Friday, 31 January 2014

A school of art you won't have heard of – and some artists you might have

The Red Baron, Barry Blend (2005)
Sometimes, little mysteries solve themselves when you’re least expecting it.

Last summer, when I interviewed artist Barry Blend in Collioure, he said of his own work: “There is a word for it actually; they have a word for it in French ... but I’ve forgotten it.”

Well, I thought about it, but didn’t get very far in trying to find that word.

And then, in October, while watching an online BBC video report of an exhibition of van Gogh’s Paris periodI came across a school that I hadn’t heard of before: cloisonnism.

It’s easy enough to have missed. Neither the Oxford Companion to Art nor Art: The definitive guide from Dorling Kindersley make mention of it in their indexes.

A piece of cloisonné jewellery
So a certain amount of internet trawling was required.

The information fished up revealed that it’s generally described as a style of Expressionism that uses blocks of bold and largely flat colours that are divided by dark contours – an echo of the jewellery technique of cloisonné, where wires are soldered into place to make a design, the spaces are filled with powdered glass (vitreous enamel) and then the whole is fired.

The term was coined by critic Édouard Dujardin in 1888, during the Salon des Indépendents, and it remains associated with the likes of Gauguin – The Yellow Christ (1889) seems to be regarded as an iconic example.

Many of the painters who used the style described their works as Synthetism.

And most sources also seem to suggest that the school was pretty much finished by about 1903.

But there are plenty of later works that suggest that it didn’t die out at all.

Picasso’s Pitcher and Bowl of Fruit (1931, oil on canvas) very much fits the definition – and who is anyone to argue with Pablo?

Yellow Christ, Gauguin
There are all sorts of cross-overs too: it’s easy, for instance, to see why Roy Lichtenstein might be included in a discussion of cloisonnism – which as much as anything, illustrates how open a term ‘pop art’ is and, indeed, how many art styles overlap with others.

There are plenty of recent works that fit the core description.

Anita Klein’s Willow (2010, silkscreen with woodblock) is one example.

Julian Opie’s Imagine You Are Driving (fast)
Olivier/helmet (Lambda print on photographic paper) is another – as are, of course, his own iconic Blur portraits, and Opie has also created quite different and equally modern works that absolutely scream of being cloisonnism by the simple fact of being stained glass.

Of these two, one could say that the Klein seems to hark back to Gauguin – if from a different period in his career – while Opie’s work looks much more like Lichtenstein.

Pitcher and Fruit, Picasso
But we don’t have to stick with the straightforwardly figurative. Take a look at Richard Woods’s woodcut, Remnant No1 (around the fireplace) from 2013. 

This is all rather intriguing on a personal level: I’ve long thought – felt, would probably be more accurate – that I didn’t ‘do’ colour.

I struggled in art at school whenever anything other than drawing was required.

In my memory, I only ‘discovered’ colour when I first saw some van Gogh in the National Gallery when I was about 19.

But it’s equally the case that I always liked cloisonné and other forms of enamel jewellery, not least because of the sheer vividness of colour.

Willow, Anita Klein
However, that’s a slight diversion.

Let’s go back to the original context of this article. It’s clear that Barry Blend’s work most definitely fits the core description of cloisonnism.

His work also fits other labels too – see my comments above about the flexibility of many schools, while I’ve noted previously that pop art, cartoon and stained glass could all be terms that would be applicable to his work.

When in Collioure last August, I gave into temptation (not difficult) and bought another one of Barry’s paintings. The Other Half, knowing my Prussophilia, was understanding.

The Red Baron touched down safely in Hackney, just down the road from Barry’s childhood home in Clapton, in September and now hangs above my workspace, where I spend a fair old amount of time just looking at and enjoying it.

Barry has a fascination for aircraft and, indeed, has also painted a larger version of the same subject, which he currently keeps in his own home.

Imagine You Are Driving (fast) Olivier/helmet, Julian Opie
But like his other paintings, the brushwork is just one fascinating aspect of his work.

Something else also struck me during the autumn.

Reading Hilary Spurling’s really excellent Matisse the Life, she makes the following observation:

“Discussing luminosity long afterwards with his son-in-law, he [Matisse] said that a picture should have the power to generate light.”

Remnant No1 (around the fireplace), Richard Woods
Of The Conversation (1908-12), Matisse’s Russian champion, “Shchukin, who first saw the painting at Issy in July, wrote that it glowed in his memory like a Byzantine enamel”.

Enamel, cloisonnism and light. There are more than a few links here.

Barry’s paintings have the same quality: they add light to a room.

