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.

Around the mountain

LAST NIGHT WE MET DR ARUN SHARMA. He was introduced to us by Mr Kashyap Jani, the owner of Hotel Saraswati, where we stayed in Mount Abu. Not only is Sharma a medical doctor in Mount Abu but he is also an accomplished writer, a prolific poet, a composer of music, a keen and well informed local historian, and also a skilful painter. In addition to singing an excerpt from one of his many operas, he told us a bit about the history and mythology of Mount Abu, which he believes is the oldest place on earth. Partly at his suggestion and partly because we had seen some information displayed at our hotel, we decided to take a driver to visit historic places around the base of Mount Abu and its associated peaks.

Our driver, Zakir, picked us up early in the morning and drove us to a food stall next to the Madina Masjid, the only mosque in Mount Abu. We joined some men who were keeping warm around a bonfire and had tea and omelettes. Throughout Mount Abu, locals make bonfires to keep warm, especially after sunset.

We drive downhill from Mount Abu along the winding mountain road, Abu’s only road link to the ‘outside world ‘. The picturesqueness of the landscape was enhanced by patches of morning mist.

Our first stop was at the Badrakali Hindu temple, which is extremely old. We were told it is 8000 years old, but this seems unlikely. We entered the inner sanctum to see the idol depicting the principal deity.

We were followed by a man, who walked over to an enormous speaker and turned it on. We were blasted with incredibly loud music: mostly rhythmic drumming with frequent blasts on conch shells. The volume was as high as, or even greater than most discotheques.

The priest within the chamber with the main idol waved around a smoking censer before lighting several lamps on a metal holder, creating what looked like a fiery comb. While ring a bell with his left hand, he waved the flaming comb around the inner sanctum, up and down the principal idol and other lesser ones. All the time, the loud music thudded deafeningly. Suddenly, he put down the comb of flames, picked up a conch shell and used it to throw water at all of us facing him. As suddenly as it had begun, the music ended. The priest continued chanting while all those attending this ‘aarti’ left the temple. We were lucky to have witnessed this dramatic yet very moving ceremony because it is only performed twice a day.

A short drive, during which we saw wild peacocks and plenty of greyish monkeys with black faces, brought us to another ancient temple, the Hrishikesh, a very peaceful spot. After walking past cattle and a large number of monkeys, we entered thetemple compound. A young boy was cleaning an idol of the ‘guru’ which faced the main idol of the temple located in the innermost sanctum. This chamber was covered by a cloth curtain. The priest llowed us to peer inside, where he was carefully cleaning the idol. He told us that only when the goddess had been cleaned and dressed, could she be revealed to worshippers. The temple and its compound contains numerous finely carved religious stone artworks.

After a lovely drive through very rustic landscape, Zakir drove us along a rough track to the isoated Toda Paladi, a very small Hindu temple. We chatted to the priest, who, after inviting us to sit with him, asked us if we were at peace and content. Then, we looked at the old stepwell (‘vav’) near the temple. It was almost overflowing with water covered with a thin layer of green algae. The priest had told us that the well always received a good supply of water that flowed down from nearby Mount Abu. We left the customary donation to the temple. The priest explained that when enough money had been collected, he hoped that it would be spent on improving the road leading to his temple.

The Sun Temple at Varman was built in the 10th century AD. Somewhat ruined, but maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India, it contains carved stone features such as some of those that we saw at the great Jain temples at Mount Abu. The Sun Temple is, even though now incomplete, a gem.

Not far from the Sun Temple, we drove along a very sandy road until Zakir said the car could go no further safely. I disembarked and walked with some difficulty through vey soft fine sand towards a pair of huge banyan trees. Near these are the unguarded remains of Krishna Vat. A passing local with flamboyant facial hair typical of that seen on many Rajasthani men made me understand that the temple had been destroyed long ago by invaders. Despite the temple being a disorganised pile of exquisitely carved stones, people still worship there. For that reason my ‘guide’ asked me to remove my sandals while I prowled around the ruins, taking photos. My companion explained to me in Hindi what I was looking at, but I barely understood what he was saying. However, he did make it clear that a small rectangular patch of earth surrounded on three sides by stones was all that remains of the innermost sanctum of the temple.

After a relatively long drive, we reached the Behra Tarak Jain temple, which was built about 20 years ago. Although recently constructed, this temple, like most other contemporary Jain temples, is designed in the same way as those which were built over 1000 years ago. Thus, this new temple gives the visitor a good idea of how the historic temples must have looked when they were just completed. In all of the modern Jain temples we have visited both in Gujarat and Rajasthan no expense has been spared to create or recreate the perfection seen in the earliest temples.

