Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Neglected Tom

I have so many things to show you from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, but not much time. My conscience has been nagging at me though, since I finished my last post on the gallery without including any of Tom Roberts's pictures.  I have been feeling especially guilty about this because one of the ones I wanted to include is a painting I've spent years thinking was by Arthur Streeton. Most unfair.

The picture in question is this one, Holiday Sketch at Coogee:
 It is Coogee Bay. Not as we know it, I need hardly add. My brother used to live in Coogee, with a bunch of reprobates. I used to go round on Saturday around lunchtime and find him cooking rump steak and mushrooms from a tin, which was a surprisingly delicious combination. We have all grown far too sophisticated for tinned mushrooms now;  those were the days of our innocence.

This painting is similarly a glimpse of Sydney's lost innocence, I think. I can never decide whether it is better now - after all, you can get good coffee and don't have to bring a picnic of sandwiches that inevitably get gritty with sand - or not - the traffic, oh, the flaming traffic.

My mother was shocked when we walked down Coogee Bay Road a year or two ago. It is just one long stretch of cafes, all of them full of people. 'What do all these people do?' she wondered, 'Why are they all here? How do they earn a living?' I have no idea. Perhaps they are all rich. Perhaps they are all deeply in debt.
 Anyway, in case you're interested, the label tells us that Tom Roberts was actually born in England (a Pom, I never knew, the man who gave us some of the images we think of as most Australian!) in 1856, came to Australia in 1869, spent 1903 to 1923 in England, and died at Kallista, Victoria in 1931 (interesting that the label writers at the gallery use 'England', rather than 'United Kingdom').
 Roberts met the artist Charles Conder in 1888 and the two painted together at Coogee Beach, apparently. Conder was younger than Roberts and he followed Roberts to Melbourne to join Roberts and Streeton at their artists' camp at Heidelberg.

This painting, we are told, is 'an early testament to Roberts's plein-air impressionist technique, which evokes the sun's glare on the bright blue sea, the white sand, dry grass and spindly sea-side vegetation'. I don't know about you, but I think I understood that before I read it, although I may not have articulated it, to be fair.
This next lovely thing is called The Camp, Sirius Cove. Roberts painted it in 1899 and, if the label writer is to be believed, he 'depicts his former painting haunt as an idyllic memory, albeit with a photographically sharp focus. It is flawlessly constructed and crisply executed to recall the brightly sunlit scene. Although the artists' camp is long gone, Roberts's view of the headland is still recognisable today, close to the present site of Taronga Park Zoo.'
 The gallery does of course also have two more famous Roberts pictures, the one in the shearing shed (that's the one I think particularly evokes a sense of real Australianness - after all it inspired a very fine chain of petrol stations, in the Mittagong branch of which I first encountered that other now neglected Australian classic, the T-bone steak) and the one of a highway robbery. They have been reproduced so often that I've almost become sick of them so, if you want to see them, you'll have to come to Australia and visit the NSW gallery yourself.

If you can't manage that though, I do have more pictures I want to show you, from other parts of the gallery's collection. But they will have to wait for another day as, once again, time is against me.

To be continued.

Monday, 23 February 2015

They Let the Right One In

Prizes are rarely won by deserving winners, but amazingly the Oscar committee got it right with this year's award to Ida as Best Foreign Film. In his acceptance speech the film's director said it was a film about the need for silence, withdrawal from the world and contemplation. This is what I thought of it.

Sadly, after that Oscar award, things got a bit strange. I mean Birdman was amusing, but it was no Grand Budapest Hotel.  I suppose it appealed to the Oscar voters' egoes though, as it is all about how dreadful it is to be an actor. I would have given Edward Norton best supporting actor for his role in Birdman and his role in Grand Budapest Hotel and I'd have given best supporting actress to the daughter in Birdman - and then I would have given Grand Budapest Hotel best design, best director and best movie.