September’s interview revealed Barry’s connections to a Collioure past that has now gone, linking his work with many artists who have gone before – although I’ll maintain that, if you look at other representations of the village by artists operating now, there’s nothing else remotely like his work.

But if Barry’s work has links with the past, it doesn’t dwell in the past: he creates new, vibrant images that draw on many schools, but are entirely of themselves and of him and how he sees and remembers.

Whaam! Roy Lichtenstein
And nobody should ever be suckered by their apparent simplicity. Personally, I never cease to get enormous pleasure from looking at them.

They’re far more sophisticated than one might initially think, but then that is half the reason why they’re so good.

So there we have it: a little mystery solved and, in the solving of it, a lovely array of new knowledge opened up about a school that I imagine few of us had ever heard of before.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

21st-century hysteria, click bait and the absence of common sense

It’s a sorry state of affairs when something that should be blindingly obvious that it requires no comment demands digital column inches to point this out.

It appears that veteran Channel 4 news reader Jon Snow dared to admit that he had thought about colleagues in terms of S.E.X.

This provoked an outcry – not just on Twitter, but also in the Spectator and, inevitably, in the pages of that bastion of hypocrisy, the Daily Mail.

Such was the response to this admission of being, err, a human being, that Felicity Morse penned a short piece on the topic for the Independent, pointing out that this is entirely normal for a normal human being – we are sexual creatures, after all – and adding that not only is he hardly the only one who has entertained such thoughts, but that … wait for it … women have too.

Of course this also comes at the same time that a certain organ (fnar, fnar) was berating the performance of singer Beyoncé at the Grammy Awards.

Oh My God! She wore something that wasn’t as modest as a burka! She gyrated! Alongside her husband! Our boys will be turned into rapists and our girls into sluts!

I bet you won’t be able to guess which media outlet was leading the charge on that one, will you?

Of course you will.

It was indeed our old friend the Mail that shrilled: “Is this really what little girls should aspire to, Beyoncé? Parents attack ‘vile’ display at Grammys”.

Apparently they found one parent was quoted anonymously, plus a couple of the professional ‘won’t-somebody-think-of-the-children’ brigade, Pippa Smith of SaferMedia and Vivienne Pattison of Mediawatch-UK.

Let’s clarify this: the Mail is the same rag that publishes lashings of pictures of women in as little clothing as possible – mostly to point out that they have put a bit of weight on/lost a pound or two/got cellulite.

The pages of the dead tree edition are bad enough: the online version sees this obsession squared.

It’s so depressing to have to point out that Morse’s piece is common sense.

It’s equally depressing to point out that Ally Fog’s latest Guardian article, in which he called on people to stop pretending all teenage boys are becoming violent because of porn, is another example of a situation of there being an apparent need to state the bleedin’ obvious.

Fog uses the article to press the case for serious reform of the sex education situation in the UK, where some schools are still using materials related to the homophobic Section 28, and where others are censoring what they tell the children on the basis of religious beliefs.

It’s difficult to understand who would consider it progress that such articles need writing – primarily as a response to plenty of idiocy in a media that is increasingly given to straightforward sensationalisation in order to sell copies or as click bait, and in the case of Fog, he acts as a bit of a counterbalance to the extremist voices of the likes of Julie Bindel and her misandrist, transphobic friends.

How on earth do they get away with it?

Is the British public at large really so puritanical (when not consuming and being scandalised by vast amounts of titillating gossip) that it actually considers it abnormal or surprising that their fellow humans might look at other people and consider matters sexual?

Or that they think that Beyoncé’s dancing will turn their daughters onto a path of sexual promiscuity?

Or that all teenage boys are internet-porn addicted abusers?

But then, there are apparently parents around who do not want their children to have an open and proper sex education.

Part of the problem, though, is that spouting the sort of bile and myth that in these pieces was being rebutted, is irresponsible, and risks giving a sense of justification to bigotry and intolerance and sheer stupidity.

Only yesterday, I read of a court case where two men escaped prison after beating a trans woman in her home, with their lawyer telling the jury that they were having a laugh.

The likes of the Mail, when it lets Richard Littlejohn spout transphobic bile and the Guardian, when it lets Julie Burchill et al do the same, do nothing to stop a culture of seeing trans women (because it usually is trans women) as odd and, therefore fair game.

And that leaves us with a pretty sad state of affairs: both that such articles need writing and that at least some people do believe all these sort of myths and more.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

When similes go bad

There should be a law about similes. Or at least the over use of them in novels.

A couple of days ago, I gave up reading March Violets by Philip Kerr, as I was on the verge of throwing it at something.

