Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Laura White at the Spacex Gallery

Laura White’s exhibition at the Spacex Gallery in Exeter tells us We Can Have It All. Variety seems to be a key element. The main display gallery is turned into a sculptural hall which makes play with the grandeur of cavernous museums and galleries, the churchlike spaces in which Culture is reverently displayed. The objects here arrayed reflect the kind of things you might expect to find in those hallowed halls, but irreverently fashioned from cheap and throwaway materials and shot through with artificially bright and cheekily cheerful primary colours. White’s sculptures are displayed on plinths of varying shapes and, most importantly, height. The varying elevations granted each object suggest a competitive jostling for position and attention, for a symbolic place of prominence betokening a pinnacle of influence and critical approval. The different levels of the plinths also help to create an overall panoramic view from either end of the hall, and to provide contrasting groupings as the viewer threads their way through the maze of objects. Some of these objects are built up from the stuff of moulded plastic mass production, around which clay, putty or plasticene has been built up. The thumbprints in the malleable material marking the shaping of human hands contrast nicely with the smooth and shiny surfaces of the roundly smooth plastic, whose moulding has been entirely the work of machines. Traces of the plastic objects which are the structural foundations show through. There’s the barrel of a toy gun, the curving bowl of a serving spoon, the wheel of a toy car, the arc of partially exposed carpet bowling ball globes, the cantilevered handle of a colander, the grinning teeth and bulging eyes of toy animals and the contoured spouts of watering cans. A bright canary of a yellow lemon squeezer seems to diffuse downwards through the teetering assemblage atop which it precariously perches. The symmetrical spouts of two watering cans, one green, one orange, which form the spreading ‘wings’ of a sculpture similarly infect its colouration, lending its upper half a dipped marbled mottling. The unnaturally bright colours of all these things stand out against the white and grey of the clays in which they are embedded. It’s like some amalgam dug up in the far future from a 20th/21st century geological strata, veined with the non-degradable detritus of the modern throwaway age, has been used as a sculptural material. White reclaims these plastic materials which are so ubiquitous as to be invisible and looks at them afresh, enjoying their clearly unnatural colours and contours. By layering more traditionally sculptural forms, redolent of more skilled sculptural techniques, over the top she both makes the case for the continuing relevance of sculpture in an age of mass manufacture, and creates a witty (and fun) sense of tension between the mass-produced and the artfully created – between high and low culture.

The high culture of art history is referred to throughout, set into jumbled juxtaposition, classical, religious and modernist tendencies all thrown together in close potted history proximity, staring and pointing at one another. There’s an element of light mockery to these allusions, pastiches which bring the reverence and mystification accorded to much art down to size. A rounded, hollowed out form resembles a model of a Barbara Hepworth sculpture, but the plastic objects which form the basis of those curves belie the inspiration of the natural world which was so central to her work. Another work which mixes white plaster like material with colourful inserted objects brings Miro’s sculptures to mind – the toys embedded here seeming oddly appropriate. A brightly unwinding spiral helter skelter may allude to Vladimir Tatlin’s Constructivist dream model for the Monument to the Third International, but its vivid red is more fairground colouring than post-revolutionary Soviet Russian heraldry. The twisting vines Medieval and Renaissance crosses, which would have been wrought out of gold, are here rendered in grey putty-like clay, their decorative detailing created not by fine filigreed work and embedded jewels but by the impressions of plastic fruit shapes and the faces of children’s plastic toys. There are geometrical sculptures like something by Gaudier-Brzeska (but made out of scraps of wood) and spindly iron figures in a post-war British style. A CD rack covered in different colours of plasticene (or blu-tac?) even becomes a bit of miniaturised minimalism, a compact Donald Judd piece for the mantelpiece. Classical works are given back their colour, and relieved of their ‘ideal’ forms. A mossily bearded Ptolemaic bust is given a blue and green mottled patina, as if it has been copiously crapped on by pigeons producing polychromatic birdlime. This tends to undermine the dignified philosophical regard of the sculpted features, indicating a person of deep seriousness and importance – making it all the more funny, of course. Another bust, a female figure this time, is painted in dark ashen grey, with the whites of its eyes staring solemnly out. It looks like one of the living busts from Jean Cocteau’s film La Belle et La Bete. Two other classical figures are rendered in gnome-like size and placed on low-level plinths which reduce them further in comparison with the towering objects which surround them. With their rounded pot-bellies and hands resting on hips or about to scratch balls, not to mention the fact that they’re dipped in poster-paint blue and green, they are distinctly non-heroic forms. Their physiques owe more to the Smurfs than they do to some idealised vision of Adonis or Aphrodite.

The remaining room, walled off from the main gallery, is given over to three large pictures of individual sculptures, which are leaned against the wall. This seems like a bit of a missed opportunity. It’s an ideal room for projections or works which use some element of light. Nevertheless, the photographs make the scale of the pieces ambiguous. Are they really this big, or could you in fact hold each of them in the palm of your hand? Are the vases which are piled up on top of each other in a brimful celebratory tower dolls house miniatures or the actual full-sized thing? They have the look of elaborate cakes, alternately evil and impregnated with enough e-numbers to set your eyes spinning like pinwheels. One, a layered pagoda of ornamented dishes, has black spiked excrescences protruding from its surface at regular intervals, as if some deadly mould had grown from infected spores. Another monumental cupcake (or ice cream globe) is topped with a bronze sphinx with brown headdress – caramel and chocolate, perhaps. They are confections which look both tempting and revolting. I think I’d probably have to pass.

This is an accessible and enjoyable exhibition, full of colour and variety, which wears its learning lightly and is a lot of fun to wander around. It continues until 23rd February.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Underground (1928)

The bfi restoration of Anthony Asquith’s 1928 film Underground was first shown at the 2009 London Film Festival, but it has now finally made it into a handful of cinemas across the country ahead of its dvd release in the summer. It was the first film on which he received a sole directing credit, having previously been assistant director on a picture called Shooting Stars in 1926. It’s an astonishingly assured debut, fully assimilating new techniques from the continent and handling what could easily have been an overheated melodrama with sensitivity and a keen observation of character. A prefatory title card informs us that this is to be a story about ‘workaday people whose names are just Nell, Bill, Bert and Kate’. Fortunately, that snootily patronising ‘just’ is not reflected in the ensuing film. The rituals, rhythms and places of work are central to the film, and from our perspective some 8 decades on give a fascinating glimpse of the differences from (and similarities to) our own lives. Nell works in a department store, Bill as a station attendant on the underground; Bert as a power station operative, and Kate as a home-based seamstress. The story revolves around their intertwining love stories, and the passions which they arouse. Nell becomes the focus for Bill and Bert’s amatory advances, whilst Kate pines after Bert (who lives downstairs from her), who firmly rebuffs her advances (telling her that it’s all over) until it becomes convenient for him to use her. We can tell that Bert is a bad egg from the start. When we first see him, he nabs a seat which a soldier and a sailor are vying to give up for a young woman standing in the aisle. When they remonstrate with him, he merely gives them a cock-eyed ‘what are you going to do about it’ grin from beneath his broad flat cap. When we first meet Bill, on the other hand, he is standing at the bottom of an escalator helping bewildered travellers find their bearings in the underground tunnels. He even rescues a puppy which has toboganned down the central slope and reunites it with its owner.

Nell (Elissa Landi) on the elevator
The tone of the film veers between light comedy, romance, psychological drama and action thriller. The transition between these wildly disparate moods is sometimes a little awkward, but never to the extent of unbalancing the film as a whole. The actors playing the four central characters are all great. Elissa Landi’s Nell seems very modern in her gestures and looks, a very 20s character who remains relatively unfazed by the attentions she receives from the two men. Her reactions, looks and gestures are naturalistic and unaffected, effectively giving the sense of an ordinary young woman of the period. Norah Baring’s Kate is a tragic female character in a more traditionally Victorian mould, working in overworked and underpaid conditions little changed from nineteenth century and wasting her affection on a love which is clearly one-sided (and which, in true Dickensian Nancy style, is wasted on a brute). She is more exaggerated in her emotional gestures, which seem to derive from an earlier, DW Griffith era of theatrical film acting. The scene in which she realises that she has been used by Bert and begins to mentally unravel is very affecting, however, partly due to its underplayed tone. We watch her circling the room, making small adjustments to the sparse ornaments and objects which dot its bare spaces, turning a plant pot around and picking at the earth and leaves. It seems like the prelude to a more tempestuous collapse (as indeed proves to be the case). Her nervous mental energy (and the overwhelming volume of work she has to get through to earn a crust) is also ably conveyed in the ferocity with which she turns the wheel of her sewing machine.

