Burne-Jones in London

Until 24th February 2019, there is an excellent exhibition of the works of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) at London’s Tate Britain.

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For Victorian art  

looking back to the past

Burne-Jones does excel

 

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The lady in blue

What makes for a great work of art? Well, people differ on the answer to this question. Seeing one special painting in the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia in Palermo (Sicily) helped me formulate my answer.

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The painting that literally caught my eye and grabbed my full attention is “The Virgin Annunciate”. It was painted sometime between 1474 and ’77 by the Sicilian artist Antonello da Messina (c. 1430-79). It depicts a woman in a blue veil seated at a small wooden desk on which there is an open book. The fingers of her right hand spread forwards towards the viewer. Her left hand holds her veil closed. She appears to be gazing towards her right.  Simple, really, if described like this, but it is not.

The painting grabbed my attention long before my brain had time to analyse what was reaching my eyes’ retinas. It was an intense visceral attraction to the image that made me stop and look at it carefully, an attraction that few other works of art have had for me.

When I had recovered from the initial pleasurable shock of seeing such beauty, I began to notice its subject matter, and with the help of an explanatory note next to the painting, I learnt some of the artist’s deeper intentions.

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For example, there is a sharp crease in the cloth of the veil  just above the mid-point of the lady’s forehead. This tells the informed viewer that the Virgin is wearing a special treasured, rarely worn, veil that is usually kept neatly folded in a closet or wardrobe. No doubt, art historians would be able to point out many other meaningful details that the artist has depicted. Despite these aspects of symbolic meaning, despite its subject matter and context, this picture is primarily an object of enormous beauty and graciousness that appeals greatly to something in the deep recesses of my subconscious.

For me, a work of art must first seize the seat, the very source of my emotions in a positive way. If it can do that, then whether or not the artist has imbued it with layers of meaning, the work is in my view a great one. Lest you think that it is only the works of long dead masters that fall into my definition of ‘great art’, let me refer to someone who created more recently, Constantin Brâncuși (1856-1957). Some of his sculptures depict birds or humans as simple, almost abstract, forms, almost devoid of detail. These works evoke the same deep sensations of visceral attraction as the painting by Da Messina, yet they could hardly be more different in all respects from that.

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A work by Brancusi [Source: bookdepository.com]

I am unable to formulate why the Da Messina and Brancusi works chime (and even some extremely abstract works such as those by Modriaan or Sean Scully) with my deepest emotional chords, when others, undoubtedly masterful in many ways like the works of Caravaggio and Barbara Hepworth, do not. I suppose this is what folk call ‘taste’. And, tastes differ greatly.

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Sean Scully

For me, a great work of art must first appeal to me emotionally, viscerally if you like, rather than intellectually. If I can only begin to appreciate a work of art after it has been explained, as is the case with much so-called ‘conceptual art’, then, for me, it is not ‘great art’.

African Art Fair 2018

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“The Contemporary African Art Fair (1 – 54)” is held annually at London’s Somerset House. This year it was a very exciting show full of vibrant, creative artworks mainly, but not exclusively, created by Africans with little or no European ancestry.

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Many of the works use recycled waste materials such as bits of paper, engine parts, spent bullets and retired armaments, electronic components, and so on. Almost every art work is a fine aesthetic object when seen as a whole. Looking into any of these works in detail is like beginning to explore Africa, its troubled past and challenging present.

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Africa is beginning to emerge from its colonial past. Africans are taking control of their destinies. Yet, at this exhibition, which is where a series of galleries display thier wares, mot of the dealers, who earn considerable commissions are ‘White’ Europeans. Maybe colonialism is not quite dead yet!

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The tests of time and taste

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Is it fair to juxtapose works of modern or contemporary art with great masterpieces, which have stood the test of time?

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We were fortunate to have been given (by our daughter) complimentary tickets to the 2018 Frieze Masters exhibition held in Regents Park. It is part of a larger art fair, Frieze, held in London annually.

