Tuesday, 9 January 2018

137 years of space and time.

I took my first pint of the year (a Red Stripe) at a surprisingly packed (for January) London Skeptics event last night and if the pint went down well the talk went down even better. These short grey days can get a bit depressing and I always find that  Skeptics events shake me up, give my brain a good workout, and provide me with something to think about on my tube journey home and beyond. It's intellectual nourishment when it's most needed.

This time I even got a bit of an eighties pop revival session to go with my education as, for some reason, the pub owners had kept the music on quietly in the background. The speakers were above my head so my evening was soundtracked by Roxette, Terence Trent D'Arby, U2, The Cars, Culture Club, Simply Red, Chaka Khan, Chicago, and Tom Petty. I enjoy a music quiz as much as, probably a bit more than, the next man but it was a touch distracting at times.

Luckily, not too much. Colin Stuart's 'Thirteen Journeys Through Space and Time' seemed a fairly interesting premise although I was concerned that if things got a little too scientific I'd be baffled beyond belief. The premise was that Colin had been approached, in 2015, by the Royal Institute with a proposal that he write a book about the history of their annual Christmas lectures - specifically the ones relating to those stalwarts of science fiction, space and time.

As a popular science communicator, he's spoken to over a quarter of a million people about the universe and the science of it over the course of his career, Colin was very much the right guy both for the book and the talk. The fact that he reminded me of my friend Gareth only warmed me further to him but also his enthusiasm for the subject and the easy way in which he made it understandable to us laymen. It made an hour and a half in his company an absolute delight so it's no surprise his books have sold more then 100,000 copies around the world and that he's been commissioned to write over 150 popular science articles for publications ranging from The New Scientist to The Guardian.

It'd be fair to say some of that style has been inspired by the very Christmas Lectures he was in The Monarch to talk about. They've been held every year since 1825 excluding a brief hiatus between 1939 and 1942 (I love the fact that halfway through the war they started them back up again anyway) in the Faraday lecture theatre. Michael Faraday still holds the record for most lectures given with nineteen.

The lectures are designed, primarily, for children but such is their popularity that the audience is normally around 50% kids, 50% adults. The maxim "Never talk about science. Show it to them" has been one of the cornerstones of the series' great success and Colin, when he could, incorporated video footage and photography to back up his research and the anecdotes he'd picked up whilst carrying out said research.

The first lecture about 'space' was way back in 1881. Robert Ball, the Irish astronomer, in his "The Sun, The Moon, and The Planets" (most of the talks have a snappy title) claimed boldly that no human explorer would ever reach the moon, it was simply too far away, it was not possible. It wasn't the only thing he was wrong about it. When he announced that Jupiter had four moons that was two more than many accepted but nowadays Jupiter is known to have at least 69 moons. He spoke too of the 'canals' of Mars, now known to be an optical illusion.

The handwritten notebooks of Scottish chemist and inventor of the vacuum flask James Dewar from 1885 held a rather surprising secret when Colin came across them. Dewar had attempted to recreate the sound of a tumbling meteorite but in the course of his experimentation he'd rendered his journals radioactive. Colin had to sign a radioactivity waiver and sit next to a Geiger counter to read them.

If knowledge of the moon, Mars, and even radioactivity were still in their infancy in the late 19c this isn't to be sneered at. It's only through the scientific process that we can learn how things work and it's inevitable that, along the way, there'll be mistakes. Herbert Hall Turner delivered the lecture "A Voyage In Space" in 1913 in which the seismologist and astronomer talked about how methane and ammonia can freeze in space and in which he posited that sunspots were bruises inflicted by comets crashing into the face of the sun. They weren't. They're just cooler regions of the sun's surface.

In 1933 Sir James Jeans, a man who'd previously dismissed dinosaurs as 'misfits' adapted Hall Turner's title to "A Voyage Through Space" and if this seemed a little cheeky or even a touch unoriginal he made up for it with the sheer playfulness of his words, the way he described difficult concepts to people. To describe the extraordinary vastness and emptiness of the universe he asked his audience to imagine stars shrunk down to the size of wasps and put in a box. This box, representing the universe, would be 1000 miles long on each and every side - and have just six wasps in it. That's how empty space is - but to give a true reflection of what it's like you'd need to slow each wasp down to a thousandth of the speed of a snail.

