Monthly Archives: January 2007

“Art & Soul”. January 2007.

Last night, I watch part of a fascinating programme about religion and art – Art and Soul.  It was presented by Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh and all round renaissance man: he is making a new career for himself as a tv and radio presenter on BBC Scotland.  (I think – although I don’t know – that Art and Soul was only broadcast in Scotland.  So unless you are  north of the border, you were probably unable to watch it.)

This was the last programme in a series – all previous editions I missed, even though I had every intention of watching them.  (There always seemed to be something better to do: listening to music; reading a book…)  I wished I had seen them.

I only caught the last half hour or so; it involved Holloway talking to Scottish artists about their work and discussing their art, and how religion or their faith had influenced it, as well as examining other works of art involving religious themes.  (Wholly Christian, as far as I recall.)

One of the things that came across to me was Holloway’s own scepticism – his doubts about his faith.  I am not sure why he stopped being bishop – whether he retired, or decided his faith wasn’t strong enough, or just decided that being a media presenter might be a better job.

I came in part way through the programme’s discussion of Peter Howson.  Howson creates quite brutal pictures, large canvasses featuring snarling dogs and aggressive skinheads.  He was the official war artist accompanying British forces during a conflict in the former Yugoslavia: there a clip from a documentary about this, where some soldiers were cheerfully showing Howson where someone was blown up – “the grey stuff over there is his brains” – and asking him to get a move on with his sketching since they didn’t want to get shot.  Understandably, Howson found the horror of the conflict too much, and couldn’t create anything.  He had a mental collapse and returned to the UK, where he was apparently branded a coward by some parts of the media.

He returned to the former Yugoslavia to finish his commission, and created some striking, terrifying paintings: children playing in the shadow of a sniper; bodies hanging from trees; a woman being raped and having her throat cut.  The pictures were exhibited at the Imperial War Museum in London.  Howson sank into addiction and alcoholism, signing himself into a clinic with his remaining money.

Howson said he had always believed in God, but that the horrors that he had seen shattered but restored his faith.  (A soldier in the conflict was quoted of saying wherever God is, he is easiest to see in the lowest, most hellish places.)  Out of rehab, Howson paints mainly religious themes – his dealers said they’d never sell, though he seems to be very successful.  His pictures have a strong physicality; he paints saints amongst the gutter, since he says that’s where religion and faith are needed most.

One of Holloway’s themes was the balance between science and religion in the twentieth – and twenty first – century.  His discussion of Dali’s painting Christ of St John of the Cross (recently reinstalled in Glasgow’s refurbished and rehung Kelvingrove Museum; the painting is apparently Scotland’s favourite painting, after a poll someone did sometime).  Apparently, much of Dali’s work was in reaction to the horror of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and his paintings are full of mushroom-cloud motifs.  Dali’s portrayal of Christ has him hanging from the cross, suspended in darkness high over a landscape; you can’t see his face, since his head is hanging down; and his outstretched arms, as well as forming a triangle of the trinity with the cross-piece also form she shape of a mushroom cloud looming over the land.

It is a beautiful, somewhat mystical picture; it used to be housed in Glasgow’s museum of faith and religion (a fascinating place, should you ever find yourself near Glasgow cathedral).  It was interesting to hear what critics had to say about the picture, its structure and meaning.

Holloway then moved onto John Bellany. Bellany – now living in some style in Tuscany – grew up in a fishing village outside Edinburgh.  He has always painted religious topics, often using the theme of fishing.  It was the horror of war that caused Bellany’s crisis – a visit to the concentration camp at Buchenwald in the 1960s.  He couldn’t cope with what he saw there, and thoughts of the horror his head produced.  He sank into alcoholism  (another recurring theme, at least with the artists I saw) and drank himself to oblivion, resulting in damage to several organs. In the 1980s he had a liver transplant; he woke from the operation in searing pain, and, convinced he was going to die, reckoned that he should draw a final self portrait of himself.  He didn’t die; but he was seriously convinced that God had decided to spare him so that he could continue his art.  (I find it curious that God, with the whole universe to worry about, would concern herself with an alcoholic painter; such solipsistic philosophy probably explains why I tend towards atheism.)

Alison Watt painted a four-part altar piece, Still, which hangs in the chapel of remembrance of St Paul’s church in Edinburgh – a stone’s throw from Waverley station.  Holloway described this as his own church – I guess where he now practices.  It is a beautiful painting: folds of cloth rendered in detail.  Watt told how she took the idea from an old master’s painting of a crucified saint (an image she described as beautiful), the saint’s body largely hidden beneath the folds of his clothes.  Watt’s work was site-specific, but she didn’t know if it would work or not until it was in place – the prospect of working on a painting for so long without knowing if it would succeed kept her awake at night.  The chapel where the painting hangs contains the names of congregation members who died in the world wars, which adds to the painting’s poignancy.  (I saw the painting in a festival exhibition a couple of years ago, when I hadn’t realised it was a permanent fixture in St Paul’s; presumably one can see it whenever the church is open.)

