Born into a Palestinian family in Beirut and living in London and Berlin, Mona Hatoum makes work – installations, sculpture – that confronts the world. Directly; indirectly. Sometimes more so, sometimes less.
Remains to be Seen, The first piece in her current show at the White Cube in Bermondsey, takes up most of the space in which it is displayed. Pieces of concrete attached to steel hawsers: the skeleton of a building. The kind we are used to seeing on news reports from Syria and the Middle East, except that those buildings have been so torn and twisted, damaged to the point where it becomes difficult to imagine them as they once were. Here everything is arranged in perfect formation, so that we are asked to see both the original and the aftermath simultaneously. As Hatoum has said of her work, it is about conflict and contradiction, both evident within the object itself.
I want the work in the first instance to have a strong formal presence and through the physical experience to activate a psychological and emotional response.
The other installation which struck me most forcefully was Remains of the Day, which was originally created for the 10th Hiroshima Art Prize exhibition. Less room for ambivalence here. Charred remnants of a home are arranged around the sides of a room: chairs on which people have sat down to dinner; a child’s cot; a toy truck; a life burned to cinders and ash.
Of the various things Molly and I wanted to do and see in Vienna, two were triggered by movies: the Ferris Wheel from Carol Reed’s The Third Man of course, in one of the cabins of which Orson Welles defends his illegal sale of penicillin on the black market to Joseph Cotton and makes his famous speech about Switzerland and the cuckoo clock; and the Bruegel room in the Kunsthistorisches Musuem, so central to Jem Cohen’s excellent 2012 film, Museum Hours.
The Ferris Wheel, as it turned out, was a disappointment, standing as it does on the edge of the Prater Amusement Park, half-hidden amidst a loud and garish collection of roundabouts and rides and fast food outlets, and, thus, sadly devoid of atmosphere.
Gallery X on the second floor of the Kunsthistorisches Musuem, however, with its collection of eleven of Bruegel’s paintings, more than lived up to expectations. The paintings themselves – which include ‘The Tower of Babel’ and the marvellous ‘Hunters in the Snow’ [but not ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’, which is in Brussels] – bristle with life, a kaleidoscope of activity shot through, here and there, with humour, with small moments of scatological delight. And all so true to Cohen’s film – he is basically a documentary film maker after all – that we found ourselves looking round, if not for the museum guard as portrayed by Bobby Sommer in the movie, then, at the very least, to work out where he would have been sitting.
We saw Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial on the first day. A large, solid construction, it stands at the centre of Judenplatz, a square of grand houses [like so many in Vienna] which would have been home to Jewish intellectuals and members of the professional classes.
Also known as the Nameless Library, its walls are cast from library shelves facing outwards and filled with identical books that face inward, untitled and unreadable. It is a testament both to the loss of knowledge and the nameless lives of those who died in the Holocaust.
On the base of the Memorial, in front of heavy concrete doors that will never open, is a brief text in German, Hebrew and English with a Star of David at its centre … In commemoration of more than 65,000 Austrian Jews who were killed by the Nazis between 1938 and 1945 … and the names of the many concentration camps are engraved at the rear of the plinth and along the sides. But it is the solid weight of the building that impresses most, forcing you to walk around it, stare at its bulk, its walls of forbidden books, a metaphor in concrete that it is hard to ignore or deny. A work of public art with great significance and purpose.
I spent an interesting hour yesterday in the offices of the Royal National Institute of Blind People, talking ‘down the line’ to half a dozen or so members of a group of blind or partially sighted people about my work as a writer. Most had some awareness of my books through various audio or large print versions, others from radio and – going back a little – from television. Fay, now in her early 80s and a retired probation officer, had read only one – In a True Light – and found it compulsive. She liked the way the different parts of the story commented on one another [it moves between New York and London in the late-50s and the present] and she liked the style. Laconic, that was how she described it. Laconic. Well, I can live with that.
They let Sloane out of prison three days short of his sixtieth birthday.
That’s how it begins.
