Park of memory

REGIMES RISE AND FALL, as was the case of the Roman, Ottoman, and British empires. Each has left a physical legacy in the form of buildings, works of art, and a plethora of monuments. In India, a part of the both the former Mughal and British Empires, visitors flock to see their tangible remains.

In the late 1980’s, it was turn of the Soviet Empire to decline and fall. In many of its former ‘colonies’, its citizens hastily tried to erase its physical traces. Statues were toppled and monuments destroyed. Some of these artefacts were removed from public view by governmental authorities (maybe because they feared a possible return of Russian domination?)

For good or evil, the Soviet Empire has had a profound influence on what followed in its wake. Whatever one thinks about the Soviet Empire, it has become a significant part of 20th century history and it is a shame to try to erase memory of it. This was also the opinion of the Hungarian architect Ákos Eliőd, who designed the Szoborpark (Memento Park) in the countryside near Budapest.

The Szoborpark opened to the public in 1993. About 6 years later, we drove to Hungary from London. We stayed with a good friend of ours, Ákos, a pioneer of Hungarian rock music, and his family in his home in the outskirts of the hilly Buda section of Budapest. It was Ákos who alerted us to the existence of the Szoborpark.

One sunny day, we drove to the park. It was a wonderful place containing a collection of the Soviet era statues and monuments gathered from all over Hungary. It was/is a treasure trove for those who like or are fascinated by socialist realism art forms, an aesthetic that I like. We spent a couple of enthralling hours in the hot sun, wandering about this open air exhibition.

I took many photographs of the Szoborpark, which I have ‘unearthed’ recently. One of them is of wall plaque celebrating Béla Kun (1886-1938) son of Samu Kohn, a non obervant Jewish lawyer. He was the dictator of a short-lived communist regime that terrorised Hungary for a few months in 1919. With its downfall, Kun fled to the USSR, where he organised the Red Terror campaign in the Crimea in 1921. He was executed in 1938, a victim of Stalin’s anti-Trotskyist purges.

Many years after seeing the Szoborpark, my wife and I visited Albania in 2016, more than 3 decades after the downfall of its highly repressive Marxist-Leninist regime piloted for 40 years by its dictator Enver Hoxha.
Interestingly, all over the country there were still numerous monuments erected during the dictatorial era. Many of them were in need of tidying up or cleaning, but they were still there despite being daily reminders of what was a difficult and fearful time for most Albanian citizens.

We believed that the endurance of these monuments erected during difficult times was due to at least two factors. One of these is that many of them were put up to celebrate heroic feats of Albanians carried out against their German invaders during WW2. The other is that despite Hoxha’s repressive regime, many things were done to move Albania from being a Balkan backwater in the former Ottoman Empire to getting nearer to being a 20th century European state.

This is not to say that statues of Enver Hoxha, Lenin, Marx, and Stalin (the mentor and hero of Enver Hoxha) were not pulled down in Albania. They were, but fortunately a few have been preserved by an art gallery in the country’s capital Tirana.

In countries like Hungary and the former Czechoslovakia, the arrival of the Soviet Army and the Russian domination of their countries was not felt by most citizens to have been even remotely beneficial. Obliteration of memories of this era were not surprising in places like these.

To conclude, I am glad that I have neither lost nor obliterated the photographs I took at the Szoborpark so many years ago.

Ambling in Ahmedabad

A LAZY MORNING IN AHMEDABAD was just what we needed after a long bus ride from Bhuj the day before. The seat I sat in was uncomfortable.

Our newspaper seller and her assistant were sitting in their usual place on the pavement next to the entrance of the somewhat precious luxury hotel, The House of MG. They sit surrounded by piles of newspapers, both current and out of date. When we are in Ahmedabad, which we have visited 6 or 7 times during the last two years, they reserve a copy of the Indian Express for us. When we go to collect it, they have to rummage around to find it amongst the seemingly disorganized pile of newspapers, new and old.

