To London, and back (to normal)

The wild garlic is about to flower, acres of it, covering woodland slopes. The first cowslips are opening, the skylarks are ascending, the long tailed tit echoes itself. But yesterday it was London and the long lines of destination-driven travellers always keeping left in corridors below Paddington station. Occasional mask wearers on the underground, otherwise near normal. Normal would be delays and hold-ups, but now we flow smoothly.

My destination – meeting an old friend at the Royal Academy to view an exhibition of the paintings of the Japanese artist, Kawanabe Kyosai. His was a time (he was active c1850 to his death in 1889) of extraordinary change, the overthrow of the Shogunate, and the Meiji Restoration. There’s a saké-influenced crazy irreverence about Kyosai, his emblematic black crow in stark contrast with armies of frogs battling with bullrushes. I learnt about shogakai, parties where professional painters and calligraphers ‘produced spontaneous creations’. They were not known for ‘their seriousness or sobriety’.

Contrast the major Raphael exhibition at the National Gallery, where I headed later in the day. Everything is measured and controlled, carefully worked through in drawings, and the effects precisely and wondrously calculated. Raphael’s workshop was legendary in its time and I can’t imagine alcohol featured. I’m assuming Kyosai sold his work on the open market. Raphael in contrast would be working within the constraints of patronage, not least the church in the form of Popes Julius II and Leo X.  Contrast the endless virgins in different poses with a naked child, studies in affection and reverence, with Kyosai’s long scroll which features a much-more-than-lifesize profile of the Buddha’s face with on its upper lip a tiny Zen Buddhist monk working his way up, an extended parasol in his right hand. ‘Today, once more, saké after saké,’ he captions a painting of a ‘shojo’, a mythical red-haired saké-loving creature out of Japanese folklore.

Later in the day I’m standing in front of an almost full-scale reproduction of Raphael’s extraordinary School of Athens, identifying Euclid and Pythagoras, and joining Plato and Aristotle’s discourse on the nature of reality…

Was Kyosai, in truth, no more than an illustrator? Ephemeral, a commentator in the style of Rowlandson or Gillray? A man of the people. Great art on the other hand belongs in cathedrals, churches, great houses…

Museums and galleries have opened Raphael’s world to ordinary folk, and he’s become part of our wider cultural heritage. Kyosai belongs to his time, his imagination is in your face, he’s a crazy acquaintance, not, maybe, a companion for the long term. If Raphael is for quiet and private contemplation, Kyosai is for sharing – ‘hey, look at this, check it out!’ Not that Kyosai is all comedy, all parody. There’s a sinuous grace to ‘Egret over Lotus Pond in the Rain’. But a minute or two later you’re looking at ‘Fart Battle’, which is just that.

The day ends with coffee in the café in the crypt in St Martin in the Fields. No-one pitching you out 5.30 or 6. Graves beneath your feet, brick-vaulted ceiling above. Then the tube and Paddington. Back to open spaces, commons and hidden valleys, where I can run or walk without seeing a soul.

Only the rumble of a distant train, heading to … London.

Reporting back from Cheltenham 2018

The Cheltenham Literature Festival that is – they also have music and jazz and science festivals!

It is wet, thoroughly so, and there is a wedding in the village, and the mist is down, a still presence yet the wind blows the leaves in the ash tree, and the lawn, emptied of leaves when we mowed it close yesterday, is now covered again. We have a talk at the literature festival, Neil MacGregor, late of the National Gallery and British Museum…

We parked nearby, and scurried to the food tent, where we drank coffees without any form of literary aid, not even a newspaper. Though The Times sponsors. Where were they? Then another scurry, across the gardens to the Town Hall …

MacGregor subject in his recent radio programmes and new book is on sacred objects, and their place in society. They focus the connection between religion and community, whether it’s the Lion Man, carved from mammoth ivory, discovered in a cave near Ulm, dating back 40,000 years …  or a 19th century model from Siberia (a Siberian people under threat from Tsarist expansion putting down a marker) of a celebration of the solstice, also made from mammoth ivory, this time recovered from the melting permafrost… or Our Lady of Kazan, the protectress of the old Russia, and the new, with a photo of Putin and his torso bathing beneath the icon. (Not the original but a 16th century copy, but that hardly matters – and even the copy has a remarkable story.)

The icon supports power, and the state, whereas the Virgin of Guadeloupe marks a vision of a local peasant boy of the Virgin, which a reluctant church accepted as genuine, and it then became the symbol of all Mexicans, of the Mexican people. MacGregor also highlighted the statue given decades ago by America to France representing the flame of the Statue of Liberty, but given its situation above the tunnel in Paris where Princess Diana died, now a shrine to Diana, who has become a modern protectress for many.

