Pop art illuminations in Louisiana

Pop art illuminations in the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, that is – the 85th most visited art museum in the world (says Wikipedia at the time I write this)

I’ve been trying to remember how many times I’ve been to Louisiana before the present visit. Definitely twice, possibly three times. Perhaps more? Once was in high summer because the sun was shining and there were crowds of people sitting on the grass banks outside the restaurant. They were sunning themselves among the mobiles and sculptures and enjoying the view over the Öresund to Sweden. Another time I was there in the late autumn or early spring. The weather was grey and misty and there were few visitors. It felt like Mrs SC and I had the museum almost to ourselves.

Henry Moore sculpture and a white sailThis time around, on Saturday 30th July, the weather was changeable. Rain, sun, clouds, mist, clear, and all fading in and out of one another. But that doesn’t matter so much when what you’re interested in, by and large, is indoors.

Previously at Louisiana

Previous visits have all been day-trips north from Copenhagen as far as I remember. This time we came travelling south from Helsingør, from Elsinore. (Hence my last week’s photos.) In fact, we stayed overnight in Helsingborg on the Swedish side and took the ferry across. It takes just 20 minutes. Then the train to Humlebæk, and a short walk. We arrived at the museum just as they were opening at 11 o’clock. As we’d bought a combined entrance and round trip ticket in Helsingborg, we were able to jump the Louisiana queue. We were among the first visitors into the museum so I recommend that solution.

Louisiana- Alberto Giacometti - Bust of Elie LotarThe reason I’m confused about how often I’ve visited Louisiana, probably, is because I’ve quite detailed memories of several different exhibitions. Definitely more than two. Louisiana was where I saw Jana Sterbek’s meat dress (way before Lady Gaga riffed – or ripped off – the same idea). Was that sometime in the 1990s? Louisiana was certainly where I first saw Cindy Sherman’s photography. And I think it was also where I first saw Ai Weiwei’s art. I’ve got a memory also of seeing late work by Picasso there. And then there’s the permanent collection of Giacometti statues which I go back to every time. Then there are the sculptures in the gardens. And the mezzo-American collection in one of the glass corridors.

One reason for my confusion may be that, with so much space at its disposal, Louisiana always seems to be staging two or three really big exhibitions at the same time. And these are usually radically different from one another – though there may be points of contact. This summer they’re exhibiting a retrospective of the work of a Danish pop artist, a small collection of early Picasso drawings and a selection of the gallery’s new purchases made over the last three years. All alongside the regularly rotated permanent collection.

Poul Gernes

Pop art at Louisiana - Poul Gernes retrospective Gallery 2The pop artist is Poul Gernes, who I confess I’d never heard of before. I had never consciously seen his work either, though I did recognise some of it. “Recognise” in the sense that it was generic pop art. Pop art must have figured large in the training of some of the art teachers I had in my schooldays.

Blocks of colour, geometric shapes, linocut prints, found objects, sculptures and surfaces created from scrap, found prints (tire tracks and shoes for example). All these feature in the exhibition (though most of them rather better executed than my primary school self ever managed). It was quite nostalgic really.

Pop art - Poul Gernes retrospective Gallery 1 panoramaPoul Gernes clearly subscribed to the philosophy that anyone can make art (which I certainly don’t dispute). The exhibition is subtitled with the following quote.

Jeg kan ikke alene, vill du vaermed?
I cannot do it alone – want to join in?

Pop art - Poul Gernes retrospective Black and white patternsUnfortunately – and it may be another side of pop art period ideology – he also seems to have believed that art needs to be dumbed down to a lowest common denominator of ambition.

He had some ideas about the importance of colour and health too, which he got the chance to explore when he decorated an entire hospital. One of his hospital rooms was recreated for this exhibition. Three walls of the room were decorated in “healthy” colours, and the windows hung with colourful curtains. One wall – the one behind the patient’s bed – was left white. Apparently this was in order for the medical staff to better judge the colour of the patient’s face and see how healthy they were.

Pop art - Poul Gernes retrospective Gallery 3 - Herlev HospitalThe exhibition did not go any further into Poul Gernes’ philosophy of colour and health, which I thought a pity. I would like to have known whether he thought a red face indicative of choler or a yellow face of bile. I also wonder how far the Danish medical establishment went along with him.

Illuminations

Apart from the Gernes retrospective Louisiana was also exhibiting Illuminations, a large selection of their new purchases made over the last three years.

