The Other John Adams and Others

I have been reading Listen to This, Alex Ross’s newly published book.
It is not as substantial as his masterly The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century, but essential reading for me. The hostility of so many people I know to any music written in the past hundred years and the absence of young people from classical concerts, is something that alarms me. So, the first paragraph of the book is indeed music to my ears: “I hate ‘classical music’: not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past. It cancels out that music in the spirit of Beethoven could still be written today…” The second paragraph continues: “For at least a century, the music has been captive to a cult of mediocre elitism that tries to manufacture self-esteem by clutching at empty formulas of intellectual superiority...” The third: “When people hear ‘classical’ they think dead…”

Ross didn’t introduce me to John Adams. I had already a couple of CDs and had heard Nixon in China live. But his mention of Harmonielehre led me to seek it out and it hooked me. In the new book he has an essay on John Luther Adams, a composer who lives in Alaska where he has a sound and light installation called The Place Where You Go to Listen. Here, by means of computer technology, seismic and meteorological phenomena are translated into “a luminous field of electronic sound.” It strikes me as the sort of tourist art that has many companions in the visual art world. They are very popular with the general public. I am unlikely to make a pilgrimage but will make a point of hearing some of the composer’s work on CD.

Ross writes of his belated attention to artists in the popular music field. He has essays on Radiohead, Bjork and Bob Dylan. The last is more akin to the more popular music that I listen to – work where the music provides an alternative prosodic structure to sung verse. I loved the series of programmes, Book, Music and Lyric, that Robert Cushman presented on Radio 3 many years ago, and which he followed up with another, New York Cabaret. They made me aware of musicals for intelligent people and singer-song writers of superb inventiveness like Dave Frishberg and Randy Newman. I have also enjoyed the great French chansonneurs, Georges Brassens, Leo Ferré, Boris Vian and Barbara. Even country music can surprise me with interesting lyrics. Cushman illustrated how it could work well in musicals such as Big River, based on Hucklebury Finn, and The Greatest Little Whorehouse in the West. In these related genres there can be great wit, often with a serious purpose, as in Brassens’ song about an escaped gorilla seeking to lose its virginity that turns out to be an anti-capital punishment piece. Some songs deal in a sort of humorous realism. A country song of disillusioned love contains the line:

Is this what I shaved my legs for?

And there is this from a Maltby and Shire review:

I didn’t know I had a prostate,
It’s the march of time.

From an extract from a Radiohead lyric that Ross gives:

You’re so fucking special
I wish I was special
But I’m a creep.

I realise that I’m unlikely to get the sort of verbal wit I like from his research into the non-classical area but he does make a case for the music. I will investigate.

Lest I give a wrong impression of this outstanding writer on music who rarely gets technically esoteric, I will add that Ross writes acutely about Brahms, Schubert, Verdi and Mozart in this book and recall that The Rest is Noise, not only made me enthusiastic about John Adams, but turned me on to Sibelius, thus making me more likely to listen to other composers I’d previously been prejudiced about: Rachmaninov, for instance.

Imports, Exports

French academics and politicians have worried for a long time about the amount of English words coming into their language. The imports have certainly been substantial. The great chansonneur Leo Ferre in his satirical song ‘La langue francaise’ notes barmaid, darling, travelling, best seller, planning, starter, after shaving, parking, one man show, cash, starlet, scope, very good, baby, jockey, steeple-chase, driver, sleeping car, milk bar, glass, call girl, Kleenex, lucky, sex appeal, black out, standing, self service and there are many, many more. Hostility to the influx has been intensified by endemic anti-Americanism, despite the fact that America was the first to come to France’s aid in the aftermath of its self-inflicted disaster, the Franco-Prussian War and rescued it in the two world wars.

There have been several reactions to this perceived linguistic imperialism. Wasn’t it Clemenceau who said that English was only French badly pronounced? Andrew Hussey, in his book ‘Paris, the Secret History’, relates how the eccentric Anglophobe Michel Fleury would spell ‘weekend’ as ‘ouikènde’. Chirac stormed out of an international meeting when a French negotiator dared to speak English instead of French. In 1994 a law was passed making it obligatory to use the French language in government publications, adverts and workplaces. French words had to be in some cases coined e.g. ‘jardinerie’ for garden centre, ‘ordinateur’ for computer and ‘numèrique’ for digital. The Minister of Culture who shepherded the bill through the Assemblèe was called Jacques Toubon; ‘Le Canard Enchainé’ promptly christened him Allgood.

English has happily adopted words and phrase from many other languages. We even have French phrases like double entendre which the French appear not to use themselves, and I have yet to meet a French person who understands the psychological term folie à deux. Some phrases like le mot juste and sauve qui peut are a bit old-fashioned, even pompous these days, but l’esprit d’escalier, the retort you think of coming down from the salon where you might have shone if you had been a bit more quick-witted, still serves well.

But English could well adopt some very useful words from modern French. In my own field, the visual arts, I find myself already doing so. My favourite is croûtes, a word for lousy paintings, the type of crude landscapes and cityscapes painted for tourists. There is also un travail alimentaire: the sort of job after art school that in my day was teaching, but for younger painters is more and more looking after old people. The late Claude Chabrol described one of his works as un film alimentaire. I suppose we might say ‘potboiler’ but that has become a bit démodé. The generic word for printing in French is tirage, particularly apt for relief printing, my chosen form. It expresses well the exciting moment when you peel off a print from the block with the final colour and see whether all your calculations have worked.

Others in different occupations may well find French words slipping into their vocabulary because they are somehow more suitable than the English available. I rather like the noun corrumpus. We would have to say corrupt businessmen, politicians etc or make the adjective act as a noun by prefacing it with the definite article. Contrary to what we were taught at school as an absolute rule, the French use corrumpus without an article. It would work well in English if we simply sounded the ‘s’.
The thing about being an intellectual snob,
which earns you the suspicion of the middle-brow mob,
is that it performs a really useful job:
if at some time you don't go through this phase,
you'll avoid the difficult all your days.

We had a good Festival this year. We found that ancient people like ourselves could get two tickets for the price of one, so were able to go to twice as many concerts as we had budgeted for. Looking round the sea of white coiffures and grey beards, it was obvious that we were part of a half-price audience. Young people don’t go to classical concerts these days and there is a danger that this music will have no audience in the future.

If this does happen, current concert-goers will bear some responsibility. At the Festival concerts it was noticeable that attendance was down whenever modern or unfamiliar composers were included. At a recent concert billed The New Romantics – perhaps a ploy to attract a younger audience – there were plenty of empty seats but perhaps a slightly higher proportion of young people. The featured works were Three Places in New England by Charles Ives, two works by John Adams and a piece by another post-minimalist composer, Ingram Marshall. Adams’ Son of Chamber Symphony, with its prepared piano, double battery of percussion instruments and wealth of rhythm and textures, would be an ideal work to engage young people with classical music.

