What a summer

I made up my mind when i came back from Turkey in April that i was going to make the most of this summer and not let it ebb away the way most of those before it have done. I set myself to searching online to find out what was happening in London over the next few months, particularly things that were free or cheap.

Many adventures followed – far too numerous to list, but two events, both exhibitions, stand out:

The first featured sea paintings, etchings and sculptures by Maggi Hambling. I hesitated to attend it, unsure of the welcome i would get at the posh private gallery where it was being held, but decided to stick to my promise to myself and not be deflected by nervousness. I’m glad i did. The sculptures (bronze reliefs) i wasn’t keen on, the etchings were nice but forgettable – but the paintings! There were only three but they were spellbinding. It was as though she’d trapped the Sea itself in her whirls of paint. Looking at one of the paintings I noted:

Shades of white, blue and navy – sometimes so dark it almost looks black. No edges. Utterly still and silent yet full of movement and you’d swear you can hear it roar. It makes me feel drenched.

The other exhibition was very different. It featured the work of not one but many artists whose names however are long since lost. They lived in a state which falls within the boundaries of modern Nigeria and were contemporaries of the European Renaissance artists – and every bit as marvellous.

This was the exhibition of sculptures from the Kingdom of Ife.  Held at the British Museum it was visibly playing second fiddle to the exhibition of Renaissance drawings – including some by Leonardo da Vinci – that was showing at the same time. It saddened me that so few of those queuing up to see the sketches of the great Italian Masters would bother to see the works of their African near-contemporaries, but in truth i nearly didn’t go and see them myself. The ticket was bought on a moment’s impulse.

Inside i wrote:

Incredible! Some exhibitions are interesting; this is mesmerising.

About the sculptures themselves i noted:

Each figure is subtly unique, to the extent that you feel they contain real people, present with you in the rooms of the British Museum. And they’re old: some date to the 800s it seems (the Anglo-Saxon period in England).

The one that has made the greatest impact on me so far: a seated figure (one leg crossed) made from copper which has been dated to the 13th Century. Eyes closed, lips slightly parted, as though drifting into sleep. One arm is missing as is the lower half of the other arm, but the round, narrow shoulders are beautiful. Interestingly androgynous: I think it’s a plump, slightly built male but it could be a boyish small-breasted girl. Revered as a fertility symbol it seems. Naturalism is exquisite: tiny folds of fat above the hips.

Other figures are more stylised/monstrous: one from the 14th Century has bulging eyes, tiny clenched fists & an elongated torso.

They still haunt me those long-dead Africans immortalised, albeit anonymously, in copper. It haunts me too how close i came to not going. Even once i’d bought the ticket i wasn’t sure – would it just be an endless array of near-identical, earnestly exhibited antiquities? Then on the day itself i had transport problems and almost turned around and went home.

Not everything i’ve been to this summer has been that good; indeed some of the events have fallen rather flat. But those moments of wonder make the rest of it worthwhile. How glad i am that i stuck to my guns and made the effort to do, see, hear and go this year.

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A visit to Henry Moore’s house

It’s been about a month since i last blogged. Hard to say why it’s been so long really. I suppose part of the reason may have been a stressful, not to mention tedious report which has been absorbing my energies at work. But another reason is that i’ve stuck to my plan of going out to see exhibitions and concerts this summer.

This weekend just gone i realised a much cherished plan to visit Perry Green in Hertfordshire. This was the sculptor Henry Moore’s home till he died in 1986 and is now the headquarters of the Henry Moore Foundation. The main attractions are the huge stone and bronze works scattered around the grounds but his studios have also been converted into indoor galleries where you can see smaller works and, most poignantly, blocks of stone he was working on at the time of his death. Yes, he was still sculpting aged 88!

Double Oval #1

First though there was a tour of Hoglands, the house itself. The name made me smile, just because it made me think of Harry Potter’s school, Hogwarts, but the house wasn’t particularly magical: just two small cottages knocked together and decorated in that hideous mixture of beige fabric and dark wood which passed for style in the 70s. The murky French paintings on the walls didn’t help: Courbet, yuck.

I did like the coffee table covered with little sculptures and other objects – well, not the coffee table itself, that was vile; but the fact that Moore and his wife were so matter of fact in their attitude to art. They didn’t worry about things getting broken or damaged; these precious objects were there to be touched and handled. We were told this by our guide, one of a team whose task it is to welcome and educate visitors whilst ensuring they don’t damage anything. They do a great job and really do make you feel welcome – very different from some art institutions.

In what used to be the office we found a clue to how the Foundation had managed to survive the lean years of the past few decades, a time when its master’s reputation seemed to ebb away (although thanks to the Tate exhibition it’s seen a revival this year). Moore’s assistant’s desk was pointed out to us. Apparently, the first person to hold this post had been quite small so a small desk had been bought. When his successor proved bigger the Moores didn’t buy a bigger desk however but simply stuck wooden blocks under the legs of the one they already had. You can take the lad out of Yorkshire…

Double Oval #4

Out in the grounds the sculptures were covered with a sheen of rainwater. That wasn’t a bad thing as it turned out; it made them even more tactile, especially those cast from bronze – a material i don’t normally like. I have to touch sculpture, as i’ve said in earlier posts. Here i could touch away to my heart’s content and i did. Some of the other visitors looked at me askance. I let them look.