Jeans also asked his audience to imagine the history of the planet Earth up until the present day to be represented by one cycle of a clock's rotation. Humans would not appear until one second before midnight he claimed. Though as he felt humans had only been around for about 6,000 years it's possible that that figure can now be revised upwards. Very few scientists would claim that humans showed up any earlier than 2358hrs though.

To add further colour to his lecture Jeans had a woman dress up as an alien so the audience could see what the world would be like in 100 years time (only fifteen left now, hurry up aliens). He covered her in fluorescent paint so it appeared her head was floating in the darkened room. It doesn't sound as scientifically rigorous as it perhaps could've been but it sounds like fun.

In 1977 there was a rare, and highly exalted, visitor from overseas. Carl Sagan (a regular name at these Skeptics events, click on both his names to find out more) came over from New York, with demands for five star hotels and pay packets way beyond that of most other speakers, to talk about "The Planets". He looked back one hundred years to the discovery of the two moons of Mars and the wonderful story behind that discovery.

Asaph Hall, an astronomer from Connecticut, had been inspired to search for these moons by a passage in Jonathan Swift's 1726 satire Gulliver's Travels that claimed Mars had two moons. If this was a guess by Swift (later picked up by Voltaire) it was a bloody good one. Or a bloody lucky one. It's not as if they'd be easy to see. Mars is 54,000,000 kilometres from Earth and the largest of the two moons Phobos is smaller than London. Both Phobos, and its baby brother Deimos, are named after Greek mythological figures representing, sequentially, the personifications of fear and dread, but after seeing stunning film footage of a sunset from the dark red surface of Mars (why had I not seen that before?) perhaps Aphrodite would've been more fitting.

Sixteen years later it was the turn of particle physicist Frank Close to deliver the lecture. He chose "The Cosmic Onion" as his title so as to reflect the layering of life and explained how we were made of atoms, how atoms were made of protons and neutrons, and how neutrons were made of quarks. He showed that the journey into the make up of ourselves is as epic as the journey into the outer reaches of the cosmos and still contain areas of mystery. Science wasn't finished then and it's not finished now.

Monica Grady's 2003 talk "A Voyage In Space And Time" (some of these titles do get a bit samey) was all set up to coincide with the Beagle II landing on Mars but unfortunately that mission failed - which at least saved anyone having to listen to the song that Alex James from Blur had written to celebrate the occasion. Grady was much happier in 2014 when a video of her, in Darmstadt, celebrating Philae's successful landing on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko ten years and eight months after departing Earth pretty much went viral.

Equally popular, in recent years, were the adventures of Tim Peake in space. In 2015 Kevin Fong's "How to Survive in Space" lecture was scheduled to tie in with Peake's mission and even included an interview with Peake where he talked about the "chicken legs and puppy fat" that result from prolonged exposure to zero gravity as all the stuff in your body is no longer subject to the forces that keep it where it should be!

Colin (a man who's had an asteroid named after him and damned well deserved it too) signed off with an endearing anecdote about meeting one of his heroes, Helen Sharman, and giving two answers to the questions that 'bad skeptics' sometimes ask him - why do we bother going into space when we could spend the money on hospitals and schools?

First a riff on Carl Sagan's view that we do it because it's what we do, it's who we are, we're natural explorers, we're inherently curious, it's at the very core of what being a human is all about. Secondly, however, Colin gave his own response. Sometimes in experimenting in one field we find out things that are useful in other fields. Huge advances in osteoporosis and oncology have both come from discoveries made during space travel. When you think you're learning about one thing you may also be learning about something else.

Colin's talk, much like the RI Christmas lectures that inspired it, seemed to have built up from fairly humble beginnings into something very impressive indeed. If we look at the knowledge we've gained in the last 137 years then what will we learn in the next 137? What knowledge will we have in 2155?