Bill and Bert are contrasted in their manner of courting. Bert takes a direct approach, effectively stalking Nell, confronting her in her workplace and later following her along the riverfront and forcefully pushing her up against an alley wall. She pushes him away and requests he lower the barrier of his arm leaning against the bricks. When he refuses, she simply shrugs and ducks under. His rough and cocky ‘you know you want it’ approach definitively fails to impress, and suggests that Bert is really only after one thing. Bill on the other hand takes her on an omnibus ride out to a more idyllic and pastoral riverside setting on the outskirts of the city (out Twickenham way?), where they enjoy a picnic reclining beneath a solid oak tree. A ragged but winsome urchin creeping up on them with an eye on their sandwiches adds a mild element of tension, and may serve as a reminder of Bert with his flat cap. But he ends up sharing their meal and bringing the two closer together in a natural and unforced manner (as opposed to Bert’s unsubtle approach), his temporary presence hinting at a long-lasting relationship and a future family.

Bill (Brian Aherne) and Nell in the emergency stairwell
Brian Aherne, as Bill, mixes a winning hesitancy and boy next door charm and courtesy with hints of a more calculating and worldly side. This latter aspect sometimes uses the mask of innocence to its own advantage. It is he, after all, who first thwarts Bert’s pursuit of Nell by tripping him up at the foot of the escalator and then delaying him further by dusting him down with sarcastically fussy solicitude. Cyril McLaglen’s Bert is fairly open and transparent in his rough charms. There’s little guile to his character, and his casual and throwaway attitude to romance is clearly well known to the regulars at his locals, who exchange knowing glances at his mooning over his latest ‘girlfriend’. It is only after a confrontation in the significantly male environment of the pub (the only woman is the stolidly indifferent barmaid, who remains rooted to the counter throughout) that his wounded pride drives him to take reprisals against his rival, which swiftly escalate beyond his control. He does so by using Bill’s appearance of bland innocence against him, with the intention of revealing the more violent aspect of the man who tripped him up on the escalator and laid him out in the pub which lies beneath. The antagonism from this point on exists more between the two men, with the women reduced to secondary, reactive roles. They could be seen in terms of a Jekyll and Hyde split, expressions of conflicting sides of the male persona. As such, the final epic chase becomes a struggle between these normally co-existent halves which have gone to war against each other to assert dominance.

Power Underground - Edward McKnight Kauffer
If it’s taken on a literal level, the highly charged and thrillingly shot chase sequence is a coda which is jarringly out of register with the rest of the film (although very exciting in its own right). It takes us to the heights of the power station roof before descending once more to the depths of the underground in a way which connects both locales. The underground is a place apart from the regular world above, a warren of the unconscious in which normally suppressed feelings are given a tentative flicker of expression. The power station is seen to be the source of the underground’s power, and is also the symbolic representation of powerful human passions, the generating heart where they connect with full, blinding force. A similar connection was made linking machine and muscle, overground and underground in Edward McKnight Kauffer’s striking futurist-inspired Power Underground poster produced for the Underground in 1931 (one of those featured in the set of Royal Mail stamps issued to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first London underground train). The final chase feels like it could have been lifted from one of Hitchcock’s wrong man suspense thrillers. Perhaps it’s not so inappropriate, given the underlying theme of doubles and split personae which runs throughout Hitch’s oeuvre, and the tendency of his heroes to be a little bland or complacent, his antagonists often more characterful, sympathetic or even attractive (albeit psychopathic).

Chelsea Blue - Lots Road Power Station
The film is a delight for transport enthusiasts, as well as for anyone interested in the history of London. There is a good deal of location shooting which gives fascinating glimpses into the inter-war city. Bill and Nell’s trip on the top of the omnibus harks back to the ‘phantom rides’ of early cinema, in which the camera would be set up at the front of a tram or train to film the passing parade. Here, the focus is obviously on our two romantic leads, the camera facing backwards, but we do get to see the buildings receding on either side. The conductor sells them a ticket from a wooden rack of pre-prepared specimens (producing an audibly excited exclamation from one bus enthusiast in the audience). This was long before the introduction (in 1953, if you must know) of the ‘Gibson’ paper ticket-roll machines which were suspended from the conductor’s neck, with their mini-hurdy gurdy style dispensing handles and adjustable printing blocks in convenient reach at the front. Nell’s walk by the riverside during which she is accosted by Bert also offers a background picture of the working Thames, barges drifting past and the chimneys of factories and power stations belching smog-creating smoke into the London skies. We also get a panoramic view of the Thames in West London from the sloping rooftop of the Lots Road Power Station in Chelsea Creek during the climactic chase sequence, a plume of steam marking the progress of a train across the Chelsea Harbour bridge far below. Lots Road provided the electricity for the Metropolitan Line, the first underground line to be opened (in 1963, 150 years ago). It remained independent from the other lines, which were amalgamated within the dominant Underground Group, until the unification of all London transport systems within the London Passenger Transport Board, a public corporation set up in March 1933 (and better known as plain old London Transport). The underground scenes centre particularly around the escalators whose distinctive uplighting ‘torches’ seem to place them at Picadilly Circus. The station had been redesigned by London Underground architect Charles Holden and was only officially opened on the 10th December 1928, which might explain the confusion of so many of the passengers Bill has to help out. Holden would go on to design many of the distinctively moderne stations on the northern end of the Picadilly line (Arnos Grove and Southgate being particularly good examples), as well as the fabulous art deco headquarters of London Underground at 55 Broadway, which boasts sculptural reliefs by Eric Gill, Henry Moore and Jacob Epstein on its external façade. The Picadilly escalators are seen in all their glory, with their wooden treads, bronze fittings and triumphal rows of evenly spaced uplit torches.

Picadilly escalators
There’s some lovely observational comedy concerning underground etiquette (or its breaching) in the opening scenes. Acquaintances spot one another across a crowded carriage and lean over to conduct a conversation through an archway of arms. Bert reads his neighbour’s paper, much to his irritation (made visible in the traditional manner by shaking and readjusting the broadsheet), and it is pointedly thrust into his hands in roughly folded form as the other chap departs the carriage. A portly gentleman takes up a position in the aisle, holding on to the hanging knobs on either side, and Nell is hypnotised by the gentle sway of his belly as the carriage rocks in its forward rush. A policewoman (or is she a conductor?) standing stiff and erect beneath her brimmed upturned bowl of a hat repels all eye contact with her basilisk glare, sending one meek chap shrinking behind his paper after his offer of a seat is batted aside as a base insult. With the war and the female workforce which it engendered now a decade or so in the past, the idea of women in uniformed positions of authority was evidently once more a cue for wry amusement, and the use of the matronly ‘old dragon’ stereotype. She does crack a sisterly smile when Nell thwarts Bert’s advances by chucking his beloved cap away, though. There is much tactical manoeuvring involving the offering of seats and the acceptance or refusal of the offer. This tends to be a less than selfless attempt on the part of gentlemen to move nearer to an attractive young woman, or a counter move on the woman’s part to move further away. What with Bill’s use of the escalator as a means both to trip up his rival and to make initial contact with Nell, the crowded carriages and corridors of the tube seem to be portrayed as a natural theatre for flirtation and the possibility of turning a chance encounter into something more lasting.

Underground etiquette
The regimentation of the escalator into slow and fast lanes (standing on the left, striding up on the right) has yet to become ingrained, and ascent and descent is something of a hustling free for all. Notices instructing passengers which foot they should step off with are in place at the bottom, and there is an amusing scene in which a foot soldier lugging two bulging kitbags is sent into a panic of confusion by this simple advice. This is largely due to the looming presence of his fearsomely moustached sergeant major behind him, who observes his stumbling disembarkation with an air of exasperated familiarity. The walls are absolutely plastered with advertisements, most of them a great deal smaller than those found today, and filled with text rather than enticing passers-by with the kind of arresting images which we have become so inured to today. It gives the corridors and station walls a rather cluttered look. There is no sign of the posters designed for the Underground Group, and later London Transport, which reached a consistently high standard of artistic distinction under the guidance of publicity director Frank Pick. These were displayed in especially reserved spaces outside the stations and in the entrance halls and lobbies. The more generalised advertising we see here was restricted to corridors and station platforms. Pick would also ensure that there would be a more standardised aesthetic approach to the visual side of the tube system once the London Transport body co-ordinating all aspects of the capital’s transport was created in 1933. When we catch sight of a tube map, it is still one of those drawn by FH Strangemore, composed of curving lines which attempt to follow the contours of real geography. Frank Pick’s famous design, reducing the complex web of intersecting lines to a pipeline schematic of geometrical semi-abstraction, would not appear until 1933. When Nell gets off at Waterloo Station near the end of the film, she does so by opening the gate at the end of the carriage herself. The pneumatic automatic door system, operated by the driver, had evidently yet to be introduced on this line. By 1930, it would be a feature of all the trains, which were by then standardised throughout the system, so this scene was about to become historic even as the film was made. The opening title cleverly incorporates the ceramic UndergrounD sign outside a station, each letter contained within its own tiled block, with the bracketing U and D larger than the rest. These signs, and the graphic setting of the word, were used on the buildings which Leslie Green designed for the UERL (the Underground Electric Railways Company of London) and on their posters and publicity. The UERL predated the amalgamation of different and competing lines within the Underground Group, of which it was the major and controlling company.

