Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Raphael's Renaissance Reunion

The Vatican has long since been associated with that most illustrious of artistic periods – the Renaissance. A number of popes of the High Renaissance period were enthusiastic supporters of the arts, acting as patrons to many artists of the day, including the holy trinity of Renaissance masters - Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael. Indeed, it is fair to say, without the Vatican’s patronage during this explosively creative period, many of the masterpieces we so admire today would never have come into existence.

As such, it seems entirely appropriate that the Victoria and Albert museum, in association with the Vatican, is preparing an extraordinary exhibition to mark the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the UK later this year. The exhibition will celebrate one of the most ambitious artistic projects of the Renaissance era, and will bring together the four of the famous Sistine Chapel tapestries with the preparatory paintings from which they were made.

In 1515, Pope Leo X (Giovanni di Lorenzo de Medici) commissioned a series of tapestries to cover the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel. Tapestries were highly prestigious symbols of wealth and power, and as such, were considered to be an appropriate complement to Michelangelo’s recently completed frescoes on the Chapel’s ceiling.

It was not, however, Michelangelo who was asked to design the tapestries; this honour fell to his much-detested arch-rival Raphael. Pope Leo X reportedly found the genial Raphael far more agreeable and easier to deal with than the petulant and notoriously difficult Michelangelo. Given the extent of the rivalry between the two artists, one can safely assume that Michelangelo was more than a little miffed by this rebuff. In fact, it has been said that he was unhappy about the prospect of Raphael’s work being displayed in such close proximity to his own. As it turned out, he may well have had good cause to worry; the tapestries (which, incidentally, cost five times as much as the frescoes) are considered by some to be more accomplished works. Arnold Nesselrath of the Vatican Museum has been quoted as saying the subtlety of these paintings and resulting tapestries “goes way beyond the subtlety of Michelangelo’s frescoes … (the workmanship) is like painting in threads”.

Despite the inevitable squeals of protest from Michelangelo, Raphael duly set to work. He produced a series of ten preparatory paintings, depicting scenes from the lives of Saints Peter and Paul. These paintings came to be known as “Raphael’s Cartoons”. The cartoons, which are three metres tall and up to five metres wide, are actually made up of many smaller pieces of paper joined together, and are painted in glue distemper. Upon completion, the cartoons were sent to the workshop of Pieter Van Aelst in Brussels (which was renowned for weaving excellence), to be made into tapestries. The weaving process was an epic undertaking, lasting three years. The finished products (which were mirror images of the cartoons, due to the fact that the weavers worked the tapestries from behind) finally returned to the Vatican in 1519 - just in time to be displayed as part of the Christmas celebrations.

The original set of tapestries was to meet a tragic fate. Seized during the Sack of Rome in 1527, some of the hangings were burned, primarily to liberate the precious metals from the gold and silver threads, while others were dispersed throughout Europe. The set of ten hangings was eventually re-assembled using tapestries from other identical weavings (several sets of the tapestries had been made over the years). This set was finally returned to the Sistine Chapel in 1983, and they have resided there ever since.

The cartoons had an entirely different, yet equally eventful, fate. It is unclear what became of them once they left Brussels. Convention dictated that such preparatory paintings should be returned to the painter, but this did not happen in this case. Seven of the cartoons eventually turned up over a hundred years later – discovered by Rubens in a drawer in Arras in the north of France! (The remaining three paintings have never been recovered.)

Spotted by an eagle-eyed collector, they were purchased in 1623 on behalf of Charles I (then Prince of Wales), for the relatively small sum of £300. The bargain-basement price reflected the fact that the paintings were considered to be working designs - the cartoons were actually cut into narrow strips to fit onto the weavers looms! (They were permanently rejoined in 1699). It is believed the Prince of Wales intended to use the designs to create copies of the tapestries for his own collection. Thankfully, after the Kings execution, the cartoons were among the few pieces of art from the Royal Collection not sold by Oliver Cromwell. They have been in the possession of the British Royal Family ever since, currently owned by Her Majesty, The Queen.

In 1865, the paintings (now on canvas backing) were given, on permanent loan, to the V&A by Queen Victoria. They are housed in a magnificent gallery built especially for the purpose (which is now rather innocuously known as Room 48A) – and they remain there to this day.

And now, the cartoons and four of the tapestries are to be reunited for the first time since they left the weaver’s workshop in Brussels - something even Raphael himself never witnessed. Perhaps fittingly, these two art forms are now coming together as equals. The paintings, never intended to be artworks in their own right, have become as treasured and valuable as the tapestries themselves. After five hundred years, one could argue it is a reunion long-overdue.

Incidentally, it is unlikely that Her Majesty will be making a reciprocal gesture to the Vatican; the cartoons are widely regarded as being entirely too fragile to ever be moved. It would seem Room 48A will remain the adoptive home of these awe-inspiring creations for some time to come.

The exhibition runs for six weeks from September 8th and entry is free, but sessions are timed. Pre-booking is advisable.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Who Says Art and Science Don't Mix?

The following is a scenario that can hardly be described as unusual … a budding young musician abandons his day job to pursue his dreams of fame and fortune in a rock band.


Same old story. So far, so rock-and-roll.

But not quite. Brian May was not your average musician, and the career he turned his back on was anything but mundane. His is a backstory that breaks the mould.

It is a little-known fact that, before he came to prominence as the über-talented Queen guitarist, May was busy gaining a reputation of an altogether different kind - as a gifted astrophysicist!!

Yes - you read that correctly. The man who would go on to become a global superstar once devoted his energies to studying a distinctly different type of star - the celestial kind!

After graduating from Imperial College London with an honours degree (Bachelor of Science), May enrolled in the college's post-graduate astrophysics programme, specialising in the study of "reflected light from interplanetary dust and the velocity of dust in the plane of the Solar System" ... quite a mouthful! Brian abandoned his studies halfway through this post-graduate course when Queen began to make headway on the music scene.

Astrophysics was not left behind completely though - Brian returned to Imperial College in 2007, and successfully finished his thesis on Interplanetary Dust a year later.

Subsequently, Brian accepted a research position at the same University, where he is continuing his astronomical studies.

And, of course, lets not forget his other crowning achievement - he was voted 7th greatest guitar player of all time by a Planet Rock poll in 2005!

With this in mind, Dr Brian Harold May BSc(Hons) DSc CBE could very well be considered the coolest scientist ever. (Dr. Brian Cox - eat your little heart out!)

If only he would do something about that hair ...

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The Indefatigable Churchill

Sir Winston Churchill, with characteristic self-assuredness, belied his disinclination towards the historians impartiality when he said:

"History will be kind to me ... for I intend to write it!"

... and write it he did, churning out an impressive array of weighty historical tomes during the immediate post-war years. His efforts included the highly acclaimed six volumes of The Second World War (published from 1948-1953) and A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (in four volumes, published in 1956-1958).

This prolific output is all the more impressive when one considers the fact that, as wartime Prime Minister, he survived on barely 5 hours of sleep a day, sometimes in one or two hour intervals (no wonder he always resembled a particularly grumpy bulldog!).

Lesser mortals would have taken the onset of peacetime as an opportunity to have a nice long rest!

Saturday, 5 June 2010

The Life of Maria Callas - A Tragedy in Three Acts

Everything about Maria Callas was larger than life - her personality, her love affairs, her feuds and of course, that magnificent voice. The story of her journey from modest beginnings to reigning prima donna of the operatic world has all the elements of a classic rags-to-riches tale – drama, comedy and tragedy. It is possibly this last element of her life story that accounts for our enduring fascination with this formidable yet vulnerable woman. The public, true to macabre form, has allowed the spectre of Callas’s doomed love affairs and early death to loom large, overshadowing her great musical achievements. Like Marilyn Monroe before her, the legacy of Maria Callas has fallen victim to her legend.

Act 1 – Inauspicious Beginnings

Cecilia Sophia Anna "Maria" Kalogeropoulos was born on December 3rd 1923 in Queens, New York, barely four months after her parents arrived in America from Greece. Her father, George Kalogeropoulos, was a pharmacist and her mother Evangelia (Litza) was an ambitious social climber with big aspirations for her family. Around the time of her birth, Maria’s father changed the family’s surname to the more manageable Callas.

