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August 18 2012

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde at Tate Britain – in pictures

A selection of images from Tate Britain's historic pre-Raphaelite show, featuring work from Ford Madox Brown, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and others, along with shots of the exhibition coming together

The pre-Raphaelites: behind the scenes at a modern blockbuster

Tate Britain has spent five years bringing together some of the greatest pre-Raphaelite works for a show that repositions the artists as the radicals of their day. We witness the culmination of a huge project, as everything, from the largest Burne-Jones to the smallest fridge magnet, finds its place…

In a huge house in a mysterious part of London, a tall, energetic man called Rupert Maas is showing me a drawing: The Lady of Shalott by Elizabeth Siddal. "It's absolutely lovely, isn't it?" he asks, though I have the strong impression that he doesn't give two figs whether or not I agree with him. "There are no more ethereal drawings produced by any of the pre-Raphaelites than those by Lizzie, and this is a very, very good one." His voice runs on: not dreamily, exactly, but clotted with a certain kind of passion. "It has this febrile intensity. It's deeply sexy, for some reason. Look at the tightness of her dress, the yearning quality of it." Somewhat trepidatiously, I tell him that, to me, this particular Lady of ShalottLord Tennyson's Arthurian maiden, condemned forever to see Camelot only in the reflection of a mirror, was a favourite subject of the pre-Raphaelites – looks a little like a doll. "Yes, well... I think that might be part of it," he says, with a smile.

Elizabeth Siddal, the redhead who is perhaps best known as the model for John Everett Millais's Ophelia, was married to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the seven founders of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, from 1860 until her death from an overdose of laudanum in 1862 – though their relationship began in about 1851, when she first started sitting for him. "The relationship between Rossetti and Lizzie is absolutely central to the pre-Raphaelite spirit," says Maas, still peering over my right shoulder. "She is Beatrice to his Dante." But Siddal, who had humble roots and had previously worked as a milliner, also longed to be an artist in her own right; in 1855, John Ruskin agreed to subsidise her career, paying her £150 a year in exchange for every drawing she produced. "It's well-documented," says Maas. "He [Rossetti] taught her. He stood over her while she drew, and he did bits that she couldn't manage. It was a thing they did together: a journey of love into another world; a medieval paradise for them both." Did Rossetti work on The Lady of Shalott, which is dated 1853? "I think he might have had something to do with the sprite carved on the chair. I think they did that together."

In the next few days, The Lady of Shalott will depart this house for Tate Britain, where she is to appear in the gallery's autumn blockbuster, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde. There, it will join works owned by, among others, Jimmy Page and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Is it thrilling to lend to such an august institution? Not for Maas. This is the second time Siddal's drawing has holidayed at the Tate (the first was during the gallery's last pre-Raphaelite show in 1984), and there are other, equally wonderful works in his collection. "I do it all the time, quite honestly," he says. "I think it's a public duty. When it's there, I won't even look at it; I'll go and look at something I'm not familiar with instead." He grins. "But, of course, when it comes home, I'll have a jolly good gloat."

Maas inherited some of his collection from his father, Jeremy, an art dealer who in 1969 wrote a celebrated book about 19th-century British art, Victorian Painters, and who began buying 19th-century British paintings when they were still amazingly affordable. (Rupert now runs his father's Mayfair gallery.) The rest, he bought: "I'm not one of those dealers who feels he shouldn't collect." So what is it about Victorian art in general, and the pre-Raphaelites in particular, that speaks to him? They haven't always, it's fair to say, been terribly fashionable.

"Yes. But when people say they hate Victorian art, you have to ask: what is it they're hating? They're hating themselves, because they're hating the stuff of which we're made. Most middle-class people in Britain still live in Victorian houses. They gave us all sorts of things we take for granted. And Victorian genre paintings deal with such serious social issues. Look at Ford Madox Brown's The Last of England [a painting about emigration and poverty that will also be in the Tate's exhibition]. He's asking big questions in pictures."

As for the pre-Raphaelites proper, with their penchant for swooning damozels and complicated allegories, he hopes that the Tate's vast new show will persuade visitors to reconsider them. The pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, formed in 1848, was determined to rebel against dreary Royal Academy conventions; for this reason its members have sometimes been compared, in spirit, to the Young British Artists of the 1990s. Maas, though, likens them to punks; every young artist wanted to be one. "Millais was the greatest draughtsman. Rossetti was the romantic, the natural heir to Blake. Holman Hunt is more difficult: the priggishness, the religiosity, the density: these are some seriously wacky paintings. But they're all so big, so brightly-coloured, so powerful. You can just imagine how they must have seemed once, when everyone was used to seeing Sir Sloshua Reynolds and his school." His eyes widen. "They must have seemed seriously psychedelic."

It has taken Alison Smith, a Tate curator, more than five years to put Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde together. The idea for it came to her after the Tate's Millais exhibition in 2007. It encouraged visitors who thought of the artist as a painter of fancy chocolate-box pictures to see him in a different, more audacious light, and Smith found herself wondering if she couldn't do the same for his colleagues in the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. "I wanted to show them as modern artists rather than as soft romantics," she says. "That was my agenda."

Her case successfully argued (the Tate's programme is driven not by potential visitor numbers but by intellectual inquiry, with the result that every show must have a thesis), and the exhibition safely in the schedule, she began work. The Tate has a peerless collection of pre-Raphaelite paintings, among them Ophelia by Millais, The Golden Stairs by Burne-Jones, The Beloved by Rossetti, and The Triumph of the Innocents by Holman Hunt. But she also had a list of must-haves to be borrowed from elsewhere: Millais's Isabella, which hangs in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool; Holman Hunt's Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice for the Death of His Young Brother, which is in a private collection and had not been seen in public since 1984; Ford Madox Brown's Work from Manchester City Galleries; Holman Hunt's The Light of the World, from Keble College, Oxford; and, most fabulous of all, Holman Hunt's The Lady of Shalott, from the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut. This massive painting, overpowering and, some would say, overwrought, has not been seen in Britain since 1951.

So how did she do? Lizzie Siddal's drawing, just across the river, must have been relatively easy to clinch. But what about the others? "Oh, we secured them all," she says, almost nonchalantly. "Everything we wanted, we got. The Lady of Shalott was in doubt for a while; there were conservation issues, and we had concerns about travel and costs. But, in the end, all the problems were resolved, and this astonishing late painting [it was completed in 1905 after the artist's death by an assistant, by which time its subject was already long out of fashion] will be the final work in the exhibition." And once the names on her list were ticked off, did she dance a little jig? "No. But you feel good for the show. You feel it's finally coming together."

Its major paintings bagged, the exhibition began to spread its tentacles outwards. All hands on deck. Backstage in London, Kiko Noda, the show's registrar, embarked on the complex logistical task of arranging the transportation of every loan. "Most lenders insist on a representative being present when a painting is hung," says Smith. "And once a work has been hung it cannot be moved. You can't go back and say, 'Oh, that would look nicer there.' A big lender might have five or six works in different rooms, so drawing up an installation schedule is perhaps the trickiest thing of all. That's where Kiko comes in."

In America, Smith's co-curators, Tim Barringer and Jason Rosenfeld (the exhibition will travel to Washington), started working on their scholarly essays for the catalogue. At Tate Enterprises, the team began thinking about merchandise: scarves inspired by the gown Rossetti's model wears in The Beloved; bags and cushions made from fabric designed by the pre-Raphaelites' friend and supporter, William Morris; and, of course, fridge magnets and postcards, which sell in their thousands. (Tate Enterprises earns between £2m and £3m a year for the galleries, so ordering the right merchandise is a serious business.) And the marketing department considered how best to attract younger visitors. Among their ideas: pre-Raphaelite-inspired fashion shoots; a pre-Raphaelite Pinterest page; a roll call of "modern day muses" with pre-Raphaelite sensibilities (Paloma Faith; Florence Welch, from Florence and the Machine).

The months, and the years, ticked by. It's now August and the paintings are finally arriving; Kiko Noda receives every one personally. They will be hung by a team led by Geoff Hoskins, a senior art handling technician of 20 years' experience, in the fortnight before the show opens on 12 September (the wall texts were completed only in the past few days – Smith's American colleagues slaved through the night to finish them on time). What will it be like to see the work in the galleries at last? Smith smiles. "For me, the most wonderful moment is installation. It's the culmination of everything. That's when you feel you are deep in the heart of a project." And when it opens to the public? "The personal attachment loosens a bit, but you're still concerned. It's a like a child going out into the world: you want it to do well."

The Tate's pre-Raphaelite paintings are among its most popular (Ophelia by Millais, so lush and yet so plangent, has long been the gallery's bestselling postcard). "They're always on display," says Natasha Walker, a paintings conservator. "And when they're not, they're often on loan to another gallery. So it's quite rare that we get the opportunity to look at them. That's why we like these big shows. It gives us the chance to get our hands on things."

Some time ago, Walker and the other conservators examined all of the Tate paintings that will appear in the exhibition. "We have priorities," she says. "Obviously, if something is stucturally unsound, that's the first priority. This one [she reaches for some images] was displayable, but we wanted it to look its best. So I spent five months cleaning it."

The painting in question is Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Beata Beatrix (1864-70), a portrait of the poet Dante's wife, Beatrice, that was also a memorial to Rossetti's wife, Elizabeth Siddall (the painter used sketches of his late wife to complete it). It's an exquisite piece, smaller and more intimate in scale than many pre-Raphaelite works, and softer, too, being more dimly lit. Beatrice/Siddal has her eyes closed, though whether she is in a state of religious or sexual ecstasy is unclear. Meanwhile, a bird, a messenger of death whose feathers are the colour of dried blood, drops a poppy into her open palms (this must, surely, be a reference to Siddal's death from an overdose of laudanum shortly after she gave birth to a stillborn child). In the background is Dante, looking towards the haloed figure of Love, in whose hands the burning heart of his wife flickers and wanes.

"The painting had a natural resin varnish over it," says Walker. "It would have been added to improve its colour rendition, the gloss of it. But it had become quite discoloured." After doing some tests to find which mixture of solvents would best remove this layer, she set to work with a cotton wool swab. "It's very painstaking. You have to be careful with the paint layer." She shows me some before and after pictures. "Look at the colour shift. Before, it was warmer and quite yellow in tone. Varnish tends to make things look quite unified. The contrast between highlights and shadows is so much greater now, and her flesh is cooler, not quite so glowing."

During the conservation, Walker x-rayed the picture; she also photographed it while casting light at an acute angle over it. "I found out quite a lot. The story goes that Rossetti had made and abandoned an oil sketch of his wife, and that it lay in his studio for many years, until his dealer took it to be adhered to another canvas, and brought it back for Rossetti to finish. The x-ray showed that there were indeed canvas additions at the top, sides and bottom, all of which would have allowed Rossetti more scope for background." She shows me the x-ray. "I could also see these losses in the lead white preparation under the paint. Rossetti left these losses. A more meticulous artist would have filled them before recommencing. When I cast light over the picture, I could also see brush hairs, studio dust and debris in the paint, which tells you something about the state of his tools."

It took Rossetti six years to complete Beata Beatrix, a long time for a painting of this size. "When I looked at the green of her cloak I could see that it had aged and cracked over a period of time; his red monogram had been added over the cracks. I could even see some of the red pigment caught up in the varnish, which tells me that he signed it and then quickly sent it away."

How do these discoveries make her feel? Shivery, is the answer – though in a good way. "You've seen it in books, or on walls. But this brings you so much closer." It's a visceral thing, a connection with the artist himself. What do her discoveries tell us about Rossetti's state of mind? Walker is reluctant to say: "I'm not an art historian," she laughs (her degree is in zoology, the chemistry she learnt then a great help). But to me it seems obvious. Rossetti took his wife's death hard, burying the bulk of his unpublished poems with her in Highgate cemetery. Afterwards, he grew increasingly depressed. Beata Beatrix was a painful piece to paint; it took him an age. But when he finally felt able to let it go, he couldn't wait to get it out of his sight.

