Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Artemisia

Photographer: Ian Mcilgorm. Model: me

A friend I met soon after returning from Florence asked me whether I had seen Artemisia Gentileschi's paintings at the Uffizi. I am really interested in her, my friend said. I replied that yes, I had seen Artemisia's work but had not given it sufficient attention.  I said that I did remember her from the days when I began to discover women artists but I had never really engaged with her work - I had not looked - and  in my mind I kind of conflated her with Madame Le Brun, who lived a century later in France and was patronised by Marie-Antoinette. I felt quite ashamed at my ignorance. My friend suggested I should read Gentileschi's biography by Anna Banti, with a foreword by Susan Sontag. I ordered the book but I could not wait to get started, my curiosity having been piqued, and over the long weekend I dipped into Susan Vreeland's fictionalised biography, which I could download immediately,  just to appreciate Artemisia a little better. Even though Vreeland injected her Artemisia with very contemporary thinking, I  began to realise how wonderful she was, as a woman and as an artist. I also watched A woman like that by Ellen Weissbrod, a documentary about Artemisia lovingly pieced together, underpinned by much serious research into Gentileschi's artistic worldview.


I may be a latecomer to Artemisia Gentileschi's fan club and apologise to those readers that already know about her. I just think that for a woman who did not come from an aristocratic family to decide to earn a living from her art in the 17th century was an extraordinary feat. Artemisia's early life was marked by a very public trial following her rape and dishonouring - in 17th century Rome it was not so much the rape but the dishonouring that warranted legal action - by her father Orazio's friend and collaborator Agostino Tassi, also a painter. He had been hired to teach young Artemisia, whose talent was very obvious, the art of perspective. Tassi was acquitted but Orazio was compensated (for it was Orazio who had started legal proceedings, it would not have been possible for Artemisia to do so as she was a woman) and following the trial, Artemisia was hurriedly married off to a painter from Florence and moved away from Rome. A film that came out in 1997 by Agnès Merlet recounted her trial and the torture of the thumb screws she had to undergo to prove her innocence.
Artemisia insisted on carrying on painting, making her way to success in a totally male dominated world that viewed her with antagonism and occasionally, scorn, for being female.
Hers had been a marriage of convenience. She pursued patronage and was able to travel. She even came to London at the invitation of Charles I and Henrietta Maria to paint together with her father, with whom she continued to have a difficult relationship throughout her life, the ceiling of Central Hall, Queen's House, Greenwich (now Malborough House).

Artemisia Gentileschi: self-portrait. Royal Collection. Photo by Larry Brash

Schooled in the realism of Caravaggio, Artemisia's uniqueness was in the way she painted the female nude, injecting her figures with a sensitivity that male painters struggled to achieve. Female painters of her day were primarily hobbyists and never did any more than pretty landscapes. Artemisia's excellence at figurative painting was all the more startling.
Artemisia is truly an inspiration for women, even today. Her doggedly determination to paint, her unwillingness to be defeated, are a great example to follow, even in these postfeminist times.
After her death,  she suffered the ignominy of having her work attributed to her father or other male painters and she slipped into oblivion.  It took a long time for her to be reinstated as one of the most remarkable modern painters of Europe.
Her Susanna and the Elders remains my favourite, painted when she was only 17. In it she captured the anguish of a young woman harassed by the lecherous elderly men.

Susanna and the Elders by Artemisia Gentileschi. Photo: Larry Brash

The website set up by Larry Brash is entirely devoted to Artemisia Gentileschi and is being constantly updated and I suggest you visit it and also, if at all possible, try to get a glimpse of Artemisia Gentileschi's paintings by going on a 'grand tour'.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Serendipity

