Thursday, 14 December 2017

Bergman in fashion



Mighty Ingmar, that is, the centenary of whose birth we celebrate next year, not wonderful Ingrid, though I'll give her a repeat look-in at the end here. The above image of one of Bergman's greatest leading ladies, Eva Dahlbeck, in Smiles of a Summer Night, was used in a colour ad to make me slaver at the prospect of Bergman à la mode at the Hallwyl Museum (Hallwylska museet).To be honest, I wasn't so sure about the mode bit, but anything about the master while I was in Stockholm for the HK Gruber festival at the Konserthuset had to be embraced.

The actuality, curated by set and costume designer Anna Bergman and Nils Harning, teacher of Costume/Props at Stockholm University of the Arts, exceeded my wildest dreams, even if the setting, No. 4 Hamngatan close to Dramaten, the National Theatre, is a fascinating but oppressive monument to often dubious bourgeois taste. It was built for Walther and Wilhelmina von Hallwyl between 1893 and 1898 to designs by Isak Gustaf Clason. The exterior is a fanciful combination of Venetian Late Gothic and Early Spanish Renaissance.


Admission to the main rooms on the first floor - I suppose one should say piano nobile - has been free ever since the Museum, bequeathed by the Hallwyls to the nation on condition that the rooms stayed the same, opened to the public in 1938. Should you begrudge paying 80 SEK for the bulk of the exhibition in the smaller, mostly unfurnished rooms on the second floor - and you'll see further down how that would be a false economy - you may still coo at the very first room you see, shrine to the Ekdahl family Christmas, if you love Fanny and Alexander anything like as much as I do (it's still my No. 1 favourite film). By the way, these are all my photos, with permission; the catalogue doesn't have pictures of the exhibition displays, and it's all in Swedish, otherwise I'd have bought it.


There are the maids' costumes, the one worn by Pernilla August (then Östergren) as the vivacious Maj in the centre; there, too, are the gowns for the ladies of the family (the one for Gunn Wållgren's Helena Ekdahl on the right, and for Mona Malm's Alma Ekdahl in the centre).


There, too, next to an Oscar, are Alexander's sailor suit and his teddy.


J actually met the original, Bertil Guve, at a Bergman Centenary launch in London which, regrettably, I didn't make. Very friendly chap, apparently, now an engineer, there with his real-life sister.Testified to Bergman's infinite kindness and consideration on and off set.

The table is laid as for that sumptuous Christmas.


The taste of the Hallwyls, though, is rather more fustily eclectic; as a distinguished actor, presumably with connections in the artistic world, Bergman's Helena favoured something more along the clean, bright lines of the Thielska Galleriet out near the farthermost tip of the Djurgården island, still my favourite building in Stockholm alongside the art deco Konserthuset. The big showoffy room in the Hallwylska has opulent tapestries, an impressive marble relief of Abraham and Isaac above a for-show-only fireplace


and a Steinway model C delivered in 1896. Doughty Wilhelmina wanted more than just the plain pearwood look, so she commissioned Clason to make a 'Baroque' parquetry case. Restored in 1990, the piano is in fine working order, they tell me.


The exhibition has two costumes from that vulgar mess Now About These Women, one of the few Bergman films I can't stand (because, unlike Smiles, it's not funny. I don't like The Silence either, but I don't dispute its finer points).


As for the paintings in the Hallwyl collection, there are few that show much imagination other than the portrait tucked away in the corner of Walter's smoking room.


Collections of pipes, porcelain and other fripperies didn't do it for me, but at least there are a few more objects of Bergmania scattered around the other piano nobile rooms, like this costume (there's jewellery too) from the austerely masterful The Virgin Spring,


and a model of Bergman's maternal grandmother's home in Uppsala as recreated for the Bille August-directed The Best Intentions.


Costumes from that are in the first room of the exhibition's paying part upstairs


alongside some of Bergman's own working clothes (men do get a look-in from time to time). Of course I love the jacket matched to angel wings,


echoing the treasurable photo of Bergman wearing those from the nativity scene of Fanny and Alexander.


Outside in the hallway there's jewellery worn by Ewa Fröling as Emilie Ekdahl, the mother of Fanny and Alexander.


