• The Parallax View

    A Dutch academic has conducted a worldwide survey seeking to establish whether famous photographs are truly famous. Many represent moments of extreme drama, from wars or other conflicts, with most of those taken by the only person present. Or is that really the case? In truth, the results – and what they might mean – are less important than the knowledge of other images of or angles on these events, which might be similar but not as well known. Why? Because it is surely more relevant in today’s world of billions of images, fake news and immediate online circulation to examine the parallax or difference in the apparent position of an event when viewed along different lines of sight.

    Jeff Widener’s ‘Tank Man’ (top left, above) taken in Tiananmen Square was used in the research, and the Associated Press photographer’s picture has indeed come to be regarded as the defining image of those protests. But other people also took photographs of the same man, from different locations and other angles; the others are by (clockwise) Stuart Franklin (Magnum), Charlie Cole (Newsweek) and Arthur Tsang (Reuters) and the stories of three are caught in Patrick Witty’s superb piece for the New York Times. To add a further layer, Terril Jones, another AP journalist, only revealed his own take on the scene a few years ago:

    Also featured in the survey is a photograph of an astronaut on the Moon, as representative of that giant leap for mankind. It might thus be assumed to be a picture of the first man on that body, Neil Armstrong, but is in fact of Buzz Aldrin, his fellow lunar module crewman – Armstrong took it. Ironically this was probably the only time that the man who had just become the most famous person in the world was behind rather than in front of a camera from then on, though given Armstrong’s humble nature I suspect he secretly preferred that.

    One shot of a plane about to hit the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 was chosen. That others exist, as well as stills from video camera footage, is noted in the Guardian coverage. In that context it is perhaps worthy of comment that only a couple of frames, extracted from one CCTV camera’s output, exist to depict the aircraft that hit the Pentagon whilst not a single image of United 93 on its final flight into the Pennsylvania earth is known, and that this has given rise to conspiracy theories in the former case but solemn tributes in the latter.

    Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph of US Marines hoisting a flag and pole on Iwo Jima in 1945 has a double shadow – not only was it also captured as a moving image by a military film crew, but the event itself was a repeat of the original flag-raising, which had occurred during the actual battle for the mountain on which it stands; this first raising too was itself photographed, by SSgt. Louis R. Lowery.

    Outside of the survey, Eddie Adams arrested the moment in which a member of the Viet Cong was killed by a South Vietnamese general in a photograph that defines the dual meanings of ‘shoot’. But this, too, was also filmed by a news cameraman, which gives greater context that only appears in additional images. So was the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald six years earlier; not only that, but Bob Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning picture is invariably cropped, losing more than half of the image. The full frame is far richer.

    And it’s appropriate that the Guardian covered this, though I bet few on the paper realised – it’s more than 30 years since its brilliant TV advert about just this point was first screened.

    Question everything.



  • Source code: The origins of cyberpunk cinema

    Cyberpunk is the sub-genre of speculative fiction dealing with high tech and low life, the pair generally united by a consensual electronic information flow that sometimes achieves consciousness. The term itself is generally regarded as having been coined by writer Bruce Bethke in 1983, with William Gibson its most well-known practitioner, although precursors stretch far back into literary history. Those twin tropes are now firmly established in film, from Ready Player One (2018) via Lucy (2014) to Inception (2010). Here too antecedents are to be found, the best in each decade called out in bold below. But what – and when – was the first cyberpunk film?

    The Millennium appears to have been a turning point, with Cypher and Minority Report (both 2002) and Avalon (2001) in the van of the rush and The Matrix (1999) announcing it, though either the little-known Xchange (2000) directed by Allen Moyle from a screenplay by Christopher Pelham or Abel Ferrara’s New Rose Hotel (1998) taken from Gibson’s short story might have been the catalyst had they been more successful.

    It was though a few years before this when one of the most accomplished productions appeared: Strange Days (1995), written by James Cameron and directed by his former wife Kathryn Bigelow. With characters ranging from a pop star to a bodyguard to a cop, all later intersecting, and a sensorium-recording device taken directly if without acknowledgement from Gibson, the basics were firmly in place. And though produced well before the conception of internet-enabled social media, the established power of television and the viral video – here inspired by the real-life Rodney King footage – supplied that connecting network.

    Elsewhere Robert Longo’s poorly-received Johnny Mnemonic (1995), the other cinematic adaptation of a Gibson work, also under-performed financially and critically although it deserves closer scrutiny for being rather more faithful to its source material than is commonly supposed and for the careful and credible design of the hardware used by its protagonist (even the boxes those devices come in).

    It is though necessary to go back to the mid- and early 1980s to find films imbued with the true qualities that made Gibson and his fellow cyberpunk writers so popular.

    The period saw two relevant blockbusters – RoboCop (1987) and The Terminator (1984). Both feature elements of cyberpunk – cynicism, corporate power versus the man in the street, advanced technological, an urban setting – though only the latter includes the information linkage, through the malevolent war-fighting computer Skynet. More interesting are the slew of similarly-themed yet individually fascinating films that appeared within just a few years at the start of the decade.

    Steven Lisberger’s Tron (1982) pre-figures RoboCop in essaying many of the same concerns, and arguably comes closer to Gibson’s mind’s-eye view of what cyberspace might be. The year was of course most notable for Ridley Scott’s sleeper cult classic-turned-landmark Blade Runner (1982), which looked to the filmic past for many of its cues even as it explored issues of life and death in an engrossing future. Moving from street vendors to billionaires using video phones, flying cars and more (the cop is there again), the all-seeing eye of the Esper police supercomputer fulfils the role of the omniscient network yet the artificial intelligence on show is organic rather than electronic.

    Scott’s visual effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull made Brainstorm (1981, released 1983), which like Strange Days 15 years later also revolved around a technology that allowed the recording of the entire human sensorium. Here the military-industrial complex is set against the purity of science and, ultimately, something more spiritual. Importantly, Trumbull wrote and directed the film with the express purpose of promoting his patented large-format Showscan film system, which he intended to create a shared, immersive visual environment – the majority of the film was to be shot in 35mm, with the Brainstorm device sequences filmed in 65mm at a wider ratio and run at 60 frames per second, more than twice the standard rate, to increase perceived resolution . The plan was not enacted but Trumbull was anticipating the use of IMAX for portions of Christopher Nolan and Michael Bay’s output.

    One film from the remarkable cross-over talents of director, screenwriter and novelist Michael Crichton and another that emerged from the low-budget, independent film movement are the next of significance in this chronology.

    Crichton’s Looker (1981) does, it’s true, dispense with the low-life element – its hero is a Beverley Hills plastic surgeon and his love interest a top model – but a plotline revolving around mass consumerism, media dominance and computer-generated avatars, plus the deployment of a light-pulse memory loss gun (surely inspired by Alfred Bester’s 1953 novel The Demolished Man, itself a prime slice of proto-cyberpunk) place it firmly on our continuum.

