Monday, 31 January 2011

A Minstrel In The Gallery: starring staring, swine flu, Spitfires, smiles, swifties, the Sixties and simple, solitary, sensual sexiness

Can you hear that curious, wheezing, deflating sound? My bank balance literally exhaling for joy. Payday. Glory!
I decided to take Scott Walker’s sagely advice and make it easy on myself by taking some time off across the final days of the month. What a splendid idea that was. First off, I got myself vaccinated against swine flu. OK, already this isn’t exactly thrilling whizz-o-jolly-fun to be had on a day off, but since I’m not bothered by needles, I rather enjoy that feeling I get after leaving the surgery that I have suddenly become Impregnable, Indomitable, Invincible and indeed any other Edwardian ironclad warships you’d care to mention. Doesn’t half make your upper arm sore, tho’.
Mrs M requested a trip to London’s National Gallery to see the Bridget Riley exhibition there. Another splendid idea! As you may know, the National is free to enter, offering no excuse to anyone with an hour or so to spare in Trafalgar Square not to go in and do some culture. However, before I sound like a miserable cheapskate, I decided to treat the missus to a bout of marital largesse. A giddy whirl ensued around the West End; a heady blend of lunch in a smart establishment, Medieval altar pieces, Impressionism, Pop Art and a trip to the Bead Shop, punctuated throughout with several swifties in some of our favourite drinking dens. Sometimes, occasionally, I must be a good hubby: I’ve just read this paragraph out to Mrs M, and she confirms that this is so.
Anyway, this week, I thought I’d tell you about my experience in the National Gallery as it’s been a few years since I last went. Returning there every time feels not dissimilar to reestablishing a casual, easy friendship with an old, reliable and admittedly rather sexy friend. There are several paintings there that just the mere prospect of seeing makes the pulse quicken. I’ll get to those before too long.
On a subconscious level of sensuality it’s also about the smell: as you move from the relative fresh air of the entrance hall into, say, the Impressionists’ rooms you literally smell the paint; you’re engaging with the works on display in rather more subtle ways than just the simple evidence of your eyes. It conspires to help create a rarefied atmosphere in which to study the art, even if sometimes you have to ‘tune out’ the other people who may be crowding the room. You move to another room — another time period — the smell changes, and you travel in time. 
On a more prosaic note, it’s also good to know that my feet can still take me round to my favourite paintings with certainty, without relying on a map or floor plan. 
The rooms of the main building are subtly but sumptuously appointed, decorated in muted, Wedgwood eggshell colours, and door-cases of dark marble; as you pass from one room to another you feel you are surrounded by tranquil, classic elegance and beauty that allows the masterpieces their fullest appraisal. However, we entered by the Sainsbury Wing, once referred to as a slice of discarded wedding cake, due to its crisp, white exterior, wedged shape and its slightly angled dislocation from the main building. If there is any connection to the supermarket giant, where good food — we are reliably informed — costs less, it’s not in evidence, least of all in the café.  
The Sainsbury Wing contains the earliest paintings in the entire collection, dating back to the Middle Ages, all the way up to the Renaissance. It is the newest part of the Gallery, dating from the late Eighties/early Nineties and the interior decor is very much of that time: a vast, cool, blank, white-walled world that makes the psychedelic colours in the Medieval pieces contained therein jump out with surreal high-definition lustre. My goodness. A chap’s head can swim in there if he takes his eyes off the paintings and considers the room instead.
So — let us begin. 
Before we went to Bridget Riley, the first painting I wanted to show the missus was the gentleman below, Leonardo Loredan, Doge of Venice, in a portrait by the Italian Renaissance master Giovanni Bellini:

The painting dates from about 1501 and is remarkable for its realism. The entire composition, through no fault of Bellini, is unfortunately, irresistibly, rather reminiscent of the cards that depict the suspects in Cluedo. I daresay the painted marble at the base of the portrait helped reinforce the idea that you were looking at a living bust of the Doge. I hope the reproduction is large enough for you to appreciate the stunning photorealism with which Bellini has rendered the satin of the Doge’s robe. One can imagine Loredan making very particular and exacting demands of Bellini to capture his silken Venetian finery, almost to the point where it takes over the painting and detracts from his face. Ah, but what a face. 
It’s often said of a portrait that captures the sitter’s personality or depicts them in a highly realistic fashion that ‘the eyes follow you around the room’ but here’s a new game altogether: a portrait that changes expression the closer you get. Try it now — fill the screen with the image, and stand back a few feet. Observe how stern the Doge appears. Then move closer, until you are as close as you can.
He smiles
Furthermore, he really smiles, with a twinkle in the eyes. He’s not such a bad stick after all. If you are fortunate to try this with the real portrait in situ at the National Gallery, do so: it will delight and spook you in equal measure!
Let’s move on. 
Remaining in the Sainsbury Wing for the time being, we found Paolo Uccello’s famous rendering of St George and the Dragon. As you’ve probably worked out from my fine-tuned, forensic evaluation of the Bellini, I will not be troubling you with an art historian’s eye view of this intriguing painting any time soon. You can find plenty of scholarly discourse elsewhere on the subject of Uccello’s unprecedented understanding of perspective and composition. 
At this point I should admit that I had enjoyed what Ringo Starr would call ‘a proper drink’ with my magnificent lunch and was free-associating my thoughts to Mrs M with more freewheeling abandon than even I would normally vouchsafe. Consequently I hit upon something about this painting that we both found amusing — and more than a little freaky.

Uccello painted this picture around 1470, but dammit, if that dragon isn’t a Medieval representation of a Second World War Spitfire: camouflage green on top, but with darker wings on the underside to hide it in the sky complete with corresponding RAF-style markings on his wings. What do dragons do? They spit fire. Consider the swirling, turbulent cloud in the top right: Uccello no doubt intended it to represent a receding storm, moving out of sight and care as St George sends the dragon packing. St George’s lance draws the eye along and forces you to establish a relationship between the two troublesome elements in the picture, seemingly to imply that the beast may have emerged from within the vortex: a ‘wyrmhole’ if you will? The oddly formalised clods of turf upon the ground, which is painted in turn with a rather perfunctory ripple effect (clearly not a part of the painting Uccello was too interested in) look less like patches of grass and more like dense thickets of woodland and fields as seen from the air. Did Paolo Uccello have a dream where he saw a brief glimpse of the future? Better still, are we yet to unearth the remains of a wyrmhole-blown Spitfire that flew in Tuscan skies 450 years ago? 
Awesome, isn’t it?
It’s all right, you can return now, I’m back in the room.
With a blithe disregard for chronology, we decided next stop would be as far into the future as we could go, and hit the Bridget Riley exhibition in the main building. This was small, consisting of two rooms in essence, with little more than a dozen works on display. I bow to few others in my admiration for Riley’s work of the Sixties. She is the sharp, incisive graphic artist who all-but-singlehandedly invented the visual style and approach that informed and inspired entire musical, cinematic and sartorial movements across that most hectically-styled and still-restyled decade. 

Once again, a cursory Google search will yield instant, persuasive critiques of Riley’s supereminent place in modern art by scholars more learned and better qualified to discuss it than myself — to say nothing of her place as a woman in the tiresomely male-dominated preserve of Sixties art. You’ll also find more than enough visual examples of how her work, in one turn both funky yet familiar, pervades our ideas of graphic design, layout and imagery in all kinds of art and media to this very day.