It's not only paintings that must be conserved. When Walker and I have finished talking, she takes me to the studio of Alastair Johnson, a frame conservator. For the past year, Johnson has been working on the frame of Burne-Jones's enormous oil, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid – a project that will be completed any day now, when picture and frame are once again reunited.

King Cophetua was completed in 1884. It was inspired by a Tennyson poem, The Beggar Maid, and tells the legend of an African king who disdained women until he met Penelophon, "a beggar maid all in grey", with whom he fell in love at first sight. In the painting, the king gazes at Penelophon devotedly (the theme of male enthralment to female beauty was a favourite of Burne-Jones's), having put aside his crown and shield in deference to her beauty. A deeply sensual work – with her gently rounded belly and her curled toes, there is something so straightforwardly sexy about Penelophon – Burne-Jones's friends bought it for the Tate after the artist's death in 1898.

The painting's frame was made for it, in the Renaissance style, by the Vacani family. But a few years after it joined the collection it was altered to accommodate a glazing door (in other words, an ugly sub frame was fitted inside the original one). "The alterations were substantial," says Johnson. "They had to insert four inches of material in the bottom of the frame, removing one putto's head, and replacing it with two. They also built up the columns at the side and removed altogether the frame's lovely moulded [internal] edge."

How did Johnson know what the original frame looked like? Luckily, there existed a photograph by Emery Walker of the painting in its original frame; Johnson found it at the National Portrait Gallery, where Walker's archive is kept. Using this as a guide, he set to work. First he removed the additions. "They were quite brutal," he says. "You could see the saw marks where they'd cut the bottom of the frame in two." Then he made moulds of a putto's head elsewhere on the frame. "I used a silicon rubber mould; prop-makers use them; they're incredibly detailed. The heads themselves are made from composition, a doughy mixture of plaster or chalk." Then he set about copying the moulded edge. "Usually we find another frame which has something similar as a guide. But I couldn't find one anywhere. In the end, I just modelled a section up in Plasticine."

Finally he guilded his repairs. Johnson leads me to the frame itself, in the centre of the room. Wow. What a wonderful thing it is. But will he age his own additions? They're a bit bling at the moment. "Yes. I'll probably use watercolour: something I can easily remove, or add to. And perhaps a bit of household dirt." It will, he says, be an anxious moment when the painting is put into the frame. "A very expensive piece of Perspex – it's called Optium – will replace the glass. It has an innovative coating which makes it look like low-reflective glass. It also has an inherent flexibility, which is important with a painting of this size. Unlike glass, it won't crack." How will he feel when he sees it in the gallery? "Oh, it'll be wonderful," he says, with great feeling. "But I'll also be praying I measured the painting correctly."

As both Walker and Johnson point out, thanks to their efforts, when visitors to the exhibition come to gaze on Beata Beatrix and King Cophetua in a few weeks' time, they'll be seeing them pretty much as Rossetti, Burne-Jones and their contemporaries saw them. Will this make a difference to their understanding of these artists? Perhaps not. Only experts and passionate fans will notice such subtle changes. On the other hand, as the late, great Robert Hughes put it, for the pre-Raphaelites, "God was in the details: in the petals of a cornflower or the vein of an elecampane leaf, in the grain of stone or the purling of a brook."

Rossetti and his friends would, I think, have adored the care the Tate has put into this show. Such attention, loving and precise, reflects the extreme trouble they went to in their own pursuit of accuracy. Though what they would have made of fridge magnets is anyone's guess.

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde is at Tate Britain, London SW1 from 12 Sept to 13 Jan 2013; © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

How the Olympics will shape the future of east London

With plans to build 8,000 new homes at the Olympic Park over the next two decades, Stratford's future depends on a sympathetic approach to regeneration…

Long, long ago, I sat in a nondescript room with an official leading what was then a grand government project to regenerate a huge area called the Thames Gateway. Her organisation, she said, was supporting London's Olympic bid because it was almost impossible to make anything happen in the Thames Gateway, which extended from east London through south Essex and north Kent to the sea, and only the Games could change this.

She was in this position because even longer ago, in the John Major era, the relevant minister, Michael Heseltine, had made a speech christening the Thames Gateway and announcing that Something Must Be Done. So the vast effort of the Olympics had to be enlisted to make some sense of a politician's figure of speech. It was and is a seriously arse-about-face way of doing a bit of regeneration.

Over the next 20 years it is hoped to build 8,000 homes around the Olympic Park, in addition to the 2,800 already created by the athletes' village, and to create 8,000 jobs – that is, to make something like a middle-sized market town. In fairness, one should add the less tangible but real benefit of a feelgood factor to a wider area of east London. To achieve all this will have required not only the Olympic billions, but also investment in public transport in Stratford unmatched anywhere else in the country, an additional grant of £290m to be spent on legacy, and more hundreds of millions of public money spent acquiring land. Some of the public expenditure will be paid back as this land is developed, but there are no obligations as to how much or when.

But never mind. Not many people now care that Olympic claims for boosting business, tourism and regeneration are tenuous. Opinion polls show that most people in Britain think that £9bn or so is not too much to pay just for the national buzz and joy that came with the Games. So the question is: how can this place so extraordinarily blessed with aspiration and funding be as great as, in theory, it should be?

The new homes and neighbourhoods could be beautiful and desirable places that would create new models and set new standards for British house building. The park and venues, such as the Aquatics Centre and the Velodrome, could be genuinely public assets, of easy access to all.

Most critically all this has to be done in such a way that the new wonderland doesn't turn its back on its surroundings but genuinely connects with them. Early in the Olympic project, the neighbouring areas were seen as destitute wastelands  be erased or shut out, and the main weakness of what has already been built is its lumpiness – the tendency of elements such as the Westfield shopping centre and the athletes' village to turn their back. It would be relatively easy, but a complete failure, to make an exclusive residential idyll here.

At the moment, hopeful signs are emitting from the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), the body in charge. Its new chairman, Daniel Moylan, declares that he wants the Olympic Park and its surroundings to be "a very desirable area and we would like as many people as possible to live there". He wants alternatives to "the limited range of standardised products" that large house-building companies tend to produce. He wants property to rent as well as buy, and homes built by their owners. He challenges the common journalistic denigration of Stratford: "This place is not a dump. There are lots of people who are entrepreneurial and enthusiastic."

Sensible-sounding management arrangements have been set up for the park and for venues such as the Velodrome, and the Legacy Corporation swears blind that these will not be over-exploited in order to turn a profit. The park, it says, will be open to absolutely everyone, which presumably includes those who might be a bit annoying or unsightly and not good for property values. The LLDC is rightly proud that, compared with previous Olympic cities, London's planning for the future of the site is far advanced, and it has set up an impressive quality review panel to oversee the design of whatever is built.

The LLDC has produced a masterplan for the new neighbourhoods that suggests a large proportion of family houses arranged around pleasing open spaces, and with an overall coherence that is rare in regeneration projects. It is planning 29 playgrounds and has made impressive declarations of principle in relation to sustainability, accessibility and design.

In the scruffy fringes of the park there has been a change in attitude. Where earlier plans saw them as places to be obliterated by blocks of flats, the idea now is to make the most of what is already there, such as the artists' studios and small businesses and unexpected bits of canal and workshop. Muf architecture/art, a design practice that has helped lead this change of attitude, is now involved in the first of the new residential neighbourhoods, which is a good sign. "Obliteration is not in our lexicon," declares Moylan.

They still have some headaches, most notably the future of the stadium. But the real question is whether the current high ambitions can survive the pressures that will come to bear. How inclusive can the new developments be, for example, when changes to housing benefit are likely to push people out of places like this? How kindly will the big house-building companies take to alternative models to their preferred way of doing things? What if progress is seen to be going too slowly and pressure grows for quick results? It's too early to say. For now we can only observe that the masters of Olympic legacy are saying the right things, and wish them good luck. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Cat Power in Miami – in pictures

The Observer New Review commissioned New York-based photographer Annie Collinge to travel to Miami for a shoot with Chan Marshall aka Cat Power. The results were so beautiful we thought we'd treat you to a gallery

David Bowie: the mannequin who fell to earth

The V&A plans to use David Bowie's exotic costumes to chart his life and times in an exhibition next year

David Bowie is to part-curate an exhibition of his life and work told primarily through his extravagant costumes at the Victoria and Albert museum next year.

The show will chart his rise to cult rock star status from his early years in Brixton, south London, using his collection of outfits to illustrate his constantly changing identity.

Details about the clothes are being kept under wraps until next month's official announcement of the show, but the V&A's director confirmed to the Observer that Bowie is involved in selecting exhibits. Many of the flamboyant outfits worn by Bowie in his years as a pioneer of rock style will come from his own collection.

The exhibition is expected to draw large numbers of visitors. However, some critics lament what they see as a further descent of a serious museum into the cult of celebrity.

Bowie's look was inseparable from his sound. The 65-year-old singer and actor, who merged rock and theatre with his androgynous alter ego Ziggy Stardust, is synonymous with futuristic costumes and outlandish makeup, from space-samurai outfits to white satin kimonos, flame-red hair to eye-liner.

He achieved wide popularity with his psychedelic rock single Space Oddity, coinciding with the first moon landing, and became an international star with albums such as The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. His films include The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Speaking to the Observer, Bowie's biographer Paul Trynka said that Bowie was at the forefront of fashion, recreating his own image with the aid of cutting-edge designers.

Seeing the costumes close-up would be amazing, he said. "Although he's an artist who… doesn't tend to revisit his own past, there's a kind of contradiction in that he's collected his pieces for over two decades, lots of them historic and iconic, not just for Bowie fans but for popular fashion… He's always had a public presentation in mind." Costumes that Trynka expects to be included in the exhibition at the V&A include the "bunny leotard" created by Kansai Yamamoto, one of the avant-garde designers whose potential was spotted by Bowie.

"That was quite groundbreaking because Yamamoto wasn't known in the UK," Trynka said. "Although other pop stars had flirted with high fashion, [Bowie] was the first one to use it as an integral part of his look. He then went on to even more outrageous Yamamoto designs. There's a fantastic one with hugely-inflated legs … and I suspect that will be there … [It] is engagingly ludicrous. Nobody had that effrontery to wear those kinds of outfits before."

Among other likely highlights, he said, are homemade catsuits created by the late Freddi Buretti, a designer who described himself as a "seamstress".

Martin Roth, the V&A's director, said: "Bowie is incomparable. No one has inspired the whole world not only in terms of music but also arts, fashion and style. He created a vision of individualism for an entire generation."

Others are less impressed, particularly following the V&A's 2007 exhibition dedicated to Kylie Minogue, which included her dungarees from the Australian soap Neighbours. Critics felt that it was unworthy of a museum dedicated to showcasing the finest arts and crafts.

The Bowie show has been condemned by Michael Daley, director of ArtWatch UK, the museums watchdog: "The museum world is losing the plot. They're just crazed about numbers at any cost… Obviously you could fill the V&A every day of the week if you had a pop concert or a bunch of celebs."

Noting that the V&A also covers fashion, he added: "Fashion is a bigger thing… than the cult of one man. If Bowie, why not Liberace? It's about the cult of celebrity, particularly youth." Bowie, he added, did not fit the museum's remit for recording significant fashion.

The V&A is of course tapping into a demand, but whether a cultural museum should be meeting it is another matter. The Kylie Minogue exhibition attracted 271,000 visitors and was one of the museum's most popular shows.

