Thursday, 29 December 2011

Edward Burra, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

Just when you thought it might be safe to draw up those year-closing best-of lists, something comes along to stop you short. Such is the impact of this straightforward but cacophonously high-octane retrospective of the work of English artist Edward Burra at Chichester's Pallant House Gallery. Even before going into the gallery rooms proper there is an inkling of the quality beyond the doors with an oil painting, a trademark watercolour and a selection of drawings. As if reproducing the permanent collection in Burra's mind, these reflect his interests of the 1920-40s; the lines, shapes and composition of Picasso, Leger or Mogdiliani - the observance, wit and vivacity of Cocteau, Grosz or Dix.

But we are a little ahead of ourselves. Who was Edward Burra? Is it possible that one might be able to see clearly in him the contemporaneous impression of the 20th century's greatest artists, his peers, and yet know next to nothing about him? One of the many things this exhibition does well is to provide comprehensive, succinct backgrounds to the various periods in Burra's life, drawing a plumb line of chronology past not only his stellar influsences but also past the important domestic touchstones which are also apparent in his work. Stanley Spencer's range of corpulent style is persistently resonant and his friendship with the Paul Nash means that some of his landscapes are easily mistaken for those of the celebrated war artist.

The first room in the exhibition throws us straight into the interesting products of Burra's international travels that took him to 1920s France, 1930s New York and through Spain at the outbreak of their domestic fascism. Burra was not a political or a polemic artist though. Instead he chose to concentrate on the unseen life in the ports and nightclubs in these urban sumps producing dramatic, entertaining work that brims with a sense of energy and no little sense of the risqué. Men dance together in clubs and snigger at the one pair of women to occupy the centre of the composition - or are they men in drag? A bare composition Three Sailors In A Bar is decorous about its surreal elements (metaphysically impossible table tops, conflicting vanishing lines) and the whole thing has a spooky empty ring when set against the memory of its model, Manet's Bar At The Follies-Bergere.

Three Sailors is itself a fine picture but rather ordinary set against another composition with formal precedent and my favourite of the entire exhibition. The Strawman (1963, right) apparently shows a group of working class men beating up a figure made of straw. The figures are large and muscular; they act with concentration, aggression, malice. But they're also choreographed. The circle of their action is directly related to Matisse's The Dance (1909-10) and shows the fauvist sensibility in Burra's reaction to the day-to-day realism of the home county existence to which he perpetually returned.

The realism he conjured in his paintings is a the best answer to those who might suggest that an artist who has moved through places like Franco-controlled Spain should respond to the political situation. Consequently, one can see something of the stylised forms of Tamara de Lempicka in his urban snapshots (Snack Bar, Silver Dollar Bar) but with the aspirational gloss replaced by documentation - the absent minded woman eating a sandwich in the former, the harried barman in the latter. There is a sense of satire that creeps into some pictures - an image of Mae West in public is interchangeable with much that Georg Grosz fixed in his observation of the Weimar republic.

And so it goes on. Collage suddenly appears as his investigation of surrealism coincides with his friendship with Nash. Watercolour continues as his preferred medium in this period, huge virtuosically rendered pictures that lurch from realism to caricature, and all with the focus of the image and line pulling our eyes around the picture like his earlier games with perspective and lurching vanishing lines had done on the streets of Harlem or Marseille. Blitz Over Britain (1941, right) is a typically stiriking piece form this period.

Burra's sense of the basic landscape in his Nash/surrealist work persists in a series of dedicated landscapes. The landscapes become figures in the penultimate room of the exhibition which chart the bodies of Cornish residents and other working acquaintances in the early 1970s. Finally there is a room of his work for stage and screen, both set and costume design and a short film in which Burra gave a rare interview. There's so much admirable work packed into the available space one must applaud both the exhibitor and the artist for managing consistency and purpose. This is a pure exhibition, a show that goes in search of the next fine painting for its own sake, an example of fulfilling aesthetic thirst without having to resort to sensationalism of false thematics to make up the numbers. It is clear that Edward Burra is one of the most important-overlooked artists of the previous century and this exhibition will only fuel the appreciation and profile of his satisfying output.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Grayson Perry, British Museum

