Category Archives: Art

Venice – five ways

Her palaces are crumbling to the shore,
And music meets not always now the ear:
Those days are gone – but Beauty still is here;
States fall, arts fade – but Nature doth not die
Nor yet forget how Venice once was dear…

La Serenissima was already sinking when Byron wrote his famous verses about the city more than 200 years ago. Nowadays the city is subsiding into the surrounding lagoon at the rate of 2mm a year.

Not that it matters to most of us. The waves could be lapping at the altar of St Mark’s Basilica and it would still be crowded with visitors. I suspect that even in the depths of winter, amid fog, rain and blasts from the bora, the sidestreets around the Piazza San Marco and the market stalls of the Rialto are still full of sightseers.

But that’s no reason not to go, and so I found myself standing on the Viale Giardini Pubblici last week, as the April sun sank behind the Salute and the last light of day fell across the Grand Canal and onto the Riva degli Schiavoni.

The great landmarks of Venice – San Marco, the Canal, the Salute – are well known and well populated. But there’s another Venice to the one trodden by cruise-ship groups and tired families, of course. Here’s five ways to experience Venice that mix up the well-known with the less visited.

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Early evening libations in Harry’s Bar

This simple decor of this small room, where Giuseppe Cipriani opened a bar in a former rope warehouse 85 years ago, belies its reputation as one of the world’s most famous watering holes. The home of the carpaccio, the bellini and the ghost of Ernest Hemingway, it serves a fine Old Fashioned whiskey cocktail with a ‘doppio’ measure – Papa would hardly approve of anything less.

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A stroll around Peggy Guggenheim’s pad

After stints in London and Paris the bohemian art collector Guggenheim settled in Venice in 1949, setting up residence in a 18th century palazzo on the Grand Canal, which housed her collection of Cubist, Surrealist, Futurist and Abstract Expressionist paintings. Her house now serves as a gallery for the paintings. The view above is from her living room, through a window nestled between a couple of Kandinskys.

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burano

Crossing the lagoon to lunch in Burano

“A wide brackish waste surrounds it, exuding dankness…it is a muted scene…but in the middle of it there bursts a sudden splurge of rather childish colour…this is Burano”. So wrote Jan Morris of this small island, home in its heyday to fishermen and lacemakers. Forty-five minutes across the lagoon from Venice, it’s a million miles away in spirit. Small, house-proud, well-swept and very well-painted, Burano is a reminder that the people of the Venetian lagoon were – before the yachts, celebs and royalty – ordinary seafarers and merchants.

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Browsing the gondolas at Libreria Acqua Alta

This bookstore has a novel (sorry) way of keeping its stock dry from flooding – sticking the titles into gondolas. That’s not the only gimmick in this chaotically-shelved shop – a series of steps in the backyard are made of old encyclopedias, while canoes and other odd vessels can be found crammed with paperbacks.

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On the waterfront at the Viale Giardini Pubblici

We rented an apartment for our stay in the quiet Castello district, near to the Giardini Pubblici, the gardens created by Napolean Bonaparte when he took control of the city in the early 19th century. The quayside fronting the Giardini is remarkably quiet, used mainly by local strollers and joggers, yet affords beautiful views west along the Grand Canal, taking in the Salute, the Campanile di San Marco and the Doge’s Palace. ‘States fall, arts fade – but Nature doth not die’…anyone for an aperitif at the Danieli?

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Skipping the masterpieces in the Uffizi

In 20 or 30 years I might suddenly feel bad about it –
Stuck in traffic somewhere, or in a supermarket queue,
Assuming that cars and foodmarts haven’t gone the way of the Medicis by then.

But what person could stand in a gallery – even in the Uffizi – when they could sit
Above the Arno and the moving city on this April morning.

I can see it, stuck at the wrong party beside the wrong person,
Who’s just asked the wrong question.
“How could you visit the city and not see the Venus?”

And I’ll respond then – as I respond now –
“I saw Venus come out of the river, a badger with a fish in her mouth,
And Florence alive above her” .

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The breath and beat and bloom of Picasso

'Still Life with a Mandolin' Pablo Picasso

‘Still Life with a Mandolin’
Pablo Picasso

Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences.

What makes a work of art ‘good’ for you is not something that is already ‘inside’ it, but something that happens inside you.

Brian Eno’s observation occurred to me as I walked around the National Gallery of Ireland recently.

