Twentieth Century Masters: LSO at the Barbican review ****

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London Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle, Isabelle Faust

Barbican Hall, 14th January 2018

  • Janacek – Overture: From the House of the Dead
  • Elliott Carter – Instances
  • Berg – Violin Concerto
  • Bartok – Concerto for Orchestra

Back to the Barbican for another round with Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO, though this was more familiar ground (for me) compared to the previous outing (Rameau to Mahler: LSO at the Barbican review ***) a few days earlier. And back to my more usual perch. Once again the Hall was pretty much full to the rafters, and, encouragingly, it looked liked a very youthful audience. (Or I am ageing more rapidly than I thought). Anyway, on the subject of age, the thread here was orchestral works written near the end of their lives by these four very different composers. All of which gave a chance for the whole orchestra to shine.

Now the main draw for me here was Isabelle Faust. I think she is probably the best current violinist in the world. Mind you, as is my wont, I have gone all hyperbolic in this claim with little evidence to back this up. So, more exactly, the best violinist I have heard in the past couple of years, based on recordings and her Bach outing last year at the Wigmore Hall (Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin at the Wigmore Hall review *****).

As it happens I saw a fine rendition of the Berg Violin Concerto performed by another favourite violinist in the elfin form of Patricia Kopatchinskaja last year at the RFH with the LPO under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski. And I recently invested in the benchmark Levine/Mutter recording, (even though I am not entirely convinced by Ms Mutter). Now I am not going to pretend that listening to Berg comes easily to me, but even I can hear that there is a rich depth in his works from the combination of passion, intelligence, serial technique and romanticism, that rewards persistence. I rashly signed up for a performance of Wozzeck at the Frankfurt Oper a couple of years ago in German with German sub-titles (FYI I don’t speak German). Unforgivably I bought the cheapest ticket up in the gods. It is a wonderful auditorium but I could only see half the stage. That was still enough to be transfixed by an outstanding production. But most of all it meant I had no choice but to get lost in the score. Stunning. Add to this the Lulu in 2016 at the ENO directed by William Kentridge, which I confess was beyond me in parts, but was visually spectacular, and I am now well on the road to Bergian conversion. Mind you, what with his long(ish) musical education under Schoenberg, the proscription of his music under the Nazis and his early death, aged 50, after a bizarre insect biting incident, there isn’t too much composition to get your head around.

Now this Violin Concerto isn’t like others in the canon. It’s tricky for sure, and asks a lot of the soloist, but it isn’t showy. Orchestra and soloist have to mesh together. It is pretty much the last piece Berg wrote and is dedicated to the memory of Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma (Mahler’s widow) and Walter Gropius (Bauhaus founder), who died from polio at 18. Apparently she was a captivating young woman in the manner of her mother.

The two movements are each split into two parts and with the waltz emerging from the material set out in the first movement, and the chorale emerging from the more rhythmic, almost cadenza, in the second movement. This the tempo is reversed in each. I can sort of pick out the established musical structures from within the twelve tone architecture but couldn’t tell you exactly what was going on. Suffice to say this is a dark, brooding, self-absorbed piece for the violinist and Ms Faust seemed to capture this utterly. She seemed lost in music, caught in a trap, to paraphrase Philly’s finest sisters, There are times when the whole edifice becomes just that bit self indulgent but this is where Sir SR’s insistence on picking out the orchestral instrumentation pays dividends. I hadn’t realised how detailed are the parts for harp, clarinet, viola, flute and trumpet were in this piece. I do now.

Which brings me to the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra. Now this is a piece written with the express intention of letting everyone in the band have a solo, like some prog-rock group in its 1970s pomp, It is an obvious, but still inspired, choice to present to an audience in a first season, and, I would hazard a guess, if you are engaged in a bit of musical team-building. I have Rattle’s first, (I think), stab at this when he was a younger at the CBSO, (though the bargain basement Solti/Chicago Symphony Orchestra version tops it). Anyway Sir Simon knows his way around it, and it brilliantly matches his predilection for coloration and deliberation.