Anthony Asquith
Asquith demonstrates an inventive cinematic eye throughout. Although the story he tells is fairly conventional and clearly aimed at a popular audience, he is not averse to using innovative or experimental techniques to express its more interior aspects. He was familiar with the latest films from Europe through his membership of the London Film Society, which screened pictures by the likes of Fritz Lang, FW Murnau and Sergei Eisenstein at the New Gallery Cineman in Regent Street and the Tivoli in The Strand. Alfred Hitchcock was another member and regular attendee. The Society was set up in 1925 under the aegis of the renowned newspaper critic Iris Barry. She was assisted by Ivor Montagu, an enthusiast for the more experimental form which some European directors were taking. He had travelled to Germany in 1925 and written an article for The Times about the new German cinema, and was familiar with its practitioners, some of whom he knew personally. He would go on to work with Hitchcock on the post-production of The Lodger after its fate became embroiled in the internal politics of the Islington Studios where it was made. Rather than impose his views and act like some heavy-handed studio enforcer, as Hitchcock feared, he voiced his enthusiasm for the film and encouraged him to emphasise the expressionist elements, extending them to the design of the intertitle cards. The Lodger, also restored by the bfi and released in a new print last year, provides a good point of comparison with Underground. By the time of Asquith’s film, the European techniques have been fully absorbed and raised to a new level of technical sophistication. The cameras have also moved beyond the studio, displaying a greater facility for location shooting. Such freedoms, and the mature and complex visual style which had developed by the end of the 20s, would be severely curtailed by the arrival of sound and the cumbersome equipment which accompanied its near universal adoption, and it would be a long time before they were rediscovered. Asquith himself, after his next film A Cottage on Dartmoor, would retreat from his innovative and highly cinematic style, producing the kind of conventionally theatrical fare which would be a dominant part of British cinema for the next few decades; Pictures like Pygmalion, The Winslow Boy, The Browning Version and The Importance of Being Earnest.

Crane shot - location shooting in Chelsea Creek
The expressionist use of shadows in Underground can be seen in the distorted grid stretching along the angle of the ceiling and walls from the skylight outside Kate’s room. When she comes out to look over the banister and watch Bert’s return, she is caged within these bars of shadow, one of which covers her eyes like a blindfold. It’s a perfect visual shorthand with which to introduce the character, trapped as she is within the cage of her own lingering longing for the man she watches, and by the unrelenting demands of her work which imprisons her within her room and her inescapable poverty. The play of shadows also provides a humorous counterpoint to Bill and Nell’s initial encounter in the well of the emergency staircase, in which they awkwardly arrange a first date. As the two look at each other and speak in nervous bursts of speech, their shadows on the wall behind them diverge from the movements and gestures of their progenitors, embracing and kissing in what amounts to a projection of Bill’s (and maybe also Nell’s) sublimated desires. The Lots Road power station, with its towering, smoking chimneys and monumental, block-like mass looks like a futurist fortress, and is the perfect locale for tilted and skewed expressionist angles. The underground sign at the start, which serves as the title card, is also set at a diagonal slant, a statement of stylistic intent. Asquith also includes shots which fill the screen with abstract geometrical patterns, as if he were drawing on the work of Futurist, Russian Suprematist or Constructivist, or (nearer to home) Vorticist movements. All were intent on producing an abstract or semi-abstracted art for the machine age in which the straight line and grid pattern predominated over the rounded, branching forms of nature. A close-up of the wooden escalator steps has their revolving rectangles, with their raked perpendicular striations, passing hypnotically before our eyes. There is also a shot which pans along a lengthy row of angular windows high up on the wall of the power station, which gives a sense of measured out time and distance (Kate is running towards the entrance at this point).

Superimposition and rapid intercutting familiar to Asquith from the montage techniques of Russian filmmakers like Eisenstein, Dovzhenko and Dziga Vertov is also employed to add new psychological and metaphorical layers to the story. In a scene set in a street corner pub, shots of the patrons and their interactions with Bert are interspersed with brief, repeated inserts of snooker balls being struck by cues and the hammers of a player piano jangling against the strings. Both imply an element of sound and serve to conjure up the atmosphere of the place in a visual manner. Later, the increased frequency of the inserts also creates a sense of rising tension as Bill enters and a confrontation brews up. When a fight does break out, the final sucker punch is shown as a point of view shot from the perspective of the unfortunate recipient (Bert). The fist flies towards the camera until it almost fills the frame (and we can imagine it cracking the lens), at which point we fade to black – the blank screen of unconsciousness. The shot is subsequently replayed as a loop superimposed over Bert’s bloodied face as he walks home, its obsessive reiteration a projection of his furious sense of humiliation. Later, as Kate runs towards the power station, she seeks Bert’s glowering face projected over it. This serves the direct narrative function of indicating his presence in the building, the projected object of her breathless dash. But it also makes the subjective link between the driving power generated by the dynamos within and the electrifying, force which Bert seems to exert on Kate, driving her on as if her will was no longer her own. When Bert emerges from the power station for the final pursuit, his hair has risen into a crazed expressionist shock, a wild mad scientist thatch worthy of Lang’s Rotwang or Dr Mabuse, or Robert Wiene’s Dr Caligari. It’s as if he’s absorbed the power from the generators and has turned into some fizzing electrical monster.

Rooftop chase - river view from the Lots Road Power Station
There are further individual touches which add an idiosyncratic flavour to the film. During the frantic fight in the lift, a blind man (and we know he’s blind because he’s go a notice hung around his neck which says so) gazes off in the opposite direction. This creates a certain tension in the viewer, whose attention is partially drawn away from the action. Comparitive shots of Kate and Bert preparing themselves in front of their separate dressing table mirrors in their separate rooms (she readying herself to approach him, he rapidly changing to head off to the pub) make the gulf between them apparent, and tell us how futile her hopes of winning his non-existent affections are before we even see them meet, or learn of their former relationship. Incidental characters also add depth and enriching detail to the bustling and crowded city portrayed in the film. There’s the starving urchin in the countryside, a penniless street artist by the river, and an old man playing a jig on a penny whistle to entertain a straggling group of children, as well as the odd assortment of well-worn regulars at the pub and the diverse cross-section of working Londoners on the tube. The opening and closing shots make imaginative use of the blackness of the tunnel to emulate the blankess of the screen before the film frames begin running through the projector. At the beginning, a white dot just off centre expands to reveal itself as the tunnel mouth as the train in which we are enjoying a ‘phantom ride’ (with the camera point of view placed in the driver’s cab) approaches a station. It’s like a cinematic variant on the theatrical curtain being raised on the drama about to unfold. At the end, the process is reversed, the darkness of the tunnel expanding to enfold us, the curtain lowered to bring the story to a close.

Platform seating - Waiting at Waterloo
Silent film soundtrack maestro (and sometime playwright – he wrote a very touching play about Laurel and Hardy) Neil Brand provides another of his fine programmatic scores, which responds to the shifting moods and registers of the story with an appropriately wide-ranging use of orchestral styles. He also employs sounds from his orchestral palette for several moments in which instruments are played onscreen (the penny whistler, a mouth organ wheezed by the urchin, and Bert’s whistling of The Boy Friend), incorporating them smoothly into the score rather than resorting to direct imitation. There’s a quotation of the tune ‘Where Did You Get That Hat?’ for a scene in which Bert tries on a series of the pancake-shaped caps he favours, which is a nice little touch typifying the care he takes to match the music precisely with what we are seeing on the screen. Brand’s classy score it the icing on the cake for this excellent restoration of film which will only add to Asquith’s reputation as a rediscovered master of British silent cinema.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Hollywood Costume at the V&A

The Hollywood Costume exhibition at the V&A, which I went to see over Christmas, covered a century or so of classic American studio movies, and gathered together a stellar cast of phantom stars. There really was an impressive range and number of outfits on display, crowding three large halls and spotlit within suitably shrouded surrounds of cinematic darkness. In the first hall, the costumes were displayed as empty shells, hats raised on thin lengths of wire to balance on invisible heads. It drew attention to the obvious absence at the heart of the show, the vacuum left by the actors who had brought them to life. We initially left to fill in that void, to add our own spectral superimposition of recollected faces and expressions. As we progressed, however, the ghostly parade of uninhabited but still filled out costumes was replaced by the more solid form of dummies. They were black and featureless, still lacking all but the most notional of features, with just a little bit of stylised hair sculpted from stiff cardboard or leather to suggest character (Johnny Depp’s wild, windblown thickets of Bride of Frankenstein streaked hair from Sweeney Todd, for example). Finally, as we approached the final room (and the culminating shrine to Saint Judy and Our Lady Marilyn), small wafer-thin screens provided odd virtual-reality approximations of heads. It’s an acknowledgement of the squared-off frame through which we always view these legendary figures, and the carefully contrived fantasy which they convey, a fantasy which the costumes they wore did much to construct. The actors faces are caught in a frozen, slow-motion loop – so slow that it took a while to notice them coming to life at first. The effect was as ghostly as the initial invisibility, giving the effect of a projection of imprinted memory.

