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.

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!

Tate Britain: exhilarating and exhausting

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Tate Britain bowls me over again. In one hit – in retrospect, a mistake – I get to take in the work of Vincent Van Gogh and Don McCullin with Mike Nelson as the bonus prize. These three stunning exhibitions could not be more different. I only have the morning. I move through them perhaps too quickly; the resulting cocktail of emotions takes me surprise.

Van Gogh came to London in 1873 at the age of twenty; he lived here for three years. England and english people inspired him; when his work became well-known, he in turn inspired English writers and painters.

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Vincent Van Gogh “Prison Courtyard” Oil on canvas 1890 (after Gustave Doré, “The exercise yard at Newgate Prison” Engraving on paper 1872.)

Long after leaving England, he painted a prison exercise yard. This was inspired by a fascination for London’s seedy underbelly and descriptions of the city’s prisons by Charles Dickens: a writer whom the young painter admired greatly.

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Vincent Van Gogh “Starry night” Oil on canvas, 1888

Years after his death in 1890, Van Gogh’s work was labelled “post-impressionism.” Some found the style shocking but exhibitions of his paintings in London drew thousands. The hall-mark brushstroke technique was eagerly adopted by the Camden Town Group of painters.

Soothed and enchanted by Vincent’s starry, starry night, I believe myself ready for Don McCullin. Wrong again!

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Don McCullin “Londonderry, Northern Ireland” 1971

Don McCullin is a legend. This comprehensive show covers his extraordinary sixty-year photographic trajectory through the world’s worst trouble – misery spots. There is a reason that the Tate has an advisory notice pertaining to his images. Much of the subject matter is heart-wrenching; the outstanding quality of the (self-printed!) photographs only serves to make them more powerful still. And there are hundreds of them. I recoil from the man-made suffering, the executions, the starvation and the dead bodies. It cuts just that bit close to my bone. I notice that the many viewers fuse into a sort of silent, shuffling, heavy-weight-around-neck chain gang tasked with looking at McCullin’s photos. Some of us loiter around his own escapism in the relatively few but exquisite landscapes and still-life studies.

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Don McCullin “Shell-shocked US Marine, the battle of Hué” 1968

I confine my focus to his portraits. Even these can be harrowing. Probably the best known is the Vietnam shell-shocked American soldier of whom he took several photos and who neither moved nor blinked over several minutes. In the trade, this is known as the “thousand-yard stare.” McCullin admits that receiving praise for photographing the suffering of others sits uncomfortably in his soul.

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Don McCullin “A boy at the funeral of his father who died of AIDS, Kawama cemetery, Ndola, Zambia” 2000

I try – and fail – to imagine how McCullin has been able to cope with the extreme insecurity and distress inherent in his chosen contexts and then function professionally and creatively. I leave this landmark exhibition steeped in admiration for the man, his endurance, his compassion and for what he has achieved with his talent.

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Mike Nelson “The Asset Strippers” (part of) 2018

I literally stumble into the Duveen galleries; the main central space of Tate Britain. I am looking at some old telegraph poles and a section of a wide concrete pipe laid out on some canvases all in a kind of makeshift roofless shed.

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Mike Nelson “The Asset Strippers” (part of) 2018

The galleries are full of old machinery and a variety of heavy objects mostly associated with manufacture. Everything sits on a neat stone plinth. Is it an industrial museum? Is it a contemporary installation? Is it a tongue-in-cheek collection of big old heavy mechanical and electric stuff. Well…. all of the above! And what’s more, it contrasts rather deliciously with the classic architecture of the space. What I am standing in – and enthralled by – is “The Asset Striipers” created by Mike Nelson for the annual Tate Britain Commission.

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Mike Nelson “The Asset Strippers” (part of) 2018

Nelson’s concept for the commission is that the Duveen Galleries become a kind of warehouse of objects that serve as monuments of Britain’s former industrial wealth just as the industrial is being superceded by the digital; as manufactrure is being superceded by service. To make the point, he selected and purchased all the objects through on-line auctions of asset strippers and company liquidators. I find the concept at once brilliant and intriguing.

Then suddenly I am drained. I feel as though I have just climbed off one of those roller-coaster rides that is supposed to be fun but, in reality, precipitates spells of wheeeeee… and white-knuckle nausea. I head for the main exit with a haste that surprises me. I find calm on Millbank; the black taxis, the River Thames and the unseasonably warm May London sunshine.

All images reproduced here thanks to Tate Britain.

“The Clock” at Tate Modern

Christian Marclay’s The Clock, currently showing at the Tate Modern, is the only “work of art” that I could happily look at all day and night. It is a masterful concept, staggering in terms of the work involved and mesmerising. If you’re thinking of going, do not make an excuse. You have until 20th January 2019.

