Sunday, 30 March 2008

From Russia with knobs on

The Royal Academy's main exhibition, From Russia, is truly amazing but if you've not been yet there's only about two and a half weeks left to scoot up to London to see it. However, to do it justice give yourself all day; do half before lunch and the rest afterwards otherwise its so overwhelming you'll be knackered. And another interesting fact, it's the exhibition that nearly never was, and might never be again.

The Russian museums, worried that some of their wonderful collection of French and Russian master paintings dating between 1870 and 1925 might be the confiscated by alleged owners, got cold feet and refused to lend their paintings. Fortunately for us diplomacy - and the pragmatic decision to safeguard the works from claims – worked and this fantastic collection can be seen in all its glory.

The first room of the exhibition shows the influence of French art in Russia and some superb paintings. I particularly like the full length portraits by Russian artists – they reminded me of Singer Sargent's work – and a wonderful large work, 17 October 1905 by Ilya Repin, of a crowd celebrating the concessions achieved by the uprising against the Romonov regime. The painting is so cheerful - lots of red in it - that the jubilant mood of the crowd is palpable.

Late in the 1890's two very astute, keen and wealthy Russian collectors – Shchukin and Morozov – began to assemble wonderful collections of French art. They started acquiring Impressionist paintings: on exhibition are Monet's haystack and poppy field, Renoir's portraits and social groups and several of Cezanne's vibrant landscapes.

And both men were patrons of the Avant-Garde; some wonderful examples of Van Gogh and Gaugin's glowing paintings of life and landscapes in Tahiti. But their tastes were eclectic, they also liked Denis, Bonnard and the more colourful Derain. Then – what boldness and taste they had – they collected many Matisse and Shchukin was even confident enough to commission some.

Apparently, after commissioning Dance I by Matisse in 1909 he was so worried about the reaction to the painting – that primeval dance, those vivid, alive, roughly outlined figures nearly escaping their frame, that shocking colour – that he nearly cancelled it. Fortunately for us he kept his nerve and the painting came to inspire not only the Russian painters of the time but hundreds since.

At one time Shchukin owned 37 works by Matisse and – his next coup – over 50 paintings by Picasso. His collection covered Picasso's Blue and Rose periods and those inspired by African woodcarving, one of which is on exhibition, as well as Cubist paintings. How amazing it must have been to visit their salons where these were hung. Unfortunately the First World War put paid to their collecting.

Wow, this exhibition is amazing, so much great work to see: I kept thinking that there couldn't be much more. No, I was wrong, another room! Sergei Diaghilev – the founder of Ballets Russes – was a famous impresario of the visual arts and not only introduced French art to Russia but Russian culture to Paris. There's a wonderful, vibrant, full-length painting that shows him in his two roles, one in evening dress, the other in a performer's costume. And I like the 1906 portrait of him by Bakst, where he has such an amused look on his face.

So we learn that Russian artists studied in Paris and were inspired by French artists: Korovin's Paris, 1912, so similar but so much more austere than Pisarro's earlier painting, Paris certainly proves the inspiration angle but is not such a good example that by 1910 they'd begun to experiment and develop their own style. Boy, I thought this must be nearly the end but had to sit down bit, rest the old brain let alone the feet. Then off again into the next room...what more? Neo-Primitivism, inspired by the simplicity of Russian woodcuts and folk art, then Cubo-Futurism – a combination of the fragmented French Cubist style and the movement and dynamism of the Italian Futurists - contributed to this new found confidence.

Now, by this time I'd definitely decided that there couldn't possibly be any more to see but, no, wrong again: rooms full with Russian artist's innovative works from Abstraction to Constructivism. But by now I was reeling. Whew, sighted the exit and made straight for the café and while I got my strength back mulled over the scale of the exhibition, the richness, quality and variety of the works: have decided that I'll just have to come back and do it all again, bit by bit.....with lots of coffee breaks or, better still, lunch.


Sunday, 23 March 2008

Candles and Eggs

The name Easter comes from the Anglo-Saxon's Goddess of Spring, Eastre: the Rites of Spring, renewal and fertility, were celebrated by pagan peoples such as Norsemen to whom this meant the season of the growing sun. For all, bonfires and the candle – light - were important parts of the custom.

Throughout Europe Easter fires were lit on top of mountains, and new fire kindled – by rubbing sticks together – representing the pagan practice of honouring the strength of the Sun, longer days, shorter nights, rebirth and fertility.

