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Contributor’s Picks – June/July 2018

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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

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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

 

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

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“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
£16.50/£14.50

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