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December 05 2012

Four short links: 5 December 2012

  1. The Benefits of Poetry for Professionals (HBR) — Harman Industries founder Sidney Harman once told The New York Times, “I used to tell my senior staff to get me poets as managers. Poets are our original systems thinkers. They look at our most complex environments and they reduce the complexity to something they begin to understand.”
  2. First Few Milliseconds of an HTTPS Connection — far more than you ever wanted to know about how HTTPS connections are initiated.
  3. Google Earth EngineDevelop, access and run algorithms on the full Earth Engine data archive, all using Google’s parallel processing platform. (via Nelson Minar)
  4. 3D Printing Popup Store Opens in NYC (Makezine Blog) — MAKE has partnered with 3DEA, a pop up 3D printing emporium in New York City’s fashion district. The store will sell printers and 3D printed objects as well as offer a lineup of classes, workshops, and presentations from the likes of jewelry maker Kevin Wei, 3D printing artist Josh Harker, and Shapeways’ Duann Scott. This. is. awesome!

August 16 2012

Michael Snow obituary

Particle physics, geology, astronomy and music were among the essential elements that fed into the art of Michael Snow, who has died aged 82. He was a highly cerebral painter and a perfectionist who would agonise over whether a painting was finished or not, in some cases for many years. This reticence meant that some excellent work was never allowed a public airing. Some of his finest paintings resembled the dance of subatomic particles, while his metal constructions explored the interplay of form and space.

Born in Manchester, Michael was educated at Lawrence Sheriff school, Rugby. He worked for a period as a librarian before moving to the Land's End peninsula in 1951. Cornwall at this time was living through a golden era of innovative British art and Michael quickly discovered his vocation as a non-figurative painter, becoming good friends with most of the important artists working there, including Ben Nicholson, Terry Frost, John Wells, and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, as well as the poet WS (Sydney) Graham and his wife Nessie.

Michael was a co-founder in 1957 of the Peterloo Group with his friend the poet and literary critic Robin Skelton. Soon afterwards Michael's first wife, Sylvia, married Robin; and Robin's wife, Margaret, became Michael's second wife. They all continued on good terms for the rest of their lives. Michael was also highly active as secretary to the Penwith Society of Arts, and taught at Exeter School of Art and Design for 20 years.

Michael kept in touch with Nicholson long after he moved to Switzerland and he remained a significant mentor to the younger artist. On one occasion the Snows drove across Europe to his home in their camper van with a large ovoid granite boulder from a local Cornish beach weighing them down.

The Snows were devoted to promoting the life and work of Graham, and in 1999 they brought out The Nightfisherman: Selected Letters of WS Graham. Publication was met with enthusiastic critical acclaim; Harold Pinter called it "a brilliant collection". It is, arguably, this book that will stand as Michael's major legacy rather than his own artwork.

Michael and Margaret were tireless in assisting and encouraging the tide of researchers who made their way to Stonemark, their home on the edge of Dartmoor. It gave them immense satisfaction to see that, largely thanks to their efforts, Graham is now widely considered one of the great masters of 20th-century poetry. My researches into postwar St Ives artists led me to Michael and Margaret 12 years ago, and they generously shared their wealth of knowledge with me.

Margaret died in 2009. He is survived by their son, Justin. © 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

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August 12 2012

London 2012: Team arts go for gold

David Hockney fumed at the opening, Gillian Wearing captured Bolt, and Susan Philipsz mashed up some anthems . . . but what else happened when we challenged artists to respond to the Games?

Opening ceremony

David Hockney
The painter and committed smoker was inspired by a detail in Danny Boyle's spectacular that passed others by: Isambard Kingdom Brunel's unlit cigar – and this in spite of belching chimneys and live soldering. Hockney's iPad painting appeared in last week's g2, and read: "I noticed there was a lot of smoke from fireworks but none from Brunel's cigar. Does this mean that the BBC sees art as directive (unlit) and not reflective (lit)? Debate." People did (look up the comments).

Day three

Olafur Eliasson
The artist who put an artificial sun into Tate Modern's Turbine Hall used one of his own-design solar lamps to pay tribute to the Olympians' speed and dynamism. He wrote: "For me, the Games are about being together, about sharing attention and ideals. They are about feeling connected to people from all over the world, physical engagement and energy. Light generates action: it is as physical as anything you will see in the Olympics."

Day four

Mark Titchner
The Turner 2006 nominee picked up on the anxious mood of the early days, before the medal rush. One layer of text in his artwork quotes from the tabloid press ("Historic bronze for our brilliant gymnasts, but please can we have just one gold. Any sport"); the other layer pays tribute to Team GB's eventing horses: Lionheart, Opposition Buzz, High Kingdom, Miners Frolic, Imperial Cavalier ("Do they get medals, too?").

Day five

Richard Wentworth
The sculptor, curator and lecturer took a break from a camping trip (location undisclosed) to watch Bradley Wiggins take gold in the time trial. He wrote: "The 30-year habit of summer camping sets me apart from world events. Catching sight of televisions in bars is the kind of glimpsing I enjoy – images, languages and events all arbitrarily associated with time and displacement. The latch on this door will remind me of the warm domestic afternoon in early August 2012 when our friends invited us to watch London as a site of Olympic spectacle. An odd thing if you know the city well, but much stranger if you are camping a long way away."

Day six

Michael Rosen
The poet and former children's laureate performed his own new poem about gold medal anxiety – still an issue even at this stage, with Team GB behind France. "I love sport," Rosen said, "but become uneasy when it is overly shackled to nation, corporate grabbing and only-first-will-do-ism. All three and I'm nearly out of here. Imagine there's no countries, it's easy if you try." Here's an extract from his Olympic poem:

I've got gold medal anxiety, gold medal neurosis
doctor doctor give me a diagnosis
Day 1 day 2 day 3 day 4
you was down I was on the floor
feeling such a failure
would I finish below Australia?
Then from the heavens came day 5
I discovered the reasons I am alive
better than when I met Christopher Biggins
Glover, Stanning and Bradley Wiggins.

I've got gold medal anxiety, gold medal neurosis
doctor doctor give me a diagnosis

Then before I came to grief
came the moment of pure relief
as the afternoon began to unfold
I ... won ... double gold.
And yet I had cause to fret
there were silvers for me to regret
I gave the medal table a glance:
Horrors! ... Above Brand GB ... France!
• Read the poem in full

Day nine

Gillian Wearing
The Turner prize 2007 winner was in the Olympic stadium on Sunday 5 August as Usain Bolt crossed the 100m finish line, and took this image (right). She said: "I got into track and field through watching Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett's memorable races against each other at the Moscow 1980 Olympics. After that, I have never missed the opportunity to be a couch Olympics supporter. I was in row 48 of the stadium, quite high up, but just above the finishing line. This image is just after the 100m final. Both Chris Gatlin and Usain Bolt have cameras trained on them. In the corner of the image, Yohan Blake, the silver medal winner, congratulates Gatlin on his bronze."

Day 11

Jackie Kay
The poet and novelist read three new poems, a kind of writer's triathlon, inspired by the Brownlee brothers' medal success in that event, as well as Team GB performances in javelin and cycling. She wrote: "I was struck by the idea that sharing somebody's disappointment is as intense and intimate as sharing their success. I used to be a long-distance runner, a Scottish schoolgirl champion, until I broke my leg and didn't walk properly for a year and a half. So I was thinking about that, too. How quickly we move into our unfit futures!" Here's the final leg of her poem, Point of View:

Farewell Victoria Pendleton
It was a day of drama in the velodrome
As you watched agog, OMG,
As Trott took the omnium
Against the odds of a collapsed lung
Coming home, coming home.
Not one but two golds to her name.
You saw the photo of not so long ago
With young Laura and her Bradley hero.
Not long later, you watched Victoria
Who rode as close to her rival
As a synchronised swimmer
And all the drama was in the lane error
Where the line was crossed in the velodrome
As close as step to pets; palindromes,
The Mearest of lines, the closing line.

So, farewell Victoria dearest, you say.
You salute her. She runs her last lap, and bows.
The last time I'm going to go through that, she says.
And even her brave coach is in bits.
We knew it would end in tears, the TV says.
And they roll down your cheeks too – your armchair, you.
The greatest ever theatre – sport's soap opera.
Victoria. Oh Victoria. Collect your silver!
Your ordeal is over: take your seat on the throne.
Read the poem in full

Day 13

Cornelia Parker
The sculptor and installation artist took this image of her own living room, explaining: "I haven't been able to focus on art since the Olympics started, not quite managing to peel my eyes away from the TV. After too many days of viewing, gorged with patriotism and pride, I starting to behave oddly … too much information perhaps, too much success. Now I find myself draping my daughter's union flag over the TV in a feeble attempt to blot it out – but in the process I manage to cause a minor marital rift as my enraged husband misses a crucial bit of action."

Day 14

Wolfgang Tillmans
The artist and photographer, newly returned to London from Berlin, took this photograph of an Olympic traffic lane in east London. The lanes are now suspended but will come back into force for the start of the Paralympics. © 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 08 2012

Olympics in art: Jackie Kay writes her own armchair triathlon

Scottish poet Jackie Kay draws inspiration from Team GB's highs and lows in the triathlon, javelin and cycling to create three short poems that capture the spirit of the Games

Reading this on a mobile? Click here to view

Jackie Kay writes:

I was inspired by the triathlon today and the Brownlee brothers to try and write a triathlon myself. So I've written three short poems on three different sporting events today: the javelin, the triathlon itself and two events in the velodrome. I was struck by the idea that sharing somebody's disappointment is as intense and intimate as sharing their success. I used to be a long-distance runner, a Scottish school girl champion, until I broke my leg and didn't walk properly for a year and a half. So I was thinking about that too when I wrote the poem. How quickly we move into our unfit futures!

