The impressive new exhibition, 'A New Era: Scottish Modern Art 1900-1950,' at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, highlights the most experimental Scottish art of the first half of the 20th century, featuring paintings and sculpture by 51 artists who were influenced by various movements shaking up mainstream European art at the time, particularly fauvism, futurism, cubism, vorticism and surrealism.
The colourists, S J Peploe and J D Fergusson, working in Paris before the first world war, found their 'raucous and exuberant' colours initially dismissed by the conservative Scottish art establishment. Here one of Peploe's still lives from 1913 shows him flirting with cubism, which he later abandoned. Ferguson's iconic statuesque female nudes are here represented by 'At my Studio Window' from 1910 and an energetic, if enigmatic, portrayal of sexual intercourse in 'Etude de Rhythme,' from the same year.
Sir Stanley Cursiter, later the monarch's painter and limner in Scotland, establishment portraitist and tireless campaigner for a separate Scottish gallery of modern art, is represented by three striking paintings from 1913, inspired by futurism. This movement, originating in Italy, was inspired by the new technology of the industrial age. Of these 'The Sensation of Crossing the Street – West End, Edinburgh,' creates a vibrant kaleidoscope of criss-crossing trams, passengers and hurrying pedestrians. You can almost hear the clang and jangle of bells and horns.
Vorticism was primarily interested in machines. William McCance was its star Scottish exponent. His 'Mediterranean Hill Town, 1923' presents a rural landscape remoulded as a vast colourful machine bulging out of the surrounding hills, while his 'Heavy Structures in a Landscape Setting, 1922' evokes a gun emplacement primed with sharpened arrows.
The vorticists' heyday was cut short by the mechanised horrors of the first world war. Eric Robertson experienced these firsthand when he joined the Friends' Ambulance Unit in 1916. His dramatic 'Shellburst, c.1919' shows the impact of such an explosion, from its fiery volcanic upsurge to the coils of black smoke looming over soldiers cowering in the trenches. Ironically, while well aware of its lethal nature, he found himself 'gazing with a look of wonder and exhilaration at the beauty of the reality.'
Surrealism is well represented. The dark storm clouds of William Johnstone's massive, brooding 'A Point in Time' grew out of his 'horror of the disease of war' and a foreboding of future catastrophe in the early 1930s. Robert Henderson Blyth's 'In the Image of Man, 1947' was inspired by the later dreadful saturation bombings of the second world war. In the foreground a surrealist-inspired, crucified Christ figure hangs headless and shattered above a landscape of charred and ruined buildings. In contrast, William Crosbie's 'La Vie Distraite, 1939' and 'Womb from Womb, 1941' are more intimate and self-reflective.
Only seven women artists are included. Why so few? Of these, three stand out. From 1923 Beatrice Huntington has a memorable portrait of an Andalucian muleteer. Agnes Miller Parker, who married McCance, has two paintings of human gatherings: the predominantly male world of 'The Horse Fair, 1928,' and the contrasting female world of London nannies, prams and babies in 'Round Pond (Serpentine), 1930.' Wilhelmina Barns-Graham has a pallid glacier painting from 1950, foreshadowing her later focus on abstraction.
These are only a few highlights from this excellent exhibition. They reveal Scottish artists of a period dominated by two world wars as responsive to new forms and concepts, willing to experiment with them and to bring their own distinctly individual response to them. They were not only Scots by birth, upbringing or artistic training, but also forward-looking Europeans.
This Saturday two very fine actresses will stand on the stage of the Duke of
York's Theatre in London dressed in identical gender-neutral dark suits. They, and their audience, will watch a coin spin on a gold plate. If the coin shows 'heads', one of the actresses will leave the stage and prepare to play the role of Queen Elizabeth. The other will stay on stage and will immediately become Mary Queen of Scots in Robert Icke's production of
'Mary Stuart' by Friedrich Schiller.
Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams will do this nightly for the next few months. It's not a gimmicky stunt. It genuinely allows an exploration of the lives of these two extraordinary women who were thrown together in one of the great chapters of our history. You might say two sides of the same coin. At the time of the spin, the performers have to be prepared to play either of two of the most demanding roles in theatre. They have to be prepared in an instant to become either queen. They also have to be prepared to trust each other and selflessly support and illuminate each other through a long evening, always mindful that they might be playing the other role at tomorrow's matinee.
I was thinking of this constantly whilst binge-watching the eight episodes of 'Feud' on BBC iPlayer over the Christmas period. This utterly compulsive series explores the tortured relationship between Bette Davis and Joan
Crawford while filming 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane' and its aftermath for their careers. History and geography plunged these actresses together just as it did Mary and Elizabeth. With their vicious battling, on and off set, the prospect of watching Bette and Joan awaiting the spin of a coin in a West End theatre would be be worth the ticket price alone. In performance, Davis might have had a head start as she played Elizabeth twice on film and had much more stage experience, but which of them would have ended up minus a head would be anyone's guess.
