Saturday 23 November 2019

In Birmingham to see Margaret Atwood

At the end of October, I was in Birmingham to see Margaret Atwood at the Royal Symphony Hall. There were a lot of road works, which prohibited access not only to vehicles but also to pedestrian, around the centre and I struggled a bit at first to find my way but eventually I managed.  Everything I needed was within 15 or less minutes walk: the central station, the cathedral, museums, the Symphony Hall and the Travelodge where I spent a night. In the centre, I found Tim Hortons, the Canadian McDonald’s, near the station. I couldn’t help buying some delicious donuts.

I had time to visit Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery which has some unique pieces by Canaletto, Joshua Reynolds, some Impressionists, such as Pissarro, Sisley, Utrillo, De Vlaminck as well as works by Rubens, Guercino, Crespi and Orazio Gentileschi. Remarkable contemporary artworks by Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore for sculpture, and Peploe, Lowry, Morandi, Hodgkin and Winifred Nicholson for painting testify the significance of the collection. It is not a large display but there is one or two exceptional pieces for each artist that give a clear idea of the artistic movements.

The most interesting part for me was the Pre-Raphaelite rooms with works by Burne-Jones, William Morris, Ford Madox Brown, J.E. Millais and Dante Gabriele Rossetti. Unfortunately, ‘Proserpina’ by Rossetti was not on display (probably on loan to another museum, they told me) but there was an astonishing portrait of Fanny Comforth in red chalk. I could see ‘The Last of England’ by Ford Madox Brown that I had only admired on book reproductions till then, as well as fabulous designs for wallpapers by Morris; they are so inspiring with their intricate elegant patterns. He thought that ‘beauty is a marketable quality’, so, his art merged his wish to produce artistically beautiful things that are also useful.  Morris was not only an artist but also a poet, a collector, an entrepreneur and a designer. I find his idea of applying art to everyday life extremely interesting. His aim was to produce something that was useful and appealing in the sense of artistic and aesthetically pleasant in the context of art tradition. For this reason, besides wallpaper patterns, he even designed artificial floor covering, linoleum. In his ideal concept of art and design, he was against mass production as he thought it was a perversion and led to alienation. Eventually he was successful, and his firm had prestigious commissions.

Morris had a lifelong friendship and collaboration with Burne-Jones with whom he worked at the Holy grail tapestries inspired by Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. The tapestries were commissioned by William Knox D’Arcy to decorate his home, Stanmore Hall in Middlesex. Most of the tapestries, based on the original, belong to Birmingham Museum Trust but are rarely on display due to their delicate quality. They illustrate the quest for the Holy Grail by the knights of the Round Table, their failure, due to past sins, and visions.  It is a symbolic story that seems far from today’s mentality but still maintains its importance in the perpetual quest for an ideal that might not be transcendent but is still present in most people’s views.

The museum has also an interesting section on Birmingham history and a remarkable display of the Staffordshire Hoard, the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold, silver and garnet (over five kilos of gold) mostly in fragments. It Testifies the skilful metal work typical of German culture. The fragments show the mastery of cloisonné garnet metal work, gold filigree and stamped silver foil. An astonishing gold helmet is reconstructed and on display, it was part of military equipment belonging to elite warriors and noblemen. There are also some religious objects as the hoard was probably buried when the Anglo-Saxons were converting to Christianity.

The most interesting among the non-permanent exhibitions was Within-Without: image and the self, exploring how people construct their body image challenging stereotypes and public representations. Positions of power and ‘the male gaze’ are represented by provoking artworks that point to fluidity rather than giving conclusive solutions.

Seeing Margaret Atwood interviewed by Irenosen Okojie was riveting and important for my research. She spoke about Cat’s Eye and Alias Grace, but above all the event was centred on The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments. She spoke about her female characters and the risk of backlashes against feminist achievements by conservative movements. Though her vision might seem bleak sometimes, she is hopeful that things can be changed. She said that it is possible to reverse climate change issues as well as totalitarian regimes, which always fail at a certain point. She is hopeful, though she doesn’t believe in legacy and expectations or in perfection. She said that she is suspicious of perfection and expectations are disappointing. She also spoke about the film adaptations of Alias Grace and The Handmaid’s Tale, about her readings and the author who has influenced her the most, surprisingly Beatrix Potter. I found her final remarks about literature inspiring. She said that a piece of literature is not a message but ‘an experience you have to go through’, like Dante in Inferno.

Before leaving Birmingham, I had my shopping tour, of course: charity shops and Primark. I found a black mini-skirt with daisies embroidered for my daughter Valentina (size 8, she is so tiny) and some Christmas stuff. Primark was huge (the world’s biggest one, they say), a megastore. It is on five floors with a Disney area and a Disney café. In the mezzanine there is a restaurant and a café with comfortable sitting areas. It was packed with people of all ages dragging trolleys and carrying bags full of Primark things. They were strolling around as if in a high street or in a theme park of sorts. It is a place where you can spend a day. I loved it. I found something to buy, of course as Christmas is near and I am already preparing the presents to bring to Italy.

