The BP Portrait Award opened this week at the National Portrait Gallery. A lot of very good paintings as usual, including the stunning winner by Miriam Escoffet: An Angel at my Table.
On the right, however, I'll highlight my own (cropped) photograph of Rebecca Driffield's painting Claire Tomalin. A more painterly picture than some but I really like the style.
This year, the exhibition seemed smaller, although that might just be because it was a lot more cramped than usual. The usual, larger gallery space must be being prepared for another show (maybe the upcoming Michael Jackson exhibition). I think the smaller rooms detract from the experience and I hope they return to the larger space next year
See all the paintings here.
Good weather for a visit on Sunday to see the new Royal Academy, now the building work is almost complete and it's open to the world. This celebrates the 250th anniversary of its founding.
And what would Sir Joshua Reynolds, first President of the RA, think today? Especially when confronted with the display they have of some of the current student art work, let alone the dress code nowadays. Probably dumbfounded!
As part of the new displays, we are confonted with something quite horrific in many ways: a cast of a "real" crucifixion (made to "settle an artistic debate"). From the label :
Sculptor Thomas Banks RA and painters Benjamin West RA and Richard Cosway RA believed that most artists' depictions did not accurately demonstrate the effects of crucifixion. To prove their point, they obtained a corpse fresh from the gallows and nailed it to a cross while it was still warm. Once rigot mortis set in, a surgoen removed the skin and Banks made his plaster cast from the flayed body.
A less unsettling display is a copy of Leonardo's The Last Supper. A large oil painting, it is thought to be a copy by pupils of the master, painted about 1520. The original is extremely degraded now but this copy shows many details lost over time. The RA web page has the history.
A very good article in History Today about the Language of the Roman Empire. The question being: what language did the Romans speak? The answer is quite complicated. It was not just Latin. Not only did the Italian peninsular contain many languages, such as Oscan, Umbrian, Etruscan and Greek, but as the empire expanded, we start seeing languages like Punic used. This was a language spoken by Rome's great enemy Carthage and and all over North Africa. Slaves would also bring in a great variety of languages and dialects. A fascinating and well written article by Katherine McDonald of Exeter University.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to St Peter and Paul Church in Swaffham, Norfolk, for a Sunday afternoon performance of Handel's Messiah by the Merry Opera Company. This was the first time I have heard it live.
The piece is "dramatised" to an extent, the actors play parts; no talking but movement and singing. Initially dressed normally, it only became clear who was in the show when they moved apart from the audience in the church nave and started to sing the parts. Swaffham's Anglican church was a beautiful stage for a wonderful and moving performance about Christ's birth, death and resurrection.
Right: The main Easterly window of the church.
The big stained glass window in front of us all really added to the atmosphere. Amazing voices from only twelve singers and the single organist. It moved me enough to bring a tear to my eye on a few occasions. Handel's music and song is a powerful and beautiful work of art. The singers and musicians did it full justice.
A second visit to Monet and Architecture at the weekend. I noticed a large interactive TV display in the National Gallery's entrance hall displaying a Monet site that Google have put together with the gallery. Not as good as a visit in real life, but very well done and worth a browse :
Below: The Promenade Claude Monet in Vétheuil. This is from Google's street view at the Monet Was Here site.
Perhaps I was starting to get a little jaded with the art of Claude Monet: too much impressionism recently perhaps. His work's been central to a couple of big, recent shows: The Tate's Impressionists in London and the Painting the Modern Garden exhibition at the Royal Academy a couple of years ago. Of course, once you get to see the new Monet and Architecture show at the National Gallery, all that quickly falls away as you see, once again, how good he always is. Never mind that he is not really painting architecture or buildings, but light and atmosphere.
At the Impressionists in London, I was struck by a sequence of paintings he made of the Houses of Parliament, a subject he actually treated in a similar way to his famous haystacks. Seeing a few side by side was striking, and a similar feeling at this new show with a sequence of paintings of Rouen Cathedral. A great and prolific artist and always worth seeing.
The Church at Varengeville and the Gorge of Moutiers, 1882
Windmills near Zaandam, 1871
The BBC adapted Lewis Grassic Gibbon's book Cloud Howe for the radio a year or so ago. On the web page, it used a lovely photograph of a Scottish scene: mountain, cloud and croft. I thought I'd try and paint it. The play of sunlight and shadow on the mountain and the low clouds rolling over the distant peaks really make the scene beautiful.
I think it came out quite well.