The generous placard tells us that it symbolises security for the children - the only time Emilie doesn't wear it is when she goes to live with the 'bad father' Bishop - and quotes Fröling: 'I remember when I first saw the "dog-collar"...A piece of jewellery joined together by older pieces. Extremely beautiful'. There's more jewellery, the engagement brooch worn by Bergman's mother (on whom Emilie was partly modelled), placed together with a letter below the striking photo of the parents, not quite easy - just, in fact, as played by Samuel Fröler and Pernilla August in The Best Intentions.


Now we head to the heart of the earlier masterpieces - and, in the case of the black and white films there's the fascination of seeing the actual colours we had to imagine. Thus the dress worn by Bibi Andersson as the old professor's youthful crush in Wild Strawberries


and here's striking colour to match the flamboyance of Desiree Armfeldt, the captivating heart of Smiles of a Summer Night as unforgettably played by Eva Dahlbeck.


The room also has two other costumes. As the helpfully translated panels have it, the dress designer Mago - born Max Goldstein, fleeing to Sweden from Berlin 1938 - found 'a creative outlet for his weakness for 1950s silhouettes, where slender waists, ample breasts and shapely hips dominated. As a type of "master of glamour," Mago turned the film's turn of the century into 1950s couture'. As a result Margot Carlqvist's Countess Charlotte 'is draped in duchess and chiffon with an asymmetrical cut'.


To balance, there's the provocative innocence of Ulla Jacobsson's Anne Egerman (cf Sondheim's 'You must meet my wife').


Dahlbeck's red dress is first glimpsed from a very different room.


This is a little masterpiece of exhibition design - a red room with a white dress, Ingrid Thulin's in Cries and Whispers. It mirrors, of course, the essential design concept of that harrowing work of genius.


Creepiness rules in the corridor, as two alcoves give us the clown costume from Sawdust and Tinsel - telling us that Bergman was terrified of clowns, and that he thought white clowns 'mean' - and the God-puppet from Isak's shop of wonders, the 'fourth dimension' of Fanny and Alexander.


Pure enchantment, to the strains of the Christmas-tree decoration music in Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker, opened up in the recreation of the children's room upstairs at grandmother Ekdahl's in the same film.


And there, at the very centre, is the toy theatre with which Alexander is seen playing at the start of the film.


One sumptuous male costume gets a look-in - the kaftan of the caddish actor-seducer played by Hasse Ekman in Sawdust and Tinsel.


Opposite are two more gowns for Gunn Wållgren's Helena - I love that touching photo. Wållgren knew she was dying from cancer when she made the film, which surely gives her superb, still sensuous performance an extra pathos.


Death stalks the next room.


The deepest resonance in the film for me was when Alexander's father is dying and the boy, taken into the room, hides under the bed. It wasn't quite like that, visiting my dad on the last night of his life in hospital - in fact it was a lot worse - but I did identify with him. So I wasn't unflattered when two Swedish ladies told me, unprompted, I was Alexander. Fortunately I didn't exercise any powers on my stepfather, whom I was old enough to tolerate. Anyway, here's another nice composition - the boy's funeral suit, and a photo of young Ingmar similarly attired.


In an excellent final flourish, the corridor back to the staircase has a fine selection of Bergman's boyhood drawings.


No surprise that he already saw himself as a filmmaker at an early age.


Even this little collection would have been worth the price of admission. As it turned out, the whole exhibition was a thing of amazement to me. Oh, and just to give Ingrid Bergman a look-in - we must watch The Visit again some time soon - I take the liberty of repeating one of my all-time favourite magazine covers as symmetry to the Dahlbeck picture at the top.


Sunday, 10 December 2017

Spitalfields' non-Christmas festival



A great idea, in principle: invite in a radical and respected curator, André de Ridder, whose conducting of Prokofiev's The Gambler at Grange Park impressed me so much on a first visit there, and whose adventures in contemporary music have been consistent ever since; combine the old and the new in most programmes; make each event an epic. And, of course, avoid the usual Christmas fare of previous years. Of the opening three-parter, I could only make the first third, in itself a generous hour-and-a-half, before dashing off to the Royal Opera's Cav and Pag. That put an Arts Desk review out of bounds, so I report belatedly on what I witnessed last Saturday here on the blog.

