Saturday, 1 May 2010

Pride and Prejudice

Who does not love mr Darcy?

I have read Pride and Prejudice many a time and am trying to think why I like it so much. First of all, I suppose that it is the ultimate romance for me. Witty, romantic, with interesting characters - but not sappy. I like the understatment and the irony, but I can also think that the people are interesting- and you can imagine what drives them.

Over the past decade, or maybe the two last decades, there has been no end to Jane Austen themes in books. Even though Pride and Prejudice in many ways is a Cinderella tale, and therefore a classic that Jane Austen did not invent, I think it is the dramatisations that have contributed to this.

There are two BBC series made, 1980 and 1995. While I like the first one, it is the 1995 version that I find superior, and also most true of the book in the way it is understated. (Apart from the water scenes, both the bath scene and the jump in the lake scene just annoy me) (And, especially the latter goes so against the character of mr Darcy as I know it) I think it is the actors, and the chemistry between them. Ever since Colin Firth gave his first smouldering look to Jennifer Ehle, I have been in love with mr Darcy. When I think of Colin Firth, I hear the soundtrack in my mind (love the soundtrack) and I have to say that together with some chocolate, Pride and Prejudice means a great rainy day. (Honestly, it does not even have to rain..)

Unfortunately, I feel that too many of the Austenia variety do not come up to scratch. Austenland comes to mind, which I did not like much. Ok read, with a giggle or two, but nothing I would read again. The plot felt too contrived, I did not like the characters and overall, I think Jane would have felt rather taken for a ride.

Bridget Jones is initally a less obvious variation of Pride and Prejudice, as the alcohol and calory counting Bridget does not have the personality of Lizzie at all. But, a problematic mother that runs away with a conman and most importantly, Mark Darcy himself give it away. I did not like the film as much as I thought I would, too hysterical and the friends that I like in the book being just too bleak, but the fact that Mark Darcy is played by Colin Firth was a nice twist in deed. The books, I like. And yes, I have laughed loud while reading BJ. A lot.

My favourite P & P is Lions and Liquorice, or Vanity and Vexation in the US, by Kate Fenton. You know all along that it is a P&P plot, funnily enough, on a P&P film set, but there are twists and turns that keep you interested. And I really like Kate Fenton´s writing. Her irony and eye of the obscure in everyday life suit my humour and I have re-read Lions and Liquorice many a time. So, if you aren´t going to read the real thing, this would be my runner-up.

Friday, 30 April 2010

The sweet escape - an ode to chick lit

As life is among the hardest, as a friend of my mother´s says, now and again, (understatement of the year) I choose to escape into the world of the chick lit genre. Sometimes the books make me laugh, like Bridget Jones, sometimes they make me think- like Anna Maxted´s Getting over it- where the main plot is Bridget Jonesesque with a twist, but the subplot really got to me. And sometimes, even though I finish the book, I just wonder...
I know it is about escape, I know it is fiction- but the lapses of some books really bother me. Funnily enough, I never questioned that Harry Potter could be a wizard and defeat Voldemort, but I do question how the Holly of the beginning of this book, with the cluelessness that she had, could make it to become a proffessional success.. So, the only enjoyment I had of this book was when a date was as long and bad as a Kevin Costner movie- my sentiment exactly, and by picturing Holly´s outfits. I even had to check when the book was written, and ok, she was supposed to be a country bumkin from Fresno - but black leather trousers and a turquise silk blouse? And jeans and a red tie-blouse? Really? A 25 year old in 2009? How the San Fran crowd must have suffered.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Close up

In books, frequently, and in real life, not too often, people fall in love by looking deep into each others eyes.

In Clueless, Cher compares a girl to an impressionist painting -looking good from a distance and a mess up front. And it is true that I often find myself stepping onto peoples´ toes and hitting walls while trying to really see a painting.

Then again, there are situations where you don´t notice, or don´t appreciate, the beauty of the separate parts. The other day I was reading about David again and saw a close up of his face- and I am speechless.

The colour of blue and what´s in a name?

If you close your eyes and think about the colour blue - what do you see?

I see this cut-out by Henri Matisse. I have always liked it, and to me it always symbolised the joy de vivre, which is probably misspelled, but so much better than joy of life. A man with a beating heart, dancing wildly in the starry night. A part of Matisse´s famous Jazz series, so very much expressing the joy and creativity of a jam session. Even though blue as colour is supposed to be calming, soothing and heavenly (hence the blue robes of Virgin Mary), I have always seen passion and joy.

Until yesterday, when I found out that this - print- for lack of better word- is called Icaros, and shows the man with the big dreams not soaring up on his wax wings anymore, but falling down after they melt when he came too close to the sun.