What I wondered is how a resurgent China fits into this picture. China has its own symbols, establishing continuities with the past just as the Cultural Revolution tried to remove them. This is the all-powerful State overriding the local and the individual – co-opting the individual. Will we, can we, ever re-establish our connection with the sacred? Will state symbols come to dominate? Or the symbols of mass culture? Will they be the limits of the sacred?

To the festival the following afternoon, for a debate on the financial crash and its continuing legacy, with Alastair Darling, Kamal Ahmed and Rachel Lomax, former deputy-governor of the Bank of England. A high-quality discussion, with the hard experience of the first two providing insights – for example, the instant support from the USA when asked by Darling to keep the support going for RBS after the markets closed in the UK – would that kind of cooperation happen now? As for the banks, punishment has been meted out on a much bigger state in the USA, but accountability has hardly changed. And as for future issues – fintech, automation, AI – they didn’t really come to grips with any of this. But they only had an hour…

Back home, and hour or two’s respite, supper, then into Cheltenham again for a Leonard Cohen evening, with a conversation between three Cohen devotees, a rock musician, a music journalist, and a wonderful white-haired 70-year-old Canadian, Ted Goossen whose main job is translating from the Japanese (the new Murakami novel also features at the festival, and he’s translated) but he’s been singing Cohen songs in clubs since he was 16 – which suggest 1964 or 1965, beating me by a year or so.

Suzanne remains the first love of many. Chelsea Hotel was the journalist’s favourite – she focused on the word ‘that’ when Cohen says in the last line he doesn’t think of her (‘her’ being Janis Joplin) ‘that often’. Cohen returned to meditation seriously in his last years: Goossen spoke movingly about this side of Cohen, and the Zen connection. Likewise mention of Cohen’s love of Lorca, and duende, that mood of celebration and dance and melancholy that is so much part of Andalucia.

The second half of the evening had a big amateur orchestra and singers, The Fantasy Orchestra, combining in crazy yet wonderfully musical fashion to play and sing a variety of songs, memorably a big and bubbling lady in a cotton ‘William Morris’ dress who belted out So long Marianne, and had us singing along with the chorus… ‘Ring the bells that still can ring’- the message hit home. ‘There is a crack, a crack in everything,’ words that have cheered me through the recent dark times. They ended with Hallelujah – what I hadn’t realised is how long Cohen had laboured over the lyric – some eighty versions.

We all sang the chorus … not quite the usual Cheltenham event!


Run a mile from conceptual art

Run a mile from conceptual art.

That’s what I decided a long time ago, when it first appeared in galleries either side of 1970. At the ICA in 1969, and then the Tate in 1972. Shortly afterwards (1973-5) I was commissioning editor for art and architecture at Penguin Books, and maybe I do remember the ICA exhibition, but more out of frustration. Too damned intangible. I was used to artefacts – I loved Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and especially Anthony Caro – out there, forcing a response – the form demanding a  response, and the ideas behind the form likewise. Richard Hamilton and David Hockney were flexing their muscles, tangible, colourful. Bridget Riley dazzled me.

And then there was conceptual art.

Curiously, those post 1968 years seem in retrospect little drab. (I’d self-defined myself as a hippy, and maybe it was always going to be downhill when that world fell apart.) I’ve some memories in vivid colour, and we walked on the moon in 1969 (via TV screens), and experimental art was everywhere, but the first flush had passed, it was getting more self-referential, and fashion and contrivance and posturing were beginning to characterise art and music. Rebelling against the last lot of rebels, even before they’d stopped being rebels. And I think I got a little bored.

But all that said, conceptual art intrigues me. I run a mile, but then I stop, retrace my steps and ask myself – what was that I didn’t see? ….

Art which puts ideas before actuality. Ideas are full of possibilities, they may be realised or they may not be realised. In the Tate exhibition there’s a half-full glass of water half way up the wall: it’s an oak tree argues Michael Craig-Martin, and in the interview that’s produced nearby he explains why. The idea before the form, and the idea has the potential to be – anything.

Keith Arnatt is actually eating his words, written on slips of paper, as revealed in a series of photos. But does he actually eat them? The idea, the process is there, in front of us, but the paper is still there. He disappears into the ground feet first in another series of photos, so the subject, if the subject is himself, is no longer there. I like Keith Arnatt.

Likewise Richard Long, walking up and down to make his own path through the grass. Marking out on a map his own walks on Dartmoor, then removing the underlying map but not his marked paths. Walking every path is a defined area of maybe ten miles within one county – I forget which, but it makes for an intriguing pattern. He’s also out in the fresh air. That helps.

