Tag Archives: art

Big Bang

Much praise has been heaped on the Kazimir Malevich exhibition at the Tate Modern in London, the first major retrospective of the artist’s work for 25 years, which runs until 26th October.  Malevich was born in Kiev in 1879 and his life coincided with an extraordinarily volatile and fertile period of Russian history. The paintings have been displayed in more or less chronological order, enabling visitors to track how Malevich’s thinking and art changed in response to the cataclysmic events he was living through.

Kasimir Malevich - a real revolutionary

Kasimir Malevich – a real revolutionary

The pivotal piece of the exhibition is Black Square, which Malevich created as the logical culmination of his ideas about an art divorced from the need to represent the natural world and thus completely free from the constraints and traditions of figurative painting.

The paint itself is quite textured, with brush strokes and faint gradations of colour clearly visible within the whitish border.  The black square itself has acquired further texture as a result of extensive cracking of the paint.   These days, original 1915 canvas is too fragile to be moved from its home in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, with the result that the version on display in London is one of three copies Malevich made in the years that followed.

Black Square

Black Square

For all its simplicity, the image presented is incredibly haunting, signifying as it does both an ending and a beginning. It’s impossible to view it without considering the historical context; a Russia on the brink of revolution, careening at full speed towards an abyss of orgiastic destruction.

What is in hindsight particularly heart-breaking is the overwhelming sense of new possibility, an unwavering confidence in an as yet unknown future.  It must have felt truly amazing to be an artist like Malevich, with both the skill and the licence to reimagine the world in every detail.

Viewed in this way, Black Square becomes a void pregnant with possibility.   What it made me feel was a  sense of the universe in the seconds before the big bang, pulsating with pent up energy at the very instant it explodes into life.

In the years following the creation of Black Square, Malevich initiated a movement known as Suprematism and produced a series of canvases featuring shapes of various colours, usually on a white background. These images convey a sense of dynamic fragmentation, as if a fist has been slammed onto the surface of a table and Malevich had somehow managed to capture the moment when all the objects on top of it have flown up into the air.  Later yet, he created a series of images dissolving at the edges and fading to white; what he called the end of art.

Black Trapezium and Red Square

Black Trapezium and Red Square

In the 1920s, Malevich abandoned painting and turned to teaching instead.  By this time, the pieces thrown up by the Russian revolution had come back to earth and resettled in a new reality.  Although by this time he was beginning to find a new audience abroad, Malevich found himself falling foul of the Stalinist regime and its retrograde ideas about art.  He was arrested for a short period in 1930 and died of cancer soon after.  The original Black Square, and the ground-breaking ideas it exemplified, disappeared from public view, not to re-emerge for more than quarter of a century.

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Unstoppable

Someone once told me that it’s only when you accept the reality of death that you can really start to live. There’s been a great deal of comment about Stephen Sutton, who lost his battle against cancer this week, though not before he’d succeeded in raising nearly three and half million pounds on behalf of the Teenage Cancer Trust.

Stephen Sutton - a thumbs up to life.

Stephen Sutton – a thumbs up to life.

We will never know how Stephen’s life might have panned out, had he not been diagnosed with cancer at the age of 15, but one thing is indisputable; faced with certain death, he chose to live triumphantly, passionately, generously and more fully than most of us achieve in a lifetime.

The exhibition of Henri Matisse’s cut-outs at Tate Britain tells a similar story. What a luminous, inspiring show it is! The cut-outs were produced towards the end of Matisse’s life, after he’d undergone a major operation that greatly reduced his mobility and made it hard for him to stand at an easel or execute the precise brush-strokes needed to paint.

Many in such circumstances would have allowed themselves a well-earned retirement, but not Matisse. For him, ill-health and old age were no match for the irresistible the urge to live and create. Abandoning palette and brushes, he began instead to fashion a whole new and innovative way of working.

Matisse working on a cut-out

Matisse working on a cut-out

Matisse originally developed the technique of cutting shapes out of coloured paper to help in the composition of his canvases. He loved how paper cut-outs allowed him to move things around and try out a myriad of different arrangements that he could adjust and re-adjust until the image was perfect.

Following his surgery however, the paper models came to take the place of painted images altogether. As video footage shows, Matisse was remarkably adept at cutting, his scissors slicing through the paper in fluid, wholly confident movements. He found this liberating, remarking, “only what I created after the illness constitutes my real self: free, liberated.”

