• Bricks & Words #11: 'Hollow Land'

    When you hear the term ‘occupied territories’ on the news, what do you think that means? I don’t mean politically, but spatially – how does one nation control another’s territory whilst stopping short of actual war? Israeli-born architect Eyal Weizman’s astonishing book provides some of the answers.

    This is a forensic (and I use the word advisedly, since the techniques Weizman employs here have subsequently been brought to bear on war crimes investigations) dissection of the methods and technologies deployed by the Israeli government and armed forces to ensure nothing moves into, out of or to a large extent around Palestinian lands without good reason. Weizman explores every physical and electronic dimension of the situation, including but by no means limited to its architecture – though this last includes a fascinating exploration of how cladding material and style is used on new settlements to create symbolic links to a culture that is actually elsewhere. Transport, utilities, planning, security, surveillance, actual war fighting where this has happened and – it’s important to note – solutions (that expand, deliriously, into the three dimensional) to the thorny two-state problem are all looked at. This is one of the best books about the built environments people create you’ll ever read.

    ‘Hollow Land: Israel's Architecture of Occupation’ by Eyal Weizman (Verso, 2007)

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  • Spies like us: 'Callan at 50', 'Sixties Spies and Beyond'

    The secret agent has been a fixture in popular fiction since the novels of Conrad, Childers and Le Queux, and the genre eagerly embraced film and television as each of those media arrived. The 1960s, especially, saw an explosion (sorry) of espionage on the small screen, and the BFI Southbank caught the mood of those times at the weekend. A late episode of Callan starring Edward Woodward was followed by a panel discussion, a super-compilation of clips from a dozen different programmes of the period both reminded and introduced the audience to a wide range of interpretations,and the thoughts of veteran critic Kim Newman and equally long-serving BFI programmer Dick Fiddy prompted debate. Open Channel D please…

    The centrepiece of the weekend – itself part of the ‘Who can You Trust?’ season of British thrillers at the BFI – was ‘Suddenly - At Home’, first screened in 1970 and thus one of the more mature Callan stories. It was written by the series’ creator, James Mitchell, and saw the eponymous agent of Section tasked with dissuading a widow from taking part in a documentary about her late husband’s governmental work. A simple mission turns complex, however, when Callan falls for Lady Lewis and clashes with his colleague Cross (a well-named character if ever there was one). The true intentions of film-maker Joinville are also suspect, whilst Callan and Cross’s boss, Hunter may have motives of his own when tasking his men.

    Having never seen an example of the programme before, this was for me a perfect introduction. Mitchell’s script was tight, convincing and involving, and contained with some sharp digs at the circumstances – assumed and actual – of the main participants. The repetition of a single word of dialogue (“Promise?”) evidenced its poignancy and power – the episode’s title, a then-common phrase in obituary columns, hints at the reason. Michaell’s son Peter, present on the panel that followed the screening, noted how his father’s anti-establishment leanings were given voice in the series and, in response to a question about another writer in the field, pointed out that “Le Carre didn’t write characters like Callan, he wrotecharacters like Hunter!” The two bursts of violence in the programme were surprisingly powerful even in the context of today’s far more permissiveenvironment, a measure of the skills of writer and director.

    This last was Piers Haggard, who also joined the panel and who has directed films and television productions as varied as Pennies from Heaven, the final Quatermass production and cult horror Blood on Satan’s Claw. With this Callan episode, Haggard’s desire to “make it feel like a movie” as he put it was immediately apparent in an opening shot that tracked through the set, involved several actors in speaking roles and paused to view the action through the glass prisms of a merit award before moving on, all accomplished in one shot lasting around half a minute; ambitious indeed in a studio-bound drama of the time. Shooting through glass actually introduced another of Haggard’s self-confessed favourite devices, and mirrors were used several times in the episode to advance the action. Haggard described how shooting into reflective surfaces keeps two actors conveniently facing the camera, but this is disingenuous since it was notable how he deployed this as subtly and selectively as any other camera effect – elsewhere in the episode the opening of one mirrored bathroom cabinet door actually isolated the remaining figure as a reflection in the closed half. “The other thing about mirrors,” he added, “is that a thing becomes something else, becomes something else, becomes something else… it’s a way of progressing[the action] without changing [the shot]. Elaborating after the screening, Haggard said to me that in this way “you only use the cut when you want to.” Equally impressive was Haggard’s careful placement of actors within the depth of the frame in certain interior shots to create spatial interest, selective focus being used in one instance to add even more texture. Usually encountered only in widescreen cinematography, this was again a mature and visually adept approach for such an intimate (a 4:3 aspect ratio applied) and domestic (most interiors were offices or flats) setting.Haggard also told me of how he would work with the set designer for each production, ensuring for example the presence of “camera traps” to enable these difficult shots to be obtained. That all of this was achieved in a production schedule of just two days is astonishing.

