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August 08 2012

Peter Duggan's Artoons: the Artistic Olympics

Cartoonist Peter Duggan imagines Salvador Dalí and MC Escher joining artistic forces in the Olympic synchronised diving, while Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man goes for gold in the wrestling





June 28 2012

Why Big Ben is a timeless work of art

As we count down to London 2012, now's the time to look at how clocks – from Dalí's melting watches to Sarah Morris's Big Ben artwork – have long inspired art or are works of art in themselves

As London plays host to the world, the international media teams about to flood the capital will be trying to sum up the Olympic city in a few simple images. Will they photograph Tate Modern and the Shard? I suspect not. The defining London landmark is a clock – Big Ben. We'll still call it Big Ben, too, even if the tower supporting Britain's most famous timepiece is to be officially renamed Elizabeth Tower in one of the most fatuous ways of marking the Queen's diamond jubilee.

Big Ben is celebrated this summer with an artwork named after it by Sarah Morris, in Gloucester Road tube station. Morris is a powerful abstract artist (and provocative filmmaker) and her work translates Big Ben into geometries of time and space. But will she have to rename it Big Liz?

Clocks have long inspired art – just think of Dalí – but there is also a long history in which they are works of art in themselves. Why is this? Time is such a moving, troubling, immense concept that a clock can become not just a way of measuring the hours but an image of life, the universe and everything.

Big Ben is famous because since its creation in the Victorian age it has epitomised an unchanging, familiar London: paradoxically it is a timeless clock. It endured the blitz, it marks every New Year. But other clocks are more troubling.

The other day I visited Cambridge, which has a notable modern clock. Walking along King's Parade you come to the strange Corpus Clock, which measures time subjectively and erratically: it is only correct every five minutes. Designed by John C Taylor and unveiled by Stephen Hawking, it revives the eerie clocks found in many European cities that act as emblems of mortality. This is a mortality clock for the Einsteinian age, with a grasshopper-like monster gobbling up bits of time. A second version was created for the Science Museum, but it is especially resonant to come across this surreal chronological artwork while just walking through a town – it's one of Britain's best modern public artworks.

Clocks were once as much symbols as they were practical devices. The astronomical clock at Hampton Court Palace seemed practical to its creators, who believed the stars influenced the world. But the clock in Hans Holbein's portrait of Thomas More and his family is a symbolic statement: these people know their time on Earth is brief.

Famous clocks like Big Ben mark history itself, and locate us in a temporal river that flows backward as well as forwards. The Corpus Clock in Cambridge will surely become one of these legendary clocks – given time.


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May 07 2012

The Gunter Sachs appeal – life and legacy of the playboy art collector

Sotheby's to auction off trove of art treasures and memorabilia owned by the renowned playboy. Mark Brown, meets his son Rolf

Picture the scene. A ruggedly handsome, impeccably dressed man is enjoying a snack with his superstar wife, Brigitte Bardot, in St Tropez's Gorilla bar in the late spring of 1967. A pale, odd-looking white-haired man with a large entourage notices him and marches straight over, complaining that the Cannes film festival, of all places, has refused to screen his film because of its nudity. The man agrees to see the film, Chelsea Girls, and everyone bundles into speedboats and heads for the Carlton Hotel on La Croisette.

That chance meeting between the millionaire playboy Gunter Sachs and artist Andy Warhol had a profound effect on both men. For Sachs, a serious collector, it led to a sea change in his art buying; for Warhol it marked a vital first foothold in Europe.

Sachs became an assiduous collector of pop art and in 1972 opened a gallery in Hamburg. The Warhol exhibition he staged there was one of the first in Europe, although as Sachs's son Rolf recalls: "Nothing sold. My father was highly embarrassed, and he bought most of the exhibition himself – which was of course the best investment he ever made."

Rolf Sachs spoke to the Guardian ahead of a dazzling auction of artworks and objects that belonged to his late father. The Sachs family is selling following Gunter's death last year when, at 78, he turned a shotgun on himself.

Over two days, Sotheby's will sell a collection estimated to be worth more than £20m that includes art spanning surrealism, new realism and pop art, as well as furniture and personal objects. They shine an often fascinating light on a man who liked, perhaps more than anything, to enjoy himself.

"He had a great creativity for life, combined with a joie de vivre and an ability to live it," says Rolf. "He was interested in the zeitgeist."

Categorising Gunter Sachs is tricky. Sotheby's describes him in the catalogue as a "playboy, businessman, gallerist, museum director, art collector, film-maker, celebrity, photographer, astrologer, director and sportsman".

Certainly he was the man of a thousand stories. He created the Dracula Club, an exclusive private members' club in St Moritz; he was vice-president of the Cresta Run, an epic skeleton bob run also in St Moritz; he encouraged Salvador Dalí to shoot a gun in his penthouse and, of course, he married one of the most famous women in the world. He proposed to Bardot by dropping hundreds of roses on her villa from a helicopter before diving into the Mediterranean and emerging from the sea.

Something beautiful

Was it really like that? "I wasn't there," says Rolf, smiling. "It gets embellished every time, but so what? It has something beautiful about it. Stories should have a poetic, dreaming effect." The couple married in Vegas, honeymooned in Tahiti and divorced as friends in 1969, both of them having had affairs.

Born in Germany in 1932, Gunter Sachs inherited fortunes from his mother's side of the family – she was daughter of Wilhelm von Opel of the car-making dynasty – and his father, who owned Fichtel Sachs, one of Germany's largest automobile suppliers.

