In hard times, beauty can seem frivolous - but take it away, and
all you're left with ...... is hard times.
I first came across Paul Madonna's book Everything is its Own Reward when I picked it up to browse in Gosh Comics, maybe six months ago. A really beautifully produced hardback book of whole page pen and ink drawings of San Francisco and surroundings. I picked it up again at the weekend, remembered looking at it before and once again loved it: so decided to buy it.
Madonna wrote and drew the series All Over Coffee in the San Francisco Chronicle for twelve years. He has a real talent for observing and drawing the urban landscape.
If you click the pictures below you go to his web site store. Click the pictures there to see a larger version.
By Philip Roth
Life is just a short period of time in which you are alive
So replies Meredith "Merry" Levov to the teachers assignment that week, "What is Life?". Merry is the daughter of the Swede (so nick-named by a teacher at school) and his beautiful wife Dawn, Miss New Jersey 1949 (she hates being defined by this). In the evening, the parents laugh about their daughter's precocious intelligence but her odd unsentimentality grows in the years to come, an intellectual intensity that explodes later. America changes in the sixties and so does their daughter; and their world comes tumbling down.
Of the few fair-complexioned Jewish students in our preponderantly Jewish public high school, none possessed anything remotely like the steep-jawed insentient Viking mask of this blue-eyed blond born into our tribe as Seymour Irving Levov.
The Swede has it all and grows up in a post-war America brimming with optimism for the future; an all round athlete, good looking, ex-Marine (a drill instructor no less) but luckily misses the fighting as Japan surrenders. Laid back and comfortable in his own skin, everyone loves him. He even marries a Catholic: From Elizabeth. A shiksa. Dawn Dwyer. He'd done it. The American dream.
This novel is very funny in parts and also very moving. Much is an amazing internal struggle by Seymour Levov to understand the turn his life has taken. Roth writes an elegy almost, to an America that (sometimes literally) blew up, a Newark City that burned in riots and went down hill from there; a middle class that fled but couldn't escape the changes.
Roth beautifully evokes an old mid-20th Century "Americana", a place of growing wealth and huge aspiration. Everything is going so well, until the year 1968 and everything starts to fall apart because of Merry's cataclysmic actions. This is the power of the book; the beauty and wondrous potential so well described, colliding with the terrible fragility and reality of the world as it is. A great book and justly a Pulitzer Prize winner.
LARA, with whom I did a weekend painting course a while ago in their Vauxhall studios, are moving: to Clapham. This is where I live so I'll have an easy visit if I do anything like that again. A good move I'd say! A bit more to see and do around Clapham as well.
We found Clapham North to be a gem of a place: it boasts many coffee shops, bars and restaurants and is only a short walk away from both Clapham Picturehouse cinema and the vast green space of Clapham Common.
A comment online was stop interrupting her and let her get on with the third book!
This interview with Hilary Mantel is actually from 2015, so she's had some time since to get on with the third and final book in her great Wolf Hall trilogy. The interview is very good on the process of writing and research she has. Her favourite novel is Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped, surprisingly enough; a book I read when I was at school but should revisit I think. A cracking adventure. I've been very lucky with my choice of books this year; long may that continue.
By Iain M. Banks
This is Iain Banks' last Culture novel before his premature death in 2013. I've read quite a few of them now and I think this one was one of the best. I think it is my current favourite after Excession and Surface Detail.
The Hydrogen Sonata is the common name for T.C. Villabier's 26th String Specific Sonata for an Instrument Yet to Be Invented, MW 1211. The instrument invented to play it is described as :
the notoriously difficult, temporamental and tonally challenged Antagonistic Undecagonstring - or elevenstring as it was commonly known.
Yes, Banks often injects a bit of fun into his work. Having four arms, as the novel's protagonist has (by choice), seems to help play the piece. She's never managed to but is working on it.
As usual, it is full of amazing futuristic detail, alongside the moral and philosophical digressions he often mixes in. What made this book great for me was the fact that it had a good plot and fast pace, alongside a lot of often explosive and inventive action sequences. The Culture and the AI Minds might be a generally pacific and peaceful civilisation but when required they know how to deal out a bit of death, destruction and general mayhem. I think Banks seems to relish this as well.
A witty, fun and fast paced thriller, set in an amazing post-scarcity world full of wonders. And a great last addition to his work.