First published in 2001, and a break from the sequence of 10 Resnick novels that began with Lonely Hearts in 1989 and finished [for good and all, I thought at the time] with Last Rites in 1998, In a True Light sought to move away from Nottingham and the police procedural [though it does feature two New York cops – Catherine Vargas & John Cherry – of whom I’m very fond] to new locations and a broader range of subject matter. I’d been interested for some little time in the abstract expressionist paintings of such artists as Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler, who first came to prominence in the 50s, and this, I thought, would give me the opportunity to explore that interest further. The list of works consulted was far longer than previously; longer than it would be until, years later, I researched the Miners’ Strike for the 12th and final Resnick novel, Darkness, Darkness.
The story of In a True Light is straightforward enough. When Sloane, a painter, is released from prison in London, where he has been serving time for forgery, he goes to New York in search of the daughter, Connie, a jazz singer, from whom he has become estranged [sound familiar?] and who is involved with a violent man – Delaney – whom the police suspect of murder. One back in New York, he remembers being there as a struggling young artist and the brief but fiery affair he had with an established painter, Jane Graham, who he learns is slowly dying.
To be honest, I’ve never been totally convinced how well the book ‘works’, how effectively (believably?) those sections dealing with Delaney, his violence and his connections with the Mob, merge with the rest. But some readers don’t seem to have that problem; like Fay they like it a lot.
As did Michael Connelly …
In In a True Light he is at his very best. It’s a crime story, sure, but it’s also a larger story about redemption and consequences set to the beat of the human heart.
And this comes from the reviewer (Marcel Berlins?) in The Times …
At one level this is the story of Sloane’s attempt to save his daughter from the criminal world in which she has become trapped. It is also a sensitive and moving study of ambivalent fatherhood, an unsparing portrait of an artist, and an atmospheric look at the bohemian New York of the late Fifties.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be some hard on myself, hard on the book?
One of my favourite passages is a description of Thelonious Monk playing piano at the Five Spot, which I refashioned as a poem and was recently published in Aslant, so I won’t repeat it here.
Instead, here’s the young Sloane calling, unannounced, at Jane Graham’s studio, and being allowed to watch her work …
“OK,’ she said, stepping back. ‘Come in. Come in and sit over there.’ Pointing to the far side of the room. ‘Sit there and don’t say a word,’
So Sloane sat for almost two hours, shifting his weight from side to side, from one buttock to the other, slowly stretching his legs. then drawing them up to his chest, as Jane, blanking him out, worked on her painting, moving, moving, rarely still, pacing, walking back and forth, in then out, close and away. The wide canvas stretched across its heavy wooden frame and stapled fast, covered then with white paint applied in broad strokes, a white, stippled ground upon which she was adding blocks of colour, gradations of alternating blue and yellow shading down to mauve and orange, their edges blurred and softened with a swab of cloth soaked in turpentine, each balanced in relation to what was immediately above and below, and to the painting as a whole.
Jane darting quickly forward now, a fast sweep of brush from right to left, a slash of darkling, curving red; and then another, finer, ending in a filigree of scarlet flecks like tracks in snow.
And Sloane, watching, in thrall, as the painting grew, took on a life, each element held in tension with the rest but all, somehow, and this the real art, the artistry, in harmony. Something he would rarely, if ever, himself achieve. Not like this. Beautiful. Thrilling. The act, the thing, the thing itself.
From several interviews in the later years of her life it seems clear that Lee Krasner was – in terminology she would almost certainly have appreciated and understood – a tough old broad. And just as well. A female painter in what was predominantly – we’re talking New York in the years following WW2 – a man’s world, she had to push and struggle to be acknowledged and for her work to be seen. As she said when comparing her situation with that of the Abstract Expressionist women painters who came to prominence in her wake …
… the next generation, [Grace] Hartigan, [Joan] Mitchell, [Helen] Frankenthaler had an easier time of it. Galleries existed, dealers. We didn’t have that. We had to create all this. The next generation had an open door. This has all happened in a short passage of time.
