Impressionists in London at Tate Britain review ***

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The EY Exhibition: Impressionists in London: French Artists in Exile 1870-1914

Tate Modern, 30th November 2017

Would I pay £17.70, the full adult price to see this. Hmm. Maybe. Different story if you are a member, (as you should be if you can afford it), but, if not, I’d say you would be much better spending your corn on the Rachel Whiteread retrospective upstairs. Given the fact that it was pretty busy on the Thursday afternoon when I waltzed in, I think I can safely say that the verdict of the public is less circumspect than mine (unless they were all members of course).

The big draw are the paintings of the Thames by Monet in the penultimate room which come from 1899 to 1901 when he took up residence each winter in the Savoy. In total Monet painted over a hundred views in the series, 37 of which appeared in a famous exhibition in 1904 in Paris. Drawn from various collections and with his famous view of the Houses of Parliament predominating, you don’t need me to tell you how marvellous they are. Any Monet series seen together is a thing of wonder, and these in particular are dear to my heart since I know the vantage point a few floors up in St Thomas’s rather better than I would like to. Is that enough though?

Well it all kicks off pretty well. The curators begin with a fascinating insight into the artistic response to the “terrible year” of 1871 which saw Paris devastated following the loss to Prussia in the war, the fall of the Second Empire, the three month siege and the brutal suppression by the French army of the Paris Commune. There is a Corot painting of Paris on fire with an Angel of Death departing high overhead and some powerful, and familiar, Manet drawings. The rest of the art here certainly shows what the artists who crossed the channel were escaping from. This was a time when the Brits welcomed foreigners with open arms. (catch a boat down the river and see a fine play, Young Marx, about another person who pitched up here and then enriched world culture). In fact London has been pretty much doing that throughout its existence so I doubt a bunch of ignorant pensioners in the shires will stop it.

Anyway a network was created when dealer Paul Durand-Ruel set up shop, and he embraced the young Monet, who spent a year here, (before his return at the end of the century), on the advice of Charles-Francois Daubigny (who isn’t a bad artist as it happens). Mind you I am not sure Mrs Monet enjoyed London judging by the face on display in her portrait. The slightly older Camille Pissarro popped up in Sarf London and Alfred Sisley joined the crew in Kensington, (proving that the French have always opted for the smartest bits of London). As we all know Pissarro and Sisley could paint, so Room 2 is a delight, though most of the works are familiar from permanent London collections. Anyway so far so good.

And then we get “James” Tissot. Now he may have been taking the p*ss out of genteel High Victorian Britain but, even if he was, it doesn’t make the paintings any more interesting. Stagey, bright and long on frocks I just can’t get on with them and there are an awful lot of them. Even so they make sense in the context of the story that its being told, so they certainly add to the exhibition, and, mockery or homage, they say a lot about the upper class Brits when they ruled the world. His friendship with the editor of Vanity Fair, Thomas Gibson Bowles provided the introduction to Society, (Tissot produced caricatures for the magazine), and Tissot ended up shacked up with his lover in St John’s Wood, which seems a posh thing to do.

What follows, rooms devoted to Alphonse Legros, who mixed with that rum pre-Raphaelite posse, Jules Dalou, Edouard Lanteri and worst of all Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, is just not my cup of tea at all. These fellows were French emigres for sure, and part of the London artistic community, and very highly regarded by all accounts, but their painting and sculpture just looks like sentimental Victorian, faux-classical kitsch to me. It pads out the exhibition for sure, and there were plenty of punters who seemed to be lapping it up, and ignoring my admittedly inaudible snorts of derision. I admit I am an almighty cultural snob but it just didn’t seem to me that these chaps fitted the Impressionist billing, at least as I understand it.

We then had a mixed return to form centred on the Impressionists take on peculiar British sports and the outdoor places where they played them and took the air. Cricket and rowing understandably fascinated our Gallic chums. Again though it is Sisley and especially Pissarro who do the business with Tissot lagging behind. Especially admirable was Pissarro’s stout refusal to paint any part of Hampton Court Palace when he lived round the corner, even as he documented all the spaces around it. Given its majesty this took a pigheaded commitment to the “everyday life” tenets of Impressionism.

My eye in this room though was drawn to the best picture in the exhibition, Monet’s Leicester Square at Midnight from 1903, normally housed at the Musee Granet in Aix-en-Provence. Hello. If some-one told you this was painted decades later you would have believed them. I know the weather in London is, and was sh*te, compared to the South of France, but there was no need for Monet to depict this quite so graphically. Like the first and second generation Camden Town painters this is murk, night, light, rain and fog but also pure, beautiful and very colourful paint. More Expressionist than Impressionist?

