Thursday, 18 May 2017

Fra Angelico 5/12

On the 18th of each month this year I'm posting a painting of Fra Angelico's that I've seen and want to share to celebrate his feast day on 18 February. This month I've chosen one of the panels from the triptych in Galleria Corsini in Rome, 'The Ascension'.

I first saw this triptych in an exhibition of Fra Angelico's works in Paris in 2011 at the Musee Jacquemart-Andre as part of its 'Fra Angelico and the Masters of Light' exhibition. It was a joy to see it again in Rome with it's brilliant and fresh colours and straight forward story-telling. It's quite a small triptych but no less gorgeous for it's size.

It's a simple panel showing the risen Christ with the cross of resurrection in his halo in red standing on a cloud while the Virgin and his disciples kneel on the ground below. St Peter is, of course, kneeling beside the Virgin in her deep blue cloak.

The figure I really like is that of the risen Jesus Christ, a calm figure standing with arms outstretched and palms facing the viewer. It's incredibly detailed for a figure that's only about five inches tall. There's a sort of 'combed' effect in the gold leaf emanating out from Christ that gives texture to the gold leaf. This effect will be magical in terms of how the painting would originally have been seen, in flickering candlelight.

Can you imagine seeing this painting in a small, dim chapel with a candle or two in front of it, flickering and moving, making the gold shimmer and move? And there is your Christ standing calm and impassive in the midst of this flickering gold. What must that have been like? I wonder how many people have wept in front of this little altarpiece over the last 500 years or so?

Here is the full triptych for you marvel at and enjoy.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Fra Angelico in Rome

My recent visit to Rome included visiting four places to learn more about Fra Angelico and see more of his works. These included the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, The Niccoline Chapel in the Vatican Museums, the Pinacoteca in the Vatican Museums and the National Gallery of Ancient Art in Palazzo Corsini, also called Galleria Corsini.

Fra Angelico worked in Rome in his later years and died there in 1455. He is buried in Santa Maria sopra Minerva and that's where I found this lovely stained glass window of him at the end of a corridor near his tomb. As a Dominican friar it shows him in his habit of a white robe under a black cloak, paint brush in one hand and the other holding a painting of the Virgin and Child. I couldn't help but smile when I saw this modern day honour.

Fra Angelico's tomb is in the vestibule to the left of the main altar, next to the small Frangipane Chapel. The tomb is about one foot high, made of marble and surrounded by a chain. It is carved with the figure of a friar and the Latin inscription on the bottom reads, 'Here is buried the venerable painter, friar Giovani of Fiesole of the Preachers' Order (1455)'. Just in front of the tomb is a stand for candles to be lit and left for the good Fra, which of course, we did. The Fra is one of the Blessed and, later, I was touched to see three Dominican monks enter the vestibule and walk into the church, and one of them knelt down to touch the tomb as he passed. Fra Angelico was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1982.

The Frangipane Chapel beside the vestibule opens onto the tomb and, from that side, you can read the name inscribed on the side of the tomb, Beato Angelico. Above the altar in the chapel is a painting of the Virgin and Child that was originally thought to be by Fra Angelico but is now ascribed to his pupil, Benozzo Gozzoli. Underneath the painting is an epitaph to Fra Angelico in Latin. As ever, different sources translate it slightly differently but this is the translation from the church itself:

"Do not praise me for having been like another Apelles
But for having given, oh Christ, all my earnings to the poor
There are works indeed that remain on earth and others (that hold good) in heaven
The city, flower of Tuscany, gave me birth."

I've waited a long time to visit the tomb of Fra Angelico so I'm pleased I was finally able to do so.

The next day I wandered down the road beside the Tiber to find the Galleria Corsini and a marvellous triptych by Fra Angelico that I later realised that I'd seen in an exhibition of Fra Angelico's works in the Museo Jacquemart-Andre in Paris in 2011. This is a small altarpiece showing the Ascension, the Last Judgement and Pentecost.


The vibrant colours glow and the gold leaf is laid on in intricate patterns and almost shimmied in the morning sunlight from a nearby window (that didn't shine on the painting itself, of course). It made me imagine seeing the altarpiece in a small, dim chapel, lit only by candles that would flicker and make the golden heaven behind Christ move and bring him to life. I wish someone would do that some day and then film it so we can see how the altarpiece would have looked 500 years ago.