He located to France in 1958 which in itself was a brave move, says Rolf. "It took a special character to go and live in Paris in 1958 – which was 13 years after the war – as a German. It probably was quite difficult."

At the time, Sachs did not have huge amounts of disposable cash so he would spend his afternoons playing cards – at which he was extremely good. "He wasn't that wealthy then. Father would play ecarté with friends in the afternoon and he would invest his profits in art. At the time nobody was really buying art, people were building up their businesses, everything had been shattered."

Sachs began buying works by the likes of Yves Klein, Jean Fautrier, César and Arman, who are far better known today than they were at the time. "He bought it for the love of the art."

Sachs collected with passion and skill; he was an aesthete, says Rolf, who is a professional artist and designer himself partly as a result of his upbringing. "I was very much aware of the art in the house and as an eight-year-old I knew every painter, I knew every painting. I had a very strong relationship with all the art we had."

Sachs is mentioned in Warhol's memoirs as one of the young Europeans who went to New York and had the whole Studio 54 experience. "At the time you didn't think much of it, but it was fun. You don't appreciate those moments enough because you don't realise."

Surrealist work

Sotheby's has described the sale as "among the most desirable single-owner collections ever to come to market", but it is only part of what was an extraordinary collection. Sachs collected surrealist work by the likes of Dalí, Yves Tanguy, René Magritte and Max Ernst. He owned important pieces from the new realism school including Klein, Jean Tinguely, Arman and Martial Raysse. And there were works that could be described as art informel, including pieces by his friend Fautrier whose studio in the early years of the war was a refuge for intellectuals and artists associated with the Resistance.

Sachs decorated his homes and hotel penthouse suites with the most fabulous art and furniture. He had Lichtensteins in his bathroom, a Warhol Campbell's Soup in his kitchen, a Mel Ramos Banana Split in the guest bedroom. He commissioned a table direct from the sculptor and designer Diego Giacometti and was a big fan of Allen Jones, a star of 1960s British pop art, and had a set of his furniture that used fetishistic female mannequins.

Jones once recalled staying in Sachs' St Moritz Palace Hotel penthouse. "It was the most ritzy place I had ever been in. One wall of the apartment seemed to be entirely glass, with a breathtaking view of the Alps. There were Lichtenstein panels around the bathroom, a flock of Lalanne sheep on the carpet and the set of my sculptures."

If he had stayed at another time he would have seen Warhol's 1974 portrait of Bardot taking pride of place in a kind of pop art concept apartment. One of the last Warhol's Sachs bought was in 1998 – Self-Portrait (Fright Wig) which Warhol produced in 1986, a year before his death – and it is being sold for between £2m-£3m.

Another talking point in his penthouse suite was a bulletproof glass panel which Sachs would cheerfully stand behind and ask guests – Dalí was one – to shoot.

Works in the sale include Les Feux de L'Enfer, a piece Klein made using an industrial blowtorch at a state-owned gas research facility near Paris; pieces by Max Ernst, Magritte and Dalí; and a thickly painted gold canvas by Lucio Fontana, Concetto Spaziale (1961), estimated up to £900,000.

"There was never a thought of it being an investment," says Rolf. "In fact, he stopped collecting in the 1970s because he was disillusioned with the art market – it became so aggressive. It had a strong business component."

Not that he entirely lost his love for it. "He always wanted to find the new, and even at 72, he started collecting graffiti art. We have tons of it," says Rolf. "It shows a curious mind, a young mind, looking for what is the next thing and what is the next trend."

Speaking of his father's death, Rolf says: "It came as a big shock to us all, but as a family we are not bitter towards him … I admire the courage."

It has been suggested that he feared the onset of Alzheimer's: "Perhaps in his mind it was speculation. Whenever something like this happens, obviously, there is chemistry involved. Chemical imbalances, which do things to your mind."

The decision to sell the works was taken as a family, and Rolf stresses they are keeping the items that hold the most importance for them. "People have said, 'Oh my god, you're selling the collection,' but the real core of his collection is staying in the family." He adds that they want to do a museum exhibition at the Villa Stuck in Munich in October.

Fond memories

Rolf Sachs has many fond memories of growing up. He remembers Bardot as his step-mum – "she was very kind to me, very sweet. I have only the fondest memories of her." He remembers one of Sachs' girlfriends, the Swiss biscuit heiress and champion water-skier Marina Doria going back and forward, back and forward in front of the house, pulled by Riva, a speedboat that is also in the sale.

He remembers the parties his dad would organise. "He made some of the most spectacular parties. Everyone would dress up, there was always wonderful music. Once he did a party where he played as if there was a hold up and everyone was surrounded [laughing] and people were getting frightened.

"A lot of fun people surrounded him, people who were spirited, who were good laughs."

Rolf Sachs has taken on some of the responsibilities his father had such as being vice-president of the Cresta Run and on the day the Guardian talked to Rolf he was beaming with pride at a purchase he had made at auction that day: a vampire killing set from around 1900 which he can't wait to show fellow members of the the Dracula Club. It is meant to be the most select club in St Moritz but Rolf says it is full of fun-loving. "Father created it and it is a very nice group of friends. Every member loves being part of bloodlessness."

Gunter Sachs was also interested in astrology, publishing a bestselling book on the subject and creating the grandly titled Institute for the Empirical and Mathematical Examination of the Possible Truth of Astrology in Relation to Human Behaviour.

Two months ago Rolf floated 3,500 candles on the lake in St Moritz in the shape of Scorpio in memory of his father.