This was an eclectic exhibition, but there were points of contact with Poul Gernes’ pop art. For example, Gerhard Richter’s Strip from 2013 (below). The strips are made of “colours that originally formed part of an abstract painting, but are systematized here according to an empty principle.” (I’m assuming “empty principle” has a technical sense for colour theory – as it does in linguistics – and isn’t just a mistranslation from psycho-babble in the original language.)

Illuminations . Gerhard Richter - StripNext to this, on an adjacent wall, was a monumental golden photograph – Katar from 2012 – by Andreas Gursky. This turned out to be the interior of the cargo hold of a ship that transports liquid gas.

Louisiana - Illuminations gallery 2The Illuminations exhibition included sculpture. (That’s a sculpture to the right in the above photo.) But also…

Installations

Installations such as the all-but-pitch-black room in which the sounds of arctic icebergs grinding, melting, freezing and calving, are played from surround-sound speakers. This work is Isfald (2013), by Jacob Kirkegaard. It is an almost overpowering experience to stand in the installation and listen to the soundscape created. You can experience a small fraction of this work on Louisiana’s video website. Here is an interview with Kirkegaard (along with another artist, Daren Almond).

Louisiana 10 Illuminations gallery 3

Louisiana 2 Illuminations gallery 1It’s impossible to mention all the works of art that Illuminations displayed. Some I liked, some I thought were interesting – even funny. And as always with modern art, there were some pieces that left me cold. Still, I think it’s good to know that all these works are now in the Museum’s collection and join the rotating permanent exhibition. Louisiana also has an active policy of loaning out pieces to other museums for special occasions – in exchange for other pieces brought to Humlebæk for future exhibitions – so they are not hidden away by any means.

Yayoi Kusama

Louisiana - Yayoi Kusama - Gleaming Lights of the Souls 1Just before we left we got to experience another of Louisiana’s installations. This is one from the permanent collection – Yayoi Kusama‘s Gleaming Lights of the Souls from 2008. The installation is a single space. A closed room. The walls and ceilings are mirrors and the floor is a reflecting pool of water. Hanging from the ceiling are hundreds of lamps that slowly change colour. You stand in the middle on a narrow platform and it’s like you are flying among the lights. It’s a surreal but serene experience. Each group – of only four people – get to stand for one minute in the room with the door shut. It’s funny, but waiting outside to get in the minute passes so slowly, inside absorbed by the experience the minute is far too short. As soon as you come out you want to get back in line and experience it all over again. And again.
Louisiana - Yayoi Kusama - Gleaming Lights of the Souls 2 Panorama

Tired

Unless of course your feet are so tired after seven hours of wandering the halls and galleries that all you really want to do is sit down.

It’s a 10 minute walk back to the station, but you can sit on the train to Helsingør. Then you can sit on the ferry to Helsingborg. And then you are in better shape to argue your way back into Sweden through the new immigration control… but that’s another story.

Alexander Calder's mobile at Louisiana in the rain
Above: Alexander Calder’s mobile at Louisiana in the rain


I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

There’s something in the Brussels Air

There’s something in the Brussels air – among other things the spores of yeast, and also the spores of art

Brussels Air - To peel a ball - 2To be sure, there’s more in the air everywhere than we can usually see – dust motes glimpsed dancing in the sunlight are not even the half of it. Just at present I’m going through a pollen reaction phase. I know that the Brussels air is laden with pollen because my eyes are itching and my nose is running, I just can’t see it. Can’t see it except after the rain when pollen scrubbed from the air scums puddles and leaves yellow-green lines on car windscreens where the wipers have rested at the end of an arc.

Brussels Air - Dekkera bruxellensis - English partBut there is something special in the Brussels air: spores of the wild yeast B. bruxellensis (aka Dekkera bruxellensis). Belgian lambic beer is brewed without the addition of brewer’s yeast. Instead the fermentation vessels, filled with barley malt and wheat mash, are left open and the wild yeast in the air that lands on the mash starts the fermentation.

Brussels Air - Ne touche à rien - Don't touchNow, though the yeast spores do exist in the wild in the air of the Senne river valley where Brussels stands, and though lambic beer was originally brewed – 900 years ago – just from these wild open-air spores, more recently the lambic process is started within the brewery. After all this time there is a higher concentration of wild yeast in the air of the brewery and so the process is more reliable nowadays than perhaps it once was.