This leads into a room full of fine paintings, of fog, the Thames and Westminster, as a starter before the Monet entree, with works from our friend Pissarro and three of Whistler’s nocturnes. The latter are undeniably atmospheric, with a definite thematic and stylistic link to his French contemporaries, but again you can see these any day of the week upstairs. After the Monet room, the curators have somewhat bizarrely tacked on some of Derain’s Fauvist views of London, specifically Charing Cross Bridge. I have never been entirely convinced by his paintings but they are arresting, he was French, he was inspired by Monet. Yet obviously they are not Impressionistic, nor was he in exile.

So there it is. Influences, precedents and antecedents of course matter in an overview of this sort. The sub-title of the exhibition indicates that it covers French artists in exile from 1870 to 1914. Which is exactly what it is. There is a clear, if somewhat cliched, insight into Victorian London. And there are some truly stunning paintings. But there is also some frightful, in my opinion, padding, and this detracts from the whole. If you like Monet though …..

My pick of forthcoming London culture

Aerial view of  London

I am told by friends (and enemies) that I have a tendency to drone on. And I am like the proverbial kid in the sweet shop when it comes to London culture.

So the below is an attempt to distil the best of what is on now and what is coming up in the world of theatre and art. Nothing too obscure and largely big venues with plenty of tickets.

Theatre

1. The Ferryman at the Gielgud Theatre. There are only a couple more weeks until the new cast takes over but the play is bullet proof so it shouldn’t matter too much. Just see it.

2. Oslo at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Sold out at the National but transferring to the Harold Pinter. This shouldn’t work – a straight narrative of the negotiations that led to the Oslo Accord between Israel and the PLO – but it does and is bloody magnificent.

3. Knives in Hens at the Donmar Warehouse. There are a few tickets left for the remainder of the run. A sparse exploration of language and knowledge in Medieval England. Modern classic.

4. The End of Hope at the Soho Theatre. I saw this at the Orange Tree. A two hander which set in Northern Ireland by David Ireland and directed by a student amazingly. Just 60 mins and cheap as chips. It is hilarious and cutting. Highly recommended.

5. Network at the National. High expectations but should be justified.

6. Young Marx at the Bridge Theatre. The Bridge’s first offering. I have banged on about this before but I am v. excited.

7. Albion at the Almeida Theatre. Mike Bartlett’s (he who wrote the lines that have you shouting at the telly when Dr Foster is on) latest offering. A state of the nation promise.

8. Glengarry Glen Ross at the Playhouse Theatre. Mamet’s shouty modern classic with a stellar cast and Sam Yates given the director’s chair.

9. The Birthday Party at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Pinter’s guest house to avoid with a fascinating cast and Ian Rickson directing.

10. Gundog at the Royal Court Theatre. I pretty much book anything that looks even vaguely interesting at the Royal Court, Orange Tree, Arcola and Young Vic. This is a guaranteed way to see stunning theatre without paying fancy West End prices for a seat only fit for hobbits. I can’t tell you why Gundog is on this list. I just have a feeling.

Exhibitions

1. Cezanne Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery. 50 Cezanne Portraits. There is nothing in art that could top this. Other than 50 Cezanne still lifes. Or 50 Cezanne landscapes. From 26th October.

2. Opera Passion, Power and Politics at the V&A. Story of opera through 7 premieres across 400 years from the V and A curators who are shit hot right now. From 30th September.

3. Monochrome: Paintings in Black and White at the National Gallery. Where will they go with this then? could and should be brilliant. From 30th October.

4. Impressionists in London at Tate Britain. Expect big crowds for some of the big names. From 2nd November.

5. Jasper Johns at the Royal Academy. I haven’t been yet but looking forward to seeing the retrospective of one of the big daddies of US C20 modern art. On now.

 

 

Thebes Land at the Arcola Theatre review ****

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Thebes Land

Arcola Theatre, 14th September 2017

Thebes Land was a hit last year at the Arcola, winning a Best Production Offie, and is back for another run as part of a short festival of Latin American theatre. Director Daniel Goldman has created a new English translation of Franco-Uruguayan playwright Sergio Blanco’s work, which has been performed around the world. It is not difficult to see why.

