London Exhibitions At Last: Paula Rego and Jean Dubuffet

One of the things I have missed most during the coronavirus pandemic has been London and one of the things I enjoyed most during my London visits was going to the art and topic-based exhibitions curated there.  Last week, at last, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) visited London again for the first time since the first pandemic lockdown.  We both loved the blip out of our relatively rural semi isolation (notwithstanding our trips to Belfast and Edinburgh in the last year).

Back In London Among Its Familiar Landmarks!

During the trip, I saw two art exhibitions: one a life retrospective of Paula Rego (a contemporary Portuguese artist) at Tate Britain and the other a similar retrospective of Jean Dubuffet’s work at the Barbican (it’s now finished).  It was a welcome cultural binge.

The fundamental reason for our London trip was just to break up our routine for a couple of days.  Also, it was an opportunity to catch up with Middle Son (MS) and his partner in their new flat in Haggerston.  They recently moved out of their stop-gap rental of our flat in the Barbican, so that was available to us.  Although the flat is now bare and looking a little tired, it remains a very comfortable, central and convenient bolt hole for this sort of visit.  We are very lucky to still have it until we finally sell this retirement nest egg, probably, next year.

After driving up in our e-car (which in combination with the flat made the trip itself near free of incremental cost), the weather was kind enough to enable us to make a lengthy walk along the Thames Embankment to Tate Britain. 

The Thames: Bridge, Skyline And Unused Tourist Boats

There, the exhibition of Paula Rego’s work was substantial and comprehensive.  What I love about these elite retrospective exhibitions is that one can trace the development of the artists thinking over time while seeing the consistent themes beneath and between the changes in technique and subject matter.  Much of her work depicted the sexuality, strength and resilience of women in hardship; the Dog Women series was an example. 

Paula Rego: ‘Dog Woman’ (1994)

I enjoyed the exhibition a lot but suspect that was as much a function of the novelty of being in a classy exhibition as it was the art.

Paula Rego: ‘The Artist In Her Studio’ (1993)

The exhibition of French contemporary artist Jean Dubuffet’s work was also chronologically ordered to enable understanding of development of his ideas.  The work on show was more varied than that of Rego and I really only liked some of the series of work.  Again, though, some aspects of his style were satisfyingly constant – not least the strange, bloated heads on the figures in many of the works and the use of natural materials with unusual paint type combinations.

Jean Dubuffet: ‘Caught In The Act’ (1961)

The Barbican presented the works very nicely.  Some of the more colourful pieces were lit so they appeared luminous and the pandemic has made London art exhibitions less crowded than they were so there was plenty of room to view everything. 

Jean Dubuffet: Part Of His Performance Art ‘Coucou Bazar’ (1971)

However, although the Barbican tried, I didn’t really understand the Art Brut movement that Dubuffet first named and for which he was a lead exponent of through much of his career.  Maybe the video at the end of the exhibition that explained his counter-cultural aims would have been better placed at the start of the exhibition alongside Dubuffet’s quote (which sounded about right):

“Art should always make you laugh a little and fear a little.  Anything but bore”

Jean Dubuffet: ‘Les Vicissitudes’ (1977)

The weather was too nice to be indoors soaking up art exhibitions for too long.  Apart from the initial riverside walk to Tate Britain, LSW and I also tried out the new Uber riverboat service to get us back to our flat.  It was refreshing and it’s always good to see London from the perspective of the river.

Travelling By Uber Boat And More London Landmarks

We also went to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London.  We followed a newly signposted art trail (‘The Line’) south from the Park down the tangle of man-made and natural waterways leading back to the Thames. 

The area is, of course, changed out of all recognition since we lived in Bow in the 1980s.  Everywhere there are new complexes of flats but, in between, there are signs that the environment and leisure activity is being properly considered.  Certainly, the Olympic Park itself is a lot less bleak than when I last visited.  Now the planting and trees are maturing along the walkways.  I’m looking forward to visiting again and doing some more strolling around the Park and along the nearby waterways.

One Of The Sculptures Along ‘The Line’ Art Trail, East London (Thomas J. Price: ‘Reaching Out’)

LSW and I ate out at Smokestak which is an old haunt of mine and ours.  That was good but better was the dinner we had with MS and his partner at Bistrotheque.  East London seems to continue to be almost as well populated with good restaurants and cafes as ever despite the pandemic and the reduced customer numbers.  Drinking holes on the way to Bistrotheque at Signature Brew and, on the way back, at Ombra were conspicuously quiet.  But that just meant that we could get prime tables and attentive service; very nice!

