Monday, 31 August 2015

Disco Daze

Yesterday, I watched a film called Disco and Atomic War on the wonderful Mubi service. I really liked the film. It included a clip of this wonderful disco dancing lesson, produced by the Finnish television service:

I love the solemnity, the complete silence of the female partner, the man's grubby shoes and complete dagginess (to use an Australian term). I can hardly wait to try out my moves.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Other People's Countries by Patrick McGuiness.

Other People's Countries  by Patrick McGuiness is a virtually unclassifiable book. I suppose you could say it is all about Belgium - if you wanted to totally discourage potential readers. Or, even more efficiently off-putting, you could say that it is all about one rather unprepossessing town in Belgium - Bouillon, on the Belgian side of the France-Belgium border.

You could say, possibly with even less hope of drumming up a large crowd of enthusiastic takers, that it is a WG Sebald inspired journey into the author's memory.  The text is certainly larded with rather unexciting black and white photographs, in the manner pioneered by Sebald.

Whatever it is though, the book possesses one marvellous attribute - it is terribly funny. While the author does occasionally make gnomic, (by which I think I probably mean pretentious and meaningless), remarks, such as "Trains tell you about time, though what they say is never conclusive", and has a slight tendency to slip bits of so-called poetry into the text - in fact the book, unpromisingly, opens with one of these -  lapses of this sort are greatly outnumbered by pages and pages where McGuiness's sense of the absurd is allowed free rein..

Were one being a bigoted foreigner, one might argue that Belgium offers a lot of scope for a sense of the absurd - and Bouillon, as a kind of concentrated microcosm of Belgium, offers the absurd in a particularly concentrated form. I couldn't possibly comment. All I can say is that McGuiness conjures up various local characters - Philippe Albert, aka the Golden Boot; uncle Jean-Pol, who 'was, to all intents and purposes, the sixties in Bouillon'; Robert Hainaux, who 'looked like a successful highwayman pretending to be an unsuccessful one' and, above all, Lucie, his dressmaker grandmother who was 'fond of linings' - and supplies a stream of anecdotes - about the cafe run by a Mr Hanus, ('you don't pronounce the h'); about giving his grandmother a frame for Christmas; about going to Mini-Europe - all of which combine insight, poignance and amusement. For me at least, that combination is the reading equivalent of a really good pop song - addictive, compulsive, pleasurable, moreish.

Clearly McGuiness, who is half-English, half-Belgian, has thought a great deal about Belgium, which he describes as a place whose inhabitants practice 'nationalism by indifference.' He has thought  even more about memory, (the clue is in the sub-title to the book, which I've only just noticed - A Journey into Memory), whose reliability he doubts. For all I know, he may in the main be right on this score, but I'd have to say his memory of the driving habits of the adult world during his childhood replicates pretty accurately those I remember from my own:

 "When I was a child ... everyone drove drunk ... it seemed there was a minimum required limit of drink before you were even allowed to climb into a car, (more if you were carrying passengers: it was a matter of conviviality)"

Of course many people will be horrified by such a relaxed recollection of collective irresponsibility. They will probably also object to McGuiness's observations on old people staying in their own homes:

"There's something about old people in their own homes: they can live in them for years without quite managing: managing the cooking, the stairs, the washing, the laundry, the bills, the heating, the water, the personal hygiene and the TV remote control. When I say 'not quite managing' I mean, basically: managing. In a similar way, when I said 'managing' I'd in fact mean 'not quite managing'. My point is that the definition of 'managing' needs to be as flexible and blurred as possible, to allow the old person who is managing/not quite managing maximum leeway to stay in their own home. Why?