The launch of the Spitalfields Music Festival 2017 (all images here by Robin Savage for the Festival) was in every detail worthy of respect, but a little crepuscular (as a punter said in the Music Discount Centre when I worked there many moons ago, of music from Wagner's Ring arranged for the eight Bayreuth horns). Two of the three works receiving UK or world premieres were minimal to the point of dematerialising: perfect for a late-night concert in the summer, when the body is relaxed enough to go into meditative mood, less so for lugubrious Shoreditch Church 9as immortalised in the wonderful Rev.) on the gloomiest of December days. Much as I love Anna Thorvaldsdóttir's haunting orchestral pieces, Shades of Silence hardy feels like more than a tentative improvisation (it was composed for the Icelandic period-instrument contemporary group I heard in Tallinn Music Days 2016, and so it fitted David Bates and players of La Nuova Musica well).


Much more effective, as I'd have been able to judge more fully had I been sitting comfortably and not with a crick in my neck, was Jocelyn Campbell's THEFT, a very subtle meditation on fragments of Monteverdi madrigals. Beautifully maintained on the cusp of silence by violinist Maya Kaddish and viola da gamba player Gavin Kibble (pictured above), it was true to the composer's definition (Thorvaldsdóttir's title was advertisement enough, too): 'I want the pieces to feel somewhat vacant, still containing much of the beauty of Monteverdi's writing but with none of the sense of progression, and heard somewhat faintly as if from a distance and with elements of soft disruption'.


Dynamic at last, by way of much-needed contrast, was Josephine Stephenson's Between the war and you, a song cycle the words of which were not always audible, nor the tones consistently projected, from The Hermes Experiment's soprano Héloïse Werner. The quartet's admirable aim to commission work for the rare combination of voice, clarinet, double bass and harp (all four musicians pictured above) remains impressive, though, and harpist Anne Denholm wove consistent magic.


The framing madrigals both astounded me (through the course of the evening there were five scheduled, all from the radical Book Eight - I was sorry to miss Ben Johnson in Il Combattimento). I confess I've never heard 'Or che'Ciel e la terra e'l Vento tace' live before - wonderful text, spellbinding start, queasy harmonies. Radical indeed. This is up there with the weirdest of Gesualdo, and all in the cause of creating a mini piece of music theatre. Even more so 'Lamento della Ninfa', with Katherine Manley (pictured above with three musicians from La Nuova Musica) realising the full force of the girl's heart-tugging plaint. Excellent work, too, from The Erebus Ensemble, a group of singers for once as fair of face as voice. Men only, of course, alongside Manley in 'Or che'Ciel'.


Wish I could go on the Schumann ramble around Spitalfields' Huguenot houses tonight - Dichterliebe distributed and, it seems, in some cases reworked; the great Uri Caine is among the range of performers. But since Sakari Oramo's unsurpassable Independence Centenary Sibelius has left me on a high, and Salonen did a wonderful job on the colour in the Four Lemminkäinen Legends the next evening, I have to go tonight to hear what the first as conductor makes of the second as composer. And, I know it's the obvious choice, but I only just watched Oramo's Last Night of the Proms performance of Finlandia, with choir (though it's the revised standard, otherwise, rather than the original with its hair-raising apotheosis, which we heard on Wednesday). Gave me goosebumps and brought a tear to the eye. So good to see so many of my pals in the BBCSO in close-up, too.


UPDATE (13/12): Helen Wallace has done the honours for the Spitalfields Festival on The Arts Desk, catching the final special event, Schumann Street, and making me wish I could have gone. I don't regret what I did plump for - Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra making a brilliant success of four works by Salonen at the end of the Barbican 'Total Immersion' day.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

The greatest nature writing



I thought Robert MacFarlane was good - he is, if often a bit self-conscious in style - only to find Roger Deakin even better. Henry David Thoreau's Walden. Or, Life in the Woods is an in-the-beginning must for environmentalists and nature lovers, its very bumptiousness part of its charm (and it has the most poetic prose chapter on spring, to end the book, that I think I've ever read). But soaring highest of all, at least of what I've now read, is J(ohn) A(lec) Baker, page after page of whose 1967 classic The Peregrine offers lyrical writing of an order I've never encountered at the same visionary pitch. At the same time this is a study with its feet firmly planted on rough soil, with an acute awareness - shared by Steinbeck in Cannery Row's description of the tide-pool - about the destructiveness and ferocity of nature in Baker's stated intention to 'make plain the bloodiness of killing'.