    Prompted by the clip package, the second discussion explored the range of interpretations the genre received across the decade in question. Comparing and contrasting and noting the crossovers with westerns, war films and so on was fascinating. The roots of ‘Spy Fi’ were found by some in the gadgets of the period (which themselves derive from the escape aids Allied air crews were furnished with during the last war), but overlooked was surely the impact of the Space Age. That almost all of Gerry Anderson’s puppet series engaged the genre in some way was noted; indeed, one of the more enjoyable adventures of Thunderbirds, 'The Cham-Cham', sees Lady Penelope and Tin-Tin decamp to a ski resort in the Alps to investigate military sabotage. A useful difference was established between the tenor and tone of episodic spy stories in the US versus the UK, the one being predominantly the caper and the other tending toward the mole – reflecting, one assumes, the national character traits. The success or otherwise of big screen adaptations was covered at some length, albeit with few solid

    conclusions being drawn. And, lengthy thought the clips montage was, all acknowledged that still more programmes had been omitted. The likes of C.A.T.S. Eyes, The Americans, Now & Again and Alias, the last two of which are perhaps the most obvious inheritors of the Sixties vibe, would have also fulfilled the ‘beyond’ of the session title and filled the gap before Spooks (which was mentioned) and its ilk arrived.

    As it is, the enduring obsession we viewers have with those who work in the shadows is likely to continue.

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  • Bricks & Words #10: ‘Skidmore, Owings & Merrell’

    For many Modernist architects, as well as fans of Modern architecture, SOM were THE practice of the post-war era. Synonymous with the purpose-built homes of America’s corporate giants from the 1940s, 50s and 60s, the firm’s cutting-edge designs set new standards and epitomised a peacetime economy given a boost by the disciplines of war, including organisational research, new technology and European minds. This handsome books is the perfect summary of those Mad Men years.

    Adams captures – in solid prose and superb archive images – the many icons that emerged from the pens of Gordon Bunshaft, Bruce Graham and the rest. The startlingly open jewel box of a bank for Manufacturers Trust on 43rd Street and Fifth Avenue in New York amazes even today, with its great circular vault door hovering behind a sheet-glass façade as if inviting customers to have a go. Soaring into the rarefied air of Colorado Springs, the wing-like chapel for the US Air Force seems ready to fly alongside its worshipers’ aircraft. Stone was made to glow with translucency at the Beinicke Library for Yale. The and Hajj Terminal at Saudi Arabia’s King Abdul Aziz International Airport merges Western with Eastern to astonishing effect. A reminder of a time when architecture really did seem to have all the answers.

    Skidmore, Owings & Merrell: SOM since 1936 (alt. title pictured) by Nicholas Adams (Electa architecture, 2006)

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  • Bricks & Words #9: ‘Le Corbusier’

    Arguably the world’s most famous post-war architect, Chales Edouard Jeanneret-Gris adopted a persona, name - ‘Crow-like one’ - and profile that aided this tremendously, even without his genuinely iconic architecture. His ideas informed more than one generation of practitioners and continue to have relevance today.

    This compact book by legendary architect, critic and lecturer Kenneth Frampton remains one of the best short guides to this man available. It outlines the important works, his life and the impact of both and is tied together beautifully with Frampton’s accessible but intelligent text.

