Kandinsky at the Tate

‘Wassily Kandinsky’; what a great name. Tate Modern currently has an exhibition Kandinsky: The Path To Abstraction, which traces Kandinsky’s development from a painter of Fauvist/post-Impressionist type landscapes to a ‘pure’ abstract painter. It’s confined to the early part of his career, but then I wasn’t very familiar with his work beforehand, so I didn’t have much to compare it to.

The early works use sizzling colours and distorted perspective but are still obviously representational. This is Murnau – Kohlgruberstrasse:

That reproduction possibly makes the colours look even more sizzling than they actually are, but it gives you the idea. Then you get increasingly abstracted landscapes like Landscape With Factory Chimney:

Then you get paintings full of symbolism, which are abstracted but still have recognisable objects in them. In this painting, for example, it wasn’t all immediately obvious, but you can pick out, going anti-clockwise from the dog, a cannon, a row of men firing guns, a cloud with a lightning-bolt, two men waving blue sabres behind the smoke from another cannon, and a boat with a yellow sail carrying four figures, one of which is rowing. The painting is just called Improvisation 11; the titles stop being very useful at this point.

The process of increasing abstraction continues, but the paintings still have content. Certain motifs recur – men on horseback, boats, mountains, waves, cannons – even if they wouldn’t necessarily be recognisable to a viewer who was unfamiliar with Kandinsky’s work. Apparently he was keen on the idea that a new better, more spiritual age was approaching, so there’s a lot of Deluge and Apocalypse going on. For example, this is Composition VI, and in the context of Kandinsky’s work, it’s fairly clearly a deluge painting. The real thing is 10 foot across, so this really doesn’t do it justice:

By the end of the exhibition, Kandinsky had started to produce some of the completely abstract, more geometrical work which apparently was typical of the rest of his career. By this stage he is, as far as I can tell, no longer even using representation or meaning as a starting point for the work. This is Circles On Black:

The exhibition was enjoyable for exactly the reason suggested by the name – seeing the process by which he gave up representational painting. If you’ve been brought up with abstract art, it doesn’t seem like an inherently difficult idea, but obviously at the time, artists had to arrive at it through a process. It’s not just Kandinsky, of course; you can see different versions of the same process in Miro and Mondrian and so on. As so often in artistic and literary development, it feels like there’s a process of building up in complexity as the artist develops and explores new ideas and techniques, and then a stripping back down as they pick out what seems most important and create works which are simpler, sparer and more focussed.

I was unsure, looking at Kandinsky’s paintings, whether he always had in mind that the goal was a complete divorce from representation, but that he had to feel his way towards it, or if that was just the direction his work took him. I daresay an art historian might be able to tell me. Either way, it’s worth going to just to see all the colourful paintings. Kandinsky liked his blues cobalt, his pinks fuchsia and his yellows daffodil; no fannying around with indecisive colours like ochre and olive.

Bookings, red cards and the sin bin

Having seen several matches at this World Cup mucked up by sendings off, I’m increasingly persuaded that it’s time to reform the yellow and red card system.

I just don’t think the progression of punishments is very well worked out. The free kick for minor fouls makes perfect sense. Sending a player off for genuinely dangerous play or blatant cheating also makes sense. The problem is with the yellow card.

On the one hand, it doesn’t have enough immediate impact on the game to be much of a deterrent. It’s marginally more effective in the World Cup, where you only need to be booked in two games to be suspended for the next match and all matches are important, but in league football bookings are a bit of theatre with minimal real significance.

But at the same time, the sudden stepping up of the punishment if you get two yellow cards seems catastrophically out of proportion. Two marginal bookings can force a team to play with ten men for much of the match. It also seems like what should be a personal punishment has a disproportionate effect on the rest of the team. That is, a team can receive seven bookings and have no-one sent off, or have someone sent off after just two. The impact on the likely result is unbalanced.

The alternative would be a five minute sin binning for each yellow card, however many of them you get, and the red card being reserved for straight sendings-off. Obviously, that would make a yellow much more serious than it is now, and the refs would need to learn not to be slightly more sparing with them; but they’d suddenly be a much more efective deterrent. Take shirt-pulling, for example. As much as I’m keen to eliminate it, sending someone off for doing it twice seems disproportionate. Having them miss ten minutes of the game seems quite reasonable. You could even have five minutes for a first booking and ten for a second, but actually I think that would be unnecessary.

Would it work better? I don’t know. It makes sense to me. It would be an interesting experiment, anyway.

Wasp nest

The plumbers found an old wasp nest in the attic. Wimbledon has had its usual effect on the weather, so the light isn’t great for photograpy, but during a break in the rain I tried taking a few pictures. The whole thing’s about 2 foot across. Here’s a close-up:

England vs Ecuador

Sorry, I know it’s been all football all the time here recently. I promise I’ll resume the normal diet of half-baked arts commentary soon.