Baker lived all of his too-short life (he died in  1987 at the age of 61) in Chelmsford, Essex. As anyone who has walked rural portions, and especially estuaries, of that much-maligned county, there is as much natural wonder to be found here as anywhere, though you need to search it out. Baker's stamping ground was, as Mark Cocker writes in his introduction to the Collins edition of The Peregrine and The Hill of Summer, 'a roughly rectangular Essex patch of just 550km, which includes the Chelmer Valley from the eastern edge of Chelmsford as far west as Maldon and the confluence of the Chelmer and Blackwater Rivers', and the author wrote that 'before it is too late, I have tried to...convey the wonder of...a land to me as profuse and glorious as Africa'.


As Thoreau more bullishly puts it, and more about the inner than the near-to-hand:

What does Africa, - what does the West stand for? Is not our own interior white on the chart? black though it may prove, like the coast, when discovered. Is it the source of the Nile, or the Niger, or the Mississippi, or a North-West Passage around this continent, that we would find? Are these the problems which most concern mankind? ...Be the Mungo Park, the Lewis and Clarke and Frobisher, of your own streams and oceans; explore your own higher latitudes...Nay, be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of though. Every man is the lord of a realm beside which the earthly empire of the Czar is but a petty state, a hummock left by the ice. Yet some can be patriotic who have no self-respect, and sacrifice the greater to the less. They love the soil which makes their graves, but have no sympathy with the spirit which may still animate their clay.

But I'm letting Thoreau steer me, in his splendidly digressive way, off course. Baker's own introduction states how 'in my diary of a single winter, I have tried to preserve a unity, binding together the bird, the watcher, and the place that holds them both' - which he does by occasionally showing us how the watcher identifies with the bird.


But the first person is sparely used, never over-indulgent as it is in Thoreau, and the prose manages to be both rich and spare at the same time. Descriptions of the peregrine's soaring and then his stoops, those giddying plunges at speed, intoxicate the reader as they clearly did Baker. Daily descriptions of the scene have a physical force, partly through the Shakespearean use of vivid verb, some of them created or made intransitive, as here, all of which I recognise:

The sky peeled white in the north-west gale, leaving the eye no refuge from the sun's cold glare. Distance was blown away, and every tree and church and farm came closer, scoured of its skin of haze...New horizons stood up bleached and stark, plucked out by the cold talons of the gale...An iridescence of ducks' heads smouldered in foaming blue water...

In a freezing January, one of the coldest, and having killed a half-dead, bleeding woodpigeon, the writer records:

A day of blood; of sun, snow and blood. Blood-red! What a useless adjective that is. Nothing is as beautifully, richly red as flowing blood on snow. It is strange that the eye can love what mind and body hate.


The kill itself is brutal - here a soaring and a stoop, both thrillingly described in the previous paragraph, end in the final action:

And for the partridge there was the sun suddenly shut out, the foul flailing blackness spreading wings above, the roar ceasing, the blazing knives driving in, the terrible white face descending - hooked and masked and horned and staring-eyed. And then the back-breaking agony beginning, and snow scattering from scuffling feet, and snow filling the bill's wide silence scream, till the merciful needle of the hawk's beak notched in the straining neck and jerked the shuddering life away.

And for the watcher, sheltered for centuries from such hunger and such rage, such agony and such fear, there is the memory of that sabring fall from the sky, and the vicarious joy of the guiltless hunter who kills only through his familiar, and wills him to be fed.