    ‘Le Corbusier’ by Kenneth Frampton (Thames & Hudson, 2001)

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  • Bricks & Words #8: ‘The City of London - A record of destruction and survival ‘

    With the Square Mile devastated after the Blitz, economic and societal recovery was paramount. Charles Holden and William Holford’s partnership saw architect and planner working to create a new vision of a new City of London, cognizant of tradition but eager to embrace the future. Their joint plan was introduced to the wider public through this book, a landmark in public engagement.

    Written in what we would now call an accessible tone, it is split into sections. One is a concise history of the Thames and the City and its particular situation and practices, with emphasis on the specialised nature of its business and the buildings needed to contain it. The plan itself sets out – again, in a readable manner – the technical detail of the complex new calculations of size, volume and floor space that would be allowed under rebuilding. This and the formal report to the Corporation (also included) hint at the building types that might, as they saw it, emerge from the rational, Modernist thinking that then prevailed.

    Best of all, though, is an extraordinary chapter envisaging a walk through the City in perhaps 20 years’ time, illustrated by Gordon Cullen’s exquisite colour plates of the architecture and landscaping envisaged. Broad avenues, elevated roads with parking below, sunken pedestrianised concourses lined with shops and services, maritime-themed observation points from which to watch the river traffic – still very much industrialised – and small courtyards and spaces made from ruins and historic buildings all feature. Exceptional and indispensable.

    ‘The City of London - A record of destruction and survival’ by C.H. Holden and W.G. Holford (Architectural Press, 1951)

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  • Bridge of size

    Last night’s edition of BBC television’s Countryfile contained a fascinating item on the abandoned suite of rooms hidden within the Grand Bridge at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire. Designed by the architect of that great early 18th century house to carry the main approach road over the Glyme river and up to the front door, it featured the same Neoclassical styling as the Palace. Inside, it contained an ingenious variety of spaces intended for summer entertaining but if you visit the house today, you’ll find the bridge half-submerged in water.

    Blenheim Palace was built as a gift to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, on the instructions of Queen Anne following his victorious command of Allied forces at the Battle of Blindheim (Anglicized to Blenheim) on 13 August 1704. Fought as part of the War of the Spanish Succession, which ended ten years later, the battle saw a key defeat of French and Bavarian forces and helped secure Spanish territory for the Grand Alliance against the claims of Louis XIV.

    The monarch’s grant of a manor and funds for a new house must surely rate as one of the most generous in history. Marlborough was already 54, and quickly engaged the soldier, playwright and architect John Vanbrugh to build the vast, severely masculine Baroque house that exists today. It did, though, emerge from a campaign of construction marked by almost as much effort, reversal and blood as the fight on the continent; Sarah, the Duchess, frequently and famously clashed with Vanbrugh over the cost and details of the works and all three – client, wife and architect – ultimately fell out with the Queen as a result. That the house and its surroundings stand today as one of the most perfect ensembles of British architecture is thus something of a miracle.

    The Grand Bridge seems to have reflected this sometimes painful path in miniature, although that isn’t the word to describe its actual size. Over 400’ long and with a main arch 100’ wide, it was to have been 80’ high until Sarah vetoed both the balustrade and towers that topped the main span in Vanbrugh’s plan. Some panels of ‘frostwork’ or rustication were omitted from the external decorative scheme, but the remaining corbels, quoins and keystones were executed as planned. Internally the Duchess counted – somewhat sniffily, it seems – thirty three rooms, which included some with fireplaces and chimneys. It seems that the large room reached by boat in last night’s programme must be the ‘windowless chamber [… plastered and fitted with an elliptical arch as though for a theatre’ referred to in some descriptions.

    The bridge’s lofty rooms were to be entered quite easily in those days, from the banks of what was originally a modest body of water passing under it. The bridge was also not fully integrated with the land at either end for some time. Rubble and earth from the levelling of a small hill with the estate’s original ruined manor house on it – which dated to Henry I’s time and into which Vanbrugh had moved, much to Sarah’s annoyance) was eventually used to properly landscape the ends of the bridge into he sides of the existing river valley.

