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April 26 2012

In praise of … Nina Katchadourian | Editorial

'What is art?' asks one of her constructed sentences in the Sorted images of book spines. 'Close observation,' is the reply

Faced with a long flight, many people take a Valium and doze. Nina Katchadourian, flying from her native California to take up a residency at Dunedin university in New Zealand, retired to the lavatory equipped only with her phone camera and objects found on the plane, along with a black scarf, which she draped on the wall opposite the mirror. Then she created a series of Flemish portraits. "What is art?" asks one of her constructed sentences in the Sorted images of book spines. "Close observation," is the reply. She is funny, provocative, and often unsettling. A vitrine containing a stuffed pet dog resting on a plump cushion was rejected by San Diego's museum of natural history. An outdoor installation involved playing recordings of UN interpreters mimicking bird calls through speakers hidden in trees, while another, Mended Spiderwebs, is a series of images of webs painstakingly repaired with red thread. It's a whole new way of seeing.


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March 28 2012

In praise of … Joan Miró | Editorial

Following last year's exhibition at Tate Modern, a new show in Yorkshire displays his weird and witty sculptures in bronze

You wait 50 years for a Miró exhibition in Britain and then two come along at once. Last year Londoners had the chance to be dazzled by the Catalan surrealist's extraordinary breadth of imagination. Now, the weird and witty sculpture in bronze to which he turned in the final years of his career is on show among the soft green hills of Yorkshire. Here is an artist who for most of his 90 years created work with vision and inventiveness, and above all with an inexhaustible passion. Whether he was motivated only by the tragic politics of the 20th century, especially those of Catalonia and Spain, remains in dispute. But anyone who stood in Tate Modern surrounded by the huge triptychs he painted at the same time as he began working on his monumental sculpture will surely acknowledge that, in an era where it was repeatedly denied, his creativity was driven by his unfaltering urge to describe the importance of freedom.


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November 27 2011

In praise of ... Marilyn Monroe | Editorial

The fascination that inspired Warhol's postage-stamp portraiture and Elton John's outpourings retains its grip

A quarter of a century after Marilyn's death, Madonna was perfecting her Monroe look. Now it's half a century, and Britney Spears is recreating the skirt-blowing scene. The fascination that inspired Warhol's postage-stamp portraiture and Elton John's outpourings retains its grip. There's a flood of books – 600 plus, many of them weighty academic tomes dedicated to the original dumb blonde. The obsession of the cerebral with the celebrity reaches back to her own life, as is affirmed by a new film, My Week With Marilyn: it recounts the condescension of Laurence Olivier and her husband Arthur Miller. So why the fascination with a life that, for all the diversions through tinsel town, stretched from miserable foster homes to barbiturate overdose? There were the looks, of course, and a few performances you can't argue with – Gentleman Prefer Blondes and Some Like it Hot. But more than anything, it's the character thing. Like Dolly Parton, she was brilliant at playing up the things she was patronised for, and had quick wit in a corner ("It's not true I had nothing on, I had the radio on"). She instinctively grasped the troubling connection between being sexy and being vulnerable, and kept herself centre stage even as she lost control. She was belittled as childlike, but it's worth recalling that this can mean straightforward too. While PR men fretted over nude photos from the star's past, Monroe said that she'd needed the money to pay the rent. For all the artifice, a glimmer of integrity shone through.


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October 11 2011

In praise of … leaning towers | Editorial

Big Ben has joined St Walfriduskerk in the Netherlands, the temple of Huma in Orissa, India, and the campanile in Pisa. It is leaning

Big Ben, or to be more precise the clock tower housing it, has joined St Walfriduskerk in the Netherlands, the medieval steeple in Suurhusen in north-western Germany, the temple of Huma in Orissa, India, and the campanile in Pisa. It is leaning. Being British, and being built of such hardy materials as cast iron girders, stone from Yorkshire and Normandy, and Cornish granite, it is only leaning slightly. A tilt of 0.25 degrees is a bagatelle compared to the extravagant four degrees at which the tower of Pisa is tilting, and it would take 4,000 years to equal that. Leaning towers often go wrong from the start. The three-metre foundation of the white marble campanile began to sink into the soil after it had risen only to its second floor. Big Ben has been variously undermined by a sewer built in the 1860s to the District line, an underground car park for MPs and the Jubilee line extension. However, the seismic event which caused it to lurch an eighth of an inch sometime between November 2002 and August 2003 remains a mystery. The Iraq debate? Various things could be done to compensate for the 1ft 5in rightward lean. One could lessen the weight by removing the bells and the clock mechanism, and go digital, or install a counterweight. Optical illusions are cheaper still. MPs could stand in front of Big Ben and lean leftwards. Or a leaning full-size cardboard replica could be built next to it. This, too, would straighten the tower, at least in the mind's eye where Big Ben truly belongs.