There are clearly things going into the sale tinged with regret but Rolf says the family tried to create a rounded sale that was also fun, so there are pieces of art estimated in the hundreds of pounds up to one of Warhol's Brigitte Bardot canvases, estimated at £3m to £4m.

The auction will be held at Sotheby's on 22 and 23 May. Highlights go on show in London from 18-22 May and in New York from 5-9 May.


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March 27 2012

Luis Buñuel – now that's surrealism!

Salvador Dalí is seen as the embodiment of the movement but it doesn't make him a great artist. Buñuel's films are truly radical

In Salvador Dalí's portrait of Luis Buñuel, the film-maker has a powerful, pugnacious face. He is clearly an authoritative character, someone to be reckoned with.

Today, it is interesting to ask which of them was the true artist. Perhaps Dalí's admiring portrait is a clue.

These friends who met as students made two hilarious, outrageous avant-garde films together, Un Chien Andalou and L'Age d'Or. They were part of the surrealist movement led by André Breton in Paris between the world wars, and the sequence in Un Chien Andalou when a cloud crossing the moon is intercut with a razor slicing through an eyeball has become perhaps the most infamous of all surrealist dream images.

In the 1930s, these brilliant collaborators grew apart. In his memoir My Last Sigh, Buñuel expresses contempt for Dalí's financial greed and dalliance with the political right. While Dalí painted portraits of the rich and eventually returned to Franco's Spain to create a megalomaniac museum of himself and paint kitsch religious art, Buñuel, based in Mexico, made in his later years a string of radical, disturbing and intelligent films.

I recently watched The Exterminating Angel, which he filmed in Mexico in 1962. It is one of the most disconcertingly profound films ever made. A posh dinner party in a grandiose mansion goes horribly wrong when the guests find they cannot leave. They have not been walled in; they are not being held hostage. Life outside the house goes on as usual. The party of eminent and wealthy people in evening dress simply do not believe they can exit the room.

It is – well, it's surreal. Buñuel never abandoned the aesthetic of the irrational. Rather, he honed and perfected it over a lifetime. The guests in The Exterminating Angel are in the grip of a collective delusion that is never explained. They act accordingly, and the film's power lies in the logical ways these people respond to an illogical belief. They gradually accept they are all going to die, and the film becomes a cross between a disaster movie and Géricault's painting The Raft of the Medusa. No film has ever dramatised with such insight a group of people confronting their own mortality – the parents who realise they will never see their children again, the lovers dying in one anothers' arms ... And yet it is all ironic; it is all a joke.

This film is devastating, like the greatest art is devastating. It is one of a sequence of equally great films that Buñuel made in the 1960s. Can any of Dalí's late paintings be called "great"? Can any of his early ones, come to that?

We live in an age of multimedia art and yet, when it comes to the history of modernism, the same museums that show the grooviest contemporary works are remarkably staid. The finesse of Dalí's paintings still keeps him at the forefront of official art history. Tate Modern had a show about Dalí and film. Instead it should have an exhibition about Buñuel and art: for Buñuel's films endure as great art in a way that Dalí's paintings do not.


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November 27 2011

Brian Sewell: 'You know you're queer at a very early age'

The art critic talks about his autobiography, modern artists and an incident in Salvador Dalí's garden

You have just written your memoir, Outsider, at the age of 80. What took you so long?

I thought at 60 it would have been impertinent. When 80 got into view, I thought: now is the time for it. It came fairly quickly. There's an awful lot there, although really it's only half an autobiography – it goes up to 1967 when I was 36.

Do you feel like an outsider?

Yes I do. The subtitle – Always Almost: Never Quite – really sums it up, but it's too long to go on the spine of a book. And every bit of my life, whether it's in the first half or the second, is precisely that: there is promise of something that I never quite achieve.

You were taught by the double agent Anthony Blunt at the Courtauld and later became his close friend but he isn't mentioned.

It's my biography. If I want to write a book about Anthony, I will write a book about Anthony but, you know, this is about me.

As art critic for the London Evening Standard, you're famed for your acerbic views. What is the worst piece of art you've ever seen?

Well, there's so much of it. It's when the definition of art runs out and there is still stuff being produced. When Tracey Emin makes a neon sign, that's not the "worst art", it just isn't art. When Anish Kapoor puts some wonky Meccano structure up at the expense of £16m for the Olympics, that's a joke, that isn't art.

When you write a scathing review, are you aware you might be hurting someone's feelings and do you mind?

I am and I don't. Hurting their feelings may be the only way in which they can be made to realise how preposterous they are and so I think that Tracey Emin and Grayson Perry and Damien Hirst and Anish Kapoor and whoever else, um, really deserve every cruelty because it's the only way. They are so accustomed to being told how wonderful they are and somehow it's impossible to get through the complacency that is engendered by that.

Can people hurt your feelings?

Yes.

How?

Oh, by mistaking what I do for some sort of pretence, some sort of show… I'm often accused by people who should know better of trying to be academically clever. To that the answer is that I think I am academically clever and I'm not trying. But if I see something which is intellectually uncomfortable of course I pick on it.

You are famed for your exquisite diction. Are you fed up with people saying you're posher than the Queen?

Yes, I think it's rather silly. It's the way I speak, it's the way I've always spoken, it's the way my mother spoke. It would have been totally unremarkable in the 1930s. It was until quite recently and then suddenly speaking as I do became unfashionable and the subject of mockery. What do they expect me to do – change?

Do you get recognised on public transport?