Some John Singer Sargent watercolours are on display at the Dulwich Picture Gallery and well worth a look. Sargent was such a great artist, and these paintings show his mastery of more than just oil painting.
Like many, he loved Venice and painted it regularly; it would have been a lot less crowded back then. As well as Venice, there are lovely paintings of friends, family and landscapes, as well as some work done as part of his stint as a war artist.
There are also a selection of photographs to accompany parts of the exhibition, some showing the great man at work or background detail to his travels. He made a good living from his portrait painting and did a lot of travelling around Europe and the Middle East, always busy recording in paint. As a result, he was very prolific, so we have a lot of work to enjoy.
Below: An unusual panorama painting of Constantinople Sargent did in 1891.
It's that time of year: a multitude of great art shows around London making for a very busy set of weekends. Some have to be visited more than once. The BP is free luckily.
The BP Portrait Award 2017 is a good as it always was, and perhaps as good as it gets. It's probably the best and most consistent annual art exhibition around, although it is highly selective so we see the best of the best ("2,580 entries by artists from 87 countries").
Right: A Russian Artist in China by Bao Han, Oil on canvas (link)
Right: Portait of Beyza by Mustafa Ozel, Oil on canvas 9link)
The above two are just two of many I might have decided to display here, but they are ones I particularly liked. For the full list, including the prize winners, see : here.
The RA Summer Exhibition rolls around in June every year and it is always a huge mix, as much "art and craft" as art sometimes. Who is to say where the dividing line is however? It includes art "installation", video pieces, architectural work and even performance art this year. And a few paintings, drawings and prints of course, the things I prefer. There's plenty I don't like but also some beautiful work as usual.
The Bill Jacklin paintings are great: a detail from one is above. Many of his pictures have a great movement and swirl of people, sometimes battling the elements and sometimes dancing or skating. The swirl of crowds in the big city. If you look closely, the individual is barely delineated, fading into the surrounding air. Fred Cuming also had a few works hanging, some of which were a bit different to the ones I've seen before. I love his atmospheric landscapes and he has a small solo show in the Keepers House, as I've reported before (I had another look yesterday).
There's always a lot to look at, although I sometimes find myself moving through the rooms more quickly than usual. It's a lottery who gets picked and perhaps I found less to like than before. I must check out Not the Royal Academy again. Unlike many "Royal" exhibitions, that one's free.
I spent last weekend at LARA, the London Atelier of Representational Art, in Vauxhall (a short bike ride from me) doing the Still Life Masterclass. It's quite different doing a solid few hours of painting rather than my usual 30 minutes here, 60 minutes there. I definitely learned a few things, including the first time using the sight-size method of drawing a scene. I also learned that standing around painting can give you backache after a while! Even though it can be a bit frustrating when you don't manage to produce something very decent at the day's end, I'm glad I did it.
The artist instructor was Lizet Dingemans. She was very good, offering advice and good humour. She painted the lovely small fish still life used in the class mails (see below). Coincidentally, I noticed I had taken a photograph of a piece she had on display at the Mall Galleries in January, as part of the Lot 5 Collective show: the Kettle painting.
oil on wood, 4x6"
I did have some trouble on occasion however. Something to be expected really.
I was far too literal in what I took with me, basing it off the "materials list" only, nothing else. This was a bit stupid because the course turned out to be very free and relaxed. I also bought a traditional wooden palette and only brought the paints in the list, including buying the Cobalt Blue, quite an expensive tube of paint (the "cheap" option being a Winsor&Newton at £20 for a small tube). With such a restricted set of paints, this also meant that the choice of painting a lemon was a poor one because I only had a Cadmium Yellow (a very orangey-yellow)! Luckily, I borrowed a more lemony-yellow, and brought my own the day after. I also created a terrible "colour study" and ended up using a white canvas for the final painting ...
But, I ended up OK and managed to pluck something half-decent from the wreckage I think. The "classic" orange, lemon and lime still life ...
Right: My LARA still life, oil, 8x10"
I painted around the white edges of my canvas in black when I got home and this made it look better. Overall, a very good weekend of art.
The Secret History
By Donna Tartt
Quite a cult book and one I've been tempted to read for years. Now I've read it, I know why it's so highly regarded. I really enjoyed it and it turned into one of those rare books you recognise as special as you read it, and one you don't want to finish.