    Marlborough and Vanbrugh died within a few years of each other. It was Sarah who briefed another gardener on what Vanbrugh had intended, which led to a kind of interim stage for the gardens before Capability Brown came on the scene. A small lake to the east of the Grand Bridge fed formal canals under it, and a steam engine in one of the rooms pumped water up to the big cistern that sits over the east gate of the house. Only when Brown arrived and doubled the lake by damming the Glyme was the lower level of the bridge submerged. Its walls were re-cased to withstand the water, but its rooms, spiral staircases and corridors – all of which I was fascinated to hear of yesterday, though I was actually aware of the rooms’ basic story – were lost.

    It seems that stabilisation and restoration is the aim of the scanning project that yielded the absorbing wire-frame digital models seen in the item; no public access is intended. As such the bridge will

    remain as it has for the last three centuries, an architectural folly in the landscape of Brown’s Blenheim park. This is something of an irony given its past, but I suspect it must have pleased Brown. He employed tremendous slight-of-hand in enacting his desire to ‘recreate elements of idealized classical landscapes (especially as represented in the paintings of Claude and Poussin) in an English context, and in an English idiom’, as one academic has written. This ranged from planting trees to disguise the fact that a single ‘lake’ was actually two or three entirely separate bodies of water to using more greenery as a theatrical curtain of sorts, to be dramatically drawn aside by the progress of a carriage along a carefully-planned path to reveal the main house. Being able to appropriate an existing bridge with nothing more than the gentle rise of water must have seemed like Queen Anne’s gift had found another recipient.

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  • ‘Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity’

    An artist who straddled two worlds in late-19th century Europe, the man who was born Lourens Alma Tadema in the Netherlands in 1836 and lived there for half his life then emigrated to England, anglicised his name (he had already added a hyphen to ensure it appeared near the beginning of catalogues) and, as Laurence Alma-Tadema, became a hugely successful and admired painter of scenes of the past. A wonderful exhibition of these works is now on at the museum formed from the home of another great artist of the period, and a friend of the Dutchman, Frederic Leighton.

    Showing talent from an early age and studying in Antwerp to further it, Alma-Tadema was then an assistant to two established painters. Works produced in his late teens on show at Leighton House Museum are as formal as one might expect from one emerging from an academic training yet have a feeling of immediacy and care; within a decade, Alma-Tadema was applying those same skills to produce group scenes that were superbly composed, featured naturalistic portrayals of the individuals within them and included highly realistic detail, much of it reproduced from the real artefact or location. All three elements would underpin his paintings from that point on.

    The subjects of these early pictures reflect Alma-Tadema’s initial field of interest, with carefully recreated streets and domestic interiors from the period of Dutch, Belgian and French history in which the Merovingians ruled (cleverly, the exhibition hangs them in the principal rooms of the house – the artist’s later Roman paintings, with their marble architecture washed by Mediterranean sun, are showing in the brightly lit exhibition space upstairs). It is here that Alma-Tadema begins to demonstrate a real command over the placement of people, objects and action in his pictures, often by using combinations of sources. Thus his Queen of Fredegonda at the Death-Bed of Bishop Praetexatus borrows simultaneously from Greek friezes, mediaeval altar pieces and more modern approaches borrowed from photography to generate complex and subtle rhythms inside the frame, whereas The Visit: A Dutch Interior echoes Vermeer’s simple rooms with open windows and also the ingeniously nested views into new spaces created by Samuel van Hoogstraten’s peepshow boxes.

    The next phase of Alma-Tadema’s career followed his first marriage and honeymoon in Italy. This latter-day Grand Tour included encountering the excavations at Pompeii, which immediately inspired a fresh wave of painting featuring ancient Roman culture and settings. The consistently high quality of these works, all produced in the late 1860s, is astonishing.

    In A Greek Woman, the titular figure smells a cut flower whilst standing against a frescoed wall that parallels the picture plane. The latter, featuring a parade progressing to the left, appears soft, almost blurred, whilst the former is sharp and present, faces rightward and looks out of the picture toward us. His Roman Reading contains a wealth of minute and utterly real details, from decorative finishes along the edges of furniture to pictures inside pictures, and from statues half-hidden to scrolls stacked in a cubbyhole. Inscriptions, graffiti and signs included in these images can be read and translated, and the many flowers can be identified with ease.