We set off towards the Khwaja Bazaar and the Teen Darwaza, heading towards the Jumma Masjid. Just before we reached the bazaar, we entered a rather run down café/restaurant, named ‘Irani Restaurant’. This was established in 1950 and does not seem to have been redecorated since. The wall of the long rectangular dining hall has several mirrors, all cracked. However, the marble topped tables and the enormous kitchen are sootlessly clean. In addition to hot food items, this place sells freshly baked bun maska. These soft white bread buns have a very slightly sweet taste; they resemble the French ‘brioche’. I had one of these and ordered chhaas (buttermilk). To my surprise and delight, this was served in a used Pepsi bottle.

We proceeded to the Teen Darwaza, a three arched 15th century gate that was built soon after Shah Ahmed founded Ahmedabad in about 1420. Standing amidst a sea of market stalls and noisy traffic, this venerable stone gateway has decorative features that can be found on Indian structures built long before the Moslems arrived in India. This is also true of many if the 15th century mosques built in the early days of the city’s existence.

The Jumma Masjid is enormous and of great beauty. Like other mosques built in the 15th century in Gujarat, this Masjid displays many decorative and architectural features that the Moslems have adopted from Hindu and Jain temples that were in existence prior to Islamic invasions of western India.

The Jumma Masjid has more than 15 large domes and many smaller ones. Like the domes in earlier Hindu and Jain temples, the larger domes rest on eight lintels arranged octagonally. The lintels rest on eight supporting pillars. The interior of the mosque contains a forest of over 250 stone pillars, the bases of which have been decorated with carved stone motifs typically found in Hindu and Jain temples. I do not know why the newly arrived Moslems borrowed so many features from the temples which they found (and sometimes demolished) when they arrived in western India. Maybe, they employed local Hindus or Jains to construct the mosques, but surely the conquerors would have had some say in how the mosques were designed.

We spotted several terracotta pots placed by the bases of some of the pillars. These, we were told, are for worshippers to expectorate into should they need to during the prayer sessions (namaaz). This saves people from spitting on the floor, which is so common outside of holy places in India.
The Jumma Masjid has five carved stone mihrab niches, all facing towards Mecca. Each of these is decorated differently, but each of them is topped with a carving of a lamp, a symbol of the holiness of Allah. The central of these five niches is made of white marble inlaid with coloured stones. It is disfigured by the presence of a modern electric fan, which we were told is used to cool the Imam during namaaz.

There are numerous window around the mosque. Each of these is decorated by decorative jali work (decorative perforated stone screens). No two windows are decorated with the same design.

The mosque lost its two minarets during the earthquak of 1819, which resulted in an inlet of the Arabian sea being transformed into an arid salt desert (the Rann of Kutch).

The outer walls of the Masjid that face a huge space enclosed by arched passageways have several stone carvings depicting trees. I imagine these are depictions of the Tree of Life, such as can be seen in the intricate jali work at the Sidi Sayeed mosque.

After a pleasant hour examining the Jumma Masjid, we wended our way through the increasingly busier bazaar back to the Irani Restaurant. I ordered more chhaas, which arrived in used Seven Up bottles. This watery dairy drink, flavoured with cumin and other spiced, made a good accompaniment to my plate of delicious dal fry (dal to which slow fried onions and spices are added at a late stage in its preparation).

By 130 pm, the temperature had risen above 27 degrees Celsius, and it was time to retreat to our air conditioned hotel room. But before that, I made a trip to a local ATM. As with other ATM places in India, all the customers waiting for machines give each other helpful advice, such as “press this” or “remove card” or “enter pin” or “do that”, on how to use the machines. Unlike in the UK, where using an ATM is a very personal affair, in India it appears to be a group activity.

My artistic mother

HELsculpt2

 

My late mother died at the age of 60 in 1980. Her mother, who was born late in the 19th century in South Africa, held an old-fashioned opinion that girls should not attend university however bright they were. My mother would certainly have been able to cope with a university course of study, but, instead, she enrolled in the prestigious Michaelis  School of Fine Art in Cape Town. Founded in 1925, it is now ironically a department of the University of Cape Town.

