Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Graphic genius: Escher at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

House of Stairs
Now don’t get me wrong: regenerating 10 derelict houses is A Good Thing – but come on, is it really art?

That is the question triggered by the announcement a few weeks ago that this year’s Turner Prize has been awarded to Assemble, an architecture and design collective, for its work on derelict properties in Toxteth, Liverpool.

Of course, if you can label a ‘supernatural study centre, which screens interviews with people who claim to have had paranormal activities as ‘art’, then perhaps it is.

If you can use ‘art’ to describe an avant-garde, a cappella 24-minute opera (rather than ‘music’ or ‘opera’), then that regeneration might well qualify as art.

Yet it is indicative of the mess that art is in these days – not least in the UK – and of the just how far up it’s own fundament that the art establishment is, that it still treats with disdain anything that might be a bit ‘graphic’ – and that’s not ‘graphic’ in the sexual sense.

All of which brings us to what is one of the best exhibitions to be seen on these shores this year, having first been seen at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and now at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Ascending and Descending
The Amazing World of MC Escher is the first major UK retrospective – even more incredible when you consider that there us only example of his work on display in a UK gallery (Day and Night at the Hunterian in Glasgow).

Maurits Cornelis Escher was born in Leeuwarden in the Netherlands in 1898. A sickly child, he failed his final exams – except for maths – and went to study architecture at the School for Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem, before he was talent-spotted by the head of the graphic art section and hauled across to that discipline.

If his name isn’t on the tip of everyone’s tongue, millions are familiar with his work – particularly the illusory pieces that feature, for instance, impossible staircases.

Adored by mathematicians and hippies alike, he remains suspect for the art establishment – doubtless not least because he was a graphic artist.

And in an era when UK art schools no longer even bother to teach drawing, his dazzling skills as a draughtsman could be viewed as unfashionable for those who might prefer to pretend to enjoy turgid filmed rants or photographs of ancient vases being vandalised.

The works are even more extraordinary when you realise that many of them are prints – and as someone who has done a teensy weensy bit of printing this year, the level of complexity and detail proved almost mind blowing.

The most famous works are here: the illusions of impossible buildings include Ascending and Descending, a lithograph from 1960, which was one of the first of Escher’s works that I became aware of – if memory serves me correctly, via a feature on Blue Peter.

These works also include House of Stairs, a 1951 lithograph, with its rather delightful little ‘curl-ups’ trundling up and down and around.

And there are also pieces that demonstrate Escher’s fascinating with representing flat and three-dimensional objects, as with the little Reptiles (1943) that crawl out of the paper and become ‘real’ before crawling back into the paper, while Drawing Hands (1948) is another dazzling example of that same fascination.

You can quite easily get lost in 1938’s iconic Day and Night, which incorporates Escher’s famous tessellations – a technique inspired by studying Islamic geometric patterns during a trip to Alhambra in Granada.

Day and Night
The tessellation-based lithograph, Encounter, from 1944 has something about it that evokes Dante – a point that may (or may not) be related to its being produced during WWII.

And of the tessellations, Metamorphosis II, a woodcut from 1939, takes us on an extraordinary graphic journey of transformation – here, taking up one wall of the exhibition rooms.

The statistics are incredible. This print measures 19.2 by 389.5 cm and was printed from 20 blocks on 3 combined sheets.

A similar, but much larger version – Metamorphosis III – of this adorned the post office on the Kerkplein in the Hague, made in 1967-8 as a commission. It was moved to a new home at Schipol Airport in 2008.

Still Life and Street
But as with all the works on display in Dulwich, here you have a supperb opportunity to get really close up to them to be able to revel in the detail.

Eye, with its reflected human skull, is one of his eight mezzotints and has wonderful Manet-like blacks – evidence (were it required) of Escher’s mastery of more than one print-making technique.

But there are plenty of less-familiar works here too.

For me, one of his earliest works, the woodcut Bonifacio (1928) created after visiting Corsica, is just astonishing – not least for the extraordinary variety of marks that he used.

Still Life and Street, a woodcut from 1937, is one of those deceptive pieces that it takes a moment to realise are impossible.

For all the surreal nature of much of Escher’s work, he was not attached to Surrealism and doesn’t seem to have known or communicated with any of the Surrealists artists.

For all that his work appealed to the likes of hippies and the Flower Power generation, he refused a commission for Rolling Stones cover after Mick Jagger made the mistake of writing to him by his first name.

A quiet man, he was far more interested in corresponding with mathematicians, Harold Coxeter and Roger Penrose.