Yes. I got on a bus to get from Green Park to the Royal Academy, which is only one stop. Someone turned round and said: "What are you doing on a bus?" and it was so accusatory I felt quite guilty. Fortunately, I had to get off at once, so – fine.

Your book deals with your time in national service. Did you enjoy it?

I thoroughly enjoyed it. There were beastly episodes, but it was a very useful experience in terms of dealing with other people.

There's an awful lot of sex in your memoir…

It's disastrously frank. I'm toying with the idea of leaving the country. I have a clique of old ladies [laughs] and I hope to God that they don't read the book because I'm sure that they will all run away, horrified. But it did seem to me that if I was going to write the damn book, I should be absolutely, scrupulously honest. There are still hundreds and hundreds of young homosexuals saying: "I can't tell my mother." And I thought that talking about my own homosexuality, how it began and how it developed, might be useful to somebody.

When did you know you were gay?

It's been there all the time; you know you're queer at a very early age. I think I knew it when I was six. There was just a sort of awareness growing quite swiftly into a conviction.

Is it true Salvador Dalí once asked you to masturbate for him while he took photographs?

Yes it's absolutely true [laughs]. Well, you do things because you can. He took me into the garden at the house at Cadaqués. He said: "I want to show you my Christ [sculpture]." And his Christ is an extraordinary thing: 60 or 70ft long and it's made of bricks and broken rubble and motorcar tyres. It's really quite clever. Um, and you step over it and walk about in it and then he just said: "I want to take a photograph. Lie down." Which I did in all my clothes and he said: "It might be better if you took your clothes off." And from there… And you know, I'm convinced I wasn't the first. I certainly wasn't the last and there was no film in the camera but it seemed grudging to refuse.

That's quite an anecdote.

Yes but there are probably men of my age now all over Germany, Switzerland, Spain, America, Canada and God knows where all telling the same story. Wankers for Dalí.

In the past, you've stated that there are no great female artists. Do you honestly believe that?

Well, how many can you think of? None of them is the originator of anything. My argument about Frida Kahlo is that, had she been Fred Kahlo, she'd have been forgotten.

Are there great women in other fields?

Where is the female Mozart? Where's Mrs Shakespeare?

Perhaps she's raising William Shakespeare to be brilliant…

That may be the answer. But when you look at ministers – that poor, floundering home secretary! She is the necessary woman in the cabinet to keep the feminists quiet. She isn't any good.

I'm guessing you don't like Jane Austen then?

I don't. I think she's a terrible bore, writing about people I'm not remotely interested in. No, PD James I'll give you.


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The 10 best moustaches - in pictures

As men everywhere fuzz up for Movember, we celebrate some notable moustache wearers past and present



June 09 2011

Jorge Semprún obituary

Spanish communist, writer, politician and Buchenwald survivor

Leader of the communist underground in 1950s Madrid, prize-winning 1960s screenwriter, minister in Spain's socialist government in the 1980s, and novelist and memorialist of deportation to a Nazi concentration camp, Jorge Semprún, who has died aged 87, was an outstanding participant in and witness of 20th-century Europe.

The experience of 18 months in Buchenwald, from 1943 to 1945, underlay all he thought and did. To the end of his life he suffered nightmares of the camp. His last public appearance, in April 2010, was to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the camp's liberation. He spoke then, on the same esplanade where he had seen people killed, of his belief in a united Europe rising from the ashes of Buchenwald's crematoria.

The fourth of seven children, Semprún was born in Madrid into an upper-class family. His maternal grandfather was the Conservative prime minister Antonio Maura. His mother died when he was eight. His father, a devout Catholic, became the Spanish republic's ambassador to the Netherlands. On the outbreak of the Spanish civil war, in 1936, the family fled.

Semprún was educated at the elite lycée Henri-IV in Paris and, from 1941, at the Sorbonne. In 1942 he joined the Spanish communist party in exile, but was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and deported. He survived Buchenwald because of his fluency in German and solidarity among the communist prisoners. After the second world war, he worked for six years as a translator for Unesco before in 1953 accepting the task of organising the banned Communist party in Madrid. Elegant and handsome, as "Federico Sánchez", Semprún became a legendary figure, remaining one step ahead of Franco's secret police. If anyone should doubt the danger, his replacement, when he was withdrawn in 1962, was Julián Grimau, who was arrested, tortured and executed the following year.

In 1964 Semprún, along with Fernando Claudín, was expelled from the Spanish Communist party. The pair thought that the exiled leaders were out of touch with the reality of capitalist development within the country. A few years later, the same leadership adopted much of Semprún and Claudín's critique in its turn to "Eurocommunism", though never acknowledged the fact.

On expulsion, Semprún had just completed his first and finest novel, the memoir of deportation Le Grand Voyage (1963; translated as The Cattle Truck). In this intense book, the five-day train journey frames memories of the narrator's past and future events in the camp.

In 1966 Semprún wrote the script for Alain Resnais's film La Guerre est Finie (The War is Over). He was to work again with Resnais on Stavisky (1974), but it was with the Greek director Constantin Costa-Gavras that he had his greatest film-writing success, Z. This story of a leftwing Greek politician, whose assassination was made to look like an accident, won the Jury prize at Cannes in 1969 and became a worldwide hit. He also wrote the script for Costa-Gavras's The Confession (1970), a critique of show-trials in Czechoslovakia.

