The King’s Speech

I can’t say I was excited by the prospect of seeing The King’s Speech, because I think the British film and TV industry is usually at its least interesting when making middlebrow costume dramas about posh people in country houses.

The genre seems to have a completely unearned prestige which serves as a substitute for things like originality and ideas. And all Britain’s favourite thesps get to stick on some facial hair and a frock coat — or a stiff gown, as appropriate — and do a slightly hammy turn, and everyone oohs and aahs at the costumes and the locations, and it’s all very cosy and boring.

But everyone has been raving about this film, and when someone suggested a trip to see it I thought I might as well. And generally speaking I think it was a good movie. Even a very good one. The prince who has to have speech therapy is a good hook to hang a film on, the script is  often clever and funny and only occasionally resorts to heavy handed historical exposition, and Colin Firth’s performance is excellent, as are most of the supporting cast — although I wasn’t as impressed as some people by Geoffrey Rush as the speech therapist Lionel Logue. And I thought it looked great; I particularly enjoyed the rooms full of old fashioned radio equipment with giant microphones and big dials.

On the other hand it felt like a very basic, meat and potatoes piece of story-telling. It does have a good story to tell, and that is half the battle, but it takes you through it in a very predictable, unadventurous way. And it did feel too emotionally manipulative sometimes. Film is an emotionally manipulative medium anyway; in some ways that is one of its strengths. And this is a thoroughly mainstream film, and I don’t demand that it should be abrasively intellectual and spare and minimalist… but sometimes when the swelling background music was a bit too obvious at telling me what to feel, or when some scene had been too obviously crafted to ram home some message or other, I started to get a bit irritated.

Perhaps the problem is that Colin Firth’s character is just too sympathetic. The whole film is structured around poor prince Bertie and his terrible burdens, and there’s never a hint that he has a nasty or selfish bone in his body. He may have been a good man with a profound sense of duty, but presumably he wasn’t actually a saint.

Anyway, I did basically enjoy it and do basically recommend it. With a few reservations.

This is Paradise! by Hyok Kang

Or to give it its full, bookshop-friendly title: This is Paradise! My North Korean Childhood, written by Hyok Kang with the French journalist Philippe Grangereau, and translated by Shaun Whiteside.

When I was looking for books from North Korea for the Read The World challenge, I was quite surprised I could only find two actually by North Koreans. The DPRK is such a bizarre Cold War relic that you might think there would be more interest in it. I guess reading about North Korea just doesn’t seem as important as reading about the Soviet Bloc did back in the old days.

Reading the reviews, it sounds like the other book, The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, is probably the better of the two, but it seems to be focussed on life inside the labour camps. I decided to read This is Paradise! because it is about a more normal childhood in rural North Korea. Normal in North Korea being batshit insane by the standards of anywhere else.

Still, it wasn’t quite what I expected; I thought it would mainly be about the political aspects of living in a communist personality cult: the parades, the synchronised gymnastics, the patriotic hymns, the giant floodlit statue of the Dear Leader, the propaganda. All of which does feature, particularly at the start of the book, but because of the period it covers (Kang was born in 1986), it is overwhelmingly about the famine. Even a mad personality cult struggles to maintain its energy in the face of millions of deaths. Not that there is much sign of the state losing its iron grip on the population, but everyday life becomes completely dominated by the famine, which is apocalyptic in scale. It is like reading Solzhenitsyn’s descriptions of scrabbling for nourishment in the gulag, except it’s not a gulag, it’s a whole town, a whole community — except of course for the party officials.

The official slogans changed as the famine ravaged the country. At the very beginning, in 1995, the cadres encouraged us o accept what was called a ‘forced march towards victory’. The term referred to the ‘forced march’ undertaken by Kim Il-Sung and his partisans during the war against the Japanese occupying forces. The following year, the battle-cry was ‘Let us speed up the forced march towards the final victory.’ When the hunger had reaches its worst, another new slogan appeared: ‘Let us not live today for today, but let us live today for tomorrow’. By now, the poorest people had been reduced to eating boiled pepper leaves or bean leaves. Some families came to us to beg us for left-over tofu that my mother cooked, or even the whitish liquid produced when it was being made. They drank it mixed with saccharine. After a certain period of time their faces swelled up. When I saw people with puffy faces tottering towards the house, I knew that was what they were coming for. Shortly after that we too had to start eating pine bark.

The end of the books is about the family’s escape, firstly into China and then through Vietnam and Laos to Cambodia, from which they went to South Korea.