Krasner wasn’t given her first retrospective until 1965, and then in London – at the Whitechapel Gallery – and not New York – and she would have to wait another ten years for a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The current Barbican exhibition, curated by Eleanor Nairne and designed by David Chipperfield Architects, brings together some 100 pieces, sufficient to give full rein to the range of Krasner’s work and, hopefully, help to ensure that she can no longer be dismissed as the wife of Jackson Pollock and a footnote in the history of Abstract Expressionism.
Born in 1908, the youngest of the six children of Jewish Russian parents who had left Europe for the United States and settled in Brooklyn, Krasner had decided at the age of 14 that she wanted to be an artist and, until her death in 1984 at the age of 76, that’s what she was. Beginning as an orthodox figure painter – and there are some well-executed examples here – she was introduced to cubism by her teacher at the time, Hans Hofmann.
Hofmann aside, Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian were her early influences and, to a greater or lesser extent, remained so for the rest of her life. And – a bonus – when Mondrian came to New York and she got to know him, they discovered a mutual love of jazz …
We were both mad for jazz and we used to go to jazz spots together … We used to go to a Café Uptown or Café Downtown and dance. … I was a fairly good dancer, that is to say I can follow easily, but the complexity of Mondrian’s rhythm was not simple in any sense … I nearly went mad trying to follow this man’s rhythm.
But soon there was another set of influences to respond to, and – in a quite different, more intimately physical sense – another man. She first met Jackson Pollock in the early 40s, when they were working on a project for the WPA.
I resisted at first, but I must admit, I didn’t resist very long. I was terribly drawn to Jackson, and I fell in love with him – physically, mentally – in every sense of the word. I had a conviction when I met Jackson that he had something important to say. When we began going together, my own work became irrelevant. He was the important thing. I couldn’t do enough for him.
Convinced, as she was, of Pollock’s ‘genius’, Krasner readily took on the task of promoting his work – not least, as she thought it had a better chance of selling than her own and money was always a problem. But accepting a secondary role in the relationship did not mean she was willing to step away altogether from her own work as an artist.
For me, it was quite enough to continue working, and his success, once he began to sell, gave us an income of sorts and made me ever so grateful because, unlike wives of other artists who had to go out and support them, I could continue painting myself.
I couldn’t run out and do a one-woman job on the sexist aspect of the art world, continue my painting and stay in the role I was in as Mrs. Pollock. I just couldn’t do that much. What I considered important was that I was able to work and other things would have to make their turn. Now rightly or wrongly, I made my decisions.
The relationship with Pollock became less and less easy, threatened as it was by his increasing dependence on alcohol, his womanising, and his occasionally violent temper. It was against this background that Krasner began working on the painting later called Prophecy, which is placed in a central position in the Barbican show, and represents a turning away (or moving on) from collage and the lingering influence of Mondrian to something looser and fleshier – pink limbs and body parts outlined in heavy black – abstraction now with more than a hint of figuration. Echoes of Picasso, perhaps, and Matisse, as well as Pollock himself. Hints of de Kooning.
The canvas took Krasner herself by surprise. “The painting disturbed me enormously and I called Jackson to look at it. He assured me it was a good painting, and said not to think about it, just continue … do another … ” In time, she would do three more, all on display here, but right then it was left on the easel when Krasner, hoping to clear some ground perhaps between Pollock and herself, took a trip to Paris alone. It was when she was there that she received the news that Pollock was dead: drunk, he had crashed the car he had insisted on driving into a tree, killing himself and the friend of the woman with whom he had been having an affair, who was herself the only one to survive.
Krasner could have fallen apart: instead she continued to work. She moved from her smaller studio to the barn where Pollock had done his vast ‘drip’ paintings, and, with that extra space, her own paintings became bigger, more akin in some respects to Pollock’s own work, its movement and patterning, its repetitions. The first group of paintings she made were dark, tortured exercises in umber, swirling circles and slashing lines; reflections, it’s reasonable to assume, of her state of mind. But this passed and soon she was luxuriating in colour, a bright crimson that suggested life much as umber had suggested death. And when she fell and broke her right arm, she simply learned to paint with her left. Tough old broad, indeed!
Lee Krasner: Living Colour is at the Barbican Art Gallery until September 1st, after which it tours to Frankfurt, Switzerland and Spain.
