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Friday, 17 April 2015

Painting of the Month (53): April 2015: JMW Turner

Rain, Speed and Steam: The Great Western Railway
JMW Turner, 1844, Oil on Canvas
The French Impressionists acknowledged their debt to Turner and you can see why in this late masterpiece. The newly-laid Great Western Railway line ran from London to Bristol and Exeter. In this painting the train is viewed passing over Maidenhead Viaduct across the River Thames looking back east toward London. In his most famous painting, 'The Fighting Temeraire', Turner seemed to be mourning the passing of the old ways as the new took over. In this one he appears a little more sympathetic to the new technology although I think there is some ambiguity. A tiny hare can just about be seen in the right-hand corner of the painting (with enlargement). This has been cited as a reference to the limits of technology while others believe the animal is running in fear of the new machinery and Turner meant to hint at the danger of man's new technology destroying the inherent sublime elements of nature. A little easier to see is the little boat on the river to the left, which may have the same purpose. Apparently there is a ploughman in the distance, which I cannot see at all, presumably with a similar function.
Turner has very cleverly implied the speed of the train by the use of perspective with a central vanishing point which gives a steep, foreshortened view, drawing the eye strongly towards the centre thus conveying the feeling of high speed.

A further interesting point is the modern theory to why this master inspired the Impressionists with his 'fuzzy skies': towards the end of his life he was suffering with cataracts.
Listening to: Los Cuates De Sinaloa - 'Negro Y Azul: The Ballad of Heisenberg' from Breaking Bad. You can listen here

Monday, 6 April 2015

We Real Cool

We Real Cool is a brilliant short poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, an African-American lady who lived in Chicago and wrote poems about urban life there. This poem, written in 1959, is small and exquisite like a jewel. The piece supports endless worthwhile analysis of its meaning but beware – its simplicity is deceptive!
Gwendolyn Brooks 1917-2000
The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike Straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We

Die soon.

The sub-title, "The Pool Players. Seven at the Golden Shovel" sets the scene just like, say, a Shakespearean stage instruction such as "Outside the Castle. Enter a Servant." It carries a lot of information for the reader and is the only really specific information in the poem. The poet has painted a picture; there are seven young guys playing pool. The number seven is often associated with gambling and the name 'The Golden Shovel' is very ironic. Pool halls are dingy, badly-lit places and 'Golden' implies sunlight, wealth and health - all absent from the scene. A shovel implies manual labour (also absent!) and hints at grave-digging which may be a signal for that punch-in-the-face moment of the last sentence.
The poem only consists of a couple of dozen words, all of a single syllable but it is laden with meaning. The poet is imagining what she thinks the young men are thinking. "We real cool. We left school." speaks volumes and we may infer that if they didn't leave or skip school they may have been saying "We are real cool. "We lurk late" hints at various possibilities of misdemeanour's. "Striking straight" implies a long time spent playing pool.
"Sing sin" hints, again at possible anti-social activities. And "We thin gin" refers to the practice among young guys in the 50s to add water to Gin, the most popular spirit at that time. In the final stanza the word Jazz is used,  like the first word of the previous four lines, as an adjective. There are many differing versions of what that means, some of them unsavoury. The poetess has coyly let people make there own interpretation of it - I will do the same! So we have a bunch of school-age kids, possibly gambling, drinking and getting up to no good but we should be careful of rushing to judgement. It may all be a show of bravado.....
In the final sentence, "We die soon" Gwendolyn Brooks has probably switched to what she thinks they should be thinking or she fears may be their destiny.
The achievement of this poem is to paint a picture as powerful as a realist painting by Edward Hopper (look him up!) but with far less brush-stokes.
Listening to Clean Up Woman by Betty Wright. It has wonderful guitar and bass playing. Just try not tapping you foot to it! Listen here.