14 September 2014

The good and the bad of modern architecture in London

Sitting on the top deck of a bus heading up Borough High Street toward London Bridge gave me a good opportunity to see three of London's new iconic buildings from a different viewpoint.

I like the Shard and it looked good from this angle too, rising majestically above the low brick Georgian buildings of Borough. I suspect that the design of the Shard took account of this view as its gentle angle matches that of the church in front of it.

A little further up the road and things took a turn for the worse.

I like the Cheesgrater (on the left) too and it looks fine from this angle. The villain of the piece is the Walkie-Talkie (20 Fenchurch Street) on the right. This is a monstrous building that appears to tower over those in the foreground, despite being on the far side of the river.

13 September 2014

My last day at school (1975)

I have been looking through old photos recently and came across these two from my last day at Weymouth Grammar School some time in the summer of 1975. That is me second from the right.

The photos were taken at The Admiral Hardy where we went at lunchtime for a beer or two. The one above was taken on the children's play equipment in the garden, a sort of rocking horse that was just asking to be sat on.

We all went our separate ways after that, and we had no email or Facebook in those days to help us to keep in contact, so this was the last day that I saw most of them.

The world is a funny place though and about twenty years later I found myself working with one of them at Logica for a while and another I now see occasionally in the pub as he lives in the area and his role in Camra sometimes takes him to my local.

30 August 2014

J D Fergusson and more at Pallant House Gallery

I've been to Chichester many many times, not least for my wedding, but it is not a town that I have ever explored, apart from some of the pubs. And so it was that it took me over thirty years to get around to visiting the Pallant House Gallery.

I rectified that mistake when returning to the town to see a show at the Chichester Festival Theatre. It was a matinee performance and that gave me a couple of hours for the gallery and some lunch.

I first went to the second floor of the new extension (above). This was a typical modern gallery space with white walls and subtle artificial lighting.

The collection was varied in style and subject and among the busy collection there were quite a few things that I liked, such as the large painting on the far right which captured the violence of the Dorset sea brilliantly.

Most of the second floor was given over to an exhibition by John Duncan Fergusson (1874-1961) who was one of the pioneers of modern art in Britain. I know that now because I went to the exhibition, I had not heard of him previously.

Is art was very varied and very influenced, especially by French painters like Cézanne. Some of it meant absolutely nothing to me but two sets of paintings I liked a lot.

The exhibition was spread over half a dozen rooms, each covering a period of his life that was busy spent moving between Britain and France. Each period has its own style/s and so each room in the exhibition was quite different. I did not spend much time in the one full of portraits.

There were several bold pictures of health men and women enjoying the sun of the French Riviera. These had a simplicity of compositions that while focused on the figures also had interesting shapes in the background. I loved the simplicity, colour and serenity of these.

The other set of pictures that I liked were those with a distinctly Impressionist edge to them both in composition and theme.

These were much smaller pictures too, around A4 size, and I had to stand quite close to them to appreciate them. They made nothing like the impact that the large portraits did.

And the large portrait that made the most impact was this one.

A lunchtime spent Googling for "nude woman" failed to find its name but may have hurt my career prospects. Strangely it did not appear when searching simply for images by Fergusson either so my posting it here may be something of an internet first. I find that odd as it was stunning, despite not being strictly anatomically accurate.

I found Fergusson very much hit and miss. That was fine as I could just walk past the misses and there were plenty of hits to keep me happy.

The other displays in the gallery were even more hit and miss. These were in the original Pallant House and part of the attraction was visiting the old rooms that were laid out in period style. These were quite small rooms (especially when compared to the new gallery extension) and so the displays were small too, often just three or four objects or paintings. It had something of the random feel that the V&A does so well.

One of the pleasant surprises was this drawing by Henry Moore. I did not even know that he had done drawings. I like the way that this picture has the simplicity of his famous statues but with the unexpected burst of detail in the faces. It was good to see drawings by the likes of John Piper too.

Another pleasant surprise was that the "no cameras" rule had been abandoned only the previous week. Discovering this I went back through the galleries quickly to add to the photos that I had taken guiltily earlier.

When on holiday I make a point of visiting modern art galleries and I am almost always delighted with what I discover. The Pallant House Gallery showed me that I can to that at home too.

29 August 2014

Matisse Cut-Outs at Tate Modern

Matisse Cut-Outs at Tate Modern was probably THE "must see" exhibition of the Summer in London and despite being fully aware of this is still took me until almost the end of its long run to find the time to go to see it. And then I had to take a day off and combine it with an evening event to make space for it.

I went in with few preconceptions as I claim no great knowledge of painting and while I had heard of Matisse I could not name anything by him or even describe his style.

My original plan was to go there for 2pm but when I went to buy tickets that morning the earliest slot that I could get was at 4pm, so I went for that. That still left plenty of time for the exhibition before moving on to the theatre, even allowing two and a half hours for the tour, which was how long Paul Klee took last year.

