Tuesday, 31 December 2013

From the metaphysical to a shiny metal box

The Melancholy of Departure
The weekend’s visit to the Tate Modern for the Paul Klee exhibition also included a wander around the rest of the gallery.

We’d planned well: arriving for around 10.30am after a pleasant walk over the Millennium Bridge on a bright, fresh winter morning.

The plan was to see the Klee first and then have lunch.

It’s worth noting that the gallery’s café is far from the most expensive eatery around and we enjoyed fish and chips – and very good battered fish it was too – with dandelion and burdock, leaving me feeling really rather Famous Fiveish.

And we were lucky enough to sit by a window that gave us a wonderful view beyond bare but lithe silver birches, over the river and to the dome of St Paul’s in the brittle December sunlight.

It’s a vast gallery and you’re never going to seriously see it all in
Spanish Landscape with Mountains
one go, but I’d done my homework and picked two of the permanent collections to look at.

Once fed and refreshed, first up was the Poetry and Dream section, because it promised Picasso, Dalí and de Chirico.

Only recently had I put the latter’s name to paintings we were shown during A’ level art: I remembered the perspective of his metaphysical pictures and this was the first chance to actually see any.

Metamorphosis of Narcissus
The Uncertainty of the Poet (1913), at the entrance to this part of the collection, was crowded. It was easier to view The Melancholy of Departure (1916) later in the displays, although being hung high up doesn’t give you much chance to really look at the brushwork, for instance.

Fortunately, Dalí’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937) was better positioned.

I’d not seen any Dalí in ‘the flesh’ before: this is one of his iconic images and is technically stunning – painted before he got so full of himself that he ceased to be bothered with anything beyond promotion of himself as his main work.

Head of a Woman (Fernande)
Autumnal Cannibalism (1936) and Mountain Lake (1938), although less well known and less vibrantly colourful, are also fascinating canvases.

There was no shortage of Picasso here: including Weeping Woman from 1937 and The Three Dancers from 1925, for which Will Gompertz provides an excellent description in What Are You Looking At?

One of the smaller rooms had three Picasso nudes of varying styles, plus a small sculpture by Matisse – fascinating contrasts.

There was plenty that was entirely new to me, though: Dorothea Tanning’s work is fascinating – Some Roses and Their Phantoms (1952) is just one example that caught the eye of both of us.

Paul Nash’s Landscape from a Dream (1936-38) was an interesting companion to Landscape of the Moon’s Last Phase that I’d seen at Liverpool’s Walker Gallery last month.

And then there was Max Ernst. I knew the name, but Celebes (1921) and Forest and Dove (1927) are wonderful examples of the fantastical – the latter again reminding the viewer of the place of the forest in German culture.

We’d been lucky with the Klee exhibition not being very busy, but these galleries were rammed.

Other paintings of particular interest included Christian Schad’s Self-Portrait from 1927, which has an Otto Dix-like woman in the background, while the face and expression reminded me very much of those by Albert Aereboe that I’d seen in the Museum Behnhaus Drägerhaus in Lübeck in April.

Dora Carrington’s Spanish Landscape with Mountains (c1924) is another painting you can get lost in, and which seems to float somewhere between the real and the imagined.

And in a similar vein, I was also taken with The Invisibles (1951) by Yves Tanguy – a painting that hovers between the abstract and some sort of alternate, sci-fi reality that you feel yourself nearly but not quite ‘seeing’.

Portrait of Greta Moll
There were works by Duchamps, some Giacometti, some Man Ray, some Miró and some Joseph Beuys too – and again, the Gompertz book helped when looking at some of these, even if they were not always things that excited me the most.

But it was with real delight that we walked into one room to see Portrait of Greta Moll (1908) by Matisse – so that’s why it’s not on display in the National Gallery; its on loan at the South Bank!

With some energy left, we pottered up to Structure and Clarity on the fourth floor, which was nowhere near as heavily populated – possibly because this was where things got rather less figurative and much more ‘modern’
in the way that some people mean when theyre not being very complimentary.

