photographer from the 1940s whose name I have, annoyingly, forgotten.

I also found myself reflecting on why I detest all those painted portraits in art galleries – old masters? – which seemed to me to be attempts at photography before its time, if you get my meaning, and yet which I almost invariably find utterly unbelievable and unconvincing. Photography does it perfectly, for me. It has something to do with sharpness of image, as well as use of light and shadow, and the close-ups that are possible with the newer medium. And somehow monochrome can enhance the image, whilst at the same time being less true to life than the colours of the portrait painters of the past. Maybe it’s also the informality that photography allows, that portrait painting couldn’t…. It seems to me, in my relatively limited understanding of both art and photography, that it was the invention of the latter that finally allowed art to break free of the constraints of being representative, and to move in new directions.

It took me a long time to accept digital photography, and to buy a digital camera -a modest Nikon D3100 – but I now do like the ability to take as many pictures as I like and then select and keep the most successful ones. And they don’t clutter up the world like packets of photos and albums did, and it’s a lot easier to spend time revisiting them…

August favourites #28: author

August 28, 2018

51aPP6fCRbL._AC_US218_The idea of someone who is widely knowledgeable – a polymath? – is an old one, harder to countenance in these times of so much knowledge and data. It’s been a long time since it was possible for one person to ‘know’ everything that could be known – Isidore of Seville wrote the first encyclopaedia in the seventh century, and Athanasius Kircher in the seventeenth is regarded by some as the last person who knew it all. But in our own times, I was always impressed by the Italian writer, critic and philosopher Umberto Eco, who produced novels, art criticism, philosophy, works on linguistics, and – in his own language, and as far as I know, still largely untranslated – regular newspaper columns on an incredible variety of learned and light-hearted topics. The Name of the Rose is probably my all-time favourite novel. I’d really like to have met him, and I don’t say that about a lot of my heroes.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

August favourites #16: Artist

August 16, 2018

I feel a bit out on a limb writing about art, which isn’t a field in which I can claim any kind of expertise or systematic knowledge; I haven’t got much further than liking various paintings and artists. But, exploring a new kind of creativity has been bringing me much pleasure in my retirement. I’m not terribly interested in portraits, or very representational art (we have photography now); impressionism and expressionism, however, fascinate me. I saw an exhibition in Edinburgh about ten years ago, Turner and Italy, which caused me to explore Turner’s work further, and fall in love with it. My favourite painting then was Modern Rome, and it still is. I’m constantly astonished at how he used light so expressively in so many ways, and although I really like many of his large-scale works, I’m also amazed at his sketches and his watercolours, where he can conjure up so much just with a few, almost random, lines, or patches of colour. I have no desire to draw or paint myself. I’m slowly learning to just sit and look, and really enjoy that…

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

On the Russian Revolution…

November 20, 2017

51Miyo3yZPL._AC_US218_51FPyNJH1-L._AC_US218_I’ve been aware that the centenary of the Great October Revolution was last week, in spite of the Putin regime’s efforts to ignore it, and I have been looking through some of my books of photographs and propaganda posters from that era as I have reflected on one of the key moments of the twentieth century, as well as one of its failed experiments. David King‘s Red Star Over Russia is astonishing, and if I don’t succeed in getting to the current exhibition at Tate Britain, this book will serve as a substitute. And Soviet Posters – the Sergio Grigorian Collection is also pretty good.

I have no flag to fly for Stalinism and its excesses, which included invading Poland and imprisoning my father along with tens of thousands of his comrades and, I suppose, indirectly led to myself… The Soviet economic experiment ended in failure, though how much of that was due to inherent weaknesses and how much to the determination of the rest of the (capitalist) world that it must fail at all costs, is very hard to say. And the Soviet Union and its horrendous sacrifices defeated the might of Nazi Germany; compared with the Soviet losses the West gave relatively little, and again, the leaders of the West were quite happy for the Soviets to bear the brunt of the losses and consequently weaken itself.

The Soviets also, in a sense, won the space race, in that their efforts and research led to many of the real and enduring successes, including the space stations, and international co-operation in space; compared with this, out of a sense of panic the US committed itself to winning the race to the moon, threw money at it and did win it, and promptly lost steam; NASA has never really been terribly clear since what its purpose is…

If everything about the Soviet system had been so grim and awful as Western propaganda liked (and still likes) to paint it, there would surely not be all the nostalgia for it that does exist in many of the countries of Eastern Europe and Russia itself, although again, the current hegemony does its best to bury it. So what do people miss? According to articles and interviews I’ve read, a sense of joint, collective endeavour, striving for a shared goal. Jobs for everyone. At least you had a job, however pointless it might have been, and you might have been sent to the back of beyond to do it; with it came a wage or salary, enough to provide the basics of existence. People did often say, ‘we pretend to work and you pretend to pay us’, but the grimness of unemployment was unknown.