Because suddenly, when their children or grandchildren decide it's time to move them to an old people's home where these things will all be managed for them, they decline fast or die, or decline fast and die - either just before going into the home (as my grandmother did: heart attack on the stairs on the way to the bathroom the day before they were due to take her to see the home) or just after reaching the home, as Mme J- did. These places used to be called 'Maisons de retraite'. now they're just called 'Un Home', as in : 'il est temps qu'elle aille dans un home': it's time for her to go to a home. 'Le Parking', 'Le traffic', now 'Le Home'. My consolation is that my grandmother never knew enough English to feel the painful irony of that foreign word 'home' being used to designate the place that would have dislodged her from hers'.

To my mind there's a gentle wisdom to these and many other of McGuiness's musings.

I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Other People's Countries, (even if you've never set foot in Belgium - and/or don't ever plan to). It is charming, it is intelligent, it is highly original. McGuiness is very good at articulating things you are half aware of - for instance, he says of train travel that he enjoys ' the species of sub-attentive attentiveness it brings out', which brought a squawk of recognition to my lips, (and there were plenty of other such squawks dotted through the book). He makes you laugh and in some strange way he is also curiously soothing. The book is one of my favourites in a while. I hope he might one day turn attention to his other nationality and produce a book reflecting on that.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

The Wonders of Vienna

We lived in Vienna for a few years in the late eighties and early nineties, and it was the first city that ever completely swept me off my feet. Actually it managed this some years before we moved there, when we drove up from Belgrade in 1987 in the middle of winter, after travelling in Ceausescu's Romania and Ramiz Alia's Albania. The city, glittering at any time, looked like something out of a fairy tale after the drab miseries we'd recently witnessed

Budapest has since won my heart more thoroughly than Vienna, but Vienna will always remain a place that I love. It is beautiful and comfortable and everywhere you turn you have the sense that history is whispering to you. It is full of nooks and crannies, cobbled by-ways and hidden courtyards. There are always new things to discover about the place.

Last week we stayed the night there and we went, as always, to the Kunsthistorisches Museum. The collection is marvellous as everyone knows. Here are a few paintings that I looked at this time:
Hans Holbein, Portrait of a Young Merchant, 1541 - the picture note explains, "Holbein created a new portrait style characterised by monumentality paried with extreme precision in painting. The young merchant turns to the viewer at a slight angle. Especially expressive are the physiognomy and the play of the hands that are busy with a few objects befitting to the depicted man's occupation"

The Portrait of Bianca Cappello, by Scipione Pulzone. The picture note is headed, somewhat misleadingly, I think, "A Portrait Makes a Career". It says "Between October 1585 and 1586, Scipione Pulzone, called Gaetano, ((1540/42 to 1590) painted a portrait of Bianca Capello (1548? t0 1587) that te sitter presented to the Venetian patrician Francesco Bembo. During his sojourn in Florence, Bembo had seen and admired a portrait of Bianca by Plzone, and had asked for a smaller copy of it. A livel correspondence between Bianca and Bembo ensued that discussed the portrait and its production, recording its genesis and an important 'technical' aspect: Pulzone asked the Grand Duchess to provide him with ultramarine, an extremely costly pigment made of lais lazuli. This hint prompted us to use X-ray fluorescece analysis to determine whether Bianca's blue dress really does contain ultramarine; it revealed clear traces of lapis lazuli, allowing us to identify thi spainting as the portrait Bianca gave to Bembo.

In the autumn of 1563, Bianca, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a prominent Venetian patrician family, eloped with her lover Pietro Bonaventuri to Florence. Once there, Bianca asked Francesco de'Medici for protection, and soon they were having an affair that would continue until the end of their lives. Shortly after the death of Francesco's wife, oanna of Austria, in 1578, the tw lovers were secretly married. A year later the official wedding was celebrated in Florence. Bianca was made a daughter of the Republic of Venice and crowned Grand Dchess; Bianca's reputation, which had been ruined by her elopement, was thus rehabilitated, and all of Venice was proud of the city's prominent daughter. In 1586 Bembo presented this portrait to the Venetian public in a formal procession, further bolstering the Grand Duchess's reputation in her home town." 

