Man and Superman. National Theatre Live Relay. 14-05-15

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Indira Varma and Ralph Fiennes. Production photograph by Alastair Muir.

“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.”

Watching the National Theatre’s wonderful production of Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman reminded me of just why I have loved Bernard Shaw since I first read Caesar and Cleopatra at the age of fifteen. His writing still sings and jumps off the page at you, as modern and edgy as anything being written now. Man and Superman was first staged in 1905 and that is genuinely hard to believe. It is utterly unlike anything else that was being written at the time, original and even strange in some ways, especially when the Don Juan in Hell act is performed as part of it, which happened for the first time in 1915. I hope that nobody ever suggests leaving it out again after seeing this new production. This is a big, bold, confident play- like its author- and it has some penetrating things to say about society, love and marriage that are as relevant today as they ever were. It is sharp, wise and very funny. Yes it is long- maybe too long- but if it is done properly the time flies by. It’s a three course meal laid out on stage rather than the luxury stage canapes that we have become accustomed to snacking on. Shaw knew how to entertain and amuse an audience and get his points home by stealth and he is a master of setting out an argument clearly. For a long time his plays were unfashionable and it is good to see him back where he belongs in recent years- right at the centre of things.

Jack Tanner is a very long part and you watch Ralph Fiennes’ masterful performance in awe at what he is doing. He is in complete control of both the character’s arguments within the text and the character- something that is essential with Shaw and by no means easy to manage. Shaw’s characters always have a viewpoint and that is as important as their reality. I just don’t know how Ralph Fiennes did it- but I daresay being one of the finest stage actors of his generation helped. With a life force like that on stage beside them it was a tough job for the other actors to stand their ground but I’m glad to say they did. Indira Varma’s Anne Whitefield is going to be a good match for Jack- she understands him and will give as good as she gets, and the final scene where she finally achieves what she has always wanted was beautifully played between the two of them. She is a strong, beautiful presence on stage and I am always glad to see her. There was some very funny, stylish work from Tim McMullen as the brigand Mendoza and The Devil which made a perfect wry, laid back contrast to Jack. He had some of the best lines and made the most of them. I was very pleased to see Faye Castelow making the most of a nice part on a big stage having seen her give a storming performance as Ruth Ellis in our local theatre. Violet has a strong character and some lovely moments and she more than held her own. Elliot Barnes-Worrall was a lovely chirpy contrast to everyone else as Straker, just as he should be, and it was good to see Christine Kavanagh giving a very well judged, stylish performance as Mrs Whitefield. The whole play was very well cast.

The director Simon Godwin has done a wonderful job, although I have a feeling that Ralph Fiennes was on fire to do this one and didn’t need much advice. Having said that I’m sure that one of the reasons that everyone else didn’t get lost in Jack Tanner’s slipstream and Shaw’s arguments were able to shine so brightly was thanks to his good sense and advice. The updated setting was very cleverly managed. It had a timeless feel in spite of the updating- nothing grated with the dialogue at all- and the costumes were particularly carefully judged. The design fills the stage of the Lyttelton with a breathtaking simplicity in the Don Juan in Hell scene and never gets in the way. Rightly, Bernard Shaw was a great fan of his own work and I think he would have absolutely loved this. I don’t wonder it is sold out. If they tour it I shall see it again- sometimes a live relay just isn’t enough.

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Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis, William Staite Murray. Art and Life 1920-1931. Leeds Art Gallery. 7-11-13

Leeds exhibition
This is a lovely little exhibition, just two rooms, which does very clearly and succinctly what it sets out to do. It explores the artistic collaboration between Ben Nicholson and Winifred Nicholson and their friends Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis and the potter William Staite Murray in the 1920’s and thirties. It was a close artistic relationship which even survived the end of their marriage and looking around at the work on show it is easy to see why. They shared some of the same subjects and taught and learned from each other. A quick glance is enough to let you know which of them painted each picture but at the same time there is a kind of fellow feeling between them. Winifred’s work is more colourful and has a romantic sensibility while Ben’s is cool, clear and still. Right from the start his more limited palette and concentration on form is heading towards the abstraction which he explored later on. When standing in front of their two paintings of the same subject, like those in the exhibition of a farm on Northrigg Hill, these differences are very clearly laid out in front of you. It is good to imagine the two of them side by side as they worked, sharing ideas and thoughts. My favourite picture in the exhibition, as a regular beach wanderer, was Ben Nicholson’s beach landscape of Dymchurch in Kent, which evokes the light and space and the flat planes at the edge of the sea.

