Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Tuesday poem: Ballad of the bread man

Tuesday, December 24th, 2013

Ballad of the Breadman
by Charles Causley

Mary stood in the kitchen
Baking a loaf of bread.
An angel flew in the window
‘We’ve a job for you,’ he said.

‘God in his big gold heaven
Sitting in his big blue chair,
Wanted a mother for his little son.
Suddenly saw you there.’

Mary shook and trembled,
‘It isn’t true what you say.’
‘Don’t say that,’ said the angel.
‘The baby’s on its way.’

Joseph was in the workshop
Planing a piece of wood.
‘The old man’s past it,’ the neighbours said.
‘That girl’s been up to no good.’

‘And who was that elegant fellow,’
They said, ‘in the shiny gear?’
The things they said about Gabriel
Were hardly fit to hear.

Mary never answered,
Mary never replied.
She kept the information,
Like the baby, safe inside.

It was the election winter.
They went to vote in the town.
When Mary found her time had come
The hotels let her down.

The baby was born in an annexe
Next to the local pub.
At midnight, a delegation
Turned up from the Farmers’ club.

They talked about an explosion
That made a hole on the sky,
Said they’d been sent to the Lamb and Flag
To see God come down from on high.

A few days later a bishop
And a five-star general were seen
With the head of an African country
In a bullet-proof limousine.

‘We’ve come,’ they said ‘with tokens
For the little boy to choose.’
Told the tale about war and peace
In the television news.

After them came the soldiers
With rifle and bombs and gun,
Looking for enemies of the state.
The family had packed up and gone.

When they got back to the village
The neighbours said, to a man,
‘That boy will never be one of us,
Though he does what he blessed well can.’

He went round to all the people
A paper crown on his head.
Here is some bread from my father.
Take, eat, he said.

Nobody seemed very hungry.
Nobody seemed to care.
Nobody saw the God in himself
Quietly standing there.

He finished up in the papers.
He came to a very bad end.
He was charged with bringing the living to life.
No man was that prisoner’s friend.

There’s only one kind of punishment
To fit that kind of crime.
They rigged a trial and shot him dead.
They were only just in time.

They lifted the young man by the leg,
They lifted him by the arm,
They locked him in a cathedral
In case he came to harm.

They stored him safe as water
Under seven rocks.
One Sunday morning he burst out
Like a jack-in-the-box.

Through the town he went walking.
He showed them the holes in his head.
Now do you want any loaves? he cried.
‘Not today,’ they said.

(Used by permission of David Higham Associates)

I have used a reproduction of one of Stanley Spencer’s paintings of Christ in the wilderness because I love that sequence, and because this one – the ‘foxes have holes … but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head’ one – seems to chime well with Causley’s amazing poem.

For more Tuesday poems go to the main hub site, where a different poem is posted each week. Further poems can be found on the blogs of the Tuesday poet members in the sidebar.

Merry Christmas, everyone!


Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

To my considerable delight I’ve just discovered that there’s a Rothko show on at the Whitechapel gallery, and we can go there on Sunday – the last day of the show. I don’t know how I missed knowing it was on when it opened last September, but I am very glad I’ll get in under the wire at the last possible chance.

There’s just a single work of art in the ‘Rothko in Britain’ exhibition. Since I think Rothko is the god of modern art I’d travel a lot further than Whitechapel for just one of his paintings, but in fact this one has been lent by the Tate so I’ve probably seen it before: Light Red Over Black, painted in 1957. There is also a sequence of photos of the visitors to Rothko’s first solo exhibition in Britain (1961, also at the Whitechapel), photos of Rothko during his visit to Britain in 1959, and a page or two from some notes taken in conversation with him then, including this famous quote:

“You think my paintings are calm, like windows in some cathedral?” Rothko supposedly said. “You should look again. I’m the most violent of all the American painters. Behind those colours there hides the final cataclysm.”

A review of the exhibition by Alistair Sooke says, “Renaissance man had altarpieces; we get the shimmering, hazy half-promises of Rothko.” But the thing is, we get both at once with Rothko – or we do if we visit the Rothko Chapel in Houston: now there’s a fine example of ‘worth the journey’. And Alex Danchev, in a review of a Cezanne exhibition, made a telling distinction about modern artists: between those who say, “look at me” and those who say, “here it is”. Rothko’s very firmly in the latter group, I believe, and saying something like, “here it is, if you can bear it.”


Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

The runner beans! The climbing beans! Both of these have only just begun their great work, with months of pleasure yet to come, and although the broad beans have finished our early potatoes are still delighting us. Oh, the joys of a veggie garden. I have taken this largesse as licence to buy roses instead of vegetables in the farmers’ market which is inarguably a rather shocking indulgence, but the glorious rose scent distracts me from all but the slightest whiff of guilt.

Look at the latest bunch!

They look almost as beautiful as one of Fantin-Latour’s rose paintings.

Next time I photograph one of my bunches of roses I’m going to add a pear to the arrangement. And are those nuts in the foreground, do you think?

The whole world was watching

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

One of the good things about Houston – probably the best thing, in fact – is the amount of oil money that has been spent on its art galleries. The Museum of Fine Arts has not only a wonderful collection of paintings, especially Impressionist and post-Impressionist ones, but they’ve also clearly also bought great curators along with the paintings. The exhibitions are perfectly hung, and supported by excellent commentaries.

Good salads in the café, too. And let me tell you, when you’re in Texas, a good salad ain’t nothin’.

But there’s more, and the more is the best bit: the Menil Collection, a modernist collection that includes a substantial holding of ancient and indigenous art. The main collection is housed in a beautiful wooden building; and there’s the astonishing Rothko Chapel and several other galleries as well. All free, too, thanks to the vision and generosity of the Menil family.

The Rothko paintings are breathtaking, and worth the journey to Houston all by themselves. But the most moving and memorable part for me was an exhibition of Civil Rights era photographs, called “The whole world was watching”. As anyone who grew up in the late 1960s will remember, the phrase ‘the whole world is watching’ was the catchphrase of demonstrators and activists of the times.

The exhibition’s curator, Michelle White, says, “Photography at this moment in history was, in many ways, for the first time being vastly distributed. Activists, from the Vietnam War activists to the civil rights activists, were really harnessing the media for the first time.”

I was still in New Zealand then, at Auckland University, and I remember the effect of images and reports of the Civil Rights struggle in the USA: it created an indelible set of memories, as well as nurturing a passion for justice and change.

The powerful and striking images in the exhibition include marchers on the road from Selma to Montgomery, Dr. Martin Luther King in protest, cotton workers in the Mississippi Delta, prison labor camps in Texas, and the Ku Klux Klan. It’s a compelling and deeply moving collection and I salute the Menil organisers, as well as my own good fortune in being in the right place at the right time to see this.

Tuesday poem: Not my best side

Monday, June 13th, 2011

Not my Best Side
by U. A. Fanthorpe

Not my best side, I’m afraid.
The artist didn’t give me a chance to
Pose properly, and as you can see,
Poor chap, he had this obsession with
Triangles, so he left off two of my
Feet. I didn’t comment at the time
(What, after all, are two feet
To a monster?) but afterwards
I was sorry for the bad publicity.
Why, I said to myself, should my conqueror
Be so ostentatiously beardless, and ride
A horse with a deformed neck and square hoofs?
Why should my victim be so
Unattractive as to be inedible,
And why should she have me literally
On a string? I don’t mind dying
Ritually, since I always rise again,
But I should have liked a little more blood
To show they were taking me seriously.

It’s hard for a girl to be sure if
She wants to be rescued. I mean, I quite
Took to the dragon. It’s nice to be
Liked, if you know what I mean. He was
So nicely physical, with his claws
And lovely green skin, and that sexy tail,
And the way he looked at me,
He made me feel he was all ready to
Eat me. And any girl enjoys that.
So when this boy turned up, wearing machinery,
On a really dangerous horse, to be honest
I didn’t much fancy him. I mean,
What was he like underneath the hardware?
He might have acne, blackheads or even
Bad breath for all I could tell, but the dragon–
Well, you could see all his equipment
At a glance. Still, what could I do?
The dragon got himself beaten by the boy,
And a girl’s got to think of her future.

I have diplomas in Dragon
Management and Virgin Reclamation.
My horse is the latest model, with
Automatic transmission and built-in
Obsolescence. My spear is custom-built,
And my prototype armour
Still on the secret list. You can’t
Do better than me at the moment.
I’m qualified and equipped to the
Eyebrow. So why be difficult?
Don’t you want to be killed and/or rescued
In the most contemporary way? Don’t
You want to carry out the roles
That sociology and myth have designed for you?
Don’t you realize that, by being choosy,
You are endangering job prospects
In the spear- and horse-building industries?
What, in any case, does it matter what
You want? You’re in my way.