I am not going to lie. It blew my socks off. There is just so much to listen to here. The first movement strings and brass, coming out of the undergrowth, with the woodwind, led by a solo oboe, getting their turn in the spotlight. The wonderful second movement scherzo with its contrasting intervals, an eerie disco. Next up an Elegia, exactly as it says, with the strings swirling around and up to be met by bold brass chords and a piccolo sticking its little nose in. The second scherzo quotes, mocks and, ultimately, compliments Shostakovich with tuba and harps getting involved, and the final movement works in classic Bartok folky stuff with a gallop to a rousing chorale at the conclusion.

I reckon we won’t have seen the last of this piece, or of Bartok, from Sir Simon and the LSO and it can probably get even better from here. Hopefully too we will see him rework some of his other C20 repertoire. Some more Stravinsky for sure, but I’d loved to hear his latest takes on Britten’s music for orchestra and, please, some, no all, of the Nielsen symphonies.

Anyway the other two pieces in this concert were tried and trusted composers for Sir Simon, Janacek’s Overture From the House of the Dead didn’t quite get the pulse racing in the way the Bartok did, but still suggested what the LSO is heading towards. (I see the House of the Dead will see a new production at the Royal Opera House in the forthcoming season. That has contemporary relevance written all over it). Sir Simon has always championed Elliott Carter and I can see why. This was another of those short, but inventive, comedy pieces that Carter was turning out in his musically fecund 90s and even into his 100s, but it has a strangely, moving ending.

Can’t wait to see what the Scouse Gandalf will programme with his band for the forthcoming season. Hopefully not too much Mahler, Bruckner, Sibelius please.

 

 

Julius Caesar at the Barbican Theatre review ****

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Julius Caesar

Royal Shakespeare Company, Barbican Theatre, 11th January 2018

The third instalment, (for me), of the RSC “Rome” season at the Barbican which originally aired at Stratford. And, as is so often the case with this idiotic blog, it is about to end and is sold out anyway. Et tu numbnut.

Now JC (1599) was written a fair few years before its sequel, Antony and Cleopatra (1606), but both draw heavily on Plutarch, (via Sir Thomas North’s translation), for the guts of the story. Yet they could not be more different in tone. JC is austere in its construction of architecture and language, dripping with rhetoric. A&C is loose-limbed and florid as we watch the saucy couple get it on, often funny, and certainly over the top. All will be revealed when I see A&C as the last part of the RSC quartet shortly. (I note this attracted the most glowing reviews of the four).

I have to say that, generally, JC is my favourite of the two. Here we have four chaps, (unfortunately this is a terrible play for female roles even if the sensible trend to cast Cassius as a woman is followed, though it is not here), whose actions and relationships can be interpreted in an infinite variety of shades. In this production we have an unyieldingly peremptory Julius Caesar courtesy of Andrew Woodall, (nailing all that third person humblebragging), an overly smug and somewhat vain Brutus from Alex Waldmann, a Mark Antony who is more devious than he at first appears from James Corrigan and a vituperative, beguiling Cassius from Martin Hutson. I have to say this latter performance brought out facets of Cassius that I had not observed before, and, as with his Saturninus in the RSC Titus Andronicus, Mr Hutson near stole the show. Alex Waldmann is the go-too if you want a character “plagued by doubts”, (last seen by me as a brilliant Henry VI in the Rose Kingston’s War of the Roses), but the way Martin Hutson works off of his uncertain Brutus is just mesmerising.

Will S’s brilliant innovation in JC is to telescope all of the action up to the big man’s brutal knifing by the conspirators into what seems like just a couple of days. This means the reasons for the conspiracy, to take down Caesar who has got way too high and mighty in an echo of the Roman kings of pre-Republic days, come flying out of the blocks thick and fast. This resolutely includes the personal as well as the political.

Angus Jackson’s direction allows the momentum to build whilst still clearly laying the arguments around the use and abuse of power, the morality of rebellion against oppression and the legitimacy of political assassination. It is not what Caesar has done, but what he might do. On whose behalf are the conspirators acting, the people or themselves and their own class? The hoi-polloi is never happier than when they have a “strong” leader remember. The uncertainty around what would happen after QE1 died, in the context of the struggle between Protestant and Catholic, would have been clear to Will S’s contemporary audience. The impact of uncertainty is just as clear now.

