Monday, 20 December 2010

Feel Good Books: The Spectator on 'Ravilious in Pictures'

There's a lot of discussion in the publishing world about the future of books. For fiction lovers Amazon is pushing its Kindle as if it were going out of fashion, while Apple's iPad offers some exciting possibilities for the non-fiction picture book.

Lorna Sage
I had an argument in the mid-1990s with Lorna Sage, who was my supervisor for an MA thesis in Modernism at the University of East Anglia. She was the reader's reader, a devourer of books, and she didn't take kindly to the last chapter of my thesis, which was rather pretentiously titled 'The Birth of Hyperfiction and the Death of the Book'. My thesis was about the work of American novelist Robert Coover, who had, since 1991, been involved in a project at Brown University, Rhode Island, which went under the name 'The Hypertext Hotel'.

Coover's aim was to escape from the limitations of the printed book with its bound pages, and he found a kind of formal freedom in a collaborative process whereby different writers fed into a text made up of discrete, connected sections. Anyway, he was quite happy about this and prophesied that the future of books lay in hyperspace rather than the bookshop, but Lorna wasn't keen. Books had been central to her career and her life - books as objects as well as texts - and she did not respond well to the prospect of their demise.

If she were still alive I don't think she'd be a fan of Kindle, but it is no doubt here to stay. And why not? What's wrong with having a portable device with a hundred or a thousand books embedded within it, rather than a stack of mass-produced paperbacks? Similarly, I think the prospect of interactive 'books', ie iPad or iPhone apps, is exciting.

But we need to be aware of what we lose by going digital in our reading. Downloading music is not the same as listening to a record or a CD, and there is to my mind less pleasure to be had in the music itself when you take away the rituals of visiting the record store, leafing through covers known and not known, making a choice, then, once home, removing the record (CDs have never been as much fun) from its sleeve and studying the sleeve notes as the record starts up.

As a child I could spend hours in a bookshop, a 50p book token in my pocket, exploring authors known and unknown, feeling the different shapes and weights of books by Arthur Ransome or CS Lewis or Malcolm Saville. A big hardback book on cricket or exotic animals offered luxurious pleasures: glossy paper that smelled of ink, an almost endless succession of pages, colour pictures... My mother has books on her shelf that were her Christmas treats more than half a century ago - I can't imagine anything computer-based lasting five years let alone fifty.

So I enjoyed this recent post by Emily Rhodes on the Spectator's Arts Blog, in which she did the opposite of 99% of book reviewers and focused on books produced by small publishers rather than corporate giants. It is a curious fact of life in an age of endless media coverage that a tiny number of books get all the attention - as technology proliferates so our intellectual horizons shrink - and as someone who has books published by small (but perfectly formed) publishing companies I was happy to see Emily choose one of mine for inclusion in the season's most imaginative Top Ten Books.

'Ravilious in Pictures: The War Paintings' (Mainstone Press) was designed, like its predecessor, to be enjoyed as a thing of beauty and, happily, this is why Emily chose it and another nine books including 'Visitation' by Jenny Erpenbeck (Portobello Books) and 'The Local' by Maurice Gorham, which is published under the fabulous new Dovecote Press imprint, Toller Books. She writes:

These books long to be touched, stroked and unfurled in a way for which a cold grey screen will never be able to compensate. Some of them want to lie ostentatiously on a coffee table, others beg to be slipped into a pocket; some would be happiest lined up as part of a set, others stand proudly alone. I love what is written inside each one of these books, but, moreover, I have adored the process of reading them, from the first touch of the cover, through opening them and revealing such treats as idiosyncratic endpapers, thick paper and perfect illustrations, to closing them, full of admiration, at the end.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

The Art of Germany... and Ravilious the Letter-Writer

George Grosz - Grey Day (1921)
There were moments during the just finished series 'The Art of Germany' when a viewer might, having flicked to BBC4 unexpectedly, have imagined that this was a new Steve Coogan vehicle - a parody of an art programme. Is it just the physical resemblance, or is there something in Andrew Graham-Dixon's deadpan delivery that suggests a comic mind at work behind the scenes? Or is it the subject perhaps? The art of Germany, at least in this survey, has rarely been light-hearted. Romantic idealists, tortured souls, a generation scarred by war, the Austrian watercolourist and his strutting thugs, post-war doom and gloom... No room for pre-Raphaelite beauty in this picture, nor Frenchmen with waterlilies, nor soup cans. I had never thought before last night that Joseph Beuys was fun but, compared to what went before, he was.