Maria was the youngest of three children - her elder sister Jackie was born in 1917, and her brother Vassilis born in 1920. Maria never knew her brother, but was destined to live in his shadow for much of her childhood. Vassilis died in 1922 from meningitis, and Maria was what could be described as a “replacement” baby. Her parents, desperate for another son, even went so far as to consult astrologers for advice on when would be the most opportune time to conceive a boy. This astrological intervention failed, however, to produce the much longed-for son. When Maria was born, her mother was so distraught and disappointed she refused to look at the little girl for four days.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given this less-than-promising start, Maria’s relationship with her mother was factious and fraught with difficulties. Litza’s obvious preference for her elder daughter Jackie sowed the seeds of resentment in Maria that were to define the relationship with her mother for the rest of her life. Litza was not averse to taking advantage of Maria’s musical talents, which were apparent from an early age (“I was made to sing when I was only five, and I hated it”). Litza became the ultimate domineering “stage mother”. Maria herself summed up the situation best when she said:
“My sister was slim and beautiful and friendly, and my mother always preferred her. I was the ugly duckling, fat and clumsy and unpopular. It is a cruel thing to make a child feel ugly and unwanted... I'll never forgive her for taking my childhood away. During all the years I should have been playing and growing up, I was singing or making money.”
This unhappy childhood was compounded by her parents deteriorating marriage. Incompatible from the start, the arguments between her parents became more and more frequent. George was said to be unhappy with Litza’s unfair treatment of their youngest daughter, and Litza, for her part, was frustrated by his apparent unambitious attitude and lack of interest in social advancement. They eventually divorced in 1937, when Maria was thirteen years old.

After the divorce, on Litza’s insistence, her two daughters moved back with her to Athens, where they spent the war years. Animosity between mother and daughter continued to increase during this time, as Litza reportedly encouraged her daughters to fraternize with Italian and German soldiers during the occupation, in order to bring home food and money. Maria viewed this (perhaps rightfully) as a form of prostitution. Interestingly, her mother did not have a job of her own during this time.

There is, however, one thing for which we must be grateful to Maria’s mother – her insistence, despite the scarcity of money, that Maria should receive a musical education (whether this was for Maria’s benefit, or for the advancement of Litza’s own future, is debatable - her motives were, as ever, dubious to say the least). Litza’s driving ambition was about to set her daughter on a course for international stardom.

Act 2 – Triumph over Adversity ... The Rise of the Diva

After an unsuccessful attempt to gain entry to the Athens Conservatoire, Maria’s mother managed to convince Maria Trivella (of the lesser Greek National Conservatoire) to listen to her daughter sing. Trivella was so impressed with Maria’s (as yet untrained) voice that she agreed to teach her free of charge.

Callas proved to be a precocious student. Trivella soon ascertained that Maria’s voice was a dramatic soprano, not a contralto as was previously believed. Callas responded well to Trivella’s training, throwing herself into her studies. Trivella later said of her:
“A model student. Fanatical, uncompromising, dedicated to her studies heart and soul. Her progress was phenomenal. She studied five or six hours a day. ...Within six months, she was singing the most difficult arias in the international opera repertoire with the utmost musicality”.
Callas would remain a student of Trivella for two years, after which she re-auditioned for the Athens Conservatoire. This time she was successful, greatly impressing Elvira de Hidalgo, the famous Spanish coloratura soprano, who was to become her next teacher, and who would play an “essential role” in Callas’s artistic development.

While still a student, Callas secured a number of small roles, mainly thanks to de Hidalgo’s connections. It would not be until 1942 that she would make her début professionnel in the minor role of Beatrice in Suppé’s Boccaccio. From then on, she was never short of engagements, working steadily in Greek operatic productions until she made the brave decision, at the end of the war, to return to the United States of America to live with her father. And so it was, at the tender age of 22, Maria Callas embarked on the next stage of her career.

After numerous auditions and a few false starts (she wisely turned down a beginners contract, and the opportunity to play Madame Butterfly, at the New York Met), Maria Callas came to the attention of the renowned Italian conductor, Tullio Serafin. The great maestro was instrumental in securing for her the lead role in La Gioconda, in a production to be staged in Verona, Italy. After La Gioconda, Serafin, again showing his faith in the newcomer, cast her as Isolde in Tristan and Isolde. This was the beginning of a long and fruitful professional relationship between the soprano and the man who would become her mentor.

From this point on, Callas’s career went from strength to strength. She was in high demand all over Italy, appearing in all the major Italian opera houses. The only theatre left to welcome her was the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, arguably the most renowned of the Italian opera houses. The reason for this seemed to hinge on the dislike La Scala’s general manager, Antonio Ghiringhelli, harboured for Callas. Eventually, however, even he could not deny or ignore the trajectory of her rising stardom, and she made her La Scala debut in December 1951. La Scala was to play a significant role in Callas’ career throughout the 1950’s.

Italy, however, was not the centre of Maria’s world. She headlined productions all over the globe, including the New York Met, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the Royal Opera House in London. After the success of her London début in 1952, Callas went on to appear at the ROH in 1953, 1957, 1958, 1959, and 1964 -1965. During these years, Callas’s artistic output was immense. She performed lead roles in all the major operas, specialising in the tragic heroines of the Italian repetoire - Florida Tosca, in Puccini’s opera of the same name, and Violetta in La Traviata and Bellini's Norma.

Her legacy was immeasurably enriched when she agreed, at the pinnacle of her career, to record Tosca for EMI in 1953. Thanks to the relentless perfectionism of Callas and her equally pedantic conductor Victor de Sabata, the now infamous Tosca sessions were a grueling process, exasperated by soaring August temperatures in Milan (the sessions were recorded at La Scala). The results, however, were magnificent, described by an EMI executive as having “made immortal contributions … to the artistic history of our time.”

During these years, Callas’s reputation as a singer was almost overshadowed by her growing reputation for being “difficult”. Maria was renowned in operatic circles for her sheer force of will and her indefatigable ambition. Indeed, it is fair to say, her meteoric rise to fame would not have been possible without these personality traits. She had an innate intelligence, and was supremely confident in her vision for her career. Rudolf Bing of the New York Met said:

“… she was so much more intelligent. Other artists, you could get around. But Callas you could not get around. She knew exactly what she wanted, and why she wanted it”
However, despite this, she often suffered privately from personal anxieties which were at odds with the ultimate self-assurance she displayed on stage. As a result, she relied heavily on the emotional support she received from her husband, Giovanni Meneghini. She met her much-older husband early in her career and they married in 1949. Giovanni was a wealthy man, and marriage to him freed Callas from financial worries, which meant she was at liberty to develop her art without constraint. Giovanni managed her career until the marriage disintegrated in 1959.

Act 3 – A Fall from Grace

Callas’s growing reputation for diva-esque behaviour, coupled with the disintegration of her relationship with the mother (which was played out in public thanks to the publication of Litza’a book My Daughter – Maria Callas) combined to ensure that she became a permanent fixture of the gossip pages. Hoards of reporters followed her every move. Callas’ life became tabloid fodder, and perhaps unfairly, she became the victim of press vilification. In what could be described as a manifestation of “tall-poppy syndrome”, the press seemed to take unbridled and perverse delight in pulling this prima donna from her gilded pedestal. In her characteristically elegant way, Callas responded to this brutal public flogging by saying:
“I am not an angel and do not pretend to be. That is not one of my roles. But I am not the devil either. I am a woman and a serious artist, and I would like so to be judged.”
If all of this negative attention was not bad enough, a fateful meeting with the powerful Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis in 1957 would send the printing presses into overdrive. Despite the fact that Ari and Maria were both married, he pursued her relentlessly, and in doing so, ensured their budding romance would continue to feed the media’s insatiable desire for Callas-related stories.

The couple had much in common - both rose from dubious beginnings in Greece, overcoming many obstacles to reach the pinnacle of their chosen professions. Maria eventually succumbed to Ari’s advances, and she left her husband of ten years in 1959.

Her relationship with Onassis coincided with a period of immense professional difficulty. By the late 1950’s, it had become evident that Callas’s voice was in decline. Severe weight-loss had weakened her diaphragm, and years of overwork had damaged her remarkable voice - Callas’s vocal capabilities were failing at a worrying rate. This, coupled with her poor treatment by the press, convinced Callas to enter a period of semi-retirement. Content in her relationship with Onassis, she appeared happy to give up her career to focus on their relationship.