Trevor White play T, a playwright who is attempting to dramatise the life of Martin Santos, a parricide who has been imprisoned for life, played by Alex Austin, who doubles up as Freddie the actor chosen to play Martin. From this simple premise the play explores a whole host of themes. Martin’s culpability for his shocking crime in the face of extreme provocation. The nature of retribution and the justice of imprisonment. What is is to be a man and the burgeoning relationship between playwright and murderer/actor. The value of art and education in rehabilitation. The concept of theatrical illusion and the gap between observer and observed. How truth is constructed. The Oedipal impulse and myth.

Now if all this sounds to you like a recipe for bum-aching, brain-numbing, smart-arsed hard work you’d be wrong. Well almost wrong as there are a couple of times when it felt the conceptual envelope had been pushed a little too far, and that some sight excisions might have been contemplated. But overall this is an impressive construct. Our two actors have the exact measure of this play now. Trevor White reveals T’s ambivalent and changing motives and the way in which his intellectualism is slowly punctured by Martin’s humanity. Alex Austin is genuinely outstanding as he shows Martin and Freddie slowly seeping into each other. There is a great deal of leavening humour. There are enough changes in the direction of the “real” and “imagined” characters, and their relationships, to keep you on your toes, if not quite the edge of your seat. There are scenes of real pathos and shock. The set, a large cage, is drenched in metaphor. You even learn a bit about the precepts of theatre.

All in all a very satisfying night out at the ever inventive Arcola. I see the proper reviews focus on different facets of the play though most seemed to like it albeit not entirely convincing as to why. That about sums it up.

 

 

The Levelling film review *****

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The Levelling, 23rd May 2017

This is director Hope Dickson Leach’s full length film debut. In the screening I attended there was a short but illuminating interview with Ms Dickson Leach which discussed the difficulties female film-makers face in bringing their ideas to fruition. She gave up for a bit but came back. And she eventually managed to get financing for this film. Well all I can say it thank goodness she didn’t give up and thank goodness she got the money. This is a genuinely outstanding film. I can’t wait for her next outing – I’d be happy to give her a few quid if it helps

Clover, played by the astounding Ellie Kendrick who apparently is in that Game of Thrones frolic, is a veterinary science student, who returns to the family dairy farm on the Somerset Levels following the death of her brother Harry. Dad, Aubrey (David Troughton), it is fair to say, is somewhat emotionally stunted. The farm is a mess having never recovered from flooding and with no insurance bailout. Aubrey has abandoned the house to live in a caravan in the farmyard. He likes a drink. The two then fail to talk to each other in any meaningful way as the events that led up to Harry’s death are played out – not just the immediate past but over many years.

It is beautifully shot. This is not a conventionally attractive landscape. No attempt is made to leaven the atmosphere. The sun doesn’t shine at all. It rains quite a bit. There are however sone striking close ups of nature to remind us where we are. A farm is not a classic location for a British film I believe. We city types dominate the medium and the rural normally appears more arcadian that Hobbesian. The fragility of the existence and the temptation to take risks to secure economic viability is deftly portrayed. The sheer hard work of running the farm is not hidden.

Not much happens. Not that much is said. But the despair, disappointment, resentment and blame that the two central characters feel is remorselessly laid bare. You want to shake them to sort it out and swallow their pride. You know they can’t. The emotional intensity of the ending is shattering. All of this is accomplished with relatively sparse dialogue and there is loads of detail which remains ambiguous if not entirely elusive. What happened to Mum, why did Dad despise Harry, how exactly did Harry meet his end, what was the relationship between Harry and his best mate James (Jack Holden), who dreamt up the dubious plans to rescue the farm, will Clover stay and why? Don’t let me give the impression that this is in any way frustrating – it is what makes the story so utterly compelling.

The proper reviews have observed how this looks and feels like a horror film without the horror. It certainly begins in that vein. This is apt. Except, as those reviews have also generally observed, the unembellished horror of what has happened to this family is all too real.

If this all sounds more art house foreign auteurish that the Archers you’d be right. Ms Dickson Leach has herself cited the influence of the Dardenne brothers and Bruno Dumont (note to self: find out who these chaps are). Then again it is just so English – in the where certainly, but also in the who and the why.

I could go on and on. The mark of any great film, play, book, artwork is that it stays with in the days and years that follow its viewing. This slam-dunks that test. It will get under your skin. I doubt there will be a better female lead performance this year. Hope Dickson Leach is a mighty talent. And all this probably done for less than the bog paper bill for the cast of Pirates of the Caribbean: Just Serve Them Up Any Old Sh*t.

And this father – daughter relationship is throwing up some truly great films (Toni Erdmann, Graduation as well as this). Maybe there really is still some cinematic mileage in BD’s withering glances following my hilarious observations.