But I am not an academy member, just a cinema goer. Birdman is good up to a point, but Grand Budapest Hotel will charm viewers for generations.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Perennial Pleasure

I never fail to enjoy a trip to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Usually I approach it through the Domain, (the name always makes me think vaguely of Le Grand Meaulnes [is that the most pretentious thing anyone has ever said? Nevertheless, it's true - and, if you haven't read Le Grand Meaulnes, you are lucky to have such a charming, evocative book to look forward to]).

But sometimes I arrive via this exit from the Botanic Gardens:

beside which stands probably the best situated house in the whole of Sydney:
The gallery is, I assume, pure Sydney sandstone:
That is just the lefthand wing.

In the front hall, there is beautiful old terrazzo (I think that's what it's called) flooring, (unfortunately partly obliterated with a fairly ugly sculpture by that Angel of the North bloke - Gormley? Gormless, in this case, possibly [hilarious, aren't I? No, pathetic]):

and a lovely buttoned leather seat:
I usually begin by looking at the earliest Australian pictures they have, starting with John Glover:

This one is called Natives on the Ouse River and was painted in Van Diemen's land in 1838. The label explains that John Glover was already an established artist in Britain when he emigrated, aged 64, and also tells us that this, 'one of his most subjective works' was 'informed by European notions of an Antipodean Arcadia'. The image, apparently, stands in marked contrast to the actual condition of the local people, who were subject to dispossession and violence at the hands of the colonists. The details of the painting are charming - I wonder if Glover witnessed some last dying remnants of an earlier way of life; surely the whole thing did not come from his imagination. I love the difficulty he had in depicting gum trees too - he makes them look like sea creatures more than plants:

This one, the label says, is called Patterdale Farm and was painted in 1840. It is John Glover's place at Mills Plains in northern Tasmania, named after the town at the foot of Ullswater in the Lake District, close to where his home, Blowick Farm, stood (presumably his home in England). It appears that the painting reveals the painter's distinctive technique, whereby colour is applied in transparent veils, with diluted layers of oil (it is oil on canvas, should have mentioned that earlier) delicately brushed over a cream white ground.

High up on a wall I also spotted a Eugene von Guerard I'd never seen before, of the Grampians, where we went sometimes as kids and where I think my mother went often as a child, (during the war, petrol permitting, she tells me - which means they didn't go during the war):
It is called Mount Abrupt, the Grampians and was painted in 1856. For some reason the curators are surprisingly silent in their label of this von Guerard, but that doesn't matter because he painted some pictures for my family so I happen to know that he was born in Vienna and spent about fifteen years in Australia, many of those in Victoria, painting pictures for people down there. He died in London - he also spent quite a lot of time in Germany before coming to Australia, according to the label.

After Glover come Streeton and Roberts. I am fond of this painting of Redfern Station by Arthur Streeton, even though it is not like his usual subjects i.e. it doesn't include the vivid blue skies that are a part of so many of his paintings:
The label at the gallery tells us this about the painting: It is called The Railway Station, Redfern and was painted in 1893. Someone called Lady Denison very kindly gave it to the gallery as a present in 1942. (I'm afraid I might not have been so generous). It shows the Old Redfern Station, on Devonshire Street, just south of where Sydney's Central Station is now located. It was painted three years after Streeton first visited Sydney. It falls within the tradition of tonal paintings of wet urban scenes which existed alongside the nationalistic evocations of sunlight and heat in Australian painting in this period (I haven't seen any others, but one must believe the experts). His choice of a modern railway subject and his evocative approach show the influence of French and British impressionism, as well as the decorative, assymmetrical design and flattened picture plane of Japanese woodcuts. So now you know.