Van Eyk, 1435 - During a peace congress in Arras in 1435, van Eyck produced a silverpoint drawing (Dresden) in which he not only caught the physiognomy of this elderly cardinal and papal envoy, but already noted details concerning paint colours. The portrait shown here was produced soon after. Contrary to art history myth, oil painting i.e. the use of oil resins as a bonding agent, was not invented by van Eyck. Yet he did transfer the delicate art of painting, which had already reached its highest point in book painting, to the larger format of panel painting, using new, highly refined techniques.

Jan des Leeuw by van Eyck

The museum caption reads thus: "The Flemish inscription on the original frame not only records the name and birth date of the person portrayed, it also reveals the painter and year of composition. It can be translated as follows: 'Jan de (picture of a lion) first saw the light of the world on St Ursula Day in 1401; I was painted by Jan van Eyck as is probably shown, when it happened in 1436.' Jan des Leeuw was working as a goldsmith in Bruges. He shows the viewer a ring thereby revealing the craftsman's pride in his skill"

This and the next are details from Holbein's Portrait of an English Lady, 1540/43

Rubens, Infantin Isabella Clara Eugenia. The museum caption says: "Isabella (1566-1633); daughter of King Philip II of Sain and Isabella of Valois) married Archduke Albert VII in 1599. Their joint rule as the sovereign regents of the Spanish Netherlands began in 1601. Widowed in 1621, Isabella continued to govern alone until her death in 1633. After the Twelve Years' Truce expired, she attemped to renegotiate terms of peace between Spain and England, asking Rubens to represent her in the diplomatic negotiations." This is all well and good but seems to me to ignore the glaring question - why the lurid  background?

Rubens, Archduke Albert VII, about 1615. The museum's blurb says: Albert VII (1559-1621), the sone of Embperor Maximilian II and the Infanta Maria (a sister of King Philip II of Spain) was raised at the Spanish court and destined for a career in the church. Appointed governor of the Netherlands in 1595, he married Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenio, the daughter of the Spanish kin. The couple became the sovereign regents of the Spanish Netherlands, and following the conclusion of an armistice in 1609, their reign was marked by peace and prosperity. They commissioned numerous works form Rubens, who was court painter.

Rubens, Ansegisel and St Begga, about 1612/15. What the museum tells us: "This depicition of Ansegisel and his wife, St Begga, two figures from Frankish-Merovingian history in the late 7th century, was probably created in connnection with a planned but never executed dynastically oriented 'Dukes of Brabant' series. It would have covered the half-mythical early period down to the present"

Rubens, Duke Charles the Bold of Burgundy, before 1618. What the museum tells us: "Charles the Bold (1433-1477), the last of the Burgundian dukes, hoped to create an independent kingdom of Burgundy from his ancestral homeland of Burgundy and the Netherlands but was thwarted by the resistance of the Swiss Confederacy and of the duke of Lorraine. He was killed in a battle against the latter outside Nancy in 1477. Here Rubens created an idealised portrait of the duke that expresses his attitude and claim to power."

A Dog Study made by Jan Brueghel the Older in 1616

An Animal Study made by Jan Brueghel the Older

One of those great buy-one-get-one-(or really several dozen)-free paintings, this time by one of my favourite painters, David Teniers (the younger - is that the one I like particularly, or is it his son? I do not know)

The museum tells us this about the painting: It is by David Teniers the Younger who lived from 1610 to 1690. It is called Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his Gallery at Brussels. "The great significance of Leopold Wilhelm (1614-1662) is based less on his political activity as regent of the Spanish Netherlands than on his role as a patron of the arts. He compiled a gallery of more than 1400 pictures, most of whih are found in the Kunsthistorisches Museum today. Here Teniers depicts the archduke and himself with other courtiers as they view 51 Italian works from the collection of the Duke of Hamilton. Leopold Wilhelm had purchased them shortly before this picture was painted."

