Friday 19 April 2019

Ten Easter Paintings

I used to write about art quite a lot. It is one of my great passions. But "things happen" and I have largely given up since.

At the end of 2012, I wrote a blog, "Ten Christmas Paintings", fully intending to follow it up with a companion blog for Easter, if not in 2013, then certainly much more recently than now. But life is life and without a very long diversion to explain, that has never happened. But now, whether you wish for it or not, that blog is finally to be prevailed upon you.

The handful of you, if that in itself is not an exaggeration, who follow my art blogs, will know they follow certain rules.

They must all be of paintings I have actually seen (with one allowed exception) and they must be from ten different artists (again with one mulligan allowed). And at some point we will stop for lunch. These are the rules but the reader also doesn't take long to realise that my chosen paintings are entirely dominated by Italian Renaissance and Pre-Renaissance Art, for that is with what I am most familiar. Whatever "Pre-Renaissance" means anyway. But that is an argument for another day.

And you might find the occasional reference to contemporary politics dropped in on the way. For that's what I mainly write about. Who knows whether that will happen as I type this, for I haven't finished. Or even really started. So let's get going.

1 Lorinzetti. The Entry of Christ into Jerusalem. Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi.

 Image result for lorenzetti palm sunday

Where to start is part of the problem. All the concentration in high renaissance art is on the three days (we'll get on to that) but earlier painters saw the wider picture. There is a wonderful Duccio di Buoninsegna cycle in Siena which traces events from before Holy Week right through to the Ascension which I don't even have time for here. Here I only have time for this. I can't even remember which Lorinzetti painted this. Him or his brother. Obviously I could do a bit of googling and sort that out. But it wouldn't matter. It's very early, from the start of the 14th Century. Just to put that in context for Scottish people, around the time of Bannockburn. Like the Duccio, also Sienese. And just, I don't know why exactly, wonderful. At this point I could write another 10,000 words about Lorinzetti and his bro. Not least his (or the other one's) triptych in Arezzo within walking distance of my favourite restaurant in the whole world. But you will be relieved to learn I don't intend to do so.

2. Leonardo da Vinci. The Last Supper. Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.

So, let's instead just jump forward. This is where things start, for the first time, to get a wee bit difficult. I get that this is a good painting. A very good painting even. By a man who was, beyond peradventure, a genius. But, I don't know, it just seems a bit.....overrated. I spent twenty  years or so wanting to see this and yet , immediately afterwards, I found myself slightly disappointed. It's all just a bit staged. Nonetheless, few paintings have so many conspiracy theories attached. Not least that the the disciple immediately to Jesus's right looks like a woman. (look it up!)

3. The taking of Christ. Goya, The Prado, Madrid.

Image result for the taking of christ

Now here, lads, you might have been expecting the Caravaggio in Dublin, it is truly grand. However I've already planned ahead to another Caravaggio and would remind you of my own rules above. So this is by Goya. No artist probably painted in such a mixture of styles but this is a fairly traditional image from a very Catholic culture painted at the end of the 18th Century. And, although it is not Caravaggio, you don't need to look very far to spot his influence. More to the point, the painting is in Madrid. I love Madrid for many reasons but principally because it has not one, not even two, but three great art galleries. This is from the Prado, probably the greatest of the three. Nowhere better in the world for Goya, or Velasquez. Or indeed for a wee row on the boating lake just behind.

4. The flagellation of Christ. Palazzo Ducale, Urbino.

Piero della Francesca, Flagellation of Christ, c. 1455-65, oil and tempera on wood, 1' 11 1/8" x 2' 8 1/4" (Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino)

"The greatest small painting in the world". It is tiny, less than two feet across. But so much going on. Analysed expertly here . Urbino is a bit out of the way, over the Mountains of the Moon from southern Tuscany. For as long as I have been going to Italy, they have been constructing a viaducts and tunnels autostrada to cut the journey time. They probably still will be long after I've gone. That's Italy for you. If ever a country needed a strong man leader to bring a bit of ordine and get these great infrastructure projects completed...........I may have taken that too far.

5. The Crucifixion, Velasquez. The Prado, Madrid.

I'm struggling here a bit to contain the narrative, so Simon the Cyrene and Saint Veronica and various other major players will have to wait for any sequel. For the subject at hand, no writer has been more spoiled for choice. Obviously however there are many, many depictions featuring miscellaneous other actors at the foot of the Cross. But, with respect to them, I think that kind of misses the point. This doesn't. A work of genius.

6. Cristo Morto. Mantegna. Pinoteca di Brera, Milan.

The dead Christ and three mourners, by Andrea Mantegna.jpg

Again, for reasons of space, any number of great Depositions have had to go. Similarly Pietas, the greatest of which anyway, to my mind at least, is not in paint but in marble, in the form of Michelangelo's masterwork in St Peter's in Rome. Instead I give you this. I'll confess, I'm not the greatest fan of Milan. It is too "modern" a city for me. And a kind of "Imperial" city, in the model of London or Vienna, without ever having had the Empire to go with it. If you left it up to me, I'd be happily be rushed in and out to see the magnificent Gothic cathedral and the Pinoteca di Brera. Where you will find this. The perspective is stunning. The wounds at centre stage and the grief of the mourners only too real. Reminding you that, for two days, they really did think it was all over. That's all. Although it is obviously not all.