I remember an instance when I was working in Edinburgh’s print workshop, where instead of the usual popular music, somebody had put on a CD of classical stuff. A girl remarked that the piece playing was ‘naff music’. Recognising that it was from La Traviata, I initially put down her opinion as rampant philistinism. But then I reflected that away from the drama of the opera, middle period Verdi must seem very ordinary indeed. They have grown up in an environment where every piece of music — in adverts, in cinema, in jazz and pop — reflects to some extent the developments in classical music over the past hundred years in terms of harmonic complexity, instrumental mix, rhythmic and textural intricacy.

There is a great deal of class snobbishness in today’s conservative classical-music audience, which makes it risky for organisers to put on many modern works. Unlike the intellectual snobbishness of my ‘thingabout,’ which can make people curious about innovation and work at understanding the new, it is wholly negative. In France where we attend concerts in little 11th and 12th century churches during the heat of the summer, expats can be seen dressed up in collars and ties while the performers themselves are casually dressed, as they are more and more in concerts here. There seems to be a feeling that attending concerts is the right thing to do, even if one snoozes or reads the programme instead of listening.

Another anecdote: when I used to teach the history of painting to young people, a teaching aid on the German Expressionists was a set of slides that had to be coordinated with an LP of spoken commentary and music. My pupils were not impressed by Kandinsky and his Teutonic contemporaries, but they all liked the music. It was Schoenberg’s first chamber symphony.
I hauled a painting out to trash
and was surprised to find it pleased.
Not for the first time I had the wish
that paintings could be stored on microfiche.

I have been tidying up my studio recently. My problem is that I have an idea for a painting, a print or a visual poem and want to get down to it immediately, but the table – which in my case is a reasonably small item topped with a sheet of chipboard – is piled with cuttings, workouts, books and deposits from other parts of the house which have been unceremoniously dumped there due to my tendency to extend my working area into other parts of the flat. I constantly try to create a place for everything so things can be sorted quickly, but the process has been going on for many years and never seems to be completed.

The biggest storage problem is, of course, paintings, and worst of all those that you think have something but are not quite successful. I spend as much time, even more probably, looking critically at work than actually painting. You can’t make final judgments quickly, either to exhibit or to destroy. Thus, I have propped-up canvasses everywhere that impede access to cupboards, bookcases and other storage. When you come to a firm decision, it’s best to slash the canvas quickly before you change your mind. Alternatively, I might cut out a piece that works on its own as a memento of something more ambitious on which I have spent weeks of my life.

Most painters I know could make much more money than they do if they ditched integrity, if they produced Mediterranean scenes in bright colours executed with a painting knife, or, a particularly Scottish equivalent, semi-abstract landscapes or still lives with lots of red, presented in gold frames. They may be deluded in what they are doing – we all have thoughts of that kind from time to time – but they can only continue with what they do. Many artists worry about what sort of problem they are leaving for their partners and children. A colleague told me that he has instructed his wife that if anything happens to him, she must seal up the attic, crammed with his unsold paintings. Otherwise, she will never be able to sell up and downsize.

The Vatican Tapestries

Waldemar Januszczak, The Sunday Times’ art critic has become very excited at the Pope’s lending four tapestries from the Vatican to be exhibited beside Raphael’s original cartoons. Januszczak even joked that we may risk eternal damnation if we do not go to see them. I am afraid (well not really afraid) that I’ll be risking hell’s fires. Certainly, the tapestries which use gold and silver threads in parts, were very expensive productions, requiring the skills of many weavers over an extended period. But when were man hours an indicator of aesthetic value? After all, Greek sculptors were paid more for a relatively short piece of egg and dart frieze than for complete figures. The pricy threads are only a reminder of the sybaritic lifestyles of Renaissance popes.

In fact, the tapestries are a dreadful travesty of Raphael’s work. The weavers took terrible liberties with them. Accustomed to works where every inch of the surface was covered with intricate designs, they introduced inappropriate detail. The worst example is in Christ’s Charge to St Peter, where Christ’s robe is covered with gold stars. It is as if the Son of God had breakfasted on a dozen or so runny eggs and dribbled them all over his attire. In other tapestries colours were altered upsetting the balance of the compositions. Generally the orchestration of the works is destroyed and Raphael’s powerful compositions are further diminished by the addition of broad, narrative borders of indifferent design.

Raphael was unfortunate that his major mural commission to decorate the papal apartments meant that he had to work with awkward spaces. He did this with great ingenuity, but even his School of Athens, painted on a great vaulted area, forced on him a symmetrical composition. Designing the tapestries, he had no such constraints and could give full scope to his genius. The cartoons are undoubtedly his greatest works. We are fortunate that we can see them at any time as they are on permanent loan from the Queen to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Turning High Renaissance paintings into tapestries wasn’t really a good idea. Anyone wanting to see tapestries that are great works of art in themselves, should seek out the mediaeval millefleurs pieces. The Lady with the Unicorn in Paris, the Tapestries of the Apocalypse, Angers, The Winged Stags, Rouen would do for a start.

The Scottish National Galleries' Offerings During the Edinburgh Festival

It may seem an easy option to have as the main Festival exhibition yet another collection of the ever popular French Impressionists, but because of the nature of the Impressionist project – the landscape painters probably painted a canvas a day during large periods of their lives – these exhibitions can still spring surprises and even shift assessment. A show I saw in Vienna last year was full of work I hadn’t even seen reproduced and very credible impressionist works by Gustave Caillebote suggested that he should have a rather more prominent place in the canon. However, a mediocre work by him in the Edinburgh show, unaccountably used in the publicity leaflet, puts that judgment once more in the balance.

Crossing on the ferry from Dieppe, I picked up a leaflet for an exhibition entitled A City for Impressionism in the Musee des Beaux Arts, Rouen. I would love to have seen this show. Pissarro seems to have been the star of it, with a group of canvasses that emphasise the industrial state of the city, with steamboats on the river and factory chimneystacks belching forth. He makes Monet’s sailing boats on the Seine seem old-fashioned and pretty, and his famous series of Rouen cathedral appears to be upstaged by Turner’s painting of the building.

Four paintings in the National Gallery’s ‘blockbuster’ would have justified the entrance fee for me: Manet’s Croquet Players from Frankfurt that is a wonder of free brushwork, Renoir’s Woman with Parasol from the Musee Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid is one of a handful of works by this artist – Le Coup de Vent in the Fitzwilliam is another – that captures an instant impression, Sisley’s stunning snow scene and the long rectangular Bonnard with a woman and a cat.

