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Review | Krzysztof Gil: Welcome to the Country Where the Gypsy has been Hunted at l’étrangère

Installation view, Krzysztof Gil, Welcome to the Country where the Gypsy Has Been Hunted, 2018. Photo: Andy Keate, Courtesy of l’étrangère

On view at l’étrangère gallery in East London is the first ever UK solo exhibition by the Polish Roma artist Krzysztof Gil. Entitled Welcome to the Country Where the Gypsy Has Been Hunted, the show takes as its point of departure the contested practice of ‘Heidenjachten’, literally – gypsy hunting – the legally sanctioned hunting of Roma people for sport that took place throughout Germany and the Netherlands from the seventeenth until as late as the nineteenth centuries.


Both legally and socially marginalised throughout their history, Krzysztof Gil’s family originates from the Burgetka Roma community who settled in the Polish region of Podhale in the fifteenth century – at a time when Roma peoples were dissuaded from following their traditional lifestyles for fear of severe punishment or enslavement. Their persecution was then codified in law, as the sixteenth century was marked by anti-Roma legislation passed by the then Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I, which meant that any Roma individual captured anywhere throughout the imperial territory could be subjected to torture and extermination. In 1530, Roma were legally banished from England, and in 1540, from Scotland. An official sport in seventeenth century middle Europe, the ‘Heidenjachten’ were a form of public entertainment – organised by the authorities and often with cash prizes awarded for a hunter’s success.


Despite the at once horrific and disturbing nature of this practice, many Roma believe their ongoing state of persecution to be both inevitable and unavoidable. Tellingly, as the artist notes, in Roma culture, there is no reflection on history – it is as ephemeral and transient as their way of life. Whilst the history of gypsy hunting might exist in official records, its specific practice is not explicitly part of Roma self-awareness.


A diverse yet stateless population of approximately 9 to 12 million people, Roma people speak many languages, practice different religions and have varied customs. A culture that places great weight on language as a marker of identity, Roma traditions are passed down orally through the generations, through songs, stories and folklore that are contained within their community. When asked why Roma history was only spoken and not recorded in writing, the Romani poet and singer known as Papusza is said to have replied: “There is too much pain and too many tears in this history.”


As such, their lives do not exist within the narratives of mainstream European history (at least beyond the stereotype of mystical, exoticised poverty), and, importantly for Gil, nor in western art history. For obvious reasons, Roma are left out of the inherited histories that come from those with wealth and land – and the attendant development of visual culture that documents power and visibility.


Yet the experience of centuries of persecution manifests itself vividly, and for Gil, his objective is to document and retell these narratives of violence, and in so doing draw attention to their place within both historical and contemporary consciousness. As a fine arts student at the academy in Kraków in Poland, Gil’s teachers tried to convince him that his heritage belonged in the past, and that is was not an appropriate (read: contemporary) subject for his practice. In his work, then, Gil takes up this challenge: how to represent and reclaim these forgotten and often painful histories of displaced Roma people, in a way that is both relevant to his culture and authentic to his artistic voice.


At l’étrangère, the notion of being hunted has been used by the artist with powerful effect. The installation, entitled TAJSA Yesterday and Tomorrow (2018) is a shelter-like construction made from raw canvas, animal furs and fragments of wooden planks and connected with threads, ropes and bone glue – imitating the simple, humble and temporary houses erected by itinerant Roma communities throughout history. Stepping inside the structure is a visceral experience: the dirt floor (with soil transported from Poland) under foot, and pungent, animalistic smell assail the viewer’s senses. Inside the shelter hangs a traditional talismanic object made from human hair and wax, surrounded by a large panoramic tableau that, by the light of a slow-moving spotlight, teases out a procession of hunters, animals and human corpses, drawn with white chalk on a black background. More than a little disquieting, a pervasive sense of fear has been brought into the installation with claustrophobic intensity.


Gil’s cast of seventeenth century characters have been inspired by the Rembrandt painting, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632), in which Dr Tulp presents a public dissection to members of the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons. The drawings of the hunters’ trophy heap, which includes a deer, hare and bird, perversely resembles the aesthetisised paintings of the Dutch still life tradition.


Played inside the installation is a soundtrack that juxtaposes the remote history of hunted Roma people with Gil’s own family history and the contemporary moment. The sound component consists of a recorded conversation between the artist and his grandmother, in which she tells the story of her father, who was murdered in post-WWII Podhale after making remarks that called into question the quality of work of his Polish colleagues. His death was concluded to be an accident by doctors and the authorities, and the perpetrators went unpunished.


Gil interviewed his grandmother as part of his PhD project that researched Roma stories, at a time that coincided with his own increased public presence as a kind of poster boy for ‘good’ or productive Roma members of Polish society. The vitriol and vandalism with which his advertising likeness was met inevitably left Gil feeling wholly persecuted, a kind of modern-day gypsy hunt.


The period connections to the seventeenth century are obvious, yet it is also Gil’s sensitivity to materials – the fur, fabric and wood of the shelter, the ornate costumes of his figures – and their tactility that creates a link with the Baroque painting tradition, and what it asked of the viewer. In a reaction against the fixity, stability and feigned classical order of the Renaissance, Baroque painting wanted to grip its audience with theatrical extravagance, believing that art should communicate with direct and emotional involvement. In the second room of the gallery are Gil’s series of portraits in the style of the Old Masters, which overlay notions of self-commemoration and the transience of life onto the experience of the Roma.


In this exhibition, Gil presents a historical form of temporary accommodation in the gallery space – which has itself been packed down and transported, piece by piece, from Kraków to London, mimicking the peripatetic journeys of Roma people. The wider ramifications of the notion of shelter then links the past with the present, and to the millions of people around the globe who seek shelter in temporary accommodation; the transitory experience of migrants, the marginalised, and anyone made to feel unwelcome in their homes, whatever form they may take.


In Romani language, the ‘tajsa’ of the work’s title is a word that means both yesterday and tomorrow, a compressed conception of time that is significant within Roma culture and also provides a guiding structure for Gil’s installation. As he says,


“Romani language does not have separate words for ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’. Instead ‘tajsa’ is used in different combination with other words to describe the notion of either ‘yesterday’ or ‘tomorrow’. By taking ‘tajsa’ out of context, I treat it metaphorically, as an expression of the past and the future at the same time. History informs the future, and we still live with the consequences of the laws that were enacted in the seventeenth century.”


‘Welcome to the Country Where the Gypsy Has Been Hunted’ by Krzysztof Gil is on view until 5 January 2019 at l’étrangère, 44a Charlotte Road, London EC2A 3 PD. For more details visit l’étrangère. 

Words by Annie Carpenter.

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Review | Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde at The Barbican

George Platt Lynes, Paul Cadmus and Jared French, 1937.

The centrifugal drive behind much of the work featured in the Barbican’s Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde is enunciated by Rodin in the first gallery: ‘I express in a loud voice what all artists think. Desire! Desire! What a formidable stimulant.’ By exhibiting the work of artistic couples, including letters, books, music, and visual art, the show aims to demonstrate how desire affects artistic practice, and how artistic practice affects desire; we see how each inflames, distorts, inspires and destroys the other.

Auguste Rodin, Mask of Camille Claudel, 1889.
Frida Kahlo, La Venadita, 1946.

The show begins with two couples, sculptors Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel, and composers Gustav and Alma Mahler. Both relationships took place at the end of the 19th century and retained patriarchal inflections which subsequent artist-couples strove to shed. Rodin encouraged Claudel’s work and collaborated with her on some fine clay miniatures of lovers entwined like tree roots. But the bust of her featured here, with the joins of the cast visible, hints at the cracks beneath the surface; in 1905 she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and confined by her brother to an asylum for the last 30 years of her life, despite doctors trying to convince her family that she was well enough to leave.

The case of Alma Mahler is probably the only instance in the show of one half of a couple trying to inhibit the work of the other; Gustav felt his wife ought to support him to an extent that would leave no time for her own compositions. However, after consulting with Freud he relented and we have the results here; beautiful and haunting next to the bombastic scores of her husband, Alma’s work is a highlight of what this exhibition does so well: show us the unknown work of the other half.

The majority of the exhibition is dedicated to avant-garde artists of the early 20th century: couples like Salvador Dalí and Federico Garcia Lorca, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Raoul Hausmann and Hannah Höch. It is in this period when notions of desire began to open up alongside artistic visions: we have ménages-à-trois or more, polygamy, gay and lesbian relationships, swapping, transsexualism, and interracial affairs running in parallel with Surrealism, Rayonism, Orphism, and the birth of photography as an art form. The exhibition’s strongest and weakest points are to be found as we progress through this period. Its exploration of large networks allows us to make new connections between disparate artists; I came to Romaine Brooks’ portraits of Luisa Casati and Natalie Clifford Barney in the context of a cross-Channel network of lesbian artists including Woolf, Djuna Barnes, and Gertrude Stein. What drew me to Brooks’ paintings were the backgrounds, indistinct but hinting at underlying structure. We see the features of an English coastline and a Paris street blurred by mist, a technique which aligns these prosaic settings with (in the portrait of Casati) an abstract Erebus in which the subject appears as sorceress or Fury.

Fritz G Walker, Emilie Flöge in Chinese Imperial Costume from the Qing Dynasty in the Gardens of the Villa Paulick in Seewalchen at Attersee 13th or 14th September 1913, 1913.

However, as we expand beyond the well-trodden paths of modernist Paris, London and Vienna, the show loses its focus. That’s not to say there isn’t wonderful work here: the photography of George Platt Lynes, Paul Cadmus and Jared French is beautifully composed, and Sonia and Robert Delaunay’s respective textiles and paintings echo one another with ecstatic vibrancy. But as couple after couple is introduced with only enough space to show a few works, the exhibition fails to give a wide enough representation of their respective oeuvres or only includes minor work, and I left feeling overwhelmed with small portions. I understand and encourage the desire to go beyond the familiar, but when introducing lesser known artists like Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt it would have been advantageous to allow their work more time and space. The sheer scope and ambition of the exhibition can make individual pairings feel rushed.

Sonia Delaunay, Stroll, 1923.

That said, though several couples failed to make an impression, there is such a range of work in different mediums and different styles here from so many artists that whatever their background, visitors are bound to be pleasantly surprised by at least one new discovery. I came away with amazement at Delaunay’s textiles, handmade with colourful repeating patterns which pop and fizz like champagne and fireworks, and with an appreciation for Eileen Grey and Jean Badovici’s efforts to create a fluid, interactive architecture against Le Corbusier’s ‘machine for living’. And despite Claude Cajun’s letter to Marcel Moore in which he said ‘I am the work of your life’, the show thankfully resists biographical interpretations of the art. We get the necessary information of who knew whom, for how long and where, but no generalisations such as that art and passion cannot coexist before one destroys the other. In fact on one wall a timeline of each relationship demonstrates the surprising longevity of many of the couples: Benedetta and Filippo Marinetti together from 1918 until 1944, Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko from 1914 to 1956, Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov from 1907 to 1962. All three groups remained couples until the death of one of their members.

Modern Couples is a significant show, an extensive survey of modernism that embodies an original viewpoint which genuinely sheds new light on the period, and will hopefully lead to further such explorations. Though somewhat overambitious in its attempt to include so many artists, it nevertheless offers abundant surprises and delights.

Words by Mathis Clément

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde will be at the Barbican Centre until 27th January 2019. More information here.

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Review | Focus Kazakhstan: Postnomadic Mind


Stepping into Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, originally built in 1890 to power the machinery of industrial London, the similarities between the history of the space and the exhibition currently situated within it become immediately apparent.

With its spaces of former industry now playing host to bars and art galleries, it seems apt that London — the former ‘factory of the world’ — should be the starting point for an exhibition series where post-industry and a changing of national/cultural paradigms are the prominent themes.

The country in this case is Kazakhstan, a vast country which stretches across central Asia, taking up a land mass close to that of mainland Europe. Until visiting this exhibition I was unaware of this, my only ideas and imaginations of the country being deeply rooted in its former being, pre-1991, as a Soviet state.

“Postnomadic Mind” is the first of four exhibitions that make up the Focus Kazakhstan project, the others taking place in Berlin, New York, and Suwon in South Korea. Although the sense of the past life of the Hydraulic Power Station is prominent, the space, near the site of the former London docks, seems almost purpose built for the art currently exhibited within it, dealing with as it does the question of epochal change between the Soviet era and Kazakhstan’s identity post-independence.

A common theme of the exhibition is the mixing of motifs between an idealised vision of a nomadic, rural people, and the transition to a post-industrial nation grappling with the pros and cons of globalisation. This can be seen in the work of artists such as Syrlybek Bekbotayev, whose piece The Modernist Paradigm shows a naturalistic painting of a nomadic family painted on to a series of rotating wooden mechanisms, each with each rotation forming new abstractions of the same image.

While the more conceptual installation work is the most striking and dominating of the range of the art that sprawls through the various caverns of the power station — the felt tapestry piece Labyrinth by Gulnur Mukazhanova being a memorable standout — there is also a strong painterly presence, such as the work of Vladimir Eyfert, whose 1957 painting Blizzard captivated me with its depictions of barren industrial landscapes in the midst of winter, which creates a feeling that is equal parts bleakness and optimism.

But despite the obvious progressive ideas of the artists in post-Soviet Kazakhstan, it is the art which alludes to the victims of the Great Purge in the 1930s th era that give the exhibition its definition. In particular Asel Kadyrkhanova piece Machine, in which endless reams of red emit from a 1930s cyrrilic typewriter, which then pin up hundreds of copies of real arrest warrants from the era, which also line the floor.

It is a moving, tragic piece, but one that gives the scope of Kazakhstan’s development, or at least, the development of its artists. For in this, the first major international retrospective of the nation’s contemporary art, the overwhelming takeaway is the depth and future of its art culture, and the vast possibility for the new identities and histories that its artists are forging, both national and personal.

Focus Kazakhstan: Postnomadic Mind will be at the Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, London, E1W 3SG until Tuesday 16 October. Tickets available here.

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Words by Robert Greer

Interview | Cradeaux Alexander


American video and performance artist Cradeaux Alexander presents a mid-career retrospective this month at Bow Arts, London. Jemima Walter met him to uncover how theatre inspires his art practice and how performance art still disrupts the art world to this day.

Cradeaux Alexander’s practice explores the intersection between theatre and art and is known for his production of Picasso’s play Desire Caught by the Tail (2016), as well as RHINO (2017), a multi-media conversation with Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (1959), which both also premiered at Bow Arts.

