Friday 7 November 2014

Around the Black Square

For Kasimir Malevich, all paths seem to have led up to and away from this seminal abstraction - I'm trying so hard to avoid the 'i' word - which he claimed to have conceived in 1913, around the time of his geometric costumes for the futurist drama Victory over the Sun, and executed for the first time two years later. The above Black Square of 1915 is in Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery and it's too fragile to travel; the surface paint began to crack and so Malevich provided 'new' versions in 1923 and 1929, both in Tate Modern's stupendous exhibition (sorry, it closed at the end of October).

The cracking is surely part of the effect, intended or not: that I think of it as interference on a telly screen was fostered by its position in the December 1915 Last Exhibition of Futurist Paintings 0.10 where it took the place conventionally held by an icon in Orthodox homes. And that, of course, is a position often occupied by a TV screen now. We must count ourselves very lucky that a single photo exists of the 1915 layout

which allowed Tate Modern to locate nine out of the 12 paintings still in existence today in their rightful places. There are several classic Suprematist canvasses like this one.

Malevich's definition makes sense: to avoid counterfeiting nature, he avoids taking anything from it (though as we know nature also loves geometric shapes). 'Everything has disappeared; a mass of material is left from which a new form will be built'. Only a few years earlier, he was defining himself by reflecting other movements in art, as in this self-portrait of 1908-10

which makes a telling symmetry with the portraits of the last room. What could Malevich then do with Socialist Realism laying down its tenets in the early 1930s? Bizarrely, he depicted himself as a Renaissance Florentine.

Also symmetrically, the simplified peasants of 1911 recur in the late 1920s, when he was reconfiguring that style in an era when experimentation in art still remained free (the Twenties, as we know, were a fruitful era for avant-garde music, dance, literature and art in early Soviet Russia).

What fascinated me most of all was Malevich's response to the Revolution, draining his abstract shapes of colour and disappearing them in a sea of white. These seem like doves, the souls of an art which, Malevich wrote, 'died, like the old regime, because it was an organic part of it'.

Yet, of course, it didn't. Malevich must have been an inspiring teacher in Vitebsk and leader of the Champions of Art, UNOVIS, pictured below.

His pedagogic charts are works of art in their own right, placing Suprematist abstraction between religious and realistic art. And this period also saw a rebirth in art for the theatre, which is where the Victoria and Albert Museum's exhibition of designs from the fabulous Bakhrushin Museum in Moscow provides the continuity (or did, until the Malevich exhibition closed; the V&A's show is up for some time). Crammed into a space of odd angles attached to the tucked-away Theatre Museum, there are some revelations here if you find your way to see them (I went to the opening the other week, crowded with a zoo of Russians and Russianists and attendant tensions).

A few constructivist models like Lyubov Popova's above for Meyerhold's 1922 production of Crommelynck's The Magnificent Cuckold (wish there were more of these 3D efforts) show what the cue was for Yakulov when he designed Le pas d'acier for Diaghilev and Prokofiev in Paris. Geometric designs in the Victory over the Sun tradition have a very individual take from Varvara Stepanova in a costume for another Meyerhold special in the same year, Tarelkin's Death. 1922 seems to have been something of a milestone for both Meyerhold and Russian women artists.

I was also delighted to see in colour Alexander Rabinovich's most famous design for the hugely successful Moscow production of  Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges so I take the liberty of putting up my one shot.

I'm going back soon to spend more time and I expect to see a bizarre error corrected: the Princess Turandot referred to in the info for several designs could not have been Puccini's because he hadn't composed his opera then; everyone with an interest in the era knows that his source, Carlo Gozzi, was hugely popular in 1920s Russia.

Back at Tate Modern, an invite to see Richard Tuttle's not terribly thrilling installation in the Turbine Hall meant free admission to both exhibitions. So without wilting I complemented Malevich with Sigmar Polke one floor below. Like The Bride and the Bachelors show at the Barbican, this was one to make you smile or laugh at Polke's freewheeling exuberance. The later canvases become wearying, the earlier ones sometimes feel amateurish but again the central rooms yielded me, at least, the most pleasure, especially because one image incorporates John Tenniel's illustration of Alice and the Caterpillar.

