NOVEMBER 23, 2007 THE CATHOLIC HERALD
Arts Editor: Mark Greaves Tel: 020 7448 3603 Fax: 020 7256 9728 E-mail: email@example.com
Watch drama unfold in glass A bad childhood that fuelled 70 years of art
Art of Light: German Renaissance Stained Glass
NATIONAL GALLERY, UNTIL FEBRUARY 17
Art of Lightis the first exhibition of its kind in the National Gallery and one that attempts to treat stained glass as an “art” rather than a “craft”. Indeed, it provides plenty of proof that the hand and spirit of the artist is transferable to any medium. Stained glass has had a patronising, almost dismissive critical assessment for many a year. The Gothic Revival of the 19th century persisted too long into the 20th century to gain any real appreciation from the art cognoscenti of the 1930s to the 1980s. Even Coventry Cathedral was looked upon as a historical oddity by many. Now, perhaps as a result of this very well-presented exhibition, our minds may be inclined to change. How right the National Gallery was to concentrate on those examples of German glass art which have largely been lent by the Victoria and Albert Museum. The technique of actually painting on glass, staining with silver stain (producing a glorious golden colour), enamelling with different colours and occasionally grinding away the colour with metal tools as a kind of delicate etching technique were all associated with the alchemical experiments and discoveries of that time. There are marvellously moving religious scenes, many of them as a result of the draughtsmanship of artists such as Albrecht Düürer, Jorg Breu the Elder
‘Abbot Johann von Ahrweiler and St Norbert’, from the Abbey of Steinfeld
and Hans Baldung Grien. The psychology of the drawing in the tiny faces and heads has to be looked at for quite a long time. The longer the act of contemplation, the more the feeling grows that we are looking at the unfolding of a drama. It is a case of having a one-toone experience. The painting in these panels is of the
utmost sophistication and technical brilliance. But we must remember that the hands which drew these may also have engraved wood and worked with precious metals such as gold and silver. In medieval Germany the guilds were exclusive but the artists were still on speaking terms with one another. There were no laws of copyright. The stimulus
for creation took place as each contemplated the achievements of the other. But there were other matters in late 15th-century Germany and the Netherlands. The stimulus for these panels, for instance, can be found in the growth of private contemplative prayer and in patterns of devotion such as the Rosary. The adoption of the Stations of the Cross by churches across Europe contributed to the idea of contemplation (helped enormously by visual imagery) in the lives of ordinary people. Another reason for the creation of these tiny panels of glass was the invention of printing and the subsequent death of manuscript illumination. It is only my guess, but I suggest that all the talent that would have been employed by the illuminators’ studios had to try their hand at painting on glass in order to make a living once the great books of hours went out of fashion. We are apt to forget the close links between artists in England and those in the Netherlands, the Rhine basin and, occasionally, France. The Reformation came and split up the easy interchange which was taken for granted in the 15th century. Heraldic exhibitionism and the growing self-confidence of individuals in their armour and their aggressive authority had found an ideal instrument in glass. Individual self-assurance, as well as faith, had found a marvellous means of expression. Go to see this tiny but unique exhibition and marvel at panels and paintings which seem to anticipate the minute accuracy of the watchmaker, the miniaturist and even the painter of porcelain. Patrick Reyntiens
Welcome to a Guardian reader’s nightmare
FILM REVIEW Freddy Gray
PG CERT, 84 MINS
Jesus Campis a horror film disguised as a documentary. From the opening shots, the viewer is thrust into America’s red state dystopia. The highways are decorated with stars and stripes, golden arches and Protestant propaganda. The airwaves are thick with evangelical preaching. Obese people wear very bad clothes and drive big cars. This is a Guardianreader’s worst nightmare: welcome to Bible Belt hell. Meet Pastor Becky Fisher, the very large woman who runs the “kids on fire” summer camp. She suppresses a wince as she berates the younger generation for being fat. We are intro
duced to Levi, an eloquent preacher boy with a hillbilly mullet. “I was saved when I was five,” he says. “I just wanted something more from life.” Levi is home-schooled, of course. His mother teaches him that the theory of evolution is wicked and global warming a myth. Next up is Rachel, who wants to run a beauty salon where she can tell clients about the evil of abortion as she paints their nails. She is shy, but the Holy Spirit compels her to evangelise. “Do you know exactly where you are going when you die?” she asks a group of black men. “Heaven,” replies an old fellow in a chair. “Are you sure?” persists Rachel. “Yeah.” Rachel walks away. “I think they must be Muslims,” she says under her breath. Then there is energetic Tory, who likes to dance in her room to Christian heavy metal. She confesses that her style sometimes becomes “of the flesh”. “I am notthe only one who makes that mistake,” she insists. The bulk of the film is taken up with long, painful scenes of Christian indoctrination: preachers raging against Satan, entranced children weeping and talking in tongues and gesticulating wildly towards the heavens. We hear