    John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981) certainly qualifies and might in fact be regarded as the quintessential cyberpunk film of the decade, with its cynical ex-soldier antihero perfectly bridging the attitudinal gap between the punk-criminal-zombie milieu inside Manhattan island prison and the black-clad, high-tech paramilitary police force outside. An ongoing World War 3, stealth jet glider and injectable explosives provide the necessary technological and cultural enhancement.

    Two films from the previous year, Scanners (1980) and Death Watch (1980), share horror traits (visceral and psychological respectively) but also explore big business’s manipulation of the masses via technology and the media. This saw cinematic cyberpunk echoing contemporary socio-politics, with fears over consumerism, the environment, corruption and profiteering driving protest in the real world. The previous decade’s films, too, reflected this kind of distrust and unrest, with a trio of entries to the fore.

    Norman Jewison directed the sublime Rollerball (1975) from William Harrison’s short story and script. Here the human spirit is placed in conflict with the crushing endeavours of a brutal future sport that is itself shaped by the global corporations that fund and organise it. Television once more provides the shared experience, the ingeniously realised Multivision also anticipating the optional multiple viewing angles available with today’s sports coverage. The power of the computer to connect the world is also now explicit even if the on-screen vision is of its time with a single mainframe. Japan is now seen as influential.

    In Soylent Green (1973) the disparate worlds of the corporate elite and those who service them again collide, as a put-upon detective (again) attempts to investigate a murder against a background of over-population, food shortages and radical, technological solutions to both. The contrast is so well defined that selection for this survey despite the complete absence of electronic media is acceptable. Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) treads the same ground, taking the street life one step lower. Its gaudy, neon-lined street market and striking interior design cast a wide influence.

    Moving back another decade, the great exploitationist William Castle made the under-rated cyberpunk ancestor Project X (1968). Over-population is again key, but so is fear of Asian dominance. Crucially, genetic engineering, biological warfare, holographic viewing devices, memory manipulation and virtual environments all feature. Though it eschews any attempt to actually depict its own future setting, Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965) still includes the low life-high tech conjunction and even a controlling central computer.

    Godard’s film also prompts the thought that cinematic cyberpunk might exist within or at least alongside film noir, with its intrigue of secrets and lies in urban settings of authority and cunter-authority. If so, is it too much of a stretch to suggest Kiss Me Deadly (1955), with its street-level characters assailed by representatives of much greater forces, hints of high-tech warfare and a certain briefcase as embryonic cyberpunk?

    But we must actually reach back much further, before World War 2, to complete our quest.

    Based on a play by Noel Pemberton Billing and directed by Maurice Elvey, High Treason (1929) is a geo-political drama set in the future. Competing power blocs, multi-national terrorists and a working class revolution are set against a leisure-saturated world of electronic dance music, and – half a century before Blade Runner – flying cars and video phones.

    Though High Treason is popularly held to be a British answer to a German film from three years earlier, I would contend that it is Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) that deserves to be viewed as the very first cyberpunk film. Its protagonist and antagonist span the full sociological distance between oppressed drone and rich plutocrat, technology is the enabler of the status quo and the revolt and the whole plays out within a famously absorbing megacity of towers above ground and cavernous basements below. Aerial freeways, trains and planes connect the former, with advanced telecommunications to fill in the gaps. And from a man peering over his newspaper whilst waiting in the street to the Japanese-influenced downtown drinking hole, from neon-drenched darkness to the aerial shot of a lofty cylindrical building, and from the domineering corporate giant in his eyrie to an erotic dance by a fake human, Metropolis is a virtual blueprint for Scott’s masterpiece in almost every respect and for most of those that followed.



  • In the dock: the Square Mile’s new courthouse

    Eric Parry Architects is to design a new civil and criminal courthouse and police station in the City of London. Located on the south side of Fleet Street opposite the former Daily Telegraph building, it will open in 2025. Although handling the routine caseload expected of any court, the new complex is being promoted as specialising in financial and cyber crime and helping to keep the City a “secure place to conduct business”. Any courthouse is a uniquely challenging architectural job; how might the special requirements of creating one for the Square Mile be met?

    The complex (un-named as yet though ‘City of London Justice Centre’ suggests itself) will contain 18 courtrooms and replace the Mayor’s and City of London County Court at Guildhall Buildings, Basinghall Street and the City of London Magistrates’ Court in Queen Victoria Street, both historic structures. A footnote to a recent consultation document on wider court estate changes stated that the new building will contain “additional Crown Court capacity”. And there will also be a new City of London police station, presumably in addition to the City force’s current, 20th century, stations in Bishopsgate, Snow Hill and Wood Street.

    The conjunction is unusual. Courthouses in England & Wales are generally built to serve a single function – magistrates’, crown or county. The latter two were occasionally joined together as ‘combined courts’ in the 1980s and 90s since both types had long been administered by the Civil Service, but the commissioning, staffing and operation of magistrates’ courts remained independent of government – taking place under the auspices of local magistrates’ courts committees – until as recently as 2005. The creation of Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS), a Civil Service agency, in that year ended this split and, along with subsequent moves need to cut costs, has seen more court buildings converted or designed from scratch to serve multiple case types. Co-locating a courthouse with a police station remains very rare, however, and this will be the first example in London since Lavender Hill Police Station and South Western Magistrates’ Court opened in 1963.

    In a range of ways, then, the new complex speaks to the very specialised nature of the City of London, and this will be reflected in its organisational structure. As with the Central Criminal Court (“the Old Bailey”) and the existing City magistrates’ court, the Corporation of London will own the freehold but HMCTS will run the building. The budget for the project is reported as being comparable to the Rolls Building on Fetter Lane, a new home for a arrange of commercial and other civil courts, which cost around £250-300m when completed in 2011. How that cost was split between the corporation and HMCTS is not known.

    HMCTS has been redefining the standards for future court building design but publication of an updated Courts and Tribunals Design Guide is well overdue. The current version is not available to the public either, although it used to be. Nothing has been released by either the client or Eric Parry Architects to indicate even their initial thinking.

    Nevertheless, we can make some informed guesses about the likely form of the building based on careful examination of the current legal landscape and its architecture. First, what will it contain?

    HMCTS’s ongoing digitisation of both criminal and civil jurisdictions means that thousands of cases and applications are now dealt with entirely online or via ‘hearings’ that actually take place in chambers with no parties present. The aim is for “more opportunities to settle disputes – and to progress cases – that do not depend on travelling and physically attending court”. But hearing rooms, office space (though not, perhaps, as much as before, since centralised Court and Tribunal Service Centres are starting to handle back-office tasks) and cells will still be needed for the courthouse element. They will be connected by the strictly segregated circulation routes for staff, judges, prisoners, witnesses – especially where vulnerable – and the public that are the unique feature of such a building.

