Modern Couples Exhibition

I mistakenly thought the exhibition at the Barbican Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde was on until the end of February, so I still had plenty of time to visit it. I’d been meaning to go since it opened in October, but something or other always seemed to intervene. So when I realised on Thursday that it was closing this weekend, I scrambled desperately to get tickets. Me and a few hundred other people, which meant that it was very crowded and quite a challenge to read the many texts telling you about the different couples of the exhibition.

Klimt: Death and Life, from the Klimt Foundation, Vienna.

The focus was firmly on the first half of the 20th century and the so-called avant-garde, including Surrealism, but the definition of art was very broad, including textiles, architecture, interior design, literature etc. Some of the couples I knew pretty well already: Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar, Rodin and Camille Claudel, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Others, however, were more in the ‘heard about them vaguely’ category rather than knowing anything about their art, such as Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Lee Miller and Man Ray. And then there were those who were completely new to me: Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann, Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, Unica Zürn and Hans Bellmer, Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst. (I knew about Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington, but not about this later relationship.)

I fell in love with this self-portrait by Romaine Brookes (another artist new to me): she looks so ready to embark upon adventure.

There were many positives about this exhibition: all kind of relationships were taken into account, from short-term love affairs to long marriages and more or less platonic relationships. Heterosexual couples, gay couples, a trans marriage, threesomes, fluid gender, interracial relationships – everything was present there. Many of the exhibits displayed that sense of exhilaration when true minds meet each other, when mutual support and collaboration inspires artists to new heights. Salvador Dali encouraged Federico Garcia Lorca’s drawings, Aino and Alvar Aalto completed each other by thinking about a house from both the inside and the outside, Emilie Flöge the fashion designer was not only Gustav Klimt’s muse but also translated his artistic visions into magnificent and revolutionary dresses.

Sonia Delaunay creation.

Overall, however, reading the notes about the different relationships saddened me somewhat. It appears that all too frequently the women were appreciated mainly for their bodies and looks, were often much younger than the ‘artistic men’ to whom they became muses. Many of the letters on display show a male obsession with the body, a female obsession with the mind and the emotions. Take this sad little P.S. at the bottom of one of Camille Claudel’s letter to Rodin: ‘Surtout ne me trompez plus.’ (Please stop cheating on me.)

Mask of Camille by Rodin, portrait of Rodin by Claudel. Copyright: Musee Rodin, Paris.

Needless to say, this ‘muse’ period was often transient, and the men moved easily on to the next shiny thing, leaving quite a lot of despair, desolation, broken dreams, mental health issues, abandoned children etc. in their wake. There are only two women who acted like men in this respect: Alma Mahler (the original groupie, her list of lovers and husbands reads like a Who’s Who of the Germanic arts at the turn of the 20th century- Gustav Mahler, Walter Gropius, Oskar Kokoschka, Franz Werfel) and Gala (married to Paul Eluard, in a threesome with him and Max Ernst, eloped with Salvador Dali and then short affairs to encourage many, many younger artists).

Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Jean Arp in front of some of her puppet creations.

Even the happy marriages only appear to have stayed happy because the wife died prematurely (as is the case with Aino Aalto and Sophie Taeuber-Arp), and so was presumably somewhat idealised by the surviving partner. Not for too long, however. Within three years, the men settled down with a new life partner. Jane Austen certainly observed and expressed this perfectly in Persuasion: ‘All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it) is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.’

I am very glad I caught this exhibition, where I could have spent hours, but the downside of visiting on the last day was that they had run out of exhibition catalogues. And this is one catalogue that I really would like to keep.

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Strawberry Hill Forever!

I had the great good fortune of visiting St Mary’s University in Twickenham on a sunny day, which allowed me to take a walk through its lovely campus and visit its next-door neighbour Strawberry Hill House: indeed, there is a door leading from the wing of one to the old building of the other.

St Mary’s University leading to Strawberry Hill House (in white).

It was the summer house built to house the art collection of the extravagant and eccentric Horace Walpole, politician, art historian and writer. He was not all that rich when he acquired a plot of land with a cottage and a nice view over the River Thames in Twickenham, but he had very strong ideas about what he wanted to create: an architectural folly to entertain guests who would come upstream to visit him, a backdrop for his legendary literary and artistic parties.

Period view of Strawberry Hill House by E. Sandby.

He had a passion for the Gothic style and pioneered its revival a good half century or more before the Victorian revival of it. He even pioneered it in literature, starting a new genre: the Gothic horror with The Castle of Otranto. As he got richer, he kept adding another wing or redecorating the house, and of course he spent a fortune on his collections. Not just objects of artistic value but also of historical importance – for example, the clock that Henry VIII gave to Anne Boleyn on their wedding day or Cardinal Wolsey’s scarlet cardinal hat. Before visiting, I had the impression that Walpole made it up as he went along and created a mish-mash of styles without much thought and planning. But I discovered just how meticulous a historian he was and how accurate all his reproductions were (of wallpaper and silk hangings for example).