It saddens me to report, then, that I was unenthused by the majority of what I saw. The examples on show of her Sixties output were both subtle yet striking, demonstrating wit and supreme execution within their dimensions. Here's one titled Arrest 3, from 1965: 

The more recent work, dating from about 1985 through to 2010 I'm afraid to say had little more to say on their predecessors. It was as if Bridget Riley spent the last 40 years doing nothing but reworking, by tiny iterations, her most celebrated work of the Sixties; a little more colour here, a slightly more complex patterning there. In fact the major statement, if any, seemed to be nothing more than ‘go large’, as several super-sized variations on familiar-shaped themes took up entire walls of the exhibition. This had a perversely reductive quality, as if sheer scale was trying, unsuccessfully, to make up for a lack of interesting visual interplay. To use a musical analogy: volume doesn’t always connote intensity. Purely my opinion. I was pleased to note that Mrs M enjoyed the Rileys immensely; her mind is definitely wired to appreciate abstractions in visual art better than mine. As you may have noticed, I seek form, comparison and analogy almost unceasingly and I envy Mrs M’s facility to disregard such rules.
On we go.
I mentioned earlier that there are paintings in the Gallery that make the pulse quicken. I can offer up — have offered up — examples of images that elicit delight, danger, drama, deep melancholy and visual zip-and-indeed-doo-dah, but for simple, solitary, sensual sexiness I can think of only one: Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Les Parapluies.

It was painted intermittently between 1881-86 and this can be discerned in two distinct ways: a fashion expert well-versed in late Nineteenth Century Parisienne couture will instantly explain how the style of clothing on the people on the right of the painting belong to the early 1880s, whereas the figures on the left belong several years into that decade. Moreover, an art expert au fait of Renoir’s brushwork can confirm for us that the harder, more defined lines, shapes and shading of the left-hand figures belong to the slightly older artist’s style than the softer, feathery strokes used to delineate the people so delicately rendered on the right. 
The other thing worth mentioning is that the painting shuttles back and forth across the Irish Sea every ten years or so, to reside in Dublin’s National Gallery. I am fuzzy on the niceties and preciseties of why this is, but I understand it’s due to a misunderstanding in the details of the bequest. An administrative cock-up led to both Dublin and London’s National Galleries staking an equal claim to exhibit the work, so to effect a solution, one gallery gets to keep it for a decade or so before handing it over. 
But you know that these facts, fascinating and enriching as they are, are not the reason I like this picture. How many times have I stood before this painting since I was a howlingly hormonal teenager and yearned for that young woman with the bandbox to tear herself away from that young moustachioed dullard in the top hat — not to mention those fuzzier, hazier figures from an earlier time — and step down from the painting to me. She’s beautiful. Her eyes hold you with their intelligence and sense of fun, but her smile is restrained, as if the social mores of the time preclude her from acknowledging you any further. I wondered — still wonder — what it would take to make her laugh out loud? 
I share with Renoir a fatal distraction where curvaceous redheads are concerned. He painted a considerable amount of nudes and while his technically brilliant execution, understanding of light-play and form are in clear evidence, all are but a smokescreen for the sheer erotic charge he must have got from being around such sumptuously appointed ladies. Here in Les Parapluies he goes one better, proving the maxim that it’s what you can’t see that makes it all so interesting: has such a lovely, fresh-faced young woman, with her vivid fringe of rich auburn, ever been covered up so intriguingly, in such austere, yet magnificently fitted clothing as it is here? Phew!
While all this shameless, silent perving was going on, Mrs M looked on indulgently, much as she is doing as I write this now, confident in her own lively, soulful eyes and flame-haired allure, her wit, humour, those splendid proportions and, clinchingly, their solid existence in the real world. 
Moving swiftly on...
The final painting we enjoyed was a new one on me. It’s by an artist I am unfamiliar with, name of Ignace-Henri-Théodore Fantin-Latour. Double-barrelled surname and triple-barrelled first name? Hm, his parents were clearly each used to getting their own way far too much of the time. It depicts Mr and Mrs Edwin Edwards, wealthy art collectors and friends of the artist. Mr Edwards had been encouraged by his wife to give up a career in law to specialise in his own burgeoning art career as a landscape painter. 

