Monday, December 11, 2017

Old Music, Contemporary Art

I had the opportunity this year of hearing two of Montiverdi's works at the concertgebouw in Bruges. Orfeo in August and The Vespers in October.  On a visit to the Palazzo Ducale in Mantova over the summer I was able to see the room where Montiverdi's 'Orfeo' was first performed - as well as Mantegna's wonderful tromp l' oeil fresco paintings of the Gonzaga family in the Sala delgi Spozi. These long dead faces from a family portrait live on in the thin layer of paint and plaster on a wall that has apparently absorbed the past occupants of the room and communicated their visible essence back to us like a mirror that mediates past and present.  

Strangely perhaps, its the corners or edges of things that frame the main subject that interest me most, and the smaller less important rooms where light from windows on simply plastered walls and space perceived or suggested through open doors become the central more intense focus of contemplation. This room above in Mantova has some of the qualities I would like to create in the rooms below in Bruges

The patterns and forms we imprint in time and space, the traces of our living movement, remain behind, long after we have gone, fixed in inanimate forms and surfaces, like a shell or bone.  A  molded and painted surface of plaster is reanimated by the reflected gaze of successive generations and a score of music comes to life again in living breath of its performers and the ear or the audience. 
Building and modeling a small plastered wooden panel with a rounded arch and preparing a smooth gesso ground with successive layers of sanded plaster and paint ready to paint on is very like the process of preparing the walls in the house. First ensuring the structure is sound and all cracks and joints are consolidated, then building up successive layers of rough and smooth lime plaster to produce a flat smooth surface before building up layers of creamy white lime paint that will frame the light and space of the room rather like the panel will frame the sacred image with its surrounding of reflective gold leaf. Both seem to bring a mystery to life and both seem like repetitive, reflective, meditative and contemplative activities best pursued in quiet seclusion. Both are challenges that require effort, both bring an intense satisfaction and contentment.  

Follower of Rogier Van de Weyden. c1500 Virgin nursing the Christ Child

William Kentridge's 'Smoke, Ashes and Fable' at Sint. Jan's Hospital explores the past in dreamlike narratives that cross the boundaries between film, photography, animation, drawing collage and installation. Text and image become the means by which personal memory, myth, history and imagination are brought to bear on the theme of time and transience which resonates with this particular place where sickness and death were mediated with medicine, art and religion for hundreds of years. 

I was reading Alan Hollinghurst's, 'The Stranger's Child' over the break and this also resonated with themes of time and transience. Several generations of a family are the subject of literary research and personal memory as the words and manuscripts of the fictional first world war poet Cecil Valance are scrambled and reconfigured and re-contextualized by the changing times and fashions up to the present day. What is perhaps significant is not so much what is remembered as how much is forgotten, lost or misunderstood. 

One is reminded of W.H Auden's poem 'In Memory of W B Yeats' 

'The words of the poet are modified in the guts in the living' 

From 5th  May  -16th September 2018 the Bruges Triennial will explore the 'liquid' nature of contemporary globalized society with artists and architects converging on the historic centre of the city to explore the relation and resonances between old and new. I plan to take an art trip to explore this with students. The text below comes from the website. 

'A state of constant flux, driven by variation, pluralism and ambivalence can lead to uncertainty and even fear. But Bruges Triennial 2018 adopts the opposite stance as a possible beacon, a fluid city, open and involved, the engine of social, cultural and political change. Bruges as a creative melting pot where diversity leads to encounter. A seedbed for innovation in an urban context. With their artistic and architectural installations, the artists participating in Bruges Triennial 2018 | Liquid City – Vloeibare Stad create hospitable public spaces in the inner city. The temporary modifications they make to lesser-known and iconic places in the historic cityscape open up new opportunities for dialogue for residents and visitors alike.' 

...........and in May also 'Gold-Brugse Stemmen Uit De Renaissance'  brings ancient works from the golden age of Bruges performed by contemporary musicians to various venues in the city with music from three masses.  The Tallis Scholars perform Obrecht, Missa de Sancto Donatiano in the Sint. Jacob's Kirk, the Huelgas Ensemble Clement. Missa Gaude lux Donatiane at te Concertgebouw and Psallents, Obrecht. Missa de  Sancto Martino at the Onze-Lieve Vrouwekerk, all taking place over the long ascension weekend and not to be missed !
 My own walls upstairs in the renovation are finally turning to a soft white creamy colour and as I fill, plaster, sand, smooth and give a first layer of lime paint my thoughts are turning to what I will hang and where. I will give pride of place to my father's collage which depicts a very particular Northern English landscape that could include references to any number of places from Liverpool to Lancaster with the mountains of the Lake District or North Wales in the background seen over either Morecambe Bay or the Mersey Estuary and an industrial townscape landscape with buildings from the 16th to the 20th century. 