    Alam-Tadema’s ability to convincingly render a wide range of materials – still and flowing water, fur, food of all kinds, pewter and lead, gilt, a palette of marbles – is also apparent and often transcends the boundary of what is possible with the medium. Strikingly, he frequently positioned items so that their shape or ornamental finish is foreshortened or the original object is partly obscured by another. Of course this complicates the act of painting them, even if it does improve the realism of the final result, and discovering these touches is very rewarding. The richness of colour used by the painter has a basis in fact, too, following for example the discovery of a deep red pigment at Pompeii.

    Sadly this professional happiness was not matched by personal contentment, as Alma-Tadema’s wife died not long after their second daughter was born. Prompting a move from Belgium, to where the couple had returned after their trip, to London, this tragedy was nevertheless to prove the springboard for another stage of the Dutchman’s life. Meeting and marrying English artist Laura Epps, who embraced her step-daughters with touching dedication, the Alma-Tademas remodelled a Regent’s Park house into their own, very personal home, layered with art by themselves and their friends and launching all three Alma-Tadema women on their own creative careers.

    Introducing works by Laura, her sister and Alma-Tadema’s daughter Anna into the exhibition is a welcome touch, not least because both modelled for the man of the house and so it is nice to see them from another angle. More relevant aspects of Laurence’s work also appear, like the inclusion of Japanese objects – a growing cultural touchstone for Western artists after the forced opening of that country a few decades earlier– and the wit of showing in one painting a woman (actually Laura) reading a copy of the publication that commissioned the work.

    By this point Alma-Tadema’s reputation and popularity had reached great heights. His Roman works were often repeated with only slight variations, but the results of his ongoing experimentation with different sizes and formats of painting, use of new subjects to test his technical proficiency (including a superb night exterior that is completely convincing) and continued ability to innovate compositionally and in content terms can only be admired, often open-mouthed.

    One more characteristic of Alma-Tadema’s work that ensures his pictures repay close scrutiny is that mining of real-world sources. These are occasionally deployed with an ingenuous twist, so that marble statues found by archaeologists become the bronze Greek original that the Romans copied; what were table top sculptures appear at a wholly greater scale; important examples of ancient art that would be immediately recognisable if reproduced ‘straight’ are partly concealed or only hinted at, an amusing conceit that that cultured Victorian audiences would have appreciated. The examples displayed at Leighton House are from the more sober end of this spectrum, compressing half a dozen of Rome’s great monuments into the background as if in a capriccio and imagining the Nebamoen Tomb Chapel frescoes, now in the British Museum and elsewhere, in an appropriate context.

    Part of the Nebamoen Tomb Chapel frescoes, in Alma-Tadema's picture and in reality

    Fittingly positioned within Frederic Leighton’s own studio is a reconstruction of the real discovery for me of this exhibition – the Hall of Panels, a space from the Alma-Tademas’ second home in St John’s Wood that was lined with dozens of tall, narrow panels painted by some of the best artists of the day and gifted to the family. Remarkably, almost 20 of these have been secured for the exhibition, including works by John O’Connor, Val Prinsep, Frank Dicksee, John Singer Sargent and Leighton himself. Furniture designed by Alma-Tadema, further works by Laura and Anna and displays of his sketches for theatrical productions round out this section, which showcases what is a very modern-seeming family.

    The climax of the exhibition comprises a selection of the blockbuster paintings Alma-Tadema produced in the last years of his life. Many demonstrate his undiminished mastery of perspective, plane and angle of view, combined in startlingly effective pictures such as Coign of Vantage or A Kiss, in which five separate axes of movement or vision are merged with apparently effortless ease in a way that also anticipates the graphic manipulations of another Dutchman, M.C. Escher, a young teenager at the time of Alma-Tadema’s death and who was born in the same town where the older man was raised.