Point of View

i Goldie and the Three No Throws

I remember the fancy footwork of the discus or javelin,
That feeling as a spear left your body, as if it'd come from within
To be thrown into the future: the armchair of a middle-aged woman, watching the Olympics, twenty-four seven, shouting instructions!
(The only thing worse than an armchair politician is an armchair athlete, who no longer gets athlete's feet; or has to nurse her Achilles heel.)
Now, the woman from the Czech Republic, takes the chalk circle
An ancient Amazonian, her spear spikes the flaky air.
Then, out comes Goldie and the great bear of the crowd's roar.
But Goldie loses the qualification and her despair
Is as ancient as it is modern: hindsight is a golden thing
Goldie Sayers' words are wise – and the crowd adores.
Belief puts itself on the line; hope is not far behind.
My tears for her bravery, the biggest surprise.

ii The Brownlee Brothers

When the race begins, the swimmers together
Seem shaped like a great bird in the river,
The green-capped feathers all of a quiver.
The big bird cracks open; and from the bird's-eye view
Single swimmers emerge, brothers first – phew!
Alistair and Jonny Brownlee – sibling stars,
Shedding their wet suits first (the fourth element
Some say, of this transition) and mount the bikes fast.
The road to ambition is a road to perdition.
All transitions come with great risks.
The river, red tarmac and the Serpentine Road
Where one brother will get crowned with a gold
And the other brother a bronze, but hey
It is not the swimming, cycling, running
That is the biggest feat; it's the 15-second penalty
Possibility of defeat – that's the real deal.
Sport's biggest test is a character test
And sport reveals true pluck and nature
As the bird in the river unfurled the swimmers.

iii Farewell Victoria Pendleton

It was a day of drama in the Velodrome
As you watched agog, OMG,
As Trott took the Omnium
Against the odds of a collapsed lung
Coming home, coming home.
Not one but two golds to her name.
You saw the photo of not so long ago
With young Laura and her Bradley hero.

Not long later, you watched Victoria
Who rode as close to her rival
As a synchronised swimmer
And all the drama was in the lane error
Where the line was crossed in the Velodrome
As close as step to pets; palindromes,
The Mearest of lines, the closing line.

So, farewell Victoria dearest, you say.
You salute her. She runs her last lap, and bows.
The last time I'm going to go through that, she says.
And even her brave coach is in bits.
We knew it would end in tears, the TV says.
And they roll down your cheeks too – you armchair, you.
The greatest ever theatre – sport's soap opera.
Victoria. Oh Victoria. Collect your silver!
Your ordeal is over: take your seat on throne. © 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

Jackie Kay creates her own armchair triathlon – video

Scottish poet Jackie Kay reads out three short poems she wrote after being inspired by Team GB's recent performances in the javelin, triathlon and cycling. She follows the highs and lows of Goldie Sayers, the Brownlee brothers and Victoria Pendleton

August 03 2012

Olympics 2012 in art: Michael Rosen's gold medal anxiety

Continuing our series of artworks celebrating the Games, the poet and former children's laureate expresses his unease about our obsession with gold medals in his own inimitable way

Reading this on a mobile? Click here to view

Michael Rosen says of his poem:

I love sport but become uneasy when it is overly shackled to nation, corporate grabbing and only-first-will-do-ism. All three and I'm nearly out of here. Imagine there's no countries, it's easy if you try ...

Michael Rosen's Olympic poem

I've got gold medal anxiety, gold medal neurosis
doctor doctor give me a diagnosis

Day 1 day 2 day 3 day 4
you was down I was on the floor
feeling such a failure
would I finish below Australia?
Then from the heavens came day 5
I discovered the reasons I am alive
better than when I met Christopher Biggins
Glover, Stanning and Bradley Wiggins.

I've got gold medal anxiety, gold medal neurosis
doctor doctor give me a diagnosis

Look at me doctor can't you see
I'm loving the brand Team GB
I'm seeing the shape of the Big Society,
but me I've got gold medal anxiety.
The lightweight four had me worrying
I've got the feeling they just weren't hurrying
settling for silver's not good enough
Brand GB is made of finer stuff.

I've got gold medal anxiety, gold medal neurosis
doctor doctor give me a diagnosis

Then before I came to grief
came the moment of pure relief
as the afternoon began to unfold
I ... won ... double gold.
And yet I had cause to fret
there were silvers for me to regret
I gave the medal table a glance:
Horrors! ... Above Brand GB ... France!

I've got gold medal anxiety, gold medal neurosis
doctor doctor give me a diagnosis. © 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

Olympics 2012 in art: Michael Rosen gets gold medal anxiety – video

Continuing our series of exclusive artworks celebrating the Games, Michael Rosen expresses his unease about our Olympic obsession with gold medals in his own inimitable way

March 26 2012

2012 Olympics inspire love poetry across Britain

The traditional Olympics truce has inspired a 'peace camp' that will bring poetry readings to remote coastal sites across the UK

The islands will be full of noises this summer, when a series of "peace camps" inspired by the Olympics will be set up on some of the UK's remotest beaches, from Cornwall to the Outer Hebrides and from County Antrim to Sussex.

As the pageantry, athleticism and rampant commercialism of the games comes to London, a collaboration between the theatre director Deborah Warner, the actor Fiona Shaw and the creative events company Artichoke, will put up tent encampments in eight coastal areas of outstanding beauty, including Cemaes Bay in Anglesey, Mussenden Temple in County Londonderry, Dustanburgh Castle in Northumberland and Fort Fiddes in Aberdeenshire.

The tents are due to glow from within, accompanied by a soundtrack created by the composer Mel Mercier from the sounds of nature, and British love poetry in languages and dialects of the UK and Ireland.

According to Warner, the idea for Peace Camp was sparked by hearing of the Olympic truce, when all nations receive the call to "lay down your arms, and let the games commence".

"We're engirdling our shores in a symbolic call for peace," she said. The tents echo Aulis, the port from which the Greek fleet sailed to Troy, and offer an "ironic turn on the military encampments of the past. There are also echoes of Henry V walking through his camp before Agincourt, but visitors to Peace Camp will hear poems of love in all the languages of Britain and Ireland."

The project takes locations such as John of Gaunt's castle in Northumberland, destroyed during the wars of the Roses, and makes them into a "welcoming gesture" to visitors from around the world, she explained.

"In a way it's a very simple project, which can be crystallised in words such as 'peace', 'love', 'encampment', 'poetry', 'light' and 'dark' – because the tents will be lighting up at dusk," she added. "But these words mask the richness that the extraordinary locations and the very extraordinary texts – from Shakespeare, Donne and many more – will bring to it."

Shaw will be travelling around the country gathering recordings of poems in all the accents and languages of the UK. She is drawing inspiration from poetry since, she said, it was once part of the Olympics and love poetry is "the opposite of war".

"So much of the Olympics is about competition," she said, "this is absolutely the antidote to that. In a way it's a complement to the struggle down in London."

The bell-shaped tents, which have been specially designed for the project, are "amazing", she continued, recalling a visit to a mock-up of one of the sites. It was "very moving, being among them, because any shape like that you imagine what's going on inside them".

"None of the locations is hospitable," she said. "They're not the usual sort of beach that you might like to go to." The installations explore the boundary between sea and land, highlighting how the UK is surrounded by sea, she added. "The idea is to ring the island. You're making a circle, so that you hold the magic of these islands within."

A parallel installation is being created online at, where readers can nominate their favourite love poem, upload their own readings of love poetry and even write their own poems. "You might even get a reply from me, if I'm not too inundated," Shaw said.

The project, launched at a reading as part of the Guardian Open Weekend in London on Sunday, has already received a "huge" response, said Shaw, not least from poetry lovers who volunteered their favourites in response to blogs calling for readers' favourites.

"The event at the Guardian Open Weekend was amazing," she said. "What was wonderful was people turning up with poems they wanted read." Not only did the audience bring poems, but they came equipped with iPads and mobile phones, which they handed up to the stage so their choices could be read.

Shaw won't be reading many of the poems used as part of the installation, "but I am going around the country spouting any poem that comes out of my head". Readers who catch up with her as she travels the country can expect to hear lines from Shaw's favourite love poem, Adam's Curse by WB Yeats, who she saluted as "the ultimate poet", for the way he finds something wonderful in an ordinary scene.

Visitors who sit together as the poet imagines when "the last embers of daylight die" between 19 and 22 July, may find themselves drawn to "talk of poetry" and of the "old high way of love" as Yeats suggests.


• Cemaes Bay in Anglesey, Wales

• White Park Bay in County Antrim

• Mussenden Temple in Downhill Demesne, County Londonderry, Northern Ireland

• Valtos on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides

• Fort Fiddes in Aberdeenshire, Scotland

• Dunstanburgh Castel in Northumberland

• Cuckmere Haven near Seven Sisters in Sussex

• Godrevy Head, Cornwall © 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

November 27 2011

Christmas gifts 2011: which books will be under your tree?

Our critics choose the books they intend to give this Christmas, and the ones they hope to receive

What do you think are the best books of 2011? Take part in our open thread discussion here

Diana Athill
Editor and writer

I am crazy about Craig Taylor's Londoners (Granta £25), a brilliant collection of "voices" in the manner of Studs Terkel. It's quite long, but I wanted it to go on and on, and I can't imagine any lucky recipient not enjoying it. One I'm sure I'll enjoy myself when I get my hands on it is Claire Tomalin's biography of the most glorious of all Londoners, Charles Dickens: A Life (Viking £30).