Trynka, who wrote the Bowie biography Starman, said: "Bowie epitomises Britain's influence on fashion and textiles. He represents the best of it. Kylie is a wonderful pop icon, but she hasn't had a lasting effect on popular culture outside of her fanbase."

Today Bowie himself remains elusive. He has not toured since 2006, and turns down requests to appear in public – most recently, the Olympic Games closing ceremony, although his song Fashion was used.

There have been reports of ill-health. Roth said: "[People] try to build a story around him. There's a lot of gossip."

Bowie's spokesman declined to comment. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Guernica, the town that inspired Picasso, is having fun – 75 years after being bombed to hell

It's fiesta time in the Basque country as bitter memories of Hitler and Eta give way to rioja, battered cod and cross-dressing

A large cannon fires into the town square of the Basque town of Guernica, scattering small children. Fortunately, in a place tragically famous as Hitler's testing ground for the bombing of civilian targets, this is just part of the entertainment at the summer fiestas. The shiny weapon shoots watery bubbles at delighted children dressed in swimwear and goggles.

But clues to Guernica's tragic past abound in a market town levelled 75 years ago during an almost non-stop four-hour bombardment in which Luftwaffe units loaned to Spain's Nazi-backed future dictator General Franco practised aerial blitzkrieg.

Buildings across the town currently display two dozen peace posters painted by children from around the world on massive hoardings sized to match the world's most famous anti-war painting – Pablo Picasso's tortured, terrible depiction of the bombardment. His disturbing tableau of screaming women, dismembered bodies, crazed animals and dead children is pinned to walls in shops and bars.

As the Basque country slowly gets used to a peace denied it for almost four decades by the armed separatist group Eta, Guernica is preparing to return to the spotlight in a film starring Antonio Banderas and Gwyneth Paltrow that will depict the 33 days of furious creativity in which Picasso created one of his greatest works.

Banderas and Paltrow, playing the Spanish painter and his photographer muse Dora Maar, will be filming in the town in a specially built replica of Picasso's Paris studio. "Maar is the protagonist and not just because she was his lover and confidante, but because her photographs are the only proof of how the picture evolved," director Carlos Saura explains. "Guernica was an extraordinary synthesis of Picasso's creativity," agrees art historian Gijs van Hensbergen, author of a book on the painting. "Dora was both participant and witness to the creation of the 20th century's most iconic work of art."

Tourists come in search of the old quarter. "We have to tell them there isn't one, that it was bombed to the ground," explained Luis Iriondo, an 89-year-old artist who lived through the bombing as a child. Iriondo recalls how incendiary bombs sent fire sweeping through the town, killing those in bomb shelters and destroying four out of every five buildings. "Each explosion was followed by a blast of air," he said, recalling that it was a busy market day in a town already packed with refugees. "They were horridly warm, as if they tasted of death."

"I spent four hours staring up terrified at the sky," recalled Iriondo's friend Enrique Aranzábal. "After the Spanish civil war I went to sea and ended up working with a German who had flown in those planes. He told me they treated it as a training mission."

Three-quarters of a century later, Guernica is perhaps freer of tension than at any time in its modern history. As the town parties, Iriondo and Aranzábal are dressed in Basque peasant outfits, celebrating the patron saint of San Roque with midday gulps of rioja, slabs of battered cod and thin slices of ham. An accordionist and tambourine player, hired every year by this slowly dwindling circle of elderly friends, play as we sit at a long table under the arches of the postwar town centre.

This year's fiestas are peaceful, untroubled by tensions with Eta supporters or baton charges by twitchy police. "It hasn't always been like that," admitted mayor José María Gorroño. "On the opening day I stood on the town hall balcony and just saw thousands of happy people."

Guernica is naturally, comfortably euskera-speaking – typical of the country and fishing towns east of Bilbao. "Long live ETA," scribbled in marker-pen on a noticeboard, is a reminder that these sorts of places were traditional recruiting grounds for the all-but-defeated terrorist group that announced a definitive end to its 40 years of violence last October. Occasional banners on balconies calling for Eta prisoners to be moved to jails nearer to home show where some sympathies lie.

The historic roots of Basque exceptionalism are visible at one of the few spots to survive the bombardments – the provincial parliament. The ancient oak tree where Spanish monarchs once swore to respect local rights dried out a few years ago, though a younger one sprouts hopefully in its place.

The Basque country's special system that allows it to gather tax and send a portion to Madrid, rather than the other away around, is an inheritance – much envied in Catalonia – of those rights.

The town's peace museum displays a telegram sent the day after Hitler's Junkers 52s and Heinkel 111s joined with Savoia 79s sent by Mussolini to drop almost 40 tons of explosives and incendiary bombs. "Today Guernica is nothing more than burning coals and cinder ... It is still burning," it says.

Guernica's museum, like its hotels and restaurants, is enjoying a peace dividend this year. "There are noticeably more people visiting from other parts of Spain," says the museum's Idoia Orbe.

Fear of Eta violence, and prejudice, used to keep them away, says Gorroño. He represents a new separatist coalition called Bildu that includes some traditional Eta supporters who harbour a visceral hatred for what they call "the Spanish state".

At the town hall Gorroño brings out the Guernica Agreement, signed two years ago, in which leaders of Eta's banned front party finally called for the laying down of arms. "I am proud of that," he says, explaining that his own non-violent Eusko Alkartasuna party, formed 25 years ago, seeks an amicable break with Spain. "My party has always been peaceful."

For the past few decades Guernica has busily been putting the record straight about what really happened on 26 April 1937. "Franco claimed it was burned to the ground by 'separatist reds', but that was a lie," says Gorroño. "Part of what we had to do to begin with was allow historians to tell the true story," explains opposition leader Luis Ortúzar as we pass a bust of George Steer, the Times correspondent who alerted the world to the devastating bombardment. The call for the Guernica picture to be moved here from Madrid's Reina Sofía museum is unlikely to be answered – experts say the vast canvas is too delicate has already travelled too much. The painting has toured Europe twice and went to the US in 1939 to raise funds for civil war refugees. It did not come to Spain until 1981, following Picasso's wishes, when democracy had been restored.

The number of dead from the bombing has been put at 1,654. The town's registered population was just 5,630 inhabitants. The fact that the town's arms factories and main bridge were spared shows that civilians were targeted before more obvious military objectives.

William Smallwood, an American author who learned euskera from Basque shepherds in Idaho, has finally published a book of interviews he did secretly in 1970 – when memories were fresher than today but Franco's police ensured tongues were silenced in public. "There was a fear among the people of discussing politics," he writes in The Day Guernica Was Bombed. "Even a total stranger could experience the chilling effect of seeing sullen pairs of the Guardia Civil walking the street."

But while people in Guernica learned to talk about the bombing only after Franco's death in 1975, they soon found themselves battling another sort of silence, this time enforced by Eta, which killed seven people here. "Victims' families had to hide their grief," explains a board in the peace museum. "Society saw them as collateral damage, a lesser form of evil."

"It is great to live the fiestas without the added tension that the violence somehow created," agreed Ortúzar. "I was in a peace group that protested silently whenever someone was killed. Often there was a counter-demonstration. That sort of tension between neighbours in a small town like this can be unbearable."

But this weekend the town is in fancy dress. Glittery Abba suits, Scottish kilts and bearded women compete to raise a laugh. "I'd ask you out, darling, but I bet you are all booked up," a carefully coiffured señora quips to a cross-dressing middle-aged man, as her friends squawk in delight.

Guernica is having fun. As the wounds – both recent and past – begin to heal, Basques are relaxing. After so many years of bloodshed, it is an uplifting thing to see in the town that inspired Picasso. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 11 2012

It bag creator Katie Hillier turns her talents to jewellery

Katie Hillier, the designer behind one of the most desirable fashion items of our time, the It bag, is now focusing on jewellery

Katie Hillier is the most important designer you've never heard of. When bags became big business in the 2000s, she created many of the accessories that made the big brands millions. She's one of the people who, with the beading and bobbles she stuck on her bags for Luella in the 2000s, is often credited with creating the It bag, the iconic fashion statement of our time, a highly decorated object of desire that changed seasonally, cost a month's salary, and often weighed an absolute tonne.

Today, sitting in the sun-drenched yard of her east London studio, Hillier remembers those years with a dry fondness. "I had this denim Fendi Baguette I'd covered with badges and key rings," she says, ponytail bobbing. "At the same time, Giles Deacon at Bottega Veneta was reinventing what you could do with luxury fashion – taking this pure thing and fucking it up in beautiful ways. Until then, accessories had no… personality."

That's what Hillier did best: personality. She gave names to bags then, adding 'hardware' (chains and buckles); she made them clink. You could hear them coming. "Hardware was a way to add value. Then the price of gold rose and it began to disappear. When Phoebe Philo started at Céline [in 2008] she brought in a cleanness to design."

The It bags Hillier now creates for Marc by Marc Jacobs, Victoria Beckham and Loewe have evolved. "Hardware now seems gratuitous. We think more about the leather. If you're killing an animal, you ought to acknowledge the skin."

She grew up in south London with her grandmother, a cleaner for the BBC, who she followed round the costume department, and her grandfather, who'd take her to a museum every day of the holidays. "Which is where my love of collections comes from. I'd curate my bedroom: the displays on my rocking horse, my Madonna wall. I still collect stuff – shoes, brooches, things with rabbits on, bags…"

In a tall room near her office, Muji storage boxes line the walls. They contain a fraction of her collections. Fifties box bags, Chanel purses, vintage leather cracking at the spine. This room, and her mood boards, with photos and notes like "too normal" on handle details, help put her work into context. "It's not about me," she says of her work. "There's more to success than ego." What is it about her, then, that led Victoria Beckham to her door? She ponders. "She thinks I'm nice."

In 2010, after being named Accessory Designer of the Year, Hillier launched her own label, a collection of fine jewellery she calls "luxury with a wink": little diamond-eyed rabbit doodles that look like they've been bent from 18ct-gold paper clips and nestle on the sternums of Britain's most fashionable ladies, including editor-in-chief of Love Katie Grand. "I've known her forever," says Grand. "She was one of my students at Harrow. I got into trouble for giving her 100% for her degree project. "

Hillier's new collection includes glow-in-the-dark ceramics, and those rabbits again, this time joined by a menagerie of other animals. "Our customers are people who love fashion, but are a bit ironic with it," she explains. "A bit girly, a bit quirky, a bit arty, a bit clever." A bit like her.

"I'd like the paper-clip rabbit to become iconic, but not as ubiquitous as, say, the Tiffany heart. It has to stay a bit secret."

Why? "So cool girls carry on wearing it."

As the person behind the trend, how does she feel about the It bags? The way they Towie-fied, and climbed in price? Can you ever justify a £28,000 handbag? "It's all relative," she sighs. "There will always be a customer who wants to buy one. And sometimes it's grotesque. But I understand if a skin is treated with respect. The term 'luxury' has changed. Now it's often just used to validate a price point."

Does she still love the clinking bags of her early career? "Yeah, you have to," she laughs. "You have to love everything you make. I love it all." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

The inescapable power of architecture

In an extract from his new book, our architecture critic deconstructs the mysterious ways in which buildings shape our lives

An architect used to tell a story. Invited by a couple to design an extension to their house, he dined with them, listened to their needs and desires, heard his and her versions of what they wanted. At the end of the evening, he gave his professional advice. "You don't need an extension," he said, "you need a divorce."

It is advice that could have saved the software entrepreneur Larry Dean tens of millions of dollars. Dean is a man who grew up in a house without indoor plumbing, overcame his early poverty and went on to become a millionaire many times over. In 1992, he and his wife, Lynda, completed the biggest house in Atlanta, Georgia, a mansion of 32,000 square feet, the colour of salmon mousse. According to its architect, Bill Harrison, each square inch of it was given the attention to detail of "a Fabergé egg". The interiors were designed by their son, Chris, then a design student aged 21. The Deans' dream, it would later be reported, "was to raise their four children here in an atmosphere like Dynasty, only happy".