    The undisputed masterpiece that crowns the show, however, is The Roses of Heliogabalus, seen for the second time in recent years at Leighton House after its welcome visit as part of the Perez Simon Collection in 2014. Fortunately the arrangements this time allow the public to get much closer, and unsurprisingly the wealth of detail that is revealed leaves one breathless. The tightness of torques around biceps; the table of food and curved marble bench glimpsed beneath the deluge; the correctness of marbles’ veining; the green stalks of rose heads caught in the freeze-frame flood of flora; the sumptuousness of the repast on the emperor’s own table. It is, frankly, almost impossible to believe that such a thing could have been created.

    By 1912, Alma-Tadema’s output must have seemed at odds with the world – indeed, it isn’t hard to conclude that his pursuit of increasingly sunlit, dazzling and multi-sensual worlds in paint was a deliberate attempt to distance himself from the gathering clouds that were soon to break as well as his second wife’s death. If so, it was a world that many were happy to share, and perhaps today, too, such works are finding admirers for reasons beyond their obvious aesthetic merit. Regardless, it is without question worthwhile making yourself at home in antiquity for a few hours over the next few months. You will not be disappointed.

    Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity, organised by the Museum of Friesland, Leeuwarden, the Netherlands (Alma-Tadema’s home town), continues at Leighton House Museum, Holland Park Road, London W14 until 29 October.

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  • 'Dunkirk' (2017)

    In the late spring of 1940, a third of a million Allied soldiers were evacuated from the French harbour of Dunkerque in a little over a week in the face of advancing Axis forces completing their conquest of Europe. Hundreds of private boats assisted the Royal Navy amidst harrying from the air; casualties for the entire withdrawal were high. Hailed as both a disaster and a miracle, the event nevertheless prompted Churchill’s heartening “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech, delivered on the final day of the effort. Christopher Nolan’s new film, shot mostly in high-resolution IMAX format and largely eschewing computer-generated imagery in favour of physical reality, seeks to immerse a contemporary audience in the desperation and controlled chaos of those few days. That it fails almost entirely is, perhaps appropriately given the subject matter, a desperate disappointment.

    Initial signs are promising, with an impressive screen-filling flight along deserted streets in the face of gunfire from an unseen enemy. There is little dialogue. We are introduced to an ambitious triple timeline in which events are seen through the eyes of participants in each of the different theatres – the land, the sea and the air – and, crucially, over different periods; respectively one week, one day and one hour. Thus a soldier fleeing that street battle meets a comrade on the beach and together they attempt to board a departing ship; a man, his son and his friend depart from England in their small boat to play their part; and a section of Royal Air Force Spitfires flies to engage the enemy over the French town. Already, the impact of the 15 perf/70mm IMAX film system is clear.

    The difficulty is that problems with every one of these film-making choices are similarly quickly apparent.

    Instead of being thronged with anxious troops, shrouded in smoke and pummelled by incoming fire, the beach is pristine, hosts only a few widely-spread lines of patiently-queuing men (an unlikely proposition even without the knowledge that nearly 8,000 men were taken off in the first day alone) and sits under an empty sky. There is an obvious mismatch in pace between the scenes here and on the boat and those involving fast-moving combat aircraft in flight. Above all, a strange, detached quality pervades everything.

    Linkages between the three storylines do emerge, which sparked a renewal of interest, but unnamed soldiers played by similar-looking actors who repeatedly board, abandon and re-board various vessels rapidly lead to irritation followed by disengagement. The small boat finds itself lost in a sea of emptiness, much like the viewer. Only the aerial sequences retained their grip for me. Their intrinsic excitement, especially during the dogfights and bomber attacks, is enhanced by the visceral power of IMAX, through which the onlooker actually feels each twist and turn in their stomach. The effect is closer to the experience of actually flying than anything seen before in a mainstream medium.

    That overall feeling of listless disengagement, a stilted lack of affect, remains. Recalling Terrence Mallick’s Thin Red Line (1998) and Nolan’s own Interstellar (2014), both of whose mechanical, detached mood failed to connect me to any of their characters, this is the new film’s biggest failing.