Richard Eyre
Theatre director

I'd give Christopher Hitchens's collected essays, Arguably (Atlantic £30), in the hope that in return I'd be given John Updike's collected essays, Higher Gossip (Knopf £25). Hitchens is said to be the best British essayist since Orwell; anyone who doubts this, considering him a mere provocateur, will be convinced by this collection. Updike was the best novelist of his generation and also a prolific critic and essayist. His posthumous book is a distillation of his non-fiction writing over nearly six decades.

Russell T Davies
TV dramatist

It's too late to make a Christmas present out of How to Be a Woman (Ebury Press £11.99) by Caitlin Moran, because as soon as I'd finished it, I bought five more copies. One each for my two sisters and three nieces. I think this is the most important book they might read in their lives. Underneath beautiful, aching and hilarious memories of family life, it's a true polemic, arguing that women still eat, shave and dress entirely for the benefit of men. As for me, I'll have A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In (Bloomsbury £12.99) by Magnus Mills. For the title alone!

Tim Adams
Observer writer

Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow (Allen Lane £25) – a terrific unpicking of human rationality and irrationality – could hardly have been published at a better moment. Kahnemann is the godfather of behavioural economics, and this distillation of a lifetime's thinking about why we make bad decisions – about everything from money to love – is full of brilliant anecdote and wisdom. It is Kahnemann's belief that anyone who thinks they know exactly what is going on hasn't understood the question; as such it's the perfect gift for opinionated family members everywhere.

It would be interesting to know what Christopher Hitchens would make of Kahneman's faith in doubt; one of the many pleasures of reading our greatest contrarian over the years has been his ability to give the impression that he knows exactly what he thinks about almost every subject under the sun. Hitchens's collected essays, Arguably, is the book I'd most like to receive, for its bravura certainties, in spite of everything.

Joe Dunthorne

A recent issue of McSweeney's magazine included a severed head (opening that morning's post was like the final scene in the film Se7en), but the current edition, the 38th, focuses on what the magazine does best: great stories, both fiction and non-fiction. I would give it to anyone with a short, persistent commute.

For myself, I'd like House of Holes (Simon & Schuster £14.99) by Nicholson Baker. Although reviewers have been bewildered, I'm intrigued by Baker's transition from writing a (brilliant) low-key novel about a struggling poet to this one, which is, by all accounts, a cheerful porno odyssey. Not the sort of book to be seen buying for oneself, mind you.

Rachel Johnson
Editor and author

Whoever says women aren't funny should be tied to chairs and force-read Bossypants (Little Brown £16.99) by Tina Fey, a darkly hysterical monologue-memoir by the writer/actor about growing up with dark shin fur in the land where yellow hair is king, writing skits for Saturday Night Live, her aborted honeymoon cruise (the ship caught fire) and Kotex panty-pads.

Johnson's Life of London (Harper Collins £20), by Boris Johnson, is not only the book I want to receive, it's the only book I can guarantee I will be given, as the author gives only two things to his family as presents: condiments he's made himself and books he's written. I am looking forward to both as I have been assured by my brother that his book on London is every bit as good as his apple chutney.

Philip Hensher

I'm giving everyone Robert Harris's The Fear Index (Hutchinson £18.99) for Christmas, because everyone's already read Alan Hollinghurst's superb The Stranger's Child, and The Fear Index is a total ripsnorting Demon Seed-type romp through the bowels of high finance and whirring computer-cogs. In the usual way of things, people kept sending me copies of things such as Samuel Beckett's wildly boring letters (Volume 2) when what I really wanted was Tessa Hadley's excellent The London Train (Jonathan Cape £12.99).

Joan Bakewell
Journalist and broadcaster

The past shapes our lives today, and both of my choices throw light on our own times. Sebastian Barry's On Canaan's Side (Faber £16.99) – the book I'll be giving – takes up the story of the Dunne family, which he has told in several previous novels. Together, these works cover the time of Ireland's troubles, from within the Unionist protestant community. The gorgeous prose adds to the pleasure.

I would like to receive Amanda Foreman's epic A World on Fire (Penguin £12.99), which deals with the British/American relationship throughout the American civil war. Growing up near Lancashire, I have always known that American exports of raw cotton fed the cotton mills of Britain. But I have never understood what happened when the civil war broke out. This lavishly praised book will explain this and many other things. And at 1,000 pages, it will last the year!

Michael Palin
Actor and broadcaster

Colin Thubron's To a Mountain in Tibet (Chatto & Windus £16.99) is an absolutely terrific book. Thubron has perfect pitch. He uses the minimum of words for the maximum effect. His descriptions are fresh and acute and he can convey atmosphere and emotion on the head of a pin. The journey to Mount Kailash is enthralling and he keeps the reader right beside him every inch of the way.

The book I'd like in my stocking is Adam Macqueen's Private Eye: The First 50 Years (Private Eye Productions £25). The Eye has given me more consistent pleasure, pain and provocation than any other publication in my lifetime.

Rachel Cooke
Observer writer

What you need at Christmas is a novel that thoroughly muffles the sound of tired and overemotional relatives. So, I will be giving all of my girlfriends State of Wonder (Bloomsbury £12.99) by Ann Patchett, a sort of feminist Heart of Darkness. It has the barmiest plot ever – plucky scientist enters Brazilian jungle in search of her lost colleague and the secret of everlasting female fertility – but, honestly, it grips like a vice.

The book I would most like to receive is William Nicholson: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings (Yale £95) by Patricia Reed, Wendy Baron and Merlin James. I can stare at a single Nicholson painting for long minutes at a time. He is just the best.

Fergus Henderson

Life is peculiar at the moment, but nothing could be as bad as Bernie Gunther's lot: prison camp to prison camp, interrogation after interrogation… Philip Kerr's battered hero in Field Gray: A Bernie Gunther Mystery (Quercus £17.99) is an ex-Berlin policeman who gets knocked around from Cuba to postwar Europe. When he finally gets his glass of German brandy I sighed a sigh of relief for the poor chap.

A very different kettle of fish – not much mention of the Gulag – is Sarah Winman's When God Was a Rabbit (Headline Review £12.99). I feel that at this point in life I'm ready to tackle a book about love, and Sarah Winman's charm will make her the perfect guide.

Chris Patten
Chairman of the BBC Trust

The most enjoyable new novel I have read this year is Snowdrops (Altantic £7.99) by AD Miller. It's a very well written page-turner that confirmed all my prejudices about Putin's Russia. I came to it after reading Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, my number one discovery of the year, which to be fair to Mr Putin, does at least show how much worse things were under Stalin.

I have asked for David Gilmour's The Pursuit of Italy (Allen Lane £25) for Christmas. It may help me to understand rather better this heavenly country, which has given the world great buildings, cities, music and food, as well as Mr Berlusconi.

Mary Warnock

The book I'm going to give, specifically to people nostalgic for their childhood in the late 1960s and 70s (of whom I know many), is Nelson (Blank Slate £18.99), edited by Rob Davis and Woodrow Phoenix. I am fascinated by the comic strip format (like the excellent comic book versions of Shakespeare), by the different styles of each participating artist in this collaboration between 54 British comic artists, and by the way the central character develops under one's eyes as each year in her life unfolds. It is perfect for anyone without a great deal of reading time at Christmas.

The book I'd most like to get is one that I have already reluctantly given away, Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin. I'm not a Dickens fan, but Tomalin is the best biographer there is.

Julie Myerson

By far the most impressive novel I read this year was Jacqueline Yallop's Obedience (Atlantic £12.99). The prose is as intense, opaque yet elastic as its morally complex themes: guilt, sexuality and secrecy in a convent in wartime France. I'd give it to anyone who wants, as I do, to have their head and heart churned up by what they read.

The book I'd most like to be given is anything bought at one of the two independent bookshops in Southwold, Suffolk. Except both have now closed down. Which makes membership of Southwold Library – now ludicrously also under threat – the best free gift you could give anyone there this Christmas.

Philip French
Observer film critic

A worthy Booker laureate of this or any other year, our most versatile novelist Julian Barnes paid tribute in his acceptance speech to Suzanne Dean, cover designer of The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape £12.99). This makes it a perfect present in these last days of the book as singular object. The one I hope someone will send me is Brian Kellow's Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (Viking $27.95). I read her for more than 30 years and wrote an introduction to her final collection.

Daljit Nagra

Tahmima Anam's The Good Muslim (Canongate £16.99) is a perfect page-turner for the festive period. It is a powerfully gripping story about the birth of Bangladesh. Subtle plotting and vivid dramatisation of characters allow Anam to explore the formation of national identity. CB Editions is an exciting new poetry press which has published JO Morgan's second collection, Long Cuts (£7.99), this year. For me, this would be an ideal gift as I loved his first collection, Natural Mechanical, and reviews suggest this one is even better.

Tristram Hunt
Historian and Labour MP

Maya Jasanoff's Liberty's Exiles (HarperPress £30) is going to be in the Christmas stocking for a number of nearest and dearest. Jasanoff is an exceptional scholar of British history in all its global dimensions, and her evocative chronicle of the loyalist diaspora from the American war of independence allows us to rethink the cultural legacy of the Thirteen Colonies' rebellion. And, in turn, I would like an equally big book on US history by another transatlantic female historian – Amanda Foreman's A World on Fire. British involvement in the American civil war is still under-appreciated, and Foreman's work, on the 150th anniversary, looks like a useful corrective.

Wendy Cope

I always enjoy Caitlin Moran's columns, so I read her How to Be a Woman as soon as it came out. Although I didn't agree with every word, it is spot on about most things, and very entertaining. If I hadn't already given my copy to my partner's daughter, I would buy it for her. Another 2011 favourite is Edgelands (Jonathan Cape £12.99) by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, which I will be giving as a Christmas present. My Christmas wish-list includes Death Comes to Pemberley (Faber £18.99) by PD James and Blue Monday (Michael Joseph £12.99) by Nicci French.

