Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Alone in Berlin

I have just finished reading Michael Hofmann’s fabulous translation of Hans Fallada’s last masterpiece.  Amazing to think that this, in 2009, was the first English translation.  It’s not like Fallada is unknown – I remember a stage version of Little Man, What Now? creating a major cultural buzz back in the Seventies.

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Is it perhaps because of the content?  Because for me the most startling aspect was the inescapable fact that ordinary working Germans knew exactly what the Nazis were up to in the concentration camps and approved, either tacitly or overtly.

The story is that Fallada, dying, knocked this off in 24 days.  He always wrote intensely but, even so, 24 days seems an impossibility.  I can imagine a draft in that time but he must have gone back and deepened the story later.  On the other hand, he did die soon after.  Whatever, this translation should put Fallada centrestage in 20th century European literature.  I cannot wait to get my hands on more of his works.

In the US, Alone in Berlin is apparently called Every Man Dies Alone.  I’m pretty sure it’s the same novel.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Now showing at the New Walk Gallery

It’s been a while, at least a year, since I visited my local art gallery.  This morning I had to be in Leicester anyway, so I took the time to drop in.

New Walk is always a boost – such a beautiful building, such an unusual specialism (German expressionism), so imaginatively displayed.

The Attenborough gift of Picasso ceramics now has a permanent gallery showing 40 or so objects at any one time.  The gallery is in memory of Lord and Lady Attenborough’s daughter and granddaughter, lost in the 2005 tsunami.  I find these works inspirational – the greatest artist of the 20th century rediscovering his mojo in his 60s and 70s – but I hope this dedicated space doesn’t limit display opportunities for other treasures in the Leicester collection.

4 Faces Picasso Ceramics

As always at this time of year the Leicester Society of Artists is having its annual exhibition.  They have some extremely gifted members.  My favourite exhibits this year happen are two acrylic paintings – Lutterworth Market by Husbands Bosworth artist Ann Saxton (www.annsaxtonart.com), which I like for geographical reasons, and Night Rain by Barbara Agg, with its sumptuous, seductive blues.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Treasures of the Ashmolean

Took myself off to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford the other day, my first visit.  I was drawn by the current exhibition Heracles to Alexander, which was a big disappointment.  Wildly overpriced at £8 for three average-sized galleries and not a single article that was ever likely to have been handled by either of the great men.  What it really was was a collection of stuff largely created for Big Al’s father Phil and Al’s posthumous, undistinguished son.  Only two items could properly be called treasures, both ornamental crowns, one of myrtle, the other gold, rendered with breathtaking skill.  For a fiver or less I would willingly have paid to see these but for £8, no thanks.

The newly restored building, however, is a marvel packed with beautiful and historically interesting items.  Ironically, the bits that fascinated me most were in the old building, mostly art.  Three paintings in particular held me spellbound and more than warranted the train fare (I still begrudge the £8).

First to stop me in my tracks was Piero di Cosimo’s Forest Fire (c. 1500).

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It’s an usual subject, so far as I know unique, and doubtless meant something to Piero and his patron.  The fact that the meaning has long since been lost only adds to its interest, as does the discrepancy in quality of the various animal images.  The cow up front is so realistic you instinctively step back to take it in.  The lions are poor, the so-called bears rubbish – if I didn’t know better I’d have guessed wombats.  Likewise the birds: the banking hawk dead centre is on a par with the cow but the thing that looks a bit like a bittern to the right of the tree appears to be attempting some sort of kamikaze crash-and-burn manoeuvre.  And what of the pig and deer with human faces, slinking shamefacedly off to the left?  I loved it.

Hanging nearby was a painting of similar dimensions, Uccello’s Hunt in the Forest.

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This is said to have been the last painting Uccello worked on.  Pretty good for an octogenarian.  His career, and this painting in particular, bridge the medieval and the renaissance.  The image is flat, like a tapestry, with the trees so similar they might be a stock design repeated, and yet the artist’s main focus is clearly to establish perspective, with everything converging on an external vanishing point dead centre. It took me a moment to work out what the shimmering blue line on the right was: it’s a river, glimpsed through the trees.  The main contradiction – and visual dynamic – is the juxtaposition of the brilliant colours of the figures and river with the midnight blue sky.  This is a night scene yet we see everything with crystalline clarity.  Where is the light source?  Somewhere else, apparently, perhaps with the huntsmen’s prey.

And finally, Walter Sickert’s Brighton Pierrots from 1915.  Another night scene or at least twilit.  Look at the vermilion blush of dusk – the lights in the hotel windows overlooking the promenade.  Because light is fading Sickert can mute the artificial colours of the pierrot costumes, blue and pink and viridian green.  The figure centrestage, however, is in a russet suit and boater.  Is this the master of ceremonies or the patter comedian, flogging his material to a small, disinterested audience?

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A moment in time, a banal event from a century ago rendered magical by uncharacteristic restraint on Sickert’s part.  By far the best of his paintings that I have seen.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

BBC wakes up to its national treasure

I read in Paul Donovan’s ‘Radio Waves’ column in last week’s Sunday Times ‘Culture’ supplement (May 29) that the BBC has finally realised the value of its prime radio product, drama.  According to Donovan, whom I consider to be the leading radio columnist currently working for the national broadsheets, there is to be a radio drama awards night at Broadcasting House on December 4.  Also, what Donovan describes as “new family-friendly dramas on 4Extra.” All to the good is what I say.