Polke went trippy in more ways than one in the 1970s, driving to Afghanistan and Pakistan where he shot long, boring films in opium dens (I can trump him for interest on that front: in Peshawar, we were led by a dodgy self-styled friend of a Mulk Prince we were to meet in Chitral to a very dimly-lit stable where consumptive men smoked opium between the backsides of cows. We didn't partake, I hasten to add, not so much primly as because the coughing was not encouraging). Here Polke has hand-tinted and treated one of his photos.

Hookahs and mushrooms are the predominant theme around this time.

I also liked the ambiguity of the Watchtower paintings made between 1984 and 1988

though the last five rooms oppressed with their large, splashy canvases (and remember I went round the Polke first, Malevich second, so it wasn't a case of gallery fatigue).

While we're still in a non-Russian intermezzo, a brief word about a production which felt a bit underwhelming compared to Belvoir Sydney's The Wild Duck, second only to Janet McTeer's Nora in A Doll's House for sheer Ibsen poleaxing in my experience (and this was a fairly radical re-write). I went with director Ian Rickson's brother Graham - one of the (few) generous spirits on The Arts Desk, and he's been turning in his Classical CDs column weekly without batting an eyelid for years now - to see said sibling's Electra. I directed the Sophocles play, too, at the Edinburgh Bedlam back in 1981 and though I know we couldn't hold a candle to most of these actors, the idea wasn't so different: monumental set with giant doorway, vaguely archaic-Greek setting suggested through contemporary costumes, three actresses sharing the Chorus.

Don't most of us love Kristin Scott Thomas(pictured above by Johan Persson) as a screen actress? As Agamemnon's crazed daughter, she was intelligent, various and convincing when in full pelt; but I just didn't feel the pain of this bright middle-class lady. You need to wonder how on earth a great Electra can play the role night after night, and here it was all too clear. Most impressive actress for me was the young Chrysothemis, Liz White, a born speaker of classical verse. Diana Quick gave us a lucid Clytemnestra, but the revelation of maternal suffering wasn't as moving as I think it can be. With a weak Orestes, the recognition scene was bungled: given an audience ready to laugh at anything, really skilled actors would know how to play it so that the laughter came one minute and stopped the next. Not a bad evening, but a bit on the small side.

Here's a pair who I imagine would make a stunning Electra and Clytemnestra - Birgitte Hjørt Sorensen and Dame Harriet Walter. Fans of Borgen will know Birgitte as the feisty reporter, and admire her superb vocal range. I was starstruck to see her sitting there in the Donmar R&R space after recording Harriet in chapters from Tolstoy's War and Peace for my Opera in Depth course on Prokofiev's opera. Harriet was delighted to have the above shot, too, because she and husband Guy, currently in America, are huge Borgen admirers, as of course am I. So, having propounded my 'Borgen Hamlet' idea for the second time in a week - the first was to Lone Britt Christiansen at a Danish Embassy Nielsen pow-wow - it struck me: Birgitte would be the perfect Cordelia to Harriet's Lear (which we have to have).

What a marvellous, quick and intelligent reader is our own great actress, who squeezed in our two sessions between Saturday matinee and evening performances as Shakespeare's Henry IV (I hope to go and see Phyllida Lloyd's second 'women's prison Shakespeare' at the end of the month). This time we were recording Natasha's crisis confrontation with Pierre and her appearance to the dying Andrey. Each time Harriet reached a crucial line, she'd stop and re-record it with even greater depth. I'm so proud of having offered this as an extra to Prokofiev's scenes, even if I'm no professional sound editor.

The translation we're using, by Richard Pevear and Larisa Volokhonsky, isn't the easiest, but certainly the most faithful in its attempts to mirror Tolstoy's dogged repetitions - and to reproduce all the French with footnote translations, as he did. I was only dipping in for the relevant scenes but fatally I turned back to the beginning and can feel a third reading of the entire novel imminent.