    Compared to older premises much larger public entrance lobbies and waiting areas are now common. These also house far more facilities than was the case historically, such as cafés, accessible toilets, faith rooms and spaces for supportive agencies. An original and robust solution to the need for temporary information that dispenses with the usual accumulation of flyers, posters and impromptu notices tacked to a pinboard or imprisoned, fading, behind glass cases would be welcome. Public charging points for mobile devices might also be seen, and at a basic level many more power and data outlets will be needed throughout any new building.

    Information technology provision within courts has massively increased in recent years, again in public areas but also as an inherent part of the criminal justice process. Projecting this trend forward five years should see the City building equipped with display screens and other types of dynamic signage, wi-fi and 5G signals, cordless telephony for staff (already present to a degree) and video-link or conferencing systems closer to the kind of experience marketed by Cisco to private companies as ‘telepresence’. By the time the new building opens, the very cautious relaxation of the prohibition on filming inside courthouses that has seen UK Supreme Court proceedings and some Scottish deliberations televised may have continued to the point where at least minimal facilities for broadcast media might have to be anticipated. All of this, along with the recognition of past failures and the rapid obsolescence of technology, would prompt a plea for much-improved methods of accessing, maintaining, repairing and replacing such equipment, this last activity occurring much more frequently than in the past.

    Where courtrooms are encountered, wood panelling, the royal crest and raised or at least physically divided seating is still common but flexibility of use is now being recognised as key, such that a room can be used for a jury trial, magistrates’ sitting or a tribunal hearing with no or minimal adjustment. Furniture might thus be moveable, at least in part, and the vertical hierarchy reduced or adjusted.

    Unknown in the current estate, visual, aural and other enhancements to promote the wellbeing of staff, the judiciary and users is surely overdue in this most stress-inducing environment.

    Second, what might it look like? Speaking in July 2018, the Corporation’s Policy Chairman described the new complex as the City’s “second iconic courthouse after the Old Bailey” despite this being months before the architect had even been chosen. Away from press headlines, the actual result will be conditioned as much by the site as it will by the aesthetics of the designer or the particular requirements of a judicial building.

    That site is on a considerable slope and currently occupied by two office buildings that are typical of their type and era. To the north, 68-71 Fleet Street sits on the corner of Whitefriars Street and was bought by the Corporation in late 2018 specifically to enable this project. It is a Post-Modern block of 1986 by the Thomas Saunders Partnership that backs onto Hanging Sword Alley, which runs between Whitefriars Street and Salisbury Court to the east and is here a sizeable courtyard behind the other buildings on Fleet Street. Also overlooking it and stretching downhill to the south is the Modernist Fleetbank House, finished in 1975 and by C. Edmund Wilford & Sons. This is a large, roughly T-shaped block finished in glass and granite with a spine rising to a dozen or so storeys but arms that are much lower. These are also set back from the edge of the plot, which tapers to a point where a further, stepped passageway leads through the building and down to Primrose Hill (or, in the other direction, up into Salisbury Square, a quiet public space to the east that is linked to Hanging Sword Alley by walking under another wing of Fleetbank House).

    Since 68-71 Fleet Street and Fleetbank House do not actually touch and are divided on Whitefriars Street by other buildings that are not part of the scheme, it must be assumed that the majority of Hanging Sword Alley will be built over to form a contiguous plot albeit with public access retained by means of a tunnel through the new building. There are several recent precedents for this, in the immediate vicinity and elsewhere in the City, whilst Lutyens’ acclaimed former Reuters building on the other side of Salisbury Court shows the ease with which this task was accomplished almost a century ago in the hands of an exceptional architect.

    The southern passageway might also survive, although a more generous gesture here – and a fitting one for a civic building – would be to not rebuild the short ‘arm’ of Fleetbank House under which this alley passes at all, and instead landscape the connection between the Square and Primrose Hill. There is, again, a precedent in Foster + Partners’ work at 10 Gresham Street, where the new building was separated from its neighbour for the first time and a new alley created. These points aside, the overall massing across much of the plot is very likely to increase, subject to rights of light for neighbouring buildings and the St Paul’s Heights rules.

    Security will obviously be paramount, although this is to an extent at odds with the need for openness. The City’s experience of major terrorist bombs is, thankfully, a generation past, but more recent events in London and elsewhere have their effect on the design of buildings and even their surroundings.

    The relatively tight urban street grid of Fleet Street will probably preclude any narrowing of the two roads bordering the site (the better to keep vehicles away), although the Square Mile’s now-mature ‘Ring of Steel’ network of CCTV and associated physical restrictions to entry will form the first line of defence. Closer to, government advice is that “structurally enhanced bus shelters, lamp columns, benches or cycle racks” should be used to prevent a “penetrative (ramming) or close proximity (parked or encroachment)” attack. We can thus expect an unbroken line of bollards to be installed along the kerb line of Fleet Street at least, and the growth on the City’s streets of reinforced barriers disguised as planters may also continue.

    Underground car parks have been prohibited in courthouse design for several decades, although the City discourages all except bicycle parking in new developments in any event. A secure van dock where custody prisoners are received will certainly be needed; it is highly likely that this will be shared with the police station and located on Whitefriars Street, where the current loading bay for Fleetbank House can be found (the police station entrance could also fit here but might be more appropriate for Salisbury Square).

    Setting the main courthouse entrance back from the street a little would provide another useful ‘stand-off’ as well as some civic presence, especially if a corner entrance can be contrived. Inside, an atrium – a feature once synonymous with only commercial architecture – is now to be expected, with enough space before access to the building proper for the necessary security screening of visitors to take place. This is a common failing with even quite new city-centre magistrates’ courts, where large queues, inadequate, temporary facilities and the risk of ‘false negatives’ can often be encountered.

    Eric Parry’s practice has worked extensively in the City of London and the wider capital, with the new Hall for the Leathersellers Livery Company, 5 Aldermanbury Square on London Wall and 30 Finsbury Square (technically in Islington) notable in recent years. Forthcoming is 1 Undershaft, if built to become the second tallest building in London. Though lacking an obviously identifiable style, many of its buildings have featured a single material and a fairly simple envelope. Most are visually quiet though there are occasional moments of unexpected boldness, such as the polychromic cornice of One Eagle Place in Piccadilly or the Deconstructivist roofscape at 10 Fenchurch Avenue in the Square Mile.

