Thursday, 15 February 2018

Lights in the dark, cold and wet

Lumiere came to London for a second time to brighten a January weekend, and though what I saw only had a couple of highlights to equal the more widespread success of 2016, I'm glad I made it out on a beastly Sunday evening to see them. Westminster Abbey was again the classy zenith, with another contribution from Patrice Warriner lighting up new aspects. Then it was the 20th century saints above the west door; this time their surroundings, in a constantly shifting light-show,

and the triple north porch, a very convincing Gothic pastiche by Giles Gilbert Scott.

Possibly the best view of Hawksmoor's west facade is coming from St James's tube, and crossing the road which leads to Victoria,

though fine details without a zoom were best seen from standing right in front of the towers,

and there was another good viewpoint further away, between London planes, from the terrace of the QEII Centre.

Scott's door, completed after his death by his son, has all the right Gothic ingredients for the same sort of illumination that 'painted' the west end saints.

Over the main entrance are figures carved by Messrs Farmer and Brindley. Christ in Majesty blessing the Church and the World is surrounded by angels.

Below them are seated figures of the Apostles and underneath are figures in procession which represent the science and the arts alongside the royal builders of the Abbey. On the central pillar the Blessed Virgin Mary holds the Crowned Christ in her arms.

The pillars to the side are fine, too.

The rain stopped as I walked up a (nothing doing) Whitehall. The illuminated balloons by Collectif Coin in Trafalgar Square would have been fine without the soundtrack - a problem of quite a few installations; less son, more lumière, please.

It was quiet in St James's Square, though well peopled as I walked through the centre admiring the multihued cords hung from tree to tree - Spectral by Polish artists Katarzyna Malejka & Joachim Sługocki.

I'm glad I walked through the passage of St James Piccadilly to reach the thoroughfare, because I had forgotten that Arabella Dorman had followed up her first response to the humanitarian refugee crisis, Flight, with a second, Suspended - a harrowing explosion (I think she called it a bomb) made out of hundreds of items of clothing discarded by refugees arriving on the beaches of Lesbos.

It hangs like our bad conscience above the heads of the congregation. How could one not be moved by this, especially by such details as the bib with 'My 1st Christmas Ever!' on it. 

Some Christmas that would have been. Sadly the installation has now been taken down, having run its due time, but St James is such an impressive institution for commissioning work like this.

Here seems as good a place as any to put up some long-withheld pictures of another striking illumination, from a year back (there was another before Xmas, but we didn't make it).

I came across the Chinese-lantern illumination of Chiswick Park and House by chance, on one of my regular cycle rides down there via the riverside. There was an admission charge to the display proper, but the tree-lined avenue was free and had some pretty blooms along the way like this one behind snowdrops,

and this,

as well as an even more impressive gateway the other end.

I walked back, wheeling my bike, and snuck into the garden in front of the greenhouses which accommodate a major camellia collection.

The sounds of the distant fun-ground blended with the chatter of multiple blackbirds at sunset.

The illuminations made a fine foreground to the Palladian villa

and created another, forbidden-city palace to rival it.

As the last of the natural light began to fade, I walked back, catching a reflection in the greenhouse window

and one more general vista.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Flaming frauds and frivolous flibbertigibbets

Forgive the excessive alliteration, but it seemed a neat way of conjoining this week's Dante and Bach discoveries. The latter is Richard Stokes's suggested translation for 'Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister,' the title of Cantata BWV 181. The former refers to Ulysses and Guido da Montefeltro, speaking as tongues of flame in, respectively, Cantos 26 and 27 of Inferno. The Eighth Circle, heading towards the bottom of the funnel, is reserved for 'Simple Fraud', and the eighth of its 11 bolgie contains these 'counsellors of fraud in war'. If we widen that definition to 'fraud in words', then it suits the three mini horror clowns I've rather crudely coloured in flame tones above - Gove, BoJob and J Rees-Mogg, the GoBoMo triplets, folk who use a rather silly form of cleverness to deceive the gullible, though God knows they're petty demons compared to Dante's heroic hell-dwellers.

Once again, following on the heels of the talking twigs, our artists are confounded by the fact that it's the flames that speak, not figures within; but you have to allow Blake and co their visual licence. What's said, as our reader Dr. Alessandro Scafi and interpreter of deeper meaning Prof. John Took underlined in Monday's Warburg session, is tauntingly selective and if you don't have the entire context - even this Ulysses/Odysseus narrative departs from the Greek sources, and Guido da Montefeltro is not as familiar to us as he was to those living shortly after his death - you need plenty of glosses even before the meaning can be plumbed.

Dante gives us Ulysses' last journey, but not as we know it from Homer. After leaving Circe, he does not head for Ithaca and the moving/violent homecoming of The Odyssey: 'neither the sweetness of a son, nor compassion for my old father, nor the love owed to Penelope, which should have made her glad, could conquer within me the ardour that I had to gain experience of the world and of human vices and worth' -

    dolcezza di figlio, la pieta
del vecchio padre, 'l debito amore
lo qual dovea Penelopè far lieta,
   vince potero dentro a me l'ardore
ch'i' ebbi a divenir del mondo esperto
e de li vizi imani e del valore...

'A devenir del monde esperto' - this had been an earlier stage of what Prof. Took calls 'Dante's problematic humanity'. After the death of Beatrice, he spent time in the Florentine philosophical schools acquainting himself with Cicero, Boethius and, for him the greatest, Aristotle. His discoveries are noted in the Convivio. But this absolute enthusiasm for life-knowledge needed rethinking in the contet of his spiritual existence - 'quickened by grace and revelation' (Took) - and the Divina Commedia marks Dante's 'theological encompassing of reason'.

