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Sunday, 30 April 2017

Painting of the Month (71) May 2017: Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) was an American asrtist most famous for his cover illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post. He contributed over 300 covers during a period of more than 40 years. This picture served as a propaganda poster in World War 2 and was used as the magazine's cover in May 1943. Women were encouraged to fill the jobs left vacant when the men went to war and Rosie was a kind of ideal. She became a feminist icon.
Norman Rockwell, Rosie The Riveter, 1943
Rockwell's model was a nineteen-year-old phone operator named Mary Doyle Keefe. She was a very petite young lady and said that Rockwell phoned her after the painting was completed to apologise for making her look so big. That was not an accident of course; the idea was to show that women could be strong and easily do men's jobs. The picture has iconic status in the United States and was sold to a museum for $5 million in 2002. Rosie is seen eating a ham sandwich with a huge (light-weight fake) riveting gun on her lap. She has her foot placed, symbolically, on a copy of Hitler's Mein Kampf. The picture was sent on a touring exhibition to encourage people to buy war bonds along with a set of four pictures called Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Fear, Freedom from Want and Freedom of Speech.

The Four Freedoms
Rockwell has often been dismissed as a proper artist largely because of the perceived "cartoonish" sentimentality of his subjects. Critics would say that he is an illustrator rather than an artist. He had no problem with that and even referred to himself as an illustrator. However, I think he is hard done by. His paintings show obvious great skill and technique with superb compositions. His work was not always sentimental. Consider the picture below.
Norman Rockwell, The Problem We All Live With, 1964
This a very serious picture. The little girl is being escorted into a school in the south by US Marshalls. They are headless and the girl is highlighted to make sure that she captures your attention. Rockwell made her dress white (it was dark grey in reality) so that it formed a  high contrast with her dark skin. The rest of the picture is fairly 'grey' with the shocking exception of the rotten tomatoes that have been thrown and the yellow armbands. Also the whole picture forms a golden rectangle as does the ratio, top left from her chest. None of this is accidental, including the way she appears the be 'boxed-in' by the marshals.
On a lighter note, much of the imagery in the film Forrest Gump is based on Rockwell's work.
Rockwell                        Young Forrest Gump
And finally a look at a very typical and much reproduced early work:
Gazing at the Moon, 1926
I am listening to Betty Wright's Clean Up Woman. A brilliant 70s soul recording with fabulous guitar playing by Willie "Little Beaver" Hale.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Esprit de l'escalier

Esprit de l'escalier, from the French literally meaning 'staircase wit' is a beautiful phrase which is used in English because staircase or escalator wit sounds clumsy and inadequate. The pronunciation is 'espree de lescaliay' (click the words to hear it on You Tube).
It is defined as "A witty remark thought of too late, on the way home [or as you go upstairs]; the clever comment you wish you had delivered". We've all been there!
A good example is from Seinfeld (which is packed with examples):
George has a conflict with one of his co-workers named Reilly, who notices George stuffing himself with shrimp cocktail at a meeting. He remarks: "Hey George, the ocean called; they're running out of shrimp." Slow-witted George cannot think of a comeback until later, while driving to the tennis club to meet Jerry. His comeback is: "Well, the Jerk Store called, and they're running out of you." George becomes obsessed with recreating the encounter so that he can make use of his comeback.    Jerry, Elaine and Kramer disapprove of "jerk store" as a comeback mainly because "there are no jerk stores." Elaine suggests, "Your cranium called. It's got some space to rent." Jerry offers, "The zoo called. You're due back by six." Kramer finally suggests that George simply tell Reilly that he had sex with his wife.
This figure of speech should not be confused with a regular witty response. For example:
John Montagu: "Sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox."
John Wilkes:"That will depend, my lord, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress."
It wouldn't have been the same if Wilkes had written him a letter the next day with his riposte, would it?
I'm listening to Neil Young's Harvest Moon. After all these years I still enjoy hearing it.Click the title to listen.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Jackson Browne

I really like the music of Jackson Browne and have been listening to it for many years and have seen him in wonderful live-performance concerts a couple of times. He writes or co-writes most of his own material and is an excellent lyricist.
So, for your delectation and delight I have made links to five of his best songs on You Tube. Just click on the titles to be taken there!
Jackson Browne, then and now.
We begin with a recording made with the talented Irish musician Sharon Shannon of Man of Constant Sorrow.
Next is a song that he has to play in every live show. This live version is out of synch but it is from a unique album which featured all new songs recorded live in various places including backstage and hotel bedrooms but mostly on stage. For this song he always has the road crew on stage gathered around the piano to sing the backing. Enjoy Rosie.
This is a song which my wife Leah really loves and so do I. It's very different from his usual style but I never tire of listening to Linda Paloma.
Next up is a wistful song called Jamaica Say You Will. It has been recorded by Joe Cocker, Tom Rush, The Byrds and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band among others.
Lastly one his very best songs: The Pretender. A wry commentary on contemporary life with superb lyrics:
"I'm gonna be a happy idiot
And struggle for the legal tender,
Where the ads take aim and lay their claim
To the heart and soul of the spender.
And believe in whatever may lie
In those things that money can buy
Though true love could have been a contender.
Are you there? Say a prayer for The Pretender
Who started out so young and strong
Only to surrender."