The Tomb Of The Unknown Craftsman is an exhibition not only curated by Turner Prizewinning artist Grayson Perry, but one for which he contributes about a third of the material content. The fascinating thing about the exhibition is that it is, at first sight, rather tricky to work out exactly which pieces are his work and which are those he has selected from the vaults of the museum. For sure, there are some whacky pieces here, and none more so that the three riding helmets at the opening. One is clearly that which Grayson wore for his Germanic bike tour (a trip around southern Germany on a custom made motorcycle, 'Humility', exhibited at the entrance of the exhibition). But the remaining two are more difficult to place, one a curmudgeonly assembled, rusting helmet, the other a flamboyant skin-n-fur cap of north Asian design. On closer inspection, the medieval-looking helmet is in fact another of Perry works, created for a degree show and then abandoned in the garden. The point is that the pieces are interchangeable, not only between artists - the craftsmen of the exhibitions title - but through a wide parenthesis of periods; possibly dated by content and material but not by the work of the artisan.

The exhibition offers pots (Perry's staple), souvenirs and trinkets of devotion (Perry's own incorporates the figure of his omnipresent teddy Alan Measles), maps (Perry's contribution turns Tracey Emin's infamous quilts inside out with a tapestry that is not a receptacle of a stream of consciousness but a guide for probing the same) and statues and boats that commemorate the efforts of the pilgrim. For beside the craftsman on display is Perry's acknowledgement of those - including other artisans - that come to secular temples such as the British Museum to view, absorb and re-create this work.

Above all Perry's work and the items that he has chosen to figure are vibrant - often startling - but made with great care and without any sense of irony that might scuttle the project. It's a warm, even joyful exhibition.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Sherlock Holmes 2 Soundtrack

The sequel to Guy Ritchie's successful Sherlock Holmes feature is another action adventure after the model of James Bond or Indiana Jones. Like those celebrated franchises this has its own distinctive soundtrack. Unlike those franchises this isn't because of an arresting original score (by Hans Zimmer) but because of the noteworthy use and incorporation of classical music.

Perhaps the most obvious interpolation is that of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni, a production of the opera in Strasbourg. The extract used is that of the Commendatore arriving at dinner, the famous final sequence of the opera proper, and that which constitutes the sequence concerning that opera in Milos Forman's famous biopic of the composer, Amadeus (1984):


In a sequence that reminded me of the Bregenz opera house chase from Quantum Of Solace (which uses Puccini's Tosca to replace the sound design that would correspond to the on-screen action) Zimmer lifts the music from its diegesis in his own adaptation. He starts the extract, in his own arrangement, as the protagonists arrive at the theatre and finishes it as the sequence reaches its unexpected conclusion in another location - but all in a contiguous dramatic span. It's not the only operatic reference either, Moriarty's first victim also bearing the name of Richard Strauss' long-time librettists, (Hugo von) Hofmannsthal.

Besides this conspicuous set piece there is also a smattering of interesting 19th century music, notably a pair of Schubert songs and a Johann Strauss waltz. Not only is this music meant to give the sheen of culture and finesse to those caught in the frame when it is used, it also seems to have a curious appeal for filmmakers giving a somewhat ironic air to significant on-screen action. Schubert has an eclectic on-screen use, though its most chilling is that of the String Quintet in C at the close of the BBC dramatisation of the Wansee conference, Consipracy (2001), a postlude for the Nazi resolution to deploy the 'final solution'. Schubert's song Die Forelle, the second song from this Sherlock Holmes, was also arranged for String Quintet by the composer. The most famous use of a Johann Strauss waltz on screen is during 2001: A Space Odyssey, where space travel is rendered as a vapid no-man's land between the violent bookends of evolution.

I like this use of this music very much. For all its excitement it has a very dark heart, with the possibility of pan-European war very much on the doorstep. The almost blinkeredly carefree music of these nineteenth century masters of music is very much in keeping with Guy Ritchie's (ingenuous) couching of the tale against the inevitability of the Great War. I found it a discomforting mix.