It is hard to do justice to the extravagance of Dean Gardens, as it was called, and the promiscuity of its inspirations and appropriations. To use the words of others: "Inspired by the dome of Florence, Italy's Brunelleschi Cathedral, the Rotunda is perhaps the mansion's most dramatic element. Three and a half storeys high and capped with a circular skylight, the Rotunda sets an elegant tone for this exceptional home." Or: "At the end of this east wing of the main floor is the octagonally shaped Peacock Room. With its baby grand piano and cappuccino bar, this unique space is perfect for entertaining large groups. The room has 11ft x 15ft arched windows which weigh some 12 hundred pounds each. From the centre of the ceiling, 43 feet above the floor, an eight-foot tall 'pendant' lighting fixture is suspended. The ceiling mural was painted by James Chadwick of Atlanta. The table in the centre of the room is carved from English limestone and weighs four thousand pounds. It sits atop a steel beam buried in bedrock under the home."

And these are only a few plums from the feast that was Dean Gardens. There were also the Moroccan rooms, the Egyptian suite, the Oriental suite, the Hawaiian art gallery, the games room got up as a 1950s diner, the malachite bathroom, the silver suite, the raspberry-coloured kitchen, the Old English bedroom, whose en-suite bathroom "is quite masculine, with fixtures reminiscent of a fine locker room".

Dean Gardens is a variation on the theme of Citizen Kane's Xanadu, or its real life inspiration, William Randolph Hearst's Hearst Castle. Like them, it is a compendium of lootings across history and geography. Its architecture reaches across millenniums and continents to assemble a microcosm, an image of the world for the personal enjoyment of its owner. The only parsimony shown by Dean, relative to Kane and Hearst, is that he did not seize whole chunks of historic buildings and have them imported bodily to his home. He only had them mimicked.

A distinctive feature of Dean Gardens was the contribution of young Chris, the interior designer, whose appointment echoes less Xanadu than Kane's purchase of an opera house as a showcase for the singing of his mistress turned second wife. Familial love eclipsed clear perception of talent. For Chris could no more make a room than Susan Alexander could hold a tune; Dean Gardens, the first of two commissions before he wisely ended his design career at the age of 24, proceeded arhythmically and out of key.

Cliches of opulence mingled with spasms of student surrealist angst. It was oysters in ketchup, double fudge caviar and Tabasco ice cream. There were tritons unicorns dolphins jukeboxes waterjets topiary astrolabes chinoiserie tassels flounces marble damask leather abstraction trompe l'oeil statuary four-posters leopardskin zebraskin pediments corinthian ionic doric palms stars moons mosque lights neon globes stripes peacocks pianos chandeliers chandeliers chandeliers gold gold gold royal blue putti lions and a decorated camel. In the games room, a giant anthropomorphised cone of french fries gave a sinister wink. The parental bed, "crafted by North Carolina artist Jane Goco", was engulfed by writhing turquoise vegetables, with terminations like crab claws and by gooey blossomings the colour of vulvas.

With the benefit of hindsight, one can guess that Chris's designs were an unconscious commentary on the state of his parents' marriage. It turned out that Lynda would be only the first of Larry's three– to date – ex-wives. She and he separated in 1993, shortly after moving into the house, and there followed a 17-year struggle to sell the place. In 1994, Michael Jackson was said to be interested. Perhaps sensing that this was a temple to problematic matrimony, he wanted to buy it as a surprise present for his fiancee, Lisa Marie Presley, until news leaked and his plan was ruined.

The house cost $25m to build and a further $18m in upkeep. In 2010, it was finally sold, with the help of the estate agents' encomiums quoted above, for $7.6m. The contents were auctioned for charity. Larry Dean, to his credit, frankly admitted that he had made a mistake, while telling the New York Times that he still considered himself happy and successful.

One can also guess that whatever brought down the Dean marriage was already incubating when the house was conceived and developed, that the house was intended as some kind of remedy but exacerbated the ills it was supposed to cure. The frenetic accumulation of motifs can be seen as a way of covering a void. In which case, Larry and Lynda would be very far from the first people to imagine that homebuilding can fix relationships and be proved wrong. In the early 19th century, for example, Sir John Soane conceived his house in Lincoln's Inn Fields as an ideal environment, laden with archaeology and art, for the edification of his sons. He fell out with them violently, but persisted in creating what is now a preserved, venerated and indeed mesmerising work of domestic architecture.

At the heart of this enduring syndrome is the double meaning of the word "home". It means physical residence, but also the family that inhabit it. It means building, people and relationship. It is easy to imagine that, by fixing the bricks and mortar, one is also fixing the flesh and blood, the more so as buildings seem easier to sort out than people. The results are more tangible, measurable, demonstrable. Because they are expensive and effortful, construction projects offer the appearance of serious attempts to fix something, even if they are irrelevant to the matter in hand.

Dean Gardens, like Soane's house, is a personal cosmos, an image of a world its maker would have rather had than the one in which he found himself.

The idea of home as cosmos can be expressed abstractly, as a geometrical order underlying all things, or physically and explicitly. It is present in Renaissance theory and in the fantastical structures hand-built out of broken china and other debris by untutored obsessives that occur rarely but persistently around the world. It is in the gathering of family photographs and mementoes on a mantelpiece, and in the promise made by interiors magazines: choose the products shown in articles and advertisements and you can form them into your own universe.

The common wish is to dream up a world of which the maker is master, where everything is as he or she would wish it. The same wish drives children to build homes out of cardboard boxes and impose strict entry conditions, and it is a powerful reason why, functional questions apart, clients commission and architects design buildings. As people and cultures learn more, the ambitions of these cosmos-makers increase, to include in their spheres as much knowledge, history and geography, science and religion as they can.

But, if homes aspire to the cosmic, they can also be nomadic. If one desire is to create a static, rooted image of perfection, another is to migrate, colonise and adapt different places, to make a home out of a city or a landscape. If Larry Dean and John Soane wanted to gather the world in one place, others roam it, seeking to make sense of it through the patterns of their wanderings.

A significant portion of humanity lives or lived on the move: Bedouin, Maasai, Roma, peddlers, salesmen, migrant workers, the ever-airborne businessman played by George Clooney in Up in the Air. People live in tents, boats, caravans, igloos, boarding houses and hotels. For sailors, according to Joseph Conrad, "their home is always with them – the ship; and so is their country – the sea". Many in cities have come from somewhere else and are, or hope to be, on the way to another place. It is normal for most city-dwellers to have several different homes during their lives.

People who inhabit through motion include desert-dwellers, obliged to move with herds in search of feeding grounds and markets, and 19th-century flâneurs, gentleman strollers in search of fascination. Some distinctions should be made. There is a difference between the desert nomad or economic migrant who wander to survive and the dandified poet in search of diversion, between necessity and choice, and between escaping hunger and escaping boredom. But all show an ability to construct space out of the tracks they follow and the landmarks, whether a shop window or a sand dune, that they see. They do not need a house to make a home.

In south-east Amsterdam, an enormous housing development called Bijlmermeer, or the Bijlmer for short, was planned in the late 1960s. It aimed to be the ultimate example of the internationally recognised Dutch genius for planning and an attempt to apply with breathtaking consistency and determination the theories of the time. Homes for 100,000 inhabitants were created in almost identical 10-storey concrete blocks, whose walls and windows were mass-produced in factories, laid out on a hexagonal grid. Parks and lakes filled the spaces between the blocks and roads were built on viaducts, to separate cars from pedestrians and people.

The architects, inspired by Soviet models, planned collective facilities – bars, daycare centres, hobby rooms – to stimulate communal life and serve the new society of almost limitless leisure time that modern technology would soon create. Five-room flats, of reasonably generous dimensions, were designed for the needs of a typical Dutch family. An overriding principle was the avoidance of danger or discomfort: covered walkways meant you could get from car to flat without getting wet; vehicular traffic was separated from people; flats were designed to catch the maximum of sunlight and fresh air.

Although it attracted optimistic and idealistic early residents, problems arose. A promised metro line to central Amsterdam did not materialise, leaving the Bijlmer cut off. Nor did the provision of adequate shopping come to pass. No one had worked out who would pay for the communal facilities and the maintenance of the parks, meaning that the latter degenerated. The former stayed closed, except when opened by residents' initiatives. The construction cost more than expected, so rents went up to recoup costs. Flats emptied or were never occupied in the first place.

Then, in 1975, Holland ceded independence to its colony Suriname, on the north coast of South America. Citizens there were entitled to a Dutch passport, with the result that soon there were nearly as many Surinamese in Holland, in search of economic opportunities, as in Suriname. With inevitable logic, many moved into the vacant flats of the Bijlmer, despite official attempts to stop it becoming "Holland's first ghetto", by rationing the provision of homes there to immigrants. The prices remained high, leading to overcrowding, in one case 12 adults and 12 children in one flat.

The new residents adapted the flats, designed for typical white Dutch families, to their own needs. They knocked through walls or floors to make larger homes for their extended families. Many were from rural backgrounds and lived as they had in tropical villages, only adapted to a colder climate. Livestock was kept in flats, campfires lit indoors and rubbish thrown from balconies to the ground, rather than down chutes into bins. Catholic churches were set up in disused garages and flats became part-time temples to the Surinamese religion of Winti. Bird-singing contests were held in the parks, with betting on which brightly coloured bird would sing the longest. A petting zoo and farm were set up and for a while a Bijlmer cheese was made. The architects' dream of communal activity came true, but not in the orderly form they had imagined.

The estate's original problems of disconnection and poor facilities remained, with the result that more stable and better-off families left when they could. The Bijlmer declined, crime grew. The walkways, products of the original ambition for complete safety and comfort, became dangerous and ground-floor lock-ups became brothels and drug dens. The estate's bad name, acquired when the first residents started complaining about its defects, got worse. Racists called it "Negro-ghetto" and "monkey mountain." Masterplans for its improvement by leading architects came and went unrealised. In 1992, an El Al cargo-carrying 747, trying to return to Schiphol airport after two of its engines had fallen off, crashed, made a 10-storey gash at one of the 120 corners in one of the hexagonally-planned blocks and killed 43 (or possibly more, as the large numbers of unregistered immigrants made it difficult to be certain). It was a random catastrophe, but confirmed Bijlmermeer's image as a place of ill omen. Following the aeroplane's lead, the authorities later demolished most of the blocks and replaced them with lower buildings.

Meanwhile, however, the blighted place began to show glimmers of success. The residents, who included Hindus, Antilleans, Ghanaians and white Dutch as well as Surinamese, had organised themselves into a community group substantial enough to get itself heard by official bodies. A thriving weekly market started and a cultural festival, Blij met de Bijlmer ("Happy with the Bijlmer"), was set up. The latter, perhaps burdened by the forced upbeatness of its name, closed after 16 years, but a more successful festival, called Kwakoe, grew from a series of informal soccer matches into an event of music, dance, sport and food that now attracts 400,000 people. Crime started to fall, and if the Bijlmer did not become paradise on earth, it was no longer the sink of despair it was once thought to be.

The point of the Bijlmer story is partly how an obsessively planned development could be thrown off course by the unexpected: the independence of Suriname, a plane crash. It is also about the way in which a migrant population can, not easily but with some success, make a home in an unpromising location. It is hard to imagine anywhere less domestic than the huge, repetitive blocks of the Bijlmer or more alien to the incoming Surinamese. The population of the Bijlmer had to discover, in a few decades, how to inhabit a place through adaptations, actions, successes and mistakes. It is the opposite of the Deans and Soane, who invested everything in the fixed fabric of their homes. The residents of the Bijlmer make their universes around and in spite of the fabric.