bizarre God-squad chants (“Dance! We’re kicking it for Christ” was my favourite). This is all disturbing enough in itself. Yet, in case we miss the point, the filmmakers employ creepy, electronic music to convey a sinister mood and remind us that we are more sophisticated than the God-fearing simpletons. Mike Papantonio, a lawyer and talkshow host, offers relief from the exhausting evangelical zaniness. In the sober calm of his studio, he warns America about the dangerous rise of the Religious Right. He is a Christian, yet he fears that under President George W Bush the boundaries between church and state have been significantly eroded. Certainly, the evangelicals do seem to elevate Bush to a quasi-divine status. In one of the most alarming scenes, children pray before a life-size cardboard cut-out of the president. Pastor Ted Haggard, then an adviser to the White House, spells it out. “If the evangelicals vote, they determine the election,” he says with a triumphal sneer. InJesus Campthe older evangelicals come across as zealots, fanatically imposing their warped spirituality on the younger generation. The film poses
as neutral reportage on fundamentalist Christianity in the United States, but it has a nagging preachiness of its own. The directors, Heidi Ewing, a Catholic, and Rachel Grady, obviously feel that the pupils of Jesus Camp are being mentally abused. They may well be right. Yet too often the editing clumsily nudges the audience towards agreeing with Papantonio and objecting to the evangelicals. The trouble is that, for all the mad indoctrination, the children are not deranged Bible robots. They are actually sweet, polite and level-headed. Levi speaks a lot of sense. “This world, all it feeds you is trash,” he says, with calm assurance. “That’s what a lot of people are in this world: they are sick. They are looking for something.” Rachel tells the camera: “I have been teased several times...They think I am weird. Go ahead. They are not the ones who are going to be judging me.” Her frank opinions prompted superior sniggers among the press audience at London’s Institute for Contemporary Arts. But the journos didn’t seem to appreciate that, with all the twinkling, clever-clever music and choreography, the Jesus Camp kids were not the only ones being brainwashed.
ART REVIEW Georgina French
TATE MODERN, UNTIL JANUARY 20
The Louise Bourgeois retrospective at Tate Modern displays over 200 works spanning an incredible seven decades. Bourgeois is now 95 years old and still works incessantly. The penultimate room in this exhibition displays a work on paper on which she has scribbled: “It is not so much where my motivation comes from, but rather how it manages to survive.” Despite recent critical acclaim, Bourgeois’s career blossomed late in her life. She exhibited irregularly in America in the 1940s and 1950s before being rescued from relative obscurity by feminist art historians. In 1975 the American writer Lucy Lippard described her as an artist who had “survived almost 40 years of discrimination, struggle, intermittent success and neglect in New York’s gladiatorial art arenas”. It was not until 1982 that Bourgeois received international recognition when she became the first female artist to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. However, Louise Bourgeois does not set out to please. In the 1994 Arenavideo portrait of the artist (on loop at the end of the exhibition, it makes enlightening and amusing viewing), Bourgeois says: “I do not need fans, that’s not my bag.” For Bourgeois, making art is cathartic, a form of therapy helping her to overcome the betrayal and abandonment that she experienced as a child. Bourgeois grew up in Choisy-LeRoi just outside Paris, the site of her parents’ prosperous tapestry and antique repair business. During this time her father began a 10-year affair with Sadie Gordon Richmond, who had been engaged to teach Bourgeois English. The anger and resentment that she felt towards Sadie and her father still rages inside her and fuels her creativity. “All my work in the past 50 years, all my subjects, have found their inspiration in my childhood. My childhood has never lost its magic, it has never lost its mystery and it has never lost its drama,” she wrote. The Destruction of the Father, Bourgeois’ first enclosed sculpture now displayed in Britain for the first time, depicts the family dinner table. The father sits at the head dictating conversation until the mother and children grab him, throw him on to the table, dismember and devour him. Bourgeois’ art allows her to revisit the past and unleash her anger and frustration.