The Galleria Corsini was very quiet when I was there so I could spend plenty of time looking at the painting and it was good to notice the figure of St Peter looks the same in all three parts of the altarpiece - his face is the same, only the hair changes to grey in 'The Last Judgement' since, presumably, that will be some time in the future when he's aged. Sometimes it's the small details that matter in paintings.

One of the jewels of the Vatican Museums is the Niccoline Chapel of Pope Nicholas V which was painted by Fra Angelico and his pupil, Benozzo Gozzoli. It's one of the rooms that is normally closed to visitors to the Vatican but it's possible to book a tour that includes a visit to the chapel. It's a small chapel and the frescoes tell the stories of St Stephen and St Lawrence, early deacons of the church who were martyred. The Fra gives us an abbreviated version of their lives and martyrdom in simple story-telling scenes and gorgeous colours. We see the saints preaching and handing out alms and we see them killed, St Stephen stoned to death and St Lawrence burned alive on a griddle. Not terribly pleasant but a timely reminder to the popes and his cardinals of the trials the early saints went through. As ever, the Fra's narrative designs are easy to follow and it's the detail of the faces and the expressions that draw you into the paintings.


As ever, it's the detail that matters and, in the Niccoline Chapel, there are two details that make me wonder. One is St Stephen preaching to the women of Jerusalem and another is the young man in expensive robes at the court hearing for St Lawrence.

The young man is clearly in the court on the edge of the crowd but seems to be distracted and is looking over he shoulder to where we see St Lawrence being burned alive on the griddle. In part, he's signposting us to the next scene in the story but I wonder what he's thinking? He's wringing his hands so is he wondering if the court has (or is about to) make the right decision? Is he wondering how something this cruel can happen in his presence and why does God allow it? I don't know but I'll consult my book about the restoration of the frescoes to see if it sheds any light on the young man. The Vatican has published a lovely book about the frescoes and their cleaning which is well worth looking at.

Elsewhere in the Vatican Museums is the Pinacoteca, the picture gallery with a range of paintings collected by the Popes over the years. It includes three paintings by Fra Angelico, two predella paintings of the life of St Nicolas of Bari and a small Virgin and Child that, unfortunately, was out on loan when I visited.


The first panel shows the birth of St Nicholas, his discovery of a vocation by listening to a Christian preacher and his giving away of his worldly goods as the dowries for three sisters. The second shows him meeting a legate and providing grain to a city before saving the ship that delivered the grain in a storm. The colours are unmistakably Early Renaissance and the story-telling is Fra Angelico. He can tell a story in a very simple narrative that anyone can read, particularly people at the time who would have had a grounding in the stories of the lives of the saints.


It was disappointing not to see the small Virgin and Child altarpiece but it's also good to know that it's out in the world showing the beauty of Fra Angelico's works and the power of his beliefs.

I will treasure the memories of this trip to Rome to see the glory that is Fra Angelico. I wonder if there are other paintings there that I didn't find? 

Saturday, 6 May 2017

'Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf' at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Last week we went to see 'Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf' at the Harold Pinter Theatre. I've never seen the play and only seen the start of the film - I give up shortly after the shooting starts - so I know it's a bit shouty but that's it. I didn't realise there were some really funny bits as well as squirm-inducing bits. I squirmed more than once. I didn't expect to like this play but I did and that's down to the play, to the actors and to the production as a whole.

The play is about George and Martha, a middle aged couple, and their dysfunctional marriage and is set in their rather shabby living room with a drinks trolley that never stops giving. I don't think it's humanly possible to drink as much as they did and not fall over in a coma, but they make it through to the end. Martha announces she's invited the new maths professor (who keeps reminding them his subject is biology) and his wife over for a night-cap much to George's annoyance since it's late at night and he wants to go to bed, not entertain strangers.

There's a lot of banter and joking, and getting in little digs at each other in front of their guests and it's gradually ramped up to become more vicious, each trying to out manoeuvre each other and get in the best jibe. This isn't a marriage, it's open warfare, especially when Martha changes and starts to seduce the new professor in front of George while he sits with the professor's wife and watches before getting angry. Can it get any worse? O yes, easily.