Another drive along country lanes brought us close to the Karodi Dhwaj Hindu temple. I had to climb about 150 metres up a track too rough for our taxi to reach this small old temple compound clinging to the rocky slopes of Mount Abu. A staircase cut into a huge rock led down to a pool of water deep in a rocky cleft. The temple buildings overlooked this. Although of great beauty, they had been heavily painted with silver and other coloured paints. Some of the finer details of the carved stone idols were also hidden under deep layers of garish coloured paint. This temple almost hidden away in the rocks reminded me of some monasteries I have visited in Serbia. They were located next to the sources of streams at the heads of valleys to make them less accessible to foreign invaders, in their case the Ottoman soldiers.

The Mirpur Jain temple is definitely not concealed. It overlooks the plain surrounding Mount Abu. The mountainside makes an impressive backdrop to this beautiful temple constructed in a rare stone with light blue streaks. Constructed before the better known Dilwara temples, this could well have been the model which inspired the builders at Dilwara. Many of the finely carved features seen at Dilwara, where photography is firbidden, are in evidence at Mirpur. Almost as breathtaking as Dilwara, seeing Mirpur is a ‘must’.

The last stop on our tour was a Hindu temple within a natural rock cave, the Vastanji Shiva temple. This is located above a slope that was covered with litter. We were welcomed by several friendly temple assistants to the cave temple with its low painted rock ceiling. After we had admired the deity, we were invited into a neighbouring building, where men and women were keeping warm around a wood fire in a hearth on the floor. We were given a warm welcome and cups of tea. Pur new acquaintances invited to stay for a night of prayer at the temple. They told us that we would be offered food and bedding. Many people make the pilgrimage to this place and avail the hospitality offered. The sleeping quarters are flattish surfaces below the temple under colourful cloth shamianas. I guessed that much of the litter lying around was the result of the previous night’s pilgrims. All around we saw monkeys busy eating discarded vegetables and flower garlands.

We drive back up to Mount Abu after sunset, and disembarked at the grandiose former summer palace of the rulers of Bikaner, an erstwhile princely state in Rajasthan. It is now a ‘heritage’ hotel. We ate an indifferent meal in one of the dining rooms. The place was so cold that all of the diners were wearing inelegant padded jackets for outdoor use rather than dinner jackets and other fine garments that would have been worn when the hotel was a royal palace.

Thus, ended a fine day that was inspired by the historical research which Dr Sharma has been doing for years and by the publicity given to it at our hotel by its owner.

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.

A surprising place

F48 Folkestone Habour Station

 

After getting off the train at Folkestone Central station in Kent, you might wonder why you had bothered to travel there. The way from the station to the town centre is far from preposessing.

Until 2001, trains used to run along a branch-line through the centre of Folkestone along its pier to Folkestone Harbour Station, where passengers could embark on one of the many regular cross-Channel ferries shuttling between Britain and France. Between 2001 and 2009, special tour trains like the Simplon-Orient Express  used the station. In 2014, the line was closed. With the opening of the Channel Tunnel and the closure of Folkestone Harbour Station and the line leading to it, Folkestone declined in importance. Knowing this, I expected the town to be very depressing, but a recent visit proved me to be completely wrong.

You might be wondering what prompted us to visit this formerly important  seaport. What caught our eyes was an article about how Folkestone has become a town of art filled with open-air sculptures and other artworks. It has what one of its publicity brochures describes as “The UK’s largest urban contemporary art exhibition“. And, most of the art on display is permanently resident in the town. The works are by a large range of artists including,amongst the better-known: Yoko Ono, Tracy Emin, Cornelia Parker, and Antony Gormley. The artworks are to be found in locations all over the town, but are in their greatest concentrations within the picturesque historic centre and along the attractive sea front.

The long pier along which trains used to run and the disused platforms of Folkestone Harbour Station (see illustration) have been beautifully restored and have become a wonderful leisure area with lovely walkways, artworks, and a variety of refreshment stalls. The restoration has been done very sensitively and beautifully. 

The centre of Folkestone is, unlike the area surrounding it, full of life and ‘buzz’. There are many art galleries and eateries as well as a contemporary art centre, the Folkestone Quarterhouse. The Quarterhouse is well worth entering if only to see Ben Allen’s spectacular The Clearing (an architectural installation that has to be seen to be believed) on the building’s first floor.