There is no doubt that Onassis was la grande passionne of Maria’s life - she loved him deeply. There has been much speculation regarding Maria’s desire to have a child with Ari. Some have said that Onassis forbade it (forcing her to have at least one abortion), while others (including her ex-husband) maintain that Callas could not have children, while yet more friends hint at the possibility that Maria bore a secret child by Ari who died in infancy. We will never know the truth behind these conflicting rumours – yet they go a long way to cementing her image as a tragic victim of circumstances.

Maria and Aristotle never married. Again, there is no consensus as to why this was the case – some believe that Onassis never wanted it, while others are convinced their volatile relationship and explosive arguments always prevented them from walking down the aisle at the last moment. Whatever the case, the pair remained a couple, and apparently devoted to each other, for nine years.

In 1968, Callas was left utterly devastated when Onassis abruptly cast her aside to marry Jacqueline Kennedy. It was a blow from which she never recovered. Maria retreated to her apartment in Paris, apparently losing interest in life. Nobody could have described this dark period better than Maria herself when she said
“First I lost my voice, then I lost my figure and then I lost Onassis”.
In 1974, she eventually emerged from her private and professional hibernation to embark on a world tour with the tenor Giuseppe di Stefano. While commercially successful, the performances were slated by the critics. The great La Callas had fallen on her sword. She would never sing in public again.

On September 16, 1977, Maria Callas died of a heart attack. She was just 53 years of age. And so it transpired, the story of Maria Callas’s last years ensured she would be cast in her final role – the ultimate tragic heroine of our times. When one considers her triumphs as Violetta, Tosca and Norma, perhaps this should be seen as a fitting tribute. Her life, in the end, imitated her great art … and it was, indeed, a life less ordinary.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Picasso's Last Words

When we consider the legacy of Pablo Picasso, we immediately think of masterpieces like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Guernica and innumerable others which grace the walls of art galleries all over the world. The influence of his ground-breaking cubist work has resonated across many spheres – from architecture (cubism directly inspired the Art Deco movement of the 1920s), to sculpture (his eclectic style demolished the accepted centuries-old techniques, paving the way for modern-day artists like Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst), to fashion (cubist fabric patterns are now ubiquitous, appearing everywhere from high street to high-end fashion).

But what about Picasso’s influence on music? Although there is not an obvious connection between the two, the Spanish artist did leave his mark on pop music, through the medium of a certain singer/songwriter from Liverpool...

On 8th April 1973, as he and his wife entertained guests at a dinner party, Picasso died of a sudden heart attack. He was 91 years old. Moments before his death, he uttered these final, poignant words:

“Drink to me, drink to my health, you know I can’t drink anymore.”
Halfway across the world, Paul McCartney was having dinner with Dustin Hoffman, when the actor told him the news of Picasso’s death. Upon hearing the artist’s last words, McCartney was immediately inspired. Picking up his guitar, he began to write a melody to accompany them. The resulting song, Picasso’s Last Words (Drink To Me) was featured on the 1973 triple-platinum-selling album Band on the Run. Although never released as a single, Picasso’s Last Words is widely regarded as one of the stand-out songs on the album.

And so it transpired - Picasso’s swan song became immortalized in a Wings song. The worlds of art, music and film collided to produce this tribute - an appropriate homage to a great man, who continued to inspire until he drew his very last breath.

Images:
Self Portrait, 1907
Dove of Peace, 1949

P.S. Check out the video on youtube - it's worth a watch!

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Is Johnny Depp a Real-Life Dorian Gray?

When People magazine announced, at the end of 2009, that Johnny Depp had once again been voted "Sexiest Man Alive" by its readers, the female population of the Western world responded with a resounding "like, DOH!" As any hot-blooded woman can attest, we hardly need yet another ‘sexiest man’ poll to tell us what we already know – Johnny Depp is, without doubt, one of the most gorgeous men on the planet.

This is the second time the delectable Mr. Depp has won this dubious “honour” (the first time was in 2003). In doing the double, he has joined an elite and exclusive group – Brad Pitt and George Clooney are the only other modern-day deities who have previously trodden this hallowed path. This achievement is no mean feat, considering the fickle, frivolous world of celebrity hero-worshipping. It is interesting to note that it is the old masters who are coming out on top, fending off young, upstart pretenders to the throne like Robert Pattison and Jake Gyllenhaal.

However, one thing that marks Depp apart from clean-living hunks like Clooney and Pitt is his notoriously hard-living, hard-partying, hell-raising ways. He has openly admitted to a lifelong love of liquor (after breaking up with his fiancée Winona Ryder in 1993, he had a tattoo changed from “Winona Forever” to “Wino Forever”). During the mid to late nineties, a number of incidents cemented Depp’s bad boy image, including his arrest in New York after allegedly trashing a hotel room during an argument with his then-girlfriend Kate Moss. Another, more tragic, event was to have a long-lasting effect on the young actor – the death of his friend River Phoenix. Johnny was present at a jamming session at his night club The Viper Room the night River Phoenix fatally overdosed from a mixture of heroine and cocaine. (He was onstage playing with Michael “Flea” Balzary, bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers - another infamous hell-raiser - unaware that River was dying on the pavement outside his club). Although there was no evidence that Johnny was indulging in drugs himself, he became the victim of guilt-by-association in the press.

While fatherhood has somewhat dampened his appetite for the self-destructive, Depp still appears hell-bent on pursuing a lifestyle which would wreak havoc with the looks of the more genetically-challenged among us. Indeed, we only need to consider Johnny’s friends (people like Keith Richards and Shane MacGowan of The Pogues) to see how a similar lifestyle has been to the detriment of their looks. (Although, lets be honest, in MacGowan’s case, maybe the lack of teeth has more to do with his present unattractiveness than the years of alcoholism!)

It is obvious that Depp places no value on his astonishing good looks. While it is not beyond the realm of possibility to imagine other Hollywood leading men obsessing about grey hairs and wrinkles, and going to bed with a de-toxifying face mask, Johnny goes out of his way to disassociate himself from the pretty-boy image. In fact, considering the off-beat characters he chooses to play (a transvestite in Ed Wood, the wacky Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland, a disturbing Willy Wonka, an artificial man-freak in Edward Scissorhands, a demon barber in Sweeney Todd), it would appear that a pre-requisite for his acceptance of any film role would be the opportunity to ugly-up his impossibly handsome face.

During a recent (and rare) interview on the Jonathan Ross show, Depp appeared oddly ill-at-ease in his own skin, hiding behind his lank, greasy hair. The dirty, tatty clothes he was wearing, including his beloved fifteen-year-old boots, gave him an appearance more like a homeless bum than a Hollywood leading man. And don’t even start me on his filthy fingernails and ugly tattoos! And yet, despite all this, or maybe because of it, he seemed more attractive than ever! Regardless of the off-the-wall character roles, and the seeming desire to drink his way to ugliness, Johnny Depp never seems to age. If anything, his good looks seem to have improved over the years. Nothing diminishes the appeal of the man!

While pondering the genetic paradox that is Mr. Johnny Depp, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is brought to mind. In the novel, an incredibly handsome young man (Gray) is having his portrait painted when he suddenly becomes aware of his own mortality. He is distraught at the prospect of his good looks fading, and so makes a pact with the devil – Dorian sells his soul in exchange for the preservation of his beauty. His wish is granted and Dorian never ages a day. Despite a gradual descent into hedonism and debauchery, the effects of his lifestyle never show on his face. Even though Dorian’s outwardly appearance remains unaltered, his portrait is constantly changing, becoming ever more uglier and disfigured. The picture is reflecting how Dorian’s self-gratifying and increasingly evil ways are affecting his soul. The novel climaxes with Dorian, in a blind rage, plunging a knife (which he has just used to murder his best friend) into the painting. With the portrait destroyed, Dorian ages very quickly and dies. When his body is discovered, he is so disfigured and withered, he is unrecognizable. It is only through the rings on his fingers that he can be identified. In the end, even Dorian Gray could not escape the ravages of time.

So, Johnny Depp, what is your secret? Is it simply great genes? Have you discovered the elixir of life, the fountain of youth? Or could there be a portrait of you, hidden far away from prying eyes, which is slowly becoming uglier and more disfigured, while the devil waits patiently for your soul? Do tell ...

Thursday, 27 May 2010

For the aspiring writer ...