I wasn’t greatly thrilled by the Christen Kobke exhibition despite the obvious skill of the artist. You don’t need to be an expert in art history to be reminded of Dutch painting of the Golden Age, but compare any of Kobke’s large landscape paintings with the Cuyps still on show at the Queen’s Gallery and you see the problem. His portrait of the landscape painter seated in an interior with table and wall mirror, is not unlike the sort of interiors with figures that Vermeer painted, but in spite of the refined painting it is cluttered. The small portraits sometimes come close to the delightful smallscale portraits by Corot, but never quite get there

It is instructive to take a look at the reproductions in the Scottish National Galleries’ What’s On leaflet. The Impressionists may not appear to be interested in formal qualities, concentrating on a curtain of sense data, but the paintings by Renoir, Van Gogh and Monet show how they were instinctively able to focus in on perfect compositions. This is not true of the Charles Courtney Curran, the James Guthrie and the Kobkes which all have awkward intervals in their arrangements. The best paintings in the Kobke show are two little works of Naples. Relaxed in sketching mode, he was able to get the unity in these which evaded him in his larger works.

Gormley and Moore

So Edinburgh is to have a sculptural work by Anthony Gormley. Well, it’s a keeping- up-with-the-Jones thing much less destructive than the bringing of the trams to the city. And more popular too: the general public are very relaxed about having our green and pleasant land covered with casts of this sculptor’s body. He certainly is a very effective entrepreneur, and one with clout. On his way to Edinburgh Gormley noticed that some trees were partially obscuring a view of his Angel of the North – known locally as the Gateshead Flasher – and he has had an assurance that they will be cut down.

I do wonder if Gormley ever thinks of what happened to Henry Moore. Moore became too successful for his own good. He snapped up commissions at home and abroad and younger sculptors felt blocked out. After his death his popularity waned. Some of his works were even removed from their public sites. Critics suggested that his disciple, Barbara Hepworth, was the better sculptor.

Moore did become a bit too ubiquitous. And perhaps there were just too many variations on his reclining-figure theme. But I, for one, never doubted his genius. When I visited the Picasso/Matisse exhibition at Tate Modern several years ago, there was a sculpture by Moore of a woman sitting on some steps exhibited in the central hall. I knew it previously from a maquette in Aberdeen Art Gallery. Seeing this larger version, I found it more impressive than the neo- classical works by Picasso in the main show. Although there was a nod to the Parthenon sculptures in the treatment of the drapery, it did not invite the prefix ‘neo’, often suggesting superficiality in art jargon. The sculpture by Moore that is at once a reclining figure and a landscape with cliffs and stacks, which for years has been stuck out at the back of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art like rubbish awaiting collection, is a wonderful work. The Falling Warrior is another great piece and I was recently taken by a more abstract work, in the grounds of the museums in Munich. Currently, there is a Moore revival.

Sooner or later, I predict the public and the art world will become bored with Gormley’s works dotted around town and country, here and overseas. Moore has come back now. Is there enough substance in the Gormley oeuvre to trigger a similar re-assessment when the time comes?

The World in a Hundred Objects and Appreciating Art

As I often listen to Radio 4 when working, I have heard a good part of Neil MacGregor’s series The World in a Hundred Objects. He brings a great deal of background knowledge to the artefacts he discusses and I have found it fascinating. I will certainly seek out reproductions of some of these pieces and have been asking myself how the information I have gained from the talks will affect my enjoyment of them. While I agree with Dr Johnson when he said ‘There is no item of information, however insignificant, which I would not rather know than not know’, I have come to the conclusion that the intentions of the creator of an object have very little relevance when we give to it the status of a work of art. The knowledge conveyed by Dr MacGregor gives a satisfaction of a different sort.

This area of aesthetics was discussed by Edgar Wind in his Reith Lectures, Art and Anarchy in the early sixties. In one of the lectures, entitled The Fear of Knowledge, he arrived at a theory of vision which he opposed to Clive Bell’s view that ‘the representational elemental in a work of art may or may not be harmful; always it is irrelevant.’ Because I have more interest in representational art than abstract art, I am not in agreement with Bell, but that does not lead me to believe with Wind that the intellectual ideas that may have been involved in the conception of a work of art are central to its appreciation. Experience has taught me differently. I am not religious but most paintings of the Virgin and Child can be appreciated merely as mother-with-baby images, even if some of them have rather ridiculous saucer shapes around the figures’ heads. On the other hand, if there is too much divinely ‘sent’ heaven gazing in a work on a religious theme, it will not work for me, although I know what that is all about. I tend to be familiar with the stories behind the forty-odd panels Duccio painted for his Maesta, but my interest is in the inventive compositions that the narratives inspired. They do not aid me in worship. My point is that works of art survive if we find in them some relevance to our contemporary concerns, which may be about deep human feeling or merely decorative delight.

A bit of personal history demonstrates to me how little iconographic detail impacts on the appeal of works of art. When, as a schoolboy, I first saw reproductions of Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, which I immediately liked, I used to wonder why there was a decapitated head of a donkey in the foreground. Years later I came across the explanation. Today, I have completely forgotten what it was. But it makes no difference to my love of the painting.

A Curious Phenomenon

The 64th Edinburgh International Film Festival is to open on Wednesday with The Illusionist directed by Sylvain Chomet. It is a hand-drawn animation about a magician working in Edinburgh and is apparently sold out. Edinburgh citizens obviously, are keen to see their city on the big screen. Yet, from all the stills appearing in the press, it is not views of the city that have caught my attention but one of Oban station situated by the sea which appeared in The Scotsman Magazine. I showed it to members of my family and with a little prompting, asking them to focus on the ferryboat, got the response I expected. All said it was too big for its position on the water.

The Scottish National Gallery has a painting by William McTaggart of boys in a dinghy entitled The Young Fishers. I like it very much but others have made the identical criticism, that the boat is over-scaled. I have heard the same comment on a small McTaggart painting in Aberdeen Art Gallery. Why I don’t share the reservation about all these works is that I was brought up in Stromness in a house overlooking its natural harbour. I know very well that there is an optical illusion in this setting that boats loom large and appear unnaturally close. Returning last summer to the Orkney Islands after an absence of nearly forty years, I noticed it again. I am sure an illustrator showing the ferry crossing Stromness harbour would have been tempted to scale down the ferry as it appeared.