I arrived not long after 3pm, as intended, and started with a coffee and some cake in preparation for spending a long time on my feet.

The exhibition opened by showing how Matisse got in to cut-outs almost by accident. He first used them to plan his paintings, e.g. when doing a still-life he could arrange the objects on the canvass to see how best to position them. From there they grew to become the picture. This step was encouraged when ill health made painting difficult.

Being cut-outs there was a strong physical element to the work even though they were two-dimensional. Looking at the pieces carefully revealed  the many pin holes created as the pieces were tried in different positions, the way that the pictures will built up with layers of colour and the way that the pieces of paper were cut and torn to work and rework the shapes.

Broadly speaking there were two kinds of work, those that relied solely on shape and colour, such as the large piece above and those that portrayed something physical, such as the work on the right.

This is The Creole Dancer from 1950 when Matisse was 81, he died just three years later. It stood an impressive 2m tall by just over 1m wide and grabbed my attention. It was my favourite piece by some distance.

What the exhibition made up for in scale of the works it lacked in the variety. There was no great progression in Matisse's style and little change in his subject matter. It was not quite "if you've seen one, you've seen them all" but the familiarity between the works made it a quicker journey than it was for Paul Klee. I had allowed two and a half hours and it took one and a half. That was still a fair chunk of time and it was still a good exhibition, it just paled a little in comparison to Klee.

That comparison continued in to the shop which was packed with Matisse goods (I pushed the boat out and bought a postcard of The Creole Dancer) but at the end of the Klee run it looked like Old Mother Hubard's cupboard.

The slight misgivings were only slight and Matisse Cut-Outs was a jolly fine exhibition. It was informative, engaging and, at times, striking.

28 August 2014

Wasteland by Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten

Wasteland was another step in my continued immersion in to the world of digital comics. I had been aware of the title for some time and while I had helped myself to the free first issue (something that I often do) I had gone no further. There was nothing "wrong" with the title it was just that I had so many other titles waiting to be read, as I always do.

And then ComiXology had a snap sale.

This is a common tactic of theirs and it obviously works. It made me buy some Batman books that I already had and it made me buy some issues of Wasteland too. There are over fifty issues now but I managed to restrain myself to just six, to complete the first story arc and also get the free-standing issue #7.

This is what the first seven issues look like on my iPad.

The big appeal was the creative team of Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten, the guys behind Umbral. Antony Johnston also write The Fuse that I also read.

The first thing to notice is that Wasteland is black and white. I am comfortable with this having been brought up on British comics and also having read several Marvel black and white magazines in the late 70's when Rudy Nebres was a hero of mine. Incidentally, that is also when and where Star Lord made his début.

Wasteland is a post-apocalyptic story set in the heart of America after the Big Wet which destroyed civilisation and left the remaining people living in small towns and villages with technology from the middle-ages. It has the frontier feel of a cowboy story set somewhere in the south-west.

That sort of reminded me of A Canticle for Leibowitz but only for the setting, not the story.

One of the main players in Wasteland is Michael, pictured here. He is a loner, a scavenger and it is his desert-smarts that help to keep a small group of other survivors/settlers alive.

The other main player (so far) is a mad-king type, Marcus, who runs the town Newbegin. This is the biggest settlement that we have seen so far.

Then there are the Sunners and the Sandeaters. There is a lot going on in this story!

I chose this interior page to illustrate the art work because it is so dramatic. Its layout is not typical though and most pages are constructed from square panels in an irregular grid. Each page looks different as the panels change shape and position to match the flow of the story.

The first story-arc completes nicely but also leaves open lots of threads that I am sure are developed in future issues. Not least is the mystery of the Big Wet and the machine in a trader's store that Michael found that may help to solve this.

It is tempting to plunge in and read the other fifty-odd issues but I have one issue with the comic. The type used in the lettering is slightly indistinct in the digital editions and that makes it somewhat hard for me to read. I can read it but slower and with more effort than I would like. It could be that reading glasses would help but I do not need them for any other digital comics so there is something about Wasteland that is causing the problem for me.

That is only a minor gripe and I am sure that I will be back for more Wasteland before too long to find out what happens next and also what happened previously.

25 August 2014

Madame X at the Arcola Theatre

August was Opera Month. Not only was it the annual Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival but two of my four visits to Glyndebourne fell in to that month. On top of that, I booked to see some other operas to fill in the gaps.

And that is how when I went to see Madame X at the Arcola Theatre it was my third opera in five days. Madame X was part of the Arcola's Grimeborn season of new opera. Grimeborn sat somewhere between, say, Tête-à-Tête (new operas) and Glyndebourne (traditional operas) in that it had new operas in a traditional mould.