... some notable quotables from Sylvia Plath, American novelist, poet and enfant terrible of mid-twentieth century literary world (1932 - 1963).

"Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt".

Don't be shy about sending off those ideas to editors and publishers, because Sylvia also gives us the following food for thought - "Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing"!

Did you know ...

... that the famous Chupa Chup lollipop logo was designed by the iconic surrealist painter Salvador Dalì?

Chupa Chups, the world's first lollipop, was invented by Spaniard Enric Bernat in 1958. Originally marketed as "a bonbon on a stick", the product proved hugely popular with children. In 1969, Dalì was commissioned to come up with a logo which would help the brand break into lucrative foreign markets. The vibrant yellow-and-red design was born.

Soon the lollipops were being sold to international markets, reaching Asia and Australia during the 1970s, and Northern Europe and America in the 1980s. Over the years, the size of the lollipops has varied, and the number of flavours is continually increasing (there are now over 50 Chupa Chup flavours to choose from).

However, the one thing that has remained constant is the lollipop's logo. Loud, unique and instantly recognisable (much like the artist himself), it is as much a part of Dalì's legacy as his surrealist masterpieces hanging in galleries the world over.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Going, Going, Gone - What's the Point of Art Theft?

In the very early hours of last Wednesday, under cover of night, one of the most audacious art heists in recent history took place in Paris. The scene of the crime was La Musée d’Art Moderne, opposite the Eiffel Tower, directly across the moonlit Seine. A lone masked robber gained access to the famed museum by cutting a padlock and smashing a window pane at the rear of the building. Once inside, the bandit, moving quickly, helped himself to five famous artworks by 20th century masters, valued at around €100 million. The thief’s modus operandi involved brazenly cutting the paintings from their frames, rolling them up and making off by the same route from whence he came.

The impressive haul included “Le Pigeon Aux Petits-Pois” by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse’s “La Pastorale” and “L’Olivier près de l’Estaque” by Picasso’s cubism period sidekick Georges Braque. Lesser works by Fernand Leger and Amedeo Modigliani were also taken.

The robbery, however daring, was well-planned and flawlessly executed. The paintings hung near each other in the gallery, and the rear window used to enter and exit is in close proximity to the lanes of traffic that zoom ceaselessly by along the banks of the Seine – a perfect escape route which allowed the thief to vanish into thin air! Images of the bandit going about his dastardly business were caught on numerous CCTV cameras inside the museum. Authorities, however, are puzzled as to why the museum’s sophisticated alarm systems were not triggered. The fact that the three watchmen on duty failed to notice that anything was amiss until the cold light of morning has raised suspicions that the robber may have had inside help, or at least inside knowledge.

Upon discovery of the robbery, the French authorities swung into action. The museum was sealed off and experts began searching for clues. The frames, erstwhile homes to the missing masterpieces, were taken away for forensic analysis. Unfortunately, all this effort may already be too late. The innocuous nature of the loot makes it easily and swiftly transportable. Moving five rolled-up paintings is infinitely easier than moving €100 million, the equivalent cash value. Interpol was alerted two days after the robbery, indicating that authorities believe that the paintings may have already left France.

Given the widespread media coverage of this theft, you would be forgiven for thinking that such a daring robbery is rare. In fact, the opposite is true. Depressingly, art theft is a thriving business. The day after the Paris heist, another Picasso was stolen from the home of an art collector in Marseilles. The unfortunate owner was beaten by the intruder. There has been a spate of similar robberies in Marseilles during the past year. Last January, thieves made off with about 30 paintings, again including a work by Picasso, from another private collection. The previous month, an impressionist piece by Edgar Degas, on loan from the Musée d’Orsay, was stolen from a Marseilles museum.

The above is by no means an exhaustive list. According to the Art Loss Register (www.artloss.com), a database of stolen artworks, there are around 170,000 missing works of art. Interestingly, Pablo Picasso is the most sought after artist, with over 550 missing pieces.

Why is art theft so prevalent? What exactly is the point of going to so much trouble to steal an artwork when the re-sale options are so limited? To be in possession of stolen works is instantly incriminating, so thieves will want to offload the loot quickly. But who would the prospective buyers be? A lot of stolen art, especially by well-known masters, is instantly recognizable. Even to the untrained eye, a Picasso or a Matisse is easily identifiable, so duping a hapless buyer into purchasing a stolen artwork is not a feasible or reliable option. Indeed, any art acquired illegally on the black market could never be exhibited publically; it would have to be hidden away from view forever. Any buyer who is brave enough to purchase a stolen piece is taking on substantial risk - this fact alone means the re-sale value of stolen pieces plummets dramatically on the black market.

In reality, most stolen artwork is not sold on the black market. Increasingly, the paintings are held as “hostages”, while thieves demand ransom payments for their safe return, either from the museum or from the State. In 2005, the Tate Britain paid £3.1 million to recover two paintings by Turner, which had been stolen in 1994 while on loan to a gallery in Frankfurt. (The matter had to be dealt with very carefully, as ransom payments are illegal in the UK. It transpired that the Tate eventually paid a reward as opposed to a ransom – however, the distinction between the two is hazy at best!)

In some cases, stolen masterpieces are used as bargaining chips to help broker deals in the underworld, sometimes being exchanged for drugs or weapons. We also cannot discount the possibility that some of these thefts are “made-to-order”, for wealthy, ruthless individuals with powerful connections and low morals.

This collision between the art world and the underworld is ugly and disheartening. Depriving the public of such profound masterpieces is a highly selfish act, which flies in the face of all that art is supposed to represent. I cannot think of a worse fate for a Picasso or a Matisse or a Degas - to be hidden away, unappreciated, its beauty forever tainted with the dirty fingerprints of its captors.

Christophe Girard, the culture deputy for the mayor of Paris summed up the situation when he said: “This is a crime against the heritage of humanity”. Are the paintings lost forever? Or will they be eventually returned to their rightful place in humanity's heritage? Only time will tell ...

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Warhol's Prophecy

The remarkably perspicacious Andy Warhol (1928 - 1987), predicting society's demise into shallow obsessions with consumerism, fame and the materialistic, inadvertently coined a new phrase which would live on in our vernacular 40 years later ...
"In the future, everybody will be world-famous for 15 minutes".
... a spookily accurate prediction!

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Who Wrote Shakespeare ... The World's Longest-Running Conspiracy Theory?

The controversy surrounding the Shakespearean authorship question has been rumbling along for many years, centuries even.  Indeed, doubts as to whether William Shakespeare of Stratford really penned the great sonnets and plays attributed to him first surfaced around 1795. Since then, contrarians (or anti-Stratfordians, as they have come to be known) have been on an unrelenting quest to prove that Shakespeare’s work was written pseudonymously. Like all good conspiracy theories, the path to discover the truth has been strewn with deception, intrigue, falsifications and a handful of less-than-savoury characters. There have even been ciphers and code-breakers thrown into the mix. A number of high-profile skeptics (Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Henry James, Orson Welles and Sigmund Freud to name but a few) have given credence to the debate.

The root of the controversy lies in the fact that we actually know very little about Shakespeare. We have scant details around which we have built a skeletal biography, but there are large gaps in our knowledge, wherein lies the temptation to embellish. So, what facts do we have to play with? We know William Shakespeare was born circa April 1564, the son of a glover from Stratford-upon-Avon in rural Oxfordshire. We know, at the age of 18, he married Anne Hathaway, who bore him three children; a daughter Susanna and twins Hamnet and Judith. Soon after the twins birth, he left his family and went to work in London. He found success as an actor, writer and part-owner of a theatre company called The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later to become The Kings Men, after James I succeeded Elizabeth to the throne). He would go on to spend the majority of his working life in London, until he retired to Stratford in 1613 (where he would die three years later). We know he was a businessman as well as an actor; a few surviving receipts and ledger entries indicate that he was a malt-trader and money-lender. We also know he was concerned about his social standing, because there is a record of him applying for “gentleman’s status” later in life when he had become wealthy from his various endeavours.

Aside from the above, there is very little that can be proven about Shakespeare’s life. The paucity of documental evidence has led to much speculation, as we try to fill in the blanks; these suppositions have filtered down through time until we come to believe them to be “fact”. For example, given we know Shakespeare spent so much time in London, it has been assumed that his marriage to Anne Hathaway was unhappy. This hypothesis has become so pervasive, it is now taken as a universal truth. However, whether or not the marriage was an unhappy one can never be proven.

