Books In case you've been wondering why I've been a bit absent from around these parts this past couple of weeks, assuming it's even been obvious, it's because six months after buying it at a bargain price from the local Costco, I've finally been working through the Phaidon coffee table book Art Museum. As described on their website, Art Museum "is the finest art collection ever assembled between two covers. This revolutionary and unprecedented virtual art museum in a book, features 992 oversized pages of nearly 2,700 works of art" which in chronological terms is roughly eight days of reading from about nine to five with the knowledge that you'll only absorb about ten percent of what you've read or seen.
Structured to resemble a building and almost as big, the Art Museum book replaces page numbers with rooms and chapters with themes attempting to mimic a visit an art gallery the size of a planet beginning with prehistoric cave paintings and ending at roughly the publication date of the book. These are peppered with "exhibitions" in which single or groups of work are highlighted, for example, to demonstrate how an aspect of art like portraiture developed during a particular period. Each theme is introduced by a block of text not unlike that which appears on the wall at the entrance of a display and each piece is accompanied by the sort of explanation you'd see on a label next to the work of varying length and detail.
Reading and glancing through the history of art in just over the week (give or take gaps here and there for work, eating and sleeping) has been an exhilarating, a mass of human creative achievement passing across my eyes like a malfunctioning Generation Game conveyor belt set to super fast. On the first day I'd already reached the turn of the first millennium and by the end of the first week seen myself into the twentieth century, connections between eras and forms both subliminal and explained in the text left and right or top and bottom, with constant reminders that artistic creativity is in a constant state of evolution and not a linear development. Just because someone discovered how to use perspective on a two dimensional surface, not everyone had a reason to utilise it.
For all that, despite this being a book rather than a building, museum fatigue did set in pretty quickly on the first day. Like a real museum or exhibition, breaks became important, moments to savour what I'd seen before setting off into the next section which eventually coalesced or timed itself around roughly every ten "rooms". As a side note, one of the great frustrations of visiting larger museums, especially if you're only in town for the day is an inability to see everything. I once tried to see the National Gallery in an hour. I spent so much time in the newly opened Sainsbury Wing, I barely had time to run over and have a glance at the Rembrandts. At least having this particular museum in book form meant I take my time if needed.
I'd like to say that the experience illuminated some eras in a new way, caused me to reconsider some of my likes and dislikes, prejudices perhaps, but for the most part I left having had my appreciation for some artists maintained and my lack of interest in others confirmed. One of the great themes of the book is how religious verver has been the engine of art history which means there are pages and pages and pages of annunciations, nativities and crucifixions with some artists being considered experimental because they've delved into old testament stories. Sometimes I longed for the genre paintings and landscapes, my eyes metaphorically running across the room to see images of ordinary people going about their business. Usually in darkness or snow or both.
Inevitably much of the book isn't just a history of art, it's the history of civilisation. In earlier centuries, the introductory text acts as a history lesson putting the objects in the room in their historical context with kinds and epocs passing by within pages, family legacies and allegiances never quite managing to stick. Almost everything is interrelated. There are fascinating passages which show how western painters were influenced by the small amount of imported artwork from the far east and vis-versa and how the natural development in some countries was snuffed out by invading armies in some cases to such a degree that it's now impossible to date what's left and develop a meaningful history of that culture's early development.
Having spent all of this time between its pages it's impossible for me not to find flaws, not least, the mechanics of reading this huge volume, too huge for the lap and too big even for the coffee table. Eventually I found myself sat on an office chair at the dining table with the back of the book pivoted upwards by a pillow so I could see both the explanatory text at the top of the page and all the art, with the curtains closed so as not to create glare on the glossy pages (if only this was possible in actual art galleries when lighting interferes with the viewing of paintings with necessary glazing). I wondered throughout hour the publishers themselves coped with this. Did they have a lectern made? Did they try and read it cover to cover themselves?
Plus there's the constant sense that you're not seeing the artwork at its best, which of course you're not because with the exception of some of the photographs, for all the book pretends to be an art museum it can't replace the originals. A vast percentage of the book is filled with images of sculpture and decorative arts and with few exceptions, it's impossible to really gain much more than a glimmer of visual insight into what's being presented, especially in the ethnographic portions where dozens of pieces are strewn across the page in tiny proportions. The quality of some of the images too is shockingly poor, the publishers presumably having sourced them from a third party rather than photographing the artwork themselves. In some cases that misrepresents what we're seeing. Examples of embroidery or mosaic look more like paintings.