But that’s not to say that his works are po-faced. They’re often playful and full of irony. And they remain technically astonishing.

A relatively small exhibition by the standards of the vast blockbusters found in central London galleries in recent years, it nonetheless takes plenty of time to view – simply because you need the time to concentrate and digest.

But if the art establishment continues to turn up its nose, then that should not stop us relishing just what a fabulous artist Escher was and just what a magnificent legacy he leaves – and as an example of just what graphic art can mean.

The Amazing World of MC Escher is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 17 January. Find out more at

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Enjoy 400 years of Christmas in Hackney

A hint of holly, 16th century style
The advent of Advent means that it’s just about decent to mention a certain winter festival – which also means that it’s the perfect time to recommend a visit to the Geffrye Museum to check out Christmas Past: 400 years of seasonal traditions in English homes.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, the Geffrye is a museum of the English domestic interior in Hackney.

First opened in 1914 and extended in 1998, the main body of the museum sits in the Grade 1-listed almshouses of the Ironmongers’ Company, which were built in 1714 thanks to a bequest from the eponymous Sir Robert Geffrye.

In these are recreations of rooms through the centuries – rooms of the urban ‘middling sort’, as an introduction explains.

It’s a fascinating museum at any time, but each year at this point in the year, the rooms are decked out in appropriate Christmas garb, providing a further educational aspect to a visit.

It’s intriguing to see how – in middle-class homes at least – Christmas faded rather over the centuries, with many old, pagan-based traditions dying out.

A recognisable Victorian Christmas
The early rooms, starting with the 17th century, see little in the way of decoration – a small sprig of holly here or there leaves you hunting to spot indications of the season.

What we recognise as Christmas only began in the 19th century, in the Victorian era, when the relevant room is decked out in a way that is instantly recognisable.

The notes point out that, although Prince Albert is often credited with introducing Christmas trees to Britain from Germany, this overstates the situation.

But his enthusiasm for the Tannenbaum was crucial in its developing popularity – not least give the swathes of the public who were caught up in the cult of the young royal family.

Unlike the festive tree, the Christmas card was an English invention – from Sir Henry Cole in 1843, although it was a couple of decades before it really took off, with the Post Office having to ask people to ‘post early’ by 1880 – although that only meant post by Christmas Eve!

Christmas in hip Shoreditch
Interestingly, the 19th century was also when there was a revival in some of the old traditions that had faded over the centuries: for instance, an old Twelfth Night game reappeared, but as something closer to charades.

There are a number of rooms covering the 20th century – there were many changes in design over that period – and all these reflect a world that we are more personally familiar with.

The exhibition takes us to ‘the present’, ending in a “converted industrial building or warehouse in the newly-fashionable area around Shoreditch”.

This year’s look at Christmas past is on at the Geffrye until 3 January. There are plenty of activities and events organised over that period too.

And a fine café and shopped absolutely packed with Christmas baubles and games gives visitors more to do.

If you can’t make it in the coming weeks, the Geffrye is a gem at any time of the year – and with the Hoxton overground station right behind it now, it’s even easier than before to reach.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Adventures in Tintin land

Small can be beautiful – although that seems to be all too easily forgotten when it comes to exhibitions.

In London at least, the recent trend seems to be that bigger is always and automatically better, with shows that can leave visitors utterly exhausted by the time they reach the end.

So it’s a shock to the system to visit Somerset House for the autumn/winter minibuster, Tintin: Hergé’s masterpiece, which occupies just three rooms.

The boyish reporter first appeared in a weekly cartoon strip in 1929 in Le Petit Vingtième, a newspaper supplement for children and youngsters.

But since that debut, Tintin and Snowy (Milous, in the original French) have become global icons, with more than 200 million copies of the famous 24 ‘albums’ sold in more than 70 languages.

Hergé – real name, Georges Remi (1907-1983) – made a signature of his ligne claire (clear line) style, and one of the primary treats of this exhibition is the opportunity to see some of his original drawings up close and personal.

There is a small selection of black and white pages on display, properly laid out as per the finished comic page, and without the lettering – done my a lettering artist until this century, when publishers started substituting digitally-produced text.

Not only are Hergé’s clean lines – executed in India ink – clear to see, but behind these, you can still pick out pencil guidelines, while there are also dabs of white gouache, which was used as a corrective.

There’s some brief biographical data on the artist – I particularly appreciated discovering that he was self taught – but this is not an exhibition where you’ll be overwhelmed by words.