The other thing which is shown very beautifully in the exhibition is exactly why Ben Nicholson was so thrilled by the work of Alfred Wallis, a native Cornish fisherman who taught himself to paint late in life after his wife’s death. Alfred’s paintings have the same coolness, stillness and honesty as Nicholson’s own. He had naturally what Ben was searching for in his own work. Alfred’s schooner and icebergs c1928 could almost be a Nicholson with it’s simple sweeping lines and gracefulness of form which fits the triangular shape of the card perfectly, and there is a Nicholson, also painted on card, which returns the compliment.

I don’t like the work of Christopher Wood so much, although there is a semi nude female portrait from 1928, The Blue Necklace, which achieves the same stillness and presence as the work of Nicholson and Wallis while the woman gazes out enigmatically. I like William Staite Murray’s pots very much, they have the same egotism and confidence as the man who made them and it was good to see The Bather, my favourite from York Art Gallery’s collection again.

This small exhibition is a great way to see some of the work of the St Ives school, particularly in its early days and get an overview of what they were doing.

The Matter of Life and Death. An installation at York St Marys by Julian Stair. 18-06-13

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Roman funerary vessels.

“In the last few thousand years art has changed significantly, but our perception of death and our reaction to people close to us dying has remained remarkably consistent.”  Julian Stair.

The potter Julian Stair has created an installation for York St Mary’s that resonates with the space perfectly. St Mary’s is full of memorials to the dead which still look down on what is now a contemporary Art space, reminding us that it has a past. The Matter Of Life And Death is a sombre installation which combines Julian Stair’s own interpretation of funerary ware with a selection of funerary objects drawn from York Archaeological trust’s collection. His own work has clear, crisp lines and a quiet presence which both contrasts with the objects from the past and echoes them. The ancient objects have gained a patina and personality of their own through time. It’s almost as if the new objects are how the ancient ones once were, a reminder that death is a constant throughout history. The word the in the title (rather than the word a which might be expected) reminds us that it is a very particular matter for each of us, something which we all have to face. It is a solemn group of objects which has found a perfect space in which to speak. I say speak because they do speak. Memories always speak and each object represents an attempt to remember. Even their emptiness carries an bleak echo of the person who was once there. A cast which carries the imprint of a barely visible human being, an empty medieval casket which once held a heart preserved in wine, part of a Roman face full of humour and personality in a broken vessel, stand alongside the brand new pristine vessels, elegant and watchful, waiting to be filled.
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There is an interesting wall of post it notes where people have been invited to say how they would like to be remembered. Among the many variations on being a good friend, a loving person, a just person, a Godly person, which people had posted there was one which caught my eye. It was lively and full of personality and it made me think.

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I liked it because it took me away from the rather solemn business of exploring the fact that none of us are here forever and back into today. The present moment is all that we have and perhaps how we are remembered is not that important at all. How we are known in life is what matters. Memory is unreliable, it plays strange tricks and it can be unjust. Like the people who once populated the funerary urns the truth is that if you wait long enough almost all of us are going to be forgotten. These objects are a kind of final goodbye to the world which honour the fact that someone was once here but like the new work which Julian Stair has made they are now all empty.

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Not the most cheerful exhibition I have ever visited, but one with a haunting chill about it and a sensitivity to all those strangers who have made their own silent contribution, and to those who will come. A sad salute to humanity.

