Monthly Archives: July 2016

David Hockney: 82 Portraits and 1 Still Life – Royal Academy

David Hockney - 82 Portraits at the Royal Academy by Marcus Cotton

There are many things a trendy Londoner can do on a Saturday night; there are exciting restaurants to try, hot West End shows to enjoy and any number of music venues, pubs, clubs and summer festivals to partake of. However, if you’re looking for something a little different then then the Royal Academy could be your new place to be. At 7pm on the biggest night out of the week while the rest of London is jostling for elbow room to eat their expensive dinner, or squeezing their wallets to afford a decent view of whichever A-List actor is treading the boards this month, you could be leisurely strolling round the new David Hockney exhibition for a mere £10 and a good 3 hours grace to take it all in.

Museum lates have become a big thing in the past couple of years with some even offering the chance to sleep there over night, and while most will open later one night per week, usually a Thursday or Friday till 8pm or 9pm, the Royal Academy (and Tate Modern) stays open till 10pm on a Friday and Saturday night, meaning while everyone you know is heading for the same tired old venues or yet another season of X-Factor, you can be starting a new trend for Saturday night gallery visits. I should note at this point, it’s only for the summer to allow more people to see its main Summer Exhibition, but who knows how influential it may be.

So over to Hockney then, and the Royal Academy has an excellent track record of exhibiting the artist’s work, particularly the stunning Bigger Picture show in 2012, comprising landscapes largely inspired by his native Yorkshire with some created using an ipad. The show was hailed for its radiance as it charted the changing seasons and it became one of the most influential exhibitions of the year. This new show isn’t quite in the same league, but it does give fascinating insights into Hockney’s use of colour, light and his social circle.

So having devoted a show to British landscapes, Hockney has returned to his beloved LA for this one, creating 82 individual portraits of his acquaintances, friends and neighbours in California. Each one is situated in exactly the same spot in his studio, against a blank wall, and uses exactly the same chair. Each sitter has been allowed to choose the position of the seat, their pose and their clothes so while there are subtle differences between them reflecting the individuality of the models, they also have a strange uniformity that is all about Hockney himself.

Each picture was created in just three days, from July 2013 to March 2016, and hung chronologically in the gallery, allowing you to see the development of the project from day one. This is essentially Hockney’s own version of Facebook and having 82 ‘friends’ is pretty respectable, especially for a 79-year old.  For the most part, these people are distinctly un-famous and none of these pieces were formally commissioned, these are very-much Hockney’s choices: “I don’t do celebrities’ he explains, ‘photography does celebrities. My friends are my celebrities.”

The quality of the portraits is debatable, they’re certainly rough given the limited timescale imposed on each one and in several places pencil lines are still visible under the paint. They’re almost impressionistic at times as sweeps of colour imply form, while perspective sometimes goes awry. There’s plenty of wonky feet and oddly shaped hands, yet sitters agree that Hockney has captured them; Edith Devaney wrote that she ‘found my likeness somehow both familiar and unfamiliar’ while Hockney replied that “I have got an aspect of you”.

But looking at them altogether, it seemed that accurate depiction wasn’t really the point – or he would surely have devoted more time to them – instead it’s the process of creation, the compiling of a substantial body of work in three years and the opportunity to play with colour that seem to be the real purpose of this show, and in that sense it is very successful.

Hockney’s palate naturally changes when in California so the deep browns and greens so prevalent in his Yorkshire landscapes, become vivid blues, greens and yellows in the American sunshine. Psychologically, people are more daring in the colour of their clothes in warmer weather so be prepared to see plenty of hot pink trousers, acid yellow shirts and orange jumpers, mixed with the more conservative navies, browns and whites that are most people’s staples. To what extent Hockney has exaggerated the original colours for effect is for us to interpret, but a reunion with all 82 sitters might be a sunglasses affair! But these colours make such an impact because Hockney pairs them with a perfect background shade of green or blue. In fact every single portrait is united by this slightly changing colour scheme – a plain wall and floor painted in a wonderful variation of shades of just green or blue that help the viewer to focus on the subject or a particular item of their clothing, such as Rita Pynoos scarlet silk skirt, artist Bing McGilvray’s startlingly yellow-green shirt or Martin Gayford’s orange jumper.