But big Will didn’t stop there. Oh no. The carnage “unleashed” in the aftermath of JC’s death as Mark A and Octavius put the plotters to the sword, whose own resolve is shattered, is just as effective and thought-provoking. That is the problem with regime change. It usually goes t*ts up because none of these blokes thinks about what happens next. All summed up in two minutes with the horrific murder of Cinna by the confused mob.

Because we never learn Will S can keep on teaching us. Clever huh.

And, in this production, with complete clarity in the delivery of the lines, it was very easy to see that the main players were as much victims, as shapers, of events. The conspirators were uncertain, their tone and movement revealing the dissension between them. Caesar has got all imperious in part because no-one stopped him. Mark A’s sycophancy reflected an eye to the main chance: his famous rhetorical speech to the crowd, cynical, a man realising he could seize control. Watch him build up, then tear up, Caesar’s will. Cassius egging on Brutus, not prepared to take the lead. Brutus and Cassius falling out big time in the tent but always knowing they had to make up since they only, ultimately, had each other. Kidding themselves they really were “honourable” even to the end by getting some poor sap to administer the “coup de grace”. Honour in our appallingly individualistic society may look like an anachronistic concept, but the effect on the audience of its study in this play suggests it still has a place in our hearts and minds.

No need for modern dress. Togas are fine. Would sir like Doric or Corinthian columns. No need for video of an orange Donny spouting hate or rioting millenials. No need to ham up the famous lines or cut out Will’s words. Frankly no need for an interval if it were my choice. One of the best ways to see and hear JC is still Mankiewicz’s 1953 film with Gielgud. Mason and Brando. Not to be confused with Stuart Burge’s 1970 film with Gielgud effortlessly shifting from Cassius to Caesar, but with execrable performances from Charlton Heston as MA and, worse still, Jason Robards as Brutus who appears to have wandered out of an old folks’ home.

Now I am not saying that JC cannot benefit from a little bit of tidying up and reshaping. I think Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female outing at the Donmar was the best of her trilogy last year, (and was a top ten production for me), and Hans Kesting’s speech to the crowd in Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Roman Tragedies might just be the best 10 minutes of theatre I have ever seen. It’s just that the play can be as, if not more, powerful as a whole, without needing the full directorial vajazzle. I see that many of the proper reviews felt this production was all a bit old-skool, declamatory. I disagree. It is about the power of language to change the direction of political action. Praxis if you will. So emphasising that language should not be seen as embarrassing.

The good news is that we have another chance to see JC in the very near future, (from 20th Jan), as Nick Hytner and team at the Bridge Theatre have a crack. With Ben Wishaw as Brutus, Michelle Fairley as Cassius, David Morrissey as Mark Antony and David Calder as Caesar. How about that for casting. Can’t wait.

 

 

 

Rameau to Mahler: LSO at the Barbican review ***

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London Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle, Magdalena Kozena

Barbican Hall, 11th January 2017

  • Schubert – Symphony No 8 Unfinished
  • Mahler – Ruckert Lieder
  • Handel – Three Arias
  • Rameau – Les Boreades Suite

Now I admit I hummed and harred about this particular gig. I am as excited as the next person about the return of Sir SR to London to lead the mighty LSO, but also recognise that, as his musical taste and mine are not entirely congruent, I had better carpe diem where I can. When he does serve up a favourite, chances are it is going to be the dog’s proverbials, to wit the simply stunning triptych of Stravinsky ballets, a highlight of last year (Stravinsky from Rattle and the LSO at the Barbican review *****).

So eventually I took the plunge here, intrigued by the Baroque on offer, recognising that I need to do more work on Schubert and wanting to see whether Sir SR is as nice to his wife, mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena, on stage as he is to the LSO and everyone else. The Mahler Ruckert Lieder and the three showy Handel Arias, one from Agrippina and two from Ariodante, certainly meant the missus had to put a shift in, two frocks and an hour in total either side of the interval. The Rameau has been a staple party piece for the Berlin Philharmonic for years, and it seemed interesting to see what the LSO would make of it.

As it turned out this programme also piqued the interest of Mrs TFP, who is rightly suspicious of my Renaissance/Baroque and Contemporary leanings, but who was happy to come along for the ride here. The Germanic quotient was also sufficiently high for her.