Theoretically, though, anyone can make beer in Brussels – just expose some sweetened barley porridge and let the wild yeast get to work. Not that most people do. It’s far too much trouble.

Anyone can make beer – just as anyone can make art

And anyone can make art out of anything.

Brussels Air - The biography of objects 02 - carpet, wild yeast, fixative resin plus Ombre indigène - videoMost people, though, don’t have the eye to see what might be art in the world around them, and only some of those who have the eye also have the cast of mind, the urge, the skill, the talent, the time and patience to create art from what they see. It’s as though the spores of wild art in the air that settle on everyone, that are breathed in by everyone, have to find the right person. The right vessel in which to start the process of fermentation. (To take the metaphor further, just as today there is a higher concentration of yeast spores inside breweries, I suppose students in art schools are more likely to breathe in a higher concentration of art spores.)

WIELS café spaceAll this is brought to mind by the Edith Dekyndt exhibition (I keep wanting to call her Edith Decadent) at the WIELS Contemporary Art Centre here in Forest/Vorst. The WIELS centre occupies a former brewery and several of the great copper vats in which lambic beer was once brewed share space with the cafe and bookshop on the ground floor. Up above are four floors of gallery space, two of which at present are given over to Dekyndt’s exhibition Ombre Indigène (Indigenous Shadow).

Brussels Air - The biography of objects 07 - carpet, wild yeast, fixative resinEdith Dekyndt is a Belgian artist who is clearly very inspired by science in general and biology in particular. Judging by the examples of her art on show, she is fascinated by the appearance of material that has been subjected to some sort of biological influence. Yeast for example, which she has persuaded to grow as a fungal carpet on a woven carpet.

Brussels Air - One Thousand and One NightsSome of the works on display have been created specifically for the space and make references to the history of the brewery and the brewing process. The installation called One Thousand and One Nights is a carpet made from dust collected from around the gallery over the period of the year. A light illuminates a shape on the floor and the dust is swept and raked within the lit shape. From time to time the light shifts and the gallery guard has the job of repositioning the dust in the new shape the light creates on the floor.

Brussels Air - A portrait of things - vivarium, fake fur textile, humidityThe temperature and humidity of the Senne valley, and the water of the river, are also key elements in brewing the local beer, and these elements Dekyndt also makes use of. A kind of long narrow aquarium bottomed with artificial fur fabric and with condensation beading the glass. Petri dishes with cultured bacterial growths – again, bacteria from the air we breathe. Projected slide image after projected slide image showing the range of colour and form the bacteria take.

Wiels Centre for Contemporary ArtI come out of this exhibition fascinated. A little disgusted, true, but definitely fascinated. I also come out a even more impressed by the amazing filtration job my nose, mouth and lungs do – and the protection afforded by my immune system – given the range and volume of the micro-organisms, unseen, that I am breathing in from the Brussels air.

Is it art? Yes, it is. In the same way as written science-fiction is literature (which I believe to be true). This is science-art.


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Florentine graffiti

Florentine graffiti: some people like it, some hate it.

Florence is known as one of the homes of the Italian Renaissance, and there is a wealth of art to see there. It’s also the home of Europe’s oldest, dedicated school of art, Accademia e Compagnia delle Arti del Disegno, or the “Academy and Company of the Arts of Drawing”, which was founded in 1563 by Cosimo I de’Medici, at the recommendation of Giorgio Vasari. Not surprisingly, the city also shelters a flourishing tradition of unofficial art – graffiti to you and me.

If you do an Internet search for “graffiti Florence”, you’ll turn up a surprising volume of references (over 700,000 when I googled it just now). To be sure a number of these – for reasons that escape me – seem to refer to the film American Graffiti, but most are about real Florentine graffiti. As with most graffiti, some people like it, some hate it, and some might appreciate it more, perhaps, if it wasn’t “disfiguring” Florence.

I’m not wild about tagging, and not generally impressed by written graffiti, on the other hand I think the people who live in Florence have as much right to decorate or pass illustrative comments on Florence as anyone in their own home. Especially when it is done with skill, wit and panache. Here are some I photographed last November.

Florentine Graffiti 9

I suspect the one above and the one below are by the same hand.

Florentine Graffiti 12

Florentine Graffiti 11

Many pieces make use of architectural features as a frame.

Florentine Graffiti 3

Florentine Graffiti 14

Others adapt what the city gives them. The one below was just outside a shop advertising alcohol for sale.