Photo by Kati Turkina Model: me

I have always been fascinated by the notion of serendipity. Often conflated with chance and fortune and carrying with it a sense of magical occurrence,  in my view serendipity is much more complex in that it taps on one's creativity and inventiveness, as a number of writers have noted. Serendipitous discoveries in science were often due to the scientists's openness and readiness to see opportunities. I am convinced that openness and readiness are the key to serendipity, as also the ability to make links and connections, often without thinking them through logically.
I am fascinated by  the tale that gave the name to serendipity, the story of the three Princes of Serendip. I am using here as a source the book by Robert Merton and Elinor Barber The travels and adventures of serendipity: a study in sociological semantics and the sociology of science (2004).
It was Horace Walpole that coined the word serendipity  in 1754, in a letter to Horace Mann in which he refers to a Persian tale translated into French and then into English about the Princes of Sarendip or Serendib which was the name for ancient Ceylon. The Princes  had been wrongly accused of stealing a camel because when a camel driver who had lost one his camels had asked them whether they had seen it, the Princes had been able to describe the camel in great detail on the basis of clues they had found on the road which led the camel driver to believe they had stolen it. Walpole used the story of the Princes and their great sagacity to explain  his own fortuitous finding of information about the Capello arms. Since then serendipity has become part of the English language, even though as Merton and Barber note, Walpole somewhat manipulated the story to fit his own discovery.

Photo by Kati Turkina. Model: me

Be that as it may, serendipity is a word with great charge and I believe it could be used to describe almost everything that happens in one's life. Every encounter can be serendipitous. Some New Age writers and thinkers would associate serendipity with flow and being in alignment. I do understand what they are saying but I prefer to think of serendipity as serendipity. The thing is that serendipity is linked with sagacity. And what is  sagacity? According to the OED sagacity is:
wisdom, (deep) insight, intelligence, understanding, judgement, acuity,astuteness, insight, sense, canniness, sharpness, depth, profundity,profoundness, perceptiveness, penetration, perception, percipience,perspicuity, discernment, erudition, learning, knowledgeability,thoughtfulness; rare sapience
So serendipity is about astuteness and awareness of opportunities, among other things. I am happy with this gloss.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Being a tourist and snapping away


View of Florence from Palazzo della Signoria
Here I am, enjoying a few days in Florence. I had not been to Florence since the early 1980s (I know, it has been THAT long) so I finally decided to avail of some friends' kind offer of hospitality, there is so much I really wanted to see here and see it properly, not in the hurried way I did it when I first came in the 1980s. I flew to Pisa on Tuesday and then moved to Prato on Wednesday.
The past two days have been incredibly hot, yesterday it really rained in bucketfuls and as I am not keen on rain I had to delay quite a few things, such as visiting the beautiful Boboli Gardens, which have always been the butt of jokes in my family, because of some incident involving my brother-in-law, who is a Florentine born and bred.
On my first day in Florence I got to the Cathedral and the queue of people trying to get in  - it's free - was endless. I am not very good with queues and I resolved there and then that there was no way I would stand in the sun to be admitted in. Something had to be done. I noticed some people took a different entrance and did not queue at all  Intrigued, I asked and discovered the existence of the FirenzeCard for which you pay seventy two euros upfront and for three days you have priority access to all monuments and museums and you even get a ticket valid on all busses and  on the tram - not that I have been using this ticket much, it's so wonderful to walk around and Florence is quite small. I immediately bought the card. I negotiated the Brunelleschi's Cupola and Giotto's Campanile, quite a climb, with 'traffic jams' involving groups of people on the way up the very narrow stairs and back down. I also had a good view of the church's interior, from the balconies. Then off I went to the Uffizi and all the other museums, including my very favourite, Palazzo Strozzi, filling myself up en route with gorgeous gelato (ice cream), which here they make supremely tasty and serve in very generous portions for just a few euros. You call this small, I asked the lovely girl that gave me a huge cone filled with gelato al tiramisu'. Yes she said and pointed to the large version which honestly was enough for two people.
I soon got over the fact that everyone thought I was French - it happens all the time, even in England, only the French do not ever think I am French because my French is accented, albeit fluent. I was complimented for speaking 'such good Italian' by various people and found it hilarious. I got so tired of explaining my personal circumstances, I just went on with the fiction of being a foreigner who speaks the local language and wants to practise it, no one ever asked me where I was from and I never volunteered the information, how bizarre, when I am in England people ask all the time. I never tried to fool anyone, I just let people believe what they wanted to believe, in other words.

Fashion shot by Kati Turkina at London College of Fashion. Model: Me

But I realise I am getting carried away and digressing. I really wanted  to post about taking snaps in museums and galleries, as this has suddenly vexed me. So I will proceed.