But they were into philosophy and linguistics, or some of them (not least Victor Burgin), and they had a wonderfully obsessive journal which ran for four years, Art-Language, and the language is self-referentially repetitively obscure, and it continues for pages. Parody, and self-parody, but – walls of closely printed words that challenge the eyesight, and cabinets of the same – well, God help us all.

And nearby, a mirror, encouraging us to look beyond ourselves, and a black painting, painted over ten times in black, so it’s ten paintings in one – but we have to be told it’s ten paintings. There’s a pile of oranges (take one) and a dimpled do-not-touch heap of sand – full of significance.

There were video and performances and sound games at the time, not here though, and I remember the few I encountered with a bit of a shudder. They didn’t carry their justifications lightly. The Guardian reviewer uses the word hilarious and crazy referring to a conceptual art retrospective at the Whitechapel in 2000: maybe a few are in retrospect, gathered together, but appearing in a drib here and a drab there they didn’t seem that way at the time.

Gilbert and George appear, in a glass case: they weren’t officially part of the conceptual art movement.

So too pages from Studio International magazine, where Charles Harrison, curator of the ICA exhibition and much else, was deputy editor. Charles edited a book on 20th century English art for me at Penguin – I think it’s still in print. He was a good guy to talk to. The other art historians I met at the time were in the great and good category, and Charles was unkempt, straightforward and down-to-earth. And I think (!) he loved it all.

On the positive side, near the end of the exhibition, and near the end of its lifespan as a ‘movement’, it gets more political. I think they’d thought of conceptual art as a rebellion against of art as object, art out there, art as something unto itself – I think they’d thought art by getting away from often-expensive artefacts and connecting with ideas would somehow become art for the ordinary man and woman. Instead it became a clever game, and out of it came some clever and memorable images, as with Keith Arnatt, but it didn’t connect.

A series of photographs either side of 1972 depict the troubles in Northern Ireland, with equal treatment for Catholics, Protestants – and the army. There’s Homeworkers, a collage which gives visual form to the low wages and exploitation of people all but obliged by companies to  work from home. And above all Twin Towers and the focus in a related work on how an elderly lady, an elderly widow, infirm and hardly able to walk, survives in a tower block, and the accommodations she must make. This for me is art for any time – and art for our own time. Drab and serious and low on aesthetic value, but art that graphically brings home what deprivation and disability can be like.

It’s true of most art, most art movements: endless experiments, wrong directions and wrong turnings, but just a few artworks break though, define the way we look at things. Harder when by definition they don’t want to be visual, they want to do away with all points of reference – take it off the wall, or the floor, and dump it – I was going to say firmly, but tenuously would be better – in your head.

Some artworks do deserve to survive.  But – in the end – this exhibition hovers on the edge of boredom. And maybe that’s not the curator’s fault.

The New Tate Modern opens

Why a post on the New Tate Modern? (It opens this weekend – I went to a preview.) In a Zenpolitics blog?

In one sentence. The New Tate Modern is international, diverse, a little bit crazy, inclusive, outward-looking, subverting, fun – and free.

The Tate is a big big institution, and has its downsides. Not least that it’s tied in with the international art market, and its absurdities and over-valuations. But at a time when we’re busy looking inward and being nostalgic for an old order it’s great to see London flying the flag for a different more positive, more optimistic take on the world.


The entrance is round the back. Not where I expect. Up a broad flight of stairs, to the second floor…

Tony Cragg’s Stack – a stack of material from everyday life-  instantly catches the eye. Its crushed content intrigues. Louise Bourgeois’s vitrines enclose a private tactile world, with connections to her own and other lives, and her paintings lining the walls are bright ribbons of colour.

Helio Oiticica’s reconstruction of a Rio de Janeiro favela (without the macaws on the day I was there) is colourful and curiously quaint. Ana Lupas’s wreaths began as straw, inspired by the Romanian countryside, they’re now encased in metal, and there’s a photographic record around the walls: it’s a 50-year project, and age gives it resonance.

The sheer variety of exhibits in the new Switch House is impressive. They need space, space so we can walk around exhibits, as in the case of Tony Cragg’s stack, or Louise Bourgeois’ spider, or simply because of their size, or because they need room to breathe. Few galleries on earth have this amount of space, and none in big cities, unless MOMA in New York has something planned. Normally in galleries you hug the walls. But the Switch House is not about painting or specifically wall-hung art. Walls are just one mode of presentation. Roni Horn’s block of pink glass sits in the middle of the floor, a line drawn discreetly around it. It may be visual but it seems it’s not intended to be tactile. Carl Andre’s bricks re-appear, and Rachel Whiteread has the underside of a wooden floor – the underside.