And no matter what I do, I cannot find the joy de vivre anymore, I only see the falling man with a beating heart. Speaking about colours, I can imagine that the poor man probably is feeling blue in deed. And, funny thing, the only thing different from yesterday is that I know his name.

Monday, 29 March 2010

The underdog triumfant

On rare occasions an art piece surpasses itself and the idea of what it represents becomes inseparable with the craft. This is then the making of a masterpiece, and one of the non-desputable masterpieces of the world is Michaelangelo´s David.

I have heard that there are seven core themes that are the root of every story ever told by mankind. Surely the story of David, who defeats Goliath against all odds is one version of the underdog winning against a much stronger opponent. And the theme can really be tracked from the biblical David to Star Wars, Lord of the Ring, Harry Potter, Rainmaker and Erin Brockovich and pretty much any fairytale where heros, ranging from courageous but poor to good-for-nothing but transformed by magic or love, kill the dragon and get the princess. Mix the underdog theme with the one of the love triangle, and you have the recipe to pretty much any romance/ romantic comedy, where the less fortunate gets the girl/boy, in spite of not being as popular, good looking or rich.

The underdog that has been mocked, heckled and ridiculed but that triumfs in the end gives hope to all of those who have ever felt illtreated by fate. We need to aspire to something and we need to have faith that we can overcome our worries. And the story of David gives us just that. This is part of the fascination with "the" David. The fact that it was chiseled over 500 years ago by the 26 year old Michaelangelo, who was hailed as divine during his life time helps. Michaelangelo´s passion and temper for his work were legendary and possibly here the idea of the tortured artist started. So the legend of Michaelangelo contributes to the legend of David. But David himself, standing 5.17 cm proud, pensive, but not afraid, has also become the symbol of the free Florence, resisting the pressure of the enemies, so much stronger than she. The Florentines positioned him so that he faces Rome, their biggest threat. Even if it is a replica that has taken the original´s place, I still believe that David inspires both locals and the masses of tourists that come by.

An interesting book of from the Renaissance period, purely fictive, but nice read nevertheless, is Sarah Dunant´s Birth of Venus, about a artistic noble woman, growing up in Savonarola´s and Michaelangelo´s Florence.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Paintings that stopped the clock

Johannes Vermeer and how Scarlett Johansson increased the numbers of gallery visitors

Today Vermeer belongs to most treasured artists and is a household name, thanks to the 2003 filmatisation of "Girl with a Pearl Earring", a novel by Tracy Chavalier about one of Vermeer´s most famous paintings. On internet, Johannes Vermeer pops among the top 15 most famous artists, yet, 100 years ago, nobody knew who he was.

When a Dutch delegation gave "A Music Lesson" to the English court in the end of the 18th century, the name of the artist was changed from Vermeer to Pieter de Hooch or Nicolaes Maas, I can´t remember which one of them, as that artist was so much more valued. 200 years later, not only were the curates extremely keen to asign the painting to Vermeer, the painting is also the pride of the royal collection at Windsor Palace- because it is a Vermeer.

Even though Johannes Vermeer enjoyed some acknowledgement as artist during his life, when he died in 1675, he quickly fell out of radar of art conneseurs. If it hadn´t been for two art historians who in the beginning of the 20th century made it their mission to catalogue and in their way market his work, chances are very few people would know his paintings. After 1930s, Vermeer became very highly priced and today his paintings belong to the highlights of the few galleries that are fortunate enough to own his work. There are many reasons for this. He was in his forties when he died, so he did not enjoy to long productivity of Rembrandt or Monet. Vermeer also was extremely precise in his painting, and is said to have painted only about three paintings a year. All and all, today we know of 34-36 paintings that for sure are made by him. But, I have forgotten to mention the most important reason for Vermeer´s fame. His paintings are wonderously wonderful.

One of the reasons is the colours. Learning from the studies of among others Leonardo da Vinci, Vermeer carefully planned the the colour composition in order to create the best effect. He also used real pigments, that he grounded himself and he was a pioneer in using the expensive lapis lazuli in his day and age- to my understanding, it had been reserved for Virgin Mary by artists such as Michaelangelo. This is why his paintings are so vivid and why the blues are nearly explosive.