Only 500 people have travelled into space so far but the likes of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and others are starting to make the technology available and affordable so that more can, and will, do in the future. So far it costs about $200,000 to travel into space (about the same as a studio flat in an undesirable outskirt of London) but that will go down and it will go down fast. Companies are already tendering for patents and other companies are looking into the grey area that is mining asteroids for resources (and you thought the furore over fracking was tedious).

On top of that there's been talk of a ninth planet existing in our solar system that's yet to be discovered. They're not talking about upgrading Pluto again (you had your chance Pluto, you blew it) but about a planet way way beyond Uranus and Neptune. It's mind boggling to think we've discovered planets in galaxies far far away but there may be an imposter within our mist that's been hiding in plain sight all along.

It's unlikely any of us will be packing our intergalactic buckets and spades and firing ourselves from Cape Canaveral for a holiday on Planet Nine anytime soon but space travel is drawing nearer and nearer and with it the chance for us to find out more and more about this mystifying and fascinating universe we all live in. Here's to many more lectures about it.

Thanks to Carmen, Tessa, and everyone else who makes these Skeptical events one of the real joys of living in London.

Cezanne:An eye for truth.

"I am progressing very slowly, for nature reveals herself to me in very complex forms; and the progress needed is incessant" - Paul Cezanne.
If the impressionist artists were mocked when they first appeared then the post-impressionists were derided even more so and of all artists in that loosely affiliated group it was Paul Cezanne, even more than Van Gogh, who suffered the cruellest mockery. His work was met with laughter, outrage, and sarcasm. Critic Louis Leroy said of one painting that it was so horrible that it may give a pregnant woman "a shock and cause yellow fever in the fruit of her womb before its entry into the world" and between 1864 and 1882 every single painting he submitted to the Paris salon was rejected, often because they were deemed too ugly. It was only towards the end of his life, and much more so after his death in 1906, that Cezanne's pivotal role in French art history (all art history in fact) came to be recognised.
He paved the way for cubism, futurism, and even out and out abstraction. In many ways he drew the roadmap in which 20th century artists would travel and would, as time went on, come to be rightly considered the father, or at least one of the fathers, of modern art as we know it. But when we think of Cezanne now we think firstly of his landscapes, those mountains on the outskirts of Aix-en-Provence, and then of his still-lifes of apples, pears, wine bottles, and folded tablecloths. Very rarely of his portraits. But he painted many of them and the National Portrait Gallery, following the wonderful 2016 show Picasso Portraits, had gathered fifty or so examples of his very finest works in this genre. They've claimed it to be the first ever retrospective dedicated entirely to Cezanne's portrait work.

Self-portrait (1862-64)
This is a far more muted affair than the exuberantly colourful and ever changing Picasso exhibition was, it contains a much less starry guest list, and, with one brief exception, Cezanne appears to be a one woman man sitting in stark contrast to Piccaso's love life which was as liberal as it was expansive. Picasso surrounded himself with a seemingly endless flow of glamorous women and worshipful hangers on. Cezanne married Hortense and both enjoyed and endured a difficult, but lengthy, marriage with her. 
Cezanne never accepted commissions, he never took payment for his work, and only his dealer, Ambroise Vollard, was ever allowed to hang on to his own portrait. Cezanne rarely painted anyone other than his family, friends, and the local Aixois he shared his home city with. He took a long time to paint them (as we'll discover), and, while painting them, his sitters were not allowed to pose or 'act' in any way. He refused to flatter his subjects. Men who may've wished to be made to look powerful when painted were denied this wish as were women who sought to have their glamour or attractiveness increased by allowing him to paint their likeness. He had no truck with the notion, fashionable today, of the 'psychological portrait' believing that truth could only be found in nature and in painting itself.