So did Dante see Ulysses as a dark image of his own earlier, 'recklessly self-confident' reasoning? He certainly refers to him a lot; and elsewhere he uses the idea of a physical journeying as the image of a spiritual one (the oceanic image crops up in Paradiso's Canto 2).  The below Doré illustration, by the way, is for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but it fits Ulysses' last journey towards the extreme west well.

Here Ulysses goes beyond the boundaries, marked physically by the Pillars of Hercules, and his crime is to use his tongue to persuade his old remaining company to follow him to what turns out to be extinction: 'you were made not to live like brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge' ('fatti non foste a viver come bruti, ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza'). Is this hubris? Or, more precisely, in John Took's so-eloquent phrase, how 'the word fractures communion for pure self-interest'?

The end finally comes in the whirlwind from the high mountain surmounted by Eden; it sweeps the men to destruction.

There's fabulous drama in Guido's speech. The man of arms became a Franciscan, 'believing, so girt, to make amends; and surely my belief would have been fulfilled, had it not been for the high priest, may evil take him! who put me back into my first sins' -

   Io fui uom d'arme, e poi fu cordigliero,
credendomi, cinto, fare ammenda;
e certo il creder mio venìa intero,
   se non fosse il gran prete, a cui mal prenda!
che mi rimise ne le prime colpe...

This is Pope Boniface VIII, Dante's deadly enemy, who asked Guido's advice in subduing the Colonna family in Praeneste/Palestrina.

I love the dark humour of the black cherubim who seizes Guido's soul (depicted above by Joseph Anton Koch in a drawing in the Thorvaldsen Museum - he is also the artist below), saying, 'Perhaps you did not think I was a logician!' ('Forse tu non pensavi ch'io löico fossi!'). Then he drags Guido off to Minos, who twists his tail furiously eight times in judgment on the sinner destined for 'the thieving fire'.

 Next week we descend to the very bottom to meet Judas, Brutus, Cassius - and Satan. Io tremo.

Bach's BWV 181 takes us from the threat of hell to heavenly consolation via the New Testament reading for Sexagesima Sunday, the Parable of the Sower in Luke 8.4-15. The sower in question casts seed on four types of ground which image the varying types of receptivity to Christ's word, from stony to fertile. 'Leichgesinnte Flattergeister' is unusual in beginning with a bass aria in which some have detected the pecking of the birds who gather up the seed on the worst soil.

There's a helpful connection to Dante and Milton with the appearance of Belial in the aria's central section.

It feels to me more like an operatic number by Handel, strengthening the notion of theatricality in the cantatas. The recitatives are highly expressive, and in the short tenor aria, I love Rilling's choice of vivid harpsichord, mirroring the thorns of the text, against the bassline - throbbing at 'höllischen Qual' ('hellish torment'). The second recitative turns us to comfort, and a chorus at last, bright with trumpet and a soprano/alto duet in the middle. Gardiner praises its 'madrigalian lightness', a good way of putting it. This is a short cantata, but as original as any.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Brompton and Chelsea galanthophilia

Chelsea Physic Garden was advertising the first of its 'snowdrop weekends'. Though as a Friend I can pop along at any time, I thought it was a good opportunity to have lunch once more at the Physic's Tangerine Dream Cafe. Which in the end we didn't do, since I was so sidetracked by the masses of galanthi in Old Brompton Cemetery, always on my cycle route southwards, that I turned up a bit late.

They always cluster off the northern part of the great avenue which leads - in a modelling based on the approach to St Peter's Rome - to the chapel, currently under restoration.

Looking north:

Croci, too, were making appearances here and there,

not least to the side of this cross,

and the first of what I always think of as a special late-winter light, silver-brown, was illuminating one of the cemetery's most striking angels

as well as what is now established as a copy of a memorial for a 13th century Sienese saint containing the remains of artist Valentine Prinsep.

Overhanging the Swan Walk wall of the Physic Garden are the remaining pomegranates, symbol of Persephone's winter sojourn in the underworld

while within there were some rather gimmicky arrangements of snowdrops, though this one is at least  part of a tradition.

The most fascinating, for us at least, is a variety called 'Blewbury tart', which our dear friend Juliette Seibold claims was named after her by the Oxfordshire neighbour who claimed it. My favourite actually turned out to be a snowflake rather than a snowdrop, a relation in the family Amaryllidaceae: Leucojum vernum, the Carpathian variety.

The only other flourishers in late January were hellebores, not normally plants I'd chose for the garden, but look at the exquisite markings on this one.

A rose, 'Graham Turner', was doing surprisingly well

while berries add a splash of colour in the otherwise dormant order beds

and the striking remains of Helianthus annus 'Tall timber' remain sculptural,

complemented by the peppers in the medicinal garden.

One other specimen doing well: Brassica oleracea.

By way of west London coda, my three or four times-weekly visits to the gym in Normand Park, two minutes' walk away, give me passing insights into the great outdoors, and the other evening, as I was returning, I just caught the rising full moon through trees.

 Last daylight on the gym side:

Everyone got excited that this was a Super Blue Blood Moon  - the papers are making a thing of moons now, though that's fine if it gets more people looking - though it turned out that the UK wasn't getting the blood red effect. Still, how exciting for the fourth time since early November 2017 to see the craters on our nearest neighbour in space.