Archive for the ‘Artists’ Category

I went to see an exhibition of Saloua Raouda Choucair at Tate Modern. Born in Beirut in 1916, she trained for a brief time in Paris under the tutelage of Ferdinand Leger. Her life and career has been however spent in Lebanon, working in a cultural and political enviornment that was difficult for artists, even more so for women artists. She isn’t well known outside the Middle East, and whilst it’s a shame that this is being redressed when her career is over (she is now very infirm), at least her work is finally being exhibited internationally.
She started her career with painting (the self-portrait that advertised the exhibition is beautiful but the least representative work in the collection). There was some early figurative work, and her women in the Les Peintres Celebres series are a response to Leger’s Le Grand Dejeuner. Her women are funny, educated and whilst not unaware of their effect on the viewer, unconcerned by it. Our judgements are our problem. As they look directly at the viewer, they are comfortable in their own skin.
The foundation of her work is to harmonise non-representational Middle Eastern art and European abstraction. Her later gouaches are entirely abstract, using the curve and the straight line of Islamic design in a repetition that feels very musical, like beats in a bar. Her canvases are the nearest I’ve come to experiencing music as a visual medium. There is of course a beautiful harmony in Islamic art, but her paintings feel also modern, syncopated.
It is in sculpture that she truly finds self expression. She was fascinated by architecture, and said that in another life, she’d have trained as an architect. Some of her sculptures are like models for modular housing, all have a relationship with space and light that feels architectural as much as artistic. More than any exhibition I’ve been to, I wanted to touch her sculptures. The space inside them allows a sense of great freedom and kinesis, even in a small work. But it also allows the viewers’ imagination to operate, to move into the work and respond very immediately and very personally to it.
She made a series of sculptures inspired by the structure of Sufi poetry, modules which interconnect but which also stand alone, to be as stanzas which compose the work. They are beautiful, sensuous structures which clearly hold within them both the economy and the expansiveness of poetry and of Sufi thought. The lyricism is manifest, and yet open to individual interpretation. Some of the dual sculptures are erotically charged and deeply tender, there is also a familial quality to several pieces.
Choucair’s latter years have been a continuation of her preoccupations – the curve and the line, light and space. Nylon wires stretched inside frames create sculptures of great delicacy and purity, which also have movement and strength. The tension in the structures hold infinite potentialities as the viewer moves round the twisting, sensuous lines and curves.
Choucair is not a ‘great’ artist, she is too small perhaps, both in terms of output and influence. Yet this exhibition moved me and inspired me more than any other I can think of. Hers is a body of work that is not about grand gestures or directional pieces. She makes art that is compact, and yet full of space and energy and light and possibility. Her non-representational abstraction is utterly humane, full of sensuality and familiarity. There will be no more work by her, so I am profoundly grateful that I have seen this collection.


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Hockney’s landscapes at the Royal Academy was the most joyful art exhibition I have ever been to. C and I spent three and half hours there, and thought that if there was a way to measure the happiness levels of visitors at the beginning and again at the end, there must be an increase.  Plenty of reviews have said that there was simply too much in this exhibition, of varying quality, but I didn’t feel overwhelmed by the volume, or bored by the recurring themes.  Hockney is observing the tiny details, the subtle yet dramatic changes occurring as the seasons pass, and invites the viewer to take pleasure in stillness, in the magnitude of the tiny.

‘It is the vice of a vulgar mind to be thrilled by bigness, to think that a thousand square miles are a thousand times more wonderful than one square mile, and that a million square miles are almost the same as heaven’  E.M.Forster

Hockney does do bigness of course, both in his use of multiple canvases and his perspectives on the Grand Canyon and Yosemite.  But I think the multiplying effect shows his fascination with the one square mile, and that it is by appreciating each part that we can wonder at the magnitude.  The majority of the pieces in the exhibition are of Yorkshire, the place of his childhood, and whilst it seems odd there are no grey skies, no muted shades, his bright colour palette creates a feeling that is celebratory, riotous.  He is in his 70s, and his workrate is prodigious.  That in itself is admirable.  Perhaps there is too much.  Perhaps his eye is not what it was.  But his joyfulness and vigour are ‘ebulliant to the point of jubilation’, and jubilation is the feeling created for the viewers.

Chick Corea and Gary Burton have been playing together for 40 years, and they seem almost to be reading each other’s minds when C and I saw them at the Barbican.  I know almost nothing about jazz, so had no idea what to expect.  I might have worried I’d find it a bit boring or inaccessible.  It was neither, I was riveted by their musicianship, and lifted by the sense of fun created by these two jazz legends.  A week or so after that, C and I finished our month of ‘virtuoso eccentrics’ with Camille, also at the Barbican.  “You’re my favourite French lady,” yelled one audience member, “will you be my girlfriend?”  She is unlike anyone I’ve ever seen on stage, vital and sexual and fun.  Her voice is an instrument, she makes musical noise with it, as well as straightforwardly singing.  She is a performer as well as a singer, her set is almost like a cabaret.  She borrowed an audience member’s socks to show off her moonwalk, and did a terrific cover of Wanna Be Startin Something.  Her own songs were joyous and playful, but never twee.  Wet Boy seemed to be both sexual and maternal, and her version of Too Drunk To Fuck was filthy and funny.  She is incomparable.