I was there to view an exhibition of paintings and photography by the Irish artist Sean Scully. As I walked around the five rooms, all concrete and space and shuffling, I felt distracted – by other visitors, noise, the whisperings of the security guards. With the exception of one or two pieces I felt at odds with the exhibits.

Pablo Picasso, 1916 Pic: Amedeo Modigliani (detail from photograph)

Pablo Picasso, 1916
Pic: Amedeo Modigliani (detail from photograph)

Any connection I felt was faint, dipping in and out.

Bored, and somewhat annoyed, I left. As I did so, and with time to kill, I noticed the Gallery’s display of works from its permanent collection. Figuring I’d have a quick glance at the Gallery’s heavy-hitter, The Taking of Christ, I stepped in.

The Caravaggio was there, along with a wealth of other paintings from the 15th to the 20th centuries. It made for a pleasant, if not soul-grabbing, 20 minutes.

Then, as I was preparing to leave, there it was. Near the final room and amid a clutch of 20th century works, hung Still Life with a Mandolin. Perspective bending and saturated with Mediterranean colour the painting seizes attention. Minutes passed as I attempted to trace my way around Pablo Picasso’s work – over the bowl of fruit, across the wine bottle, up through the silhouette of the trees outside.

It left an impression as vivid at the light of Juan-Les-Pins –  even though it’s a night still-life.

Picasso created the work at Juan-Les-Pins in the summer of 1924, a year after Cubism had been declared dead. Not so, he painted.

But a biography of the work is inessential. As Eno indicated, the value of standing before Still Life with a Mandolin lies outside the painting, in the emotions I/you feel.

Life, light, summer, music, wine, fruit – all the good, true and important things are here, breath and beat and bloom.

The painting’s on display until the end of the year. Have a look – it may trigger something.

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On turning 37

John Updike Pic: George Bush Presidential Library

John Updike
Pic: George Bush Presidential Library

After a decade’s work Gertrude Stein completed The Making of Americans, comparing the finished novel to Ulysses. It went unpublished, in any form, for 13 years.

While working as the head chef at the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo Georges Auguste Escoffier met Cesar Ritz. The pair later formed a business partnership which commercialised gastronomy for the ordinary man – and led to the birth of the modern restaurant.

John Updike published his first collection of Henry Bech stories, writing that he modelled the character on Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger and himself.

After spells in Berkeley, Belfast and Wicklow Seamus Heaney moved to Sandymount, Dublin, shortly after the publication of his ‘Troubles collection’, North. He would live there for the rest of his life, but rarely write about the area.

Lou Gehrig died of ALS at his home in New York. Two years earlier he had delivered his “The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth” address at Yankee Stadium.

Joni Mitchell Pic: Paul C Babin

Joni Mitchell
Pic: Paul C Babin

Joni Mitchell released Shadows and Light, a live recording featuring jazz musicians Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny. It was her final album on the Asylum label, run by her Free Man in Paris.

Ten years after quitting his job as a crime reporter David Simon published The Corner, later praised as an “unblinking and agonizingly intimate” account of the urban drug trade on a single street corner in Baltimore.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, having narrowly avoided death during the construction of the Thames Tunnel, almost choked when he inhaled a coin while performing a trick for his children. The disc was finally jerked free weeks later.

John Coltrane formed his classic quartet, with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. After two years the group produce one of the most famous recordings in jazz, A Love Supreme.

Despite years of frustration at a lack of commercial or public interest in his work Edward Hopper continued to paint, working on seascapes during time spent on an island off the coast of Maine.

'Monhegan Houses, Maine' Edward Hopper (1916-1919)

‘Monhegan Houses, Maine’
Edward Hopper (1916-1919)

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‘A few will think of this day’

WB Yeats, 1923

WB Yeats, 1923

“He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.”

So begins WH Auden’s elegy for the poet WB Yeats, who died on a late January day in 1939 in his room at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour, in the town of Menton on the French Riviera.

A great deal will be heard about Yeats this year, due to the Irish Government-funded commemoration Yeats2015 – a 12-month celebration of the poet’s life and work.

Not that the Yeats has faded from view in the 76 years since his death. Few poets command attention like he does.

This stretches beyond the poetry to the man himself and his life – the fairy-courting mysticism, the obsession with Maud Gonne, the Celtic Revival manifested in the Abbey Theatre.

And on: the nationalist politics, the automatic writing and spirit guides, the Nobel Prize and finally, the old man of later years. And – throughout all – the poetry.