In his book “Contested Will – Who Wrote Shakespeare?”, James Shapiro examines how the gaps in our knowledge of Shakespeare’s life and history have given rise to many controversies and fuelled the ensuing authorship debate. Shapiro focuses on two main factions of the anti-Stratfordian brigade – the Baconians (who supported the hypothesis that Francis Bacon was the real author) and the Oxfordians (who believed that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford was the true bard). He not only discusses what each group believed, but also why each side believed what they did. He also comes to his own conclusions regarding the authorship debate. The book makes for very interesting reading.

All Shakespeare doubters, Baconians and Oxfordians alike, seem to fundamentally agree on one thing. The crux of the dissent rests on the belief that a glovers son from rural Oxfordshire could not have possibly been the real author, because he would have lacked the necessary education and life experience to produce such accomplished work. They argue that a man of limited means and education could never have gained the knowledge of politics, law, royal courts and foreign countries which are evident in the plays. It follows then, that the real author must surely have been an aristocrat, someone much higher up the social ladder than a poor boy from the country. This theory, advocated by Twain, James, Freud et al., smacks of intellectual snobbery and a fundamental lack of imagination. Indeed, Charlie Chaplin (who, it should be noted, was not known for his own intellectual prowess) declared that “… I hardly think it was the boy from Stratford - whoever wrote them had an aristocratic attitude”.

Mark Twain (a Baconian) was adamant in his belief that all writers compose from their own experiences; that is, they cannot write with authority about “what they know from hearsay”. He steadfastly asserted that everything written is in some way autobiographical. This belief that the writer’s life makes its way onto the page (either consciously or sub-consciously) formed the foundations of his contrarian stance. How could a man of such limited life experience write so convincingly of love, jealously and loss? Shapiro shrewdly points out that, given the large blanks in our knowledge of Shakespeare’s early years, how can we know whether or not he received a good education? How can we arbitrarily decide whether he travelled extensively or not? In effect, we cannot fill in the blanks with guesswork. In addition, the author also deftly defuses Twain's central argument by showing that an autobiographical approach to writing is a relatively new development, gaining prominence in the nineteenth century. Self-revelation, that is exposing the authors true feelings and thoughts through his characters, was not a method employed in Shakespeare’s time. The writer’s imagination was deployed to much greater effect then than now.

Henry James (also of the Baconian school of thought) took exception to what he regarded as Shakespeare of Stratford's unsavoury business dealings. The American author revealed his true pretentious self when he declared Shakespeare's business dealings as "extremely vulgar". He believed the true author of the plays and sonnets would have been far too high-minded to engage in anything so common as malt-trading and money-lending. This patronizing and condescending attitude was another example of intellectual snobbery and can hardly be taken as conclusive proof that Shakespeare did not write the plays.

Both sects went to extreme measures to prove their man was the rightful author of Shakespeare’s works. With a lack of any real evidence, both Baconians and Oxfordians employed strange and sometimes ridiculous tactics to try to reveal the “truth”. Proponents of the Francis Bacon theory fervently believed that the entire body of work attributed to Shakespeare were actually ciphers, that the plays and sonnets contained hidden messages which would not only confirm Bacon as the bard, but would also reveal explosive political secrets of the Elizabethan period that could not have been disclosed at the time of writing. Code-breaking machines were duly constructed in an attempt to de-cipher the hidden messages. Needless to say, no substantive messages were ever found.

Similarly, Oxfordians put great weight on the fact that anagrams of the name “Vere” were commonplace throughout the plays (as in words like “very” and “every). Coupled with the line “Every word doth almost tell my name” from Sonnet 76, supporters of the Earl of Oxford were convinced they had backed the right man.

Shapiro, who has always believed Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, affords all these outlandish theories a large degree of respect. He dutifully discusses all hypotheses at length, while admirably steering clear of the temptation to denounce all detractors as lunatics (notwithstanding the fact that one Baconian, a certain Delia Bacon, no relation, did end up living out her days in an asylum while  others died penniless and disillusioned as a result of their vain quest). Instead of engaging in hyperbolic condemnations and vehement denials, Shapiro quietly and elegantly disproves the majority of the Baconian and Oxfordian conjectures. Indeed, the author doesn’t waste time disproving the more outrageous claims (for example: that both Bacon and Oxford were Elizabeth I’s illegitimate children, and that Oxford went on to become her incestuous lover) – he allows these theories to speak for themselves. In doing so, he gracefully builds his own case in favour of Shakespeare being the true mastermind behind the works. And it must be said, his reasoning is distinctly more balanced, scholarly and believable than some of the high-profile detractors who have gone before him.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

A Tough Critic

Another quote from the irreverent Dorothy Parker (1893 - 1967) to brighten your day ...

When reviewing a novel, said to be Benito Mussolini's "The Cardinal's Mistress", she came to the following conclusion:

"This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force!"

Top of the Pops - A Chronicle in Pictures

On 30 April this year, an extraordinary exhibition was launched in the V&A with remarkably little fanfare. The exhibition, nestled in the seldom-visited Theatre & Performance Gallery on the museum’s first floor, is called “My Generation: The Glory Days of British Rock”, and is an anthology of photographs taken behind the scenes of the music chart-show Top of The Pops from 1964 to 1973. The photographer was the then relatively unknown Harry Goodwin who, over the course of a decade, would go on to produce some of the most iconic pop images of a generation.

Top of The Pops burst onto our screens on New Years Day, 1964. The show, which was initially broadcast live, featured the pop and rock acts with songs in the British charts. The very first show included performances by The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Dusty Springfield and The Hollies. Originally scheduled for only a few episodes, TOTP enjoyed instant success. Defying all expectations, the weekly show would continue for another 42 years, its run only coming to an end in 2006.

Harry was already in his forties when he was employed by the BBC as resident stills photographer on the fledgling music show. In the beginning he was paid only £30 per week, although he would eventually go on to receive a pay-rise and a mention in the closing credits as the show grew in popularity. His shots of the often reluctant stars would be used as background stills when the acts were unable to perform on the show.

The exhibition, made up of 200 images, is a veritable who’s who of 1960’s and 70’s rock and pop. The list of subjects is as impressive as it is expansive - from a youthful Paul McCartney and Keith Richards, pictured drinking tea and Coca-Cola respectively, to Sony and Cher, Ike and Tina, the Jackson 5 and John Lennon. Glam rock features heavily, with candid shots of Elton John, Rod Stewart, Marc Bolan, The Who and The Alice Cooper Band. The image of Jimi Hendrix playing guitar with his teeth is now famous in it’s own right (the shot was, apparently, improvised by Hendrix himself, without any input from the photographer).

Perhaps the most interesting image is of the famously camera-shy Bob Dylan. Grumpy and un-cooperative, Dylan was proving a difficult subject. Harry overcame this reticence, and extracted a little revenge, by temporarily blinding Dylan with the camera flash – the resulting image of a petulant Dylan speaks volumes.

For anybody interested in photography or pop history, this exhibition is not to be missed!

Incidentally, while you are there, make sure to pop next door to the Paintings & Drawings Gallery, where prints and sketches from Picasso (including “The Frugal Repast”) can be found in glorious juxtaposition with Warhol’s famous Marilyn Monroe prints, among many others.

My Generation - The Glory Years of British Rock
Victoria & Albert Museum
30 April - 24 October 2010
www.vam.ac.uk
Admission Free

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Sex, Lies & Virginia - Escaping Bloomsbury

The renowned group of artists, writers and intellectuals, who collectively became known as "The Bloomsbury Group", have been the subject of innumerable books and biographies in recent years. This may be due to the fact that Bloomsbury (whose members included Leonard and Virginia Woolf, the painter Vanessa Bell and her husband Clive, the artists Duncan Grant and Roger Fry and the economist John Maynard Keynes) were highly influential in the fields of art, literature and economics during the first part of the 20th century. The Group (which incidentally derived its name from the fact that most members lived in close proximity to each other in the Bloomsbury Square area of London) advocated intellectual and sexual freedom. Indeed, the latter is probably the reason why Bloomsbury has held our fascination for so long – the complicated friendships, family ties and romantic entanglements prove irresistible to our curiosity, as we strive to discover what makes this group of extraordinary people tick, both individually and collectively.