I wanted to see the Cubist works – not least, those by Georges Braque, simply because I’d not seen any by him in the ‘flesh’. They dont bowl me over, even though I understand what the Cubists were trying to do, but it was good to actually see some.

Composition C (NoIII) with Red, Yellow and Blue
At this point there was also more works by Picasso, illustrating yet again his incredible range of styles.

The sculpture, Head of a Woman (Fernande), 1909, particularly caught the eye.

The gallery also offers the chance to see some Piet Mondrian, including Composition C (No III) with Red, Yellow and Blue (1935), and Kandinsky’s Swinging (1925).

Like the Klee earlier in the day, the Mondrain had layers to it, as the artist himself had mounted and framed his work, often giving it a sort of added depth in the choice of mounting.

Gompertz argues that however simple you might consider Mondrain’s iconic geometric paintings, they have a great democracy about them – they appear on all sorts of everyday objects, from bags to phone covers. Its art for everyone and for every day, as promoted by Bauhaus and back to William Morris.

Pierced Hemisphere II
In the same area of the gallery was to be seen Dan Flavin’s ‘Monument’ for V Tatlin’ – which was one a series of four neon installations with the same name, and which date from 1966-69.

We were getting seriously into the realms of the minimal, which is where I’d point out that
Gerhard Richter’s comment on Grey (1974), that the subject of his painting “is the epitome of non-statement” ... “it does not trigger off feelings or associations, it is actually neither visible nor invisible ... Like no other colour it is suitable for illustrating ‘nothing’,” did take me well beyond Gompertz levels of understanding and into the terrain of ‘what pretentious twaddle’.

On the other hand – and thanks in part to Gompertz who discusses it in his book – I actually liked Donald Judd’s untitled open metal box from 1972 – although the line around it that marks the perimeter over which you’re not supposed to step does not take into account short arses like me.

Study for Homage to the Square
The texture and the colour of it, however, are warming and pleasant, and actually seem contrary to conventional, cold minimalism of many other works.

The gallery also displays Henry Moore’s rather sensual Composition from 1932 – The Other Half gets excited over Moore because he were a Castleford lad too – and a number of works by Wakefield’s own Barbara Hepworth, including Pierced Hemisphere II (1937-38).

And going for the really abstract and the minimal, I liked the colours of Joseph Albers’s Study for Homage to the Square (1964) and the sheer simplicity of Ellsworth Kelly’s Black Square with Blue (1970).

In fact, the more that I look and explore, the more I realise that I’m fascinated by colour in a way that is very recent – or at least the conscious interest is.

Gompertz’s book has made a huge difference to helping my somewhat more opened mind actually understand what I’m looking at – I’ve recommended it before and will happily do so again.

The visit also offered a great opportunity to – in effect – put into practice what I’d read, and try to approach very modern works from a different perspective.

Some Roses and their Phantoms
Such a visit also adds to an understanding that, contrary to what might be a popular belief, there have been plenty of quality female artists around and rather more British ones (of both sexes) than one might realise.

The former was something that struck me when visiting the Walker Gallery. It had also cropped up during the Royal Academy’s Manet exhibition in the spring, which introduced me to Berthe Morisot – and I later saw work by her in the National Gallery.

Waiting for a bus later, as dusk reclaimed London, we both looked forward to a nice cup of tea – but the effort felt like it had been well worth the effort.

Monday, 30 December 2013

Taking the imagination for a walk

Redgreen and Violet-Yellow Rhythms
The Tate Modern’s exhibition on Paul Klee: Making Visible might not quite be exhaustive, but exhausting it most certainly is.

Laid out in 17 rooms – some large, some small with only four or five pictures – it takes a serious investment of time to visit.

As a neighbour of ours, having visited with his partner, who is herself an artist, commented with a note of weariness: “There are a lot of paintings”.

A great deal of Klee’s work is also on small canvases, so require you to get up close and use a little more attention.

By the time we reached the final rooms, visitors were scurrying past us having clearly had enough.