Florentine Graffiti 15

Florentine Graffiti 5

And there are no rules about materials either. The one above uses gaffer tape.

Florentine Graffiti 10

I don’t really count the below as graffiti, but I’m not at all sure it is official art. It was ocupying a niche high up on the corner of an alley in the Oltrarno (“the other side of the Arno”) and certainly seemed to be making a comment on something.

Sculpted woman holding her nose

If graffiti is defined as illegal art on walls, then I suppose a fresco, which is legal art on walls, is graffiti’s legitimate cousin. Frescoes are painted in wet plaster directly on to the wall – art fused with the material of the wall itself. Below is the Judas kiss from a fresco of Fra Angelico in the San Marco Friary Museum in Florence.

The Judas Kiss (detail)

And here below is evidence that art students are still hard at work learning from the masters. (That’s the Annunciation she’s copying, too concentrated to notice the fat Englishman with a camera behind her, even though I’m reflected in the glass).

Art student sketching Fra Angelico's Annunciation at San Marco

Finally, a couple more balloons – the first with an ancient artistic reference (on the back wall of the San Marco museum if I remember right).

Florentine Graffiti 13

Florentine Graffiti 7


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Tip of the hat to fellow Blogg52er Ulla Marie Johanson who blogs a new painting (and accompanying poem in Swedish) daily at Kreativ varje dag (Creative every day). Last Wedesday was a picture of balloons which reminded me I’ve been wanting to share these graffiti images since Mrs SC and I visited Florence last year.

The Bottom Line in Ghent

Very dull, misty, grey and monochrome – so to the bottom line in Ghent.

The weather has been occasionally dull, occasionally bright for the last week or more. On Saturday it was dull. Very dull, misty, grey and monochrome both here in Brussels and across the country. Not a day to go sightseeing in Ghent as Mrs SC and I had planned – especially not when the attractions include the view from the Belfort tower (“access via a lift”) and the Sint Michiels bridge that “offers the best views of the city”. In Brussels the tower blocks at the Gare du Midi and Gare du Nord disappeared into the mist at about the sixth floor, so we knew views would be limited.

Nevertheless, we took the train and arrived at Gent-Sint-Pieters station in about 40 minutes. (€10 per return ticket. Not bad.) It was 2½ kilometres into the town centre, we discovered (we could take a tram). On the other hand, not 10 minutes walk from the station was the City Museum of Contemporary Art – Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst – which gets abbreviated to SMAK. (Something my Swedish readers will appreciate, smak being the Swedish word for “taste”.) Showing at SMAK right now is an exhibition of contemporary drawing: The Bottom Line. We chose the museum.

It was a good choice. The museum was exhibiting work by more than fifty artists, all active since the 1950s and most still with us yet, and still working. Inevitably some were more to my taste than others, but the cumulative experience of seeing what artists can do with (by and large) monochrome lines on paper was dramatic. I came out itching to pick up a pencil or a piece of charcoal, or playing with ideas of how I might acheive some of the same effects in digital drawing.

We spent a good four hours going around the rooms at the museum, looking at the drawings. (There were also, as a contrast, some light installations by an English artist with a Danish name who works in Belgium – Ann Veronica Janssen.)

Interestingly, as we made our way back to the station afterwards, the subdued light in Ghent combined with the memory of the drawings gave me the distinct impression that some of the drawings were not nearly so abstract and divorced from real life as at first they appeared.

See what you think. Below is an abstract drawing by William Anastasi from the exhibition and under it a photograph of pollarded trees in Ghent.

Drawing the Bottom Line 2 - William Anastasi

Pollarded trees in Ghent

And here are two more pictures. The first is part of a larger drawing in six panels – unfortunately I don’t have a note of the artist. The second was taken at Gent-Sint-Pieters station.

Drawing the Bottom Line 7 detail

In Ghent St Peters station

The formally framed pictures in the museum and the spaces between them were beautifully reflected in this candid shot of a mother holding her daughter to look down into the well of the museum at the reception desk below.

Drawing the Bottom Line 6 - mother and child SMAK reception

Drawing the Bottom Line 6 - SMAK reception

And finally, as we waited in the late afternoon gloom for the train home, I noticed these illuminated panels in the floor of the platform, and the patterns created on them by the marks of travellers’ boots.

