Leonardo da Vinci at the Louvre: an underwhelming experience

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Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch of a “helicopter” Pen and brown ink (1487-1489)

A weekend in Paris with friends! We have tickets to visit the biggest ever collection of works by Leonardo da Vinci. Brimming with anticipation, we head off to the Musée de Louvre. The famous glass pyramid sparkles in the light of a crisp January morning. Quelle bonheur! I want to experience up close two of Leonardo’s works that represent the wide range of his extraordinary achievements: a tiny drawing of a hand-cranked helicopter and, of course, the Mona Lisa.

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Infrared reflectogram of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, oil on walnut panel (1503-1519)

We queue to go through a metal detector and to have our bags x-rayed. We queue to show our tickets. We queue to pay for an audioguide. With the receipt for the payment for the audioguide, we queue to pick up the audioguide itself. We are given a hasty explanation of how it works. Apparently, the numbers of the 179 works on display do not correspond to the numbers of the 22 works featured on the audioguide. We enter the exhibition a tad confused and with spirits a little dented.

The free exhibition catalogue is helpful in explaining the phases of Leonardo’s life (that ended 500 years ago), his influences, his interests and his techniques. The Louvre’s chosen approach is very academic and presents the works in four not entirely coherent sections: “Light, shade, relief,” “Freedom,” “Science” and “Life.” With respect to the paintings, there are few complete works (because Leornardo completed so few!) There are many studies executed in chalk or ink. There are also fascinating infrared reflectograms – an imaging technique that traces the carbon of the drawing beneath the layers of coloured paint – of his better known paintings. The section on “Science” makes manifest what puts Leonardo da Vinci in a class of his own. His truly beautiful drawings and hall-mark mirror writing reveal an inquisitive technical mind and a profound comprehension of worldly things. He was way ahead of his time. He mastered anatomy (which meant he dissected dead bodies.) He mastered geometry. He mastered chiaruscuro – the drawing of light and shade. He observed and drew strata in rock formations, the growth of trees, the nature of waves and fluid mechanics. He imagined and designed numerous machines and buildings.

Regrettably, I am unable to say whether the Louvre is successful in making the oeuvre of this towering genius accessible to the exhibition-goer. Why? People! The place is heaving. Like hundreds of sheep we shuffle around shoulder to shoulder all trying to get a view of the great master’s works. It’s impossible to take a quiet moment to appreciate them. And… merde! … every picture has hands in front of it all manipulating smart phones. The works that feature on the audioguide are obviously those that draw most interest – and most smart phone photography! Further, the audioguide number is displayed so low on the wall that it can be difficult to find through the press of twenty-first century humanity. It is not always clear precisely to which work or works the audioguide is referring. In brief, the exhibition is a chore. Add the crush of people and the experience is an exercise in frustration with little to reward us for having braved the current French transport strikes to get there. And I’m sorry to say, the news gets worse.

Isn’t it reasonable to expect to see the Mona Lisa at this exhibition? She is, after all, housed permanently in the Louvre. Wouldn’t you think that the infrared reflectogram of the Mona Lisa is a foretaste of what must certainly be awaiting us in the last room? Inexplicably, the audioguide when describing the sepia toned infrared reflectogram refers to the colours of the Mona Lisa’s lips and skin in the conditional tense. Most bizarre of all, the narrative ends with “The real Mona Lisa belongs to the King of France and to see it you have to go to Fontainebleu.”

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The room in the Denon wing of the Louvre that houses the Mona Lisa. (That’s her at the far end!)

Having queued to return our audioguides, we head off to a nearby bistro for lunch. We admit to each other that the morning was not what we were hoping for. We agree that the absence of the Mona Lisa is both a surprise and a disappointment. We also concur that the audioguide really did make reference to the world’s most famous painting belonging to the King of France! Is there still a King of France? But then, on examining a casually picked up museum brochure, we see that the Mona Lisa is still displayed at the Louvre but in a different wing several floors up. Obviously, the Louvre wants her to remain viewable by the broader public but nothing indicated that she would not be part of the dedicated Leonardo exhibition. Communication 101! So we decide to return and, inevitably, we join the longest queue of the day to stand for 30 seconds in front of her. And of course, it’s Mona Lisa selfie time.