The conversation that’s possible between different art forms, and especially the one that flowers between fine art and poetry, is something that has delighted me for years. A kind friend introduced me to this poem by U.A. Fanthorpe years ago, and I’ve had a postcard of Paolo Uccello’s fifteenth century painting of “St George and the Dragon” tucked into my copy of Fanthorpe’s poems ever since.

I love the idea of giving each of the protagonists a turn at speaking: first the dragon, then the princess, and finally the warrior saint. None of their voices is predictable, and the combination of content and tone is so arresting, amusing, and finally so disconcerting.

She was a great poet, I think, and I’m sorry she was pipped to the Poet Laureate post years ago, by Andrew Motion: you’d never have known what she was going to say but you’d always have been sure it would have been witty and surprising.

Posting this poem celebrates not only U. A. Fanthorpe as a poet, but also the Tuesday Poem blog – do go and have a look at what’s there this week, both in the main section and the sidebar, where if a post says “Tuesday Poem’ you can be sure there’s a poem there. All you have to do is click.

Song of the innocents

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

As I understand it, the Catholic Church has today, 28th December, as Holy Innocents’ Day – the one on which King Herod ordered the killing of all the male children in Bethlehem who were two years old, or younger. I think the Greek Orthodox Church marks this slaughter tomorrow. Giotto’s fresco is above; it’s in the Capella degli Scrovegni, outside Padua.

One of Charles Causley’s best known poems is also about Herod. It’s called, in my edition of his collected poems, ‘Innocent’s Song’, although for the life of me I can’t think why the innocent is singular. I don’t suppose it’s a typo, though; I expect Causley had a good reason. Anyway, singular or plural, it’s a wonderful poem: here it is.

INNOCENT’S SONG, by Charles Causley

Who’s that knocking on the window,

Who’s that standing at the door,

What are all those presents

Lying on the kitchen floor?

Who is the smiling stranger

With hair as white as gin,

What is he doing with the children

And who could have let him in?

Why has he rubies on his fingers,

A cold, cold crown on his head,

Why, when he caws his carol,

Does the salty snow run red?

Why does he ferry my fireside

As a spider on a thread,

His fingers made of fuses

And his tongue of gingerbread?

Why does the world before him

Melt in a million suns,

Why do his yellow, yearning eyes

Burn like saffron buns?

Watch where he comes walking

Out of the Christmas flame,

Dancing, double-talking:

Herod is his name.

(My thanks to David Higham Associates for permission to use this poem.)

‘Look at me’ v ‘Here it is’

Friday, November 12th, 2010

Yesterday I read a fascinating review of the Cézanne Card Players exhibition presently showing at the Courtauld Gallery in London. (The review is by Alex Danchev in the Times Educational Supplement: you can read it here.) It makes you want to drop everything and go straight to the Courtauld without delay.

What especially intrigued me in the review was this quote from Rilke about Cézanne:

‘Rilke said of Cézanne that he did not paint “Look at me” but “Here it is”.’

And thus the article has inspired a great new game – to decide which painters are “Look at me” painters, and which of them are saying, “Here it is”.

Here are a few first thoughts -

Gauguin? Definitely a ‘Look at me’ painter, I’d say.

Vuillard? I’d say he was a ‘Here it is’ painter, although perhaps Bonnard is more of a ‘Look at me’ artist.

Magritte? Has to be ‘Look at me’, surely?

Picasso? I’d say probably both.

Anyone want to join in the game? And while you’re thinking, here’s another painting of card players from the greatest of the ‘Here it is’ artists.

Some things to miss about Italy now I’m not there

Friday, September 24th, 2010
  • The smell of dry pine needles when you walk on them. We twice visited a little Umbrian town called Asciano because of its small but wonderful collection of Sienese art, and both times we walked across a carpet of dry pine needles crossing a park. The scent takes me back to childhood because my sisters and I spent hours playing on a hill at the back of my grandparents’ house that was thick with dried pine needles. It’s a very Proustian memory smell which in this case carries a heavy tang of spicy heat, and the springy underfoot crunch is also delightful. The photo is of Sant’Agata, the church in Asciano where the pictures used to be, and where I first saw them more than 20 years ago, although now they’re housed in a glorious new museum.