Marlene in Angel (1937)
The exhibition started on a high, the first star you were greeted with being Marlene Dietrich via her dress from the 1937 film Angel. This was a light Ernst Lubitsch comedy from the post von Sternberg period, by which time her image had been firmly established. The extensively jewelled, embroidered and fur-lined gown shows off the feminine side of Marlene (with a knowing wink added) – we’ll see her more masculine attire later. It was designed by Travis Banton, who worked for Paramount in the 20s and 30s, and also created Marlene’s extraordinary costumes for the von Sternberg pictures Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus and the delirious The Scarlett Empress, which established her complex, highly self-conscious screen goddess persona – lazily vampish, wearily erotic and beneath the veneer of indifference, deeply and irreducibly romantic. In the same introductory parade, Vivien Leigh’s green velvet dress with ‘Robin Hood’ hat from Gone With the Wind stands with prim correctness (we get to see her red velvet dress later, too, from this most extravagant of costume dramas). A different shade of green is displayed by Kim Novak’s woollen dress from Vertigo, offering a contrast in period, material and colour tone. The men are noticeably shabby in such company. Jeff Bridge’s towelling dressing gown, as loosely sported by The Dude in The Big Lebowski, faced the more elegant and expensively tailored outfits with defiant obliviousness to fashion or style. Charlie Chaplin’s tramp outfit is obviously one of THE iconic costumes in cinema history, and even if he has fallen from the pinnacle of fame and worldwide regard he enjoyed in the first half of the twentieth century, it was still quite a thrill to be able to peer so closely at such an instantly familiar get up. The trousers were authentically tattered and spattered with mud, the shoes holed and twisted, and the jacket frayed at the edges with buttons hanging on to a last wisp of thread. The painstaking creation of such a worn and beat look was achieved with a level of detail which went far beyond what would have been detectable on the screen, no matter how palatially gargantuan. It’s the perfect example of the way in which a costume goes a good way towards defining a character, one of the things which the exhibition set out to explore.

Katherine Hepburn in her Philadelphia Story dress
Some of the great designers from the classic Hollywood era were given their due. Many a glamorous picture from the 30s and 40s ended with the credit ‘gowns by Adrian’, a singular appellation akin to an artist’s signature. Its declarative ring and assumption of familiarity put him on a par with the actresses he dressed – Garbo, Harlow, Garland, Hepburn and Crawford. He was in fact Connecticut born Adrian Adolph Greenburg, who avoided the Anglicisation of names common in Hollywood by simply editing the last two out. The most eye-catching of Adrian’s gowns here was the dazzling sequined scarlet of Joan Crawford’s killer dress from the 1937 picture The Bride Wore Red. Its carmine splendour was rather diminished by the monochromatic black and white of the picture, however. The 1938 historical drama Marie Antoinette obviously gave him full reign to produce something of maximal extravagance for Norma Shearer to show off in the title role. It was Versailles via 30s couture, and we also got to see its modern equivalent nearby, with Kirsten Dunst’s costume for Sofia Coppola’s new romantic Marie Antoinette from 2006 also included, galleon-topped hat and all. Katherine Hepburn’s white dress from The Philadelphia Story was simple and elegant, its trim and line showing the influence of Classical Greek styles which was one of the trends of the time.

Greta is Queen Christina
Most exciting as far as I was concerned was the regal dress Adrian designed for Greta Garbo in Queen Christina, worn in one of the few scenes in which she forsakes her more masculine garb. It produces a priceless look of startlement from co-star John Gilbert when he sees her sitting on the throne in it, having previously encountered her under very different circumstances. Away from the illuminated black and white of its screen incarnation, it is a rather dull beige colour, its jewels rather evidently paste, its precious stones glass beads. But it was worn by GARBO, which gives it its own special aura. Ironically, the costume in the exhibition which caused the most excitement and stirred up the most publicity was the one which, viewed objectively, without this added aura, was the most drab and ordinary of Adrian's creations. It was, of course, the gingham apron dress worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, with ruby slippers adding a touch of Technicolor sparkle. The clash between the two elements of the costume serves to symbolise the two worlds between which Dorothy is torn – the homely, familiar, but limited one of family, hard work and realistic expectations and the more exciting but dangerous one of imaginative freedom and exploration. By the time I got there, the original ruby slippers, immensely valuable and no doubt hugely expensive to insure, had been replaced by reproductions (very good ones, mind you).

Marilyn tries to warm up Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot
Dorothy’s dress and slippers were saved until the end, a culminating point and perhaps the ultimate example of how a costume can become so much more than just material given pattern and design. Beside it was another costume which may have caused many to feel a little weak-kneed: Marilyn’s white dress from The Seven Year Itch. It was the very one which, raised by wafts of warm air from a New York subway, led to thousands of posters, parodies and statuettes. It was such a simple thing in the flesh (or rather cloth). But elaborate and showy fashions were almost redundant in costumes which Marilyn would be animating. The dress was made by Travilla, another mono-monickered designer. He went the other way from Adrian, dispelling any taint of the ordinary by expunging his Christian names (William Jack), happy to revel in the exoticism of his surname alone (i.e. to sound Latin and foreign). He was the man who clothed Marilyn in her greatest films of the 50s. Perhaps more interesting as a dress than as a piece of iconography like the Seven Year Itch costume was the tassled and beaded 1920s number with accompanying stole draped sinuously across the shoulders. It’s the one she wore in Some Like It Hot whilst singing I Want To Be Loved By You, teasingly playing with the shadowy border of the spotlight’s illumination and the lowcut line of the dress’ bust. She subsequently sports it during her attempted seduction of the duplicitous Tony Curtis’ supposedly frigid heir to the Shell millions on what she believes to be his yacht. It’s not, and he’s just a lowly saxophone player for hire, and it takes all his will power to maintain the fiction. Travilla’s association with the movies blossomed in the 50s, but he started out in the 40s, and won an Oscar early on for his work on The Adventures of Don Juan. Erroll Flynn’s rakishly piratical costume for the title role was on display, loose shirt and trouser allowing flexibility of movement for duelling foil action. Johnny Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean foppery was placed adjacent for contrast and to demonstrate continuity and influence.

Edith Head
Perhaps the reigning queen of Hollywood costume design, and certainly the most instantly recognisable with her distinctive black helmet of symmetrically cut hair and ubiquitous dark, round-lensed glasses, was Edith Head. She began work (uncredited) on the 1927 silent picture Wings (winner of the first Academy Award for best picture) and continued through to the 1970s. Most of this long period was spent with Paramount Pictures, and she took on whatever the studio assigned her. During her golden period, spanning the 40s through to the 60s, she was incredibly versatile, responding to any challenge which was thrown down. She worked on film noirs (making Barbara Stanwyck’s costumes for Double Indemnity), comedies (including Preston Sturges’ run of classics in the 1940s, again with Barbara Stanwyck, and the Bob and Bing road movies), and musicals. In the latter category, the exhibition included a striking red, sequin-dazzled dress with open front worn by Ginger Rogers in the 1944 picture Lady in the Dark. Ginger sported it in a dream sequence set in a circus in which vivid colour was used with deliberate and prominent symbolism. Nearby, Nicole Kidman’s showgirl costume from Moulin Rouge, displayed on a dummy perched high with leg kicking out on a pendant swing, provided a modern contrast.