Monumental artworks are presented across a two page spread which towards the centre of the book means a lot of visual information is lost down the spine, which is especially problematic in the case of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or Guernica. I can see how this was the prefered option because of the impossible logistics of having extra leaves attached to some pages or putting the on a single page and losing definition instead. It's an impossible situation. My preference would have been to split the image in two with a clear line down the middle where the sections could be joined up in the middle across the spine if necessary. Not perfect either but at least all of image's information would be present.
It's frustratingly orthodox in its presentation of art history itself. Although it's true that the Western white male has for the most part been the prevailing voice because he's been allowed to shout loudest, even when female artists have been of key importance in some areas they've been ignored. Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun, court painter to Marie Antoinette is missing with only her husband warranting a mention and Anne Vallayer-Coster is gone too. No Bridget Riley. When they do appear they're represented by single piece, which is also true of some of the men, but why are Cindy Sherman or Louise Bourgeois the only woman artist to merit a page of her own? Just a page mind. Why not Georgia O'Keeffe or Paula Rego or Marina Abramović?
Some of the artworks chosen to represent artists and eras are frankly bizarre. According to interviews they've deliberately tried to find unusual work that aren't that easily accessible, which is laudable, but given that it has a dual function as an educational tool why omit Leonardo's The Last Supper or represent Magritte with images that don't feature bowler hats, apples or a pipe that isn't a pipe? Why is so much of the non-Western and non-Continental European world treated as a historical document when contemporary art thrives outside London and New York? Granted even with nine hundred odd pages there are bound to be omissions but if the idea is to illuminate unseen areas, surely Hammershoi deserves better than a single image.
Oh and some of the proof reading is up the wall. All too often the main text gets the numbering of the items of the page in the wrong order or in one case, I think, refers to an artwork which isn't there. The text also sometimes refers back to works on earlier pages and these can be incorrect and although its usually obvious which work its actually referring to, given the RRP of the book, £80, such mistakes should not happen. I was at a newly opened exhibition recently and two of the labels and their connected objects had been transposed. It was obvious which matched which but you still had to take a moment to work it. When I told the curators (because you know I told the curators) they said, "Oh we hadn't noticed" and had a general sense of shruggary. This is that in book form.
But for all that I enjoyed almost every minute of it and I did find new paintings to love. There's Agnolo Bronzino's Eleanor of Toledo one of the most expressively beautiful portraits I've ever seen which I'd have another peak at before heading off back into the book each day. Jan Troorop's The Three Brides, a rare shift into deco from an otherwise impressionistic artist. The genius of Giotto, who in the fourteenth century was creating images which feel entirely cinematic. The book also manages to somehow render Yves Klein blue with what feels like the correct luminosity across a single page, seemingly a single colour at first glance but with all the gradations obvious in the printing.
There's been a lot of moaning in here and for things beyond the book's control. For much of the time I was genuinely giddy, especially when I came across an artist I particularly love or there was an artwork I've seen in an actual gallery space, usually Tate Liverpool. At the end my interest in visual art is reinvigorated and I feel emboldened that when I next visit a real art gallery it will be an even more meaningful experience because I'll be able to put the paintings and sculpture into some kind of historical context, however hazy. Luckily with the Liverpool Biennial beginning next month, I'll soon be able to put that into practice.
TV Crikey, this is a turn up:
"BBC America’s “Doctor Who” has been submitted for Emmy consideration for the first time ever. Now that the American cabler has come aboard as a co-producer, the venerable Brit series is finally eligible for consideration. Although it was not submitted as a drama series, star Peter Capaldi is on the lead actor ballot, showrunner Steven Moffat and director Rachel Talalay are on the writing and directing ballots for the episode “Heaven Sent” and the series is a possible nominee for costumes, production design, prosthetic makeup, and visual effects."The most deserving of episodes too. Here's what I said at the time:
"Heaven Sent is the best episode of this series and indeed of the Capaldi era, I think we’re quite comfortable in saying that. This is Steven Moffat on top form with a simple question ("What if the Doctor was trapped in a castle which acted like the the shack on the poster for The Cabin In The Woods?"), rich with ideas, of potent imagery, stunningly realised by Rachel Talalay, composer Murray Gold channelling everyone from Beethoven (the Allegretto in 7th) to Paddy Kingsland (Castrovalva) and Peter FUCKING Capaldi. Few series have the sense of jeopardy in relation to shifting quality and after two distinctly average instalments dropped us back at the metaphoric base camp, now we're back at the top of the mountain."I still stand by that. Let's hope the Emmy voters agree.
