Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Emil Nolde at the NGI

An edited version of this profile appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 25 February 2018.

Emil Nolde loved the Nazis but this love was unrequited. Heinrich Heydrich described him as “the notorious art Bolshevik and leader of degenerate art”, and over 1,000 of his works were confiscated by the regime. This was the same Nolde who asserted: “I have always and continually stood up for the National Socialist cause with the fullest conviction at home and abroad”. One of the most poignant and ironic scenes from his life shows the once-feted artist furtively painting small water colours in isolated corners of his house in Seebüll, Northern Germany. The Nazis had issued a Malverbot forbidding him from working and he had to follow his vocation surreptitiously between 1942 and 1945. The 1,300 or so watercolours from this period are referred to as his ‘unpainted pictures’. They are small expressions of bigger ambitions. Many formed the basis of larger oils that he painted after 1946 when the Nazi storm had passed. While we can sympathize with the constrained artist, we are also aware that he escaped the fate of Jewish contemporaries of his such as Charlotte Salomon and Felix Nussbaum, both of whom died in the gas chambers.

The Emil Nolde exhibition consisting of 120 works (oils, water colours and prints) is a major coup for Sean Rainbird and his team at the National Gallery of Ireland (NGI). It keeps up the momentum established since its reopening by two very successful shows featuring Caravaggio and Vermeer. However, in scale and career-covering comprehensiveness it surpasses both these earlier shows. Nolde is a significant figure in art history being one of the key 20th century Expressionists. After a late start, he had a long career, and despite his erstwhile affiliations lived to enjoy the spoils of his success. The West German Government awarded him its highest civilian honour, the German Order of Merit, in 1952.

The title of the exhibition, Colour is Life, is apt. The vibrancy and beauty of his images, especially his flower paintings, are evidence of how besotted he was with colour. In his autobiography he declared that “colour is strength, strength is life”. This is not the timid colour of costive hothouse flowers but the wild and vibrant reds, yellows and shimmering blues that he encountered in the South Sea Islands and in the enormous skies and windswept marshlands of his homeland in Northern Germany – between the turbulent North Sea and the more demure Baltic. Colour made his work expressive. He saw it as: “heralding happiness, passion and love, blood and death”.

Nolde was born Emil Hansen in 1867 in the village of Nolde, three miles inside the current Danish border. During his early years this area was annexed by Prussia and became part of Germany. Nolde retained an affection for both these countries but primarily for the area where he was born. So much so that when he married the Danish actress Ada Vilstrup In 1902 he changed his name from Hansen to Nolde. This dedication to his homeland, and to the Germanic notion of Heimat, goes some way to explaining his embracing of National Socialism and Hitler. In 1933 at a dinner in Heinrich Himmler’s house he declared: “the Führer was great and noble in his efforts and a man of action blessed with genius.” It does not however explain his anti-Semitism. At one stage he denounced his fellow-artist  Max Pechstein to Goebbels as a Jew. Nolde’s rows with Max Liberman and other Jews in the Berlin art establishment did nothing to ameliorate this prejudice.

Nolde came from peasant stock and started life as a wood worker – a skill he translated into some memorable woodcuts in later life. He studied carving and illustration in Flensburg and worked in furniture factories to earn a living. His travels took him to Berlin, Karlsruhe and Berlin and in 1889 he gained admittance to the School of Applied Arts in Karlsruhe. He spent a number of years afterwards taking private classes and visiting Paris where he immersed himself in the Impressionist movement. He was 31 before he began to began to work full-time as an artist and it wan’t until around 1912 that he began to achieve a degree of success. He was courted by Kirchner and became, briefly, a member of the Dresden expressionist group Die Brucke and he also exhibited with Kandinsky’s Munich-based group Der Blaue Reiter in 1912. In his autobiography Nolde acknowledged the influence of Manet, Cezanne and Van Gogh but most of all he wanted to forge a German identity for his art. “My art is German, strong, austere and profound”. Some of his earlier religious paintings hark back to Matthias Grunewald – often referred to as a proto-expressionist. There are echoes of Gruenwald’s magnificent Isenheim Altarpiece in Nolde’s 9-piece polyptych Life of Christ. Ironically this latter work was given a central position in the Nazi’s Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937. Goebbels was an early fan and at one stage hoped that German Expressionism would become the house style of the Third Reich. Hitler however had other plans. He saw all modern art as degenerate and demanded a return to the classical style. A style that Nolde, to his credit (and to which he owed his escape from post-war retribution), refused to embrace.