Tippi Hedren in The Birds
Head enjoyed a particularly fruitful creative relationship with Alfred Hitchcock on the pictures he made for Paramount and Universal in the 50s and early 60s. The green dress worn by the second incarnation of Kim Novak’s Madeleine in Vertigo was on show, as previously mentioned. Vertigo is a film in which costume and the identity it confers is a vitally important element. James Stewart’s character Scottie’s obsession with Madeleine’s grey suit, and the recreation of a silvery ‘ghost’ of a woman from the past, could almost be seen as an attempt to reverse time into a pre-Technicolor (or pre-cinematic) era of monochromatic black and white. Head’s light green skirt and jacket for Tippi Hedren in The Birds matches the colouring of the lovebirds she buys as a pointedly sarcastic gift for Rod Taylor’s character, and the equivalence lends her her own distinctive plumage. It’s a costume which carries a certain cool self-assurance, as betokened by the upturned collar. Hitchcock is intent on ruffling that assurance through his avian assaults, and the costume is finally torn and unravelled during the traumatic bird-filled attic scene. Head also worked with Audrey Hepburn on many of her films, including Roman Holiday and Funny Face (whose beatnik costumes were particularly her style). Although fashion house Givenchy provided the costume designs for Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Head was still the supervisor on the film. The black dress in which Audrey glides through the escalating chaos of her epic party was on display, as was her very different cockney flower girl’s costume from My Fair Lady. Head moved aside for Cecil Beaton on that one, who had after all designed the costumes for the original stage play.

Louise Glaum's spider dance costume from Sex (1920)
Other costumes played against type or expectation. Mary Pickford’s tomboy overalls and cap from the 1925 picture Little Annie Rooney pulled against her sweet and girlish image. An accompanying clip showed her scrapping with a boy with impressively unrestrained realism. Marlene’s tux and topper (made for nonchalantly flicking to a jaunty angle) from the 1930 von Sternberg picture Morocco (on which Travis Banton was once more the costume designer) emphasised her androgynous appeal and ambiguous sexuality, playing against the almost parodic femininity of her elaborately theatrical and ornately accessorised gowns. Joan Crawford’s waitress uniform from the 1945 noir melodrama Mildred Pierce was drably utilitarian, a conscious dimming of her customary glamour. She soon exchanged it for a fur coat with shoulder pads broad enough for an American football player. Carole Lombard’s costume (another Travis Banton creation) from the 1936 screwball comedy My Man Godfrey, meanwhile, stood, or lounged (it was displayed on a dummy reclining in a suitably languorous pose) for the classic shimmering silver sequined sheath dress of the period, a figure hugging suit of armour in which to take to the battlefields of the evening parlours and nightclubs. Other costumes were inventive, offbeat or redolent of their age. Vanessa Redgrave’s Guinnevere outfit from the musical Camelot was a 60s loose and freely hanging woollen dress with the unusual decorative addition of pumpkin seeds sewn into the veil like dessicated beads furthering its wholesome organic look. Bessie Love’s costume for her character Hank Mahoney in Broadway Melody of 1929 was a reductive division into a bare outline of a chorus girl’s outfit, separated into its basic elements: a hollow top hat and a jacket with isolated shirt cuff bracelets emerging from invisible sleeves. Louise Glaum’s tantalising spider web outfit from the 1920 film Sex, which promises more than it actually reveals, was another startling music hall costume, in which her vampish character performs her man-catching spider dance at the Frivolity Theatre in New York. It’s the kind of outrageous and provocative design which Hollywood could only get away with in the halcyon pre-Hayes Code days. Claudette Colbert’s dress from her 1934 film Cleopatra gives the Queen of the Nile a very art deco look. Its lengths of green silk are pleated below a scarab brooch into streamlined folds. The art deco look of the brooch goes to show how much the discovery of Egyptian antiquities and art influenced the moderne style. Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleo, on the other hand, drapes herself in a black negligee of suspiciously 60s vintage, with a tasteful asp design stitched in. Placed side by side, it has to be said Claudette’s costume puts Liz’s in the shade. Of course, we’ve not got Amanda Barry’s Cleo outfit to compare them both with. Neither wins points for historical accuracy, however.

Claudette's Cleo (picture it in jade green)
There’s a science fiction section at the back of one of the halls. Darth Vader’s beetle carapace costume from The Empire Strikes Back and Ming the Merciless’ imperial finery from the 30s Flash Gordon serials illustrate the importance of the cape to interstellar dictator chic. Ming’s velvet outfit, with its snazzy yellow zig-zag trim, is looking a bit faded now, like heavy curtains exposed to decades of sunlight. And the metallic instrument panel which forms Vader’s bust is in a shockingly shabby state. The surface is scratched and scuffed and its chunky plastic buttons look like they’ve been ripped off from a flat-top tape recorder. Rachel’s black and charcoal suit from Blade Runner, meanwhile, harks back to the 40s, its shiny material suggesting some synthetic fabric yet to be invented. With its exaggerated shoulder pads and cinched in waist, it takes a classic Edith Head look and projects it into a re-invented noir future (neon-noir, as the film has often been dubbed).

Charles Middleton's Ming the Merciless
There were a good many costumes from more modern films. Superheroes were posed in unusual positions: Spiderman halfway down the wall; Batman watching from the shadows on an elevated ledge; Michelle Pfeiffer’s PVC catwoman suit crouching above the exit door, its stitched together skin torn, leaving gaping gashes; and the Superman of Christopher Reeve’s incarnation suspended awkwardly above the milling spectators, low enough that the exceptionally tall might bump into his stomach and set him swaying. Superhero materials are synthetic, sometimes unappealingly so – Superman’s nylon, and Spiderman’s lycra. The latter could be (and no doubt was) digitally airbrushed on screen, but it looked uncomfortable, impracticable and inelegant close up. Warren Beatty’s lemon yellow Bugsy Malone trench coat attempted to reproduce the colour scheme of the comics, colours which are used on the page to identify and define character. Then there was the black trench coat from The Matrix, whose billowing tails were suspended into the gelid bullet time of the movie. Many others seemed either to be deliberately turning their back on glamour (Bruce Willis’ Die Hard t-shirt, the lovers’ practical outdoor clothing from Brokeback Mountain, Matt Damon’s melt into the crowd high street outfit from The Bourne Conspiracy). As far as women’s costumes go, they seem to be self-consciously harking back to the classic Hollywood period (Kate Winslet’s white pin-striped dress and hat from Titanic, Keira Knightley’s greening evening dress from Atonement), or to be stuck in a permanent recycling of certain historical periods (Cate Blanchette’s regal red costume from Elizabeth: The Golden Age or Judi Dench’s from Shakespeare in Love). They simply fail to hold the same level interest, for me at least. Only in gothic dramas and comedies such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula (from which the Count’s capacious red dressing gown and Mina’s ancestral incarnation Elisabeta’s sumptuous gown were included) and The Addam’s Family (with Morticia’s velvet dress sharing the arachnoid theme of Louise Glaum’s webbed dress from Sex) was something of the old flamboyence allowed to shine through once more. Perhaps modern sensibilities are too attuned to the notion of camp, and too ready to detect it and dismiss it. The appetite for a certain sort of realism in dramas beyond the prescribed genres of the fantastic (where its influence has also crept in, leading to the decline of gothic stylisation) has dispelled the old, elaborately artificial fantasies. I guess they really don’t make them like they used to any more. The exhibition continues for a few more days (until the 27th January) before packing its trunks and taking the next liner back to the land of dreams.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Snow Country - Woodcuts of the Japanese Winter at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Nocturnal Snowfall on Kanbara - Hiroshige

The Snow Country exhibition of Japanese woodblock prints in the Shiba Room at the Fitzwilliam Museum over Christmas provided some beautifully chill seasonal scenes in an otherwise damp and drear Cambridge. It also highlighted the importance of weather and climate in Japanese art, and in the woodblock print in particular. Whether in spring’s pastel massing of cherry tree blossom, autumn’s burnished blaze or winter’s leaching of colour from the world, transforming it into shades of white and grey, the seasonal markings serve to locate the depiction of particular places within a particular climatic quadrant of the turning year. In much the same way, Haiku or other traditional forms of Japanese poetry include details which identify the time of year and establish a sense of place. Such observation of seasonal atmosphere also draws attention to the passing of time and the transient nature of each moment. Most of the pictures on display in the Fitzwilliam dated from the golden age of the Japanese woodblock print in the 18th and the first half of the 19th centuries. It was a form which developed wholly within the span of the Edo Period (1600-1867). This was the age of the Shoguns, military rulers who controlled the country through a government known as a Bakufu, and who divided the country into feudal kingdoms. Edo became the capital of Japan at this time, a new city for a new era, with the Shogun’s palace located at its centre, surrounded by a moated lake. The Shogun’s palace was surrounded by a ring of grand residences in which the feudal lords and their retinues were obliged to spend a certain amount of time every other year in order to attend court. Somewhere beyond this aristocratic core, in typical downtown style, lay the Yoshiwara district, a pleasure quarter officially licensed by the government. It was here that the geisha, courtesans, kabuki actors, artists and sumo wrestlers gathered and performed. The rich cultural life which grew up in this area became known as ukiyo, or the floating world, a recognition of the fleeting nature of the pleasures it offered, and of the fact that it might move on elsewhere at any time. Indeed, it did of necessity in 1657, after a terrible fire which razed most of Edo to the ground. Yoshiwara became New Yoshiwara, suggesting that things would carry on in much the same way. The patrons of the new popular arts of the floating world tended to be the merchants, a class who were accumulating increasing wealth but were regarded as complete nobodies within the rigidly defined class divisions of the feudal society. Yoshiwara, and areas like it in other Japanese cities such as Rokujo Misuji-machi and the Gion geisha district in Kyoto, was where they went to spend their money and enjoy themselves in an environment relatively free of the strictures and controls of whichever Shogun was in power at the time.

