Monday, 20 March 2017

America After the Fall is a bona fide must-see

American Gothic, Grant Wood
A couple of weeks ago, booking for the following evening to see America After the Fall at the Royal Academy, I observed to The Other Half that it would be worth the entry fee just to see Grant Wood’s iconic American Gothic.

As we discovered 24 hours later,  that was an entirely fair statement. But the rest of this concise exhibition means that its £12 ticket is an even better – if unexpected – bargain. 

Entering the first of just three rooms and turning left, one of the first works you see is Aspiration, a big canvas by Aaron Douglas, painted in 1936.

In the foreground are the manacled hands of slaves, while rising above them are three African American figures holding symbols of education, looking and pointing toward a bright future that’s represented by a conjunction of industry and tower blocks that could be Oz meeting Metropolis.

Aspirations, Aaron Douglas
A really strong piece, its key to the exhibition, which it also links to the RA’s other running show on Russian revolutionary art until 1932.

Here is the same hope for a better future; the same harking back to a rosy past and a hagiographic representation of tradition (in both cases, of agriculture) and the future – also in both cases, of industry.

Seeing them both is not obligatory, but doing so certainly benefits the understanding and appreciation of each one. 

Here, in the industrial category, we have work by Charles Sheeler – pristine industrial landscapes that come close to a sort of super-realism, including Classic Landscape from 1931, while Suspended Power (1939) is reminiscent of the some of the Russian industrial photography on display downstairs.

O Louis Guglielmi’s Phoenix from 1935 includes a portrait of Lenin within a landscape that is arguably close to di Chirico in terms of it use of symbols.

Cotton Pickers, Thomas Hart Benton
And indeed, it’s worth remembering that many of the artists shown here were themselves immigrants or first-generation Americans. The influences of European art are clear.

As are the political influences. Peter Blumes The Eternal City (1934-37) is a savage, Daliesque take on Mussolini, while Philip Gustons Bombardment (1937) is from the same year and covers the same subject as PicassoGuernica.

In terms of the natural landscape, there’s Alexandre Hogue’s Erosion No2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare (1936), which rather overdoes the point and was disappointing after works by Hogue we’d previously seen at the Pompidou in Paris.

Daughters of the Revolution, Grant Wood
Thomas Hart Benton’s pastoral paintings are more interesting – not least because one on display, Cotton Pickers (1945) treads a fine line between the brutal realism of picking cotton and sentiment: personally, I think he just manages to get it right.

But nobody could be in any doubt that Joe Joness American Justice (1933), showing the aftermath of a KKK lynching, is intended as anything other than a total damning of such racist murders.

Young Corn, Grant Wood
Yet the revelation here is Grant Wood.

Yes, yes … we all know and recognise American Gothic (1930). And it is a brilliant work that merits time spent looking at it in detail, including up close enough to see the brush work (it needs a clean, mind).

But this one painting has so come to define Wood that few of us – certainly on this side of The Pond – will be aware of his other works. From the stylised, pastoral landscapes such as Young Corn (1931) to the history painting of The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931), from his simply brilliant Daughters of the Revolution (1932) to the equally fabulous Death on the Ridge Road (1935) – which seems to nod to comic book art – Woods paintings are a major reason to visit this exhibition.

Death on the Ridge Road, Grant Wood
Deceptively simple on many occasions, his use of perspective and angles illustrates the facile nature of such a view.

I haven’t even mentioned the two works by Edward Hopper – and they are no disappointment either.

Indeed, quite the contrary. Hopper was a superb artist. Gas, from 1940, is an absolute star of a painting, with a haunting sense of mystery about it.

But this exhibition – first seen in Paris – offers wonderful opportunities to explore the work of artists we shamefully know little of in Europe.

A friend who saw the exhibition in Paris thought it clunky curated. I do know what they mean, but seeing it in the wake of the Russia exhibition downstairs firms up that curation.

Gas, Edward Hopper
And even if you set aside that, this is worth seeing if only because there are so many good – and a few great – paintings here that it would be criminal to miss the opportunity to see art that rarely (if ever) has left the US before.

We went on a Friday evening and, amazingly, it was not crowded, so we had the time to stand in front of any individual work and enjoy at our leisure.

I’d recommend seeing this and the Russian Revolution exhibition, but if you can only do one, do this – the standard of the actual works on display is, overall, far higher.

* America After the Fall runs until 4 June at the Royal Academy, London.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

A Meistersinger with plenty to feast on

Ending of Act II
One of the things that makes good art great is its endurance and its openness to reinterpretation down the years: that whatever the apparent subject, it is never just about that.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is such a beast. Weighing in at four and a half hours of music –divided here by two intervals of 35 minutes apiece, allowing audience members the time to unpack the Tupperware and enjoy a leisurely picnic – it might be Wagner’s one mature comedy, but that should not be read as suggesting it lacks intellectual meat.

Indeed, one of the pleasures in watching is in noting the themes – and also how the production works with (or against) them.

The downside with such works is that they can also be open to people attempting to foist interpretations on them.

In the case of Meistersinger, there has been a determined effort by some to suggest that Beckmesser is an anti-Semitic character (who has to be defeated by an Aryan).

Nobody has ever been able to concretely prove that any character in one of Wagner’s operas is Jewish. Wagner’s anti-Semitism is a well-known fact, but that doesn’t mean that his dramas are filled with anti-Jewish tropes. 

