Anni Albers Exhibition at the Tate Modern

When my friend from Hamburg visited me last weekend, she was adamant she wanted to see the Anni Albers exhibition. I – forgive me for my brash assumption – was somewhat less enthusiastic, thought it would be merely pretty carpets or something that my grandmother might have woven in days gone by. But I’m very happy to report that my friend was right, I am an ignominious philistine (if I can pronounce it!) and the exhibition at the Tate Modern is very much worth your time and money. 

Six Prayers was a commission from the Jewish Museum in New York to create a memorial to represent the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust. The threads create a scriptural effect, bringing to mind the Torah scrolls.

Anni Albers was born in a middle-class German family (she later said her Jewish descent was only visible to the Nazis, they were so well integrated that she was even baptised Protestant) and studied art at the famous Bauhaus school in Weimar and then Dessau. Connected with big names such as Gropius, Paul Klee, Kandinsky, Mies van der Rohe, this radical new school of art gave equal weight to architecture, painting and all crafts, including bookbinding, carpentry, metalwork and weaving. Anni wanted to study art, but was encouraged to switch to weaving (‘unenthusiastically’, she admits), which was seen as the ‘women’s domain’. But she very soon made it her own.

In 1933 she and  her husband, fellow artist Josef Albers, emigrated to the US, where they both taught for a while at the equally experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina. What is fascinating about Anni’s work, however, is not merely that she recreates abstract art in her woven wall hangings, but that she constantly experiments with new weaving methods, new textures and materials (including found materials), creating both pattern weaving works and pictorial works. Many of her works are multi-layered and create a 3-D effect.

She never ceased learning and incorporating new ideas: textile as text in pre-Columbian art, floating weft technique, tactile sensibility, knots which she associated with mathematics. Later in life, when weaving became too physically strenuous, she turned to printmaking, embossing, etching, lithography. The woman just had creativity pouring out of her!

Let me end with a beautiful Anni Albers quote: ‘What I’m trying to get across is that material is a means of communication. That listening to it, not dominating it, makes us truly active. That is: to be active, be passive.’

Heartily recommend this exhibition, especially as an example of #Womensart, which to my shame I very nearly didn’t take seriously on this occasion. Bravo, Hamburg friend! The exhibition is on until 27th January 2019.

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Play Review: ‘Linda’ by Penelope Skinner at RADA

Last night I went to my ‘local’ theatre and watched the final year students at RADA in Penelope Skinner’s play Linda. I had heard that it was a powerful exploration of a woman’s midlife crisis so I took a friend of roughly the same age as me along who has also recently divorced and is juggling full-time work, children and a useless ex. Turns out, the play was so accurate and relevant that we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry!

Linda is a senior brand manager at a cosmetics company who seems to have it all, albeit with the usual compromises. She has won awards for her work and is passionate about changing the world, but is being pushed aside for a younger, dumber, more ruthless version of herself. She has a lovely house and family, but her two daughters feel insufficiently loved by her and her husband is cheating. As the world comes crashing on her from all sides, she refuses to fall silent, to become invisible as women over 50 have been told to do. At times, Linda seems her own worst enemy, but the people around her are anything but understanding or appreciative. Yet the young women in her life (her daughters, her work rival) are trapped themselves in other people’s expectations of them.

Rehearsal picture of Linda from the RADA website, with Bea Svistunenko as Linda and Jamie Bogyo as her husband Neil.

It was very funny as well as bitter, with so many lines resonating (I may not be remembering them 100% accurately, so apologies, but here is the gist of them):

‘Now your beauty seems like an asset but when you grow older, you will find yourself wondering if your achievements were because of what you could do, or because of the way you looked.’

‘So what was I in this story between you and my husband? If you were the crazy girl and he was the hero, what was I?’ ‘You were nobody.’

‘My whole life I’ve been watching what I eat, what I I say, how I walk, how I talk, what I wear, because that’s what you’ve got to do when you’re a woman. We do whatever they do, but backwards and in heels. And all this while achieving, climbing, raising children. You feel guilty at work because you’re not with the kids, you feel guilty at home because you’re not at work…’

‘I used to send you reminders about my birthday every year, because I could not bear the thought of you forgetting about it. I put up with doing all the work at work and then all the work at home, because I thought you were loyal and reliable.’

