Friday, February 5, 2016

A bit of the old ultra-violence

Speaking of Paris, and speaking of films, I remember that it was in Paris that I saw Stanley Kubrick's film A Clockwork Orange for the first time (the title of this post is one of the central character's catch-phrases). This was 1986, and even though the film was more than ten years old by that point, Kubrick had refused to allow it to be seen in Britain after the furor cretaed by its initial release. So it was that I was strolling along the Rue de la Huchette on the left bank (I think it was there), and crammed in amid the bars, creperies, and porn shops was a small cinema showing A Clockwork Orange.

It was one of those places that mainly showed the same two or three films every day, a few times a day -- there were a few like that in Paris back then -- just like the porn places that surrounded it. After I bought my ticket at the tiny guichet and entered the cinema, it continued to feel like I was entering a place that I should feel guilty about. It was a narrow room with only about ten rows of seedy looking seats. I watched A Clockwork Orange with about three other people, all of us sitting as far apart from each other as we could in that small space. My memory of seeing the film is that I thought it was not bad, a decent document of the fashions and social concerns of early 1970s Britain, and that all the violence and the raping was so stylised and childish that I couldn't believe it had caused so much shock and offence.

But mainly I remember the cinema, and the worn and stained seats, and the walls covered with heavy black and red drapes, and the closeness of the screen, and the cold winter air of the Paris night when the film was over and I returned to the street.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Montmartre Art Walk

On the afternoon of January 6th, 2016, I led 20 Columbia College students and two colleagues on an art walk through Montmartre in Paris. We started at the Caulaincourt metro stop on the northern side of the hill, because it's a less steep climb from there, and spent about two hours walking up the hill and around Montmartre, visiting sites that are associated with visual artists. Some of these are very well known, like the Basilica of Sacre Coeur or the Moulin Rouge, but others are much less well known, such as the residences and studios of Van Gogh, Picasso, and Suzanne Valadon. At every stop, I handed round print-outs of paintings by the artists I was talking about so that everyone could make stronger visual associations of the place with the artists and their art.

I have rounded up some of my notes and images of those paintings and linked them all together in this Google Map, which traces the exact route of the walk. Click on any of the red place markers to display the associated information and photos. Here, too, is a link to a web album of the full-size images.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

My 5 Favourite French Films

Before Christmas I took French classes at the Ecole Francaise in Chicago as preparation for my recent teaching expedition to Paris in January 2016. It was an upper intermediate conversation and grammar class, and one week we were asked to name five French films that we know. My first response was: Only five!? But here are the first five that came to mind, the sort of films that I can (and do) watch again and again:

La Passion de Jean d'Arc, d. Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928.

La Grande Illusion, d. Jean Renoir, 1937.

Les Quatre Cents Coups, d. Francois Truffaut, 1959.

A Bout du Souffle, d. Jean-Luc Godard, 1960.

Jules et Jim, d. Francois Truffaut, 1962.

If I could take just one to a desert island (the sort of desert island that has a movie projector that is completely impervious to sand and humidity, naturally), I would choose Les Quatre Cents Coups.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Another Picasso Pilgrimage

I've just got back from teaching in Paris for two and a half weeks, and while I was there I had the opportunity to learn more biographical information about the location of Picasso's studios. I blogged extensively about his Montmartre studio, the Bateau Lavoir, after my January 2015 trip. Like last year, the apartment I was staying in is located in Montparnasse, which I knew Picasso had some connections with. But in the 11 months between the 2015 trip and this one, I reread the passages of John Richardson's biography of Picasso relating to Montparnasse, and discovered that one of the studios Picasso rented in Montparnasse was only a five minute walk from my apartment. My apartment is south of the cemetery, Picasso's studio overlooks the east side of the cemetery:

This is what the building looked like when Picasso moved there in 1913 with his new companion, Eva:

John Richardson (Life of Picasso, Volume II, p. 285) writes about it as follows:
The studio-cum-apartment at the heart of Montparnasse where Picasso would live for the next three years was much more imposing than any of his previous quarters ... The stairway was carpeted and the landings lit by bronze figures of nude nymphs dangling lightbulbs. Plaster casts of the Elgin marbles lined the staircases. These had always fascinated Picasso. He had copied them as a child and drawn on them for his 1906 Watering Place; however, most visitors found them inexcusably fustian. Even Jean Cocteau, who would soon make classicism fashionable, recalled his youthful contempt. He would race up the stairs out of breath, averting his gaze, only to find himself, seconds later, menaced by Picasso's army of African sculptures, "which I scarcely liked any better."
The fanciful staircase would have impressed Eva and amused Picasso--the more so for shocking solemn modernists. He had taken the apartment for its studio, which was "big as a church" and soon to have four or five hundred canvases stacked against the walls ... The floor was covered with discarded brushes, palettes, and paint tubes as well as newspapers, brochures, cinema tickets, tobacco packets and other debris ...
Here is what the building looks like now:

Despite the modernisation, the basic shape of the building is the same. If you stand on the opposite side of the street, next to the cemetery wall, you can tell that the two-storey high windows still provide light for a high-ceilinged interior. Not only that, but the current occupant has placed African statues on the window sills, so clearly he or she is aware of the building's history:

At the Musee Picasso, I saw a couple of photos of Picasso posing in the Rue Schoelcher studio:


You can clearly see the hundreds of canvasses stacked against the wall and the floor littered with debris, as described by Richardson.

The main biographical facts about Picasso's time in this studio are: it marked a definitive move away from his bohemian beginnings in Montmartre, where he lived from 1900 to 1912; the reason he could make the move at all was also because he was now a successful, money-earning artist, and one of the acknowledged heads of the avant garde movement in painting; there is a case for saying that his time here marked the peak of his creative life as a pure innovator, which was soon to be followed by a long life of being merely a famous and occasionally brilliant visual artist; with his new companion Eva, he was able to move on from his long relationship with Fernande Olivier, re-establish a more or less stable domestic life, and even contemplate marrying Eva, a plan that was tragically cut short by her death from cancer.

Artistically, this period from 1913 to 1916 was when Picasso made many Cubist works incorporating collage elements, trompe l'oeil effects, and materials such as sand and household paints. He borrowed or learned much of this from his partner in crime Georges Braques, but as usual Picasso went further than Braques in the playful elaborations of these techniques. A good example of this is Woman in an Armchair, from the end of 1913:

Thursday, December 24, 2015

More on Music

Something I realised recently: music can be incredibly complex, but basically it is either loud or quiet, high or low, fast or slow, and degrees in between. Listening to and playing music for more than 30 years has led me, perhaps unconsciously, to that awareness. And it's as true for so-called classical music, with its elaborate structures and harmonies, as it is for the harmonically much more simple forms of popular music. Hardly an earth-shattering epiphany, but it probably explains why certain kinds of music that I used to find harder to listen to, like Benjamin Britten, now give me a lot of pleasure.

Another reason why I now love the music of some composers that I once found incomprehensible: the voice. Looking back, I realise that I always loved opera long before I became absorbed by instrumental music. Even when I listened mainly to people like Prince, Bob Dylan, The Smiths, or Robert Johnson, what I responded to most was not the tunes or the instrumentals so much as the expressiveness of their voices. And with operatic voices, the more operas one listens to, the more one trusts the beauty of the voices to accustom one to unusual harmonic patterns. Hence, Benjamin Britten and Richard Strauss are rhapsodically gorgeous to my ear, when thirty years ago I probably wouldn't even have recognised it as anything more than sound.

Proof that this is all a question of taste/exposure: a few years ago, when I was teaching in Prague, a colleague (who was more of a jazz man) told us that the previous evening he had attended a performance of Puccini's "Tosca" at the National Opera. When I asked if he liked it, he said he did, even though (quote) "there weren't many tunes in it." Just think about that: No Tunes. In Tosca. By PUCCINI. I'm not saying that he was an idiot. I'm saying that I take this as a lesson for myself, because there are operas by Alban Berg, Bartok, even Wagner, that I may come to like one day, just by putting aside the impulse to seek out the regular melodic patterns that the ear most naturally responds to, and instead follow what the music is doing, in relation to the story.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Musical Moments

My musical life:

I come from an amateur musical family. Both my father and grandfather were skilled self-taught musicians. My father and his brother played Everly Brothers-style guitar and harmony in the working men's clubs of Liverpool in the 1950s.

My mother didn't play an instrument, but she has a good voice, and has a unique condition that has been called Broadway Tourette's Syndrome. Meaning that all through my childhood, she would break out into show tunes at any hour of the day.

Because of this, I had a sweet soprano singing voice before my voice broke, and I sang at my local Catholic Church, one time in front of the whole congregation at Christmas, my rendition of Silent Night causing paroxysms of tears among the pious, I've been told.