Then there's this, of a close encounter with a tiercel perched on a post five yards away:

He looked round as I stopped, and we both went rigid with the shock of surprise. Light drained away, and the hawk was a dark shape against white sky. His sunken, owl-like head looked dazed and stupid as it turned and bobbed and jerked about. He was dazzled by this sudden confrontation with the devil. The dark moustachial lobes were livid and bristling on the pale Siberian face peering from thick furs. The large bill opened and closed in a silent hiss of alarm, puffing out breath into the cold air. Hesitant, incredulous, outraged, he just squatted on his post and gasped, Then the splintered fragments of his mind sprang together, and he flew very fast and softly away, rolling and twisting from side to side in steepling banks and curves as though avoiding gunshot. 

Three pages later there's a no less compelling passage about a meeting with a tawny owl in a wood just before sunset. Other birds appear and are noted, though unfortunately many of them are the peregrine's prey, seen either before the attack or as kill to tell Baker where his main object has been. Their vocalisings are vividly captured - 'the squelching call of snipe', the scolding of blackbirds' alarms, robins' song 'clear as spring water'.


But I realise that I could go on excerpting passages for a lot longer, glorying in the language as I take pleasure in typing it out and hoping something will rub off. Just read it. And re-read. I'll go even further than my title by declaring that it's a towering masterpiece by any literary standards and has gone on to my all-time-favourites list. I'm saving The Hill of Summer for a time closer to what it describes, though I realise it is probably even better to savour the opposite of what one's going through. Which, these past few days, has felt like the bleak heart of winter. In the meantime, here's the only reasonably close photo I've ever managed to take of a bird of prey - a mere buzzard, I fear, but it was splendid to see this summer in the well (but not over) maintained common near Jill's place in Lower Southrepps.


UPDATE: I realise I let the centenary day of Finnish independence pass unremarked, though I did go to the superlative celebratory concert from Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican last night - all Sibelius, of course, part of the team's symphonies cycle - and reviewed it this morning on The Arts Desk. Was expecting an encore after the bleak, abrupt ending of the First Symphony, but there wasn't one. This bird-related beauty was Jukka-Pekka Saraste's choice of encore to mark the composer's own 150th anniversary in 2015. Here it is from Leif Segerstam and the Danish National Radio Orchestra:


Thursday, 30 November 2017

Fondest memories of Nick Wadley



I adored this Mensch. He and his beloved Jasia were always there for us, quietly and with discretion, during a difficult time. And I hope we returned the favour a little. Certainly I think only happy thoughts about Nick. Even though he suffered a lot in later years and was in and out of the Royal Free Hospital too much from 2004 onwards, he made art out of it, as I mentioned earlier on the blog, in a little masterpiece, Man + Doctor. Here's one more illustration which isn't actually in the book, expressing 'the feeling of liberation from hospital'.


In telling us that Nick had died, Jasia wrote eloquently (on 1 November, and I know she doesn't mind my reproducing this):

He died at 5.40 this morning on the 15th floor of the University College Hospital. It was his seventh week in hospital.

The view from his window was spectacular, the care excellent, but there was no prospect of a recovery.

For us, the last memory was a very happy one. Nick made a rare departure from home in August to come with Jasia and share a meal here with us and beloved mutual friends. He was frail but absolutely himself, and we laughed a lot. Here he is with Jasia and Maria Jesús.


We met through the humorously-named Cole Porter Choral Society, which he had set up with the assistance of Sylvia Libedinsky 20 years ago while they were working on cartooning and a cloth exhibition in Japan. At that time the other members were few, including Peter 'Joe Egg' Nichols and his wife, with Eva Hofmann at the piano.

Sylvia invited us to Liane Aukin's home - there's another dear one lost - and we joined as regulars, slightly putting out of joint the noses of those who preferred to croon rather than sing lustily (as one of them told me at the service). As with all groups, it wasn't without its frictions and defences, but what fun we always had rattling through selections from three books of songs by Porter, Gershwin, Berlin and others. Remembering the spontaneous singalong nature of the events, I suggested to our trusty pianist Kurt Ryz that we shouldn't rehearse the three for the service, and I told the assembled friends who packed the central chapel of Golders Green Crematorium how what we were about to offer was in the spirit of the meetings.