But there are plenty of pictures where the subject is wearing much more muted colours, yet still these warm background tones give a kind of animation to the subject that is at odds with their expression and reticence. Hockney’s sister Margaret and her friend Pauline look like reluctant subjects and interestingly, no one looks thrilled in these pictures either, there’s a lot of grumpy faces and some occasionally aggressive postures, suggesting the lack of comfort felt by many of the sitters. Gregory Evans’s arms folded scowling gesture speaks volumes, while designer Celia Birtwhistle perches tentatively on her chair as though needing to run away any second. One of the triumphs here is the way in which Hockney has used a huge variety of peach and pink shades to give shadow and shape to the faces he depicts and up close you can see how carefully he’s observed the way light falls across the nose and cheeks to make these faces come alive.

As you walk around this gallery you begin to pay less attention to the individuals and more to the way in which Hockney has captured their gestures and body language. Despite the odd famous name, perhaps most striking of all is the ordinariness of all of these people, for the most part painted with all the lumps and bumps of middle age. The use of colour particularly in the background takes that ordinariness and illuminates it, because as Hockney said these people are his celebrities.

It’s not Hockney’s most brilliant exhibition and if you’re looking for perfectly produced portraits then that’s not really the point of this. Instead see it as a step on the road to understanding how Hockney sees the world and will certainly give useful context for the big retrospective announced at the Tate Modern in 2017 where hopefully the Yorkshire and California work will sit side by side. The decision to see this at 7pm on a Saturday was the right one as the busy gallery rapidly emptied of people off to other things. It meant plenty of space to see the work without a crowd and time to think about it properly – so thanks to the RA (and a small number of galleries) we can make Saturday night art a real option for Londoners.

David Hockney: 82 Portraits and 1 Still Life is at the Royal Academy until 2 October. Entry is £10 and concessions are available.

From Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies – Imperial War Museum

Real to Reel - A Century of War Movies - IWM

The Imperial War Museum has a real treat for film fans, a new exhibition looking at the creation and influence of war films that brings together a huge number of props, costumes, videos and documents from the last hundred years of movie-making.  An often controversial subject, movies claiming to depict real-life events can polarise opinion frustrating historians and veterans, while patronising audiences. Yet some of the greatest films ever made were war movies, many with devoted cult followings, so from Casablanca to Black Hawk Down, Das Boot to Eye in the Sky film has often reflected the nature of modern warfare.

The parameters for this rather brilliant exhibition become clear as you go along and it’s quite strict about selecting films based only on wars that have actually occurred in the last hundred years, as well as the films – both real and fictional – made in this time. So if you’re hoping to see medieval depictions like Braveheart or the recent Macbeth, or gain insight into the big battles of the British Empire such as The Charge of the Light Brigade or Zulu then this is not the show for you. Real to Reel instead fits entirely with the museums remit to represent the wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Pushing the history aside, there’s plenty for film fans; if you want to see Mark Rylance’s 2016 BAFTA mask for Bridge of Spies, David Niven’s RAF flying jacket from A Matter of Life and Death, Marlene Dietrich’s ‘entertaining the troops’ dress, James McAvoy’s Atonement army uniform, an original chair from Rick’s bar in Casablanca or Clarke Gable’s trench-coat then this show has it all and more. Taking a largely chronological approach we walk through the World Wars first, grouping together examples of films made about them at any time since. Initially the layout is like a store room piled high with boxes, reels and packages – reminiscent actually of the layout of the Barbican’s James Bond exhibition a few years’ back – a stage set in a way to showcase the individual items which include the costumes mentioned above, digital screens showing excerpts from the films, screenplays, stills, director’s letters and corresponding testimony from the IWM archives for the periods examined.