WH Auden, 1939. Pic: Library of Congress

WH Auden, 1939.
Pic: Library of Congress

Amidst the celebration of his life Yeats’ death, and its effects, may not attract much mention.

But the pure change that happened in that Riviera hotel room elicited one of the 20th century’s great elegies.

The loss was harvested by WH Auden, one at the few poets of the time who could – at his best – go stanza to stanza with the Irishman.

Like readers and writers, generations and governments since, Auden’s poem celebrates the man.

But as he casts Yeats as an fount, a culture and “a mouth”, he leaves a residue of something else – an observation of the mundanity of death.

“Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays…
But for him it was his last afternoon as himself”.

Two years earlier Auden had confronted the same subject, writing on Brueghel’s painting The Fall of Icarus.

'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' Pieter Brueghel (1558) Pic: Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’
Pieter Brueghel (1558)
Pic: Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

“About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…”

And so no death is greater than any other, and most pass unnoticed.

Auden’s Icarus attempts something unknown, unbelievable, in trying to fly. As he fails:

“…everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure.”

But, if death is often unremarked, memory is not. So it was for WB Yeats.

Amidst the wide world’s daily drudge, in places where hearing of a poet’s passing is as momentous as walking dully along, a handful would remember.

“In the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the
Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly
accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his
freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.”

A dark, cold day.

 

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Time, music, place: Broken Bells, LA

Broken Bells at The Orpheum Theatre, Los Angeles, October 2014. Pic: Cormac Looney

Broken Bells at The Orpheum Theatre, Los Angeles, October 2014.
Pic: Cormac Looney

A piece of music can be an instant ticket to a place or a time.

As I get older this phenomenon – notes firing down neural pathways, the intersection of time and music and place – preoccupies me more and more.

I’ve written about it here previously and an event last week brought to mind again. We visited with family and friends in Los Angeles, a busy trip involving catch-ups, food and drink, 30c days and one or two late nights.

This charming man - with James Mercer at The Orpheum Theatre. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

This charming man – with James Mercer at The Orpheum Theatre.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

One of those was spent at The Orpheum Theatre, where we caught a show by Broken Bells, the band fronted by Brian Burton and The Shins‘ James Mercer (the latter of whom I’d the pleasure of meeting afterwards).

And one of their encores on the night was Citizen, a song I’d heard umpteen times since picking up the band’s 2010 debut album.

Unlike the recording, heard live the song became an elegiac showcase for Mercer’s voice and his cry of ‘what’s it all about anyway?’, backlit with Jacob Escobedo‘s beautiful visuals.

The performance led to the rebirth of the song in my head. So much so that in the week since the show, which also saw my return home, the track has soundtracked my memory of the trip.

Listening to its chorus now, as I type this, puts me directly back in the LA light, jet lagged but energised, my memories a mix of freeways, glasses, huge amber skies, food and conversation.

I probably won’t listen to Citizen again for another six months. When I do – as with another song in another California at another time – it will bring me back, quicker and truer than photos or conversation, to LA in a few days in the late October of 2014.


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Revise, revise…and then revise

Hemingway's first-page draft for A Farewell to Arms. Pic: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Hemingway’s first-page draft for A Farewell to Arms.
Pic: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Ernest Hemingway’s war novel A Farewell To Arms could have ended any one of 39 ways.

We know this because Hemingway told us so but also because, two years ago, an edition of the book was published containing each of those endings, and a further eight more to boot.

Some are more optimistic than the final, fatal closing paragraphs, some are minor variations, some entirely different to what was published.

But, as far as the writer was concerned, it took 39 attempts to nail it, “39 times before I was satisfied”.

Three decades later, asked what had made the task so difficult, Hemingway answered, simply: “Getting the words right.”

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A 2012 news story on the new edition of the novel was shared with me this week by M, a fellow soldier in the journalistic trenches.

It sparked my interest. My daily workload involves revision, three or four times for every article edited, reading closely for facts and legal. This blog likewise.

But I doubt I’ve subjected any piece of writing to more than a dozen revisions, let alone three dozen, before filing it away.

The Beatles, 1964

The Beatles, 1964

Hemingway’s dogged rewriting of his novel’s closing paragraphs put me in mind of Malcolm Gladwell’s observation on the success of The Beatles.

He estimated that the group performed 1,200 live shows in the four years before they broke through to stardom, in 1964.