I have noted something similar in the response of the ordinary viewer to acutely observed figure drawings. An etching of a nude woman hanging in my house by my friend John Binning is often thought by visitors to be out of proportion. I have even heard the same criticism made of works by Titian and Rembrandt. There is a tendency to look for a sort of lay-figure type of normality. The figures in The Illusionist are a bit like this. When twenty-four drawings have to be made for each second of this type of film, it could hardly be otherwise. The view of the harbour at Oban can be more authentic.

An Enthusiasm to Counteract the Economic Doom and Gloom

‘I’ve never felt like a vanguard personality. My attitude towards creation is one of incorporating in my compositions everything I’ve learned and experienced of the past. I’ve never received any powerful creative energy from turning my back on the past.’

These are the words of the American composer John Adams extracted from an interview. At a time when so much art, particularly in the visual field, has been reduced to stunts, the quiet confidence of a creator that he can do important things by building rather than destroying is very refreshing. His articulation of his outlook vis-à-vis the past, could stand as a manifesto for the artists from the late twentieth century and the early twenty-first in all media that I most admire, the poet James Fenton for example, or the late Steve Campbell, the Scottish painter.

Not that Adams is in any way a cosy tunesmith. I first encountered his work when I attended a performance of his opera Nixon in China at the Edinburgh Festival. It was wonderful visually and I was intrigued that the libretto was in rhyming couplets with assonant rhymes. But I wasn’t sure that the minimalist music would stand up to repeated hearings. Somehow I had acquired a freebie, taster disk designed to advertise a 2002 Barbican weekend devoted to Adams’ work. The first piece was The Chairman’s Dances. The likelihood was, that I played this piece and having the same doubts that I had had about the opera from which it was extracted, put the disk aside. This was a mistake. If I had listened to more, an excerpt from the violin concerto, the Pavane: She’s So Fine from John’s Book of Alleged Dances, the choral piece from El Nino and Hoe-down (Mad Cow) from Gnarly Buttons, I would have been hooked much earlier. The breakthrough for me came when I heard the great symphonic work Harmonielehre.

With my almost non-existent technical knowledge of music, I find it difficult to describe Adams’ work. There is obviously development through repetition in the manner of Sibelius, remnants of the typical minimalist pulse, rich Wagnerian chords, fascinating orchestration details that emerge with repeated listening and beautiful lyrical passages. In chamber pieces like the middle movement of Gnarly Buttons, there is also humour, and he has written several moving pieces for voice and voices like The Wound-Dresser, a setting of a poem by Walt Whitman about his experiences during the civil war, and On the Transmigration of Souls, which he was commissioned to write to commemorate the victims of 9/11. I have not collected recordings of a contemporary composer’s work so enthusiastically since I sought out all Stravinsky’s major pieces shortly after leaving art college. Who would have thought that a composer much influenced by Sibelius would be pushing western music in new directions? Well, Constant Lambert did, actually, even if his biographer thought it was a ridiculous suggestion.


Stuck in Bordeaux due to the Icelandic volcano! It’s not a bad place to be stranded in, a UNESCO World Heritage Site full of magnificent architecture in honey-coloured stone with carving and wrought iron balconies. You can hardly be depressed in a city where everybody seems to be enjoying themselves, the adults in cafes strung out along the Garonne and children in the bike and skate boarding rinks where you watch acrobatic feats that any circus would be proud to put on.

Naturally I search out the art. It is disappointing that the twentieth century part of the Musée des Beaux Arts is closed. Bordeaux has three modern notables, Redon, Marquet and Lhoté (was he the minor Cubist William Gillies studied under? I can’t quite remember). The grands maîtres section was open. It has works by Titian, Perugino, Rubens and Delacroix as well as a good copy of Brueghel’s Wedding Dance by one of his sons. Scotland is represented by an Allan Ramsay portrait.

The Musée d’Aquitaine is very worthwhile, particularly its Roman section that has impressive pieces of sculpture and mosaics. The latter including a very large piece are geometric rather than representational. They work in the same way as Cezanne paintings. The tiny tesserae of Roman mosaics have minute variations of colour even when they are filling in an area meant to read as a single colour. This gives them infinite subtlety and makes them achingly beautiful.

The museum also has some intriguing English mediaeval sculpture in alabaster as well as two notable portrait sculptures, one by Bernini and the other by Zadkine. The Baroque Age is the great period of portraiture in painting with Velasquez, Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck and others. I would find Renaissance sculpture to prefer to Bernini’s figure pieces, however skilful. Portrait sculpture is another matter. Bernini’s portraits are the best sculpted portraits since Roman times. Having missed the Musée Zadkine in Paris, I was please to see his striking bust of François Mauriac.

Having picked up probably my last Canard enchainé before I leave France, I was interested to see that even the French are turning against the POFTS (pointlessly obscure French thinkers). In the Lettres ou Pas Lettres section there is a review of Longévité d’une imposture, Michel Foucault by Jean-Marc Mandosio who apparently takes a chainsaw to the theories of the one-time celebrity.Vive la clarté!

Snakes and ideas

Spending a few weeks in rural France, I find not for the first time, how difficult it is to get any ideas here for serious work. It is probably a fear that anything in the slightest exotic is apt to nudge in the direction of croûtes, a word the French have for lousy paintings, the sort of stuff produced for tourists. I can record things that interest me in a drawing or watercolour but I find I have no further use for them. On this occasion, I have come up with something that may do for a print, arising from the sight of a tree full of a dozen or so magpies.

There must be a collective noun for such a gathering but it is odd that I should have seen it in France, for I have just read in a local journal, that magpies have declined here by 61% in the last twelve years. The cause seems to have been predation by crows that raid their nests. In Scotland I suspect they are on the increase. Walking over Calton Hill, in Edinburgh, I see so many flying about that I fear for the nests of songbirds.

The birds I see here are much the same as in Scotland with a few additions. Black red starts are common and I have seen a male with the tail feathers spread to a bright orange fan. It is, of course, the mating season but I have never seen this before. I am pleased to see nightingales, so much a presence in Romantic literature, although plumage-wise nothing special, unlike the hoopoe that I have spotted occasionally.

But this year my most striking encounters have been with snakes, all the same species. In French they are couleuvres verts et jaunes, in English, western whipsnakes. They are not venomous but they can be aggressive if cornered and will rear like a cobra and bite hard. I read that they are fast moving, good climbers, with a diet of rodents, lizards, eggs and young birds. They will also eat other snakes including vipers.

My first viewing wasn’t much: a slim tail protruding from a woodpile. The next was more interesting. I saw a head above some old fencing stacked against a wall, with the short, black forked tongue flickering. As I watched, the head withdrew, but when I returned a day later, the snake was stretched out across the fencing, catching the sun. It didn’t even move when getting as close as I dared, I took a photograph. My third viewing came when I lifted a log and found a hibernator asleep beneath. I left it uncovered and it was still motionless when I returned with a camera.