His method and process is to slowly build up the image from tiny fragments of torn paper from magazines etc that have the correct colour, pattern or texture. These reconstituted elements combine with drawing and layers of fine painting  to create a landscape of recollection, memory and reconstruction that is as accurate an evocative of both the feel and appearance of Northern industrial England as it is as unspecific about a particular or exact location, place or topography. This as much an interior as an exterior landscape, invented from observations collected and stored, and from memory and imagination and it is perhaps surprisingly more real and potent because of it. 

From the long extinct smoky chimneys of Northern England to the smoke, ashes and fable of William Kentridge's exhibition I added my own woodsmoke this weekend and was glad of it with the cold weather and sudden snow fall. Home is where the hearth / heart  is......

Monday, October 30, 2017

Forging an identity

Follower of Jan Van Scorel. oil on panel.1535
Mark Rylance as Cromwell in BBC TV adaptation of Hilary Mantel's novel Wolf Hall
Portrait of Thomas Cromwell. Hans Holbein
Oil and tempera on oak panel, 781 mm x 619 mm,
National Portrait Gallery, London
Finished framing in a period style black molded Dutch frame a self-portrait in the style of a follower of Jan Van Scorel from 1535. (The original is in the National Gallery in London.) Over the mantelpiece in Bruges it makes me roughly the same age as the older bits of the house. Apart from playfully imagining a high social status as a Renaissance gentleman, with Roman intaglio signet ring (rather like the portrait of Thomas Cromwell which Mark Rylance recreates from Hans Holbein's original), as a portrait in the 'vanitas' or 'memento mori' tradition it contains both Christian contemplative and classical stoic philosophical references as well which can be read in both the skull and flower. The allusion to the natural cycles of death and regeneration, metamorphoses and transformation is continued in the trompe l' oeil butterfly on the ledge at the bottom of the painting which alludes to Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi or Chuang Chou's famous statement. 

Once upon a time, I Chuang Chou dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awakened, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between man and butterlfy is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called transformation of material things.  

As translated by Lin Yutang

The Art of Persuasion: Euphoric Faces.

 Recently with a group of parents and students I have been painting scenery for the school musical 'Bye Bye Birdie' set in 1950s America. To create the 'outside' scenes I am creating large advertising hoardings with typical advertisements from the period that will form one side of two rotating 'corners of houses' and help to create a social, cultural and historical atmosphere in keeping with post war America. 

The strange ecstatic expressions of euphoria brought about by the objects of desire in a mass consumer capitalist culture (in this case Timex watch and a Coke bottle) are curiously similar to those of the Chinese cultural revolution like this one below from 1971. Advertising and propaganda are essentially the same thing and the art and psychology of persuasion differs little from one ideological system to another. They all promise ultimate satisfaction or liberation, manifested in a material form here and now, evidenced by the smiling youthful, beautiful, happy faces of wishes fulfilled  Gerrit van Honthorst's St. Francis, with his ecstatic expression of acceptance as he receives the stigmata, suggests that sacrifice and suffering lead to a heavenly reward in a future paradise which is elusive if not impossible in this life. 
Designer: Revolutionary Committee of Tianjin Industrial Exhibition Hall (天津市工业展览馆革命委员会)
1971, February
Turn philosophy into a sharp weapon in the hands of the masses

Gerrit van Honthorst, Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata, 17th century

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Anniversary Recollections.

G. E. Norman at 13 years old in 1911.

'.....If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.'

Major John McCrae – 1915 - Boezinge

Kathe Kollwitz sculpture Vlaslo German Cemetery
It seemed appropriate that a week which began on Monday by raising the ghosts of the past in a road trip across West-Flanders with P. commemorating the 100 year anniversary of my great uncle George Ernest Norman's death on the 31st July 1917 at the beginning offensives of the Battle of Passchendaele in WW1, ended with a performance of Montiverdi's 'Orfeo' in Brugge as part of the MA Festival based around the theme from Dante's 'La Divina Comedia'.

'Monteverdi’s iconic opera articulates Orpheus’ attempts to soothe the keepers of Hades with his voice and his lyre. He is allowed to release his beloved Eurydice from the realm of the dead, on the one condition that he does not turn around to look at her. Leonardo García Alarcón and his musicians are the fitting performers for this story about life and death, longing and recollection.'