The 120 works in this exhibition, apart from a couple of works from the NGI’s permanent collection, come directly from the Nolde foundation in Seebüll. The work ranges across Nolde’s career embracing his visits to the South Seas, his travels in Siberia, his experiences in the cafes and nightclubs of Munich and Berlin, and rural life in Northern Germany. His tribal masks and grotesque figures denote his admiration for the Belgian artist James Ensor with whom he spent time early in his career. The exhibition is arranged thematically rather then chronologically. The themes are: Idea of Home; the Metropolis; Conflict and Ecstasy; the South Seas and the Exotic; and Sea and Garden pictures. There are so many highlights that it seems invidious to single out a few, but here goes: The dramatic woodcut Prophet with its hints of El Greco; the scarlet drama of Large Poppies (Red, Red, Red); his 1917 Self-portrait with that intense blue-eyed stare that evokes Van Gogh; and above all the dramatic skyscapes such as Light Breaking Through.

Half way through the exhibition the NGI, the will swap all works on paper for others sharing the same themes. This makes a virtue of the necessity to reduce exposure to light and preserve these delicate works. It gives the Gallery the opportunity to double the number of water colours on display and further broaden this already comprehensive survey of Nolde’s work..

When considering Nolde, Auden’s views on the separation of the artist and the work seem apt:

“Time that with this strange excuse/Pardoned Kipling and his views,/And will pardon Paul Claudel,/Pardons him for writing well.”

If we were to scrutinize the lives of many artists we would find much that is distasteful – Caravaggio and Picasso spring to mind. But we tend to regard the sublime art as somehow detached from the flawed life. The more so as time passes. Emil Nolde’s political naïveté and his anti-Semitism do not prevent us from admiring and enjoying his dramatic and timeless paintings.

National Gallery of Ireland

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Observation on the Six Nations - So Far

So far, so predictable except I didn’t see Scotland winning last Saturday – passion and intensity undid a complacent England. We were very poor against France and were lucky to escape. It was the first match so it must be down to getting our systems up and running. There was a singular lack of creativity that luckily was not evident in the next two matches. Earls has been the outstanding player in terms of making things happen in all three matches. This is a late flowering in a career that was more steady and efficient than brilliant up to now. Elsewhere the front five have been rock steady and the back row, especially Stander, have excelled. I think Bundee Aki is a weakish link at centre – especially defensively, and I do wish Rob Kearney would stop running aimlessly into trouble. He’s been at it for years. Centre is a problem area with Henshaw and now Chris Farrell injured and Ringrose ring-rusty.  Sexton and Murray are of course indispensable but it seems that Sexton’s old kicking malaise has resurfaced. I never liked his technique – he sets up and then turns away for a little meander before he eventually strikes. We should never have let Wales get so close. We need a dead-eye dick like Owen Farrell or Halpenny. When we play England every point will count – and I’m not sure Murray’s agricultural style is the answer.