So what did I learn. Well …. aaah … I still don’t think I am ever going to embrace Schubert. I assume Sir Simon and the LSO gave this a respectable work-out but it is still just doodling for me, without the rhythmic discipline of Beethoven and with too many strands. Even the finished bits sound unfinished to me. I am really sorry as I know there are a lot of Schubert groupies out there.

Now the Mahler took a bit of time to get going but songs 3,4 and 5 (in Rattle’s sequence) let loose all of that Mahlerian drama and suspense, with the growly stuff at the bottom, the sniff of folk tunes and the aching strings all deployed to great effect. Mrs TFP combed the text scrupulously for mistranslation and therefore snaffled up the stories. I didn’t understand a word of what Ms Kozena was saying and, given it is the usual Romantic, Love/Fate/Man/Artist tripe, (with one about a lime tree apparently), I didn’t really care, but at times the noise was ravishing. Unsurprisingly I guess soloist and band were well matched thanks to Sir SR, though I wonder if Ms Kozena may have topped these renditions in previous performances. No matter. This was concentrated Mahler which for me is a good thing.

On the subject of concentrated musical pleasure, I cannot believe I am the only one who prefers to take his Handel operas from the set lunch, and not the full tasting, menu. The music induces a nice warm glow, for sure, but they can go on a bit. So I thought a triple helping of well chosen arias would hit the spot. These three are undoubtedly showy, particularly the final Dopo notte, but it didn’t feel as if orchestra and soloist were entirely comfortable in parts, and, I was reminded that old George Fred, once his lady singers got up a head of steam, was apt to encourage them further with interminable repeats. Even so it left me grinning from ear to ear.

As did the Rameau suite. So this is apparently one of those all singing, all dancing (literally) extravaganzas that the French Baroque invented. It was Rameau’s last opera tragedie and boy did he chuck the kitchen sink at it judging by this suite. An everyday tale of windy Gods, the orchestral colour is dazzling, with state of the art technology to boot. I absolutely adored it, as did Sir SR and the LSO. Very funky.

So another entertaining evening in the hands of Sir Simon, but also a reminder not to push the boat out too far in terms of repertoire I enjoy.

 

Cell Mates at the Hampstead Theatre review ***

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Cell Mates

Hampstead Theatre, 10th January 2018

This was my first experience of the work of prolific playwright/novelist/diarist/academic Simon Gray whose stage texts were so adored by luminaries such as Peter Hall, Harold Pinter, (who directed many of his premieres), and Alan Bates, (who starred in them). Cell Mates, of course, is (in)famous for being the play that national treasure, and all round wonderful person, Stephen Fry bailed out of whilst suffering a bout of depression. Simon Gray in turn wrote, somewhat acerbically, about this very episode.

This is the first London revival of the play since that fateful night in 1985. It is based on the true story of the relationship between notorious Dutch-born, British spy and double agent George Blake, and Irish petty criminal and fixer Sean Bourke. After divulging top secret intelligence and details of military exercises to the Soviets in the 1960s Blake had been sentenced to 42 years for treason. In Wormwood Scrubs he met Bourke and they hatched a plan to “spring” Blake in 1966, with help from communist sympathisers on the outside, who then fled to “sanctuary” in Moscow. When Bourke got out he followed Blake to Moscow and then found himself trapped there, by the KGB, with, it seems, the connivance of Blake.

So a meaty story of prison breakout and spy drama. But Simon Gray is less interested in the plot which might naturally unfold from this extraordinary story and more in the relationship between the two men. Both clearly were remarkable in their own ways. Blake, by all accounts, was a gifted, if flawed, character. Schooled in Egypt after his father’s early death, flirting with religious vocation, he joined the Dutch resistance in his teens, was caught by the Nazis, but escaped to Britain. His linguistic skills saw him posted to some hairy places fairly early on in his career before he was turned by a Soviet agent whilst he was imprisoned in Korea. His idealogical shift had, ironically, been fuelled in part by a course in Russian he took at Cambridge. Bourke, as his plan demonstrates, was a resourceful man, with a liking for a drink, and ” a strong sense of the dramatic, an ability to dissemble and an obsessive pride” to use Blake’s own words. Textbook Irish Rover.