We're not really watching the breakdown of a marriage so much as the disintegration of two people who stay together for some unexplained reason. Unexplained until the end, that is.

It's a really powerful play with some deeply uncomfortable scenes and the strangest resolution at the end that left feeling sorry for those horrendous characters. Conleth Hill was a bit of a surprise with his poise and great timing, his passive aggressiveness a great foil for Imelda Staunton as shouty Martha. The night belongs to Imelda though, who gives us an exhaustingly intense performance of a middle aged woman out of control in her own world. She gave a truly astonishing performance and I have no idea how she can possibly do that night after night.

If you haven't seen it then you should - something like this doesn't get staged in the West End everyday.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

'Emma Hamilton: Seduction & Celebrity' at the National Maritime Museum

The exhibition about Emma, Lady Hamilton, has now closed at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich but I wanted to record it anyway in the Plastic Bag. Not so much as it was a great exhibition of art but that it shone a light on the life and character of Emma Hamilton, beloved of Horatio Nelson and resident just a couple of miles away from me in her later years.

It was a strange exhibition in some ways, full of bits of paper in glass cases, paintings, books opened at certain pages, a few sculptures and a video film recreating her dancing, a bit of this and that, all trying to tell the story of Emma Hamilton. For me there were a few too many statements like 'we don't know this happened but it's likely to have happened to a girl of her class' type of statements that we're supposed to accept at the curator's say so. Assuming I do accept these statements then that sort of makes her a more remarkable woman given that she ended up living with Britain's hero after the Napoleonic Wars.

It was the story of Emma that was fascinating rather than the exhibits, really. The exhibits helped illustrate her life but I would've preferred more fact and less speculation. There was a roomful of paintings of Emma by George Romney that were, to all intents, pretty bog standard paintings of a woman in various poses and costumes with very little remarkable about them other than they were of Emma. The only one that really caught my eye was 'Emma as Circe' which at least has a dramatic pose. I didn't think the other Romney paintings were terribly good as paintings, let alone helping to tell Emma's story.

We get the tale of a country girl who goes into service in London and who may or may not have been a prostitute, who goes on to come the kept mistress of a rich bloke who trades her to his uncle in Naples who just happens to be a diplomat and who subsequently marries her. She becomes the toast of Naples and meets Nelson and they fall in love but he cant's divorce (because it wasn't the done thing) so they live together. After his death she's no longer flavour of the month and goes into decline, dying in poverty in France. That's a potted version of her story but also a pretty damned grand affair for a little country girl. And very sad.

The best painting was of 'Emma as a Reclining Bacchante' by Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun. Vigee Le Brun was an exquisite portraitist and was at the top of her game when she went to Naples on her European travels keeping away from republican France, and she did several portraits of Lady Emma Hamilton. I saw two of her other portraits at an exhibition in the Grand Palais in Paris a few years ago so it was nice to see this one 'in the flesh' to add to my collection of Vigee Le Brun portraits. She also writes about Emma in her diaries.


All in all, it was a very interesting exhibition that I'm pleased I managed to see. It was strangely busy as well, which was nice to see. Who knew that Emma Hamilton had so many fans?

'An American In Paris' at The Dominion Theatre

One of the big new shows in London at the moment is 'An American In Paris' at the Dominion so we strolled along to see it. I must admit that I've never seen the Gene Kelly film all the way though. I normally give up half way through the film but, now that I'm a ballet fan, then maybe I'll see something different? Peut etre? Well, mebbes...

Despite not having seen the full film before, it looked very much like a faithful reconstruction of the main scenes and, I think, that made it look a bit dated. I've seen lots of old musicals but they don't have to feel dated and of their time but this one did. Perhaps it was the scenes projected onto the back of the stage of the end of the war and American soldiers returning home - or not in the case of our hero? There was a great flash of the French Tricolour fluttering in the breeze and that's almost guaranteed to raise the spirits as it comes at the end of the war.

