Friday, 30 January 2009

Rothko exhibition

Went to the Rothko exhibition today at Tate Modern. The highlight really was the walk there, past St Pauls and over the wobbly bridge, which looked stunning in the sunlight. A crisp, blowy day is really the best time to be near the river.

The walk around the Tate was pretty good too. The spaces, ramps, not to mention the steel spider the size of a large house were very much appreciated, particularly by our three-year old.

Anyway the exhibition. Seeing Rothkos in serried ranks really does take away their individual impact. When you see one and you're in the right mood it can be like a warm bath of contemplation, just enjoying the colours and how they seep and smudge into each other. But I think this effect depends on its singularity. Seeing lots together just made me think how Rothko was a bit of a one-trick pony. A lovely trick but when you see it being done again and again, a bit of a staid one.

It cast my mind back to the last Jackson Pollock exhibition I went to at MOMA a few years ago. Seeing a lot of his work together made me think more of him (in fact he subsequently became one of my favourite late-20th century artists). Despite the execution being reasonably uniform, the effects created were extremely varied. Perhaps it was that Pollock uses a huge palette whilst Rothko's was surprisingly limited, at least as evidenced by the Tate show. BTW what did he have against anything not in the red or grey spectrums (at least re his paintings)?

Thinking about it, the other highlight was the members caff on the top floor. Really lovely with great views and a nice cup of coffee. Very friendly service too.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

In praise of Essex Road

I always thought of Essex Road (in London's fashionable Islington district) as Upper Street's poor relation: a bit down at heel and even slightly threatening of a weekend evening. But getting to know it is getting to love it. In fact I reckon it must comprise the best and most interesting and most useful selection of shops it has ever been my good fortune to live near (I'm really referring to the bit between Packington St and New North Road).

Where else can you get within 50 yards some of the best fresh fish (Steve Hatt), meat (James Elliot) and bread (Raab's) in London? And a good selection of nice, well-priced veg (Market Garden). It has a shop which sells 'stuff' (I mean things like string and paint) (SX). A retail taxidermist (yes really) and a shop/atelier selling handmade, self-designed clothes (can we call it couture? Yes, why not) (Comfort and Joy). Amazing gourmet but good value Italian cafe (Mood for Food). Traditional London funeral parlour (WG Miller). And there's really loads more covering just about your every need and desire.

So those of my huge audience who hail from within a decent walk of this road: go do some marketing, as the old people used to say.

(PS there's also a Banksy on the side of one of the shops)

Some thoughts on the great man bio

Just reading The Lion and the Unicorn by Richard Aldous about the relationship between Disraeli and Gladstone. It's written in a very light, entertaining style and is a great read. This has to do with the raw material and the way it is illuminated.

Both subjects were at the very least eccentric. Despite the dandyish, sexually ambiguous nature of Disraeli, it's Gladstone who emerges as the strangest character. Although the 'night walks' and psychosomatic illnesses are well known, just how screwed up he was - sexually, emotionally, temperamentally - is extraordinary. He seems pretty much out of control a good part of the time. But given his remarkable political success he nevertheless obviously functioned at a very high level. (By the way, it's Disraeli's unaffected and deeply felt love for his wife that makes one see him as fundamentally a sympathetic 'uman been').

Makes one wonder what biographers will make of our current crop. Brown for instance always strikes me as a monster of egotism and a mass of writhing something or other. Can't wait to discover the backstory.

Pondering why Gladstone's strangeness did seem so striking to me, despite my having read other biographies (Roy Jenkins's is the most readable), made me appreciate the effectiveness of  Aldous's approach. He really manages to illuminate the two key things I think one wants to know when reading biographies (at least of 'great men'): what it would have been like to meet them (get a sense of their presence) and how their personality meshed with events to make a difference.

Most biographies don't relate events in a way that gives one the ability to imagine being in the presence of the subject; it's more akin to straight history writing. They also don't stray into the subject's interior life and try to reconstruct 'mentalite'. Without this it's difficult to see how personality influenced those around the protagonist on the 'micro' level to result in large - history-making - changes at the 'macro' level. Aldous does this by 'novelising' somewhat, relying inevitably on some speculation and inferences.

This approach is often dismissed as a bit lightweight but I think in the right hands it's the most effective way to illuminate a life and its impact on events. To do it well requires novelistic skills but these do need to be governed carefully. If one is not to stray into unwarranted speculation - even err into outright fiction - the work needs to be underpinned with pretty exhaustive research and a very careful extrapolation of the materials.

The greatest exponent of the 'novelistic' approach is Robert A Caro. He succeeds to such an extent that I would argue his biographies of Lyndon Johnson and Robert Moses are some of the greatest works of literature of our era in any genre. I really can't put bounds on the splendour of his achievement (wow).

But examples of how it can fall flat on its face are out there too: Edmund Morris's Reagan biography 'Dutch'. He just went too far in making things up - to the extent of inserting himself into the narrative as what I guess you could describe (confusingly) as a fictional character. Postmodern I suppose.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Welcome to my blog

Everyone says it but isn't it true? TV sucks. Meaning you're thrown back onto checking out what's happening out there. Or at least in here. So I thought why not add my own ha'porth to the chatter.

I'm not sure whether I'll post much - we'll just have to see. I'm not sure what I'm going to post about. But a few things out there can stoke up an opinion.

I like reading about politics, economics, history, rugby, food, business, media, art and I'm sure some other things (all in no particular order). So I would have thought I'll be ventilating on these topics.

Anyway can't wait to get my first opinion and then (how exciting) make it public (that is to the equivalent of one man and his dog, aka my wife and her expected gentle ridicule)