Given the recent splurge of commemoration activity, naturally we start with The Battle of the Somme a landmark piece of early film-making that gave people at home a chance to see what the Western Front looked like for the first time. Although parts of it were staged, it does show wounded and dying men, the dangerous environment full of shells, craters and fear, and, from a distance, men genuinely engaged in combat. It sets the scene for the rest of the programme as we learn about the purpose of war films both as patriotic drivers made during actual conflicts to rally morale, as well as reflections on the way in which particular conflicts have shaped British and American consciousness. The fully fictional accounts soon follow, from Kubrick’s Paths of Glory with original set drawings from Bond designer Ken Adams, to Lawrence of Arabia, as well as costumes and a flag from the recent Warhorse movie, the First World War has been a popular focus for films throughout the last 100 years.

Understandably, however, it is the Second World War that takes up the most room here and seems to have been the greatest inspiration for film-makers. There are several reasons for this, key among them is the idea that by 1939, film had become an important medium for propaganda and morale, so while the art was in its infancy during the Great War, many movies were made in both the UK and America to promote the cause. In addition, of course, this war had a greater effect on the USA than its predecessor, so naturally Hollywood both then and since has spent considerable resource attempting to comprehend and honour it.

We learn how several major stars joined-up to fight while continuing to make films and hold concerts, showcasing the costumes mentioned above for Niven, Gable and Dietrich along with their stories including how Dietrich gave up her citizenship rather than perform for the Nazi cause. Nearby on a giant cinema screen are some interpretations of the 1944 D-Day landings with the combat sections of several films contrasted to show us how differently the war has been interpreted in different decades. Saving Private Ryan is one of those included and in a case nearby you can see Tom Hanks’s costume from the film along with memorabilia from comparable D-Day movies.

From here on the chronological framework for the exhibition fluctuates somewhat because next up is an interpretation of the Dunkirk retreat from 1940 using Joe Wright’s 2007 film Atonement which includes probably one of the best tracking shots ever seen in a combat movie as we follow the hero Robbie (played by James McAvoy) and his friends along the beach. The shoreline is packed with men awaiting rescue, some enjoying the faded glory of the fairground rides, some slumped exhaustedly on the ground, and the shot, shown here in full, is compelling, eye-opening and strangely beautiful. Nearby, is McAvoy’s army uniform worn in these scenes along with a brilliant short video interview with Wright and his designer Sarah Greenwood discussing how they found the location, dressed it and prepared for the sequence. In a microcosm, this small section is why this exhibition is so successful, because it shows you the piece of film, tells you how it was made with passionate care and attention to detail so notable of modern filmmakers, and offers you a bone fide bit of Hollywood glamour with a costume worn by a movie star.

There are some final display cases on character which feel a little under prepared in comparison but cover some of the Vietnam films and Where Eagles Dare, as well as an excellent ultra-modern video with trailers and interviews for recent hits including Zero Dark Thirty and Eye in the Sky. It ends where it began with a warning that war movies are often highly controversial and glamorised versions of history that can be unreliable. But the minute the marketing machine goes into production the cultural impact of these films is inescapable. Walking around the final anteroom that contains posters, memorabilia and replicas it’s hard to disagree. The soundtrack to this section is the music from classic movies like The Great Escape and Casablanca which are instantly recognisable and firmly embedded in a wider idea of the periods they represent.

War movies, then, are a dangerous thing and for many will be the only history they will ever see. And while such fictions have no claim to absolute truth (the catch-all term ‘based-on’ helps with this), artistic licence can lead to considerable controversy – particularly when American films completely expunge other Allied forces from their own history. From Real to Reel is probably the Imperial War Museum’s most successful exhibition, in terms of logic, argument and content, since their Ian Fleming show in 2008. It is brilliantly executed with a persuasive argument that makes you think more deeply about the issues it raises, while enjoying a rare sweep of exciting artefacts. While plenty of films are left out what this show contains will delight military historians and film fans alike.

From Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies is at the Imperial War Museum until 8 January. Entrance is £10 and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 

Sunset at the Villa Thalia – National Theatre

Ben Miles in Sunset at the Villa Thalia - National Theatre

Going on holiday with your friends can be a difficult business; how do you cope when some of you want to lay on the beach for five days, while others want to see every historic site / market / cobbled backstreet your destination has to offer. The decision to share your few precious days of relaxation with other people can be the most stressful choice you ever make. Imagine how much more awkward that becomes if you strike up a friendship with people you meet abroad and can’t seem to shake for the rest of your trip. Akin to a holiday romance that goes sour, somehow these people just don’t get the hint and return with you, year after year to the same place.

Alexi Kaye Campbell’s new play Sunset at the Villa Thalia deals with this dilemma but set against the backdrop of Greece’s changing political landscape of the 1960s and 70s. At heart, this is a play about betrayal and how the four main characters undertake acts of treachery partly against each other but primarily against the country they claim to love, its people and ultimately their own middle class notions of propriety. Charlotte and Theo are Brits renting a beautifully positioned but slightly rundown home in Greece. He’s a playwright and she’s an actress, here for the summer where Theo is enjoying a purple patch of creativity. Randomly in town they meet Harvey and June, an American couple with a shady side, she’s a bit of a bimbo, he’s a skilled manipulator, controlling all the events and people around him, but why? In the space of a decade the two couples meet for almost the first and last times, where the clash of morality leads to some uncomfortable self-realisation for the British pair.

The play itself is considerably less heavyweight than its promotion suggests and one that uses the 1967 military coup as a mere backdrop to explore the middle class angst of some holidaying interlopers.  It’s not pure froth by any means and attempts to get to grips with the ways in which external forces have shaped the political, economic and cultural landscape of Greece, but its character-driven focus on the four people onstage (and it only really focuses on two of them properly) means the story of Greece and its people is driven into the background. Don’t be fooled by the serious-looking chronology on their website outlining the 20th Century history of Greece that implies this play will be a Captain Correlli’s Mandolin for the 70s (the book not the awful film), sadly the context is largely irrelevant and we’re left to draw meaning from the primary interaction of British and American protagonists instead.

This is absolutely Ben Miles’s play and he is having a particularly good run of form at the moment. Many among the theatre community will attest that his Cromwell was the equal of Mark Rylance, and also incredibly challenging given he had to perform both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies in rep in Stratford, London and on Broadway, and while the shows themselves were a little lacklustre his performance was reason enough to go. Likewise he stole the show in the recent BBC Hollow Crown series with a devilish turn as Somerset intriguing at the court of Henry VI. Here he plays Harvey the insalubrious American who worms his way into the home and lives of the British couple. He has an undefined government role which gives him inside information on a forthcoming military coup, allowing him to make defining economic decisions for the group. For much of the early play Miles makes him an uncomfortable presence, somewhere between geniality and outright threat, we know he’s not all he seems but nothing about his bonhomie betrays any darker intentions. Is it just the awkwardness of a first meeting or is there something more calculating… the ambiguity is delightful.

In Act One Harvey is a man in total control, drop him into any situation and he will manipulate the players to behave as they should. It is his verve that talks his British hosts into buying the villa after sensing the desperation of the Greek owners who are emigrating to Australia for a better life. And knowing what’s coming, he secures the deal for a fraction of what it should be worth. But Act Two, set 10 years later gives him a chance to reveal a different side. Though not sympathetic, he is someone who thinks carefully about the decisions he’s making and checks their consequences – something the Brits fail to do for all their moralising about fairness and decency. Miles’s Harvey at least is honest about his approach to business and for all Charlotte’s disdain her well-meaning actions turn out to be the most thoughtless of all.

Staying with the Americans, Elizabeth McGovern plays Harvey’s wife June, essentially a bimbo who is the trophy by his side. Both spouses are chronically underwritten so we never really understand what attracts the sweet but rather empty-headed June to her secretive husband. And I have to confess to being somewhat perplexed by the casting of McGovern in this role. She’s a fine actress and does her best with it but throughout she betrays a greater intelligence than the character should actually have, one that ultimately makes no sense given her lack of decisive action at any point. McGovern’s June is likeable, sweet and later emits an interesting fear of her husband, but the underlying sense of intelligence McGovern brings to all her characters doesn’t quite accord with June’s actions or her decision to remain wilfully in the dark about Harvey’s true nature.