So what next. We shall surely beat Scotland (who won’t be able to crank up the same passion in Dublin) – and I suspect that England will beat a disheveled France in Paris. If we can get a bonus point against Scotland (very do-able) we may have the championship won before the finale at Twickers. We’d be 6 points ahead unless of course England score four tries also – not impossible. The most likely scenario after round 4 is that we’ll play England with them needing a bonus point victory against us and also of course a better points difference. That could turn very nasty but somehow I can’t see Schmidt allowing that to happen. Paddy Power has us at 3/10 to win the Championship - buying money I reckon. The Grand Slam is another matter.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Recent Reads - February 2018

A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin

I do like a blue-stocking and Claire Tomalin is a blue-stocking par excellence. This is the highly readable autobiography of the writer who made the transition from literary journalist to successful biographer of Dickens and Jane Austen. Tomalin doesn’t spare herself unpleasant truths: we hear about her womanizing husband Nicholas Tomalin who was killed while on assignment in Israel, her handicapped son, and the tragedy of her talented daughter who committed suicide. Tomalin was ambitious and a high achiever from university days and made sure she moved in the right circles. There is a certain smugness in her harping on about the intellectual and artistic heft of the area she chose to live in in London.  She bought a house with Nicholas in Gloucester Crescent and her neighbors we are told included Jonathan Miller, Vaughan Williams’ widow Ursula, George and Diana Melly, Beryl Banbridge and Alan Bennett. It seems like a L’Age D’Or for Guardian readers. She ultimately ended up married to Michael Frayn, the playwright, who also happened to be a neighbor in her increasingly gentrified area. She left the Sunday Times on principle at the time of its move to Wapping, and found her true vocation afterwards when she began to write biography. The only weakness in this entertaining read is the way it peters out at the end when she moves from her own life to her explorations of the lives of others. The last 50 pages or so seem rushed and cobbled together.

Form - My Autobiography by Kieran Fallon

This is mainly for those interested in the world of horse-racing. It’s hardly a master-piece of silver-lined prose but unlike most sports biographies it errs on the side of frankness and honesty. Fallon freely admits his cocaine use, his drinking problems and one memorable incident where he dragged a fellow-jockey off a horse (after the winning post it should be said). However, his sincere affection for horses comes across. Retired now, rather than sipping rum in the Bahamas, he still rides out every morning for the sheer love of it. For those who know their racing the best bit are his affectionate pen pictures of characters like Jimmy Fitzgerald, Sir Michael Stoute, and Aidan O’Brien. Of the latter he describes how well O’Brien treats even the most lowly member of staff at Coolmore. He never got close to Henry Cecil (nor, despite tabloid gossip, to his wife)  but nonetheless gives us some respectful insights into that withdrawn and austere figure. The book also contains a tactical master-class on riding in the Derby - a race he won three times.

Wounds - A memoir of War and Love by Fergal Keane

Dark doings down south during the War of Independence and the Civil War that followed. Keane is the son of Abbey actor Eamon Keane who theatre goers in the 60s and 70s will remember - I do. His family came from Listowel and the story centers on the doings of his grandmother’s brother Mick Purtill and his friend Con Brosnan. The murder of an RIC man, Tobias O’Sullivan, and the reverberations within the community in which both the victim and killers lived form the backdrop to an account of those troubled times. It’s a chilling book not least for the implacable righteousness with which the IRA went about their business despite their awareness of the vicious and random brutality from the Tans and the Auxiliaries that would follow. The detailed description of how James Kane was kidnapped and executed by the IRA for being a spy is an intimate account of how these things happened. He was allowed make a will, write letters to his family, and then knelt down with his captors to say a decade of the rosary before they shot the still kneeling man. Hard times.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Dog Shit Debate

There’s been a spate of hysterical outbursts in the media lately about the mortal dangers of dog shit. Some Meath backwoods man, a councillor French, has called for drone surveillance and DNA testing to counter the imminent plague. Environment minister Denis Naughten has got in on the act describing it as “a danger to public health”. Even our ostensibly enlightened local council (DLR) have been placing melodramatic notices (see above) around Killiney suggesting that our children will be blinded unless you pick up after your pooch. The same council might do better by supplying more rubbish bins. There are whole swathes of public walking areas in the borough with no bins at all. Check, for example, the fields and football pitches around Shanganagh.