I have a couple of long and often postponed gigs to see in September and October in London and, at some point, LSW and I will need to decorate the Barbican flat to make it ready for sale.  Those should all be opportunities to spend more time in London – even if these visits become swansongs – to take in more of the excellent exhibitions and art and architecture trails there.

The Olympic (West Ham United) Stadium and The Orbit

Meanwhile there is the significant and emotional matter of my Mum’s funeral.  Thankfully she died peacefully.  After a year or so in which she had, regretfully, to come to terms with being in a care home (a very good one as it turned out), in which she contracted Covid, and then in which she gradually faded, her passing was no shock.  Nonetheless, Mum’s funeral will be a sad closing of a long and fruitful life.  There will be tears and then we are compelled to move on with our memories.

Squeezing In The Football

A couple of week-ends ago, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I went up to London to stay with a couple who have been friends of ours for a few decades.  They live in Chiswick and the territory is familiar to us since we lived for several years in the 1990’s in nearby Kew.  The stay with them was a chance to catch up on our respective lives and those of our offspring, to observe recent neighbourhood changes, to share views of current issues and re-discover a couple of walks that we haven’t done for years.  We had a great time.

We went up to London on the Friday morning and parked outside our old house in Kew.  There was then time for me to visit Tate Britain and see the William Blake exhibition there, and for LSW to head into central London to peruse the shops there.

Jacob And The Angel By Sir Jacob Epstein

Jacob And The Angel By Sir Jacob Epstein At Tate Britain

It seems that William Blake was somewhat of a mystery during his life-time and remains so today.  I enjoyed the cleverly displayed books of illustrated poems and his apparent pre-occupation with the darker aspects of myth and religion.  I liked the combination of big works with grand gestures and delicate pieces with intricate engraving.  The narrative of his topsy-turvy life was interesting too but, for me, too much of his motivation was left unexplained – perhaps because there is no definitive view on what he was trying to achieve.

William Blake Engravings At Tate Britain

William Blake Engravings At Tate Britain: ‘Christian Drawn Out Of The Slough By Help’, ‘I Sought Pleasure And Found Pain’ and ‘House of Death’

As it happens, I also struggled with finding a real point to the popular and much publicised ‘Year 3’ exhibit by Steve McQueen in the main hall of the Tate.  This was a huge display of hundreds of traditional school class photos showing all Year 3 children in London schools.  I confess I didn’t ‘get it’ although I understand that many of the participating classes will now visit Tate Modern to see their photo and also, hopefully, kindle a love of art.

Steve McQueen's 'Year 3' Photographs At Tate Modern

Steve McQueen’s ‘Year 3’ Photographs At Tate Modern

On the Friday evening, our male football loving host and I eschewed the possibility of going to see his football team play an evening game.  Instead, we relaxed over excellent food and rather too much good wine and chatted.  However, I had forewarned the company that I was committed to seeing my team – Forest Green Rovers (FGR) – and two of our sons at Leyton (Orient) the following afternoon.

On the Saturday morning, following a satisfying carbohydrate and coffee breakfast, we went, fully fuelled up, to The Wallace Collection in Manchester Square.  I had visited this lovely, free museum earlier this year when seeing a Henry Moore exhibition there.  This time, I focused on the paintings on the first floor which I didn’t remember from my earlier visit.  What was especially interesting about this was that several were of Venice which LSW and I had visited only a week or so previously.  The paintings by Canaletto and his school of artists, brought home what we had felt during our Venice visit: that Venice has hardly changed in centuries.

Venice Cityscapes By Canaletto and School Of Canaletto In The Wallace Collection

I left the others at the Wallace Collection, with their plans for lunch and a visit to the Antony Gormley exhibition at the Royal Academy, and headed east to grimier terrain in Leyton.  It was great to meet up with Middle Son (MS), Youngest Son (YS) and one of his friends there.  The game itself was thrilling and FGR achieved a hard fought and rather fortunate 4-2 win.