The British couple are equally frustrating; Pippa Nixon’s Charlotte is the moral guardian of the piece and its sensible centre. More than any other character, she oozes middle class respectability and guilt, showing great deference to the Greek owners of the house she’s renting, while openly watchful of Harvey’s threat to her own comfortable world. The text references an attraction between Harvey and Charlotte which doesn’t really exist in performance, but the scenes between Nixon and Miles as they battle for supremacy and the last word are the best in the production. What is frustrating about her as a character is that she feels like a cipher for the playwright’s own views on the external exploitation of Greece a lot of the time, but despite her evident mistrust of Harvey is very easily talked into buying the Villa Thalia without proper consideration. There is also a prissiness to her that makes her difficult to empathise with in Act Two, so when she’s forced to realise her less than blameless conduct it’s surprisingly satisfying to see her brought down a peg or two.

Her husband Theo (Sam Crane) has pretty much nothing to do apart from set the context for the couple being in Greece – for the creative inspiration – and to be the driving force behind buying the cheap house. Like June, Theo’s character needs more meat, particularly given the supposed attraction between his wife and Harvey which never comes between them, while the two Greek characters, a father and daughter, are little more than pen portraits of people in need, torn between a new life and preserving their historic legacy. Act Two also has two children who have little importance to the plot but the decision to give a pre-pubescent actress a bikini and put her stage brother in small trunks is a controversial and uncomfortable one. Neither of the adult women wears just a bikini and the men reveal no flesh at all, so having the children do it is unnecessary – it would be easy enough to imply swimming in other ways.

Sunset at the Villa Thalia is not an awful show by any means, and in many ways it’s an enjoyable night at the theatre. There’s nothing wrong with a lightweight play that tells a story about the drama between two sets of semi-strangers and offers some enjoyable performances, not least from Miles. But it doesn’t address the issues it claims to, and could have had considerably more depth by better situating the plot in the turbulence of recent Greek history, and by properly fleshing out the characterisation of the secondary players. Campbell’s play may make you think twice before befriending seemingly charming strangers abroad, but it’s not going to teach you much about modern Europe.

Sunset at the Villa Thalia is at the National Theatre until 4 August and tickets start at £15. It’s also part of the National’s Friday Rush promotion releasing £20 tickets for the week ahead at 1pm.

Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care – Science Museum

Wounded Exhibition - Science Museum

“Is there anything new to learn about the First World War, don’t we know everything already” I was once asked at an interview. One of the most positive aspects of the raft of Commemoration events that have emerged in the last two years – from exhibitions, plays, books, stories and other engagement activities – is this diversity of war experience that has, really for the first time, contextualised the terrible experience of soldiers with other contributors to the war. This has incorporated battle zones beyond the Western Front and life at home, as well as exhibitions on the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy which were my own research focus. All of this has given the public a much wider sense of what the war meant and its far reaching effects on society.

Adding to this welcome new crop of voices is a brilliant new exhibition at the Science Museum focusing on the medical profession during and shortly after World War One, and the development of treatments and facilities to help injured servicemen both at the Front and in the UK. The main section is divided into three colour-code blocks to aid navigation, focusing first on the physical journey of a wounded soldier from the front through the various treatment points and eventually back home to Britain if the injury was severe enough; second it looks at the scientific and technological advances in medicine that the war created and the ways in which innovation and the repurposing of old ideas took place, before finally considering the long-term work taking place at home in plastic surgery, prosthetics and support for mental breakdown.

But the exhibition opens with a brief introduction to the period before injury and we’re shown examples of shells and shrapnel that were designed to cause maximum damage and destruction to the trench systems of the Western Front and the human flesh within it. The randomness of war is something that comes across strongly and a small display of “lucky charms” and amulets is a powerful example of how much reliance soldiers placed on concepts of chance and mystical protection in a highly uncertain and dangerous environment. Nearby is a bloodied stretcher which crucially sets the scene for this exhibition – it is the first artefact we encounter and would have been the wounded soldier’s first contact with medical assistance.

