Thursday, 21 March 2019

Discovering Kensal Green Cemetery

It speaks volumes for London's infinite riches that I'd never been here before attending a (pre-)birthday commemoration of Niagara ropewalker Charles Blondin (born 28 February 1824) by his grave. Not that I knew much about this extraordinary man; it was enough to clock that on one of his crossings above Niagara falls he cooked an omelette and ate it. This year the near-birthday fest took place during that period of freakishly warm, May-like February weather before the winds and hailstones. Wondered if we'd find the grave once we reached the neoclassical Anglican chapel at the head of the central avenue, but there through the columns the gathering could be seen.

The small party is organised annually by fellow funambulist Hermine Demoriane, now a writer and singer, a friend of J, so along we went to hear poems

read by, among others, Hermine's husband the poet Hugo Williams, with whom I once shared a flat in Edinburgh during the festival as a fellow writer on The Sunday Correspondent (he covered theatre, I classical music and opera alongside my pal Ed Seckerson). That's him with his back to the camera.

The big performance was the one by Silvia Ziranek, word-music matched to unforgettable images.

Pink much favoured, with a designer's eye for detail.

I took in the gist subliminally and admired its culmination, which was a tightrope walk of the imagination.

This was the first of the 'magnificent seven' landscaped cemeteries to be opened, by The General Cemetery Company in 1823. It's still a working cemetery, with recent graves marking the latest populations to move in to the area; Ethiopians (Amharic Christians, presumably) predominate. There was a power struggle over whether to construct the main buildings in Gothic or Neoclassical style; the latter won. John Griffiths' central edifice has Doric columns for the Anglican chapel and Ionic for the Dissenters. Must go on a proper tour one day to see the (restored) hydraulic systems for the catacombs. But there was still plenty to see in terms of monuments which excel anything to be found in our local, Brompton Cemetery, despite its magnificent overall design modelled on St Peter's Rome and its approach. Père Lachaise was an influence here, but the slope upwards is less pronounced, and there's more space.

Four servants of the British Raj guard the effigy for Sir William Casement, early 19th century Administrator of India.

Artificial stone is used both here and in the canopied resting place of Victorian artist William Mulready

as you can see from where the outer casing of 'Pulhamite' has worn away on one of the feet.

Perhaps the loveliest figures are the four angels on this neoclassical tomb

but unquestionably the most original in terms of detail is Andrew Ducrow's 'Egyptian' memorial, initially for his first wife before Ducrow shared his second thoughts in a ridiculous inscription: 'This tomb is erected by genius for the reception of its own remains'. Ducrow was proprietor of, and virtuoso performer in, the horsey 'Astley's Amphitheatre'.  His memorial aroused the ireful verdict of 'ponderous coxcombery'.

Sphinxes flank two sides

and this is curious, a lady's hat and gloves on a fallen column.

Opposite the east side is this humbler and much damaged horse and child on another tomb for an equestrian and circus-horse breeder, Alfred Cooke.

Of the more well-known inhabitants, not all are buried here. But a memorial to the great Victorian illustrator George Cruikshank suffices to inform readers of his temperance.

Along the south side of the cemetery run water gates to allow for admission of coffins borne along the Grand Union Canal. You have to go down there to see it, but the remains of Kensal Gasworks, where a huge housing scheme is afoot, can be seen from many points, at least before the trees come into leaf.

At this end of the slope, near the gate, there are a few homages to the Gothic taste that lost out in the bigger scheme of things.

I'm grateful for some of the information here to a book I bought on the offchance. The Magnificent Seven: London's First Landscaped Cemeteries by John Turpin and Derrick Knight. It turns out to be more pictures than text, but good ones, and has inspired me to head off to the sites I don't know.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Six bests in nine days

Namely as good as it can get in theatre (Simon Stone's radical adaptation and production of Medea for Internationaal Theater Amsterdam at the Barbican); in concerts (the two London Symphony Orchestra stunners to celebrate Bernard Haitink's 90th birthday - Mozart and Bruckner on Sunday, Dvořák and Mahler on Thursday); in fiction (putting my thoughts together on Robert Menasse's polyphonic masterpiece The Capital as well as meeting him last Friday); and in opera, stupendous results at the highest level of performance in Birmingham Opera Company's site-specific Shostakovich Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in the Tower Ballroom on the edge of Edgbaston Reservoir. To which I should add the perfection of a small gallery - major collection, handsome surroundings - in the shape of the Barber Institute on Birmingham University's campus. The below is merely the atrium to the superb deco concert hall; most of the masterpieces are in the rooms on the next floor, but even here we have a famous Rodin and a Chola bronze of Natarajan.