The finale very nearly nosedived into melodrama, but then there was an epilogue: Linda’s prize acceptance speech from ten years ago. All the more devastating, because it is full of optimism, belief in self and others, and in a better future for women. And entirely deluded, as it turns out. Sadly, seeing the backlash about #MeToo, I think we may still have a few decades to go before optimism is justified…

Needless to say, the actors gave such polished performances it’s hard to believe they haven’t quite graduated yet. Queuing up in the ladies’ toilets after the show, we were all shell-shocked and muttering: ‘That was unbearably close to home!’ ‘God, they need to set up a women’s after-show session with stiff drinks to hand!’.

This is always going to make for uncomfortable viewing, especially if you are a man (although it is not deliberately man-bashing: the men in Linda’s life are thoughtless, while the other women are vicious). But if you would like to watch it, it’s on until the 1st of December at RADA in London.

Weekly Summary, 7 October 2018

The week started with an X-ray (no bones broken, luckily) and an ankle which got steadily better but still got painful and swollen at the end of the day, especially after a hectic commute or a long car ride. So I cancelled some of my plans, most notably the Winchester Poetry Festival, which I had been looking forward to for months. I bought the tickets back in April and was looking forward to seeing Kathleen Jamie, Pascale Petit and Rebecca Goss again, as well as listening to World Voices

There was another reason why I cancelled my trip to Winchester (which would have been an all day trip). Motherly guilt played a part.

At the time of booking, I thought it would be one of the weekends when the children would be with their father, but plans had changed. I’ve been going out quite a bit lately and not seeing them at all even on weekdays. I’d also just attended a parents’ evening about GCSE revision and felt I’d neglected my older son’s exam preparation. Although he is reasonably conscientious, he does need the occasional reminder or a check of his work. So in the end we spent Saturday going through all the exam topics and setting a timetable for revisions, especially with his mocks coming up at the end of November.

One event I did attend this week was at a small community theatre in Islington, The Pleasance, where I saw Aid Memoir by Glenda Cooper – a satire about international aid and TV appeals, making us question our own often patronising attitudes towards humanitarian crises and the ‘deserving’ recipients of aid. A short but really powerful piece of work (which chimed with my personal experience at both the giving and receiving end of the equation). You can read my full review here

Well, if I couldn’t go out much, then the books came to me. A modest haul by my standards this week (and about time too, I can hear you think!). I received my Asymptote Book Club title for September, which is a short story collection from the Asian continent (I will say more once everyone has received their copy). I also got a French edition of Finisterra by Carlos de Oliveira, following the enthusiastic review on The Untranslated blog. My supportive community of L’Atelier Writers recommended Sandra Scofield’s The Last Draft to encourage me to finally finish my darn novels. Let’s hope that it does the trick! And Raven Books have sent me an ARC of The Flower Girls by Alice Clark-Platts, out in 2019.

I have also selected two NYRB titles to take part in #NYRBFortnight, as seen on Lizzy Siddal’s Twitter feed. Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater is proving horribly timely, ferocious and funny so far. Meanwhile, Jakob Wasserman’s My Marriage (the man’s side of the story) may have to wait until November, when I will inevitably take part in German Literature Month, as hosted by Lizzy and Caroline. Other authors I may use for that month (from my Berlin haul): Eva Menasse, Marlen Haushofer, Fred Uhlman and Martin Suter.

Events Summary for September

I started off writing a weekly summary of events for this post and then realised that it is the end of September, so a monthly summary might also be appropriate. But first the weekly bit.

Two rather lovely events this week. First, a literary evening as part of the Festival America events across London, with Canadian writers Heather O’Neill and Michael Redhill at the very beautiful Canada House in Trafalgar Square. They even had a throne under lock and key, made specially for George V when he visited Canada.

The main staircase at Canada House.

Both of them are prize-winning authors in Canada, less well-known over here, but there is such a contrast between the two of them. Heather O’Neill has been on my radar since I stumbled almost accidentally across her debut novel Lullabies for Little Criminals in the McGill University bookshop while I was on a business trip to Montreal. I was so moved by that story that I automatically wanted to read everything else written by O’Neill. Yet when I got to The Lonely Hearts Hotel, I was equally entranced and repulsed by it. Hearing about Heather’s crazy childhood and parents who ‘had no idea how to function in the real world’, it is understandable that her view of the world is a combination of hardcore cynicism and childish wonder. She is extremely entertaining when she talks about her horrific experiences as a child, but she has clearly turned to fiction as a way to process trauma. As she said ‘Children have no language to express the bad things that have happened to them. My fiction tries to give them that language without taking away any of the nuances.’

She also had interesting things to say about literary prizes, having been a judge on the Giller Prize (the Canadian equivalent of the Man Booker) this year. She said that most of the books she felt strongly about none of the other judges liked – ever the rebel!