    Strangely Nolan even undermines the one positive, by using an optical zoom on the non-IMAX scenes so that their aspect ratio almost matches the ‘tall’ shape of the IMAX format. Since a crucial element of the latter’s impact is the manner in which it fills one’s vertical field of vision, immediately differentiating it from the usual ‘letterbox’ cinema presentation, much of the power of the special format is lost. This zoom also generates an increase in visible grain that is extremely jarring when compared to the flawless IMAX stock. Devaluing the IMAX imagery in this way once more calls into question Nolan’s judgement in this area, despite his well-known championing of the format, after its unnecessary use with the near-monochrome palette of Interstellar.

    Depressingly the air storyline fails in any event, coming down to earth in more ways than one with a particularly egregious final victory that strains credibility to the limit.

    Altogether, I found Dunkirk incredibly unengaging, save for the early parts of the air chapter, visually confusing in the latter stages of the sea story and – ultimately – simply unconvincing in its scale, tone and narrative. What dialogue did occur was either hard to hear or clunkily expository and more suited to onscreen captions. There was no urgency, intimacy or verisimilitude. With two such films now produced, one had to fear for Nolan’s future.

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  • Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave

    The British Museum’s exhibition of prints, paintings and books illustrated by the Japanese artist generally known as Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) is a revelation in three ways. First, the quality of much of the work on display; precise lines, dramatic colourings, realistic depictions and fascinating subjects. Secondly, the variety of formats, media and outlets in or for which he worked, telling of a highly mature, thriving and sophisticated art market in a country that, for all of of Hokusai’s life, had practised a near-complete isolation from the West but which was still rapidly urbanising. Finally, the sheer modernity, with its striking compositions, fresh arrangements and bold choices, connects directly and inescapably to today’s manga, which themselves explore as nuanced a world as did Hokusai.

    At the turn of the 19th century, Edo (Tokyo) had a population of a million and was larger than London. Although another half-century would have to pass before Matthew Perry’s expedition opened the country fully to the rest of the world, Japan had a rich and complex visual culture of its own and highly developed technical prowess in realising decorative and practical objects. An intimate relationship with China and a history of poetry, story-telling and myth all ensured fertile ground for artists seeking to satisfy demand and make their mark.

    Many of their images were intended for reproduction as single-sheet prints, often in more than one colour, or in illustrated novels, these in monochrome. Both involved the pasting of the original drawing face down onto a block of wood followed by an extremely challenging and laborious process by which wood is carved away either side of the artist’s lines, leaving raised equivalents that would later accept a printer’s ink. A fresh block was needed for each additional colour.

    The opening rooms of the exhibition therefore set the scene with a selection of Hokusai’s works from the early 1800s including the exquisite Woman Holding An Umbrella, whose detailed rendering in vibrant colours against a largely plain background introduce several elements of the style with which he is identified. A spread from the Bow Moon story is also shown, 29 volumes of which were published to such acclaim that Hokusai was able to buy a house from the proceeds.

    Here, too, we start to see the part played by the publishers in each of these ventures, since artists seeking maximum exposure and reward could not function alone. Publishers would identify a market and a subject, publicise the forthcoming edition and commission the works from the artists. Throughout the exhibition the relationship between these two parties is shown to be key, and extracts from their advertisements announcing such partnerships are nice insights into the time.

    The print-maker was also critical, and here perhaps the exhibition serves the visitor less well. Although short films explain the technique and several unused but ‘block-ready’ drawings are presented, I would like to have seen more material on the technical and artistic considerations involved and more too on the printing and colour-making.

    Undoubtedly Hokusai’s most famous engagement of this type is the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji series from the early 1830s, its best known image becoming his signature in the eyes of many and lending the exhibition its title. The Museum’s own print of this is duly included, along with a number of other subjects, and even without much context their power is clear. The invention with which Hokusai treats each image, sometimes seeming to subvert Fuji’s profound significance with his choice of placement and size as much as he celebrates it, is matched only by the vibrant colour choices and crisp delineation of backgrounds and people, themselves often corralled into one part of the frame to emphasise the sacred mountain’s size or importance.

    Hokusai appears to have been aware of Western artistic traditions, perhaps through the Dutch East India Company which had in fact traded with Japan for decades, and this is seen for example in the transparency of a fisherman’s net, a village visible through its mesh. Other attempts to emulate Old Masters are for me less convincing, with shadows and smoother textures more reminiscent of the frustratingly ‘empty’ computer-generated imagery of today’s manga art.