They are beautifully marked creatures but I do not see them making any appearance in my visual work.

Paris Art

I am not the sort of person who ticks off the countries of the world. If I have travelled to the other side of the globe on a couple of occasions and visited a European capital not noted today for its architecture and art galleries, it is only because I have had children working there. What I enjoy is creativity, so three days once more in Paris is a great delight. My first port of call was the Musée Jacquemart-André where there was an exhibition of Spanish paintings from the collection of Pérez Simón. Each section was titled and the part Le regard tourne vers Dieu had appropriately enough many pupils placed in the right or left corner of the eyes. Too many for my taste and despite works by EL Greco, Ribera and Murillo, only a Goya portrait in another category held much interest for me. As far as les toiles de maitres were concerned, the permanent collection was much more rewarding.

The Simón collection came into its own with the modern masters. There was for me a rare Dalì – one that I actually liked, apparently a ballet design for Romeo and Juliet – although another work by this artist was one of the most awful images I have ever seen committed to canvas. There were also bronzes which repeated ideas from his paintings, melting watches and people with drawers (the kind you pull out rather than pull off).

An interesting linocut by Picasso gave me the correct French term (linogravure) to use when explaining to French friends the kind of prints I most often make these days and there were wonderful works by the great twentieth century innovator. A drawing in water colour, Le Déjeuner du Pauvre (1903) seemed better to me than the Blue Period paintings which now appear a bit sentimental and Nature morte au pigeon (1919) which I have never seen reproduced was a beautiful painting with low intensity oranges and beiges and soft greys. It was a work in the genre developed by that great Poussin of the still life, Joan Gris, who was also represented. A particularly fine Mirò from 1944 Femmes devant la lune with the artist’s idiosyncratic shapes on a luminous background was a pastel and gouache on canvas.

The Musée Carnavalet is not an art gallery but a museum of the history of Paris and is well worth a visit. It has lots of delightful genre paintings and portraits of notables including an architectural hero of mine, Claude Nicolas Ledoux. The latter was imprisoned during the Terror as was the painter of architectural capriccios Hubert Robert. Both were lucky to escape the guillotine. Robert continued to paint during his internment in the Temple. Like all museums run by the Mairie de Paris, the Carnavalet is free. The only disappointment was the very poor selection of postcards. I would have loved a memento of Les Parisiens tirant le diable par la queue by Jean Weber (1864-1928) and one of Robert’s prison works.

Another Mairie de Paris museum I tried to visit was the Musée Zadkine which unfortunately was closed due to a forthcoming exhibition. Instead I went to see the Fondation Dubuffet, not free but worthwhile. When interest moved from France’s rather feeble Tachiste Movement to American Expressionism, Jean Dubuffet seemed to be the last late twentieth century French painter of significance.

The Madonna of the Yarnwinder

Press reports of the trial concerning the theft of Leonardo’s The Madonna of the Yarnwinder, prompted me to go to the Scottish National Gallery and have yet another look at it. Few, I imagine, would elect any of the great trio of High Renaissance artists, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael as favourite painters. They inspire awe rather than delight. Probably the greatest draughtsmen who ever lived, they reached such perfection in the concerns of painters of their age,d that those who followed them were stymied for a time as what to do. It was only when Caravaggio showed that saints could be wrinkled and bald and even paunchy, that, with this new realism and heavy light and shade, Western painting was given a new lease of life.

With Leonardo in particular, the wide area where he employed his genius, somehow comes between the spectator and the paintings. It certainly came between Leonardo and the ability to finish them. Could we have had the crowning achievement of the whole Renaissance, if The Adoration of the Kings had been completed? Some may consider that his range of interests has caused certain paintings to be overloaded. Wouldn’t The Virgin of the Rocks, in both its versions, be more digestible if Leonardo hadn’t felt the need to bring to them all the fruits of his enquiries into geology and botany? Then there is The Mona Lisa with all the stuff about the enigmatic smile and the idea that the eyes follow you about. The composition of The Virgin and Child with St. Anne is beautifully resolved in drawings, but in the painting something more ambitious with very complicated poses is attempted and the work left unfinished.

But there are Leonardo paintings with a subtlety of detail and handling unique in the history of art, that have all the serenity of any Piero della Francesca. The portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci in Washington and the beautiful Lady with an Ermine in Cracow are such works. The Madonna of the Yarnwinder is another. This small painting makes every other work around it in the Scottish National Gallery look ordinary, the Raphaels, the Verrochio, the Perugino. The Wemyss Botticelli if it weren’t on loan to the Städel in Frankfurt would suffer the same fate.

I note that Kenneth Clark in his book on Leonardo, first published 1939, revised 1958, describes The Madonna of the Yarnwinder as a very good copy of a lost work. I doubt this. Copies of Leonardo are invariably squirm-makingly awful, witness the copies of the lost Leda and the Swan. The Madonna of the Yarnwinder is simply stunning.

The Edinburgh Quartet and its Part in my Eclecticism

On 19 February I attended the 50th Anniversary Gala Concert of the Edinburgh Quartet. Apart, obviously, from the premiered work by Howard Blake, I knew the programme very well. The Mendelssohn octet had been a favourite work ever since I acquired an LP of the piece, but although I had updated to a CD recording, I hadn’t played it for several years before digging it out for a couple of hearings prior to the concert. Mendelssohn wrote it when he was sixteen. The earliest piece by Mozart that I have come to love is his Sinfonia Concertante K 364 written when he was twenty-three, so we might say that Mendelssohn was more precocious than the Austrian composer, although it is generally accepted that he declined after his early years of supreme brilliance. The Edinburgh Quartet was joined for the octet by the young Medlock Quartet in the only live performance that I have ever heard. It was an additional pleasure to see where the paired instruments played in unison and where they went their own ways.

I came to the song cycle On Wenlock Edge armed with a criticism of the third song. Colin Wilson, in his book Brandy of the Damned compares unfavourably, Vaughan Williams’ setting of Is My Team Ploughing? with the later setting by George Butterworth. The dramatic string effects and vocal repetitions are out of character with the simplicity of the poem. But Vaughan Williams can be forgiven a lot for the opening poem where the string quartet accompaniment evokes wonderfully the way the gusts of the storm build and subside, meteorological tone painting that is up there with Britten’s Sea Interludes. I think it’s because of this setting that On Wenlock Edge has become almost my favourite Houseman poem. I love the first line: ‘On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble.’ It is a perfect example of how rhyme works to make poets say things in a more interesting way. The chiming line, the third one: ‘The gale, it plies the saplings double,’ obviously came first and to find a rhyme the poet came up with the wonderful opening. For me, the Roman in Uricon staring at the heaving hill has an echo of Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, where it is Sophocles who is cited from antiquity, with a nature-inspired emotion that corresponds with the modern poet . Samuel Barber set the Arnold poem, also with string quartet, and I remember marking up the Radio Times so that I wouldn’t miss a recording of the composer singing the piece himself. Now I listen to it on CD with the Canadian baritone, Gerald Finley.