    Even without this preference for reticence, the very nature of the job will probably preclude anything audacious. Whilst some of the country’s newer courthouses, such as the drum-shaped Cambridge Crown Court (Austin-Smith:Lord, 2004) or Manchester Civil Justice Centre (Denton Corker Marshall, 2007) with its ‘open drawer’ glass façade are striking, the majority are bland, awkward exercises in value engineering and mock-Classicising grandeur – in London Stratford Magistrates’ Court (Roughton & Partners, 1994) epitomises this problem. More useful as a possible pattern is the capital’s Westminster Magistrates’ Court on Marylebone Road (Hurd Rolland Partnership, 2011), which by chance compares well to the new City project by programme. Its successes and failures might also prove instructive.

    Also positioned on an urban corner site with sizable planning constraints to consider, it was, too, required to contain not only multiple hearing rooms and related facilities but also ancillary accommodation for other criminal justice purposes. The result is that its densely-packed bulk gives rise to sometimes clumsy back-of-house spaces and often complex circulation. The solidly elegant hearing rooms reflect increased public expectations in this area and the waiting areas are bright, but the restless main façade, for all its attempts at civic dignity, appears to strain at the seams.

    So it may be silence in court for now on Fleet Street, but in a few years’ time such a visible civic project as this is unlikely to require much deliberation before the verdict is pronounced.



  • The Archigram Opera

    More than sixty years ago six Brits came together to form Archigram, an architectural collective whose varied experiences, age and backgrounds found common purpose in an explosion of thoughts, ideas, designs and schemes that simply ARE the Sixties and early Seventies. Exploring the world of today (back then) and what it might be, they took inspiration from technology (their name comes from ARCHItecture + teleGRAM), science fiction, organics, pop culture and more, and envisaged walking cities, pop-up cities, houses that you could wear cars that emerged from houses and much, much more. All of this was put ‘out there’ through their self-published magazine and a multimedia presentation of slides, music, narration and sounds that was the Archigram Opera. Last night at the Architectural Association, three of the surviving founders introduced the new, digitised version of what proved to be stunning split-screen experience, best listened to with your choice of period rock music playing in the background – here’s mine, along with some shots from the show.



  • 'The Lehman Trilogy'

    It took 150 years for the financial giant that was Lehman Brothers to be built, beginning with the 1844 arrival in America of Hayum Lehmann, followed by his brother Mendel and their brother Mayer. It all ended in 2008 and almost took the world with it, but this brilliant, sell-out play takes us back to that first moment when a German immigrant set up a store in Alabama and started to think of expansion…

    Co-incidentally or not, in the lobby of the National Theatre you can pick up a free copy of a financial newspaper containing an article about bullying, arrogant bankers before taking your seat. Over the next three hours Stefano Massini does much the same, rewinding history before fast-forwarding us through a century and a half of ingenuity, humour, honour and ambition later contaminated by avarice, contempt and ego. The journey is a thrilling one, as Hayum becomes Henry, Mendel becomes Emmanuel and Mayer joins them both in a land of opportunity.

    The title does double duty, describing the play’s three-act structure and sibling subject, but arguably takes in a third meaning as a trio of wars visit hell and damnation but also possibilities. As supplying goods to slaves and plantation owners turns into raw cotton trading, post-Civil War reconstruction opens new doors. Coffee and the railways move the brothers’ business into a new century, when communications and banking beckon. After that third conflict computers and electronic trading ally with less substantial products built with electrons, until the house of cards so made collapses.

    In the programme Ben Power succinctly describes the approach taken when adapting Massini, noting the attempt to preserve “his vision, his wit and his humanity”. Regardless of who wrote what line, the text that results – part thought, part narration, part speech – resonates with all three.

    At the very start, the newly-arrived Henry is awed by what he calls the “music box” of America where, for every door that closes, another opens. He sells fabric from his humble shop, by the yard but more often by the inch to even more humble clients. At this rate, he muses, his debt will take “three more years of inches” to clear.

    The language of money is heard throughout, though almost never the dust-dry technical terms – collateralized debt obligations, subprime mortgages – that would ultimately bring everything down. Instead the brothers yearn for the “zeros, zeros, zeros” they see at the New York Cotton Exchange, and “trust me” becomes their mantra over repeated generations. As their wealth and influence piles up, so do the phrases expressing this. “One runs Lehmans, the other a gold mine” comments one onlooker. Wondering which descendent would help out in another catastrophic situation, another ponders that “Noah had to save the world but at least he didn’t have competition”; and the world of finance is “a club for bankers”. But that humanity Power cited is there as well. “Growing old,” we hear, “is to inhabit a new land” quite different from one’s native territory, where a new language is to be learned.

    All of this is delivered by three actors playing – exceptionally well – not just the three brothers but also those same men at different ages, occasionally each other, and also their sons, grandsons, girlfriends, wives, clients and partners. It is brought together in an astonishingly fluid melange that moves between accent, vocabulary, point of view, gender, time and space with supreme facility.

    Each of the principals brings a unique talent to the production. Simon Russell Beale’s solidity and gravitas is necessary and effective as Henry builds his business and anchors the events to come. This is though nicely undercut from time to time: by Henry’s wonder on arrival in America, through a homely, proprietorial guided tour of the shop and – best of all – when Russell Beale inhabits the first of several female roles for the cast as the brothers find their wives. Ben Miles is superb as Emanuel, the “arm” to Henry’s head, with a powerful delivery that is also modified endlessly as he essays additional characters. A highlight sees him playing the three year old son of his brother, sitting on his father’s lap and tickling his beard. Here, too, is Massini and Power’s humanity. Adam Godley equals Russell Beale in versatility and perhaps outshines him in humour and energy respectively as he scrolls rapidly and utterly brilliantly through a gallery of potential women for Philip Lehman to date, and later maintains a manic, desperate Twist routine as the aging Bobbi Lehman who, like those around him, feels the need to keep up the “dance” of moving money.

    In a key scene in the final act, the senior Lehmans are old and frail, the startlingly clever but coldly calculating son Philip keen to exploit this and move the bank into new areas that they simply don’t understand. “You have employees to do the work,” he tells them, “you just have to sign it off”. It is the moment when the old world gave way to the new, and when the insistent greed that is portrayed in the later stages of the play future took root.