There was basic housing, fuel, power and lighting at nominal cost, for all, too. The scandal of homelessness did not exist. Housing might have been cramped and basic, but it was there, and affordable, as was public transport at very low cost. Books, magazines, newspapers, cinema, theatre, all were subsidised.

What was wrong with the system? Everything was grim and grey; I went and saw it. Consumer durables were very thin on the ground, luxuries unavailable. You couldn’t say what you liked, criticise the government, have a meaningful vote, travel abroad… Religious practice was strictly curtailed or even forbidden.

What we have here is a classic case of the opposition of the two kinds of freedom, freedom from and freedom to: under the Soviet system, while you were free from a lot of things, you weren’t free to do a lot of things. And your response to these two freedoms or the lack of them, very much depends on where you are starting from. Many people on the planet – in the Third World, in less developed countries perhaps – might settle for freedom from; here in the West, having been tempted by the successes of capitalism for so long, it’s the freedom to that we want, and are horrified by the thought of not having. It’s all about perspective…

So between the efforts of the West and the failings of the system itself, the experiments failed. And we are taught that the experiment failed for ever, that there’s no point in trying again. But is that really the case?O

Otto Dix: The Evil Eye

November 20, 2017

I’ve been a fan of this German artist for a long time, since seeing some of his work in Stuttgart years ago, and even more since I saw his series of etchings Der Krieg (The War) at the museum of the First World War in Peronne a few years ago. So I was thrilled to be able to see a major exhibition at Tate Liverpool last month, and to get this book, which accompanied the exhibition.

I hadn’t really realised how versatile an artist he was: pen and ink drawings, watercolours, oil and tempera paintings, etchings; in your face anti-bourgeois art featuring prostitutes and sexual violence, beautifully illustrated scrapbooks for his children, astonishing portraits as bread-and-butter work, powerfully graphic anti-war drawings, and while in internal exile during the Nazi era, more spiritual landscapes…

It’s still the anti-war etchings that grip me most, though. He was on the Western Front and survived, marked by his experiences and yet at the same time conscious of a kind of exhilaration in them, which of course he would never have been able to express had he not come through alive… The etchings are mostly very graphic, and horrifyingly violent – indeed one, of a German soldier raping a Belgian nun, a story which featured widely in atrocity propaganda of the time, was suppressed from the opening exhibition on the grounds that the authorities would immediately have used it as an excuse to ban the entire exhibition… There are fifty etchings, using a range of techniques, in five folios in all, presenting a wide range of aspects of the horrors of the Great War.

As I’ve remarked else where, because of my relative lack of knowledge of art, techniques and terminology, I do find it hard to articulate my responses to much of what I see, other than saying, well, I like it, or, it appeals to me… I have found that good art makes me stop and look carefully, think and reflect; it often draws me back to it. I won’t know why, exactly, but this arresting effect feels important. I think it is akin to my response to a good deal of modern poetry: I am brought up short by being made to see something with a different eye, from a different perspective. And surely, this is the gift of a great artist or writer, to make us see afresh, anew?

On the two cultures

March 14, 2017

Years ago C P Snow wrote about two cultures, the arts and the sciences, and the gulf between them. I oversimplify greatly, I know, but it’s an opposition that I regularly return to in terms of my own life and experience.

I’m clearly on the arts side, from my studies at school, at university and my teaching career, as well as my wider interests throughout life: languages, literature, history, religion for starters. I was about to say that science never really got a look in, when I recalled an interest in astronomy from a very young age, and that at primary school, my best friend and I wanted to be the first men on the moon (!). He’s now a Russian Orthodox priest, by the way, or was when I last had news of him…

At boarding school, there was no real opportunity to study science properly, and so the die was cast, I suppose. Maths was interesting, as our teacher was one of the pioneers of what was called ‘modern maths’ in those days; I understood and liked a good deal of it as far as O Level where I managed grade 2, but it was arithmetic, especially mental arithmetic, that was always my strongest point. I retained my interest in astronomy, even going to evening classes at one point, but whenever it strayed into the realms of maths and physics, I have to say that I very quickly got lost, and began to develop a headache. I genuinely do seem to have a mental block about some things once they go beyond a certain level… How much of this is because of my background, my upbringing and how much is the real me, as it were?