Curtis Sittenfeld

I thoroughly enjoyed The Oregon Experiment (Knopf $26.95) by Keith Scribner. Set in a college town in America's Pacific Northwest, it's a novel about – among other things – anarchists, adultery, new babies, hippies, and a woman with such a powerful sense of smell that it lets her discover secrets about other people. The book is just really smart and juicy. A novel I haven't yet read but have heard is wonderful is Love and Shame and Love (Little Brown $24.99) by Peter Orner. It's about a Chicagoan named Alexander Popper and his messy family – and I do always like family messiness!

Geoff Dyer
Novelist and essayist

The book I'd most like to receive this Christmas is Magnum Contact Sheets (Thames and Hudson £95), edited by Kristen Lubben: a collection of the pictures that were made either side of some of the famous images from the photojournalists' archive. The book is an exemplary bit of publishing in that it is stunningly beautiful – and huge, and expensive – but is full of the kind of material that might be considered the preserve of scholars or researchers. I'll be giving copies of Terry Castle's screamingly funny – and lethally sharp – collection of autobiographical essays, The Professor (Atlantic £20).

Marina Warner
Writer and academic

So much of what I read is in translation – from Alice Oswald's new reworking of the Iliad, Memorial, to Richard Hamilton's compendium of Marrakech stories, The Last Storytellers. Matthew Reynolds, in The Poetry of Translation: From Chaucer & Petrarch to Homer & Logue (Oxford £50), shows us what is at stake in these border crossings. Close looking is close reading's counterpart, and Deanna Petherbridge is one of its most impassioned advocates. If I don't find The Primacy of Drawing: Histories and Theories of Practice (Yale £55) under the tree, I'll buy it, gladly.

William Dalrymple
Historian and travel writer

I greatly enjoyed Sherard Cowper-Coles's brilliant account of how and why we are losing Britain's fourth war in Afghanistan. Cables from Kabul (HarperPress £25) is the most insightful record yet published of the diplomatic wrangling that has accompanied the slow military encirclement of western forces in the country. It is also the best account I have read of how post-colonial colonialism actually works.

A book I would love to be given is the fabulously illustrated catalogue accompanying the Masters of Indian Painting show at the Rietberg in Zurich this summer – unquestionably the most remarkable and ambitious exhibition of the Indian miniature tradition ever mounted. Masters of Indian Painting, 1100-1900 (Museum Rietberg £120) is a huge, two-volume affair, with essays by the three great historians of Indian art: BN Goswamy, Eberhard Fischer and Milo Cleveland Beach.

Mariella Frostrup
Observer writer and TV presenter

Robert Harris's fine new thriller, The Fear Index, is a must-have in every Christmas stocking. It's highly "readable" – the buzz word in literary circles this year – but more importantly, it manages to explain what a hedge fund actually is, using the example of lacy black lingerie. With our lives currently in turmoil thanks to the machinations of the financial markets, understanding how they work should be a priority, and Harris manages to combine such instruction with a fast-paced thriller.

I'd love to receive Marina Warner's epic study of the Arabian Nights, Stranger Magic (Chatto & Windus £28), a dissection of the myths in these enduring classics that promises to throw light on the countries from which the stories spring and the lives of women in them.

Hari Kunzru

To London friends I'll be giving festive copies of Laura Oldfield Ford's Savage Messiah (Verso £19.99), the seminal fanzine (now released in book form), which reveals, in photos, text and beautiful drawings, the abject underside of the regenerated city. The book I'm hoping to find under the tree is Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee's Poor Economics (Perseus £17.99), which apparently overturns many received ideas about what it's like to be very poor.

Shami Chakrabarti
Director of Liberty

Sometimes the most serious messages are best expressed with humour, and this Christmas should be a time to try to smile. The book I'd love to receive is Private Eye: The First 50 Years by Adam Macqueen. But because I would love the next 50 years to be better for women, I would most like to give Caitlin Moran's How to Be a Woman. I've already bought a spare copy for a female friend. I will give it in celebration of Moran's wit and wisdom and in loving memory of my mother – an unsung feminist.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft

No better history books were published this year than David Gilmour's wonderful The Pursuit of Italy and The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean (Allen Lane £30) by David Abulafia. Both tell riveting but melancholy stories. Gilmour shows that the "unification" of Italy 150 years ago has been a profound failure, while in the course of Abulafia's account his great sea ceases to be the centre of civilisation.

Bright Particular Stars (Atlantic £25) is the latest of David McKie's sesquipedal peregrinations. This "Gallery of Glorious British Eccentrics", some of whom are a good deal more eccentric than glorious, is unfailingly droll and will make a perfect stocking-filler.

Nicholas Hytner
Artistic director of the National Theatre

Anthea Bell's new translation of Stefan Zweig's Beware of Pity, published this year by Pushkin Press (£8.99), is the latest in a brilliant series of Zweig translations. A psychological thriller with an emotionally dense unreliable narrator, and a terrifyingly needy heroine, it is compulsively readable.

I hope I'm given Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life. Her biography of Dickens's mistress, Nelly Ternan, is a phenomenal feat of literary reclamation, but I fear that her new book will do nothing to refute my long-held belief that the novels ascribed to Dickens could not possibly have been written by the son of a naval pay-office clerk who left school at the age of 12, and are plainly the work of the Duke of Wellington.

Kirsty Wark

If you want to make someone happy, lying on the sofa in front of the fire on Boxing Day, then you must give them Robert Harris's new thriller, The Fear Index. You might think you've had enough of the economic crisis – but this is the hugely entertaining version. Thinking of that same sofa, I'd like to receive Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child (Picador £20), which somehow eluded me this year. As an added extra, please may I have Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Veg Everyday! (Bloomsbury £25), which I know is a very good thing for us all. Go on Santa.

Andrew Rawnsley
Observer political editor

For anyone you know who likes to be provoked to both laughter and thought, I can't think of a better stocking filler than Craig Brown's One On One (Fourth Estate £16.99), 101 ingeniously linked encounters between the famous and the infamous. As a great admirer of Max Hastings's military histories, I would be pleased to unwrap All Hell Let Loose (HarperCollins £30), his latest, much-praised volume on the second world war, focusing on the experiences of those at the sharp end of the conflict.

Kate Kellaway
Observer writer

There is one book that has bowled me over – on a subject close to my heart. The Story of Swimming (Dewi Lewis £25), by Susie Parr, not only looks ravishing (filled with unusual mermaids, avid modern swimmers and stunning photographs by the author's husband, Martin Parr) but is also a fascinating, idiosyncratic, beautifully written history. Readers will want to do far more than dip in – I intend to give it to all my amphibious friends. Meanwhile, the book I can't wait to read is Matthew Hollis's said-to-be-outstanding Now All Roads Lead to France (Faber £20), about the last years of Edward Thomas.

Peter Carey

I have twice given away David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House £21.99), and Christmas will not change my habits. The book is more readable and entertaining than I can indicate in 100 words. It is a meditation on debt, tribute, gifts, religion and the false history of money. Graeber is a scholarly researcher, an activist and a public intellectual. His field is the whole history of social and economic transactions. He has been an important figure at Zuccotti Park and Occupy Wall Street. Here, he uses his own klieg lights to illuminate the pea and thimble mechanisms that have delivered the current debt crisis. Would someone, please, give me a copy this Christmas. I promise to keep it for myself.

Elizabeth Day
Observer writer

One of the most thought-provoking novels I read this year was Amy Waldman's The Submission (William Heinemann £12.99), an elegantly plotted debut that charts the fallout after a New York jury chooses a Muslim architect to design a memorial to 9/11. Waldman uses this central focal point to unravel the tensions and contradictions at work in modern America.

The book I'd most like to unwrap underneath the Christmas tree (hint, hint) is Claire Tomalin's new biography, Charles Dickens: A Life. I've read every biography Tomalin has produced and am in awe not only of her impeccable research but also of her real feeling for her subjects and her exquisite writing.

AN Wilson
Writer and columnist

The book that I am hoping to find in my Christmas stocking is Fiona MacCarthy's The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination (Faber £25). I have enjoyed all Fiona MacCarthy's biographies (Eric Gill, William Morris, Byron...) and I cannot believe that this will disappoint.

The book I shall be giving is Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's compelling critical biography, Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist (Harvard £20). If you only read one book on Dickens during the bicentenary year of 2012, it should be this. Every page illuminates the books and the genius who produced them.

Writer and cultural commentator

So many contenders, but I would share the incredible creative power and intense imagination of Alice Hoffman, whose novel The Dovekeepers (Simon & Schuster £16.99) shows just how far and deep historical fiction can go. I would love to receive Sarah Hall's short story collection, The Beautiful Indifference (Faber £12.99), which I expect to be as gripping and cerebral as a previous novel of hers – one of my favourites – The Carhullan Army.

Salley Vickers

The book I shall be giving for Christmas is Ronald Blythe's At the Yeoman's House (Enitharmon Press £15). The "house" is the mysteriously named "Bottengoms", once home of farmers and shepherds and rescued and restored by John Nash, for whom the author worked as a young man. The book is a quiet meditation on the nourishment to be found in the past. The book I most want to be given is Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. I'm a speedy thinker myself, so am hoping to be endorsed in that practice.