What we particularly liked about Folkestone is that despite being chock-full of art, it does not feel pretentious. It is a place that people can enjoy the joys of the seaside (nice beaches and fine sea front) as well as, if you feel in the mood, the delights of contemporary art in charming settings. We spent about six hours in Folkestone. Next visit, we will stay there for a couple of nights.

Much more information available here: 

https://www.creativefolkestone.org.uk/folkestoneartworks/

A keen salesman

Elephant_240

Many years ago when we vere on holiday in India, we visited a historic Hindu temple complex in the State of Karnataka.

When we left the enclosure containing the amazing temples with thier intricate stone carvings, we were approached by a little boy, who could have been no more than ten years old. He wanted to sell us some quite attractive miniature elephants carved in stone. Out of politeness, rather than curiosity, we asked the price.

“200 rupees,” he said.

We told him that we did not want the carvings.

“100 rupees,” he said, hopefully.

“We don’t want them, thanks,” we said.

“50 rupees?”

“Really, no thanks”

“25 rupees?”

“Really, no”

“10 rupees?”

We tried to make it clear that we did not want the carvings at any price.

“Have them for nothing,” the little boy offered.

We still did not take them. I often wonder what would have happened next, had we accepted his three elephants as a free gift.

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 carved Crusader

A life no longer,

Remember’d in timber:

Farewell, Crusader knight

 

 

14th century wooden effigy in church at Paulerspury in Northamptonshire, England

 

For more information about this rare mediaeval carving, see: History of Paulerspury

website from which this information was extracted:

Under the arcade between the chancel and the north chapel, on a freestone tomb panelled with cusped ogee blind tracery enclosing shields, are wooden effigies of a lady (c. 1340) and an armoured man (c. 1346-9), now placed side by side but not necessarily originally associated with each other. The male figure may represent Sir Robert de Paveley.  The monument was restored by Frederick H. Crossley of Chester in 1920, following a report on its condition by the S.P.A.B. in 1915

Tanning at the Tate Modern

 

One of the great features of possessing a Tate Card (an annual season ticket) is that one can enter (with or without a companion) the regular special exhibitions without paying extra for tickets, which tend to be quite costly. What I particularly like is that if an exhibition does not meet one’s expectations, one can spend a short time viewing without worrying about having wasted, maybe, as much as £18 per person.

Recently, I visited the much-hyped special exhibition of works by the French painter Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) at the Tate Modern in London. Without the Tate Card, the two of us would have had to shell out £36 (about 30% of the cost of a Tate Card) to see what I thought was a tedious exhibition. 

I like Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art in general, but the Bonnard works left me cold (or at least lukewarm!). I cannot comment on the competence of their execution, but I found them short of visual excitement, almost boring compared with works of other artists painting during Bonnard’s lifetime. Consequently, we did not linger long in the exhibition. I may sound like a Philistine with my comments about the famous Bonnard, but it is only fair to write honestly about how the exhibition affected me. Incidentally, I noticed that many of the visitors at this show were more interested in chatting to each other than looking at Bonnard’s works. I saw one man sitting on a bench reading his newspaper rather than trying to enjoy Bonnard.

As we were still in the mood for looking at art, we decided to enter another special exhibition in the Tate Modern. Using our Tate Card, we saved up to £26 when we entered the exhibition of artworks by the American-born Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012). However, this is an exhibition that is well worth its entrance fee. Bonnard and Tanning’s working lives overlapped for a few years, but the American’s output made a far greater impression on me than the Frenchman’s. 

The exhibition at the Tate Modern commences with paintings from Tanning’s surrealist phase. Her execution and composition sets her amongst the best of the surrealist artists. Each painting has subtlety, excitement,  a sense of adventure, and creative freshness. As Tanning grew older, her works tended towards abstraction in an original way. In brief, Tanning was an artist whose visual language(s) really attract me. Her work has a freshness and impact that I found lacking in Bonnard.

In addition to paintings and designs for stage sets, the exhibition at the Tate includes some of rather weird soft fabric sculptures, which did not appeal to me quite as much as the framed works. However, they display another aspect of Tanning’s undoubted inventive talent.

I am glad we decided to visit the Bonnard, even though it disappointed me, because it got me to visit the Tate Modern after a long break (in India) and to discover the delights of Dorothea Tanning’s  artistic output.

 

The photo is a detail of a work, “Endgame” , painted by Dorothea Tanning in 1944