I do stray out of the arts bubble in my reading. I’ve long been interested in the calendar and its development over time, and there’s a fair amount of arithmetic involved in that. I’ve read some works on science and astronomy – Carl Sagan on the search for life elsewhere in the cosmos I found particularly interesting, and I have actually read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, though how much of it I understood I cannot honestly say. I like to read about the development of human knowledge in all fields, and find books like Pliny’s Natural History and Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies fascinating because they show us learning about ourselves and our world, developing our understanding over time. This relentless desire for knowledge, and the pursuit of it, are surely one of the things which make us human and allow us to be proud of our species.

I’ve also found myself wondering about gender-related issues in connection with the arts/sciences dichotomy. I have the picture that maths and sciences are largely a male field, and the arts rather more female, and yet I know this is clearly a gross oversimplification. But do some subject areas and ways of thinking lend themselves more readily to brains of one or the other gender, despite the opening up of opportunities in recent decades? And what does this say, if anything, about female scientists and mathematicians of whom I have known many, or male students of literature and languages, of whom I have known rather fewer. And what about me?

Is the separation between arts and sciences inevitable, a result of there nowadays being so much knowledge in so many areas that it’s impossible for anyone to acquire mastery of everything? It has been said that Athanasius Kircher, in the seventeenth century, was the last man who knew everything, as in the amount of available learning and knowledge was capable of being mastered by a single person. I don’t think that the separation does us any good, in terms of our society, or our education systems; I have often felt intellectually poorer for my lack of scientific and mathematical knowledge. And of course currently we are made to feel that only subjects with practical applications, ie maths, science and technology, are worth expending the time and money on, and our country and the world is the poorer for such philistinism. It is curiosity, the act of studying and the eagerness to learn that are important, rather than the subject-matter.

Eheu fugaces

July 13, 2016

Nobody can really prepare you for retirement: the day when, after everyone has said very kind and appreciative things about you, and remembered the high-points and achievements of your career, and wished you well, you put your stuff in the car and set off home for the last time, knowing that you will never make that journey again with the same purpose. All those years are over; your job and classroom now belong to someone else…

Many sighs of relief; the clouds of stress and pressure and expectation lift. You celebrate, relish the air of freedom; September arrives and you can set off on holiday rather than return to the daily grind. But, you now need a new purpose and motivation in your life.

I have slowed down a good deal over the last few years. I’m older, and I don’t need to rush to fit everything in; no-one is breathing down my neck. I have certainly been able to read rather more than I used to, and have very much enjoyed writing this blog, which arose partly from my wish to continue sharing my enjoyment of reading, and partly because I realised that I could be a writer, on a small scale. I have been able to go off and study and watch Shakespeare rather than teach it; I was never able to go on the course before, because it runs the week before Whitsun half-term.

I’ve always enjoyed languages. My first degree was actually joint honours, French and English Literature, and I’ve been keeping up with my French through reading newspapers, and also novels and some history in French. I’ve been able to join a German class and tried to improve my German to a stage where I can now hold a reasonable conversation. In the last three years I have also taken up Spanish, a new challenge which is keeping my brain alive. And I’ve been able to go back to yoga, which I enjoyed very much when a lot younger. It’s different now, being rather more about sustaining flexibility and suppleness of limbs, which needs rather more attention as I’ve grown older.

My main pleasure has been travelling. When a student I travelled a good deal in Europe and a little in North Africa, and I always intended to do more of this when I had the freedom. I go off walking in the Luxembourg Ardennes every spring. I’ve spent several trips walking around and exploring the various battlefields of the Great War, a project that arose from many years of teaching the literature of that period to students. These trips have been very informative and very moving. I’ve achieved a lifetime’s ambition and visited the various places in Germany associated with JS Bach. And I have lots more projects in the pipeline. Then there are the trips and holidays that Cheryl and I take together, to art galleries, museums and especially to the seaside…

I have grown to love gardening, too. I’m not the head gardener: I just do the heavy work, the weeding and the fruit harvesting. It’s incredibly relaxing (well, apart from the digging) and peaceful. It’s something I never understood when I was younger – I always saw it as incredibly boring. And now I love it.

It’s taken quite a few years to realise that I can do what I like when I like, and in some ways this freedom feels like a return to the hippy days of my youth. And yet, there often feels to be something lacking… it’s taken a long time to realise and understand this major change, which is that nothing matters any more. I don’t have a career, and students who depend on my hard work. Our children are grown and have lives of their own. In the end, nobody cares what I do, and whilst that’s clearly liberating in one way, it’s also rather alarming in another: every day I must create and sustain a purpose and meaning to the rest of my existence. This is my task and mine alone, and nobody can really explain this to you, it just happens, and it’s a shock.