It saddens me that the works of one of the greatest minds ever in one of the greatest museums ever can be exhibited with such mediocrity. The exhibition closes on 24th February. Don’t join a brawl for remaining tickets.

A glimpse of the inner Lillias August

A glimpse of the inner Lillias August 1
Lillias August “Decommissioned” Water colour 93cm x 35cm

I find Lillias August’s website. A painting called “Decommissioned” stops me in my tracks. Crudely sawn and distorted parts of firearms are arranged in a row. Does the shadow whisper of prison? A church window? It is exquisitely executed and, as an image, totally arresting. The why and how of this picture intrigue. This is beyond masterclass still-life watercolour. I haven’t seen Lillias August for years; it’s time to catch up.

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Lillias August “Waterline” Water colour 71cm x 48cm

Lillias’s paintings have been a permanent presence in my life. Her water colours of family homes and rural scenes hang on the walls of friends and relatives. Snippets of news about her successes reach me regularly. Her formal bio reads as you would expect of an accomplished, multi-award winning painter elected to membership – and current secretary – of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours.

I meet Lillias at The Gallery in Holt, Norfolk where she has contributed to a very classy exhibition that showcases the work of a number of professional water colour painters. I ask her about her fascination for the Norfolk landscape. She tells me that its flatness and openness generate a feeling of comfort; there is an honesty here. Nothing is hidden. I put it to her that she has moved on. She agrees.

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Lillias August “Empty nests” Water colour 94cm x 31cm
A glimpse of the inner Lillias August 4
Lillias August “Ten green bottles” Water colour 89cm x 30cm
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Lillias August “Hanging by a thread” Water colour 90cm x 30cm

I am captivated by her more recent works. They are intricate and intimate studies of ordinary things presented in an extraordinary way. The horizontal theme clearly derives from her landscapes. I find that lines of empty birds nests (viewed from above,) empty antique green bottles (on an invisible shelf) and light bulbs hanging by threads (why… and attached to what?) together constitute a daring and ingenious approach to still-life painting. There is a delicious discord here. Subject and composition play off against total mastery of a very conventional medium.

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Lillias August “Her shoes” Water colour 90cm x 37cm

Lillias gives direct and considered answers to my questions. I ask her about the provenance of her most telling and touching work; a commission with the title “Her shoes.” The response is untypically vague. Whatever the personal story, it will remain untold.

But how do we get from these beautiful all-in-a-row still life images to the parts of decommissioned guns? The answer lies in what Lillias’s bio does not mention: the fiesty – or even rebellious – side to her creativity. When at school, she painted and exhibited a picture of a hand crushing a stars and stripes coloured ball. Her head-mistress told her to take it off the wall. She admits that she still surprises herself by her choice of subject. In this vein, she is fascinated by how everyday objects become something else or even something sinister when their purpose changes. A local knife amnesty caught her attention. She took herself down to Ipswich police station where she was permitted to photograph not only an array of knives but also, and as a bonus, a cache of decommissioned firearms. She admits to a latent and strong desire to put a viewer of her work out of his or her comfort zone. With both “Decommissioned” and “Amnesty” she achieves this with flare and intelligence.

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Lillias August “Amnesty” Water colour 96cm x 41cm

Jasper Johns said that “pop art” means to take something and add to it. Tongue in cheek, I ask Lillias if she would accept the label of “pop still-life water colour artist.” To my surprise she would. She concedes that this is the kind of painting that she really wants to do even if the result is not necessarily what people want to buy. Is the inner Lillias breaking out of a self-imposed mould? I hope so.

World Cup Haka

World Cup Haka 1
Copyright: Billy Stickland

It’s the Rugby World Cup. The New Zealand All Blacks are looking to lift the trophy for a third successive time. And don’t we all love their haka?