I seem to be the only person who was vaguely cheered by the Ecuador game and was left with an impression that England are getting better, even if only in teeny increments. Obviously we’ll still need to be much better against Portugal, though.

World Cup blather

And so we reach the knock-out stages. It might have seemed like an intense, pressurised competition already, but now all matches are between two decent teams playing for survival, and the field starts getting thinned out very quickly. I almost feel there should be some kind of ceremony at this point to mark the transition. The groups stages are like an extension of qualifying – you just need to get through them – but now the trophy itself starts feeling like it’s almost within reach. Each match is another step up the mountain, and the air gets thinner, and and everything is sharper and brighter and shinier.

I think I might have exhausted that metaphor now.

World Cup food blogging – Sweden

I’ve been trying to keep optimistic about England’s chances in the World Cup, but it’s not easy. Michael Owen was the only forward in the squad with a history of scoring lots of goals, so that injury is a real blow. Crouch actually did OK today in midfield areas, but I just don’t think he’s a real goalscorer. At least Rooney gave a couple of reminders of just how good he is. But mainly: we still haven’t seen a performance of conviction or cohesion from the team as a whole. As long as they’re still in the competition, there’s a chance that they’ll suddenly get their act together, but at the moment it feels like they’re just limping from one crisis to the next.

Anyway. The food blogging. I didn’t fancy herring or akvavit, so I poked around on the web and found a recipe for pepparkakor (ginger biscuits). I just don’t get why Americans insist on measuring everything in cups. I mean, flour – OK, although I’d still personally prefer to measure it by weight. But butter? Why would you measure butter by volume? They turned out quite nice, a bit like gingernuts. Apparently they improve if you leave them for a bit, as well. I doubled the quantity of spices, because it just didn’t seem very much, and they certainly aren’t overpoweringly gingery.

Flies, again.

A little while back I was talking about the extraordinary number of insect species just within the UK, and I said:

What I find staggering about these numbers is that it implies there are so many different evolutionary niches available for such apparently similar creatures. Even the 51 species of mayfly are slightly mind-boggling, but how can there possibly be 6900 different ways of successfully being a fly?

Well, there are 6900 separate answers to that question, but here’s just one (typical?) example. They’re found a new species of fly in Scotland. “The tiny black Christii fly measures just 2mm long and lives under the bark of dead aspen trees.” But not, presumably, living aspen trees. Or dead willow trees.

Although I guess that just begs the question “what is so specialised about their behaviour that they can only live in such a narrowly-defined habitat?”

Constable at the Tate

Tate Britain currently has an exhibition Constable: The Great Landscapes. It focusses on the ‘five-footers’, which are landscapes five foot across and include his most famous works like The Haywain and Salisbury Cathedral From The Meadows. Not only have they collected togther all of the paintings, but also nearly all of the full-size oil sketches he did for them.

View on the Stour near Dedham, 1822

The sketches are included not just because it enables you to see the development of the painting, but because it’s rather unique to do such large preparatory sketches. If nothing else it provides a new way of looking at potentially over-familiar work. There’s also, I think, a feeling that the sketches are more to modern taste than the actual paintings. Certainly I found that in some cases. If you’ve been brought up on the Impressionists, the less finished quality isn’t a problem, and the looser, livelier brush-strokes have their own appeal. They also often have a more dynamic use of colour and tone than the finished painting. In a couple of cases the slightly lurid effect even reminded me of El Greco, something I really wasn’t expecting at a Constable exhibition.

View of Toledo, El Greco, 1597

I couldn’t help wondering what Constable would think if he knew people preferred the sketches to the originals. Peeved, I expect. But there was a tendency for the later paintings to be sketchier and to use more dynamic colour and tone, so perhaps it’s something he would have understood. Although some of the sketches were duller and muddier than the final paintings, so perhaps one shouldn’t understand them as anything other than compositional exercises. Who knows. Unfortunately the Tate exhibition website only has quite small images of most of the works, so I can’t really illustrate the difference between the sketches and the paintings. The picture above is one of the finished works.

I wasn’t a huge fan of Constable and the exhibition hasn’t persuaded me, but it was an enjoyable enough way to spend an hour or so. I guess the fact I preferred some of the sketches suggests my problem with the work – it’s too well behaved, too orderly. I can admire it, but I just find it a tiny bit boring. Mind you, I suspect I’d find landscapes by his contemporaries (except Turner!) even more boring.

Argentina, Angola, and Africa

Argentina played the most beautiful football yesterday in thrashing Serbia and Montenegro. That’s the kind of play that you watch the World Cup to see – great individual flair combining in a great team performance. Great goals, great skills. It was like a highlight reel. The only thing it lacked to be a true all-time classic was a great opposing team.

You don’t win the World Cup by playing beautiful football in the group stages, of course. No team produces that kind of quality every time they play, and they’ll face tougher opposition. For the time being, you just have to watch and marvel and take joy in the moment.