For early Christians the Paschal Moon (from the Greek Pascha, Passover), the full moon of the Passover, seems to have set when Mary Magdalene entered the Garden in darkness but the Resurrection was revealed to her at sunrise. So these devout men spent the night before Easter day deep in prayer, illuminated only by the moon. Other men, believing the light would come, walked through the fields or climbed hills to see the Sun Dance.

For some reason many of us associate candles with Christmas time and the end of it, Candlemas, but in fact the candle is a more important symbol at Easter. In centuries past, on Easter Eve, the church was unlit until the candle was kindled by flint and steel. Then all other candles were lit from it to light the building.

The Paschal candle – which is always of beeswax, the purest wax – came to represent Christ, the Light of the World. In the Middle Ages in England this candle, obelisk in shape, was to lifted to "within a man's length of the roof", where it was lit by "a fine convenience" – an early match?

In some churches today the church is still left in darkness whilst a bonfire is lit outside to symbolise the coming light; the priest blesses the new fire, the symbol of Christ's Resurrection, and lights a candle from the new fire. This Paschal candle is then taken into the church from which the congregation light their candles. This Easter vigil includes a blessing of water as a sign of purification and water from the font is sprinkled over worshippers gathered there.

But way before this, in medieval England, on Easter morning households would strike new fire in the darkness –'need fire' as they called it – believing that the straw would not catch unless all fires and lights were put out first.

The yew in the churchyard was a symbol of life and it is the English or Irish yew that is the one true evergreen of Easter: the symbolic green of eternal life. And, apart from green, only the white of Resurrection is seen on the altar: narcissi, arum lilies, blackthorn or hellebore perhaps.

The swift and mysterious hare was thought to be sacred to Eastre – it would seem I have a thing about hares – and the hare was thought to lay eggs which it left in the grass for children to find. Today the hare's place has been taken by the Easter Bunny – a plebby upstart – but children still love searching for the eggs hidden in the garden and enjoy eating them just as much!

The egg was an object of wonder and the source of new life to primitive people and eaten whether it be that of the thrush, the pigeon, duck, chicken or goose. And from before Edward I's time, these Easter eggs - life's emblem - would be boiled in dye, which left them a beautiful blue, rose red or marbled green, and eaten for breakfast on Easter morning. If time could be afforded, a design could be scratched on the eggs with a steel pin.

When religious fasting was the norm – and the eating of eggs not allowed - the end of it, Easter, was a time to celebrate and eat all those other good things that had been denied. Throughout villages and in the manor houses of medieval England lamb and veal, capons, ducks, beer and bread, spiced cakes, custards and pies were prepared with care and eaten with joy and relish: Easter, then as now, was a time to eat eggs and rejoice in the light.


Hey, what's this, it's snowing here! That's not part of the deal, this is Easter not Christmas, I was looking forward to the sun.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Poetry is for life

Several years ago, when my elderly father had to undergo an operation, I looked up some poetry and prose that I thought would be nice to remember him by in the awful event he might not survive the op. I knew that if that happened I'd be a wet and sniveling wreck, incapable of doing the necessary research.

And, strangely enough, very satisfying research it was too. I left out any flowery or sickeningly sentimental pieces and discounted any that were overly religious, morbid or dirge-like too. Instead I found some that either touched on my feelings or were in some way relevant to his life.

The most obvious poem was Dylan Thomas', Do not go gently into that good night, because my father hung on to life tenaciously and "Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light" most definitely applied to him.

And the poem, All That I Have by Leo Marks, beautifully expresses love and loss as does Anne Bronte's poem, Farewell,

Farewell to Thee! But not farewell
To all my fondest thoughts of Thee;
Within my heart they still shall dwell
And they shall cheer and comfort me.

Life seems more sweet that Thou didst live
And men more true that Thou wert one;
Nothing is lost that Thou didst give,
Nothing destroyed that Thou hast done.

Choosing a poem by my father's favourite poet - and I think the only one he knew - John Keats, was more of a challenge because the sonnets and poems are either too long, too melancholy or just downright miserable. He had been introduced to Keats' poetry by some girls when up at Oxford and I think that coloured his regard for the poet! Finally I did find one (strangely) entitled Sonnet: On Leigh Hunt's poem "The Story Of Rimini" which does express quite subtly a love of nature and a place of peace.