Gordon Baldwin. Objects For a Landscape. York Art Gallery. 24-02-12

The exhibition Objects For a Landscape at York Art Gallery, a room filled with a careful selection of the work of the ceramicist Gordon Baldwin, is a fine sight and a tribute to a long and dedicated career. When you first walk in and see them as a group, in a single space, they seem to form a single vision, a sombre almost monochrome mostly matt glazed collection with touches of browns and blues. They have real presence and gravity. Bulbous, yearning vessels with dark internal spaces and openings that you can peer into, their surfaces striated and meticulously drawn on. I was not surprised to hear him say in the accompanying video that they are serious works with darkness in them, and for someone who spends eight hours a week with a camera on a large and very beautiful beach the association with the kind of rich bulbous stones I see each day was immediately obvious. Gordon Baldwin’s beach is in North Wales, at Porth Neigwl, but when I read his statement about it in the exhibition verbiage I knew exactly what he was talking about.
“There is a beach in Wales I call “the place of stones”. It was found decades ago by a pin on a map. This chance event discovered me and chance has directed my projects and widened my horizons. In this place I looked for emotional correspondences. I listened to the sea alone and I stared at the landscape almost empty of people. I celebrated it with my camera. Such places are best faced alone and now they are in my studio with me.”
His work is restrained and deeply contemplative. Sometimes a pot will remain in his studio for a long time before being finished while he “does a lot of staring” at them and this shows. These are not works which have been produced in a rush of bravado and creativity. They have been nurtured and coaxed into life with great care. He talks about the surfaces being the most difficult aspect of his work, and sometimes thinks of the surface of a pot as a canvas. “You can’t just stare at a canvas. You have to do something with it.” Drawing “activates” the vessel. Almost no high gloss glazes or bright colours are used and when they are, as in a swathe of shining back or a small rainbow of colour across the corner of a piece they seem to shout. They are gentle, delicate pieces which seem to hold their strength in check with great dignity. I found it particularly satisfying to look at them when two pieces were paired together, their echoing forms seeming to comfort and reflect each other. I also enjoyed looking down through openings into the darkness inside, rather as you can in some of Anish Kapoor’s work. I was also reminded of the work of Barbara Hepworth but these works are not so serene as Hepworth’s sculpture. They have reached a point of harmony by hard graft. The delicate slightly torn edges on some of them reminded me of Japanese pottery. They hold memories and seem to have a past. Had I read the following quote before seeing the pieces I might well have thought it fanciful, but the pots had already shown me the truth of it.
“I find myself making vessels that punctuate oceans, in the same way as a bird’s call will mark an internal landscape forever. The sound of a wind will describe a landscape and a vessel remembers it for me.”
As well as making his work in the studio and teaching at the Central School of Art and Design and Goldsmiths Gordon Baldwin spent almost forty years teaching sculpture and pottery at Eton College. We hear a lot about old Etonians going on to work in the financial sector or politics. I hope that some of them during those years were also inspired to design and create by having the privilege of contact with a gifted artist who also clearly loved to teach.
This is a beautiful little exhibition. A little crowded and plainly lit perhaps, but the pots make their presence felt in a very real and striking way in spite of that.

In one of the upstairs gallery rooms there is a gallery of pots which have been selected by Gordon Baldwin from York Museums Trust’s ceramics collection which forms an interesting complement to the exhibition. He has called the selection Excitations and it describes some of his artistic loves and influences. The great names are there, Thomas Toft, Lucie Rie, Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada, and some lovely early medieval jugs. I particularly liked a tall thin bottle shaped pot, striped in brown and cream, by William Staite Murray. It made me smile to myself, having found out a little about Gordon Baldwin’s character through his work and through hearing him speak, when I read a note next to it explaining that the two men “didn’t get on” when they met. It didn’t surprise me. A man who could say boldly, as Murray did, “My pots are ART, I shall charge ART prices”, was certainly of a very different mindset to the artist that I had been finding out about. I also liked a lovely restrained blue and white dish with four simple orchids on it made in 1930 by Tomimoto Kenkichi and six dear little brown egg cups by Harry Davis made in 1969.