The artist's father, reading (1866)
Cezanne was a serious young man who had very few friends and grew irritable, possibly related to a diabetic condition, as he aged. As he'd inherited wealth from his father, a banker and hat maker, he had the luxury of being able to devote much of his life to his work and he had little need to sell his paintings to make ends meet so was able to spend most of his time considering what art was for and what art could be for. What's most remarkable, perhaps, is this almost religious adherence to the art of painting did, eventually, result in Cezanne finding a way of connecting to the art of the past whilst, simultaneously, building a path for those that followed in his footsteps.
Cezanne's closest friend in his youth was the naturalist novelist Emile Zola but even Zola was unable to see Cezanne's talent, going so far as to write a book, L'Ouevre, about a fictional struggling artist, Claude Lantier, who was unable to get the art world to see his revolutionary genius because they were stuck in hidebound ideas of traditional subjects and techniques. Even though it's been said the book could equally be seen to be about either Claude Monet or Edouard Manet, Cezanne saw red and his friendship with Zola was over. It was an early example of Cezanne's peevishness. You may admire Cezanne the artist as you wander the rooms of the National Portrait Gallery but you will probably come away with mixed feelings about Cezanne the man.

Paul Alexis reading a manuscript to Zola (1869-70)

Marie Cezanne, the artist's sister (1866-67)
In these early days of his career Cezanne was using a palette knife and his style came to be known as 'maniere couillarde' from the French word couilles which means testicles. They weren't saying his paintings were a load of old bollocks but that they were crude and ballsy. This was the technique he used both for his celebrated images of Mont Sainte-Victoire and the portraits of his sister Marie and his ever patient Uncle Dominique who posed for young Paul in a series of hats and outlandish costumes presumably borrowed from the wardrobe of his milliner father.
As Cezanne reached his early thirties he traded the palette knife, the cojones, in for a more traditional brush. You can see how the violence in the portraits of Marie and Dominique (painted around the same time Cezanne was making rape, murder, and abduction his themes) have been softened by his change in style for his no less intense realisation of Fortune Marion. Marion was the director of Marseille's Natural History Museum and, like Cezanne, a fellow lover of the Provencal landscape. Cezanne and Marion would inspire each other to view the landscape in different ways on long walks in the countryside. Marion influenced Cezanne in the same way Camille Pissarro had earlier in Paris. The two of them would make trips to Louveciennes and Pontoise for the purposes of landscape painting with Pissarro, at that time, taking the role of master to Cezanne's student.

Uncle Dominique in a turban (1866-67)

Fortune Marion (1871)

Madame Cezanne in a red armchair (1877)
In 1869 Cezanne had met Hortense Fiquet and in 1872 they had a son, also Paul, but it wasn't until 1886 they married. These days perfectly normal but quite remarkable back then. It was surely also commented on at that time that even after they'd married they often lived apart, even when they were in the same city. Their relationship seems to have been subject to several unspecified pressures, possibly from Cezanne's disapproving family, and it seems that although Cezanne loved Hortense (or Madame Cezanne as she became known) very much not everyone else did. There seems to be a touch of the Yoko Ono and John Lennon in the way those around Cezanne seemed to think they knew his heart better than he did.
Then again he did at the time look a bit mad. Compare his 1875 portrait below (painted when he was still in his mid-thirties) to the one at the start of this blog painted not more than a decade earlier and remember that for Cezanne truth was everything. He seems to have aged thirty years in ten and gone from a handsome swarthy confident young man about town to a balding obsessive with a thousand yard stare who looks like he's spent way too long in his garret with his easel and paints. Was the stressful relationship getting to him or had he been thinking so long and hard about painting that his hair had fallen out and he'd let himself go?

Self-portrait (1875)

Victor Choquet (1877)
He wasn't out and about much anyway so perhaps it didn't matter. Following the disintegration of the friendship with Zola, and his brief period of hanging out with Marion, the only person that could've been considered a true friend of Cezanne's was art collector Victor Choquet. It was a mutually beneficial friendship as Choquet got to collect Cezanne's work and Cezanne had the ego massage of having his work collected by a man who'd already amassed a large number of Delacroix works, a giant of the previous generation of French artists and one, it seems, Cezanne, had huge admiration for.
It seems at this point that, other than Choquet, Cezanne's portraiture was restricted to himself, his wife, and his child. The gauzy aquatic washes of Paul Jr's 1883 portrait seem to belong more to the style of his contemporary Paul Gauguin even if the subject matter is far more wholesome than Gauguin's celebration of free love in Polynesia. Henri Matisse was a good thirty years younger than Cezanne, and still an infant when the older man painted Madame Cezanne in a red armchair, but it seems highly possible that the father of fauvism was inspired by Cezanne's lovingly rendered colours. The Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke certainly was. Of the work Rilke said "the consciousness of her presence has grown into an exultation which I perceive even in my sleep; my blood describes her to me".