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, Portrait of a Man, about 1632. What the museum tells  us: "In 1631, when he was 25, Rembrandt moved from Leiden to the Dutch capital, Amsterdam, which offered him greater opportunity to develop his potential in society and the world of art. There he became sought-after as a portraitist and had a large studio with umerous apprentices. Rembrandt's portraiture is marked by great liveliness of expression and finely modulated lighting effects. The counterpart to this portrait of an unknown man is 'Portrait of a Woman'" (see below)

Possibly Rembrandt Harminsz van Rijn, or possibly not, Portrait of a Woman, around 1632. What the museum says: "The composition of this portrait is closely related in posture and gesture to its counterpart, the 'Portrait of a Man' and te same materials and techniques were used in both paintings. Because of the somewhat stiff and passive posture of the woman, the scholars of the Rembrandt Research Project decided that this portrait is not in Rembrandt's hand. A recently suggested attribution is Ferdinand Bol, although he did not work in Rembrandt's studio until after 1635." The whole Rembrandt attribution racket is fairly fraught, as arguments over The Polish Rider at the Frick in New York make clear, (that's me, not the museum, talking)

I love this painting so much that I am happy to put it here at least twice. No one disputes that it is by Rembrandt. It is called Small Self Portrait and was painted around 1657

This, also Rembrandt, needless to say, is called rather unimaginatively, Large Self-Portrait. It was painted in 1652 and according to the museum: "This self portrait has special significance among Rembrandt's works. In all, the artist painted more than sixty self-portraits, thus documenting not only the conditions of his life but also, and in particular, his artistic development. In a manner different from that of his early successful years, when the artist portrayed himself disguised or in splendid clothing, here we see him in a simple brown artist's smock in a confident posture, his hands on his hips and his thumbs in his belt."

Sorry, I couldn't resist another glance

Teniers again, this one's called, rather splendidly, "Popinjay Shooting in Brussels". It was painted in 1652, but there are still plenty of popinjays left in Brussels, in my view; it's just a question of finding out when the season begins

Here is the musem's take on the painting: "It was one of the duties of the court painter to Archduke Leopold Wilhelm to document official events. Here Teniers depicts the end of a popinjay shooting match as part of an old festive occasion in Brussels, the procession in honour of Our Lade of the Sablon. According to custom, the ruler had to shoot down the jay affixed to a pole that had been used during the guild's match. Afterwards the archduke was congratulated by the officers of the marksmen's guild and the mayors."

In the museum's explanation, there is talk of a pole and a guild's match. I have no idea what either of those is - the explanation is a great example of assuming your audience possesses the knowledge that you possess.

This is by Jan Steen, painted in 1663 and titled, "Beware of Luxury"

"In this painting", the museum caption explains, "with its traditional German title, Steen combines humorous narration with a moralising message: this house is ruled by a complete lack of restraint  the inscription on the slate tablet at the lower right laments this state of affairs with the first part of a Dutch saying - 'Be careful in living the good life' - which continues 'and fear the iron rod'. A sword and a crutch hang threateningly in a basket suspended from the ceiling."

I think that slate they mention is to the right of the pig (or to the pig's left, you could say)

This one is by Jacobus Vrel. It is called Woman at the Window and was painted in 1654. I've only seen one other by Vrel, a similar subject, intriguingly mysterious - I'll put it in another blog post, together with the catalogue note about him from the exhibition I saw it in, which was in Cambridge a couple of years ago. This painting was also in that exhibition.. This what the wall explanation in the Kunsthistorisches tells us about it: "A darkly dressed woman with a white headscarf leans out of the open window of a sparsely furnished room. The object of her observation, however, remains hidden to the viewer. While a pot hangs over the fire in the chimney, her needlework rests on the table in front of the window. Stylistically related to Vermeer and de Hooch, the early dating of this painting argues for Vrel's role as a forerunner."

This hardly needs an introduction. By Vermeer, it is called The Art of Painting and, when I was at the Kunsthistorishces the other day, a very slightly precious trio of women sat on a bench in front of it in attitudes more reminiscent of worshippers at Lourdes than museum visitors. It is a wonderful painting so I can't explain why I found their reverent postures irksome. I think it was the element of performance I thought I detected in them.