We attended the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate on which he is commemorated with his name and regiment - 2nd/5th Bn. Lancashire Fusiliers. I also uploaded information and pictures to the names list at the museum in Ypres based on the paintings I made for the exhibition 'Memory and Metaphor' in which he features in two paintings, 'Ancestors' and 'Ghosts'.

Past and future are experienced as recollection, action and projection in the present moment, internally and externally in relationships between subject and object perceived through the senses and mind. This reflex continually creates both visible, invisible, mental, physical, real and imagined 'worlds' and 'structures' which condition future present moments. These transitory 'worlds' in time and space, infinity great and small, preserve and remember even as they discard and forget the past in ever changing cycles of growth and decay, creation and destruction, birth and death.

 F. gave me photos made by Nottingham visitors to Brugge and Ypres in 1920.

In W.G Sebald's 'Austerlitz' time is experienced in dreamlike recollections that form monologues by the main character, Austerlitz as his story is related by the almost invisible narrator in the first person. Austerlitz both remembers and reconstructs out of fragments of recollection and detective like research ( he is an art historian ) his own mysterious identity which as a Czech Jewish orphan sent into war time exile into Wales is both a personal as well as collective history.  The act of remembering, of piecing together fragments to create a meaningful narrative around personal identity in Sebald's novel is both a creative and imaginative act - like that of the novelist himself creating his fictional characters- as well as a convincing version of 'real events' reconstructed from actual experience. The book is illustrated with old photographs, rather like the ones of F's Nottingham visitors to Brugge, that punctuate the narrative and act as catalysts for creative and imaginative 'musings' as well as anchoring the text with a kind of visual evidence from the camera's apparently objective eye.  The interpretation of dreams, which are not 'real' can, like fiction in literature, provide a key which allows us to approach, deal with and understand indirectly through metaphor and allegory those things which we cannot deal with directly. This is a kind of archeology of deeply buried emotions and experiences - which is what Freud, an obsessive collector of Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquities, compared psychoanalysis to.

Perhaps house renovation is actually a kind of a metaphor - fearlessly but thoroughly opening up, pealing back, stripping bare and revealing all the secret and damaged places, and when the symptoms of the problems have been fully understood and diagnosed, solving them.  Making everything good again by repairing and replacing and/or integrating old with new materials, strengthening and reinforcing everything, cleaning, breathing, healing, letting in light and space, neutralising harm, bringing health, warm, comfort, peace, calm.........

Removing the rotten floorboards and the thin and damaged beams in the attic floor.
Replacing them with solid reclaimed ancient oak beams.

Reusing sourced, found and excavated old stones and bricks in the courtyard to make a pavement.
The past is always a creative invention of the present but this imaginative act is constructed from the real fragments salvaged from the surviving debris. Memory and loss, desire and longing play a part in the ongoing project of self-invention and/or deconstruction of identity. Whether building up or breaking down all states, however permanent they may appear, are ultimately conditional and provisional and the boundaries between sleep and wakefulness, dreams and reality, often less rigid and defined than we think.
Self-portrait after a painting by Jan Van Scorel. oil on wood panel
Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, a veritable butterfly, enjoying itself to the full of its bent, and not knowing it was Chuang Chou. Suddenly I awoke, and came to myself, the veritable Chuang Chou. Now I do not know whether it was then I dreamt I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man. Between me and the butterfly there must be a difference. This is an instance of transformation.

Translated by James Legge, and quoted in The Three Religions of China: Lectures Delivered at Oxford (1913) by William Edward Soothill, p. 75

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Before and After

Facade windows with mastic fixed, sanded and primed and painted making the whole front look cleaner and lighter. I have yet to see if a kalean with lime paint is actually necessary or not as the brick is quite attractive in its fully restored state. 

'Someone, he added, ought to draw up a catalogue of types of buildings, listed in order of size, and it would be immediately obvious that domestic buildings of less than normal size- the little cottage in the fields, the hermitage, the lock-keeper's lodge, the pavilion for viewing the landscape, the children's bothy in the garden - are those that offer us at least a semblance of peace, whereas no one in his right mind could truthfully say that he liked a vast ediface such as the Palace of Justice on the old Gallows Hill in Brussels' 

Spoken by Austerlitz in W. G. Sebald's book of the same name

Reclaimed bricks from site sorted and cleaned ready to use for the outside courtyard floor