Tuesday 29 October 2013

Portrait of a Lady in Black, 1894, Gustav Klimt
The National Gallery's exhibition of Viennese portraits has elicited plenty of carping and quibbling from the critics ... but I thought they'd completely missed the point.
This is a portrait of a society ... middle-class, wealthy, unsure of itself ... for very good reason as history would show all too soon.
I was far more interested in the sitters, than in the artists, who seemed so real they could step out of the gilded frames for coffee and Sachertorte.
Look at the Lady in Black, at her exquisite silk dress with its jet beading, her gold jewellery and that porcelain complexion. (Click on the picture and you'll see the details better.) She was actually the wife of Vienna's master baker and that faint suggestion of a double chin hints at what might happen if she over-indulges in her husband's patisserie.
She is just in the nick of time to be painted by Klimt, who is still fairly young and affordable. (I don't think I've ever seen an early Klimt before, but isn't this one lovely, too?)
Another five years or so and his prices will have soared out of the baker's reach. And the Lady in Black would have been depicted rather more like this:

Portrait of Hermine Gallia, 1904

Hermine lived in grand style on Wohllebengasse - Good Living Street - and, perhaps fortunately, died before her family had to flee from the Nazis to start a new life in Australia.

Anybody who has read The Hare with Amber Eyes will be fascinated by this exhibition. There is a photograph of Edmund de Waal's great-grandmother Emmy, dressed for a ball as a Titian duchess. Emmy's Viennese palace was ransacked by the Gestapo and, though she escaped to Czechoslovakia - not a good choice - she committed suicide, unable to cope with this cruel new world.

But Vienna had already experienced an epidemic of suicides among wealthy, Jewish gilded youth.

Ria Munk on her Deathbed, 1912
Beautiful Ria Munk was only 24 when she shot herself through the heart after a failed love affair. Her parents rejected Klimt's first portrait of their daughter on her deathbed - far too distressing (many years later, seemingly, it was bought by Barbra Streisand) ...
And they settled on this one instead, of Ria in a cascade of tulips, anemones and carnations.

Ria Munk III, 1918

So many stories and so sad.

Thursday 24 October 2013

Some films seem to vanish in the blink of an eye and, even though I was looking forward to seeing this one, I suddenly realised that if I didn't get a move on, I'd miss it completely. Hannah Arendt was never going to have widespread appeal and the reviews were generally lukewarm, but I thought it was gripping. There's a review here.

Tuesday 22 October 2013

Some of the pearls in the V&A's exhibition are horrors. Baroque pearls lend themselves all too easily to some grotesquely tasteless flights of the jeweller's imagination, and although this necklace of freshwater pearls - above - is undoubtedly clever, inspired by a frostbitten twig, it does look rather like a scabby  barnacle infection on a mermaid's tail. Of course, there's lots more that is simply exquisite, like this tiara, but my overwhelming feeling was that it's sad to see something so lovely in a museum case instead of being worn.
Fascinating to see Elizabeth Taylor's pearls (natural), the Mikimoto pearls that Joe DiMaggio gave to Marilyn Monroe on their honeymoon, and the pearl earring that was taken from Charles I's ear after he was beheaded. And, having always believed the story that pearls grow out of a grain of sand in the oyster, it was news to me - although I'm not sure I wanted to know - that in fact they form as a cyst around an intruding tapeworm. And with that cyst of wisdom, I will leave you.
I wouldn't say that this exhibition is 'must-see' but I enjoyed pottering through for an hour; it's smaller than many V&A exhibitions, but that's not a bad thing.

Monday 21 October 2013

Sometimes I need to remind myself that it's only an hour on the train to one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. And I don't go there often enough.
So yesterday morning, I got up early and ignored the rainclouds.
No matter how many times I visit Oxford, there is always something entrancing to be discovered for the first time.
Like the witty Oxford jokes and delightful carved animals that I discovered simply by taking a different route than my usual one from the station. (Thank you to the college porter who urged me to step into the chapel to get out of the rain.)
The main purpose of my visit was this thought-provoking gem of an exhibition at the Ashmolean.

Which more than made up for the banal tripe that is currently on here.

There were rain-drenched dahlias in the gardens of Balliol, where organ music was drifting from the chapel.
Wandering through Trinity, I buried my nose in one last, perfect, rain-soaked magnolia, then sneaked into the back of the chapel to hear the choir practising a Nunc Dimittis. 
There is something very special about the golden afternoon light in Oxford. 
I scurried through the covered market just before it closed and bought a bunch of peachy, scented roses and a nice bit of halibut (which fortunately I remembered to remove from my handbag when I got home).
And then I ended the afternoon listening to this.

Saturday 19 October 2013

When I decide to get moving on a Friday evening ...