What the musem tells us: "In The Art of Painting [about 1665/66], a seminal work of European art, Vermeer uses an apparently realistic view into a studio to convey an allegorical meaning. The master from Delft breaks with tradition and depicts The Art of Painting by more than one figure. Seated at his easel, the painter is about to execute the wreath of laurels worn by his model dressed as Clio, the muse of history. Over the centuries, the painting's iconography and handling have inspired countless interpretations. The work's title The Art of Painting - recorded in contemporary documents and probably chosen by Vermeer himself - shows that it illustrates a concept. Regarded as merely a view into a studio until the middle of the 20th century, the identificatio of the model as Clio helped establish the painting as an allegory. However, art historians still disagree whether the work's allegorical content or its equally celebrated formal aspects (the incredible illusionism) is more important" This painting was also in the exhibition I went to in Cambridge a while ago and the catalogue to that has a lot to say about it. I won't repeat everything here, but it does being by stating categorically that the painting is "a fabrication, a fiction, made to glorify Vermeer's art". It finishes with the observation that the painting is "also an invitation to prolonged looking on the part of the viewer", so I suppose I should not be so sneery about the ladies who were doing just that when I was there.

This is by Antonie Palamedesz and is called A Merry Company. It was painted in 1634, and reminds me of the only other Palamedesz I'm aware of having seen, which is in the Mauritshuis.

The thing I especially liked about this painting was the dog, but it has other aspects, according to the museum: "A group of cavaliers and disreputable women are enjoying each other's company. they are enjoying usic, drinking, smoking pipes and playing chess. Palamedesz specialised in painting cheerful scenes of middle-class people, and usually set them in an interior flooded with light. The clourful costumes of the figures stand out against the generally brown tone that was characteristic of Dutch painting at the time. Stylistically, Palamedesz's paintings are similar to works by Dirck Hals and Pieter Codde"

Moroni, I love Moroni, I am not sure why particularly. His full name is Giovanni Battista Moroni, he worked in Bergamo and this is called The Orator, Giovan Pietro Maffeis, (although the name is followed by a ? in brackets). It was painted around 1560/65. We are told that it "probably depicts GP Maffeis (1533-1603), holder of the Chair of Rhetoric in Genoa and the Secretary of the Republic, who entered the Jesuit order in Rome in 1565 and became Professor of Rhetoric at the Collegio Romano. Moroni, a native of Bergamo, worked almost exclusively as a portraitist, combining in his pictures a Lombardian sense of reality with the rich colourism of Venetian painting"
I was surprised to find this in the Brueghel room - the Suicide of Saul - which I'm not conscious of ever having seen before. I couldn't help thinking of John Brack's  paintings of battling pencils while I looked at it:
Painted in 1562, the picture is called Suicide of Saul. The museum wallplate says: "This biblical story describes the battle between Israelites and Philistines on Mount Gilboa which ends in the defeat and suicide of King Saul (to the left of the picture)> There are numerous interpretations: punished pride, the foolishness and perversity of the world, human delusion, vanity; the main subject is the landscape, while the story is of secondary importance; humanity is subject to the inevitable course of nature."

For the first time, I went into the Kunstkammer as well - I think it was being refurbished during the whole time I lived in Vienna, or perhaps I was just too dim to realise it was there. I realised quickly that I could spend days and days in there - and I hope I will have the chance to some time in the future. That is something to look forward to. Essentially it is a collection of objects that are almost always exquisite and very often also very strange.

Here are a few - mainly on the exquisite end of the spectrum - plus some sculptures of various Habsburg emperors that seem to me to be an argument against inbred hereditary dynasties:
Anton Braun, (1686-1728), Vienna, dated 1727, gilded and partially tinned brass. The clockmaker, optician and mechanic, Anton Braun, active at the Viennese court, created this pinwheel machine for the mechanised computation f variou s basic arithmetical operations and dedicated it to Emperor Charles VI. The device was primarily conceived for land surveying calculations.