I’ve written before on this blog about Aslant, the small but beautifully formed collection of my poems and Molly Boiling’s photographs published by Shoestring Press earlier in the year, but the arrival of an interesting, quite detailed review by Thomas Ovans in the online magazine London Grip gives me the opportunity to do so again.
This is how it begins …
As I begin to write this review it strikes me that one’s reading of a book can initially be influenced by what one had previously been reading. I came to this collection having just enjoyed another book that robustly and self-confidently expressed irreverent and sceptical attitudes that I broadly agreed with. Aslant, by contrast, is a much more provisional, reflective and tender work and represented a refreshing change of tone that I hadn’t known I was more than ready for.
Aslant places John Harvey’s poems alongside evocative photographs by Molly Boiling which provide sharp-edged images of steps, shadows, girders and corners of high buildings. These pictures often suggest entrances and exits or incidental glimpses alongside the telling of a story. Hence they combine well with Harvey’s poems which usually have a strong narrative and reminiscent thread.
“A sense of mortality seems to hover over much of this collection,” Ovans writes; “a recurring sense of wistful consolation after loss.”
Of the pieces in the central section which take jazz and jazz musicians as their subject – Lester Young, Art Pepper, Thelonious Monk – Ovans writes, “This is wonderfully evocative writing which, I would maintain, conveys something authentic even to a reader who is not a jazz aficionado.”
And he concludes his review thus …
… this is no ordinary book: the well-chosen images and the way they complement some consistently satisfying high-quality poems make it, in my view, well worth a tenner of anybody’s money.
And if you don’t already have a copy and feel like following this advice and splashing out said tenner, Aslant can be ordered directly from email@example.com. or from any bookstore – including those worthy souls at Nottingham’s Five Leaves Bookshop – firstname.lastname@example.org. You can even buy it on Amazon.
Here’s a list, for those who like lists, of the movies, music, books and exhibitions that have given me the most pleasure in the first half of the year; given me pleasure and, more often than not, stopped me in my tracks.
BOOKS An American Marriage : Tayari Jones Long Bright River : Liz Moore (proof copy – pub Jan 2020)
FILMS Hale County This Morning This Evening : RaMell Ross Foxtrot : Samuel Maoz Dirty God : Sacha Polak [mainly for the extraordinary performance by Vicky Knight]
Blues & Roots Ensemble w. Alice Zawadzki : Pizza Express Jazz Club
Viktoria Mullova : unaccompanied Bach on violin : Sage, Gateshead
Two CDs by writer Willy Vlautin’s band, The Delines Colfax (2014) The Imperial (2019)
Harold Gilman – Beyond Camden Town : Djanogly Gallery, Nottm.
Albert Irvin & Abstract Expressionism : GWA, Bristol
George Shaw – A Corner of a Foreign Field : Holbourne Gallery, Bath
Joan Mitchell : Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris
Don McCullin : Tate Britain
Dave Heath – Dialogues with Solitude : Photographers’ Gallery
Chris Killip – The Last Ships : Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle Luigi Ghirri – Cartes et Territoires : Jeu de Paume, Paris
This beautiful little book – and believe me, it is beautiful – published by John Lucas’ Shoestring Press, makes its first appearance this week, with a launch evening at Nottingham’s Five Leaves Bookshop to set it on its way. That’s this Thursday, 25th April at 7.00pm. Molly Boiling’s photographs will be projected [she also designed the cover] and I’ll read some of the poems. Another Shoestring poet, Stuart Henson, will be reading too. Come along if you’re around. [People have been known to come as far as Derby or Kirkby-in-Ashfield.] Details …
If not, and you’re closer to London, on the following evening, Friday 26th, I shall be reading at The Poetry Café in Covent Garden as part of Hylda Sim’s long-running Fourth Friday series of poetry & music evenings. Tony Roberts will also be reading and there will be music from very fine singer/songwriter. Liz Simcock. Details here …
If you can’t get along to either of those events, copies are available, price £10.00, from Five Leaves Bookshop, Nottingham – 0115 8373097 – email@example.com or from Central Books – 0208 525 8800 – firstname.lastname@example.org or can be ordered from your local bookstore.