It is easy to see the absurdity of a belief in the healing power of masonry – it is a superstition, animism – but people fall for it again and again and they are not entirely wrong to do so. For, if it is a mistake to think that a house can mend a family, the opposite is also false. That is, the built background to our lives is not irrelevant, either. To put the case negatively, the wrong kinds of buildings can inflict misery and frustration. A world in which the dwelling becomes a purely technical question is not appealing.

To be more positive, we want buildings to embellish, beautify, dignify, distract or divert. We want them to propose and to enable: to suggest what could be, to make things possible, to give freedoms. The idea of home, whether expressed as stable cosmos or as nomadic wandering, shows a basic truth, which is that the space we occupy is not neutral to us. We cannot look at it with detachment. We are in it, we make it and it makes us. What are mysterious are the ways in which physical surroundings interact with our desires. If Dean Gardens seems over-determined and clumsy, where exactly did it go wrong? How might a builder or an architect make a happier relation of stuff to humanity?

The assumption behind Dean Gardens, or the Soane house, is that there is a close alignment of form and content: that if a mansion represents happy family life, such life will take place within it. Similar conceptions have played their part in the global economy, when the illusionary solidity of owning a home contributed to the American sub-prime crisis. As the US secretary of housing and urban development Shaun Donovan put it, "the built environment helped create the economic crisis".

The Surinamese colonisation of Bijlmermeer suggests that people can make their home anywhere, without or despite the contribution of built form, albeit with considerable struggle. Other examples suggest that the planning and design of cities can, after all, make a difference to the futures they will contain, but with luck and unpredictable events along the way.

The failings of Dean and Soane show that they misjudged the power of form and imagined a too direct connection between the inanimate and the animate. If there is cause and effect in the relations of minerals and people, it is more circuitous and reciprocal and less linear. If there is truth in architecture, its shape is not immediately obvious. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Dieter Roth: Diaries; Philip Guston: Late Paintings – review

Fruitmarket Gallery; Inverleith House, Edinburgh

Dieter Roth was a celebrated sculptor, performer, film-maker and draughtsman whose work has been displayed all over the world since his death in 1998. He was also an alcoholic. His last video installation was a record of his final year, lived in the knowledge that he was slowly dying of the consequences.

You can watch Solo Scenes – for hours, potentially for days – on 128 video screens at the Fruitmarket Gallery, part of Dieter Roth: Diaries. It is one of the most significant shows in a particularly strong edition of the Edinburgh art festival. There he is, this old man in a soft cap with his solitary ways, seen in the low brown glow of his apartment. He is a figure fit for late Rembrandt or the novels of Samuel Beckett.

He works, he eats, he writes, he thinks. He hangs out his meagre washing. In bed, beneath the lamp, he reads late into the night; in the morning there is toast to make. Snow gathers outside, spring comes and he tends his plants. Each scene is conspicuously framed (the camera judders and shakes) before Roth appears within it. This is one of the longest time-lapse self-portraits in art: literally, life passing from moment to moment.

And what does Roth do, faced with this mortal dread? He simply goes on working, a common and quiet heroism, as the dawn-to-dusk structure of the work implies. Perhaps some concession is made to comfort – the artist very often appears in his dressing gown, frequently with a blanket – but the low buzz of activity never ceases, even against the faint soundtrack of a clock.

There are drawings to make and letters to write. Some kind of art is gathering, quite apart from these videos themselves. In the studio there are occasional glimpses of self-portraits, sculptures, paintings; and hundreds of ring binders neatly arranged in library shelves.

The actual shelves are installed upstairs at the Fruitmarket Gallery, each file containing the ill-considered trifles of Roth's daily life: bills and tickets and restaurant napkins, bank statements and parking tickets, anything and everything that was less than 5mm thick, preserved in this orderly archive entitled Flat Waste.

Shoring up the fragments was not just a compulsion for Roth, it was an aesthetic principle. He made fantastically elaborate environments – a studio, an entire bar complete with empties and overflowing ashtrays – out of junk. He also worked with chocolate, baking dough and soft cheese, the inevitable deterioration of each piece equated with life's decline. The materials of art were indivisible from the materials of life.

It might have helped to include an earlier work for those unfamiliar with Roth. But the Fruitmarket has several ingenious self-portraits rapidly executed in ballpoint (the artist as a whirring fan, a speech bubble, a weeping pig) and many of his copiously illustrated diaries. These are written in his native German, but there are tantalising entries in English: "Dorothy loves you madly. She hopes to get through this phase and love you more." What happened with Dorothy, one longs to know, after that declaration in 1967?

The diaries, like the videos, put everything on the same par, from the love letter to the last cup of coffee. And that is the ethos of the whole show. It doesn't feel desperate – a clutching at straws – so much as ravenously interested in everything that exists. Solo Scenes is only finished, so far as I can tell, in that there is a last monitor showing a last piece of video. The death is unrecorded and the work feels energetic, relishing every minute of every day. Roth's curiosity never dies.

The art festival this year feels pensive, profound. The Ingleby Gallery has a rediscovered work by that great Scottish original Ian Hamilton Finlay – a lethal air-sea battle played out on an ironing board with wooden planes and irons, tragedy somehow miniaturised with no loss of effect. At lunchtime each day, in response to Edinburgh Castle's one o'clock gun, you can hear the disembodied voice of the Turner prize winner Susan Philipsz hanging in the air at evocative staging posts around the city: a siren song drawing you into the past.

And the Dutch artist Melvin Moti has made a spectacularly beautiful work for the National Museum of Scotland simply by passing UV rays over objects from the collection – scorpions, fluorescing fossils, perfume bottles made from uranium – and filming the high-chrome effects. These visions appear vast and small, planetary and yet subatomic.

But best of all is the show of late paintings by the American master Philip Guston at Inverleith House, the first to be staged in Scotland. This is the Guston of the great tragicomic period with its near-cartoonish vocabulary: men with heads like lima beans, huge flatiron shoes, hoods riding the streets smoking cigarettes in open-top cars, gigantic hands reaching down from the heavens to make a point (in this case, the point of a pencil).

In The Studio, a hood paints his own portrait, appraising his art through Disney eye-slits and smoking as he works. The cigarette has been airbrushed from the picture on the easel, along with the light bulb, the palette and the one-handed clock, but in every other respect he paints himself exactly as he is painted by Philip Guston himself.

For this is Guston's allegorical self-portrait: the artist as antihero and nicotine addict, getting through two packs of Camel a day. The picture is full of jokes, from the rueful allusion to Velázquez in the silver, pink and black of the colour scheme to the fact that you can't tell whether the smoke is issuing from the cigarette or the paintbrush.

The bulb, the Klannish hood, the ciggy with its orange tip: Guston evolved a pungent vocabulary of forms that couldn't stand for anything except themselves and yet always meant so much more. Those hoods, hugger-mugger in some kind of office, what are they up to with their arms raised against each other? That curious citadel, pink, fat and squat, ascending like Brueghel's towering Babel, seems both ancient and yet so modern you might turn a corner and find it before you today, a sinister bureaucracy rising up to blood and milk clouds.

Guston's late paintings have become archetypes, irreducibly simple, translating the world. Like good cartoons, and great paintings, they reveal what cannot easily be said.

This is an ideal introduction for newcomers and a perfectly condensed anthology for Guston's admirers, especially since many of the works have never been shown in Britain before. There are only nine paintings, all borrowed from private collections in the United States. But with Guston, a little goes a long way. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

London: Portrait of a City by Reuel Golden – review

Charting urban change from the Victorian era to the modern day, this is a celebration of London's people, spirit and style

As a pictorial history of London, this handsomely produced volume is unrivalled. One of Taschen's bigger-is-better coffee-table books, it is arranged into five chronological sections, celebrating – and occasionally lamenting – urban change in London from Victorian times to now. It tells a powerful and vibrant story, zeroing in on the pubs, docks, alleys, construction sites, crowded streets, markets and shops – places where people either meet or cross paths as strangers – that give shape to daily life.

The book draws richly on urban still photography and decades of the city's photojournalism to illustrate its major themes and trends. The best pictures, aesthetically and historically, vividly reveal the city's slums. London is often depicted as crowded, intimidating, dirty and anonymous; murky images of its dank fogs – one of which claimed 4,000 lives in 1952, mainly as a result of respiratory diseases – reveal their density and gloom. Other pictures – men walking on a frozen Thames in 1894, a homeless shelter in 1901, troops at Euston on their way to the Somme – all retain a human individuality, revealing the stoicism and camaraderie of the inhabitants and capturing the city's indomitable spirit, its landmarks and its style.

Collated by Reuel Golden, former editor of the British Journal of Photography, London features work from David Bailey, Cecil Beaton, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Terence Donovan and Roger Fenton, among others, alongside a well-crafted and informative text and references from key films, books and records. Many pictures have not been used before, so there's a constant feeling of revelation, and it's fascinating to see the images presented in such an indulgent and uncrowded manner. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Through Edward Hopper's eyes: in search of an artist's seaside inspiration

Gail Albert Halaban follows in the footsteps of the great American artist, photographing the elegant houses he painted almost 100 years ago from the same vantage point

Gail Albert Halaban has identified 16 houses in Gloucester, Massachusetts, that were painted by Edward Hopper over several summers in the 1920s and she reckons there are a few more that have, as yet, escaped her notice. Over the past three years, Albert Halaban, a fine art photographer whose work has appeared in the New York Times and Time magazine, has been tracking down the Hopper houses in Gloucester, a picturesque city on the Atlantic coast, and photographing them from the same vantage points that the great American artist used to paint them from nearly a century ago.

Albert Halaban was not trying to imitate Hopper's watercolours, nor was she the first to discover the houses – the subject of The Mansard Roof (1923), a large, elegant residence in the city's Rocky Neck area, has had homage paid to it by Hopper enthusiasts for decades. Her interest has more personal motivations – her father grew up in Gloucester and she's been spending summers there since childhood, so was intrigued to see how another artist had responded to the city. "It's given me a fresh set of eyes on something I know very well."

Hopper is a name that crops up regularly in relation to her work, particularly Out My Window, a series of photographs – soon to be a book – in which she portrays New Yorkers at home as viewed from neighbouring apartments. "People kept comparing me to Hopper and I wanted to know where that came from."

She was also keen to make contact with the occupants of houses and find out how living in places of art-historical interest had affected them. "Some were aware of it; others had no idea. I called on one old man in his late 90s and he didn't know his house had been in a Hopper painting. He was very excited because he had lived in another Hopper house in Gloucester as a child and that house had burnt down."

At first, she was surprised by the differences between the Gloucester paintings and Hopper's better-known later works. "When I think of Hopper I think of Nighthawks and all those New York paintings. His work is very moody, mysterious and lonely, but the Gloucester pictures are bright and sunny and much less dramatic."

When she photographed the houses, however, she found subtle connections and similarities. "I tried to stand where Hopper stood, to make the composition the same, and was amazed that, for so many of the houses, he picked the least pretty perspective. In Houses of Squam Light, there's this picturesque lighthouse just to the left of frame and he cropped it out. Gloucester is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been to, but he seems to have depicted the more hard-edged, working-class end of it. He turned his back on some of the prettiest places, which is what he did in his New York work."

She was also intrigued to discover that Hopper, who is regarded as a realist and who painted the houses in Gloucester with great precision, manipulated one important aspect of what he saw. "He changed the light and shadows in his pictures a lot and combined different times of day so that the shadow might go in two directions – that's how he created his narrative, his drama." Albert Halaban responded to this by taking a more painterly approach to her photographs and manipulating the light as Hopper had done in the 1920s. "The houses that he painted remain, but the narratives he created only exist on his canvases. Standing in the same places, I was inspired to take my own liberties and create narratives that are my own."