Forest Green Players Celebrating Their Win At Leyton Orient

Forest Green Players Celebrating Their Win At Leyton Orient

We left the ground buzzing with football excitement and the sons started talking about seeing the late afternoon Premiership football game in a nearby pub somewhere.  Two of our party were sporting distinctive FGR shirts so prudence was forcing them to think of pubs away from Leyton where Orient fans wouldn’t be drowning their sorrows.  They settled on Bethnal Green a couple of tube stops away.  That was on my way back to the hospitality in Chiswick so I went with them.

I love football (you may have noticed!) and I wanted to both spend more time with YS and MS and see the Premiership game too.  So, almost without really consciously deciding anything I sleepwalked with them out of the tube, out of the station and into a grotty but TV-equipped pub to watch the game.

As the first half progressed I wondered about the second pint of (awful) beer and whether I could stay a bit longer without annoying LSW and our hosts back in Chiswick.  My decision making was forced by a text on our family group-chat from LSW who was wondering where I was.  While I was pondering a response MS, YS and his friend burst out laughing.  YS had already posted a picture of me, clearly in a pub and looking at the text on my phone.  I was rumbled!

I sloshed the second pint down and left the pub at half time.  I arrived back in Chiswick in time to have got away with squeezing in the football.  I settled back into our hosts’ wonderful hospitality, still excited by my team’s win and armed with news from MS and YS.

Next day was calmer.  We had a relaxed walk around Chiswick down by the Thames and topped up with alcohol at a local pub before indulging in Sunday lunch.  Good times indeed!

Chiswick Views

London Variety Part II

As planned, we are in London again.  We are treating the week as something of a holiday and the weather is so warm it certainly feels like could be in Madrid or Rome.  We are effectively being tourists in our capital city and are working our way through a plan of food, music and art.  We are also taking the opportunity to catch up with Middle Son (MS), stay in his new flat with its wonderous view of central, southern and northern London, and even to cook in his kitchen.

View Of The City And Canary Wharf From MS And His Girlfriends' Flat

View Of The City And Canary Wharf From MS And His Girlfriends’ Flat

I have been cooking increasingly often in retirement and, even more surprisingly, am cooking increasingly vegetarian meals.  Earlier this week, we further adopted MS’s flat as a sort of Air BnB by inviting over Eldest Son (ES) and his girlfriend.  I cooked a meal of bulgar wheat, tomatoes, aubergine and lemon and mint yogurt that I have been perfecting at home.  Admittedly, this time, I added a few slices of (probably farmed!) salmon. So, not vegetarian after all, but we are reducing meat intake slowly.  Anyway, it was a lovely evening watching the sun go down over Alexandra Palace.

Sunset Over Walthamstow

Sunset Over Walthamstow

During this London visit, we have also stayed with Youngest Son (YS) and his girlfriend in their new flat in Hackney.  We had planned to see an American guitarist called William Tyler with them at Cafe Oto which is one of my favourite music venues.  Unfortunately, YS’s wasn’t well and so only Long-Suffering Wife and I made it to the gig.

We got there early enough for front row seats and the performers and music were as intimate as they always seem to be at Café Oto.  William Tyler’s technique was awesome and, despite him not having a band or vocals (apart from some amusing inter-song banter), I loved the whole experience.

William Tyler At Cafe Oto

William Tyler At Cafe Oto

LSW and I have also visited (in my case, revisited) the Temple of Mithras in the new Bloomberg Building in Walbrook.  I first saw this in February last year and was impressed by the classy presentation of this ancient monument – discovered during demolition after the Second World War and relocated to its current underground site a few years ago.  The information about the cult that worshipped here in Roman times is scarce and the ruins themselves are sparse.  However, the free show (but you have to book) makes the most of a little.  The lighting is very clever and it engenders an atmosphere of mystery and eeriness.  I recommend the 30 minute investment of time.

The Temple Of Mithras

The Temple Of Mithras

We then went on to Tate Britain. Our intention was to see the Frank Bowling exhibition but, as we had with the Van Gogh exhibition at Tate Modern a couple of weeks before, we made the rookie error of turning up a day after the exhibition had closed!  Never mind; the Tate always has great art to feast on.

I was relatively controlled and focused on just 8-10 rooms including those housing the Turners.  I do love his portrayal of outdoor light, especially in his later, almost abstract work.  I particularly enjoy his seascapes which either capture the energy of windswept skies and seas, or the calm of his famous sunsets.