I was delighted with the excuse to read Leskov's short(ish) story The Tale of the Cross-Eyed Left-Hander of Tula and the Steel Flea in preparing the programme notes for the Mariinsky Theatre's Barbican concert performance of Shchedrin's latest opera Levsha. The story is a marvellous fantasy; the opera, though too long, has its magical moments, not least the high-frequency music that accompanies the coloratura-soprano flea - an inspired idea, and bewitchingly realised on Tuesday with brilliant singer-actress Kristina Alieva   giving us her enigmatic smile for much of the action (pictured below by with Vladimir Moroz's Alexander I and Maria Maksakova's Princess Charlotte).

As expected with Shchedrin - and for all his inventiveness I have no idea who he really is as a composer - there are moments of bombast which Gergiev is all too ready to abet; I can still imagine the score being more lightly done. But it was worth breaking my year-long Gergiev embargo once only, and enduring the predictable one-hour delay while he made his way, with back trouble apparently, to the Barbican. The singers are all so well trained, the playing first-rate and above all the chorus, pandered to in the final orthodox burial ritual at odds with Leskov's satirical distance and reminding us that there are no choral singers in the world quite like the Russians. My treasurable Arts Desk colleague Alexandra Coghlan, whom I accompanied and who made the hour's time-killing pass very quickly, expands here.

So as an artist, Gergiev went some way to redeeming himself. As a human being, can he be redeemed from the Faustian pact with Putin? Not, in my eyes, until he explicitly rejects his two most pernicious publicly-stated equations: of homosexuality with paedophilia and the Ukrainian government with Nazis and Fascists who, had not his Beloved Leader ordered an immediate annexation, would, he says, have caused a massacre of thousands in Crimea (watch this interview with a Finnish journalist, which beggars belief. By the way, though the voice-over is Finnish, the interview is in English). To believe what he claims, he has to be stupid or lying.

Telling the truth was the topic of a very pithy discussion I dropped in on two Fridays ago before heading for The Wild Duck  Hosted by the Legatum Institute, the excellent Anne Applebaum questioned American and Ukrainian diplomats as well as two journalists on The Menace of Unreality: Combatting Russian Disinformation in the 21st Century.

Michael Weiss of The Interpreter (second from the right) was especially impressive: he proposed a veracity rating for major news channels and sites, headed by the BBC and Al Jazeera, a kind of unofficial club giving marks out of ten for presenting the facts. By which standards Russia Today, to which I'm told Nigel Farage regularly contributes, would get a one. Weiss pointed out how the BBC's very western quest for giving all sides a voice wastes too much airtime on spreaders of palpable nonsense, as for instance in the matter of who shot down the passenger plane over Eastern Ukraine. By the same token, I suppose it would have been fairer to have a Russian voice in this debate, which was bound to be one-sided. But I wouldn't contest anything that was said in its course: we see the same thing happening on messageboards infiltrated, each and every one by 'disinformers' (and it's not a conspiracy theory). Here's 45 minutes' worth of the talk on YouTube.

Last night I trained it down to Winchester to hear the English Sixteen in a work I wouldn't care to hear from the Mariinsky, Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 in Winchester Cathedral and from this visually if not acoustically wonderful location

was turned upside down by its dazzling invention. Had it not all been so sensational, Stephen Walsh would have had the green eye from me for attending the Mariinsky Chorus's Rachmaninov Vespers in Llandaff Cathedral; their infinite depths in Shchedrin's slightly synthetic Orthodox epilogue reminded me that there's no choral sound in the world quite like fully-trained Russian voices. I could potentially catch that touring concert in Birmingham on Saturday afternoon, as I'm up there to chair a 'Brunch with Brünnhildes' Sue Bullock (whom I know and like so much) and Catherine Foster, Bayreuth's Brünnhilde last year (whom I don't, yet - know, that is).

It wasn't too difficult to resist the offer of a ticket to the Mariinsky Siegfried later, part of an only half-sold Ring which looks hideous and didn't go down too well at the Royal Opera a couple of years ago. I'll also be on BBC Radio 3's Music Matters concurrent with the brunch, discussing the dire Covent Garden Idomeneo with Alexandra and Petroc Trelawny. It shouldn't be too much of a spoiler to say that Alexandra and I are singing from the same hymn sheet.


Susan Scheid said...

The Malevich exhibit I would have loved to see—though I suspect I might have passed it by out of lack of familiarity. Over here, Ad Reinhardt is celebrated for his black paintings, and, following the trail of that, where do I land, but on Malevich as the foundation for it all. Seminal is right!