(The photo above has nothing to do with this post's  topic, it is just an interesting shot of me taken by young photographer Kati Turkina).

I went to the Accademia to admire Michelangelo's David, the one in Piazza della Signoria is just a copy. And I was appalled by what I saw. I took a camera with me and began to take pictures but then I changed my mind and put the camera away because  there were hundreds of people just snapping, everyone wanted a piece of the art work and the only thing that mattered was snapping, snapping, snapping, they would not even look , just snap. I saw girls and grown women turning themselves into 'models' and posing by the David or other famous work with a pout, while a friend of theirs snapped with a smartphone, people making silly faces and being snapped. It's not something I thought would ever bother me but suddenly it did, because I wanted to look without being elbowed and without being distracted by the endless snapping. I was relieved when I went to see the current exhibition which my card gave me access to and was told that no photos were allowed. Suddenly the number of people in the galleries appeared to be more manageable, it seems that people only go and see certain pieces, and that's it, exhibitions hold no interest to them, is it because no snapping is allowed, I wonder?
Clothes on display at Palazzo Pitti, Florence
At Palazzo Pitti, which is where all the major fashion shows take place, I saw the beautiful 'Costumi' collection, tastefully arranged, with each gallery showcasing the clothes of a few women who were renowned, throughout the 20th century, for being elegant and chic and for being collectors of fashion. It was a great display, yet hardly anyone was around.  I did take photographs, even though by the time I finished my tour of the galleries I was so enthused I decided to go and buy the catalogue, which has much better pictures than the ones I took - mine are of the clothes behind glass cabinets, whereas the catalogue has excellent prints of the clothes out of their cabinet and also pictures of their wearers.
 As a blogger I need pictures, my own preferably, so as not to run into copyright problems. But do people take snaps of art works they see when holidaying only because they want to put them on social media? I am guilty of doing the same the thing, I have certainly done it in the past without giving it a second thought, only now I am  having some serious doubts on whether it is a desirable practice. After all if we go to a concert or a theatre or a dance performance we are not allowed to snap or record the event. But taking pictures in museums and galleries? Museum shops have hundreds of excellent postcards of their exhibits and they are cheap. There are catalogues, and images are also available online. So what is it about snapping? I am still pondering over this whole matter. Meanwhile I have decided to take pictures only sparingly whenever I find myself visiting a museum. I guess the attitude to adopt is the same as when you eat chocolate: a little bit is wonderful, too much will give you indigestion.


Thursday, 7 May 2015

La Bayadère


A friend called me this afternoon, we had not seen each other in months, and invited me to join her  and watch a performance of Bayadère the ninth life, a contemporary dance work choreographed by Shobana Jeyasingh. At first I politely declined - the theatre was miles away and it was such a foul day, with rain aplenty, and so cold that I needed to have the heating on at home (and it is May!).  But then I gave in, I had not seen my friend in ages and this particular dance was something that  really intrigued me - when it was premiered I was in Germany, so this was my only chance, as it was the  day before Jeyasingh's company went  to Exeter for the last leg of their tour. Off I went,  to Watford Palace Theatre.
I have known Shobana Jeyasingh from her days as a classical Bharata Natyam dancer. She turned into a choreographer in 1988 and since then she has made work that bears the stamp of her original Bharata Natyam training but is enriched and expanded with her knowledge of contemporary choreography, occasionally referencing more explicitly her Bharata Natyam roots.  She has won several awards for her creative approach  and has secured her place among the most successful UK choreographers since her company first began. Not a small feat.
I was really curious to see how she had approached one of the most famous and best loved 19th century classical ballet works, La Bayadère by Petipa with music by Minkus. And why she chose it. The answer to this  turns out to be quite straightforward. The piece springs from Jeyasingh's reflection on the incongruities of an orientalist jamboree that is the narrative of Petipa's  La Bayadere and her own choreography is actually a very beautiful and sensitive response to the romantic classicism of the original work, more so than I expected.