Colin Wilson’s book was important for me. I realised I was a musical eclectic like him. I like reading about music if it isn’t too technical, and when I read about a piece I have to hear it. I also went through a period of musical snobbishness, which serves a purpose: it may make you neglect fine works for a period but it also has you investigating difficult pieces which give their rewards in time. Wilson put me on to English song and in fact to Houseman as a poet. Saga Records (nothing to do with oldies) produced the first cheap LPs at ten shillings a time, and I bought Butterworth’s Houseman settings, my first Haydn quartets, Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross opus 51 and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. I also remember picking up a second-hand LP of the Edinburgh Quartet playing Haydn. The Razor quartet was one of the pieces. I collected the late Beethoven quartets, and it was surely the Edinburgh Quartet that I heard playing them all at the Reid School of Music, in those days for the price of a programme. The one worrying thought I had at this most enjoyable gala concert was the lack of young people. There were so few that I could bet they were all music students. The rest of the audience was all grey hair and grey beards.

In my experience, many from the older generation regard premieres with trepidation. That section of the audience must have been relieved at Howard Blake’s Spieltrieb, which proceeded through a series of playful sections and finished with a lush melodious episode. John Adams named his work Harmonielehre after Schoenberg’s book – in which Schoenberg claimed that tonality was dead. Alex Ross wrote that Adams’ piece said in essence ‘like hell it is.’ Blake’s work in a more modest way seems to be saying the same thing.

During the interval, in true eclectic fashion, I bought a CD of the Edinburgh Quartet playing three quartets by Mátyás Seiber, of whom I knew little except that he was a serialist. The two works that used that technique would be a good starting point for anyone frightened by the term. These are not angst-laden compositions. There are passages in both quartets that are lyrical, even soothing and the scherzo of no. 3 is – well, wonderfully scherzo-like.

Kandinsky's Nephew and Gallic Creations

So another French philosopher has been duped by a hoax. The merde last hit the fan as one reviewer put it, when Sokal and Bricmont first wrote a spoof philosophical piece which was lauded in all the appropriate journals, and followed it up by a book, Intellectual Impostures, which exposed the POFTS (pointlessly obscure French thinkers), Lacan, Kristeva, Baudrillard et al., as trying to make their thoughts more impressive by larding them with science that they clearly did not understand themselves. This time the joke is of Gallic origin and the philosopher with egg on his face is the médiatique intello, Bernard-Henri Lévy, as much known for his silk shirts open to the navel and his starlet wife as his thought. In his most recent book he has been naive or slapdash enough, to quote the philosopher, Botul and his creed of Botulism, which are pure inventions. Lévy is not a POFT. He made his name by coming out against the engagé philosophers who in various convoluted Marxist forms were supporting Stalinist barbarism, but having read an article or two by him and reviews of his books, I feel that, on this side of the Channel, he would be considered more of a journalist than a philosopher.

Last weekend I came across what, for me, was a new name from the French philosophical world. Writing in The Spectator, Francis Fukuyama, he of The End of History notoriety, claimed that his thesis was, that ‘the true embodiment of the post-historical world would be the European Union’ and that he derived his ideas mainly from the ‘great French philosopher Alexander Kojève.’ Not wishing to be completely ignorant of any great philosopher, I did some research – not actually reading his work, God forbid – but finding out who on earth he was. All the following comes from a note by Jeffrey Mehlman in The Columbia History of Twentieth Century French Thought.

Kojève, originally Kojevinkov, came from a wealthy Russian family who fled the Revolution. He was the nephew of the painter Wassily Kandinsky. Losing his fortune in the financial collapse of the dairy firm, La Vache Qui Rit, he had to earn his living interpreting the philosophy of Hegel. From his study of the German philosopher he evolved his own philosophy. Here are some of his conclusions. Napoleon is the secular Christ who brings history to an end by his victory at the Battle of Jena. Subsequently, there is some historical tidying up. Nazism was the ‘Democratization of Imperial Germany.’ The Chinese revolution was ‘the introduction of the Napoleonic Code in China.’ Beau Brummel and the marquis de Sade also play a part in the ending of history, Brummel because he concluded that man in uniform could no longer be taken seriously and de Sade because he understood that violence could only thrive in the boudoir. The surrealist touch to the story is that Kojève earned his living post-war as an important European bureaucrat and was the principal French architect of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). He died in harness in 1968.

One ends up having some sympathy for poor Lévy. Separating out the actual from the spoof in French twentieth century thought, is by no means straightforward. Raymond Aron who with Camus, is one of the few French intellectuals from the era respected in Anglo-Saxon circles, but who was criticised at home for lack of creativity, apparently described Kojève ‘as smarter than Sartre.’ I have read somewhere, of the view of a French intellectual that difficult things should be written about in a difficult way. Perhaps that is where the creativity comes in and where Kojève was very smart. Now that the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) are on the verge of bringing down the Euro, in some cases by creative accounting, leading to who knows what other chaos, I’m very glad that the Continental input to British thought came, thanks to Adolf Hitler, via Austria in the persons of Hayek, Popper and Gombrich, all exemplary figures in writing about difficult things in a very clear way.

Frankfurt and an unusual Rembrandt Drawing

A week or so ago we were in Frankfurt on Main for a couple of days. We had been there once before when we had an eight-hour wait on our way to China to visit our son but it was a Monday so we could not see the galleries. We had come to put that right, particularly to visit the Städel Museum, one of the great European collections.

Frankfurt is full of museums and galleries. A useful pamphlet lists thirty-one major museums plus fifty-four other exhibition sites. Near the reconstructed centre – reconstructed after British fire bombing – we took in the Museum of Modern Art (a great white interior where bored attendants and the odd visitor make dark specks and little perspex containers provide patronising explanations of the sparse exhibits) and The Caricature Museum (plenty of obscenity and scatology but more Otto Dix brutality than George Grosz quality and not a patch on the teams that have worked for fifty years on France’s Canard Enchainé). Across the river most of the other important museums are conveniently strung along the bank. We added applied art, world cultures, sculpture to our tally of subjects covered, leaving film, architecture, communications and more to another visit.

