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Fiction | The Word Necklace by Suzannah V. Evans

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The word necklace was intricate, beautiful. When she put it on it felt light, beautiful,
as if she were wearing coral, or air. The word necklace whispered in her ear: very-
violet-sweet, how manymermaidcrowded, ten fragments of clockwork. When she
walked, the word necklace swung against her skin (pat pat pat pat), and sometimes
she raised her fingers to it, fondled it, felt its crooked-smooth edges.

Sometimes, the word necklace whispered the words of other writers to her: a man as
beautiful as a live feather (Anne Carson), it said; the bee-loud glade (W. B. Yeats), it
said; in each eel a fingerwidth of sea (Alice Oswald), it said. Sometimes it chanted
names it was fond of: Francesca, Frances, Saskia, Rosa, Raphael, Lavender, Zazie;
Ellanotta, Zilletta, Sosaluna, Elvinit, Drin. At other times she could feel the pulse of
its breathing. One morning, the necklace (which she wore, courting danger, at night)
woke her up, whispering in capitals: THE POEM IS THE THUMB PRINT OF THE
SELF (quoting Ocean Vuong at a poetry reading, whose words had floated out into
the air and – yes – into the necklace’s earsight). Sometimes the necklace repeated
words on a loop: bee be bee be bee be bee be (b) (b) (b); sometimes the necklace
cackled like a gull. Mostly, however, it stayed still and breathing against her skin,
whispering, whispering, whispering, only occasionally.

On the fifth day of July (hot) she sat in the sun, her fingers against the necklace, her
pen poised in the air. Words, she thought, words. The necklace prickled against her
fingers, stirred. Blue rush, it said, l’époque bleu. She didn’t want to write about blue,
however, having thought about the colour all day. Je suis hanté. L’Azur! L’Azur!
L’Azur! (Mallarmé), the necklace tried again. Non! Blau sein? – to be blue? – the
necklace attempted, thinking of the German to be drunk (Maggie Nelson). Nein, nein!
Shuffle / mussel / muscle, radiated the necklace. She shuffled in the sun, thought: no.
A Blue-Scape Sea-Scape, A Blue-Shape Sea-Cape, riffed the necklace. A tempering
tampering blau-making sea-lake. She thought, reluctantly, of the sea, of hot/cool lakes
(hot because of the sun; cool because of the water). She thought, with enthusiasm
stirring slowly in her belly, of walking over gritty sand (compacted rocks, shell
fragments, splinters of bone) to the wide water; of the slow embrace of the sea’s
tongue. She thought, with ardent passion, of fully submerging herself in the water and
swimming long, powerful strokes out into sea.

You sea what you’ve done? she thought to the word necklace. I want words, and now
I have the sea (or rather, a desire for the sea). This is not helpful. Water is not words.
And the word necklace answered with a poem title: Water What Sounds (JL
Williams). And then: the taste of those salty bones defamiliarising words (JL
Williams again). And then: in her mind were bones, words, sea, salt,
familiar/unfamiliar things. She thought of the salt on her lover’s body late at night.
Unvoiced laughter / voiced laughter, said the necklace. Schopenhauer, Cy Twombly.
She wondered where the necklace got its references from. Kinship with the saxophone
(T. S. Eliot on Gertrude Stein), the necklace motioned in reply. She thought of the
deep brass/gold/light of saxophones, she pursed her lips into the form of about-to-
whistle. She leaned back against the hot door where she was sat.

Now it was later in the month, a Tuesday. She wore the word necklace cradled against
her collarbone. Cradle, candle, cliffs, copper-coloured, cadenced, said the necklace,
using words from a poem it had seen/heard. This Tuesday required other words.
[A]lways meeting ourselves (James Joyce), the necklace suggested. Draw your
pleasure, paint your pleasure, express your pleasure strongly (Pierre Bonnard, in
translation), it said. I speak French, she thought, and the necklace hummed quietly
against her skin. In the gallery! Sea of significance! (Not the sea, no, not the sea, this
time.) But a gallery? She thought of wandering through cool archways – but no – the
last exhibition she had seen was violent – tender – difficult – tragic – : war helmets,
scattered; broken men, bowing; one statue, bent and on all fours; a grave, marked
simply (but new colours of life pushing through in the foliage behind); women,
rushing; women, round-breasted; and – and – and – that painting by David Jones, so
claustrophobic, so much littler than she had expected, drowning in unfortunate pink,
the press of birds in escape. And collage – collage with images – images, not words –
images of buildings. But here she was running on images, her mind saw images, saw
pink, saw grey, could not press the images into words. She clutched the word
necklace. She felt soft distress in her belly.

And here the necklace offered her images/words of light: un collier de soleils dorés
(Jules Laforgue), and then simply: light, light, light.

And then the necklace hummed and resonated gently against her skin, saying: robbin,
ribbon, and then: What was it that spoke to me like this / in the language of ribbons?
(Hugo Williams). And it spun words into the air like ribbons (red–red–red–red–red–
all fluttering in the breeze that moved the hot air around like it might move washing
on a line – or was the breeze the air – or was the air a ribbon – or what was a ribbon?)

The necklace said: ribbon.

The necklace said

       The necklace

ribbon

 

BY SUZANNAH V. EVANS

Matisse in the Studio at Royal Academy of Arts

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Henri Matisse, Safrano Roses at the Window, 1925. Oil on canvas, 80 x 65cm. Private collection. Photo ©Private collection. © Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2017

‘My life is between the walls of my studio’, Matisse once declared. Matisse in the Studio, currently showing at the Royal Academy of Arts, flings the doors of Matisse’s workspace open to the public, showcasing the exciting variety of furniture, textiles, vases, and other objects that so inspired the artist. For him, these materials formed a ‘working library’, and one that he returned to at various points in his career, recycling and repositioning objects to different effect in each painting.

One such object is an Andalusian vase, aqua blue and shimmering in the gallery light. The vessel is the subject of Vase of Flowers, where it takes centre stage among the painting’s stripes, dots, and other patterning, and from which pink flowers with a glittery sheen emerge. Matisse would use the same vase in Safrano Roses at the Window just one year later, in 1925, in a painting that has a similar concern with dusky pink and blue colouring. Here, the blue swatches of paint on the vase chime with the bowl to its right, which originally had a white interior, and also reflect the aquamarine movements of the sea beyond the window. The colour of the dark pink flowers similarly reverberates around the painting, glancing off the window shutters, the sky, and the house outside the room. This echoing of colour perhaps has something to do with what Matisse described as the ‘sympathy’ between communing objects. Speaking to his students at the Académie Matisse in 1908, Matisse noted that a still life should engage with the ‘emotion of the ensemble, the interrelation of the objects, the specific character of each object – modified by its relation to the others’.

Henri Matisse, Still Life with Shell, 1940 Gouache, coloured pencil, and charcoal on cut paper, and string, pinned to canvas, 83.5 x 115 cm. Private collection. Photo © Private collection © Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2017

Matisse also characterised his objects as actors. ‘A good actor can have a part in ten different plays; a good object can play a role in ten different paintings’, he declared in 1951. The second room in the exhibition explores this idea further, and features several striking objects. One of these is a chocolate pot, which Matisse received from his friend and fellow artist Albert Marquet as a wedding present, probably in 1898. Still Life with a Chocolate Pot depicts the vessel in the midst of burnished brown and red tones, its silver drawing in the surrounding colours, including that of the small lemon by its side. A later, brighter painting sees the same pot filled with flowers, the rust-red surface the pot is resting on reflected in the petals of one of the flowers. The pot also reappears in several ink drawings, and in a wonderful piece entitled Still Life and Heron Studies. In the latter work, tiny ink studies of the chocolate pot and a soup taureen are balanced in fragmentary splashes of red, yellow, and blue watercolour, while slim ink strokes depict the outlines of herons. While the piece may be intended to explore the effects of colour, it also gives a sense of the joy Matisse took in the arrangement and spacing of his objects. He would often play with the positioning of items in his studio ‘until I found myself brought up short by something about the ensemble that delighted me’. How the artist may have gone about this work is made clearer in his Still Life with Shell. Here, the cut coloured shapes of a chocolate pot, jug, cup and saucer, shell, and four apples have been pinned into place in order to ascertain their optimum position. This work informs Still Life with Seashell on Black Marble, where the objects have been solidly painted into place, balancing serenely on their black marble background. Matisse’s spidery seashell is particularly brilliant.

Some objects gripped Matisse’s imagination more fiercely than others. Upon encountering a Venetian baroque chair in the early 1940s, Matisse wrote to Aragon that ‘I have at last found the object for which I’ve been longing for a whole year. It’s a Venetian baroque chair, silver gilt with tinted varnish, like a piece of enamel. You’ve probably seen something like it. When I found it in an antique shop, a few weeks ago, I was bowled over. It’s splendid. I’m obsessed with it’. The chair, with its back and seat shaped like cockle shells, would appear in several paintings and drawings, including Venetian Chair with Fruit, where its elaborate reptilian arms and textured legs are set off by the plain design of the floor tiling. The chair is transformed most joyously in two coloured pencil sketches from 1943, which depict vases of flowers balanced on the scalloped seat. There is a remarkable sense of ease and fluidity in the pencil lines, and in the brighter second sketch, the reptilian arms almost seem to grin at the viewer.

Muyombo mask, Pende region, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 19th-early 20th century. Wood, fiber and pigment, 49 x 19.3 cm. Former collection of Henri Matisse. Private collection. Photograph by Jean-Louis Losi

Matisse also drew inspiration from the Central and West African works that he collected. As Helen Burnham notes in the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue, ‘After about 1906, when he started a diverse collection of statues and masks from Africa, he radically changed the composition and handling of figures in his art in ways that echoed the formal and conceptual logic of African art as he understood it’. Rather than directly incorporate the objects into his paintings, Matisse adopted various stylistic elements, so that African sculpture was ‘more in his imagination than in his vision’, as Gertrude Stein put it. Standing Nude, his rendering of a 1906 photograph of a nude woman, therefore features dark outlines suggestive of wood carving, and he also experimented with large woodcuts. The exhibition does not shy away from issues of appropriation, making it clear that Matisse would not have come into contact with these articles had it not been for the French colonisation of parts of Africa; he also, like his contemporaries, was prone to homogenising ‘the non-Western traditions he admired’. Certain sketches, such as African Mask Studies, with its scribbled notations including ‘Gambie’ and ‘Haut Niger’, do suggest an interest in the origin of his sculptures, however, and Matisse was certainly an avid student of the objects he owned. He was particularly attracted to the ‘apparent inscrutability’ of masks such as the Muyombo mask on display, declaring that ‘Expression for me does not reside in passions bursting from a human face’.

Haiti, North Africa, late 19th-early 20th century.
Cotton plainweave cut and applied to bast fiber cloth, 217 x 212 cm.
Former collection of Henri Matisse. Private collection, on loan to Musée Matisse, Nice
Photo © François Fernandez, Nice

Textile was crucial to much of Matisse’s painting, and a photograph in the next section of the exhibition shows his studio swathed in densely patterned fabrics. Reclining Odalisque is an especially sensuous study of colour and shape, featuring luscious reds intersecting with cool blues. As in the earlier vase paintings, colour jumps between objects, so that here the emerald colouring of an anklet, side table, pillow, and clothing serves as the link between them. Odalisque with Gray Culottes is similarly impressive, with its sweep of yellow fabric, blue and red stripes, grey crisscrosses, and pistachio green pillow. North African hanging textiles called haitis are also on display, as they would have been in Matisse’s studio, so that the viewer has the sense of almost walking into one of his paintings. The last room also considers the ways in which Matisse was excited by fabric in his work. A 19th-early 20th century Egyptian tent curtain is suspended in the room, suggestive of Matisse’s rippling, seaweed-like cut-outs. Red Interior: Still Life on a Blue Table is a particularly spectacular painting, whose multidirectional lines emulate the Kuba cloths suspended next to it. In all, it is a joyous experience to see Matisse’s original objects transfigured and transformed under his paintbrush, and to feel the ‘sympathy’ at work between art and object.

By Suzannah V. Evans


Matisse in the Studio at Royal Academy of Arts, 5 August – 12 November 2017.

 

Sargent: The Watercolours at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

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John Singer Sargent, A Glacier Stream in the Alps, c. 1909-11, watercolour on paper, over preliminary pencil, 33.3 x 49.5 cm, Laing Art Gallery (Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums). Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne/Bridgeman Images

John Singer Sargent is best known as a painter of portraits in oil. Since childhood, however, he was also a keen watercolorist, and a new exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery seeks to show his ‘technical brilliance’ in the medium. It was in 1900 that the artist seriously returned to painting in watercolour, and the exhibition focuses on works he completed between 1900 and 1918, when Sargent was at the peak of his watercolour production. While these works have often been ‘dismissed as simple travel souvenirs’, the exhibition argues for their importance as an essential part of Sargent’s oeuvre.

Turning into the exhibition, I am immediately struck by the first picture on display. Alhambra, Patio de los Leones, painted in 1879, depicts a low-level and fragmentary view of the entrance to a chamber in Granada. Faded tiles line the floor, contrasting to the brighter wall tiles in the right-hand corner of the painting, and three steps are shown leading up into darkness. Two pillars stand in the foreground, their bone-white colour striking against the darkened entrance and heavy-set wooden door. While the picture might seem unassuming, there is a lot going on. The piece plays with the idea of space, and empty space, drawing the eye with its dark corners and doorways. Watercolour also allows Sargent to hint at what is there, rather than portraying it unmistakably in layers of oil, so that the tiles in the painting seem almost like an idea, or dream, of tiles. Light and dark are also in play, with the white spaces of the painting brightened by their positioning next to the dark details of the door and shadowed stairs. Patterning and plainness are contrasted in a similar manner, and the more I look at the painting, the more I like it, with its jewel-like flashes of colour, its gem-like tiles.

John Singer Sargent, Rome: An Architectural Study,
c. 1906-7, watercolour on paper, over preliminary pencil, 34.9 x 50.2 cm, Museums & Galleries, City of Bradford MDC

Villa Borghese, Temple of Diana offers a further example of Sargent’s unusual perspective. Four thick-set pillars stand in front of dark green foliage, their purple sheen reminiscent of water. Rather than showing the entire temple, however, Sargent crops the scene so that we see less than half of the structure, resulting in a zoomed-in, photographic feel. This use of the close-up is what makes Sargent’s work radical, the exhibition argues, and the first room is dedicated to Sargent’s vision of ‘fragments’. San Stae, Venice is one such fragment, depicting a corner of the Baroque church of San Stae in Venice next to a smaller red building. As in many of Sargent’s paintings, the vantage point is low, emphasising the grandeur of the Venetian architecture. Other paintings, such as Venice, Steps of a Palace and Palazzo Grimani, situate the viewer at water level, so that the buildings seem to rise up, impressively large, before the viewer’s eyes. Both of these paintings also share a dividing middle line, so that the work appears to be split in two horizontally: Venice, Steps of a Palace is divided by its steps, which separate the upper and lower halves of the picture, while the same effect is achieved in Palazzo Grimani by Sargent’s depiction of a patterned frieze. Rome: An Architectural Study is similarly divided. Described in the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue as an ‘architectural slice’, the work is an exercise in precision. The formal line of the plinth cuts the work cleanly in two, and the division is made clearer by the tonal contrasts of the piece. Whispers of mauve paint lend the top half of the painting a heavier feel, while the bottom is left brighter, yellow and grey shadowing indicating light.

Other paintings show the turmoil of human construction. Venetian Fishing Boats depicts a disorientating network of sails, masts, rigging, and nets, criss-crossing the sky like an elaborate pattern. The muddied brown and rust-red tones, which streak the surface almost like blood, contrast singingly to the blue on the hull of the boat. Hull of a Boat, a later painting from around 1922, offers an even more extreme close-up, and we view a section of the boat’s underbelly through the disorder of wooden poles and scaffolding. Here, as in other paintings, Sargent is drawn to the modulation of brown tones. Although I prefer his brighter colours, the predominance of brown works well in this case, causing the boat and scattered wooden debris to merge. The boat’s shape is also pleasing, reminding me of a pod, or walnut, with its dark grooves and hazel tones.

Boats feature heavily in Sargent’s work, and although the exhibition’s second section is devoted to cities, the emphasis is usually on buildings seen from waterways. Venice, then, was an important centre for Sargent’s imagination. Scuola Grande di San Rocco is a stunning example of Sargent’s gift for depicting water and light. The burnt orange tones of the building, one of the grandest of the Venetian charitable guilds, contrast beautifully to the shimmering green water, which is in turn reflected in the white steps leading up to the building. Vue de Venise (sur le canal), painted around the same time, positions the viewer similarly at water level. Here, two gondoliers propel their boats through vibrant green water, spume tumbling around their oars. Speed is suggested by their tilted stance and outstretched arms, while the dark brown boats are semi-transparent to expose the water, giving a sense of harmony between the gondoliers and waterway. The notes next to the painting refer to it as a ‘spirited study’, and the piece exudes energy. Sargent returns to the image of gondalas in The Piazette, Venice, where boats bob in water like birds with curved beaks. Once again, we are at eye level with the water, and its sensuous blue pulls us into the image; the close-up perspective is also typical of much of the artist’s work at this time. A Small Canal, Venice also offers a surprising viewpoint. Sargent painted the scene from a gondola moored under a bridge, and the image sees us peering out from under the structure at a medley of boats and the sheen of water reflecting the buildings above. The buildings also have a watery quality to them, perhaps owing to the heat of the day, and the scene is bathed in a luminous, honeyed light.

John Singer Sargent, Bed of a Torrent, c. 1904, watercolour on paper, over preliminary pencil, 36 x 51 cm, Royal Watercolour Society, London. Image © Justin Piperger

Ever interested in fragments and close-ups, corners and passageways, it is perhaps unsurprising that Sargent was not a fan of traditional panoramic landscapes. He once asserted that ‘enormous views and huge skies do not tempt me’, choosing instead to focus on the details and patterning of lakes, seascapes, and rocky shores. In Bed of a Torrent, Sargent focuses on an ‘unremarkable patch of riverbed’, zooming in on a selection of pale grey, white, and orange stones, angling our attention at what might otherwise be missed. A Glacier Stream in the Alps is the standout painting in this section of the exhibition. The bold piece is dominated by fractured boulders, rocks, and deep blue mountains, and features the Italian artist Ambrogio Raffele painting in the foreground. His grey suit makes him almost indistinguishable from his surroundings, intimating the close relationship between artist and nature. Other paintings also show Sargent’s friends and family members sketching, or sleeping, outside. Miss Eliza Wedgwood and Miss Sargent Sketching depicts the artist’s sister keenly sketching, a spare paint brush between her teeth, and she reappears in Miss Sargent Sketching. Not all the paintings are successful, and several are rather sickly idealisations of women reclining in dappled sunlight, bodies ‘sensuously twisted’ towards each other, as in A Siesta. According to the exhibition, the latter painting ‘conjures up an image of innocence, beauty and suspended time, as if the women inhabit a dream world that will never change’. Perhaps the same could be said of Highlanders Resting at the Front, a bland image of soldiers in uniform resting, oddly unmarked by any signs of battle or distress. These images aside, Sargent: The Watercolours does a fascinating job of exposing Sargent’s gifts with light, water, and fragments, providing new insight into how the artist saw the world.

by Suzannah V. Evans


Dulwich Picture Gallery: 21 June – 8 October 2017

Book Launch at Enitharmon: Stephen Romer and Alan Jenkins

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The light, bright space of Enitharmon bookshop in Bloomsbury was filled with jostlings and murmurings as more and more people tried to fit into the crowded gallery space. A double book launch was underway. Stephen Romer was here to celebrate his anticipated Set Thy Love In Order: New & Selected Poems, accompanied by Alan Jenkins and his soon-to-be-published White Nights, which will be available in the US.

Alan introduced the evening, calling attention to the ‘beautiful volumes of poetry, and beautiful livres d’artiste’ that surrounded us, his peppering of French a preview into much of the evening’s francophone flavour. He offers thanks to Stephen Stuart-Smith, Enitharmon’s director, for hosting the launch of two books that are not in fact published by the press – although Alan’s earlier Enitharmon collection Marine, written in collaboration with John Kinsella, was on display – and praises the ‘resplendent’ Set Thy Love In Order. Rather than read for a long time, Alan explains, he and Stephen will ‘do two little sets of poems each. I’ll read for a little while, Stephen will read for a little while, I’ll read for an even littler while, so you don’t have the opportunity to start finding either of our voices monotonous’. And afterwards, he promises, there will be ‘more wine!’

White Nights, Alan notes, is a book that has taken ‘more than the usual temerity’ to publish. It centres on translations from French literature, although there are also poems written after Italian and Spanish writers. Some of these are poems that Alan has been ‘working on or thinking about for a great many years’, and when he was invited by the US publisher Stanley Moss to bring out a book, he thought of these translations. ‘I’m not going to start an argument about translation’, Alan declares, before noting simply that the poems he has chosen to work with are not ‘obscure’ and, in many cases, have been much translated in the past. He is, therefore, indebted to these earlier versions. The poems are ‘mostly love poems, or after love poems, or failed love poems, or longing love poems – and they’re all poems that I’ve loved since first reading them’. Some of these first encounters occurred when Alan was a student, aged nineteen, and his translation work often stretches back to this time.

At this point, the reading is interrupted as yet more people attempt to squeeze into the white interior of Enitharmon. There are clatterings of glasses, chatterings, offerings and refusals of chairs, until the room is stilled once more and Alan begins his reading with ‘Christ in the Olive Grove’. The poem is ‘designated after Gérard de Nerval, but it’s actually a much reduced version of his sequence of sonnets – I’ve translated just three of the sonnets’, Alan explains. His reading is slow and deliberate, with an occasional conversational lilt, and he stands with the book resting lightly in his hands, leaning casually against the bookcase behind him. Afterwards, he reads a compact poem based on Stéphane Mallarmé’s ‘La Pipe’, answering requests from the audience for the page number. The mini-reading ends with ‘Classical Walpurgisnacht’, a poem based on a work by Paul Verlaine, but suggestive to Alan of Jules Laforgue. ‘I’m challenged and fascinated by this poem’, he says.

While the audience applauds, Alan deftly changes place with Stephen. Without pause, Stephen launches into a vervy performance of his poem ‘In the Sun’:

In the sun on my bed after swimming
In the sun and in the vast reflection of the sun on the sea
……….Under my window
And in the reflections and the reflection of the reflection
Of the sun and the suns on the sea
………..In the mirrors,
After the swim, the coffee, the ideas,
………..Naked in the sun on my light-flooded bed
………..Naked – alone – mad –
………………….Me!

‘That’s Valéry’, Stephen says with a bashful smile. He moves from images of a ‘light-flooded bed’ to a comment on the ‘flood of warmth I get from seeing all these lovely friends and colleagues here tonight’. Both Stephen and Alan are participating in the T. S. Eliot International Summer School running in Bloomsbury in the same week – many of the school’s students and scholars are in attendance at the reading – and Stephen notes that the title of his book is ‘not innocent’ in regard to Eliot. ‘La relations entre les sexes’, an Eliotic theme, is also of importance to him, he says, echoing Alan’s earlier sprinklings of French language. Stephen then reads ‘Resolve’ from his 1986 collection Idols, calling attention to the poem’s Laforguian references. His reading is dramatic, and it is clear that he enjoys his material. This is followed by ‘Primavera’, a poem that also flirts with French, containing both French and Italian terms as well as a reference to ‘spring in every language’.

After a further chair shuffle, Alan and Stephen once again exchange places. Alan also alludes to the T. S. Eliot School, recalling his opening lecture which addressed Eliot’s debt to Laforgue. The American poet was ‘completely taken over – ravished’ by Laforgue, Alan notes, in what was a ‘tremendous surrendering of his own selfhood’. ‘I felt something akin to that when I first read Laforgue’, he professes, ‘but of course I read Laforgue through Eliot’s eyes, or through Eliot’s sensibility’. Since then, he has worked on translations of Laforgue’s later poems, the Derniers Vers. ‘Winter Coming On’ is a version of the French poet’s ‘L’Hiver qui vient’, and ‘at the more faithful end’ of Alan’s translations:

Feelings under embargo! Freight and Cargo, Middle East!
Oh, the rain falling, and the night falling,
Oh, the wind! Oh, que c’est triste
Hallowe’en, Christmas and New Year –
All my chimneys – factory-chimneys – drizzled on; too drear…

You can’t sit down, all the benches are soaked;
Trust me, it’s over till next year.
The benches are all soaked, the woods mildewed, rust-choked,
And the hunt is calling…

And you, clouds come beetling up from the Channel coast:
You’ve spoiled our last Sunday for us. Toast.

Stephen finishes the evening with further French-inflected poems, including ‘Arbbre de Bhoneur’, written for his son, and ‘Yellow Studio’, which he liltingly interrupts to declare the page number for the keen reader-listeners among the audience. As the reading ends, listeners weave like fish in a crowded sea to the piles of books at the back of the gallery space, energised by their encounter with multiple languages, versions of poems, and ways of performing.

Suzannah V. Evans


Book Launch at Enitharmon: Stephen Romer and Alan Jenkins
Enitharmon Editions, 10 Bury Place, Bloomsbury, 12 July 2017

 

Poetry London Summer Readings: Rachael Allen, Andrew McMillan, Vahni Capildeo and Emily Berry

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Poetry London’s summer launch opened with an impassioned speech by the poet Karen McCarthy Wood, who is a trustee on the magazine’s board. The magazine is known for its support for ‘new and emerging poets’, Karen says, noting that one third of each issue is devoted to poets who have yet to publish a first collection. New names are featured alongside those of ‘distinguished writers’, and Poetry London also completes important work through its mentorship schemes and reviews. As a charity, it is dependent on the funding it receives from the Arts Council England, who have promised to match any donations made by members of the public who would like to support the magazine. In the current context of arts cuts, these donations are ever more necessary, and Karen urges the audience to consider taking out a subscription. ‘This is the end of this pragmatic part of the evening’, she announces. ‘But not quite the end – think of it framing the whole evening!’

Martha Kapos, Poetry Co-Editor of the magazine, offers a further frame for the evening, introducing the poets who will read. ‘We have quite a line-up’, she says, citing some of the highlights in the published magazine, including Ocean Vuong, who features on the cover, and Mark Ford, Martha Sprackland, Anita Pati, and others. It is often the newer or unknown poets who come up with ‘some of the most exciting work’, and Martha references Ella Frear’s poem, which is titled ‘After the Lie, Donald came in a vision to Donald’, as well as the Syrian poet Riad Saleh Hussein, who was arrested in 1982 and died in ‘ambiguous circumstances’. She then turns her attention to Rachael Allen, who is our first reader. Rachael is a ‘rising star amongst the young poets published by Faber in the Faber New Poets series’, Martha notes, with ‘intense, exuberant, skillfully constructed’ poems. When she read for Poetry London four years ago, Ahren Warner, the Poetry Editor, commented that she is ‘the real thing’. Quite an introduction, and when she steps on stage, Rachael hopes that she will ‘live up to it’. After reading a quote from the horror writer Thomas Ligotti – another frame for the evening – she plunges into her reading of ‘Kingdomland’. Eyes shining, back straight, she tilts forwards as she reads, her black outfit merging with the dark curtains behind her. The poem has an incantatory feel to it, with its repetition of the word ‘impassable’ and reference to a ‘superstitious wife’ who ‘throws salt’. Rachael’s level tone means that the clearest indication of the poem’s denouement is her silence, although it feels as if the words stretch into the pause after she reads: ‘The glass and salt my petulant daughter, / the glass and salt my crooked pathway; impassable glass and salt’.

‘I’m a hypochondriac’, Rachael notes with a smile, and the next poem she reads is a clever play on her tendency to google possible ailments and symptoms. These include accidental iron overdose, fizzing feelings around the ankles, and the side effects of donating marrow – all of which intrigue and amuse the audience. Later poems address ‘the position of the animal in our society’, with Rachael explaining that ‘as well as a hypochondriac, I’m a vegan’. The poems are visceral, questioning why we eat some animals and not others, and are heightened by Rachael’s intense and unwavering style of reading.

Andrew McMillan, the next poet to read, has made ‘an astonishing first appearance on the scene’ with his award-winning debut collection Physical, Martha asserts. His poems have been praised as exhibiting ‘tenderness, candour, sensitivity, and vulnerability’, and he launches his reading with ‘Martyrdom’, a poem remarkable for its haunting repetition of the word ‘father’. On stage, his posture is relaxed, one leg balanced behind the other, and he informs the audience that his reading will focus on newer poems. He also speaks of his experience as a gay man: ‘I’m part of a very lucky generation of young gay men – I was born in 1988 and came of age post the worst of the AIDS crisis’, although this period of history has nonetheless cast a ‘shadow’ over the gay community. ‘Blood’ is a poem that deals with this shadow. Other poems delve into childhood and ‘how we might grow into our physical selves’. Andrew refers to the ‘awkward moments after PE’ at school, reading his poem ‘Things Said in the Changing Room’. His lilting way of reading makes him easy to listen to, and he gestures as he reads. Sharon Olds has been a particular poetic influence, he says, citing her collection Odes as a source of inspiration for some of his own writing. ‘To the Circumcised’ takes Olds’ idea of writing odes to things that normally wouldn’t be addressed in a poem and runs with it, inquiring into the foreskin’s fate after circumcision. This is followed by ‘Praise Poem’, which lingers on the words for different body parts, and ‘Clearance’, a visceral poem on sex. Andrew relates how when he gave his new book to Helen Tookey, hoping for critical feedback, Helen ‘walked back into my office on Monday morning and just said, “Oh, your poor mother!”. . . I’m thinking of using that for the epigraph to the whole book!’

After a short break and a few words from Sam Buchan-Watts, the new Reviews Editor for Poetry London, it is time for the next reader. Born and schooled in Trinidad, Vahni Capildeo now lives in the UK. That ‘straddling of two cultures’ informs her work, Martha believes, and she cites Malika Booker, Chair of the Forward Jury, who notes of Measures of Expatriation that ‘When people in the future seek to know what it’s like to live between places, traditions and cultures – they will read this’. Vahni’s work goes even further than this, Martha asserts, ‘to place the language of identity under scrutiny’, questioning words themselves. Vahni begins her reading with ‘Interventions Around a City’, before reading another new poem, ‘A National Literature’. She emphasises each word, and while her performance of the first poem is quieter, the second showcases her skill in building and dissipating intensity as she reads. At one moment she cries out, and the reading speeds, containing flashes of anger, before easing again into a slower pace. ‘I promise it gets more cheerful after this!’, Vahni says, regretting that she had not brought her own circumcision poem along to complement Andrew’s. ‘The Brown Bag Service’ further highlights Vahni’s talent with voice and performance. Her eyes spark mischievously as she reads, parodying the language of customer service to the delight of the audience, who hang on her words. Vahni also reads ‘Utter’, the title poem of her 2013 collection published by Peepal Tree Press: ‘Night drinks salt water from a bucket, draws / a sleeve from the sea, spills hand across mouth. / Night hands back the bucket to sailor. / Night, blue-shirted, wades arrhythmically’.

Emily Berry has also published work ‘to great acclaim’, Martha says. Her second collection, Stranger, Baby, is ‘self-aware but bleak, self-mocking, comic, and at the same time intensely moving’. Emily begins with a piece she wrote a year ago, which was published as a limited edition pamphlet by If a Leaf Falls Press, edited by Sam Riviere (who also published Rachael’s poem relating to hypochondriacal tendencies). Sam ‘must be dealing with a lot of material about anxiety of one kind of another’, says Emily wryly. Her own poem emerged from ‘a series of anxiety dreams’ about her cat going missing, and before she reads ‘Aurora’s Escape’, she notes that ‘one thing you need to know is that Aurora is a cat’. The poem is pierced with moments of humour, so that a cat with a basket across its body is ‘literally hampered’, while at another point the speaker regrets not saying goodbye to the ends of her partner’s hair before he has it cut. Emily’s delivery is serious and crisp, so that the funnier parts of the poem seem almost shocking in comparison. She then reads ‘Sign of the Anchor’ from Stranger, Baby, with its captivating images (and sounds) of the sea: ‘I stood at the dangerous shore / Sleeves rolled to my shoulders. / My fringe lifted in the wind in a long salute and I pushed it back. / Live your wish, Live your wish, said the sea’. Her poem ‘Aqua’ also addresses water, and as the speaker ‘praised / it slightly a feeling / of daughterliness / came over me’. After reading her ‘state-of-the-nation’ poem ‘Remains of the Day’, written after the referendum result a year ago, the evening ends with a flood of people leaving the room, talking energetically about the poetry they had heard, and clutching copies of Poetry London.

By Suzannah V. Evans


Poetry London Summer Readings
Kings Place, Wednesday 7 June 2017

 

Joel Shapiro at Pace London

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Image: Suzannah V. Evans. View of multiple sculptures

Walking into the Joel Shapiro exhibition at the Pace gallery is like entering a painting, as a friend of mine said when she first saw the exhibition. Seven of Shapiro’s sculptures are positioned in the white gallery space, filling it with blots of vibrant colour. Several of these volumetric shapes are suspended from the ceiling on thin cords; others are placed directly on the floor as if they are sitting. The viewer is able to walk among and below these shapes that play with the idea of gravity, seemingly defying it, giving the feeling that the viewer might also be able to float off into space.

Shapiro’s use of colour is particularly striking. ‘If you are a sculptor and you use colour, the colour has to mean something, do something to change your perception of the piece. Cobalt violet obfuscates form and blue withdraws. Cadmium red and black both add density’, Shapiro explains. Upon entering the room, my eyes are immediately drawn to the deep, almost Klein, blue of the largest sculpture, a series of cube-like shapes set upon each other. The colour is sensual, and sits wonderfully with the white walls of the gallery. Shaped roughly like the letter ‘L’, the sculpture resembles a seat, reclining as if it too is considering the gallery space. As I walk around the room, the piece reminds me more and more of a human body: a long, head-like cube at the top, a middle, and outstretched legs. Would it be too strange to compare it to Rodin’s The Thinker? I muse, as I wander. To me, the sculpture has a similar quality of attention, a sense that it is considering its surroundings and internal landscape as much as I am. Perhaps it is the velvety quality of the blue that makes it seem as if the sculpture radiates some kind of life force. It is also one of the only sculptures that is on the ground, and I wonder how the effect would differ if I was seeing it from below.

Image: Suzannah V. Evans. Really Blue (after all) 2016 | wood and casein | 8’ 7” x 79” x 50”

The other grounded sculpture is a yellow-green colour, and resembles a folded envelope. While Really Blue (after all) seems to dazzle and infiltrate the space beyond it, this one, if it had a personality, would be more modest. Entitled Yellow May, it doesn’t quite sit flat on the floor, and is all angles and straight lines. Walking past it, a small chair-like sculpture is suspended from the ceiling, looking as light as a feather. Although, like the other sculptures in the room, it is made of plywood, it reminds me of an escaped helium balloon, weightless despite its appearance of solidity. This small and pleasing shape finds an echo in OK Green, the piece next to it, painted a pistachio green, and, as if in reflection of its larger size, suspended slightly closer to the floor. Ok Green is also slightly chair-like, but could also be the exposed wall of a house. Its tilted angle gives it an air of mischief, and prompts me to think more about the shapes. Are they practical? Decorative? Symbolic? A later, boxy orange sculpture (entitled simply Orange) makes me think of a space ship, its sloping angles and streamlined shapes suggestive of motion and speed. Placed low to the ground, it looks as if it might take off at any moment.

 

Image: Suzannah V. Evans. Orange 2016 | wood and casein | 84-1/4” x 48” x 42”

Wandering around these shapes is a joy, and the spacing between each sculpture is also pleasing. Looking at them is like being inside an uncluttered mind, glimpsing hot flashes of thought, or seeing birds flying in perfect formation. They also remind me of stones set at just the right distance from each other in a necklace. As I sit and consider each sculpture, I start to feel my own body as a series of shapes. How do I take up space in a room? I feel transient in comparison to these larger, beauteous unfoldings of angles. Shapiro’s exhibition also includes several abstract gouache paintings, each made on textured paper. Colour is also foregrounded here, although to different effect. Rather than monochrome, the paintings explore more organic colour, with pond green, muddy yellow, and aqua blue tones. It is Shapiro’s command of shape and volume, evident in his suspended structures, that my mind returns to in the days after I viewed the exhibition, however, and I am excited to see what this artist will do next.

By Suzannah V. Evans


Joel Shapiro
Pace London
19 May – 17 June 2017

Poetry at the Print Room: Kayo Chingonyi, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Daljit Nagra

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Plush red cushions. Red floorboards. Flickering candles and the walls hung with a myriad of mirrors. We were sitting in the luxuriously lit Print Room at the Coronet theatre in Notting Hill, admiring our lush surroundings. On one side of the sloping room, a grand piano had been transformed into bar, where poets and listeners were ordering wine and warming spirits. Another piano was tucked away in the far corner of the room, and the shelves behind the podium were decked with photographs, paintings, wine bottles, and books. The room itself, with its tilted angles and darkened interior, looked like the belly of a great ship, where we were gathered to hear readings from Kayo Chingonyi, Karen McCarthy Woolf, and Daljit Nagra.

Kayo Chingonyi has been to the Print Room many times before as a listener, and was pleased to be returning as a reader. ‘It’s a really beautiful quality of attention that you get from the audience here’, he says, thanking Marion Manning, the Poetry Coordinator of the Print Room, for his invitation. He begins his reading with ‘The Colour of James Brown’s Scream’, noting that his fellow reader, Karen, was excited by the poem’s dedication to her brother Steve McCarthy. Conversations with Steve prompted some of the phrases in the poem, Kayo explains. His voice when he reads unfolds into the red room, accompanied by the quiet whirring of fans, and the audience’s attention as they listen is palpable. ‘I wanted also to honour my other fellow reader by reading this’, Kayo says of his next poem, ‘Legerdemain’. He speaks of Daljit’s skill with voice and personae in his work: ‘this is something I’ve also tried to do’. After advising the audience on how to appear knowledgeable about basketball, and reading his poem ‘H-O-R-S-E’, Kayo talks about other people’s impressions of his work. He is ‘fascinated by the manner in which someone reading your book deeply, on more than one occasion, can give you an insight into the book that you as a writer didn’t have’. Someone recently was relating to him ‘ideas they had gotten from reading the book and certain patterns that I’d created, and isn’t it nice that this chimes with this’. Kayo ‘wanted to say that it was all very designed […] but really it’s a subconscious process working’. The next poem that Kayo reads is called ‘How to Cry’ – ‘which seems to be a tragic poem, but it’s actually a celebration’:

I’m going to fold, as an overloaded trestle folds,
in the middle of Romford Market and bawl
the way my small niece bawls for her mother
when she leaves the room. In spite
of our assurances, already the little one knows
that those who leave might never come back

Looking up wryly after his reading, Kayo says ‘It’s not all that joyful, is it?’, although he praises the benefits of ‘having a good cry’. His poem ‘Curfew’, set when Zambia was a British protectorate, also has sombre undertones, although it is related through vivid dialogue between the speaker, his aunt and uncle, and possibly other family members. The aunt ‘smiles a knowing smile at our scandalised / faces’ as she recounts her experiences.

Karen McCarthy Woolf is the next poet to read. A Londoner with English and Jamaican parents, Karen began writing poetry as a teenager, and later worked in publishing. Her previous poetry collection, An Aviary of Small Birds, was published in 2014 and described by Kate Kellaway as a ‘beautiful, painful, pitch-perfect debut’. She is currently working on a doctorate at the University of London, and is particularly interested in ‘how a poetry of protest can also be infused with awe’. Her new book is called Seasonal Disturbances, and she begins by reading the title poem – ‘it felt apt, given the weather’, she notes, referring to the ferocious June downpour we had experienced earlier. The poem turns from a meditation on the disquieting meteorological conditions to other unsettling situations:

[…] My train
was the only train running, so
I got on, made my way in to the office
where everyone else was white
and the two typesetters I managed always
queried my edits and all along the way looking
out of the window from the empty carriage
I could see trees blown over,
their roots curling up into the air.

London is a city that features heavily in the collection. While Karen’s first book was one of elegies, the second is also ‘elegies – of sorts’. The collection is ‘a little broader – a book that mourns lost loves’, including cities. ‘Men, hollyhocks, and cats have also featured in this litany of grief’, Karen notes, smiling. ‘The Hollyhocks’ is the next poem that she reads, and while the first was read with urgency, here Karen adopts a more conversational tone, smiling and acknowledging the audience’s shifts of emotion. ‘I was very obsessed with hollyhocks for a while’, she explains, while the poem exclaims ‘O hollyhocks of Ile de Ré / O tunnels of pollen / O wooden boardwalks across the marshes / O pastel petals crushed by bicycle tyres’. Her reading also encompasses a range of poetic forms – including one invented by the American poet Terrance Hayes and titled the ‘Golden Shovel’. This particular form ‘references your reading – transforms it and makes it something else’, she says, and as she reads her own Golden Shovel, ‘Ars Poetica 101’, she gazes out at the audience as if she is addressing each listener individually.

Daljit Nagra has ‘leapt into English poetry with an exclamation mark’, according to Jeremy Noel-Todd, and he fills the Print Room with a similar exuberance. He is currently Poet in Residence for Radio 4, and it is easy to imagine his chatty, natural style working well on the airwaves. His reading of ‘Vox Populi, Vox Dei’ – ‘I don’t know any Latin – just popular Latin!’, Daljit notes – is assured, and he punctuates his speech with hand gestures, gazing levelly at the audience. ‘I’m going to read a poem about going to the tip’, Daljit says next. And with a comic’s timing: ‘Being lower-middle class now, we have lots of things to get rid of. Our Ikea products don’t work anymore’. He speaks of listening to a T. S. Eliot CD on these trips to the tip, and being caught by the poet’s ‘anxious voice’. Equally interesting to him is the way that Eliot was ‘recorded and shipped over to India, during the troubled colonial times, as a way of winning over the intellectuals in Calcutta’. His poem ‘He Do the Foreign Voices’ plays on Eliot’s original title for The Waste Land, which was He Do the Police in Different Voices, a line taken from Dickens’ last completed novel:

. . . ah Weialalaah! you say in time with Eliot
as you head for the rubbish dump on Sunday morning
listening to your CD of those free rhythms
for Mistah Kurtz – he dead, for stranded Tiresias
and Lil, for Krishna, for the Datta
and Da Da Da.

Where he grew up also influenced Daljit’s writing, and he states that he ‘wanted to write about childhood and being a British person’. Watching cartoons as a child, with Punjabi as his first language, he would sometimes miss subtleties of language. ‘Ode to England’ plays on this, and is a complex love song to Daljit’s country of birth, as well his way of ‘talking to England’. ‘That’s part of the strain of the Englishness of this British Museum collection’, Daljit explains after reading the poem. He also reads a personal poem, ‘Father of Only Daughters’, written when his youngest daughter was turning two. The poem is the first one to appear in the book, and Daljit expresses his thanks to Matthew Hollis, his editor at Faber, for suggesting that he open the book in this way. ‘When you write a really personal thing you want to hide it away, and editors don’t do that – they make you bold’. The evening ends with a sense of privilege at having shared poetry with strangers and friends, heightened by the intimate red surroundings of the Print Room.

By Suzannah V. Evans


Poetry at the Print Room: Kayo Chingonyi, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Daljit Nagra
Print Room
6th June 2017

Picasso: Minotaurs and Matadors at the Gagosian

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PICASSO Minotaure dans une barque sauvant une femme, March 1937, Paris Gagosian

The Minotaur was a key figure in Picasso’s imagination and art, so much so that the artist once remarked that ‘If all the ways I have been along were marked on a map and joined up with a line, it might represent a Minotaur’. Picasso: Minotaurs and Matadors seeks to investigate and illuminate this map, querying what the Minotaur, matadors, and bullfighting meant to Picasso at the various stages of his life through displays of paintings, etchings, ceramics, and sculpture.

Picasso’s affinity with the Minotaur peaked in the 1930s, although the mythological creature would continue to haunt his later imagination. What was it about this part-human, part-animal that so intrigued the artist? It may have been this very duality between human and bestial, although as Picasso pointed out to Françoise Gilet, his later companion, the Minotaur knows that he is a monster. Picasso was not alone in finding inspiration in the prehistoric creature. The Surrealists in particular were drawn to the Minotaur’s sheer force, believing that this vitality ‘allowed them to give free reign to their innermost urges, especially their desire for transgression and sexual liberation’, as Gertje T. Utley notes in her essay in the exhibition’s accompanying compendium.

The exhibition itself opens with a painting from 1958, entitled simply Minotaure. Here, a somewhat friendly-looking Minotaur peers quizzically at the viewer from a canvas of creamy white paint. The piece is an exercise in tonal variation. Charcoal-coloured lines sit upon smudges of grey, white, and cream, and the Minotaur’s face is suspended against its shadowed background. The frontal positioning of the creature, as well as his direct gaze, makes it seem as if the Minotaur is assenting to the portrait, complicit with the artist; perhaps this is also an intimation of the intense connection, or self-identification, that Picasso felt with the Minotaur figure. As Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler comments, ‘Picasso’s Minotaur, carousing, loving, and fighting, is Picasso himself. He is laying himself totally bare, in what he hopes is complete communion’. The quiet mutations of white also suit the hushed atmosphere of the gallery space, which is hung with thick green curtains, the silence interrupted only by shuffling feet and the sound of a video installation in another room.

PICASSO Minotaure caressant du mufle la main d’une dormeuse, June 18 1938, Boisgeloup Gagosian

From the still face of Minotaure, the viewer’s eyes wander to a wooden display table of pencil sketches. The first of these, Minotaure courant, from December 1937,  is full of fierce energy and strong lines. Rather than staring out from the page, this Minotaur is engaged in intensive movement, his legs striding forward, his hands outstretched and grasping empty air. Muscular and strongly-built, the Minotaur’s body casts a ferociously sketched shadow on the ground, while the multiple lines of his body suggest fluidity and motion. Prominence is also given to his genitalia, which are placed in the centre of the page, offset by the creature’s curling tail. It is perhaps worth noting that the French for ‘tail’ is ‘queue’ – a word that can also signify male genitalia – and the phallic connotations of the image are heightened by the Minotaur’s horns. The overall impression is of physical energy and exuberance, with erotic overtones that Picasso delves into more deeply elsewhere. Minotaure assis au poignard is also a strikingly erotic sketch, displayed on the same table, and depicts the Minotaur sitting with a hunched neck, bearing a phallic blade, legs open to expose his rounded genitals.

After the grey tones of Minotaure, and the black-and-white pencil sketches, the first painting featuring colour is particularly striking. Nature morte au Minotaure et à la palette, painted in 1938, is a confident piece with bold, angular shapes and joyful colour. A statue of the Minotaur’s head fills the right side of the painting; to the left is a candle and an artist’s palette. The paintbrushes in the palette point towards the Minotaur, reinforcing the sense of elective affinity between the artist and beast, while the warm, earthy shades of the Minotaur’s head, outlined in black, are suggestive of the black- and red-figure vessels of Attic art. Other works also refer back to antiquity. Le combat dans l’arène, an engraving from 1937, shows the Minotaur armed with a spear and fighting two men in an arena. His animal head marks his difference from his competitors, although his body is strikingly human and he runs on two feet; his grip on a horse’s mane, signifying the pull towards his animal nature, further complicates the division between animal and human that the piece represents.

Scenes of fighting are balanced with images of sleeping women. Nue endormie, from 1932, recalls the white tones of the opening Minotaure, although its charcoal lines are dream-like, as faint and grey as if they had been whispered on to the canvas. The roundness of the woman’s forms – head, breasts, arms, fingers – are contrasted to the one horizontal line in the background. It is as if Picasso has captured the nebulous quality of sleep itself. Femme couchée à la mèche blonde depicts a similar sleeping woman, although the canvas has been doused in colour. Feathery strokes of lilac and green paint gather at the bottom right of the painting, rising to where the woman cradles her head, then turning to red and yellow. The woman’s face, moon-like, has been left white, while the concentrated colour around her head signifies her dreaming.

These women contrast distinctly to the ones in the middle section of the room. A series of etchings, displayed in a cabinet, become more and more graphic as they progress. One, entitled Le Minotaure une coupe à la main, shows the Minotaur’s muscular arm holding a champagne glass and possessively shielding a naked woman from the viewer. She in turn gazes expressionlessly out of the drawing, while the Minotaur also turns towards the viewer, looking faintly satisfied. His reclining position means that his tail is on full show, and the sensual lines of both bodies jar with the hard outline of the window. The Minotaur is no longer outside, in an arena or open space – he has entered the private domain of humankind. Scène bacchique au Minotaure, also from 1933, goes further in its portrayal of excess. The ferociously hairy Minotaur lounges with one arm extended, holding his champagne glass in a toast to male virility and ownership. A smaller man accompanies him, legs spread and fingers delicately holding the stem of a champagne glass. Sprawled between them are two women, one of whom the man clutches with an oversized hand. While the Minotaur and the man look comfortable, leaning back in relaxed positions, the women appear to be flung over them as if they are merely part of the luxurious décor. Later etchings are titled Minotaure aimant une femme and Minotaure et femme faisant l’amour, and show the Minotaur’s violent erotic appetite. While the woman in the former image could be tilted backwards in pleasure, the awkward angle of the woman’s head in the second image, combined with her wide-eyed gaze, suggests distress. Minotaure caressant du muffle la main d’une dormeuse is also a strange work, combining the earlier imagery of sleeping women with that of the Minotaur, who nuzzles the woman’s face with his snout. The heavily-inked head of the Minotaur, with his haunted eyes, suggests the darker side of human (or animal) nature, which is contrasted to the serenity of the sleeping woman. Alone, and seemingly unloved, he is unable to access the woman while she sleeps.

Picasso was also a ‘real bullfight addict’, as the famous bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguín once said, and the exhibition turns its attention to Picasso’s many images of Matadors, picadors, horses, and bulls. Like David Jones, the Anglo-Welsh artist with a precocious talent for drawing animals, Picasso started early. He drew his first bullfight scene when he was just eight years old, and returned to the theme, often in tandem with the myth of the Minotaur, after spending time in Spain in 1933 and 1934. ‘The spirit of the corrida is part of his way of life. He has bulls in his soul. The matadors are his cousins. The arena is his house’, explains Hélène Parmelin. This part of the exhibition is filled with dramatic images of bulls. One particularly striking etching is La femme torero, depicting a female bullfighter. The abundance and busyness of the lines imitates the rapid action depicted as the woman is caught up with the bull and horse, and just as a spectator watching the scene in real life might find it difficult to decipher which body is which, so the viewer’s eyes are caught between the woman, her costume, the horse, and the bull’s rump. Torero, painted in 1971, is another stand-out piece, incorporating luxurious swirls of pistachio green and red paint. The curving shapes and wide brush strokes have a liquidity about them, and the thick oil paint glimmers wetly. Despite these excellent depictions of matadors, it is, as Rafael Alberti reminds us, Picasso who is the ‘best matador who ever existed. His paintbrush is like a sword dipped in the blood of all the colours’. Picasso: Minotaurs and Matadors attests to this.

By Suzannah V. Evans


Picasso: Minotaurs and Matadors at the Gagosian
Gagosian Gallery
28 April – 25 August 2017

Faber Reading: An Evening with Emily Berry, Emma Jones, Zaffar Kunial, Daljit Nagra, Richard Scott

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Emily Berry, Emma Jones, Zaffar Kunial, Daljit Nargra, Richard Scott

The Crypt on the Green in Clerkenwell Close was beautifully lit with fairy lights, and the low chatter of poetry enthusiasts graced the air. A table was filled with books and pamphlets by Emily Berry, Emma Jones, Zaffar Kunial, Daljit Nagra, and Richard Scott, while another table was laid out with glasses of wine. We were here to hear these five Faber poets read from various new or forthcoming collections. Emily Berry and Dalijit Nagra both have books out this year, while Richard Scott and Zaffar Kunial have forthcoming Faber debuts; Emma Jones’s second collection with Faber will also appear soon.

The scene was set, and Faber Poetry Editor Matthew Hollis stepped forwards to introduce the five poets. Each one, he said, was making an ‘exceptional contribution’ to contemporary poetry, all at different points in their careers, but all working towards ‘a long, long fruitful life in publishing’. He praised the distinctive nature of each poet’s work, and encouraged the audience to listen deeply, drink deeply, and to savour the experience.

Richard Scott was the first poet to read. Born in 1981, Richard’s pamphlet Wound was published by Rialto in 2016, with a Faber debut set for 2018. Speaking of Richard’s work, Matthew states confidently that ‘if you haven’t already read Richard, you will’. His urgent and timely poetry, Matthew argues, is propelled by a ‘pounding sense of injustice about inequality’, and his plea for tolerance, while centred on the gay community, extends well beyond. Richard himself notes that his desire to write stemmed partly from his frustration as a gay teenager, unable to access literature that spoke to his own experiences. ‘Public Library, 1998’, the first poem he reads, addresses this frustration directly, and features the speaker writing the word ‘cock’ in a borrowed book to redress the imbalance in Queer literature. Later poems focus on sensual experiences. The most notable of these involves a fishmonger, who visits the speaker in his van, and who ‘fed me prawns, wiped / the brine from my lips – / let me try my first razor clam / unzipped from its pale hard shell / the tip, soft and white and saline’. The poem is erotic, unsettling, and enhanced by Richard’s grave and thoughtful manner of reading.

To read Emma Jones’s work is ‘to drown in it, to accept inundation’, says Matthew Hollis of the next reader. He compares Emma’s work to the sonic equivalent of a Henri Rousseau painting – ‘that sounds complicated, but you’ll understand when you hear the poems’, Matthew assures us. Emma began her quietly intense reading with a poem from her collection The Striped World, published by Faber in 2009. ‘Tiger in the Menagerie’ does indeed conjure images of Rousseau:

At night the bars of the cage and the stripes of the tiger
looked into each other so long
that when it was time for those eyes to rock shut

the bars were the lashes of the stripes
the stripes were the lashes of the bars

This is a world of ‘open oceans and closed cages’, a ‘bright, painted place’, Matthew notes. Emma’s next poem ‘Pietà’ is a complex and bluesy meditation on the image of the Virgin Mary cradling the deceased Christ. ‘What’s always struck me about these depictions is that Mary is disproportionately big, and Christ disproportionately small’, mirroring the image of Mary holding Christ as a baby, Emma says. This portrayal is linked in Emma’s mind with pop songs, where adults often call each other ‘baby’, and the poem riffs on this endearment. ‘Baby, you sure look sick’, the poem begins.

In contrast to Emma Jones’s song-like delivery, Daljit Nagra commands the stage with a comic’s timing. He uses ‘humour as well as rage to pursue multiculturalism’, Matthew Hollis notes, and he is ‘brilliantly vivid and important in giving voice to those who are not always heard’. Daljit begins by saying that Matthew, his editor, encouraged him to ‘strip away’ some of his famous exclamations in favour of a ‘new voice’, and it is this voice that can be heard in his new collection, British Museum, published in May this year. It is the first time that he has read from his new book, and his reading is clear-voiced and exuberant. ‘Can poetry help me think about the world?’, he asks, and his poems think through both personal and national situations. One poem, at once humorous and touching, centres on his mother’s inability to pronounce his wife’s name; another poem recalls the ‘time-compacted rooms’ of the British Museum. ‘I’ve only got one offensive poem in the collection, but I’m not going to read it now’, he says, motioning the audience instead to purchase copies of his blue hardback book.

After a musical interlude, Zaffar Kunial, a ‘guide for modern times’, as Matthew calls him, steps up to the podium to read. Zaffar ‘vocalises what it means to be a human being, planting your two feet on this earth’, Matthew asserts. The poet begins by showing a copy of T. S. Eliot’s Selected Poems, which belonged to his mother and was in his family home as he grew up. He is thrilled to now be ‘on the same team’ as Eliot. The first poem Zaffar reads is called ‘Fielder’, taken from his Faber New Poets pamphlet, published in 2014. It is set ‘somewhere between Birmingham and Yorkshire’, but Zaffar notes that it is equally about where poetry began for him: ‘The whole field, meanwhile, waiting for me, / some astronaut, or lost explorer, to emerge with a wave / that brings the ball – like time itself – to hand. A world restored’. A later poem speaks of the mixed feelings – ‘In two minds. Ashamed. Aware.’ – prompted by hearing his Kashmirian father make a grammatical mistake in English, and his own realisation that he is ‘native here. / In a halfway house’ (‘The Word’). Zaffar’s reading emphasises each word, pausing minutely between each utterance, and his deeper speaking voice lifts when he reads.

Emily Berry is the last poet to read. Hers is ‘surely one of the most distinctive voices to have emerged in poetry in recent times’, Matthew notes, with ‘no wastage, no excess, and total focus’. He compares her to Sylvia Plath, and Emily, dressed in a Sylvia Plath t-shirt, jokes that she is ‘smuggling Sylvia on stage with me’. Her rigid posture when she reads makes it seem like the words rise up from within her, unbidden, and her performance is spell-binding and incantatory. She starts with ‘a newer poem’, before noting that it’s ‘not even that new’, but still more recent than her book. ‘Remains of the Day’ exhibits Emily’s typical concentration: ‘my neck aches from studying / a number of compelling thoughts. I am being / observed, it transpires, from a distance by a / huge coral-coloured bird. I may be paranoid, / but I feel like it’s mimicking my movements’. A further poem, ‘Sign of the Anchor’, shows Emily’s skill in writing about the sea, and she finished by reading work that engages with Freud. The evening itself ended with raucous applause, more wine, book buying, and musically-infused conversation.

By Suzannah V. Evans

Howard Hodgkin: Absent Friends at the National Portrait Gallery

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The Tilsons by Howard Hodgkin, 1965-67, Private Collection, London © Howard Hodgkin.

According to a new exhibition of Howard Hodgkin’s work at the National Portrait Gallery, one of the artist’s principal concerns throughout his sixty-five year career was to ‘evoke a human presence in his work’. Absent Friends is dedicated to an exploration of Hodgkin’s portraiture in all its guises – an area of the artist’s work that curator Paul Moorhouse believes has been overlooked. Even those familiar with his work believe that the artist ‘does not make portraits’, according to Moorhouse, and the exhibition aims to tackle this conviction head-on. Nonetheless, an initial stroll around the gallery may well lead to puzzlement. Where are all the people?

The title of the exhibition, in evoking absence, is appropriate. Absent Friends is named after the very first painting on display, an abstracted work featuring a sweep of muted colour, pale green brushwork, and a painted frame within a frame. What it does not, ostensibly, feature is people. The note next to the painting explains that it ‘refers to people, but does so without resorting to the creation of a literal likeness’, drawing instead on the emotions conjured by memory. This is portraiture that stands in direct opposition to traditional examples from the genre, choosing to show sensations and associations evoked by the subject rather than literal physiognomy. Painted in 2000-1, it is one of Hodgkin’s later pieces; for those who like their portraits with a dash more realism, some of the artist’s first forays into portraiture offer more recognisable representations of people.

These early examples of Hodgkin’s work appear in the second room of the exhibition, which consists of portraits from 1949-59. Some of these were created while Hodgkin was an art student at Camberwell School of Art; he later studied at Bath Academy of Art in Corsham. Memoirs was painted when Hodgkin was just seventeen. With its dark outlines, block colouring, and the strangely large hands of its subject, a family friend of Hodgkin’s nicknamed Aunt Bette, it could almost be an illustration for one of the stranger Grimm fairy tales. While the artist is also depicted in the painting, a sense of absence is conjured by the photo frame at Aunt Bette’s feet, which shows the mysterious outline of a man in a hat. Other pencil sketches, torn from notebooks, also play with the exhibition’s theme of absence, with large areas of paper left untouched. Depicting in turn fellow students and Hodgkin’s landlady, these realistic portraits were drawn entirely from memory, highlighting the important role that recollection would play in the artist’s later work. The most striking image in the room, however, is the most abstracted one, a painting entitled Interior of a Museum. Set within the confines of the British Museum, the piece features figures who seem at once suspended and anchored in the thick, creamy brushwork. Gazing at a collection of ancient Greek pots, the people themselves seem object-like, set in their own spheres of space for our viewing pleasure.

Interior of a Museum by Howard Hodgkin, 1956-59, Tate © Howard Hodgkin.

The third room, centred on Hodgkin’s burgeoning abstract work in the 1960s, is by far the most dazzling. Dominated by The Tilsons, the image used by the National Portrait Gallery in much of its publicity, the room is a riot of colour, motion, and expressive brushwork, with all the paintings vying at once for the viewer’s attention. ‘Some are quite representational in a limited visual sense; others hardly at all, or not at all’, Hodgkin said of these paintings, which often use geometrical shapes to represent human beings. The Tilsons is a fabulous case in point, where the figures of British Pop artist Joe Tilson and his wife Jos blend in harmoniously with the triangular sandwich shapes and dart board imagery of the painting: the effect is joyous, playful, exuberant. These are paintings that are a delight to look at. Portrait of Rhoda Cohen is a fascinating mix of literal and expressive representation. The sitter’s body is recognisable from the neck down, and her legs are flung open in an image that suggests both sexual abandonment and physical ease. The fervent brushstrokes in this part of the painting give a sense of energy and movement, so that the subject, who is tipped backwards in her chair, seems to be caught in motion, balancing playfully between sitting and falling. Her one blue shoe adds to this nonchalant and joyful effect. Her head, however, has been replaced by a mandala – a Hindu and Buddhist symbol for the universe – contributing to the life-affirming energy that radiates from the painting.

Later portraits become more complex, weaving figurative and abstract elements together into coherent wholes. A painting of the artist’s friend Cherry Monro manages to look both like a woman and utterly unlike a woman at once. Hodgkin explains that the piece ‘commemorates a moment in March 1966, when Cherry stripped after lunch in the living room in order to put on a 1938 crêpe de Chine dress. . . . The blue disk behind is a mirror which was hung about a year later’. The flowing fabric of the dress is evoked by waves of blue and yellow paint, while Cherry’s arched back reflects the curves of the mirror behind her. The painting’s white background means that all attention is on the figure, and her dramatic transformation as she changes her dress; there is a strong sense of delight in appearance and the visual. There is also something decidedly erotic about the image – and indeed, about many of the works on show. It is perhaps for this reason that paintings such as R.B.K. feature bars painted across them, in an attempt to contain the bold energy and colour within.

Mr and Mrs E.J.P. by Howard Hodgkin, 1969-73, Tate: Accepted by HM Government in lieu of tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery 1996 © Howard Hodgkin

As I sat and considered a painting entitled Mr and Mrs E.J.P., which contains a yellow triangle, patches of red, a striped interior, and what looks like a giant green dinosaur’s egg, I was approached by a friendly and inquisitive couple. Did I think that it was important to consider the titles of the paintings as I looked at them? We discussed the merits of focusing on a painting solely for itself, with no added information from title or blurb. In relation to Hodgkin’s work, however, we concluded that the titles have huge import for the paintings. Would it be clear to the viewer that Mr and Mrs E.J.P is a portrait, without the sign post of its title? And is it enough to rely on a title to give us this information – or should a portrait take further, and more identifiable, steps to tell us of its status as a portrait? How you answer that question might well indicate the level of enjoyment you derive from Hodgkin’s interpretation of portraiture. My own sense is that if Mr and Mrs E.J.P accurately reflects the artist’s sense of its subjects, and gives an insight into their presence and personalities, then it is successful as a portrait.

Questions of abstraction and representation are taken to a new level by Hodgkin’s most recent work, which includes some of my favourite pieces – and perhaps some of the most controversial in terms of portraiture. The last room features just three works, completed before the artist died in March this year (sadly, prior to the opening of the exhibition, although he was involved in much of the preparation). Blue Portrait consists of several strokes of dark and light blue on a wooden board, capturing the moment Hodgkin sighted a friend ‘standing by the bar and wearing a brilliant blue dress’ at a retrospective exhibition of his work. The blue, dazzling against the wooden board, signals the immediacy and fleeting nature of the impression. Tears for Nan commemorates the death of a friend, the tears painted on in hot, quick flashes of yellow. Startling upon the dark background, they intimate a celebration of life as much as they do a process of grieving. This is Hodgkin’s gift – to distill the impression of a moment into paintings whose emotional force equals the vibrancy and vividness of their colouring. These portraits last in the memory long after the gallery doors have been shut.

By Suzannah V. Evans


Howard Hodgkin: Absent Friends
National Portrait Gallery
23 March – 18 June

An interview with Paul Benney

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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.

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