Robin

About Robin

Occasional painter. Golfer. Fascinated by humanity. Passionate about beautiful stuff, the people who create it and its narrative.

The Lockdown Diary – Compendium

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Copyright: Getty Images

Today would have been something like day 147 for the Lockdown Diary had the lockdown here in Geneva persisted. A reminder…. from India came one of the many totally bizarre but telling images to emerge from the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just because some of us are now able to get out and about, it doesn’t mean that this pandemic is done and dusted. The recent rise in the number of cases is not a second wave; we have just – in some parts of the world – managed to put a dent in the massive first wave. We are still caught in the dilemma of an effective and responsible public health response (including protection of health-care systems and heroic workers) on one hand and limiting the damage to our economy, lifestyles and society on the other. It looks like that damage will prove to be severe and long lasting whatever we do in the near future. In the meantime, we twiddle our thumbs waiting for a O-so-hoped-for vaccine. At a personal level, I want to shake hands with people I meet. I want to hug my friends. I hate the whole mask thing.

The statistics remain central to everything we know and do about the pandemic and yet they are variably reliable, inaccurately reported and grotesquely politicised. This embattled optimist is not excluding a further period of lockdown. Many readers have asked if there is one place where all 57 days from 16 March to 11 May 2020 can be accessed easily. Here it is! BTW… the two most popular posts by far were those about my brother Garth (Day 26) and my friend Alastair (Day 33).

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Manuka tie decay… hanging by a thread!

Remember the story of the decaying ties in New Zealand? I left three specimens of executive neckwear exposed in a Manuka stand by a little known creek in 2009. This is how they started.

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It was fun visiting them over the years. A friend (thanks, Anna) sent me a photo of them now. They’re just about hanging’ in there; they seem about to merge completely with the natural world. Take a look at them now.

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Children in Swiss art

The Musée d’Art et d’Histoire is, as usual, majestic, tranquil and imposing. The difference since my last visit is that my course through the great halls and up the marble stairways is directed by coloured tape, arrows stuck on the floor and helpful staff wearing face masks. I meet Philppa Kundig, the scenographer of the current MAH exhibition “L’infant dans l’art suisse: de Agasse à Hodler.” She has, with curator Brigitte Monti, put together an exquisite exhibition of pictures and sculptures from the MAH collection of works by Swiss artists that feature children and maternity. It is at once informative, coherent and accessible; I am drawn into it to the point that I review the works and texts over and again. However, Philippa and I agree on one thing: there is a single painting that stands out from so much beautiful stuff. 

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Daniel Ihly “L’enterrement de mon enfant” 1884, Oil on canvas.

Daniel Ihly’s large canvas “L’enterrement de mon enfant” is stunning. Note: it is entitled “The burial of MY child.” Ihly has portrayed a tragic moment in his own life. However, the funeral procession is set far back in and just entering the scene. The priest and alter boys are followed by the undertaker who carries the be-coffined infant under his left arm. The family – presumably including Ihly and his wife – follow in turn. The most moving element of the whole piece is that he has chosen to place centre-stage not a scene of his own grief but the sincere show of respect by peasants pausing in their work (the closest of whom doubles as a kindly grim reaper.) This allows Ihly to show that the loss of an infant was, in the day, a common and therefore shared bitter experience. I would bet that the girl in the foreground who has brought her father lunch represents for Ihly what the dead infant might have become. The image is perfectly conceived, perfectly composed and technically faultless. Under the circumstances, it is extraordinary in its selflessness. This is one of those rare paintings that grabs your attention from the moment you set eyes on it and leaves an image in the mind that reappears unbidden for days.  

The section of the exhibition entitled “The Suffering of Children” makes clear that not so long ago in human existence, a child dying before the age of five was all too common. In June 2020, amid the daily clamour of COVID-19, this section underscores humans’ inevitable susceptibility to infectious disease whether measles, dypyheria, typhoid, pertussis or a novel coronavirus. 

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Alexandre Perrier “Jeune convalescente” 1889, Oil on canvas.

These guys could paint! Alexandre Perrier’s image of a seated child convalescing is work of high accomplishment. How can someone put paint on a canvas with the smallest of brush strokes and yet transmit that this kid has been really, really sick; that this is the first time she has been taken out into the garden; that the blanket and cushion had to be carefully placed by a carer’s hands; that she did not do up those buttons; that the daisies were placed into her left hand but failed to glean a flicker of interest; that the grip of her delicate (and superbly rendered) right hand on the wicker chair is as weak as her grip on her young life? Remarkable!

Two other equally well-conceived sections of this exhibition are “Children within family” and “Children in Society;” As a result, the MAH has conjured up a fascinating insight into people’s lives in this part of the world in late 19th and early 20th century; furthermore it serves as a chronicle of how children and parenthood were portrayed according to the rapidly changing outlook of both society and artists at the time. Inevitably, the fourth section comprises that most heavily worked subject in the history of art – “Maternity.”

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Wilhelm Balmer “Le Soir. Mère et enfant.” 1904 Oil on board.

Wilhelm Balmer’s tribute to the mother and child theme is a small oil-on-board portrait and is of course masterfully composed and executed. Why it catches my eye is that the new mother is not glowing with joy. She is exhausted. Here is a reminder that medical science has not only saved millions of children from the clutches of a variety of microbes but also has made giving birth an experience for the mother that is far less dangerous and traumatic than it was throughout human history.

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Ferdinand Hodler “Portrait of Sophie and Louis Weber” 1893 Oil on canvas.