Right from the start, you know the name of the victim and the perpetrators; the rest of the book is a slow but fascinating exposition of why this happened. As Tartt has said, this is a whydunnit not a "whodunnit". We know all the details of the crime and what led up to it half way through the book and are left with the consequences.
The novel follows a group of six students at a Vermont College through the eyes of Richard Papen, a newcomer and outsider. From California, he invents a more privileged back-story to cover his humble origins and to try and fit in with the others. They're East coast and richer. One or two are extremely well off, although there's a bit of an aura of dissolution around. Henry is the dark core of the group: tall, strong and a language savant, in love with the ancient world but cold and a bit odd. This group are "elite" in that they decide to drop almost everything except Classics, studying with one teacher only, the charismatic scholar Julian Morrow. They live and breathe in Greek and are submerged in a world very different to the modern. In fact, for much of the book, the world I felt submerged in was more F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and the "gilded" 20's rather than the 1980's. The occasional reminders that the world we're in is actually the modern one was a jolt sometimes.
Great characters are the centre of the book and the story is driven forwards to an unexpected conclusion; you see things are starting to fall apart somewhat but never know where the pieces might end up.
I have also bought Tartt's The Goldfinch and look forward to reading it.
At a recent visit to the RA, I saw the book The New English, a history of the New English Art Club, on sale at half price and bought it. I read it before visiting the NEAC annual exhibition at the Mall Galleries at the weekend and it was a good background. The art world is often full of strange characters and competition, and also some biting criticism. The NEAC often had to contend with the same question asked every few years: is it "new", and what makes it "English"? A worthwhile read but with some great pictures of course.
And so to the 2017 exhibition. Very good as usual and a stand out painting is one others also picked out. This was a large Peter Brown painting, really capturing a very rainy street in Bath :
Above: Absolutely Chucking it Down, George Street, Bath, Peter Brown, Oil, 152x191cm
This was awarded the "The NEAC Critics'" prize for 2017. Very deservedly I think.
The LLEWELLYN ALEXANDER gallery at Waterloo is having its annual show of RA Summer Show rejects, Not the Royal Academy. Always worth a visit anytime, the show this year is full of some wonderful stuff. What gets in to the RA show is very subjective obviously: they don't always get it right.
This painting is not on their web site but I liked it so much they sent me a copy.
Tiptoe Through the Tulips, Oliver Canti, Oil pastel on board.
A really lovely painting and a snip at £1250.
I've seen a few funerals at St Patrick's Church in Wapping since my work moved here in January. One funeral had a bit of an entourage, including a horse and carriage for the coffin, but nothing was like the recent funeral for Willie Malone.
The Malone funeral was on a very hot day, so I felt some sympathy for everyone in a suit and tie and there were a lot of people around dressed up. In the café, I was told a bit of background about the deceased, being well known and referred to as "Mr Tea". A real "East End" mix of people, and there were also a couple of (what I guessed were) press photographers. In fact, a report was in the East London Advertiser, with lots of pictures. Apparently, there was a bit of "colour" in his life.
I came by it because the church is across the road from The Turk's Head, a good café/bar I often go to for a coffee at lunchtime. I took my main camera that day, planning on a walk around the sights and taking some pictures.
From the Turk's Head web site :
the original building was once famous for being the local inn where the last quart of ale was served to condemned pirates on their way from Newgate to the Execution Dock
This is the larger acrylic painting, completed following a recent Will Kemp tutorial video course (also see A Rough Venice a few days ago). This is the largest painting I have done, and should have been even larger. The course has a canvas at 24x24" but I used a 16x16" one, which seemed large enough to me at the time! I've been doing my painting in oils recently, so using acrylic again was a refreshing change.
Overall, I am happy with it even though I didn't really get to the end of the painting I think. I did up to the "glazing" part of the course but didn't do the palette knife work: a bit afraid I'd mess up something up that wasn't too bad at the time (I took a photograph of it before and after the glazinng anyway, just in case). I even debated stopping before the glazing work but decided to try and finish the course and I'm glad I did.
Below: Venice Sunset, acrylic, 16x16" - pre-glazing
Below: Venice Sunset, acrylic, 16x16" - post-glazing
After the glazing I think I petered out at the end and then stopped. I'm slightly tempted to go back to it but I think that's it; you move on. Painting a sunset, or Venice, can also be a dangerous thing; a sunset picture can always veer into a lurid, colourful monstrosity. Hopefully not here! On to the next work ...