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The Frieze Masters show contains stalls set up by art dealers, displaying only works made no later than the year 2000 AD. I must admit that I was expecting to see works of art only made during the 19th and 20th centuries. To my great delight, the artworks on display were made anytime between ancient times (several centuries BC) and 2000 AD.

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Although the more recently made (i.e. 20th century) artworks are of the highest quality, they are often on display close to artworks made many centuries earlier. Some of the gallery stalls contain a mix of modern art and much older works. Placing some 20th century works (e.g. Calder) near to older classical works (e.g. Brueghel and Cranach) is not fair to the newer works.

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The older artworks, which have stood the test of time and satisfied the tastes of many generations of viewers, make the nearby contemporary works seem weak in comparison. This is not always the case. Some small sculptures by Barbara Hepworth seemed very comfortable next to their far more venerable neighbours. Also, to my surprise some ancient classical carvings stood harmoniously close to some abstract art works made in the second half of the 20th century.

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The older works of art on display have been treasured for many centuries. Probably, what we see today is the best of what was produced long ago. Even at the time when they were made, their excellence must have been obvious when seen beside other works, now lost and long-forgotten, which were created at the same time.

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I question how many of the more recent (19th and, especially, 20th century) works of art, which I saw at Frieze Masters, will still attract both interest and high prices in, say, fifty or a hundred years’ time. And, I also ask myself how many of the newer works will be able to evoke the feelings of aesthetic wonder that, say, a Brueghel or a Cycladic sculpture have been able to do for so many centuries.  

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Shish kebab and sausages

Not long ago, I wrote about Warren Street, which played a significant role during part of my life. Now, let’s move a little further south to a street, which is overshadowed by the Post Office Tower and contains many memories for me.

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London’s Charlotte Street runs between Rathbone Place in the south and Maple Street in the north. It is just over half a kilometre in length. Laid out in 1763, it was named after Queen Charlotte, who married King George III. I began to get to know the street just under 200 years later.

My earliest recollections of Charlotte Street were regular visits in the early 1960s to the Hellenic Stores on the west side of the street south of Goodge Street. My mother bought olives and other Mediterranean products at this store and another Greek shop in nearby Goodge Street. The latter was smaller than the Hellenic Stores, and a little less honest. When something needed weighing in the Goodge Street shop, the shopkeeper would throw it on the scales. The weighing machine’s needle would flash across the dial, and before one had time to think, a price was given. Neither of these purveyors of Greek produce exist anymore.

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Site of Schmidt’s, now rebuilt

During the twelve years (1970-82) that I studied at University College London (‘UCL’), I used to visit Charlotte Street often. As a student, I was always keen to find somewhere to eat cheaply. Schmidt’s on Charlotte Street was one such place. This was a German restaurant. Its dining area was on the first floor. Most of the waiters were pasty-faced gentlemen, who added to the gloomy atmosphere of the place. The ground floor served as a delicatessen. It contained a counter where boiled Frankfurter sausages were served with mustard and slices of delicious greyish German bread. They were very cheap and extremely delicious.  A female cashier sat in a booth in the middle of the room. Whenever I saw her, she had a blackish facial hair where men grow moustaches. My father, who was in London during the 2nd World War, told me that during the conflict, the owners of Schmidt’s posted labels on their windows, which read: We are British, NOT German.”

There have always been plenty of eateries on Charlotte Street. L’Etoile, which I never entered because it was beyond my budget, was a long-established restaurant on Charlotte Street. It had a Parisian look about it, but like Schmidt’s, it has disappeared. Near to the posh L’Etoile, there was a Greek ‘taverna’ called Anemos. I never visited it, but plenty of my fellow students did. One did not visit Anemos for its food, but for its riotous atmosphere, which included music, dancing and the trational Greek practice of plate breaking. Venus was another Greek place that has long since disappeared. I was taken there several times by an uncle, who worked nearby and regarded it as his favourite Greek restaurant.

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Just north of Goodge Street, there is another long-standing, and still existing, restaurant. This is the Pescatori, an Italian place specialising in fish dishes. It was one of my parents’ favourite restaurants in London. Back in the 1960s, there used to be a life-size boat suspended from the ceilings above the tables. I believe that my father was being serious when he said that he preferred not to sit beneath the boat, in case it fell.