Robert McCrum
Associate editor of the Observer

Amanda Foreman's A World on Fire, an epic history of two nations divided by conflict, is an enthralling portrait of Britain and the US during the American civil war. It's a book that ought to be a natural Christmas present. Unfortunately, at 1,000 pages, the publishers have made it almost unreadable (ie impossible to hold in bed). This is a shame. To turn a brilliant narrative history into an infuriating doorstop is an insult to Foreman's work. Perhaps, for the gift market, Penguin should consider a two-volume paperback edition.

I've followed Christopher Reid's poetry for years, and was delighted when he won the Costa prize with A Scattering. Now Faber has issued his Selected Poems (£14.99). This is high on my list of books to read at Christmas.

Fintan O'Toole
Journalist and author

The book I'll be giving is Tim Robinson's Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom (Penguin £20). In an age of sundered specialisms, Robinson – mathematician, map-maker, naturalist, folklorist – is a marvel. This last volume of his wonderful trilogy on Connemara ranges through political history, music and topography, marking him as the supreme practitioner of geo-graphy, the writing of places. I'd like to receive Derek Mahon's New Collected Poems (Gallery £17.95). Mahon's combinations of savage indignation and ludic delight, of high formality and apparent ease, repay endless revisiting.

What do you think are the best books of 2011? Take part in our open thread discussion here © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 23 2011


Händel's Ode for the Saint Cecilia's Day, 1739
- poetry: John Dryden - Song for the Saint Cecilia's Day 1687

Overture, recitativo accompagnato & chorus

From harmony, from Heav’nly harmony
          This universal frame began.
     When Nature underneath a heap
          Of jarring atoms lay,
     And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high,
          Arise ye more than dead.
Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry,
     In order to their stations leap,
          And music’s pow’r obey.
From harmony, from Heav’nly harmony
          This universal frame began:
          From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
     The diapason closing full in man.


whole poem with detailed explanations: DRYDEN AND HANDEL

Youtube Playlist (~1h 30 min, not embeddable) with excerpts, readings and short commentaries

- Henry Purcell: Hail, bright Cecilia (text based on Dryden)
- G.F. Händel: Ode for the Saint Cecilia's Day (text by Dryden)
- Joseph Haydn: Missa Cellensis (Cäcilienmesse)

SAINT CECILIA - 1618 - DOMENICHINO (1581-1641)

Saint cecilia

St. Cecilia's Day - 22nd of November
- Catholic Encyclopedia
- Wikipedia
Reposted bysiriusminerva siriusminerva

October 31 2011

Art, poems and pop-up proms

Tracey Emin and Thomas Hirschhorn among top artists to harness the spirit of the Games for a giant public festival in 2012

The Hayward Gallery in London is to be turned into a giant art school next summer, with classes for the public held by artists including Tracey Emin and Turner prize winners Mark Wallinger, Martin Creed and Jeremy Deller, as well as famous international names such as Thomas Hirschhorn and Marlene Dumas. Artists will hold lectures and workshops, and the event will culminate in an exhibition of work produced by the public in the gallery.

"It's going to be crazy," said Patrick Brill, who makes art under the name Bob and Roberta Smith. "The idea is to make it a great big sandpit of ideas." Southbank's artistic director, Jude Kelly, said: "It will be open for anyone from the public for a month to learn not just art, but anything else that the artists want to teach."

The Hayward's Wide Open School is one of the expected highlights of Southbank Centre's Festival of the World, which runs next summer from 1 June to 9 September, to coincide with the London Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Other highlights will involve the largest-ever gathering of poets, spearheaded by Simon Armitage; a residency by the Venezuelan Simón Bolívar Orchestra and its chief conductor Gustavo Dudamel; an African strand led by Senegalese musician Baaba Maal; and a four-day celebration of Wales led by the renowned bass baritone Bryn Terfel, regarded as the greatest British singer of his generation.

There will also be a programme led by disabled and deaf artists, including Graeae Theatre and Candoco Dance – the largest such event, aiming to provide a parallel to the Paralympic Games.

The festival is inspired by the conviction of Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the Olympic movement, that every young person has an Olympian spark of talent waiting to be drawn out – not just on the track or field, said Kelly.

The festival's focus will not be art being "done" for audiences, but audiences getting involved in making art.

According to the Hayward gallery's director, Ralph Rugoff: "Wide Open School grew out of a response to the Olympics, as being the moment when for three weeks most of us become couch potatoes and watch people with glorious bodies do things we could never ever do in a million years – and we become passive. So I began to think what kind of offer we can make that's going to flip that on its head. We are going to ask people to become much more active and to make work themselves."

Armitage's project, Poetry Parnassus, will invite more than 200 poets to gather at the Southbank for readings and workshops, including a final gala event with all the writers.

He said: "The dream is to bring a poet from every country participating in the Olympics to the Southbank and to make the Southbank a great community of poets."

Each writer will also contribute to an anthology called The World Record, to be published by Bloodaxe Books, celebrating poetry in translation. The event will look to the spirit of the ancient Olympics, in which poets competed, and composed victory odes to successful athletes – Pindar's Olympian Odes being the most famous case.

The Simón Bolívar Orchestra, which has always proved a crowd-puller on the Southbank and at the Proms for the committed musicianship and passion of its young players, will return for a four-day residency.

This year, they will create pop-up concert halls and will be on hand for teaching sessions for young British players. There will be a children's concert and musicians will set up a fiesta of Latin music.

Baaba Maal's Africa Utopia will be a series of talks, debates and concerts focusing on what the African continent can offer the rest of the world.

A number of younger people will be joined by "elders" – African musicians, artists, writers and activists – to debate social change in the context of African examples. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Reposted bycheg00 cheg00

October 11 2011

Anna Adams obituary

My friend Anna Adams, who has died aged 85, was a poet and artist. She was a writer of real talent who, although reasonably well published by small presses, has yet to receive her due from the wider poetic world.

She was born in London and went to Harrow Art School and Hornsey College of Art, where she met her husband Norman, who was to become a distinguished painter and keeper of the Royal Academy. Anna's own paintings were small, delicate watercolours of flowers and landscapes; she also made rather bolder ceramics of animals.

It was poetry, however, into which she poured her main creative energies. From the first, she swam against the tide in writing metrical rhyming poems of considerable dexterity (as she put it "a formalist rather than a free-verser"). She also distrusted the "confessional" school and, apart from a handful of poems composed after Norman's death in 2005, eschewed the personal statement.

Her main publisher was Peterloo, which brought out five collections between 1979 and 2004, but she also published a book of new and selected poems, Green Resistance, with Enitharmon in 1996. There were two prose, poetry and art compilations of real distinction in Island Chapters (1991) and Life on Limestone (1994). The former stems from the decade that she and her husband and their two small children spent on the island of Scarp in the Outer Hebrides. The latter is a reflection of upwards of 30 years living in a converted farmhouse in the Yorkshire Dales.

The poet Anne Stevenson has spoken of Anna's "chief virtues of immediacy and intelligence and keen sense of humour which make [her] popular among many readers". These qualities can be observed in this excerpt from one of the Island Chapters poems:

The Sabbath closes doors and hushes speech,

manacles hands, gyves feet, suppresses each

workaday wish for play, deserts the beach,

while people from the seashore houses wear

their Sundaybest expressions, oil their hair,

and walk in polished boots to meet for prayer.

Anna is survived by two sons, Ben and Jacob, and two grandchildren, Anjana and Ammar. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 07 2011

TV highlights 07/10/2011

The Culture Show | Rostropovich – The Genius Of The Cello | Autumnwatch 2011 | Criminal Minds | A League Of Their Own | Chris Addison: My Funniest Year

The Culture Show
7pm, BBC2

Another week, another eclectic collection of reports from the arts show, which this week visits Glasgow. Top of the bill is host Andrew Graham-Dixon interviewing Grayson Perry, who's lately curated an installation of new works mixed up with objects drawn from the British Museum collection. Mark Kermode discusses We Need To Talk About Kevin with its director Lynne Ramsay, Simon Armitage celebrates National Poetry Day, and critic Michael Collins considers representations of working-class characters in the theatre. Plus, choreographer Akram Khan and the work of artist Gerhard Richter. Jonathan Wright

Rostropovich – The Genius Of The Cello
7.30pm, BBC4

The cello is the closest orchestral instrument to the human voice in its range of expression. It has achieved a pre-eminence in the classical repertoire, growing throughout the 20th century. Much of this is to do with the tireless brilliance of the late Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. This profile, rich with footage, depicts a man whose energy and lust for life, as well its joys and sadnesses, informed his playing, and whose excessiveness broke the banks of mere virtuosity. David Stubbs

Autumnwatch 2011
8.30pm, BBC2

Once a week for eight weeks, Autumnwatch will be hoping something happens. Presenters Chris Packham, Martin Hughes-Games and Michaela Strachan will be travelling the country to try to catch wildlife in action. The live locations include the wetlands at Slimbridge reserve in Gloucestershire, where kingfishers, otters and 35,000 wildfowl are all potential stars, and the National Arboretum at Westonbirt, which will probably be worth a visit for the stunning seasonal colours alone. Martin Skegg

Chris Addison: My Funniest Year
11.10pm, Channel 4

Addison takes to the stage of the Hackney Empire to deliver a live clip show based around his favourite year. His comedy odyssey takes us back to 2001, when Bush Jr came to power and ITV's Popstars gave us Hear'Say. News footage shows the year to be not that funny at all, with the twin towers falling and mass culling of foot and mouth-infected livestock, but this just gives Addison a chance to deploy the stockpile of gags he's had a decade to gather. Phelim O'Neill

Criminal Minds
9pm, Sky Living

A show based around the FBI's behavioural analysis unit, which psychologically profiles killers. For this seventh season, Criminal Minds departs forensic reality for a slightly far-fetched fantasy. Last series, it seemed that team member Emily Prentiss was a goner – stabbed in the abdomen by her arms-dealer former lover. How straightforward that would have been. In fact, Prentiss is alive, and hiding out in Paris until she finds an opportune moment to rejoin the unit. Fun stuff – and look out for Mad Men's Duck Phillips (Mark Moses) guest-starring as a member of a senate committee. John Robinson

A League Of Their Own
10pm, Sky1

While its antecedent, They Think It's All Over, managed to show the surprisingly sharp side of sporting figures such as David Gower and Steve Davis, A League Of Their Own merely plays down to expectations. Team captains Andrew Flintoff and Jamie Redknapp, though likable enough, aren't terribly interesting, leaving the burden of entertainment on James Corden and his interchangeable support staff of panel-show comics, which, for this fourth series, includes Jack Whitehall, Jason Manford and Lee Mack. Gwilym Mumford © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

September 06 2011

Dublin art show draws on WB Yeats's darkest lines

Dublin Contemporary's political theme is the 'terrible beauty' in the poem Easter, 1916. But are Yeats's eerie, prophetic verses applicable to recent political and economic upheavals?