Jeyasingh's Bayadère begins with a young man sitting  on stage with his iPad telling us the story of Petipa's Bayadere through his blog.  "I went to see La Bayadere which was an interesting experience for me as an Indian" he begins and briefly the audience is told the story of Nikiya, the temple dancer and her lover prince Solor and princess Gamzatti who is bethrothed to Solor and who schemes to kill Nikiya through giving her a bouquet hiding a poisonous snake. The original ballet is set in an imaginary Indian court,  inspired by the real life court of the rajah of Golconda, where the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond, donated to Queen Victoria, came from.

The Koh-i-Noor diamond. Photo: Crown copyright

The most iconic moment in Petipa's ballet is Act III, also known as the Kingdom of the Shades, a kind of after life dream world ( a common trope in the Romantic -Classical ballets of the 19th century, think of Giselle) where we find Nikiya and Solor reunited, albeit briefly, and the Shades dancing around them. Jeyasingh's work is multilayered and the Kingdom of the Shades is presented to us to a soundtrack, spoken by an actor,  consisting of the original writings of Theophile Gautier, about the devadasi (temple dancer)  Amany, who was part of a group of them that had been brought to Europe on a tour, and with whom Gautier became infatuated. In the finale the dancers come out of the dream, so to speak, on into a more real, everyday, world, to a soundtrack by composer Gabriel Prokofiev that occasionally reminded me of Steve Reich's Different Trains .
The interrelated frames devised by Jeyasingh work very well, except that the last portion of the dance is perhaps a tad too long. For sixty minutes I was transported. I loved Jeyasingh's intelligent interpretation and her postcolonial critique was not lost on me. I also loved her references to Ingres' odalisques, interspersed in the middle section and her dancers were magnificent. Her bayadère was performed by a male dancer whose Bharata Natyam technique was superb - I love the gender inversion here which can be interpreted in more than one way.
If anything Jeyasingh's rendition has made me appreciate the 19th century ballet even more. I can't help being enticed by Petipa's Bayadère. The poetry of the Kingdom of the Shades remains unsurpassed, its music is haunting, the ballet choreography exquisite.
Petipa's La Bayadère: an orientalist pastiche it may be, but one that has held audiences spellbound for decades. Jeyasingh's task of deconstruction was most difficult and one which other choreographers would have found very daunting. She has definitely succeeded in turning it into a beautiful contemporary piece, with great elegance and panache.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Beauty and ads

                The statuesque supermodel  Erin O'Connor as a Modigliani beauty. Photo: Patrick Demarchelier/Harpers Bazaar Feb 2002.  reblogged from lovelyritablog

Beauty. It is something I have been mulling over ever since I went -twice in fact - to see the Defining Beauty exhibition which I discussed in an earlier post. In the intervening period, I travelled to Germany, celebrated another birthday, came back home and got some exciting news -all in good time. Then this morning the excellent post by Rosalind Jana on body image and my Facebook newsfeed with yet another comment by that tiresome woman that is Katie Hopkins on the Protein World ad, which is causing such a furore, acted as a prompt to write my post.

The controversial Protein World ad

Let's start with the ad. I am not bothered by it at all,  it is not worse than many others, it is just a stereotypical ad. The model is a young woman with a beautiful body, artfully made more beautiful by skilled photography, a so called 'beach body', meaning a fit body to exhibit with some pride at the beach, where most of us take our clothes off and often look at each other, judgmentally.  Yes, the ad is there to push products that help you lose weight, to achieve a 'beautiful body'. The petitioners for its removal claim that the ad is insulting to people who are not as fit as the model. So why do we all cry with delight  when we read 'inspirational' stories of people that have dropped several pounds of extra weight through engaging in healthy eating and exercise?  Just this morning I got another one of these stories in my Facebook news feed about a woman my age  who lost weight and got a style makeover and she was praised by a huge number of people, both men and women,  for having done so. Are we not being a tad hypocritical?
We all know that ads tend to present a stereotypical view of the world and one that has little to do with reality. It is good sometimes to step back and not take them seriously, we are giving far too much importance to them. Ads reify people.

The idealised body of a Neolithic goddess, Malta. Photo by me

When I see a beautiful body I am not insulted by it. I admire it. A beautiful body to me goes beyond  a two dimensional representation of it in a photograph, it is a real life body that  breathes, is coordinated, and moves with elegance.  I admire the body of athletes, both men and women, and I know that they treat their bodies as an instrument and tend to it, to get their maximum performance.