The Clock is a twenty-four hour video montage. Each of the 1,440 minutes is represented by a scene from film or television that features a clock, a watch or some other time-piece. Occasionally the time is spoken. “Oh, my God, it’s three o’clock!” Therefore, the work itself, when synchronised with real-time, functions as a clock with the time shown on-screen being the actual time. Brilliant! Just imagine searching for all those scenes! The only thing I’ve seen like it is Maarten Baas’s clock in Schiphol airport.

I walk in at 14:40. I am shown to a comfy armchair as Sean Connery glances knowingly at a wall clock that stands at twenty to three and through which he rightly figures he is being spied upon via a peep hole. He coolly hangs his jacket over the clock. Cut to the next scene as a grainy, black and white Harry Lloyd dangles helplessly from the big hand of a massive clock above a crowded New York street. It is nineteen minutes to three. Get the picture? Furthermore, all the clips are cleverly spliced and a musical sound track makes the scenes run together smoothly to the point that it is not always obvious when there is a change to a completely different film. I am enthralled.

I wish I had more time. On-line, I find that if I was fortunate enough to be able to watch The Clock in it’s entirety, I would notice the fast pace of the time-orientated action in the morning, the inevitable bell-ringing around High Noon and the ensuing scenes with a more relaxed tempo. The late afternoon sees commuters travelling by car, bus and train. Scenes from the early evening show people eating; later, they are drinking in bars. And then, of course, there’s the inevitable deadline: midnight. In the early hours of the morning, sleepers and dreamers become angry at being woken at an antisocial hour. Big Ben features regularly.

The Clock was completed in 2010 after more than three year’s work. There are only six copies in existence. Happily, the Tate Modern has got hold of one for our benefit and has dedicated a big enough space for a hundred people to lounge and immerse themselves in this chronometric history of cinema. There are even all night showings.

The Clock at Tate Modern

There is no single image that adequately represents this work; but I bought the t-shirt anyway. The time-codes represent the monumental task of researching and editing The Clock. They do not represent the genius. One day, I’ll watch the whole thing. Bravo, Christian Marclay!

DRAW at Mandell’s Gallery, Norwich

I am in Norwich, England. A fine city! At it’s heart one finds the cathedral and nearby the cobbled and film-set charming Elm Hill. There nestles Mandell’s Gallery; an unpretentious, quiet and tasteful contribution to the city’s cultural on-goings. The current exhibition DRAW is refreshing, unusual and well worth a visit.

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Susan Bacon, “Raven” Charcoal and pencil on paper

This eclectic exhibition features the work of people who have come to drawing via the Royal Drawing School. The School’s strapline is “Draw life: learn to see differently.”  Fittingly, the first image that catches my eye is Susan Bacon’s “Raven.” It is just so raven-like. I love the way the feathers have that glossy look, the simple but very real representation of the scratchy clawed feet, the setting of the Tower of London and the little ditty about “A Miserly Bird.”

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Stuart Pearson Wright, “Self Portrait Brexiting” Pencil, Charcoal and Gouache on silk

I wouldn’t describe this cartoonish self-portrait by Stuart Pearson Wright as beautiful. It is technically accomplished and arresting in its awkwardness. First I notice the clenched fist (anger?) that is as prominent as the gloomy face. Then I ask myself why Wright has placed his casually dressed self partly out of the frame. Then I need an explanation for the outline of another left arm (but this would be his – possibly undecided – drawing right arm seen in his mirror.) The image is full of anxiety, confusion and ambiguity. And then I notice the scribbled map of Europe on the t-shirt and the sub-text “WE ARE EUROPEAN.” And then I re-read the title and it all makes sense and I realise that this is master-class portraiture.

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Christopher Wallbank, “Loomery VI” Graphite

One of the exhibition’s curators, Paul Fenner, says about drawing that “Far from being a question of the application of a neutral “skill,” this universal ability to transmute the visible world that surrounds us into another order of visibility is nothing less than a fundamental mystery of our incarnation, our being-in-the-world.” I have to agree when looking at Christopher Wallbank’s truly amazing, tall and detailed drawing of a cliff-hanging guillemot colony.

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Detail of “Loomery VI”

Wallbank viewed this nesting colony through binoculars. He recorded his observations with multiple drawings and noted the behaviour of the guillemots. Only on close-up are his multiple notes visible as is that amazing ability to capture with the simplest of lines the essential and word-defying features of any given bird species.

Just for reference, here’s a photograph I took recently of a mixed colony of guillemots, razor-bills and falmers at Dunnet Head in Caithness, Scotland.

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The exhibition closes on 21st July. So hurry along!