Mom studied commercial art. Her first employment was hand painting posters, advertising cinema films. When I began visiting India in the 1990s, many film posters were still being painted by hand. Often, we saw workers perched on rickety bamboo scaffolding, painting the details of huge posters. Two years ago while visiting Bhuj in Kutch (part of Gujarat), we found a workshop where two men produced hand painted posters. They told us that the demand for these was dying out rapidly. It is interesting to note that, like my mother, the great Indian artist MF Hussain began his creative life as a painter of cinema posters.

Returning to my mother, she designed and painted advertising material for the Red Cross in Cape Town during WW2. In 1947, she followed her fiancé, my father, to the UK. She married in 1948, and I arrived a few years later. According to my father, Mom took painting classes with the the famous Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959).  Sometime after that, she began creating sculptures.

When I was born, I had a torticollis (twisting of muscles of the neck beyond their normal position) that caused my head to be bent to one side. At that time in the early 1950s, the doctors told my mother that there was nothing to be done about this, and we would just have to live with it. My feisty mother refused to believe this. Every day, she manipulated my head and neck and gradually corrected the situation. Whether it was this manipulation that caused my mother to become a sculptor, I cannot say. However, one of her first sculpures was a terracotta mother and child, which she reproduced much later as an alabaster carving (see photo above).

When I was a young child, my mother used to attend the sculture studios at the St Martin School of Art in London’s Tottenham Court Road. She was not a student; she used the facilities and received advice from other sculptors including Philip King and Antony Caro. At that time, she became a close friend of the sculptor Dame Elizabeth Frink, who visited our home regularly. At St Martins, Mom learnt how to weld and work with metal. She created several quite attractive abstract metal artworks. Being a perfectionist, she destroyed much of what she made, but not before having it photographed by a competent photographer. Sadly, these photos have gone missing.

By the time I was a teenager, my mother had ceased working at St Martins, possibly not of her own volition. She rented a large garage in Golders Green and used it as a studio, where she created huge abstract sculptures in timber. She found working on her own to be lonely. However, without the benefit of proper lifting equipment, she produced quite a few sculptures.

Around about 1970, Mom began complaining of back pains, which she thought were the result of the heavy work she was doing in her garage. She abandoned the garage and more or less stopped creating any artworks except for a very few abstract pen and ink drawings, which she considered good enough to be framed.

The back pains continued. My mother became disillusioned with the contemporary art scene. She was familiar with the great renaissance  works of art which she visited every year in Florence (Italy), and comparing these with what she and her contemporaries were producing added to her disinclination to produce any more art of her own. For the last ten years of her life, Mom continued to search (unsuccessfully) for an interest to replace the creation of art. Tragically, she died young because of a cancer, which might well have been contributing to her long-lasting back pain.

Whatever the reason, if an artist loses the urge to create, it must produce a huge hole in his or her life, something like losing a loved one.

What is art?

art centre

 

A few days ago, I visited the Camden Arts Centre on the corner of Arkwright and Finchley Roads in north west London. This converted Victorian building has been enlarged with later additions and has a lovely café as well as a fine garden. Several galleries on the first floor are used to display artworks in temporary exhibitions.

We entered one gallery in which a video by the Hong Kong artist Wong Ping was being projected onto a large screen. At its base, there was a big pile of toy dentures with gold painted teeth.

Just after we sat down to watch the video, a group of young teenage school children were led into the gallery by an aducation officer employed by the art centre. After she had explained that the screen was the same kind as those used to display advertisements at Piccadilly Circus, she told the students:

This is art.”

Then, she added:

Anything in a gallery is art

My wife and I were sitting in the gallery. Does that mean that we were to be considered as art?