Dancers' bodies, Sleektechnique instructors Victoria Marr and Flik Swann, photo courtesy of Sleektechnique

I admire the body of dancers: tall or short, they are coordinated, sleek  and graceful and are able to make beautiful shapes with their bodies. When I look at my own body I am happy with it, it works well, but I always think of ways that can allow me to improve its performance: through the right nutrition, through exercising, through resting. I want my body to be healthy, well coordinated and I want to be able to move in a relaxed and graceful way. In this sense, my body to me is work in progress.

Gallery of the Parthenon, Acropolis Museum, Athens

Philosopher Roger Scruton has discussed beauty and highlighted the fact that the beauty of human beings is first and foremost embodied: 'the distinctive beauty of the human body derives from its nature as an embodiment. Its beauty is not the beauty of proportion. When we find human beauty represented in a statue such as the Apollo Belvedere or the Daphne of Bernini, what is represented is the beauty of a person- flesh animated by the individual soul and expressing individuality in all its parts' (p.62). He then goes on to say that despite the myriad of beauty fashions and diversity of 'embellishment', it is always 'the eyes, mouth and hands' that seem to have a 'universal appeal...for they are the features from which the soul of another shines on us and makes itself known" (p.62).
I am comfortable with this, it resonates with me. So if we take this position, the beautiful bodies we see in ads are soul-less - not the models themselves, but the way they are represented.
And maybe the art of the ancient Greeks still speaks to us - to me anyway -  because in the way they represented beauty, they did not just go by symmetry and proportion, which they invented and perfected, but also succeeded in injecting a sense of embodiment in their representation. It is an art with soul.

(The beautiful image of Erin O'Connor is not an ad, it is from an editorial inspired by the paintings of Amedeo Modigliani. I have always admired the intensity of O'Connor's expression and her great elegance)

Monday, 6 April 2015

Listening to the body

On a Spanish beach. Model: me. Photographer: Martin Robinson

Back from my visit to Defining Beauty, the exhibition about which I have written in a previous post and which I will discuss more fully in a forthcoming post, I chanced online on a series of interviews with Italian born, ballerina étoile Alessandra Ferri. Trained at La Scala and the Royal Ballet School she rose quickly through the ranks and performed in Covent Garden and then went to New York to dance with Baryschnikov. With a small frame, lithe and petite (Wikipedia has her as 178 cm but surely that must be on pointe because she is smaller than Baryschnikov who is only 168 cm), she was perfect for the romantic roles at which she excelled. She was indeed a bright star in the dance firmament. Then at 44 she gave it all up to look after her two daughters and be with her husband, Fabrizio Ferri.
Following her marriage breakdown, Alessandra Ferri has come out of retirement at age 52 and has returned to the stage in Le jeune homme et la mort, the great ballet by Roland Petit. Performed in Florence last month with a last minute change of  male partner, it was received rather well. Ferri is still a wonderful dancer. I have not seen the ballet but have watched online some videos of rehearsal time for another work, Le Parc by Angelin Preljocaj. But it was Ferri's interview that struck a chord with me ( in Italian, but you can see here a beautiful clip of Alessandra Ferri's dancing while Sting plays guitar. There is also this interview for the New York Times).


Coming at the time when  the great Sylvie Guillem has announced her retirement at 50, Ferri's return is  brave, showing once again that older dancers still have a lot of mileage - I am pleased to see, incidentally,  that The Elder's Project, a piece starring a host of 'old hands' of British dance will be performed again at the South Bank later this month. However, what Ferri talked about is not her feeling a lack of physical prowess, or feeling overwhelmed by the reality of an ageing body, on the contrary, but the fact that dance for her now is no longer a career but something she does because she feels passionate about it. Growing older and being away from the gruelling schedule of touring has allowed her to rediscover the immense joy that dancing gave her when she was a child and which sustained her throughout her training. She continues to be a first class performer and like other older dancers she talks about having finally acquired maturity of expression. Thus her role as Death in Petit's ballet (danced below by Zizi Jeanmaire and Rudolf Nureyev in 1966) was very well chosen, according to reviewers.