To give you a small idea of what your money will get you, here’s one of the poems and an extract from another, with one of Molly’s photographs to finish things off.
The swimsuit he’d been wearing earlier,
my father, a single strap draped,
Johnny Weissmuller style, over one shoulder,
set aside now in favour of pale slacks,
white shirt, collar splayed open
across the lapels of his blazer;
sitting a little self-consciously
alongside my mother, smart
in her polka-dot dress, white shoes;
the two of them staring back at the camera,
that picture the beach photographer
will display proudly later in his window.
The first time he’d set eyes on my mother,
she’d been standing close against the piano,
perfectly still, her voice small and clear
yet somehow distant, disarming;
the way, as the last notes faded,
silence seemed to fold about her …
Now she sits with her arm resting
on the check tablecloth, her hand
close to his but not quite touching;
the café doors behind them open,
waiter hovering, a tune somewhere playing.
the world waiting,
Those carefree days before the war:
Ostend, Spring 1939
I remember the first time I heard a big band
or any kind of jazz at all –sitting across from my mother and aunt
in the splendour of Lyons Corner House
at Marble Arch, feasting on cakes and petit fours
from a glass cake stand tiered like a chandelier
and listening in muted amazement
to Ivy Benson & Her All-Girl Orchestra
swinging their way gloriously
through the fusty afternon.
And then, a little older, parties at my friend Michael’s house, where his Uncle Mac, six foot and sixteen stone, would get himself up in women’s clothes –
skirt, rouched blouse with false boobs,
stockings, suspenders, bright red lipstick and rouge,
and, between jokes I didn’t always understand,
impersonate Sophie Tucker singing Some of These Days and, a family favourite, Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love.
There I was in Stevenage this Saturday just past, walking up Monkswood Way towards the Lamex Stadium, home of Stevenage Football Club – hosts that afternoon to Notts County – when I noticed both sides of the busy road were bordered by woodland. Thinnish, it’s true, but woodland nonetheless: on the near side shielding the bizarrely named Roaring Meg Retail and Leisure Park; on the other, the edges of the Monkswood Estate and the fringes of Fairlands Valley Park, through which, in the early 70s, I would walk most mornings to the secondary school where I was teaching.
But then, instead of thinking about how Notts were going to fare that afternoon [They won 3-0, extraordinary!] I found myself thinking instead of the woods in the paintings of George Shaw, whose exhibition, A Corner of a Foreign Field, I’d visited at Bath’s Holbourne Museum the day before. Shaw’s paintings, executed in the Humbrol enamel paint beloved of boys who spent hours making Airfix models in their rooms [back in the days when boys used to make Airfix models in their rooms] take as their subject the Tile Hill area of Coventry, where he was born and brought up. An area of new housing built on the edge of the city, on the edge of woodland. A bit like Stevenage, really; Stevenage New Town. Brave New World.
Some people stay; some move on. Part of Shaw has stayed where he lived out his childhood and adolescence. So he goes back, makes drawings, takes photographs. Paints the rows of similar houses, tatty now; the abandoned garages and sheds; those woods …
When I was not yet grown up the woods at the back of our house was that other world It was a world of our own making outside the usual time and the usual cartography and far from the governance of mums and dads and nosy neighbours and teachers. You never saw a copper in the woods. When the time would come no one would save you.
Taking my own life in my own hands I’d climb trees, make dens, bridge dishes and ponds, dig holes, break things, burn things and take things. Most of all I’d watch and keep out of the way of the others. In particular I’d keep out of the way those older, bigger and louder. They would never come on their own and were very easy to spot shouting, smoking, drinking, spitting, snogging, fingering. They would leave behind them circles of paper and porn, cans and fag-ends, initials carved into a tree or a burnt-out motorbike.
These paintings are haunted by absence. Memory. Doors which are never opened; paths along which no one walks; bus shelters; shops permanently closed. Borders, fences, gates, railings. Signs of a life that has been lived and is being steadily left behind, with Shaw chronicling its demise.