The oldest part of the house was a sort of two up two down cottage, and Walpole added a wooden turret to it.

And it was not all about extravagance. He was also astute at spotting a bargain – for instance, most of the stained glass in the windows was reclaimed from Flemish salvage yards. Unlike most private collectors, he was not about keeping it all for himself, but saw Strawberry Hill as a cultural centre to be shared with others. He started a printing press, and exhibited most of his possessions like a museum.

He had a wonderful life surrounded by all his favourite objects, showing them off to visitors, living exactly as he pleased. But the sad coda to this tale is that when he died without an heir, his entire collection was auctioned off. Fortunately, for a short time only, much of it has been brought together again (on loan or reproduced) and until the 24th of February you can see Strawberry Hill as its owner wanted it to be seen in the Lost Treasures exhibition.

You’re not allowed to take pictures inside, but I have to show you the promotional picture of the library, which can be hired as a wedding venue, I believe.

The view over the Thames has been lost, sadly, and the gardens border onto St Mary’s athletic track, but what other garden has got a shell-shaped seat with a whole book dedicated to it?

World Editions Book Launch

You can’t help timing! It was a bit of an unfortunate night to be launching two books from the intrepid Dutch publisher of ‘voices from around the globe’ World Editions. It was on Tuesday 15th January, the night that the Parliament voted resoundingly against Theresa May’s Brexit agreement. Political reality intruded in garish technicolour upon our soft-spoken little gathering of international people, all curious about each other’s cultures.

The occasion was the forthcoming launch of two books by two multilingual, multitalented authors. But it was also a great opportunity for me to meet the publisher and talk about their commitment to world literature, how keen they are to get more women translated and why they have (sadly) had to lose the rounded corners of their first few books to appear in English (booksellers did not like stocking them, apparently, and some readers found them too childish).

I’ve read Franco-British author Tatiana de Rosnay for years, while living in France. In fact, she was the programme director of the Morges Literary Festival one year. Of Russian descent, having spent her childhood in Boston (and therefore speaking with an American accent), she has been living in France and publishing in both English and French for many years. She is perhaps best known for the novel Sarah’s Key, which has also been adapted for the screen, starring Kristin Scott Thomas. I personally loved her book Manderley Forever, about Daphne du Maurier and her most famous novel. Her latest novel The Rain Watcher is about a family reunion in Paris just as the Seine bursts its banks. Needless to say, it’s not just the river overflowing, but also a lot of unspoken family fears and resentments.

I was very excited to hear that Tatiana is now attempting to write a novel in both English and French simultaneously. This is partly because she has never been 100% satisfied with any of the translations of her work (the curse of the bilinguals!), so she has decided to experiment and see how her voice is different yet still recognisably her own in two languages. I can’t wait to read and compare that!

The second author was Pierre Jarawan, of Lebanese and German descent, who grew up in Germany (and is fluent in English). His novel The Storyteller (Am Ende bleiben die Zedern in German) is not autobiographical, but it has been interpreted as such, since it is the story of Samir, who leaves his adopted country Germany to find out about his father’s hidden past in Beirut. It certainly makes for topical reading in the light of the ongoing refugee crisis and international tensions across Europe and the Middle East. 

Pierre said he deliberately wanted to bring the Arabic style of storytelling into this book and recreate the atmosphere of a country and a city. I was also fascinated to discover that Pierre is a renowned SLAM poet in Germany. SLAM poetry is hugely popular there, and quite different from the performance poetry that I’ve seen in the UK. It’s more similar to stand-up comedy, but with an underlying earnest or lyrical layer. For those who understand German, here is a recording of his Poetry Slam Final from 2012.

I also have my eyes on at least two more titles from their list for the first half of 2019: Mia Couto’s Woman of the Ashes, historical fiction set in Mozambique, and Paolo Maurensig’s A Devil Comes to Town, with the irresistible blurb:

Everyone’s a writer in Dichtersruhe. The residents have one thing on their mind: Literature. So when the devil turns up claiming to be a hot-shot publisher, unsatisfied authorial desires are unleashed and the village’s former harmony is shattered.

I’ve been impressed by the variety (in both breadth and depth) of books published by World Editions. I’ve reviewed one of their books (with rounded corners) earlier, and another here.

Cultural Plans for 2019

I’m not quite sure what to call this post, because it is about far more than just reading (although reading plays a huge part). It’s also about writing, translating, attending literary events and far more. So let me just put the extremely broad label of ‘culture’ on it.