Much to say about the Barber collection, but now now. I need to take a break and simply digest after all that writing for The Arts Desk, and as there were too many good production/concert/rehearsal pics around that would otherwise go to waste, why not use some of them? The one below by Sanne Peper, of the stupendous Marieke Heebink as Anna, a contemporary Medea of excess vitality, and Aus Greidanus Jr as Lukas (Jason) with their two sons, is one I couldn't use in the review because the boys were different. And perhaps it's a bit of a spoiler as to how the ash which starts falling on the blindingly white stage two thirds of the way through gets deployed.

Haitink was photographed at the first of the two 90th birthday concerts by Robert Allan. You'd need to watch the film formerly on the LSO website to observe his superb control and vigilance - my friend Joe Smouha beautifully described 'the architecture spun from those tiny movements at the end of the baton' - but there's a sense of that here, albeit in a more genial moment.

The Khovanskygate experience of 2014 told me that Graham Vick's Lady Macbeth would be opera at its communicative best. Sure, every production of it I've seen - Pountney's twice at ENO, followed by Tcherniakov's, Jones's twice at the Royal Opera - has hit hard; but the closeness of one's promenading self to the action, the involvement of all strands of Birmingham society in the chorus and acting group, make this an unrepeatable experience. I got there early because they'd asked if I would prep a group of young volunteers on how to blog their experience (it actually turned out to be how they'd present their enthusiasms about the project on camera, but we quickly adapted and I got something very different out of each - to be blogged about here very soon). This shot I took of a warm-up gives some idea of the venue, which they'd further deconstructed. The orchestra platform is left, the first stage for the action, the Izmailov kitchen, to the right.

And we need a couple more production photos, by Adam Fradgley/Exposure, of the amazing Chrystal E Williams as Katerina/'The Wife'. Up top, she's despatching her inopportunely arrived husband Boris (Joshua Stuart). Here she is again, first liberated,

then deserted by that shit Sergey/'The Lover' (Brenden Gunnell).

I'm more and more drawn to Birmingham, even if it did vote for Brexit by a narrow margin (would it now, I wonder?) , and however messed up the city centre. There are so many hidden delights, and each time I go I discover one or two more. It has one of our most vibrant cultural scenes, that's to be sure. Now, if only BOC could think of Prokofiev's War and Peace...problematic, I know, because Part One is largely chorus-free. Maybe that could be done in a smallish theatre and then Part Two could be theirs in another extraordinary big venue, both with the CBSO. Or perhaps The Fiery Angel with Williams, whose upper range could certainly handle the crazy role of Renata. Anything is possible with this company.

Friday, 8 March 2019

Woman of the Year: a brief commemoration

I had wanted to write more about my impressions of the toweringly great Simone Veil's autobiography, Une Vie. But perhaps a more pressing need is to salute her on International Women's Day, as a pioneer of the possible and the first President of the European Parliament 40 year ago (this July, to be precise).

A figure of unimpeachable integrity, she had survived Auschwitz and the 'death march' from there before liberation. She had seen the vital need for peace and unity in a continent which was still unsettled. In her inaugural speech, she pointed out how 

localised wars have proliferated. The situation of peace that has prevailed in Europe has been a remarkable piece of good fortune, but none of us should estimate its fragility. Need I stress that this situation is new for Europe, whose history is marked by constant fratricidal and bloody wars?

Like its predecessors, our Assembly has, whatever our differences, a fundamental responsibility to maintain this peace, which is probably the most precious asset for all Europeans. The tensions prevailing in the world today make this responsibility particularly heavy, and it is to be hoped that the legitimacy bestowed on our Assembly by its election by universal suffrage will help us to bear it and to spread this peace of ours to the outside world.

Worth quoting to those who still rabbit on about 'the unelected bureaucrats in Brussels', though I suspect they are deaf beyond help now if they still persist. Pictured below: Veil at a sitting of the European Parliament in October 1979.