Traveller's markings in Ghent 1 detail

Traveller's markings in Ghent 3 detail

Traveller's markings in Ghent 4 detail


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Not so much this week as I am working on my entry for the first round of the NYC Midnight Short Story Competition.

Home but away

I did think I would produce a blog entry or two while I was home, but it turned out that I was away. Visiting home but away on holiday. I found I had little inclination and less time for any of this bloggety-blogging.

It’s an odd sort of existence we’re living, Mrs SC and myself. Away in Brussels, physically, at work and play for weeks, even months at a time; but spiritually, emotionally (and legally – for the purpose of taxation) still anchored at home in Gothenburg.

Where we are mentally is an open question.

Flying over GothenburgWe flew into Gothenburg at the beginning of August, took ourselves home and spent several happy hours enjoying the familiarity and comfort of our own four walls. Our sofa, our books, the views from our windows, the taste of cold, fresh, soft water from our tap in our kitchen. And our glassed-in balcony, especially that, where I sit to drink my tea in the early morning light, where we sit to sip our nightcaps in the soft gloaming before going to bed.

Three weeks we were there, and not a dead day. There was always something to do, somewhere to go, friends to meet, old familiar haunts to visit, changes to note. All through the long, drawn-out Scandinavian summer days and the short, somewhat cooler, Scandinavian summer nights.

Everybody we met told us how lucky we were with the weather. July, they said, shaking their heads. June, they sighed, shivering. But August – in August the sun shone. It shone almost every day we were home. And every day we checked the weather apps for Brussels and saw: cloudy, overcast, chance of rain, thunder. With what Schadenfreud we looked up from our smartphones and congratulated one another on having come home for our holidays! This, we told each other, this is what it’s really like. (Forgetting the rain and the storm and the ice in the winter, forgetting the long, dark nights punctuated by short dull days.) No, no, this, this is home.

Places resonate, especially places one has visited many times before, where things have happened and the fabric of the place is dense with memory. Here’s one such. Trädgårdsföreningen – the Garden Society park.

Caldera
Caldera
This summer it was enriched with a temporary display – in association with the open-air sculpture park at Pilane on Tjörn – of apparently abstract sculptures by Tony Cragg.

Caldera - detail
Caldera – detail
Only apparently abstract, because after you’ve stared at them for some time you suddenly see a face, a profile, a nose and lips, a chin and a forehead, and then you realise there are faces everywhere in the sculptures, smiling, frowning, gazing profoundly or blankly into the middle distance. Knock on one, hear its tone.

Points of view
Points of view
“Caldera”, “Points of View”, “Mixed Feelings”. Good titles.

I saw the sculptures my first Monday at home in Gothenburg, and again on my last Thursday. My last Thursday after sitting by the Bältespännar fountain just outside the park entrance, watching a piece of performance art being filmed.

Performance art in progressA woman dressed and made-up to look like a statue, a living statue, walking slowly, meditatively in a wide circle around the fountain past the children playing in the spray of the water, past the young families, past the schoolchildren in a group with their teacher. Followed and filmed, not just by her own two cameramen, not just by me, but also by the families, by the schoolchildren, by random passers-by with their mobile phones.

Performance art in progress - audienceAnd back in the park, that first Monday, beyond Tony Cragg’s sculptures, beyond the palm house, in the rose garden with more fountains and children playing. I sat on a bench in the sun next to a mother with her young son. As he ran about, she followed him with her eyes and sometimes her voice, calling out in a language not Swedish. An older man sitting along the bench from her asks, is that Portuguese?

She laughs and tells him, no, it’s Bulgarian.

Ah, says the man, Bulgaria. I drove through Bulgaria. I used to drive trucks from Teheran.

That’s a long way, she says.

Yes, he says, days. There was always a break at Istanbul though. This was a long time ago, back before they built the bridge. You had to wait for the ferry.

I’ve never been to Istanbul, the woman says.

It’s a great city, he says. You should go.

I miss this. Being able to eavesdrop on a conversation. I can’t do it in Brussels – unless people are speaking English or Swedish – I can only watch body language and make a guess at what’s going on. It’s quite fun, but it’s not the same.

That first Monday, when the sun got too hot, I took myself indoors, into the empty dusk of The Rose Cafe – everyone, all the sun-starved Swedes, all the foreign tourists, they were all outside. I bought a salad and sent a text message and waited to meet my friend Kristina. As I arrived in Gothenburg, so she was leaving. That first Monday in August was our one day of overlap.