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Wanstead House

This is the tragic story of Wanstead House, a fabulous Great House which once stood in what is now Wanstead Park in suburban East London on the Essex border. It was recognised as one of the finest houses in Europe, a rival to Versailles. It's not there anymore and this the story of what the building and grounds were like and why the house is gone.
In England it was on a par with Kensington and Blenheim Palaces and it's architecture influenced the design of the Mansion House in central London, (the residence and office of the Lord Mayor of London).
Wanstead has been been occupied back into pre-history with stone-age flint axe-heads being discovered and a magnificent Roman mosaic was destroyed when Wanstead House was being developed. It was a Royal Deer Park bought by Henry VII in 1499 and his unruly son, the future Henry VIII, spent time there, where he could could be kept under parental control. There was a former palace on the site which was visited by Kings and Queens. Elizabeth I rode out there to meet her half-sister Mary with 1,000 knights on horse!
So the area was well-established when. in 1667 Sir Joshua Child, head of the fabulously wealthy East India Company purchased the estate which eventually fell into the hands of his son Sir Richard Child who commissioned the leading architect Colen Campbell to build a great house in 1715. It had a 60 feet wide portico supported by six Corinthian pillars in the neo-classical style which was quite innovative at that time and there were over 70 rooms. The estate passed down the family and it eventually came into the possession of the heiress Catherine Tylney-Long who, at the age of sixteen became the richest non-royal person in the land.
The old house and gardens in 1710 shortly before the new building was begun
Wanstead House at it's finest

Sir Richard Child & family at Wanstead House
By William Hogarth, 1738
The house was lavishly decorated with murals and painted ceilings and was furnished to an extremely high standard. Members of the French Bourbon family were guests when they had to escape the French Revolution.  Extensive grounds were laid out and a series of large inter-connected lakes were
created in the extensive grounds. Naturally Catherine had many suitors whom she rejected, including the future William IV, uncle to Queen Victoria. Eventually she succumbed to the charms of William Wellesley-Pole, nephew of the Duke of Wellington. The man was a complete scoundrel and as soon as he got his hands on the huge fortune he began to throw lavish parties and spending at an alarming rate. He eventually gambled away all of the money. At the age of 34 Catherine died of either suicide or a broken heart. Her ghost is said to haunts the area nowadays.
Bankruptcy meant the building had to be put up for sale in 1824. It had cost an incredible £360,000 to build but, as no buyer could be found, it was sold off brick-by-brick including all of the interior fittings, raising just £10,000. England had tragically lost one of it's greatest buildings.
Today the beautiful wild park is a tranquil place to stroll around the lakes or in the woods full of oak and sweet chestnut trees. There is plenty of wildlife to see including stoats, weasels and herons. A large part of Wanstead Park is now a golf course. The ruined grotto was where Robert Mitchum filmed the denouement of The Big Sleep. Although within in the London Borough of Redbridge it is officially a part of Epping Forest and is administered by the City of London Corporation. Many of the young families enjoying the bluebells and playing with their children have no idea of it's past and sad history.
All that remains on the grounds today are the ruined Grotto and the Temple, now a Museum
I'm listening to Bette Midler singing 
John Prine's lovely, sad song
Hello in There. You can hear it here.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Painting of the Month (70) April 2017: Chagall

Marc Chagall was born in 1887 near Vitebsk, Belarus, at that time a part of the Russian Empire. He occupies two main areas of modern painting;  Picasso described him as the last of the great modern colourists and he is also considered to be the pre-eminent Jewish painter of the twentieth century. He was uneasy with that description because, although Jewish themes dominated much of his work he was very interested in modern painting generally.
I find this picture very romantic. It shows him with the love of his life, his first wife Bella. He made a few versions of this picture and many others where they are floating through the air in a dream-like state. In this painting they are floating above his home town of Vitebsk. Below we can see the houses but we are not looking up at the couple, instead we are at the same height as them and looking directly across. The painting is heavily cubist-influenced – note the way that their clothing is beginning to be depicted as a series of individual shapes. Chagall went to Paris at a time when Cubism was the major movement in painting although he returned home to paint this just before the Russian revolution.
Portrait of Chagall by his first art teacher
who, it seems, could not paint hands.
There is a suggestion of the Earth’s curvature which accents their height. The symbolism indicates that the couple felt “lighter than air” because of the love they felt for each other. They seem to almost be swimming (I don’t care about splitting infinitives!), in a kind of back-stroke but they are floating as well. So, active and passive at the same time!
Although this is an oil painting on canvas, the houses have the look of a Japanese watercolour and I love the way one of the houses is painted entirely in red. Incidentally, this picture was once considered to be almost pornographic because she is showing some bare wrist!
I don’t want to over-analyze here because I feel that the beauty of the work speaks for itself. Chagall died as recently as 1985 at the age of ninety-seven.
 I'm listening to to the wonderful Joan Baez singing the achingly sad 
Jesse a beautiful song written by Janice Ian. Listen here.