Where it gets more claustrophobic is one floor up, the space is called “Performer and Participant’. Tropicalia greets you immediately, and Ana Lupas. Women and Work is a collective exhibit examining just that – women and work. They intrigue. They ask questions. They subvert our ordinary ways of looking at things. They’re out of context – they create new contexts. Tropicalia includes simple evocative poems, wall-hung, and Women and Work displays the daily working life schedules of a number of very ordinary men and women.

The question is – where does this take us? To Brazil, to Romania… But does it really take us somewhere different, somewhere unusual, does it help us question our lives or environment? Is it just easy gratification, fun spaces, history lessons? Conceptual art does of course have a conceptual base, and often that’s one simple idea painstakingly worked out, sometimes over decades. It is art as project, rather than art as aesthetics.

There haven’t as yet been many reviews of the New Tate Modern. One, in the FT, is lyrical. It’s a game-changer – ‘the most cohesive narrative in any public institution so far of the paradigm shift since the 1960s, when minimalists, conceptualists and performance artists ditched expressiveness and set out to move audiences physically rather than emotionally.’ That is quite a statement.  ‘Move audiences physically rather than emotionally.’ And she, the reviewer (Jackie Wullschlager), is right – there is little emotion here in the New Tate Modern. A tinge of fear in a room full of Louise Bourgeois items, though the little boy sitting under the spider and having his photograph taken rather softened any apprehension we might feel! Bourgeois’ colourful ribbon paintings also elicit an emotional response. And that’s one reason maybe why she stands out. She’d been around too long: she subverted this divide between the emotional and the physical.

But otherwise – we walk through, we enquire, we even stand inside an exhibit, we have our notions of space and colour and presence challenged.

And it’s mostly a pleasant experience. Oak floors as yet unstained by use, and natural lighting often complementing the gallery lights.  From the bridge (between the Boiler House, the old Tate Modern, and the Switch House, the new) you can look down on Al Weiwei’s skeleton tree, and it has an eerie presence.

But emotion is limited to frissons of disturbance. Pleasure as a response to be encouraged is disavowed. And so too is art as an aesthetic experience. It depends on how we define aesthetics of course. But if the definition is ‘relating to pure beauty rather than to other considerations’, then it’s certainly not about aesthetics.

But then is art – should art be – about aesthetics? Once upon a time it was, but that definition has been smashed and subverted. Art is now best defined as an original and challenging interpretation of our environment – making the ordinary extraordinary – undermining conventional approaches – playing a little but not too much with the psyche – getting into our minds. And by and large we’re OK with that. We enjoy this different take on the world. And if we want aesthetics we can go to the Tate Britain. Or to displays from earlier 20th century periods in the other Boiler House section of the Tate Modern. There’s beauty, even spiritual content, in Mark Rothko. Max Ernst and Salvador Dali are pleasing on the eye as well as searching out a deeper response. Picasso transforms the vision of Cezanne: it’s a radical but still an aesthetic response.

The FT review quotes Richard Morphet as saying in 1976 that  ‘Carl Andre’s [bricks[ will in time be generally accepted as among the most important art of its period’. In a sense he’s right. That sensibility, or intentional lack of sensibility, has established itself. Nicholas Serota has championed it, and his vision has won through. Whether I’m on side with it – I keep an open mind. But am I intrigued? Do I want to visit the Tate Modern? Am I moved to write about it all? Yes, I clearly am. And that speaks volumes.

One final point, back to the FT article. The New Tate Modern as a ‘game-changer’. ‘For an economically divided London it is a huge, important statement about inclusiveness and connectivity. In a cultural climate threatened by the nostalgic insularity of Brexit, it displays art radically, putting geography [artists are drawn from across the world – this is no best of British display – no kowtowing to Britart] before history, space before time.’

And, as she says, in a world of wildly inflated values  – it’s free.

It’s also fun. You’re free to enthuse or disdain. We walk through quietly but we’re not constrained by hush. And you can take photos. There is nothing precious here.

So almost three cheers. And oh yes – there’s the view London 360 degree from the top…

The British Museum – where all cultures and all peoples meet

‘The cultures of the world are at home here, and the people who carry those cultures.’

This was the response of the new director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer, lately director of the Dresden State Art Collections, to  the Pegida movement and the anti-migrant , anti-Muslim demonstrations in Dresden over the last year and more. He persuaded the state government to allow long banners to hang outside the main Dresden Museum with the words:

‘The State Art Collection Dresden. Works from Five Continents. A House Full of Foreigners.’

He’s attracted a pretty virulent response and some downright nasty chants – ‘traitor to the people’- and similar, which have unpleasant resonances. But he’s brought people from all backgrounds together, and created by all accounts a special atmosphere (‘open-hearted and warm’) around the place.