We should, I suppose, have sorted that we were going to repeat the initial verse of 'Chatanooga Choo-Choo' to embrace both Nick's variation and the original - it was chaotic beyond bounds when Kurt whizzed on to the next section without repeating. But 'You're the Tops', including Cole's naughty verse, rollicked before we hit another reef with 'Let's Face the Music and Dance', which wasn't in the books and turned out to proceed in a way that only J seemed to know (thank goodness).

Anyway, it wasn't about us but about Nick - and a lovelier remembrance couldn't be imagined. The MC was his good friend Dr John Besford, with whom I had a lively communication before the service and who brought along two jars of 'Dr Besford's Aubergine Pickle' from Mr Todiwala (spicy and intense) - one I was to make sure reached Alina Ibragimova, whose masterclass John had attended and whom he promised a sample.

John filled us in on essential details. I've extracted what  he calls 'a synopsis of Nick's life in three short chapters provided by Jasia Reichardt.'


1.

Nicholas Wadley was born in 1935 in Elstree, Herts, the youngest of four children. Went to Reed’s School, Cobham. After National Service (during which he worked as a Morse code operator) he studied painting at the Croydon and Kingston Schools of Art and then art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art under, among others, Anthony Blunt.

He has two children, Caroline and Chris, and six grandchildren, a quorum of whom are here today.

He lived in London for most of his life. 


2. 

Nick's principal teaching work for 25 years was at Chelsea School of Art, where he became head of department of Art History in 1970. He took early retirement in 1985 to do research and concentrate on his own work, writing and drawing.

Nick wrote some ten books dealing with art history, including a book about Gauguin’s manuscript Noa Noa (1985) and the standard volume on Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Drawing (1991).


He wrote countless articles; reviews; catalogue introductions, gave countless lectures. He curated many exhibitions (Kurt Schwitters, London, 1981 ), Franciszka Themerson Drawings (Ålborg 1989), Gaberbocchus Press (Paris, 1996), 'The Secret Life of Clothes' (Fukuoka, Japan, 1998), UBU in UK (London, 2000), 'Franciszka Themerson, European Artist' (London 2013). He was the chosen illustrator of several authors including U.A. Fanthorpe, Lisa Jardine, John Ashbery and others. He also spent many years working on the Themerson Archive with Jasia, writing about Stefan Themerson and Franciszka Themerson's art and preparing her catalogue raisonné. 


3. 

When asked to describe himself, he wrote: 'Nick Wadley writes and draws'. After 1990, he became increasingly involved with drawing, or perhaps thinking through drawing. Many of these drawings appear in his books: Man + Dog; Man + Doctor; Man + Table; and Man + Book for which we have to wait until December. The next one he planned, a Franglais edition, was to be called Man + Homme. In collaboration with Sylvia Libedinsky, Nick contributed weekly cartoons from 1997-2002 to The Daily Telegraph and Financial Times and through her made his connection with Argentina where they both exhibited. The Otros Aires neo-tango music for which Nick provided the cartoons in Big Man Dancing comes from there and will accompany us as we leave this building. And then, there are the cards, like short stories or aphorisms, each on a subject to be deciphered or thought about. He had exhibitions of his drawings in London, Tokyo, Warsaw, Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile. During these 17 years he still wrote about art, mainly for the TLS.


John finished very eloquently:   

Auden...wrote (regarding the Golden Rule): We are all here on earth to help others. What on earth the others are here for I don’t know. But Nick did. 

My loving and beautiful wife Sonja tells me that there is a Jewish concept called tikkun olam which is expressed as acts of kindness performed ‘to repair the world. Nick and Jasia together have been practicing tikkun olam and inspiring ‘the others’ to do the same for decades. 


There followed four readings, from which I take this poem by Nick, read by Richard Nightingale: 

At night,
  when thoughts walk naked,
  unrecognised without their clothes,
  they're neither words nor pictured quite.
By day,
  they seem to go more one way 
  or the other.


Neither the Golders Green event nor refreshments afterwards at the Camden Arts Centre off the Finchley Road - which to my shame I've never visited before - offered much space for sadness; that came, for me, the day after. But it was undoubtedly a life well lived - and its effects will last, not least in the launch of another book very soon and with any luck another exhibition at the 12 Star Gallery.