Reading

If you’ve read some of my posts about the #EU27Project, you will know what will keep me busy until end of March 2019. I have most of the books already sitting and waiting on my bookshelves (a couple maybe from the library, although our library does not do very well on anything foreign that is not a Scandi-thriller). Nevertheless, any tips for Cyprus and Luxembourg would still be gratefully received.

I’ve always had a bit of an obsession with the Paris Commune (perhaps because of its close association with Montmartre (where it started) and Belleville (where it ended), my favourite parts of Paris. So when Emma from Book Around the Corner reviewed a book about this topic (in no flattering terms) and suggested that Zola’s La Débâcle (The Debacle) would provide a better background to it. So Emma and I have decided to read Zola ‘together’ in May 2019 – and you are very welcome to join in if you like. I also have other historical and fictional accounts of the Commune that I want to read that month, so May will my revolutionary month.

There are two rendezvous that I never miss ever since I discovered them: Women in Translation Month in August and #GermanLitMonth in November, so I hope to take part in those this year as well. I also want to read and review critically at least one book of poetry a month – because that helps me rethink my own poetry.

Last but not least, I have to make a serious indent in the books I already own. The stacks my shelves, assorted pieces of furniture, floor are toppling over, while my Kindle hides hundreds of impulse buys. I may not read them all, but I need to triage, discard or read and not buy any new books. Of course, I’ll still visit the library on occasion.

Other than that, I will rely more on reading by whim and happenstance. I’m cutting right down on my reviewing commitments. Although I’ll be very sorry to say goodbye to my long-term association (more than 6 years!) with the wonderful Crime Fiction Lover site, I want to follow in the footsteps of its previous reviewers who became writers, such as Luca Veste and Eva Dolan. And the only way to do that is to hoard my precious time more tightly to my chest!

I’ll still be following the Asymptote Blog, with its frequent interviews with translators and writers, and literary news from around the world.

Although my association with Asymptote Journal of literature in translation and its Book Club has been shorter (a year and a half), I am equally sad to cut my ties with a literary venture whose emphasis on quality (of both literature and translation) is second to none. I will hopefully still serve as a point of contact to help organise events for the Book Club, but am no longer able to keep up the daily second shift until late at night.

Writing

I’ll be blogging and tweeting far less. I won’t feel as pressured to review every single book that I read (which was perfectly fine for the first 2-3 years of my blog, but then I started to feel guilty about it). I will work hard on finalising the poems (and perhaps swapping out some old ones with some new ones) for the chapbook I hope to send out soon. I may share some of my progress (or lack thereof) on my novel. I don’t have a daily word target, or even a daily routine, but I will make sure to keep in touch with my own work far more regularly throughout the week, rather than treating it as a welcome but very distant relative who visits once or twice a year.

Other Plans

Manon publicity shot by Jason Bell, English National Ballet.

I still have a few theatrical escapades planned, but am again practising some restraint. Tickets are very expensive (and reviewing takes time, although I might still do it occasionally, as you get to experience shows you might otherwise not have come across). I will see the ballet Manon with the peerless Alina Cojocaru in January (one of my favourite ballets, so dramatic, so sad). In February it will The War of the Worlds with my older son.

Can I just do a proud Mum shout-out here? It is so rewarding to take him to a film or play, as he really dissects it and examines it critically (without being annoyingly nitpicky). We saw Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap yesterday in London for his birthday and we had such fun actually talking all the way back (no messing about with phones) about the play, favourite films of 2018 (Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody scored highly with both of us) and reminiscing about his toddler days. I really enjoyed his company, which is not always the case with children and teenagers, even though you might love them to bits. And I don’t think it has much to do with the way I brought him up, since younger son is not all like this.

No holidays abroad with the children this year and indeed very few holidays at all, but I will treat myself to a trip to the south of France around Easter time (if the planes will still be flying without a hitch after Brexit) to stay once more with the friends in Luberon where I’ve previously been amazingly productive.

I’ve also decided to be extravagant and treat myself to one crime festival this year. After carefully examining dates and pennies, I opted for CrimeFest in Bristol 9-12 May, so do let me know if you are planning to attend, as it’s always fun to meet up with people you know so well online.

One example of a Landmark Trust property which has caught my eye.

The final ‘treat’ will be a working holiday in July, i.e. going to a few university open days with my older son and taking in some of the sights in England along the way. It’s still a bit early to worry about university, but it gives us an excuse to meander and stay in some amazing locations, thanks to the Landmark Trust.

So those are my plans for 2019. Whatever your plans are, whether you make resolutions or not, I hope the year goes well for you, and that the pollution of world news and events does not impinge too much upon your daily lives.

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.

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.