Madame X fitted that bill neatly being a new opera with a traditional plot and music. It also felt as though it was set in a historical period and it was only things like the use of iPhones that revealed that it was set in the present day. If the aim was to make something timeless then that worked.

This was only my second visit to the Arcola since they brought in allocated seating and being reasonably late to book meant that I could still get a front-row seat but only one at the side towards the back (A3). For that I paid a measly £15.

I could see why the seats in the centre had gone when I entered the theatre as that area had been cleared to make way for the orchestra. And that made my possibly dubious seat into an ideal one.

Madame X told the story of an artist struggling to make his way despite the popularity of the work. The opening scene, a private viewing, introduced us to the main characters and the relationships between them that shaped the story. The artist had a fiancee who loved him devoutly, an agent who did well at the artist's expense, a wealthy art collector with designs on the artist as well as his art, and another wealthy art collector who was only interested in the artist's fiancee. This was familiar operatic territory and it led to a familiar operatic ending.

The characters were all very distinctive, well acted and beautifully sung. I hated the agent for the way that he behaved but loved him for singing an endless stream of proverbs, things like "a stitch in time saves nine". This added an element of humour to the story (there were others) and was built on when one of the art collectors mocked him with mimicry.

There was a fair amount of spoken dialogue to move the story along and most of the songs were dialogues and most of these dialogues were either arguments or difficult conversations. This was a love story without many love songs.

The music was Handlean with contemporary twists. It was very easy on the ear and suited the drama perfectly.

Madame X was a fabulous opera and I loved every minute and every aspect of it.

24 August 2014

Rinaldo at Glyndebourne (2014)

I had seen this production of Rinaldo at Glyndebourne when it was first put on in 2011 and I was keen to see it again. So were other people and a group of four of us went, which is just as well as I had bought four tickets.

The vagaries of the booking system that conspired to deny me some of my booking requests this year also gave me two visits to Glyndebourne in four days. Hardly ideal but needs must and I was happy to take any tickets that I could get.

To make the second visit of the week slightly different from the first we went for one of the tables on the terrace on the second floor of opera house, by the Upper Circle where our seats were. The advantages of being there, rather than in the marquee where I had been on the previous visit, was that it saved the reasonably long walk and also I could get a fresh coffee from the long bar.

This time my seat in the Upper Circle was Blue B10, a little closer than the previous visit but also a little further to one side. It was a fine view for £85 especially as during the performance everybody sat upright and so the prominent head seen here all but disappeared from view. I could see both stage and orchestra clearly. That is why I chose to sit in this section.

Seeing Rinaldo again some things caught me eye that either I had forgotten or which had been changed since the first run.

Overall there was more humour in it that I was expecting, most of it slapstick, e.g. two soldiers struggling to climb over a low wall. These moments were very well received in general and there was much laughter. I was something of an exception and I found that some of these lighter moments detracted from the serious drama. Rinaldo is a story about love and war after all.

The music was as good as you would expect from Handel and the singing was every bit as good as you would expect from Glyndebourne and with those basics right it was a fine performance. I had also forgotten that several of the main male roles, including Rinaldo, where at the high-end of the coal range, e.g. countertenor. That was the fashion of the time and it has also been the fashion in the new operas that I have seen this year so Rinaldo sounded strangely modern.

The main theme of the production, merging the Crusades with St Trinian's, worked as well this time as it did last time. A clever idea well executed. There were lots of nice touches such as the broken bicycles on the stage at the start of the third act.

This also happened to be the last night of the season so we got the traditional end of Festival talk reviewing this year and introducing the next. We also got a baroque rendition of the national anthem which we all stood up for, even me, before exiting the theatre.

It is at the very end of the evening that having a table on the terrace is the most advantageous and I had a little cheesy nibble with another espresso from the Long Bar while waiting calmly for the car park queue to die down.

Rinaldo was a fine production and a fitting end to another fine season. I'll be back at Glyndebourne next year (health, wealth and the ballot willing) for more of the same.

The Fuse is another good read from Image Comics

My continuing experiment with digital comics in general and those from Image in particular has led me to The Fuse, a crime story set in space. I do not normally read crime fiction, apart from The Saint of course, and I was tempted in to this one by the creative team of Antony Johnston and Justin Greenwood.

It has just finished its first arc, The Russia Shift,and I read it in one shift on the slow train journey back home from a day's work in Reading. I had started reading the individual comics when they came out but the complexity of the plot got to me and I needed to read it one go to keep all the threads connected in my head.

The three stars of the book are two newly twinned police officers and The Fuse itself. The officers are a "cynical, foul-mouthed" and "fresh-faced idealist" which makes for an interesting clash of styles, ages and genders. The Fuse is an orbiting energy platform that has gradually expanded to house a "five-mile-long jury-rigged steel city stuffed with a half million people". It has a frontier town feel to it.

The three interesting characters make it more than a whodunnit and its a good whodunnit too.