Entitled Scripted Bodies, this mid-career retrospective features both video works and documentation of performances which are displayed on HD screen and monitors including ‘PORN’ (2011), which sees the artist taking on the role of a lecturer, delivering a pseudo-academic lecture on the history of gay pornography. Alexander will also premiere as part of the exhibition his new performance ‘bluebeard’ (2018) in which he explores the French folklore character as an embodiment of corruption in a part theatre, part installation and part absurd spectacle.

How would you say theatre has had an influence on your practice as an artist?

Dramatic literature was my first art encounter and my first true engagement with my own theatrical practice. Later it became words and blueprints interpreted by bodies, placed in a ritualised environment for a brief period of time, and a certain kind of atmosphere that permeates live theatre encounters; all of this profoundly influenced my subsequent investigations in fine art practice. My own training and work as an actor in narrative film, TV and live media continues to be a skill and experience I draw from when I create my own works for camera or my own live solo works for a gallery. I write a lot, I explore existing text frequently, and I incorporate this directly into my works. My interest in pulling apart narratives and working with other humans as materials in works, and exploring how we know who we are through these means is a direct connection with my theatre roots.

Your new performance bluebeard (2018) inspired by Perrault’s fairytale has been preceded by multiple interpretations. How have these evolved in the lead up to this new performance?

Like a lot of my engagement with existing scripts or stories, I work in conversation with them; the same is true for bluebeard. I’m not keen to make another interpretation of the story. I want to look at its elements and see what is fascinating or wrong or worth working with in a contemporary context. The dynamics of power, thin-skinned vanity and privilege in Perrault’s original story sit in dialogue with current political figures (perhaps Trump) who hide their deep insecurity with bluster and pomp. Like Trump, Bluebeard has a noteworthy hair piece; there is some humour here of course, as well as a truly dark side to the beast who is found repellent but who desperately craves popularity and love. This is where the two characters meet, and it is one of the drivers that took me to this project. My bluebeard is ultimately a meditation on these ideas expressed through a range of media and collage performance styles.

Through your company LUXE, you often work collaboratively with other performers. How does this process influence the final work? Do you usually work with the same collaborators?

I actively seek new people to work with on new projects that are being developed, as it keeps me on my creative toes and introduces new ideas to the mix. There have been one or two longstanding partners I’ve worked with across a number of projects; we like to explore new ways of making and sometimes having an established few who I can work with in shorthand makes for a smoother ride. The finished work is decided by the mix of the collaborators to a large extent. I begin with some basic concepts, watch them develop organically and shape them with the performers. It is a sculptural process. I find what it is supposed to be often towards the end of the rehearsal process, which has been a dialogue between myself and my performers. 

Having worked in both New York and London, what have you found to be the key challenges artists face working in both cities?

Downtown New York had a strong experimental theatre/performance scene when I was there in the 90s, which grew out of practitioners established there in the 70s. This was my natural home and I was able to make it work in that setting. London is its own ecosystem, and my initial attraction to going further into fine/visual art was when I moved here in the early 2000s and saw that that was the space where artists were making the most significant creative strides. In both places money for artists remains appalling. The art economy rarely trickles down to the artists who make the work. There are a lot of artists working largely under the radar, often with expensive degrees, and still very few establishments to take them in. It creates a competitive atmosphere which isn’t good for art.

How do you find performance art’s position in the art world has changed throughout your career?

It has become mainstream to an extent, though it remains challenging to the established setup for exhibition and dissemination. When I perform in galleries or museums there is always the sense that something has been irritated. Even performance in video form remains complicated. I think it’s become a bit more flexible in its conceptual negotiations as well, departing from the rigidly body-centric and exploring other philosophies and presentations of culture and aesthetics, including increased access to technology.

What exciting things do you have coming up?

BOXE is a space I am developing which will utilise streaming technology to distribute and record live performance. It will also include conversations and virtual residencies with artists via an online webcast. Artists talking to each other is the best thing, for art, for audiences, and for artists. My interest in online spaces is its global potential, and the camera as a holistic environment for art-making. We have repositories and archives of historical performances, but we do not have a dynamic space for their creation and dissemination, so here comes BOXE…

Scripted Bodies is open from 14 to 23 September 2018 at Bow Arts, London with performances of bluebeard taking place on 14, 15, 22 & 22 September at 7pm.

Find out more here.

Words by Harry McDougall

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Archive | Fiction | Silvio by Arturo Vivante



First published in the June 1970 edition of The London Magazine (Vol. 10, No. 3)

Like a statue too finely carved, too finished and perfected, the boy looked fragile, ever in danger of being injured. The exquisitely pointed nose, the cupid’s bow drawn almost to the point of snapping, the slender chin were assets in a girl, not in a boy. He smiled with a look of joyful wonder, and he approached you trustingly as if he didn’t even know about getting hurt. So, it is said, the penguins approached the first explorers — with complete trust, no fear, no thought man might be any less innocent than they.

The headmaster had led him into our classroom late one morning in the middle of the second term, told us his name—Silvio Guidi—and left. The teacher asked him his age. He was twelve, two years younger than nearly everybody else, and a full four years younger than one boy—Matteo, a lanky old repeater who already spoke in a man’s, low and throaty, voice. The teacher, perhaps to get a laugh out of the class, sat the new boy next to him saying, ‘Four years younger than you are Matteo, and a lot smarter, I’m sure’. Matteo took the words good humouredly. He was the clown of the class, and seemed to enjoy it. The boys laughed at the mere mention of his name. He had an incredibly long reach. If you laughed too loud, sometimes for no apparent reason, you might get your head cuffed by him even if you were on the other side of the room. No one in the class room felt quite safe.

At break, the boys milled round Silvio to ask him all sorts of questions. Matteo wanted to know if he had any sisters. No, he was an only child. He certainly looked it. He seemed so intact, so whole, and new, as if he had been privately educated, at home, by a tutor. But it wasn’t so at all. He came from a nearby town, Poggibonsi, a name that sounded sufficiently funny to the boys to start teasing him about it. ‘Poggibonsi, bonsi, bum,’ they chanted around him, and pushed him at the sound of ‘bum’. 

‘But are you sure you haven’t any sisters?’ Matteo kept asking him.

Silvio seemed more amused than annoyed. ‘No,’ he said.

‘What does your father do?’ someone asked him.

‘I don’t have a father,’ he replied.

‘Why?’ Matteo asked, open-mouthed, as if he had come on something that he could exploit.

‘He died,’ Silvio said. ‘In the war.’

There was a moment of silence. Matteo got some reproachful glances.

‘But you do have a mother?’ a boy broke in. 

‘Oh, yes,’ Silvio said. ‘My mother is alive.’

She came for him at half past twelve. We saw her outside the school’s columned entrance, a pretty blonde, not much taller than her son, and with a smile that she lavished, as he did, on everyone, but which was not quite as pure as his, being flavoured with a touch of coquetry. 

She took him by the hand, and swinging his arm, they went off together. As they left the school yard and reached the street through one of those archways that in Siena again and again repeat the motif of the town gate, they looked the same age, or just about.

The prettiness of the woman hadn’t passed unnoticed by the boys. Matteo especially, seemed struck. The next morning, no one teased Silvio, and Matteo kept saying in Silvio’s presence, ‘Have you seen his mother? Have you seen what a mother this guy’s got?’ Silvio smiled his amused smile, and laughed when Matteo asked him to introduce him to her.

‘I’m serious,’ Matteo said.

The young boy laughed more, and looked at the others. Oh, this Matteo was certainly a curious fellow. What was the matter with him?

‘When are you going to introduce me to her?’

Silvio laughed. 

‘Well,’ Matteo said, giving him a shove, ‘what’s there to laugh about?’

Silvio looked away, unable to dissemble.

Matteo followed him, and gave him another push. ‘So what’s there to laugh about, I’d like to know. If you won’t introduce me, I’ll introduce myself.’

But he didn’t dare. Day after day, she came regularly at 12.30 to fetch her boy. Each time, Matteo looked at her wistfully, and slunk away. In her absence his boldness returned. He protested about Silvio not introducing him. He insisted that he do so. And yet from the way he withdrew when she appeared, one wondered if, should Silvio introduce him, he had the courage to look at her, to shake hands or to say a word. 

As the days passed some of the boys made friends with Silvio. Two or three of them would walk with him and his mother a little way. Not Matteo. Matteo seemed awed by her and kept his distance. She seemed like a schoolgirl among the boys. Absolutely happy. Always holding Silvio by the hand, she talked and joked with them as they walked. Soon, she knew and called a few by name. One wondered if, being new in town, these children were her only friends. Then, one day, she noticed Matteo looking at her from a distance.

‘That one there,’ she said, ‘what’s his name?’

‘That’s Matteo,’ the boys said in a chorus. 

She beckoned to him without hesitation. ‘Come here, Matteo,’ she said, and Matteo sidled over looking at the ground. On his way he kicked the gravel, and raised a little dust. 

‘You are Matteo.’

Si, signora.’

‘But you’re not a child.’

‘He’s sixteen,’ two boys said at once.

‘Oh,’ she said with what sounded like appreciation, and looked up at him.

He came nearer and put an arm over Silvio’s shoulder.

‘Eh, Silvio and I,’ he said, and made a gesture with his other arm.

‘You are friends?’

‘We sure are.’

‘Good,’ she said. ‘That’s what I like.’

Silvio looked around him. Everyone was friendly. But he didn’t seem surprised, it was probably something he was used to. His mother could accomplish this and more. 

Matteo, having been introduced, now never failed to join Silvio and his mother after classes. The escort of three or four boys accompanied them down the main street. They dropped out one at a time as they came to some side street, but not Matteo. He couldn’t bring himself to leave them and went right to their doorstep, on the street that led to where I lived, at the other end of town, though it was quite out of the way for him. And he carried Silvio’s big Latin dictionary for him and any parcels for her. One day, I saw them approaching the house. As they got to the doorway and Matteo was about to turn back and say goodbye as he always did, she said something to him, and they all went inside the house. From that time on, Matteo’s work improved considerably, and toward Silvio he became as protective as a father. 


Arturo Vivante

Spotlight on: Rough Trade Books


The London Magazine has long been a champion of emerging writers and independent publishers, stretching back to the 1950s and 60s, when young writers like Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes found a home in the pages of the then newly re-launched volumes of the magazine.

We want this tradition to continue, and given the renaissance of new independent publishers, we have decided to launch a monthly spotlight feature that promotes the best of innovative contemporary writing across the UK and beyond.

First up is Rough Trade Books, who have recently made waves with a striking series of 12 pamphlets, encapsulating poetry, photography, illustration, and more.

Who are they?

Rough Trade Books is a new venture from the independent record label Rough Trade, which can boast a strong cultural legacy of radicalism back to its roots in Ladbroke Grove in 1976. Much in the same way that the label once gave a platform to bands like The Raincoats (whose founding member Ana da Silva is among the first 12 RTB pamphlets), their new venture seeks to give a home to a number of voices and talents whose shared independent spirit ties together the disparate mediums of the artists.

Within the pages of the first 12 pamphlets can be found poetry, short fiction, photography, illustration, and an experimental novella about the occult. It’s certainly an eclectic mix so far, but despite this, each publication is tied to the next by counter-cultural ethic and DIY spirit of each artist and writer. Another obvious common ground is the sensational design and production values of the pamphlets themselves, which evoke something between literary magazines of the 1960s and 70s, and the 7 inch singles from the great era of post-punk labels (and their accompanying graphic designers) in the 1980s.

In short, much like the best record labels, there is a feeling of identity, of a club that you want to be a part of.

What are they publishing, and why are they different?

From Lorena Lohr’s photography of the forgotten corners of Southwest America, to the societal injustice exposed in the work of the poet Salena Godden, the pamphlets so far from Rough Trade Books give a platform to a number of different voices from across a global counter-culture.

There are nods to Rough Trade’s heritage in the photography of urban desolation from Jon Savage, and also to zine culture in the collected interviews of Jenny Pelly & Priests. Different viewpoints of society abound. The variety of voices and forms, along with the brevity of the pamphlets leaves open a great opportunity to publish a wide range of emerging voices. With the next wave 6 of pamphlets just announced (featuring a range of experimental fiction and photography), this is an imprint with a bright future.

What’s up next?

Just released are the aforementioned six new pamphlets, featuring (among others) short stories from James Endeacott, the photography of Japanese love hotel rooms by Laura Lewis, and new fiction from Thomas Morris, whose 2016 Faber collection We Don’t Know What We’re Doing won the 2016 Wales Books of the Year, the Rhys Davies Trust Fiction Award, and a Somerset Maugham Prize.

Upcoming events involve a trip over to Rough Trade Bristol on the 19th September, with readings from Salena Godden, Olly Todd, Joe Dunthorne and Will Burns. Rough Trade Books will then be back in London on Wednesday 3rd at Rough Trade East for a slightly early event for National Poetry Day, in the amusingly titled Not National Poetry Day. This will feature Salena Godden and Will Burns once more, as well as others including the excellent poet Scarlett Sabet, and music from guitarist Adam Chetwood.

And judging from all this, we are presumably safe in the expectation of much more in the not-too-distant future.

For more information, head to Rough Trade Books.

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Event Preview | Face Value by The Lot 5 Collective



The art world has been divided since the beginning of the twentieth century. On the one side, the rejection of craft has led to a proliferation of intellectually empty, derivative ‘art’ that most people don’t understand and don’t like; and on the other side, artists who do have technical skills frequently choose to create highly conservative, old-fashioned and unimaginative works. Both groups create work that can, frankly, be terrible.

Similarly, art education has split. Most art schools and universities attempt to teach their students ‘creativity’, but do not equip them with the techniques necessary to express their ideas and concepts. In contrast, the modern-day atelier movement, for all its many strengths, focuses almost entirely on technical skill and tends to neglect originality and creativity.

The Lot 5 Collective, a group of contemporary figurative artists, aims to bridge the gap between these two camps with their new exhibition, ‘Face Value’, to be held at the Royal Opera Arcade Gallery in November. Drawn from a selection of contemporary artists from around the world, the exhibition is organised around one theme: the many faces of contemporary portraiture. With artists working in a range of styles, from photo realism to abstraction, the exhibition aims to bridge the gap between skill and concept.

Lot 5 is a group of representational artists. That is, we create work that represents something: you see one of our paintings and can understand that it represents a person, or a landscape, or a still-life. But we don’t reject others forms of art: instead, we examine them them, discover what there is to admire in them, and try to include those qualities in our representational art. We believe that it should be possible to create work that has the emotional impact of abstract art, the cleverness of conceptual art, and the skill and craft of figurative art.

