The Art of Stonehenge

The British Museum’s blockbuster Spring exhibition is ‘The World of Stonehenge’ and it is superb. Covering not just the enormous and iconic Wiltshire monument itself, but the society which built it and those which preceded and followed it, I found this informative, surprising and I’m going back to see it again.

Stonehenge8I hadn’t appreciated the level of sophistication of the dwellers in this land from about 6,000 to 4,000 years ago. The world-view of the earliest, revolving around nature and the seasons, like many hunter-gatherer people, was shared across northern Europe. Of course, until about 6500 BCE and the rising of post Ice Age sea levels, the UK was part of the landmass of that continent. Although subsequently an island archipelago, the peoples who lived here had regular contact with their counterparts on the mainland. This can be seen in their art and craftwork, but also measured by their DNA. One of the most striking examples of this was of the Amesbury Archer. Bones belonging to this man, buried with his bow, were DNA tested. He was originally from the southern Alpine region, though he had lived in southern England for most of his life. Near his grave is that of another, younger man who shares the first’s DNA and is likely to have been his grandson. This man was born and lived most of his life in the Alps, but he was clearly in Amesbury when he met his end. A family visit? Or did the grandson come to live with his grandparents?

Some of the earliest artefacts, the axe and maceheads dating from 3000 to 3500 BCE, are some of the mostStonehenge3 beautiful. Perfectly carved and turned stones, with elaborate patterning, these weren’t to be used for everyday, but were ceremonial and included in burials. I was fascinated by one aspect of that early culture, that ‘art’ lay in the act of creation, not, or not only, in the item produced by it. Thus, things did not have the same value as the ability to create them, which seems an eminently sensible value system to me. There is also a wonderful, finely wrought golden collar from this era. Gold was used, not because it had any intrinsic value, but because it was the colour of and reflected the light from, the sun.

Stonehenge7The exhibition explains, through artefacts, how that culture changed, with the introduction of farming and a concentration on animals and other aspects of nature as a commodity. Art was still relatively fluid, in that stone carvings were made outside and weren’t ‘finished’ objects, but people added to them all the time. This is also true of Stonehenge itself. The landscape in which it was built was already crossed by ceremonial ditches and banks and, after the great sarsen stones were raised, carved on mortice and tenon principles ( see photograph, left)  it was added to years later with blue stones brought from Wales, over 220 miles away.

The delicacy and beauty of some pieces reminded me of another exhibition at the BM, pre-pandemic, Stonehenge2on Troy. This exhibition places the British pieces in that cross-cultural context, with a collection of armour, roughly contemporaneous to the Illiad and not dissimilar to that worn in ancient Greece (though the helmets look more like Janissaries). There were also exquisite golden drinking bowls and fine copper horsehead artefacts (the horse featured strongly as did the snake, the bird and the sun and moon ). This was a culture close to nature, even when that nature was largely tamed.

One of the most surprising as well as the most beautiful items was the so-called Nebra Sky-disc, showing the night sky, its stars and the positions of the sun and moon at three different times, with the disc itself having three different horizon lines to align with the actual, depending on Nebra_Sky_Disc_hero_1920x1320the time of the lunar month. This shows a level of sophistication in understanding of the movement of the stars and planets which is reinforced when one sees how many barrows and henges were aligned with sun and, or, moon. The exhibition ranges across many of these, from Denmark, Ireland, the islands of Scotland as well as Wales, Spain, France and elsewhere in England. It also shows how the sea began to play a greater and greater role in the culture of the people living here, as trading took place and the sea itself became a place to worship. There is a recreation of the remarkable Seahenge discovered in the saltmarsh of the Norfolk coast and which, incidentally, features in the crime fiction of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway books.

The exhibition gives visitors a look into an ancient, but far from unsophisticated world. It runs until July and costs £22 or £25 (with donation) to enter and the accompanying book is pretty good too. As I’ve said, I’ll be going back again.

Neither ‘Opera’ nor an opera…

SPOprogramme… but the singing of songs. St Paul’s Opera, Clapham, presented the Big Birthday Bash last Friday and great fun was had by all, as much on stage as in the audience.

It was a cold and windy night, with temperatures forecast to be sub-zero, but the windows of the church were lined with candles casting a warm and welcoming glow. Once inside we took a programme, found ourselves an unoccupied pew and fortified ourselves with wine. The church began to fill, many of the faces familiar,  until there was a good audience, ready and waiting to enjoy themselves.

SPOTeresaOpera and classical favourites, mostly ‘big tunes’, formed the first half of the evening’s entertainment, followed by cabaret and show tunes in the second.  Two Australians, a Greek and a Latvian as well as those native to these British Isles formed the company for the evening, several prize-winners among them. The singers were current and former members of SPO, clad in their shiny best (and that was the baritone’s black satin suit).  A theme reflected in the audience by SPO super-fan Teresa, in her sparkly rainbow biker jacket. Puccini and Rossini formed the backbone of the first half, spiced with Lehar, Bizet, Leoncavallo and Strauss with one Mozart piece to add a touch of the sublime. It ended with Brindisi, the famous drinking song from La Traviata. Post interval ( more wine, that song was prophetic, and meeting yet more friends and neighbours ) there was Offenbach, Britten and Bernstein, plus Cole Porter, Rogers & Hammerstein and Sondheim.

SPOTriciaHighlights? There were many. Lyric tenor Martins Smaukstelis singing ‘Maria’ from West Side Story – ‘knocked it out the park’ said my American neighbour; the aforementioned Mozart ‘Soave sia il vento’ from Cosi fan Tutti sung by Tanya Hurst, Alexandra Dinwiddie and Louis Hurst and birthday girl and SPO co-founder Patricia Ninian singing ‘Glitter and be Gay’ from Candide.

The performers were clearly having as much fun up on the stage as the audience were in the pews and there was even a sing-along-chorus to the Hippopotamus song (‘Mud, mud, glorious mud’) lead by Louis Hurst.  A grand finale and then it was time to go home (although there was a birthday party afterwards). This concert-goer, although invited, had to leave.

For anyone interested Tricia Ninian will be speaking at the next Clapham Society meeting at OmnibusSPOFinale Theatre on 21st February about establishing this favourite local opera company from scratch. Unfortunately I’m unable to attend, but I will be going to the the Masterclass at St Paul’s by David Butt Philip (Sydney Opera, the NY Met and Wiener Stadtsoper) on 3rd March – tickets £10. He will also be performing a Gala concert with some friends, Lauren Fagan, Stephanie Wake-Edwards and David Shipley, all alumni of the Royal Opera’s Young Artist Programme. This takes place on Thursday 24th March, tickets £30. I imagine that all these events will be very popular, so buy early.

Meanwhile I’m heading south for more music, this time flamenco. The 25th Anniversary edition of the Festival de Jerez begins on Friday so that’s where I’m headed. I suspect I might blog about it.  See below for some earlier versions (including videos) on The Story Bazaar site.

2018 Festival Round Up                 Camerata Flamenco Project                     Lamento

Peru – a journey in time

PeruYesterday I went to the British Museum to catch the Peru exhibition before it closes on 20th February. This relatively small but very interesting exhibition is in the Great Court Gallery (above the Reading Room) and is organised in conjunction with the Museo de Arte de Lima. It brings together artefacts from the BM’s own collection with those from Peru and elsewhere to reveal the history, beliefs and culture of a series of South American societies and peoples from BCE to the sixteenth century arrival of the conquistadors.

My knowledge of such societies was restricted to Schaffer’s 1964 play The Royal Hunt of the Sun, numerous bloodthirsty films and cartoons from childhood, the wonderful Royal Academy exhibition of the 90s on the Aztecs (from a different part of south America completely) and,Peruheaddress perhaps most personally, the Palacio del Conde de los Andes in Jerez de la Frontera, which belonged to the last Viceroy of Peru. This exhibition has expanded it enormously, covering as it does the period between 2500 BCE and the 1500s, tropical forests, arid plains and, above all, the Andes, a  geographical region centred on Peru, but including Argentina, Bolivia, Columbia and Ecuador.  I was completely ignorant of the people who lived at Chavin de Huantar (1200BCE) who made the remarkable gold headdress and earrings (right). Theirs was a site of pilgrimage to an oracle. In southern Peru archeologists discovered the funerary goods of the Paracas people (900BCE) who were followed by the more famous Nascas (200BCE-600CE) with their amazing and huge geoglyphs, which can only be seen in their entirety from the sky.

Kneeling Moche warrior holding a club and a shieldIn northern Peru the Moche people (100-800 CE), fabulous ceramicists (see figure of a Moche warrior, left), concentrated along the coasts and river valleys, while the Wari (600-900CE) developed in the Ayacucho region and expanded to cover the southern highlands and the northern coast. Then, between the 10th and 12th centuries the Kingdom of Chimu dominated, its capital Chan Chan having a population of up to 75,000 people. In the central Andes the Inca empire emerged in about 1400, expanding its territory throughout the region, via a system of roads and waterways between diverse cultures and communities. This included the creation of the mountain fastness which is Machu Pichu, or ‘ancient mountain’, including about 200 polished stone buildings, as well as terraces and pyramids. Though this was not the Inca capital, which was at Cusco.

The Incas were eventually deposed by the Spanish, led by Pizarro and a brutal repression of indigenousMachu_Picchu ways of life followed. It is Pizarro’s first encounter and subsequent relationship with the Inca Emperor Atahuallpa which features in the aforementioned play (and film). The exhibition included artefacts from the colonial period, though not many of them.

What I found fascinating about the peoples living in these regions was that they developed art and technology (the roads and waterways across the Andes for example) without a system of writing. Rather they used a system of khipu to transmit information knotted textiles. I imagine that they also had an oral tradition of storytelling, most ancient societies did, but, because these stories were never written down these would have been lost. Peru felinesThey certainly had complex belief systems, centred on nature and the land, as shown by the exquisite ceramics in the form of felines and serpents (see left). It also included blood sacrifice (back to those childhood bloodthirsty yarns) with any prisoners captured during wars being slain as a sacrifice to the gods of the land. One funerary robe included no fewer than seventy four human figures in its border and central pattern, each of them carrying a severed human head. Ceramics and musical instruments were decorated with similarly gruesome patterns. The exhibition includes a number of sculptures of captured prisoners, roped and awaiting their fate.

If you get the opportunity, do visit this exhibition before it closes. It isn’t huge, but leave yourself plenty of time, there’s a lot to absorb. Entry costs £17, with some £14.80 concessions.

Hogarth and Europe

One of Tate Britain’s big shows this winter, Hogarth and Europe looks at the ever popular eighteenth century artist in the context of the changing society of the time and the similarities with artists across Europe. I went to take a look last week.

This isn’t a small show and it includes ceramics as well as prints and paintings. It includes the well known standalone paintings, like The March to Finchley and The Gate of Calais ( aka O The Roast Beef of Old England ) as well as the series paintings (and prints) so there’s A Harlot’s Progress, A Rake’s Progress and Marriage a la Mode. There is the famous 1745 self-portrait of Hogarth himself, with Pug, and a selection, less widely seen, of his portrait paintings which would have been what brought in the money during his lifetime, like that of the Cholmondely family, right. There wasn’t a lot of his work which I hadn’t seen before, although the portraits of his two sisters were striking, the family resemblance between then and with their brother very evident.  That said, there is always more to be found in his very full frames and this exhibition draws attention to particular aspects not focused on before.

The eighteenth century was a time of huge change. Peace and stability in Europe brought economic prosperity, expanding trade with other parts of the world and significant scientific and social innovation. Cities were growing exponentially and, while there were massive disparities between the lives of the rich and the poor, there was also opportunity. Artists no longer depended on their traditional sponsors, church, state and aristocracy, but painted for the new, rising middle class ( something Simon Shama’s Embarrassment of Riches documented so enjoyably in regard to Holland ). Hogarth was one of them and he campaigned vigorously for the Engravers Copyright Act of 1735, otherwise known as ‘Hogarth’s Act’, which gave artists the rights to their own work.

The exhibition prompts you to look at the familiar scenes with a social historian’s eye, picking out that fine, oriental china cluttering the Squanderfield’s mantlepiece, noticing the French furnishings, the French and Dutch old masters on the wall in The Marriage Settlement, the exotics – the black slaves, the Italian castrato singer, the French dancing master – in later Marriage paintings. Whilst seeing his black characters, usually unfree, I hadn’t noticed before the way that Hogarth often positions them (not just household slaves, but in street scenes too) as a counter to white immorality. 

I confess that I’ve always found Hogarth’s social commentary ‘satire’ somewhat heavy handed andWilliam_HogarthGinLane unfunny, though chock-full of detail, but I acknowledge its originality and influence. He was very famous during his lifetime mainly because so many of his ‘morality’ works were turned into prints (he studied, originally as an engraver). He has also been a major influence on later artists and the word ‘Hogarthian’ has come to represent many a teeming, rambunctious and satiric scene. This exhibition shows that, while his European contemporaries were painting scenes of the city, like him, they were far less assured in their social commentary and much less irreverent and satirical.  Some, like Canaletto, were content to capture (very beautifully, it must be said) what was before them.

William_Hogarth_-_A_Rake's_Progress_-_Plate_8_-_In_The_MadhouseI appreciated the charitable work he did, with other artists and musicians, notably Handel, in supporting the Foundlings Hospital but I hadn’t understood that his preoccupation with the materialism and moral decline of ‘modern’ society was also fueled by his own history. His father got into debt and was imprisoned for a time, leaving the young Hogarth and his mother to provide for the family. The Madhouse final scene from Rake was only a metaphorical step away from the debtor’s prison where Hogarth senior had been incarcerated.

So, an exhibition worth going to if you want to learn more about William Hogarth and a chance to see him in a European context.  It runs until 20th March 2022 and costs £18 to enter (full price).

The Great Picture Book of Everything

In 2017 The British Museum staged an excellent exhibition of Hokusai paintings and drawings ( I wrote about it here ). Earlier thisHokusai Book week I returned there for a second exhibition of Hokusai work, this time focusing on his drawings for The Great Picture Book of Everything.

These small drawings, one hundred and three of them, have only survived because the Book, which would have been produced by wood block printing, was never published. The technique, which is illustrated within the exhibition, involves a original drawing being placed over a block of wood which is then prepared by removing all the wood which does not correspond to the lines of the drawing. The block is covered with ink and paper pressed onto it, thus transferring the drawing onto the paper, a process which can be repeated many times. Woodcarvers were apprenticed for ten years before they were qualified and it looks to me like an art in itself.

Hokusai The-Great-WaveAs an example of the production process there is a section on the print known as The Great Wave, for which Hokusai is probably most famous. There are many thousands of versions of this picture, called Under the Wave off Kanagawa ( first published 1831 ). Woodblock prints were inexpensive in nineteenth century Japan, costing approximately the same as two dishes of noodles and the blocks would be used to produce thousands of images. They frequently wore down, creating different versions of the same image and when new blocks were created, these too could differ from the original.

The Book drawings are remarkable for their intricacy and fine detail, as well as the energy of them and distinct characterisation ofHokusai India_China_Korea their subjects. They are also remarkable for their subject matter. Between 1639 and 1859 Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa shoguns who forbade the Japanese people from travelling abroad. Yet in producing the drawings, between 1820 and 1860, Hokusai depicted peoples from foreign lands as well as characters from Indian and Chinese mythology ( see right, figures of India, China and Korea ).

Some of them are absolutely stunning. There was a wonderful picture of an elephant,  ( which begs the question, how did he know what an elephant looked like? ) some exquisite renderings of Japanese and Indian myths (including dragons and the demon known as the Nine-Tailed Fox ) and more prosaic but perfect scenes of everyday life. One I particularly enjoyed was that of four men, type-setting, publishing and printing (left, below ).

Hokusai PublishingThat said, I realised early in my visit that I would have to buy the catalogue, because it simply isn’t possible to stand for long enough in front of these small pictures to really enjoy all their detail and subtlety – too many other people are trying to do the same. Besides, it’s a book and I can’t resist book buying. The exhibition is in Room 90, one of the rooms used for small exhibitions of prints and drawings at the rear of the Museum ( beyond Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt and up the stairs ). Entry is only £9 for adults and, even with timed tickets, it was getting crowded when I visited.

More than one of the drawings left me marvelling at their modernity. The drawing of Virudhaka Destroyed by Lightening couldHokusaiVirudhaka_killed_lightening have come from the pages of a modern comic/graphic novel or a Roy Lichtenstein work ( Kerpow! ). All they would need would be primary colours. Others depict interior scenes or verandas in a way which reminded me of Degas, with an asymmetrical picture construction. I look forward to many happy hours with my catalogue, really appreciating these drawings in full detail, but, as an enticing taster, this exhibition was wonderful. It runs until 30th January 2022 and the book costs £20.

Shivering in the park with Tosca

ToscaatCrystalPalace2On a grey and somewhat chilly Bank Holiday Sunday English National Opera, with the full ENO orchestra and chorus and soloists David Junghoon Kim, Natalya Romaniw and Roland Wood were at Crystal Palace Park. So were we.

Part of ‘South Facing Festival’ this was the first time this music festival has taken place and it showed. In the information provided to concert goers and in provision of refreshment at the site. So, there wasn’t a clear message that the gates would open at 5.30 pm, yet the show would not begin until 7 pm. A crowd of people were milling around at the entrance at 5.20, all a little bemused at the lack of urgency in letting people enter. We were there and then sat around for an hour and a half, waiting. It did allow us to grab a prime spot, however, with a very good view of the stage.

Despite a promise of ‘a carefully curated line-up of some of the UK’s top street food traders‘ we had small choice – aToscaatCrystalPalace3 couple of burger joints, a pizza place, churros and sushi – with long queues, which meant people walking back to their places bearing food after the performance had commenced. There were bars aplenty, unfortunately they sold only hugely overpriced cans – of beer, of wine and of gin & tonic. No draught beer, no bottles of wine. And no bringing your own drinks with you. We knew this, so didn’t try, but others clearly did not and had their goodies confiscated at the entrance. Given the lack of choice and the prices charged this left a sour taste in a lot of mouths.

So did some of the ticketing information. We’d gone for the cheap seats in Zone C ( blankets on the grass at the back ). Others had paid a premium ( £60 ) for Zone A. In one instance £240 for four seats, the man arguing heatedly with a steward clearly believed, only to be told this paid for entry to Zone A and he would have to pay even more for Zone A with seat (and there were no such tickets left). He and his family had to sit on the grass at ToscaatCrystalPalace5the back of Zone A, only a few yards from where we sat. They weren’t pleased and understandably so.

Whoever organised this was clearly focussing on making as much money as they could. I estimated over a thousand people were there on Sunday, each paying a minimum of £35, many paying more. The food and drinks outlets would also pay the organisers for their pitches. Yes, opera is expensive and the local council would be paid for use of the park, but, if you’re offering a superb musical experience, then why not allow people to enjoy the whole evening, not just the performance. 

But this was the ENO so the playing and singing was sublime. I had forgotten what a full orchestra, live, sounded like and Puccini was a wonderful way to be reminded. The performance was ‘semi-staged’ and the ENO had circumvented the potential pitfalls ( Tosca shot Scarpia and, at the end, herself, in the absence of a stage on which to set a dinner table or a set of battlements to leap from ). Inevitably some of the subtleties went missing -if you didn’t know about the political sub-plot and the news from Marengo, it would have passed you by completely.

The music and singing were absolutely ENO standard, that is, world class. They had bought their A game. Kim was a lyricalToscaatCrystalPalace9 and powerful Cavaradossi who reached those high notes with ease. Romaniw was empassioned and exquisite – even in a park and with an audience this big, you could have heard a pin drop during ‘Vissi d’arte‘. At the end, everyone was on their feet and clapping and cheering ( and booing Scarpia, who was an excellent Roland Wood ). Though there were also folk beginning to clear away their things – it was cold by this time. The group to the immediate right of us had brought duvets, they were snug.

Tosca is also the opera in ‘Opera’, a performance of which my heroine attends with a Greek diplomatic party ( the Greeks from previous book, ‘Oracle’ ) but that one is at the Royal Opera House ( of which more in a future post ).

The Real Thing

thekissI know nothing about sculpting, though I like looking at sculptures. So I found Tate Britain’s exhibition, The Making of Rodin, fascinating, focusing as it does on HOW Rodin went about creating his works. Outside the exhibition is a version of The Kiss, but the show itself begins with a bronze, the only bronze sculpture in the exhibition, the rest are in plaster. This is The Age of Bronze, the figure of a young Belgian soldier named Auguste Ney and it replicated real life so perfectly that Rodin was accused of making the cast direct from Ney’s body rather than modelling it. Rodin refuted the allegations of ‘cheating’ with a passion, having photographs taken of Ney to demonstrate the differences between the subject and the sculpture. Thereafter he was to move away from the conventions of classical sculpture, with its ideal of human beauty.

Rodin worked by modelling in clay, then casting in plaster and dipping the resulting casts in plaster slip or ‘lait deabattis_2 platre‘, which softened the sculptures, smoothing their angles and filling their craters. But a perfect finish was not what he was after and he left seams visible between joints as well as gouge and nail marks. Multiple casts of a single piece, or part of a piece were made and used in a variety of ways ( see the Giblets or abattis laid out in one vitrine, arms, legs, torsos originally to be part of The Gates of Hell, but used for many other works ). He reworked his casts, remodelling parts of them, with elements being used in any number of larger works, dismantling and reassembling existing sculptures in endless combinations. So The Head of a Slavic Woman appeared in multiple works, repositioned and rotated. The Son of Ugolino moved from prone point of death to an aerial figure. 

ThreeShadesRodin took repetition to another level when he included multiple casts of the same figure to form a sculptural group. So The Three Shades consists of a single figure, originally to represent Adam, presented in a group together (see left). He also changed the scale of pieces and the exhibition has some truly large versions of elements of other sculptures, Rodin was said to be particularly fond of the undulating surfaces created by enlargement. We see the head of one of the Burghers of Calais, but twice the size, a massive version of The Thinker and a super large plaster version of Balzac. The versions of this last sculpture are particularly illuminating, showing a nude figure in various sizes and a head in various forms, plus the dressing gown (so accurately represented it seemed that the fabric would fold in your hand), which were used to inform the final work.

There are some of Rodin’s drawings in the exhibition too. The exhibition guide tells usrodindrawing that Rodin used drawing to study movement and the internal dynamics of the body, asking his sitters to move around the studio. The works on show are all of impersonal female nudes in graphite and watercolour and they are full of movement. I liked them a lot. As with his clay sculptures, Rodin would use the sketches again and again. The drawings on display are annotated with his notes, rotating the pages around to show the figures differently depending on aspect. The other element I admired was his use of antique artefacts –  a very modern concept – though Rodin used the real thing, not copies, thus effectively negating the work of the original potter, or ceramicist (not so admirable).

burghersofcalaisOne room contains a life-size ( i.e. bigger than actual life ) plaster model of his famous Burghers of Calais, such a fabulous and powerful sculptural group, the bronze version of which stands outside the Houses of Parliament. This made me want to go and see that sculpture again, but the plain white of the plaster version somehow renders the self-sacrificing burghers even more exposed than their bronze equivalents. Other rooms are dedicated to works depicting the Japanese actor and dancer Ohta Hisa – Rodin made over fifty busts and masks of her face – and Helene von Nostitz, his aristocratic German friend. 

The exhibition made me think about the ‘real’ and how an imperfect representation of it could illuminate a greater truth. Rodin sometimes deliberately removed part of a sculpted body, a lower limb or a hand as well as making marks on the surface. This reminded me of Henry James’ short story The Real Thing, which prompts similar ruminations, though from a completely different perspective. I also speculated how a sculptor might have a different view of the human body to the rest of us. Rodin was a lover of women, the exhibition acknowledges his numerous relationships and one wonders how his day job impacted upon how he saw and reacted to his lovers, particularly Camille Claudel, a fellow sculptor. 

An engaging and, for me, fascinating, exhibition, it runs until 21st November at Tate Modern and tickets cost £18. 

Opera and ‘Opera’

Is it entirely coincidental that, at a time when I’m working on ‘Opera’, the next novel in the Cassandra Fortune series, I’m going to more opera than usual? No, of course not. The opera in ‘Opera’ is Tosca, Puccini’s ‘shabby little shocker’ (according to musicologist Joseph Kerman) set in Rome on 17th and 18th June 1800. The dating is precise because the plot is impacted by specific events, in particular the outcome, for some time in doubt, of the Battle of Marengo then taking place far to the north. The date of events in ‘Opera’ is precise too, though opera and novel have more in common than that. Both have a political backdrop of democracy under siege by the forces of repression and wealth, both have an arch-villain and a courageous heroine. I’m off to see ENO present this later in the summer.

It was a very different Puccini work which I went to see last Friday. Gianni Schicchi is a comedy, though its central character appears in Dante, the eponymous 13th century nouveau riche nobleman who is condemned to Hell for impersonating a dead man in order to acquire his property (including an ass). The company, St Paul’s Opera, is based at a Clapham church. It was set up by Patrician Ninian and others (who have since moved on) with the specific aim of offering accessible opera while encouraging and supporting aspiring young professional singers. Some of the finest were singing last week. It was, as it always is, a sell-out.

Friday evening was perfect, sunny and warm. The gates opened at a quarter to six and we sat, sipping wine and chatting before a pied piper, Musical Director Panaretos Kyriatzidis, appeared walked through the gardens to summon us to the first musical performance. This was of sacred music in the Eden Gardens, sung by many of the company who were to appear later in the opera.

We returned to our food and wine and, unfortunately, missed the second small performance, a string quartet playing, among other things, an old favourite of mine Night Music from the Streets of Madrid by Boccherini.  So we were determined to hear the third, a selection of aria from Puccini, Donizetti and Verdi, sung by some of that evening’s principals. Then it was everyone to the grassy area behind the church where the main event was to happen. Every part of the evening had, so far, been a delight and so was the buzz as folk drank up, gathered their jackets and walked down to the amphitheatre. What a joy it was to be part of a happy crowd of people again, all anticipating more fun to come.

The seating was in small blocks, with gaps between, just as the tables in the picnic area had been. The evening took place entirely outside, but social distancing was still in evidence. Not in the production, where the newly cold body of Buoso is surrounded by his grieving (and greedy) relatives, who, when the will is discovered, are forced to turn to the wily parvenu, Gianni Schicchi, to retrieve the situation.  As the sun set and the strains of ‘O mio babbino caro’ rang around the hushed churchyard, for a short time everything was right with the world. Here’s Kiri Te Kanawa singng the same.

Australia 1992

…is the name of a free exhibition currently to be seen at Tate Modern. I went along to see it by chance, mainly because a friend let me know that she’d be up in town at relatively short notice, but I was very glad that I did.  I learned a lot, saw some fabulous art and appreciated again what a disaster colonialism was for just about everybody but Europeans ( particularly, but not exclusively, us Brits ).

Eddie Mabo1992 is an important year in Australian law and history because the High Court of Australia delivered a landmark ruling known as the ‘Mabo decision’. This overturned the legal concept of ‘terra nullius’ – land belonging to nobody – which was used to justify taking over the land, occupied for thousands of years by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, that subsequently became known as Australia. Eddie Koiki Mabo was a Torres Strait Islander, a Meriam man, who, along with other Islanders, filed a claim in the High Court for native title to portions of Mer Island. After ten years, on 3rd June 1992, the High Court found for Eddie, who had died of cancer five months earlier.  3rd June is celebrated as ‘Mabo Day’ in the Torres Strait Islands and there is an ongoing campaign to make it a national Australian holiday. This exhibition looks at artworks inspired by the relationship between land and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people, sometimes created in response to land disputes and colonialism.

I was unaware of the sheer number of different groupings of Aboriginal people and Islanders in Australia, somethingAiatsis Map of Australia one sees at the very start of the exhibition on the Aitsis Map. I had understood a little about the connection between the Aboriginal people and the land, a reciprocal and custodial relationship. They do not ‘own’ it in the European sense of dividing and apportioning pieces of land, but have an ongoing cultural connection with it, which underpins their history, spiritual beliefs, language, lore, family and identity.  This is inherent in the art of contemporary artists like Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Dale Harding and John Mawurndjul ( I loved his woven female ancestor ).

I was also unaware that there was an Aboriginal flag!  It is red, black and gold and can be found in Gordon Bennett’s Possession Island ( Abstraction ) 1991, a reflection, from a different perspective, of the British history paintings depicting the raising of the Union Jack on the ‘virgin’ land. It is also, briefly, in the tall man, 2010 of Vernon Ah Kee, a video installation of great power which depicts in ‘documentary’ style the events on Palm Island, of Queensland, in November 2004, following the death in police custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee a local man. The police station, police barracks and local court house were burnt down.

a preponderance of aboriginal blood 2005 by Judy Watson born 1959

I was particularly impressed with Judy Watson’s series a   preponderance of aboriginal blood, 2005, above. This is a series of  reproductions of official documents and letters from the  Queensland State Archive, including electoral enrolment  statutes which excluded people with ‘a preponderance of  aboriginal blood’ from voting. It’s astonishing that these forms of institutional racism and discrimination continued until the 1960s. There were also some fine photographs from Tracy Moffatt in her Up in the Sky series from 1997 capturing the heat, dirt and poverty of an outback town, with references to the scandal of the ‘Stolen Generations’ which saw aborigine children removed from their parents and placed with white families. Although not displayed in any narrative order, these pictures clearly tell a story about that town and the people in it.

This exhibition is FREE and runs until Spring 2022. It is well worth seeing, though booking is, currently, required.

‘Oracle’ Art

Given the antiquity of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and the cultural influence it has had over the millennia it’s not surprising that large numbers of visual artists have been inspired by it.  Followers of my twitter feed will know I have been collecting and sharing images of Delphi, the Temple of Apollo and the various historical or mythical beings who came there, drawn or painted by famous artists.  So, we’ve had Gustave Dore’s Dante and Virgil encountering the Erinyes or Furies (left), Edward Lear’s water colour of the Phaedriades, the massive cliffs which loom over the Temple site and William Blake’s illustration for ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ showing ‘The Overthrow of Apollo and the Pagan Gods’.

I’ve come across plenty of works, from ancient times onwards,  which portray events or characters from Greek drama set at Delphi. On Greek redware (right) for example, showing the sleeping Erinyes being roused from their Apollo-induced slumber by the vengeful spirit of Clytemnestra, urging them to hunt down her son, and murderer, Orestes ( from Eumenides by Aeschylus ). Later paintings include Orestes being pursued by the same furies by, among others, John Singer Sergeant, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, John Flaxman and Franz Stuck, until we’re up to date with John Wilson (after  Bouguereau).

So popular did the image of this pursuit become that cartoonists soon created their own versions, like that in Puck magazine (1877) or in Punch (left). In this instance it is the Rt. Hon. John Bright MP who is in the Orestes role, being pursued by the vested interests which he opposed through the Anti-Corn Law League. It was Bright, famous for his oratorical skills among other things, who coined the phrase ‘Mother of Parliaments’. He is also credited with first using the phrase ‘flogging a dead horse’ to illustrate the pointlessness of certain activities (in Bright’s case this meant getting the House of Commons to consider Parliamentary reform – ’twas ever thus).

As figures of terror and myth the Erinyes feature strongly across the ages. Wenceslas Holler etched them in the seventeenth century (right) and they have re-emerged in modern day gaming ( though with a rather different, sexy, look which speaks to who it is who plays those games rather than any mythological authenticity ). Naked the furies may have, traditionally, been, but not looking like a set of pouting, come-hither dominatrices.

The Pythia, or priestess of Apollo who spoke, as the Oracle, with Apollo’s voice is also a favourite subject in paint and in sculpture.  Eugene Delacroix showed Lycurgus consulting her, John Collier made her a hooded, pre-raphaelite religious perched high on her tripod or three-legged stool (left).  Note the gases swirling upwards from the crack in the floor of her underground room, the inhalation of which led to her madness and prophecies.  No such crevice has been found at the Temple site, but, as a character explains in the book “geologists have found that two geological fault lines cross beneath Delphi, with fissures under the Temple itself which allow small amounts of naturally occurring gas to rise to the surface. Rock testing showed ethane, methane and ethylene − formerly used as an anaesthetic − to be present. These would create a calm, trancelike state and, if a lot was consumed, a form of wild mania.”

I will be posting more of the images I have found – of the Erinyes, of characters from the Orestia and of Delphi and the Temple of Apollo in the coming weeks on my twitter feed and Facebook page.  Look out for some of those mentioned above, as well as works by Klimt, Claude Lorraine and others in the run up to the publication of ‘Oracle’ on 5th May.