Edo Nightlife - Hiroshige's Night View of Saruwakacho from 100 Views of Edo (1857)
The prints which depicted this world came to be known as ukiyo-e, or pictures of the floating world. The technique of producing multiple prints from one carved block made low-level mass production possible, making this an art which was affordable for a wide audience. The popular nature of its subject matter reflected this broad appeal. There are few pious religious scenes or noble depictions of historical triumphs here. Ukiyo-e tended more towards ‘star’ portraits of famous kabuki actors in their best known roles (a genre all to itself, known as Yakusha-e; portraits of geisha or other beautiful women (pin-ups, essentially) known as Bijin-ga; and depictions of familiar places in Edo or beyond (a form of souvenir postcard). There are also some prints in the exhibition from the later nineteenth century, dating from the Meiji period which began in 1868, the year in which Imperial power was restored, replacing the Shogun Bakufu which had held sway for some 250 years. It was a period which saw the opening up of the Japanese economy to Western trade after centuries of isolation. This was hardly a matter of choice for the Japanese government. It became evident that it was a course which had to be taken in the wake of the unsubtle diplomatic visit of US Commodore Matthew Perry with his accompanying armoured steamships in 1853. The sudden reconnection with the wider world also resulted in the conscious adoption by the new Imperial power of a Western outlook in terms of economic and political philosophy, which was increasingly reflected in the art and culture of the time, as later prints in the exhibition testify.

Japonisme - Van Gogh's copy of Hiroshige's Okashi Bridge - Sudden Shower Near Atake from the 100 Views of Edo
Taguchi Beisuku’s 1895 print Braving Heavy Snow – A Japanese Officer Scouts Enemy Territory, depicting a scene from the Sino-Japanese War, for example, could almost be a panel from a Tintin book. Its naturalistic view of its horseback military subjects and the direct representation of the icy wind through sweeping lines of blown snow largely reject the stylisation typical of woodblock prints from the first half of the century and before. Weather would have been suggested through the hunching over of small figures (in the style of the classic ‘struggling against the wind’ mime routine) or the bending of a stand of trees or bamboo. Similarly, Ogata Gekkko’s the Sleeping-Dragon Plum Tree at Kameido, again from 1895, has a much more naturalistic depiction of its two female subjects and the landscape through which they walk, the latter drawing on European watercolour traditions. At the same time as these transformations were taking place, Japanese artforms were having a significant impact in the West, with exhibitions in London in 1862 (comprising objects from the collection of Sir Rutherford Alcock, Britain’s first diplomatic representative in Japan) and at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1867 providing a heady introduction to European audiences. This led to a fashion for all things Japanese, and for the adoption of elements of Japanese style into western art and design. The art critic Philippe Burtry coined the term Japonisme in 1872 to illustrate this trend. Artists like Monet, Whistler and Van Gogh were hugely enthusiastic about ukiyo-e prints, and those of Hiroshige in particular. The simple but expressively outlined depictions of people and places and the carefully balanced use of a limited range of bold colours, as well as the formal stylisation greatly influenced developments in their own work, and thereby in the development of western art as a whole. The fact that the West’s discovery of the riches of Japanese art should come about through a political imperative to open up global trade which would in its own turn compromise that very uniqueness and aesthetic self-containment which had led to its development is one of history’s many little ironies. The uncovering and exposure of these treasures established the conditions for their subsequent diminishment.

Ki No Tomonori - Suzuki Harunobo (1767-8)
The earliest picture here, Suzuki Harunobo’s Ki No Tomonori from 1767-8, shows the ukiyo-e at its most stylised, in a composition in which sinuous lines predominate. Harunobo was one of the best known and most celebrated artists of his day, and was central to the development of colour in the woodblock print (colour prints becoming known as Nishiki-e). He depicts the river with flattened lack of perspective, a rippled ribbon of fabric contoured with undulating lines of varying length, running roughly parallel and conveying a sense of rapid and complex flow. Sharply peaked waveforms at the top suggest a churning turbulence, which is in complete contrast with the serene and poised female figures in the foreground. All of these impressions are achieved with a simple spareness of form. The stylised effect is furthered by the use of raised relief lines on the paper which follow the contours of the riverrine flow, adding a further textural dimension. Such embossed relief patterns were made using a technique known as kimedashi or kimekomi, in which the paper was first pressed onto the uninked woodblock on which raised lines had been left exposed by the carver, and an impression made on the relevant area. It was often used to highlight the pattern designs or outlines of kimonos. The two figures in Harunobo’s picture both wear long kimonos. In the Bijin-ga pictures of beautiful women, kimonos descend to the ground in a few elegantly sinuous lines, evoking languorous, elegant poses and a general sensual curvaceousness. It’s easy to see the influence of such long, expressive lines on Aubrey Beardsley’s fin-de-siecle illustrations for the likes of Oscar Wilde’s Salome.

Kabuki Actors Segawa Kikunojô V and Bandô Mitsugorô III - Utagawa Kuniyasu (1826)
An 1826 print by Utagawa Kuniyasu provides a good example of the actor print, the Yakusha-e. Kabuki actors were real celebrities in the floating world, famed for particular roles with which they became identified. The title of Kuniyasu’s print, Kabuki Actors Segawa Kikunojô V and Bandô Mitsugorô III, identifies the stars, and would have provided a dramatic souvenir for the theatregoer; a film still before the fact. Snow scenes in kabuki plays were created through a combination of painted backdrops and, when required, flurries of torn up pieces of white paper to represent snowfall. These often formed a suitable dramatic setting for action scenes, as depicted by Kuniyasu here. The two characters engage in mortal combat, sword taking on heavy chain with weighted balls at its end. A spattering of white paint thrown across the two figures is suggestive of a spray of bleached blood. It makes the combat resemble a particularly intense snowball fight as much as a duel with deadlier weapons. The flicking of paint across the surface of the paper anticipates the action art more than a century in the future. The implied downward thrust of the brush lends a feel of violent motion which is entirely appropriate for the nature of the scene depicted. There’s another kabuki print, an atypical work by Ando Hiroshige, better known for his hugely popular landscapes. This one gives a more widescreen view which encompasses the entire stage, showing the different layers of chaotic action. It’s the culminating act of the famous historical play Chushingura, in which 47 Ronin (Samurai without a lord) avenge the death of their master. So well known is the play that it was even used as the title of a short electronic piece by Spencer Dryden on the Jefferson Airplane LP Crown of Creation. Hiroshige’s figures, seen in the middle distance and background, are drawn in the manner of characterful manga sketches. Manga was originally a word for study sketches of people, animals, landscapes or other subjects, although it’s now better known as a general description for the comics which are such a prevalent part of contemporary Japanese culture, and (less accurately) for the animated films which derive from them. Hokusai’s books of manga character sketches, the first of which was published in 1814, were another significant influence on Western artists in the latter part of the nineteenth century, demonstrating as they did the variety of ways in which nuances of character and appearance could be suggested in a few simple lines. In Hiroshige’s kabuki print, the postures of the manga-like characters convey a confusion of madly dashing action, a panicky middle of the night rush to defend against a surprise incursion into the sleeping compound of the Lord Muronao’s castle. A tiny smudge of red in the middle distance gives evidence of the violent struggle going on all around, an emblematic splash of blood on snow. Above it all, the full moon floats serene and calm, coolly surveying the melee below with distanced indifference.