Take this painting, entitled Sienna, by Lot 5 artist Lucas Garcia:

Lucas Garcia, Sienna, 2018, Oil on Board, 24 x 18 cm

It represents something – Garcia’s baby daughter, Sienna – but the artist hasn’t simply copied what he saw in front of him. The painting represents a set of decisions: with every stroke, Garcia has decided what paint to put where, and how, and has thus designed a series of interesting shapes that interact to create a pleasing and harmonious, yet dynamic, image. It’s a picture that you can contemplate and admire for its formal qualities, much like you would with a painting by Mondrian or Rothko, but Garcia has gone a step further: not only are those shapes interesting compositionally in terms of the patterns they form on the canvas, but they also create a portrait of a baby. The painting can be therefore be judged, and appreciated, in terms of the quality of its representation as well as its visual impact. The painting is also conceptually intriguing. It’s a visual pun – the only colour besides black and white that the artist has used is burnt sienna. Lucas has thus managed to combine the strengths of representational, abstract and conceptual art in a single painting that can be appreciated on multiple levels.

For our latest exhibition, ‘Face Value’, the Lot 5 Collective has assembled a group of artists from the UK, Ireland and the USA, whose work demonstrates technical ability but also has the power to inspire and make you think. The show will consist of the work of the seven Lot 5 artists as well as invited guest artists. These include Felicia Forte, whose painting Time Traveler, (Matthew Napping) was awarded Second Prize at the 2018 BP Portrait Awards, as well as Simon Davis, Emanuela de Musis, Shana Levenson, Anastasia Pollard, Nicolas Uribe, Emma Hopkins, Sofia Welch, Milo Hartnoll, Scott Eaton and Hans van der Leeuw.

The Lot 5 Collective itself consists of seven artists:

Lizet Dingemans was born in the Netherlands and now works as a full-time artist and teacher in London. In 2018, Lizet was a contestant in Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year and was nominated for Artists & Illustrators magazine ‘Artist of the Year’ in 2016. Her work has sold in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and the USA.

Lizet Dingemans, Bacchus I, 2018, Oil on Board, 7 x 10 cm

SJ Fuerst was born in the USA and now lives in works in Malta. Fuerst’s beautiful and funny work mixes Pop art and classical painting, and is inspired by costumes, toys, and fashion photography.

SJ Fuerst, Uh-Huh Honey, 2018, Oil on Canvas, 122 x 122 cm

Lucas Garcia has exhibited multiple times at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and his painting Dirty Blond was highly commended by the de Laszlo Foundation in the 2018 exhibition.

Luca Indraccolo was born in Naples, Italy. Before pursuing a career in fine art, Indraccolo worked for 15 years as an art director with major advertising agencies across 3 countries, eventually serving as regional creative director at London’s Saatchi & Saatchi. His latest work takes inspiration from the fires that devastated the Vesuvius national park in the summer of 2017.

Luca Indraccolo, SMF•72•1821•12•18•25, 2018, Oil on Canvas, 140 x 70 cm

Stella Ishack enjoys the juxtaposition of creating intricately detailed, precise, representational portraits using unpredictable mediums such as charcoal and watercolour; harnessing the chaos in this way seems like a fitting way of examining human nature.

Stella Ishack, Mind Control, 2017, Giclee Print/Watercolour on Paper

Helen Masacz’s latest paintings draw on her passion for music, for which she has been interpreting album titles by well-known musicians. Her painting Technical Ecstasy (2018) is a portrait that reflects upon the current climate of paranoia and violence in the world and expresses how technology has created the means to destroy us.

Helen Masacz, Technical Ecstasy, 2018, Oil on Canvas, 60 x 80 cm

Harriet Spratt has exhibited at various shows in London, including the Royal Institute of Oil Painters where she won the Winsor & Newton Young Artist prize.

Harriet Spatt, Owen, 2017, Oil on Canvas, 82 x 138 cm

Face Value, Royal Opera Arcade Gallery, 8 – 17 November 2018


Words by Neil Davidson

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Event Preview | HighTide Theatre



After a hugely successful year in 2017, HighTide Theatre returns to Walthamstow for a second outing. Bringing a varied programme of theatre, comedy, music and activities for children, HighTide has announced an enticing line-up of local vendors and performers to lure residents back to the pop-up festival site of Walthamstow Town Square Gardens. 

The event will take place from 18th-30th September, and will be free to enter. Featuring a large bar and dining area housed in two giant heated tipis, with art pieces on loan from the Walthamstow wonderland God’s Own Junkyard, HighTide certainly looks the part. Its neon fantasies, restored and retro signs, cosy furniture and nostalgic pinball machines will transport you to another time. The bar will be a collaboration between local and national companies, featuring beer and cider from Walthamstow breweries Pillars and The Real AL company, spirits from Hunter’s Gin, and soft drinks from Peter Spanton.  HighTide will also host the local company Velopresso with their famous pedal-powered coffee trike, serving signature blends from the Waltham Forest coffee company Perky Blinders. 

Food will span from speciality sausages from Walthamstow Dogs, Vietnamese street food from Hanoi Câ Phè and Mexican street food from Wood Street’s Homies on Donkeys. At the weekend, Wendy’s Vintage Ices will serve their retro ice creams and lollies and Romeo’s Sugar Free Bakery will provide their trademark sugar-free cakes and biscuits. You’ll be spoilt for choice. 

The festival will host a range of local talent, inviting them to feature in the festival after taking part in Open Mics nights in Waltham Forest on the 4th, 5th and 6th September. Winners from these dates will perform in the bar during the festival, providing free entertainment. Performers aged 18-25 will also be considered for HighTide’s new talent showcase, Stars Over The Forest, at the Festival on the 22nd September. 

For ticketed acts, the programme features eleven family shows, among them the local company Baby Panda presenting Five Little Monkeys, visiting companies such as HighRise Theatre with Lil.Miss.Lady exploring the history of Grime, and Waltham Forest company Stand and Be Counted presenting Where We Began, exploring the concepts of home, featuring an international cast. The comedy programme features work from artists such as Arthur Darvill, Tim Key’s Megadate, and excitingly the arrival of five productions fresh from Edinburgh’s Fringe. 

HighTide’s centerpiece production, co-produced by their associated company DugOut Theatre, is a coming of age tale by Aldeburgh-based writer Tallulah Brown called Songlines, seen by Fest Magazine as riding ‘a wave of gentleness and compassion for teenage awkwardness’, and is elsewhere highly reviewed. Other productions include Jessica Butcher’s two-part ‘Sparks’, Danusia Samal’s gig-theatre piece ‘Busking It’, David Aula and Simon Evan’s ‘The Extinction Event’ innovative examination of what happens when science starts thinking for itself, and finally Harry Blake’s fabulous new comedy musical about Norse gods ‘Thor and Loki’, which has likewise been greeted with rave reviews. 

It promises to be another successful year. 


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Essay | Peas by Alice Dunn


One of the stand-out gardens at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show appeared to replicate the pea in its structure. ‘The Seedlip Garden’ had a circular pool, round stepping stones, and a ‘Peavillion’ housing a collection of articles about peas. This garden got me thinking about, well, peas, and the little-observed role they’ve played in our culture.  

One of the most historic vegetables, the pea probably originated in Asia and was grown as far back as 7000 BC. The Greeks had ‘pisoi’ and the Romans introduced ‘pisum’ to Europe. Peas were widely used in Roman cookery: there are nine dishes which call for peas in Apicius’ fifth-century Roman cookery book.

But it is Catherine de Medici we must thank for rekindling a popular affection for peas in the sixteenth century. When she married Henri II of France in 1533, she is said to have brought her favourite foods from Italy with her to France. These included peas, or ‘piselli novelli’. Dried peas soon fell from favour and everyone began to eat petit pois. Garden peas may also have been introduced to Britain through a royal connection: Charles II would have known petit pois during his exile in France and their appearance in British kitchens post-date the Restoration. Indeed, such was the pea’s continued prevalence in France that King Louis XIV is recorded to have observed that: “The young princes want to eat nothing but peas!” And neither, it seems, did he. Petit pois were his obsession.   

The pea has also played a pivotal role in science. Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian monk, discovered the laws of genetic inheritance by crossing yellow peas with wrinkled peas in his garden in Moravia and experimented on more than 28,000 pea plants over seven years. His results were published in 1866 and laid the foundations for our understanding of genes and the way they are inherited (he coined the terms ‘recessive’ and ‘dominant’).  

Just before that, and on the other side of the world, US President Thomas Jefferson was busy with his own, non-scientific experiment with peas: he regularly competed with his neighbours to grow the first crop. He decided to stagger his planting so that he would be able to enjoy 15 different varieties of fresh peas from May until July. 

Peas scuttle through literature and art. A pea is the focus of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale ‘The Princess and the Pea’; Edward Lear sent ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ to sea ‘In a beautiful pea-green boat.’ When under the spell of the love potion in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, Titania dotes on Bottom (who has the head of a Donkey) and offers him nuts to eat, but he replies, ‘I had rather have a handful or two of dried peas’. In the Brothers Grimm story, Cinderella’s step-sisters ‘did their utmost to torment her – mocking her, and strewing peas and lentils among the ashes, and setting her to pick them up.’ 

Shelling peas, in contrast, is the tender subject of paintings and sketches by Whistler and Van Gogh. The Mannerist painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo used peas in his famous vegetable portraits of people; his work ‘Rudolf II as Vertumnus’ has peas in a curved pod serving as eyebrows. 

Less beautiful, but no less worthy of discussion, are London’s pea-souper fogs which once swallowed our city. The Oxford English Dictionary cites Herman Melville for first using the term ‘pea-soup’ to describe the weather. He wrote in November 1849 in his ‘Journal of a Visit to London and the Continent’: ‘Upon sallying out this morning encountered pea soup London fog.’ Henry James found the smoke in London particularly depressing and noted that when he looked out at ‘The pea-soup atmosphere of Piccadilly, I feel like taking to my bed.’  

Incidentally, should peas pop up in conversation, a lexicographer will probably tell you that a pea (the use of the word has been recorded from 1666) is an example of a back-formation (‘a word that is formed from an existing word which looks as though it is a derivative, typically by removal of a suffix.’) of the older word ‘pease’ which also meant ‘a pea’ but was understood to be the plural. When John Lyly penned the phrase ‘as lyke as one pease is to an other’ in a novel in 1580 he probably did not predict that it would still be widely used today in the form of of the favourite expression: ‘like two peas in a pod’.  

Chasing the last few peas around the plate is enough to make anyone feel pea-brained, but perhaps reflecting on their history can make the process slightly less maddening.  

By Alice Dunn.

Review | Lee Bul: Crashing at the Hayward Gallery


Lee Bul does not make art that is designed to comfort you.

Her latest collection at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank is a culmination of thirty years work. To step through each room is to follow Bul’s journey as she has explored the pursuit of perfection—and its potential pitfalls—through the last forty years.

Crashing is designed to transport the public into ‘another place, another time’ and succeeds in this instantly. As you step into the first room of the Hayward, soft light is cast from within the corner. Civias Solis II projects reflected and fragmented patterns of light across the pale gallery walls. You are submerged into a dreamlike state wherein Bul has peeled back the shallow surface of our world and revealed what lies beneath, and what could be yet to come.

In this surreal echo of our world, you are immediately brought face to face with Bul’s reflection of the self.

Amorphous shapes hang from the ceiling and sit directly in front of the entrance doors. At first, they are barely recognisable as people, but then you see the arms, and legs, trying to drag themselves free from inside the pieces, which are from the aptly named series: Monster. Despite the grotesque shaping, these soft sculptures are tantric, and their fleshy palette suggests—as Bul intended—that there is a ‘vulnerability’ to being human.

If Monster is Bul’s representation of the natural self, Cyborgs (1998) reflects how people try to build an image of themselves. Reminiscent of ancient Greco-Roman statues and yet also of anime from the early nineties, feminine forms are suspended from the ceiling. Though they are all headless, they watch you and stand guard in their cartoonish, extra-terrestrial armour.

One of Bul’s inspirations is sci-fi, and in this is evident in this room and throughout the exhibition. In the late 20th century and especially after the Cold War, bright utopian ideas of the future captivated the world, which was desperate to forget the horrific past. Despite these glimmering, chrome covered dreams, Bul was sceptical of these notions of the future, and creates art which reflects that.

Though some of Bul’s paintings, sketches and videos of her performance art are displayed on the walls and available to listen and watch, it is through the medium of sculpture that I think Bul creates the biggest impact. Despite the different mediums and subjects, each work is still identifiable as hers. To walk into room three of the Hayward is the greeted by two geode-like structures—they are separate pieces, but both are heavily influenced by the politics of South Korea, during the late 20th century when Bul was growing up.

Black beads spill across the floor, before pooling in a highly reflective puddle. They appear to be flowing out of a block of ‘ice’, which gives the piece it’s quite literal title: Thaw (Takaki Masao). There is a photograph buried beneath the ice from which the beads seep out: it is a portrait of Park Chung-Hee, the former president of South Korea, who was supported by the US but created a very repressive regime. He was eventually assassinated in 1979, and the oozing black from this crystalline sculpture is evocative of blood.

The other piece which welcomes you to room three is Bunker (M. Bahktin).  A cave like structure that is interactive. When inside, visitors to the gallery put on headphones and are encouraged to make a noise—clapping, tapping your foot, clicking— through the headphones we hear the noises we make distorted and amplified. If you were to shut your eyes, it could be easy to trick yourself into thinking that you were in a vast space.

When you are in inside Bunker Bul warps the world around you, and subsequently momentarily alters how we see ourselves. When standing within the bunker, I was very conscious of the noise my clapping and clicking would make, disturbing the other guests. In this sense, the sculpture is aptly named—Mikhail Bahtkin was a literary critic and philosopher who claimed that our identity is directly correlated by our relationship with the world around us.

The exhibition continues upstairs, and as you reach the final two rooms there is a slight change in atmosphere. Downstairs, there are at least five to seven exhibits filling every space. Upstairs, the rooms are sparse.

Stepping into room four, I was immediately anxious— Bul is known for incorporating the gallery space into her exhibitions, and this is one such example. The entire floor was foiled with silver, and while I was stood in the gallery, I felt the strange sensation that I wasn’t supposed to be there.

The gallery attendant smiled at me, and yet, I felt like I was doing something naughty.

At any moment, I was expecting someone to catch me. To tell me to leave.

It is interesting then, that the title of the focal sculpture in the penultimate room is Willing to be Vulnerable.

For this piece, Bul has created a large foil zeppelin. The argent exterior and exposed seams are recognisable as being from Bul’s retro sci-fi field of inspiration. Zeppelins were once a symbol of great scientific progress and were the first ships to be used for commercial flight. The title, Willing to be Vulnerable, references the Hindenburg disaster, where thirty-six people died when an airship caught fire whilst trying to land in New Jersey.  

Willing to be Vulnerable is perhaps the piece which most clearly conveys Lee Bul’s exploration of the dangers of perfection.