Here are some details of the painting - it will probably amaze some overseas readers to learn that it is possible to have a day when the sun doesn't shine in Sydney (not something the tourist board ever tells you):

Some more typical Streetons followed. This one is called From my Camp (Sirius Cove) and the label tells us was painted from a corner of the beach at Little Sirius Cove at Mosman Bay, the site of an idyllic artists' painting camp known as Curlew Camp, where Streeton stayed with Tom Roberts leading what the label writer considers 'a bohemian lifestyle ... under canvas shelters [don't most of us call those tents?] and commuting to the city by boat.' The label also includes a direct quote from Streeton himself written in 1890:

"Sydney is an artists' city - glorious - Roberts & I go to Mossman's Bay [sic] & pull through the lazy green water, & then lunch under the shade in the open air, eggs, meat, cheese & 2 big bottles of claret grown in Australia. The little Bay seemed all asleep & so very peaceful"

Those were certainly the days - and quite frankly two big bottles of claret between just two of us would have meant I'd have been all asleep, but then I am neither a man nor a painter.

This one is called 'Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide' and was painted in 1890 at the Eaglemont Homestead near Heidelberg in Victoria, when Streeton was only 22 years old. The scene presents an idealised vision of the Yarra River with the spires of Doncaster in the middle distance and the Dandenongs beyond. The title is from Wordsworth's sonnet 'Conclusion, from a poem cycle called The River Duddon. There is then some guff about Romantic expressions of mortality, which I can supply in a plain brown paper envelope to anyone who really wants it:
Blimey this uploading lark takes ages. I had planned to romp through everything I saw at the gallery but the dinner's burning. Tom Roberts and many other things will have to wait for another afternoon when I have a bit of spare time. Probably a good thing - what did my father always say about never filling a plate too full. Perhaps the same is true of a blog post. This should be enough for one blog meal in anybody's language, surely.

To be continued.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Australian Crawl

I have always been fond of outdoor public swimming pools. Not those awful, glassed-in, chlorine-reeking places that you find in the British isles, but proper outdoor ones that come into their own in the warm months, providing an oasis in the middle of crowded city suburbs, where parents and children, old and young, can mingle in sparkling water or lie semi-comatose after a swim.

They are egalitarian places in the best possible way. That is, they are not intended to be so - there is no agenda beyond relaxation, escape from heat and having fun - and yet somehow, wet and stripped of almost all their clothing, few people are able to retain even a shred of pomposity. In the water, barriers between people vanish. Stretched out in the sunlight after a few Olympic lengths, petty exasperations seem to evaporate along with the moisture on your skin.

I suppose it's not surprising I feel this way about pools. My earliest memories are of going to one in Kuala Lumpur. We only had school in the mornings and so we spent each afternoon beside a local pool. I can remember the triumph of finally managing to swim the width of the thing. I remember the horror of blood unfurling like some strange bright ribbon into the water when my brother slipped on the steps and sliced open his chin. Although I cannot remember doing so, there are photographs to prove that what I did most of all at that pool was spend hours on the edge, telling anyone who was listening that I was going to dive, posing rigidly, arms stretched, hands pointed in front of me, deetermination written all over my face. I never once did dive, apparently, chickening out and jumping at the last minute every single time.

Later there was a pool I used to go to just outside Siena and another at the end of the 34 tram route in Vienna - there each time you lifted your face from the water to breathe, the scent of delicious sausages sizzling at the poolside snack bar would tempt you to stop for a quick bite. In Budapest, of course, there was (and still is) a variety of options, some of them - the Szechenyi baths spring to mind here - open even in the depths of winter, making it possible to sit outdoors in thermal waters, surrounded by baroque splendour,  (playing chess, if you wish, as they have floating chessboards),  while the snow falls round you.

Sadly my love of public pools is not shared by everyone in my family. In fact, when my  husband and I first met each other, our relationship almost foundered when I suggested we go to an outdoor thermal pool near Moscow (this was in the 1970s, I should add, when hygiene and various other things were not at the top of the list of Russian priorities - are they now, I wonder?). The word horror does not adequately cover the expression on my future husband's face at the prospect. Which is why that place remains on my to do list, as did, until last week, the Boy Charlton swimming pool on the shores of Wooloomooloo bay (the link is worth following, because the story of the pool and Andrew "Boy" Charlton gives a wonderful sense of Australia in an earlier time).