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12 years ago I was in Madrid working as an au pair for a family with a bi-lingual father.  The father had an eclectic selection of English language books, which I worked my way through.  One of these books was a short story collection, The Seventh Horse and Other Tales by Leonora Carrington.  It was a battered Virago copy, and I have no idea how it came to be on the bookshelves.  I fell in love with the surreal tales, a collection of sensual, imaginative tales which disturbed and beguiled me.  When the time came for me to leave Madrid, this book ‘found its way’ into my luggage, and has been with me ever since.  Carrington remained an obsession of mine, this little-known English-born surrealist artist who, still alive, has lived in Mexico for many years. 

When I read that there was going to be a retrospective of her work at Pallant House in Chichester I didn’t hesitate.  I caught the train from London and went to see her work that I’d only ever seen in reproduction on the internet.  The exhibition ‘Surreal Friends – Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo and Kati Horna’  covered the work of three women who had lived and worked together in Mexico, all Europeans fleeing war-torn Europe.  The women shared a surrealist aesthetic, and a belief in the value of women’s lives.  Domestic images, particularly scenes from the kitchen, are central to their work.

It felt like a homecoming.  Carrington’s work was as strange, disturbing, sensual and playful as her prose.  Remedios Varo’s work, which I’d been unfamiliar with, was similar in its concerns but subtly different in execution.  I didn’t want to leave the gallery, I wanted to stay in their world.  They overlapped with Frida Kahlo, and were friends, but their work is more subtle and has more depth.  After a long wait to see Carrington’s art, I felt inspired and comforted by her work and her life.


From Chichester I went to Hastings and to an exhibition called Outsider Art.  The artists were all amateurs, most of whom had mental health problems and had had no exposure to the mainstream art world.  Their stories were moving, but this wasn’t an exercise in patronisation.  The work was powerful and of high quality, and took a look at the world from unusual perspectives. 


On Yom Kippur, my mother and I were taking a break from the synagogue.  We were walking around Stoke Newington, when a man approached us.  I stiffened, immediately expecting the London request for money.  Shame on me.  The man explained that his son was an artist and had an exhibition in a tiny gallery off the main street.  As a proud father, he wanted to tell people to go and see his son’s work.  My mother and I went to see the exhibition, and it was stunning.  Joshua Bloom had a science undergraduate degree, but clearly had an a strong artistic sensibility that has been influenced by his scientific training.  His photos, particularly of landscapes, are almost abstract in their perspectives, but never without humanity.  It felt like a very special, and unexpectedly aposite experience to be seeing his work with my mother, because his father had stopped us on the street and wanted to share his paternal pride with strangers.


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It’s been a long draught.  I’m not sure why, lack of time and money I guess.  But this week I went to the theatre and to an art gallery, both for the first time in months.

I’ve been to many plays over the years at the National Theatre, and been underwhelmed by most.  Royal Hunt of the Sun was risible,  Zoe Wannamaker was embarrassing in The Rose Tattoo.  Matthew McFadyean was limp as usual, and Gambon swallowed his lines in Henry IV part I (I sold my ticket for part II).  August:Osage County was like an overlong American episode of EastEnders, and even the incredible Penelope Wilton couldn’t rescue The House of Bernarda Alba.  The only two things I’ve loved were Simon Russell Beale in Life of Galileo, a terrific, muscular new translation by David Hare, and who wouldn’t watch SRB boiling a kettle, and the utterly spectacular A Matter of Life and Death. 

So when J asked me along to see The White Guard at the National, my expectations were pretty low.  The Master and Magherita by Bulgakov is one of my favourite books, but I thought a play about the Ukraine during the Russian Revolution would be highly unlikely to hold my attention.  Unusually, I hadn’t read any press beforehand, otherwise I might have got a sense of the sort of night ahead of me.  I’m glad I didn’t, as the result was such a happy surprise. 

The play (Andrew Upton’s new translation) is very funny, laugh out loud funny.  The characters are real, three dimensional people, not just ciphers making political points.  The set (and despite all of my previous bad experiences with the National, they know how to make impressive sets) was extraordinary, it operated as an extension of the character’s experiences.    The play restored my faith in the National, and made me hungry to get back into theatre going as a regular night out.

I’d wanted to see Chris Ofili’s exhibition at Tate Britain since it opened, but hadn’t got organised.  I got an email reminder to say this was the final weekend, and realised as I was out of London I wouldn’t get to see it.  Tate Britain is a ten-fifteen minute walk from my office.  Friday lunchtime became now or never.  I asked E if he wanted to come, and always up for a jolly, he said yes.  We had 90 minutes to get there, round, and back to the office. 

I’d seen a couple of Ofili’s paintings in galleries over the years, and would recognise some of his work from reproductions, but E had never seen his work, so had no expectations.  It made it all the more special that he discovered something new, an artist he loved, as a result.  The work is so intense, so vibrant, undeniably beautiful.  There’s a tiny suspicion he might be a (very ornate, beautiful) one trick pony, but the later work shows he has grown and developed.   In the midst of a gallery full of largely traditional, white artists, it felt like a breath of the modern, the real, to see his work.  The only sad thing was that there were only white faces looking at the exhibition, at least whilst we were there.

It’s perhaps not unconnected that I’d experienced my first attack of writer’s block at a time when I hadn’t seen any theatre or visual art.  Influences and inspirations come from all areas, but without exposure to  different art forms, your own creative endeavours can stagnate.

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