We see the conspiracy hatched in prison, the immediate aftermath of the breakout and then four scenes set over a year or so in Blake’s flat in Moscow. So with this back story, and these characters, you might expect high drama. You would be wrong. The tone is surprisingly low-key. The two men clearly come to depend on each other but we do not, I think, really understand why. They find themselves effectively imprisoned once again and I guess we are supposed to reflect on how this came to pass, and whether, in the case of Blake (who is still holed up in Moscow in his 90s), a life of duplicity doomed him to permanent unhappiness and loneliness.

There is some, unsubtle, humour provided by the two KGB agents played by Danny Lee Wynter and Philip Bird, who “observe’ the pair along with maid Zinaida played by Cara Horgan. The two leads, Emmet Byrne as Bourke and, especially, Geoffrey Streatfeild as Blake, do an admirable job in fleshing out the enigmatic couple and Edward delicately directs what is clearly a cherished project for him.

Overall it was just a little too restrained for my liking though. I could see that I was watching something worthwhile but I was never quite persuaded that it really was worth my while. Alan Bennett’s double header, Single Spies, is also by no means a perfect drama, but shed more light, for me, on the curious mix of arrogance, principle and self-loathing that seemed to compel the likes of Blunt, Burgess and Blake on their journey to treachery.

The Here and This and Now at the Southwark Playhouse review ****

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The Here and This and Now

Southwark Playhouse, 10th January 2017

OK homo sapiens. Enough with the exceptionalism. There is nothing special about you. Maybe you are more “intelligent” than any species that has inhabited the earth so far but you have only been around for a couple of hundred thousand years. Peanuts. You will likely be just background extinction, likely a consequence of your own selfish, insatiable behaviours. Annoyingly you will take a load more species with you. But your Holocene existence will barely register in earth history terms and you will be soon forgotten. Actually never remembered. And you will have proved pretty rubbish in terms of adapting to your environment for all your boasts if you can’t even manage a million years of existence.

So, whatever dystopian future awaits, no point getting too worked up about it. Worth trying to slow it down a bit but all your technology and institutions won’t prevent the inevitable.

Happy New Year.

Which brings me to THATAN. (I thought the acronym sounded suitably sci-fi and pharmacological, appropriate to the play). Southwark Playhouse has snapped up this and the forthcoming The War Has Not Yet Started from the Theatre Royal Plymouth. Great theatre, great city, great county. And, give or take a couple of flaws, it is well they did. For this latest offering from fashion journalist turned playwright, (and Plymouthian), Glenn Waldron, is, at its best, very, very funny. It kicks off with its four characters, Niall (Simon Darwen), Helen, (Becci Gemmell), Gemma (Tala Gouveia) and Robbie (Andy Rush), at an off-site (or away-day, take your pick, it is still one of modern Western capitalisms most unattractive inventions). It transpires they are sales reps for a pharma company. Niall, the boss, is making a pitch. The script they work from is excruciating but very funny. Newbie Gemma then has a faltering turn, followed by bolshie cynic Robbie, and finally the less assured, turning into hysterical, Helen. Mr Waldron’s observation here is truly acute, and because of this, his satire is bitingly effective. They are selling a useless drug for, prosaically, liver spots with minimal benefits in a desperate, faux-sincere way.

Then the gears switch. First Gemma and Robbie do a “what is life all about” dialogue, with background flirting. Slight but still effective, with its message of savouring the “special moments” in life. And then we roll forward to the 2020’s, post apocalypse, caused by, ta-dah, increased antibiotic resistance which has led to half the population popping its clogs. I won’t spoil the scene. Suffice to say that Mr Waldron gets away with this outrageous leap in tone, because, once again, his writing is laugh out loud funny. And best forget about Bill Paterson’s sonorous contribution at the very end.

The performances are uniformly perfectly pitched, Bob Bailey’s design does just about what it needs to do and Simon Stokes direction shows why his Plymouth stronghold is such a vital hub.

So forgive Glenn Waldron for joining the long list of playwrights wrestling with the “what will wipe us out” schtick and applaud the fact he has, at least, found a new scenario. Forgive the slightly clumsy shift in tone and banish any implausibilities which pop into your head. Just relish the very funny. black comedy that he has served up. And will him to find a way to take the tone he has expertly crafted in the first half of this 80 minute play and inject into another contemporary story. For that might result in something truly magnificent. I can now see I was an utter berk for missing his previous work, Natives, at this very venue. On the strength of this I hope it pops up elsewhere one day soon.