Battle Scene from the Comic-Fantastic Opera 'The Seafarer'
That being said, it’s an exhibition that offers plenty of rewards – not least in providing such an extensive selection of his work, from 1912 to his premature death in 1940.

In the later part of that career, Klee – a Swiss German – was among the many artists who were damned by the Nazis as ‘degenerate’.

Yet for all Hitler’s hatred of anything beyond the most traditional painting, Klee’s work has a timeless quality that can make it feel as ancient as it is modern, and most definitely has something of folk art about it.

Blue Night
There is a playfulness on occasion and an apparently naïve joy about some of the works that is reminiscent of Chagall.

Yet there’s also plenty here to illustrate Klee’s seriousness – not least in his explorations of colour.

The gradation paintings are themselves fascinating and very beautiful and however muted some of his palette may appear to be, there is a depth of colour here that is vibrant and has great warmth.

Fish Magic
The experimentation extends beyond colour to the media used, including what was painted on, how it was primed – and also how the works are displayed.

In some cases, Klee made his own mounts and frames, thus ensuring that the works take on a sense of having greater dimension and of being artistic objects rather than simply being flat pictures.

Personally, I was coming to Klee with little more than a spot of book-learned knowledge, but found myself drawn in to some of the works in particular.

Walpurgis Night
Redgreen and Violet-Yellow Rhythms from
1920 is the exhibition poster piece, and this apparently simple oil painting of geometric blocks of colour, dotted with trees, is a perfect example of the attraction.

Perhaps it’s the Christmassyness of the green and red, but getting lost in it conjures, for me, a sense of a northern winter: of dark, starry nights and snowy terrain and forests.

But this sort of thing was a repeat theme.

In Walpurgis Night, a gouache from 1935, the faces of creatures and witches look out from behind the moody blue wood.

Here we are again – into the realm of the forest in the German psyche. It has a thrilling, slightly scary feel about it, and a sense of fairy tales, something that comes through in a number of works.

Bewitched-Petrified (watercolour on plywood, 1934) is another with the sense of folk/fairy tales and the forest.

Fish Magic (oil and watercolour on canvas, 1925) is one of the larger pieces, and seems to have an inner glow, as though it’s partly stained glass, lit from behind.

Blue Night (1937) is a lovely, soothing use of colour and shape – no matter how apparently loosely sketched the latter is in this instance.

It’s also a good illustration of what I mentioned earlier about media. In this case, it’s a “pastel on cotton on coloured paste on burlap; original frame”.

The Path into the Blue
The Path into the Blue (1934) appealed too: again, it’s a simplicity that allows the imagination full rein.

Oh, and it’s got a blue moon in it, which had The Other Half rolling his eyes as I (quietly) burst into the opening refrain of Manchester City’s anthem.

Of the more abstract works, I also liked The Invention (watercolour on cotton on plywood, 1934) and, quite differently, The Other Half particularly liked Still Life with Crucifers (oil on linen on cardboard, 1925).

Still life with Crucifers
Of the fantastical and the fairy tale, Battle Scene from the Comic-Fantastic Opera ‘The Seafarer’ (oil, graphite, watercolour and gouache on paper, bordered with watercolour, ink and gouache on cardboard, 1923) has it by the bucketload.

Comedy (watercolour and oil transfer drawing on paper, 1921) is just one more example of many with a playful and yet strange quality about it.

It was Klee himself who said that drawing was “taking a line for a walk”.

The Tate’s exhibition, which is on until March, offers a pefect opportunity to take the eyes for a walk and let the imagination run wild.

Just dont expect to see it in anything less than an hour and a half.

Friday, 27 December 2013

Thoughts on Christmas past

Boxing Day at the 'mall'. What it's all about?
Over and over again on Christmas Day came the call: ‘The telly is crap!”

Admittedly it wasn’t the only recurring theme on Twitter and Facebook: there were also plenty of complaints – from young adults mostly – that they hadn’t got the ‘right’ presents and that, as a result, their Christmas had been ruined, just ruined.