Jessica Lange as Crawford and Susan Sarandon as Davis are extraordinary in 'Feud'. Who knows how much of the invented dialogue is any more authentic than Schiller's fictions in 'Mary Stuart,' but the performers show a sympathy and cooperation in their scenes together that must have been rare on the set of 'Baby Jane.' They also show that powerful equals like Mary and Elizabeth, and Bette and Joan, make for quite the most exquisite conflict. Thoroughly recommended.
My range of theatre-going has widened thanks to two grandchildren who love theatre and the over-priced ice creams that go with a visit. We took them to see 'Annie' at the Piccadilly theatre in London. The grandchildren's father was the age they are today when we saw the original production in New York. He was seven and suffering jetlag, but woke up for the musical numbers and snoozed through the dialogue scenes, still managing to keep a vague grip on the story, which includes a cute dog as well as President Roosevelt singing 'Tomorrow' from his wheelchair.
During the intervening years the grandchildren saw the movie, directed by John Huston, so they are au fait with the plot although bemused by the man in a wheelchair running forward to take his bows. Albert Finney once told us that to celebrate finishing the film of 'Annie', he took Huston to dinner. To expose a wine snob and knowing that Huston's favourite wine was a 1952 Chateau Lafite, he re-mortgaged his house and instructed the restaurant to decant two bottles. He then ordered the house wine ('surprisingly good, John') which was poured and consumed without comment. Towards the end of the meal, Finney asked what Huston thought of the house wine and Huston replied 'I'd say it was a Chateau Lafite, 1952, and very generous of you.'
'Annie' reminded me in the simplest way why we like theatre. It can seize you and make your eyes water with nothing more than sentiment. Stories of loyalty, misery or hope can bring tears to the driest eye. And 'Annie' watered us well. The ice creams weren't bad either.
I came across two sentences, recently which carry the essential truth: 'I love the theatre, just love it. But going to the theatre is a whole other thing.'
Last month I found myself in the Palace Theatre, Kilmarnock, to see the local pantomime 'Dick Whittington and his Cat.' At 6pm the red velveteen curtains opened to reveal a small scruffy stage on which a fairy godmother, dressed in a glittering gown, apparently a well-known face in 'River City,' spoke in endless rhyme, mentioning local landmarks and streets. And then came the villain – a rat – the hero, his cat, the love interest, dame and friendly idiot.
Each character adopted an irritating, over-the-top, Scottish drawl which was hard to pick up, with no resemblance to local dialect. But the jokes – and I use that term loosely – were unforgivable. Most were about male genitalia or sex, and were lost on 80% of the audience. The 80% consisting of children from local Brownies, youth groups and schools. The jokes sank lower still. 'We've bin robbed? I didnae ken we'd moved tae Irvine.' Followed by: 'What'll we dae with nae runnin' water and electricity?' 'Ach well, folk in Auchinleck live like that a' the time.' After that, a male dancer was called a 'puff', the characters lived happily ever after, and we took part in a singalong of 'You Canny Shove Yer Grannie aff a Bus.'
Itching to leave, all that remained were the special 'shout-outs' to the audience. Fifteen minutes later, having mentioned practically everyone in the theatre, we were free to go and made a speedy exit avoiding eye-contact with others. Was it simply bad writing and poor judgement, or is this what pantomimes are like now? Suffice to say, I think I'll miss out the torment this year.
A long time ago, in a galaxy rather similar to this one, I wrote a feature for the Scotsman to coincide with the advent of the first 'Star Wars' prequel, 'The Phantom Menace.' How odd, I said at the time, to be about to see a new episode in the saga after so many years, having been only a small child when the last of them was released. Then I actually saw it and my adult brain (well, my 20-something brain) was struck by George Lucas's ability to lurch between stunning visual inventiveness and stupefyingly bad dialogue and characterisation. He seemed to command a blend of genius and banality unseen in any popular artist since Charles Dickens.
Three years later, I dragged myself dutifully to the next one, 'Attack of the Clones,' which was the purest distillation of awfulness. But when I saw the final one, 'Revenge of the Sith,' in 2005, I found myself agreeing with such distinguished persons as the academic Camille Paglia and the pointy-headed New Yorker film critic, Richard Brody, that its last half hour or so amounted to something rather magnificent: a grand tragedy conveyed via an amazing digital colour palette.
Then, after a long break, Disney bought the rights to the franchise and released a new film, 'The Force Awakens,' directed by JJ Abrams in 2015. For all the grumbling about its lack of originality, I loved it, because it accomplished the one trick you can't just throw money at: it created characters of warmth, integrity and humour and then elicited enormously charming performances from the actors chosen to portray them. No mean feat in any movie.
Now we have the follow-up,' The Last Jedi,' which I saw on Boxing Day. Where its predecessor was smoothly confident and reassuring while somehow feeling fresh, this one is all over the place. There are wonderful scenes in it – pure pop poetry in the grand tradition – but so much of the pacing and the transitions between those scenes feels jarring and clumsy. It had been praised by the type of film critics (I'm looking at you, Kermode) who don't know much about 'Star Wars' and care less. A great deal of the pre-publicity has focused on the fact that writer/director Rian Johnson is a true auteur, not a mainstream hack like JJ Abrams. But it slowly dawns on you while you watch it that perhaps 'hacks' possess a subtler range of gifts than is usually acknowledged – not least a certain humility with regard to respecting what the audience most craves on a trip to the cinema.