Turner's 'Fishing Boats Bringing A Disabled Ship Into Port Ruysdael' (1844)

Turner’s ‘Fishing Boats Bringing A Disabled Ship Into Port Ruysdael’ (1844)

On this visit I also enjoyed some of the British abstract art from the 1950s including Howard Hodgkin, the paintings of the St Ives crowd and the Bloomsbury Group, and the Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth sculptures.  There was also a rather odd but interesting new installation of old machines – posing as art – in the main hall.  This was called Asset Strippers and was created by Mike Nelson as an ode to the last days of the industrial revolution in Britain.  Given the UK economy focus on services, it did provide a whiff of nostalgia perhaps.

Howard Hodgkin's 'Dinner At West Hill' (1966)

Howard Hodgkin’s ‘Dinner At West Hill’ (1966)

Moore and Hepworth

Later the same day, I revisited the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow that I went to earlier this month in the midst of MS’s early recovery from his accident.  Then, I couldn’t concentrate much on what I was seeing.  This time I spent longer in the temporary exhibition of Madge Gill’s work and the permanent history of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement he founded with a few of his early friends and business partners.

Embroidery By Madge Gill

Embroidery By Madge Gill (Victorian/Edwardian Artist From Walthamstow)

The portrayal of William Morris, his life, his work and his influences and influence is well structured and compelling.  He was an artist, designer, colourist (fascinated by natural dyes), writer, printer of books, retailer, environmentalist, and, from the age of 50 a raging socialist activist.  He fitted so much into his life and his concern for social issues and the environment, particularly after he visited Iceland, was remarkable.

Honeysuckle Print Wallpaper - Typical William Morris

Honeysuckle Print Wallpaper – Typical William Morris

I ended up liking him and want to find out more about him (and his close colleague John Ruskin).  He seems to have been a man ahead of his time on social and environmental issues and but also, in his hankering for past styles and craftsmanship, a man out of time in the century of industrial revolution.  It is great that the Gallery, like Tate Modern and the Temple of Mithras, is free to visitors – that is in line with Morris’s beliefs: “I do not want art for a few any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.

William Morris Gallery

William Morris Gallery

Following so much cultural input, LSW, MS and I headed off for a local pizza at Sodo Pizza which was sufficiently wheel chair friendly and excellent.  I’m enjoying my stay in Walthamstow!

More Retirement Tourism

The trip to London was a great success; we crammed a lot in without ever feeling rushed. It felt a bit weird staying in the Barbican flat (and sleeping on the sofa-bed) having given this up at ‘mates rates’ to Eldest Son (ES) and girlfriend when I retired. But it was lovely to see that the flat is now a proper home rather than just a place to park myself week-nights while I worked in London.

The raison d’etre for the London visit was to have dinner with ES, his wonderful girlfriend and his girlfriend’s lovely Italian/Palestinian parents. I even got to practice about twenty words of Italian! Also during the 36 hours in London, we got to see old friends from when we lived in Kew, caught up with Middle Son (MS), and even got to pop in to see LSW’s sister and nieces.

I also got a bit of culture in. LSW and I went to Tate Britain to see the Rachel Whiteread exhibition – a collection of her ‘sculptures’ of ‘forgotten spaces’ such as the 100 spaces under chairs or the insides of water bottles. It didn’t really grip me but I’m glad we got to see the exhibition and the overall colour scheme was appealing.

Then on Monday, while LSW was shopping, I went to the BP Portrait Award Exhibition at the National Portrait gallery. Until the rooms were swamped by hordes of schoolchildren, this was peaceful, inspiring and, although I am no great judge, high quality. I especially liked the paintings that were so meticulous that they looked like photos – although I got to wonder whether a photo might have been as good. I suspect I missed the point but enjoyed it anyway.

IMG_3775

Finalists at BP Portrait Awards 2017 at the National Portrait Gallery

LSW and I also squeezed in a rather leisurely lunch. Why can’t we have, in our part of Gloucestershire, restaurants as simple, effective and of seemingly effortless high quality as Rochelle Canteen. It’s not hard to get the formula right; the restaurant is in an old bike shed adjoining a former school for goodness sake! It was perfect for us yesterday.

I’m weaning myself off London but it was exciting to go back.