He seems to be a bit of a hero. He has an impeccable background as an art historian, but he’s more than that – ‘a citizen of the world’ – and he deserves a big big welcome.

Under Neil MacGregor the BM has already opened itself to the world – almost, given the crowds, too much so! So all power to the museum for recognising that modern museums should be all about reaching out to present and future generations – t0 the wide and not the narrow world – as well as the past.

(I’ve memories from my early teens of my first-ever gallery, the Manchester City Art Gallery, and standing puzzled but vaguely curious in front of paintings by Italian Primitives. Hard to imagine anywhere more fusty, and I was almost – but happily not quite!! – put off forever.)

(With thanks to the Economist for background information on Hartwig Fischer’s appointment.)

Woodpile revisited …into the darkness

Out to the woodpile again. I’m reminded that the wood out there, though under cover, is damp with all the rain and wind and muck there’s been in the high Cotswolds recently. So bring it in, leave it in the garage for a few days, then by the fire for a day or two more. Then on to the fire and watch it burn. That at least is the theory and tonight it’s been more than theory. The room heated, and we did with it, to new levels.

A pub meal this evening. No street lights round here and heavy cloud cover and somehow the lights on the urban horizon which normally take the edge off the dark sky perfection I love weren’t there. So we had a dark dark sky. But no stars. Just the wind and the blackness and rain whipping in.

Darkness. There’s a marvellous exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, Tibet’s Secret Temple – Mind Body Spirit in Tantric Buddhism. Hold onto your seats. What follows may be unsettling.

The temple, the Lokhang, is on an island behind the Potala Palace in Lhasa, built by a Dalai Lama in the 17th century, as a refuge and to propitiate the ‘elemental serpentine forces that Tibetans call lu’.  Wall-paintings in its uppermost chamber illustrate the Dzogchen, or ‘Great Perfection’ teachings of the 8th century Tantric master, Padmasambhava, and they are the subject of and inspiration behind the exhibition.

And they set me thinking – and take me to the darkness.

The high mountain light in an often treeless terrain has sharpness and brilliance and a stillness I’d associate with transcendence, but the rapture we’d feel as Westerners in that landscape isn’t the rapture of a Tibetan Buddhist. It’s no more than a stepping-stone: to move beyond the dualism of light and dark we have to experience dark as well as light. The darkness of a temple. And the darkness of Tantric practices associated with death, making us aware of the transitoriness of existence. Skulls and thigh bones feature. The Tibetan Book of the Dead focuses on experience in the bardo state between death and reincarnation.

My instincts rebel against this, but there’s a strict method in this apparent madness. To move beyond dualism we have to experience and move beyond fear – we have to transcend all human existence, and that takes us down to the depths and up to the heights of experience – the high mountains may open a door, but they’re not sufficient in themselves.

I’m only here touching on ideas of light and dark, no more than scratching along the surface of Tantric Buddhism. It encompasses so much more – stillness and movement, the trul khor and the six yogas – including the Yoga of Radiant Light.

Having started this post in the darkness of a Cotswold night I’ll end here – in the transcendent light of the Himalaya.

You can’t ask for more than that.

Goya portraits 

Goya portraits – at the National Gallery. As usual, I get there (if at all) in the last week, and it’s a popular exhibition, and the NG foyer is crowded and the gallery even more so. Curiously, maybe not surprisingly, we’re an older crowd, the tourists are next door in the main gallery – we are I think a mainly British bunch. One downside of crowds – you can’t get close, so checking out on dots and daubs and brushstokes can be anti-social.

There’s performance art of a kind, certainly noise, emanating from Trafalagar Square outside the gallery, and neon shines in the evening light from the ’empty’ fourth plinth. Inside I’m struck by one of the captions in the little (almost image-less) guide the gallery provides for visitors. Goya’s painting of the Dowager Marchionness of Villafranca is ‘a moving demonstration of his ability to portray old age with respect and sympathy’. She was 61 when her portrait was painted. Not even 64. Zooks! Maybe that’s what I’m missing out on – respect and sympathy.

There’s a risk the younger generations are losing touch with the history of art – and of more than just art. Goya in a Self Portrait before an Easel has a hat adapted ‘to carry candles in order to add the final highlights to his pictures at night’. Maybe we need a few more details of this kind – life for Goya and in any studio was anything but staid.

Goya would be a good subject for a biopic, that would help – with his wonderful connections as painter to the court and king on the one hand, and on the other, his ability to survive infighting and faction, Napoleon’s invasion, the restoration of the monarchy, and a deadly anti-liberal reaction under Ferdinand VII, when he escaped to exile in France. And there’s his agonised personal response to Spain, to war and to the world revealed in his two series of etchings, the Caprichos and the Disasters of War.