There is no shying away from the fact that portraits of children of wealthy families were commonly commissioned – and sumptuously framed – at the time. Then what better place than at the entrance to the exhibition to be confronted by the instantly recognisable and impeccable fist of the great Swiss master, Ferdinand Hodler?  

I hope the MAH will forgive me showing here only a detail from a huge painting by Edouard Ravel. A priest tries to inject into a group of children the smallest measure of enthusiasm for their choir practice. Each child shows his or her own degree of diligence, boredom or indifference. Each is portrayed as a character. The scene amuses me enormously. I return to it time and again. My memory banks are jogged…. Surely not? It can’t be!

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Detail from: Edouard Ravel “Repetition de chant dans la Sacristie” 1883, Oil on canvas.

Yes, I can’t help seeing Ravel’s nineteenth century oil-on-canvas masterpiece as a forerunner of the cartoon. I hope that the MAH will also forgive me for leaving the reader with the work of Giles; another legendary observer of people – and children singing – a century later. 

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Lockdown Beautiful Stuff – Part 15

COVID-19 set it up. An invisible silent enemy. Fear. Government incompetence. The discontent made us all tinder-dry and fire-ready. George Floyd’s death was the spark. Now we have an enemy upon which we can vent our anger. Racism. The flames are global and serious like COVID-19. Protests may yet cause a resurgence of the pandemic. I sit in Geneva, Switzerland. Comfortable. Liberal. Quiet. I’m angry. Someone wiser than me once said that the biggest mistake you can make is to do nothing because you think you can only do a little. So my angry anti-racist little is called “Black Lives Shattered.”

#BlackLivesMatter #BlackLivesShattered

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Be angry. Download an outline of the shattered heart. Colour it in or get your kids to colour it in. Tell them why. Share it widely.


Lockdown Beautiful Stuff! Have you done a painting, taken a photo or made any other beautiful stuff as a result of having to self-isolate at home? Please send us a photo and two lines of text indicating the why of it and what it means to you. We guarantee to publish it on Talking Beautiful Stuff in the weeks to come. Thank you!

The Lockdown Diary – Day 57

Geneva, Monday 11 May 2020


As we plan to play golf tomorrow, today will be the last post of my Lockdown Diary… at least for the time being! Thank you all for reading my thoughts and observations about this strangest of times. I’d greatly appreciate any comments you might have about what you’ve read.

I’ll leave y’all with the usual rattle bag of stuff.

South Korea, China and Germany are three countries which have loosened lockdown measures to see a small resurgence of cases in the last days. It’s clear: trading social liberties against measures to slow this virus’s capacity to spread is going to be an extremely difficult balancing act. As a result, I can’t help being concerned about Boris Johnson’s not entirely coherent plans for similarly relaxing the isolation and distancing rules in the UK. There must be a statistical basis for this. But on this one, that great British talent for arrogance in the face of mediocrity comes blundering onto the stage. And what’s more, it relates now to the biggest issue of the day: officially noted death rates from COVID-19. Take a look!

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Reported COVID-19 related deaths per day have fallen for the last four weeks. (Note – “reported.”) I’m no statistician but I think this graph shows an important and uniquely British reporting bias; namely, a weekly cycle on which the two days with fewest reports are Sunday and Monday regularly followed by a near-doubling of the figures for Tuesday. It is unlikely that the coronavirus actually kills people in different numbers by day of the week. It is equally unlikely that this pattern comes about by pure chance. Therefore, the cause must be something in the reporting system. But here’s the kicker, this reporting bias existed two weeks before the “peak” and has become more pronounced since. You’d think the reporting system would have eliminated such a bias, not exaggerated it. So, given the political expediency of reporting a decline in COVID-19 related deaths, what is the connection between the reported overall decline in deaths per day and this extraordinarily inept reporting bias? I don’t have an answer but it’s a question that has to be asked especially as reported cases – not only deaths – bafflingly show a very similar weekly cycle but without the decline. 

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There are many reasons for the unreserved admiration I hold for my wife. One is her determination. At the beginning of the lockdown, she decided she was going to surmount the many obstacles inherent in making the ideal sourdough loaf. Let me tell you, she has passed every stage with flying colours.

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So good is her sourdough bread now, that any left uneaten is sliced, frozen and consumed later as delicious toast! Lockdown has had its positive outcomes.

A rabbit hops into a butcher’s shop. “Got any carrots?” he asks. “Sorry, Buddy,” says the friendly butcher. “We’re butchers. We do meat. The grocer down the road does carrots.” The rabbit leaves. The following day, the rabbit hops into the butcher’s shop again. “Got any carrots?” he asks. Slightly irritated, the butcher replies “I told you yesterday, we’re butchers. We do meat. The grocer down the road does carrots.” The rabbit leaves. The following day, the rabbit hops into the butcher’s shop again. “Got any carrots?” he asks. Agitated, the butcher says “Listen, Bugs, I told you yesterday and the day before, we’re butchers. We do meat. If you come in here again tomorrow asking for carrots, I’m going to nail those two big stupid floppy ears to this counter. Got it?” The rabbit leaves in short order. The following day, the rabbit hops into the butcher’s shop again. “Got any nails?” Furious now, the butcher yells “No!” The rabbit smiles. “Got any carrots, then?” The butcher is a nice man at heart and can’t help but be amused; he decides to take the rabbit down to the grocer’s himself. “Hi there!” says the grocer. “How may I help you?” The rabbit thinks for a while “Got any sausages?”