Tree by entrance to Boy Charlton Pool
I should point out that the Boy Charlton pool could never be confused with anything in Moscow, even if that something is now in a gleaming, revamped state. The Boy Charlton pool is the antithesis of grimness and light deprivation. The Boy Charlton pool, which lies in the Domain, just behind the Art Gallery of New South Wales is bright and sparkling and cheerful. It is unofficious, uncluttered, uncrowded. It has no canned music or bossy announcements, it is litter free and hedonistic. Despite the fact that it is right opposite a naval dockyard, it has a breezy optimistic atmosphere that precludes everything but pleasure and fun. Like all good swimming pools, it brings out the playful and relaxed qualities of its visitors.
Looking back towards Potts Point as you go down the stairs leading to Boy Charlton Pool
After I'd got over my initial excitement at actually being there at last, after I'd negotiated the mysteries of the locker system and after I'd worn myself out with length swimming, I found a spot on the shaded tiers of wooden benches beside the water and sat down to relax. A dark boy who looked a bit like Nick Kyrgios swam a race in the lane nearest to me against a rather chubby blond friend. The Kyrgios lookalike beat his friend easily and yelled out gleefully, 'I won, I won'. He caught my eye and grinned, 'You saw', he called, grinning, 'I beat him by miles didn't I?' 'He wasn't really trying', I told him, and he laughed and splashed water in his friend's face.

Later when the pair were leaving, the Kyrgios boy caught my eye again and smiled broadly. 'Sorry if I was too loud. I'm like that. I try not to be', he called, reminding me of a cheerful puppy.
The shaded paddling pool with Olympic pool beyond
Meanwhile, the entire time I was there, two young men on my left were talking and giggling and exchanging gossip.

"It was fantastic", one told the other about some party, "they had, like, a Spanish guitarist, and he was, like, on a rock, and there were, like, beach umbrellas and everyone was, like, hanging out." I think Spanish guitar music on a beach with everyone hanging out (a phrase I've never quite penetrated the exact meaning of) might be one of my various ideas of hell, but, as they say, 'Hey'.

"Can you put some sun cream on my back?" the other asked at the end of this recital. The partygoer happily did so and then, when he'd finished, he headed off for a swim.

It's hard to tell these days as lots of boys do seem to have a slightly gay affect, but nevertheless I had the impression these two were probably gay and possibly flirting. Which is why, when the one who'd been to the party came back from swimming and the other, who'd been lying sunning himself and watching the other through one squinting eye, said to him,  'Gosh, I didn't have you down for a breast stroker', the comment struck me as very funny.

For anyone who doesn't know what breast stroke is, here is John Betjeman demonstrating how it's done:

Thursday, 12 February 2015

A Break From the Tent

Paul Keating reportedly said that, if you were Australian and didn't live in Sydney, you were just camping. I wouldn't have the strength to live in Sydney, so I've set up a bit of tarpaulin in Canberra. But I agree with Keating that Sydney is wonderful - I know of few other places quite so wonderful, in fact, if you feel like a bit of excitement for a day or two.

Since that was exactly what I did feel like, the day before yesterday I got on the train that goes from Canberra to Central Station. What is more, I bought a meat pie on the train, thus overcoming a thirty-year long phobia, the result of an incident on a train taking me back to boarding school in Mittagong, when I also bought a meat pie. On that occasion, what I found inside the meat pie was a sea of writhing maggots. No horror film I've ever been to has managed to rival that sight for stomach churning ghastliness. Especially as I'd already taken a bite.