Out My Window is published by Random House © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry – review

The American documentarist Alison Klayman had unequalled access to Ai Weiwei during the time he was working on the Bird's Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and staging his large So Sorry exhibition in Munich, and her excellent film is a lively, informative, funny and inspirational portrait of a courageous, charismatic, highly original man. He comes across as a gregarious, unpompous, comic version of the Soviet dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Drawing on interviews with his wife, mother, brother, numerous people from the art world in China and elsewhere and the man himself, Klayman deals with every aspect of his career as architect, photographer, conceptual artist, social critic, blogger, tweeter and gadfly extraordinaire.

The movie is equally good on his formative childhood and adolescence in exile to a distant part of China as the son of the despised modernist poet Ai Qing, as well as on his 12 years in America where he developed his art, had his first one-man exhibition, and literally gave the finger to the Chinese government with the famous photograph that has a raised middle finger in the foreground and Tiananmen Square in the background. The account of his work in exposing the cover-up over the student deaths during the Sichuan earthquake is deeply moving (as is the dedication of the young people who assisted him). The indignation one feels over the vindictive bureaucrats who framed, persecuted and jailed him is tempered by the wit and humour with which he responded.

His defiant art is often extremely funny. There are several heartbreaking moments, such as his 78-year-old mother expressing her pride and concern, and some beautiful images such as Ai walking across the hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds in the Tate's Turbine Hall accompanied by his little son. The film ends with the words "Never Retreat, Re-tweet", a characteristically pawky variation on the battle cry of the American socialist martyr Joe Hill, "Don't Grieve, Organise". © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 04 2012

Edinburgh fringe theatre roundup

Peep; Still Life; Coalition; After the Rainfall; One Hour Only

On the first day of the Edinburgh festival fringe last week – "preview Wednesday", when venue staff are still wallpapering every flat surface with posters for the month's attractions, and early-up spectators wander around trying not to feel like unworldly partygoers who arrived at the exact hour written on the invitation – I was reminded how shockingly intimate fringe theatre can be.

Nudity did it. Unblinking, close-quarters nudity. Day one at Edinburgh had in previous years cast me as a reluctant hula dancer (that was 2011's Dance Marathon) and a ranging urban troublemaker (2010's En Route, asking of its participants trespass and minor acts of graffiti). This year, hardly off the train, only just done with the great annual question of whether to get a post-journey jacket potato from Tasty Tatties or a scotch pie from Auld Jock's, I was squatting down in a peep show-style booth trying to maintain a stern and professional expression while a candid play about sex unfolded six inches from my face.

Peep was an odd production, a triptych of 20-minute playlets for which the creative team had constructed a new makeshift venue outside the Pleasance Courtyard. Four actors performed in a room little bigger than a double bed, an equatorial line of one-way glass ringing the space at waist height. Behind this sat audience members, each in their own tiny compartment. We were supposed to feel sordid, peering in on performers from our cubicles, and I did. This was especially so during the short entitled "69", a montage about the pleasures and problems associated with sex in modern Britain. At one point, without warning, the semi-clothed actors spun to the glass and hovered close, glaring – giving the audience some idea of what it's like, perhaps, for the luckless who've worked in such booths in real life.

Costume, again, was an impermanent thing across town in the white-walled confines of the Whitespace gallery. Here I saw Still Life, a one-woman show about Henrietta Moraes, Francis Bacon's famous model and muse. Sue MacLaine played Moraes, clad, sometimes, in a burgundy robe, more often in nothing at all. The audience were asked to cluster around with handed-out paper to draw pencil sketches.

"I will hold this pose for one minute," said Moraes, interrupting the story of her life to stand straight-backed. "I will hold this pose for eight minutes," she said later, explaining that Bacon had once asked for her to be photographed in just such a reclining position. The resulting pictures inspired his A Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, which sold this year at Christie's for £21m. The original photographs of Moraes, meanwhile, were sold on as porn in a Soho pub. "Ten bob each."

Written by its gutsy performer MacLaine, Still Life interwove affectionate elements of biography with a more oblique sense of what it cost to be the human starting point for lasting art. Moraes was an alcoholic and heavy drug user. Bacon made her an immortal, but his close attention might have left behind trouble. At one point in the play Moraes begged her scribbling audience: "Draw me now and see if you can get beyond almost… Show it back to me. Show me myself."

Still with the sheaves of sketch paper in my pocket, I went on to the entirely different Coalition, a political comedy at the Pleasance Dome. It presented a near-future Britain, the alliance between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats almost over, the Lib Dems in ruin. No Cameron, no Clegg, the key players here were fictional, the Lib Dems led by Matt Cooper (comedian Thom Tuck), a likable weakling so beaten down by "coalition chess" he can't really remember why there should be anything wrong with the idea of 48 new British nuclear plants. An enjoyable comic play, a little baggy at 90 minutes. Good but not great.

I still wanted great – that brilliant play, seen in its first few outings at the fringe, impressive enough to make you its missionary. Everybody! Everybody! Abandon your plans, get tickets! A single gem is enough, in week one, to make all the early-bird aimlessness and guesswork of the emergent festival worthwhile. On Thursday I saw two brilliant plays, back-to-back.

After the Rainfall told a woozily complex story that strung together ideas about colonialism, revolution, social media and, somehow, ant hills; a story of parallel lives (a scientist, a spy, a sister, a student) lived out over a span of more than 70 years. The group behind the play, Curious Directive, staged a fringe hit last year, Your Last Breath, that was similarly layered, jumping about in time to tell a story about extreme human endurance. Its high point was a memorable dance sequence involving coloured string that criss-crossed the stage.

After the Rainfall needed no similar centrepiece. Its flourishes were fainter: rolling landscape, seen from the window of a low-flying plane, summoned by a simple piece of canvas being manipulated under a spot. Such subtlety characterised script and performance, the unfairness of colonial Britain's artefact-pinching, for instance, inferred not in a lecture but in a believable conversation between strangers on a train. As well as vibrant design, a strength of this rising company is a talent for compactness. After the Rainfall achieved more in a single hour than would seem possible. I left heavy with its weight, eager to sit down and think it all through.

But no time. I was straight to the uppermost floor of the Underbelly venue on Cowgate to watch a third play in two days about sexual exposure. And One Hour Only threatened, for a minute or so, to be as intense as Peep, as solemn as Still Life. In fact it was neither; instead, a terrifically simple love story, a modern Brief Encounter, staged in a brothel with the ticking away of costly minutes threatening the growing liking between prostitute Marley (Nadia Clifford) and customer AJ (Faraz Ayub). Marley and AJ are Londoners, clever and studying to better themselves, but young and naive enough to assume that their knowing, 21st-century ease with paid-for sex will never trouble them intellectually. Of course it does – the worse, over their 60 minutes together, as they begin to fall for each other.

Written by performance poet Sabrina Mahfouz (who last year impressed with dramatic monologue Dry Ice) the play did not spend much time decrying the sex trade. That has been done well, and often, at fringes past. Instead, Mahfouz made quiet study of the strange and even hostile places like-minds can find each other out. Staged in the uppermost room of the Underbelly, a hangar-like auditorium that is arguably the least cosy at the festival, One Hour Only achieved an intimacy that surpassed even those productions put on in a mocked-up peep booth, a life drawing class. The story, not the setting, forced audience proximity here. Everyone kept leaning in closer and closer. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Van Gogh to Kandinsky; Edvard Munch: Graphic Works; Picasso and Modern – review

Scottish National Gallery; Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

There is a painting in the Scottish National Gallery so ominous one cannot immediately shrug off the memory. It shows a grey stone colonnade in some nameless place stretching away into infinity. An esplanade on the right is depthless and deserted, more like dark water than land. The interior of the colonnade is an open tomb. The painting puts you on the spot, confronts you with its eerie perspective beneath a rain-laden sky that is not quite day and not quite night. But where exactly are you?

This startling watercolour is by the Belgian artist Léon Spilliaert. It was painted in 1908 in Ostend. You might wonder, as some have, whether it has something to do with those murderous times, when millions of Africans were slaughtered during Leopold I's reign in the Belgian Congo. And perhaps it carries deep overtones of horror and sorrow.

But it may also come from Spilliaert's own experience as a chronic insomniac who walked the streets of Ostend by night to distract himself from the pain of a stomach ulcer. His scenes are silent, monochromatic, empty of all human presence except his own wretched solitude; this is the art of a noctambulist.

Spilliaert's work is not often seen outside Belgium. Indeed many of the names in the tremendous Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910 may be unfamiliar, since symbolist art of any sort has had mixed fortunes, and symbolist landscapes in particular. Indeed this is the first pan-European show, to my knowledge, and not the least thrill of it is the sight of the continent stretching out before you, from the Scandinavian fjords to la France profonde, from the ravines of Mallorca to the dark forests of Bavaria.

The facts of a landscape are never supposed to be the point for these artists – "don't paint the thing itself, paint the effect it produces" wrote the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé – but one cannot help relishing the sight, and not just the sense, of place; the lakes of Finland, bright as mirrors, and the blue snows of the Eiger even in high summer.

As for the effect produced, it is almost overwhelmingly intense. More than a hundred paintings have been borrowed from museums across Europe, including masterpieces by Van Gogh, Munch, Arnold Böcklin, August Strindberg and James Ensor, and the mood plunges and soars by the room. It rises to ecstasy with Ensor's great vision of Christ Calming the Storm, in which sea and sky appear to unite in radiant meltdown; and it sinks into the most plangent gloom with the German painter Franz von Stuck's Evening Landscape, in which dark trees glower against the fading twilight.

Light, to adapt Manet, appears to be the main protagonist of the symbolist landscape. Indeed it is hard to see what else connects the works in this show. Symbolism is such a vague term – especially when it is made to stretch all the way from the Victorian visions of GF Watts to Paul Signac's pointillist arcadias – that it may be worth ignoring altogether in Edinburgh. It is self-evident that these landscapes are more than descriptions; that you're not just meant to admire the view.

But while it may be very clear that Léon Bakst's aerial view of an Aegean archipelago struck by lightning while a Greek statue breaks into a sinister grin must have the decline and fall of ancient civilisations in mind, it is less obvious that Spilliaert's art can be understood in terms of colonial politics. German symbolism, for instance, is routinely diagnosed as a reaction to Bismarck's modernised materialist state, but that doesn't begin to explain the immense variety of these German landscapes, from von Stuck's opalescent puddles at dusk to the island graveyards of Böcklin.

There are some real surprises in this exhibition. The reclusive Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi, master of the mysterious interior, steps out into the streets of Copenhagen to paint Amalienborg Square in the queerest of filtered brown shadows: out of time. There are passionately beautiful treescapes by Mondrian before he turned to abstraction. August Strindberg's harried surfaces seem to prefigure the art of Anselm Kiefer just as surely as many of the artists in the Silent Cities section get there before Giorgio de Chirico.

And there is a show within a show here, as well – a survey of landscape painting at its wildest. Vertical versus horizontal, near against far, the effects of close-up and cropping, of vantage points high above, or way below, with a disappearing horizon or a double focus or no focus at all; it is a masterclass in radical landscape painting.

These are pictures to send shivers down the spine, and even to fill one with dread, above all in the case of Edvard Munch. In Winter Night, the great shape-maker coins a bat-black tree with its branches out-flung like a cloaked figure before an immense frozen waste as night falls. The tree is as frightening as the dying light: will we get away before darkness overwhelms us?

The Scream counts, I suppose, as a symbolist landscape plus figure. It is also on view in Edinburgh in the form of a hand-coloured woodcut in Edvard Munch: Graphic Works From the Gundersen Collection at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Munch's prints are as articulate as his paintings – sometimes more so – and this show of 50 works goes as deep, in its incisive way, as the superb tribute to the exuberant old miserabilist currently on show at Tate Modern.