Blockbusters

Bauhaus

National museums in the UK do not charge entrance fees to view their permanent exhibits. However, they do charge, often quite high, fees to view special temporary exhibitions.  This is nothing new. In 1968, I saw superb exhibition at the Royal Academy about the Bauhaus school, founded in pre-WW2 Germany. It was so excellent that I visited it on three separate occasions. Likewise, with a wonderful exhibition about Tutankhamen, also held at the Royal Academy.

Now, several decades later, the museums and galleries have caught on to the idea of ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions. These try to attract vast numbers of visitors, who would not nomally visit the institution where they are being held. They often succeed in drawing the crowds, but by slightly devious means. For example, recently the Royal Academy held an exhibition called: “RUBENS AND HIS LEGACY. Van Dyck to Cezanne”. I thought, as I am sure many other visitors believed, that this was primarily an exhibition of works by Rubens. Well, it was not. There were a few paintings by this great master diluted by a far larger number of works by other artists. It would have been more honest, but less ‘sexy’ and attractive to the public, to have called this exhibition something like “THE LEGACY OF RUBENS”.

My wife visited the current exhibition at the Tate Britain, a real crowd-puller called “VAN GOGH AND BRITAIN”. Who cannot resist seeing pictures by Van Gogh? Few, judging by the crowds of people jammed into the rooms where the exhibition is being held. And, how many paintings and other works by the man who cut off his own ear were on show. There were only a few. The rest of the show was of paintings by other artists, who were definitely not of interest to the bulk of the visitors, who had paid £18 a head to see a Van Gogh show. Clearly the name of the exhibition draws in the ‘punters’. 

As with the Van Gogh exhibition, the recent Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at the National Gallery was also disappointing. A few works by the great Italian master were vastly outnumbered by works produced by inferior artists, in whom most visitors were uninterested. And, most of the ‘fillers’ in the exhibition had only tenuous connections with Leonardo.

Of course, not all blockbuster exhibitions fail to live up to their promise. Apparently, the Alexander McQueen exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum was a brilliant show that concentrated on the subject promised by the exhibition’s name. Another really good temporary exhibition, which attracted an entry fee, was one dedicated to Roy Lichtenstein at the Tate Modern.

Given the absence of entrance fees and the constant insufficiency of public funds, our national museums and galleries need to raise as much money as possible. The blockbuster exhibitions must be a good way of doing this. It would be better if their naming was a little more related to what the visitor is likely to see.

Man in the waves

GORM

 

At first sight, I thought I saw a man standing alone and naked out in the waves at Margate on a sunny but very windy afternoon. Crazy, I thought to brave those rollers on suchb a cold day and without a wet suit. Then, I noticed that he was coloureed green and motionless despite the battering he was getting from the sea. He was not a man, but a sculpture.

This sculpture braving the sea is Another Time  created in 2013 by the British sculptor Antony Gormley (born 1950).

The clever thing about this sculpture is placing it in the water. Though static, the waves dashing against it can create the illusion that the sculpted man is moving. Also, by putting it in the sea, the whole sea becomes an important part of the artwork.

Although I am not too keen on Gormley’s art works, this piece at Margate, just outside the Turner Contemporary art gallery satisfies me greatly. 

You can now see the sculpture and the waves in this short video:  http://www.ipernity.com/doc/adam/48815810

Glass in the garden

 

Once again, London’s Kew Gardens is hosting an exhibition of glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly (born 1941). The amazingly crafted glass artworks of often quite complex design have been placed both in the open-air and inside some of Kew’s lovely old glass-houses. 

The curvy tubes with pointed ends shown in my photograph have been tastefully planted in a grassy field dotted with tulips. In the Temperate House, a large glass mobile has been suspended from the ceiling and smaller objects mingle with the plants. Wherever you look, you will find glass artefacts in  intimate contact with the plants growing around them. In the Water-Lily House, large glass sulptures evoking the flowers of water-lillies mingle with the real plants whose fronds float on the water.

As time passes and the plants grow more, some of Chihuly’s colourful glass objects will become harder to find.  The plant-like forms of many of the artworks mix with the plants to provide in some cases a stark contrast or in others they almost blend with the plants around them.