Above: Cloud Howe, Oil, 8x10" (?), 2017
Well, it's Venice again, but a beautifully atmospheric take on the city by watercolour painter Martin Caulkin. As seen at the Mall Galleries today at the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours 206th Exhibition :
Above: Venice Night, Martin Caulkin RI, watercolour, 52 x 69cm
The exhibition was very good with many very good paintings as usual.
The Little Drummer Girl
By John Le Carré
The secret world is of itself attractive. Simply by turning on its axis, it can draw the weakly anchored to its centre.
Stepping away from the British secret intelligence agencies and into the world of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Le Carré creates a beautifuly crafted story about the hunt for a bomb maker blowing up jews in Europe. I've read that some people don't think Le Carré can write female characters but this book shows that as false. Charlie is a perfectly crafted and realised lead, a left-wing actress who has flirted with a few more extreme wings of the movement, although more a fellow traveller than someone of true conviction. You can hate her and her superficial justifications on one page and love her vulnerability on another. As usual, there are wonderful set pieces and exceptional characterisation. The "interview" she is given before accepting the job (an interrogation really) is a marvellous piece of sustained, taut writing.
We are not speaking of some enchanted forest. When the lights go down on the stage, it will be night-time in the street. When the actors laugh they will be happy, and when they weep they will very likely be bereaved and broken-hearted. And if they get hurt - and they will, Charlie - they will surely not be in a position, when the curtain falls, to jump up and run for the last bus home. There's no squeamish pulling back from the harsher scenes, no days off sick. It's peak performance all the way down the line.
Through Charlie, Le Carré also produces a peak performance.
I work in Wapping so was interested when I saw there was a group of artists calling themselves The Wapping Group of Artists. The Mall Galleries had an exhibition of work from them this month and I caught the last day.
Mostly paintings near the Thames but not too many from Wapping itself (a pity). A lot of very good work on display from a group of talented plein air artists.
Right: Outer Pool, Robin Mackervoy, Oil
This is an iconic Wapping building that I work close to. Beautiful in the sun and the quiet streets.
A couple of weeks ago I went to see the new Royal Academy exhibition Charles I: King and Collector. Last week I went to the closely related exhibition Charles II: Art and Power at the Queen's Gallery. Both are showing stunning works but the RA pips the award for the greatest display, even though it's almost twice the cost.
The Royal Academy has some very large rooms and they are needed here, for some of the work is monumental. In particular, there are the nine huge Mantegna canvases of the Triumph of Caesar (c.1484-92), bought from the Gonzaga's of Mantua when they hit some financial difficulty at the start of the 17th Century. Charles' man Nicolas Lanier added these to the collection for his master.
Right: Triumph of Caesar: The Trumpeters by Andrea Mantegna, c.1484-92
See : The life of Charles I: King, collector, tastemaker, traitor by Jenny Uglow.
Who can argue with such greats as Holbein, Van Dyck, Rubens, Rembrandt, Titian and Veronese? To name but a few ...
Coincidentally, a BBC TV show was on recently about the setup of the RA exhibition, available via the BBC iPlayer : here. It is always fascinating to see how much work goes into this type of show. Great royal propaganda recently
The Three Body Problem
The Dark Forest
By Cixin Liu
I really enjoyed this science-fiction trilogy by Chinese author Cixin Liu. It's full of amazing ideas in physics, maths, space, cosmology and philosophy. As a novel, it is sometimes a little clunky, especially the characters, who are often very thin, but the dazzling speculation keeps everything moving. The first book of the trilogy, The Three Body Problem, was good enough to convince me to pick up the next in the series, although I procrastinated. Unusually, I thought the second and third books were better. I let the Chinese names wash over me occasionally, knowing I would get used to them, and went along for the ride.
These books are definitely a bit "science nerdy" in (quite a few) parts, but if you like science and cosmology, that's a plus point. This is first contact with aliens and the consequences for Earth over the following decades and centuries: the aliens are invading, are on their way and have managed to sabotage Earth's scientific progress in order to make conquest straightforward. It turns out that the crux of the book is that the universe is not only full of life but that everyone is keeping their heads down. It is a very dangerous place (a "Dark Forest"). Not an entirely new concept but told well, and with a Chinese spin that's fresh. There are a lot of unexpected and wild twists, and slightly fresher perspectives.
It's entertainment but also educational as well, and might kindle an adult or adolescent interest in science and technology. If you like the idea of wondering what multi-decade human hibernation would be like, a fourth-dimensional space, the ultimate type of prisoner's dilemma on board a space warship or just how "magic" advanced technology might be, this is the book for you.
I am now looking forward to reading a book of his short stories: The Wandering Earth.