Matisse’s acute visual sense, developed over a life-time, enabled him to see how apparently bizarre or random shapes could take on meaning and potency within his carefully constructed schema. As an artist he had a terrific capacity for expressing dynamic movement, which, coupled with his unparalleled sense of colour, endows his work with huge vitality, a sense of lightness, energy and joy.

The cover of Jazz

The cover of Jazz

As Matisse grew older, his paintings became ever more youthful. The cut-outs feature stars and sea-creatures, tumbling acrobats, dancers and doves, floating coral, beating hearts, flowers bursting with colour. They’re extraordinarily life-affirming. Matisse finally died in 1954 at the age of 84 but he kept on working right up to the end.

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A Surfeit of Art

Over the weekend, I took part in a performance of Faure’s Requiem. I don’t kid myself for one moment that my voice is good enough to take on solo parts. I can just about hold a note well enough to not completely embarrass myself when singing along with the other members of my choir. When it comes to music, that’s fine as far as I’m concerned; I have no desire to step into that particular limelight. The requiem itself is sombre, intensely personal and extremely beautiful and it was both moving and an immense pleasure just to be a part of it.
It was rather a sad coincidence then, to awake this morning to the tragic news about the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman from what appears to have been a drug overdose. He was a terrifically subtle and intelligent actor with a commanding screen presence and he’ll undoubtedly be very much missed. The obvious question is why a man of such prodigious talent and abundant gifts would destroy himself in this way, a man who was much loved, hugely successful and the father of three young children.
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s passing cannot help but bring to mind the untimely demise of a great number of other highly gifted artists, among them Heath Ledger and Amy Winehouse, who died in similar circumstances. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there’s something about great artists that makes them particularly vulnerable, not to drugs per se, but to a particular intensity in the way they experience life and what life throws at them.
Perhaps the defining characteristic of all truly great artists is their ability to discern what is essential and true and to project it through art so that what was hitherto unimagined becomes freely comprehensible, obvious even, to everyone. The ability to do this is an incredibly rare gift and also a responsibility. Those who aspire to being artists require a complete openness of spirit, an unfiltered receptiveness and sensitivity to experience, that must at times feel like an unbearable burden. No wonder the temptation to quieten the endless, babbling stream of consciousness is sometimes overwhelming. What’s more, the concomitant of such openness is perpetual self-doubt and dissatisfaction. The creative life is a journey that never reaches its destination. Nothing is ever finished, nothing is ever as good as it could be. As an artist, there’s an obligation to strip yourself down to the soul and let the world make of it what it will; however often you’re told you’re a genius, you never really quite believe it.
I ask myself on a daily basis what it is that compels me to try to write and to improve. I’m broke and frequently discouraged but still I go on. I’m becoming more inured to the endless knock-backs, but they still hurt. Is it wise to have chosen this path? Is it logical? Is it improving my psychic well-being? I look at my friends and neighbours, who are completely happy to live their lives without this freakish need to write and I feel genuinely envious. What am I even trying to express? Shadows, or perhaps secrets I don’t know myself. There’s something in my heart that’s demanding to be put down and recorded on the page and it won’t take no for an answer. To be honest, at times it feels like a form of insanity; it comes as no surprise that many artists feel the need to self-medicate.