So, OK, we have a couple of American soldiers who happen to meet and their Parisian chum at the end of the Second World War and Paris starts to get back to normal, but only starts. One wants to be a great artist, another a musician and the other a cabaret star. And they meet a young dancer who wants to be ballerina and who, unbeknownst to the Americans is to become the finance of the Parisian chum and they fall in love with her. It's actually a rather bog-standard old Hollywood-type story and that's possibly the nub of the problem I had with the show.

For all the hype and ticket prices I think I expected something more lavish, more staging and props - and certainly more glamour - to fill up the huge Dominion stage but I didn't feel that we got that other than the cabaret 'dream sequence' in the second half. I thought the singing and dancing was good, it's the story that lets it down really and I didn't particularly care about the characters. It's a bit unsatisfactory and that's quite probably why I've never seen the film all the way through despite it being a Sunday afternoon staple years ago. I always assumed it was the dancing that put me off but I now think it's the story and the rather drab, stereotypical characters.

I hate to be negative about Christopher Wheeldon who directed and choreographed the show (he works with the Royal Ballet, after all) but I wasn't blown away by the show. Maybe my expectations were blown up by the hype about the show? I didn't dislike the show but it's not on my list of things to see again if I can. I liked the two leads of Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope who are both ballet dancers (former New York City Ballet and Royal Ballet respectively) and I thought Robert had a great signing voice. It just wasn't my cup of tea.

Quite a high portion of the audience seemed to be old enough to have seen the film on release in 1951 so I suspect the show will have a good run, bolstered by people wanting to know what the fuss is about. I wish it well.

'The Glass Menagerie' at the Duke of York's Theatre

The last time I was at the Duke of York's was to see the dire version of 'Dr Faustus' with Kit Harrington so I didn't have high hopes for my return to see 'The Glass Menagerie'. Some things linger.

I don't have a good track record with 'The Glass Menagerie'. My first viewing was in 2006 in Toronto, the evening I arrived in Canada and having front row seats and falling asleep in front of the table with the menagerie on stage. A cold beer at half time and walk in the snowy courtyard helped to wake me up and I stayed awake during the second half. Then there was the awful version at the Young Vic a few years ago  that tried to be daring and just failed. And now this version... OK, I can take it.... And I did.

I've only heard good things about this production but that's not enough to reassure me (the critics liked that awful 'Dr Faustus' after all).  So I quizzed Chris about what he actually liked about the play, what made him want to go back and see a new production. He said it was (partially) the poetry in the writing. Poetry? Where? What have I missed? Mmmm I thought, this time I'll listen out for any poetry and see what I hear. I will try not to get drawn into the story and remain a dispassionate observer.  I even had nice strong black coffee before the performance to make sure I don't snooze off.

It's the tale of Tom, a young man working in a factory in St Louis and his frustrating relationship with his mother and sister, his father having fled the family home many years ago. He works to keep the family home together but he'd much rather travel the world and become a writer. His mother is a southern belle who remembers the old days and ways and thinks she is still a lady despite their poverty. His sister is disabled and terribly shy but not as disabled as she thinks and I was pleased to see that in this production her limp was there but not overly-pronounced. It's her shyness that's her real problem. Tom says right up front that these are his memories, he's not trying to be objective and that's part of the power of the piece.

The family has it's ups and downs, mainly downs, and, on the critical night of the play, a 'gentleman caller' arrives who stirs things up for the family and leads to the argument between Tom and his mother that leads him to leave. And years later, as we learn, he still feels guilt about that night and his fleeing the family home leaving them to who knows what future. I can understand that but, I'd have left that home years earlier from sheer frustration with the mother.

Despite having a poor record with this play, can I admit that ... I quite liked it. This production seems to have brought the play to life in ways earlier productions have failed. I liked that the daughter's limp wasn't pronounced, liked that Tom was actually quite naturalistic with both mother and sister, liked the gradual opening up of the sister with her gentleman caller and her bravery in giving him the broken unicorn... actually, I liked quite a lot. I still have a problem with the 'southern belle' act of the mother - that alone would have made me leave much sooner!

The set was simple and relatively sparse and I loved the theatricality of Tom pulling his sister through the couch (into which she vanishes at the end). It was well acted, well directed, staged and lit and the sounds by Nico Mulhy all fit together nicely. All four actors deserve to be mentioned: Cherry Jones as the awful mother and Michael Esper as son Tom, with Kate O'Flynne and Brian J Smith. They meshed together well and convincingly. I'm not saying I liked it but, well, I didn't dislike it either.