From a Wired article :
When Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem was published in English in 2015, it became the first Chinese sci-fi novel to win a Hugo award. President Obama took it on holiday. Mark Zuckerberg recommended it on Facebook. Yet even as his reputation spread, Liu, 53, continued to work in a power plant in Shanxi Province.
On Chesil Beach
By Ian McEwan
A typically well written book by McEwan but a very uncomfortable read. A frank exploration of the wedding night gone wrong. You cannot trust cover quotes in general, but on a McEwan book, a little more perhaps and the quote from the Independent on Sunday is "Wonderful ... Exquisite ... Devastating", which sets the tone.
Very powerful but also dreadful, in that I can't say I enjoyed reading it because it was so painful. Love can drive people to do the craziest things, as can physical desire and both are very powerful emotions that can overwhelm everything. How can one person know what another truly feels, if they don't say?
The end of January, that is.
Call for the Dead
By John le Carré
This short novel is from 1961 and the first of le Carré's spy books, and the first to feature his recurring character George Smiley. The novel concerns the apparent suicide of a Foreign Office worker after a brief interview by Smiley himself. The fall-out from this leads to deeper problems, including the uncovering of a spy.
Like all the le Carré's books I've read recently, I enjoyed all of this. A lot of the background to Smiley is here, as well as incidents and people mentioned or met in later books. Some scenes, like the teasing out of information at the Repertory Theatre by the policeman Mendel (another great character himself) are absolutely wonderful. Le Carré is masterful when writing minor characters and how they speak and act (it's quite amusing as well). Helpfully, Smiley takes his time to sit and painstakingly list the facts as known at one point, so we also know where we are again. A whodunnit and detective book as much as a spy novel and another great read.
I went to the Tate Modigliani exhibition again, and this time I had a look at their virtual reality reconstruction of his Paris studio. As I was there early, I went straight in. The Tate web site describes it and also has a Youtube video showing how it was done.
Using an HTC VR headset, the experience was pretty good. The headset was fairly comfortable and not too heavy, and the display and rendering of the VR world believable (almost). Even down to the specks of dust in the sunlight (a nice touch) and the cigarette smoke drifting up from the ashtray. Could have used a bit more resolution perhaps, but it was well done.
If you're near Dundas Street in Edinburgh, pop into the Scottish Gallery and have a look at Philip Braham's paintings. Very interesting pictures I'd love to see in real life.
Children of Time
By Adrian Tchaikovsky
I was not far into this book before realising how good it promised to be and it did not disappoint.
One of the best books, let alone best "science-fiction" books, I've read. A story that spans a couple of thousand years, interrupted every now and then for the humans as they wake from suspension aboard their "ark" ship in deep space, and check up on things, or make their plans. Time is also a central character when you travel interstellar distances, with the possibility of generations being born and dying, sleepers aging at vastly different rates depending on their wakefulness and activity and lots of changes occurring. Both aboard a spaceship and on a planet.
Tchaikovsky's written a novel that really gripped from the start, in surprising ways. A novel that was exciting, thought provoking and beautiful, with more than one moment leaving me feeling astonished. This is really good. The ending itself was wonderful and inspired. Books like this come along rarely and I think I could easily recommend it to everyone, even the arachnophobes.
Here's to a good, positive and happy 2018. Happy New Year to everyone.
My new year day for the past few years has been a visit to Tate Britain and whatever main exhibition they've had on. This year for the Impressionists in London. I've been before but this is the sort of show I'll happily revisit (and now I am a Tate member, it's free as well). I think that Claude Monet's paintings of the Houses of Parliament are as luminous and beautiful as his famous haystacks. I did not realise he painted so many of them. The exhibition shows off a few near the end and they are really magnificent.
Against a Dark Background
By Iain M. Banks
A Banks science-fiction novel but not set in the Culture universe. An aristocrat and her team of ex-military adventurers chase a mysterious book that leads to an even more mysterious, and almost mythical, "Lazy Gun" (the last of eight). Not as stupid as it might sound when laid out like that because being Iain M. Banks it still has much style and some substance. Even if it is not one of his best in my opinion.
Basically a fairly fast paced quest, with action and explosions a-plenty, and a lot of to-and-fro team bonding and banter. Some of it is very good, and there are also good set piece fights and other situations, but the whole never quite gels for me. The ending, even as action packed as it was, disappointed and was somewhat expected. In many ways, the lead character is set up to be extremely unsympathetic: an aristocrat capable of cold and off-hand cruelty. But Banks pushes you to root for her and her gang, and she is written much more sympathetically later on. If you know Banks' politics and worldview, this is slightly odd perhaps.
An accessible Banks book then, but not one of his best or most interesting.