I couldn’t get over how different the works looked when you were there with them. In photographs, especially small photographs, they’re flattened and diminished; but there in front of you, behind you, to each side of you, they dominate the landscape – and yet belong to it too. There were two great bronze ones i loved. The first was angular, a mass of joints. Its name was “Three Piece Sculpture: Vertebrae 1968”. The second was called “Double Oval” and was, well, a double oval. This is the sculpture which is shown in the photos in this post. It was formed of two separate pieces placed alongside one another and you could walk in between them. The gap was like an enchanted passageway.

Later, after a good cup of tea, i walked back along the Hertfordshire Way to Bishop’s Stortford. I got lost, stung by nettles and rather wet but what else would you expect on a walk through the English countryside? There was a lovely little village a mile or two before the town, the kind with a church, a duck pond and not much else. Eventually I arrived at the railway station where i caught my train home, tired and happy.

Thorley pond

And that concludes this first post of the month. Hopefully, now i’ve got going again i’ll keep going.

At the exhibition: Henry Moore

A missing nose.
A sad nose.
A questioning nose.

These observations about noses are from the notes i made at the Tate Britain’s Henry Moore exhibition. It wasn’t all just noses – sad, missing or otherwise – though. In fact, one of the reasons why i put off writing up my notes for so long* is that they go on for pages and pages. Everything was interesting, everything was noteworthy – especially in the first couple of rooms, because you could see Moore’s style evolving in front of your eyes. Frantically, i wrote and wrote, trying to preserve the images in my mind, but of course most soon faded. Already i have forgotten the three sculptures with remarkable noses. Some i do recall however:

The first non-stone sculpture I’ve seen here: carved from walnut. Golden-red-brown. Geometric. Large holes through the wood. It’s maddening that we’re not allowed to touch.

That first walnut wood sculpture, coming after two rooms of stone, was an amazing experience. As for the last sentence, i’ve written before about my frustration at this. Henry Moore so obviously made his sculptures to be touched. You can tell as much from the use of texture:

From the front these statues are both smooth, but from the behind one is rough. It has waves carved into it.

Front and behind – that’s the other thing i love about sculpture: its three dimensionality. As you move around the spaces rearrange themselves, expressions seem to change, meanings seem to alter:

This one seen first from behind looks squat and menacing. She appears to be clenching her left fist. Seen from the front the effect is completely different. She is gazing out in curious concern at us, right hand absent-mindedly placed in her belly.

Halfway through the rooms i came across my favourite sculpture, the Mother and Child which the Tate Britain owns:

Green Hornton stone. 1938. Recumbent Figure. The space below the breasts is part of the beauty. And the blind eyes. It’s beautiful from all angles and different from all angles. That’s what’s so wonderful. And the scale is perfect. And still feels almost as though it could be a natural formation. The curves seem the rock’s own curves.

A bit gushing but that’s awe for you! I’ve seen that sculpture more times than i can remember and yet each time i encounter it the impact has the force of a first encounter. In the next room i really did have a first encounter; i had never seen the drawings Moore did as an official war artist in WWII.

These war drawings are spooky, haunting things. The building in the process of collapse. The figures huddled in a shelter (uncoloured in they remind me of Egyptian mummies). The dark indistinct figures in groups on a street.
And these. Apart from the figures in the foreground the rest are like pale-outlined ghosts.
And now these sleepers – terrifying! Like wraiths. Especially the ones who have no faces. The white lines they are made from are like bandages.

In the final rooms Moore’s style became more monumental and industrial:

Atom Piece. It’s terrifying. Like a vision of another world. A world with no home for us. That great smooth domed ‘head’. What kind of ‘mind’ would inhabit it? Close up the surface of the back reminds me of leather.

Yet, paradoxically, it also drew closer to nature:

Upright internal/external form. Plaster. 1852-3. Like the inside of a dead tree. Hopeless. Moving.

And then in the final room a truly poignant sight: a room full of huge Elmwood sculptures:

Ghosts of a British landscape before Dutch Elm Disease. They’re huge and seem less dense than the sculptures made from stone.

By this point i was flagging, however, and the museum was becoming far too busy for my comfort so my notes contain no details about the individual pieces. I do not do crowds.

Was the exhibition worth a visit? I hope my notes make it clear that indeed it was! As for my notes themselves, were they worth the ordeal involved in taking them – i had a stiff back and aching fingers by the end of the three hours. Well, yes they were. They may not be enough to call to mind each specific sculpture that i wrote about, but they certainly bring back the intensity of the morning. A wonderful experience.

* I went on Saturday 6 March.