The apartment where we lived in my teens had a rickety, out of tune piano, that I mainly taught myself to play. I had some lessons, and I can read music to a rudimentary degree, but mainly I played pop tunes by ear, though I also learned to play more complex pieces by going through the scores bar by bar and memorising them.

At age 18, I started to play the guitar. Similar story to the piano: had a few lessons in classical technique, but ended up teaching myself, playing by ear, consulting chord books. It turned out I had a facility for the guitar, possibly inherited, and within a few years I could play up and down the whole neck of the guitar, and do some of that fancy finger picking stuff in bluegrass and country styles of music.

When I worked in Paris for 6 months in 1985/1986, I used to relax after a day at the ad agency by playing piano in the bar of the hotel where I was domiciled. One time I was noodling around, the hotel manager came over and placed a complimentary beer in front of me. Another time, an old lady hobbled over to me and told me to shut the fuck up.

The ad agency held its Christmas party at Le Boeuf sur le Toit, a legendary cabaret-bar founded in the 1920s (opening night guests included Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and composer Darius Milhaud.) There was a piano in the restaurant area where we had our big, boozy afternoon lunch party, and a group of us ended the afternoon at the piano, with me tinkling out Christmas songs for the others to sing.

One time when I was playing the piano at a Turkish restaurant near the Place de la Bastille, the owner offered me a job. Wish I'd taken it.

I owned a Roland Electronic Keyboard in the 1980s. I can't remember what happened to it, for some reason.

I also bought an Ovation semi-acoustic steel-string guitar in 1987, a beautiful instrument that I still have.

When Patty and I owned a weekend/vacation house in Mount Carroll, Illinois, from 2002 to 2012, I bought a piano from a local man , and played it fairly often during our visits. By this time, I was much more interested in playing classical music, so I concentrated on Mozart, Bach, Haydn, and Beethoven.

I've never been that good at playing the piano, but I'm not bad at playing the guitar. I was in a three-piece band when I was at college, and I played at open mic time at folk clubs in England for a short while. But I've only played guitar and sung in private or at parties for most of the time since then.

I have listened almost exclusively to so-called classical music, and opera and liede, for almost 20 years now. I love to play music, but am trapped in an irony: the music I really love to listen to is not the same as the music I can actually play on the guitar. I could regret the fact that I never learned the piano more formally, though I also know the time that would have taken, and would still take if I were to try and elevate my piano playing skills. So I'm content with just picking up the guitar every now and then, or practicing a new song in advance of a party.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Frankfort High School, Part 2

Kristine Harvey, teacher at Frankfort High School in Michigan, sent me a new batch of monoprints from her class of high school art students, and they're just as good as the first. I've pulled out a few to show in this post, again not to single them out as better than the ones I didn't select, but this time just to highlight the different kinds of monoprint techniques that these young people were trying.

First, we have what I think are contact monoprints (where you roll out a thin layer of ink, place a sheet of paper on top, and draw through the back of the paper, the marks being made wherever the paper makes contact with the ink):

The next one looks like it was created using a combination of mask and stencil:

Then a multilayered print, where it looks like the artist reapplied the same sheet of paper to a surface that had been worked on more than once:
Finally, another additive monoprint that has some notably free, loose, expressive mark making:

Congratulations, artists. Keep it going, and who knows, maybe I'll be seeing you at Interlochen or Columbia College Chicago in the not too distant future.

P.S. My wife and I stayed for a few days in Frankfort in the summer of 2014, after teaching for a week at Interlochen. Nice town near/on Lake Michigan. I had some good fish meals, watched the world cup in local bars, enjoyed walking around the boutiques and shops on the main high street.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Monoprints by Frankfort High School students

Five months ago, an educator called Kristine Harvey took my week-long monoprinting class at the Interlochen College of Creative Arts. She really enjoyed the class and made some great personal artistic breakthroughs in this medium, as you can see by this print she made:

Kristine contacted me recently to say that she had been working with her students at Frankfort High School, Michigan, on making monoprints. With their permission, I am posting images of some of the prints they made. First we have some abstract shapes:

What impresses me about those is how comfortable the students are with abstract shapes, how well they organised them around the frame of the rectangle, and how eye-catching is the combination of colours and design.

Next we have works in progress:

As you can see, there's sensitive art-making happening here, which is why I don't want to single any one image out over any other. In my opinion, everything I've seen so far suggests a group of people having fun while they explore this unique way of creating prints. I wish I'd had a teacher like Kristine when I was in high school!

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