Sunday, 21 February 2016

Painting the Modern Garden - Monet to Matisse

(I haven't read many new books over the last two or three weeks - I had to re-read All the Light I Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, for my book group, and I got hooked on War and Peace after watching the TV series. I originally read it years and years ago, and couldn't remember much about it - it's lovely, rather like reading a 19th century Russian soap opera, only with battles and Freemasonry.  But it's taking quite a long time. So here's a post I wrote for the History Girls earlier this week - it's about an exhibition I recently went to in London.)

If winter's getting you down and you're longing for a walk in a sun-drenched garden, heavy with the perfume of brilliantly coloured flowers and tinkling with the tranquil sound of fountains, fear not; you can avoid the expense of a holiday in warmer climes and the inconvenience of airport queues by wending your way instead to the Royal Academy, where a luscious exhibition entitled Painting the Modern Garden lies drowsily waiting for you to open the gate, wander in, and breathe in the beauty.

Claude Monet is the linchpin of the exhibition. The first two paintings both show the garden he had as a young man, in Argenteuil. One is by him; the one above is by his friend Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and it shows Monet painting. Gardens had become very popular in France by the time the Impressionists were painting; Pissarro and Caillebotte were also enthusiastic - not just about painting gardens, but about creating them. For Monet, of course, it was a passion which continued throughout his life.

But the exhibition is far from being just about Monet.

Each room has a different theme. After Impressionist Gardens, we get International Gardens, which features paintings by John Singer Sargent, Max Liebermann, and a Spanish artist, Joaquin Sorolla, whose painting of the garden at his house in Madrid is suffused with warm pinks and reds, with heavy roses dripping from a rambler that climbs up against the terracotta wall. It's redolent with the heat of summer in Spain, but also with the oasis of shade a garden can provide.

Then we return to Monet's Early Years at Giverny, which is of course the garden he's famous for. This section tells the story of the development of the garden, giving us a sense of Monet as a highly skilled and respected gardener as well as an artist: here are seed catalogues, a letter he wrote when planning permission for the extension to the garden, which involved diverting water from a nearby river to create the waterlily pool, was initially turned down. And here too are rows of plants, cuttings, perhaps: which remind us of the work behind the beauty. I noted down the words of a garden writer on seeing some of the first pictures of the pool and the lilies: 'No more earth, no more sky - no more limits.' They must have seemed astonishing: revolutionary.

The next room is called Gardens of Silence. There are no people in these gardens. They have an other-worldly feel to them: these are not gardens for every day. This one is by another Spanish painter, Santiago Rusinol. I found it mesmerising, with the pale, ghostly tree in the centre set against the backdrop of glowing autumnal copper and gold, which is echoed in the colour of the circle of rose bushes. Rusinol was apparently fascinated by the Alhambra and other secluded Moorish gardens in Andalucia. This garden was in Aranjuez, and it was part of a great and formerly glorious royal garden. The dramatic, hot colours contrasted with the vivid green of the foreground perhaps suggest the drama of the history of Spain, as well as its southern heat and light.

I really liked the paintings by Emil Nolde which were in the next section, Avant-gardens (Nice title!). I can't find a reproduction of any of those in the exhibition, but they had gloriously rich, vibrant colours. One was a close-up of vivid blue hyacinths, scarlet tulips, the bright green verticals of stems and leaves, and egg-yolk yellow narcissi; another had white peonies and gold and purple irises.

Gardens of Reverie was probably my least favourite room. But then we were back to Monet's Later Years at Giverny. He was still painting the same beloved garden; but now, in 1918, with the horror of the First World War coming closer and closer, he poured his pity and his horror into a painting of a weeping willow with an orange trunk. The brush strokes writhe and twist as if tortured: there is a palpable sense of pain and sadness - agony, almost. He said sadly, 'Others can fight. I can paint.'

But then, finally, we come to the massive paintings of the water-lily pool which he made after the war. And with these, there is a sense that he was expressing through paint harmony, serenity and balance restored. Paintings to gaze on. Paintings to make you feel better. Paintings to sooth the savage breast. This small picture can only hint at their beauty - if you can, do go and see the real thing!

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

February picture

This is the photo I've just put up for February - I've made it as big as possible in the hope that you'll be able to see the huge furry bumble bee tucking into one of the flowers. They're species crocuses - I love them because they spread so beautifully There are quite a few in the lawn now. Unfortunately, they're suffering a bit due to the general bounciness of Nessie, below: our five-month-old border collie. She may look very dignified and stately in this picture, but believe me, she isn't!


And finally here's our silver birch, spread out against the evening sky. Have been thinking about the beginning of Eliot's Lovesong for J. Alfred Prufrock lately - you may have caught the echo there:

Let us go then, you and I.
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table...

It sounds lovely, with that slow, pensive rhythm. But however did he think of that image? And why on earth does it work?

Monday, 1 February 2016

Talking of torcs...

Last week, I just managed to get to the Celts exhibition at the British Museum - it finished at the weekend, though I believe it's moving to Scotland and will be there for several months. When I was writing Warrior King, about Alfred the Great, I became very interested in the make-up of the people of the British Isles; one of the completely fictional characters, Cerys, is a 'British' woman (ie one of the Celtish peoples who had been driven to the fringes by the Romans and successive invaders). In my book, she helps to teach Alfred that a good ruler should be concerned for the well-being of all his people - so not just the Saxons. And at one point his daughter, Aethelflaed, is puzzled when he explains to her that the Saxons were invaders once too, just as the Vikings were at the time of the story.

A golden torc from the exhibition - I can't imagine wearing it for long, but my goodness, it's beautiful!

Whether or not Alfred was really as enlightened as this I'm not sure - but there certainly seems to be considerable evidence to the effect that he had a much greater breadth of vision than your average Dark Age leader. And there was that choice he made: when, after years of exhausting battles, he finally captured his enemy, Guthrum, he didn't have him killed; he made peace with him. And the peace lasted, between the two men if not between the two nations. I found that fascinating. Contrast this piece of behaviour with that of William and Harold, two hundred years later, who both chopped the hands and other body parts off garrisons they captured for a pastime. I think it would be fascinating to have a lengthy chat with Alfred: I wouldn't give either of those two the time of day.

But back to the Celts. The more I read about them, the more puzzled I became. Where did they actually come from? There seemed to have been Celtic settlements all over Europe. Was the old model true, that they were one of a number of races who swept in from the east? If so, who were the original Britons?

This exhibition doesn't actually answer those questions, but it does make clear what is known, and how much is unknown about the Celts. In Britain, they only became known as the Celts relatively recently, when linguists noted that there were similarities between the languages spoken in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall. I think we all assume that these peoples came from the same roots. But at the beginning of the exhibition, a small map suggests that this is not the case. I wish there had been a key to the map, and a bit more explanation - but it showed the results of genetic research into modern inhabitants of the fringes of Britain: and it showed, for instance, that the Cornish share little of the ancestry of the Scots or the Welsh. The only close correlation seemed to be between the northern Irish and the western Scots, and the reasons for that are obvious and of relatively recent origins. Celtic mythology became romanticised and mythologised in the 19th century: it's interesting that the Victorians were great fans of Alfred, too. They were obviously looking for heroes; perhaps for a mythology for the British Empire which would match up to the mythologies of the Greek and Roman Empires?

The exhibition, apart from all this very interesting stuff, showcases the extraordinary craftsmanship of the Celts - see above for some examples. For more about this, see Mary Hoffman's excellent blog over on the History Girls.