Michael Redhill is a poet and novelist, and seems at first glance to fit very much into the mainstream straight white male cannon. I didn’t quite get what he tried to achieve with Bellevue Square, but I thought it was an interesting and brave attempt, like Paul Auster’s New York trilogy. Then you find out that he has also published crime fiction under the pseudonym Inger Ash Wolfe – now I look forward to reading some of those. And there was quite a bit of subversion in the way he talked about literature and literary prizes – in his opinion the books that win most years are the second place vote for everybody. In other words, the book that all the judges mind least if it wins. He said that for him Bellevue Square is a clearing house for humanity, with such an assortment of characters from all walks of life, and he particularly admired how Heather gave such depth of character to the people in her novels – people that we would normally dismiss or avoid or run away from. 

Heather O’Neill (left) and Michael Redhill being interviewed by Georgina Godwin.

On Friday I had the unexpected good fortune to go to an evening of ballet at the Peacock Theatre. The New English Ballet Theatre, who are a young, energetic company very much open to innovation, had a double bill of Remembrance/The Four Seasons and I reviewed it for View from the Cheap Seat.

September has gone by even faster than the previous months, so what have been the highlights?

We started off the month in one of my favourite places in England, Cambridge, then continued with another mother-and-sons trip down memory lane to Vienna. Although it is always bittersweet to go back to the places where you were once so happy, I hope that I’ve inspired a future generation to take advantage of opportunities and expand their horizons.

I had the bestest of times singing and dancing along to one of my living heroines, Janelle Monae. I did a short workshop with Isabel Costello and Voula Tsoflias about developing your resilience as a writer, which made me decide to focus more of my energy on submissions once more. I saw another of my writing heroines, Sarah Moss, and was inspired by the Poetry Book and Magazine Fair. And, alongside all that, I’ve been learning a new (and very counter-intuitive) events management system at work and helping roll out a new initiative, getting the boys settled into their new school year and starting contemporary dance classes. 

October is set to be just as busy, so let’s hope that this sprained ankle which has laid me low this weekend is nothing more serious (X-ray to follow tomorrow) and won’t slow me down at all.

Weekly Summary 16 September 2018

Back to work, school and literary life! I do love September and its routines, although this week has been very tentative about routines so far.

I was still recovering from my trip to Vienna at the start of the week and pleased that my older son is now a Mozart fan as well (thank you, Amadeus the film, despite all your inaccuracies!). On Wednesday night I was blown away by Janelle Monae live. On Thursday I trialled a contemporary dance class and enjoyed running low and artistically from one corner of the gym to another (yep, I’ll be going regularly). On Saturday I attended a workshop organised by The Word Factory and run by Isabel Costello and Voula Tsoflias on developing your resilience as a writer. A very necessary and helpful session, which I hope will act as a kickstarter for me, as I’ve stopped submitting for about a year now, when the double dollop of rejection from writing and job applications got too much. Good news, however, about the one piece I did submit – one of the pieces I wrote during the Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol this July, was accepted!

Another news item which made me very happy was that two Asymptote Book Club titles are on the first-ever longlist for the National Book Award for translated literature in the US. That is a HUGE achievement in just 9 months of existence of the Book Club. We clearly have a very wise team of editors who know how to pick the right titles (I can be immodest because it is not me that is involved in the final choice). We are going to be expanding the membership to the EU countries shortly and also organising some events, so plenty of exciting work ahead! If you are thinking of joining or renewing your membership, we have a flash sale going on this weekend. To ring in our milestone 30th issue, sign up for a three-month subscription by 2359hrs today (in your timezone) and get 10% off. And if you are wondering how you can fit in 12 additional books from all over the world to add to your tottering TBR pile, there is also an ‘every other month’ subscription option if you sign up for a whole year (with the corresponding price reduction, of course).

Had to include the Italian edition, because I love the cover.

Last but not least, here are the three books which will be joining my bedside table pile this week.

  1. Asymptote Book Club’s August title is Brice Matthieussent’s Revenge of the Translator, translated by Emma Ramadan, which sounds like a postmodern confection of utter delight (a translator tries to justify the changes he makes to the novel’s plot and then blurs the lines between reality and text).
  2. Endo Shusaku’s Scandal, transl. Van C. Gessel, is also about a novelist, keeping up appearances and disturbing sexual appetites (it will make an interesting comparison with Leila Slimani’s Dans le jardin de l’ogre, which I’ve just reread for a review).
  3. Patricia Laurent: Santiago’s Way, transl. Geoff Hargreaves. A huge hit and prizewinner in Mexico, this one was translated a while ago but hasn’t received much attention here. The blurb makes me think of Zero by Gine Cornelia Pedersen.  “Imagine that all your life you’ve been guided by someone else. Someone who’s steered you away from trouble, taken you across the world, brought you success. He’s called Santiago and he lives in your head—and now he’s turned against you.”