Reading Hemingway, or large parts of his work at least, or listening to The Beatles, it’s easy to presume that finely tuned words or close-to-perfect melodies occur, when they do, more or less naturally.

Such artists laboured on their art, of course, but their inspiration surely ran far beyond Edison’s fabled one per cent?

However, the older I get the clearer the importance of revisiting, remaking and repeating, becomes.

To the extent that the secret of producing the best creative work can be reduced, for me, to a simple practice.

To improve it, revise it; when you can’t revise it any more, you can’t improve it.

Ernest Hemingway in London at Dorchester Hotel 1944. Pic: NARA

Ernest Hemingway at Dorchester Hotel, London, 1944.
Pic: NARA

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Note: I like the idea of ‘life hacks’ – pieces of advice, knowledge, insight, admonitions; discrete mind shots that improve life and produce an awareness of living.
The Lifehacks section of the blog is where I’m collecting and collating them.

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On turning 36

Ernest Hemingway, Havana, 1934. Pic: NARA

Ernest Hemingway, Havana, 1934.
Pic: NARA

Ernest Hemingway sailed the Caribbean in the Pilar, spending much of his time fishing for marlin out of Bimini; the fish later featured in his greatest work.

Miles Davis played club dates, stranded between his first and second great quintets following the departure of John Coltrane.

Marilyn Monroe, disillusioned with fame yet planning new movies, died of a barbiturate overdose at her home in Los Angeles.

Edmund Hillary published High Adventure, an account of his successful ascent of Everest.

Raymond Carver left the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he had drunk often (and worked occasionally) with fellow alcoholic John Cheever, hoping that a change of location would help him sober up.

Siddharta Gautama attained enlightenment following 49 days of meditation, after which he was known to followers as the Buddha.

Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for her researches on radiation.

'Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps' J.M.W. Turner (1812)

‘Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps’
J.M.W. Turner (1812)

J.M.W Turner completed Hannibal Crossing The Alps; contemporary critics branded his impressionistic landscapes as “pictures of nothing, and very like.”

Woody Guthrie wrote Deportee, after reading a newspaper report of the death of 28 Mexican farm workers in a plane crash at Los Gatos, California.

Billie Holiday, battling drug addiction, starred in a 15 minute short with a 12-year-old piano prodigy, Frank ‘Sugar Chile’ Robinson.

Bob Dylan finished the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, having released his 17th album Desire; it went to number one in the Billboard Pop Albums chart.

'Taos, New Mexico (1931)' Dorothea Lange Pic: The Getty Trust

‘Taos, New Mexico (1931)’
Dorothea Lange
Pic: The Getty Trust

Dorothea Lange traveled to New Mexico with her husband and two children, frustrated that family life had limited her photography.

Patrick Kavanagh published his poem on rural deprivation, The Great Hunger; every copy of the magazine it first appeared in was seized on the orders of the Irish government.

Gertrude Stein continued to encounter difficulty in selling her writing to publishers, despite critical acclaim for her first novel Three Lives.

Dylan Thomas began work on Under Milk Wood, having completed his first American tour; shortly afterwards he dropped it to script a film for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.

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Surrealism…with a small speck of Moate

Moate meets modern art at IMMA.  Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Moate meets modern art at IMMA.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Surrealism.

Think Andre Breton.

Think Salvador Dali.

Think Max Ernst.

Think slicing up eyeballs.

Think buttery clocks and mechanical elephants.

Think a million unread art history theses.

Think Moate.

Yes, Moate. I wouldn’t have thought so either.

Then I attended an exhibition currently running at the Irish Museum of Modern Art on ‘The Celtic Surrealist’, painter Leonora Carrington.

The citizens of Mexico, where Carrington lived for most of her adult life, might disagree with the title. And, to be honest, the few Celtic influences in the paintings are overshadowed by multiple flying horses and scores of small stoat-like creatures.

Nonetheless. A surrealist legend with a connection to Moate, Co Westmeath, population 3,000 and heretofore unheralded on the map of modern art?

This was a surprise to someone who grew up in nearby Athlone and later covered Moate on the beat as a local reporter.

Carrington did not hail from the town herself, alas. But her mother, Marie Moorhead, did. The other main female figure in her early life was her Irish nanny, who reportedly fed her full of Irish mythology.