TV The BBC Genome blog regularly interviewed television and radio presenters with huge footprints on the scheduling archive database, a bit like the AV Clubs random roles column. This week it's Sue Cook and it's a good insight on the process of being hired to present at the BBC in the 80s:
"In the mid 70s, a new invention arrived on the scene – the telephone answering machine. Shortly after joining You and Yours, I bought one. The first day I set it up, I came home in the evening to find a message from the deputy editor of Nationwide, asking me to come over to Lime Grove to interview for a job as one of the show’s film reporters. I was offered the job and jumped at it. A few months later, Sue Lawley took maternity leave with her second child on the way. Again to my amazement, I became one of the presenters, alongside Frank Bough, Bob Wellings, Hugh Scully and John Stapleton. It was a job I loved until the show was deemed to have reached its sell-by date in July 1983."Now arguably much of the BBC's factual output is Nationwidesque in some way.
Posted on Thursday, June 16, 2016
Shakespeare There's always something inherently disappointing about book exhibitions or exhibitions of books. All the visitor can ever see are the two pages selected by the curator assuming they haven't decided the cover isn't the more interesting aspect of the artifact. With its utility lost, all we're left with is frustration as the point of its existence, to impart knowledge or entertainment become secondary to the fact of its existence in and of itself.
We want to pick them up and hold them, turn the pages, read them if possible and although in some cases the pages have been scanned and are available to be seen on some app or website, that's no substitute for the smell of an old book, the texture of the leifs. Which is impossible because for the most part these are precious volumes too delicate to survive this behaviour and so they remain behind their glass display cases, sometimes illuminated by a spotlight, frozen like taxidermic animals.
Except today I visited an exhibition in which despite those frustrations, I wasn't disappointed and was more than slightly moved. As part of the commemorations of Shakespeare's death. Blackburn Museum has pulled together copies of the first four folios and are displaying them together in their manuscript room. Despite having seen copies of all four volumes separately at some time, this felt like a pilgrimage I had to make.
The First Folio is on loan from nearby Stonyhurst College, bequeathed to them Lord Arundel a former pupil of the school. This isn't the first First Folio they've owned. As the BBC's reported, a copy found in a French archive during the preparation of an exhibition there was revealed to have been left there during a school trip back in the mid eighteenth century. That book is featured in BBC Radio 3 documentary which visits Folios and considers their history.
The Second, Third and Fourth are in Blackburn Museum's own collection. Blackburn rope manufacturer Robert Edward Hart collected hundreds of ancient manuscripts which he gave to the museum in the mid-1940s for the enjoyment of the local public. The Hart Collection turned my head when I was last at Blackburn as part of the public art collection tour and even without the Shakespeare's displayed nearby, despite the frustrations listed above it is spectacular.
Seeing the four of them together is a remarkable experience, the publication history of the Folios in four glass boxes with the tops of the books pointing towards the middle. The First (if you'll excuse the nicknames) is open on Martin Droeshout's portrait of Shakespeare and the title page, the second on Milton's epitaph, the third on the opening page of Pericles to highlight its addition in that volume and the Fourth on the title page proclaiming the inclusion of seven new plays.
Each is accompanied by an explanatory label. The Third is especially rare because plenty of the original copies perished in the Great Fire of London. There's also the matter of how that and the Fourth have the apocryphal additions all of which, with the exception of Pericles, do not show any sign of having been written by Shakespeare no matter what it says in big bold letters at the front (though given their attribution during his lifetime you can see why they'd be mistaken) (ish).
These Folios despite their posthumous publication, retain a certain awe, because of what they mean, relics of an earlier age, remarkable objects. What I did notice is how similar they are despite there being fifty years between the First and Fourth. The quality of printing and the page are roughly the same despite the gap between spanning the same chronological real estate as the whole history of Doctor Who. We didn't even have home computers in 1963.
Near the beginning of my visit, the curator of the exhibition was attending to the display cases and was chatting to two older female visitors and because I genuinely didn't know, I asked her if she knew if the later folios were still sold as piles of pages by the bookseller to be bound by the purchaser themselves or if they were being hard bound by then. She wasn't sure, but them the other visitors were intrigued as to where the question came from. I explained.