It is a remarkable story. It’s not especially well written, though. It would be unfair to call the prose ‘bad’, but it is a very plain, methodical recital of events. It has very little in the way of descriptive detail and very little emotional content or insight. Definitely worth reading for the content, though, if not for the prose.

Books [and films] of the year 2010

I’ll keep this brief, because if you want to know what I thought of them you can read what I said at the time, but glancing back over the books I read in the past year, I would pick out these five as ones which, for whatever reason, stand out in my memory:

Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif
Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano
The Fortunes of Wangrin by Amadou Hampaté Bâ
The Big Death: Solomon Islanders Remember World War II
The Bleeding of the Stone by Ibrahim Al-Koni

The first two in particular are books I would strongly recommend if you’re looking for something to read.

And while I’m here, some film recommendations, some of which may be a little difficult to get hold of, but hey-ho:

Draquila — Italy Trembles
[which serves as quite a good companion piece to Gomorrah, incidentally]
The First Movie
Skeletons
A Prophet

EDIT: oops, almost forgot:
Four Lions

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 24: El Greco

I have a thoroughly secular approach to Christmas — family, a tree, presents, turkey with all the trimmings, booze, the Doctor Who Christmas special — but still, the obvious choice for the last painting in my calendar is some kind of nativity scene. And for me, there was only ever going to be one choice. So here’s The Adoration of the Shepherds by El Greco:

Now THAT is what I call a painting. I feel proud to be part of a species that can make something like that. I was absolutely blown away by the El Greco exhibition at the National Gallery a few years ago; I’d seen a few of his paintings, but his work wasn’t really part of my mental furniture. But to see it all together, and especially the big religious paintings like this one: I just think he is the most extraordinary painter, amongst the very greatest.

It seems so modern, so fresh, that it’s hard to believe it was painted in 1614, with those distorted figures and dramatic colours. Although actually I think to call it ‘modern’ is to claim too much for our own time, to suggest that we have progressed so much that modern painters produce work like this all the time. No, this work would be extraordinary at any time. It’s just even more amazing that it was painted when it was, at a time which was perhaps less prepared for these kind of stylised images.

Happy Christmas everyone, however you celebrate it.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 23: Goya

This is The Straw Manikin, by Goya. It’s actually a cartoon for a tapestry, according to the blurb at the Prado.

It’s a great image: fun, surprising, silly and a little bit creepy. I suppose that creepiness might be my masculine response to the fact that it’s ‘a clear allegory of women’s domination of men’. Or it might be that the slightly contorted, limp figure with the fixed smile and blank eyes is firmly in Uncanny Valley territory.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 22: Ofili

Contemporary art is incredibly obsessed with ideas, and with the idea of ideas — when you read the exhibition blurb, it’s always full of stuff about the conceptual background to the work, and the ideas the work is supposed to provoke in the viewer.

I don’t have a principled objection to art based on ideas — a lot of it is crap, that’s Sturgeon’s Law for you — but it’s slightly odd, really, that it has become such an apparently essential element of art. Art is fundamentally tied to the physical reality of made objects*, and to suggest that those tangible objects are not enough to justify themselves, that they need to be dressed up in abstract ideas, almost seems to show a lack of confidence. As well as sometimes having a whiff of Emperor’s new clothes about it.

Chris Ofili can certainly do ideas with the best of them — his work engages in various interesting ways with blackness, Africa, religion, the canon and so on — but those ideas are expressed via exciting, beautiful objects. They have colour and texture, they are attractive at a distance but have fascinating fine details that draw the eye. Big paintings, leaning on the wall supported by varnished lumps of elephant dung, the way they are displayed emphasises their physical presence.

To quote the Tate:

No Woman, No Cry is a tribute to the London teenager Stephen Lawrence. The Metropolitan police investigation into his racially motivated murder was mishandled, and a subsequent inquiry described the police force as institutionally racist. In each of the tears shed by the woman in the painting is a collaged image of Stephen Lawrence’s face, while the words ‘R.I.P. Stephen Lawrence’ are just discernible beneath the layers of paint.

But it doesn’t need that context to work: in 200 years time, when the name of Stephen Lawrence is a historical footnote, it will still be a beautiful painting.

* yeah, I know, it’s more complicated than that.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 21: Lear

Despite being a birdwatcher, I’m not actually a huge fan of bird paintings. Or at least not a certain kind of bird paintings done by the certain kind of wildlife artist. Ducks huddling against the cold in the dawn light, that sort of thing.