Winter – Shinobazu Pond - Utagawa Kunisada (1858)
Other prints contrast warm interiors with the wintry world beyond. Utagawa Kunisada’s Winter – Shinobazu Pond from 1858 (a print designed to decorate a non-folding fan) has a geisha playing a shamisen (a lute which produces sharp, twanging notes like a louder and less metallic banjo) whilst the snow drifts down outside. Perhaps the snowflakes fall in unison with the firmly plucked notes which she produces. The island shrine in the centre of the lake creates an impression of isolation and tranquillity, a place apart from the busy noise of the city. Formally, the picture is full of diagonals. The screen which frames the lake and island is a grid set at a diagonal tilt, and the long neck of the shamisen forms another diagonal line, offset at a slight angle to the screen, creating a diverting variance from the prevailing symmetry. Keisei Eisen’s Overnight Snow in Yoshiwara from 1825 contrasts the cosiness of the interior of a courtesan’s room with the frozen cold of the exterior. The warm colours of the courtesan’s kimono pool around her solicitously kneeling figure whilst she brews up a kettle over the coals in an iron brazier. The snow-covered district outside through which people hurry with their bamboo umbrellas is framed in a circular window, like a landscape print within the print. Utgawa Kuniteru’s 1840 print Rolling a Snowball shows that fun can be had outside too, its scene of children at play designed to appeal to sentimental parents and grandparents. The group of children is building a snow rabbit, demonstrating that where snow settles, wherever it happens to be in the world, it will always be used as a material to sculpt something or other. Other children have lifted circular sheets of ice which had plugged barrels or ponds and have suspended them to use as gongs, producing shivery reverberations.

The form of ukiyo-e which really rose to prominence in the nineteenth century, and which proved particularly popular in the West, was the landscape print. These were perfected first by Katsushika Hokusai and then by Ando Hiroshige. Hokusai is represented in the exhibition by three prints. Poet Travelling in Snow from 1833 has the titular subject sitting on horseback on a promontory extending out into a lake, which almost looks like it could be precariously hanging over empty space. He gazes up at a tree which bends over the water’s edge under the weight of snow, a weary arch echoed by the horse’s bowed neck. The birds on the water beneath the arching branch look like a last few falling petals of blossom. The yellow tints to the snow suggest a slightly jaundiced light, and the whole picture is suffused with a sense of age and tiredness. We sense from his air of absorbed contemplation that the poet is composing lines about the scene in his head. Minamoto no Muneyuki Ason from 1835 has a group of hunters wrapped in assorted layers of clothing gathering around a fire. Its plume of smoke is rendered in wavering, raked outlines which make it look like an evanescent river in the air. The upward diagonal of its passage traces the prevailing direction of the night breezes. The men both lean away from the rosy flames and hold their hands towards them, conveying the intensity of both heat and cold, and the attempt to find a situation at some comfortable interface. A certain metaphorical element is evident, which is furthered by the fact that they’re standing outside of an abandoned, dilapidated hut, in which an old pot still hangs over a fireplace long since gone cold. The transience and mutability of life is once more an underlying theme.

Evening Snow at Ryogoku - Katsushika Hokusai (1833)
Evening Snow at Ryogoku from 1833 finds Hokusai at his most stylised, verging here on a semi-abstract form. The Ryogoku area of Edo, with its famous bridge, is seen from a bird’s eye viewpoint, a convention drawing on Chinese painting traditions. Ryogoku Bridge is thronged with a crowd crossing the river, depicted as a compressed series of interconnecting ovals – the brims of straw hats and the canopies of umbrellas. Its conglomeration of round shapes is reminiscent of the scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent in which a swarm of obstructing umbrellas descends the steps outside a building, shot from above. Lobate lozenges of fog cloud are laid across the rooftops like cut-out strips of paper, and there is a twining border incorporated into the print which resembles a pop art version of Celtic knotwork. The whole has very 70s poster feel, with its plumply rounded graphic style. It looks far more like the product of the twentieth that the early nineteenth century.

Kameyama – Clear Weather After Snow - Hiroshige
Hiroshige is the artist who dominates the exhibition, and who brought the landscape print to new levels of sophistication. He was also extremely popular from an early point in his artistic career, his travelogue series 53 Stations on the Tokaido Road (there are actually 72 prints) from 1833 being a massive bestseller. The Tokaido Road linked Edo with Kyoto, and was the route which local lords (or Daimyo) and their retinues would take when they came to the Shogun’s court. But it would also have been familiar to merchants and pilgrims to Kyoto’s shrines, and Hiroshige’s atmospheric and often humourous scenes would conjure up personal memories in those who bought them. There are two of the 53 Stations prints here. Number 16, Nocturnal Snowfall on Kanbara (scroll up to the top), sets subtle shades and gradations of grey against the white of the paper, with the farther mountains in the background blushed with an icy blue to emphasise their chill grandeur and distance. The snow cover softens sharp edges, making roofs and mountains seem slightly inflated and bulbous. The figures trudging towards the village provide muted elements of colour and sluggish motion against the surrounding stillness. Their hunched forms say much about the freezing temperatures and the biting cold wind from which one of them protects himself by wrapping his head within the protective cone of his folded straw umbrella. Number 47, Kameyama – Clear Weather After Snow has a diagonal compositional form, mountain slopes sweeping upwards across the frame until they reach the outer wall of Kameyama Castle, at which point the angle of the curve ascends sharply. It’s as if the castle wall is some final rocky outcrop marking the summit of the mountain. The retinue climbing towards the wall is glimpsed behind the tree and snowline, nearly swallowed up by the landscape and identifiable mainly through the oval shapes of their hats and the rectangle of the sedan they carry. The insignificant dots of colour they introduce into the monochrome surroundings are magnified in the washes of rose, yellow and blue which tint the sky with the promise of sunrise. Geometrical clusters of demi-hexagons at the bottom left form a hive which indicates the roofs of village houses. But they could almost be a range of distant mountain tops, which would put this castle at rarefied, celestial heights, the retinue at the end of a very long and weary ascent.

Evening Snow on Hira Mountains (1834) - Hiroshige
Evening Snow on Hira Mountains from 1834 has a massing of mountain peaks rising to the right of the frame, shaded in deepening densities of grey. Their craggy edges are softened by snow, and the whole range looks as if a sheet has been thrown over it, or as if it has been wrapped by some nineteenth century Japanese equivalent of the environmental installation artists Christo and Jean-Claude. A sense of receding perspective is achieved by leaving a mountain in the mid-distance unshaded with the prevailing greys, and depicting a far off range without the use of any solid, drawn outline. The white of the paper is left as a ghostly void between earth and sky, mountains which look like clouds (or vice versa), shrouded in an evanescent, ethereal obscurity lent by fading light and frozen, misty air. The turquoise blue of the lake in the bottom right of the frame provides a striking intrusion of colour into what is an otherwise grey world. Hiroshige produced a number of series of prints depicting scenes around his home city of Edo. Evening Snow At Asuka Hill is from his 1837-8 set 8 Views of the Environs of Edo. Once again it uses a chiaroscuro wash of grey to create a chill, wintry ambience. A hint of the woodblock’s grain shows through in the sky, suggesting the gusts of wind swirling the snow through the evening air. The bare branches of the cherry trees on the slope, whose blossoming is so synonymous with springtime, only serve to emphasises the bleak lifelessness of the season, but also hold out the promise of future renewal and rebirth.

Gion in Snow (1834) - Hiroshige
Gion in Snow from 1834 comes from his Famous Views of Kyoto series, and shows a group of geishas entering a shrine marked by the pi sign of a Torii gate. The gate is cut off at the top of the frame, which is divided diagonally (in a manner characteristic of many ukiyo-e prints) by the cool metallic blue of the fence which marks the border of the shrine’s territory. The geishas wear the raised sandals known as ‘geta’ (as do many of the figures in the exhibition’s pictures) which are particularly useful for negotiating the snowy ground. They’ve created a scattering of birdlike prints in the snow, a patterning suggestive of play, aimless wandering and sociable loitering. Gion, whose buildings are seen beyond the gate, was a well-known geisha district in Kyoto, and the gateway here marks the meeting point of the sacred and profane, the worlds of vivacious pleasure and solemn contemplation. The geishas passing through the gate suggest that the two worlds are not mutually exclusive, the border between them permeable. Ukiyo-e prints could go through many pressings if they proved popular (as Hiroshige’s invariably were). The first was generally a run of about 100. Later editions often exhibited a lessening in quality as the artist no longer collaborated directly with the etcher and the inker, and the woodblock itself grew worn or damaged. The Gion in Snow print in the exhibition was from a later edition, as can be seen from the crack in the roof resulting from a chip in the block. It has the fortuitous effect of giving the appearance of a gap in the snow cover where a small block has avalanched over the edge of the eaves.