Portrait of the artist's son (c.1883)

Self-portrait (c.1885)
It's hinted here that Cezanne, at this time, was not feeling such profound emotion towards his wife as Rilke later would feel for her portrait. The curators of the exhibition have skimmed past an 'unrequited love affair' Cezanne had in the early 1880s that resulted in his marriage to Hortense and perhaps explains why the gap between the birth of their child and the sound of wedding bells would be the same as that between world cups. It also, I would cynically suggest, explains why the self-portrait Cezanne made of himself in 1885 was based on a photograph taken of him in 1872 when he still had hair and his gaze was calm and steady rather than intense and borderline frightening. Was this an attempt to woo another or a 'here's what you could have won' to someone who'd spurned him?
Certainly the following few years saw him get to work on an astoundingly large number of portraits of his now wife. Were these Cezanne's versions of flowers, chocolates, and trips to the opera, his way of saying sorry? Or, after erring (or attempting to), had he seen what a fool he'd been and was now finally able to see the beauty in his wife that he'd never seen before.
Her stern expression doesn't give a lot a way. Perhaps she was angry with him or more likely she was frustrated as she had to sit still for hours on end as her husband painted her in a striped dress, then in a blue dress, then in a red dress, then in a blue dress again, and then in a red dress again. At least Mont Sainte-Victoire and the apples and pears didn't complain when Cezanne demanded their complicity in his grand project.

Madame Cezanne in a striped dress (1885-86)

Madame Cezanne in a blue dress (1886-87)

Madame Cezanne in a red dress (1888-90)

Boy in a red waistcoat (1888-90)
It has to be said that Cezanne's Boy in a red waistcoat is painted with a joie de vivre and a vivacity that is utterly absent from his pictures of supposed matrimonial contentment. The jaunty angle the urchin stands at and the gay red of his waistcoat are enough to cast doubts on Cezanne's commitment to heterosexuality.
One thing you couldn't doubt his commitment to was painting though. It may be a moot point just how Paul and Hortense's marriage played out but nobody seems to be arguing that there was any greater thing in his life, anything that obsessed him more, than the work himself. In a painting that both my friend Sanda and I observed to be surprisingly hectic after the rather plain likenesses of Madame Cezanne, we learnt that Cezanne abandoned this work unfinished after three whole months of work despairing of the fact that he was unable to complete either the face or the hands of Goffrey to what he considered an acceptable level.

Gustave Goffrey (1895-96)

Woman with cafetiere (c.1895)
By this time Cezanne and his wife were drifting apart and Cezanne's portraiture was becoming more heavily focused on local agricultural workers, domestic servants, children, and, shock horror, some of the art world admirers he'd normally steer well clear of. If it wasn't for the purity of his agenda and his rigorous approach to finding new ways to see it could almost be claimed he was becoming a little twee in his dotage. For sure his work seems to bifurcate at this point. Some of the paintings start to celebrate colour in a way Cezanne rarely had before as if to announce the coming of fauvism. Others, however, look back to the darkened corners of Rembrandt and Caravaggio.
Elsewhere, Woman with cafetiere for example, Cezanne appears to presage the metaphysical realism of Giorgio Morandi. Cezanne said we should "treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone" and in the mid-right, opposite the pyramidal shaped woman who looks about as cheerful as Hortense herself, there stands a very simple coffee cup that shows, as much as anything in this exhibition, that for Cezanne the subject was never really the subject, the subject was always the angles of nature, the reflection of light upon those angles, and how, he, Cezanne could bring them to life in a more real, more meaningful, way than any other artist of his time.

