Rodin at the RA

I went to the big Rodin exhibition at the Royal Academy today. It offered one of the simplest of art pleasures – looking at striking objects. His work has real presence, and not just because it’s made out of big lumps of bronze or marble. Their status as representational work seemed less important than the sheer physicality of them.

That’s not entirely true, of course – you can’t separate it out in that way and pretend that they’d somehow be just as effective if they were abstracts. I’m not sure the claim would even mean anything. So what do I mean? I guess there’s a kind of impersonality to them. Whereas a painting is to some extent experienced as a window onto another reality, this work never had that kind of illusionistic quality; they are experienced much more directly as art-objects. Some of that is the medium, some of it is his style.

Much of the work in the show was fairly familiar — a lot of the exhibition is built around The Burghers of Calais, The Kiss, The Thinker and The Gates Of Hell. I didn’t realise he’s done quite so many sculptures of nekkid girls embracing each other, though. They all had different titles — The Earth and Moon, or whatever — but it was hard to avoid the conclusion that he just got a bit of a kick out of doing them. There were also various erotic drawings he’d done that featured girls prominently displaying their lady-bits, so I don’t think I’m jumping to any outrageous conclusions.

It made me think how few famous sculptors there are, especially since some of the most famous artists of the Renaissance (Bernini, Michelangelo) were sculptors. Between the Renaissance and abstraction, Rodin is almost the only really big-name sculptor I can think of, compared to the dozens of painters I could come up with at a moments notice. I guess the great ages of sculpture tend to be when it’s much in demand for architectural dressing; Greek temples and medieval and Renaissance churches seem to have been thick with the stuff. But still, that’s not really an adequate explanation. Even with sculpture relatively out of fashion, there were many thousands of statues, monuments, tombs and so on put up in the C17th – C19th, but somehow none of the sculptors managed to carve out a place in the public consciousness. Which I guess makes Rodin all the more exceptional.

Bessie Smith

I promise not to spend too much time posting stuff from YouTube, but I thought this was amazing:

Fave books of 2006

It’s end-of-year list time. These weren’t all first published this year, and I daresay I’ve forgotten some, but they are at least all books I’d recommend. In no particular order:

Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama.

I blogged about this before. Simon is a serious historian (rather than, say, a journalist who writes occasional books) who writes brilliantly and is a firm believer in the virtues of a narrative approach to history. So I think he’s usually worth checking out. In this case I think he does a really good job telling the life of Rembrandt and establishing it in context. As a bonus, the book is full of gorgeous glossy plates of the paintings — it would almost be worth buying for the pictures alone.

Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin.

Another one I blogged about earlier. I’ll just quote some of what I said then: “Oliver Sacks fans will remember Temple Grandin as the autistic slaughterhouse designer in An Anthropologist on Mars. She has a particular affinity with animals and has used her talent for understanding them to help her design corrals, feedlots and slaughterhouses which are less stressful for the animals. The subtitle of Animals in Translation is ‘Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior’. Grandin uses her insights as an autistic person to help explain how animals behave and in the process explores the nature of autism itself.”

A Social History of English Cricket by Derek Birley.

The title is an accurate description of the book. On the basis that everything people do is shaped by their times, I guess you could write a social history of English anything – theatre, banking, food – and there would be plenty of subject matter. But cricket does seem especially appropriate, and not just because it’s a stereotypically English pursuit.

The reason cricket neatly brings out some of the tensions in English society is that cricket was the one sport that attempted to combine amateurs and professionals. Of the other English sports, football quickly became a commercial activity, played and watched by mainly working-class men in professional leagues dominated by the great industrial cities. Rugby split into two sports: Rugby League (professional, working class) and Rugby Union (amateur, middle class). But cricket rose to prominence in the gambling culture of the C18th with aristocrats fielding teams against each other for high stakes, and the teams would include talented men from their estates or the local villages – grooms and blacksmiths and so on – who were paid to play. So from the beginning there was a culture of gentlemen amateurs and working class pros in the same team. Given the class-riddled state of English society for most of the past 250 years, a staggering amount of hypocrisy and doublethink was the result.

Grayson Perry: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl by Wendy Jones.

The memoirs of the Turner Prize winning potter. I blogged about this before here and here.

Lorca: A Dream of Life by Leslie Stainton.

A well-written biography of an interesting man I didn’t know much about before. Being a gay socialist modernist poet from one of the most conservative regions of Spain in the 1920s and 30s didn’t exactly make Lorca’s life easy. But it does make for an involving story. The poetry was interesting too, though it’s the kind of work that leaves you wondering how much you’re missing in translation.

The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

A book about cooking meat which combines practical information — the various cuts, how to choose the best meat and the underlying principles of different cooking methods — with information about different meat production methods and labelling schemes and a thoughtful consideration of the ethical aspects of buying and eating meat. And indeed a lot of recipes and a list of high-quality meat suppliers. A rare example of a food book which manages to be much more than just a list of recipes.