Kristina Svensson's Facebook page
Kristina Svensson’s Facebook page
Kristina brought me a copy to buy of her latest book, #författarboken (#theauthorbook), and a copy to see of her travel guide to Nice, Mitt Nice.

Collage of fourTrädgårdsföreningen’s rose garden is where we first met, years ago. We were both taking part in an Internet-based competition to find someone to represent the Swedish Hostelling Association for a summer reality show/vlog. Competitors, but we had similar ideas about authorial self-promotion and we pooled resources for a promo pitch. It’s still up on my YouTube site. We neither of us won the competition, which was a bit of a disappointment at the time, but we did find one another. We were both wannabe authors. Now that just describes me. Kristina is an author, a published author with four titles to her name, two of which – the two on the table – came out this year. It’s obvious which one of us had the gumption and get-up-and-go.

But I’m getting there. (He added, optimistically.)

Mixed feelings
Mixed feelings

And that was just the Monday. There was more, much more to come. Maybe there’ll be more here in a future blog post, but for now I think I’ll close.

Here’s hoping your summer holiday (or your winter holiday, if you live in the opposite hemisphere) was just as enjoyable.

Performance art in progress - through the fountain
Performance art in progress – through the fountain

Sound recording acknowledgements: Most of the ambient sound I recorded myself in the places stated. The sound of the music box playing “Home Sweet Home” at the beginning and end of the Soundcloud recording was taken from the sound track of a YouTube video posted by “Music Box” here.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Chagall

On Saturday Mrs SC and I went to the Royal Museums of Fine Arts here in Brussels to see their Chagall Retrospective. We had some idea that this weekend would be the final opportunity but it turns out the exhibition is running for another month yet.

The Promenade
Click on any picture to see it larger.
It was very impressive to see in one place so many of Chagall’s paintings – 200 says the exhibition brochure. So much intense colour. I just found a quote from Picasso who said in the 1950s that after his close friend and rival Matisse, Chagall was the only living artist who “understands what colour really is”.

A little bit of a backhanded compliment that – I wonder if Chagall appreciated it.

I wonder if Chagall would have appreciated this exhibition.

The Lovers in BlueWell, of course he would. The reverence for his art now, contrasts strongly with the indifference and contempt he faced for many years. Indifference first from a broad public in his early years (though not among fellow artists and not at home in Vitebsk).

 Flying violinistBut indifference was less of a problem than the contempt, as his art was rejected in Revolutionary Russia and as Nazism grew in the 20s and 30s. Chagall’s art was “green, purple, and red Jews shooting out of the earth, fiddling on violins, flying through the air … [an] assault on Western civilization”.

On the other hand, the exhibition hall is buried in the cellar of the Museum (and what would Chagall have thought about all the artificial light), and to get there visitors have to pass a foul smelling vestibule that reminds you Brussels also boasts a Sewer Museum. Perhaps the smell was a advert for that?

But then you get to the art and the all rest is of no account.

The ringAs there were signs at the museum entrance showing crossed over cameras I assumed photography was forbidden until I saw somebody filming. I went and asked and was told I could take photos for my own use as long as I didn’t use a flash.

I may have gone a little overboard.

Adam and EveThere were pictures from every phase of Chagall’s artistic career, from about 1909 until the 1980s. Personally I found most interesting the ones from about 1912 through to the 1940s – the later pictures from his time in the south of France seem over decorative to me. But the range of his art from a sort of post-impressionist style reminiscent of Gauguin and van Gogh, through Cubism, Expressionism and on into a naïve Surrealism is compelling, and its easier to appreciate it when you see so many works all together.

David - Chagall's brotherThe only thing missing from the exhibition really was any example – or even any photograph – of Chagall’s stained-glass. But I forgive this because I know it was Chagall’s opinion that his glass should be seen with the moving light of day behind it, so that it changes over time and depending on the weather.

The Monster of Notre DameOnce upon a time when I was in my 20s, I stayed at my father’s home in Kent, a village called Five Oak Green. I was to take care of the place while he and my stepmother Doris were on holiday. Before they left Doris said she thought I might be interested in the church in the next village.

“It’s got some windows,” she said. “They’re by some French fellow, some Jew.”

 Green face blue face - detailFor reasons of domestic tranquillity, and because she simply wouldn’t understand what I was getting at, I let the Jew reference pass by.