    The play is performed in a space of beguiling simplicity but also hidden complexity designed by Es Devlin. Elevated slightly on the Lyttleton’s revolve is a rectangular box of slim steel beams and – for the most part – floor to ceiling glazing. Within, one large and three small rooms are minimally furnished: office chairs, a long conference table, a chrome lamp, an umbrella stand. It is a corner of a Wall Street tower from the middle of the last century, a slice of Miesian Modernism whose perfection is marred only by boxes – a few dozen white cardboard boxes, of the kind we in Britain call archive boxes but which are properly known as bankers’ boxes – a sly touch. These, moved by the cast as needed, are combined props and flats. They serve as seats, counters, pulpits and more even before their final, moving appearance as themselves in a recreation of the eponymous bank’s final day. The ceiling of this ‘office’ provides almost all of the lighting, varying at need from spot to flood, colour to monochrome, bright to dark, and the entire construction turns on cue, revealing and concealing as the story unfolds, the music box of Henry Lehman’s mind brought to life. Behind, a panorama sweeping around the entire rear of the stage receives projected images, still and moving, that complement the action. It is the final entry in another trilogy, after Devlin’s remarkable work on Chimerica and The Nether.

    Sam Mendes directs with a flawless eye for motions that move the actors and the audience alike. The former sit and stand and step and lie and walk effortlessly up and down, in and out, and around and about. In several scenes Mendes, surely drawing on his cinematic career, has his actors walk through the box as it rotates, keeping pace with its movement as it turns and thus effectively standing still, to create a kind of tracking shot.

    With only two scenes set in 2008, the first and the last, both achieving great pathos, The Lehman Trilogy takes the brothers and us forward and backward only to end up where we began. It is – or should be, and especially to those featured in that newspaper article – a salutary lesson, albeit beautifully delivered.

    The Lehman Trilogy, by Stefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power, a co-production with Neal Street Productions, finishes tonight at the National Theatre but transfers to the Piccadilly Theatre, London W1 from 11 May 2019.



  • 'Mission: Impossible - Fallout' (2018)

    Another year, another mission. The sixth Mission: Impossible film has been promoted as the biggest yet, with co-producer/star Tom Cruise actually flying a helicopter and undertaking a parachute jump for real, both on camera. But this entry in the series also has – for the first time – continuity of writer/director (Christopher McQuarrie) and supporting characters across consecutive films, which sets up additional expectations. Add in its leading actor incurring an injury that held up shooting for several weeks and apparent use of the IMAX family of formats once again for the filming itself, and the result has a more than usual level of expectation for the viewer.

    Perhaps because of this, a nondescript night-time alley in what the screen captions as Belfast followed by Ethan Hunt (Cruise) receiving a lengthy briefing projected onto the wall of an empty industrial space is a curiously pedestrian starting point given the stunningly dynamic opening of #5, Ghost Nation. The exposition-heavy recording is nominally to prepare Hunt for his mission but its principal purpose is of course to set up the audience, and yet for me its attempts to introduce two main characters and the inevitable terrorist cell felt uncomfortably like stuffing too much into a single plotline even at this very early stage.

    The oddly quotidian mood continues when Hunt and the IMF team of Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) appear in Berlin for an exchange of money and three plutonium bomb cores; despite these high-stakes items, the dull setting (another industrial setting, another night scene) and unambitious action (a shoot-out, and this confusingly presented) frustrate. Yes, the final sequence does link back to the franchise’s televisual origins (though also to a very specific episode of the Gerry Anderson puppet series Terrahawks (1983-86, interestingly) and raise the stakes somewhat, but by the time the latest rearrangement of Lalo Schiffrin’s driving theme tune begins I was already shifting in my seat.

    After the necessary introduction of new character August Walker (Henry Cavill), CIA “hammer” to Hunt’s “scalpel” and already nicely ambiguous in his loyalties, the first of those big action scenes unfolds as Hunt and Walker drop in on Paris’s Grand Palais exhibition venue via a military-style parachute jump. Both suit up and, after the mutual needling that serves as cinematic shorthand for their spiky relationship, leap out of the aircraft and enter a freefall… All very familiar, except that when Hunt, following the bullish Walker who has already jumped, runs toward the camera and both continue into thin air in the same shot, the plane they were in vanishing behind him into a twilight sky, we are actually watching Tom Cruise himself skydiving out of the back of a real C-17 jet transport several thousand feet over the United Arab Emirates, where the sequence was shot. A full-face helmet – the latter an absolute necessity in such circumstances, the former invented especially for this film – allows us to confirm that it’s the actor and not a stuntman (Cruise made over a hundred practice drops in training).

    The mid-air tussles that follow, again not original in themselves, are nevertheless impressively mounted given Cruise’s continuing presence as Hunt (Cavill did not take part) and the contemporary filming techniques used to record them. And yet I couldn’t help feeling that there was something lacking here, some subtle cue that would let my mind accept that that was a genuine improvement on, say, replacing a stunt person’s face with a digital image of the actor as was done a generation ago in Jurassic Park (1993). Churlish I know, but symptomatic of what was to come.

    The encounters that follow within the Grand Palais – itself introducing Paris as one of the major locations for the film – only served to cause more confusion as to the identity, motivation and relationships between the various characters introduced, including Alanna Mitsopolis/the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby). An impressive fight sequence holds the interest, not least thanks to the remarkable skills of stuntman Liang Ying, though once again it is both conceptually and aesthetically similar to an almost identical scene in True Lies (1995)

    One character and actress whose reintroduction is very welcome is that of Ilsa Faust as played by Rebecca Ferguson. The actress stole the previous film and her initial – surprise – appearance here with a snappy fight sequence coming soon after bode well. Similarly Solomon Lane, a disturbingly gimlet-eyed, tangle-bearded Sean Harris, also returns, though the manner of that happening disclose further misjudgements on the part of the makers.

    The violent armed rescue of Lane from a prison convoy is seen in soft focus and with muted sound, something also evident in earlier shots and used throughout to represent a memory, dream or other work of the imagination. It is employed here to reinforce one of the film’s many sub-plots, this one about Cruise’s empathy being a weakness rather than a strength. But given clips of this sequence without blurring (which was presumably applied in post) appear in the trailer and given the actual rescue that takes place in the story is rather different, it feels as though McQuarrie is having his cake and eating it, cramming in two action scenes for the price of one. In addition that definitive rescue involves yet another ‘loan’ from someone else’s work, since the manner in which Hunt places Lane’s prison van at the IMF’s disposal is taken directly from the Robbie Williams short film Rob By Nature (2001), effectively the music video for the single The Road To Mandalay.

    Admittedly this sequence debuts on film one of Paris’s most striking buildings highly impressively; the helicopter that carried Lane into the city earlier lands on the rooftop helipad of the Ministère de l’Economie et des Finances, which rises from the Seine itself, and the convoy that takes him into the streets from there accurately exits the ministry via its ceremonial doors. It is here, though, also that the mystery over the format used to shoot and exhibit Fallout comes to the surface.

    Aerial photography of that helicopter cries out for the 15 perf/70mm IMAX treatment (as indeed did the parachute drop, where it would have really helped sell Cruise as performer), and indeed various action scenes in Paris and London show clear differences in the framing, direction and stock used from those in the remainder of the film, but no information source confirms its use and in Britain at least the only IMAX presentations are – irritatingly – in 3D digital format. It is clear that more needs to come out about this, which is perhaps one other aspect of a slightly troubled production.