What it does also mention is that comics are known as the ‘ninth art’ in the French-speaking world, which does not have anything like the snobbery attached to art that we do in the UK (of which more in a week or so).

Much of the pleasure comes from seeing how the rooms have been decked out with pictures from the books – like the walls of a mansion, decked in paintings. It’s like walking into one of Herge’s drawings.

In some cases, the curators have utilised the physical building itself – as with a picture of Snowy darting up a chimney from the hearth and with Tintin himself looking in at one of the windows.

And then, in a reminder of the architectural precision of Hergé’s work, there are a number of models, including Tintin and friends driving through a tickertape parade in New York, and his apartment – and who, looking around, won’t wish that these models were not behind glass but could be played with!

This may be a small exhibition, but it’s free – and if you don’t come out of it wearing a broad smile, then there’s probably something wrong with you.

It is, quite simply, a pleasure.

Tintin: Hergé’s masterpiece is on at Somerset House until 31 January

Friday, 20 November 2015

Judi Dench shines in a disappointing Winter's Tale

Judi Dench – a Shakespearean masterclass
The Winter’s Tale might not be one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays, but it holds a very special place in my personal canon.

As an A’ level text, it became as familiar as a lover. And in 1982, our English teacher at Lancaster Girls’ Grammar School took our class to Stratford to see the RSC perform it on stage.

The cast included Gemma Jones – who I knew from BBC’s The Duchess of Duke Street – Sheila Hancock and one Patrick Stewart, who was an associate artist with the company, but relatively unknown beyond that sphere.

Thinking back inn the last couple of weeks, I’ve realised just what a seminal piece of theatre it was for me. It was the first time that I had seen a straight play and been left jaw-on-floor shattered, tears streaming down my face.

This was as Paulina led Leontes from the stage at the end of what we know as the first part of the play. My god – it was staggering!

And it was the moment I decided that Patrick Stewart was a personal god. He turned in an absolutely superb performance. Even now, over 30 years later, I can still close my eyes and see parts of that production in my mental movie house.

At various drama school and polytechnic auditions, I’d used one of Paulina’s big speeches as my classical offering.

A few short years later, I was in a very high-quality non-pro production – as Dorcas, one of the shepherdesses. These were the days when I was cast quite regularly as some variation or other of a tart with a heart of gold (or not).

But since then, I have not seen a production.

So when it was announced, last spring, that Kenneth Branagh’s new company would open a year-long residency at The Garrick with just this play, I leapt into ticket-buying mode.

The added bonuses were that I’d never seen Sir Ken live, so would rectify that, while Judi Dench was slated to play Paulina.

Memory is a fascinating thing.

I was astonished at how much huge chunks of the script has such a deep sense of familiarity as it was spoken.

Christopher Oram’s design is very good – simple staging, with an early 20th century look.

But some of the acting was odd to say the least – very shouty. And into that category comes Branagh, in a performance that never caught the melodic beauty of the Bard’s verse, but is broken and staccato.

Was this Leontes done Method style? I don’t know the answer, but it was disappointing.

Not that he was alone: Polixenes (Hadley Fraser) and Florizel (Tom Bateman in an eternally thankless role) were shouty too, adding to the sense that this was a directorial decision.

Which is a shame on many levels.

The pastoral scenes – and getting the correct balance and pace between the bookending scenes in Sicily and the those in Bohemia is not easy – seemed somewhat hysterically played, with Mopsa and Dorcas, for instance, engaged in a really rather OTT cat fight.

Thank the theatrical gods, then, for Dame Judi, who illustrated – once again – just how good she is. Paulina is a gem of a role. Dench didn’t shout: even when she rails at Leontes, her voice never sounds strained.

She conveys sense and great emotional depth, but never, ever without also giving us the poetry – the music – of Shakespeare.

She can flounce with simply an intonation. She can convey power and rage and desperate sadness and irony with the slightest of inflections.

In all the ‘national treasure’ stuff, it’s easy to forget just how good – no: how great – Judi Dench really is.

As others seemed flummoxed, she gave us a masterclass. Frankly, her Paulina was worth the ticket price alone.

There were other compensations: Michael Pennington was excellent in the unfortunately rather small role of Antigonus (‘exit, pursued by a bear’), while John Shrapnel turns in a very good Camilo.

Jimmy Yuill has a couple of moments where he rises above the pastoral shtick to convey real tragedy as the shepherd, while Miranda Raison is a dignified Hermione, if rather lacking in any of the sort of guts that I remember of Jones.