    The term ‘manga’ was used in his own time to describe Hokusai’s books of stand-alone pictures, clustered many to a page and without any connecting narrative or indeed captions. He published hundreds of such images, to both demonstrate his skill and provide inspiration for others. They are stunning in their detail and particularly their compositional daring, arranged for example across a double-page spread requiring the reader to turn the book ninety degrees. That is also a legacy fully absorbed by today’s artists, seen most obviously in the science fiction works of Masamune Shirow (Appleseed, Ghost in the Shell, Dominion) or the contemporary crime dramas of Ryoichi Ikegami (Crying Freeman, Sanctuary).

    As a sub-strand of this work Hokusai also created designs intended specifically for use by the manufacturers of everyday objects such as combs and tobacco pipes; pattern books, effectively, that they could use to decorate their wares. This confirms the democratic nature of the market for art in the Japan of this time, a parallel of sorts to the Dutch Golden Age of some centuries before,

    Throughout his long life Hokusai was always keen to prove himself and, conversely, to put food on the table and clothes on his back, and as a result turned his hand to a wide range of subjects. Some of the most compelling in the exhibition, and arguably the most beautiful, are the pictures of flowers, birds and other fauna. Their dynamic colours and sometimes almost perverse compositions – in one a bullfinch is hanging upside down from a plant, in another a grasshopper is wittily hidden within the image as though camouflaged in its natural habitat – show a fresh side to his skill and remind us of the deep relationship the Japanese have to nature.

    The knowing manipulation of artistic convention on display across all of these types, sizes and periods should be stressed. Figures are cut off or seen almost entirely from behind, their heads obscured by their hats; elsewhere a samurai surveying what we would today call an infrastructure project states directly out of the page at the viewer through his spyglass. Three dimensionally-rendered boxes, bags and cases have their edges aligned at 45 degrees to the sides, top and bottom of the frame, like an isometric drawing. More fishermen, dragging their nets uphill, describe a diagonal path up through a painting, leading the eye.

    This is an absorbing, at times thrilling exhibition, worth attempting to see despite the sold-out status and crowds. With this, its awkward layout, lack of audioguide and wall texts that omit details such as size and acquisition number, it has the feel of a small show that has unexpectedly grown in popularity but that takes nothing away from its effectiveness as an introduction to the extraordinary breadth and talent of a man who bridged ages, countries and cultures and who still talks to us today.

    ‘Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave’, supported by Mitsubishi Corporation, continues at the British Museum. Great Russell Street, London WC1 until 13 August. Advance tickets are sold out but daily walk-up ticket sales occur from 9am. BM members can also access tickets.

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  • Bricks & Words #7: ‘The Thirties: Recalling the English Architectural Scene’

    Art Deco was the first architectural style that I was ever really aware of, back in the 1980s, probably a result of exposure to television dramas and Sunday supplement articles, both of which presented the delightful geometries and pastel colours of Deco as winningly seductive. It was a movement whose works I learned early to appreciate and which I still enjoy and which led me to join the Twentieth Century Society (originally the Thirties Society). This book, similarly one of the first I acquired on the subject of architecture, is a wonderful introduction to a period when home-grown and émigré architects alike brought optimism and interest to the built environment of England.

    Briskly but not shallowly, Dean takes the reader engagingly through almost every aspect of the style and its application, from iconic houses to public places of entertainment and from the parallel Modernist movement to the underlying social reforms of which the architecture was often a manifestation. Most of the principal personalities of the time are included, such as Oliver Hill, Wells Coates, Lubetkin, Chermayeff and so on, and insights into their characters are given as well as their works. Clients, materials, theories and more are also addressed. Importantly the whole is heavily and beautifully illustrated with material from the RIBA collection. For me this was a revelation, as the many colour plates often include the exquisite perspective works of Cyril A. Farey and J.D.M. Harvey, little worlds of paint and gouche in which to become lost. Altogether this is a perfect primer to the subject at hand, and well worth acquiring.

    ‘The Thirties: Recalling the English Architectural Scene’ by David Dean (RIBA, 1983)

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

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