In the 1960s Semprún published two other novels in French, L'Evanouissement (1967, The Fainting Fit) on the Nazi camps and La Deuxième Mort de Ramón Mercader (1969, The Second Death of Ramón Mercader), where he first tackles the experience of Stalinism. The most loyal of Stalinists in his youth, he moved further away from the creed with his first published work in Spanish, Autobiografía de Federico Sánchez (Autobiography of Federico Sánchez), an enthralling account of clandestine work that won Spain's Planeta prize in 1977. A number of other novels in French followed, exploring Stalinism and the Nazi camps.

Semprún's body of work became one of the great testimonies of the horrors of the 20th century and established his fame throughout Europe as an intellectual insisting on the need to explore the toughest truths. As in The Cattle Truck, his method is to take an event and then spring back to memories and then forward to the event's implications. Though fascinating because of their honesty and subject-matter, his novels suffer at times from over-reflection, slow plotting and baroque sentences.

Unexpectedly, in 1988 Semprún was called from his home in Paris to Madrid, to become minister of culture. He served in this post for three years, handling among other hot potatoes Salvador Dalí's controversial legacy. He published in 1993 Federico Sánchez Vous Salue Bien (Federico Sánchez Bids You Farewell), a remarkable account of his time as a minister. By far his funniest book, due to wicked anecdotes of the pettiness of other ministers, it was particularly rude about the deputy prime minister Alfonso Guerra, "a man with cultural pretensions". A year later, L'écriture Ou La Vie (1994; translated as Literature or Life) reconciled Semprún and Sánchez, the intellectual and the activist.

Semprún married three times: the first a brief marriage after the war; then in 1949 to the French actor Loleh Bellon, with whom he had a son, the post-situationist philosopher Jaime Semprún; and in 1963 to Colette Leloup, who died in 2007. Both Bellon and Jaime predeceased him. Semprún is survived by five children, Dominique, Ricardo, Pilar, Juan and Pablo, by his third wife.

• Jorge Semprún Maura, political activist, writer and politician, born 10 December 1923; died 7 June 2011


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June 03 2011

Venice Biennale: Prada on parade

Fashion couple confirm their places as major cultural figures with display from their art collection

If any designer has effortlessly vaulted the confines of the fashion world to become a major cultural figure it is Miuccia Prada and on Saturday she and her husband and Prada CEO, Patrizio Bertelli, will confirm their status.

Their new venture is opening to the public: a semi-permanent display of works from their art collection, housed in a faded but imposing 18th-century palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice.

Enter the Ca' Corner della Regina from the water, and you come straight to the work that occupies the lofty, Doric-columned hall, Anish Kapoor's Void Field: a series of sandstone blocks, each with a curious black hole penetrating its surface, giving the impression that these mighty boulders are at the same time hollow or weightless.

It was part of Kapoor's 1990 British pavilion for the Venice Biennale, the 2011 edition of which also opens today on Saturday.

In the surrounding rooms are Italian artworks from the mid-20th century and contemporary international pieces. Among them are Damien Hirst's 1996 Loving in a World of Desire, in which a beach ball hovers, lifted by an air blower, several feet above the ground and Maurizio Cattelan's Untitled of 1997, a stuffed ostrich with its head buried in the sand.

Tucked beyond the elegant courtyard is Cell (Clothes) by Louise Bourgeois, which contains the only possible reference to the couple's day job: nighties, little blouses and delicate 1930s dresses drape themselves emptily within the suggestion of a bedroom.

According to Prada – who wears a pleated-silk skirt, black merino sweater and sensible, striped-plastic flat sandals that she swaps for mountainous heels to be photographed – the couple began buying art in the early 1990s after a friend suggested their Milanese working space would be "perfect for sculpture".

That started them off, she says, "on a full immersion in learning ... We wanted to understand [the 1960s Italian art movement] arte povera better, and contemporary art".

Bertelli, more leonine than the impishly twinkling Prada, chips in: "We didn't seek advice: we studied, we went to museums. We attempted to understand how certain things happened in the arts."

This art-history course was not meant to result in a collection. "I hate being a collector," says Prada. "We just bought some pieces. And now there is so much of it it's a pity for it to stay in stock."

At the suggestion that learning is possible without buying, the designer, who has a doctorate in political science from the University of Milan, says: "I completely agree. It's vulgar, this desire to own things, but it is also very human."

The Ca' Corner, which once housed the archive of the Venice Biennale, has recently lain empty. Last year, the Venetian authorities offered it to the Fondazione Prada, which has staged regular temporary exhibitions in the city. The foundation has the space for six years, with the option to remain for another six.

Meanwhile, the couple are also building a large-scale, permanent gallery in Prada's native Milan, designed by architect Rem Koolhaas.

Under Bertelli's direction, a gentle restoration of the dilapidated Ca' Corner has been undertaken. But this is no white cube: Pino Pasquale's sculpture Confluenze (1967), which consists of shallow vessels of water placed on the ground, sits beneath a glorious painted ceiling on the piano nobile, while Jeff Koons's multicoloured steel Tulips (1997-2005) glints nearby.

As Prada begins to speak about the way the art works in the context of its faded building, Bertelli cuts in and there is a swift back-and-forth of bickering ("He thinks I am speaking in banalities," she says, goodnaturedly).

Bertelli forges ahead: "We didn't want to be too logical with this palazzo. We didn't want to invade, or wipe out the space.

"We wanted it to keep its veneer, and we did not want to exaggerate the skin of the floors or ceilings with makeup."

A critical commentary on each other's remarks is a feature of the conversation: so how do they agree when it comes to buying art?

Into a waterfall of swiftly spoken Italian from Bertelli, Prada interjects: "He is obsessed by Sigmar Polke." And: "Every time he buys another Lucio Fontana, I say 'Not another Fontana!' "

Bertelli bats back: "She is like the fox with the grapes in the fable. It is easy for her to say 'Not another Fontana,' because if I didn't buy them she would."