There are numerous hakas which have been passed from long-ago Maori culture. Many were war dances. The haka most frequently performed by the All Blacks is the Ka Mate. It was composed in 1880 by Te Rauparaha, war leader of the Ngāti Toa tribe in New Zealand’s North Island. Translated, the main body of the chant is:

I die! I die! I live! I live! I die! I die! I live! I live! This is the hairy man who fetched the sun and caused it to shine again. One upward step! Another upward step! An upward step, another… the sun shines!

The use by the All Blacks of the more aggressive Kapa O Pango haka was put on hold in 2006 because it included what was perceived as a throat–slitting gesture. However, it was resurrected controversially for the big match against Australia earlier this year.

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Illustration from: J. White, “The Ancient History of the Maori” 1890

Whilst best known in the context of rugby, these group dances are also performed on other important occasions such as funerals and welcome ceremonies. Many include women but the famous tongue-protruding aggressive hakas are only performed by men.

The connection of the haka to rugby dates back to 1888 when an all-Maori team toured Great Britain and before kick-off rather startled the Surrey county team. The Ka Mate haka was first performed in 1905 by the “Original All Blacks” prior to a match against Scotland. Help ma sporran!

World Cup Haka 3
Copyright: Getty Images

The whole of an All Black team in haka-mode is so much more than the sum of its fifteen parts. As a ritual for scaring the living daylights out of the opposition and boosting one’s own morale, the haka is very effective. There is a debate in international rugby circles about how an opposing team might best counter the haka. Most adversaries choose to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in a bid to stare down the New Zealanders. The idea is to pass the message that we really are not intimidated, really… not one tiny bit. This passive choice involves looking like, in comparative terms, a line of vegan train-spotters. The other option is just to ignore it all and carry on warming up; just jogging around the pitch passing and kicking balls. But this apparent disrespect risks further inflaming that All Black passion. Dilemma! Whatever, the haka is there. It is centre stage in everyone’s mind. Neither opposing players, match officials, the crowd nor the millions of tele-viewers can ignore it. It’s as good as a seven-point lead at kick-off. And the truth is that every spectator loves the spectacle independent of allegiance. Personally, I think that the England team when next facing the All Blacks’ haka should dig deep into Anglo-Saxon culture and do a spot of pre-match Morris dancing!

Rugby has a near-religious place in today’s New Zealand. Whilst the haka was put on the world stage by the All Blacks, the ritual now goes way beyond rugby and bores deep into the psych of all New Zealanders. There is no politically correct tokenism here. I ask friends of different nationalities what words they associate with the haka. Answers include “powerful,” “intimidating,” “ferocious,” “awe-inspiring,” “up-lifting” and, most tellingly, “patriotic.” If you want to see just how the haka creates a point of unity between the European and Maori cultures of New Zealand, take a look at this school haka. Add “eye-watering.”

Emrys Parry at Mandell’s Gallery, Norwich

Norwich. My home town. There are places here that carry enduring attraction. The castle. The cathedral. Elm Hill. Mandell’s Gallery. They’re all a long way from the spiritual home of Emrys Parry in Northern Wales.

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Emrys Parry “Man with dog” Mixed media 20cm x 12cm.

The first of Parry’s images that draws me in is deceptively simple. A man – a little worried and looking directly at the viewer – holds a dog in both arms. The lines are economically and elegantly painted on and cut out from a page of a Norwich telephone directory. The numbers make a digital column that runs down through both man and dog giving the impression that they are so close that their DNA is shared. I find this small picture at once touching, intriguing and satisfying.

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Emrys Parry “Land of my fathers” Mixed media 25cm x 25cm.

Another telephone-directory-man sings looking heavenward. The background is a stylised landscape comprising trees, a winding road and three mountains.

I learn that Parry left Wales in 1959 at the age of 17 to study Art and Design in Leicester. In 1963, he began a Norfolk-based teaching career at the Great Yarmouth School of Art and Design. However, he admits he has never severed the umbilical cord of his Welsh upbringing and the land of his fathers: the three-peaked Llyn Peninsula.

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Emrys Parry “Black bird with script” Oil on canvas 50cm x 50cm.