Needless to say, I noticed Vermeer before the books. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has several Vermeers, and the one that caught my eye was the one of the sleeping maid. Ironically, I did not see the maid, but I noticed the carpet. I am a toucher, I can´t order clothes on line as I need to feel the fabrice, and it is always a challenge to pass statues. Normally, I can handle paintings, but my fingers itched to touch this carpet. And once you start looking, you can´t stop. In Johannes Vermeer´s paintings, there is such a quality of harmony, balance and tranquility, that you feel as if you were suspended in time. You are drawn into an unknown world, that seems as real as the carpet seemed to me. It is no wonder that there are at least three books of fiction written about Vermeer´s paintings. I wonder that there isn´t more of them.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Josef Capek - and I am sorry!

Cemeteries, Josef Capek and big mouths

I have established that I love art, and books and a lot of other things. I also like cemeteries. Not all, but give me an old cemetery, with history, and I can spend hours there. One of my favourite cemeteries is Slavin in Prague. It is here where Dvorak, Smetana, Mucha and many other famous Czechs are buried, and I think it is the ultimate tribute for a personality to be one of the few ones to be buried there. I love just spending time there, walking around and thinking about the lives of those whose graves I am visiting.

And yet, one of my most shameful memories comes from here. When I was 17 or so, I walked around with two friends of mine and came upon a grave which read "Here, Josef Capek would be buried". Of course, to the unknowing, this offers a lot of questions, and I asked them, probably slightly annoyed, as I did not understand. And I had the biggest set-down in my life, as an old lady passing by told me, that Josef Capek died in a concentration camp and did I not know that. The thing is, I am Czech and I speak Czech, but I am not grown up in Czech Republic, so even if I knew Josef Capek, I really did not know this. Many years, later, it is still one of the top shame incidents in my life and I still feel guilty, for not knowing and being loud and ignorant about it.

Josef and his brother Karel were the Czech intellectual elite before the WWII. Karel was the author, Josef painter. Together they wrote plays, that range between deep and profound to funny. In one of them, RUR, they "discovered" the word robot in one of their plays. (robota is labour in Czech) What signifies both brothers, is the apparant simplicity of their work, the clarity of their vision and their deep humanity. Karel´s play The Mother, about a mother who looses three sons in the war and in the end urges her forth one to go to war as well as she sees that what they are fighting has got to be defeated, is one of the strongest I have ever seen. His White Disease, that depicts the growth of a fanatic society foreboded the war before politicians were speaking about "Pease for our time". Josef did not fight with words, but with art. Karel was lucky, and died before the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Josef was one of the first people to be arrested by Gestapo. He spent six years in different concentration camps. He died, it is presumed, in Bergen-Belsen days before or after liberation. His body was never identified. I hope that he knew that the war was coming to an end. I think that would have made all the difference to him.

This Christmas, there was a big exhibition of his work at the Prague Castle. Josef´s art went through many transformations, but it is so clear that he stayed true to him self, and this makes the strength and fibre in his art. Unfortunately, I am not able to find the painting that caught my eye the most on the internet, but it was a very simple painting of a little girl with a red cup. I stood in front of her a long time, and many many people passed us. And every single one smiled when they looked at the girl. Such was the power of Josef´s art.

Art making history- but no story

John Singer Sargent is one of the most famous American artists of fine de siecle and one of the most famous portraitists ever. And this portrait, of Gertrude Vernon, or Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, was his big break. I "met" Lady Agnew in the National Gallery of Scotland of Edinburgh, where she resides, and I have never forgotten her.
Of course, it is a beautiful portrait, where the colours and shapes .. work. And I do love the way I can sense the softness of the fabrics, and the luxuriosness of silk. But, what makes this an outstanding portrait for me is the personality that shows. There is pride and confidence, but I also see humour and this definitely is not a boring person, there is a lot of character. I would wage that there is a story behind this painting and that the woman in it could not have lived an ordinary life. But, from the depth of www, her claim to fame, in life and a century later - is this portrait. And come to think of it- that is not bad in terms of legacy.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Love at first sight

First time I visited Tate, before it became Tate Britain, I fell in love. Typically for me, it was singularly one-sided, but unlike many other romances, it lasts. What more, my admiration grows at every encounter. Which brings me to the catch, because, of course, there is one. It is very hard for a painting to love me back.

There are many many grand and great paintings at the Tate. But the one that caught my heart was a small study of clouds, by John Constable. I love the idea of a framed piece of heaven. And how, even though it appears simple at first glance, there is so much going on and as much "action" as in other paintings where you expect it more.

If I was feeling philosophical, I would tell you that this is what I find fascinating about life. If you look deeper, and try to learn more, everything grows more interesting, and more often than not, there is so much more to things than what meets the eye. But, I am not feeling philosophical, so what I will say is that this is one of my favourite paintings of all time, and every time I am in London, I have to visit it. Because it makes me happy.