  • Two-sided billboards. I’ve always been amused by the absurdity of driving along country roads in Italy and being faced with a large billboard advertising a restaurant or hotel in the opposite direction to the one in which you’re travelling – oftentimes it’s in the town you’ve just left. I’ve spent idle hours wondering how it was that someone actually paid for such a mad installation. Did the owners ever check to see if their ad was in the right place, facing the right way? But on this trip we noticed that the billboards are now mostly double-sided, so at least some potential customers are captured on their way past. Phew. The Italian domestic economy is saved for another day. I don’t have a photo of one of these billboards, I’m sorry to say.
  • The views. This applies particularly – though not exclusively – to the Tuscan and Umbrian towns and countryside, and you have to ask yourself how they do it. How is it that absolutely every view is beautiful, even in the towns? As in “every prospect pleases and only man is vile” (Reginald Heber, since you’ll probably want to know, from the From Greenland’s icy mountains hymn) except that in Umbria and Tuscany the young men are so often strikingly beautiful as well, as though they’ve stepped straight from a fresco. Not vile at all. I would hazard a guess that Bishop Heber never visited Italy. This is a view in Narni, just to make one tiny point among many.

  • Tomatoes. Yes, I know I go on about these a fair bit, but the wonderful thing about Italian tomatoes is the fierce summer heat that ensures they aren’t even slightly watery. They’re deliciously juicy, but when you cut one open, watery juice doesn’t run everywhere. Because there isn’t any watery juice, that’s why not. So the flavour is more intense. Ipso facto and QED, and I rest my case.

  • The Sienese storage buildings that you see at the side of minor roads throughout the region. I used to think they belonged to the electricity workers but I’ve been told (on reasonably good authority) that isn’t true. (AMM.NE simply stands for ‘Amministrazione’ so that doesn’t get you any further into solving the mystery.) I don’t know who uses them, I’ve never seen anyone hanging around or opening or shutting the doors, but the buildings are impossibly sweet – the paint colours are perfect; the size meets every aesthetic criterion; even the finer points of the spacing and alignment of type in the signage is beautiful. Italy, you win the style prize again.

  • Oh, and the figs. You knew I was going to talk about the figs again, didn’t you? The organic farm where we stay has three purple fig trees, two green fig trees and one white fig tree, and the fruit on all of those comes to perfect ripeness in the month of September when we stay there. (No coincidence, I assure you.) D.H. Lawrence wrote a rather predictably rude poem about ‘the honey-white figs of the north, black figs with scarlet inside’ and reminded his readers that ‘ripe figs won’t keep, won’t keep in any clime’. But they keep in our food memories, David Herbert: they keep there, safe and cherished, from year to year. Photos help.

Better than the cheese or ham, I promise you

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

We decided to spend a night in Parma last week, on our drive from London down to Umbria. (Yup! It’s holiday time again, lucky us, and we’re back on the same little organic farm: our third visit, and loving it as much as ever.)

We’d never been to Parma before but we love the cheese and we love the ham, so honouring those with a visit seemed absolutely right. I even like Parma violets, despite their slightly sickly taste, although I know those haven’t been made in Parma for centuries. Anyway, what’s not to like?

And as it turned out we were spot-on about that – but only because of something we didn’t know about: the Baptistery of the Duomo in the old town. It took my breath away it’s so beautiful – and this in a country filled with astounding beauty of every kind.  The city had the good sense to commission an architect called Benedetti Antelami to build it in 1196, and the octagonal building is covered in pale pink marble from Verona. There’s a lovely statue of Solomon and Sheba outside, which you can just see in the photo above (I took it with my iPhone which doesn’t seem to be as good at focal length as it is at closeups.)

And inside there are 16 alcoves and an astonishing domed ceiling, all decorated with paintings and sculptures. Like this one.

The Michelin guides don’t rate the Baptistery worth the journey (which would give it three stars): it gets only two stars, which means it’s worth a look if you happen to be passing. I think the Tyre Man is mistaken.

Parmigiano is a truly great cheese with complex flavours, and that slightly salty, slightly granular texture has a lot going for it.  And Prosciutto di Parma is the king of hams – a silky, tender, melting jewel in the crown of Italian cuisine.

But the Baptistery! I promise you, seeing the Baptistery will make you forget about food. And in Italy that’s a tough call.

Blogroll cloud

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

It’s not only the words in the blogroll, it’s also the names of the categories under which I log posts. But it’s kind of pretty, isn’t it? Like an incidental artwork.