From 6 September until 31 October, Dublin is putting on a contemporary art show that occupies some of the city's finest venues and includes a host of Irish and international artists. Dublin Contemporary 2011 can be seen at the Hugh Lane, the National Gallery of Ireland and other spaces, and features, among others, Willie Doherty and Thomas Hirschhorn. It should be fascinating to see such a big spread of new art against this city's backdrop of 18th-century buildings, and the event deserves to draw big crowds to Dublin.

But inevitably, in these times of economic crisis and world political upheaval, Dublin Contemporary has a political feel: perhaps it is the first international art event to take on this year's mounting sense of crisis directly. Both the artists I have mentioned are notably engaged with political events, and Dublin Contemporary takes as its theme "Terrible Beauty", a quotation from WB Yeats's poem Easter, 1916.

This has been quite a summer for quoting Yeats. In the wake of England's riots, columnists were working great chunks from his poem The Second Coming into their copy. Easter, 1916 and The Second Coming both come from an anthology that Yeats published in 1921, his most disturbing and engaged book, reflecting on revolution and anticipating civil war. It is chilling that now, people from Telegraph commentators to art curators find his darkest lines appropriate to our times.

In Easter, 1916, Yeats defines the modern spirit in an uneasy and ambivalent way. He speaks of friends and acquaintances he used to meet after work, to say "polite meaningless words" to, yet who have now become revolutionary martyrs in the Easter Rising:

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

This line captures the essence of modernism in art as well as politics – the change that has suddenly occurred is absolute, and unleashes terrible beauty. You can apply that image to works of art from Les demoiselles d'Avignon to Thomas Hirschhorn's Crystal of Resistance in the Swiss Pavilion at this summer's Venice Biennale.

As an aesthetic, this "terrible beauty" is compelling, but Yeats sees human terror in the violence and intensity that has been unleashed, for "Too long a sacrifice/ Can make a stone of the heart." In The Second Coming, the poet bears witness to gathering darkness as hearts do indeed turn to stone:

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

So it is uneasy, to say the least, that all of a sudden, the times we live in seem to demand quotations from the eeriest prophetic verses of the 20th century. Are we really in times of "terrible beauty" once again? Are the troubling symptoms of the summer, from breaking glass to market shudders, really comparable with the bloody age in which Yeats had his revelations?

Dublin Contemporary sounds great. But I hope we can soon go back to living where motley is worn. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 29 2011

6292 0d54 500


“wind” by eugen gomringer (1953)


// oAnth:

Konkrete Poesie - WP - DE

Concrete poetry - WP - EN

August 21 2011

When two tribes meet

Science and art are often considered opposites – so what happens when top practitioners in each field collaborate? The results, finds Stuart Jeffries, can be seismic

Yes, Leonardo da Vinci was both artist and inventor. True, Brian Cox was in that band before he gave it all up for the Large Hadron Collider. But in general, art and science seem to eye each other uncomprehendingly. Medical research charity the Wellcome Trust has long tried to make artists and scientists work fruitfully together by funding collaborations. Can the divide ever be breached? I talked to four scientists and four artists who have worked together to find out.

The artist and the geneticist

Just before 9/11, Marc Quinn did a portrait of Sir John Sulston, one of the genetic scientists who decoded the human genome. "At the moment this divisive attack happened, John's work and this portrait were suggesting that we are all connected – in fact that everything living is connected to everything else," Quinn says.

It was a radical departure for portraiture. Certainly few sitters contribute, as Sulston did, a sample of DNA from his sperm. That sample was cut into segments and treated so they could be replicated in bacteria. The bacteria was spread on agar jelly and placed under glass, forming a portrait about A4 size. "Some say it's an abstract portrait, but I say it's the most realistic portrait in the National Portrait Gallery," says Quinn. "It carries the instructions that led to John and shows his ancestry back to the beginning of the universe."

"Well, yes," says Sulston, "but DNA gives the instructions for making a baby, not an adult. There's a lot more to me than DNA."

A decade after their collaboration, Quinn and Sulston are meeting in the artist's east London studio. Did the collaboration change each man's attitudes towards the other's discipline? "I still think science is looking for answers and art is looking for questions," says Quinn.

"Science simply means finding out about stuff, but in that process science is the greatest driver of culture," says Sulston. "When you do something like decode the human genome, it changes your whole perspective. In terms of genetic manipulation we're not just looking for answers but modifying what's there."

That is very much the focus of Quinn's recent work. Last year, his White Cube show featured a sculpture called Catman, depicting Dennis Avner, who has been tattooed to look like a cat, and another of Allanah Starr, a transsexual woman who, according to the blurb, "has changed her body into the idealisation of femininity even though she also has a penis". Quinn says: "They're about the fantasy of being someone else – you can be a man or a woman, anything. We've always had those fantasies and now science is making them possible."

Quinn says Sulston's portrait was important to his later work. He shows us his painting of a human iris in the studio. "I've made a lot of work since, to do with eyes and fingerprints, because we are controlled so much more by scans of abstract data about ourselves." As for Sulston, since he finished working on the human genome, he has become concerned with ethical questions to do with the application of his work to police DNA databases and civil liberties.

The collaboration came about when Quinn was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery, with the support of the Wellcome Trust, to do Sulston's portrait. "John did all the work," says Quinn. The artist, at least, decided on the portrait's frame. "People can see themselves in the reflective surround, which highlights that we're all connected – one of the great messages of the Human Genome Project.

"Because it's true, isn't it, that our DNA is 90% the same as bananas'?" asks Quinn. "Well, no, actually it's more like 50%," clarifies Sulston, who won the Nobel prize in 2002. "Our DNA is about 90% the same as other mammals." Our material connection with everything else, not just our world but in the universe, clearly appeals to Quinn: no wonder that his Iris painting from 2009 is subtitled We Share Our Chemistry with the Stars.

In Quinn's most famous work, Self (1991), he made a sculpture from a cast of his head filled with nine pints of his own deep-frozen blood. It is carefully maintained in a refrigeration unit, reminding us of the fragility of existence. Every five years since 1991, he has replaced what he calls a "frozen moment" on life support, with a new transfusion of his own blood. He calls it an ongoing project, while the portrait of Sulston is suspended in time for ever; once the Nobel laureate dies, there is something of him preserved in this picture, a code from which, perhaps, he could be cloned.

The poet and the speech scientist

"I once overheard someone say, 'Its mother was a crab,'" says Valerie Hazan, professor of speech sciences at University College London. "Can you think of a situation in which that would be used? I often ask my students this."

Hazan's point is that hearers often work imaginatively to supply a context to a discombobulating utterance, to annex incomprehensible or uncanny speech into the more soothing realm of the understood. But there's another point, too: "Certain utterances stick in your mind: a contorted use of language not planned in any way is often most memorable."

This resonates for poet Lavinia Greenlaw. "Those are the things I'm trying to recreate in my work," she says. "I'm trying to get at that unconscious manipulation of language. I've become more and more interested in particular voices at the edge – especially overheard, fragmentary voices."

For her latest project, Greenlaw spent two years eavesdropping on passengers at railway stations. She even has a Twitter feed to record gnomic utterances, such as her recent favourite: "trifle for grownups". She wrote monologues based on these eavesdroppings, got actors to voice them, and – with the help of a sound designer – cut them into little snippets. But the results weren't just what she heard. "I started with the overheard and then I moved into interior voices, which clearly I imagined. So I started with something very real and then it became about heightening it."

The result is called Audio Obscura. The project started at Manchester's Piccadilly station and will next month appear on the concourse of London's St Pancras station. Visitors put on headphones and, alone, engage in what she calls "dark listening" to voices in the crowd – fragments of narratives, glimpses of interior worlds.

For Hazan, this project bears comparison with her own research interests. "In my work, I'm realising more and more that you can't take things out of context and that if there isn't an obvious one, hearers supply it." Recently, Hazan recorded 40 speakers in 12 pairs trying to exchange information about a "spot the difference" picture. "In one of them, one talker heard the other via a three-channel noise vocoder. But even with minimal pitch and acoustics, that kind of very degraded speech can be given a context by the hearer."

What of that mysterious crab sentence utterance we started with? "I heard it in an airport," says Hazan. "The wheels of a trolley were splayed out, and it couldn't move forwards and back. It was odd to overhear that, but what it shows is how we try desperately to make sense with semantically anomalous sentences."

Is there any parallel between the two women's disciplines? Hazan says: "As a scientist you have to be creative to really think what is the question. I didn't think a poet had to be methodical."