He was called on to paint a triumphant (though he hardly looks that way) Wellington in 1812. As ever, he was in the right place. Beside the oil painting there’s a revealing preliminary sketch, with the general looking hollow-eyed and drained.

Goya’s ‘Family of the Infante Luis de Borbon’ is based on Velasquez’s Las Meninas, his group portrait of the Spanish royal family in the 1630s. There’s a powerful realism in the Goya portrait as there is in the Velasquez, and if you’ve seen Picasso’s paintings based on Las Meninas in Barcelona, that adds another dimension. There can be something obsessive about Spanish art. In their black mantillas the ladies, duchesses and countesses, live in their own world and even a radical such as the Countess-Duchess of Benavente is portrayed in a splendid hat, dress and powdered wig.

A few years late the Countess co-commissioned from Goya ‘six scenes of witchcraft, which satirised church corruption and the backwardness of Spanish society’. Even when the reformers lost power Goya kept his connections around court. Government ministers sat for him, including the minister of finance and one Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, who rejoiced in the title (a poor translation?) of Minister of Grace and Justice. How did grace come to be in his portfolio, I’d like to know. A better post for an archbishop.

Many ministers and courtiers were his friends and that didn’t change despite a serious illness that left him deaf for the last thirty years of his life. What the exhibition doesn’t and can’t address given its specific remit is the darker side of Goya’s imagination, the satires of the Caprichos, his rage against war in the Disasters, the bleak images of the Black Paintings. It’s the starkest of divides between the public and the personal. The former about status and friendship, the latter a harrowing personal journey.

If you were a friend (and not just those in high places) you were likely to get your portrait painted, and the portraits are full of character, and a few warts, and affection. They’re people you’d want to know. An architect, a master gilder, a printmaker, and a radical priest or two. In later years when Spain implodes and Goya turns inward there are few portraits of friends, though he did survive, just, as First Painter to the King.

‘People you’d want to know’ –  there’s a full-length portrait of the Marchioness de Santa Cruz reclining, dressed in the latest flimsy fashion, and with a lyre – a very modern muse for her time. I’d like to have met her. And nearby there’s Goya’s friend, the actress, Antonia Zarate. She’s dressed, with a fine lace mantilla, like an aristocrat, but closer inspection reveals a tiny downturn of lip and an ordinary humanity beneath the ritual glamour. In ordinary attire she’d have been fun, and a little wild  – I guess, I can only speculate!

Sometimes he painted himself into his portraits – as in the family portrait of the Infante family, and in the very grand portrait of the Duchess of Alba the duchess points to the ground and the words, ‘Solo Goya’, (Only Goya). She must have connived at this. ‘The idea that this proves that she and the artist were lovers has now been set aside,’ we’re told, rather primly.

Some of the names of his subjects are to conjure with: Cardinal Luis Maria de Borbon y Vallabriga (son of the Infante and ‘raised within the church’ – doesn’t sound as if he had much choice but to be a cardinal) and Don Valentin Bellvís de Mancada y Pizarro. I feel my parents shortchanged me – and indeed I did my own children. We could have added a bit in here and there.

And finally there’s a portrait of his friend Cean Bermudez, an art historian and print collector, who ‘shared a number of Rembrandt etchings with Goya when he was working on Los Caprichos’. A year ago I was in the same gallery, at the National  Gallery’s memorable, life-changing Rembrandt exhibition. Rembrandt painted old age like no other, but Goya has his own remarkable Self Portrait with Doctor Arrieta: he looks near death, and there’s an honesty about the two figures, Goya and the doctor, which is startling. A few years later, and near his actual death, he sketched in crayon a simple self-portrait, Aun aprendo (I am still learning). It’s shown in the little guidebook, not in the exhibition: hunched with a long white beard and two sticks he is ‘still learning’.

Now this guy really does deserve our ‘respect and sympathy’  – he died aged 82, in 1828.

Three characters in search of a blog

Frank Auerbach – there’s a major retrospective at Tate Britain, Wilfred Thesiger – living among the Marsh Arabs in Iraq in the 1950s, and Rudolf Abel, from Stephen Spielberg’s latest movie, Bridge of Spies.

A painter, an explorer, and a Russian spy.

Starting with Auerbach, and two quotations:

After each session he scrapes off the paint and begins again. A single painting might take months, even years, before something appears that he hadn’t predicted and, he hopes, means the work is finished. (Catherine Lambert, Tate Etc magazine) and The paint contorts to capture it [nature] …not the ‘character’ of a scene or even its atmosphere, but rather it simply ‘being there’… (TJ Clark, from Frank Auerbach , edited by Catherine Lampert)

Just two studios over sixty years, both Camden Town, subject matter all local to his corner of north London, and very few models for his portraits. Auerbach endlessly reworked his patch of land. Inspiration could come in a moment, realisation take many months, or longer.