Following the foil-covered floor, you are lead towards Via Negativa II. It is through the names of her pieces that you see the influence of philosophy behind her work. The largely introspective pieces—which literally forces the viewer to reflect on themselves and the gallery around them—draws its name from the theory that it is impossible to describe God in finite terminology; the human mind is too limited to say what God is, we can only truly describe what he isn’t.

This is the climax of the exhibition.

After exploring the ideas of utopia, one of Bul’s final piece forces the viewer to look back upon themselves.  A mirror labyrinth which is unsettling to walk through—after all, it constantly feels as though someone is watching you. There is no certainty as you follow the path, as Bul angles the mirrors to feel claustrophobic and bounce their own reflections from each other to give the impression of pathways where there are none.

But when you finally make your way through the maze, a room lies in wait within the centre. The seemingly endless rows of lightbulbs feel as though are a giant standing in between the golden stars of an infinite space—and a comforting warmth radiates through the enclosed space. Unlike the rest of the installations, this is a piece which instils hope.

Lee Bul’s artwork is a reaction to the world around her—especially that of life within South Korea and the experiences she’s faced a woman. As a formal end to the Korean civil war is in sight, and women’s rights are thrown into the spotlight, I am eager to see what Bul creates next.

Lee Bul: Crashing is running at the Hayward Gallery is running 30th May – 19th August 2018.

By Phoebe Hedges.

Review | Red at Wyndham’s Theatre

Image by Johan Persson

Walking into the Wyndham, the stage takes you by surprise. Alfred Molina sits unmoving, back to the audience, staring fixedly at one of the many deep crimson paintings that loom over the stage. Instantly, we find ourselves in Mark Rothko’s studio circa late 1950s.

There is little plot to Red; the short play’s events circle around Rothko’s commission for a Four Seasons restaurant in New York and his resentment for the new pop-artists nipping at his heels, but it is his diatribes at young assistant Ken that overshadow all else. At first, Rothko appears god-like in his commands, teaching Ken and the audience how to view his paintings; and yet as the years go by and Ken becomes disenchanted with Rothko, we see a certain vulnerability and the cracks begin to show in his character.

Molina dominates the stage and entrances with his lectures and theories on colour and art. He is utterly convincing in his indifference to Ken, completely selfish and absorbed in his art with an intensity that is felt from the moment that you walk into the theatre. He portrays the perfect contrast; his bullying of Ken a striking polarity to his almost fatherly protection of the inanimate. Rothko’s spiralling is beautifully played out, and Molina exudes his internal conflict perfectly whilst avoiding the cliché of the tortured artist.

On the other hand, for the most part I found Alfred Enoch unconvincing as Ken. Rothko’s assistant is there to mix paint and fetch coffee, but ultimately to act as an audience and foil for Rothko’s philosophical rants. Enoch’s acting for most of the play feels forced and uncertain, his timing slightly off. That said, he grows as Ken does, particularly during his character’s retaliation to Rothko’s apathy and hypocrisy. His real shining moment is talking about his parent’s murder. This contrived plot point, echoed by the intense on-stage painting that leaves both actors and stage looking as though they are splattered in blood, hit home purely through Enoch’s performance. Staring at the spraying of paint, tears glistening in his eyes, Enoch takes a hollow plot point and gives it life.

This spectacular set which both looks and acts as a real studio, is filled with vibrant paintings which pulse and suffocate the work space. I am somewhat doubtful that Rothko would have held such eloquently enlightened and lively discussions in his real studio, however the dialogue and performance here is excellent. Whilst the play itself feels somewhat empty, the staging and performance of Red fill it and make it well worth a watch, particularly for art-lovers.

Red is at Wyndham’s Theatre until July 28th 2018 

By Emma Quick

Contributor’s Picks – June/July 2018


Introducing Contributor’s Picks! Recommendations for the very best in arts, culture and literature from the writers for The London Magazine June/July 2018 issue. Read their writing in our latest issue, available now

Nicholas Summerfield (Essay: On the Road)
Thinks – David Lodge

This is a light-hearted comedy and, at the same time, a consideration of human consciousness itself.  An overlooked gem.


Maggie Butt (Poetry: Cycling the Appian Way)
Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders


The most extraordinary, original, memorable piece of fiction I’ve read for many years. I have a serious case of writer-envy.


Andrew Lambirth (Review: Public & Commercial: Degas and Patterns of Exhibiting)
Cedric Morris: Artist Plantsman – Garden Museum – Until July 22nd

Timely reappraisal of the painter and gardener who ran a private art school in Suffolk and taught Lucian Freud and Maggi Hambling, among many others. He’s clearly a forerunner of the School of London, and his beautiful flower paintings look as fresh and beguiling today as when they were painted 80 or 90 years ago.


Sharon Black (Poetry: Lucky Penny)
Paterson (2016)


A meditative, poetic journey through the streets of New Jersey via a bus driver and William Carlos Williams – I loved this film for its quiet quirkiness and its tentative stepping-into the centre of things.


Roisin Tierney (Poetry – Fiesta and Mock Orange)
The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in WWII – Svetlana Alexivich

I was really taken by The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich, in which the author interviews Soviet women -captains, tank drivers, snipers, pilots, nurses and doctors – who fought in the second world war.  It is a pitiless read, yet unputdownable and very illuminating. 


William Bedford (Fiction: Flying Lessons)
Vivre Sa Vie/My Life to Live 


A New Wave masterpiece, as powerful and true today as when I first saw it in 1963.


Emily Priest (Essay: Akihabara)
How to Be a Woman – Caitlin Moran 

In the age of #MeToo this book is more relevant than ever. With a sharp wit and laugh-out-loud anecdotes, Moran makes feminist ideology accessible and relatable and makes every female reader cry with laughter. It’s the book I needed whilst growing up!


Jeffrey Meyers (Essay: Conrad’s Judgement: Stevenson
vs. Stevie Crane)
Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva – Rosemary Sullivan 

A fascinating account of a disastrous inheritance.


Michael Spinks (Poetry: The Question & Silver Birches)
Vilette – Charlotte Bronte and The Royal Wedding (19th May 2018)

A book that haunts me with its beauty and daring, its contrived secrecy and its surgically open-hearted confession, Charlotte Bronte’s last novel, Villette, surely stands on the stocks as possibly the greatest novel written in English. She plays with our sensibilities just as she plays with her own beating heart, and what a dreadful, courageous ending.


My second recommendation is The Royal Wedding. People drawn to the intellectual are not supposed to enjoy spectacles like the royal wedding, but the theatre created was both intimate and spectacular. The drama was centred on Harry and Megan but the cast was huge and odd and the charged narrative changed with every minute, and one had glimpses of all sorts of relationships and unexpected contacts. Reading faces and movements was fascinating. And Bishop Michael delighted with bubbling enthusiasm for the occasion, for the two central characters, and for the great source of love, God himself, also present. ‘How important is love?’ he asked. ‘Two people fall in love, and we all turn up.’


Peter Robinson (Fiction: A Seaside Funeral)
Girlfriends, Ghosts, And Other Stories – Robert Walser 



After a visit to Bern in April, I have returned to reading Robert Walsen, and have been enjoying this collection translated by Tom Whalen, Nicole Köngeter and Annette Wiesner.


Ian Stone (Essay: The Commune of the City)
Edward the Elder and the Making of England – Harriet Harvey Wood 



Harriet Harvey Wood’s biography is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of the monarchy and the period – and legacy – of Alfred the Great. The author writes with erudition and engagement. A thoroughly rewarding read.


Peter Slater (My London)
Us – Zaffar Kunail

Image taken from LondonReviewBookshop


I am looking forward to this debut volume out in July. It includes ‘Fielder’, an uncannily evocative poem, which captures the profound significance found in what might have been a small, unremarkable moment.


Ella Windsor (Essay: Mexican Treasure)
Testimony – Robbie Robertson 

The compelling story of the front man of The Band, told from his own poignant perspective.


Read our contributor’s writing in our June/July 2018 issue: order now!

Essay | Personal Feeling is the Main Thing by Sue Hubbard

Big blonde in Red Dress (2012) by Chantal Joffe, taken from the Victoria Miro website

By Sue Hubbard

I have long been interested in the work of Chantal Joffe and have written about her on several occasions. Her figurative paintings of family and friends are rooted in a gritty, observed reality which makes her unusual in an art world full of insouciant irony. She’s interested in people, their inner landscapes and what makes them tick. She’s also interested in the materiality and language of paint which she uses with verve and vitality. She’s obsessed with what paint can be made to do and what it can tell us.

There are many influences to her work. The American artist Alice Neel. Renaissance portraits of the Madonna and child. But there’s one influence that connects us directly, as writer and artist – the little-known German painter, Paula Modershon-Becker (1876-1907). There is a self-portrait of Paula in the Courtauld but you’d be hard pressed to see any more of her work in this country. Most of it is in Germany. Joffe’s new exhibition at The Lowry, which uses a quote from Modersohn-Becker as its title is, in many ways, a homage.

“Paula is a bubble between two centuries”, Joffe tells me.

In 2012, I wrote Girl in White, a novel based on Modersohn-Becker’s relationships with those she met when she settled in Worspwede, a remote artists’ colony on the North German moors. There, she mixed with others who wanted to live a life dedicated to art outside the strictures of 19th century German bourgeois society. These people included the older painter Otto Modersohn, who was to become her husband, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, with whom she had a passionate friendship, and the sculptor Clara Westhoff, who, disastrously, became Rilke’s wife.

Dan Eating a Banana by Chantal Joffe (2012) taken from the Victoria Miro website.

The Worpswede colony was very much part of the mood-music among late 19th century European artists who wanted to ‘return’ to nature. Essentially a Romantic movement, this nostalgia for a prelapsarian existence was precipitated by the growth of industrialisation and the effects of urban modernisation. Many believed these were destroying their relationship with the landscape and their folk traditions. When Paula arrived in Worpswede she too initially painted landscape but, as she grew intellectually, emotionally and artistically, she developed a different agenda. Her subject became people. She painted the old in the local poorhouse, breast-feeding women and the children of peasants with an empathy close to that of Van Gogh’s. It’s hard for us to realise just how radical such a decision was, especially by a young middle-class girl. Paula sought out the raw, the authentic and the marginalised in a way that was completely modern. There wasn’t a smack of the drawing-room sentiment anywhere to be seen. 

Talking to Chantal in her studio, on the battered sofa among postcards of Paula’s work and her own half-finished paintings, it becomes more and more evident that our interests overlap. We’re both mothers and creative women who, like many others including Paula, have struggled to find a balance between home, art, motherhood and career and, for whom, the intimacy of everyday life is central to our work. Though separated by more than 100 years, Paula’s intensity of vision and her commitment to the fullness of life, as an artist and a woman, reverberates throughout Joffe’s work. Like Freud, Joffe paints those from within a tight circle of family and friends. She not so much produces portraits, in the sense of a photographic likeness, but investigations – a sense of what it is like to inhabit the subject’s skin.

Self Portrait with Hand on Hip (2014) by Chantal Joffe taken from Victoria Miro website

“I was”,  she says, “hesitant, mindful of the danger of placing myself alongside such a strong painter. I was worried it’d be seen as a form of self-aggrandisement, but I’m interested in the intimacy Paula creates. Personal feeling is always the main thing. That’s why I love her. There’s never anything unnecessary, nothing extra or extraneous. Only what is needed. The work’s so strong, so modern, so ahead of its time. My decision to go ahead was helped by the fact that she’s poorly known here and that maybe, through this exhibition, her work will become more celebrated. She’s just so good.”

I ask why she chose Paula and she says that she was attracted to a painter she’ d never seen before – a woman who was both tough and romantic, vulnerable yet determined. She loves the works of Picasso and Bonnard but here was a painter she could relate to directly and in a very personal way. She wanted to explore what they shared. Her paintings, like Paula’s, are intimate and domestic. She’s painted fellow artists, such as Ishbel Myerscough, and charted the passage of her daughter Esme from new-born infant to adolescent, with many of the blips along the way. These works map the passing of time, the minute changes that occur day to day within emotional connections and bonds.

As we sit talking, with our tea and biscuits, about our mutual concerns – just as Paula did with her friend Clara in her Worpswede studio – it strikes me how similar Joffe looks like Modersohn-Becker. She has the same broad intelligent face, pulled-back hair and snub nose. I tell her my thoughts and she blushes. Of course, she has seen this herself, though she does not admit it. It’s there in her Self-Portrait as Paula II where she looks inscrutably over her shoulder with her back naked to the viewer. Self-Portrait at 21, with its Matisse-style patterned robe, echoes something of the background of Paula’s Self-Portrait on the Sixth Wedding Day.

Mother and Child II (2012) by Chantal Joffe taken from the Victoria Miro website.

Paula Modersohn-Becker had an uncanny sense that she was going to die young. Her quest, at the century’s turn, was ‘to become something.’ Her whole life was a struggle between the binaries of domesticity and artistic fulfilment, duty and self-determination, the security of home and the stimulation of adventure and new experience. She longed for a child. She would paint herself holding her stomach as if she were in a phantom pregnancy. She would then claim that she was actually pregnant with art. Despite Modersohn-Becker’s bourgeois upbringing, she had a restless sensuality which is mirrored in Joffe’s work. You can see it in her unsparing nude self-portraits that show her, for example, sitting naked on a striped chaise lounge. There’s nothing romantic about the dark circles under her eyes, her sagging breasts and stomach and the unflattering long black socks – the only things she wears. And, there is nothing flattering about the ¾ Length Self-Portrait where she stands against a barren, leafless tree like some menopausal Eve. There are also a number of paintings of pregnant women and women with children, and there’s an especial poignancy to those of her daughter, Esme, when we know that Paula died tragically at the age of 32 from an embolism – only weeks after giving birth to her own daughter, Mathilde.

Paula Modersohn- Becker’s life was brilliant but sadly her career cut short. Her passionate female nudes and portraits of prepubescent girls, which sought for ever-more simplification, are extraordinary, considering that convention demanded she was a wife first and a painter second. Spirited, brave, tender and fierce, Paula understood that ‘personal feeling’ is always the main thing. Fashions in art come and go but there’ll always be a place for what is authentic, for what is true.

It’s as if Joffe, with her broad strokes of expressive and nervy paint, has picked up Paula’s baton and is running with it into the middle of the 21st century.

Chantal Joffe’s artwork exhibition ‘Personal Feeling is the Main Thing’ is running at The Lowry Art Gallery until the 2nd September. You can find out more about the artist here


Review | Absolute Hell – Pissed In Purgatory

Kate Fleetwood taken by Johan Persson (2018). Featured on NationalTheatre.