Greenlaw says: "Poets are often thought of as vague and wishy-washy, but, like scientists, they can't be. A poem can be about vagueness, but it has to be in precise relationship to vagueness if it's any good. I'm ridiculously analytical. Poetry, though, is an unsettlement – unlike you, Valerie, I'm not drawing connections."

"But we're both manipulating reality to understand it," says Hazan. "What makes a good scientist is someone who can see beyond the obvious."

The photographer and the physiologist

When Mary Morrell and Catherine Yass collaborated on a project called Waking Dream, each hoped to unravel what, if anything, essentially happens in the transition from sleep to wakefulness. Physiologist Morrell, now professor of sleep and respiratory physiology at the National Heart and Lung Institute, Imperial College London, wanted to give a scientific account of that transition.

Turner-shortlisted artist Yass says she came to the collaboration with a lot of "what ifs". "What if we could be said at some moments to be both asleep and awake? What if we were both dreaming and in reality at the same time?"

The collaboration started after Morrell received an email from Yass asking if she could photograph and film patients at the sleep unit to capture this transition. "I thought it sounded impossible, but agreed to let her try."

In the corridor outside Morrell's office at the sleep and breathing unit of London's Royal Brompton Hospital is a lightbox photograph of one of Yass's subjects, Selina, depicted as she came from rapid eye movement (REM) sleep to wakefulness. It's one of a series Yass took during the collaboration. Each image invites the viewer to decide whether she is asleep or not.

"I was interested in the limitations of my instruments and the impossibility of representing something," says Yass. "I enjoy that in photography – how it can point to a failure?"

"Initially, I didn't get that at all," laughs Morrell. "Failure pleasurable?" Morrell was also blindsided by the idea that the two women were going to be funded to collaborate on a project that had no obvious outcome.

"Essentially, once we got funding for the project from the Wellcome Trust, we were allowed to find nothing, which to me was incredible." Maybe that freedom, Morrell wonders, can give artist and scientist alike the chance to think outside the box.

Morrell shows me one of the results, hanging on the wall of the Royal Brompton's sleep unit. It's a lightbox in which a furl of lurid pink seems to unroll from the mouth of a black-and-white MRI scanner. "I love this because it looks like that Rolling Stones tongue," says Morrell. Yass says she was trying to highlight the discrepancy between a medium associated with truth, and images which are illusions.

"What came out of the project for me was how you look dictates the answer you get," says Morrell. "You can measures sleep with electrodes, MRI scans, measuring respiratory patterns and whichever way you choose changes your result."

Both women say working on Waking Dream broadened their horizons. "Catherine challenged my preconditioned ideas," says Morrell. After the collaboration, she took a photography course. Some photographs from mountaineering jaunts hang on the walls of her office.

"I was inspired by your attitude," says Yass. "I came with a tentative idea and you would say, 'This is how you can do it.'" Could Yass imagine having been a scientist? "I used to think about being a brain surgeon, but I wouldn't trust myself in a million years. In terms of science, I've always been daunted by the amount of knowledge a scientist needs, but I love the idea that there's a lot of knowledge and someone like Mary has it."

"I'm not sure I do," says Morrell.

The theatre director and the neuroscientist

"If you hear a recording of someone whispering in your ear," says theatre director David Rosenberg, "you can convince yourself you felt their breath."

"Expectation is everything," agrees Professor David McAlpine, director of London University's Ear Institute. "Your brain fills in so much it's not funny. You've got a very narrow bandwidth by the time you get to your ears and your eyes. The rest is artificial, filled in by that expectations machine – your brain."

For his latest theatre piece, Electric Hotel, Rosenberg wanted to play with some of these auditory ideas, to tease his audience with sound illusions. So he approached neuroscientist McAlpine, whose research work into brain mechanisms for spatial hearing and detecting sounds in noisy environments proved key to the effects Rosenberg wanted to achieve. "We were trying to create a very intimate experience for an audience in a show which they see from a distance and also through glass," says Rosenberg.

Electric Hotel initially took place in a decommissioned gasworks behind London's King's Cross station. As darkness fell, audience members were given special headphones and asked to sit before a four-storey set with glass-fronted chambers representing hotel rooms in which dancers played the parts of hotel guests, couriers and cleaners.

Those headphones supplied binaural recordings to each spectator's ears. Rosenberg, along with sound designers and composers Max and Ben Ringham, made a complete score made up not just of music but of everyday sounds. Soft noises were heard thrillingly close to audience members' ears: a woman pulling on a robe after a swim, the plumping of a pillow. The illusory effect was that the individual spectator, far from being in a crowd of other audience members, was in the room with them. While these noises sounded as though they were taking place on stage, in fact they were part of a pre-recorded soundtrack to which the dancers' choreographed moves were fitted.

What does binaural mean? "It's two-eared hearing, and involves extracting information you couldn't have from one ear," says McAlpine. "There are binaural recordings using two microphones at an appropriate distance apart used within a dummy head to try to reproduce effects of your normal hearing," says Rosenberg.

McAlpine recalls the most sophisticated binaural illusion he ever heard. "I was at Dolby's headquarters in San Francisco. They made me put on headphones, close my eyes and then you hear you're in an aeroplane and you crash into the ocean. I really felt a sense of the whoosh of water and the sense of going up on to a sandy beach. Those sensations were my brain filling in the experience from what it heard."

Rosenberg says a key moment of Electric Hotel was another illusion. "The sound moved out into the audience, and the audience became confused as to whether what they're hearing was part of the performance or the actual audience surrounding them."

It sounds like the aural application of a Brechtian alienation technique. Is it? "Totally. It was very important in a show which is essentially you alone with the performers, and then suddenly you have a moment when you recognise the audience around you."

Rosenberg's next theatre project will put his audience in the dark. "The show will enfold you when the lights go out. The audience will wear headphones, and their imaginative experience will involve creating environments they can feel they're a part of without the distraction of vision."

"Your eyes are in charge but not always," says McAlpine. "If it's dark, then you have to do imaginative work. People think of visual scenes, and there are gestalt [psychological] principles for understanding how that is put together. But there's also an auditory scene which is less robust than the visual scene, and how it's put together is still not very clear." Perhaps, then, Rosenberg's next play could be a rare case of art helping scientific enquiry.

Correction 22/8/11: We mistakenly called Professor Mary Morrell 'Margaret' in the piece. This has been corrected © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 05 2011

Lines of fire: Dante's vision of hell still has an afterlife | Jonathan Jones

The brilliant, terrifying Divine Comedy has always provoked artists to respond to its hardline moral absolutism

Midway upon the road of our life
I found myself within a dark wood ...
– Inferno, by Dante Alighieri.

That is the Norton translation of the greatest opening verse in the history of poetry. The world has a handful of supreme poets. Homer, Shakespeare and Goethe are up there. I'm sure you have your own suggestions. All of these writers – even Homer, with his Trojan war epic The Iliad – can be made contemporary to us, made to approximate our world-view. Yet the greatest and most universal poet of all is the least "modern" and at times the most obscure. He is Dante Alighieri.

The world-view Dante unfolds in mesmerising images in the three books of his Divine Comedy – Hell, Purgatory and Paradise – is truly medieval. No wonder: he lived most of his life in the 13th century before completing his masterpiece in the early 14th. But it is the relentless Gothic-style Christianity of Dante's vision that makes it so unnerving: the profound sense of sin behind his biting portraits of the damned in Hell, and the equally absolute faith in a machine-accurate divine justice the poet finally glimpses in Paradise. The Divine Comedy is a dogmatic, cruel work that haunts the imagination like no other. Paradoxically, no "modern" poet has been so frequently illustrated by modern artists; only Byron excites comparable interest.

The latest Dante artist is painter and draughtsman Guy Denning. He has already completed a series of illustrations for Hell, which are about to be exhibited in Bologna, and is now working on Purgatory, with designs that include a dramatic rendering of New York on 9 September 2001. His project follows in the footsteps of many artists who, like Dante in his poem, edged down into those shadows with their best foot backward. Robert Rauschenberg did a particularly provocative Dante cycle that included collaged images of riots and riot police in 1960s America; Blake, Tom Phillips and Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux all had a go too. But perhaps the most haunting of all illustrations of this poem are those created by Gustave Doré in 19th-century France, in the age of absinthe visions.

Why does a writer rooted in a world-view that not even the most conservative modern Christian can share (no forgiveness, no grace) speak so strongly to artists and readers? New translations as well as new depictions of Dante abound. He seems to ask something of us, to demand a response. Artists who come across him are moved to visualise his fiery images. Poets feel obliged to retranslate his mighty words.

My own first experience of Dante was a translation of just one part of the Inferno by Seamus Heaney. Ugolino is in Heaney's collection Field Work, which is a moving response to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Dante's tale of Ugolino, who was cruelly treated and took bitter revenge in eternity, fits into the landscape of reprisal Heaney depicts. In other words, one reason for Dante's enduring power is that we have not really left the middle ages. Vendetta still rules. Entire foreign policies, not to mention civil wars and terror campaigns, are based on ideas of revenge and polarities of good and evil just as primitive as anything in Dante.

Another reason the great Italian challenges us is that he proposes a morally absolute vision of life that cuts through modern relativism like a knight's broadsword. So the world is ambiguous and our own actions impossible to morally judge? Dante menaces us with the alternative possibility that every act is scrutinised, that every moment of our lives is weighed in the balance.

His first image is as contemporary as anyone could wish: in midlife, the poet is in a dark wood. It turns out that he can only escape by going down, into the shadows of hell, to plumb its very depths and pass through to the other side. It is a spiritual journey towards light through darkness, marked by meetings with the damned, who confess their sins and remember their lives with pain, pride, regret and longing. It is my favourite poem – but I am too frightened to ever read it again. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 07 2011

RF Langley obituary

Poet whose work is suffused with stillness and contemplation

English studies at Cambridge around 1960 produced a significant number of highly original poets. One of them was RF Langley, who has died aged 72. His career as a poet was remarkable for its persistent fidelity to the aesthetic principles of modernism.

