Monthly Archives: December 2014

Art and the age of invention

In the London art world at least, 2014 may well be remembered as the year of the old men.

Three of Europe’s most influential artists – Henri Matisse, JMW Turner and Rembrandt van Rijn – have all been honoured with major exhibitions at the capital’s Tate Modern and Tate Britain galleries, and the National Gallery.

Whether by coincidence or collusion, these three shows have focused on work produced in the artists’ later years.

But that’s not the only thread that draws them together.

For me, the most astonishing thing about all these exhibitions has been the sheer invention on display.

Cutting edge

Matisse was old and infirm when he began to create images using scissors and paper.
Matisse-The-Parakeet-and-the-Mermaid-1952

Yet his mind was quick and his hands as strong and deft as ever.

Working at an incredible speed – and often far into the night – he produced images that, in many ways, have come to define his life’s work.

His version of The Snail, which hangs in Tate Britain, is probably one of his best-known works; famous for often evoking the retort: “My five-year-old could’ve done that!”

But Matisse wasn’t five. He was a very old man, confined to bed, or at best his wheelchair, unable to see the real world around him, yet driven to create and – critically – to experiment with new techniques.

And determined, too, to fill his world with images of joyful life and playful fun, as The Parakeet and the Mermaid so aptly demonstrate.

A man gone mad

Turner was another who, in his later years, broke free from anything resembling the chains of convention – which he always railed against – and, in his sixties and seventies, produced some of the most remarkable images of his entire life.
Joseph-Mallord-William-Turner-Paintings-Whalers-Boiling-Blubber-Entangled-in-Flaw-Ice-1846
So extreme were his ideas about light, and so seemingly perverse his use of oils and watercolours, many contemporary art lovers believed he had not so much lost the plot but suffered a complete disconnect from his senses.

Today, of course, when we see a painting like Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate Themselves, which Turner produced when he was 71, we know we are looking at the work of a man who, far from being mad, was still trying to push his medium to its limit; still wanting to show us the sensations of the world rather than its mere surface.

The Dutch master

Born 169 years before Turner, and dead exactly 100 years before Matisse was even born, Rembrandt van Rijn never stopped experimenting.

How much he influenced the other two is open to question.

But, if nothing else is certain, he should have been a role model of determination and invention.

rembrandt.1661Here, in this late self-portrait, he is experimenting with the effects of light and paint on a flat surface, working with the very stuff of oil and pigment to create an image that says: “I may be old, bankrupt and out of fashion, but I’m not finished yet. See, I can still draw circles!”

If we are to take anything from these three remarkable exhibitions – and there is much to enjoy and savour in reflection – it is this: that age never diminishes the creative spirit and infirmity cannot destroy the will to communicate ideas.

Matisse, Turner and Rembrandt have not only been role models for the thousands of painters who have followed them, but also for us all.

At the end of this, the year of the old men, we should remember that vigour and imagination, skill and dexterity, truth and vision are attributes and virtues to be valued and striven for, right to the end.

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Good on yer, Max!

I never thought I’d say this, but the Daily Mail’s Max Hastings is spot on today.
Commenting on Chancellor George Osborne’s speech in the House of Commons yesterday, when he introduced his Autumn Statement, Hastings says that, while it was a good speech, if Osborne had “told us the whole truth about the economy the Tories would never get elected”.
Goodness me! And in the Daily Mail!
Cataloging the anomalies in Osborne’s address, he highlights the disconnects between fact and fantasy and claims that, if Britain’s public finances are to be sustainable, Osborne would have to make spending cuts on a scale beyond the acceptable, in electoral terms.
Hastings goes on to bemoan the levels of what he calls “wasted, wasted, wasted” public expenditure, on projects he derides.
But his final, parting shot is the most wounding to the Tories – his newspaper’s core readership.
He says: “George Osborne is a better and more truthful man than his Labour foes, as he showed us again yesterday.
“His party is the only one fit to govern after next May. But it is nowhere near honest enough, if our children and grandchildren are to inhabit a solvent Britain.”
And he’s right.
I never thought I’d say that!

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A tale of two Gs

A couple of weeks ago I spent an evening in the company of Ken Clarke, one of British politics’ big beasts.
That night, recounting his achievements and countering his critics, Clarke seemed like a man at the end of his political tether; a misunderstood old-school patrician slightly confused by the antics of his upstart public school successors.
Today comes the news that Gordon Brown – another big beast of British politics – is to retire from Parliament at next year’s general election.
Both men have been in pubic service – and in the public eye – for decades. So it’s little wonder they both feel it’s time to take a back seat somewhere; or, more likely, a front seat in some international institution or another.
For both men, the questions are “What next?” and “How will they be remembered?”.
In Clarke’s case, he may always be recalled in the same breath as Margaret Thatcher.
In Brown’s case, he may never be disassociated from his erstwhile political friend and adversary, Tony Blair.
But there is another comparison to be made.
Two G forces
Gordon Brown was Britain’s longest-serving peacetime Chancellor of the Exchequer.
In that role, he oversaw extraordinary levels of economic growth and (admittedly debt-fuelled) prosperity for the UK.
As Prime Minister, he was responsible for saving – not ‘the world’ as he mistakenly put it in Parliament – but the world’s banking system as we knew it – and, to a great a extent, still know it today – when it was brought to its knees by the collapse of Lehman Brothers.
Throughout his political life, he has believed in the idea of politics as public service.
His is a record of devotion to Britain, to the betterment of society and to the selfless notion that working to improve the lives of others is a laudable activity.
There seems little doubt that, once he leaves Parliament for the last time next May, he is destined for some new role in public service.
But what of the other G?
A chancer on the make
George Osborne, Britain’s current Chancellor, is a man for whom the ‘chance’ in his job description seems more closely allied to ‘risk’ and ‘luck’ than to the serious business of managing Britain’s economy.
Tomorrow he will deliver his much-trailed Autumn Statement, in which he will outline spendings and savings that he’ll no doubt describe as being good for the British economy.
He may well, as always, blame the last administration for the “mess” he inherited in 2010.
He may even quote Liam Byrne who, as outgoing chief secretary to the Treasury, reportedly left a note saying: “There is no money.” And there is still none.
He may claim to have righted what he saw as a sinking ship.
But he will still be presiding over levels of near-unstainable debt and continuing austerity that can be seen in the UK’s fragile economic growth, the collapse of our manufactured exports, the general state of dereliction in parts of the country and the increasing numbers of people relying on food banks for survival.
Unlike Brown, Osborne, one suspects, will quietly slide into some well remunerated, superannuated business slot when he retires.
A truly big beast
Not for him any notion of ongoing public service.
He is, after all, of the generation that, as Brown puts it, sees politics as, “at best, a branch of the entertainment industry”.
Indeed, it’s hard to believe that Osborne shares anything with Brown who, speaking in Kirkcaldy yesterday, said: “I still hold to the belief in something bigger than ourselves. I still hold to a belief in the moral purpose of public service … which I hope to inspire in my children.”
It’s my belief that, when the tales of these two Gs come to be told, Brown’s will have the greater heft.
For all his failings, he was a good politician and a great public servant.
I cannot see Osborne bettering him on either count.

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