Rodney Ackland’s play ‘Absolute Hell’ (at the National Theatre until 16 June) is like spying on a drunken party through a club door. The first hour is intoxicating, in a salacious sort of way, but then it all starts to feel a bit maudlin and you just want them to drink up so you can go home.

The play takes place in ‘La Vie en Rose’, a seedy Soho drinking den (modelled on the Colony rooms) full of confused, desperate characters seeking sex and oblivion. It is set in the summer of 1945, in a war weary London that is under the shadow of Auschwitz and on the brink of a Labour Government. Although the clientele are determined to hide from the outside world, the gold veneer of the club begins to peel away, revealing the dull undercoat of post war life.

When it was first produced in 1952, as the ‘Pink Room’, the homosexuality was played down but the sordid, decadent world it depicted was still too much for the respectable theatre audiences of the time. It soon ended Ackland’s career. It was only until 1988 when it was re-discovered, first at the Orange Tree in Richmond, and then again at the National with Judi Dench who also starred in the 1991 BBC film of the play.

It runs on for over 3 hours and, although it has a cast of nearly thirty members, there are only 2 real characters – Christine, the lonely, emotionally fragile club owner (a charismatic and sensual Kate Fleetwood) and Hugh a gay, failing-writer (brilliantly played by Charles Edwards) who is constantly on the cadge. Esh Alladi is excellent in the minor role of camp dogsbody Cyril Clatworthy. Sinead Matthews wrings out some emotion as hedonist Elizabeth. The rest of the ensemble (black GIs, gay critics, film producers, tormented artists, black marketers and a prostitute name Fifi who endlessly circles the streets of nearby Piccadilly) only serve to emphasise the real subject of the play – the desperate desire to escape a bombed out London through the neck of a bottle.

There are moments of real humour in the play (some of it dated) and the action is skilfully choreographed however, the last two scenes of the play are rushed, unsatisfactory and could be cut. Director Joe Hill-Gibbins does his best to make the play relevant but, the truth is, nothing much happens and watching others getting drunk is rather boring. By the end the jokes have turned stale and the characters’ search for sex has gone flaccid. The club literally starts to fall apart around them, the party is over and the hangover has already started to set in.

The final word of the play is hell.

Absolute Hell is running until 16th June at the National Theatre/ Lyttelton theatre.

By David Ford

Fiction | The Old Men Who Row Boats by David Joseph


In Madrid, not far from the great museums that line the streets, old men row boats in the morning hours at Retiro Park. These are old men, but these are small boats. There is no vast sea here, just a man made body of water surrounded by tourists and a stone monument flooded with birds. With the morning light emerging, these men set out in rowboats, leaning back as far as their ageing spines will allow. Across calm waters, the men manoeurvre the oars. They manoeuvre the oars with poise, letting them enter the surface almost silently, propelling the boats backwards without words.

Here, they rent boats by the hour. There are no destinations, just patterned ripples in the water, with the sun rising gently and the early morning joggers circling like vultures. They are old men with the bodies of old men, and rowing offers them physical activity. It allows for their limbs move the way they did years before, and it requires a measure of coordination and strength. It provides the men with just enough work to make them feel as if they are still men, with the virility of men, capable of doing manly things. Alone in a boat, with nothing but their thoughts, oars, perhaps a wind jacket on mornings when the gusts blow stronger, the old men don’t need to rely on anyone else. They are out of the way of the joggers and strollers, and they move unimpeded to their own rhythms, their independence temporarily restored, with knees bent and legs stretched out before them. Javier was one of those men who rowed boats.

Javier lived in a small apartment near the Reina Sofia Museum. The Reina Sofia was a glorious monument to Modern Art, perched just across the way from the Atocha train station in the heart of Madrid. Although there was nothing modern about Javier, he liked to go to the museum, and he liked to go there very often. He liked to go there and ride the modern glass elevator up and walk down the sterile halls until he stood squarely in front of Guernica, Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece.

Javier felt an unspoken bond with Picasso and with Guernica. They shared a lot of time together at the Reina Sofia, but it was more than that. They shared a history of compassion, of understanding. Picasso wasn’t a soldier, but he knew war and he knew pain. Guernica captured the horrors of battle and destruction, and Javier liked to stand in front of the painting, letting the images wash over him, into him. Javier wasn’t a painter, but he had been a soldier, and he knew what it was like to feel the despair that one can only feel in the presence of death, the presence of unnatural death. There was nothing glamorous or glorious about it, and soldiers weren’t so much brave as dutiful in his opinion. He had done his duty and he had seen great loss. Standing in front of Guernica reminded him that Picasso had too, that he wasn’t alone, and that even the greatest atrocities could be beautiful when depicted in art. They were hauntingly beautiful for the manner in which they conveyed a moment in time, and they summoned powerful feelings in those who gazed upon their canvases. Guernica was such a painting, and people young and old, from all over the world, came to the museum to see it.

One of the things Javier liked about the Guernica exhibit was that small replications of Picasso’s drafts of the painting were lined up on the opposite wall. Here, Javier had the chance to see the sketches and analyze them. Javier thought it was fascinating to consider what Picasso had included in his early drawings, what he chose to omit, and what he decided to add later on. These alterations had fundamentally changed the complexion of the painting. They altered the narrative. Most people only see the finished product, he thought. Few ever obtain a real sense of what it took for the artist to arrive here, on the precipice of greatness. This was the case in nearly every profession. We love or despise the shell, the veneer, the facade, with very little knowledge of what sits beneath, the underbelly, where the substantive quality often lies.

Most people walked into the room at the Reina Sofia unaware of the drawings on the opposite wall. They walked in and were, understandably, overwhelmed by the massive canvas sweeping across the wall before their eyes. The size and scope of the piece are truly astounding, and it wasn’t unusual to hear people gasp upon seeing it for the first time. The painting literally took their breath away. It was that magnificent, a remarkable tour de force of emotion and power and possibility, and Javier always enjoyed being in the same room as the great painting.

And yet, he often found himself standing with his back to the canvas and to the crowds, as he gazed upon the sequence of drawings that had brought Guernica to its eventual conclusion, its inevitable conclusion. He was curious about Picasso’s thought process, his experiments with different images, and what ultimately brought him to this most terrifying conclusion that would be the finished piece. It seemed unfathomable that Picasso could draw in a manner that was both childlike and spare and still find ways to illuminate the absolute terror that people felt, innocent people, who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. The painting captured an element of fate, but the drawings revealed that this piece was, although well conceived, born from raw emotion, from reaction, and only later did it become a more appropriately detached response to the day the village was bombed. Javier was continually struck by the distance between the first sketch and the original, and he envied Picasso’s ability to go back, remove things, and reshape the narrative. War didn’t allow you to do that. It was final and unforgiving and there were no second drafts or revisions.

Javier had been in the Navy. He liked the water, and he enjoyed working on ships. Being on the water made him feel like the world was endless, adrift in the vast, blue sea, completely aware of his infinitesimal place in the universe. This was where Javier felt most comfortable. He didn’t fear the sea, the way it could rear its head at any moment. He embraced it. Whenever he was caught in a storm, he felt an uncommon sense of calm. The boat wasn’t likely to sink. You just needed to ride it out and move through the ups and downs. Sometimes, you were tossed clear across the deck and other times you just rolled gently over modest undulations. Either way, you were a passenger of sorts. The only choice was to accept it, to lean in, and to find a way to let nature know you weren’t ever going to fight her–come what may. Javier could make peace the elements regardless of the consequences. The actions of men were harder to accept.

In the mornings, Javier would leave his small apartment and head for the park. He would stop briefly for a cup of coffee and a tostada with olive oil and fresh, blended tomato. He always stopped at the same place, and they knew his order. He sat calmly and drank his coffee. He liked to drink coffee before he headed for the boat. It warmed the insides of his body, and it reminded him of those days when he needed to be prepared for a brisk wind out on the open seas. The coffee was good here, and the people who worked there were always agreeable. He sat near the window, looking out at the busy street and dreaming of the open seas while cars rushed by.

From there, Javier would walk past the elegant Palace Hotel, where many great dignitaries had stayed, and head past the Ritz and up towards Retiro Park. It was only a slight incline, but he felt it more than he had in his youth. The ground wasn’t like the water, he thought. Although it didn’t move, it provided an element of resistance that he felt in his spine, in the base joints of his knees, and he longed to get inside the boat. Inside the boat, things were easier. The world was less complicated, and even his body responded in a way that seemed to forget how old it was.

These rowboats were primarily rented by tourists, usually later in the day, perhaps with their children, when the sun was high in the sky and a warm glow eased over the water. Javier liked to arrive before the day took flight, and he was always the first man through the turnstile. He was the first man through the turnstile, and he was always alone. He had spent years on boats with men, many of who were now dead. He had liked the camaraderie then, but now he liked to be alone in the boat. He was nearly always alone, and this was comfortable for him. He never married, and he had no children. He was alone, but he wasn’t lonely. They weren’t the same at all, he thought, and he liked to take to the water with only himself in the boat. There would be nobody else to take care of or instruct. There would be nobody who required he make idle conversation, and Javier could simply sit down in the boat, grab the oars, take a deep breath, and propel his small craft backwards across the man-made body of water.

On his way home from the park, he would often eat lunch near the museum and stop in to see Guernica in the early afternoon. This was a nice time of day to see the painting, and Javier liked to go to the Reina Sofia when fewer tourists were there. He liked that it was near his apartment, and he liked that it was bright and clean. Most off all, Javier liked that Picasso’s Guernica was there. It was an added benefit that he liked one of the docents.

She was slightly younger than Javier, in her early seventies he estimated. She was tall and lean and had let her hair grow grey. Perhaps grey wasn’t the best description. It was silver, after all, with a fresh sheen, and she wore it magnificently. The lines on her face magnified her age, but she carried herself with an elegance that was uncommon. It was uncommon, and her poise was unmistakable. This was only the case in women who had lived to the point where there was nothing left to prove. Javier had searched the world over for a woman like that only to come up empty.

The docent had an air of nobility about her, but it was nobility void of ego and arrogance. She was old enough to have seen her beauty fade, but she was young enough to remember before it had. Still, she glided through the museum halls with a contentment, a knowingness of the past and acceptance of the present that seemed to allow her to age with unusual ease, to smile more willingly, and to say hello with an affection that illustrated how terribly unaffected she was by the passage of time. This quality was incredibly attractive to Javier, and he always looked forward to crossing paths with her on his stops to see Guernica. Javier tried to visit the museum multiple times a week.

In fact, Javier visited the museum so often that it almost seemed as if he was coming by to check on Guernica, to make sure it was still hanging on the wall, that it hadn’t been touched or damaged or moved without his permission. The painting meant a great deal to him, and he felt a sort of ownership over the canvas. He counted on it, needed it, and so he felt compelled to look in on Guernica on a regular basis.

Now that Spain had moved beyond the era of Franco, Guernica served as an important reminder of the past for Javier. He watched the young people in Madrid, and he knew they couldn’t really fathom the Spain of Franco and that the civil war was merely something the learned about in school. They lived with freedoms in the wake of the unimaginable horrors that befell the people of Guernica, who were bombed so savagely and cowardly by Hitler in 1937.

But, to Javier, Guernica wasn’t simply a painting about war or even the Spanish Civil War or even Franco for that matter. It was a painting about the innocent. It was a painting about children who deserve to be safe and protected, about mothers who bring them into the world, and it reflected their vulnerability amidst the savageness of warfare, cold and soulless and without a moral code. It was about pain and fear and unexpected death and destruction. And it was about Spain–the bull and the horse forever linked, intertwined both in the bullring and outside of it, evoking pride and pain in the hearts of Spaniards the country over. Yes. This was his Guernica, his Spain, and stopping by the Reina Sofia made him feel good that he had taken the time to remember these feelings. Spain’s history was important to him, and stopping by the museum allowed Javier to pay his respects to the past.

When Javier climbed into the boat each morning at Retiro Park, the calm of the small body of water astounded him. The stillness of the surrounding trees on all sides. The frozen stone sculptures and steps looming quietly. The day before it became a day, before loss and fear and worry could possibly descend upon it. As he propelled his small boat across the water, a feeling of endless tranquillity poured into his body underneath the rising sun with the air still cool and birds just waking up in the trees. It was a feeling so perfect, so completely in harmony with the universe, that he couldn’t possibly imagine anything in the day ahead that could change it. He couldn’t imagine that the world could ever grow dark, and he thought this must have been how the people of Guernica felt before their village was destroyed. Their little town had no reason to be a target. There was no military base in Guernica, no advantage to be gained by opposing forces except fear and shock and intimidation. Guernica was merely a terrifying message, sent from those in power by way of the dismemberment of the innocent, the limbs of mothers and children blown to bits beneath the endless skies of Basque Country in the north of Spain. Alone in his boat each morning, feeling the beauty of life course through his veins, Javier was not so different from the people of Guernica before the bombings–trusting in his surroundings, comfortable with the beauty his eyes digested, and wholly unaware of what the future held.

When Javier looked at the sketches of Guernica, he couldn’t stop thinking about how the most subtle changes impacted the entire composition. He thought Picasso was a brilliant painter, and he enjoyed contemplating what Picasso might have been thinking as he evolved the piece of art over time. It was a statement, but it was also art, and it seemed the more Picasso detached himself from his first emotions upon hearing the news of the bombing, the more powerful the piece of art became. It offered a more objective viewpoint, and it illustrated some of the cold, hard truths of the worst of humanity–illuminating the impersonal disregard humans could have for one another when they felt justified. Javier liked to look at these small panels. He liked to look at the panels and imagine Picasso in his apartment in Paris when he received the news. He liked to think of the rage and the tears and the transformation of emotion into art, of a moment into the momentous, of helplessness into hope. This is what he saw when he looked at the progression. He saw hope that the artist can only summon through great suffering. Hope that rises, like an arm from the ashes, protruding from the rubble, reaching out as the world crumbles all around. Guernica was, after all, about the prospect of hope, somehow, some way, deep in the future.

Now that Javier was an old man, his future was not nearly as long as his past. He knew this, and he thought about this as he rowed across the serene waters. He thought about this as he watched the sun rise from his boat. And he thought about it each time he said hello to the docent at the Reina Sofia.

It was a crisp fall day. He woke early and rowed as he did each day. On the way back from Retiro Park, Javier walked past the Prado Museum on the way to the Reina Sofia, past the statues of Velázquez and Goya, thinking of the 3rd of May even though it was only October. The Spanish painters knew death, understood death, he thought. Like Velázquez and Goya so many years before him, Picasso knew what it meant to experience fear, to be at the very end, and face the firing squad. He understood the terror one felt when there was nowhere left to run, when your luck had run out, and the wheel was about to stop. Yes, Spanish painters knew this better than anyone he thought, and this was always apparent in their art.