Of course the poem, Remember by Christina Rosetti - of pre-Raphaelite fame circa 1870 - is very well known and, I think, beautiful, although others tell me that they find it maudlin. But what it expresses so well is the selfless encouragement that the living should live:
"Better by far you should forget and smile
Than you should remember and be sad."

And another equally famous example that does just that is Death is Nothing At All by Henry Scott-Holland, 1847-1918, Canon of St Paul's Cathedral, and one that suited my father in particular because he definitely wanted to be remembered and he liked to laugh. Here is an extract:

Whatever we were to each other
That we are still
Call me by my old familiar name
Speak to me in the easy way you always used
Put no difference into your tone
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow
Laugh as we always laughed
At the little jokes we always enjoyed together
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me
Let my name be ever the household word it always was
Let it be spoken without effort
Without the ghost of a shadow in it
Life means all that it ever meant
It is the same as it ever was

Having done all the above I understood how terminally ill people – people who have no influence or power over the ravages of their disease or condition – must achieve a precious feeling of control by choosing the content of their final ceremony: by picking out readings, poems and music that they love they're able to personalize the service and imbue it with a particular atmosphere, whether that be one of beauty or one with an upbeat and positive tone.

And this exercise was a salutary lesson for me: I should read poetry more. The resulting introspection can be intense if the poems are moving and occasionally they're difficult but equally many are beautiful and some great fun. Certainly, poetry should not just be for special occasions, it should be for life.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Mad March On

March, the first month of spring, when everything is budding and promising more. Even the Middle English name of the month, March, sounds positive: a determined and regular moving forward.

In past years we've seen hares in the fields around here: the brown hare breeds in spring and - if you are very lucky - you may see them 'boxing' and chasing around which is why they are referred to as mad March hares.

The hare is a magical and mythical animal (see blog archive Hare Today, 3 June 2007) and the sight of one never fails to thrill me: not long ago they were seriously endangered because of new farming methods but fortunately they are now on the increase thanks to changes in agriculture and protected habitats.

But apparently these mad hares are actually the females fending off unwanted advances from males, and who can blame them, nothing mad about them at all. From as early as the 1500's hares were considered to be mad for this behaviour – the term 'hare brained' is associated with it – and Lewis Carroll, in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, didn't help with his chapter A Mad Tea Party which included March Hare and The Hatter acting very oddly and excitedly.

Of course, little, sensible, sleepy Dormouse was there too, which reminds me, last week as I walked Freddie up the road the dormouse boxes that were left in the hedges as part of an ecological survey were being collected: sadly, most of them were only inhabited by wood mice. Here again the reintroduction and conservation of hedges is so important: they shelter and create safe wildlife corridors for small creatures like the dormouse.

On our walks I look out for all the small spring flowers in the verges too: palest lemon primroses – there is something quite innocent about them isn't there – look charming as do the tiny violets, both white ones and purple. These hint at a time long past when they were collected and made into bunches, sent to the city and sold as mini corsage for ladies to wear on their lapel.

And in all the front gardens I pass – peering over the fences is one of the pleasures of walking – are beautiful spring bulbs and early flowering trees. The snowdrops are over but daffodils are out in their hundreds and are the most cheering and marvellous of sights: it always reminds me of Wordsworth's poem 'When all at once I saw a crowd, a host of golden daffodils' because en masse the unexpected sight of them is stunning.

The crowds look spectacular when they fill a bed or an orchard but for smaller spaces and in windy sites I particularly like the miniature daffs like Tete a Tete or February Gold. Narcissi too are a favourite of mine, firstly because they are more delicate than the large trumpets but also because of their wonderful scents. I can't bear to pick any of them from my own garden but buy them for the house – I like a whole jug full, they're so cheap – because I don't want to dilute the sight of them out of my windows.

I have some miniature ones in my front garden – a spring garden, because I think it cheers people in chilly weather as they walk by and because I see them whenever I go in or out. And flowering with them are some of the later Lenten hellebores - the claret coloured ones such a good contrast. Their sophisticated and stylish flowers also contrast with the bold simplicity of the daffodil trumpets.

And now some blue hyacinths (old potted ones I stuck in the ground) are beginning to open, later to be followed by their baby cousins, grape hyacinths (muscari), whilst ground covering pulmonaria flowers are already out: all these blues will look lovely next to the daffodils, opposite sides of the colour spectrum. Something to look forward to late in March.