Angelica Garnett’s "Deceived with Kindness - A Bloomsbury Childhood" is not simply another revisitation of a now-familiar subject. Her book gives us rare and fascinating insight into Bloomsbury, not as an outsider looking in, but as a witness to the intimate workings of this exceptional group. The illegitimate daughter of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and Virginia Woolf’s niece, Angelica Garnett was raised in the company of, and under the influence of, some of the most respected intellectuals and artists of their day. Hers is a fascinating story.

Born on Christmas Day, 1918, Angelica grew up at Charleston in Sussex (now a museum) with her mother, her much-older brothers Quentin and Julian, and her mother’s close friend and confidante, Duncan. She believed her father to be Clive Bell (Vanessa’s estranged husband), a lie perpetrated by Clive himself, in a bid to prevent his family from disinheriting the child. Despite being surrounded by artistic and intellectual heavyweights, hers was a closeted up-bringing. Spoilt and doted upon, Angelica was, by her own volition, a much –loved child. Her relationship with her mother, however, was strained – mainly due to Vanessa’s inwardness, secretiveness and possessiveness. It was not until Angelica was seventeen, when her mother disclosed the truth about her father, that she began to understand the reason for her mother’s cautious and reserved demeanour.

Angelica was the product of an ill-fated love affair between Duncan and Vanessa. Duncan was predominately homosexual and very promiscuous, whereas Vanessa, it seems, remained in love and devoted to him all her life. Vanessa’s liberal acceptance of Duncan’s lifestyle appears to be a desperate attempt to hang onto him, no matter what – a desperation disguised as intellectual detachment. The lie about Angelica’s paternity is a central theme in the book, as it becomes obvious that her life has been irrevocably shaped by the repercussions of this insidious untruth.

Being a child of Bloomsbury, Angelica also had the unenviable task of trying to forge a life for herself outside the tight-knit group. Marked out as different from an early age, she struggled to establish an identity for herself. She did not have the intellectual aptitude of her aunt Virginia Woolf, nor did she excel at painting like her parents. She even admits Virginia was “disappointed” with her, having not lived up to expectations. In a bid to assert her independence, to loosen herself from her mother’s possessive hold and her aunt’s disapproving eye, she married David “Bunny” Garnett at the age of 24. Bunny, an author and publisher, was 26 years her senior and a friend of her parents. He pursued her intently for 6 years, despite being married with children. (His wife subsequently died, leaving him free to marry Angelica). It was only after her marriage that she discovered that Bunny had been Duncan’s gay lover years earlier. Bunny was also present at her birth, when he declared he would eventually marry her. He wrote to a friend: “I think of marrying it. When she is 20, I shall be 46 -- will it be scandalous?” And so, it seems, in marrying Bunny, far from escaping her mother and Bloomsbury in general, she found herself entangled even more, trapped in an unhappy marriage with the shadow of her parents constantly looming over her. Bloomsbury defined her, and she could never escape its grasp.

This book feels like one long exercise in self-analysis – the incestuous and Freudian undertones are unmistakable. Although the author at times comes across as self-obsessed and ego-centric, one imagines that she is as surprised as the reader about what she discovers during this process of self-discovery. "Deceived with Kindness" is an intriguing book, which not only gives us unique insight into the legend that is Bloomsbury, but which charts one woman’s extraordinary journey trying to cast off the familial and social ties that bind her. A captivating read.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

The Passing Years

Fragile little columns, alive with tiny dancing flames, candles on the birthday cake mark another passing year.

To the young, standing on the precipice of the unknown, they are beacons of hope. Blinded by eager vitality and abounding energy, the young have much to learn.

Year by year, as the candles grow plentiful, hope is replaced by loss – loss of time, loss of faith, evaporating hopes and dreams. Time waits for no man.

The little lights are illuminated every year, but just for a short while. Nothing lasts forever. All too quickly, their delicate glow extinguished, easily snuffed out with one breath. (Make a wish!)

What do we wish for? Health, happiness, love? We wish for what we can’t have - the merciless onward march of time ensures all these things will be gradually taken from us, never to be returned.

The little lights are illuminated every year … until they light no more.

Friday, 7 May 2010

The Google Doodle - Music Trumps Politics

Yesterday, as the British nation went to the polls in the first General Election in five years, Google commemorated the occasion by incorporating the famous door of No. 10 Downing Street into its Doodle du jour. After a hard-fought and dramatic campaign, the country woke up this morning to a parliamentary system plunged into chaos, as it became clear that the ballot failed to return a decisive winner. As politicians and electorate alike scrambled to make sense of this unfolding drama, I was almost expecting the Google Doodle to continue with its political theme, as a reflection of the uncertain and uncharted waters in which we now found ourselves.

This was not to be the case. Instead, Google elected (excuse the pun!) to celebrate the 170th anniversary of the birth of the Russian composer Tchaikovsky – a more tranquil subject, I’m sure you’ll agree, and a welcome distraction from the political battle that rages all around us. The Doodle itself is rather beautiful, composed of a number of dancers in ballet poses vaguely representing the Google logo. It is unquestionably one of the more artistic Doodle offerings of late.

And of course, the acclaimed composer is a very worthy subject. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky entered the world on 7th May 1840, born into a middle class family with a long history of military service. His father, Ilya, was an engineer, and his mother Alexandra (Ilya’s second wife) was of French extraction. He began piano lessons at five years of age, and proved himself a prodigious student. However, after initially supporting his musical education, his parents’ enthusiasm eventually waned, and they insisted he attend a school which would groom him for a career in the civil service. As a result, Tchaikovsky’s musical ambitions were put on hold for several years. He entered the civil service in 1859, at the age of 19, and remained there for three years. Upon leaving, he continued his musical education, enrolling to study at the St Petersburg Conservatory. He graduated in 1865, and composed his First Symphony a year later. And so began an incredible career, lasting until his early death in 1893, at the age of 53.

During Tchaikovsky’s relatively short life, which saw professional successes marred by a turbulent and troubled personal life, the gifted composer produced many of the enduring pieces from the Romantic era. His most famous works are the ballets "Swan Lake", "The Sleeping Beauty", and "The Nutcracker". He was equally proficient in composing operas, "Eugene Onegin" probably being the most well known. In addition, he composed a host of symphonies and concertos. This prolific output ensured that his legacy was guaranteed, and it is a testament to his genius that we find the time to celebrate him today, in the midst of the biggest political and social upheaval of a generation.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Life Through The Lens

Irving Penn (1917 - 2009) was an influential American photographer who specialised in portraiture and fashion photography. Having worked at Harper's Bazaar and American Vogue before setting up his own studio, he was to become one of the most successful portrait photographers of all time. He died last year at the age of 92.

This is what he had to say about the relationship between a camera and it's sometimes reluctant subjects ...

"Sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put on a face they think is one they would like to show they world ... very often what lies behind the façade is rare and more wonderful than the subject knows or dares believes"

The River Cafe - A Disappointing Pilgrimage

The River Café is an eatery which has been on my dining wish list since arriving in the UK over three years ago. Established in 1987, it has become one of the most enduring and iconic restaurants on the London dining scene, surviving two major economic recessions, a devastating fire, and more recently, the death of one of it’s co-founders Rose Gray. It gained a prestigious Michelin Star a year after opening, which it has retained ever since.

Initially opened as a staff canteen, the restaurant rose quickly from its humble beginnings and soon gained popularity among London’s movers and shakers. The River Café has numerous claims to fame. It is widely credited as enlightening the British dining public to the fact that there is more to Italian cuisine than spaghetti bolognese and tiramisu. It is also renowned for revolutionising restaurant design - it was one of the first restaurants to have the now familiar open-plan kitchen. But perhaps the most notable of all, The River Café is responsible for introducing the world to Jamie Oliver.

Barely out of his teens, Jamie trained at the River Café for three years, having moved there from Antonio Carluccio’s Neal Street restaurant. During the recording of a documentary about the Café, Jamie was asked to film a five minute segment. A sharp-eyed producer noticed the appeal of the cheeky chappie, and not long afterwards he was offered his own TV show. The Naked Chef was born!