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There was another fish restaurant in Tottenham Street that leads east of Charlotte Street. Pescatori was at the high end of the scale of elegance, and Gigs was at the lower end. Gigs was very popular with students from UCL and workers in the neighbourhood. It was divided into two sections: take-away and sit-down. At lunchtimes, there was always a long queue at the take-away counter. Two gentlemen, oozing with sweat, took the orders for fish and chips and also for the delicious lamb shish kebabs they prepared while you waited. In between taking the cash and wrapping the fish and chips, they threaded lumps of lamb onto skewers, and grilled them. The kebabs were served with salad in a warm pita bread. As the saying goes, they were ‘to die for’. Despite the rather haphazard-looking hygiene, I know no one, who died from these mouth-watering bundles of meat and salad.

Gigs closed many years ago. Then a few years ago, the premises were modernised, and Gigs was brought back to life by some relatives of the original owners. What used to be the take-away section is now an attractive restaurant, and what used to be the sit-down area is now the take-away area. The updated Gigs is both hygienic in appearance and looks as if it is designed to attract a more sophisticated clientele than its ancestor.

My father was a professor at the London School of Economics (‘LSE’) for most of his working life. The LSE has a hall of residence for students, Carr-Saunders Hall, a non-descript 1960s building on Charlotte Street. When it opened in 1964, my father’s colleague Kurt Klappholz was its first warden. Kurt, whom I knew well as a family friend, was a Polish Jewish Holocaust survivor. Later, another of my father’s colleagues was a warden there many years ago. Once, he invited me to his flat. This academic possessed the most wonderful sounding HiFi equipment that I had ever heard. The warden, who owned it, was rather over-built. He told me that he preferred listening to music sitting in a comfortable armchair in front of his HiFi, than trying to squeeze into uncomfortably narrow chairs in concert halls.

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The building that used to house Cottrells

When I became a dental student, I became aware of Cottrells in Charlotte Street. This was near the Rathbone Place end of the street. It was the showroom for a major supplier of dental equipment. Housed in an elegant Victorian building, which still exists (it now contains a restaurant), the firm supplied everything from dental examination mirrors to entire dental operating units (chair plus attachments fordrills etc.) The technician responsible for teaching me how to cast gold crowns (caps) told me to visit Cottrells, not to look at the equipment, but, instead, the pictures hanging on the walls of the showroom. The walls were hung with a large collection of paintings by William Russell Flint (1880-1969). He specialised in depicting women.  Well-painted, and quite artistic, the paintings on the walls of the dental showroom and of its main staircase fell very definitely into the category of extremely light porn.

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One of the longer established shops in Rathbone Place: Mairants

Rathbone Place, a short street which connects the southern end of Charlotte Street contained a large postal sorting office. Quite late on in life, one of my uncles, a bachelor now sadly no longer living, got a job there as a postman. He often used to tell me about his experiences as a medical orderly in the South African Army in the North African desert during the 2nd World War. He spoke of them fondly, regarding the great camaraderie he experienced amongst his fellow serving men. I often felt that this was one the more enjoyable times in his long and varied life. When he joined the postal team at Rathbone Place in his fifties, he spoke of this in the same appreciative terms. He liked being part of a working team. Now, not only has my uncle gone, but also the sorting office no longer exists.

Charlotte street and its surroundings lie in the shadow of the Post Office Tower, which was ready for use in 1964. Until 1980, it was the tallest building in London. When it opened it had a revolving restaurant high above the ground. I never ate there, but did manage to visit the viewing platform just beneath it. When I looked up from this platform, I could watch the concrete base of the restaurant rotating slowly. A terrorist attack in 1971 put an end to the public being allowed to visit the viewing platform or any other part of the tower.

I still wander along Charlotte Street occasionally. Although it is still extremely vibrant, it evokes many memories of times long past.

Summers in Florence

I hope that this piece will not sound ungrateful, dear reader.