It also confirmed a feeling I've had for some time now that most blockbusters eventually become (as their special effects date and their once urgent pace slackens) mere backdrops for their musical scores. People mock John Williams for being derivative, but his 'Star War' music still overflows with passion and melody – as does Miklos Rozsa's score for 'The Thief of Baghdad' and Arthur Bliss's for 'Things to Come.' Music, even film music, is art composed of brilliantly chosen notes. Fiction and poetry are art composed of brilliantly chosen words. Epic films, with their clutter of soon-to-be-outmoded technology, are something else.
Even as President Donald Trump is wilfully abandoning the USA's role as leader of the free world many of us turn a curious, if somewhat untutored, eye to the alternative and face, not least, the linguistic difficulties in getting to grips with Chinese culture.
Scotland is fortunate in having not only its indigenous population of Scottish Chinese but also a large population of Chinese students who have brought in their wake a veritable smorgasbord of cultural offerings. One such is the recent showing of the film 'Youth' by the renowned and controversial director Feng Xiaogang.
Set in the Chinese cultural revolution of the 70s, the military entertainment troupes represented not only a refuge for talented and privileged youth, but also a fearful 'safe' place hidden in public gaze for the children of disgraced and persecuted parents. Everything about this film is of the first order of excellence: the casting is subtle, the costumes, sets, special effects, musical score and continuity let you understand why Feng has swept the board at so many western film festivals.
The classic style of storytelling owes more to Tolstoy than Dickens. The great sweep from personal love story to the geopolitical is 'War and Peace' rather than the narrower social justice landscape of Dickens or Zola. The environment of 'Youth' is the throat-constricting fearfulness of the cultural revolution, the event is the Sino Vietnamese war of 1979. The hero, a Stakanovite exemplification of every party virtue. The ill-starred lovers, youth compromised and tempered, drained by war of every psychological and physical resource. The redemptive power of love provides the fitting universal solution.
This is a 'weepy' par excellence! I cry because it is an excellent weepy. My Scottish Chinese friend by my side weeps uncontrollably because 'the film is my life. They have got it exactly.' A daughter of Hunan, the child of an officer of Mao's long march, she had found relative safety in exactly such an entertainment troupe before, like the heroine of the film, being 'demoted' to the horror of an army field hospital.
It is at once a cathartic event for my friend and a moving introduction to the excellence of current Chinese film-making.
The Clyde Valley was once Scotland's largest commercial orchard area. Then came decline from the growth of supermarkets and cut-price competition. But the memories remain and the latest CD from the Lanarkshire Songwriters Group is a joy to listen to. They have gathered stories from people involved in the industry and turned them into songs – and what wonderful songs. John Young tells how his grandmother used to travel from Glasgow to pick berries:
There were red berries, blueberries, blackberries too,
Raspberries, gooseberries, strawberries new.
And when the day was over and our baskets they were fu’
We’d take the last train hame fae the valley-o.
Gordon Neil's great-grandfather had tomato houses and a once flourishing fruit business:
And I sometimes wonder when things go under
When the duster wipes the slate
And for a’ life’s aches and pains, a’ that remains
Is a half ounce weight.
Ian Mairs describes how the growers sent cartloads of fruit to a depot in Carstairs, for onward rail freight to Glasgow and Edinburgh:
Those were the days that we gathered the berries
The rasps and the damsons, tomatoes and cherries.
We filled up the crates and we put them on carts
Our young backs were strong and so were our hearts.
Apples and plums, peaches and pears,
We rode in the cart all the way to Carstairs.
There is a rich mix of accompaniment – guitar and mandolin, hammer dulcimer and harmonica – and recorded and mixed so well by Andy Munro at Libberton, and it is rounded off with a closing track which I think is destined to become a classic. Billy Stewart looks back at his father's work as a nurseryman and his first love of engineering and wonders: 'Did you really want to work on the land Dad?' The song has the warmth of the earth and the flow of the river, and from the very first bars of introduction you will want to stand up and join in the chorus and then play it again and again – and then to set off for Lanarkshire to hear the Lanarkshire Songwriters at first hand. With its 16 songs and their stories, this CD is the perfect way to start a year.
Just before Christmas on a dreich evening we went to see Scottish Ballet's production of 'Nutcracker' at Edinburgh's Festival Theatre. I must confess that the predictability of classical ballet is often an attraction for me and I knew that Peter Darrell's production would reassure me and I would not be challenged by any Bourne variations.
A good-natured audience of all ages appreciated the stylish production. The large orchestra did justice to Tchaikovsky's score; the beauty and precision of the dancers, from the Sugar plum fairy to the mice were complemented by the clever, colourful costumes and sets. The large theatre was comfortably full but at the end some excited groups of young prospective ballerinas were able to practise their steps on the stairways and foyer on the way out. It would be a bleak soul who did not feel cheered by the evening's entertainment.
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