I remember being surprised when I realised that Bonnard had lived through World War Two. In my mind, he had existed in the Paris of an earlier era, when, along with Vuillard, he was one of the leading lights in the school of Post Impressionism known as Les Nabis. But he lived – and continued to paint – until his death in 1947 at the age of 80.
In 1927, Bonnard bought a house in the village of Le Cannet, close to Cannes on the Cote d’Azur, and until the outbreak of the war, when travelling became first difficult and then impossible, he moved between there and his home and studio in Paris. From 1939 onwards, he and his wife Marthe, the subject of many of his paintings, lived solely in Le Cannet, Marthe’s mental and physical health declining until, in 1942, she died, leaving Bonnard bereft. You can see this in the self-portraits he made in those years; see also, I like to think, his awareness of what he had learned of events of the war.
The following poem of mine was written after reading Bonnard at Le Cannet by Michel Terrace, with photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson (Thames & Hudson, 1988). It was first published in Poems for the Beekeeper, edited by Robert Gent (Five Leaves Publications, 1996) and re-published in Bluer Than This (Smith/Doorstop, 1998) and Out of Silence (Smith/Doorstop, 2014).
Self Portrait Bonnard at Le Cannet
Cold here, this room you sit in, 1945;
your corner table, vase of flowers and white cloth,
grey scarf close about your neck.
You sit and smoke, patient for cognac
warm in its glass; a white cup with gold rim,
the small black coffee she will bring.
Again and again sketched in his diary –
Saturday, February 26th; Tuesday the 15th of June –
like an otter she would ease, sleek, into the bath,
snug against the curve of porcelain.
On the radio, news of the Armistice,
a hastily articulated peace, the Jews.
The air is rimed with smoke, far echo of guns.
The small electric heater stands unplugged,
no fire in the gate.
Marthe – why does she not come?
These last mornings you have walked
between the almond and the olive trees,
gazed over red roofs toward the fullness of the sea.
You painted ochres, oranges and browns,
cupboards steeped in jars and bottles,
herbs in bunches, greengages and plums,
golden apples, persimmons.
In the studio the slow shunt of trucks,
smell of paint thick on your hands;
stiff-legged before the mirror
you blow warmth into your fingers.
Head shaved, ready, this is not so difficult,
one portrait, all that’s left.
A gash of colour for the mouth,
those veins, blue, drawn down
across the fabric of the face;
black hollows where the eyes would have been,
burnt out by bodies that lay ripening,
close=pressed between trees, their richness
leaking back into the soil, beyond reach of seeing,
stripped beneath the surface of the sea.
Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory is at Tate Modern from today (23rd January) until 6th May.
Belated best wishes for the New Year with my first post of 2019 in the blog’s rather fine new livery.
After missing out on a number of book events last year, primarily for health reasons, I’m hoping to do better this year, starting with two occasions marking the paperback publication of Body & Soul. Again, a little belatedly, but none the worse for that.
On the evening of Thursday, 31st January, at the Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town, North London, I shall be joined by Stella Duffy to talk about said Body & Soul, as well as Stella’s most recent publications, the suspense novel, The Hidden Room, and the Inspector Alleyn mystery, Money in the Morgue, which she completed after it was left unfinished by Alleyn’s creator, Ngaio Marsh.
Then, on the following evening, I shall be flying solo at another of my favourite bookstores, Waterstone’s in Nottingham. Tickets for both of these events are available now.
Move ahead to the spring and two events to launch the Shoestring Press publication of Aslant, which features both my poems and photographs by my daughter, Molly Ernestine Boiling. Any of you who’ve been following her work on http://whyernestine.tumblr.com will have a good idea of what to look forward to.
Molly and I will be at (speaking of favourite bookstores) Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham on Thursday, 25th April, and at the Poetry Café in London’s Covent Garden for Hylda Sims’ Fourth Friday, which will also feature the excellent singer-songwriter, Liz Simcock.
Step forward just one week later and over the Bank Holiday weekend I’ll be up in the north-east at Newcastle Noir. The programme is yet to be officially announced, but it may well reveal that I’ll be paired in discussion with the formidable Norwegian author, Gunnar Staalesen.