The Städel, the main focus of our trip, had the bonus of a major Botticelli exhibition centred round the gallery’s own wonderful portrait of Simonetta Vespucci. The exhibition was arranged with the portraits and allegorical works separated from the religious paintings and I came away with the impression that Botticelli was a far greater painter when dealing with secular subjects. In the amassed Christian works the expressions of the divinely sent did cloy a bit.

There is no point in my saying much about the permanent collection. It is just a must see. How did I put off for going there for so long? These are some of the things that enthralled me: a wonderful Poussin landscape with a counterpoint figure composition, including Pyramus and Thisbe, zig-zagging across, a Van Eyck and a Memling giving the northern equivalent of the sort of serene perfection you get in the south with Piero della Francesca, a Vermeer, two Rembrandt Old Testament scenes, Frans Hals portraits, no less than four Brouwers, a medieval lynch mob graphically depicted in Bosch’s Ecco Homo, works by Hugo van der Goes, Rogier van der Weyden and Gerard David. I was surprised at the amount of Italian works, Perugino, Tintoretto, Tiepolo (Giovanni Domenico as well as Giovanni Battista) and Bronzino, though the Bellini and the Mantegna weren’t first class examples. I don’t go to such collections to be educated: it’s sheer hedonism.

Another surprise was a postcard of a Rembrandt drawing from the collection, which I picked up in the gallery shop. I am addicted to Rembrandt’s graphic work, which I prefer to the paintings save the self-portraits (but having said that, the etched self-portraits are not far behind the paintings). The drawing I discovered was unlike anything in my two volumes of Rembrandt drawings and my book of the complete etchings. It is obviously a brothel scene. Rembrandt is not averse to frank depictions. There are etchings of a monk rogering a girl in a cornfield, another couple at it on a bed, a man peeing and almost unique, a very explicit one of a woman urinating. Rembrandt you might say does earthy but not erotic.

The brothel scene is common enough in Dutch art and is usually composed of three figures, a man, a girl and the bawd. The man, it is invariably a soldier, may have discarded his sword but he is behatted with great leather boots and buttoned into heavy breeches and tunic. The females are equally laced up and bodiced with hardly an ankle showing under long skirts. They look as respectable as De Hoogh housewives. You wonder how they are ever going to get enough off to get down to action. The Rembrandt drawing is in much the same vein except that there is a fourth figure, a girl who is obviously standing on something for her pubis is level with the first girl’s shoulder. She is strumming a musical instrument and is totally nude. It is not one of Rembrandt’s really great drawings but it is certainly unusual.

Quiz Answers and Result

1. Caravaggio 2. Benvenuto Cellini 3. Richard Dadd 4. Apollinaire 5. Eubie Blake 6. Irving Berlin. 7. Irving Caesar 8. George Abbott 9. Joseph Napoleon 10. Nabokov 11. Saul Bellow 12. John Updike 13. Schoenberg’s Erwartung 14. Philip Glass 15. Claude Monet 16. Jean-Baptiste Lully 17. Alkan 18. Adriaen Brouwer 19. Granados 20. Jacques Louis David.

It is a slight embarrassment to me that the winner of my quiz, Ken Duffy, should be someone I know well. No underhand dealings were involved and the small print, which I am giving as a prize is not something that as a person so long involved with the printmaking world he would particularly covet in any case. I asked Ken to try my quiz and added that I had tried to make it google proof. He replied that no such thing was possible. Proving this point obviously became a challenge and he has been successful. I congratulate him.

I see google-quiz-solving in action every Christmas if my daughter spends it with us. She enjoys The Independent on Sunday's quiz that consists of a block of sixteen details from paintings, which must be identified. We usually get six or so straight off. Then books are consulted and finally the laptops are brought out. With collections all over the world available to consult, everything can be tracked down.

Ken had three answers to my questions different from the list above. For no.13 he gave Schoenberg’s Three Pieces for Piano. Like Erwartung the work is from 1909 and is therefore a possible answer. Of the group of questions about writers who compared a woman’s bottom to an upside down valentine heart, he got Nabokov and Updike but gave James Joyce as the third writer. I take this to be wrong unless he can convince me otherwise. I am intrigued to how he got Nabokov and Updike without also getting Bellow. In Craig Raine’s essay Nabokov: The Russian Years, collected in In Defence of T.S. Eliot, he suggests other writers picked up the Nabokov’s trope like a virus. Nabokov’s phrase in Bend Sinister is: ‘her rump, which in those days of tight skirts, looked like an inverted heart.’ Saul Bellow wrote in Humboldt’s Gift: ‘You have a bottom like a white valentine greeting’ and in Rabbit Redux John Updike’s phrase, salutary or unconsciously smitten was: ‘the upside-down valentine of a woman’s satin rear.’ This question was I hoped very google proof and if I got anybody to look at Raine’s essay collections, I am very pleased, as they should be also, as he is a splendid critic as well as a superb poet. These were the questions that most were at sea with.

Ken’s third differing answer was to give Titian or Caravaggio as painters who might have been collected by both Rembrandt and Rubens. I suspect he thought this worth a guess because the northern painters were influenced by these Italian masters. The painter who they in fact collected, was the Flemish genre painter Adriaen Brouwer.

In truth, I didn’t get a very large entry for my quiz. Nobody came anywhere near Ken’s 18/20. But unlike The Independent on Sunday I was not offering a case of champagne

Feeling Sorry for Art Critics

I have begun to feel a bit sorry for art critics appearing today in print and on TV. These are people who in the main, have studied art history in depth and visited the great museum of Europe and have to comment on what is called cutting-edge art, efforts at the attenuated end of a historical process which often require more imaginative resources to make them worth considering than the works contain themselves. When these poor art journalists get the chance to expound on past masters, they can be knowledgeable and perceptive but most of the time it’s either traditional-style mediocrity or the new stuff, that at one bound immunises itself against criticism by dealing in ready-mades and conceptualism.

What strategies do the writers employ? Consider these three quotations taken from reviews by The Sunday Times art critic, Waldemar Januszczak. :

‘Warhol’s most important achievement … is … he taught modern America how to feel comfortable with its with its dumbness … Warhol believed in shallowness. Warhol made it okay to love shopping, to drink coke, to adore Disney, to worship Marilyn and Elvis.’

‘A cheeky chappie has gone on show at the Tate Modern … He has a square head, an impressive length of dowelling for a nose and he’s roughly the size of the White Cliffs of Dover … This is Blockhead the latest in an intriguing line of contemporary whoppers commissioned for us by Tate Modern … The great shift in gallery purpose that has taken place in our lifetime has been the shift from education to entertainment. People used to go to museum to learn and to be enlightened. Now they go for fun. Museums … achieve … for art lovers what Butlins did for holidays.’