Ambroise Vollard (1899)
After 115 sessions with Ambroise Vollard, Cezanne ceded defeat and that's perhaps why Vollard was allowed to take ownership of this canvas. Cezanne may've, when it came to his art, lacked modesty but he was a perfectionist and if a piece didn't reach his exacting standards it seemed he had no use for it. To our eyes, surely, the portrait of Vollard is no better or worse than anything else in this show but to Cezanne's eyes there was something missing. Cezanne's art was as much about looking as it was about painting.

The smoker (1893-96)

Man with a pipe (1891-96)

Child in a straw hat (1896)

Child with doll (1895)
Towards the end of his life Cezanne's favourite subject was the gardener Valllier and in the two following portraits you can see an idea of how Cezanne's art may've progressed. Colour is allowed to take over the frame more than ever before (a process the likes of Matisse, Derain, and Vlaminck would turbocharge in the following years), the handling of his brush became freer than ever and, it could be a trick played by the curators of the exhibition, there's some suggestion that Cezanne finally found peace with himself and his art before he died of pneumonia in 1906 in Aix-en-Provence, 69 years after he was born in that same city. A city he'd loved but not one that had always loved him.
His final self-portrait, painted some time between 1898 and 1900, shows an artist who was now more successful than he'd ever been, finally a respected elder statesman of the art world who held court when young pretenders travelled south to visit him, but also weaker than ever and unable to fully enjoy the spoils of his success. Towards his death he painted almost every single day and even as his health failed him he still quested towards creating a perfect painting. Something many would argue he succeeded in doing time and time again. 

Gardener Vallier (1902-06)

Gardener Vallier (1905-06)

Old woman with a rosary (1895-96)
To really capture Cezanne's immense gift to the future of art you'd need to witness a larger, more all encompassing, show of his work (landscapes, still lifes, AND portraits) but to see Cezanne from just one angle is still to see more than many artists could give you in their entirety. While Picasso and Matisse may've lit up the 20th century with their bold colours, inventive handling of space and perception, and images both violent and vibrant it was the quieter man from Provence who had taken those brave first steps into modernity. He may not have been thanked for it at the time but justice, it seems, comes to those who wait.
Thanks to Sanda for joining me on this cultural expedition, for the mocha and millionaire shortbread, and, most of all, for the company. Looking forward to the next one.

Self-portrait with beret (1898-1900)

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Fleapit revisited:Persona.

"If the maintenance of personality requires the safeguarding of the integrity of masks, and the truth about a person is always the cracking of the mask, then the truth about life as a whole is the shattering of the total fa├žade behind which lies an absolute cruelty" - Susan Sontag, Sight and Sound, 1967.

Ingmar Bergman's 1966 psychological drama Persona is more a film to be admired than it is one to be enjoyed. It's never particularly tense, there's not much of a storyline, it's hard to get emotionally invested in either of the main characters, and if you're looking for laughs you've definitely come to the wrong place.

But if you like a film to provoke thought, set you off on a bout of soul searching, leave you feeling emotionally bereft, or if you simply enjoy scratching your head there's a lot here for you. Bergman hoped the film would be felt rather than understood and I think it's safe to say he successfully achieved that goal. The Wikipedia page for Persona has a section titled 'Themes and interpretations' and to give you an idea of how many of those themes and interpretations this film potentially covers that section is split into five subsections:- Identity and duality, psychology, gender and sexuality, art and theatre, and, rather fantastically, vampires.

None of these themes are writ large and yet all, and more, are implied. The narrative arc, what there is of one, is actually a very simple story. Successful actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann) has been struck dumb while appearing on stage as Electra and has been referred to a doctor. On realising that she's neither mentally nor physically ill she is left in the charge of young, inexperienced, nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson) for treatment.