    Cruise once more does his own stunts in the car and bike chase that ensues, but the choice of locations now feels like a tourist board decision rather than an artistic one. There are, too, many incidents where both the geography and sense of a scene are less than transparent, including when Lane is clearly hit by bullets yet immediately afterward appears entirely unharmed and during a firefight in (yet another) dark underground vault that is hopelessly confused.

    In London, this same baffling obsession with anonymous, generic studio interiors poorly intercut with obvious, glamourous locations continues, with the very first shot in that city taking place in Paternoster Square, the next in one of those brick studio sets, and the rest across the rooftops of St Paul’s, Blackfriars station and Tate Modern including an admittedly breath-taking jump by Cruise that led to his accident (it is this shot that is kept in the film).

    The final act moves to Kashmir, and involves a hunt (pun intended) for twinned nuclear devices that must be defused simultaneously (this yet another rip-off, this time from an episode of the TV series Strike Back) and the inevitable countdown set piece. It is this that leads to the helicopter chase for which Cruise sent months learning to fly. It may seem churlish to criticise this too as unnecessary but despite many shots from interior cameras prominently and pointedly showing Cruise alone in the cockpit I barely noticed, thanks to the frenetic cutting, the absurdity of his being able to escape continuous machine gun fire from his adversary and the fact that whilst Cruise the actor may know how to fly, Hunt the character does not, as is made clear in the script, which renders the entire scene unbelievable and perversely detracts from the actor’s obvious achievement personally.

    In parallel, a different confrontation takes place on the ground which involves a level and type of violence – slow throttling, hanging – that left a very unpleasant taste in the mouth. Earlier another character stabs someone to death with a butterfly knife, and the tonal variances of these scenes compared to the remainder of the film sat uncomfortably with me.

    I’ve not even mentioned the return of Hunt’s former wife, the marginalisation of Ilsa Faust as a result and the casual treatment of her own storyline, all of which seem like unneeded complication in context.

    This film was a huge disappointment. Its plot is overly complex, individual beats do not form a coherent whole and there are too many steals from other works. Cavil is good, but many of the supporting characters – Lane, Faust – waste those parts and the actors inhabiting them. The direction and editing are choppy and there are evident mismatches in style and aesthetic between the grand statement scenes, the action done for real and the awkward interiors. The formulaic excess of the finale especially is simply absurd, and it is surely significant that McQuarrie has publicly admitted cutting at least one entire action scene from the film after preview audiences complained of too much action.

    A calmer, leaner story with far less going on would have foregrounded what are actually worthwhile plot points, such as a notorious villain whom no-one has seen, consideration of whether a wrong done for the right reason is justifiable and inter-agency conflict, whilst letting those real-life action scenes shine. Perhaps a fitting conclusion is the irony of a film that is all about illusion and misdirection suffering from the fact that the pervasive use of CGI across the entertainment industry has made it almost impossible to convince an audience that what they are seeing is actually real.

    Mission: Impossible - Fallout remains on general release



  • ‘Sicario 2: Soldado’ (2018)

    Some missions need an assassin – others need a soldier

    - Publicity

    A sequel to 2015’s superb story of personal revenge mixed with geopolitics set against the background of the US-Mexico drug and illegal immigration war was not required but has nevertheless arrived, again written by Taylor Sheridan but directed by Stefano Sollima rather than Denis Villeneuve. It begins with a twist on the people-smuggling theme of its predecessor that is as original and audacious as that film’s core plot point and is sufficiently rich with potential to carry proceedings on its own. Sadly, this promise is discarded quite quickly in favour of layer upon layer of additional ideas that eventually create confusion and implausibility in equal measure.

    Those opening scenes, as a new threat depressingly familiar to those in contemporary Europe slips into America under cover of an old one, are viscerally shocking and upsetting and set the tone for the first, strongest section of the film. They lead to a government cabinet member calling for action and bending the definitional rules to allow it, in turn releasing returning protagonist Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to act as the deniable instrument of state that such an order requires.

    A ‘shopping’ sequence as Graver matter-of-factly enacts his master’s wish is coldly stripped-down yet utterly compelling; the casual diner conversation between him and what appears to be a private military contractor over equipment and prices recalls the workaday realism of Steven Soderberg’s Haywire (2011), whilst the cynicism surrounding the next steps Graver takes is breathtaking. Here, one is watching a sequel that is worthy of comparison to the original yet takes it in a different direction, even if the occasional line of dialogue and thus crucial plot detail is lost to too-casual delivery and a downbeat audio mix.

    Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) also returns as a partner – or perhaps weapon – in this venture, which we now learn links to his motivation in Sicario. Again, though, this is unclear since the cartel boss is different in each case and the connection between them is only loosely alluded to. Since this particular storyline goes nowhere one could argue it doesn’t matter.

    The assassination and kidnap actions that follow are competently staged by Sollima in what is now the default filmic style of the 2000s – sharp, sudden and serious, with none of the flashiness that characterised product from the previous decade let alone the flamboyance of the 1980s. Isabela Moner, as old as the century more or less, impresses as Isabela Reyes, convincingly essaying a spoiled schoolgirl who is queen of her milieu one minute and a terrified victim of something much larger another.

    It is though here where I began to part company from the material. Geography began to feel ill-defined, with uncertainty over precisely who was where or heading to what and why, and small moments seemed lost, missed or undeveloped.

    Yes, a speeding convoy in a forbidding desert attempting the next move in a false flag operation is nicely handled with a growing sense of unease – “I hate dirt roads,” growls Graver as his airborne assistance begins to be compromised by dust – and the firefight that follows is snappy and brutal, but exactly who is attacking, how and from where remains unexplained and the editing of what happens now and immediately afterward leaves much to be desired if clarity is wanted.

    When Isabella and Alejandro are cast adrift on a quest of their own this dislocation is intensified, whilst things also become annoyingly sentimental if sometimes also affecting. Convenient co-incidence appears, surely unnecessary when a writer is so clearly gifted as Sheridan. That this returns repeatedly, especially in relation to a parallel storyline about young Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), soon becomes grating in the extreme.

    Having the rug pulled from under Graver and Alejendro decisively shifts perception of the overall source for the film – Tom Clancy’s Clear and Present Danger, also about a biddable yet cowardly politician spurred by an act of moral outrage – from obvious but acceptable homage to lazy derivation. And unlike Phillip Noyce’s 1994 film adaptation, which took pains to depict a realistic timescale for the reversal, here everything is rushed to the point of risibility. The film is thus simultaneously overlong and uncomfortably hurried – a television series would have given this approach room to breath.