At the Reina Sofia, Javier made his way towards Guernica. When he arrived in the room, there was a crowd of students there, who stood somewhat patiently while the elegant docent spoke to them about the painting. Javier watched as she pointed towards the canvas, the graceful curve of her arm still attractive, and her eyes filled with wonder as she shared her enthusiasm for the work with the students.

When she was finished speaking, she asked the students to take fifteen minutes in the room without saying a word and without glancing at their phones. Fifteen minutes to look and see and hear and feel Guernica, to smell the smoke wafting through the village after the attacks and hear the cries of mothers at the sight of their dead children. The students gazed forward at the wall, as she stepped behind them only to see Javier with his back to the canvas, his eyes travelling across the small sketches of Guernica on the opposite wall.

He just stood there plainly, with his back to the crowd of people, staring at the sketches, in a room with no windows, with the rain now streaming down the glass of the exposed elevators that flanked the building. He just stood there, arms behind his back, bent slightly at the waist, leaning his head closer to try and get a better look. It was then he noticed, out of the corner of his eye, that he wasn’t the only one with his back to the painting. The docent was looking in his direction, with her back to the students and also the painting. For a moment they were the only two people in the room, along with Picasso that is, who would likely have approved. It was nothing more than a coy, knowing smile that a woman can only give when she is older than 70 and knows that time is running out. Javier knew this, and he liked to think he was a man who was always prepared. But he was not prepared for this. He was prepared to row his boat in the mornings alongside other old men, and he was prepared to walk to the Reina Sofia and look at Guernica in the afternoons. But he was not prepared for this. He was not prepared to hope, really hope, not now, at his age. Hope, for a man his age, could only place him on the brink of despair. Even death didn’t summon fear so much as inevitability. Hope was different, and Javier didn’t dare hope, not even here at the Reina Sofia before Guernica where Picasso had spilled his hopes so powerfully across the canvas.

He had been in wars and seen the faces of death and stared blindly into sunsets, but her gaze felt like a hundred pairs of eyes levelling themselves at him, knowing and devastatingly beautiful. He had seen her so many times before and been fine. Although her smile was disarming, it was sweet and he had never been intimidated by it. Moreover, he had always been ready for it, coveted it like the stars or the moon or the sea. Only now it felt different. And he wasn’t sure if it was the painting or the room or the thought that only hours before he had been rowing in the most tranquil waters. Oh those tranquil waters, quiet, where old men in boats set out each morning completely at home and unafraid.

He had no choice but to meet her eyes and stare back into them. There was no averting her glance. They were there, alone in a crowded room, with the students facing Guernica. They were there, just the two of them, with only their thoughts, their considerable years, and days gone by that hung like the cracked, worn edges of his mouth–dry and sick with worry. All he could do in the moment was bow respectfully in her presence, doff his cap, and saunter out of the room, breaking the silence of the students by whistling a tune so old that only the two of them had ever heard it before.


Staff Picks – March 2018


Introducing Staff Picks! Recommendations for the very best in arts, culture and literature from the staff at The London Magazine.


Steven O’Brien – Editor
Boneland – Alan Garner

Just finished ‘Boneland’ by Alan Garner. A hard, and yet deeply English read. Is Garner the father of Folk Realism?  



Matthew Scott – Reviews Editor
The Origins of Creativity – Edward O. Wilson

An intriguing attempt to think about artistic creativity by one of the world’s leading biologists. 



Lucy Binnersley – Assistant Editor
Ballet Flamenco Jesús Carmona – Impetus (Flamenco Festival at Sadler’s Wells, 24th February)

Jesús Carmona is famed for his explosive and witty footwork and his ballet-infused moves translated masterfully throughout this irresistible interpretation of famous scores from Spain’s most beloved composers. A truly colourful and explosive perform by all 11 dancers and musicians.


Emma Quick – Marketing and Research Executive
Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie

Home Fire is a contemporary take on Sophocles’ Antigone, examining the fraught tension that comes with being British, female and Muslim in today’s world. An urgent and pertinent novel which takes on politics, radicalisation, family and faith in a way that is both truly elegant and evocative.



Freya Pratty – Special Editorial Advisor
Another Kind of Life – Photography on the Margins (Barbican Art Gallery, 28th Feb – 27th May, from £9 – U14s go free)

This exhibition spans a huge expanse, both historically and geographically, to tell the stories of the frequently under-represented. Igor Palmin’s photographs are a particular highlight, showing images of hippies in the Russian countryside, as are Paz Errazuriz’s images of sex workers in Chile during the time of Pinochet. 


Bridey Heing – Special Editorial Advisor
How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future – Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

‘I’m currently reading ‘How Democracies Die’ by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. It’s as worrying as the title would suggest, but the rich context they provide gives some very reassuring contours to the daily news cycle.’


Alex Bryan – Intern
The Sheltering Sky – Paul Bowles

Bowles’ novel, turning 70 next year, is a lattice of snapshots which guides you through Post-War North Africa. A great writer and contributor to The London Magazine. 


Interview | Bruce McLean


Bruce McLean is a Scottish performance sculptor who has just written A Lawnmower in the Loft – an amusing and light-hearted collection of snapshot anecdotes from over the years. We stopped by his studio for a chat. 


Could you tell our readers a bit about yourself and your work?

That could take a long time. I’m a sculptor. I’ve spent the last 50 years trying to develop modern sculpture through all sorts of different mediums. I’ve just written this book which is nothing to do with sculpture but it’s a kind of history of how I’ve developed and it informs, to some extent, what I do. But I’m actually a sculptor, and people think how can you be making films and videos and writing books and making prints and poems but it’s all the same thing to me.

What inspired you to write an autobiography?

It’s not so much an autobiography. What always amazed me about my mother was that she travelled all over the world, and she’d come back and I’d ask ‘so how did you get on?’. She’d say ‘oh fantastic dear, very nice’, and that was it… there was never a story, nothing ever happened. Every time I go out of the house something terrible or odd happens, and there’s a story in there! And that’s what started me off. There’s all of these silly sort of things that have happened to me in my life and some of them are actually quite funny. So I just thought I’d write down all the little stories, and all of the stories in the book are actually true.

How did you find working on both your art and the book at the same time?

Well it’s just the same thing. So I’d work in my studio on the sculptures or ceramics, and then I go home in the evening, do emails and before supper I’d write a story. So I just did it. It took about a year, just one or two stories a day.

Who were the main influences on your writing?

George Perec mainly, and Lawrence Weschler, who wrote a book called “Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees”.  I don’t read a lot of books, I actually find them quite difficult to read, but this one was something else. It was beautifully written and I think if a thing is beautifully written, it’s easy to read! And Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, I read it every year. It never bores me.

Do you enjoy writing?

I quite like writing short texts, and I’ve done a lot of work based on text. So it’s not too separate from what I do. One of the first pieces I ever made (after spending 3 years working and becoming very disillusioned with the art world), was this book called “King for a Day” a list of 1000 pieces. I just wrote it without editing, and if something wasn’t good I didn’t edit it out. That was at the start of my career and now I’m getting towards the end of doing stuff because I’m old, so I thought I’d write a text based piece.

Do you consider the book in the same light as all of your other art?

I wouldn’t call what I do art. I really am a sculptor, and I would say it’s sort of a book sculpture. Well it’s not, but I do consider it part and parcel the same thing.

What inspires your process?

I don’t get inspired. It’s another one I don’t understand, people think I have a “gift”, but there’s no gift about it. I get angry about things, and I think ‘I need to do something about that’. Or something makes me laugh and that makes me do something. It’s just to do with what’s around, and boredom. Boredom’s quite interesting, and it inspires a lot of stuff.

Have you got any more writing in the works?

I’m quite interested in architecture, and my father was an architect. I knew what he built but we never really talked about it, and he always said “oh they’ll discover how good I am when I’m dead”. He died when I was 40 and it turns out he actually was really good! My son found out just how good he was so we’ve decided to make a book on him, called Peter McClean: Invisible Architect. He was really interested in invisible architecture, by that he thought that if you made a really good building, you wouldn’t notice the architecture, you would just instantly feel better.

Bruce’s book, A Lawnmower in the Loft, is available now.

 Watch a clip of our interview here.



An interview with Paul Benney

Speaking in Tongues, 2014. Oil and resin on board. By Paul Benney

If you walk along one of the leafy roads from Hackney Downs and turn down a little side street, you may just find yourself at an old printworks. Now known as Hackney Down Studios, the space houses a collection of creative studios and workshops, including that of the London-born artist Paul Benney. Stepping in from the bright street to Benney’s equally well-lit studio, one is immediately struck by how dark many of his paintings are in comparison to their surroundings. Speaking in Tongues, which is to be exhibited at the 2017 Venice Art Biennale, along with Benney’s Reliquary series, is an excellent example of what the critic Adrian Dannat has called the ‘sombre richness of Benney’s aesthetic’, and several of the works in his studio resonate with an intense, inky darkness.

Before Benney arrives for our meeting, his studio manager shows me Benney’s particularly dark series of mirror paintings. Displayed in oval white frames, the paintings appear to be almost completely black. As one moves closer, however, pale faces can be seen behind the darkness; an ever-so-slightly pulsating light above the works increases the sense of eeriness that emanates from the works. When Benney does arrive, dressed comfortably in a black shirt and trousers, he recounts how gallery-goers are often confused by the paintings, half-believing that there is somebody on the other side of the canvas. This unsettling feeling of not knowing which is more real – the self or the reflection – is something that has interested Benney since childhood. As a teenager, he explains, he was fascinated by the experience of staring closely into a mirror, getting closer and closer to the surface ‘until you weren’t quite sure who was looking at who’. I mention Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Mirror’, which seems to resonate with the images before us: ‘I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions. / Whatever I see I swallow immediately / Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike’. The poem ends unnervingly: ‘In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman / Rises towards her day after day, like a terrible fish’. Benney’s paintings have a similar feeling of something drowned or suspended within them – like insects embedded in amber – and are acutely haunting. It later transpires that Benney spent some time living and working in a disused abattoir, and later in a former morgue, and I wonder if this has somehow fed into aspects of his work.

Benney’s art, he hopes, strikes the part of the mind that exists subconsciously, perhaps accounting for its sense of mystery. He speaks about how feelings exist before we verbalise them, or voice them to ourselves, and it is these feelings that his work seeks to represent. When we look at his paintings, then, it is our ‘ancient brain, an animal brain’ that is engaged, although Benney notes, chuckling, that this appeal to the ‘wordless brain’ can make it difficult to talk about his work. One work that I am particularly keen to talk about nonetheless is Speaking in Tongues, the twelve foot by eight foot painting based on the story of the Pentecost in the New Testament, when the disciples are visited by the Holy Spirit and begin ‘speaking in tongues’. Interestingly, the work comes from a secular standpoint: Benney is not religious, although he was brought up in a Church of England context. Instead, the painting shows twelve friends of Benney’s, loosely representing the apostles, who stand and sit in various manners and poses. Each man has a bolt of fire emanating from his head, so that each seems alight with spiritual awakening. These flames are the brightest part of the work, the muted tones of which deliberately recall Goya’s Lunatics in the Yard (1794), and the work has an additional and unexpected sound element to it. Benney’s friends were recorded speaking about revelatory moments in their lives – births, deaths, betrayals, hopes – and their stories are relayed through holosonic speakers placed around the painting. The overall effect is of a low murmuring, a sort of spiritual chatter, although if viewers stand in a particular spot, sound-focusing technology allows them to hear individual voices with clarity. Benney worried that this extra element might distract from the visual impact of the painting, functioning as a superfluous ‘bolt-on’, but has come to see it as integral to the work’s engagement with contemporary spirituality. So far, the work has been seen by an estimated 40,000 people at Chichester Cathedral, with a variety of reactions: ‘some people were very moved by it, others were mystified’. Benney has come under fire for not including women in his re-imagining of the Pentecost, but he argues that he is being true to the representation of the disciples in the Bible, all of whom were male.

Benney is animated by the prospect of exhibiting at the Venice Biennale, one of the pre-eminent contemporary art exhibitions in the world, and enthuses about having two shows there at once. His Reliquary series will be displayed on either side of Speaking in Tongues, so that the church will be full of painted flames. Reliquary is a suite of six small canvasses, each depicting the type of candle used in votive offerings in the Christian church. The candle has been covered with a bell jar, and, unsettlingly, continues to burn. We see it decrease in size in each painting, until the last canvas shows the bell jar filled with smoke from its extinguished wick. Light plays such a strong role in Benney’s painting that I ask him how he feels about artists such as Hockney or Hodgkin, who respond to light and colour in such different ways to his own. Benney praises the illuminating quality of Hodgkin’s work, noting that it can considerably brighten the dull, grey days of London, and acknowledges some of Hockney’s earlier work as an influence (he is less keen on the artist’s more recent output). It is to Goya’s traditional technique of chiaroscuro – the tonal contrasts between light and dark – that Benney is most indebted, however.

For now, both Speaking in Tongues and Reliquary remain in London, ready to be transported to Venice in due course. Benney is a Londoner by birth and location, and he has spent the past three years in his current studio in East London. Prior to this, he was Artist in Residence at Somerset House for five years, and he has also lived in parts of West London. Being born in the city, he says, ‘allowed me to come back, in some way, because something deep within me was comfortable with city life, and specifically London’. His brothers and sisters, he notes, do not have the same attachment and were born elsewhere. Has London changed in the time that he’s known it as an artist? I know the answer to this before it comes, and Benney speaks about the inevitable process of gentrification that happens when artists breathe life into hitherto ‘no-go’ areas of town: ‘I’m sort of sick of it now, as I feel like I’m doing the job that developpers benefit from’. A similar thing happened when he lived in Manhatten, in an area where ‘you couldn’t pay people to visit you’. Illuminatingly, Benney sees the artist’s creative role as enacting a similar process. ‘You have to be prepared to go to places that other people don’t want to, or don’t dare to, and that can be an emotional place, a spiritual place, a psychological place, a philosophical place. And you’ve got to peer over the edge of that abyss, and come back’.

By Suzannah V. Evans

Paul Benney will be exhibiting Speaking in Tongues, along with his Reliquary series, at the Chiesa di San Gallo, San Marco 30124, Venice, 13 May – 26 November 2017. More information on Paul’s work is available here.

Transcending Boundaries by teamLab at Pace London


Touch coral reefs, and they will die. It doesn’t feel outlandish to suggest an oblique parable in the fact that one of the world’s greatest wonders is also one of its most fragile. Layer upon layer of calcium carbonates form skeletons secreted by polyps that weave themselves over their intricate intestines, joining together with thousands of their brothers and sisters to form colonies. To the uninitiated, the creatures sound like the imaginings of a mystic fairytale. Their beauty has a touch of magic in it, a miraculous quality lent both by the unlikelihood of their existence and their intense vulnerability. They speak of the wonders of nature, the serendipitous balance that has resulted in its existence, and the ever-persistent risk of destruction should this balance be upset.