Veil also acknowledged the difficulties of a federation of national voices all needing to be heard, which is the other subject of Robert Menasse's magnificent very rich new novel The Capital, just published in a beautiful English translation by Jamie Bulloch. I'll be reviewing that on The Arts Desk on Sunday. Veil, briefly, on that theme:

The new Parliament will make it possible for the views of all Community citizens to be voiced at European level, and will, at the same time, raise awareness among the different sectors of society of the need for European solidarity over and above their immediate concerns, however legitimate, for these must never mask the fundamental interests of the Community.

Economics are also a theme of the speech, but let's leave those aside since that seems to be all that's at stake right now.  You can read the rest in one of the autobiography's appendices. Meanwhile can I salute some of Veil's standard-bearers of integrity on the UK political scene: the late Jo Cox, Caroline Lucas, Anna Soubry, Tulip Saddiq, Jess Phillips, Nicola Sturgeon, to select a few at random. Today is one to forget those who disgrace Parliament, including our shameful so-called leader, so I won't give them a namecheck.

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

A Leonardo dozen, Mantegna, Bellini, Lotto

We, as in the British, have been well served by the Royal Collection's holding of more than 500 sheets of drawings by Leonardo da Vinci; I well remember a Hayward Gallery exhibition of 88 back in 1979. 2019 is the Big Year, five centuries after Leonardo's death, so the big show at the Queen's Gallery in the summer will include nearly 200.

Before that, the more interesting idea to display 12 drawings in each of 12 regional galleries and museums, and for free, has been realised with a great deal of care to lend each institution a representative selection of Leonardo's work in the study of human figures, anatomy, animals, topography, inventions across a lifetime. In later years he foresook painting, and who can be that sorry? I know his canvases are masterpieces in the art of chiaroscuro, but - and this is my blind spot - I find the shadowing and the colours we now have make many of his figures look waxy. The only one I personally love is the Lady with an Ermine in Cracow's Czartoryski Museum.

Whereas my Birmingham experience last month, when I travelled up to catch Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conduct the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Lithuanian composer Čiurlionis's The Sea and some of Grieg's incidental music for Ibsen's Peer Gynt, struck me with the force of revelation. I decided to take a lunchtime train and see if I could get to see the 12 drawings on display in the city Museum and Art Gallery (which I already know fairly well, and now like the Pre-Raphaelites much less than I did in my callow youth). That meant queueing for about half an hour, in lively company, before being admitted in to a single room where the admissions control meant you could get to see everything in close-up (especially useful for me when I took my thick-lensed specs off). I'm not going to illustrate them all, but want to select a few that especially struck me.

Birmingham was especially lucky to get Leonardo's most beautifully-executed large-scale map, of the area around the long marshy lake that used to occupy the Valdichiana in southern Tuscany. The reason for this highly finished work isn't clear; it may have something to do with Leonardo's plans for the Arno canal (the Canale Maestro along the length of the Valdichiana did not begin until 50 years later). But the area covered is much larger, and includes Siena in the lower centre, nicely detailed.

Two earlier works from the previous decade, the 1490s, show Leonardo's habit of including diverse studies on the same sheet of paper. The one illustrated up top started with geometrical shapes before going on to include a rearing horse and rider, an old man in profile, a standing warrior, a study for a screw press and nature studies including a blade of grass and a cumulus cloud. Below is a study for the head of St James in the Last Supper (which I still have to go and see; on various occasions when I was in Milan it wasn't viewable) in red chalk and architectural sketches, in pen and ink, for modifications to the Castello Sforzesco.

The red chalk studies I love the best include this magical stand of trees

with a single tree illustrated on the other side of the sheet (Birmingham have made sure you can see both sides; only the group is illustrated in the splendid and very cheap catalogue for the 200, excellently annotated by Martin Clayton).

In later years Leonardo's understanding of anatomy was enriched by human dissections. Birmingham's specimen shows the bones, muscles and tendons of the hand.

A close-up shows the meticulous mirror-writing developed for practical reasons by the left-handed artist.

It's especially fascinating that in his final years Leonardo turned to objective studies of a cataclysmic deluge. Clayton writes eloquently about this:

It is surely not fanciful to see this obsession with death and destruction as the deeply personal expression of an artist nearing his end - an artist who had seen some of his greatest creations unfinished or destroyed before his eyes, and who had a profound sense of the impermanence of all things, even of the earth itself.

These studies seem light years away from the paintings in the first rooms of the National Gallery's stupendous Mantegna and Bellini exhibition, In fact the difference is about six decades: the 'deluge' series dates from Leonardo's last years in France, while Mantegna's Presentation of Christ in the Temple was executed around 1455.