Now we’re all agreed that dog shit is disgusting and stepping on it is an aesthetic disaster and a practical nuisance. So people should pick it up, especially if it’s on a footpath or in a public area. I’m not sure it’s such a problem in the middle of a field or on a deserted beach where tide and rain will take care of it. But I daren’t say that out loud. However, to suggest that that it’s a health danger is just plain alarmist and untrue. It’s an aesthetic issue and an inconvenience. Good citizens should remove it to make the environment more pleasant for all.

You have as much chance of getting seriously sick from contact with dog shit as you have of being hit by a meteorite. The incidence of toxoplasmosis from uncooked meats is quite high but acquiring it from dogs is extremely uncommon. In the UK and the USA Toxocariasis (acquired from dog faeces), is described as “a rare disease”. It affects 0.00% of the population in the USA. We in Ireland of course don’t keep any statistics.

Anyone who has a dog knows that its favorite indoor pastime is excavating its arse with its tongue. One of its next favorite pastimes is licking its owner on the face with the self same tongue. If dog shit was as toxic as this tribe of ignorant alarmists claim we would be seeing vast numbers of dog owners walking around blind. Their pets replaced, poignantly, by seeing dogs.

It’s disgusting, it’s inconvenient, it’s distasteful but it’s not dangerous. Stop pretending it is.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Gilbert and George at the MAC

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times on 4 February 2018

Gilbert and George’s monumental show at the Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC) in Belfast, is dominated by whippets. Not, alas for dog lovers, the canine kind.These whippets are the small steel containers used for nitrous oxide – a popular recreational drug, especially in the gay community. In the blood-red apocalyptic world depicted in this exhibition, these bomb-shaped objects serve as a metaphor for both the violence and the careless hedonism of our blighted times. Gilbert and George themselves appear in the large pictures in a variety of guises: bemused everyman, appalled witness, shattered victim, or dead-eyed killer. “We are the centre of the art, we are always the centre of the vision”. The show is meant to be provocative. According to curator Hugh Mulholland its aim is: “To force us to examine our complicity in all that is wrong with society”. This is a thread in art that goes back to Goya’s Disasters of War and embraces the likes of Hogarth and Otto Dix.

Gilbert and George have been around as an artistic duo for a remarkable 50 years. Notwithstanding their outsider claims they have slowly morphed into national treasures in the UK. All the signs are there. They won the Turner Prize for their photo montages in 1986. In 2007 they had a retrospective at the Tate Modern that was the largest in that institution’s history. An hour-long interview with Mark Lawson on the BBC in 2011 further confirmed their place in the cultural life of their country. George is the Philip Larkinesque one with the glasses and Gilbert is the shorter one. They met at St. Martin’s College of Art in London in 1967 and have been partners in art and in life ever since. From their base near Brick Lane in East London they issue forth in character every day to pursue their inordinately ordered and well documented lives. “We are the living walking sculptures, walking through London.” It’s amusing to see them slipping into sculpture mode when our photographer began taking photographs. Like well-trained soldiers their arms go down by their sides and they assume the formal position.

When I met them in Belfast a couple of weeks ago I was expecting to encounter them in living sculpture mode – but they seemed perfectly normal and chatty. There was a distinct absence of preciousness or self-importance. But of course back in their early days they published the Laws of Sculptors that promised that they would be “always smartly-dressed, well-groomed, friendly, polite and in complete control”. The latter became evident when I tried unsuccessfully to steer the conversation away from their well-rehearsed beliefs towards more personal matters, such as Gilbert’s background in the South Tyrol. They were dressed in very smart tweed suits, one dark green, the other rust red. When I remarked on them George told me they were Donegal Tweed. “We’ve given up on Harris Tweed since the split.” This cryptic remark was aimed at Scotland and its import became clear later when they aired their views on Brexit.