Being a massive fan of the inimitable Mr. Oliver, and an even bigger fan of Italian food, I certainly didn’t argue when my husband suggested the River Café as a birthday treat! Bearing in mind the popularity of the restaurant (it has become a place of pilgrimage for many J.O. devotees like myself), we booked our table a month in advance. We were unperturbed when we were politely informed that that first evening sitting was from 7pm to 9pm - this is a common time restriction in popular, high turnover restaurants. But boy, were we kept to the clock! Arriving at 7pm on the dot, we were ushered to our seats so quickly that I barely had time to take in the surroundings. Being one of the first parties to arrive, the wait staff descended upon us with breathtaking swiftness. After perusing the menu for barely a minute, our waitress began pestering us for our order. We requested more time to consider the menu. The wine list, being entirely in Italian, was confusing, and so Hubby asked for the sommelier for some much-needed advice. Before the sommelier arrived, we were again asked for our food order, at which point we got a bit huffy, declaring that we would like to order the wine before food.

Scarcely five minutes after our arrival, we ordered our food and wine and I excused myself to visit the ladies room. Upon returning to the table I was astonished to discover my entrée sitting waiting for me, going cold. After gulping down our first course, our second course was served with the same lightening speed, and by 7.30pm we were ready for dessert! By this stage the restaurant had filled to capacity - which was no mean feat considering the number of tiny tables crammed like sardines into every available space on the dining room floor. The place was packed to the rafters, a hive of activity! Wait staff jostled with customers trying to manoeuvre in the tiny spaces between tables, our chairs were being constantly bumped by other diners, the cacophony of noise was deafening.

Stubbornly determined to remain at our table until the 9pm curfew, I lingered over my dessert for an hour, which gave me time to absorb the setting. If I am honest, I didn’t find the décor aesthetically pleasing. After being almost destroyed by fire in 2008, the restaurant was completely refurbished, and I suspect the design has lost some of its charm. What was a state-of-the art lay-out in 1987 now feels like a school cafeteria. Paper coverings over the tablecloths were quite off-putting. One would at least expect linen table coverings from a Michelin-starred restaurant! The bathrooms are painted in headache-inducing neon colours. And let’s not forget the ridiculously huge projection clock which dominates the back wall of the restaurant – a constant reminder of our two-hour time limit, just in case we forget ourselves and start to relax over dinner!

The food was delicious, but not without its faults. The crab linguine was overpowered by too much fennel; the chilli-and-garlic squid was so hot it numbed the roof of my mouth. Desserts of gelati and the signature chocolate ‘Nemesis’ cake were sublime, although our after-dinner cappuccinos were almost cold! Prices were exorbitant. A small plate of pasta cost almost £20, while my husband’s medium-rare steak set us back £35. The owners certainly know how to squeeze customers for every last penny!

On the whole, I expected much more from this iconic restaurant. The food was good, but so it should be for £100-a-head. There is a disconcerting sensation that one is on a conveyor belt, being hurried in and out as quickly as possible to maximise turnover – the “churn ‘em and burn ‘em” system is barely disguised. The River Café is not for the faint-hearted. However, if you are brave enough to try this restaurant, don’t risk a trip to the loo – you may very well miss a course!!

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

A recent competition by the Writers Bureau invited students to submit a review, consisting of 140 characters or less (i.e. a review which could be “tweeted” … or should that be “twittered”?). The subject of this review could be anything to do with writing, be it a book, website or magazine – you get the picture. Thinking about this, I decided to re-read Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own”, a book which has inspired me to write like no other.

A Room of One’s Own” is a rambling yet insightful reflection on the subject of Women and Fiction, exploring the difficulties faced by females in what was predominately a man’s world – the world of authorship. The essay, written in 1929, was borne out of a series of lectures given by the author to two women’s colleges at Cambridge University. It is now regarded as one of the central pieces of feminist polemic, on a par with Germaine Greer’s “The Female Eunuch”.

Woolf’s basic premise is that a woman needs freedom to write - that is, freedom from money worries and freedom from dependence on men. She considers why fiction, or art in any form, by women was in short supply prior to the nineteenth century. She asks why the literary world, punctuated with male luminaries like Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare et al, was almost totally devoid of female writers and artists. One obvious reason was the lack of education and other opportunities available to women of this period. Woolf conjures up Judith Shakespeare (the playwrights imagined sister), and cleverly uses her to illustrate how society would conspire against a talented female with ambitions to write. The story did not end happily for the unfortunate Judith.

She then moves on to the prominent female authors of the nineteenth century, such as Jane Austin, the Brontë sisters and Mary Ann Evans (aka George Eliot). Despite the fact that conditions had improved considerably for women during this period, female writers still faced enormous difficulties. Many were forced to publish under male pseudonyms, and others had such a protected and cloistered up-bringing that they had little experience to draw on for their writing. Because of this lack of worldliness, Woolf questions whether Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë could ever have written novels like “War and Peace”.

Woolf concludes that to be a successful writer or artist, a woman needs a room of her own (with a lock on the door), and an income of at least £500 a year. This, she argues, is all that is needed to unlock inspiration (one supposes that talent is an assumed pre-requisite!). In today’s world, this seems to be a rather simplistic view. But if we put it in the context of how much things have changed and improved for women, it is sad to think that luxuries such as a room and some private income was beyond hope for many of our predecessors. How lucky we are to live in these more enlightened times!

In the past, when I have recommended this essay to a number of friends, I have come across a peculiar reticence. It seems to me a lot of people are wary of Virginia Woolf’s work, put off by her experimental style and cerebral reputation. It is true Ms Woolf’s unique “stream of consciousness” style of writing sometimes makes for a difficult read. Nonetheless, with a little dedication and concentration, the reader will most certainly be rewarded. Woolf’s writing can transport the reader inside the author’s mind, where we are privileged witnesses to her tumbling, muddled yet highly intuitive thought processes – we are given access to a fascinating mind at work.

Another reason for some people’s disinclination towards her work is the fact that, having famously committed suicide after struggling with mental illness for much of her adult life, Woolf is viewed as a tragic figure. This perception of her as a melancholic and elegiac character (perpetuated in no small part by the film “The Hours”), means we expect her work to be the same. Nothing could be further from the truth! It is true her work has some dark elements, but her writing can also be delightful, inspiring, uplifting, and indeed very humorous. What better reason to pick up one of her books, and try it on for size?

And as for the twitter review, I made a few half-hearted attempts, before deciding it impossible to do justice to such an accomplished work in a mere 140 characters.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

For those of you suffering from writer's block ...

... an insight into the craft from Oscar Wilde - Irish poet, dramatist, satirist, aesthete and undisputed king of the witty one-liner (1854 - 1900).

"I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again."

Dreamworks

The achievements of the great artist Michelangelo Buonarroti are as numerous as they are famous. The genius of this Renaissance painter, sculptor, architect and poet was responsible for such masterpieces as The Last Judgement on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the magnificent David, which is housed in the Accademia Gallery in Florence, among countless others.

Not all his art, however, was on such a grand scale. When he wasn’t working on commissions from princes, popes and cardinals, the great Michelangelo devoted himself to creating drawings, mainly in chalk, as gifts for friends and lovers. These works, which became known as "presentation drawings", are among the few remaining Michelangelo drawings still in existence today. We should be immensely grateful that they have survived to be appreciated by posterity, because if it were up to the man himself there would be nothing left to see! Michelangelo, for reasons we can only guess at, famously burned much of his work prior to his death in 1564 - the vast majority of his drawings were destroyed.

Some of these presentation drawings form the basis of an unmissable exhibition currently showing at The Courtauld Gallery in Somerset House. The Courtauld has, among its many treasures, the magnificent Il Sogno (The Dream), and it is this work that forms the centerpiece of the exhibition. The drawing features a nude youth, reclining on a globe, surrounded by earthly vices such as avarice, lust and sloth. A winged creature is descending from heaven to rescue the youth from this den of sin. There have been many interpretations of the meaning of this drawing, although a consensus has never been reached.

Il Sogno is one of a number of drawings Michelangelo gifted to his friend, and the rumoured object of his affections, Tommaso dei Cavalieri. Others, including The Rape of Ganymede and The Punishment of Tityus (on loan from Her Majesty the Queen and The British Museum respectively), along with selected letters and poems, have been brought together from collections around the world to create one of this year's must-see exhibitions.

So get yourself along to Somerset House on the double - the exhibition comes to an end on May 16th. And while you are there, don't forget to take in gallery's world renowned collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, which includes masterpieces from Renoir, Monet, Degas and Cezanne - also a must-see!