There are four of the Italian painter's egg-shaped, slashed canvases on the palazzo walls.

They generally buy separately, according to Prada, and only once have they fallen out badly over a purchase.

"It was the first piece I bought, and he sold it, because he thought it was horrible," she says, laughing. It was a Dalí.

Her strategy, she says, is to "never buy anything except those things that change my ideas, if only in a small way".

She also keeps art and fashion well away from each other: "I refuse the connection," she says. "For me those things are completely separate, except to the extent that your mind is your mind, and my work reflects myself."

The opening few days of the Venice Biennale are a social event, with artists, curators, dealers, critics, collectors in the city to see art – and each other.

Roman Abramovich's yacht is moored not far away, and Elton John has pitched up to see an exhibition hosted by Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk.

Each night sees a baffling array of parties, from prosecco-fuelled celebrations to discreet dinners. Do Prada and Bertelli enjoy the exclusive social scene enjoyed by the world's wealthiest collectors?

Prada replies with a laugh: "I have succeeded in going to not one single party at the Venice Biennale."

On this, at last, they agree: "Our social life," says Bertelli, "is not very sparkling."


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May 28 2011

Buñuel's L'Age d'Or/ Un Chien Andalou – Philip French's classic DVD

(Luis Buñuel, 1930, 15, BFI)

A handful of films that outraged audiences and made censors apoplectic in their day have retained their ability to shock. High on that list are the two avant-garde masterpieces featured in this box, and on which two of Spain's most provocative artists, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, collaborated: the 16-minute silent Un Chien Andalou (1929) and its early sound companion, the 63-minute L'Age d'Or. Blasphemous and erotic, they're films to puzzle over and constantly revisit. The first begins with the indelible shot of Buñuel slicing what appears to be a woman's eye with a razor; the second has the famously transgressive image of a woman sucking the toe of a statue. For both films Dalí and Buñuel trawled their subconscious minds to come up with bizarre sequences that assault bourgeois values and sexual oppression while making no logical sense, and they were acclaimed by the leading arbiters of surrealism as the first authentic surrealist films. The DVD contains commentaries and a documentary on Buñuel.


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May 27 2011

This week's new DVD & Blu-ray

L'Age D'Or
DVD & Blu-ray, BFI

Spanish director Luis Buñuel's importance in the world of film-making is often overlooked, perhaps because he wasn't part of any handy film movement such as New Wave or neo-realism.

But he was part of an artistic movement, hanging out with surrealists such as Man Ray and Max Ernst. Oddly, this has left him between two stools: too artistic for cinema, too cinematic to be considered true art. This release contains two groundbreaking films Buñuel made some 80 years ago in collaboration with Salvador Dalí.

Their first, the notorious Un Chien Andalou, included here as an extra, has inspired everyone from David Lynch to David Bowie and Pixies. It's rich in imagery, from ants crawling out of a hand and rotting animals stuffed in pianos to the famous shot of a razor blade bisecting an eye. With sequences drawn from dreams rather than conscious imagination, the rule was to parade scenes offering no explanation or context. Buñuel and Dalí fell out in the planning stages of the follow-up, L'Age D'Or, as Buñuel added more political content to Dalí's more abstract and poetic dream logic. Less showy but even more controversial – it was withdrawn from circulation for almost 50 years – it gets perilously close to having a plot as two passionate lovers are prevented from consummating by society, religion and their own incompetence. These films are as humorous as they are bizarre, the non sequitur comedy of Monty Python et al.

Phelim O'Neill

Agnosia

Interesting and effective mix of horror, science fiction and thriller genres from Spanish director Eugenio Mira.

DVD, Momentum

Ride, Rise, Roar

Half documentary, half concert film of 2008's The Songs of David Byrne & Brian Eno Tour.

DVD & Blu-ray, Kaleidoscope

Treme: Season 1

David Simon's divisive post-Katrina New Orleans drama makes up in casting, style and flavour what it lacks in plot.

DVD & Blu-ray, Warner

Primal Scream: Screamadelica Live

Like you're at last year's London Olympia gig celebrating the album's 20th b-day.

DVD & Blu-ray, Eagle Vision


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January 23 2011

June 16 2010

The Surreal House at the Barbican

This new show is 'a mysterious dwelling infused with subjectivity and desire' featuring artists such as Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Alberto Giacometti and René Magritte



June 11 2010

Comfort zones

From the backless bench to Matisse's 'good armchair', furniture has always been about more than bums on seats. But when the surrealists entered the drawing room, domestic interiors would never be the same again. By James Hall

Are you comfortable? Since you are reading the Saturday edition of a British newspaper published in the summer of AD2010, you are probably sitting or lying down rather than standing, your body supported by upholstery, or by moulded or flexible material of some sort. If seated at a computer, or reclining in a hammock, you may be gently rocking. By most western standards, you are comfortable – though whether your present position is doing long-term damage to your spine is another matter . . .

The concept of comfort and discomfort, as social historians and historical novelists are at pains to point out, is a modern invention. It is a key issue in two current exhibitions, the V&A's Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill and The Surreal House, which has just opened at the Barbican in London. Walpole was one of the first to identify domestic comfort and discomfort with particular historical periods, and he concluded that comfort was both something very modern and very desirable; the surrealists rejected home comforts as too bourgeois, and instead romanticised discomfort.