Parry’s recent work relies less on observation and more on memory, myth and story-telling; it reflects a longing for his roots and a concern for the survival of Welsh culture. The Welsh language names eight three-hour intervals of a day. These eight words are found in many of his pictures. I wonder if the swooping black crow of time is, little-by-little, stealing away these words forever.

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Emrys Parry “Frightened horse” Oil on Canvas 40cm x 40cm.

I am enjoying Parry’s beautiful stuff enormously. Here, his wonderful nearly-abstract-frightened-horse-nod-to-cubism is within neighing distance of the three Llyn Peninsula peaks.

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Emrys Parry “Twelve heads” Mixed media on canvas 100cm x 100cm.

The work that I really fall for has pride of place in Mandell’s. Twelve telephone-directory faces are painted in Parry’s signature dashed-cartoon style. Each man stares through me with intensity. Each seems like a good bloke. Is this a Welsh all- male choir? Welsh apostles? Twelve solid Welsh working men? A Welsh rugby team (minus the back row)? Whatever their purpose, these men are clearly united.

The ever-welcoming director of Mandell’s, Rachel Allen, deserves praise for this stylish exhibition. Each work has been beautifully framed and presented including a display of Parry’s exquisite sketchbooks and diaries.

Unfortunately, I don’t get to meet Emrys Parry himself. The most telling part of his bio reads “I am interested in the imprint of man on his environment and how past thoughts and actions of individuals are recorded and transmitted by the objects they leave behind. I believe that things created with love have a memory and warmth which is accessible to those who seek it for all time.” Evidently, he also is a good bloke. But I know that anyway; he taught my brother, Garth, how to draw!

Manuka tie decay in New Zealand

It is 2009. I am on a long, long flight. Needing to fill out an application for a visitor’s visa, I dig into my hand-luggage for a pen. I smile at what else I have brought with me. Carefully folded are three high-quality silk ties given to me by a friend who, on his retirement, swore he would never wear one again. I told him what I planned to do with them. He beamed.

Tie 1

I am lured back to New Zealand every year by the prospect of casting a dry fly over trout of memorable size in rivers of unforgettable beauty. This year takes me to the banks of a little-known creek off the Waikikamukau river. The creek is home to tiny trout that dart for cover as I approach. Only in the winter spawning season will the massive pink mama trout make their way up from the lake to await that brief and critical tail-flickering encounter with a hook-jawed male. However, I am not here for the trout. I am here for the manuka forest through which the creek tumbles. I want to install the ties and seek three trees of neck-size girth standing together.

Tie 2

In 2012, I pull on my hiking boots and return to my chosen manukas. I am amused by the way my carefully knotted ties with the naily tie-pins have maintained their business-like form but look like they have done way too many business trips. I wonder where this idea will go in the coming years.

Tie 3

2016 finds me back at the creek. I am always fascinated by decay of man-made things but my little project in entropy seems to be a bit of a flop. Let’s be honest, the whole thing looks like what it is: three ties rotting on tree trunks. I have a sneaking feeling that Andy Goldsworthy is watching over my shoulder with a wry smile.

Tie 4

It is 2019. The ties are now gorgeously decayed. Their strut has long gone. They are almost at one with the flakey manuka bark and so are becoming part of nature. Time is the “artist.” I like what I see.

I try to recall why I did this in the first place. It was something to do with my anger about the bank-induced financial crisis of 2008. Why the tie thing? A tie…. That symbol of the powerful smart man. That totally unlikely, brightly coloured, pants-pointing neck-wear. I realise that my anger is now redirected towards the Trumps, Putins and Johnsons of the world. Maybe my exposed tie experiment conjures up more than macho-corporate decay; perhaps it speaks to our daily-growing awareness of that biggest of human trade-offs: on one hand, we have our booming population living life-styles that are driven by manufacturing economies that in turn are driven by the business and political worlds (both lorded over by tie-bearing men.) On the other hand, we have our inevitable, massive and global impact on the environment. Whatever path humans take, nature will win in the end. Big mama trout will swim upstream to spawn long after us clever and exotically dressed hominids have been consigned to the archives of the planet’s natural history. I admit to finding comfort in this.