Carrington is later explained: “My love for the soil, nature, the gods given to me by my mother’s mother who was Irish from Westmeath, where there is a myth about men who lived underground inside the mountains, called the ‘little people’ who belong to the race of the ‘Sidhe’.

“The stories my grandmother told me were fixed in my mind and they gave me mental pictures that I would later sketch on paper.”

'Ulu's Pants' Leonora Carrington (1952). © Estate of Leonora Carrington/ARS

‘Ulu’s Pants’
Leonora Carrington (1952).
© Estate of Leonora Carrington/ARS

After childhood, the Moate and Ireland connection appears to end. There’s no record of Carrington visiting Westmeath. One of her works, not on display at IMMA alas, is an imaging of her mother’s family home there: Grandmother Moorhead’s Aromatic Kitchen (1975). 

Carrington went on to live in Paris in the 1930s, becoming a figure in the nascent Surrealist movement there, and Max Ernst’s lover. She later lived in Spain, was committed to a mental institution, before moving to the United States and eventually Mexico.

She achieved considerable fame in that country, becoming second only in national affection to Frida Kahlo. Her home countries were slower to recognise her. Carrington had her first major exhibition in London in 1991 and ‘The Celtic Surrealist’ is the first Irish exhibition devoted solely to her work.

There are traces of Ireland in paintings displayed at IMMA. But citizens of Moate will have to look long and hard at the paintings to decipher a connection to the town.

Celtic mythology is elsewhere though: a flaming red-haired Fionn mac Cumhaill facing his salmon of knowledge; a depiction of St Patrick with snakes; and a work, ‘The Red Steeds of the Sidhe’, which depicts the 1st century Irish high king Conaire and his encounter with three Sidhe horsemen.

If not Co Westmeath itself, the flatlands of the Irish Midlands form the background to the latter work, with Conaire seen approaching the Hill of Tara in Co Meath.

Just about enough of a local connection to justify the exhibition’s title.

Elsewhere ‘The Celtic Surrealist’ contains 90-odd works including paintings, sculpture, film, writings, curios like childhood notebooks and even bank documents.

Mother goddesses mix with NYPD cops and Edwardian breakfast guests. And there are many, many flying horses.

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‘The Celtic Surrealist’ runs at IMMA until January 26, 2014.

Here are curator Sean Kissane’s comments on Irish mythology in three of the paintings on display:

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‘Two chords are pushing it.’

'Here he comes, all dressed in black.' Lou Reed, 2011. Pic: Man Alive!

‘Here he comes, all dressed in black.’
Lou Reed, 2011.
Pic: Man Alive!

I WAS in a garage band once: a band of guys crammed into the dusty garage.

Once a week we’d meet up and bang out whatever we could.

I’d like to say there was a highly refined aesthetic to our efforts. There wasn’t.

The four of us played the only way we could and let the missed cues, bum notes and false starts look after themselves.

This is the point where I quote Brian Eno’s line about everyone who bought the first  Velvet Underground album forming a band.

It’s the sort of tired aphorism that Lou Reed might’ve eventually despised, probably, despite it being – in our case at least – partly true.

One of the first songs we rehearsed and recorded was I’m Waiting For The Man. I’m sure we tried Femme Fatale or Sunday Morning at various stages, before attempting our own material.

But even after we’d dropped Velvets’ songs from our warm up (we never tried to write like them, strangely enough) Reed’s ‘one chord’ sonic DIY advice remained.

Not least when it came to recording. Idling online on the morning after his death I landed on a track we’d recorded in that garage one winter a decade ago.

Reed was all over this effort, in spirit at least.

As I remember it the song was cut on a single Sennheiser vocal mike, hung from a roof beam. I think there was a second track for the vocal but I can’t recall (though we certainly mixed something afterwards in ProTools).

My main memories are trying to keep enough blood running through my freezing fingers to hit the blink-and-you-miss-it lead solo.

We always regarded the recording as rough, about as scuzzed out as anyone’s ears could tolerate. But didn’t White Light/White Heat sound rough as hell too?

'One chord is fine'. Rehearsal, 2012.

‘One chord is fine’.
Rehearsal, 2012.

This was the Lou Reed Effect, for me. Just play it. If it’s raw leave it raw.

Listening to Four Miles ten years later I’m glad we applied that. The just-within-our-grasp beat, whatever pedal mix that was, the lo fi drums, even the solo, all sound just dirty and distorted enough to work.

Praise – or blame – Lou Reed for that. RIP.

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