Now the latter could well be the social media-savvy attention seeker getting themselves some, so in that case, let’s stick with the former – for the moment at least.

But where to start precisely?

There’s ‘nowt on telly’? For goodness sake – you’ve probably got access to 200 channels at least!

Back when I were knee high to grasshopper (stop that laughing at the back), there were just three channels – if you were lucky.

This was in prehistoric times before the video had been invented; a time when computer and console gaming were things of sci-fi movies, and social media ... ? Well, hardly even imagined.

Let’s face it – this was when Orwell’s 1984 was set in a distant future. As only a slight aside, Blair’s dystopian vision was rather less subtle than the one we’re living through now.

But back to matter Christmas.

On those three channels, we always found something to watch.

And if we didn’t, we’d do something else – we might even play games. We didn’t actually expect to be entertained.

Perhaps the 1970s were actually halcyon times and we simply didn’t realise it. Or perhaps society in general has become so obsessed with ‘things’ and with having every possible entertainment provided for it that it has become, in general terms, spoiled and stupid.

For fuck’s sake: out of 200 channels, it’s highly debatable that you won’t find something bearable to watch – and whatever happened to the philosophy of switching off and making your own entertainment?

Why not read a book?

It’s like: ‘hand me everything on a plate: NOW!’

Things – that’s the heart of the problem: things.

And things were what drew people out yesterday – sometimes even foregoing Christmas itself in order to queue – to the shops and malls (the latter, another abysmal import from the US) to do yet more buying of Things.

Now let me be quite clear: it’s nice to get pressies – and it’s nice to give them. I am not averse to having nice possessions.

But people – get the fuck over yourselves. There are limits to how many Things you (we) need. We do not need to shop on Boxing Day – thus ensuring that other people have to do (mostly) low-paid jobs so that we can scramble for something that we probably don’t really need in the first place.

Credit Margaret Thatcher and the neo-liberals for knowing something that many of us didn’t: that large amounts of society appears to genuinely believe that 24/7 retail, for instance, is major progress, and that cheap credit was a master stroke because it gave us the chance to own more and more Stuff.

Are we happier?

Is Christmas better?

Or was that part of the reason that, even with more Stuff – more TV channels, and many more entertainment systems – – so many people took to social media to express their disillusionment?

Of course, part of the problem is that Christmas has become an overhyped commercial event on which a substantial chunk of the national economy relies.

Quite coincidentally, I’m currently reading Alison Uttley’s A Country Child, which I first read in my first year at grammar school – and hated.

A few years ago, some memory of it started to nag at my little grey cells and, eventually, I tracked down the title, who it was by – and a copy.

It takes place over a year in the life of a child from a Derbyshire farm in the late years of the 19th century.

And yet there are many things that I can recognise from the times spent as a child on a farm not many miles from Tebay in Westmorland (or Cumbria, as some insist on calling it these days).

Those were arguably the very happiest days of my childhood – in a simple world that was full of heartiness and joyfulness.

I don’t know how I’d get on with it these days: it was also a very religious world – but not in the dark, surly, Victorian puritan way of my father’s relatives in Plymouth, or even the chapel hellfire and damnation of his own early ministry and of many a dinner table at home.

In Uttley’s book, Christmas is special – and remarkably simple. And whenever I find myself aware that nothing has met the festive hype, I find myself wishing for such a simple world and such a simple Christmas.

In the last few days, The Other Half and I have spent hours in front of the telly, watching – for the most part – family films that leave you with a sense of joy.

In the coming week, I fully intend to ‘do some things’. But even if I don’t, it’s my responsibility – not that of someone else.

That we expect others to serve us up Christmas – or believe that we can simply buy it off the shelf – seems very little removed from how we largely seem to treat politics these days: we want easy options with no demands on our time or intellectual resources.

And in both cases, we lose – and leave others to win.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Monday, 23 December 2013

Little pots of silky lusciousness

Little ramekins of loveliness
As with pretty much anything else in life, if you stick with something, you will learn.