    The finale insults the viewer twice, first with more sentimentality and then by replacing the weary inevitability recognisably of the real world that ended the first film with a crude hook for a ‘threequel’. Given the present instalment can best be summarised as occasionally gripping but ultimately maddening, it won’t be one I will be experiencing.



  • Art, Past & Present: Part 3 of 3 - 'Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire'

    By chance, three different art exhibitions in London currently all engage with the same subject – how particular artists considered the old and the new. Specifically, shows looking at Auguste Rodin, Claude Monet and Thomas Cole explore how they each viewed societal developments in their own times, wondered what their work should look like in the context of that and whether they followed, built on or reacted against those practitioners who came before. Fittingly all three finish on the same date, so you have about five weeks to experience all of them. My own encounters concluded with the National Gallery’s Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire.

    Though clearly the least-known artist of the three for many, I was aware of his work through the Tate’s revelatory American Sublime exhibition in 2002. Alongside Fredrick Church (Cole’s pupil at the Hudson River School) and others, Cole – an Englishman by birth – was responsible for framing forever the Old World’s view of the New as a place of immeasurable, untamed wildernesses of unparalleled beauty and awesome splendour. But, as this major exhibition is at pains to point out, Cole actually took a very different view of the great American landscape and what it could be than his compatriots. And even if his US-set works don’t always make this clear, his magnificent Course of Empire sequence sets out his stall with power and elegance.

    Born in Bolton in 1801, Cole was an admirer of Turner and his portrayals of nature, but was also aware of how the controversial artist confronted modernity – especially technology – in his works. Both Turner and his contemporary Philip de Loutherbourg were awed by what the curators call the ‘demonic spectacle’ of forges and factories of the Industrial Revolution, and both drew comparisons between tradition and contemporaneity when including such sights in their pictures. Thus Turner’s Fighting Temeraire showed a derelict sailing ship towed to its grave by a steam tug, whilst in his fieryCoalbrookdale by Night, included here, de Loutherbourg placed discarded sections of manufactured iron pipe as if they were the columns and capitals of some vanished classical culture. The seeds of Cole’s work are seen in these artists and in John Martin, another English artist whose apocalyptic scenes of catastrophe and Biblical ruination evidently appealed.

    After his family emigrated to America Cole began depicting the grand open spaces of his adopted country, with an evident love for its flora and fauna and the immensity of nature’s creations. Colossal valleys, winding rivers and bucolic scenes soon emerged from his easel, and did much to promote the early settlers’ belief in manifest destiny. Cole’s The Oxbow, recalling Constable in its thick clouds but showing a panorama of the Connecticut River Valleyrather than of the Thames and London, has become a touchstone of American art. And yet Cole was adamantly against the development of these places and their industrialisation, unlike Church who welcomed man’s impact on the natural world, and a hint of this is found in what was for me the most striking piece of the show. Utterly fantastical, Titan’s Goblet depicts a colossal stone drinking vessel hundreds of feet high standing on a rocky coast, “the imagined artefact of an extinct race of giants” as the caption puts it. Classical ruins surround the rim of this wonderful thing, complete with tiny aqueduct, and the spill from its lake-like bowl dissolves in the wind as it cascades over the side.

    Cole’s opinions found their greatest form, though, in Course of Empire, his five paintings of a fictional landscape showing its chronological discovery, exploitation and abandonment over the centuries. In the first, The Savage State, an unspoilt expanse of land at the mouth of a river is laden with greenery and inhabited only by natives. Human intervention begins with The Pastoral State – a stone circle, boat building, farming – but is in balance with nature. The weight of ‘culture’ has tipped the scales utterly by the time of The Consummation of Empire, in which a vast Romanesque city of marble, gilt and luxury sprawls across the valley; groaning with indulgence, its fate is sealed in Destruction when a brutal war ravages everything. I was struck by the bold imagery here; spattered blood, grey-faced corpses and attempted rape all feature. In the final instalment, Destruction, nature is reclaiming the ruins of what once was. Though retaining something of the imagination seen in the Goblet, this is a firmly human and thus relatable morality tale. Highly charged in its evening moodiness, that final picture is Cole’s Old World warning the citizens of the New.

    A welcome window into a less-well-known British talent who made his name abroad, this was an enjoyable show that rounded of a trio of fulfilling exhibtions.

    'Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire' continues at the National Gallery, London WC2 until 29 July 2018.



  • Art, Past & Present: Part 2 of 3 - 'Monet & Architecture'

    By chance, three different art exhibitions in London currently all engage with the same subject – how particular artists considered the old and the new. Specifically, shows looking at Auguste Rodin, Claude Monet and Thomas Cole explore how they each viewed societal developments in their own times, wondered what their work should look like in the context of that and whether they followed, built on or reacted against those practitioners who came before. Fittingly all three finish on the same date, so you have about five weeks to experience all of them. My own encounters continued with the National Gallery’s Monet & Architecture.

    Forget, if you can, Monet’s water lilies. This exhibition is about his response to the built environment around him, in Normandy, Rouen, Paris, London and Venice, whether featuring incidentally or as the principal – sometimes only – subject. It looks at how painted architecture directly, and at how he used it as counterpoint to the natural world for which he is best known. It considers his selection of structures old and new, and it looks at repetition – how the same topic could be painted again and again yet be different each time.

    Beginning with Monet’s love for the traditional aesthetic of the picturesque allows simple scenes of village and harbour life to impress with their dancing light, bright colours and clever effects, such as the apparent blurring of grasses in the foreground of The Hut at Sainte-Adresse, although the captions are curiously silent occasionally on obvious points, such as the dramatically vertiginous viewpoint down a winding lane cutting through the centre of one picture of the same location even as its vertical orientation – surely designed to enhance this exact effect – is noted. A developing mastery of colour and composition is also seen, with the former employed to suggest weather effects (a View of Amsterdam appears as though seen through a rain-spattered window) and the latter starting to use architecture as a highlight or framing device. Both skills come together in the superb The Cliff at Varengeville, which is almost Pre-Raphaelite with its keen atmosphere, and the warmly coastal The Church at Vethéuil.

    Already the variation in Monet’s approach is apparent, and this is not always to the viewer’s advantage in my view. Many of his works are aggressively naïve or pointillistic, these last effective only at a distance. The exhibition is silent on this, disappointingly. Even when he takes this road however other sides of his technique impress, such as the almost monochrome Snow Effect at Giverney which nevertheless drew me in through its complex textures and implied motion, both of which reminded me of Rothko.