Anyway, the train was great this time, including the meat pie, both on the way there and on the way back, (although on the way back I didn't have a meat pie, as I'd already had one for lunch - but you probably weren't particularly interested to hear that, were you?)

I would like to point out that whoever does the hiring at NSW Trainlink deserves a medal. I've rarely travelled on any public transport where all the employees have been quite so friendly, helpful, cheerful and generally all round nice. Plus the carriages were clean - are you listening, all you British railway operators??? Also there weren't endless announcements, unlike some places I could mention, (yes, I do mean trains in the United Kingdom), plus it cost just $39.00, without endless fare permutations and restrictions and other stuff designed to make you decide to call the whole thing off and just drive instead.

From Central Station I walked up to the other end of the city to the place I was staying, passing all sorts of interesting sights - all especially exciting for a person from possibly the only capital city in the world that is genuinely provincial and without metropolitan flash or dash.

I enjoyed seeing old details on buildings, things that people hardly notice, I suspect, as they hurry past - this frieze near Central Station, for example:

plus the doors and coat of arms of the Law Courts (as well as a little gargoyle holding up the year it was built that I'd never noticed before):

I found the lost-in-a-crowd big city indifference thrilling to witness, briefly:
I got to where I was staying in time to have a shower and then I was out again, round the corner to the Wharf Theatre, one of my favourite places in the world.

Getting to the Wharf Theatre meant walking around Circular Quay, past the ferry terminals and then the Museum of Modern Art and enchanting Cadman's Cottage, past all the former storehouses, where ships unloaded their cargo - now turned into restaurants that look out at the Opera House - and then under the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

When you get under the bridge, you can easily begin to think that, with enough time and a strong enough spanner, you could probably knock up your own Sydney Harbour Bridge, if you had plenty of nuts and bolts:

(I don't know what that umbrella and thermos were doing there, but they help give a sense of scale):

But then you look out at its span - (and can you see that gaudy Luna Park face with its sinister grin, over there on the other side of the water?) - and you realise that that wouldn't actually be possible:
And so you plod on, trying to ignore that blot on the landscape at the end there, Blues Point Tower, a place of tantalising hopelessness, its inhabitants condemned to look out at water but never to stand on a balcony and really enjoy it:
Instead, you cheer yourself up with nice things like this old letterbox:
and at last you arrive at the Wharf itself, where you have, extremely dashingly, since you never drink coffee after midday normally, a cup of absolutely superbly made coffee and think, not for the first time, that there are few places in the world quite so civilised and aren't you lucky to be a citizen of this wonderful country, (Australians all let us rejoice .... [but for heaven's sake don't mention the later verses]):
And then you go into the theatre - or rather, (enough of this ridiculous poncey second-person nonsense): and then I went into the theatre. The play I was seeing was a revival of Andrew Bovell's first staged work, a comedy called After Dinner. It is set in a pub bistro in the 1970s and has a cast of five characters, three women and two men.

I hope I will get round to writing about it on the blog where I promised myself I would write about the plays I see, (as I have since broken that promise to myself several times, only time will tell).

The main thing I will say about it now is that it was exceptionally funny. Its funniness, what is more, included the most amazing moment I've ever experienced in a theatre.

The play had reached a point where the two male characters were loosening up and admitting their sexual inadequacies to each other. One, having revealed that he didn't have a very large penis, added, "But people say women don't notice size."

There was a tiny pause, no more than an instant; but, in that instant, a single throaty laugh from what sounded like a very mature and experienced woman, (not sure how one can judge these things merely from a laugh, but I believe sometimes - including on this occasion - you can), echoed out into the packed and silent theatre. It was a laugh that said, 'Yeah, right, pull the other one, whatever makes you happy", et cetera. It was a laugh that said a very great deal, all of it shattering not only the illusions of the character but the illusions, I suspect, of most of the males in the audience.