A striking couple they make, don’t you think? Mr Edwards’ frankly fearsome facial foliage shows his alignment to many of the French painters of the time that he admired and patronised. His pose, gazing intently at what is presumably a sketch fished out of the large portfolio beside, is reminiscent and consistent with daguerreotype portraits of the time (1875), where a Victorian captain of industry or eminent scholar, typically, sits at a desk, absorbed in a manuscript or even just their own reverie, eyes cast down from the direct glare of the lens. 

So far, so good. I’m willing to bet that for most viewers, though, it’s Mrs Edwards who commands the scene, and one suspects beyond the confines of the portrait. She certainly dominates the frame in my opinion. What awesome countenance and self-possession she has: arms folded, back straight, head slightly raised, her calmly attractive, fine-boned features appraising the onlooker with an uncompromising, challenging glower. A remarkable woman.  Is this not the kind of confrontational stance demonstrated in modern times by Bob Dylan’s even-eyed stare back to camera on the cover of Highway 61 Revisited, Johnny Rotten’s sneer in his Sex Pistols heyday, or any random photo of Peter Cook in venomous mood?
I think the secret to the picture is the contrast between the two. By seating Mr E and having his wife tower imperiously over him in a possibly protective, almost proprietorial manner, I’m led to imagine that Mr Edwards merely supplies the finance while Mrs E is the cold, calculating brains behind the outfit. One might even surmise that he may be crippled. Whatever else, remember that this is a painting of a married couple from the height of the Victorian era; our received wisdom of this time is that women, Her Majesty excepted, simply did not have this kind of power and authority. In heroic defiance of this stereotype, Mrs Edwards presents a wife in charge, or at the very, very least the equal of, her husband. A formidable united front: The Edwards cartel. 
I could be entirely wrong: I haven’t gone to any lengths to find out more about The Edwardses, so all this is only my own response. But when Fantin-Latour has painted such persuasive personality from his subjects as I see them, I’m confident I’m not.
I haven’t commented on the fashion on display here. I don’t suppose that these clothes are funeral weeds, but their austerity and grave impact are considerable. These are smart, no-nonsense people, who like to leave a mark in whatever circles they socialise and leave no fools unsuffered. There are folk bands around today who should take inspiration from this picture for style, presentation and unity. Bands who would kill for a tenth of the attitude and confidence conveyed here. Come to think of it, there are probably killers who’d kill for this image and never achieve it.
I’m afraid this concludes the main stream of this evening’s symposium. Thank you for your time.
Not long after this, the Murphy cartel adjourned to the nearest decent boozer, and so a delightful day continued on in its established way. 
In other news this week: I saw the 1972 Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story ‘The Mutants’ for the first time. I bought some Caravan CDs and listened to some folk metal. Jethro Tull announced that they will play the High Voltage Festival in London this summer. My cactus, House, is sprouting yet another baby. Best of all, a new Chinese takeaway opened in my area, after several terrible months without — and they do deliveries to boot. I’ll discuss some of these exciting events in greater detail and much enthusiasm one day soon. But first, a drink.
I hope you had a ripper Australia Day, a stoatin’ Burns Night and I wish you all good health and prosperity in this, the Chinese New Year of the Rabbit.
Thank you, January: go away quickly, now.
Currently listening to: 
Foppt Den Dämon! (Subway To Sally, 1996)
Bannkreis (Subway To Sally, 1997)
Thick As A Brick (Jethro Tull, 1972)
A Passion Play (Jethro Tull, 1973)
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Flos campi/An Oxford Elegy/Magnificat/Fantasia on the Old 104th Psalm Tune (Willcocks/Davies/Boult, 1969/1970/1971)
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Willow-Wood/The Sons of Light/Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus/The Voice out of the Whirlwind (David Lloyd-Jones/RLPC&O, 2005)
Currently reading: 
Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music (Rob Young, 2010)
Apathy For The Devil: A 70s Memoir (Nick Kent, 2010)
Currently watching: 
Doctor Who: The Mutants (BBC, 1972)


  1. Oh, yes the girl with the basket... that postcard must be quite dog-eared and encrusted by now.

  2. Eww.

    Er, I buy a new postcard. Every time.