In the first of many instructive direct comparisons, the NG exhibition showed us how close Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini were in the 1450s and early 1460s (Mantegna was Bellini the younger's brother-in-law), Only the central four figures in Bellini's obvious homage are the same (I see Rona Goffen in the big Yale monograph I have thinks this is 'studio of' and possibly even a copy, don't know if that's been discredited since or not).

My favourite gallery in the world was already well equipped to provide the backbone of this show; it even has both artists' treatment of The Agony in the Garden. There was a special fascination for us in that our good friend Jill Dunkerton took us round on a 'friends and family' preview afternoon.  She'd been working on the restoration of Bellini's Death of St Peter Martyr for the past three years, and the difference she'd made was on display for the first time. This is what it looked like before

 and now; you can already see the softer light, the blue sky that's edging towards Titian (the date is about 1509, shortly before Bellini's death).

It's a strange and in many ways horrible picture, though as Jill pointed out, we shouldn't feel too sorry for Peter of Verona's death at the hands of the Cathars he had persecuted as Inquisitor in Lombardy. The tension is between the foreground action and the scenes of everyday rural activity (even though it's more chopping that's going on). The rows of trees that fill the picture height  in all but the top left hand corner, adding to the claustrophobia, are in themselves beautifully painted, though Jill had some work to do here. A help in gauging some of the original colours was the Bellini workshop's treatment of the same theme in the Courtauld Gallery.

A restorer's background knowledge is always immense, and when I asked if the canvas had been cut off on the left, where we see only the rear and the back two legs of a donkey, Jill was able to tell me that Bellini, always inquisitive about his fellow artists, had met with Dürer and been intrigued that he had done exactly the same kind of 'life goes on beyond the picture' effect. Not sure exactly which work she was referring to, but I found this, Dürer's drawing of light horsemen fighting, from 1489, which fits the bill.

I was astonished to find several critics complaining that the exhibition was 'too academic'; is anyone too stupid to appreciate the similarities and differences between Mantegna and Bellini? I do also wonder if anyone departs from the feeling myself and many others have of love for Bellini and immense respect for the more meticulous, spatially conscious Mantegna? So many of Bellini's angels and putti have exquisite faces and wings; the mastery even of a severely damaged painting like the so-called Rimini Pietà is obvious.

And no reproduction can do justice to the lit-from-within quality in possibly my favourite of all Madonna and Childs, with saints Catherine and Mary Magdalen equally exquisite.

It seemed like an embarras de richesse that at more or less the same time, relatively unheralded, the National Gallery had another stunning exhibition, relatively small but with nearly as high a quotient of great paintings, of Lorenzo Lotto. This one was free, the thinking being that visitors wouldn't want to pay twice, but it would have been worth a substantial admission price. Again at Jill's instigation, we were very lucky to see many of these paintings, and to be introduced to a genius I feel a personal stake in, when Bergamo held a big Lotto exhibition back in 1998. There we saw the big altarpieces in town, the intarsie of the Santa Maria Maggiore choirstalls and the frescoes in Trescore Balneario as well as the 50 paintings in the show. A couple of years later we took a Lotto itinerary around the Marche before a walking weekend in the fabulous Sibillini mountains (alas, Castelluccio at the head of the Piano Grande was destroyed in the recent earthquake). The great glory here was the richly-coloured Crucifixion in the pretty but very much working village of Monte San Giusto.

One small place still on the list to visit was Asolo, where an Assumption of the Virgin with Saints Anthony Abbot and Louis of Toulouse (1506) hangs in the Duomo. Now not necessary, because here it was in the second room of the National Gallery exhibition. News to me that the Virgin has the face of Caterina Cornaro, former Queen of Cyprus made Lady of Asolo in the last years of her life.

That apart, the great glory, as in Bergamo (where the painting is normally in the Accademia Carrara), was the Mystic Marriage of St Catherine, with Niccolo Bonghi (1523). It's a shame the picture was damaged not long after painting, allegedly by a French soldier; there should be a landscape through a window in the upper part.

But that still doesn't detract from the tenderness and intimacy of the hands in the central group.

Once again, the Royal Collection comes into play with its famous portrait of Andrea Odoni; the exhibition had done a good job in assembling similar antiquities either side of the painting. But I'm sorry if I whet your appetite; both exhibitions closed some weeks back, and I kick myself for not returning to the Lotto.