Somewhat oddly Alma's seniors have decided the best course of action is to whisk Elisabet, and Alma, off to a remote cottage on a Swedish island (Faro, in the Baltic Sea just north off Gotland) to see if she can, somehow (it's not explained how), coax words out of her, get her to break her self enforced silence.
Alma's success or not in this mission is not particularly relevant to either the plot or our appreciation of the film. We see Alma and Elisabet strike up a friendship, of sorts, and witness them preparing mushrooms together, swimming, driving Volvos, and, from the part of Alma at least, sharing their most intimate secrets.
As Alma divulges stories of orgies and abortions and Elisabet sits dumb but listening intently we're forced to contemplate the nature of their relationship and, possibly, the nature of all relationships. Is the talker the dominant power or does the power lie in the hands of the silent partner, the listener? Do relationships/friendships depend on delicate power balances or can power sharing be mutually beneficial?

The viewer, like Alma, may wish for an answer but, in an echo of Samuel Beckett (a possible influence), none ever comes. Simply more silence. Yet again another chance to look deep into one's own soul. Is it a vacuum or a tangled mess of conflicted emotions and desires? Can it be both at the same time?
As Alma talks more and more it becomes unclear who exactly is the patient and who's the medic in this dynamic. Bertha Pappenheim aka Anna O called the treatment she received from Austrian physician Josef Breuer a 'talking cure' (a kind of self therapy overseen by a professional in which sufferers talk themselves through, and eventually out of, their anxieties) but if that's what's at hand here it's clear that Alma, rather than Elisabet, is the one who's 'benefitting'.

Persona asks difficult questions about how we protect ourselves on to others, about the multiple masks we develop as life's baggage piles up inside us, about the personas we construct for ourselves, and about how we at times try to strip them down and purify ourselves so we can start again with a clean slate.
Is a totally silent person a tabula rasa we can feel safe unloading ourselves on to? Or projecting our deepest darkest desires towards? We all build up images in our heads of what people are like and they're often constructed around what we want them to be like. Do we feel frustrated or even betrayed when our image of a person doesn't fit easily into their own equally constructed persona or do we carry on trying to ram a square peg into a round hole?

Again - no answers. Just more food for thought. To confuse matters further it seems that the character of Elisabet, whoever that might be, is beginning to bleed into, infect, or even take over the character of Alma. Earlier we didn't know if Alma was curing Elisabet or Elisabet was curing Alma. Now we're not even sure who is who.
Bergman's used a few, understandably slightly dated, pieces of studio trickery to indicate this merging, or takeover, of personalities but he's also used lots of other jarring effects to create genuinely unsettling, and often completely baffling, set pieces. Scenes are repeated verbatim, there are dream sequences that could be hallucinations, hallucinations that could be dream sequences, there's a boy lying in a bed who puts his hand up to a big screen to suggest this is all happening in a distant dimension, there's a flashing vision of an erect cock for no apparent reason whatsoever and, just to turn your stomach, there's the image of a nail being hammered through an unspecified person's palm. All set to Lars Johan Werle's jerky modernist score.
Occasionally, very occasionally, something of the outside world is allowed in to Alma and Elisabet's isolated existence. But as it's footage of the self immolation of Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc protesting about the persecution of Buddhists by Ngo Dinh Diem's South Vietnamese government or a still photo of the Nazi suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 that led to 13,000 Jewish deaths these merely serve to underline what a horrible world it is out there and how silence or self-absorption may be utterly necessary as tools in a world that long ago stopped making sense.

The fact that this is considered by many critics the greatest Swedish film of all time seems to say more about film critics than anything else and just how much they love Ingmar Bergman. It seems unlikely it would've been a mutual love in, he seemed to have quite a dark view of the world did ol' Ingmar (he wrote this one in hospital recovering from pneumonia) and in Persona he was able to, slowly and somewhat depressingly, share that view with the rest of us.
It's almost as if Bergman has treated us like Alma treated Elisabet and used us as his own blank canvas to paint his own darkest desires on to. You may not enjoy that sort of thing but you can't deny it has a power. Allow yourself a trip to the dark side. Just don't make a permanent move there.

Friday, 5 January 2018

Hassan Hajjaj:The many colours of Marrakech.