Described variously as “brilliantly innovative” (Salman Rushdie in the Independent on Sunday) and as having “echoes of Raymond Chandler but [being] better on his vivid and well-researched detail than the master” (Evening Standard), it’s the first of what constitutes the Berlin Noir trilogy, with further installments published later.

Set in 1936 in the German capital, it features private detective Bernie Gunther, a former policeman.

It’s a great idea, but what the Standard describes as “well-researched detail” is, in fact, laid on with a trowel – not least when it comes to the aforementioned similes.

Here’s an early example:

“From her coat pocket she produced a small lace handerchief which seemed as improbable in her large, peasant hands as an antimacassar in those of Max Schmelling, the boxer ...”

Now, if you have to explain a simile to the reader, perhaps you shouldn’t bother in the first place.

It was with some relief that, a few pages later, Kerr didn’t feel the need to similarly explain who Horst Wessel was.

The comparisons with Chandler do Kerr no favours either.

If that “well-researched detail” is better, then it’s worth noting that Chandler was not writing anything that claimed to be a work of historical fiction, so such a comparison is unfair.

And while Kerr clearly is a clever writer, the cynicism of his protagonist comes across as forced and too clever by half.

In Chandler’s deft hands, Philip Marlowe’s world-weary persona never seems over the top, and is subtly leavened by, for instance, his observation of the nature of the novels’ California setting – passing mentions of the colour and scent of jacaranda, for example.

In other words, there are sensibilities beneath Marlowe’s hard-boiled exterior.

If you’re going to do ‘clever’ and make historical and cultural references, there are other authors doing it far better.

Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula novels are riddled with references, historical and cultural, but he doesn’t feel a need to signpost them. You either spot them or you don’t – and part of the pleasure in reading the books is in seeing what you do spot.

And the same can be said of Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (not the film).

One of the things that this illustrates is just how subjective book reviewing is.

A review in the Guardian for Mortal Mischief, the first of Frank Tallis’s Liebermann Papers series, finds it to contain “too much history”.

As someone who’s about half way through that book right now, it seems that there’s enough to give and sense of authenticity and atmosphere, but nothing that leaves you feeling that the author is being overly clever or that gets in the way of the story itself.

Choosing to set his novels in fin-de-siècle Vienna, it allows him to explore some of the massive changes that were occurring at the time – not least in making his central protagonist, Max Liebermann, a young doctor who is acquainted with one Sigmund Freud, and who uses the new science of psychology in his contributions to criminal investigations.

Oh – and since it’s set in the Austrian capital, there’s cake. And lots of it.

One of Kerr’s other problems is that of writing a novel set not just in a different time, with historic events at its heart, but also in a different place.

I can think of a host of 1930s novels about Berlin to recommend instead of this if you want to get the atmosphere – Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin, for instance, or Fabian (now republished in a restored, uncensored version, as Going to the Dogs: The Story of a Moralist) from Emil and the Detectives author Erich Kästner.

And there’s always Christopher Isherwood, who was actually there at the time – and yes, almost inevitably, Kerr uses a metaphor about “Kit Kat” girls.

Of course, the different attitudes toward the historic backgrounds of both books could simply be a reflection of the fact that one of those periods continues to obsess British readers and the other does not.

Run a search for ‘Nazis’ in books on Amazon, and it produces 16,330 results – not all of which will entirely fit the bill, but it gives you an idea.

Run a similar search for fin-de-siècle Vienna, and you get 1,279 results – and that too includes things like tourist guides to the city in the very much here and now.

It is, of course, entirely possible to pen a novel set against historic events in a country and culture that’s different from your own – Martin Cruz Smith is evidence of that.

If he set himself an almost impossible standard with Gorky Park, the first Arkady Renko thriller, the second and thirds one, Polar Star and Red Square respectively, are still a very good outing and in the latter particularly, historic events present a backdrop to the story.

The thing is with Smith, he’s good enough to weave fiction and fact together seamlessly and without ever seeming to be over-egging the pudding.

You don’t sit there, turning pages and thing: ‘My god, how clever is this writer?’ Instead, you simply wonder how it’s all going to turn out – and you keep turning the pages.

It might be that the stereotype of the melancholic Russian, steeped in vodka, is just that – a stereotype – but stereotypes also exist for a reason.

And here too, Smith gives his Renko books a great sense of empathy and atmosphere.

Still, as all this just goes to show, literature – even for professional reviewers; and that’s a role I’ve played – is more subjective than objective, particularly where fiction’s concerned.