They tend to be a bit chocolate-boxy, or a bit over-precise… whatever it is, they usually leave me unmoved. The artist’s passion for birds somehow doesn’t make for great art.

The works I’m more drawn to are those which were not intended to be hung on a wall, but to go in a scientific monograph, or a field guide. What you might call bird illustration, rather than bird art; paintings done primarily with an analytical rather than an aesthetic eye. I find them more compelling than those bird paintings which try harder to be Art.

That tradition includes Thomas Bewick, Audubon, John Gould, and today’s artist, Edward Lear. And yes, it is the same man who wrote The Owl and the Pussycat and The Dong with the Luminous Nose. His eyesight deteriorated early and forced a change of carer, but as a young man he was a very fine natural history illustrator.

I picked this picture, a study of a Scarlet Macaw, partially because it is rather lovely, with the bird peering over its shoulder among the blobs of paint. But mainly, I have to admit, because most of the works by Lear on the internet are actually lithographs, and I am too much of a pedant at heart to post a lithograph to a series calling itself an ‘advent calendar of paintings’. You can see the finished print here, if you’re curious.

This is one of the lithographs, of a Pale-headed Parakeet.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 19: Carrà

This is The Funeral of the Anarchist Galli by Carlo Carrà. To quote Wikipedia:

The subject of the work is the funeral of Italian anarchist Angelo Galli, killed by police during a general strike in 1904. The Italian State feared that the funeral would become a de facto political demonstration and refused the mourning anarchists entrance into the cemetery itself. When anarchists resisted, the police responded with force and a violent scuffle ensued.

I saw it in the Tate’s Futurism exhibition last year, and thought it was pretty striking, but looking at it now I find myself strongly reminded of a lot of images I have seen in the news recently: that angry claustrophobic mass of figures, the horses, the batons.

Over the past few weeks we’ve had violent confrontations between protestors and police on the streets of London, we’ve had protestors closing down high street shops in protest against tax-avoidance by big business, we’ve even had Mrs Prince Charles poked with a stick by a group of people chanting ‘off with their heads.’

And we’ve even had the word ‘anarchist’ being thrown around, a word which seems as dated as Futurism itself. I don’t know how many of those who have been on the news smashing windows and setting fire to things would say they were anarchists, and I don’t know what they mean by it. But then perhaps anarchism has always been a mood as much as a political ideology. And yes, I know, political theorists have devised versions of anarchism which are more sophisticated than the caricature; but still, that wish to break down the overarching structure of society is a remarkable thing. You have to think that the world is very broken indeed to believe that throwing all the pieces up in the air is likely to make it better.

But then whether many people in the UK are ‘real’ anarchists is hardly the point; what matters is that a lot of people are angry. And not just in Britain. Are there enough of them, are they angry enough, to have a powerful impact? And for better or worse? These are interesting times.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 18: Bosch

I’m feeling ill today — perhaps I managed to poison myself with homemade chicken soup — so I thought perhaps I’d see if could find a painting with a medical theme. So here’s a cracker by Hieronymus Bosch, known as The Extraction of the Stone of Madness or The Cure of Folly.

All that amazing Gothic writing apparently says

Meester snijt die keye ras
Mijne name Is lubbert das

Which apparently means ‘Master, cut away the stone / my name is Lubbert Das’, Lubbert Das being the name for a fool in Dutch literature.*

It is presumably allegorical of something, but The Prado and Wikipedia disagree about what it means. I don’t think I care, though. It’s a striking image, and that gold calligraphy is just astonishing.

This name is sometimes translated as: ‘Castrated Badger’.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 17: Velázquez

There are some great self portraits in the canon — Dürer, El Greco, Van Gogh, Van Eyck, all those Rembrandts — but I’m not sure any of them is as fabulous as this one by Diego Velázquez:

It’s like the world’s greatest publicity photo.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 16: Poussin

I think it’s interesting how much particular styles and periods can go in and out of fashion. The fact that whole artistic movements can gain and lose popularity for no simple reason serves as a valuable warning if you ever start thinking that your taste is in any way objective or reliable.

Nicolas Poussin is a painter of high neo-classicism; a genre which is about as unfashionable as it is possible to be.

Some of the reasons why a painter like Poussin is unfashionable are clear enough: for example, people are much less familiar with all the Greek and Roman references. Others are easy to articulate but less easy to explain: I think it’s a fair generalisation that history paintings, and narrative paintings more generally, are unpopular today. But it’s not transparently obvious why that should be true.