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When I was a child and in my early teens, my parents, who were art-lovers, took my sister and I to Florence every summer. As a child, I failed to appreciate what a treat these visits were. At the end of the summer when school recommenced, my friend N and I would compare notes about our holidays. N visited Llandudno in North Wales every summer with his parents. He would relate how they had climbed the Great Orme, travelled on a special tramway, and stayed at a marvellous hotel overlooking the sea. What was I able to tell N? Well, nothing that I believed would rival the exciting things that N had experienced. What, for example, was the Uffizi art gallery in Florence when compared with the Great Orme in Llandudno? I mention the Uffizi in particular, because our annual visits to this treasure house of art filled me with despair. I wrote of this place in my book “Charlie Chaplin Waved to Me” (available from Amazon and Bookdepository.com) as follows:

The aforementioned Uffizi was another of the places that we often visited in the morning. I used to dread having to walk through its seemingly endless series of inter-connected galleries filled with masterpieces. The only thing that sustained me during this ordeal was the promise of an ice-cream afterwards or the promise of the opportunity to buy a paper cone filled with corn to feed the pigeons in the Piazza Signoria outside the gallery.

One of the first pictures that we always used to stop and admire was the Portinari Triptych painted by the Flemish painter Hugo Van der Goes in about 1475. That was during the time when the Florentine merchant Portinari, who commissioned it, was living in Bruges in the building which became the hotel in which we often stayed. My father, who is fascinated by the iconography of Renaissance art, explained to us the meanings of everything in this beautiful picture. My very young sister absorbed this information so well that year after year she could explain to us, and also to other tourists, who gathered around to listen to her, the reasons that particular things were depicted in it. For example, she could relate why there were a certain number of lilies in the vase near the bottom of the central picture; and why there was a barely visible devil’s horn at its top left, just above the horn of a cow grazing in the holy manger. This horn only became apparent after the picture was cleaned in the early 1960s.

The museums and my late mother’s seemingly endless visits to the dress-maker and countless shoe shops added to my lack of enjoyment of Florence. However, it was not all gloom and doom. The food we ate was lovely and there were some cultural sights which I enjoyed. And, Florence did hold some mysteries, one of which was solved between two successive annual visits. Let me quote from my book again:

The River Arno flows through Florence. It is traversed by a number of bridges, the most famous of which is the Ponte Vecchio. This is covered, like the mediaeval London Bridge used to be, with buildings and shops. The most interesting feature of this old bridge was the‘secret’ corridor that ran along its buildings just beneath their roofs. This, so my father often told us, linked the Uffizi on one side of the Arno with the Palazzo Pitti on the other side, the Oltrarno. Thispassageway, which must be about almost half a mile in length, allowed Florence’s rulers to move between these important buildingsunobserved by the public. It was closed to the public when we used to visit the city.

When the Germans retreated at the end of WW2, they demolished all of the bridges across the Arno except the Ponte Vecchio. They decided that as its carriage way was far too narrow to accommodate military vehicles and large troop movements, it could not have been used by the Allied armies chasing them. My father said it was a tragedy that this bridge was saved whereas its neighbour a few yards downstream was demolished. This bridge, the Ponte Santa Trìnita, was a masterpiece designed by the renaissance artist Bartolomeo Ammanati (1511-1592). His Fountain of Neptune is an important and much photographed landmark in the centre of Florence.

When we first visited Florence, the bridge, which was painstakingly reconstructed after the war from the fragments found scattered about under the waters of the Arno, had two statues at each of its ends. Three of these were complete, but one of them was missing its head. This was the only bit of the bridge that had not been recovered. One summer, when we were visiting the city, my father pointed at the bridge and asked us if we noticed anything different about it. We discovered that the missing head had been found, and was back in its rightful place; the bridge was complete again. This must have been in 1962, as the head was only recovered late in 1961.

Most people reading this blog article, will probably think that I was so lucky to have visited Florence so often, and they would be justified. However, to a young boy as I was, I could not appreciate it properly. Now, many years later, I realise that my exposure to the arts at such a tender age was a great gift bestowed by my parents, even if it meant that I never saw the Great Orme.