Last night's final instalment seemed all the more weighty, given that I'd spent the day reading through Eric Ravilious's letters. As a painter Ravilious had a touch so light that his watercolours can sometimes appear almost translucent, and he was as good a letter-writer as he was an artist. Writing to his lover Helen Binyon every day and occasionally twice a day, he noted with a poet's laconic phraseology the minor excitements of life in rural Essex.

Eric Ravilious - Village Street (1936)
One morning he woke up to see the aged Castle Hedingham postman coming down the street: 

'He took his time of course – he has a zigzag course and a shuffle that has all time before it – and until each letter has been looked at carefully with a lamp you don’t get it.'

And after visiting his wife Tirzah in hospital after the birth of their first child, he noted: 

'They produce tea at every visit and any hour and actually offer cigarettes. I didn’t know hospitals were ever like this.’

On another occasion he reported with some amusement how an earnest Paul Nash tried to persuade him and others to take Surrealism and the other art movements of the time more seriously. Ravilious took his work seriously, but he looked on the world with a humorous eye.

Not that the German artists discussed so brilliantly by Andrew Graham-Dixon were lacking in wit. A brutal satirical humour pervades the work of George Grosz and a more subtle variant the paintings of Max Beckmann. We were treated to the sight of Georg Baselitz's scandalous 1963 work 'Die Gross Nacht im Eimer', although AGD stood in front of it to obscure the giant phallus.

Anselm Kiefer - Milky Way (1985-7)
I have spent some time in Germany, particularly in Cologne and Berlin, and as I watched I tried to square the BBC4 version of the country's art history with what I knew. Was it all really that heavy? That grim? Who did AGD leave out?

Anselm Kiefer? Surely an artist who should have been included, given his fascination for German history and culture - but by no means a light-hearted painter. Then there are Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, whose work in the 1960s shared some qualities with Pop Art, but not its lightness.

These last two lived and worked in Cologne, which is home to one of Europe's best modern art galleries, Museum Ludwig. When it opened in 1986, the Ludwig was one of the first museums devoted exclusively to 20th century art, and in particular to the art Hitler termed degenerate. In fact the initial donation of work that was to become the Museum Ludwig collection was made in 1946 by a local lawyer, who had amassed and preserved work by Kirchner, Eric Hechel, Otto Mueller and other Expressionist painters.

Among these are paintings of great beauty and sensitivity - intense, perhaps, but full of colour. The dynamic use of colour was what first attracted me to Expressionist painting, and my (slightly hazy) memory of first visiting Museum Ludwig is of a fantastic room full of bold, energetic paintings. I loved Kirchner and the rest not because their work was grim but because it was spirited and exciting.
Otto Mueller - Lovers (1919)

This is a minor quibble. German art has been woefully - if not surprisingly - neglected in this country, and Andrew Graham-Dixon has provided us with a scholarly, entertaining introduction.

Ravilious, incidentally, was well aware of growing international tensions and the threat of war from 1936 onwards, but prefered not to dwell on the subject. Here, he reports to Helen Binyon an encounter in 'the Gentlemen' at the Geological Museum in London (July 36):
I was there in the morning and three or four window cleaners were having a quiet smoke. One said 'What's this place then' - 'Oh it's geology' - and then slowly and thoughtfully 'it's appertaining to the minerals what's in the earth, what's in the bowels of the earth'. After a bit somebody said 'I wonder how long it would take a poor bugger to clean all the windows by himself.'

Monday, 13 December 2010

Cold Nights, Hot Cider

Mulled cider is back with a vengeance this year, which can only be good news. In recent years cider has tended to be marketed and drunk as a summer drink, but it used to be enjoyed year-round in country pubs. On cold nights it was served with ginger and/or gin, heated by the simple method of plunging a red hot poker into a cup, or in a metal ‘boot’ placed in the fire. 
Today you might find inventive bar staff making mulled cider with the milk-steaming gadget on a coffee machine.

You can also make mulled cider at home. Any old cider will do, although proper farmhouse screech has the best flavour. The essential ingredients are cider, sugar, a dash of something stronger and some spices, especially cloves and cinnamon. Otherwise it's up to you... 