‘With such an artist on site (Bill Viola) the gallery (the National, London) could hope to feel younger, brighter. People inject botox into their wrinkles for similar reasons. These days contemporary art is better for business than old masters. It attracts bigger and younger crowds. It offers more spectacle, demands less education and has grown ever so adept at supplying the circus quotient of the bread and circus equation.’

There is consistency here. I’m not sure that we look at old masters for education or enlightenment but it is certainly for something different than we get from bouncy castles.

Matthew Collings another art journalist in the news and on the box, takes a slightly different line. The Chapman brothers are good, he has said, but they are not comparable with the great artists of the past. We just have to accept what art has become. In a recent television programme, he gave as his final example of beauty, the relationship between the vast white spaces of Munich’s Pinakothek Der Moderne and the works therein. Collings no longer expects anything from the artwork itself. He finds interest only in a sort of minimal interior decoration on a monumental.

While Januszczak tries to whip up enthusiasm for dumbing down as a democratising process and Matthew Collings regretfully accepts it as unavoidable, The Scotsman’s chief art critic, Duncan Macmillan is less yielding. There is more than a whiff of had-enoughness about his recent reviews. I had tended to argue for a time that the conceptualists were able to hold sway in the absence of anything substantial of another kind. Now I am not so sure. Macmillan is a historian who has produced the most complete history of Scottish art to date. He gave the memorial lecture for the Scottish painter Stephen Campbell who sadly died at the height of his powers. Could it be that the advent of an artist like this, so original and inventive yet preserving a connection with the great European tradition, allows a path for contemporary art beyond Januszczak’s ingeniously championed banality and Collings defeatism?

British Painters and Post-Impressionism

Out of respect for the beams that hold up my flat, I don’t often buy hardback books. Only occasionally something comes along which I must have hot off the press. I can’t honestly say that David Boyd Haycock’s book, A Crisis of Brilliance, about six painters who attended the Slade School of Art before the First World War, is in that category – it is not a brilliant book – but I was very glad to receive it as a Christmas present. It cleared up lots of loose ends for me, the relationships of these painters with the Bloomsbury group and the role that Edward Marsh, Churchill’s private secretary played as a patron to them. Then there are the details of their tortured lives: Dora Carrington shot herself; Mark Gertler stuck his head in a gas oven; John Currie murdered his empty-headed mistress and then turned the gun on himself.

Aside from personal agonies two events shaped their lives. In 1910 and 1912 Roger Fry mounted his exhibitions of Post-Impressionist art. Their Slade drawing teacher, Henry Tonks, advised a boycott but like any students worth their salt they paid no heed. The second notable influence on their careers was the Great War.

It is interesting to compare this group with a roughly contemporary Scottish group. The Slade painters were born anything from ten to twenty years later than the Scottish Colourists but things didn’t move so fast in those days and both lots of artists had to position themselves with regard to the innovations of painters across the Channel.

If you subscribe to a Manichean duality about the history of the arts, always judging in terms of the progressive and the conservative, the significant and the non-significant, in other words always seeing an obligatory trajectory, the Scottish painters win hands down. They were much more like the French big beasts. One of them, J.D. Fergusson, even exhibited in Paris with the Fauves. But there can be a danger in following what appears to be the progressive lead : the prompted works may only give a local variant of what is done much better by the original producers.

The Slade artists were much more circumspect. All were a bit influenced at first by the new art of France but when Stanley Spencer was asked about Picasso, he replied that ‘he hadn’t got past Piero della Francesca.’ Yet he never did anything that didn’t look as if it belonged to the twentieth century. Paul Nash took what he wanted from the European modernists but never lost in his best work his essential Englishness.

Nash and Spencer who are the only artists of the Slade group to be in the first rank of British painters, saw action in the Great War and became involved with the Official War Artists scheme. Both lived to be War Artists also during the Second Word War. Arguably Nash’s best works are from the two conflicts while Spencer’s 1941 series Shipbuilders on the Clyde is the culminating triumph of his career.

In some ways Richard Nevinson who was also a soldier and War Artist, was more like the Scottish painters, clinging more adhesively to continental influences. Today, his cubist efforts seem on the crude side and don’t challenge his French and Italian models. However, I rather like a painting of his entitled The Road from Arras to Bapaume, reproduced on a CD I have of the music of the Scottish composer Cecil Coles, who was killed in the Great War. It is almost a brown monochrome work and has something of the character of those empty seascapes by L.S. Lowry. In a work like this Nevinson too, preserves what Pevsner called ‘the Englishness of English art.'

The New Year

The first papers of the year are full of summings-up and lists of forthcoming events. Looking at bestselling authors of the decade, I note that apart from the classics like Shakespeare and Dickens, I have only read one of the hundred cited. There is no getting away from elitism if you have a serious interest in the arts. Heading the list is the author J.K. Rowling. If my grandson were the right age, I might well have read to him some of her works. I did read The Lord of the Rings to my son when he was very small but I could never understand why adults were reading it for themselves alone. Grown-ups, who read children’s books, like those who go into middle age and beyond listening to nothing but pop music seem to me very sad people.

There are some interesting things promised for 2010 however. The Tate Modern is to have a major exhibition of the work of Arshile Gorky. In my final two years at art college when I became interested in abstract art, Jackson Pollock and Gorky represented to me the peak of achievement in the field. The other Americans, Kline, Hofmann, Sam Francis et al seemed no better than the French Tachistes who were the final fling of the dying School of Paris. I always failed to see what the fuss was about Mark Rothko, though I am prepared to admit that I completely lack the beatific gene, which is why I have never been tempted to smoke cannabis. But then I have never smoked nicotine either. An old school chum of my wife is married to an American lawyer involved with the estate of another American abstract expressionist, Clyfford Still. I believe he is now to have a museum built to house exclusively his works. I cannot think of anything that would be duller.

On the home front it has been pointed out to me that 2010 is the hundredth anniversary of the death of the Scottish Impressionist William Mactaggart. When many years ago there was a major Festival Exhibition of his works in the RSA Galleries, the art historian Martin Kemp, late of St. Andrews and Oxford universities, expressed the hope that the exhibition would firmly establish the reputation of the painter. (At the same time he said he was less sure of the Scottish Colourists, which coincides with my view.) Alas, it was not to be. Some amateur critics on radio and elsewhere found some narrative traces in some of his pieces and duly condemned him. Kirkcaldy Art Gallery and Museums, which has a large holding of his works, is to do something and the National Gallery of Scotland is, at least, to have a new hanging of his works. What I would like to see, is one of his really good works hung among the gallery’s French Impressionist paintings. I’m not sure the gallery actually has anything that quite fits the bill. Perhaps the town could lend its excellent work, Jophie’s Neuk, which they don’t often show.