Monday, 28 December 2009

Switch OFF for a Happy New Year!

Another Christmas, another year over: I just cannot believe 2009 has been spent. The sages among us say that it goes faster as every year goes by. But even the next generation – in my case the prodigal and the princess – say the same thing. So it’s not just that. It’s all to do with pace - the pace of our lives to be specific - that’s what I think.

And that pace is getting faster every year. Although out in the sticks here (where telephonic reception is pants) we are now on broadband and able to join the internet highway. Even if we can’t break the speed limit. If there is no reception for even ten minutes I get tetchy and panic. How will I be able to send photographs, transfer any copy, advise contacts of events, check my accounts, order my mother’s shopping and.....publish my blog!

‘Doing research’,well, with the internet it’s taken on a whole new meaning: plodding off to the library, rooting out museums, dredging up texts from all sorts of strange places? Dead. I used to argue that when digging about in books and journals, indexes and archives I would often come across stuff I would never have thought of looking for. The old argument that perhaps one doesn’t always know what one is looking for.

Forget it. Go onto the World Wide Web and you’ll get information up to your ears. Search engines will magic some web page or other and that will lead you onto something else. Although what is still needed is that gut instinct, inspiration and application. It remains basic detective work. But there’s no footwork, no travel costs, no having to fit your research into open days or opening hours: it can be done at 2am. Tonight, any night, every night if you want.

And as for snail mail: dead as a squashed gastropod. Gone are the days when ‘It’s in the post’ gave us a little time to get the task done. Here is rural Kent we were snowed in just before Christmas but was that an excuse to get out of the saddle - no way. Sorry, no post. 'Just email it,’ is the riposte.

If you’re sent an email this morning the least that person expects is a reply this afternoon. And worse. If it arrives in your inbox during the evening or over the week-end you can forget any lame excuse about out-of-work-hours. That’s a phrase as old hat as top hat. You better reply asap or you’ll get another one.

And it doesn’t stop there. It follows us about. My laptop is portable (well, it is if you call lugging the equivalent of a big bag or two of potatoes around with you) taken on every trip away from the home hub. And if there’s no wireless connection when I’m on the hoof, oh horror, what will I do. How will I cope without electronic communication. (Amazing how I survived before The Net concurrently holding down two jobs, bringing up a family and keeping house.)

Now my biceps have been given respite. I have a new phone – well mini computer really – that I had to work very hard convincing Best Beloved was absolutely essential to maintaining my lifestyle. Obviously I have to be able to telephone mates at all times and I have to be able to track down BB when he goes walkabout (which he does whenever we’re meant to be shopping or sightseeing). But I also need to make bookings, search the web, advise when a meeting is running late, pick up business emails, text the kids, etc etc etc.

Yet I’ve chosen these deliverers of the digital age: those gainfully employed expect them. Not only do they expect the latest gismos but their employers expect them to be plugged in to the things twenty four seven. (It may be that this turns out in time to be a poisoned chalice - I reckon it’s not long before employees start to sue employers for overloading their personal wiring)

What it means is that - for all of us - the passage of time has become something that can be manipulated but not slowed. And what this boils down to is that the pace of life is pacier yet: not allowed to do nothing, no time for vacuous thoughts or voluminous ideas. No time to stand and stare. For a happy new year perhaps we should simply SWITCH OFF.


Saturday, 19 December 2009

Shameful Sculptor Eric Gill

If you walked around the recent sculpture exhibition at the Royal Academy whom might you think was a sinister sculptor? Knowing no facts on the matter, you could be forgiven for thinking it Jacob Epstein, whose menacing iron sculpture Rock Drill, has been recreated. This piece, unbelievably constructed 1913-1915, is a prelude to every robot that we have seen in movies over 50 years later.

The work of Eric Gill (1882-1940), on the other hand, is beautiful in its simplicity. His works demonstrate the affinity between art and architecture perfectly. We know his pieces without ever knowing they are ‘pieces’, so well do they meld with the building.

The Art Deco façade of the BBC (Broadcasting House) incorporates Gill’s sculpture of Ariel & Prospero. This is a perfect example of how his artistic work integrates with the building: we perceive it as a whole, a part, of the architecture.

There was a talk at the RA entitled Saint or Sinner? Re-assessing Eric Gill. Now, I haven’t heard the talk nor have I read Fiona McCarthy’s biography of him. All I know is that Gill is guilty of some very unsavoury practices that have ruined his reputation as a godly man and an artist.

Gill’s behaviour was thoroughly reprehensible but he was also a genuinely talented artist and craftsman. He did some marvellous illustrations that remind me of Aubrey Beardsley and some of the artists who were doing lino cuts in the first quarter of the last century. An excellent letterer (he designed the typeface Gill Sans) he also carved the letters and designs on war memorials, gravestones and in churches.

I first became aware of him when I saw his linear two-dimensional sculptured panels not unlike the ancient friezes that decorated the buildings of Rome and Athens. Gill’s figures and animals, however, are simple, naïve and primal. And all the more striking because of this.

But when I visited this exhibition – which was excellent – I felt very uncomfortable. I like his work. I think he was a designer and sculptor of great talent. But I couldn’t help thinking about the dark side of him and this cast a shadow over enjoyment of his pieces.

I tried to tell myself that I must disassociate the artist’s predilections from his work. I must not let it cause a barrier between me and the pieces. I tried not to let my dark thoughts affect my enjoyment of his work. Unfortunately, they did. His talent is now tainted for me.

If only those of us who feel we have little natural talent could have one small piece of the gift that these artists display. We wouldn’t squander it, would we. We would revel in our gift, embrace our talent, nurture it and let it flourish. And it would be something pure, would it not. Or would it.

Could it be that the great creative force and superb style that a few artists have are only kindled by dark, sinister and wicked acts. Are these deeds and the shame of them, the price they (and sadly others) pay for the beauty of their art. I don’t know if it is a truth or a convenient excuse but I think, given the choice, I might just settle for mediocrity.