Doris went on to say that the windows had been put in to commemorate the daughter of the Lady of the Manor who drowned in a sailing accident off Rye, and that her husband – “Harry Goldsmid, you know” (I didn’t) – was the one who had brought in “the Jew”.

Cat - detailI didn’t have an awful lot to do once I was on my own. Every morning I had to feed the cat antibiotics because it was recovering from a battle with a rat – it had a rat bite across the root of its tail. That meant about an hour and a half of stalking the cat, holding it down (with gloves on) and forcing a pill into its mouth repeatedly (it kept coughing it up).

That cat hated me. With reason, it must be said.

 The Poet RecliningAnyway, once the morning’s struggle was over there wasn’t much to keep me in the house and so I walked a lot, exploring the byways around the village. One day I walked across to Tudeley to have a look at the church.

I wasn’t expecting very much and the outside of the church, when I found it, was not encouraging. It looked like it might have been quite pretty once, but I was absolutely convinced the tower must have been hit by a bomb in the war and rebuilt by some local builder with minimal experience of architecture. While the body of the church is constructed from an attractive local stone, the tower is a square, squat block in red brick that looks more like an electricity distribution substation than anything else. (I am surprised to discover now, thanks to the church’s own website, that the tower actually dates from 1765.)

Tudeley east window
Tudeley east window – photo by Philip French
Inside, though, all other considerations just fall away as you stand in the wonder of the blue light streaming in from twelve fantastic stained-glass windows, all clearly the work of Marc Chagall.

A little nosing around shows that while Sir Henry d’Avigdor-Goldsmid may have paid for the windows it was his Christian wife and daughter who chose Chagall. They had seen and fallen in love with the artist’s stained glass when his windows for the synagogue of the Hadassah Medical Centre in Jerusalem were exhibited in Paris in 1961. When the daughter, Sarah, was drowned in 1963, the mother, Rosemary, tracked Chagall down and persuaded him to create a commemorative window for the church. Chagall was reluctant at first, but finally agreed and when he came to see the window installed in 1967 he is supposed to have said “C’est magnifique! Je les ferai tous!” (“It’s beautiful! I will do them all!”) All the windows that is.

The last window was put into the church in 1985 – which may have been after I was there – soon before Chagall’s death.

Wandering JewIt’s strange to think about the windows at Tudeley now and how I came to see them for the first time. Here I am in Brussels, viewing an exhibition that focuses on Chagall and his extraordinary life: Vitebsk, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Paris again, New York, the Côte d’Azur – in his art he portrayed himself, among other things, as the Wandering Jew of folklore. And my mind slips back 30 years or more to that summer, and then suddenly forward again ten, twelve years. Now I am looking down on Kent from the window of an aircraft flying into Heathrow. It’s a crystal clear October morning and my eye follows the route of a railway line and suddenly I realise I’m looking at Five Oak Green and Tudeley, and a little beyond, Tonbridge where my father is dead in a funeral home waiting for cremation.

BirthdayIs it me or is it Chagall? Neither I suppose – it’s just human nature. But Chagall was able to capture in his art the way the mind can hop and skip across time and space and mix fact and fancy. Even fly through the air.

 Green monster - detailIn the museum, the voice on the audio guide is reading an English text that has clearly been translated from French and originally written by an art historian with a definite idea of what Chagall’s art means – but I’m not so sure. I hear her saying “anger… terror… horror”, but I find it difficult to see these emotions in Chagall’s work. I see joy and happiness, humour, innocence and bemusement. At worst I see faces without expression. Chagall’s colour symbolism is beyond me – so green means illness? OK, if you say so, voice from the machine. The falling angel, burning in red with one black eye gazing back at the viewer, now that I find more comprehensible, but I don’t see fear.

Falling AngelAt the end of the exhibition, passed the turnstiles at the exit but before you reach the exhibition shop… (Chagall prints on micro-clothes to dust your computer screens – artistic and practical!) Before the shop is an area set aside for visiting school kids, paper and crayons and an exhibition of children’s work inspired by Chagall. Acrobats and lovers and figures flying over rooftops, angels and musicians and people with Janus faces. The kids seem to have distilled Chagall’s essence – even if they can’t quite do the colours. But then, with both Matisse and Chagall gone, who now understands colour?
Chagall exhibition - Viewers


All illustrations are from my own photography except the picture of the east window at All Saints’ church Tudeley, which links to the original source.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.