Their dedication and persistence over 50 years clearly springs from a profound belief in what they do. It has always been thus. Back in 1969 after they left art college they were miffed to find themselves excluded from a major contemporary sculpture show When Attitudes Become Form at the ICA. “We felt outsiders at the beginning.” They proceeded to crash the opening and perform their Singing Sculpture routine for the delectation of the throng. The event was attended by the hugely influential German gallerist Konrad Fischer who invited them to show in his gallery in Düsseldorf (alongside such luminaries as Sol LeWitt and Bruce Nauman) and so their career was launched. They remain grateful to Fischer “everybody said no and he said yes”. Given that you can’t sell a singing sculpture, their early shows also included charcoal drawings and eventually they began to use photography and build their large-scale photo-montages.

The images in Scapegoating are bizarre, violent, and sinister. The predominance of women in burqas and bearded men in robes infers an Islamic source for the violence and mayhem. But they claim to have many Moslem friends around Brick Lane which has a large mosque. They also referred to the late Dutch film maker Theo Van Gogh as “a liberal and a bigot” because “he spoke against Islam”. When it comes to sexual matters both are ardent libertarians. A triptych containing multiple slogans urges us to:  “Keep a catamite – Snog in the synagogue – Caress a constable” and other more arcane sexual acts. Their tolerance does not extend to loving religion which they pretty much blame for all the ills of the world. Hence: “Beat up a bishop, Piss on a priest, Infibulate an iman”. Contradictions occur here also. We are urged confusingly to: “Masturbate a monk” and “Fuck the vicar”.

When asked what brought them to Northern Ireland their simple response was “Hugh just asked us.” Mulholland sees Northern Ireland “as a divided and fractured society at times unable to confront uncomfortable truths.” He maintains that Gilbert and George place themselves “and by extension us” within their work. Their concerns are universal – these pictures could be shown in any Western capital. They have no issues with Northern Ireland politics specifically or its conservative stance on social issues. When I mentioned that gay marriage was still banned there, they were unmoved. “It’s not relevant for our generation”, George maintained, “it’s too much like copying straight people.” He went on to express admiration for cult writer John Rechy, the author of gay classics such as City of Night and Sexual Outlaw. They have a civil partnership which presumably takes care of inheritance issues. Rather surprisingly, considering one is Italian and one is English, they are ardently pro-Brexit. George seemed to do most of the talking on political matters:  “We’re pro-Brexit of course. Who is running the whole show”, he asks rhetorically, “Germany and France of course”. He mentions that he was bombed out of his childhood home in Plymouth by German planes, so this animosity may have long roots..

For artists whose work sells for substantial six-figure sums they have a refreshingly democratic attitude towards the product, encouraging versions that can be distributed widely and cheaply. Gilbert boasted that “In London we signed 4,000 posters at £10”. In 2007 they allowed access to one of their posters on the Guardian and BBC web sites for 48 hours. They were delighted that subsequently, wherever they went, they were approached by people to sign them. “Do you know that lovely young actor Luke Evans, he’s unconventionally good-looking ?” George asked me. “He downloaded one and asked us to sign it in a New York hotel”. On the Friday after the opening in Belfast, they sat in the gallery for three hours signing catalogues.

When I queried them about their own tastes the surprised me with their enthusiasm for AE (George Russell) – whose mystical visions seem far from their hard-edged realism. They recently discovered pictures by him in a theosophical library in London and professed themselves beguiled by them. “We think he’s a great artist. You should have an AE Museum”. They were bemused at his seemingly lowly rating at home. “Why are his paintings so inexpensive. He’s madly underpriced.”

Although Gilbert was born a Catholic and George a Protestant, they eschew all religion, while claiming to be “more Christian than most of our detractors”. A barb aimed at the Rev. David McIlveen (father of the serving DUP MP) amongst others. Their previous show in Belfast in 1999 was described as "an assault upon decency and morality". As we walked out to get some photographs I asked George about McIlveen’s attack on their work. That doesn’t bother us he maintained. “Did you notice that his name has EVIL in it and our name has GOD in it. True?”

Mon-Sun: 10am-7pm