Roger Francis Langley was born and spent his working life in the West Midlands. He attended Queen Mary's grammar school, Walsall, then gained an open scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1957. There he met the poet JH Prynne, who became a close friend. Encouraged by Donald Davie, they forged a new aesthetic out of the study of Ezra Pound and others, including the art historian Adrian Stokes. Roger's primary concerns during this period were visual; he painted and drew, and, with Prynne, undertook a study of Italian Renaissance art using Stokes's books, going on an extended tour of northern Italy in an old van.

Stokes's theory was that art should be carved and static rather than moulded and rhythmic, so that the principal figures in the picture may stand out distinctly in a stillness which invites contemplation. Through the disjointed nature of Pound's early work this was moved into poetry, which, rather than the continuous movement of the spoken language, offers a meditative stillness, as the poet focused on a mostly visual experience of the world. Roger sought occasions when he was "alone and perfectly still" and allowed words to elaborate freely from that point. He never abandoned these principles, and although the resulting poetry presents difficulties from a rationalist point of view, many have taken it to their hearts without necessarily understanding it fully in the usual sense.

Roger was a teacher for nearly 40 years, joining Wolverhampton grammar school in 1965, and going to Bishop Vesey's grammar school in Sutton Coldfield in 1980, where he was head of English until he retired. At Wolverhampton he met Barbara, whom he married in 1972, following a brief earlier marriage.

He also taught art history and offered classes at home. His painting and drawing continued, joined increasingly by poetry, and enthusiasts persuaded him to publish in small-press editions. His Collected Poems, published by Carcanet in 2000, contained just 17 poems; it was shortlisted for the Whitbread prize that year.

In 1999 he retired with Barbara to an area of rural Suffolk which had become a place of respite and creativity for him – some nine of the 17 poems are set there. His output increased, and his 2007 Carcanet book, The Face of It, held 21 poems. A further dozen have appeared since. From 1970 he kept a journal, from which some poems were directly drawn. The literary magazine PN Review has published entries from the journal for many years.

In Suffolk his lifelong pursuits of botany, ornithology, entomology (specialising in spiders) and old churches flourished. Bramfield, the village he lived in, held an iconic work for him: Nicholas Stone's 1627 tomb of Mrs Coke, to which he was first led by Prynne when they returned from Tuscany and Roger complained that he would never see a good piece of stone-carving again.

These studies were taken up into the poems, sometimes in disguised form, or more often as starting points for his verbal wizardry, making the scene flicker between actual and imaginary, descriptive and abstract. The dazzling techniques of modernism are brought to bear on quiet rural pursuits: the patient inspection of spiders through a magnifying glass, a cluster of waxwings, a ruined minster – a collection of personal "sacred sites" as he called them, treated with both wonder and precise, even scientific, attention.

His last poems showed an increasingly direct address, extensively describing a landscape or recounting an experience. As a distinctly challenging poetry, it remains remarkably gentle in its craft of verbal precision and figuration. Here is the end of his meditation in an isolated medieval church in Suffolk, an eloquent plea for us to pass beyond the literal:

We leave unachieved in the

summer dusk. There are no

maps of moonlight. We find

peace in the room and don't

ask what won't be answered.

We don't know what we see, so

there is more here. More. Here.

He is survived by Barbara, his children Ruth and Eric, and a granddaughter.

• Roger Francis Langley, poet, born 23 October 1938, died 25 January 2011 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 23 2011

Maria Kodama: Windows on the World

Our monthly series showcases the drawings of artist Matteo Pericoli, detailing the views from the windows of leading writers. This week, the widow of Jorge Luis Borges is reminded of him through the sensations he enjoyed in Buenos Aires

A certain house in the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Recoleta has a window that is doubly privileged. It overlooks a courtyard garden of the kind known here as a pulmón de manzana – literally, the lung of a block – which affords it a view of the sky and an expanse of plants, trees and vines that meander along the walls of neighbouring houses, marking the passage of the seasons with their colours. In addition, the window shelters the library of my late husband, Jorge Luis Borges. It is a real Library of Babel, full of old books, their endpapers scribbled with notes in his tiny hand.

As afternoon progresses and I look up from my work to gaze out of this window, I may be invaded by springtime, or if it's summer, by the perfume of jasmine or the scent of orange blossom, mingled with the aroma of leather and book paper, which brought Borges such pleasure.

The window has one more surprise. From it, I can see the garden of the house where he once lived and where he wrote one of his best-known short stories, "The Circular Ruins''. Here, I can move back and forth between two worlds. Sometimes, following Borges, I wonder which one is real: the world I see from the window, bathed in afternoon splendour or sunset's soft glow, with the house that once belonged to him in the distance, or the world of the Library of Babel, with its shelves full of books once touched by his hands? © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 17 2011

Malangatana Ngwenya obituary

Leading Mozambican painter and poet who depicted his country's struggle in his work

The Mozambican painter and poet Malangatana Ngwenya, who has died aged 74 following respiratory complications, was one of Africa's leading contemporary artists, and his work is known round the world. A lifelong Marxist, he depicted the suffering and struggles of a troubled nation, and campaigned for peace. While Ngwenya, meaning crocodile, provided the title of a 2007 documentary film, he was most widely known as Malangatana.

Once Mozambique had achieved independence and freed itself from conflict, he encouraged its continuing cultural life. A National Art Museum was established in the capital city of Maputo, and the art college Núcleo de Arte became primarily concerned with encouraging young, black artists.

Núcleo de Arte was where Malangatana had started evening classes in 1958, followed three years later by his first solo exhibition. He courageously presented his ambitious Juízo Final (Final Judgment), a commentary on life under oppressive Portuguese rule. Mystical figures of many colours, including a black priest dressed in white, evoke a vision of hell. Some of the figures have sharp white fangs, a recurring motif in Malangatana's work, symbolising the ugliness of human savagery.

Fame soon followed, as his works were toured and seen abroad. A year after his first show, the German champion of African arts Ulli Beier pointed to Malangatana's originality. In 1963, he contributed to the anthology Modern Poetry from Africa and the journal Black Orpheus, and soon after became an active member of Frelimo, the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique. The following year, he was detained by the PIDE, the Portuguese secret police, and sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment. Among the congenial company he found behind bars was the country's leading poet, José Craveirinha.

Malangatana travelled to Portugal in 1971 on a Gulbenkian Foundation grant, and for three years studied printmaking and ceramics. Portugal's Carnation Revolution of April 1974 saw an authoritarian dictatorship giving way to democracy: one of the factors that had weakened the old order was the armed conflict in its African colonies. Malangatana, once again an openly declared member of Frelimo, returned to Mozambique to witness the coming of independence on 25 June 1975.

Two years later, fighting broke out between Renamo, the Mozambique Resistance Movement, backed by South Africa, and Frelimo. More than a million people died, either from fighting or from starvation; five million civilians were displaced; and many were made amputees by landmines, a continuing problem. The civil war ended in 1992, and the first multiparty elections were held in 1994. Throughout this time – artistically, his blue period, which saw a number of powerful works – Malangatana was the artistic embodiment of the continuing struggle, and took an active role in the Frelimo government.

From 1981, he was able to work full-time as an artist, and the following year Augusto Cabral, director of the Natural History Museum in Maputo, commissioned him to create a mural in its gardens. In a celebration of the unity of humankind and the often brutal world of nature, the work depicts wide-eyed figures in earth-coloured pastels, with extended limbs and claw-like hands.

Cabral, an ardent supporter, had played a crucial role in Malangatana's early life. Born in Matalana, a small village north of Maputo, Malangatana spent his childhood at various mission schools and herding livestock with his mother; his father was often away, working in gold mines in South Africa. At the age of 12 he ventured into the capital, then known as Lourenço Marques, where he earned some money as a ballboy at the tennis club. He asked Cabral, one of its members, whether he had a pair of old sandals he could spare. The young biologist – and amateur painter – took him home. Malangatana asked to be taught painting, and Cabral gave him equipment and the advice to paint whatever was in his head. Putting aside his teenage training as a traditional healer, Malangatana did just that, encouraged by Cabral and the prolific Portuguese-born architect Panchos Guedes, another tennis club member.

In his later years, Malangatana secured a progressive cultural development plan within Mozambique, and in 1997 was named a Unesco artist for peace. There was a dramatic shift in his artistic output: his palette moved into a calmer rose period. He is survived by his wife, Sinkwenta Gelita Mhangwana, two sons and two daughters.

Duncan Campbell writes: While on an assignment for the Guardian in Mozambique in 2005, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Malangatana, who was then living in a large house near the airport which was part gallery and part archive. I had already been shown some of his work, which was not only in public galleries in Maputo, but also widely used for book covers and CDs. What was remarkable about him was that he brushed off questions about his own work and insisted instead on taking us on a magical conducted tour of local artists from painter to sculptor to batik-maker. He was anxious that they should receive publicity rather than him. For their part, they clearly held him in high esteem. "He is my general," one of the young artists told me.

He was a generous and entertaining host, telling us with a smile that his father had been a cook for the British in South Africa. A volume of his paintings, entitled Cumplicidades, published in 2004 with a foreword by the Mozambican writer Mia Couto, illustrates the impressive range of his work. I treasure my copy, which is inscribed "for Dunken Cambell from my heart".

Valente Malangatana Ngwenya, artist, born 6 June 1936; died 5 January 2011 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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