I’m sorry I’ll be on the wrong side of the Atlantic for the duration of the V&A show. My appetite has been whetted for theater art and costume design from that place and time by the spectacular Diaghilev show I did get to in Washington DC.

As I’ve said before, I’m sure, I envy the students who’ll be able to take your Opera in Depth course on Prokofiev’s War and Peace. As consolation, I’ve picked up the Richard Pevear and Larisa Volokhonsky to have on hand whenever I’m ready to give this great novel another read.

There’s so much else in your post (including a delightful photographic reminder that our library hasn’t yet coughed up season 3 of Borgen for us; we’re so looking forward to that). I sit here in a bit of stunned bemusement at how much you are able to take in—and truly take in—in a short period of time.

David said...

I was thinking as I walked the City of London streets this afternoon about your response to a reader over on your site - about how it's so important not to overdo the Culture Vulture quotient so as to have time to digest. And that led me to think how wonderful it is that you have the intelligence and experience to use your retirement to keep on learning, absorbing and properly digesting (and passing on your digested enthusiasm to others, too).

Well, it looks as if the CulVul quotient is too high here, but it's a digest of weeks. And these past four days I've certainly overdone it, but have a Friday night in (shattered by the sound of gunfire and explosions - the first proper Fireworks Night, of course). Last weekend we did little but watch endless instalments of RuPaul's Drag Race, which I may be moved to write about. After Brum, a long walk beckons on Sunday.

David Damant said...

On Russian Unreality, an excellent coverage. I will add two comments

A very very distinguished retired UK diplomat that I met the other day said ( several times to emphasis the point) that NOTHING Putin says or writes or even signs is other than a lie. Mark of 1 as in the clip.

My own point after ten years or so of working with the Russians is that they decide where their interests lie and then assume that the facts are such as to support those interests, even though the facts are in truth quite different. This is not exactly like speaking a lie. In the sense I have mentioned, they have programmed themselves to believe the falsehoods.

Note - I do wish speakers ( as on the clip but also on TV nowadays) would stop waving their hands about all the time. Exhausting

David said...

That about making the facts fit the created reality is excellently put - noted.

Well, I handwave when I speak - but I think it's spontaneous; what I really don't like to see is politicians, especially, who've been told they need to use their arms and hands and it looks so unorganic. Your objection would certainly not apply to the American Ambassador, who put his points so succinctly - a little scary but undeniably the right man for the job.

Susan Scheid said...

I love that you thought of that as you were walking today. Yes, I do find the time to digest essential--and I also find it difficult to move quickly from one thing to the next. (At the moment the focus is Britten, with a notable time out to listen to a new piece-in-progress from our Mr. Mattingly, a real stunner, I might add.) For you, of course, it's also what you do for a living, so that has its own demands--but I do marvel at your ability to absorb and assess. (RuPaul's Drag Race might be just the thing as a cultural palate cleanser, eh?)

I hadn't commented on "The Menace of Unreality." David D's comment is striking, and certainly the "veracity rating" would be most welcome, all round. I wonder how our elections here might have come out if veracity ratings were in effect (and if people paid attention to them . . .).

David said...

I'll tell you how my thoughts turned in your direction: I was thinking that this is one of those rare times when everything seems in happy balance - enough work but not too much, space to let the mind breathe a bit, lots of things to look forward to and a wee while to rest on the laurels of having set up the new course and finding it running so well (wonderful students, very nice people at the Frontline Club, though a faint concern about whether I'll get enough people for next term, since my City Lit students 'did' Meistersinger with me five years go). We all know how fragile such times are, but it's good to be in the moment.

And it sounds like you've got it sorted at the moment at least.

And your right wingers operate a little on the same principles as Putin's regime: spead fear and anxiety by either magnifying the perceived problem or by manufacturing/lying about it. I can't believe how this can have happened, but as you note people don't see further than their noses and actually believe the lies they're fed.

David Damant said...

We have now to welcome the creation of the international media organisation "Sputnik", financed by the Russian government to the extent of US$500 million. Its purpose is to counter false claims by the Western media, for example that black people and gays are persecuted in Russia

David said...

-5 out of 10 for that one, methinks.