Michelangelo's Dream
The Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House
18 February - 16 May 2010

Friday, 23 April 2010

The Curious Case of ... The Missing Teaspoons

After my disastrous visit to the Grace Kelly – Style Icon exhibition at the V&A (see below), I decided to console myself over a cup of tea in the beautiful surroundings of the museum’s restaurant. The set of three adjoining rooms which make up the restaurant’s main dining area are steeped in history. The rooms formed the first ever museum restaurant, and date back to the mid nineteenth century. The intricate and individual design of each room is breath-taking, featuring imposing chandeliers, wood paneling, willow-pattern tiles, and even a grand piano.

Lunch or afternoon tea at the V&A (or indeed a sneaky glass of wine after an exhibition) has always been a civilized affair. Apart from the sumptuous surroundings, the food is delicious. Catered by the award-winning team at Benugo, the menu includes everything from carb-loaded pastas, hearty pies, sandwiches stuffed with pastrami and mozzarella, and truly decadent pastries.

In a brave break from conventional wisdom, the V&A seems to realize that its patrons are responsible adults who can be trusted to eat a meal without inflicting harm on themselves. The food is served on real porcelain plates, and tea is brewed in ceramic teapots. Knives and forks are of the metal variety (as opposed to the plastic toy cutlery favoured by many similar institutions), and wine can be drunk from actual wine-glasses.

So, why oh why is there not a single teaspoon to be found in the place?? As I pour my tea, feeling very posh and refined, the illusion is ruined by the absence of anything resembling a spoon. In their place are silly wooden stirrers, similar to those found in Starbucks the world over. My dislike for these ridiculous things is so great that I would be more inclined to use my finger to stir my tea. So much for being refined!

After briefly considering launching a campaign to Bring Back the Teaspoons, I decided against that particular course of action on the basis that I am far too lazy to undertake such an audacious crusade. So - what to do? Maybe I should just give up and go to Starbucks like the rest of the world. Yes - that sounds like a much easier option ....

Amazing Grace

Was there ever a person more aptly named than Grace Kelly? From a very young age, it was obvious that she was in possession of an extraordinary beauty which would mark her out from the crowd. Throughout her life, from Hitchcock muse and Academy Award winning actress, to her marriage to Prince Rainer of Monaco and her subsequent reign as the beloved Princess Grace, she was the epitome of style and elegance.

Princess Grace was to the 1950’s and 60’s what Princess Diana would be to the 1980’s and 90’s. Indeed, there are many parallels to be found between these two ill-fated beauties. Both women became hugely famous as royal spouses, while struggling to cope with the consequences of their fame. Grace and Diana both exuded a rabbit-in-the-headlights type of innocence, and it was this quality (real or perceived) which catapulted them to the status of legends, modern-day deities, after their untimely deaths.

Grace and Diana would become the most famous and most photographed women of their day, and were greatly admired for their sense of style. They were trend-setters, their style much copied but never equaled. There have been many exhibitions featuring clothes worn by Diana, including a permanent display in Kensington Palace. However, we have not had an opportunity to appreciate the magnificent wardrobe of Princess Grace … until now.

Grace Kelly – Style Icon opened at the V&A last week. This exhibition celebrates Kelly’s unique style by showcasing her spectacular collection of clothes. Opening night attendees included her son Prince Albert of Monaco who said “My mother treasured her clothes and would have been delighted to have them exhibited at the V and A”.

The Victoria and Albert Museum is the undisputed home of fashion history. In 2007, it hosted The Golden Age of Couture exhibition, which celebrated 1940’s and 1950’s fashion in Paris and London, with particular emphasis on the emergence of the Dior fashion house. I lost count of the number of times I saw this exhibition – it was probably akin to the number of times other people saw the film versions of Mamma Mia or Sex and The City. And so, it wouldn’t be an over-statement to say I was bursting with excitement yesterday as I hot-footed it to the V&A, with a reluctant husband in tow, to take in the museum’s latest offering.

You can imagine my surprise and indignation when I got to the top of the queue at the admissions desk to be confronted with a little sign which read: “All sessions for Grace Kelly – Style Icon booked out for today.” Apparently, the exhibition was proving hugely popular with American tour groups (go figure!) – the foyer of the museum was swarming with little old ladies, with languid American drawls, wearing name-tags, elasticated pants and sensible shoes. I thought the volcanic ash had kept all the tourists away!! These were obviously very determined ladies, who didn’t allow the little matter of a flight embargo to come between them and their beloved Grace Kelly! And so, dear readers, although I cannot give you any insight into the exhibition, I can offer this little nugget of advice – make sure you book in advance ... and be nice to the little old American ladies you are sure to meet there!

Grace Kelly – Style Icon
Victoria & Albert Museum
17 April -26 September 2010
www.vam.ac.uk

Saturday, 17 April 2010

iPad or iBad?

The following is a brief digression from my usual subjects of choice (art, food and books) as I wander into Techno-Territory…

Since Apple announced that the much-anticipated worldwide release of the iPad, a new generation tablet computer, had been delayed by a month, there has been much speculation in the press as to the reasons why. Some naysayers have suggested that the release date was pushed back to give the company time to iron out teething problems which have been discovered since it’s US launch on April 3rd.

However, considering these teething problems are relatively minor (such as dodgy wifi connectivity in some areas, and the odd battery-going-dead-quickly issue), one is inclined to believe the official excuse (I mean, explanation). Apparently, demand has been so great in the US that the company is struggling to keep up with orders. Apple wants to clear the back-log in America, and get production running to full capacity, before subjecting itself to a tsunami of international orders.

All this sounds familiar. The “unprecedented” demand that greets every Apple product launch has become, in my opinion, something of a joke. Throughout the world, tech-heads and ordinary humans alike queued for days (and indeed nights) to get their hands on the iPhone when it was first released in 2007. The same has been true of various incarnations of the iPod since it first gained popularity in 2004. The public’s voracious appetite for iPods and iPhones was understandable – these products were genuinely breaking the mould; they were new design concepts that would revolutionize the way we listen to music, surf the net and access our digital photos.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the iPad. According to Apple, it fills the ‘gap’ between the iPhone and the netbook. Was there really a gap in the market to begin with? Various reviews have highlighted that you can surf the net with the iPad, but the absence of a keyboard and mouse makes the user yearn for the easy functionality of the netbook. You can watch movies and videos with the iPad, but you could do that with the iPhone. The size of the iPad makes it more difficult to carry around than either the iPhone or iPod. In short, it doesn’t offer any additional functionality; it is just a mish-mash of previous Apple products.

And so, how can we explain the huge demand for it? Why has the iPad emerged as the must-have gadget of 2010? Undoubtedly, Apple Inc have achieved cult status after successfully conquering (and dominating) the market for portable digital devices over the past decade. Could the iPad be merely riding on the coat-tails of previous Apple successes? Very possibly. Whether or not it becomes a successful product in its own right remains to be seen. But I, for one, will wait for the dust to settle before rushing out to part with my hard-earned cash - and I definitely won’t be camping out in Oxford Street next month!

Recession

Bustling shoppers hurry by, struggling under the burden of too many bags - they ignore me. Children race past, up and down the mall's busy thoroughfare, paying no attention to protestations from their weary mothers - they pay no attention to me either. The metal shutters which barricade my once bright façade have cast me into obscurity. My neighbours, those who were luckier than I have been, seem to taunt me. They are vibrant and brilliant under their neon lights while I live in the shadows; my lights have long since been distinguished. Abandoned, forgotten and forlorn, I am haunted by memories of happier times. I am an insignificance, nothing but a relic of a more prosperous period; an unwelcome reminder of lost hope and abandoned dreams.

A meditation on Love

Browsing through a dusty old bookshop yesterday, I stumbled across this wonderful poem by Erich Fried. It is a mediation on the contradictory nature of love. Fried was an Austrian poet, who fled the Nazi Germany as a child (after his father was murdered by the Gestapo) and settled with his mother in England. He died in 1988.

What it is
It is nonsense/says Reason
It is what it is/says Love
It is unhappiness/says Caution
It is nothing but pain/says Fear
It is hopeless/says Insight
It is what it is/says Love
It is ridiculous/says Pride
It is careless/says Caution
It is impossible/says Experience
It is what it is/says Love
Erich Fried (1921 - 1988)