In the first room of the exhibition Bourgeois explores the nature of the home and her place within it. A 1990s installation entitled Cell contains a pink marble model of her childhood home encased by a metal cage that refers to the family tapestry repair shop. The cell represents an enclosed section of Bourgeois’ past, to which she feels a prisoner. The guillotine suspended above signals the destruction that family life can impose. In 1938 Bourgeois married the art historian Robert Goldwater and moved to New York, where she had three children. Here, Bourgeois made a series of tall wooden sculptures on the roof of their Manhattan apartment that explore the relationship between people and architecture. These totemic Personages reflect both the New York skyline (her new home) and the loved ones that Bourgeois had left behind in France. Like the skyscrapers that now surrounded Bourgeois, the Personagesare grouped together yet unable to touch. In the late 1960s Bourgeois began to work with marble. Cumul I, for instance, recycles past biomorphic, sensual forms, but to soothing effect. Reminiscent of undulating cumulus clouds, the marble has a softness that belies its hard nature. A similar calming effect is achieved in Ventouse, in which cupping jars, picked up by Bourgeois in a flea market in the south of France, have been set into a block of marble. Bourgeois here recalls nursing her mother with cupping jars, which are applied to the flesh to relieve pain –a parallel to sculpting as a healing process for Bourgeois. In 1980 Bourgeois moved her studio to a large converted garment factory in Brooklyn, which enabled her to work on a much larger scale. Spider, in which a towering spider engulfs a cage containing a chair and tapestry fragments, recalls the family tapestry business, but, in particular, Bourgeois’ mother Josephine. In Ode To My Mother Bourgeois recalls a “friend (the spider –why the spider?) because my best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and as useful as a spider. She could also defend herself and me, by refusing to answer ‘stupid’, inquisitive, embarrassing, personal questions.” The final room, or “cabinet of curiosities”, reveals the extent to which art is a way of life for Bourgeois, or even a way of surviving. She has lived through the various art movements of the 20th century, and now the beginning of the 21st, yet her work has never really engaged with them. Sticking resolutely on her own path to selfknowledge and acceptance, she has produced a body of work that is revealing yet confusing, abject yet beguiling. In her own words, Bourgeois is a “lonely long distance runner”, and that’s the way she likes it.
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Many actors – Cary Grant, Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Alec Guinness, Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams among them – have dressed up as women; but they were always men disguised as women. In Hairspraywe have something quite different. The lead actor isn’t in disguise; he’s actually playing a female character. The actor is doing what actors did in ancient Greece and still do in Noh and Kabuki theatre. There’s a nice story doing the rounds, and it may even be true. Michael Ball’s fans are going to the box office during the interval and asking for their money back, complaining bitterly that he’s not in the show. It is then pointed out that the big, fat lady on stage playing the heroine’s mother is Michael Ball. The action is set in Baltimore in 1962, an era of racial segregation and extraordinary hairdos. An obese teenage girl longs to appear on a highly popular television dance programme. She’s a nice girl with a social conscience and believes black kids have the same rights as white kids. The musical has something important to say about racial integration and obesity and says it in an optimistic, simplistic,
warm-hearted, non-hectoring, feel-good way. The show has a great score by Marc Shaiman. It has witty lyrics. Jack O’Brien’s production is dance-driven. The energy is fantastic and Jerry Mitchell’s choreography looks so much better on stage than it does on screen, mainly because in a theatre you get to see the whole cast in one go and not in a series of edited close-ups.
Antony Sher’s epic drama – interesting, well-acted and verbose –takes place in hedonistic Florence in 1501, when Michelangelo was 26 and Leonardo da Vinci was 53 and the two were competing to sculpt a giant marble slab. In real life the men had only met once in the street. Here, they meet on a number of occasions and are not only rivals in art but also in love –with a beautiful 18-yearold quarryman. Michelangelo (John Light), a godly man, mortified and frustrated by his sexual feelings, lives in fear of damnation. He puts his passion into his art and remains celibate. Leonardo (Roger Allam), having led a dissipated youth, now finds that sex disgusts him and puts his passion into painting, poetry, sculpture, architecture and science. He, too, is celibate. The lad is Michelangelo’s assistant and model. It says much for Stephen Hagan, who is making his professional
stage debut, that he can stand completely naked in front of the statue of David and not look ridiculous. The superhuman statue is presented as a political statement, a symbol of Florence’s resurgence, pride and cultural superiority: a warning to other cities and nations not to mess with it.
Caryl Churchill writes about sexual and colonial repression in Victorian and modern times, offering audiences a variety of taboo subjects. The first act, set in darkest Africa, is a farcical parody of England, empire and family as portrayed by Rudyard Kipling. The second act is set in the permissive 1970s. Artistic director Michael Attenborough describes Cloud Nine as one of the great plays of the late 20th century, beautifully bawdy, desperately funny and truly touching. It’s certainly bawdy. But is Cloud Ninereally one of the great plays of the 20th century? Surely not. The first act might survive on its own, provided it kept its essential ingredient: crossdressing. Theatre has always been a drag since time immemorial. Robert Tanitch
Robert Tanitch’s lavishly illustrated year-by-year chronicle, London Stage in the 20th Centuryis published by Haus Publishing.
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