Interestingly, at least one critic has praised Branagh’s fall into jealousy. I found it unconvincing. More than three decades after seeing that Stratford production, I remember Stewart’s descent starting with him joking about Polixines and Hermione. Then his own joke backfires and the seed of real jealousy takes root.

It’s possible that, in the few days between the late preview I saw and the opening night the playing was vastly improved, but I find that difficult to believe.

Rob Ashford is co-director with Branagh and perhaps here lies the heart of the problems: with one director on stage and one off, confusion was always a possibility.

So it’s a sadly unsatisfactory evening – except for a true great who can still light up a theatre. 

Thursday, 27 August 2015

The books are sorted

Every year it’s the same: as the beach hoves into view, there’s a tower of books somewhere in the flat that, like a form of literary jenga, has items removed and others added as the days pass.

This is the holiday reading list and the compilation of it has become a tradition.

There are people who look askance at me and ask why on earth I don’t read on some form of electronic device and thus remove the need to carry books at all.

There are a number of reasons – including my lack of interest in exposing electronic gadgets to the sea, salt, sand etc.

There’s the point that, while I am far from being a luddite when it comes to technology and while I do have a tablet, I actually like books – not just for what they hold within their pages, but for the sheer physical feel and smell and look of them.

And it is most certainly true that, since I spend most of my working days in front of a computer screen, not to spend recreational time reading on another screen!

This year’s reading list is topped – or bottomed, given how the pile is currently constructed – by a collection of the translated works of Spanish poet Antonio Machado.

Machado had to flee Franco’s fascists and made his way over the border into southern France, where he died in Collioure. He was buried in the village cemetery.

It seems like the time to get to grips with such a figure.

Next up, was going to have been Stephen King’s Under the Dome, an 880-page epic.

I ‘discovered’ King back in the early to mid-’80s: I’d injured my back at polytechnic as a result of the actions of someone running a ‘voluntary’ workshop, and some months later been thrown off the course after my family GP signed me off for a week extra at Easter because of the state I was in.

Over the next year or so, I found I could barely read. I’d pick up a book – sometimes something new, sometimes an old favourite – but could rarely get more than a few pages in.

One day, I was browsing a little local bookshop in Lancaster, when I came across some of King’s novels.

I don’t think I’d ever read any horror before – and if you’d asked at the time, I suspect I would have declared that it didn’t appeal to me. But something made me pull Christine off the shelf and decide to buy it.

It was finished in days. The Stand followed. And many more.

When I need a reading boost, I still turn to King.

Last year, I’d had such a need and had bought myself Revival, which I enjoyed. As a result, my parents decided to get me Under the Dome for Christmas. For various reasons, I only got my hands on it just under a fortnight ago – and thought how apt that timing was, as it would make marvelous holiday reading.

It won’t be seeing Collioure.

A couple of days later, going through another slow-reading phase, I picked it up. It was finished in eight days – a rollercoaster of a tale. King really is a master storyteller: he makes it seem impossibly simple, but his stories have complexity and great subtlety and they catch a great deal of truth about the condition of being human.

With that now off the list, I’ve picked up Duma Key to give me another dose of King.

Every year, I try to give myself some ‘serious’ literature to read. I’ve been saying for some time that this would be The Year of Proust – except that it won’t. I need easy reading.

With that in mind, Jonathon Meades’s Museum Without Walls has also now fallen off the list.

What are still there are Anno Dracula Cha Cha Cha and Moriarty The Hound of the D’Ubervilles, both by Kim Newman.

I’ve read his first two Dracula books – and thoroughly enjoyed them – so decided to take the third, plus the Moriarty book, which promises more cultural mash-up fun, and already has me thinking of Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (The book. Not the film).

The second volume of Paul O’Grady’s autobiography, The Devil Rides Out, is present on the pile, as is John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids.

And then there’s the book I’ve just started, but won’t get anywhere near through before departure later this week.

Back in 1987, I picked up a copy of Frank Herbert’s Dune. I was impressed enough that I bought Dune Messiah, but not impressed by that (I no longer even have it).

On the 50th anniversary of its publication, it seemed the perfect time to give it a re-read – and already I’m seeing and appreciating things I didn’t first time around. It's also possible that the film has managed to remove any sense of the themes of the book from my mind.

Finally, the most recent tome to join the stack is Redemption Ark, the second part of Alastair Reynolds’s Revelation Space trilogy. I don’t mind a bit of space opera and read the first part a few years ago. Since it’s part of The Other Half’s extensive sci-fi collection, it was an easy pick.

And with just over 24 hours to go, that’s the holiday reading sorted. Perhaps …