I also enjoyed watching Angola scrap out a 0-0 draw with Mexico. We’re always told that Americans will never accept football because it’s too low-scoring and they won’t watch sports that end in a draw; and to be fair, it’s not a lot of fun watching a scoreless draw between Fulham and Middlesborough. But on the right day, between the right teams, 0-0 can be a brilliant and exciting result.

And I always like to see the African teams doing well. There aren’t many circumstances in which African countries get to be portrayed in a positive light, let alone compete with the world’s richest countries as equals, but football is one of them. The great African players – Eusebio, Weah, Eto’o – are legends. The assumption always seems to be that an African team couldn’t win the whole tournament, and there’s not (yet) an African footballing superpower to compete with Brazil, Argentina, Italy and Germany, but over the past few World Cups, they’ve consistently produced at least one team that has mounted a serious challenge. And as more and more African players play in the top European leagues, they’re only going to get better. Who knows what they would have achieved already if so many of their countries weren’t having to deal with poverty, corruption and war.

The consensus seems to be that this time, the best teams in Africa haven’t made it to the World Cup, and that the two strongest teams, Ghana and Ivory Coast, were very unlucky in the draw for the groups. So probably this isn’t their year. But as long as they’re in the competition, I’ll be cheering them. Against everyone except England, obviously.

EDIT:Hooray for Ghana, who just whupped the Czechs. That was such a fun game to watch. If they play like that again I’d certainly back them to beat the USA in their third group game, which would probably mean they qualify for the knock-out stages.

World Cup food blogging – Trinidad and Tobago

Thankfully, we did manage to beat T&T, despite the fact that Peter Crouch just isn’t good enough to play for England and Sven seems to have sucked all the creativity out of the players like some Swedish football-vampyr.

Anyway, I cooked some Trini food today to mark the occasion. The recipe was from Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian Cookbook which I think is excellent despite being non-veggy myself. The idea was something caled ‘doubles’, which is a Trinidadian fast food consisting of chickpeas in a sandwich between two deep-fried flatbreads (like puri). The breads are called ‘fry bakes’ in Trinidad, apparently, because they’re fried instead of baked. I didn’t feel like deep-frying bread today, so I made some T&T-style roti instead.

There were actually two Trinidadian chickpea recipes in the book; both are obviously based on Indian food, but the one I did was probably the less distinctively T&T of the two. The other one used rather un-Indian ingredients like thyme and chives; this one was made with chickpeas, onion, garlic, green chillies, tinned tomato, cumin, coriander, ground ginger, curry powder and turmeric.

The roti were made from half-and-half plain flour and bread flour, some baking powder, water, and a smidge of turmeric for colour.

So, roti and chickpeas. Have ’em with some mango chutney and pepper sauce. I rolled my roti into a burrito-y thing, which was messy (though delicious), but I didn’t get a picture of the rolled version.

Cult of Brasil

I wish the BBC commentators wouldn’t be quite so uncritically fanboy when they talk about Brazil. Yes, they have produced some brilliant players; yes, Ronaldinho is the world’s best player at the moment; yes the current squad is extremely talented and deservedly favourites to win the tournament. But they aren’t superhuman. Today, they looked pretty ordinary, and if the commentators had stopped drooling long enough to actually watch the game, they would have noticed that much sooner.

No wonder England looked so intimidated by them in 2002 – all the players have been brought up on a diet of pro-Brazilian propaganda that even Nike’s marketing department would be hard-pressed to equal.

Togo vs. South Korea – live blogging!

With their glowing pink shirts and white shorts, the South Koreans look like they’re starring in a washing powder advert. The dazzle effect hasn’t stopped Togo taking the lead, though.

EDIT: the Rutherford kiss of death comes into play: almost immediately the Togolese have a man sent off and the Koreans score with a cracking free kick.

EDIT: SK won it pretty comfortably in the end. I was vaguely supporting Togo as underdogs, but I was very impressed by the number and volume of the Korean fans. It’s a long way to come.

FIFA London Cup 2006

I was thinking the other day that it’s surprising and slightly disappointing that, while London is covered in England flags for the World Cup, you don’t see many flags from other countries. Something like 25% of people resident in London were born outside the UK, so there must be plenty of people supporting just about everywhere.

But I went to a friend’s house in Oval yesterday. Oval is ‘Little Lisbon’, the Portuguese centre of London, and Portugal were playing their first World Cup game that evening against ex-colony Angola. Everywhere were people wearing Portugal shirts, or the Portugal strip, or Portugal scarves, or waving the Portuguese flag. It was great. There was even some banter between Angolan and Portuguese fans on the bus (at least I think it was banter, but I don’t speak Portuguese).

I love that. I loved the fact that when South Korea won some key match at the last World Cup – beating Italy maybe? – hundreds of Koreans turned up in Trafalgar Square singing and waving Korean flags.

I suppose a comment about England’s first game is in order. it wasn’t that encouraging, let’s be honest. But we got the three points; we’re clear at the top of the group; it’s a marathon not a sprint; it’s a game of fourteen halves; it’s still a while until the fat lad sings.

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