One of my earliest cookery books was Gordon Ramsey’s Passion for Flavour.

Having started cooking, I’d finally picked up his little book of pasta sauces that had come with two pasta bowls and some herbs in a Christmas gift from The Other Half.

Having nearly dazzled myself by managing a velouté sauce, I’d reached for the stars with far more complex dishes in a full book.

It gave us, without too much pain, venison with a chocolate sauce, and crème brûlée with roasted rhubarb.

Well, I say without “too much pain”, but the latter might have involved beginner’s luck, because when I tried it subsequently, the times when I produced something akin to scrambled eggs rather outnumbered the times I managed a silky custard.

At the weekend, however, I needed a recipe for a set custard, since I was making créme Catalan to finish a Catalan meal – Boles de Picolat – as the main, with olives, an anchovy paste (from Collioure), bread and a homemade tapenade to begin.

Créme Catalan is a close relative of the crème brûlée, but is flavoured with orange and has slightly softer texture than the more familiar French version.

Given that the basis is set custard, I decided to return – carefully – to Ramsey’s recipe. And there, I noticed something.

“When the cream mixture starts to boil and rise ...” says the recipe.

It struck me that this is the root of the problem: if the milk/cream is that hot, it’s more likely to scramble to egg mix.

I decided to try it slightly differently.

The milk and cream were heated, but not to boiling point, before being drizzled onto the egg yolk and caster sugar mix and stirred gently in.

Everything was then returned to a clean pan and heated through gently until it started to thicken a little, when the strained juice of a mandarin was added and the mixture was decanted into ramekins.

These were popped in a roasting tin with a little water, and baked in a low oven for around 40 minutes.

After that, they were chilled and went into the fridge over night.

Cometh the hour, however, my blowtorch had run out of fuel and the can I’d bought earlier in the day didn’t have the right fitment, so the only option was the grill.

Using caster sugar instead of anything heavier, I eventually got the tops caramelised – with the added benefit that the heat of the grill had gently softened and warmed the custard, which was very pleasant.

They were silky smooth, with a nice hint of citrus – no hint of scrambled egg.

The lesson, it seems, is not always to fret about cooking to the letter of a recipe, but learning to trust your own instincts and also your own understanding of what is going on.

The ramekins were served, incidentally, with a garnish of redcurrants and physalis – the latter of which was absolutely made for such a purpose.

Such lessons are handy – and today has seen a similar situation as I made a mandarin sorbet. Recipes seemed to have vast amounts of sugar, but I didn’t worry too much about reducing it – or at least the ratio of sugar to juice.

Around a dozen fruits were juiced and sieved, with a generous squeeze of lemon juice added.

To that was added a syrup of 250ml water and around 210 caster sugar that had been allowed to cool after the sugar had all dissolved.

This was then decanted into a box and popped in the freezer.

Take a fork to mix it thoroughly once an hour for about three hours, and then simply allow it to freeze completely.

So easy – and a perfect palate refresher.

And with that, the pre-Christmas prep moves into a new gear.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Christmas highlights a strange relationship with food

Dining out in style?
It struck me yesterday, as I was mulling – not wine, but yet another poor Christmas lunch out – that I have never, on Christmas visits to Paris or Lille, seen (let alone eaten in) restaurants offering a ‘festive menu’.

As I said last week, Eyre Brothers was so good – partly precisely because it sticks to what it knows and what it does best, instead of trying to do something different for just a few weeks of the year.

Yesterday’s lunch was at a rather old and pleasant pub near Croydon, with my parents. In this case, I’m not going to name it, because the issue is wider.

We’d lunched there about six weeks ago – and it was really very pleasant. I’d enjoyed a pint of ale with an entirely edible steak and kidney pie. Proper pub grub – done, if not to the calibre of Tom Kerridge, then decently.

However, since they couldn’t get in to their favoured place this week, we returned, with optimism in our hearts.

It was sadly misplaced.

To be fair, it should have been obvious. They were doing a ‘festive’ menu alongside the normal one.

To start with, I opted for chicken and apricot terrine with pear chutney and sourdough. What can go wrong?

The terrine was pretty bland and so dry that it crumbled. The pear chutney was overly sweet and the sourdough was just a doorstep that had been cut off a loaf – I mean, come on: the least you do in these situations is toast it!

My father had a butternut squash soup that he enjoyed. My mother had the smoked salmon that came with a clumsy garnish of a few small leaves and more of the same bread.

They then both had the roasted duck leg, which was overcooked to the point of toughness.

I had a venison suet pudding, which wasn’t bad: the suet pastry was pleasantly thin; the meat was passable, but the gravy had the taste of being out of a bottle.

All were served with a celeriac mash that was lumpy and unseasoned, cabbage that was so tepid and ‘al dente’ that it was inedible, and a ‘garnish’ of a sprig of raw rosemary shoved in wherever seemed most possible.

That rosemary was perhaps the biggest indicator of there being something seriously wrong. Why would you stab in an inedible garnish like that, on a plate of food that hardly looks scintillating to start with? It’s the culinary equivalent of giving someone the finger.

All dishes were advertised as including chestnuts. In the event, these were noticeable only by their absence.

My father didn’t bother with a dessert: my mother had sticky toffee pudding that lacked on the sticky toffee bit – almost no sauce on the sponge and a couple of drizzles on the plate, plus a scoop of salted caramel ice cream.

I stuck with the ice cream alone, which was pleasant if overly rich.

My father was so peeved by the whole business that he didn’t finish his pint of cider, while my mother and I left a third of a bottle of wine. I say ‘left’, but I screwed the top on firmly, wiped down the glass with a paper napkin, walked out with it and popped in the fridge back in their kitchen.

It’s saying something when my parents – and my father in particular – are so annoyed by a meal. Neither are them are remotely ‘foodies’ and will see greater quality in meals than I can.

The root of the problems?

Putting on a seasonal menu when it’s not what you’re used to doing, and catering for far more people than you’re used to catering for.

However, on the basis not simply of yesterday, but of a number of experiences over the years, I suspect also that, in some cases, there is a feeling that people won’t really notice – not least because they’re knocking back the booze.

The increasingly shrill laughter in the room next door to us seemed to illustrate that this was probable.

And the equation works two ways.

Anecdotally, but also on the basis of comments from other people, many do not particularly expect good food – or are not looking for it – but simply want the ‘ambiance’.

As I touched on last week, you can end up paying as much for poor quality as you do for good. Yesterday’s meal was far from cheap.

But this seems to be part of the same syndrome that has Brits insisting on having sprouts with their Christmas dinner even when they dislike them.

There is also, of course, the legendary reluctance to complain, thus allowing places to get away with below-par food.

I didn’t complain yesterday simply because I had no desire to make my parents feel more awkward than they already were. And frankly, I too just wanted to get out of the place.

Just to note, the service yesterday was attentive and pleasant: the quality of the food and of the cooking was not our waitresss fault.

So, in large numbers, we go out to dine at Christmas, apparently expecting or looking for ‘festive’ meals.

We put up with poor food and say that the ‘ambiance’ is more important, and then pay over the odds for what is put in front of us.

Businesses are thus allowed to get away with providing a below-standard product.

As I said at the top of this post: when I’ve been in France at this time of year, I have not seen ‘festive menus’ – seasonal menus, yes, but that’s something different.

Various people have claimed that the state of food in the UK has never been better.

At the top end of dining, this is absolutely true. But there’s an awful lot below that, and Christmas seems not only to emphasise the shortcomings, but also to illustrate the rather perverse relationship that Britons seem still to have with their food.

At this time of year, you might assume that people would expect the best. The reality seems to be opposite – and it seems to be acceptable.

Mind, since campaigners are still struggling to have accepted the idea of basic, national standards for hospital food, as though government doesn’t understand the link between health and what we eat, is any of this really surprising?