The big festival show at the SNGMA, Picasso and Modern British Art, originated at Tate Britain in February. It is more successful in Edinburgh than it was in London. This is not simply because the rooms in Edinburgh, with their natural light and human proportions, are a better place to look at paintings than the subterranean galleries at Millbank, but because this version is so well edited.

The idea is to look at three artists who paid sharp attention to Picasso without being overwhelmed – Wyndham Lewis, Francis Bacon, David Hockney – plus several more who fairly swooned. In London the comparison was often cruel, but some of the weaker painters (the Bloomsburys) have been cut back here and the main trio given much clearer representation. The show becomes a concise evolution of British modernism in which the influence of Picasso now looks more like learning and less like theft.

Picasso himself springs alive in zany photographs and drawings from the collection of the British surrealist Roland Penrose at the SNGMA, and, of course, in many stunning pictures, including the Tate's Three Dancers and his beautiful portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter in blue moonlight. It is also excellent to see those two Scottish mavericks, the Roberts Colquhoun and MacBryde in the cubist context. Look out for MacBryde's aggressive cucumber and apocalyptic, wild-eyed kipper. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Why the Southbank Centre redevelopment plan is sheer folly

Cramming London's South Bank with restaurants and retail will rob the capital of precious open space

This summer saw an exhibition called Invisible, about the value of things you can't see, and about spaces left open for the imagination to inhabit. It shows how important it is to have some places where no one is filling your head with messages or sales pitches or commands to take part in some scripted and planned activity.

The message of Invisible, at the Hayward Gallery, appears to have been lost on the administration of the Southbank Centre, where the Hayward stands. For they are currently pushing forward a plan for redeveloping the Hayward and the neighbouring Queen Elizabeth Hall that will mean thrusting commercial space into almost every spare void in and around these buildings. They want to put restaurants on the roof and shopping in the undercroft and to the sides. They want to stuff the place, in the words of John Donne, before, behind, between, above, below.

They are currently running a "competitive interview process with a selection panel" to choose architects for the development. According to the brief issued to shortlisted practices, the plan is to insert more than 5,000 sq metres of food, drink and retail. That's about one-and-a-half times the space currently available to the public for enjoying art and music, which is going to be only slightly increased. A glass atrium is suggested between the gallery and the concert hall. At the nearby Royal Festival Hall a familiar blend of chain restaurants has already been installed – Yo! Sushi, Eat, Giraffe, Strada, Wagamama – and there seems every reason to believe that this pattern will continue.

The plan seems to be, in other words, to make the Southbank Centre resemble Terminal 5 or Canary Wharf or any moderately upmarket shopping mall you can think of, where steel and glass frame a predictable retail offer. It will also further the transformation of the southern side of the Thames into a long strip of importuning and pitching that starts at the tawdry fringe of the old County Hall and continues past the London Eye. Here, anything left open for wandering or reflection is seen as a missed opportunity for exploitation.

Yet the Southbank Centre should not be like everywhere else. It should be a place apart, where you can breathe a different kind of air and see the city in a different way. Its raised walkways give you a new perspective on the river, and its rugged 1960s architecture, like a craggy rock formation, creates a different sense of time to central London's frenetic streets. These concrete structures have been much criticised but even though they have been minimally cared-for over several decades they still have nobility and – something increasingly precious because it is getting rarer – the provision of space and surface that is open, free, unprogrammed, unconsumed by branding and marketing.

Its obduracy could be an obstacle to the mall-ification of the South Bank, but the Southbank Centre has taken care to obtain from the government immunity from listing for five years – that is, it will be impossible for the Hayward and Queen Elizabeth Hall to be listed as buildings of architectural or historical importance, which considerably weakens their protection against inappropriate changes. This decision is plain outrageous: whether you like these buildings or not, they are by any measure significant buildings of their time and deserving of listing. The centre says it is working on "a conservation management plan" for its buildings but it's hard to see how their essential qualities will withstand smothering in retail.

Nor can we be confident that the centre is going about choosing its architect in the best possible way. This is an important commission and also a challenging one, requiring particular skills and sensitivities, and in most European countries there would be two independent architects on the selection jury. Here there is only one architect, Rick Mather, who is the author of a long-standing masterplan for the South Bank as a whole. Rather, the key decision-makers seem to be figures such as the centre's property director Mark Rushworth. Rushworth was formerly at the developers Brookfield, whose Strata tower was awarded the Carbuncle Cup for the ugliest building of the year, and whatever his skills as a developer, the South Bank would benefit from a level of architectural advice that it does not appear to be getting.

A shortlist for the competition was recently announced, which includes some good architects but whose rationale is not obvious. It looks like a bet-hedging list, with several who might be regarded as safe pairs of hands but who don't have a special affinity for the location. Grimshaw is there, famous for its Eden Project, but which doesn't seem particularly well suited to the nimble footwork this project would require. One international superstar, Rem Koolhaas's practice OMA, is there, which raises the question why it was chosen and no others like it. Somewhat bizarrely, another practice, Allies and Morrison, was added after an initial list of seven was announced. It was said that its first emailed application was wrongly rejected as spam.

Of course the Southbank Centre is not making these plans out of a desire to vandalise the place. It wants to improve the backstage areas of its concert halls and art galleries, and it needs to fix the Hayward's roof. It wants larger foyers. It needs money to do these things, and although the Arts Council has put up £20m (subject to plans being developed by an absurd deadline), it is not enough. It also likes the idea of "activity", of having people buzzing over every available surface, and so if it can install money-making business that also attract  people it looks like a win-win.

These ideas are not new. Over the past quarter-century successive administrators of the Southbank have put forward similar ideas. They got the architect Terry Farrell to design one such project in the late 1980s, which was roundly criticised for its excessive commercialism. Later, Richard Rogers proposed a giant glass roof that proved too ambitious for its own good. More recently they succeeded in making over the Royal Festival Hall and inserting that Giraffe and Yo! Sushi, the profitability of which has emboldened them to take the idea further. But the restaurants and shops are a relatively small part of the Festival Hall; they do not engulf it.

It's not that the Hayward and Queen Elizabeth Hall are beyond improvement, or that it's a bad thing to have a bite to eat from time to time. But these things require care, an awareness of what is special about the place they already have, and an idea of what it could be. None of these things are evident in the brief, in the selection process of the architects, and in the decision not to list the buildings.

The Southbank Centre says that we are at an early stage, and that it will "refine the brief, which will include an appropriate mix and usage of space". The trouble is that the brief doesn't need refining so much as tearing up and starting again. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Edinburgh festival diary: news and gossip

Valentina makes tea, comics pose with pets and a man plays dead for a month

T stands for tedium

Bravest performer at this year's fringe? Early shout for Valentina Ceschi, one half of the duo who perform the offbeat play Captain Ko and the Planet of Rice (Underbelly). For at least 10 minutes Ceschi mimes the role of an absent-minded, tea-making elderly lady. She slowly turns on a kettle, opens cupboard doors, closes them, turns on the kettle again… It goes on and on. In opening week it's fair to say the audience were restless. Some fell to giggles and a few, inevitably, walked out. Ceschi never once flinched. Bravo!

Live on stage? Well, dead actually

A different type of commitment is being shown this month by a supporting player in Matthew Osborn's Shopping Centre at the Gilded Balloon. A man plays dead on stage for the show's entire 55-minute running time. That'll require roughly 1,500 minutes of deadness over the course of the festival. Double bravo!

Pets win prizes

It isn't looking like a vintage year for comedians' promo posters in Edinburgh (and not just because Richard Herring, in a recent broadside against the commercialisation of the fringe, likened festival poster campaigns to "atomic warfare"). There seems to be an unexpected minor vogue for portraits of standups clutching pets: Tania Edwards holds a restless cat, Jim Jeffries a sleepy-eyed dog. Pete Johansson goes for shock, smoking a crack pipe. Loretta Maine, meanwhile, illustrates her show Bipolar with a picture of two polar bears. Mm.

Does that ring a bell?

Verbatim sporting play The Prize (Underbelly) bravely teases the Olympic bother-police by putting circular award crests on its posters. This seems to suggest, from a distance, the famous rings. If we see any stage invasions of The Prize by uniformed IOC strong-arms, you'll know why.

Hooray for Harry's hobby

As well as trialling material for his forthcoming UK tour over the first few days of the fringe, Harry Hill is also showcasing his artistic talents in his first public exhibition of paintings and sculptures, My Hobby, which opened on Friday at White Stuff and runs until 2 September. Characteristically surreal, it features celebrities depicted as you've never seen them – including Philip Schofield as Munch's The Scream (it really suits him), and Britpop stars painted on coconuts. There's also a specially commissioned interview between Hill and cult artist David Shrigley. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Lost Olympians - in pictures

Colombian-born photographer Caroll Taveras is helping lost souls reach their destinations in return for a quick portrait in a studio at east London

July 29 2012

Meltdown 2012 – Marina Abramovic: 'Artists can do whatever they want'

Why men will be banned from Marina Abramovic's Meltdown show

Performance artist best known for her 2010 work, The Artist is Present, in which for three months she invited visitors to take turns sitting opposite her at New York's MoMA gallery

What does Antony mean to you?

Rufus Wainwright invited me to his Christmas concert at Carnegie Hall and Antony sang a song called Snowy Angel. The moment he opened his mouth, I stood up from my seat. His voice hit me in my stomach. It was so emotional and so incredible. Later on we met and talked, and we became friends. To me, he is somebody who has just fallen from the sky, like an angel. It's not just the singing, it's the poetry in his words, and the issues he's interested in – taking responsibility for our planet, being open about gender.

How do you feel about being invited to play his Meltdown?

When he asked me to do a talk at Meltdown just for women, I really had to think about it. I am very clear that I am not a feminist. It puts you into a category and I don't like that. An artist has no gender. All that matters is whether they make good art or bad art. So I thought about it, but then I said yes.

What do you have planned?

The title of my lecture for women is The Spirit In Any Condition Does Not Burn It's new and exciting for me to do this. Right now I'm on holiday and almost every day I'm thinking how I'm going to handle this talk, and every day it's changing. I'm interested in asking: what does feminine energy mean? The Dalai Lama said he wants to return as a woman. I don't have answers – I just have questions and interesting examples.

What if any men try to sneak in?

When Antony asked me to do this, I was very radical. You want me to do women? Then the men will not come. That's it. He said, what about the people who feel, though they're in a male body, that they're women? That's fine, I said, but all the rest, they're excluded. Why not do something strange and different for once? Artists can do whatever they want! I'm really open to seeing what will happen and what consequences it will have.

Will you be watching any of the other acts at Meltdown?

I hope to stay at least for five days and see as much as possible. I want to see Diamanda Galas because I know and admire her work. Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson are good friends, and I will go and see them. But I am really interested in performers I don't know that much. I want to see all of Antony's choices.

Are there any new artists you'd recommend at the moment?

There's such an interesting artist called William Basinski, who is from Los Angeles. He makes endless loops, a very meditative type of music that gives you a distorted sense of time. He's worked with Antony for a long time but it was a discovery for me, listening to him.

Who'd be on your Meltdown bill?

I would focus on long-durational works of art. Everything would be more than six hours, so people actually have to create time in order to see the work. If I could not find contemporary pieces I would like to commission different artists because I think long-durational work is something we need, because life is so fast. I would also have some historical pieces made, like the work of John Cage, which would take several hours to be executed. But I would also think about young artists doing something with music, dance and performance. I will have to make a list of names and get back to you. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 28 2012

Tino Sehgal: These Associations – review

Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London

They walk slowly towards us, a rival crowd approaching out of the darkness at the far end of Tate Modern. What will happen when we come face to face with all these strangers? Just as the tide of figures is about to surge around us, or perhaps overwhelm us, a young man detaches himself and begins to tell me about the great error of his life, which was to send an email instead of a handwritten letter and how it altered everything. I was so enthralled I fell in step beside him, unable to tear myself away.