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October 02 2011

In praise of … autodidacts | Editorial

Self-education is not a necessary precondition for innovative thinking – but it certainly need not be an obstacle

The list of those who have taught themselves is long and distinguished. Their great strength is that they do not recognise conventional boundaries, that they live – as William Blake, one of their number, wrote – as if "nature has no outline but imagination has". John Martin, currently on show at Tate Britain in London, is another 19th-century genius who acknowledged no limits. A working-class Northumbrian, Martin began as a coach painter. But he saw no reason why lack of formal training should inhibit his ambition. Soon he was turning out vast apocalyptic canvases, reminiscent of the Chapman brothers in their ghoulish detail, that were intended partly to inspire, partly to instruct. The grandest were sent on tour with an accompanying pamphlet to educate the viewer in the painter's intentions. Nor were his interests confined to art. His proposal for a sewerage system predated Bazalgette and influenced him 25 years later. Almost at the same time, a blacksmith's son from south London was avidly reading the science books he was supposed to be learning to bind. Michael Faraday overcame such drawbacks as an unfamiliarity with calculus to ask questions that led him to a revolutionary understanding of electromagnetism and electrochemistry. The unlettered youth became author of The Chemical History of a Candle, never since out of print. It would be absurd to argue that self-education is a necessary precondition to innovative thinking. But it doesn't have to be an obstacle.


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October 03 2010

In praise of … Jamini Roy | Editorial

The father of Indian art should have inspired the Commonwealth Games mascot

Among the unfortunate things about Delhi's Commonwealth Games, the choice of mascot comes after a collapsed bridge, a spot of dengue fever and the schadenfreude of foreign reporters. Even so, something rankles about the organisers' choice of a cartoon tiger dubbed Shera. This is spray-on Indianness, a national animal that apparently embodies a blend of made-up values. Were the designers to have exercised some imagination, they could have drawn on the work of Jamini Roy. If anyone can be called the father of modern Indian art, it must be Roy. His depictions of Hindu mythology and especially contemporary peasants and workers retain an unblinking directness that make them powerful 70 years on. Painted with bold, thick lines and with trademark almond-shaped eyes, his figures could strike a passerby as childlike – but their uprightness and willingness to stare back at the viewer (Roy arranged his subjects so they were often facing dead ahead) turns them into adults, not to be argued with over trifles. This style of painting is aptly dubbed urban patua by Sona Datta in her new book on Roy. Patua was the folk style used for Bengali village paintings. Himself a village boy, Roy adopted that style for nationalist, leftwing Kolkata. It marked a rupture in established Indian art, which up till then had been exquisite, courtly, beautiful. As the British Museum's Datta deftly suggests, Roy took a gamble and broke with that tradition. If only Delhi's designers had put such thought into their work.


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June 20 2010

Prince Charles, disgusted of Windsor

By meddling in the Chelsea barracks affair, the heir to the British throne has made himself an issue, weakening his own credibility and possibly that of the monarchy as a whole

There are two easily exaggerated ways of interpreting the Prince of Wales's role in the Chelsea barracks development row – and then there's the truth. But the truth is bad enough.

Exaggeration number one is to pretend that nothing of any consequence happened when the heir to the British throne lobbied the Qatari royal family against a Richard Rogers design for a major London development he disliked and then became embroiled in detailed negotiations which included further lobbying to outflank the planning process. Prince Charles's defenders claim the activities, which have been revealed in emails in a high court case, are legitimate campaigning that anyone who feels strongly about such developments might undertake. Such an intervention, though, is hardly an everyday matter – as the prince's anxiety to avoid publicity about the affair underscores. All of us may have the right to make objections to developments we dislike. But a royal objector is infinitely more equal than others.

Equally exaggerated, though, is the pretence that this is the thin end of a large constitutional wedge. This argument casts the prince as an incorrigible interventionist whose concerns about Richard Rogers's architecture, though serious enough in themselves, are an outrider for an extensive conservative agenda which would be given fuller rein if and when the prince ascends the throne. If the prince has no intention of living within the planning rules on the Chelsea barracks while he is heir, goes the argument, think what he might get up to when, unlike most elderly Disgusteds of Windsor, the full prerogative monarchical powers of the late 17th century constitutional settlement are conferred upon him. The problem with this argument is that he simply wouldn't dare. But, if he did, he wouldn't last five minutes.

So is there no problem in the Chelsea barracks affair beyond the fact – undoubtedly an irksome one to those involved – of a titled reactionary interfering in the cityscape and by doing so putting some developers out of pocket? Actually, no, even though this intervention in the London built environment is hardly a small one, or the first of its kind.