Empowering, Inspiring, Energetic and Fun: Janelle Monae

You may remember I had planned a whole summer of activities, trips and events to celebrate my birthday this year. This was the last but perhaps most flamboyant event in my calendar: attending the Janelle Monáe gig at The Roundhouse in Camden. All of the usual arguments came up: too tired, too busy, too old to be standing for hours, too expensive, too self-indulgent. But I ignored all of that and had an absolutely wonderful time. She is even more pretty, energetic and amazing live than she is in her (zany and infectious) videos. I am utterly in love!

This was a celebration of being a woman, being black, but also being whatever the hell you want to be. A really warm, inclusive atmosphere, with a hearty dollop of confident feminine power (not of the Spice Girl kind) thrown in for good measure. Four people were invited onstage to dance to ‘I Got the Juice’ – one was an actress, two were female audience members and the last one was a girl in a wheelchair, who perhaps got the biggest applause of all.

Janelle has so much charisma, she could easily become a cult leader. She had us in the palm of her hand, we were ready to do whatever she asked – sing along, shout ‘I’m dirty! I’m proud!’ and even lie down on the floor. She talked about standing up for what you believe, daring to be different and how love is the only thing making the world worth living in, but this was not someone who was using the stage as a political platform or who loves the sound of their own voice. She sang and danced pretty much non-stop for 2 hours, and gave a great encore, so she certainly gave value for money.

What surprised me most were all the humorous little touches. I’d seen them on video, but it was so much more obviously sheer complicity with the audience (winking, a little sideways smile, teasing with her body poses). This was a performer who was having fun on the stage, by herself, with her dancers and musicians, and with us the audience. I found myself giggling out loud at some of her antics, like her long-drawn out end to a song. There were thoughtful, gentle ballads too, and a rather touching tribute to Prince at the end of a song with a purple light shining on an empty stage.

Most of the songs were from the most recent album Dirty Computer (which is after all the name of the tour), but there were a few of the most popular songs from previous albums too to keep fans happy. Crowdpleasers like ‘Electric Lady’ and an encore with ‘Tightrope’, but also quite emotional renditions of ‘Primetime for our love’ and ‘Cold War’. 

I dressed up for the occasion in a golden skirt, black top and a matching ring (my new favourite piece). Although this middle-aged lady here felt very tired standing for 2 hours before the show started (I did not feel the pain during the show itself) and is still recovering from getting home at 1 a.m., I came out of the venue immensely energised. That’s just the way she makes me feel!

Weekly Summary or Cambridge Through the Eyes of Children

I finally took a couple of days off work and visited Cambridge with my sons. I suppose somewhere deep inside I was hoping to inspire them. I was inspired to apply to Oxbridge by the sight (when I was visiting England for the first time at the age of 14) of a random girl coming out of a college house in her gown opposite Magdalen College in Oxford and waving to the porter there.

Newnham College – or my favourite shortcut.

We stayed in university rooms (although sadly, not in my college, because it doesn’t allow any under 18s), walked everywhere and chatted about the pros and cons of a Cambridge education. I was very pleased that they fell in love with some of my favourite haunts: Heffers, Grantchester Meadows and The Orchard Tea Gardens, the gardens of Selwyn and Wolfson, even the atmosphere at The Eagle.

The romantic backs, which makes Cambridge feel so much quieter than Oxford.

The tourists were over-abundant and every college seemed to be under construction or renovation. The cakes at Fitzbillies were no longer quite as delicious as those of yore, and the (non-formal hall) food at my old college was still reassuringly bad.

Still my intellectual home, which meant so much to me.

I have talked before about how much Cambridge meant to me at the time: intellectual and physical freedom after being cooped up under the Communist regime; lifelong friends; unforgettable memories. But what did it mean to the boys?

The gardens of Selwyn.

Well, they said they liked it but when asked what they liked about it, they were unable to elaborate. They clearly have not inherited my capacity to gush! Perhaps, as someone once said about the glorious architecture of the colleges, it is all wasted on the youth. After all, the colleges were built initially to accommodate (more mature) fellows.