The painting called for some strong cadmium orange. I had some Winsor and Newton but it never stood out like the orange I saw on Kemp's video. I bought some Golden brand and it was stronger and worked better. This is not to knock W&N (good paints) but does highlight colour range per brand and how important any one particular colour can be to the overall effect.
I had another colour problem with another painting, a copy of one by a well known artist. The background blue was of a certain shade, I only had ultramarine blue and didn't think anything of it. But you discover that you cannot mix the right shade at all. Sometimes you really can't get there from here mixing colours! I found an old W&N cerulean blue which worked nicely.
This is a small acrylic painting done following a recent Will Kemp tutorial video course. There's a larger main painting to come (which I've "completed") and I'll post that separately. This study is quick and rough but still presentable I think, even if not originally designed to be a fully finished "proper" painting.
Below: San Giorgio Maggiore, acrylic on board, 6x8"
There is a very textured surface. This is an acrylic coarse modelling paste mixed in with the ground colour used, and adds the rough texture you can see. This can make for a more interesting painting experience sometimes.
On my way to the RA last week, I did some art gallery window shopping in New Bond Street and saw a notice in the window of the Richard Green Gallery about an S.J. Peploe exhibition coming up. Peploe's a well known Scottish Colourist painter of the early 20th Century; an artist and a group of artists I like. The Glasgow and Edinburgh Galleries have a few but you do not get many opportunities to see more unless you do much more travelling.
A good small exhibition of some lovely paintings, particularly the still lives. If you're in the area pop in. You can also see the catalogue online.
Still Life of Pink and Red Roses in a Chinese Vase
Oil on canvas, 25x25", 1918-1922
Some were from a private collection, some for sale. The price for a larger canvas like this was getting close to a million (pounds sterling).
Apples and Pears
Oil on canvas, 18x21.5", 1918
By Emily St. John Mandel
Existence is very fragile, as is civilisation, and few think about the perils of living without running water or electricity. They are exactly the sort of thing you need to do if you're writing a book like this though. If a virulent flu virus was ever to sweep the world again, as one did in 1918, civilisation might come to crashing halt.
Emily St. John Mandel's novel tells the story of some people caught up in such a calamity, as things fall apart after a new flu epidemic kills most of the planet's inhabitants. There is enough realism here to make you face the likely effects, a horror or what it means as everything stops working and people die, but she doesn't dwell on the horror and this is not a horror story. Switching between a select few characters whose lives intersect in some way pre and post-fall, the story never becomes morbid or hopeless. Kirsten, one of the main characters, acts in a travelling theatre and orchestra, staging Shakespeare to scattered survivors living in various settlements in the American and Canadian heartland. There is no one main character but enough characterisation is done to create believable people.
When I got to the end of the book, there was some sort of "study guide": questions a teacher might ask students to think or write about. Although the book does not seem to have a "young adult" label anywhere I could see, it had that feel about it. I think I started to consider this about half way through; perhaps the lack of swearing. This was nothing I missed.
A good novel and one I enjoyed.
The RA has another "Academician in Focus", Fred Cuming. I'd never heard of him, but this means nothing: there are so many great but unknown and to-be-discovered artists in the world, dead and alive. I really like his work and made sure I had a good look before my visit to the gallery today. He's over 80 now and still going strong.
To see larger versions, and more, visit the RA site.
A useful blog post went over similar territory recently and it's worth a read. It explains the reason why this learning method is so good, including mention of the actual research behind it. We all know that to hold a piece of knowledge in your head requires you to "imprint" it; then occasionally reinforce the memory. But how often and when should this be reinforced, for the best results? This is where the research comes in handy, distilled into an app :
Noise of Time
By Julian Barnes
When you chop wood, the chips fly: that's what the builders of socialism liked to say. Yet what if you found, when you laid down your axe, you had reduced the whole timberyard to nothing but chips?
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, the first Julian Barnes I've read. It tells the story of Dmitri Shostakovich, the famous Russian composer, in his own words, as he lives and tries to survive the calamitous 20th Century. Born before the Bolshevik Revolution, he lived his entire working life in Soviet Russia, much of it under Stalin, with all that meant.
The book is very funny in parts, but also sad and poignant. There are some beautiful descriptions of the strange life one has to lead in such a world and the contradictions he faced. And of course, the compromises made. A wonderful book about a man who knew his limitations and struggled to create his art under the most trying circumstances.