Inarticulate responses

July 11, 2016

Reading has been such an integral part of my life – of me – for so long that sometimes it gets in the way of other things. Following those words on a page, instantly processed by my brain, reflected on, agreed or disagreed with, moderated, absorbed or rejected, is second nature. And I find this presents me with serious challenges when faced with other similar and yet very different stimuli.

I’ll try and be clearer. Along with reading I also enjoy listening to music, mainly classical, but some jazz. The input to my brain, my consciousness, my mind, is very different – no words! – and I’m far less sure what goes on, and what to do with it. Sounds don’t operate like words, obviously, don’t produce the same sort of response in my brain, in me; my response is mostly emotional – I think. But then my response to what I’m reading can also be emotional, and yet it’s not the same…

I enjoy art – huge generalisation there! – some kinds of art, painting from the time of Turner onwards, some sculpture, some strange conceptual art. Joseph Beuys fits in there somewhere. And I find responding to pictures and sculptures even more challenging. I can happily sit or stand and stare for ages; sometimes I have an intellectual response, which is easier and means I can talk about what I’m seeing; sometimes it’s a purely emotional response, and sometimes, quite honestly, I don’t really know what’s going on. I’m mesmerised or entranced by what I’m looking at; I think I like it, but couldn’t really begin to tell you why… I realise that I don’t really have enough of the tools, or the necessary language (English teacher speaking here!) to explain my response.

And then I find myself wondering: is that OK? Is it necessarily like this, or is it because something was lacking in my earlier education? I don’t really think it matters that much, and yet, as I feel quite articulate in my specialist field of literature, I’d really like to be able to be like that, too, in my response to other areas of the arts.

My musical education at school was pretty non-existent; my voice broke early and I was bribed not to sing; I never had the opportunity to learn an instrument; most musical notation and terminology verges on the incomprehensible. And yet listening to the music of Bach has brought me as close to heaven as I’ll probably get. I can hear the complexity – that some call mathematical – and I can appreciate the genius; I can feel a man drawn to God. The late Beethoven String Quartets I find eerie, haunting even, and compelling, but that’s about all I can manage to articulate.

I never really had any education in art, either, apart from some very interesting and helpful stuff on architectural history at one point. My practical attempts at art of any kind were futile. Later in life, I have come to enjoy photography, which I find satisfying, and I have accepted this is as far as I’ll get.

If any artist speaks to me, it’s Turner, who to me is an impressionist before his time, whether in his huge canvases – particularly of Italy – or in his smaller watercolours and sketches; he does marvellous things with light, and can suggest a whole through the merest stroke of a pencil or dab of a paintbrush. But again, I can’t really get further than that in articulating what is is that affects me, moves me deeply, entrances me.

When I think more deeply, I realise that my responses to music and painting resemble my responses to poetry, when out of the words carefully chosen come images, words far less concrete than those I consume so voraciously when I read. But then it comes to me as I reach the end of this piece: the real problem is the words, which get in the way.

Farewell, Umberto

February 20, 2016

Umberto Eco was the sort of person who made me feel proud to be a human being, if you can understand what I mean. Like all of us, he had a brain, and powers of reason. And unlike many humans, he used them.

If people know who he was, they probably immediately think, oh yes: The Name of the Rose. It is a lovely novel, one of may all-time favourites, and I say lovely advisedly, for it is so many things: a wonderful detective story which pays tribute to another of my heroes, Sherlock Holmes, a disquisition on mediaeval history, theology, the religious life, human nature – in short, a work which allows Eco the mediaevalist to shine at his best. And Baudolino, his other mediaeval novel which explores the search for Prester John, does the same. His other novels are less impressive, though I have intentions of returning to The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, which I remember as quite autobiographical.

Eco described himself as a philosopher who wrote novels at the weekends. I’ve only dipped into his other work. Some of it, especially more abstruse stuff on semiotics and meaning, has given me a headache and left me none the wiser: I haven’t the tools to access it. Other writings, on languages and translation, I have found fascinating and thought-provoking. And his writings about art, culture and literature, in such books as On Beauty, On Ugliness, The Infinity of Lists and especially The Book of Legendary Lands are works of beauty and great erudition.

So, he was a man of learning, a man who valued learning and knowledge for its own sake, who revelled in it and in sharing it with others. For me, this is one of the greatest things a person can aspire to. When I learned yesterday of the passing of Harper Lee, I was saddened. Opening the paper this morning, I was without words for a long time.

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