7. The Resurrection. Piero della Francesca. Museo Civico, San Sepolcro.

Piero della Francesca, The Resurrection, c. 1463-5, fresco, 225 x 200 cm (Museo Civico, Sansepolcro)

This is my very favourite painting in the whole world, a preference I share, somewhat improbably, with none other than Tony Blair. Notwithstanding Christ's dolorous expression, it is literally, a picture of triumph. Of life over death. I remain firmly agnostic with regard to religion but, when I see the likes of this, I really wish that I wasn't.

By now however you must be starving. And if you've read any of my  previous art blogs, you'll know that I like at one point to stop for a bit of lunch.

I was last in San Sepolcro two years past, when the Resurrection was in restauro and therefor only partly visible. The disappointment of this was only compounded by the ticket office offering to sell me a discounted pensioners ticket. The restoration is however now finished and I'm therefor planning to return by the end of June this year. Looking as young as possible. On my way back, I will most likely stop for lunch in Umbertide (I am a creature of habit). There is a wee trattoria, the Locanda Appennino there that I first stumbled upon more than twenty five years past. The food is everything that you would expect but its main selling point is that you eat under a pergola beside, in Summer, the dried up river bed. The flora and fauna are all around you to the extent that you wouldn't be entirely surprised to find St. Francis himself at a nearby table.

Anyway, after an expresso and a digestivo della casa, back to the action.

8. The Supper at Emmaus. Caravaggio. The National Gallery. London

1602-3 Caravaggio,Supper at Emmaus National Gallery, London.jpg
And, finally, to the Caravaggio.

In the Gospels, appearances of the risen Christ are actually relatively rare. This particular one only features, at least as at a specific location, in St. Luke. It is the painting I have seen most recently, for it was on loan to the Caravaggio exhibition at the National Gallery of Scotland last Summer. There is lots of iconography and symbolism within it but you can google that. I'd only draw you attention to both the realism of the characters and, as always, the wonderful use of light. Caravaggio, eh?

9. Noli me Tangere. Giotto. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

Giotto - Scrovegni - -37- - Resurrection (Noli me tangere).jpg

And so, from the very end of the high period of Italian art, back to the very beginning. The Scrovegni Chapel is one of the true wonders of the world situated in one of my very favourite cities in Italy. But I've also chosen this version of the Noli me Tangere for another reason. To show how the development of Italian art drew down inspiration through the generations. This is a complex picture but look at the sleeping soldiers around the tomb. And then look back to Piero's Resurrection above. The latter was painted 1463-65, while Giotto painted this 1303-1305. more than 150 years before. Yet the influence is obvious.

10. The risen Christ appears to the Apostles. 14th Century unknown artist. Notre-Dame de Paris.

Image result for risen christ in notre dame de paris

And that is more or less it.

This is the allowed exception that I referred to above. For, although I have been to Notre Dame, if I did see this then I have lost all recollection of having done so.

You don't write something like this blog without a plan, and my plan originally was to finish with the great mosaic of Christ in Majesty in the Cathedral of Monreale, near Palermo. But then this week we had the tragic fire at Notre-Dame. Where this small work may or may not have been destroyed. The extent to which all Europe, indeed most of the world, was seized by the event as it unfolded ranged far wider than those who were practising Christians but I defy anybody not to have been  moved by the film of the crowds singing the Ave Maria outside.

I don't like the phrase, Judeo-Christian for two reasons. Firstly it suggests a mutual harmony of co-existence which is hardly borne out by history. In one direction of persecution in particular. But secondly, it implicitly excludes from the conversation the third great monotheistic religion, Islam, in a way that is wholly unjustified. The Renaissance itself would have been impossible without the discovery, among Islamic scholars and in Arabic, of many major Greek texts otherwise lost in their original tongue. The preservation, in Spain, of  so many great buildings, originally built as Mosques in the reincarnation of modern Churches and, in Anatolia, of so many great Churches as latter day Mosques demonstrates the appreciation of a common cultural patrimony which exists to this day. As does so much else, not least the "Turkish" influence on as diverse recipients as Holbein, Mozart or, indeed, anyone simply desirous of a humble kebab.

I get annoyed therefor with the suggestion that this is "White Man's" culture from both the side that would claim for it an implied superiority, but equally from the "other" side that suggests that, for that very reason, in the modern age, it shouldn't be routinely taught, or learned, at all.

Easter is the greatest festival of the Christian Church. But, culturally,  it belongs to all of us as well.

Enjoy your lamb on Sunday.

Sunday 14 April 2019

Not yet.

My mother died forty years ago yesterday. It was Good Friday. And forty years ago today, Saturday 14th April 1979, I went out to campaign for the Labour Party.