I came across a book entitled ‘Zen Drawing’ recently but could find little of Zen in it. There’s much more in Auerbach. (Don’t know though if he’d want to own the idea!) Paintings conventionally freeze a moment in time, make the impermanent permanent. It’s as if Auerbach doesn’t want that permanence, and only when he feels he’s achieved that sense of a painting ‘being there’ is he content.

There’s also that sense of ‘being there’ in Wilfred Thesiger’s The Marsh Arabs, which I’ve re-read this week. Remote areas, as far from ‘civilisation ‘ as he could manage, were always his preferred location, and he didn’t travel in a conventional sense – as far as he could he inhabited  a region, shared it with the locals, lived and adopted their lifestyle, and even style of dress. (A cross between the Great White Hunter and Widow Twanky, according to Gavin Young.)

Memories of that first visit to the Marshes have never left me: firelight on a half-turned face, the crying of geese, duck flighting in to feed, a boy’s voice singing somewhere in the dark, canoes moving in procession down a waterway, the setting sun seen crimson through the smoke of burning reed beds, narrow waterways that wound deeper into the Marshes…. Stars reflected in dark water, the croaking of frogs, canoes coming home at evening, peace and continuity, the stillness of a world that never knew an engine. Once again I experienced the longing to share this with life, and to be more than a mere spectator. 

Visiting at least seven months each year over seven years, he saw a millennia-old way of life slipping away at first hand, as oil money literally seeped into southern Iraq. There’s close observation but also the fragility of that evening moment. How much did he sense its imminent collapse? That the young people would leave marshes, maybe yes, but that Saddam Hussein would drain the marshes – surely not.

Thesiger was always on the move, but always within his chosen patch – this time the lower Euphrates and Tigris. Likewise  Auerbach, at a very different, almost infinitely more local level. Thesiger was always open to experience, and so too in his studio was Auerbach, waiting on inspiration and working it up into that marvellous thick impasto which makes some of his paintings as much sculpture as painting.

Also finally, Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, a Cold War thriller built around the 1957 exchange of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel and American U2 pilot, Gary Powers. Tom Hanks is puzzled and patient and wise as the lawyer, Donovan, and Mark Rylance is mesmerising, as low-key and dry as can be, as the Russian spy, Rudolf Abel. Talking to my daughter afterwards, we both wouldn’t have minded if more of the movie had been a Donovan/Abel two-hander. They develop an understanding born of few words, mutual respect, and Abel’s wonderful dry humour.

‘Aren’t you worried,’ Donovan asks his client. ‘Would it help?’ is Abel’s laconic and deadpan reply.

Connections between the three?  There’s something in their attitude, but also they share a decade…

Thesiger, travelling in 1950s; Auerbach, a young painter finding his way in the 1950s; Donovan defending Abel before the Supreme Court in 1957.

A decade where with each year the threat and fear of a nuclear holocaust grew, and scared me as a schoolboy, the open mind of childhood more than a little tinged by fear.

Auerbach just out of art college responded by producing a series of paintings of building sites, his dark palette obscuring detail. Thesiger escaped as only he knew how. The threat might be a local blood feud, the challenge a dangerous wild boar to shoot or circumcisions to perform. (There was nothing ordinary about Thesiger’s life!)

And the movie? Like me Spielberg is a child of the 1950s, born just thirteen days after me in 1946. What he conveys is a surprising optimism. The inviolability of the American political system, as he and Donovan would wish it, wins out over cynicism and fear. Abel, as Donovan discovers, is a man of integrity, and the American legal system has to respond in kind, whatever the CIA might think.

There a sense of triumph at the end of the movie, something I’m not certain many of us shared in the 1950s, faced with the Cold War confrontations that kept hitting the news. Spy swaps were tawdry affairs. And a Russian spy as a ‘hero’? But in his way, with his quiet courage, that’s how we see Mark Rylance’s Abel.

One final point. The Guardian review of Bridge of Spies suggests that those of us brought up on John Le Carre might expect is ‘shabby compromise and exhausted futility’. What we get instead is ‘decency and moral courage’.

Due process triumphs, as it has so conspicuously failed to do at Guantanamo Bay.

The Celts at the British Museum

What I wonder would it have been like to have travelled the tracks and pathways of northern Europe not just one but two thousand years ago?

That’s one thought I had in mind when I visited the British Museum’s Celts: Art and Identity exhibition last week. And I didn’t quite find the answer.