I can finish work at 5.45pm. Feeling a bit frazzled.

Jump out of the bath by 6pm. Feeling a bit better.

Run out of the front door by 6.10pm. (Ladies, you can achieve this once you embrace the sad truth that  no amount of titivation makes any difference at all.)

And by 7pm you're in the bar at the Opera House with a cup of coffee and tarte tatin getting your breath back.

With a ticket up in the gods for Carlos Acosta's exuberant new production of Don Quixote, although sadly he wasn't dancing last night.

I suppose I could have stayed in with a pizza.

Monday 14 October 2013

I've been immersed in Sylvia Plath for the past few days and it was interesting to discover in the last few pages of this biography how Ted Hughes very nearly slipped from her clutches ...
The more I've read over the years, the more I struggle to have much sympathy with Sylvia, who seems like a weapon of destruction.
But it was fascinating to listen to her voice here.
There is an exhibition at Ben Pentreath's shop this week of photographs relating to 18 Rugby Street where Hughes and Plath spent their wedding night and where he spent the night that she killed herself.
It's a building that always pulls at my heartstrings as I go by (it's just around the corner from Persephone Books) but I'm not quite that much of a completist.

Saturday 5 October 2013

I never thought I'd say it ... but I'm only watching Downton for old times' sake, like a duty visit to a doddery old aunt who's become a bit of a bore. Later, there'll be a sad conversation with a friend when we solemnly commiserate about how it's Dragged on Too Long, and it's Not What it Used to Be, and Do You Remember when it was in its prime? And then we'll say, whatever did happen to that bloke with the bandages who disappeared?
Well, he's probably up on the mantelpiece which is Dollshouse Downton limbo for characters who have died or slipped into oblivion. Along with Tom Kitten-Matthew, may he RIP.
I only discovered the latest wonderfully clever series of Dollshouse Downton the other day ... Don't you think Lady Edith is simply perfect?

Thursday 3 October 2013

Susan Glaspell's novels Fidelity and Brook Evans are two of my favourite Persephone Books and I enjoyed her play Trifles when I saw it a couple of years ago, but how I wish I'd read this review before taking myself off to see her sprawling, achingly long play Springs Eternal. This was her last play, written in 1943 and never performed until now - some would say with good reason, and the most positive thing I can think to say about it is that as she never took it into rehearsals, it was never edited. It would have been very, very easy to walk out at the interval.

Wednesday 2 October 2013

The cinema was packed (even at 2pm on a weekday), every other reviewer has said it already ... but, yes, Cate Blanchett really is that good in Woody Allen's homage to A Streetcar Named Desire.

Tuesday 1 October 2013

I can still remember my disappointment when I realised that Elizabeth Jane Howard had simply abandoned the Cazalet family in 1947 at the end of the fourth volume in her family saga ...

That was 18 years ago, which is a very long time to wait for the finale. I was planning to re-read the earlier books to remind myself of who's who and if I had, I'd have been in good company because somebody else has been limbering up, too.

Not a chance. I was too impatient to dive straight in, then spent last week in Cazalet total-immersion. Bliss, I opened the first page on the flight up to Scotland ...

And it was like re-acquainting myself with old friends. It is now 1956 and the Duchy, the family matriarch, is dying. The family must adapt to a post-war world and the Cazalet business empire is shaky. Villy is still bitter about her divorce from slimy Edward who is no longer inappropriately groping their beautiful daughter Louise but that undoubtedly explains why Louise is now the mistress of a wealthy married lover. (Having trouble keeping up? Gosh, I was glad I'd listened to the radio series.)  Diana is a demanding bitch of a second wife. Polly and Clary have young families (EJH is brilliant at writing children). And poor old governess Miss Milliment has Alzheimer's.

I couldn't tell you why I love it so much. Occasionally, it's ludicrous .. . there's a completely daft incestuous romance that runs for a few pages until EJH apparently gets bored with it and lets it fizzle out. But I don't suppose 90-year-old authors get taken to task by their editors.

Actually, I do know why I love it so much. It's the wonderful detail, the descriptions of rooms and clothes and food ...  I imagine that EJH can remember every meal she has ever eaten. There's a wonderfully aggressive dinner party when Diana is bullying her sister-in-law's half-Jewish lesbian  lover with rich, indigestible food - crab soufflé, venison in wine and brandy, followed by crème brûlée. Oh dear, I was sighing over that, it sounds simply delicious to me.

It's a perfect autumn read, a perfect holiday read, perfect for reading with cocoa/malt whisky/soup, perfect for reading in the bath (at least it will be once it's in paperback). And although it says 'final volume' on the cover, EJH has been hinting that there might be another to come.

If you're new to the Cazalets, though, you really do need to start at the beginning.