In the last months I was prolific as usual in producing reviews and articles. Here are some links:

Some of my poems have been published or are going to be published soon:

‘Cooking Betrayal’ in South 60
‘What I was leaving’ in The Blue Nib 40
‘Cyclamens for my Mother’ in Alternative Truths (Dempsey&Windle)
‘Stars and Flags’ in Ink, Sweat and Tears
‘Dispersing your ashes’ in The High Window

My PhD carries on with some small crisis as I am finalizing my thesis and it seems very hard to make it work near perfection. In the meantime, I returned to academic mentoring, this time at UCA in Farnham. It is a pleasant place to work, full of artists, full of colours. I am also carrying on with volunteering shifts at The Lightbox, though I have less time as I am working.  At the Lightbox I met members of Woking Art Society and I decided to join it together with my son Francesco, who loves painting and art. We are attending their meeting once a month at the Vyne in Knaphill and visit their exhibitions. We attended an inspiring workshop too, with Liz Seward at Brookwood and I am planning to go back to drawing and painting though slowly as my priority is my PhD thesis now.

Saturday 9 November 2019

My half term week and other bits and pieces

I had a good half term week with my husband and my son Francesco who were at home for the holiday. I meant to live it in full, absorbing everything. During the weekend we visited my son
Lorenzo and my daughter in law Layla who live in Leeds, such a lively town ideal for shopping and sightseeing. We had a tour of charity shops where I found pin brooches for my mum and Halloween things for my daughter Valentina. We visited Leeds Art Gallery, which is not a big museum but has interesting pieces as well as a well-supplied shop with original ceramics and beautiful jewellery. The nineteenth century room featured a ravishing Alpine landscape by Gustave Doré, ‘The Shadow of Death’ by William Holman Hunt and some good pictures of John Atkinson Grimshaw. There were also two impressive sculptures by Barbara Hepworth and two by Antony Gormley. At the upper floor there was an enthralling exhibition of contemporary art, ‘Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2019’. It displayed works from UK art schools. I was attracted and intrigued by various pieces such as Lian Ashley Clark’s ‘A house with Boobs For Roof Tiles’, Alexei Alexander Izmaylov’s ‘Lape sul Naso’ (Bee on
the nose), with an intentional misspelling (‘Lape’ should be ‘L’ape’ in Italian but it probably alludes to other meanings), Becca May Collins’s ‘Tops, Tall’ and the satiric piece by Eliot Lord, ‘Boris Can’t Get Clean’. The collection also includes artists as important as Francis Bacon, Edgar Degas and Stanley Spencer. At the ground floor there was a display of wooden sculptures, ‘Woodwork: a family tree of sculptures’. It displayed objects from Africa, China,
India and Britain from nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Seeing some African striking wooden pieces side by side to contemporary sculptures was thought-provoking. They shared a unique interpretation of the human body in different forms, different ways of expressing reality that emphasise extreme originality and reveal diverse points of view.

At the shop I found postcards of works by famous Japanese artists such as Hiroshige and Hokusai. They were not on display but are part of Leeds Museums and Galleries collection. Afterwards we had a delicious dinner at Bibis Italianissimo, the best Italian restaurant in Leeds, and the following day we went to see my autistic daughter Valentina, who lives in a residential school near Doncaster. We brought her a lot of Halloween stuff. She enjoyed everything, stuck the stickers to the windows, ate the sweets and dressed up in the Halloween outfit, black fake
leather trousers and top, glittering pumpkin mask and a sparkling cape. On the way to the restaurant she spotted a gorgeous evening gown which looked like a Jack-o-lantern. Luckily the shop was closed as she really wanted to buy it, but we can print the picture for her. At the restaurant she had a big dinner: prawn cocktail, polpetti spaghetti, ice cream and chocolate fudge.

My husband and I had a wonderful day out in London too. Well, the weather was not exactly wonderful, it was rainy and windy, but we spent most of our time inside at the British Museum visiting the exhibition Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art, which is on until 26 January 2020.  The exhibition mainly explores the concept of Orientalism highlighted in Edward Said’s seminal oeuvre. Said pointed out how the west manipulated the concept of eastern culture to demonstrate that the white coloniser is more civilized and therefore culturally superior, while at the same time they exploited their resources. But Orientalism is not only that, as the exhibition well explains. The relationship between Europe and the east dates to the Roman empire
and earlier, and became increasingly aggressive and difficult during the Middle Ages. The crusades meant to free the Holy Land, which was holy for the Muslims too, as well as part of Europe occupied by the Arabs, such as Spain and, later, Greece during the Ottoman empire. What happened was a mutual cultural influence in art and in literature (for example, the influence of One Thousand and One Nights by the legendary Persian queen Scheherazade on western storytelling) as the exhibition shows. This interaction was based on commerce at first (just think of Venetian trades with the east) that consequently led to curiosity and interest in each other’s cultural aspects. It can be synthesised in a Venn diagram where the two cultures in part overlapped enriching each other.