It is this fault line between danger and marvel that teamLab explore in their latest exhibition, ‘Transcending Boundaries’. Three rooms of immersive installations bring together science and aesthetics in creative and thought-provoking combinations. The Japanese art collective is made up of artists, engineers, CG animators, architects, programmers, editors, designers and mathematicians. Together, they create an interactive microcosm that serves to showcase the delicacy of nature with urgency and immediacy. Butterflies flit around the walls, each moving with a free and unique trajectory, unconstrained by picture frames, until they are brushed by a human hand and fall, limp, to the ground.

This is art at its most technical and experimental. One room displays a polyptych of crashing waves, evocative of Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave.’ The three-dimensional video is incredibly soothing, the movement of the waves mesmerising. teamLab created the piece by calculating the interactions of countless water particles, tracking their movements to understand the behaviour of such a mass of water. Like the rest of the work on show, the art is not the creation of spontaneous impulse as, rather idealistically, we often imagine modern art to be. Instead, each piece is a labour of scrupulous attention to detail, fine-tuned research, and specialist prowess.

It’s commonplace in bad criticism to call an artwork ‘unique’ for want of a better adjective, but this exhibition’s genuine individuality is the result of its complex conception. The paths of the butterflies are determined by the state of the other works and the actions of those in the room. While the artwork as a whole operates on a perpetual cycle of life and death, growth and decay, regeneration and dilapidation, it is not a prerecorded loop. The art changes constantly, determined by computer programs that respond to the viewers and surroundings so that the visions spilling from walls to floors morph and mutate without end. One room is nothing more than a void until you enter. As bodies inhabit the dark space, multicoloured flowers bloom on their bodies, surrounding their feet and growing with ephemeral brightness.

The effect is simply mesmerising. To enter the exhibition is to capitulate to an overwhelming sensory experience; Hideaki Takahashi’s soundtrack adds to the trance, drawing the viewer in inexorably. One piece, ‘Enso’, invokes the Zen practice of drawing a circle with a single brush stroke, using technology to replicate this ancient tradition in an animation that makes it hard to look away. The spatial calligraphy of suspended digital pigments moves slowly across the screen. teamLab has created a world that is both beautiful and meaningful; inspired by the WWF, the exhibition reminds us that nature is mysterious and enchanting, but ultimately undeniably perishable.

By Charanpreet Khaira 

Transcending Boundaries by teamLab
Pace London
25 January – 11 March 2017

David Hockney at Tate Britain


Visiting a gallery in London during the February half term is a rookie error. In a bid to occupy restless children, and driven inside by the drizzle, the families of London descend on its cultural delights. Most are free, accessible by tube, and educational; those who dare to enter will be faced with overexcited kids shouting over distressed parents, flailing toddlers on a bid to escape, and those on the cusp of adolescence, cursing their bad luck for having to admit any affiliation with their parents outside of the house. You might expect the entrance fee for the Tate Britain’s David Hockney exhibition to turn people away. And yet the promise of an exhibition taking a retrospective gander through the life’s works of a cultural icon is enough to draw in the motley crew of the city’s half-termers. Even more surprisingly, they are all captivated. Amongst the trodden toes, banged elbows and pervasive stink of damp raincoats, there is a sense of awe shared by the multiplicitous generations and nationalities flooding the galleries.

The exhibition traces almost sixty years of Hockney’s work in loosely chronological thematic sections. His signature images of 1960’s Los Angeles appear, characterised by swimming pools and homoeroticism as well as rawer line drawings and sketches, experiments of form and medium, and Hockney’s modern forays into the world of technology. Chris Stephens’s careful curation makes this more than a walk through history, arranging the large, twelve-room collection with invention and flair. Each room has its own flavour, keeping even the Hockney aficionados on their toes. The first room – ‘Play within a Play’ – throws us into metatheatre, the art mimicking our examination of it, so that are forced to examine ourselves in the process. In the title painting, Hockney’s friend John Kasmin presses his self against a glass sheet, hands pushing desperately against the barrier between art and spectator. It is a concept that recurs throughout Hockney’s lifetime; ‘Blue Stools’ does not just stage paintings within a painting, but a whole gallery within a gallery. The gallery-goers are a collage of digital photographs superimposed on a painted background, the figures repeating themselves nonchalantly in a dream space that eerily mirrors the room in which the painting hangs.

Inevitably, such an expansive view of one man’s life’s works is full of variety, offering dark, scrawling pieces etched in graffiti and cryptic messages in stark dichotomy to the angular patterns and vibrant colours of his observational paintings. The exhibition excels, however, in giving us a glimpse into the artist’s way of seeing. The second half focuses on experiences of space and place, the same hyperreality of deep pigments and bold lines lent to both Hollywood Hills and Yorkshire countryside alike. The paintings brim over with effervescent joy, vignettes of still life and landscapes alike transformed into loud effusions of rich, warm colour.

A room is dedicated to The Four Seasons, where nine cameras pan down a rural Yorkshire lane. Standing in the middle of the room, you can turn to face any wall and feel the essence of one of the four seasons. The effect is completely enchanting, as testified by the collective awed intake of air when groups enter the room. The collage of nine slightly different perspectives lends the videos something beyond three dimensions; the flitting views give a sense of complete immersion. It’s disconcerting and jarring, but upliftingly beautiful. Hockney’s sense that a singular point of view is not enough to really see is stressed by his photography, layering collaged Polaroid in a patchwork that diffracts our line of sight, producing an image with less clarity and more complexity. Hockney saw traditional photography as ‘looking at the world from the point of view of a paralyzed Cyclops.’ His forays into photography and video, like his sumptuous landscapes, allow us to see the extraordinary lurking within each ordinary scene. It is a wonderful glimpse into the world of Hockney’s genius.

By Charanpreet Khaira 

David Hockney
Tate Britain
Until 29 May 2017
£7.95 – £26.00

Adventures in Moominland at Southbank Centre


“What do you know of the Moomins: the books, the television series, or maybe you just recognize the characters?”

That was one of the first questions asked at the Adventures in Moominland tour, an immersive exhibition currently on at the Southbank Centre; the span of all the different mediums mentioned perfectly encompassing the much loved Moomin’s longevity across generations and cultures. Originating as a series of picture books written and illustrated by Finnish author, Tove Jansson, the Moomin stories follow Moomintroll, a white-as-cloud hippopotamus-like creature, as he lives out his adventures with his family and friends in Moominvalley. Translated in over forty-four languages, readers both young and old have adored these characters for decades, ever since they were first published in 1945 as Jansson’s refuge from the cruel reality of the Second World War.

Part of a larger series called “Nordic Matters” at the Southbank Centre, the Moomin exhibition brings together a collection of Tove Jansson’s sketches, stories and memorabilia from her own life in a completely vitalizing setting. Low ceilings in most of the rooms create an almost child-like playworld, where anyone above the age of ten will likely have to crouch down, not least in order to see the wonderfully petite original drawings rarely showcased to the public before. For the duration of your time in Moominland, all that constitutes being an adult diminishes, starting with the most obvious of characteristics that make you a ‘grown-up’ (as the word suggests), stretching to the playful pantomimes that the escort will engage you in.

In fact, the entire physical set-up of the exhibit is a manifestation of all the different elements that are so central to the animated world. Chilled temperatures mirror the lands of Finland that inspired the author. Dimmed lighting in the space dedicated to the Groke encapsulates Jansson’s period of depression that the character reflected. Adventures in Moominland, rather than being a static tour from room to room, becomes a completely visceral experience, because these are not just drawings on a page, and this is not just a legacy behind glass casing. Tove Jansson drew from a bank of memories, people, feelings and encounters, posing the question: why should the artistry of the Moominworld – with its rich characters and riveting tales – somehow be segregated from its creator, as if it were something inorganic? The exhibition sets itself up to do just the opposite from the very start, beginning with the origin of Moomintroll, who was contrived from a scary tale told to Tove Jansson by her uncle to keep her from raiding the kitchen at night.

Rather than take us chronologically, the exposition continuously intertwines Moomintroll and Jansson’s life and times, both narratively and physically. One area might be Snufkin’s tent recreated, while in the next, the author’s studio in Stockholm. Though each room within the exhibit is immaculate in its ability to transport you to another world, the crux of Adventures in Moominland resides in the astounding attention to detail. Not counting the atmospheric lighting and sound that bring the space to life, so much of what makes this tour exciting for the young and old alike are the novelties that surprise. It’s enthralling to discover Easter eggs, like Kant and Schopenhauer’s manifestos, sprinkled about Moomin’s home – a call-out to Tove Jansson’s intellectual preoccupation with many of these great thinkers, often tackling them in references found within the comic strips. It is precisely in this kind of minutiae that so much of one’s nuanced (and newfound) appreciation for her work arises. The wonders of growing up lay in the fact that the world around us, though no longer simple, is even more fascinating in its complexity.

And Tove Jansson had a way of conveying that. Her narratives often focus on topics of love, tolerance, freedom and existence, hidden behind the guise of a children’s book. But a particularly overarching idea throughout was the author’s compulsion with always finding solace and beauty in the minute. That no matter how bad times may seem (and Jansson was, in fact, writing in the worst of times), there’s always good to be found. One of the stories, for example, shows Moomintroll horribly cross with Moominpappa after not understanding why he does and thinks the things he does. You later find out this was very much Jansson grappling with her own father’s Nazi sympathies, a sentiment common in almost half the Finns at the time, given that Hitler had been viewed as a liberating alternative to the oppressive Russians the country had had strained relations with for decades. In the end, Moomintroll can’t help but still love Moominpappa. Nor could the Finnish penwoman hold her affection for her parent at bay. To love is complex, rooted in the littlest of things, and whether by accident or by design, the exhibit is very much in line with that. And that’s important. Because in an all too familiar scenario we see echoes of today, whereby a population of people can be divided at the seams over a common issue, stories like those of the Moomins are not just a delightful and leisurely pastime for us to engage in, but a very dire reminder of our shared humanity. “One can’t be too dangerous, if they like to eat pancakes. Especially with jam on it,” Moomintroll tells us.

Madeleine L’Engle once said that if a book is too difficult for grownups, write it for children. But Moomintroll and Adventures in Moominland isn’t just for kids, or just for adults – it’s for anyone with a beating heart and a love to share. Paradoxically, a love that, like the devil, is found in the details.

By Kristian Radev

Adventures in Moominland
Southbank Centre
16 December – 23 April
£13.50 – £16.50

The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection


“It’s not about how great the collection is. It’s about the photographers who took the photographs…how they changed the art form forever.”

While he still manages to rock over 100 gigs per year, the Rocket Man is also revered in most cultural circles as a tastemaker par excellence. He has always been an early champion of emerging talent, from Eminem in the 80s to Ed Sheeran in the 90s, and last April, he collaborated with Lady Gaga to launch a clothing line. Now, a major exhibition of international modernist photography at the Tate Modern proves that his private art collecting is as chameleonic as the public curation of his hairstyles and sunglasses.

Drawing from Sir Elton’s private photography collection—with over 8,000 works, it is one of the largest in the world—“The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection” surveys photography’s development in the early twentieth century, calumniating in a love letter to an art form. Beginning in the 1920s and ending in the 1950s, the exhibition is the first of its kind to focus on the period of major experimentations that followed the end of the First World War. Charting technological advancements and artistic movements alike, the curator Shoair Mavlian presents formal trials, avante-garde provocations, and pop spectacle that pioneered many of the medium’s movements, from Surrealism to the Bauhaus. Canonical figures such as Man Ray, Irving Penn, and Aexlandr Rodchenko headline the some 200 original prints, all created by the artists themselves. They are displayed in varying arrangements, from gallery-style straight lines, to small and large clusters that reflect the way photographers during this period hung their photographs in order to consider potential edits.

We are privileged to central biographical details behind the collection that shape the trajectory of the exhibition: Sir Elton began collecting photography in 1991, a year after he got sober; the photographs are maintained in the same frames as they are displayed in Sir Elton and David Furnish’s home. However, audiences will be disappointed if they expect any semblance of a tell-all fantasy fandom akin to 2013’s “David Bowie is” at the V&A. An unassuming aesthete, Sir Elton cheerfully demystifies his handiwork behind his possession in the audio guide’s introduction: “It’s not about how great the collection is. It’s about the photographers who took the photographs, what they were willing to experiment with, and how they changed the art form forever.” Indeed, the exhibition title is not a reference to the art buyer’s prescriptive gaze—it alludes to the camera’s altered way of seeing the world.

One of the great British artistic institutions was skillfully illustrated near the exhibition’s entrance—a complicit queue waited to individually inspect André Kertész’ “Underwater Swimmer” (1917). This tiny contact print, hardly bigger than a bag of tea, is all rippling refracted light and slicing musculature of a seemingly cadaverous swimmer—a beautiful male body, the model was Kertész’ brother. In an interview with the Telegraph, Sir Elton declared it to be the most important photograph from the twentieth century. But if Sir Elton had not provided special audio commentary to accompany this photograph, which is so engulfed by its oversized burnt-gold frame, would the general viewer have even noticed it? The exhibition’s double-rootedness in superstardom branding, and its spectacular survey of a visual art form, one that does not typically draw large museum crowds, anticipates polarised responses. But perhaps, for the groupie-cum-museum-goer, whether or not the exhibition delivers on the implied promise of its title is beside the point—it got you to look in the first place.

By M. René Bradshaw

The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection
Tate Modern
10 November 2016 – 7 May 2017

Björk Digital at Somerset House

Photo by REWIND VR

Over her three-decade long career, Icelandic artist Björk has always blurred limits; genre limits between experimental and pop music, verbal limits between language and scat singing, formal limits between music and visual art.

‘Björk Digital’ is an embodiment of this blurring, for the exhibition is an unclassifiable show that is in equal parts tech demo, cutting-edge visual album and performance art. The exhibition is built on tracks from her latest record Vulnicura (One Little Indian, 2015), a self-professed ‘complete heartbreak album’ after the artist’s separation from her long-time partner. The first five of the six rooms that comprise the exhibition are different types of virtual reality presentations, each set to one of the tracks from Vulnicura.

First there is ‘Black Lake’, set in a dark room with projections on opposite walls and surround sound. Björk stumbles around a volcanic landscape as blue lava bleeds from the rocks around her. Her powerful interpretive dancing has her beating her chest until she dies and is reborn in lush green hills. The changing quality of sound is fascinating, and has viewers walking around the space trying to hear every note of the haunting track.