Bomberg at Pallant House Gallery review *****

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Bomberg

Pallant House Gallery, 9th January 2017

Best British painter of the twentieth century? The mighty triumvirate of Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and David Hockney from the second half of the century certainly would be in with a shout, though Bacon is easy to admire though sometimes hard to like, and Hockney spectacularly drops the ball sometimes. Of these three Freud would get my personal vote. Then again the oddball Stanley Spencer gives me more pleasure though, where he is concerned, you can have too much of a good thing. At the beginning of the century, and assuming his birthplace doesn’t disqualify him, Walter Sickert surely must be nar the top of the list, for his own work and for his profound influence on others.

I would also put in a shout for some personal favourites, Gwen John, Michael Andrews, Richard Hamilton, and, resolutely unfashionably, Graham Sutherland and John Piper. Right now Peter Doig might also get a nomination.

But, if it were just down to me, David Bomberg (1890-1957) would get the prize. Usual story. Feted at the beginning, ignored by most during his lifetime, only managed to scrape a living, died in poverty, reputation resurrected soon after his death, critical stock rising ever since. And, in the last decade or so, finally beginning to be recognised as the master he was.

Whilst this exhibition suffers a little from the absence of some of his most famous early modernist works, from the Tate’s collection notably, it is still, in my view, a stunning exposition of his work. The early experiments with cubism and vorticism, the moving evocations of inter war East End life, the failed war painting commissions despite being more talented than peers, the sun-bleached landscapes following the sojourns in Palestine and Spain and the free-flowing abstractions (thanks Cornwall) and expressionist portraits of the later years. 

Line, light, angles, volume, draughtmanship. All plain to see. But what does it for me is the vast, and never ending, array of colour he employed. Take your time to soak in all the works displayed, (there is nothing duff here at all), then run around again and just seize on all that colour. Oh, and remind yourself just how clever Bomberg was at telling the story behind the painting. With many figurative painters the story takes time, and/or requires assistance, to crack. With Bomberg place, time, personality, drama are immediately apparent.

Whilst Bomberg may not have got justly rewarded in commissions for his brilliance, and was unable to secure a position at a premier artistic institution, there were some who appreciated what he might show them, notably his students at Borough Polytechnic. And fortunately there were enough enlightened souls there, and from the artistic groups based there, to secure his legacy, which informs this exhibition, and offers an insight into his artistic philosophy, “the Spirit in the Mass”. Not sure I completely grasped where he was coming from but I think I followed the gist. The remarkable people at the Ben Uri collection, with whom he worked, have also lent a hand in stewarding many of his key works over the years and co-curated this exhibition.

Hanging over much of the exhibition is a sense of detachment and disenchantment. This maybe reflects his struggles to get by financially from his work, the horrors he faced on the front in WW1 and the damage to London he documented in WW2, the observation of the struggles of working class life, and, most vividly, his position as an outsider thanks to his first generation immigrant status and his Jewish faith. The landscapes he chose to capture are harsh not verdant. Yet the paintings are never angry, dark or hectoring.

It would be really tricky to pick out the highlights but if you backed me into a corner I would say the Self-Portrait drawing from 1909, Ju-Jitsu from 1913, Barges from 1919, Ghetto Theatre from 1920, Pool of Hezekiah from 1925, Kitty from 1929, The Gorge at Ronda from 1935 and Cyprus from 1948. Look at these, and surely you will have to agree with me. If you don’t, well, as it happens, the Pallant House permanent collection is as good a place as any to view the alternative candidates for best British artist of the C20 (though not Bacon, Freud or Hockney – prohibitively expensive).

If the genteel surroundings of Chichester are not accessible, (remember the Cathedral round the corner itself has much for the artistic eye to feast upon), then this will travel to the Laing Gallery in Newcastle and then  the Ben Uri itself in London. Do not miss this.

 

 

Cezanne Portraits exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery review *****

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Cezanne Portraits

National Portrait Gallery, 14th December 2017

Frankly they could have hung the 50 or so paintings here upside down and turned the lights off. I would still have given it 5 stars. It’s Cezanne. The painter who showed all the other painters who have come since how to paint,  by showing them how all the other painters who came before had painted.