And suddenly the entire theatre was roaring with laughter. And I don't just mean the audience. The actors were equally overcome by mirth. It was wonderful. I read somewhere that a minute of laughter is as restorative as half an hour's sleep. Well, hundreds of people got the equivalent of half a good night's sleep that evening, thanks to that woman's outburst.

In the interval, I might say, I bought a glass of wine, and looked out at the water, and even the Blues Point Tower didn't look quite that bad:

Stay tuned for more excitement in coming posts - including a visit to the NSW art gallery and the fulfilment of a decades long dream, (plus, if I'm feeling particularly treacherous, the unsung verses of our national anthem).

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Inching Forward

The reason I'm reading a book about Siegmund Warburg is that I'm trying to research someone else who was peripherally involved with him. This research is part of a big project I've been loitering around the foothills of for far too long.

I know so many people who are such epitomes of positive thinking and productive work habits, but I am not one of them. In fact, just thinking about them makes me feel even more daunted and feeble than I was feeling already.

Each morning, I wake up and the first thing that comes into my mind is the enormous task I've insanely decided to set myself - and worse still that I've assured other people who want me to do it that I will complete.

The project doesn't emerge in my mind in an abstract way; it looms quite solidly. In fact, contemplating it, I feel exactly as I did on the two occasions I visited the place we now call Uluru. There it was, this enormous great rock rising out of the desert, absolutely vast, completely strange, utterly unscaleable.

Luckily, unlike my project, no-one - least of all the local indigenous people - wants you to scale Uluru. Being a cowardly sort, when I was there I was only too happy to obey their wishes. Instead of climbing the thing, I walked all the way around the bottom, once in a clockwise direction, on the following occasion in an anti-clockwise direction. And that's exactly what I do with my project, almost every single day.

But in the last week or two I must admit I have occasionally sidled in the direction of the lower foothills of my mountain, although I must admit I've only done it briefly. Still, I've almost managed to knock out a few inadequate paragraphs, which I suppose is some kind of a start.

Or it would be, if it weren't for the fact that fairly quickly I've yet again found myself overcome by a deep sense of inadequacy about the whole (doomed?) enterprise.

My friends and relations insist that the key is to devise plans and to draw up structures, but for some reason doing that only makes things worse. For me, it's more a question of hurling the contents of my knitting drawer - a tangled mass of horribly muddled wool remnants - at the page and then very tentatively drawing a strand out here and another over there. Slowly I begin to rearrange them into a vague semblance of order, but as I tug at one strand, I find another strays from its place. Or else, I reveal another tangle just beneath the apparent new order, a tangle that may not be eradicated without using a pair of scissors. But valuable stuff might be lost in that process. What a horrible, untidy mess.

The whole experience leads me to wonder whether these gentlemen weren't right after all; I blame my parents for forcing an education upon me and causing this resultant nightmare:

Monday, 2 February 2015

Hear Your Own Prayer

I'm reading a book about Siegmund Warburg, written by Niall Ferguson. In it he describes Warburg's mother, Lucie Warburg, and quotes from Warburg's own memories of her:

Warburg, explaining his mother's approach to religion, wrote:

"In her view, the most important thing in religious things was to believe in a great power above the earthly world and to remain in constant contact with this." 

Ferguson picks up the story thus:

"Significantly, the principal function of prayer, in her eyes, was to foster self-criticism. Up until he was thirteen, she prayed with Siegmund every night before he went to sleep, telling him on the eve of his bar mitzvah:

'From now on, my dear boy, you must pray alone in the evening, and you must always ask yourself before you pray what mistakes you have made during the preceding day, or what you could have done better. If a whole number of mistakes or omissions do not at once occur to you, then you must look deeper into yourself, until you have attained the necessary self-knowledge. We all make many mistakes every day, and the most important thing is to be critical of your own mistakes in the most unsparing way. That is the only way to arrive at honest prayer.'"

While some might find it a rather austere way to approach life, it seems to me there is a bracing wisdom to what Lucie Warburg advised.