In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, even elite Europeans had little furniture, and what they had was rudimentary. They sat on backless benches, stools and the x-shaped "Savonarola" chair, or on straight-backed wooden chairs placed against the wall. Loose cushions – squabs – might sometimes be provided, though as people often wore several layers of clothing to ward off the cold, these might have been redundant. At court, or in big households, being seated while others stood was a sign of prestige – hence, the terms "chairman", the bishop's "seat", and the "heir to the throne".

Sir Walter Scott concluded his description of the interior of a medieval castle in Ivanhoe (1820) with a penetrating aperçu: "Magnificence there was, with some rude attempt at taste; but of comfort there was little, and, being unknown, it was unmissed." Unmissed – and unnecessary? If you spend most of your days in the saddle or standing around, whether as a medieval knight or a modern polo player (see Jilly Cooper), you develop superb core stability and rock-solid buttocks. Maintaining a ramrod-straight back is both effortless and desirable, and that's the principal behind modern saddle-style office chairs. In an equestrian society, high chairbacks are largely for show, a sort of priapic peacock's tail.

Upholstery, interior decoration and the science of ergonomics came of age in the 18th century. New furniture types, properly padded so as to remain unlumpy, yet light enough to be moved around and into intimate groupings, catered to a relatively informal "leisure" society in which women played a more prominent role. Houses tended to have smaller rooms, each with a specialised function that required appropriate furnishings. The new siège courant (movable or "fly" chair) contrasted with the static, wall-bound siège meublant. They ranged from the chaise longue and cabriole to the reading and lolling chair. Slanted, broader backs and curved arms enabled the sitter to be more comfortable and mobile enough for conversation and flirting. Sitting with legs crossed became a male fashion. English cabinetmakers such as Chippendale pioneered the use of mahogany, a hardwood imported from Jamaica that was strong and resistant to woodworm, but extremely light and stable even when cut very thinly. Orchestrating all the newfangled fixtures and fittings was the task of the new breed of interior designer, Daniel Marot, Jean-François Blondel, William Kent and Robert Adam.

Until the 18th century, the word "comfort" had usually referred to spiritual succour and consolation, or to something medicinal. But now it started to take on its prime modern meaning of general physical well-being. In 1770, Horace Walpole wrote to say that, arriving unexpectedly at a friend's house, the housekeeper "has given me a good fire and some excellent coffee and bread and butter, and I am as comfortable as possible". Comfort was crucial even in Walpole's pioneering Gothic-style house at Strawberry Hill, as he explained in the visitor's guide: "In truth, I did not mean to make my house so Gothic as to exclude convenience, and modern refinements in luxury." Refinement meant "French gaiety", and the house only had a single piece of furniture that might have been from before 1600 – a wooden chair from Glastonbury Abbey. The wooden-backed "gothic" chairs that were specially made to Walpole's own design had anachronistic padded seats, but these were anyway outnumbered by state-of-the-art settees and fauteuils.

Nineteenth century gothicists were surprisingly tolerant of upholstered furniture which, thanks to the industrial revolution, was now being supplied to the middle classes (upholstery with iron springs was introduced in around 1825). Sir Walter Scott commissioned gothic-style furniture for his house at Abbotsford, and visitors must have feared the worst when they saw the serried ranks of stark wooden chairs lined up against the wall in the entrance hall. But Scott's antiquarianism was selective, and in the reception rooms and library the chairs were conventionally upholstered. Pugin copied the Glastonbury chair, but his clients demanded comfort, and the upright chairs for the Houses of Commons and Lords are almost obscenely well padded. William Morris & Co didn't just make simple wooden chairs with rush seats inspired by traditional rural furniture: the famous Morris chair, with its adjustable upholstered back, was made for sensual slumbers, and dreams of Avalon.

Henri Matisse, the greatest modern painter of textile-filled interiors, epitomised this ethos in his Notes on Painting (1908): "What I dream of is an art of balance, or purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue". It was an odd thing for Matisse to say because armchairs and upholstery had been conspicuous by their near total absence in his paintings. When his sitters sit, they perch awkwardly or hieratically on simple Sussex-style and slat-backed chairs. Matisse must have been trying to disarm critics, and shake off his reputation as the bourgeois-bating leader of the Fauves. His statement applies much better to the art of his intimiste contemporaries, Vuillard and Bonnard, who specialised in pictures of women basking in opulently-upholstered interiors, preparing for the return of their businessman spouses.

The first sofas appear in Matisse's art in around 1910, but this was a bit of a false start, not least because in 1912-13 he spent time in Morocco where (as in most of the non-western world) people sat, knelt and squatted on the floor. Matisse's first bona fide "good armchair" painting arrives in around 1916, when a womb-like crapaud upholstered in pink fabric cocoons a slumbering female model in a green dressing gown. During the 1920s, Matisse's art does, to a greater extent, enter a comfort zone, but his interiors are brashly exotic, and upholstery doesn't often get the upper hand. His topless odalisques are just as likely to stretch out on cushions and rugs as they are to lie on day-beds, and when they do sit, their backs tend to remain severely vertical. Many of his models' poses are ones that most westerners would find uncomfortable. There's probably more yoga than "French gaiety" here.