And finally, a book which I didn’t buy or read for the first time this year but deserves a plug – the Collins Bird Guide (to the birds of Britain and Europe) by Lars Svensson, Peter J. Grant, Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterstrom. I’ve had the book for a bit, but I was struck again by how good it is when I was in Spain this year. You never quite know how good a field guide is until you use it, and this one seems to consistently provide the right information to allow you identify the bird you’re looking at. The illustrations are excellent and the text is thorough and lucid. I’ve used plenty of different field guides over the years, of insects and flowers and birds from different parts of the world. This is certainly the best of them.

Stuffing, woodpeckers and James Brown

Well, both stuffings were good. The (more experimental) ginger one tasted great, though a little unexpected in an otherwise very traditional Christmas meal.

The local Great Spotted Woodpecker was drumming this morning. They are always a very early sign of spring, but December still seems freaky. It’s been a weird old winter, weatherwise, and my woodpeckers are hardly the only sign of it. The newspapers have been going through one of their periodic phases of interest in climate change as a result, but I daresay they’ll move on to something else soon enough, and no-one’s behaviour will have changed much.

The other curious nature observation of the week was a heron in the garden with a pair of crows taking turns to sidle up behind it and try to tweak its tail feathers. Apparently for no reason other than a bit of fun.

The death of James Brown was sad news to wake to on Christmas morning. I listen to a variety of music – pop, soul, reggae, hip-hop, soukous, techno – but what it all has in common is that it has a bit of a groove to it. So as you can imagine, James Brown, the most sampled man in the world, has an important place in my personal musical pantheon. One of the great artists and great entertainers of the twentieth century. From a groove point of view, perhaps the greatest of them all.


2nd annual Heraclitean Fire Christmas stuffing post

I’ve been making stuffing for Christmas lunch today. So since it’s practically traditional (i.e. I did it last year), here’s what I’ve made: some chestnut and prune stuffing and some ginger and almond. Both are loosely inspired by reipces I’ve seen somewhere but with a bit of tweaking by me. Both are made with a base of sausagemeat, onion, celery, breadcrumbs and egg.

The chestnut and prune was made with the addition of the liver from the turkey, chestnuts, prunes, brandy, and fresh parsley and thyme.

For the other, I added crystallised stem ginger, toasted flaked almonds, some lemon zest, mixed spice and Cointreau.

I’ll report back on how they are to eat. Happy Christmas, everyone.

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Justice, diplomacy and realpolitik

The other day I was watching some pundits punditing away about the killing of Alexander Litvinenko, and one of them, to general approval from the audience, said some thing to the effect that if the evidence did point to an assassination ordered by the Russian government, ‘diplomacy must not be allowed to obstruct justice’.

I think if I was the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary I might find that a bit glib. There must be all sorts of good reasons why it’s important to have a working relationship with the Russian government. People always bring up their oil and gas reserves in this context, but presumably there are a constant flow of issues, major and minor, where in some way or other the Russians can choose to either help or hinder British objectives. That shouldn’t be messed around with lightly.

I’m not suggesting that pragmatic politics should automatically take precedence over ethical considerations, just that the two need to be weighed against each other. And that it would be nice to occasionally have a grown-up discussion in which people openly stated as much. For example, it’s often pointed out that back in the first Gulf War, the US would not have intervened if it wasn’t for all the oil in Kuwait; that if a dictator invades their neighbour in, say, Central Africa, the West will generally keep out of it. And it’s always implied that oil is somehow a seedy, cynical and probably avaricious consideration. But access to oil is absolutely vital to the continuing functioning of the world’s economies. It should be a contributing factor to foreign policy; a government which didn’t take it seriously would not be doing their job properly.

I’m not, I hope, arguing for a less ethical politics, just a more honest dialogue about it. Politics, and foreign policy in particular, is messy and difficult. We all know that policy decisions are shaped by a mix of practical and ethical reasons and that pragmatism and ethics are often in conflict. How can we have a proper discussion of particular decisions if we pretend otherwise?

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FSotW: Heavy Metal Concert Flyers

Flickr set of the fortnight, really, since I forgot last week. Anyway, it’s Heavy Metal Concert Flyers by quibx. From the old days before computers when people actually did these things with a felt-tip pen and a photocopier. It would be hard to claim that any of the results are lost design classics, but I do like some of the idiosyncratic details. Like “former Fate’s Warning members”:

And what’s not to love about a tag-line like “George Bush, Dan Quayle, and The P.M.R.C. all hate RANCID FOETUS”:

And Heavy Metal Design Rule #1 is of course, that you can never go wrong with a skull motif:

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Tulear Never Sleeps

Everyone’s favourite fair trade DRM-free world music store, Calabash, has introduced embedded audio players for your blog. So here’s one of the favourite albums I’ve bought from them, Tulear Never Sleeps, an album of the tsapiky music of Madagascar: