Review: Raphael – The Drawings at the Ashmolean Museum

16th June 2017, Oxford Culture Review

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There is a something brooding about that face, probably the artist’s own. In The Portrait of a Youth (c. 1500-1) the application of the chalk on the paper is delicate, feathery, with only a few bold lines used to describe his face – handsome, innocent, with a slightly guarded gaze. This drawing, which greets visitors at the Ashmolean’s new exhibition, Raphael: The Drawings – reveals that already in his youth Raphael’s drawings were as sensational as his painted works.

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Portrait of a youth (self-portrait?), c. 1500–1
Black chalk on white heightening (now largely lost), 38 x 26.1 cm
© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Even in his own lifetime, Raphael’s serene, mathematically pure compositions were studied as the model of classical perfection. He was so admired that when he died on Good Friday, at the age of 37, his death was mourned as if it were a second passion. Giorgio Vasari captured this general sentiment in The Lives of the Artists (1568): ‘As he embellished the world with his talents, so […] does his soul adorn Heaven by its presence’.

To contemporary minds, Raphael’s paintings can appear staid and remote when compared to the works of the Michelangelo and Da Vinci. The formality betrays coldness, his idealisation a want of human emotion. The Ashmolean’s exhibition aims to shatter this image of an effortless genius, and to completely transform our understanding of the artist. By bringing together 120 of Raphael’s most accomplished drawings, the display brings us into direct contact not only with the products of his hand and eye, but also those of his mind as he refines his ideas, techniques, and modes of expression.

Walking into the display, we first encounter his earliest drawings, produced as he began to establish himself in Florence. In them he shows a preference for clear, exact drawing, usually with a pen and ink. They are often quick, experimental works, roughly conveying the figure in a few scratchy lines. His drawings for The Madonna of the Meadows (c. 1505-1506) show Mary twisting her body toward the Christ-child, restraining him, while he eagerly tries to escape her grasp. The idea here is further developed in a chalk drawing, The Virgin with the Pomegranate (c. 1504). Mary gazes down despondently at a pomegranate in her right-hand, a symbol of the resurrection; the child grabs the fruit, apparently intrigued.

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Raphael, The Virgin with the Pomegranate, 1504
Black chalk with compass indetantion for the halo, 41.2 x 29.4 cm
© Albertina Museum, Vienna

Raphael’s mind appears to have been animated by contrast. The juxtaposition of understanding and innocence in his Madonnas gives way later in his career to depictions of male violence and female grace. The most striking drawings on display are the studies for The Massacre of the Innocents (c. 1509-10), a composition never realised as a painting. Here the restrained formality of Raphael’s composition serves to heighten the impact of the violence. One woman is turning away, an audible scream of despair on her face, as a man bears down upon her and her child with a sword. At the centre of it all, another woman is looking the viewers straight in the eye as she runs towards them – her mouth open, but speechless . The men are all mass and muscle, their eyes black pits, devoid of empathy as they carry out their bloody task.

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Raphael, Study for the Massacre of the Innocents, 1509–10
Pen and brown ink over red chalk and geometrical indications in stylus, selectively pricked for transfer, 23.2 x
37.7 cm
© Trustees of the British Museum

Moving through the galleries, we watch as Raphael begins to experiment with new ideas and media for drawing. The most striking development from around the period in which he moved to Rome – where he would produce his most sublime work – is in his use of chalk.  This material drew him to a less precise, though more expressive style, lending itself to a more tonal view of humanity. A belief in the fundamental goodness of humanity is recognisable in his sketches for The Fire in the Borgo (c. 1513-1514). As fire ravages the city, the people of Rome band together to save their own. In one sketch, a muscular young man carries an old one away from the flames; that dark menacing bulk used in service of charity as well as destruction.

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Raphael, A man carrying an older man on his back, 1513–14
Red chalk, 30 x 17.3 cm
© Albertina Museum, Vienna

The final gallery houses the drawings produced in the years before his untimely death, some of the most productive of his career. There is a tenderness, honesty, and passion in these images, which never quite translated into his painting. The Three Graces (c. 1517-1518) is a conceptually brilliant study of the nude from three different angles. Bending forwards to peer into the water are not figures of idealised perfection: they have a certain human sensuality about them. Raphael’s lust for life is apparent at every stroke.

The final work in the show, The Heads and Hands of Two Apostles (c. 1519-1520)balances chiaroscuro to capture every crease on the face, every muscle in the hands, ultimately to draw out the antithesis between young and old. It has been called the most beautiful drawing in the world, more beautiful than the finished painting. These are not just preparatory sketches, but fully realised works of art. Only when we see them in their own right can we recognize the artist in all his beauty and boldness.

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Raphael, The heads and hands of two apostles, 1519–20
Black chalk with over-pounced underdrawing with some white heightening, 49.9 x 36.4 cm
© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Charlotte Taylor

 

‘Raphael: The Drawings’ runs at the Ashmolean, until 3rd September. To read more about the exhibition and to buy tickets, please visit the museum website.

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Review: Which Jane Austen?

9th July 2017, Oxford Culture Review

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Almost immediately after her death in Winchester on 18 July 1817, Jane Austen’s family set about transforming the author into a fictional heroine of their own devising.
Her sister, and closest confidante, Cassandra, destroyed most of Jane’s letters — incinerating many thousands in the fire, and cutting holes into those she kept — apparently afraid of the response that they might receive. Worse yet were the publications of Henry Austen’s ‘Memoir of Miss Austen’ and The Memoir of Jane Austen(1869) by her nephew James Edward Austen Leigh; these two works firmly established the conventional image of ‘dear Aunt Jane’ as the quiet country spinster for whom ‘neither the hope of fame nor profit mixed’ with her motives for writing.

It is this elaborately laid fiction which the Weston Library’s new exhibition, ‘Which Jane Austen?’, aims to dispel once and for all. The exhibit brings together a collection of objects — leather bound books, hand-written letters, political cartoons and one fabulous silk pelisse — which work to unlock the elegance, decadence, violence and scandal of the regency age which informed the writer. Instead of the staid domestic wit, they attempt to establish a Jane who was a business-like woman, politically and socially ambitious — anything but the retiring country mouse.

Austen Leigh’s memoir forms the first exhibit on display, the point from which nearly all our understanding of Jane Austen derives. From there the show traces a clear line through the first popular reprints of the novels, featuring covers illustrated with the most lurid scenes from her novels to the irony of current day mash-ups, like Fanny Price facing down the dragon Smaug. It builds up the comforting image of ‘Austenland’, with its country balls, tea drinking and genteel English summer, only to shatter it the moment you turn around.

Here stands one of the few remaining letters of Jane’s. It is addressed to her brother, Henry; written mere days before her death, she displays good humour and expresses her very real hope of recovery. Next to it is the unfinished manuscript of Austen’s novel Sanditon, open on the final page of writing. Ironically, it was her own final illness which forced Austen to abandon the novel in which she mocked the new-found fashion for hypochondria in the seaside resorts. Together these items form the most affecting part of the exhibition: they remind you that there was a real Jane Austen after all, a woman who died painfully before her time.

Moving along the cabinets around the edge of the room there are several touching family relics likely to delight any Janeite — her petite dark oak writing desk, a book case carved for her by her brother Francis, and a recipe book from Chawton house, which she almost certainly tried to avoid ever having to use. Far more striking are the letters and early manuscripts on display. One letter, written to John Stainer Clarke (the librarian to the Prince Regent) who dared to suggest she write a historical romance on the house of Saxe-Coburg Gothe, shows an Austen who is confident about the value of her own ‘pictures of domestic Life in Country Villages’ and unwilling to compromise on her own vision.

As you progress through the displays, back into Austen’s early life and influences, Cassandra Austen’s malevolent handiwork becomes apparent. The objects selected to examine Austen as a war time writer, influenced by the adventures of her sailor brothers are particularly weak. The captions around the exhibits resort to speculative ‘what ifs, ‘perhaps’ and ‘maybes’, which somehow works to obscure what Jane Austen’s opinions and attitudes towards the war even were. Perhaps it will always be the case with authors that if you want to understand what influences an author, you are better off reading their works.

The exhibition closes where it all theoretically began. A young girl’s neat hand marks ‘Volume the First’ on a collection of short stories, mini-plays and verses, written between the ages of twelve and eighteen. The notebook in which it is written was made by her especially for her writing. It is in these personal objects that bear her voice that the Weston Library gets it right. It is only her letters and the evidence of her careful produced early notebooks which produce the fleeting glimpse we get of Jane Austen in this exhibition — the rest is mere noise.

Charlotte Taylor

‘Which Jane Austen?’ runs at the Weston Library until 29th October. Free admission. To read more about the exhibition, please visit the library website.

Art Preview: David Hockney – Original Prints

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Published on page 34 in the February edition of Buzz Magazine

David Hockney – Original Prints

Ceri Richards Gallery, Taliesin Arts Centre

24 February – 1 April 2017

Without question, David Hockney has been one of the most prolific and experimental artists of the 20th century. Over the course of his career his work as a painter, set designer, draftesman and photographer has been well documented, but somehow his work as a printmaker has rarely gained the spotlight. However, an exhibition starting later this month is aiming to change all that.

In collaboration with the Goldmark Gallery, the Ceri Richards Gallery at the heart of Swansea’s Taliesin centre is to display some of Hockney’s most influential work in his 60 years as a printmaker. The works contain many characteristics qualities of his art – an economy of technique, a pre-occupation with storytelling and human interaction – but they are also some of Hockney’s most personally revealing creations The exhibition seeks to establish as Hockney as one of the most skilled, innovative and challenging printmakers alive.

Among the images on display are a number of etchings from his Grimm’s Fairytale series. These sparse, almost ugly, depictions of the Grimms’ stories stand in contrast to the luscious illustrations that one would typically expect to adorn the pages of the fairytales; where those colourful pictures seek to create beauty and magic, Hockney’s unassuming black and white stark etchings bring back to mind J.R.R. Tolkein’s remark that the fairytales were not written ‘for children’.

Alongside this work this series there will sit works from his Cavafy suite, a series of illustrations that were inspired by the Hellenistc homoerotic poetry of C.F. Cavafy. Hockney first discovered Cavafy’s poetry in the 1950s, when he stole a copy of his poems for the local library in Bradford. The series marks Hockney’s first artistic interaction Cavafy, a source which informed much of subquent work. His simple ink line drawings shocked audiences when they were first released in 1967 with their shockingly realistic depiction of gay men in bed.

The exhibition will run for five weeks, finishing on the 1st April.

Image: Supplied by Ceri Richards Gallery

Book Review: The Paradise Ghetto

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Published in Dec/Jan Buzz Magazine, page 50

Fergus O’Connell (Accent Press)

There is an argument that art is nothing more than delusion, and perhaps history repays this notion. At Theresienstadt, the ghetto established for ‘privileged’ Jews during the second world war – where Fergus O’Connell sets The Paradise Ghetto – a rich cultural life flourished; there were lectures series, recitals and even schooling. O’Connell’s narrative tells the tale of the intense relationship which forms between two Dutch inmates in Theresienstadt, Julia and Suzanne, as well as that of the book they write. The novel becomes an escape, and perhaps a saviour, as they become the war will end once the novel is complete. The story within a story construct is not original, and sometimes the novel is rather clunky, yet O’Connell manages to keep your attention engaged in both narratives. More importantly, he leaves you asking an interesting question: is fiction a futile, even damaging, delusion?

Price: £8.99, Info: https://www.accentpress.co.uk/

Image: OuadiO/Flickr (All Creative Commons)

Art Preview: Nowhere Less Now: Lindsay Seers

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Published in Dec/Jan Buzz Magazine, page 38 & online

Glynn Vivian Gallery, Swansea

Until 19 March 2017

Inside the atrium of the Glynn Vivian gallery sits a leviathan. Once you round the corner and approach the great grey mass, it becomes clear that this is not some beast from the depths but merely an upturned ship, albeit with some strange looking tentacles trapped in its propeller.

Within the body of vessel sits Nowhere Less Now, Lindsay Seers video installation, which is currently being exhibited as part of programme examining journeys at the gallery. It is as black as pitch in there. Fumbling to find a seat in the darkness, the only source of light emerges from two rounded screen – one flat, one convex – two lenses gazing out of the darkness. A stream of images – some real, some faked – are projected onto the screen: Zanzibar, a woman dressed in masonic symbols and the inside of the gallery.

The narrative is a slippery beast: it is neither past nor future, rather a suspended present somewhere between fiction and fact. One narrative tells of the artist’s journey in search after her great, great uncle, another is a dystopia where a blind man who illegally ‘collects imagines’ and seems to commune with this dead relative, reflecting the history of the gallery’s founder. Behind the excess of narrative, the confusion of imagery, seems to be a coherent idea: through memory we construct our truth and find meaning in our lives.

Admission: free. Info: http://www.swansea.gov.uk/article/29486/Nowhere-Less-Now

Image: WikiCommons

Comment: What Happened to Kate and Caitlin?

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20 February 2013, Varsity Online Comment Section

It’s that time of year again when industries give themselves pat themselves on back – the Awards season. Every year I am disappointed with the nominations, bored during the ceremony and left with a feeling of dissatisfaction when the inevitable winner takes the statuette. Yet the next year I am once again drawn into this cycle of anticipation and inevitability in the vain hope of surprise or approval.

This year I was given fresh hope as Women’s Hour decided to add to the accolades with the inauguration of their 100 most powerful women in Britain list. I eagerly followed the panel as they debated on the program. The judges included Eve Pollard, Oona King and Dawn O’Porter, media savvy women from a range of social and working backgrounds – which seemed a promising sign for those hoping for an interesting, modern, stereotype busting perspective of power.

Inevitably, the list did not deliver on its promise placing, as almost anyone would have predicted, the Queen at the top of the list. The majority of the women on the list belonged mainly to the business sector – with Elisabeth Murdoch and Moya Greene (CEO of the Royal Mail) ranking in the top 20 – or were involved in the political running of UK, while some of the few cultural representatives (including Adele and Clare Balding) appeared somewhat arbitrary and tokenistic. The stereotype of what constituted power remained as close-minded and limited as ever. The panel had stuck with a distinctively conservative view of power, where the focus was primarily in the business, political and economic arenas.

Perhaps this is not surprising considering we are entering the age of the triple, and probably octuplet, recession. Power is now more than ever a commodity only purchased with money. The list reflects a broader sentiment that places emphasis on the traditionally powerful sectors of politics, science and the economy, laying culture to wayside as something extraneous and unimportant. But does this really mean that power truly lies in the hands of an elite few?

The panel judging the list decided that influence and power should be treated as entirely separate concepts, and therefore judged the 4000 names they has been given in terms of control in Britain. While such power is clearly important is misses a key point: power is just influence in a particular system. Does a CEO or a Royal really have more power than Caitlin Moran, whose book on feminism has introduced a falsely tarnished concept to a new generation of teenagers? This outdated concept of power does not in any way reflect Britain as it really is today.

The most powerful women are not only those in the grand palaces of state, but those whose influence we choose to follow and celebrate. Jessica Ennis did not make the list despite becoming a role model to many around the country and Kate Middleton was excluded while Alexandra Shulman (the editor of British Vogue) ranked in the top half, despite essentially having the same influence. By choosing to consider influence and power as separate entities the panel had excluded one of the most powerful sectors of all: culture.

Fundamentally the problem the list presents is not merely its content, but the fact it exists at all. Eve Pollard noted that the list seemed to suggest that women have “gone backwards” in terms of equality with men in gaining the top jobs. Her comments could be applied to the wider context, and the existence of a separate power list for women once again suggests that too few women would make a general list, thus necessitating the existence of a special list for women on their own. This list may provide a conservative view of women and power, but more worrying is the broader trend it reveals in which women are still lagging behind their male counterparts regardless of how the list is compiled.

Image: WikiCommons

 

Theatre Review: Spine

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29th November 2016, Buzz Magazine Reviews

Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff 18th Nov

‘Libraries are the cornerstone my gel! Course they want to shut ‘em, there’s nothing for sale!’ This one line sums up the damning political diatribe at the core of Clara Brennan’s award winning Spine, against the priorities of a government which has lost all sight of the public it supposedly represents. As councils continue to cut funding for libraries, Spine crystallises the indignant, justified anger of many in society against a politics which sees knowledge as only an asset up for sale, and in so doing relegates the many to become ‘life’s losers’.

One of life’s losers is teenager Amy, the ranting, raging and reluctant hero of the piece. After a series of fuck-ups, she seems destined to become one of life’s precariat: her best friend has become a fiend, she’s flunked her A-levels, lost her apprenticeship, started stealing with her boyfriend and now, on top of all that, she’s been kicked out by her ‘people’.

All this leads her to where she speaks to us now, standing in the darkened parlour of Glenda’s house, apparently in front of the silhouettes of generic household clutter. The Glenda she recalls – ‘a shrunken little biddy with shocking died red hair’- is anything but your cosy grandmother type. In fact, she’s turns out to be just as light fingered as Amy.

At this point the studio lights blaze, and reveal all that clutter to be crate upon crate of books. ‘I nicked ‘em’, Amy retells with relish, as it emerges that the books taken by her every time the council shut down yet another library. ’We’re keeping ‘em stored until such a time when they are safe again.

Glenda is looking for a political legacy, and in Amy she finds her opportunity. She’s gets her reading – Latin, a book on pondlife, anything. She wants to harness her rage, to give her a voice, and above all, a spine. ‘You kids wanna be angry than you are; No one to vote for? DIY it, my gel!’

Brennan has frequently been accused of promoting a brand of agitprop theatre, one which parades an affecting brand of politics but offers nothing of any substance. Spine seems to offer a rebuttal to that criticism; instead, agitation is the key to politicisation. Without anger we lose our drive. Without stories, we lack the understanding necessary to empathise with others. No wonder the council would rather burn the books in the night.

It’s a polemic, and a thinly plotted one at that, and it hangs completely on the central performance of Rosie Wyatt as Amy. There is a fine line between monologue and rant, and one which Wyatt steers with a performance that is sensitive to every one of Amy’s jagged edges, her bluster and belligerence, as well as every ounce of humour and vulnerability. It’s a performance which validates all the play’s material, and has you leaving the theatre game for a fight.

Image: Stewart Butterfield/Flickr (free creative commons)

Book Review: Trysting – Emmanuelle Pagano (And Other Stories)

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Printed in Buzz Magazine 27 Nov 2016, page 50.

Emmanuelle Pagano’s award winning Trysting is a strange sort of novel. There’s no plot, no characters, and even the fact it is fiction is easily forgotten. More than anything it resembles scattered confessions which Pagano has simply collected and delicately placed on the page. But in fact, she has actually crafted the voices of her lovers in short, anonymous fragments, and it is they who detail the many varied and often strange forms that love takes.

In Trysting, Pagano insists on brevity. Of the over 100 fragments, some are as long as two pages, while others are epigrammatic. Love is made up of small moments, and detailing these minute instances Pagano manages to illustrate love in a way that no academic treatise could ever do. Whether it’s the lover thinking about the ‘line of hair’ between his partner’s pubic and naval, or another tasked with clearing out the rubbish left behind the house after her husband has gone, each vignette seems to reveals some deep emotional truth, even when what it has said is not quite clear. Trysting may be constrained by its form, but it does repay its subject.

Delicate and sensitive, the work rebounds with incisive observations that are uncannily accurate (‘Life with him is so easy and sweet and joyful. I have a feeling he’s cheating’). Pagano is a compassionate recorder of the everyday expression of love, but above all objective. This is no simply celebration of love: the animalistic nature of love is all there, as is the disappointment that is inevitable when we fall in love, watch it stagnate and then collapse, without a trace of ever existing.

Whether what will survive of us is love, Trysting illuminates what that love could be: exquisite agony.

Price: £8.99. Info: http://www.andotherstories.org

Image: The Girl in the Mirror/Flickr (free creative commons)

Edinburgh Fringe 2014 Review: Occupied

Image: Alixroth/Flickr

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31 August 2014, ThreeWeeks Edinburgh Review

From issues of patriarchy to the moral difficulties of hummus, ‘Occupied’ portrays the world of student protest in its overbearing earnestness. When a production of ‘The Producers’ is threatening the Fringe, a group of protestors occupy the theatre to stop this (probably) offensive production taking place. The stock protesters are all there: the anarchist, the Marxist; and the long skirted one who sings songs about the Scottish referendum (a song about Alex Salmond to ‘The Real Slim Shady’ was a particular audience favourite). The play could be seen as a cynical view of protest, but a sense of the difficulty that faces this group does come through in this engaging, funny and farcical production which is ultimately good-natured.

Edinburgh Fringe 2014 Review: Every Brilliant Thing

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31 August 2014, ThreeWeeks Edinburgh Review

The play begins with the death of a dog and revolves around the suicide attempts of the central character’s mother. Cheery stuff. Jonny Donahue takes us through his story, and a list detailing reasons to carry on living, coming up with those brilliant things of the title with the aid of some audience members who help him act out some key moments. The interaction is used to good effect: we empathise more with this already likeable character having travelled with him through his history. Yet, for all it provides an insight into coping with suicide and love, it still feels very much a fiction, and this somehow makes the piece seem somewhat false.

Image: Alixroth/Flickr

Edinburgh Fringe 2014 Review: Robert Newman

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31 August 2014, ThreeWeeks Edinburgh Review

Surely only at the Fringe could you find a stand-up show about theories of evolution? I was given flashbacks to university lectures by Rob Newman’s discussion of the concept of survival of the fittest, and his description of how a series of mishaps and missteps led him to propose the ‘misfit theory’, his own new theory of evolution. The show is replete with descriptions of bizarre animal behaviours and intellectual insults to Richard Dawkins, alongside a well planned series of jokes; yet often the balance is not quite right, the stand-up feeling lost in sea of scientific jargon, while musical numbers add little. Ultimately the show is too much like a documentary for its own good.

Image: Alixroth/Flickr

Edinburgh Fringe 2014 Review: Dane Baptiste

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31 August 2014, ThreeWeeks Edinburgh Review

At first Dane Baptiste’s Edinburgh debut seems pretty pedestrian, as the material in ‘Citizen Dane’ is not-unfamiliar fare: using his experience as the son of immigrant parents, he entertains the audience with a stream of jokes about strict parenting, his family and gangsta culture. Yet Baptiste delivers his occasionally provocative material with such understated dryness that it seemed wholly innovative. His jokes kept the audience in almost constant hysterics but his best material came from some fantastically wry observations about the good luck of children from broken homes and how gangstas are scared of wasps. With this show, Baptiste promises to be a performer to watch and watch out for at the Fringe.

Image: Alixroth/Flickr