This painting, A Dance to the Music of Time, is more approachable than many of his works; compared, for example, to The Rape of the Sabine Women. It’s more intimate in scale, and it’s sort of allegorical or symbolic rather than properly narrative. Both of those things make it seem less stagey. Still, it’s not the kind of painting that would pull a lot of punters through the doors of a London gallery in 2010.

But fashions change. Maybe in twenty years time, Poussin will be THE hot ticket, and Van Gogh will be regarded as terribly old fashioned and déclassé.

Fashion aside, there is one thing about this painting which makes it remarkable: the whole surface is covered in thumbprints. When the paint was still wet, Poussin covered the surface of the painting with the imprint of his own thumb. Why did he leave his mark on it in this way? No one knows.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 15: Nolan

2AM tonight is the start of the third Ashes test, with England one-nil up in the series and with the opportunity to ruthlessly grind Australia into the dust in the same way the Aussies have done so many times to us over the past 30 years.

So it seems fitting to pick an Australian painting; this is The Trial, from Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series. Ned Kelly was the Australian outlaw and folk hero, famous for his home-made suit of armour.

Part of his folk hero status comes from the fact that he was, according to one interpretation, rebelling against the oppressive British colonial power. Which brings us back to the cricket, since the particular best-of-enemies edge that surrounds the Ashes is partly because of the frisson that comes with a match against the former colonial power.

The Ashes got their name in 1882 when Australia beat England in England for the first time, and the Sporting Times printed a mock obituary announcing the sad death of English cricket: ‘the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia’. Which is, incidentally, just two years after the execution of Ned Kelly.

Going back to the actual painting: I was interested to read that Nolan was very influenced by Henri Rousseau. Because I reckon that Rousseau actually wanted to be a proper painter in the classical academy tradition, but having taught himself to paint in his spare time as an adult, he just wasn’t technically capable of that style of painting. The paintings he did produce are beautiful — he had a great eye for design and colour — but they are in a naive style because that was all he could do. Which is something rather different from the self-consciously naive style of a painter like Nolan.

Anyway, there are a lot more paintings by Nolan (and indeed other Australian artists) on the National Gallery of Australia website, if you’re interested.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 14: Matisse

I was looking over the paintings I’ve posted so far, and it’s weirdly unrepresentative of my personal taste. I mean: Aelbert Cuyp, Jacob Jordaens, Jenny Saville, Lubin Baugin… these are fine artists but not exactly my particular favourites.

So here’s a particular painting that made a personal impression on me. The Piano Lesson, by Henri Matisse:

It’s a big painting, 8′ by 7′. It normally lives in MoMA, in New York. I’m not quite sure, but I think I must have seen it when the Matisse Picasso exhibition came to Tate Modern. It has stayed with me ever since, though it’s hard to articulate why. It’s something to do with the collision of modernism and formality, perhaps.

One reason I haven’t posted more of my personal favourites so far might be because I’m slightly protective of them; a little 500 pixel version is never going to be the same, and I want to do the paintings justice.

Is it weird that I worry about doing the paintings justice, rather than the artists?

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 13: Baugin

I thought it was about time for a still life. This is Le dessert de gaufrettes by Lubin Baugin, from about 1630. ‘Gaufrettes’ are wafers, in this case ones which have been rolled up like brandy snaps or cannoli. I must say they look a little bit dry like that, but with a few mouthfuls of dessert wine to ease them down, I expect they’re delicious.

I like still lifes; there’s a kind of conceptual purity to them. By which I mean: if the challenge is to make a painting which engages the viewer’s attention, then anything with an actual human in it is pushing against an open door. People are so naturally drawn to faces that they see them everywhere.

But to stick a carafe of water, a couple of books and a pile of fruit on a table, and to make it into something beautiful and precious, something that people want to linger over in a way they would never linger over a real bowl of fruit: that’s magic.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 12: Renoir

Has there ever been a supposedly great painter who produced as many awful paintings as Renoir? I mean, look at this:

It’s not just the fact that it is, in the least subtle way possible, a painting of a pair of boobs which happen to have a girl attached to them. Or that her arms and hands appear to be suffering from a complete lack of skeletal structure. Or that every one of Renoir’s jeunes filles have interchangeable gormless faces. No, what is most annoying about this painting is that it was painted by the same man who, On a good day, when he was really trying, was capable of occasionally producing paintings like this:

I don’t think it’s a surprise that when I find a painting of his I like, it’s when he’s being least Renoir-y. Although some of his more typical paintings are also rather magical:

Anyway, that seems to be three paintings, which is probably cheating. Better stop before I accidentally post any more.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 11: Unknown

Yesterday I featured a picture by a great painter of cows. To be fair, Aelbert Cuyp had many other notable qualities, including being a fine painter of skies and light… but one way or another an awful lot of his paintings have cows in. Maybe there were just a lot of cows in C17th Holland; if your country is flooded half the year, grass is a pretty good crop to focus on.