Matisse has never been forgiven for his "good armchair" mission statement, because its validation of soporific home comforts smacks of bourgeois complacency, rooted in male ownership of property, possessions and women (his biographer Hilary Spurling claims that it arose from his "intimate acquaintance with violence and destruction, a sense of human misery sharpened by years of humiliation, rejection and exposure"). The myth of "home sweet home" was one of the Victorians' greatest creations, but it had already come under gentle fire in George and Weedon Grossmith's serialised novel The Diary of a Nobody (1892), where the house-proud, home-loving George Pooter falls asleep in his chintz-covered armchair, and where Padge hogs the best chair. Home comforts were to become one of the principal targets for the post-war avant-gardes. For the monkish Gerrit Rietveld, designer of the ruthlessly angular Red Blue Chair (1918-23) and member of the De Stijl movement, spiritual comfort was more important than physical. Central to these artists' reforming agenda was their rejection of sophisticated, soporific furniture that turned the sitter into a slothful couch potato: the most extreme manifestation of this was and still is the entirely chairless, white-walled art gallery.

Avant-garde suspicion of domestic bliss is one of the pervasive themes of the Barbican's The Surreal House, a sprawling smorgasbord of modern art, film and architecture that seeks to expose and revel in the dark and unhomely sides of home life. The exhibition includes plenty of quasi-crime-scenes in which furniture and architecture play a leading role – Rachel Whiteread's sepulchral Black Bath; Claude Cahun's traumatic tight-squeeze, Self-Portrait (in a Cupboard); René Magritte's painting of a cupboard containing a "dress" on a hanger made out of a buxom woman's skin; Louise Bourgeois's reclining female nude with her head encased in a house, Femme-Maison; Francis Bacon's convulsive bed-scenes (included in a section called "Panic Space"). More elaborate is Giacometti's bronze tableau, Surrealist Table. Each leg of the asymmetrical table is in a different period design, which makes it seem both historically and physically unstable. Perched on the table top is a heavily draped and partially veiled female bust and a cast of a left hand, both of which suggest a mind- and time-bending séance or satanic ritual. Giacometti has not provided a chair (or a pedestal), for neither is needed if the human spirit is to be set free.

Salvador Dalí made the classic "anti-good armchair" statements when he turned to furniture design in the 1930s. He created a red upholstered sofa based on Mae West's lips for the English collector Edward James (Brighton Museum), and a stool whose back consists of a pair of predatory arms. Dalí insisted that a chair "can be used to sit on, but on condition that one sits on it uncomfortably". Here, the discomfort arises from the sitter's being, as it were, sexually assaulted by the chair and by being forced to think about sado-masochistic sex. A chair also had to express the spirit of the age and cause the "proud, ornamental, intimidating and quantified spectre of a period to spring forth instantly". It was usually vast public buildings such as Gothic cathedrals that were said to express the spirit of their age, but Dalí wanted to bring the unsettling sublimities associated with colossal symbolic structures into the home.

The Barbican exhibition includes photographs of Dalí's lubricous Dream of Venus pavilion (1939), and his lugubrious beach-scene painting The Dream (1937), in which a biomorphic beanbag head is painfully propped up by wooden crutches driven into the sand. Coloured a viral seaweed green, this is a stranded merman on a splayed bed of nails. For Dalí, crutches supported individuals or classes that were on their last legs, such as the European aristocracy. The Dream measures 50 x 77cms: the abiding paradox is that almost all surrealist paintings are "cabinet" pictures – small, easel paintings that fit snugly into any bourgeois sitting-room.

The abstract expressionist painter Willem de Kooning, famous for his hyperactive, ectoplasmic paintings of naked, seated women, had Matisse in his sights when he said: "Art never seems to make me peaceful or pure. . . some painters, including myself, do not care what chair they are sitting on. It does not even have to be a comfortable one. They are too nervous to find out where they ought to sit. They do not want to 'sit in style.'" Ed Kienholz's dingy tableau of a 1930s interior, The Wait (1964-5), suggests that to "sit in style" is living death: an old lady sits regally in a throne-like wooden chair, but now transformed into a clothed skeleton. On the wall behind her is a 19th-century photograph of a man we presume to be her husband. She's a working-class Queen Victoria, endlessly mourning and yearning. Kienholz's tableau must have been inspired by Warhol's Electric Chair (1963), but it implies that any form of sedentary activity is bad for you.

The Surreal House omits authentic modern furniture, possibly because quite a lot has been exhibited at the Barbican recently – there have been shows of the modernist architects Le Corbusier and Aalto, who designed chairs of varying degrees of comfort, and they've just had Ron Arad: Restless. This post-punk British chair designer caters for those who like to sit dangerously. Arad's Bad Tempered Chair resembles a cluster of inflated air-bags. "I can't stay still in one place for too long," he says defiantly. But where avant-garde permanent revolution ends and novelty-seeking consumerism begins is a moot point.

The architectural elements found in The Surreal House are equally uncosy – a mixture of womblike prisons and vertiginous mazes. The best example here is André Masson's Piranesian painting The Labyrinth (1938), inspired by the Cretan legend of the Minotaur, the bull-headed man who resides at the centre of King Minos's labyrinth. The surrealists understood the labyrinth as an image of the human mind at whose centre resides the Minotaur, symbol of irrational impulses. In Masson's painting, the labyrinth is incorporated within the Minotaur's own mutilated body, which is a juddering architectural ruin made from skin, brick and stone. The Minotaur perches on a barren rocky ledge, and his body is partly flayed to reveal a labyrinth within, with the main entrance through his left hand (his right arm is missing). Masson had been badly injured during the first world war, and this creature is both monster and heroic survivor, one who has been made and unmade by endless violence and dynamism. What better place for it, and for the exhibition, than in the brutalist labyrinth that is the Barbican Centre?

Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill is at the V&A until 4 July; The Surreal House is at the Barbican until 12 September.


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