Round the corner and the orange-painted display cases chart the process of moving injured men to various treatment stages depending on the severity of their wound – including the roles of Regimental Aid Posts and Casualty Clearing Stations – a structure that was overwhelmed by the 400,000 casualties received during the first 140 days of the Somme campaign the exhibition tells us, which led to numerous inventions to speed the transportation of wounded men. Items such as the Colt Stretcher, a hammock-like structure, made manoeuvring easier in narrow trench systems than its flat-wide predecessor, while further up the line motorised ambulances and wheeled transportation trolleys were increasingly common in the wake of the 1916 campaigns. One of the best exhibits is a scale model of a transport train kitted out with bunk-beds that can be flattened against the wall for moving masses of men at once. This section is a meaningful and well executed explanation of the process of developing treatment offered to men at the Front.

The blue section has a slightly unclear starting point but offers a number of mini-stories of progress in the development of particular scientific advances. There’s another incredible model of a complex and tight trench system showing wounded men being evacuated while others are being treated on the spot in dugouts or resting on fire steps. You can move around this section in any order and looking at the development of equipment of blood transfusions, field dressings with iodine given to each man in his pack, splints for broken legs, gas masks and protectors, and oxygen masks used by multiple people at once. Each area focuses on the scientist or inventor who developed these vital instruments, giving them a necessary moment of recognition in the history of medical technology still in use today, as well as reminding us that the Allies were engaged in all kinds of vital war work, not all of it wearing a uniform on the battlefield.

The final section will be the hardest for some to see, although a very necessary part of our understanding of the consequences of the First World War. It looks at rehabilitation and surgical innovation to help those permanently disabled or disfigured by the conflict, returning home to a society largely unprepared to see what war had done to its citizens. Most moving and fascinating are the work of Henry Tonks whose pastel sketches show mutilated faces transformed by plastic surgery. Tonks worked with surgeon Harold Gillies – whose story was dramatised in a so-so 2014 play called Dr Scroggy’s War at The Globe – in wards devoted to facial repairs in Cambridge and Sidcup. There are also examples of prosthetic limbs including legs and arms with replaceable hand sections depending on the sort of manual work the individual needed to do and whether they could afford a slightly more elaborate full hand. As with much innovation in the First World War a single change would have a knock-on effect for other developments and here we see examples of new cutlery and crockery developed for those with prosthesis.

As an addendum to the main exhibition, there is a short display at the end focusing on modern conflict in Afghanistan which cleverly draws a direct comparison between some of the medical items and personal charms from the First World War with similar pieces still used in combat zones today. As with aeroplane technology almost everything it could do were conceived from 1914-1918, and what came next was largely refinement, much is true of the medical innovations on display here, really emphasising how crucial the war was in setting in motion things we take for granted today.

Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care is a fascinating and welcome addition to programme of diverse and inclusive events honouring the Great War, and one that is not to be missed. Much work has gone into coordinating pieces from other museums including the Imperial War Museum (whose own rather lacklustre new galleries launched events in 2014), the Wellcome Collection and several medical museums. The timely launch of this exhibition, a century on from the Somme campaign, captures a new wave of interest in the war, demonstrated last week by Rufus Norris and Jeremy Deller’s moving We Were Here project placing volunteers dressed as First World War soldiers all over the country, each handing out a card with the name of a man who died, to mark the anniversary of the breath-taking brutality of the first day of the Somme, as well as the poignant all-night Vigil and services at Westminster Abbey which included two beautiful and evocative readings of original testimony by actor Luke Thompson (Reading 1 from 33 minutes in and Reading 2). So the answer to that original question is of course we don’t know everything about the First World War. And with the range of Commemoration activities that have grown up around this 100 year recognition touching on all kinds of experience of the Great War, it’s clear that there is still so much more to learn.

Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care is at the Science Museum (first floor Mezzanine) until 15 January 2018. Entrance is free. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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