It is well worth visiting Kew whilst these sculptures are on display. However much I like the glass artworks, the stars of the show are for me the plants themselves (rather than the sculptures). This highlights how difficult it is for man to compete with nature on the aesthetic playing field.

 

The Chihuly works are on display at Kew Gardens until the 27th October 2019

A musical offering

Maestro_240

 

This evening, I attended a performance of A Musical Offering by JS Bach (opus BWV 1079) at the Royal College of Music in Kensington. Each of the sections of this work was introduced by the conductor, Joe Parks, who explained what was musically interesting about them.

The whole piece is based on a theme composed by King Frederick II of Prussia. He gave it to Bach on the 7th of May 1747, and challenged the composer to do something interesting with it. A Musical Offering is what Bach did with the King’s theme. I am no musician, so can hardly explain the compositional procedures with which Bach exploited the King’s somewhat dull theme. For example, in one of the sections improvisations on the theme are played with musicians simultaneously playing the modified theme both forwards and in reverse. In another section, the theme is improvised in a range of different keys. In brief, this piece by Bach is both intriguing and challenging for musicians. Although this aspect of the music is lost on me, my enjoyment of the work was not impaired.

What fascinates me is that a piece of music so full of compositional twists and turns is a delight to hear. Bach has not only satisfied his desires to hone his compositinal technique in this piece, but also he has created a work that is highly satisfying to the listener.

Great music like great paintings reach into the the inner subconscious of the listener or viewer and thereby evoke an almost visceral sensation of joy. It does not matter that the music is full of compositional magic or the painting might be impressionistic or abstract because the great artist knows how to produce a work that reaches those hidden parts of the body that evoke feelings we call emotion. Without doubt, A Musical Offering did that for me.

Come up and see my etchings…

 

Come up and see my etchings…” is often interpreted as being an invitation to sexual adventures. But when I used to say those words, there were, actually, genuine etchings to be viewed.

My late mother had a cousin Dolf Rieser (1898-1983; https://dolfrieser.com/biography/), who used to hold classes to teach etching and engraving. He lived in West Hampstead. I used to attend his classes onc evening a week while I was a dental student (1976-82). Dolf was an excellent teacher and an inventive artist. His comments on composition were constructive and and always apt.  

Dolf, who had a doctorate in some aspect of biology, became interested in art long before WW2. In the compulsory tea breaks that we had during the classes, he would tell us about his life as a young artist in Paris. He would frequent the same cafés as Picasso and other famous artists. The great artists in Paris during the thirties sat at one table presided over by Picasso. Budding artists like Dolf sat at neighbouring tables.  He was very proud of a small picture by Joan Miró, which hang next to the door to his studio in London. Miró, who was five years older than Dolf, had presented his picture to his young friend ( i.e. Dolf).

Having studied in Switzerland, Dolf had learnt how to ski in the 1920s. He used to ski every year in Switzerland while he was becoming an artist in Paris. He told us that in the thirties when he used to arrive at the railway station in Paris in order to visit the mountains with his skis, people would stop him to ask him what he was carrying because in those days hardly anyone in Paris went skiing. Few people in Paris had ever seen skis.

I loved the classes. It was wonderful becoming so immersed in what I was doing that I lost all sense of time and, more importantly, everything that was worring me at the time evaporated from my head during the three hours each week while I was engrossed in creating an artwork.

I graduated as a dentist in early 1982 and went into practice. Soon after that, Dolf died. Also, my urge to create artworks (prints, drawings, and paintings) seemed to disappear. I suppose that was because I was working all day with my hands in the surgery, my need to do fiddly manual tasks in my spare time, such as drawing and etching, diminished.

By now, you are probably wondering whether I ever invited anyone to come up and see my etchings. Well, of course I did, but I will not tell you whom I invited. Suffice it to say that the woman I eventually married has a good collection of my works!

 

The picture is a detail of an etching by Adam Yamey