But soon he seemed to cede to a girl who told of a party thrown to celebrate her sister's recent recovery – from what? We were immediately deep in conversation about the swiftness of cancer in the young. Next, a wise woman recalled the jar of dolly mixtures that sat on top of the classroom cupboard as a reward for good behaviour when she was a child, and the fear of never receiving a handful. A fourth stranger who had migrated from London to a new life in Sheffield found himself amazed to hear the sound of voices everywhere: people actually talking to one another. His story is emblematic of this whole marvellous project.

These Associations is the latest iteration of the Unilever Series. Conceived by the Berlin-based Tino Sehgal, it is by far the most radical and humane of all the Turbine Hall commissions to date. There is no object, as with Louise Bourgeois's giant spiders or Carsten Höller's spiral slides. There is no installation, as with Miroslav Balka's apocalyptic black void. There is no fixed image or sculpture or outcome.

Sehgal's event – as always with this 36-year-old artist – consists entirely of encounters between living people that are as potent, ever-changing and unique, minute by minute, as they are in the world beyond this museum. Except that they might never happen out there.

For the connections are sudden and immediately open. There is no preamble and the register of the conversation is quite extraordinarily frank. Yet these strangers are full of respect in forging this vital sense of connection. There is no social barter; you feel no pressure to divulge anything in exchange. It is like the best, and least demanding, party.

The crowd walks faster, breaking into a sprint or suddenly slackening and losing formation. It looks at times like a game of tig, or a football match without a ball. There is a sense of starlings mysteriously gathering or shoals of fish somehow darting in the same direction without any obvious leader. Above all, it looks atomic, especially as the participants spin away from the group to talk to the rest of us. It is like a microcosm in reverse: Brownian motion enacted by full-size people.

And into this benevolent force field we visitors are drawn, welcomed from all over the world. One man tells of a love affair gone wrong. Another shares his experience of vertigo with a colleague who discovers something vital about his own condition. I had a piercing exchange about fathers with a man I will never see again, so that its contents remain sharp and intense in that isolated moment but have unfolded with new meaning in my memory ever since.

I imagine that Sehgal has asked his volunteers to talk of life-changing moments, of feelings of belonging or its opposite, but each story is altered by the mutual dialogue. Whether you do or don't talk back is up to you; indeed you might reverse the exchange. I still wish I had talked to the woman in red, or had longer with the American in the black and white stripes. They move away – they have to because time passes, after all, and the museum will eventually close. But there is an immense freedom in Sehgal's orchestration, given how hard it might be for some of the volunteers to speak of their lives to total strangers and how wary those strangers may be. They don't approach the reluctant or defensive, as it seemed to me, but I have no idea how it works precisely because these figures manage to appear and disappear out of the blue.

But how could one not be interested? It is almost a test of human solidarity.To call the experience Sehgal has set in motion life-affirming would be no more than platitude. This is a profound work and at the same time riveting; a new form of art somewhere between theatre, performance art, dance and memoir and yet based on an immense gathering of humanity that includes all of us as live participants. Life art, I suppose.

If you are able to visit Tate Modern during These Associations, give them as much time as you possibly can. The cycle lasts for an hour or so, and you could easily stay all day. Attention is what it is all about, this precious thing we scarcely give one another and which is both the substance and the object of Sehgal's work. We often speak of art as life-changing; this event truly has that potential in all its fullness and humanity. One learns about other people, and one learns about oneself. I shall never forget it. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Can you make any kind of living as an artist?

With the exception of household names, most people in the creative arts need a day job to make ends meet. But should artists have to work or should they be supported by the state?

Jennie Rooney is the first to admit she has something of a split personality. By day, she is an in-house lawyer for a television company. By night, she is something different altogether: a novelist.

Typically, she will cycle into the office in central London, where she spends much of her day "drawing up contracts involving production companies buying formats such as The X Factor". At 5.30pm, Rooney returns home, eats an early supper and then sits down at her laptop for four hours to write, immersing herself in the world of cold war espionage that provides the backdrop for her third book.

Rooney would like her life to be different. She'd like to be a full-time novelist and, given the success of her books (her first, Inside the Whale, was nominated for the Costa first novel award in 2008), one might expect this to be possible. But the financial reality of such a move would make her life extremely difficult. In order to make a reasonable living, Rooney finds herself juggling a full-time job alongside her artistic endeavours.

"I do feel resentful," she admits. "I don't have as much time to think or to read as I'd like. I don't dislike my job and the people I work with are really nice but, in and of itself, there's a limit to how excited I can get about selling TV programmes such as Farmer Wants a Wife to Slovenia, although," she adds, drily, "it was a ratings hit."

Is it possible, in the current economic climate, for someone working in the creative arts to make a living from it? Unless you have the good fortune to be a Damien Hirst or a JK Rowling, the answer increasingly seems to be no. For artists who are already faced with low job security and the absence of company benefits such as pensions or paid holidays, the impact of the global financial crisis has been keenly felt.

The statistics make for uncomfortable reading. Almost a third of visual and applied artists earn less than £5,000 a year from their creative work, according to a survey conducted last year by Artists' Interaction and Representation (AIR); 57% of the 1,457 respondents said that less than a quarter of their total income was generated by their art practices and only 16% of them paid into a private pension fund, raising questions about how professional artists will support themselves once they reach retirement age.

The figures are not much better for musicians. PPL, a music licensing company that collects royalties on behalf of 24,000 performers, says that 90% of them earn less than £15,000 a year. A similar proportion of songwriters and composers earn less than £5,000 a year.

Then there is the added pressure of austerity-era cuts. Local authorities anticipate cuts of 7.1% each year for the next two years and the arts are often earmarked as dispensable in comparison with "frontline organisations". This leads to an inevitable loss of commissions and grants, in a climate where competition is already rife – individuals applying for grants to the Arts Council already have only around a 32% success rate nationwide.

"Arts history is full of double jobbers," says the actress Louise Brealey, who recently starred alongside Benedict Cumberbatch as the lovelorn Molly Hooper in the BBC's hit show Sherlock. "The recession, and the government's handling of the recession, has just made it that much harder.Politicians certainly see the arts as an easy target. The arts are not obviously saving lives, but I think they improve lives."

Brealey, like many of her contemporaries, has a portfolio career. She used to juggle acting jobs with journalism and was the deputy editor of Wonderland magazine: "At one point, I was rehearsing at the Royal Court and editing a piece about Twin Peaks' 20th anniversary in my tea breaks." More recently, she has been working as a documentary researcher and has just produced a children's comedy drama for the BBC, The Charles Dickens Show.

For Brealey, the fact that jobs in the arts are underpaid and underfunded has serious repercussions. "In journalism and TV production, it's getting more difficult all the time for kids from poorer backgrounds to break in because you're expected to work for nothing in endless internships," she says. "Without someone bankrolling you, that's impossible. The upshot is that working-class voices will be heard even less frequently than they are already."

Rob James-Collier, who plays Thomas the footman in Downton Abbey, aired similar concerns in an interview earlier in the year with the Radio Times in which he claimed that working-class performers were being squeezed aside because they did not have the "comfort blanket" of a wealthy family to support them. Collier, who was raised in Stockport and funded his career by working as a bricklayer's assistant and packing frozen pasties in a factory, said that in order to get into acting, "you have to work for a year without money".

According to Equity, the performers' union, at least two-thirds of actors are out of work at any time. The union's minimum rates (£379 per week for regional repertory; £497 per week for a West End play in a 799 seat theatre; £607 in an 1,100 plus theatre) are set at a level intended to see them through the lean times of silent phones and failed auditions, but it can still be challenging to make ends meet. Authors' advances are supposed to perform a similar function but they, too, have dwindled dramatically since the days when a 21-year-old unknown called Zadie Smith received a £250,000 golden handshake for her debut novel, White Teeth, while still at university.

Debs Paterson, who directed her first feature film, Africa United, last year to considerable critical and popular acclaim, found that the money she was paid as a novice director "spread pretty thin". "I was paid properly and I felt very lucky; I've got no complaints," she says. "But it represents a year-and-a-half of work, plus the exhaustion, plus the time we've put in before that getting it off the ground."

Paterson worked in a cinema, directed corporate videos and designed websites to raise money for her first short film. "A film is basically like a high-risk start-up," she says. "It can work brilliantly or it can be a total disaster and there's a weird alchemy behind whether it's going to work or not. Nobody knows."

Even established artists find it hard to make ends meet. In March, Susan Hill took to her Twitter page to claim that, despite the film adaptation of her bestselling book The Woman in Black having grossed more than £100m worldwide, "I am still broke".

Likewise, when Hilary Mantel won the Booker prize in 2009 for Wolf Hall, the £50,000 went – rather unglamorously – on reducing her mortgage. "I had been publishing for over 20 years and although the reviewers had been consistently kind, I had never sold in great numbers," Mantel wrote last year. "It is hard to make a good income from fiction alone."

It was ever thus. Gillian Wearing used to be a telephone market researcher while Billy Bragg once worked at an all-night petrol station. Emma Chaplin, the guitarist and keyboard player from the five-piece indie rock band the Long Blondes supplemented her income by working in a Leeds library. Calvin Harris made his debut album while stacking shelves in the Dumfries branch of Marks & Spencer.

In other countries, there are different approaches. In Denmark, selected artists are awarded life-long annual stipends. In Sweden, the government offers five- and 10-year arts scholarships. Interestingly, however, the majority of people I spoke to in the UK prefer to maintain their artistic independence rather than taking money from the state.

"I think it's amazing there are public subsidies," says Paterson. "But I think there's a danger to it as well. Nobody owes me a living and if I'm going to spend someone's money, I want to be able to give it back to them. Obviously it would be nice to go on holiday a bit more often and not be worrying about money, but I have this whole theory that when people get too comfortable, they become rarefied.

"If you have a computer and a degree, you're already in the top 1% of the planet, so why should I get to float around without having to earn a living? I want to earn my stripes. I don't want anyone to say, 'You don't deserve to be here.'"

Rooney agrees: "It's been alarming to see how much grants have been cut, but I've always thought I'd wait until I really needed them to apply. I can have these two jobs at the moment, but if I were to have a kid, for instance, I couldn't.

"I've seen Arts Council grants and subsidies as being there for people who really require them: if you've been a writer for 10 years and there's nothing else you can do and you can't get another job, for instance. For me, it's similar to unemployment benefit really."

And there is an added advantage to getting out and working in the real world. Although the romantic notion of a penniless artist living in a garret has plenty of cultural precedence, it does leave said artist without much in the way of day-to-day inspiration (plus, they almost always end up addicted to absinthe or dying of consumption). Having a day job, says Rooney, can feed back into your work: "I was a history and English GCSE teacher for a while after the publication of my first book and there's nothing like teaching a class of 15-year-olds to make you realise what holds the attention. I got better at the 'talking' part of writing and at how to present a book in a way that keeps people's interest."

As someone who is a full-time journalist and also writes novels, I tend to agree. My job as a journalist means I'm privileged enough to meet people from all walks of life and ask them nosy questions, which is one of the best insights into the human condition anyone could ask for. And as Rooney puts it: "Having another job does drive me on more because I know I only have a certain amount of time to write, so I get on with it."

But whether such a lifestyle continues to be feasible as the years go by is a moot point. Louise Brealey says that she knows "a lot of people who've stopped acting because they were paying the bills with temping and telesales and in the end it ground them down. It's hard to stick with it if you're breaking your heart in TFI Friday's every night," she adds. "That's fine when you're starting out, but after a decade it can get a bit wearing."

The Opposite of Falling by Jennie Rooney is out now, published by Vintage © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions
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