At the time, the immediate response when I turned up at the committee rooms was that I didn't need to be there. Nobody doubted my commitment to the cause but that at a time like this I should be with with friends and family. What they didn't understand was that those with whom I'd shortly head off to Paisley Town Centre, equipped with stickers, balloons and leaflets to carry the doomed cause of Jim Callaghan were, in a very real sense, my friends and family.

For more than thirty years the Labour Party was my life after I joined between the February and October 1974 elections. Almost exactly forty five years ago just now. Conferences, rallies, campaigns, elections and, of course, endless (just) "meetings". I have friends from various sources. My job, of course; St Mirren, certainly: but overwhelmingly from the Party. Some have held the highest office in the Westminster or Holyrood Parliaments. Others been prominent figures in local government or the trade union movement. Many however have been content to be humble activists. Many have now left but many more still remain. The phrase "Comrades and friends" ,with which I have heard so many speeches commence, has a real resonance for me. Still does.

But increasingly I have wondered whether some of those who flocked to "our" banner over the last four years are people who I would want as either my comrades or my friends.

Personal bereavement aside, 9th April 1992, when we lost that year's General Election, was probably the most miserable evening of my life. A long, long battle, internally and externally, to restore the Party to nationwide electability had fallen, undeservedly and, to me at least, unexpectedly, at the final hurdle. Neil Kinnock as PM, John Smith as Chancellor. That would have been some team.

I was never entirely resigned to what happened after that for, while I recognised the imperative to win, I always felt that too many compromises were being made on the way. Nonetheless I was proud of the many, many achievements of the three Labour Governments which followed, scarred only by the disastrous decision to support the invasion of Iraq, which I marched against and indeed over which my wife, Maureen, who I had met through the Party, resigned her own membership.

I was always for Brown over Blair and pleased when that succession occurred. When Brown fell, I voted for Ed Balls and then Ed Miliband as his successor for I thought the Party needed to move moderately to the left on economic policy. I would still regard myself as on the left of the Labour Party I once joined.

But I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that that Party no longer exists.

Since Maureen has been ill, now for more than ten years, activism has had to take second place to other responsibilities, so I watched with horror but from afar as the disaster of the 2015 leadership unfolded. I knew exactly what Corbyn's politics were, for they had always existed on the fringe of our Party. Anti-western, at best indifferent to democracy in many parts of the world, and with the whole thing held together with dubious associations and a willingness to embrace conspiracy theorising at the drop of a hat. All summed up in his immediate response to the arrest of the suspected rapist, Julian Assange, a man who is in no way a figure of the traditional left but "at best" a nihilistic facilitator of populism, whatever its colour. For this issue alone I would regard Corbyn as being entirely unfit to be Prime Minister. And there are many others.

But he did, undoubtedly, build a coalition of the angry, attracting to our Party an impressive, on one view, number of new members holding views similar to his own. Including people with no previous associations with our Party and, indeed, in many cases active membership of rival parties on the fringe left. Including, it is now also clear, a good number of whom are enthusiastic anti-Semites. And this was then compounded with a contagion of nepotism and patronage within the Party and among "new media" outlets where anyone willing to say "Yes comrade, no comrade, whatever you say comrade" finds themselves promoted, indeed often employed, with no regard to their ability or even basic honesty. Often even without regard to their previous political sympathies.

This has been hitched to an economic policy based on fantasy numbers and which, when you drill down, amounts to little more than running a siege economy. Which is why it was rejected by Labour in Government as long as 1976. Never mind a return to the untramelled Trade Union power, exercised  with our without democratic mandate, which brought that very Government to its knees.

Excepting 2017, I have campaigned in every election of my lifetime for a Labour Government with greater or lesser enthusiasm but always with a desire for victory. I could not do that for a Corbyn premiership. Indeed , I would regard such a development as a disaster for the Country.

So why don't I resign? As so many have. It is unlikely now than more than 50,000 of those who were in the Party in 2010 are still in membership. Most recently we have lost one of our very best prospects for the future here in Scotland, in the person of Cat Headley.  Partly I have stayed because I had previously the "get out of jail free" card that Corbyn could never possibly get elected. That's still broadly my view but the chaos of the Tories and the potential splintering of their electoral coalition raises the possibility of a Labour Government with as little as third of the popular vote. Possibly even willing to concede a second referendum to the SNP in pursuit of an absolute majority.

So, to be honest, it is partly because there is not, yet, a viable alternative not just to the Tories but to a very nasty version of the Tories. For whom I could never vote. Even I would rather have Jeremy Corbyn than Boris Johnson.

The decision of the Libs and Tigs to stand against each other at the European Elections is a farcical one, guaranteeing, under the electoral system in use, only mutually assured destruction. But it shows the difficulty of "breaking the mould" (to use a phrase) of the two Party system, not just because of First Past the Post.

But abandoning "the" Party is also because it is just a really difficult thing to do personally, for the reasons with which I started. Not least because I would feel I was abandoning those who had, even now, decided to stay. Would probably always stay. Many, many good people among then.

However, that notwithstanding, believe me, if a viable alternative was to emerge, then I'd be for it. Although I still suspect the day I left would still be an even sadder one than 9th April 1992.