It’s also always useful to be reminded of what quality is by seeing what it isn’t. And if Berlin Noir did nothing else, the obvious comparison with Chandler made me realise, yet again, what an absolute poet that man was.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

All hail the mighty haggis

Burns Night (2011)
It was on the Isle of Skye, in something or other BDC (before digital cameras) that I first tasted haggis.

On one our relatively rare holidays – and helped enormously by generous friends that we were with – we spent a week on the island, based in Uig.

The name derives from the Norse Vik, meaning bay. And with a population of 200 it could make Tebay – population 728 and the first place I lived – seem like a veritable metropolis.

Many of the few locals spoke Scots Gaelic and would pointedly do so in front of we Sassanachs on occasion.

The trip was memorable for a number of reasons.

There was a sighting of the Northern Lights – very lucky for October.

There was the rather puritan B&B in which we stayed, where disapproval of the unmarried state of The Other Half and I was clear, together with a complete inability to take cheques.

Then there was my first ever horse ride – which culminated in being thrown after the horse behind mine bit the bum of the mount I was just starting to get used to, and left me with massive bruising all down one thigh and leg: and that after I’d landed well, according to the woman in charge.

Then there were all the walks – the Quiraing is an amazing sight to behold, like stumbling into a fantasy world, but I do not do unprotected heights very well at all, and pea gravel is a nightmare to try to scramble up.

And finally there was the food.

Now this was in the days before I ‘discovered’ food, but two things still stand out.

First, the vast, magnificent Staffin Bay prawns that I tasted after surviving the Quiraing, and second, the haggis.

For most of the week, we ate in the pub/caff next to the ferry terminal. And after a debut taste of haggis on our first evening there, it became regular fodder.

The place was presided over by a delightful woman who, rumour had it, doubled as the local tart, the place was welcoming and warm. And it also boasted a pool table, which was about the sum of Uig's night life.

So ever since – even if only when Burns Night hoves into view – we have quaffed haggis.

With Andy’s game stall now sadly long gone from Broadway Market, I ordered one from Waitrose to make sure.

It was, however, a Macsween – very traditional and with nary an additive to be found.

Larousse Gastronomique, that bible of matters culinary, says: “Although its description is not immediately appealing, haggis has an excellent nutty texture and delicious savoury flavour”.

Although it’s synonymous with Scotland, there’s no historical evidence to make it certain where it originated.

The first known written recipe for anything like it – ‘hagese’ – made with offal and herbs, is in the verse cookbook Liber Cure Cocorum dating from around 1430 in Lancashire.

Try reading the following in your best Chaucerian:

For hagese’.
_e hert of schepe, _e nere _ou take,
_o bowel noght _ou shalle forsake,
On _e turbilen made, and boyled wele,
Hacke alle togeder with gode persole,

And there’s another printed recipe from in 1615’s The English Huswife by Gervase Markham.

Haggis is a doddle to cook. Either simmer in water for an hour or so, or remove the outer casing, wrap tightly in foil and roast in a dish with 2cm of water in the bottom and cook for an hour at 160˚C (fan).

I tend to go for the former, but decided that, since a change is as good as a rest, I do it the other way this evening.

Then there’s the question of the accompaniment. ‘Tatties and neeps’ is, of course, the properly traditional one, which is only a tad confused by English regional differences in whether a ‘neep’ is a swede or a turnip.

The former again, for me.

So some plain boiled spuds on the side, with diced swede, cooked and then crushed roughly, and with butter and plenty of freshly-ground black pepper added.

All of which leaves the small matter of the sauce.

Now the really traditional way to do it involves whisky. A sauce can be made with this and mustard, but since neither of us is a particularly big fan and haggis can be a bit dry, I decided to look for something else this year.

Nick Nairn – a Michelin-starred chef and a Scot himself – has recipes for using Scotch, but suggests reducing half a pint of beef stock and some red wine, before whisking in a knob of butter and seasoning for an alternative to the whisky route.

So that was what I decided to do this time around.

The complication was that I had no beef stock in – and I’m increasingly reluctant to use any form of bought stock, whether cubes of powder or liquid: they’re all far too strong a taste.

So instead, I started with sweating onion, carrot and celery in butter, before adding water and wine, plus bay leaves and black peppercorns.

After you’ve reduced that, you can strain and then add the butter to give a little gloss and thicken slightly.

We don’t do any ceremony with our haggis, but it’s a most enjoyable meal and, in this case, the sauce worked excellently in providing moisture without the whisky.

Unbeatable fodder for a cold, dark January night.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

It's raining men – or because of them?

It's raining men
In the last few days, many in the UK have been mightily entertained as a result of the publication of a letter in a local paper.