Most interesting though is the use of another soundtrack. Ennio Morricone's pocket-watch music from the Leone Spaghetti Western films is introduced, first on a clarinet, then - briefly - in its original form of music box chimes, before moving on to the cymbalon. It's the music of confrontation, a countdown to decisive, fatal action and so entirely appropriate for this pulpish take on Sherlock Holmes. Rendered in this Slovakian gypsy-artist arrangement it becomes thoroughly appropriate for the location of the film.

Here's a short featurette about Zimmer's research and construction of the soundtrack:

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Berlioz's Cinematic L'Enfance du Christ

Hector Berlioz
This evening I attended a performance of L'Enfance du Christ, Berlioz's approachable oratorio concerning the flight of the holy family from Herod's bloodlust and their resettlement in Sais, in Egypt. Berlioz's music has a cinematic panache all of its own, the scores bursting with melodrama, mental pictures and many of the dramatic effects that one associates with modern cinema.

For example, this piece begins with a once-upon-a-time style recitative before dissolving into a prologue. At the end the narrator returns as the music reconstitutes the here and now with a sequence of simple notes. One can actually hear the cross-fading of images, suggesting the passing of time (rather like the end of The Shining, for example). This very same musical-cinemtaic idea of Berlioz's is used by Terence Malick to move into the final sequence of his recent film The Tree Of Life - a movement that suggests stepping from either the present or the period of the film into some alternative state.

Elsewhere there is a real mix of music that follows the drama closely, just as in an opera. The piece would be more operatic but for the sung portions being separated by lengthy stretches of orchestral music which have clear visual connotations: the prologue is a marching bass line, earmarking the core of the work as concerning the family's flight (complete with braying donkey, borrowed from that prior theatrical work of note Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream); choruses dissolve into orchestral stretches that suggest everything from infanticide to domestic bustle; angelic offstage choruses provide not only acoustic effects but also dramatic coups in the performance. This is typical of Berlioz's output at large, which is both operatic and in large orchestral realisations of familiar literature (by both Shakespeare and Geothe).

Berlioz's musical language also has a long resonance. Familiar traces of Puccini and Wagner can be heard at given moments (more than just coincidental fragments of melody, the melodic outline of O mio babbino caro (translated as 'o my beloved child', from Gianni Schicci) comes as Mary talks of her child and a motif from Wagner's Parsifal (an Arthurian legend of a naive hero) pops up as the child-saviour's birth is discussed. Berlioz is not at all shy of using what we might now think of as crude musical devices, such as diminished chords, to generate the melodrama just when he wants it, a technique familiar to a certain school of silent film piano accompaniment.

I was watching the Britten Sinfonia and Voices at the Queen Elizabeth Hall under the magnetic Mark Elder.  The orchestra had some stand-out wind playing, particularly in the often tiresome, interpolated flute duet with harp, which was here a real highlight. The principal horn and bassoon also deserve mention, characterful and alive but never over-pungent. The soloists, Allan Clayton, Sarah Connolly, Roderick Williams and Neal Davies were uniformly superb, fully engaged with all this real and imaginary drama through exemplary singing.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Opera in Margaret (Lonergan, 2011)

My life isn't an opera!
That's a moot point heavily chewed over in Kenneth Lonergan's new film Margaret, a drama that investigates the relationships and moral equivalence of a disparate ensemble of New Yorkers. At their centre is a precocious but emotionally flammable high-school girl, Lisa (played by Anna Paquin). Lisa is prone to escalating the heat of exchanges. In her words, she can become hyperbolic, just like the heightened expression associated with the storylines and vernacular of opera. Lonergan uses this mode of expression both symbolically and formally, not least in contradistinction to the basic ennui of everyday New Yorkers. Their life may have its dramas but it isn't an opera.

What is opera? Not even Lisa's mother, an actor, seems familiar with the form. Lisa offers a thumbnail idea at the height of an early discussion - not to do with music, drama or emotion but in dismissing it as performers trying to prove how loud they can sing.