Here, the name of Sixtus Beckmesser is thoroughly German and what he quite clearly is is Wagner’s Malvolio, right down to the thin-soled shoes he has badgered Hans Sachs to finish being his yellow stockings, cross gartered.

Why does he have to suffer defeat and humiliation? Because he’s a jealous snob; a petty guard of the petty rules that govern the Meistersingers’ guild – the sorts of rules and attitudes toward art that Wagner himself railed and reacted against.

Further, he has the temerity to imagine that he would be a suitable match for the much younger Eva, who has been promised to the winning Meistersinger at the city’s midsummer festival. The widower Sachs has the decency, self-awareness and basic humanity to know he’s too old for her, even though the idea is not unattractive.

But Wagner is not quite so simplistic: while Sachs comes to see the limits of the rules, he doesn’t represent artistic anarchy, but wants to find an equilibrium between tradition and moving forward.

The idea of wahn – one of those German words that contains a whole philosophical concept; in this case, meaning far more than simple ‘madness’ as it is literally translated – permeates Sachs’s (and Wagners) fears, yet it can be a positive force in creativity. The conflict between strict rules/convention and artistic evolution reflects similar tensions in the wider world between the status quo and change. We all face this and most of us probably take comfort in what of the former suits us and believe only in limited change. Thus understanding Sachs’s fears and dilemma is not difficult.

However, when he pays homage to tradition in the final act, it is often considered a difficult piece of nationalistic fervour. 

But historical context means a lot. When it was penned in the 1860s, Germany was on the cusp of becoming a reality, offering its peoples an increased security in the face of competing and established nationalisms from east and west in particular. It is easy now to forget that nationalism was not considered inherently negative in the 19th century: specifically, we don’t consider Italy’s move toward nationhood at the same time as anywhere near so problematic. German nationalism of the same period, though, has come to be viewed through the prism of what happened decades later and is thus treated as unique.

And it’s hardly as if we in the UK don’t like more than a spot of wildly bombastic pomp and circumstance – and not just at the Last Night of the Proms.

Hans Sachs and Sixtus Beckermesser
It’s also worth remembering that while Wagner himself might have been a nationalist in ways we think of today, he was also anti-militaristic and anti-imperialistic: today’s definition of nationalism usually includes militarism and, at a time when the UK government is planning ‘empire 2’, some on these islands at least hanker for imperialism.

On a cultural level, German-language opera existed, but German composers such as Handel and Gluck had preferred Italian, just as the court of Frederick the Great spoke French – a point referenced in Sach’s hymn to German art. That’s the context for artists striving for a German voice in art.

Royal Opera House director of opera Kasper Holten leaves the job with this new production. And it has left some to grumble – not least about how he’s changed the ending. But then, isn’t breaking the rules what this is all about?

Here, after Walther is accepted into the meistersingers’ guild and, in turn, accepts that, rather than fall into his arms, Eva storms off – presumably angered by his apparent rejection of rebelling against the rules and/or his acquiescence with the nationalism most usually perceived.

It does no damage to the whole, however you look at it.

Mia Stensgaard’s set has come in for criticism too – particularly in the second act, where something more pastoral might be welcome. This is certainly a point.

We start with something like a vaguely Deco series of boxes; angles everywhere, with staircases that go nowhere and a door like the aperture of a camera. It could remind one of Escher’s nightmarishly impossible architecture and indeed, at the climax of the second act, it becomes a nightmare. In a clever move, it only really resolves to full symmetrical neatness in the final act.

In between, during probably the slowest revolve in theatrical history, we see the back of the main set, rigged out as though it were backstage. But as Sachs plots to turn the madness to sanity, it also sees him ‘outside’ the world of which he has been such a part; a clique; an elite with its endless rules that help to preserve that elite.

Resolving the issues is what allows him to return inside, but only as he also helps to at least partially break the strangulating hold on artistic freedom. This is like Wagner’s personal manifesto – as is Sachs’s belief in democratising art by calling for the meistersinger to be chosen by popular vote and even his own determination to match words and music completely, which Sachs mentions in the libretto.

Dress is modern and includes nods to modern elites such as masons – the production poster adds business/City types as another elite.

It’s been noted that Walther is dressed scruffily, with a rock ‘n’ roll t-shirt – unfitting for a noble. But actually, it fits perfectly: the artisans in the guild are the ones for whom such things as appearance are central to their cultivation of their own sense of being an elite. An aristocrat has no need of such symbols because he’s already a member of a ‘real’ elite – though there is irony to his being the one trying to break into a very different sort of establishment.

Sachs, Eva and Walther
If Meistersinger, lacking the sturm und drang impact of Wagner’s great Romantic works, never quite hits the emotionally devastating notes of, say, the last minutes of Tristan und Isolde, it is perhaps his most consistently beautiful and melodic score.

The orchestra was in fine form under Antonio Pappano, if a tad too loud during some of the conversational moments.

Bryn Terfel might not be quite the baritone he was a few years ago, but his is an easy charisma and he brings a straightforward honesty to Sachs that is perfect for the role.

Johannes Martin Kränzle as Beckmesser deals with the comic elements delightfully, while Gwyn Hughes Jones as Walther and Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Eva, and Allan Clayton and Hanna Hipp and Sachs’s apprentice David and Eva’s maid Magdalene, all give fine performances.

The ending, with two choruses cramming the stage, is a theatrical barnstormer. The music resolves as it does at the end of the overture – and a glorious resolution it is too.

Meistersinger is a comedy in the same way that the likes of Twelfth Night is: there are laughs and chuckles, but there is much more to take away when the final chord has sounded.