    The modern city was a touchstone for many late 19th century artists, including the Impressionists, but this show presents Monet as ambivalent to its charms. It appears that the cost of living an urban life – plus ça change – along with a lack of great interest from buyers in the works he produced eventually dissuaded him. The heavier, darker colours of his images of the Gare St-Lazare are an effective contrast with the earlier rural works and show a solid artistic response to a change of scene, but Monet’s true sympathies seem to lie in the quieter moments along quaysides, near bridges and – in one soft, subtle masterpiece – with a distant View of Rouen, where a row of slim trees is echoed by the tall mast of a barge and a chimney, and barely-there clouds and a slight pink sunset radiate evening calm.

    All three subjects include water, with Monet’s talent for reflection also well to the fore. His ability to differentiate one form of light from another in variant circumstances is seen in the spectacular The Boulevard des Capucines, where two men in top hats stand on a balcony (they are almost pushed off the edge of the canvas) and watch a teeming crowd of several hundred individually-painted figures on the street below with half the scene bathed in winter sunlight and half in shadow.

    Monet’s astonishing ultra-grainy close ups of Rouen cathedral done from slightly different angles and at very different times of day and his heavily atmospheric scenes painted from London bridges close this section. The first is perhaps the most powerful room of the show, with half a dozen frames reading as massively enlarged photographs from further away. The artist often had several canvases on the go simultaneously in Britain’s capital, storing them in rented or gifted rooms and adjusting each in turn at the relevant time of day to properly capture the shifts of light, colour and time, effectively caught with a trio of works featuring the Houses of Parliament from across the river in fog, a storm and at sunset.

    Late-period portraits of Venice’s palazzos and more – the term must be correct, since no people feature – close this excellent show. It is well-curated and superbly hung. The number and choice of canvasses and their considered disposition is a perfect fit for the basement Sainsbury galleries, working with their variety and the clever theming to ensure that things never become overwhelming. As something of a Monet sceptic, I am – just about – convinced...

    The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet & Architecture continues at the National Gallery, London WC2 until 29 July 2018



  • Art, Past & Present: Part 1 of 3 - 'Rodin and the art of ancient Greece'

    By chance, three different art exhibitions in London currently all engage with the same subject – how particular artists considered the old and the new. Specifically, shows looking at Auguste Rodin, Claude Monet and Thomas Cole explore how they each viewed societal developments in their own times, wondered what their work should look like in the context of that and whether they followed, built on or reacted against those practitioners who came before. Fittingly all three finish on the same date, so you have about five weeks to experience all of them. My own encounters began with the British Museum’s Rodin and the art of ancient Greece.

    The putative originator of modern sculpture visited the British museum repeatedly. He took direct inspiration from what he saw there, especially the Parthenon Sculptures or Elgin Marbles. Uniquely, this innovative show presents the visitor with more than half a dozen instances to examine the source alongside the result. Thus a plaster cast of The Kiss (plaster, we find out, was often the only medium a clay original was reproduced in, pending its commissioning in bronze or marble by a buyer) sits next to a pair of Parthenon goddesses from the workshop of Greek sculptor Phidias or Pheidias, believed to be the creator of the monument’s integrated sculptural programme. In both, the Museum contends, faces are subordinate to bodies – Rodin found the ancient figures “participants in something that we do not see” and also believed in the lyrical concept of ‘phantasia’, whereby the sculptor’s apparition of beauty resided in the mind and was revealed by the hand. In both cases this shaped stone into flesh.

    Matching a dying Lapith warrior with Rodin’s The Martyr is also illustrative of this connection, as is a single figure in an extract from the superb cavalcade sequence – it is impossible to avoid cinematic terminology when describing this outstanding piece of ‘stop motion’ from 2,500 years ago, and indeed the curators note that a sense of movement might have been apparent when this frieze was seen through the screen of columns on the temple – and his The Age of Bronze. Rodin drew and had casts of such architectural elements to help him in his work, and recalled the “little mould makers” who sold convenient A4-sized replicas in the streets of European cities.

    Architecture is another link between these ages in and of itself, since not only did Rodin at one point go into business making architectural sculpture but The Kiss and many of his other works – including The Thinker, presented here in two very powerful versions including a terracotta – began as components of a vast pair of doors, the forbiddingly titled Gates of Hell, for a Parisian art museum. Patterned after the compartmented, richly-carved portal to Florence’s Renaissance Baptistry by Lorenzo Ghiberti, the doors were never made and the museum never built but for Rodin the detailed development work he undertook for the project acted as a kind of living sketchbook for the rest of his life. The exhibition takes pains to identify how those works derived from it made the transition to stand-alone pieces, including when Rodin decided to conjoin more than one source to form a new single form (that Rodin used the same fragments repeatedly but in different combinations is clear in the latest iteration of the wonderful Musée Rodin in Paris, where dozens if not hundreds of casts of arms, legs and torsos are displayed in cabinets, like a fin de siècle Airfix kit of Man awaiting assembly).

    For Rodin an ancient stone torso could seem as “real flesh [that] must have been moulded by kisses and caresses”, yet he also sought to prove that torsos in and of themselves, created as such from the start, could become valid artistic statements. This is shown when Lissos, a headless river god from the Parthenon, is put next to Rodin’s Ariadne, and Hermes stands adjacent to The Falling Man. With the first of these the Frenchman removed the head from a figure on the Gates, evoking an ancient sculpture eroded by time as the curators insightfully have it and so creating instant if self-assured comparisons with the past as well as supporting his thesis. I wondered at this point whether the distinctive cropping of statues in the paintings of Lawrence Alma-Tadema, a near-exact contemporary of Rodin who also looked to the past for his subject matter, might have aimed for the same reading. Fascinatingly, Rodin collected items of sculpture, domestic artefacts and the like that COULD have been created by his hero Phidias as inspiration or for incorporation into his work whilst Alma Tadema carefully selected archaeological finds to be depicted in his paintings, even if he often then deliberately mixed-up or distorted materials, periods and scales for effect – he would frequently take say a Roman marble copy of a Greek sculpture and imagine the lost Greek original, or take a bronze bust designed for a room pedestal and enlarge it to Colossus size. Both men employed the modern technology or photography as an aide.

    Despite his clear love of the past, Rodin was no preservationist. He campaigned against restoration of the Parthenon, preferring to see it crumble, and felt that buildings in general should, like the human body, be born, mature and decay. Keen only to retain his library of inspiration, he looked to the future whilst referring to the past. This enlightening show shows both sides of his personality to good effect, and if it could have benefitted from a little extra layering – more context at the start, an audio guide, more on the techniques of past and present sculptors – and a slightly more intimate setting for some of the works than the cavernous unadorned black box of its new temporary exhibition gallery, it is still well worth seeing.

    Rodin and the art of ancient Greece continues at the British Museum, London WC1 until 29 July 2018



Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

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


Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own collage-style spread.

The Ivy Press, 2018

Hardback, 160 pages | ISBN 9781782405443


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