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Art and the Community

We had my mother to stay last weekend, and very nice it was too. Although she lives alone, she’s very happily ensconced where she is, with lots of friends and a very active social life. The concern for us is that she lives just a little too far away to be easily in reach. As she gets older – she’s in her late seventies now – the dilemma is whether it’s preferable for her to stay close to where her friends are, or else abandon the support network she’s built up over the years in favour of being closer to family members who can provide care on a day-to-day basis. It’s not an easy decision. If she were to move sooner rather than later, it would give her a better chance to make new friends in the community where we live, but even so, and as she’s very well aware, it won’t be the same.
Before she caught the train home, we visited the Beyond El Dorado exhibition at the British Museum which features a selection of the gold or gold alloy artefacts created by the indigenous peoples of Colombia before the arrival of European settlers at the end of the 15th century. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have gone if it had just been down to me, but I’m glad I did; it was exquisite. The quality of the craftsmanship was breath-taking and the detail, much of it so minute it could only really be appreciated with a magnifying glass, was incredible. Many of the objects were worn as ornaments in religious ceremonies – masks, breastplates, and nose and ear rings not dissimilar to many of those worn today. For me, the most impressive items, however, were the votive objects in the form of animals, lizards, snakes, bats and birds. These were used to channel the spirits of these creatures thus enabling religious leaders to assume their characteristics – or so it was thought.
What does the creation of art mean for a community? At its most basic, it enables sophisticated or cerebral ideas to be transmitted directly and viscerally to all members of the community ie via the emotions, without any need for the mediation of language. It facilitates the development of a common culture, usually rich in symbolism, which supports continuity and cohesion and can be passed down from one generation to the next, thus building a sense of identity and belonging. Above all, art endows a random, ineffable universe with meaning, bringing it within the compass of human understanding and enabling the community to interpret the past and plan for the future. Although there aren’t too many of us these days who express ourselves through the manufacture of highly crafted metalwork, the communitarian purpose of the indigenous South American people in producing their artefacts is identical to that of most creative artists today. Isn’t the point to try and reach beyond ourselves and find common meaning in our everyday experiences and in our reflections on reality as we perceive it?

On a different note, I wanted to wish a very happy Thanksgiving to all those celebrating it. Although we’ve imported a quite number of American traditions into Britain, Thanksgiving is yet to catch on here. Could it be because the thing the Pilgrim Fathers were most grateful for was the fact that they’d left our rain-soaked shores behind them forever? Perhaps it’s time to move beyond any sense of pique and embrace Thanksgiving; it’s good to count your blessings from time to time.

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Satsumas

Satsumas are back in the shops.  This is very good news, because I love them (I’m eating one at the moment in fact) though it’s a sure sign the year is moving towards its inevitable conclusion.   This week also saw the graduation of the Central Film School students, of which I was one, at BAFTA on Piccadilly.  What I’ve discovered over the last year is that film-making in general, and scriptwriting in particular, is very hard and requires frankly preposterous levels of commitment in terms of time, perseverance and emotional energy, so it’s nice to experience a little bit of the glamour that goes with it from time to time.   I was also extremely surprised, honoured and grateful to be selected as the school’s screenwriter of the year, particularly as there was such a strong cohort of fellow students.  What this means in practice is that after months of keyboard-bashing, soul-searching, tears and parental neglect, I now have a small plastic trophy on my mantelpiece – yay!    All in all, my time at CFSL has been intense, emotional and massively instructive.  During the year I spent there, I’ve learned a huge amount from some of the most incredible tutors in the business, so I hope they won’t mind me taking this opportunity to say a big thank you to all those involved.

 One of the things I’ve come to realise is that I need to be braver and less conventional in the stories I create.  I have to make my characters do wilder, more precarious, more unpredictable things and I have to put them in more interesting places and situations.   Structure I can do more or less and I think I’m beginning to get the hang of characterisation, but what I need now is to find what’s magical and surprising in terms of  images, actions and ideas that will set my stories alight and make them unforgettable.  I’ve been working on a short screenplay for a friend.  Basically, it’s a rites of passage story  about an old woman who can no longer cope with living in her own home, and her over-worked daughter, who comes to take her to a care home.  I like the characters, especially the old woman, who’s wilful and quite obstreperous, but it still needs something extra – a stronger twist, a bigger surprise – to really bring it to life.   Maybe what I should do is get my heroine onto a tightrope or roller-skates or perhaps free-running along the roof of the National Gallery, though I recognise that persuading a seventy-five year old actor to actually do this might be a bit of a challenge.  Heck, it needs something though!

 Talking of character studies, over the weekend I saw Mister John, which stars the amazingly lovely and talented Aidan Gillen.  The story doesn’t entirely work, not least because some of the situations set up in the film don’t quite pay off with sufficient conviction or drama.  However, as a study of someone who is wholly adrift, both physically and emotionally, it was rather moving.  Deftly avoiding any hint of pathos, Gillen was pitch perfect as a man utterly disorientated by a double whammy of bereavement and his wife’s betrayal, who battles despair as he struggles to confront the loss of both his brother and his marriage.  I heartily recommend.

 Acht – writing this, I’ve forgotten to do the laundry again – damn!

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