In the next three rooms viewers sit on stools with virtual reality headsets on, moving from the gorgeously sad beach of ‘Stonemilker’ to the nightmarish ‘Mouth Mantra’, filmed from the inside of Björk’s mouth as she sings the most terrifying track from Vulnicura. While the ideas are perfect, unfortunately they are ahead of the technology; the images are low-resolution and the immersion is broken by visible pixels.

This is not a problem in the penultimate room, that is also the most  technically demanding. ‘Notget VR’, instead of using wireless headsets with smartphones in them, wired headsets hang from the ceiling, and viewers are invited to walk around the space. An initially life-size glowing outline of the artist grows and grows, endlessly pacing forwards as she spits out her words to angry strings. Not cowering away from her goddess-like apparition is difficult; the immersion is total.

While Vulnicura is a narrative album, the songs are here presented out of order. This has a jarring effect; while ‘Stonemilker’ is a heartbreaking attempt at keeping a failing relationship together, it comes after ‘Black Lake’, a song from the pits of post-breakup hell that has a clear turning point towards positivity in its closing minutes. The presentations must be thus interpreted as separate pieces, which means that some of the album’s momentum is lost.

Another problematic element is the placement of the rooms themselves. Paradoxically, what is supposed to be the most immersive form currently available consistently breaks the immersion that the artist works so hard to achieve. Aside from the unavoidable awkwardness of having to place heavy equipment on your head, and having to endure an explanation on how to adjust the focus and volume for each piece, the rooms are also separated by corridors and are on different floors, which causes drastic changes in lighting levels. This layout seems to be a result of the exhibition being spread out over Somerset House’s New Wing, and it would certainly benefit from a smaller, more contained space.

After the virtual reality rooms, visitors are led to the ‘Cinema Room’, in which over twenty of Björk’s music videos play on a large screen, with crystal-clear sound quality. While the videos are consistently thought-provoking and well presented, they highlight again the technical limitations in some of the virtual reality rooms.

What this room does reveal is that virtual reality seems to be the technology that Björk has been waiting for. Her videos have always placed emphasis on movement and immersion. ‘Big Time Sensuality’ (1993) directed by Stephane Sednaoui, for example, has Björk performing on the bed of a truck driving through the streets of Manhattan. It is difficult to think of a scene more suited to being filmed in virtual reality.

While Björk is the focal point of each piece (no other person features in any of the virtual reality videos, and very few others in the cinema room screenings) it is important to remember that ‘Björk Digital’ is a quintessentially collaborative project. From the directors of the videos, to the talented session musicians and multiple producers of Vulnicura, to the virtual reality boffins who make Björk’s wonderfully bonkers ideas possible, these are people working on art that is not technically perfect, but original and necessary.

‘I wish to synchronise our feelings’ sings Björk on ‘Stonemilker’. This goal becomes easy when the artist is standing in front of you, life-size, staring into your eyes, bearing out her soul just inches from your face. Briefly, you can forget the heavy contraption strapped to your head, and that the image has visible pixels. ‘Björk Digital’ uses virtual reality well, and does more than enough to be moving and establish a true connection between artist and viewer, despite its technical limitations. It is yet another success led by an artist who is always looking forward.

By Ludo Cinelli

Photo by Nick Knight
Photo by Nick Knight

Björk Digital
Somerset House
1 September – 23 October

John Scott’s The London Magazine by Matthew Scott

A segment of The Elgin Marbles

Matthew Scott

John Scott’s The London Magazine

The Greek author Lucian tells of a lusty, young aristocrat who fell for a statue of Aphrodite and, willing it to be real, attempted to defile it. He had only the experience of other boys to go on and fell short when it came to the anatomy of women; congress was a hopeless failure and he hurled himself to his death. But statues in Lucian are not all silent in their allure. James Joyce has the hero of Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, fascinated by the marble buttocks of Venus and such Pygmalion-like desire has a long aesthetic history. Wanting the art object to come to life is a museum fantasy that recurs repeatedly in western literature and it is a strong theme in The London Magazine of the 1820s. Here, statues abound, leaping to life, though they are more political than sexual.

One of the magazine’s most famous essays is an account in 1822 of the Elgin Marbles by the critic William Hazlitt, which stands out as an extraordinary description of those statues and, indeed, transcends them to make a case for the humanizing potential of art more generally. Hazlitt and Benjamin Robert Haydon were leading voices in an argument that surrounded the value of the Elgin Marbles. For all the debate about the rectitude of their having been taken off the Parthenon in the first place, it seems almost incredible now when no one doubts the importance of the statues in the history of western art, that on their arrival in Britain, they were dismissed by the leading aesthetic mandarin of the time as worthless copies made in the time of Hadrian. History hasn’t dealt favourably with Richard Payne Knight, whose taste — or lack of it — now appears to be quaint if not simply bizarre. But at the time, Hazlitt saw himself writing in opposition to the reactionary conservativism of an orthodoxy rooted the poIite values of the eighteenth century that had fought keep the works outside the British Museum. He felt that he was standing up instead for a newer set of artistic values that found Romantic power in those massive, decaying forms.

Horace Smith is the author of the leading article in the issue of March 1821, which identities one of the marbles as Theseus and is accompanied by a splendid engraving of it. ‘Mutilated and disfigured as is,’ he writes, ‘I never approach this majestic statue without feeling an indescribable awe, leading me, almost unconsciously, to take off my hat, and look at it with silent reverence, as if l stood in the presence of some superior being.’ The article is self-consciously rather coy and its slightly callow veneration of the statue is much more marked than anything in Hazlitt’s tough, technical essay. But Smith’s obvious sense of wonder before the work of art is a familiar emotional theme in the magazine’s many essays on art and culture. Its readers were obviously hungry for material relating to current exhibitions and shows, as well as theatre and music, and this kind of sentimental criticism was popular. But the essay, also betrays an odd sense of anxiety or uncertainty, as though neither he nor his age is quite up to the task of appreciating just how marvellous these statues really are. There is something of an obsession with antiquity in the magazine and it exposes a wider anxiety in this period that even as Britain expanded its empires, its position as a cultural authority could never rival that of earlier eras.

Complaint about the shoddy standards of contemporary culture is of course a pretty time-honoured theme but the writers of The London weren’t conservative traditionalists invoking in fustian the spirit of the past but radical liberals, conscious of living in a culture that had changed very distinctly since the end of the eighteenth century. The decade of the 1820s is a rather forgotten moment in British cultural history. The great poets of the previous generation, Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, had their finest work long behind them; none of the second generation, Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, was to live long. In political terms, these are the last years of a worn out Conservative administration, one dissected forcefully by Disraeli in the opening part of his novel, Sybil. The challenges of the wars in Europe had thrown up a new role for Britain that necessitated change and there was a widespread feeling that electoral reform was needed but this, and Catholic emancipation, were to come only in the 1830s. The London Magazine, especially in the period immediately after its revival in 1820 under the dynamic editorship of John Scott, provides us with extraordinary insight into the intellectual and artistic on of the age and one has the sense of a culture that was in vibrant dialogue with both Europe and its expanding empire, but not yet entirely confident with itself as an imperial power.

A few years before writing his essay on the Elgin Marbles, Horace Smith had taken part in a competition organized by the influential writer and publisher, Leigh Hunt, in which he was asked to produce a poem in response to a new acquisition of the British Museum, an Egyptian statue of the pharaoh, Ramesses II. His rival was Shelley, whose famous sonnet ‘Ozymandias’ remains a potent warning to would-be imperialists of the transience of all empires. Smith’s own poem takes much the same line only he is more specific in imagining a post-imperial London, wasted away into wilds:

We wonder, — and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chase,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

This anxiety isn’t fully representative of the ‘spirit of the age’ as Hazlitt calls his series of literary portraits published in The London; there are optimistic voices too. Indeed Smith himself often sounds rather remorselessly jolly in his essays, the anxiety jarring with the wit in another piece on the same Egyptian statue, ‘Memnon’s Head,’ published a month before his essay on the Theseus. This is an extraordinary bit of writing to which I’ve returned repeatedly since discovering it on a dark winter afternoon in the Bodleian library and it takes us back to Lucian, with whom I began.

The pharaoh’s head known ever since as the ‘Younger Memnon’, a later copy of a larger original, famous in antiquity was excavated and removed from a site at Thebes bv the Anglo-Italian Giovanni Belzoni, and became the subject of a good deal of interest in London following its exhibition and the publication in 1820 of the explorer’s account of his discovery. It’s putting it rather mildly to say that Belzoni was an unusual character: an ex-circus strongman and rampant self-publicist, he had perfected techniques for the removal of ancient statuary and, with this particular sculpture, executed his master trick. John Scott reviewed his popular narrative with its description of the logistics of the project in The London in January 1821, a month before Smith’s essay. His audience was familiar with the statue and Smith wastes no time on description. Instead, he begins by telling his readers about a claim of Lucian that the original sculpture had supernatural powers and could speak in the voice of an oracle. He goes on:

Unless I have been grossly deceived by imagination, I have good grounds for maintaining, that the Head, now in the British Museum, is endued with qualities quite as inexplicable, as any that have been attributed to its more enormous namesake.— I had taken my seat before it yesterday afternoon, for the purpose of drawing a sketch, occasionally pursuing my work, and occasionally lost in reveries upon the vicissitudes of fate this mighty monument had experienced, until I became unconscious of the lapse of time, and, just as the shades of evening began to gather round the room, I discovered that every visitor had retired, and that I was left quite alone with the gigantic Head! There was something awful, if not alarming, in the first surprise excited by the discovery; and I must confess, that I felt a slight inclination to quicken my steps to the door. Shame, however, withheld me;—and as I made a point of proving to myself, that I was superior to such childish impressions, I resumed my seat, and examined my sketch, with an affectation of nonchalance. On again looking up to the Bust, it appeared to me that an air of living animation had spread over its Nubian features, which had obviously arranged themselves into a smile.

Moments later, the statue begins to speak to him in perfect pentameters and, to a reader familiar with Smith’s other work, it comes as little surprise that the resultant poem is an appeal to the British to do away with the arrogance of imperial design lest London be subjected to the same fate as the ancient empires. It’s a very strange contribution — part short story, part poem — but there is no sense of a critical opinion characterized by cold, disinterested objectivity. Smith, having settled to the task of objective imitation, finds himself withdrawn into reverie, losing any sense of time, place or self. He wakes to find himself in the world of the artist-critic’s dream — the private moment in solitary contemplation of the artefact but this in turn produces an anxious solicitude, in which his own mute wonder is displaced by the voice of the very object of his contemplation. The attitude towards the art of the past is curiously vexed, suggesting that it can be at once both supremely compelling and profoundly disturbing. And while we might be inclined to be a little patronizing towards Smith with his quirky, naive story, it does contribute to a sense that any reader will develop that The London was a publication that took aesthetic matters very seriously indeed.

This is revealed more darkly in events that were shortly to take place. John Scott, who started the publication in 1820 by reviving an obsolete title from the eighteenth century, contributed with The London to a literary scene that was already thriving with numerous periodicals that dealt with the cultural events of the day. Most prominent in this period were two reviews, the Quarterly and the Edinburgh, which were strongly marked by their respective Tory and Whig credentials. A principle on The London that Scott was determined to enforce was that the magazine shouldn’t be politically partisan and that his writers, a wonderful gathering of talents including Charles Lamb and Thomas De Quincey, should be allowed freedom of expression. These are marvellous ideals but culture is, of course, inevitably political and in championing the young poet, John Keats, the editor found himself drawn into a larger and more costly battle. Keats was associated with the radical circles of Leigh Hunt, who had long been the butt of attacks from writers on the right for his criticism of the Regency establishment and his avowedly revolutionary sentiments. With the publication of his early poems, Keats found himself tarnished by the association and subject to the same kinds of charge that had been levelled against his mentor. Whatever one makes of the early, rather immature poems, there can be little doubt that the reviews in the Tory press were unfair and often personally insulting, most especially those in Blackwood’s Magazine, a rival of The London.

It isn’t the most glorious moment in critical history but journalism is frequently unfair and it’s probably best to rise above it. Scott, however, was unyieldingly dedicated to his principles and refused to let the matter rest. In a series of editorials beginning in May 1820 and continuing throughout the year, Scott sharply counterattacked, charging Blackwood’s with impropriety and bias. A sham apology only drove him on further with the suggestion of financial irregularity in the rival camp:

It is a common trick with the pickpockets in the streets, to profess great interest in the misfortune of the person they have just knocked down and plundered:—the very rascals who have struck him from behind, and filched his watch from his fob, will come round in his face, to pity and pat him — with their mouths full of asseverations against the roguery and cruelty of the outrage of which he has been the victim.

There is little doubt that the sequence of events that followed could have been avoided. John Gibson Lockhart, the editor of Blackwood’s, sought a retraction to no avail and after a Byzantine sequence of communications that are hard to unravel, Scott found himself forced into a duel with Lockhart’s London agent, Jonathan Christie. The pair met at nine o’clock in the evening at Chalk Farm outside London on 16 February 1821, with James Traill as a second for Christie and P G Patmore, a noted art critic and determined advocate of Keats in The London, for Scott. Christie did not fire on the first attempt in accordance with the honour code, but on the second, after a mix-up between the seconds, he shot, as he thought, in self-defence, the ball striking Scott above the right hip and passing through his guts into the left. It caused profuse bleeding and Scott was returned to his rooms at York Street in Covent Garden, where he lay weakening gradually towards his inevitable death eleven days later on 27 February 1821. He is buried nearby in the vault of St Martin’s in the Fields.

It is horrifying to think of him waiting for death to come through those awful, long days, a fate that would not face his killer for another fifty-five years. Scott, like Keats, wasn’t destined to become a Victorian sage; he remains, like his magazine, a figure from the Regency, essential to the character of the Romantic period. And although The London continued on into the second half of the decade, it never quite maintained the exceptional quality of the issues produced under Scott and in the period immediately following his death. The article about Memnon’s head with its curious, artistically driven but deeply moralising reflections had appeared only a few weeks earlier. Given the events at Chalk Farm on that grim, winter night, it’s pretty remarkable that the publication continued at all and that it did has much to do with Scott’s earlier editorial zeal. The duel forces us to read the magazine with a renewed awareness of the seriousness with which this group of writers took the matter of aesthetic judgement and, at a time when we are asked continually to advocate relativism in matters of taste and to eschew judgements of quality, this is perhaps no bad thing.

This essay first appeared in The London Magazine Dec 2008/Jan/Feb 2009. Matthew Scott is the current Reviews Editor at TLM.

Transcribed by Ludo Cinelli. 

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