Anyway, here’s another great painting of a cow. But this is a wild cow, the ancestor of domestic cattle: the aurochs. The aurochs actually survived all the way to the seventeenth century before we wiped it out. But this is much older than that.

We don’t know who painted it, of course. Or why, although no doubt there are plenty of theories. What we do know is that fifteen thousand years before the birth of Christ, some people were living down inside a very dark cave in what is now the middle of France, and that on the walls, they painted the wild animals that lived around them: aurochs, horses and stags, especially.

They are beautiful images, I think, but what’s really amazing is their age, and what it says about the deep history of humanity. Before the Egyptians, before the Sumerians, before Çatalhöyük, there had already been hundreds of generations of our ancestors who were at least human enough to produce art. And Lascaux isn’t even the oldest cave art we’ve discovered; the art at Chauvet is another thirteen to fifteen thousand years older. In other words, there is nearly as much time between Chauvet and Lascaux as between Lascaux and us. Recorded history is just a pinprick in comparison.

You can see more of the paintings at the Lascaux website.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 9: Saville

Whoops, nearly forgot to post one for today. So here’s Plan, by Jenny Saville:

It’s another one where the size is relevant — it’s actually 9 feet tall and 7 wide. So it’s a big painting; it changes it from an intimate perspective into something more monumental.

I’ve always found the subject of size in art kind of fascinating, incidentally: not just big paintings versus small ones but the difference between reading a 900 page novel and a 200 page one, or a poem of 14 lines versus one of 400.

Although the comparison between literature and the visual arts doesn’t quite hold up, because you can’t just keep a novel the same but make it twice as long; whereas you could scale a painting or a sculpture. How different would Vermeer’s paintings seem if they were three times the size? Or if Michelangelo had made David life size instead of 17 feet tall?

Indeed we frequently do see works of art in the wrong size, because we often see them in photographs, and it’s not an unusual reaction, I find, to see the real things for the first time and be surprised by their size — like Gauguin, whose paintings were surprisingly small.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 8: van der Weyden

Today’s painter is Rogier van der Weyden. This is, perhaps self-evidently, The Annunciation:

I have a real thing for the painters of the Northern Renaissance: Jan Van Eyck, Memling, Dürer, Holbein, Bruegel, Bosch, Cranach. In fact, I love medieval and renaissance art generally, and that certainly includes the Italians, but for some reason I have special soft spot for the northerners.

It’s appealing to think that there’s some kind of specifically northern European aesthetic, some kind of cultural continuity that stretches over five centuries to form a link between me and them… but that’s the kind of explanation that would annoy me if someone else came up with it. Apart from the fact that it’s too hand-wavy to actually explain anything, it doesn’t match the facts; there’s plenty of art and literature from southern Europe that I love, and plenty of northern stuff that bores me silly.

I guess it has something to do with the fact that the medieval influence lingered longer in the north; the paintings are gloriously well-painted and lavish, but they are still in a more constrained, stylised world. Something about that stiff intricacy appeals to me.

Here’s a detail from the same painting:

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 6: Ingres

Ah, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, what a lot of names he had. And what a fabulous painter he was. Not in a style which is particularly fashionable these days; Neoclassical history paintings and portraits aren’t the sort of thing that would usually draw huge crowds to a London gallery.

But Ingres is brilliant enough and, I think, just odd enough to transcend fashion. He manages to make his subjects look simultaneously seductive and a bit creepy. If this woman (Joséphine-Éléonore-Marie-Pauline de Galard de Brassac de Béarn, princesse de Broglie) turned up in an episode of Doctor Who, you would just know she wasn’t really human. Some kind of hyper-intelligent intergalactic praying mantis disguising herself via a morphobioenergy field, by the looks of her.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 5: Jordaens

I saw this one at the Royal Academy’s exhibition Treasures from Budapest (it normally lives in the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest). The Fall of Man by Jacob Jordaens:

I was really struck by frailty and fleshiness of the figures. Given the C17th taste for larger women, it’s not surprising that Eve doesn’t look like something from Cranach. But Adam looks positively middle-aged. In fact, even though he’s still reaching towards the apple, he looks fallen. And I think it makes for a surprisingly touching image.