This recipe is from the National Cider and Perry Collection at Middle Farm in Sussex 

4 pints of still, dry farmhouse cider
3 apples - washed, cored and sliced
2 oranges, washed and sliced
Juice and zest of 1 unwaxed lemon
2 tsp ground mixed spice
8 whole cloves
2 cinnamon quills snapped in half
6 tbsp light soft brown sugar

Friday, 3 December 2010

'The Art of Cornwall' on BBC4

Last night's 90 minute special on the Art of Cornwall was, as they say, a game of two halves. At first it seemed as though the main subject of the programme was its presenter, who we saw walking purposefully through the streets not only of St Ives but also of Cambridge, Paris and London. With each change of venue and outfit I yearned slightly for the days of Kenneth Clark, when presenters stood about in suits and spoke the Queen's English.

Anyway, around half-time things began to improve dramatically. We saw Barbara Hepworth, 'the witch of St Ives', chiselling one of her trademark holes out of a large stone - an activity she loved, according to fleeing husband Ben Nicholson, to the exclusion of all else. The work of Peter Lanyon and Patrick Heron received an excellent treatment - thoughtful, lively and entertaining - and I will certainly be heading to St Ives once this Ice Age is over.

I was reminded of Paul Nash writing in the 1930s about the particular challenge of 'going Modern' and 'being British'. He found his own, eccentric way of meeting this challenge, culminating in the ferociously expressive paintings of Wittenham Clumps that he made in the last years of his life.

What last night's programme did so well was to put Heron and Lanyon's careers in this context. They were modern painters with a New York following, but they drew inspiration from their surroundings and - importantly - used their technical mastery to describe, interpret and celebrate those surroundings. Lanyon in particular succeeded in balancing a fascination and love for the local with a feeling for international art movements.

As for presenter James Fox, we can expect to see more of him...

Thursday, 2 December 2010

'Romantic Moderns' and 'England in Particular'

Hooray for the book judges at The Guardian! 'Romantic Moderns' is a wonderful book, both academic and readable. It's going to come as a bit of a shock to some art lovers when they unwrap it on Christmas Day - a light, post-turkey read it is not - but such is the way of things in the book world that 'Romantic Moderns' is set to be this year's 'John and Myfanwy'...

So the rehabilitation of interwar English art and culture continues, and what a curious business it is. Who could have predicted a decade ago that everyone and their aunt would be banging on about John Piper as we shuffle through the snow towards the end of 2010?

When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s the only home-grown artist of that period who seemed relevant was Paul Nash, who at least made the effort to add bizarre extraneous objects to his Dorset scenes.

It's interesting that the success of 'Romantic Moderns' should coincide with a BBC series about German art. Learning rudimentary art history at school, circa 1982, I don't recall a single German artist getting a mention. Art was Italian (Renaissance), then British (Gainsborough, Stubbs, Turner), then French (Impressionists and after), then Spanish (Picasso and Dali), then American (Jack the Dripper, Rauschenberg, Warhol).

My subsequent discovery of a book of Expressionist art was a revelation, partly because of the work included, but also because it showed the bias in my education.

A similar thing happened when I first came across Common Ground, the charity that achieved widespread recognition with the 2006 tome 'England in Particular'. For two decades before that, Sue Clifford and Angela King had been campaigning with passion and ingenuity on behalf of the local and distinctive, launching Apple Day in 1990 to draw attention to the plight of our orchards and apple varieties. In 'England in Particular' they wrote:

The land is our great creation. Underpinned by nature, it is a physical thing and an invisible web. It is held together by stone walls and swallows, Northumbrian smallpipes and Swaledale sheep, Devon lanes and Fenland skies, Diwali and 'obby 'osses, round barrows and cooling towers, high streets and Ham stone, dew ponds and dialects.

Reading this, I saw that I had been living with a prejudice for years, if not for ever - a prejudice that equates the local with the parochial. The word 'English' conjured visions of old ladies sipping tea in National Trust tearooms. Englishness itself was a branch of the heritage industry, and of no intellectual importance - when I studied modern literature in the early 1990s we studied no English author later than DH Lawrence.

'Romantic Moderns' and 'England in Particular' are very different books - the latter is ideal for post-prandial browsing - but they share common ground. Both are inclusive, generous and wide-ranging. Both seek to broaden our view of this country's culture, allowing us to enjoy and appreciate our surroundings and the art of those surroundings.