The larger issue is that the prince is a meddler. This doesn't mean (probably) that he is keen to press his friend David Cameron to cut this or that project, appoint this or that minister or amend this or that bill, let alone that he regards the prospect of a Labour government as utterly ghastly, although he probably does. The problem is that he has made himself an issue. Whether this merely weakens his own credibility or that of the monarchy as a whole, it is further evidence of someone who is simply not well fitted to the role in which fortune has cast him.


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April 03 2010

The Orbit: £19m for a 'piece of string'? It could turn out to be a bargain

Anish Kapoor's Olympic tower will be a draw during the Games. But after that?

The success of Britain's best-loved piece of modern public art, the Angel of the North, has been a boon to the nation's sculptors. In every district, especially those scarred by an industrial past, councillors point towards Gateshead and ask: "Can we have one of those?"

Certainly, this question seems to have driven London's mayor, Boris Johnson, to celebrate the 2012 London Olympics with "something to arouse curiosity and wonder". Or perhaps he is looking beyond Antony Gormley's Angel, at the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty. The result is the £19m, 115-metre, ArcelorMittal Orbit by Anish Kapoor, "a loop of string arrested in mid-fall", in the words of our architecture critic Rowan Moore.

So will it achieve Johnson's dreams? Our willingness to invest in public art is hugely attractive. So is our love for it. The last two decades have seen great improvements to our public spaces and the Olympic Park in Stratford should add further magic. Public art, despite sponsors' attempts to brand it, can stand as symbol to our beliefs and ambitions.

Of course, not all attempts have had happy endings. While Mark Wallinger's Ebbsfleet horse is eagerly awaited, Manchester's B of the Bang, its steel shards falling at disconcertingly inopportune moments, failed.

It is almost impossible to predict what will work, but something that speaks to our shared sense of culture seems a good bet. That the Orbit is part of that great shared endeavour of the Olympics gets it speedily from the starting blocks. It is clearly designed as a spectacle to draw people. It will achieve that, at least during the Games themselves. And after that? Too often, these sites fall into disrepair. Johnson will need to ensure the new park matches his ambitions.

And if not? Well, Kapoor's Orbit will still be worth a visit, for it will allow us to climb to the top and look away.


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February 12 2010

In praise of… Theo Van Gogh

Geniuses reach their giddiest heights by standing on the shoulders of less-noticed giants. Marx, for one, would have got nowhere without Engels, who provided intellectual encouragement, the cash to survive, and the empathy needed to endure boils on the behind. At least Engels got some fame of his own, unlike most of those recognised in a formulaic "lastly, thanks are due to my wife" at the start of so many books. Outside the art world, Theo van Gogh is likewise obscure, but this could change with the efforts of the Van Gogh Museum to win a wider audience for his brother's correspondence, through a new exhibition at the Royal Academy and an online database. The chief draw of the letters – beyond the sketches which litter them – is the hope of gaining insight into that private mental world which found such great expression in colour. But what really shines through is Vincent's practical life, and Theo's centrality to it. Most of the mail is addressed to him, and Vincent's thanks for "the 50-franc note your last letter contained" settle the mystery about what sustained the artist who famously sold next to nothing. But Theo did more than bankroll; an art dealer himself, it was he who first persuaded to Vincent to pick up a brush. Theo held the dying Vincent in his arms, then died a few months later himself, and, a few years later again, was reburied alongside his brother. As their bodies lie together, so their reputations should together stand tall. For without the one, the other could never have been.


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February 04 2010

In praise of… the V&A's instrument collection

Most of the time, and no wonder, you hear little criticism of London's Victoria and Albert Museum. The museum is a national treasure trove. Its new renaissance galleries have rightly been praised to the skies. But the V&A's decision to close its collection of some 260 musical instruments has provoked a continuing crescendo of discord in the musical world. Nobody pretends that the current display of instruments is ideal. For a few days more, they remain cheek by jowl with part of the museum's fashion collection in gallery 40. From 22 February, however, gallery 40 is closing for refurbishment as a fashion display. After that, the fate of the instruments is uncertain. A few may resurface in the furniture galleries in 2012. Others may be loaned out. No one disputes that the V&A is crowded. It inevitably faces hard choices about what to display and how. But it possesses, in its own words, "one of the most important collections of European musical instruments in the world," from Annibale Rossi's gem-encrusted spinet of 1571, through a 1699 Stradivarius ­violin to an oboe belonging to Rossini. What is really needed, especially in a city whose ­musical life is second to none in the world, is a place to ­display ­London's musical treasures in a setting that does them justice, and where they can be heard as well as seen, as the St Cecilia's Hall ­collection in Edinburgh is. Whether that setting should remain the V&A is debatable. That the ­collection should be available in one place, and free to access, should not be.


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