What the exhibition does do is combine wonderful display and lighting to give life and meaning to everything from a horse-drawn cart and Celtic crosses by way of the ubiquitous torc to swords and the carnyx, a serpentine and over-sized battle horn.

I remember the BM’s Viking exhibition from last year, and how the artefacts on display linked to trade routes stretching as far afield as Byzantium and Russia.  The Vikings were extraordinary adventurers. You just can’t do that with the Celts. The word keltoi dates back to the ancient Greeks and was applied loosely to anyone north of the Alps. Only in the 18th and 19th centuries did it take on its association with the peoples of the western shores of Britain and Brittany, defined by similarities in language. So while these days we connect the term with Cornwall, Wales and Scotland, the landscapes behind the exhibits in the Celts exhibition comes from across north-western Europe, and that makes it hard to link them to specific environments.

Galicia? I spent a week last month walking through Galicia, another Celtic landscape, which doesn’t get even the smallest mention here.

The exhibition’s final section, celebrating the Celtic revival, is all about Celtic identity, and how that identity was reinterpreted in Ireland and in the Celtic diaspora. It’s about literary and popular culture and there’s a big disconnect between the swords and torcs and the specific locations of the burials where they were found, and the imagery of an imagined culture, which could muddle Celts and Druids and anything that had a touch of mystery to it. Legends became almost real, and even now Cuthulain is celebrated in Ireland – a hero adopted during the Troubles by both sides, Protestant and Catholic. WB Yeats lived and breathed Celtic myth and landscapes.

Back to the real world of the Celts, let’s say 500BC to 500 AD. I missed a sense of the land, of landscape, a ‘Celtic’ way of life. The fact that so many exhibits come from burial hordes doesn’t of course help.

One term used in the exhibition set me wondering – ‘warrior-farmer’. Farming has to be a secure and sedentary occupation. So maybe military service was given in exchange for land in some kind of early feudal relationship. How they occupied, cultivated, travelled and fought across their lands – that’s what fascinates me.

None of which is to say that I didn’t enjoy the exhibition. It achieves brilliantly what it sets out to do, and it’s drawing in the crowds.

So many torcs – it’s as if they were a currency in the afterlife. And there’s an extraordinary cauldron, found in Denmark, made of plates of beaten silver depicting rituals within and gods without. Celtic crosses, looking a little out of place, tower above you: Christianity arrived in Ireland as early as the 5th century.

You can listen to the carnyx and its loud, grating, chilling note which would have attached itself to the enemy’s nerves, and sent fear through their ranks. It would have echoed across mountain, field and bog. I have there my own imagined sense of place.

Ravilious and Rembrandt at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

Place in our modern world has been usurped by space, extended space, we’re always looking beyond the boundaries, for the next place along the line, rather than exploring where we stand….

The Ravilious exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery is all about place, about the artist’s acute sense of landscape, and all the man-made items (fields, chalk figures, fences, ships, propellers…) which give each landscape its identity.  I’m reminded of Finlay MacLeod’s wordlist drawn from the Isle of Lewis (see Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks, pp16,17): recording a living landscape woven through with the workings of man over many ages.

Ravilious is painter re-creating landscape, but the sense of place is almost palpably real.

Also in the Dulwich gallery is Rembrandt’s A Girl at the Window. This is enigmatic, extraordinary, a simple place, by a window, real, and yet imagined. Place needn’t be landscape!

Barbara Hepworth (exhibition at Tate Britain, summer 2015) identified not with a specific landscape, but with the forms of landscape, the Yorkshire hills of her childhood, and the hills and tors and megaliths of west Cornwall. Place is internalised and abstracted, but the sense of connection remains, and Hepworth’s work is all the more powerful if we’re aware of that Cornish link.

Also at the Tate just at the moment – Tracey Emin’s bed. If ever there was ‘place’ it’s this… but it’s momentary, woman-made, personal. And with no connection with any external landscape. Place without history and connections other than what we can glean about her own life story. Very much a place for our own time.

She was asked by the Tate if she’d like to choose two paintings to place on the wall near her bed – a curious kind of installation, and all the more so given that she chose two Francis Bacon paintings, one of a woman slumped over a settee, the other of a dog. The images are cerebral, disturbing and simple, they have no history, and the dog indeed needs a circle drawn around it to give it any kind of ‘place’ at all.

We need a place outside ourselves, place with history and with future, place where we’re part of a continuum. Ravilious and Hepworth do of course freeze place in time, but at the same time they open our eyes as observers, they enhance the experience of place. And as they moved on, to the next painting, the next sculpture, so do we as observers.

But in the case of the Rembrandt I have to admit I’m loathe to move on! There’s something in her gaze, and we don’t know who she is… There is history there, and a future, an enigma we’ll never resolve.