Holloway finished off his pilgrimage in the garden of Charles Jenks.  Jenks was the creator of the sculptured Landform in the grounds of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, and his own Garden of Cosmic Speculation was similarly earthworked, but on a much larger scale.  It contained a large number of sculptures, most of them based around modern scientific thought: the structure of DNA, the Big Bang.  It incorporated specific areas for living – “you go down here and escape into another universe… and then you eat here” – and seemed over developed, but still interesting – somewhere to visit if passing through Dumfries…

Holloway summed up his series by saying that religion, faith and art are deeply entwined.  I am not sure that I agree – there has been great art that isn’t based on religion – but it was an interesting programme.  Holloway himself came across very well, and his scepticism seemed very healthy.  He is (or, since they are changing the funding structure for the arts in Scotland, was) chairman of the Scottish Arts Council, so he clearly believes strongly in art.  The adviser to the programme was Duncan Mackintosh, who is an academic who seems to crop up whenever “Scotland” and “art” appear in the same sentence – I don’t know how much came from Holloway and how much from Mackintosh.

Harry Benson.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to see an exhibition of photographs by Harry Benson, a photo-journalist who has worked extensively since the 1960s.  You may not know his name, but he has taken some iconic photographs.  He worked with the Beatles in the sixties, travelling to the States with them on their first tour; he stayed on went they returned to the UK.

The pictures on show spanned the decades of Benson’s work, and also his styles.  He started off working in Scotland, and moved to London before moving to the States.  His earlier work was unstaged, and of ordinary people: football crowds, children playing in the street.  He then progressed to events and stars – the Beatles, concerts, politicians (including the Klu Klux Klan). 

He was with Bobby Kennedy when he was assassinated in 1968, and the exhibition had the enlarged contact sheet from that evening, a chilling document that moved from politcal rally through to staff sitting numb with horror; he took pictures of Kennedy seconds after he was shot, and of his wife – she hit out at Benson as he stood and photographed; it is a very moving image.

As he grew with prominence, people came to Benson – he no longer had to chase the picture.  These staged pictures had much less impact for me – we were seeing what the famous wanted to show.  Benson had to get them to show more of themselves – there was a famous picture of Ronald Reagan and his wife, dancing (apparently Reagan’s aides wanted to stop that one) – but generally these pictures were more formal, taken with more time and thought rather than a split second decision.

With time he moved from black and white to colour, he his pictures lost impact that way, too.  Since this co-incided with his move to more formal, controlled studio conditions, so it is hard to keep these two factors separate.  The earlier black and white prints had more power, though.

(Harry Benson’s pictures in Google image search.)

This was brought back to me when I saw the exhibition for the Deloitte photographic portrait competition at the National Portrait Gallery this week.  Most of the pictures were in colour; but it was the few black and white portraits that really worked for me.  The coloured prints looked normal; the black and white ones looked special.

Few of the prints were close ups of the face, but these worked best for me: whilst the others showed the sitter in their environment, it didn’t necessarily add to my understanding of them: instead they seemed floating outside, lost in the background.

I generally disagreed with the judges choice of winners: those weren’t my favourites in the show at all.  It is hard to say why I liked those that I did – there was little that united them – but they added something to the sitter, bringing out what was interesting, grabbing my attention.

(Here is the exhibition website – but it only has a couple of the pictures I really liked: here! – and here!.  Neither of these are in black and white…)

At the National Gallery was an exhibition of pictures by Tim Gardner.  Based on photographs, these were actually watercolours, but they were painted so that they looked like photographs.  They were hyper-realist: I had to look really hard to see that they were actually paintings.  I will admit this doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me – why paint a painting to look like a photograph.  They were very beautiful pictures – landscapes and informal portraits from the States – but I don’t know what painting them like that added to the original photos.  It seems like a lot of work for no real return.

Introducing A Friend To Jazz… January 2007.

A long while ago – more than a year – a friend asked me to put together a CD of jazz tunes; she liked jazz – she liked the idea of jazz – but she felt she wanted to know more, to listen to a variety of tunes and people, to experiment a bit. I was rather reticent – the last time I had done something like this was years ago, making mix-tapes as a step on the way to seduction.
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