Line, mass, volume, light, colour. These are the preoccupations of all painters for sure but it was Cezanne’s obsession with seeing the underlying structure of things that was his gift to the world.

If this meant making the subjects of his portraits sit for days on end then so be it. If this meant working and re-working tiny parts of his paintings or giving up entirely if he didn’t get it right then so be it. Clearly if you are not going to churn out sycophantic likenesses to order then you ain’t going to drum up too much business. So it was with Cezanne. Though fortunately once banker Dad was on board with the painting gig, our Paul didn’t have to worry too much about earning a living. which meant he could paint the same thing, or person, again, and again, and again, and again, and again …. until he, rather than subject/buyer, was satisfied. Though by all accounts he rarely was.

This then is why we have so many likenesses of the same subject, Dad, Mum, Uncles. Mates, son Paul, and, of course, wife Hortense (painted 29 times). This exhibition set out to collate and show these “repeats” to best advantage, and this, together with the insight into his early and late portraiture, is what made the exhibition truly revelatory to me. Odds are, one way or another, if you have a healthy interest in art and seek out most of the great collections in the Western world. you will get to see an awful lot of the paintings on display here. But to see the same subjects, hanging together, is properly thrilling.

Cezanne wasn’t interested in delving into the psychology of his sitters. No journey into the soul, or other such claptrap, on show here. Nor was he interested in mimetic likeness, with or without flattery, in contrast to the portraiture of the previous three centuries. Photography changed all that. Nor, as far as I can see, did he care too much about the social context in which his subjects might be placed. Few of the more mature portraits have much in the way of backdrop or background. The outdoors, famously in the context of that bloody hill, inspired PC but not really when it came to pictures of people. He found it just too difficult apparently, (though right at the end there is a dark, disturbing picture of his gardener, M Valier, ostensibly outdoors though you would be hard pressed to believe it).

On the other hand though I don’t think Cezanne wanted to show himself in these portraits either, even in the self-portraits. I reckon for a lot of the Impressionist, Post Impressionists, Expressionists, Post Expressionists, and anyway else who dabbled in portraiture in the C20, the picture often says as much about the artist as the sitter. PC only wanted to capture what he saw. Nothing more, nothing less. Most of the time his subjects are doing nothing other than sitting and looking.

The first couple of rooms show PC’s early experiments with portraiture. The influences of, variously, Courbet, Manet, Pissarro, and in a different way, Zola, are explained. We start to see how the techniques are refined, bolder brushstrokes, use of the palette knife, maybe too much at first, (the renderings of his Uncle Dominique), the building of the whole from little patches of colour, the “constructive brushstrokes” that evolved from his landscapes. Repetitions, eliminations, areas where ground is absent. To capture light, for sure, but also to render shape, mass, volume, in an entirely new way. Making the animate, not inanimate, but very, very still, and properly intense. Cutting everything out between eye and mark. Breaking it down to build it back up. Dialectical painting. The room with the multiple, depersonalised portraits of Hortense is where it all makes sense.

Always the same but always different. Obsessive. Not giving a f*ck what anyone else thought. A cast iron nutter. All, as any fool knows, perfect maxims for any artist to follow.

There has, I gather, never been a comparable exhibition of Cezanne’s portraits. It took a decade to pull this together. Cezanne produced around 160 portraits out of a total 1000 works. That means around a third are gathered together here. If you were in Paris last year you will no doubt have seen this. If you are in London now and haven’t seen this you are a mug. Sorry to be so rude but it’s true. Fortunately you have a month still to put this right. Exhibition of the year in 2017. Obviously. Once in a lifetime opportunity. Probably. So get on with it. Now. And if you are anywhere near Washington, (DC not Tyne and Wear), from March this year, book now.

Try this. Look at someone you know very well. Look at them again. Then stare at them. For a vey long time. Think about what you see. It is a revelation. Look at a Cezanne portrait. Really look. That is what he was about. Never really occurred to me to do this until I started reading about “art”. Just goes to show. You may look but you rarely see. Of course it also means you will be prone to spouting all manner of dreadful, pretentious guff.