Saturday, 8 November 2014

Do Keep Up!

There are certain activities which stretch neither body nor mind but which are beneficial nonetheless: ironing shirts while listening to a CD of The Buena Vista Social Club, for example, offers a calm hour of respite from the stresses of life - the perceived pressure to achieve, to excel, to create, or simply keep up an active social diary. Not that I am always engaged in such 'displacement activity' - as it is unkindly labelled by the Achievement Police - but from time to time I do wallow in the comfort of its non-competitive triviality. And so it was that I found myself recently painting a floor while listening to a remake of one of the 'lost' recordings of the revered 1950s radio comedy show, Hancock's Half Hour. Still funny after all these years - even, so it was said, to those hearing it for the first time - it must have been ground-breaking when it was conceived. Some claim it was the first real sitcom.

I realise that you don't get to create anything ground-breaking by pottering around the house: you need to be driven by a combination of talent and ambition - and not all of us are.  Fortunately there are such people (ref. Ian Dury in his song There Ain't Half Been Some Clever Bastards) even though their achievements are not necessarily appreciated by their contemporaries. I may have encountered this phenomenon last Friday at a sparsely attended performance by Third Hand, the UK's only dedicated puppetry-and-opera company, whose imaginative show, Puppet Leider, includes a comedic interpretation of Purcell, a moving presentation of Britten's Canticle II and a witty staging of work by contemporary composer Jonathan Dove. All this packed into 90 minutes!

At the established end of the spectrum there's the Late Turner exhibition currently at Tate Britain. Given his vast output in watercolour and oil, it is evident that Mr. Turner had no time for displacement activity. In fact his splendid, purpose-built London showroom eventually fell around his ears, so uninterested was he in the everyday tedium of things like maintenance. The exhibition focuses on the degree to which his technique became impressionistic long before Impressionism was 'invented'. Traditionalists at the time were inclined to attribute the technique to his failing eyesight or advancing senility rather than any intentional distillation of the elements of painting. I like the late paintings - especially Rain, Steam and Speed or The Fighting Temeraire - much more than the earlier, classically themed works. But then I do have the benefit of hindsight.

Another pioneering artist, Egon Schiele, is currently being shown at the Courtauld Institute. During the years from 1910 to 1919 he produced works depicting the human body in startlingly frank, 'non-classical' poses which, at the time, were considered by many to be unacceptably explicit (he was jailed briefly for "public immorality"). Eventually his work became more generally appreciated, though it took a long time, The Radical Nude being the first ever museum exhibition in the UK devoted entirely to his work. Even now there is no major work by him in any British public collection. Had he not died at the age of 28 he might have been able to prove the case for his work and - better still - developed it further.

Changing current opinion is clearly not easy. I like this explanation of why, proffered in the 17th Century by Francois De La Rochefoucauld: "It is more often from pride than from ignorance that we are so obstinately opposed to current opinions; we find the first places taken, and we do not want to be the last." In the light of which it's clearly time to swallow hard and elbow my way towards the front of the queue.

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