Handstone with Model Mine, Kremnica, a 1764, Minerals, partially gilded silver. Handstones assembled from minerals and ores continued to be popular gifts from miners to their sovereigns during the 18th century. This example is a model of a gold and silver mine in Slovakia that was presented to Joseph II in Kremnica in 1764. It demonstrates the use of an atmospheric steam engine to pump out water, developed in 1722.

The fascination with machinery and human ingenuity seems very much of the 18th century to me. The little figures look as if they are wearing Ned Kelly improvisations on their heads, but I imagine this was not the maker's intention.

The labelling in the Kunstkammer is a bit hard to follow - in fact, I think one had to listen to a guide to find out what these were. They are tiny - the fourth photograph shows rings to be worn on fingers, to give an idea of the scale. I couldn't make out what material the white stuff is - in any case, the workmanship is exquisitely fine, breathtaking really

Again I found the labelling baffling, but these are Habsburgs

This may be King Charles II of Spain or possibly Leopold made in 1695 made by Paul Strudel

From left to right: Ferdinand II, Ferdinand III, Leopold I, either Ferdinand Karl or Sigismund Franz, Ferdinand Karl or Leopold I, Leopold V, all made from bronze by Caspar Gras in Innsbruck in the second quarter of the 17t century

Clock with a wooden case, made by Hans Kening, at Fussen im Allgau, around 1577/78, made from wood, painted paper, gilded brass, tin, iron

Polyhedral Table Sundial made in Austria, possibly by someone with the initials CG, around 1576, painted wood

This rather horrid thing is a portrait in wax of Emperor Ferdinand III, probably by Justinus Psolmayr, probably around 1643. It is made of painted wax and wood and apparently "Portraits in wax have a long tradition. In the Baroque period, the deceptive verisimilitude of wax busts was especially popular, sometimes heightened through the use of real hair. A high degree of lifelikeness ensured the ruler not only remembrance, but also a seemingly real physical presence in important places such as in the imperial collections"

Actually this may be Charles II of Spain

I think this is Leopold I, as is the next one - to me they are absurd, but apparently he was really pleased with them

One of the charms of Vienna is supposed to be its changelessness. Alas, when we went down into the Fourth district to have dinner in the garden of a restaurant we'd always liked, we found it had closed. All that remained were the pretty paintings that decorated its exterior:

A waiter at the place further down the street where we ended up having dinner explained that the owners had given up when they realised they needed to redo the kitchen and the ventilation system. He agreed that a piece of "Alt Wien"had thus been lost. Mind you, his place seemed to be maintaining the whole gemutlich cluttered atmosphere that is only found in Austria:

That coat stand is very much an Austrian fixture - I've never seen anything similar elsewhere
The behaviour of some of the clientele at the restaurant that we ended up at made us realise that not every bit of Alt Wien has vanished just yet. When two small boys started to run about very tamely in a part of the garden dining area where no one was sitting, (the bit that is beyond the waiter with his back to us), they were quickly reprimanded by the lady in the foreground of this picture. "This is not a playground", she yelled at them, extremely sharply, despite the fact that she was accompanied by the most enormous Rhodesian Ridgeback I've ever seen, which was causing far more inconvenience than the small boys could ever manage:
My husband had been certain that the frightening frau phenomenon had vanished from Vienna. After witnessing this incident, he had to agree that she is not yet entirely eradicated (and I suspect that, like couch grass, she may in fact be ineradicable). The paradox is that, while her approach is hateful - the children shrank away, cowering - it is probably this rough disciplinary technique, this public shaming of anyone who steps even mildly over the borders of sedate behaviour, that conserves the sense of stately, if rather brittle and tensely anxious order, that pervades the city of Vienna. Is public order, absence of loutish behaviour and graffiti, enough of a pay-off for widespread social tyranny? I can never decide.