Fukujawa Timber Yards (1857) - Hiroshige
Hiroshige’s prints reached new heights of formal innovation and imaginative vision towards the end of his life (he died in 1858 during a cholera epidemic which swept across Edo through the summer and into the autumn), as if he intuited that time might be short. His 100 Views of Edo (actually significantly more in number) from 1857 shows scenes from the life in the capital through a variety of striking perspectives, many of which have an almost cinematic sweep. They may indeed have been influenced by photography, which had arrived in Japan from Europe after the opening up of its borders. There’s certainly a new emphasis on the framing of the picture, and the unconventionally prominent placing of certain elements in the foreground. Number 112 in the Edo series, Atagoshita and Yabulani, contrasts the straight lines of the buildings on the left border with the snow-frosted bamboo reaching out from the right hand border with a branching, organic disregard for a rigid, compact symmetry. The canal running down the middle has a deeper blue thread in its central channel suggesting both coldness, swift currents and depth. There’s a vivid use of colour contrasting with the snowy whiteness: in the green clothes of the people walking by the canal, which echoes the evergreen shades of the bamboo stalks and leaves on the other side; in the varying blue shades of the water; and in shrine gatehouse in the background, whose warm red façade seems to defy the snow to settle. Number 106 in the series, Fukujawa Timber Yards, is a study in straight lines, both diagonal and parallel to the plane, of differing and broken length. It’s a composition only a few steps from the abstractions of the vorticists, celebrating the mechanised technologies of the early twentieth century. But Hiroshige offsets the straight lines with the rounded ones of the umbrella’s oval in the foreground and the bridge’s arc in the back, as well as the branching organic forms of the trees along the water’s edge, one of which is speared through by a bundle of timber. These make it clear that it is human agency which has chopped and ordered natural form into such simple, splintered geometries. The broken lengths of the timber slanting across the frame seems to connect earth with sky, and Hiroshige includes creatures from both elements at either end: Sparrows, which are possibly about to use the inviting the jutting ends of the planks as a convenient perch; and the small pug dogs playing in the snow. Both pairs of creatures seem wholly oblivious of each other, worlds apart.

Fukugawa, Susaki and Jumantsubo from the 100 Views of Edo - Hiroshige
Fukugawa, Susaki and Jumantsubo, number 107 in the 100 Views of Edo series, takes the idea of the bird’s eye view and makes it literal. The white circle of the eagle’s eye looks down on the landscape with godlike omniscience, and the scything arcs of its wings form a bracketing border embracing the upper part of the frame, leaving just enough space in the top right hand corner to fit in the cartouches common to all ukiyo-e. The span of its wing on the right side seems poised to sweep the landscape, lying small below, aside, clearing space for some new creative endeavour. Perhaps it stands for the artist’s brush, his ability to create and recreate the world anew. The double downward arches of the eagle’s wingspan form an inverted mirror image of the smaller contours of the largest of the mountain peaks below, adding to the powerful aspect of this mighty bird. The staves of a single barrel bobbing in the water share the colour of the eagle’s brown plumage, its insignificant, isolated form a small detail linking the elements of water and air. Perhaps its progress is what the eagle has its eye on, its fishy contents offering easy pickings. The marshy landscape between water and sky is created with economical strokes and minimal outlines at its edge, suggesting an intermediate area with no clear point of delineation distinguishing it from the bay it borders. The demi-hexagons used as a shorthand for distant agglomerations of rooftops are a characteristic device which recurs from the Clear Winter Morning in Kamayama print from the 53 Stations of the Tokaido some 24 years earlier. With the straight-lined trees looking strangely like stands of transmitters or clusters and trails of pylons, these could almost be imagined to be the outlines of futuristic domes protecting self-contained environments.

Mountain and River on the Kiso Road (1857) - Hiroshige
Perhaps the most impressive and large scale work on display in the Shiba Room was the three-panel print Mountain and River on the Kiso Road from the Snow, Moon and Flowers series of 1857. This late trilogy of majestic landscapes set out to evoke the atmospheres of winter (snow, of course), autumn (the moon) and spring (the flowers). The latter were represented obliquely through a swirling bed of floral whirlpools troubling the Pacific surface. All three are like miniature, self-contained worlds which invite contemplative exploration. The snowbound Kiso Road landscape depicts a stretch of hills whose folds and valleys are parted by rivers and waterfalls, joined by flimsy bridges, inhabited by precariously perched huts, bristled with spiky trees, and threaded with stepped passes and precipice paths traversed by tiny hiking figures. The smoothly humped contours of the hills make them look like the backs of sleeping leviathans waiting for a time when they can reawake, stretch and shake off all these pests and minor irritants. The streams and rivers are depicted in all their aqueous moods – calmly flowing, falling in sheer white noise cataracts and roiling in turbulent, eddying whorls. The whole landscape has an overarching feeling of stillness and silence, a removed air once more enhanced by the hovering perspective of the bird’s eye viewpoint. From up here, everything looks small, but not insignificant. Rather, the interconnection of the different elements of the landscape, both natural and manmade, become apparent, and humanity takes its place within the overall balance of the composition, of the world.

Monday, 7 January 2013

The Golden Age of the Radiophonic Workshop (Fibre Optic Flowers)

Nicole Lizée

There was an interesting piece on Radio 3 the other day by Saskatchewan-born composer Nicole Lizée, a premiere from last year’s Proms commissioned by the BBC and played by the Kronos Quartet. The Golden Age of the Radiophonic Workshop paid homage to the pioneers of electronic music in Britain, its subtitle, Fibre Optic Flowers, referencing Delia Derbyshire’s poetic visualisation of her own sonic creations. Lizee has mixed conventional orchestral instruments with modern technology before, incorportating turntables and children’s electronic toys (the latter somewhat reminiscent of Birmingham post-Plone circuit-bending Speak and Spell maulers the Modified Toy Orchestra). Her Hitchcock Etudes for Piano and Glitch played with clips from the master of suspense’s films, creating digital loops and warped extracts from Bernard Herrmann’s soundtracks and growing fractured splinters of Bartokian piano from their repetitive phrases. These work very well with the manipulated video extracts from the films (rather like People Like Us’ work in a similar vein), which focus in particular on Hitchcock’s suffering heroines – Janet Leigh in Psycho, Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much and Tippi Hedren in The Birds. The section in which the piano echoes Norman Bates’ faltering speech patterns is a stuttering, glitchy take on Steve Reich’s music in the Different Trains mould, with its emulation of the rhythms and melodic qualities of vocal samples.

Kronos Quartet

There’s often something a little disappointing about the way the classical music world takes on, absorbs and diminishes sonic experimentation, translating it into the usual orchestral palette. Steve Reich and Terry Riley’s music has never seemed so exciting since they became feted and began to receive commissions from prestigious ensembles. The radio 3 introducer’s rather condescending remarks on the piece seem to sum up the general attitude, reducing it all to the level of a lighthearted, ‘jolly’ amusement – not really ‘proper’ music, you understand. The Kronos Quartet have always seemed willing to incorporate other elements into their soundworld, however, and this proves to be the case here. Oscillators, multi-track cassette decks and turntables are brought into play, and there seems to be a perpetual underlying level of sound ‘weather’, hinting at Delia Derbyshire’s atmosphere pieces such as Blue Veils and Golden Sands. The sound of a typewriter points to the Workshop’s use of concrete sounds, and also provides a link with unconventional works from the early twentieth century, such as Eric Satie’s Parade, which also introduced the hammering of alphabetical keys into the orchestral mix. Cut up elements of the sounds from the Doctor Who music are instantly recognisable, even in their isolated form – a bit of wobbulator bass here, some percussive, hammered piano string there, and the odd snatch of the whistling oscillator melody. Ghostly, reverbed echoes of a more genteel string quartet music hover like the sounds of an earlier BBC era, light music still lingering like ragged wisps of fog in the aether. The quartet, in its more unadulterated moments, sends out flickering, trailing currents of sustained tones which attempt to realise Delia’s vision of fibre optic flowers, glowing with subtly electronically enhanced luminescence. The violins produce bending, fluid glissandos at some points, which sound like the playing of Popol Vuh guitarist Conny Veit, and the whole ends with another nod to Krautrock/Kosmiche music, with a locked groove snatch of a line from Kraftwerk’s The Hall of Mirrors (‘even the greatest stars live their lives in the looking glass’). Perhaps a sly dig at the tendency to reflexively locate the birth of modern electronic pop music with another quartet beginning with Kr. Nicole Lizée certainly seems to be a potentially worthy successor to the great female electronic composers attached to the Radiophonic Workshop over the years. You can hear her piece over here until Thursday night – starting about 31 minutes in.