It may've been pure coincidence but it was very satisfying that I should attend Somerset House's Hassan Hajjaj:La Caravane show a year to the day since I attended Malick Sidibie's The Eye of Bamako at exactly the same venue, in exactly the same rooms. Both artists come from Africa and both featured in The Photographers' Gallery 2016 show Made you Look:Dandyism and Black Masculinity and despite Sidibe's preference for black and white and Hajjaj's works being a riot of colour similarities don't end there.

Both artists set out to capture the vibrancy of youth culture, both artists are happy to provide props for their guests to pose with, and both create works that are as joyful as the viewer as they appear to have been for the subject. Sidibe, who passed in 2016, was born a good 25 years before Hajjaj appeared in Larache, Morocco in 1961 and it sometimes seems like Hajjaj's works take the template handed down by the Malian snapper and imbue it with the pop art stylings of Andy Warhol. Hajjaj has even been called the "Andy Warhol of Marrakech".

M. (2010)

Jenny Bikin' (2015)
Hajjaj may not paint Campbell's soup cans but he does surround the biker girls of Marrakech, and the rest of his portraits, with a selection of tins that look very much to come from the Warhol school. I didn't spot any soup containers but a quick inventory showed up tomatoes, orange juice, mackerel, tuna, beef, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and even Gingerella. Gingerella is the drink I once posted about consuming on Facebook that so infuriated one 'friend' that he told me to start a blog so if you're fed up of these you can blame Gingerella. It's a nice drink*
Hajjaj moved from Morocco to the UK at the age of 12 and has spent the rest of his life travelling between the two countries and cultures. It seems to me that like many who call two different places home he's able to view the familiar through a stranger's eyes and to view the strange through familiar eyes. He's become particularly interested in performance of all sorts. Musicians, athletes, and, in the first room of this show, the Kech, or henna, girls of Marrakech whose mix of borderline traditional north African clothing with Western branding and motorcycle fetishisation seem like something Hajjaj would've invented if they hadn't beaten him to it.
Khadija (2010)

H.R.H. Alia (2016)

Motobecane (2019)
Though the Kech girls are real enough it seems that Hajjaj has had some input in to both the way they're dressed and the 'Motobecane' they're all posing atop. Hajjaj is like a benign control freak in that not only does he pose the photographs and take them but often he designs the clothes worn in them. He's also designed the motorbike, a series of dolls, and a live video which plays out over quite some time with various different Moroccan musicians, on a series of screens, getting up to strut their stuff. Luckily, he's also designed, and provided, a rather comfortable looking sofa for you to sit on and soak up the action. It's a neat idea and something other artists, and other galleries, could learn from.

Kesh Angels Couture Doll (2006)

Rider (2010)

My Rockstars Experiment Vol. 2 (2017)

Michael Garnette Sittin' (2014)
As you watch, and listen to, these lesser known Moroccan artists play you can take in more of Hajjaj's brightly coloured outfits and confident poses on the surrounding walls. It was good to see Afrikan Boy (who'd I'd seen putting in a great performance at last year's Camberwell Fair) giving grime props to both Woolwich and Nigeria amongst the more traditional Moroccan sounds.

Afrikan Boy Sittin' (2013)

Abimaro & Lakwena (2013)

Ayanna (2013)
The last room revealed a further, if not entirely unsurprising, diversification of Hajjaj's oeuvre. Socks, hats, and shades all done up to look one part high street fashion store one part art exhibition. Hajjaj mixes mediums as easily as he does cultures. While his work is bright and fun to look at it seems also that he's trying to make us think about how we view other cultures or even how we view our own culture. Or to even question problematic notions of ownership in culture at all. That he can do this while putting a smile on our faces as broad as that of the subject of 2013's Hindi Rockin' means I'll tip my black and red polka dot beanie to him. Here's hoping Somerset House can make it a hat-trick of great African photography exhibitions next year.

M.R.S. Socks (2017)

M.R.S. Hats (2017)

M.R.S. Shades (2017)

Hindi Rockin' (2013)

Bellydancer (2012)
*This blog received no sponsorship from Gingerella whatsoever (but the blogger is available for further discussion).