As if to prove the point, Lisa's own operatic sensibility leads her into situations either involving shouting or competition to be heard. This is most notable in the two set piece debate classes at her school where she gets involved in loud, heated exchanges with a peer. Abandoning the conventions of the discussion (for her own heightened expression), she begins to look like someone trying to prove how loud they can shout.

Lonergan's manipulation of a popular perception of opera in this way has a surprising pay off when we actually get inside the Metropolitan Opera House. There are two visits, the first as a preparatory episode for the second. Neither the aria from Bellini's Norma (that Lisa's mother attends) nor the duet from Offenbach's The Tales Of Hoffmann (which Lisa and her mother see together)* have any thematic resonance with the film. Rather, the two extracts are chosen for their simple melodic beauty to contrast with the raucousness of the dialogue elsewhere, as well as debunking that peremptory definition of opera confined to volume.

The second sequence proper begins by borrowing formally from Ingmar Bergman's film of The Magic Flute, in which a diverse audience are shown attending the lowered curtain as the introductory music starts.

As in Bergman it's a device for setting up parity between the audience and the stage, establishing equivalence between performance and reality. Moreover, as Offenbach's music is heard against the pointedly framed images of the audience one asks if it has become dislocated from the opera being watched to become the underscoring of the film. The diegesis becomes muddled. Indeed, when the camera turns back on the action of the performance, it's in medium close-up on the singers, i.e. with not only the audience but also the proscenium arch (the fourth wall) behind it. The singers occupy the same existential space, according to Lonergan's camera, as the audience, even to extent that their duet is filmed according to the 180° rule, as if they were characters in the preceding - real - drama.

Perhaps the film is an opera then. Could the individual and cumulative lives of the New Yorkers that the camera seeks out in this final scene constitute an opera? Lonergan's opening shot would suggest so, showing the movement of commuters on the street in slow-motion against the music of the opening titles. Slow motion is the natural state of opera, its drama being slowed or suspended for its most celebrated moments (arias and duets, such as those featured in the film). It is also a familiar device in the romantic apexes of films.

More than this, the film also has its own Interlude, or Intermezzo. Raging Bull and the third Godfather film have made us familiar with the short, stand-alone Intermezzo that comes at about the two-thirds mark of Mascagni's opera Cavelleria Rusticana. Structurally transcribed at the two-thirds mark of Margaret, Lonergan introduces his own interlude, a poetic visual solipsism, a slow-motion track following the back of Lisa's head down the street, followed by a vertical pan up between the buildings. It's a soul-in-flight moment of visual-operatic bravura (of which the Antonioni of The Passenger would have approved). It also serves as a riposte to the 'My life is not an opera!' rebuke, made after Lisa has unwittingly described a soul-possession experience.

With extracts from two highly familiar operas and Lonergan's own operatic approach to the structure and style of the film, it is interesting to see how Nico Muhly's original score finds its place. I found the musical cues invariably conventional, working with the action. However, there are one or two interesting moments where the music itself seems - consciously - at odds to the drama, casting confrontations in an absurd or playful light. Certainly, I felt that Muhly's music doesn't stake any claim for itself, a sense I also had on seeing his own dedicated opera Two Boys in London in the summer (it would be of interest to find out whether the opera was written before or after the film score, given the protracted release of the film).

Margaret is a complicated film. Characters contradict themselves as much as one another. Lonergan's incorporation of opera is equally contradictory. However it also effectively makes the case for the catharsis of art, particularly in the overt closing sequence. Opera is in many ways an absurd art form, demanding a considerable suspension of disbelief. The unifying theme of much of the film's welter of episodes is to do with adopting a high tolerance in order to try and achieve some sort of harmony despite these contradictions. The final scene suggests that once experienced, this harmoniousness attains a truth that renders the original contradiction the greatest absurdity of all.

*Please note that in the film the excerpts are performed by real opera singers: Christina Goerke sings Bellini's Casta Diva and Renée Fleming & Susan Graham sing Offenbach's O belle nuit. No easy link is available for any of these three artists performing these excerpts.