Then, they wondered, did I know anything about Shakespeare's family which led to some consideration of whether Shakespeare's family originated in Lancashire. I busked. I didn't know. But that led on to more questions about whether Shakespeare himself had visited the area and I led into the missing years and the possibility he was part of a touring company which led on to another question about iambic pentameter and then another and ...
In my element, the information flowing out of me, as the questions turned from facts to opinions. What's your favourite play? Do you agree with modern dress? Do you think the Globe production of The Merchant of Venice should have the conversion scene added. At one point I was explaining the origins of Hamlet's bad quarto, words, words, words, years of reading about Shakespeare becoming words, words, words.
It felt great and even though I'm really no expert, I had to look up Martin Droeshout's name before slotting it in above, there's something quite empowering (and I know that's not the right word but I'm a bit tired) about finding out that you're actually capable of talking about a subject within which you're interested and seemingly in a way which hopefully isn't boring. "You should be here all the time" they said, "In case people have questions."
The Bard at Blackburn: A Unique Display of Shakespeare’s First Four Folios runs until 31st August. Admission Free.
TV The Guardian has a piece listing European television shows and friends, there are few formats here which wouldn't work spectacularly well in the UK. Blokken's a perfect Richard Osman vehicle. Alt For Norge looks like something Channel 4 could put into the Gogglebox slot and here's the BBC's new Saturday night show:
SPAIN: Mi Madre Cocina Mejor Que La Tuya
Hosts Sergio Fernandez and Maria Jimenez Latorre.
That boasting title – My Mom Cooks Better Than Yours – adds a gladiatorial edge to this culinary challenge show, which recently became a sizzling sensation in Spain. Each contestant has their dear old ma on the sidelines to offer advice while they cook up a dish against the clock. If things go badly, the matriarchs can wham a “panic button”, allowing them to don their apron and wade in, at the dual cost of speeding up the timer and infuriating their offspring. Who doesn’t love family tension kept at a roiling boil?
Posted on Tuesday, June 14, 2016
Film The official Star Wars website has an interview with Greg Grunberg which includes the revelation that VHS lives - as a way of showing films on an airline:
StarWars.com: Being in Star Wars and being such a big fan from the very beginning, do you actually ever reach a point where it feels real? I mean, you see yourself in comic books and in action figure form, do you ever fear that it all might be a big elaborate prank?Delta Airlines -- keeping the low-grade image quality dream alive.
Greg Grunberg: Yeah, it’s weird, I’ve had films available on planes before that I’ve done, but I was recently flying back to L.A. from London and they’re showing Star Wars, and I actually tweeted about this because they were showing a VHS copy of The Force Awakens!
Greg Grunberg: Yes! . . . But I couldn’t believe it, so I text J.J. a picture of it and said, “Do you judge an airline by the technology they use? And if not, maybe you should.” But anyway, I have a picture on my Twitter stream and it’s with my face on the screens in the background as Snap Wexley! And that’s when it really hit me that, wow, this is real. And again, I’m not a star of the movie, but to get an action figure, a Pop! toy, to be in the comic book series, it’s just so cool.
Film It's I Married A Witch, but let's take stock.
When I began this project, back in January 2015, I knew there'd be a point when my ability to anecdote around films would become appreciatively more difficult. Honestly, I thought it would be once I'd breached the year of my birth barrier, but due to catch up and actually having seen a fair few films in my forty odd years that wasn't the case through the rest of the seventies and into the sixties.
But the slowdown has come and here we are in 1942 with I Married A Witch, a film about which I have absolutely nothing to say.
The Wikipedia page makes Veronica Lake sound like a total nightmare and also tremendous fun entirely in keeping with her on-screen character, something which her co-star and crew totally failed to reconsile.
Yet I have no words. I saw it on the iPlayer last year after a broadcast on BBC Two one weekend morning in their classic film slot. I loved it to bits and have fond memories.
Here's an introduction from Joe Dante. No one liked Veronica Lake it seems.
Looking towards the next forty odd years and so forty odd weeks of entries, I'm beginning to wonder about the extent to which I'm going to sustain this or try your patience.
Next week's film is obvious and you can expect some funny discussion of aspect ratios and the one after that is inspired by something in this post. Everything is linked together.
Apologies for this fortnight's freak out.