In the Henley Standard, UKIP councillor David Silvester stated that he had warned Prime Minister David Cameron, but that the recent storms and flooding were a direct consequence of the plans to allow gay (equal) marriage.

Initially, a UKIP spokesperson stated that Mr Silvester was entitled to his opinion, but a day later, it was announced that he had been suspended, while party leader Nigel Farage promised that certain UKIP candidates would not be standing again for election.

It is, of course, rather amusing to see that Mr Farage has realised the potentially negative impact at the ballot box of some of his loonier members.

There’s a spot of irony in the fact that – if you took the Telegraph forums at face value at least – people were deserting the Conservative Party for UKIP on just that issue only a year ago, in between promising that there would be mass “civil disobedience” if those gays were allowed to get properly hitched.

After all, UKIP itself had made it quite clear that it considered plans for equal marriage to be “illiberal”, making it odder yet that it now meets such illiberality with, err, illiberality.

And it’s interesting that a party that prides itself on not being politically correct has decided that freedom of speech is actually negotiable and that image matters more than said freedom of speech if you’re hoping to win votes in just a very few months.

For what it’s worth, my personal opinion is that Mr Silvester didn’t so much say anything offensive as simply barking. And the one is not the same as the other.

There’s no question of incitement that I can see in either his letter or in his subsequent TV comments.

And much as I personally consider that his comments are bonkers, there’s something that should concern us all when we see people being, in effect, censored for daring to voice their opinions in an entirely polite manner – let alone by a party that was entirely happy to play to and welcome people of his opinion until only very recently.

We do need to remember – or get our heads around – the idea that nobody has a right to not be offended.

Without that, free speech falls. And, of course, honesty falls with it.

Dictatorial regimes kill free speech. Theocracies kill free speech. Religions try rather hard to kill free speech. And overt political correctness kills free speech.

At the moment – not entirely coincidentally – I’m engaged in a debate with someone on a newspaper forum, after they objected to my question of when heterosexuals ‘chose’ to be straight.

I don’t know the person, but the discussion suggests he’s male and religious.

His objection is based on his apparently having chosen to be not gay where he once was.

As of now, he’s still refusing to say when he chose to be gay. After all, if he had to choose to be straight – in compliance with god’s law or even a perception of nature – then he must, at some point, have equally chosen to go against god’s law or nature.

The more I think about it, the more I feel for this individual. I get a sense – I could be wrong, of course – that this is a daily struggle with his natural and inherent self, because somehow he has become convinced that his natural self is inherently wrong … that it is bad and sinful and must be changed and controlled.

There’s something awful and destructive and life-denying in that, and I wish it on nobody.

But if one were to pursue a theological line of reasoning, that wouldn’t help either.

After all, if you couldn’t say when you chose to become gay in the first place, you’re left with the knowledge that you just are. And if you believe in a god, then that leaves you wondering why that god made or allowed you to be gay in the first place, when that same god is explicitly opposed to gayness.

With Judeo-Christian tradition, god is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent: from the beginning of time, he knew everything that would ever happen, when and how. And since he created it all in the first place, then he created human sexuality and what some call ‘sin’, and the paths that individuals would themselves take.

Such religion logically allows no room for freedom and for individual decisions. The two are like oil and water.

Perhaps it’s a matter of ‘the sins of the fathers’?

Now there’s a phrase that I really detest.

Can you seriously imagine a single, sane, un-brainwashed, decent human being suggesting that society should punish an entirely innocent person for something that their father or their grandmother or great-granduncle did?

Would any civilised person consider that a good basis for society?

I rather doubt it.

It would be like saying that collective punishment is suddenly okay.

So if god created human sexuality – for Catholics at least, the idea of any other being having the power of creation is heresy – then that same god punishes people for precisely what he created.

Yeah. I can see why people would be cool with that.

I mean, even if such a god exists, why would you want to worship such a being?

You wouldn’t accept any equivalent in real life, so why would anyone accept it from their idea of a god?

People are entitled to their beliefs and unless they make statements that break existing law on incitement, they should continue to be free to make those statements.

There’s no evidence that Mr Silvester, for instance, ‘hates’ gays – just that he’s three stops short of Upminster, which ain’t a crime, the last time I checked. He should no more be censored for that than I should for expressing my opinion on his lunacy.

None of this means that I’m not having a damned good old laugh at much of the satirical (but not censoring) response to Mr Silvester’s comments.

Indeed, even as I write, I’m listening to that great disco classic, It’s Raining Men.

And just think: if we censor such people, we don’t destroy the beliefs or the arguments, we merely drive them underground and risk making martyrs of them.