And the poetry? I think I heard some but maybe I have to have another viewing of this play to really start to absorb it? We'll see...

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

'Queer British Art 1861 - 1967' at Tate Britain

I popped into the Tate and headed to the new 'Queer British Art' exhibition, not really knowing what I'd find there. The dates for the exhibition are quite specific since 1861 was when the death penalty was repealed for sodomy and 1967 was the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain. I was a bit surprised to walk into the first room that was full of Victorian and pre-Raphael-lite paintings in big frames and a statue by Frederick Leighton RA. It was also the start of my confusion about what the exhibition was about. Perhaps the important thing is that it made me think?

Is this an exhibition about queer artists and their work (queer and otherwise in theme)? pictures of queer artists across the arts? Or... something else? There's the portrait of Lytton Strachey with his long fingers by Dora Carrington, a lovely and loving portrait of a gay man by a sometimes bisexual woman who loved him but why is it in this exhibition? There's nothing sexual in any way about the portrait other than the artist and subject are both sort of gay. But I don't see this as a 'gay' painting, I see it as a great portrait and as a letter of love between the artist and the sitter.

Then there are Duncan Grant's definite and defiantly sexual drawings of men together - he was gay and the subject is gay so they qualify, right? Then we have Leighton's naked young men in classical poses that are described as homoerotic but they looked like any other Victorian 'classical' stuff to me. It was fashionable and sold well so why does that make Leighton a 'queer' artist, particularly when he was known to be keeping his main female models in comfort? Or is the theory now that they his 'beards'? I suspect that Leighton's contemporary Alma-Tadema did more male nudes but he's not included in the exhibition.


A further room is the 'theatrical' room full of early photos and drawings of theatrical types from the Victorian and Edwardian eras up to a lovely photo of Danny La Rue. This, again, seems to suggest that the exhibition is about LGBT people rather than anything else. And the tempo changes again an in the 'Bloomsbury room'. I think I need to go back to see this exhibition again and see it with fresh eyes. What am I supposed to be seeing here and does it matter? Perhaps I'm over-thinking this and should see this as a exhibition about social change rather than an investigation into how 'queer art' might be different to 'straight' art.

I think my favourite paintings were the portraits such as Carrington's portrait of Lytton Strachey and William Strang's portrait of Vita Sackville-West called Lady With A Red Hat'. I've seen reproductions of this painting before but never seen the real thing in all it's rich gorgeousness of colour.  It's a really striking image fun of primary colours with Vita holding a pose. The red of the hat reflected in the red of the book and her green jacket and yellow skirt. The plain background really pulls the eye to her face, trapped between jacket and hat.  She's clearly going out to lunch and wants to read some of the poems in the book to her friends but has just stopped by for a quick portrait. Posing hasn't become a bore just yet but it soon will and the eyes will become steely.

I also really liked the portrait of Dame Edith Sitwell by Alvaro Guevara, full of colours with the rugs and her rich dress. It's a bit of an odd portrait that made me take a second glance.

I also liked the portrait of Joe Orton by Lewis Morley after his Christine Keeler photos. So, here we have a gay man imitating the pose of a women and what does this tell us about queer art? Is Orton just saying 'look at me, I'm as pretty as Keeler in my own way'? or is he just having a bit of fun. I suspect the latter.

I think one of the most 'queer' works on display (other than Duncan Grant's erotic drawings) was this painting by Henry Scott Tuke. At one level it's just a couple of young men chatting on a beach while their friend, or possibly a stranger, swims in the bay. Lovely sun-dappled skin and sea, a shingle beach and the lads full of life. One is naked so has possibly just come back from swimming or is about to plunge in. And then you notice the title is 'The Critics' and thats a train of other thoughts. What are they criticising? They're both looking at their possible friend in the sea so it seems like they're judging him in some way, maybe assessing their chances of a liaison with him and whether he'd be up for it? There were other paintings in similar vein by Tuke but I think this was my favourite.


It's an interesting exhibition despite confusing me as to what it was meant to be about. The main thing is that it made me think and that's a good thing.