Moving beyond dance, what Ferri talks about  is very important. If we no longer feel passionate about  what we do,  perhaps it is time to consider having a break. This is true in every creative endeavour. I also applaud the fact that Ferri - inevitably so - is so embodied and when she had to confront the pain of separation, the rejection she felt as a result of her partner leaving her (as she discusses in this interview), she listened to her body and returned to do what she loves best, what gives her body pleasure. What I am trying to say is not that if you are going through a break up you should take up dancing. I am simply saying that listening to your body is what will help you to go through anything. Establish a good relationship with your body, listen to it and love it, and everything else will fall into place. Alessandra Ferri is first and foremost a dancer, so when she stopped and listened to her body she went back to dancing - at her level this meant performing because she had trained to such a high standard. For other women this may be something else, like joining a class to pursue a hobby, not necessarily a dance class. Or spending more time appreciating their body, pampering it with massages and good, nutritious food.
A good relationship with oneself, taking care of one's body is truly the key for smooth relationships with others.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Travelling in Spain: a lesson in style


Barcelona Sagrada Familia

I admit that travelling solo is my favourite way to travel - you are your own master and can decide to go at your own pace. It can be daunting sometimes,  but I know, having tried before, that no one is able to sustain my dedication, braving long queues for tickets to museums and galleries - which can never be bought online as there is always one problem or another. You also meet many interesting people as you are more open: local people for sure, but also other travellers with whom you can team up for some excursion. I did so last year, when I went to Andalusia.
Spain is one of my favourite destinations at present, this time I combined it with a little work, so I went to Barcelona to admire Antoni Gaudi's modernist architecture - an architect friend  strongly recommended Barcelona a while ago - and then went to Rojales to model for Martin Robinson's art workshop. Of course that was a bit of a holiday too, as I went to the beach and then round to see the preparations for Easter, which is a big deal in Spain.
Barcelona is a Gaudian city and the architecture is stunning. I was worried about not being able to get into the Sagrada Familia because as usual the website was out of order and tickets could only be bought at the Sagrada and queues are horrendous. But partly because of the bad weather, partly because we were off season and partly because I went at lunchtime when everyone is busy eating, I only waited five minutes and there I was, inside this amazing building. Gaudi was a genius and natural shapes were his inspirations but having been to Andalusia I could not help feeling that there were some  Moorish touches. I may be wrong,  but those curves seemed to suggest it. I was not able to have a view of the city from the towers, currently closed to the public as they are being renovated - the Sagrada is always a work in progress.

Sagrada: Interior

After several hours back and forth, visiting the museum on site and the special exhibition and back inside the cathedral to admire the way the light fell through the stained glass windows - it changes all the time - I decided I could leave and  immediately went to join the queues at La Pedrera, another Gaudian building, this time an apartment block in the city centre which is as spectacular as all Gaudi's buildings are. I like taking my time when visiting sights, so another two and a half hours went by - unusually I got hold of an audioguide, I don't like them much but I felt I needed some background.
I did not have that much time in Barcelona and left for Alicante and Rojales after a day. Modelling for Martin is always a pleasure, I have been going for some years now and I do recommend him to other models.

Photo: Martin Robinson. Model: me

What I really enjoyed was to witness the Palm Sunday procession in Elche: I love the way they create intricate shapes with the palms and the dexterity with which they do it - you can see people making them at the market. Then there was the mantilla procession which starts off Holy Week, women dressed in black and wearing those spectacular lace mantillas which drop to their ankles, draped over what traditionally is a tortoise shell comb, which adds height. I was pleasantly surprised at the very stylish way the women in Rojales dressed for the procession: they all wore short elegant figure hugging black dresses - the classic LBD - or even a two piece black suit, with black heels and black nylon tights. Their hair was pulled back and they all wore the traditional mantilla and they all had smoky eyes! it could have been a catwalk show!  The back of their mantilla was held together with a pearl studded brooch and they wore pearl earrings to match. Of course the whole ensemble was accompanied by beautiful white rosaries which they held while taking part in the procession behind a float of the Virgin Mary, also wearing a black, gold embroidered veil.

Stylish women of Rojales, by the church, after the mantilla procession

I would have loved to get hold of one of those mantillas, in the end I did not. Next time perhaps? I do have a black silk shawl however and I might find some interesting way to drape it...