The display is plentiful of precious objects such as plates, vases, tiles, jewels, interiors, etc., that reveal how materials and patterns were imported and used to produce sophisticated objects for European markets. A good presentation of pictures by minor and famous artists testify the influence of eastern settings, customs and art on the west. The works by Jean-Léon Gérôme (‘Costumes’) and Cesare dell’Acqua (‘Oriental Woman’), for example, are a sort of photographic reportage of eastern customs seen from European view. The pictures by famous painter, such as Picasso, Ingres and
Delacroix, interpret the east in a more dynamic and challenging way. However, they are inevitably linked to voyeurism and eroticism, according to the western cliché about the east, especially about eastern women. At the end of the exhibition, interesting works by women artists show how western vision missed, and is still missing, the role of women in eastern culture. In the past her role was exclusively connected to the odalisques in the harem often depicted naked, a cliché that stuck. A 3 minutes’ video, ‘Harem 2009’, by the Turkish artist Inci Eviner, ironizes on the stereotype of the objectified and sexualised eastern woman. The video starts in an early 19th century setting based on engravings by Antoine Ignace Melling. It is a street with edifices on both sides looking like a brothel or prison cells. Then women figures appear performing repetitive actions that mock, imitate and challenge the western clichés of oriental woman. They dress and undress, dance, read, practice musical theory, exercise, cook, wield a weapon. They are creative and active, aware of their potentials and power. The
environment is open though circumscribed, but not secluded. This is an interesting thought-provoking exhibition that leaves the viewer with unanswered questions, such as to what extend is it possible a real understanding or integration between eastern and western culture? But maybe this is not necessary. I prefer to think about reciprocal respect in a vision of difference and mutual cultural enrichment that does not necessarily imply merging.

The free exhibitions in rooms 90 and 91 are stimulating as well. The first section is dedicated to portraits and woodblock prints by Käthe Kollwitz, then there is a part about contemporary drawings from 1970 until now, and finally Sir Stamford Raffles’s collection of Southeast Asian objects. I found Kollwitz’s work very skilful and striking in its darkness. The woodblock printings have stylised
images that depict in an essential way the hardships and tragedies of the first world war. Desperation and death are evoked with dramatic traits that leave no space to hope or forgiveness.

The contemporary drawings on display offer a wide range of provocative, highly creative and diversified examples of today’s art. From Grayson Perry to David Hockney, Gwen Hardie, Jan Vanriet, Ellen Gallagher and others. They show different techniques and an unrelenting exploration of differing media together with a constant questioning of forms and concepts that inevitably lead to political and social protest.

Sir Stamford Raffles was part of the Imperialist establishment that worked for the British Empire in Java and Sumatra. He collected a great deal of materials from manuscripts to masks, puppets, musical instruments and religious sculptures as well as drawings of religious buildings. They are objects that not only testify the richness of those cultures but also the collective practices and curiosity of the colonisers who were inevitably influenced by those ideas. Beautiful Wayang Topeng masks and Golek Klitik and Kulit puppets on display were used for traditional performances in dances and puppet theatre.

We also visited the new exhibition of the Royal Watercolour society at Bankside Gallery, on until 9th November. The leading theme is The Art of Travel, but it is loosely interpreted by the various artists. Beside the striking abstract work by my friend Geoffrey Pimlott, I admired the works of Jill Leman, Angie Lewin and John Grossley. All the pictures are unique and perfectly executed, though very different one from the other. The watercolours by Leman and Lewin are figurative and delicate, while Grossley depicts with strong bold colours. It is a remarkable display, inspirational for artists and non-artists in the subjects chosen and in the mastery of the use of different media.
In the evening we went to celebrate our 27th wedding anniversary in a top-notch Italian restaurant: Osso Buco at Weybridge ( We had their specialities, stuffed polpo (octopus), tonnarelli with ricotta (sort of ‘plump’ ravioli), salami with tartufo (truffle) and risotto pescatora (with seafood). They were superb, real specialities. The atmosphere was demure but very Italian.

On Sunday there was a moving celebration at Brookwood Military Cemetery to commemorate the fallen. I never miss it. The Italian flag, the music, songs of the First World War and the Mass, help me not to forget the dead soldiers and their sacrifice, reminiscent of a less happy and plentiful time that may come back.