The Weasel: After the chiaroscuro smog of Monet's London, I am confronted with cabbages and bog brushes at the Photographers' Gallery
Saturday 23 January 1999
Anyway, what bowled me over was the second room of the exhibition. After half a dozen works in the first room depicting the sunny dazzle of Giverny, which Monet contrives to look more like Provence than northern France, the visitor is suddenly plunged into the familiar gloom of London. Among the 17 works devoted to views of the Thames, one amazing canvas loaned from Moscow depicts the Houses of Parliament as a hazy apparition looming in the smog, with a scatter of seagulls wheeling before the Gothic skyscraper of Victoria Tower.
It is doubtful, however, if the army of Monet fans would particularly enjoy experiencing the artist's subject matter at first hand. He was besotted by the chiaroscuro effects of the smog which, prior to the Clean Air Act, took the lives of thousands each year. "Without fog, London would not be a beautiful city," Monet insisted. "It's the fog that gives it its marvellous depth." He was also out on a limb in his liking for Charing Cross Railway Bridge (the exhibition contains five studies). Ever since it was completed in 1864, this workaday structure has been slated for spoiling the river view which inspired Wordsworth.
Monet produced his views of thebridge from the balcony of his bedroom in the Savoy. Room 614, to be precise. The hotel kindly allowed me a peep. Though the balcony on which he perched disappeared in 1910, when the Savoy's guests were provided with en suite bathrooms, the perspectives are exactly the same as in Monet's paintings. Admittedly, there have been dramatic changes to the left, with the rebuilding of Waterloo Bridge and a series of undistinguished tower blocks replacing the belching chimneys captured by Monet. But the view to the right, with the railway bridge and, beyond it, the elegant arches of Westminster Bridge flanked by the spires of Westminster, has scarcely altered. And, of course, the muddy swirl of the Thames is exactly what Monet saw.
The artist undertook his London project over three extended stays. (Unique among his countrymen, he had a great fondness for English food, in particular Yorkshire pud.) According to the exhibition catalogue, Monet stayed at the Savoy "from about September to the end of October 1899; 9 February to 5 April 1900 and 25 January to about 30 March 1901". But any latter- day Impressionist thinking of repeating his endeavour should be warned. If we estimate his first visit as six weeks, his total stay amounted to 166 days. Since the luxurious Room 614 currently costs pounds 395 per night, the cost of a similar stay today would amount to pounds 65,570.
INTRIGUED TO discover how the figurative tradition of Monet is faring today, I popped along to the Photographers' Gallery. This is currently occupied by three exhibitions by individuals who, very much like the great Claude M, share a desire to "examine the minutiae of daily lives and seemingly ordinary things".
Ulf Lundin achieves this by taking blurry, surreptitious snaps of his utterly unremarkable neighbour in Gothenburg: "I have spied on him and his family for a year now and secretly photographed them. I have completed 100 reels of film." In her equally uplifting slide show, Annelies Strba from Switzerland intersperses images of her family with out-of-focus shots of electricity pylons, cooling towers, Chernobyl and post-earthquake Kobe.
I was more taken by the "merciless neutrality" of the life-sized objects photographed by Christopher Muller from Dusseldorf. Not only are they in focus , they have also been given titles. A work called From Head to Toe consists of a hat, a standard lamp and a pair of wellies. The line- up in Home and Dry includes a dining chair, a spade, a brolly, a plant pot and our old pal the standard lamp.
A Long, Dark Night combines a cabbage, a toilet roll, a dead wasp and two bog brushes. A Good 12 Inches draws together a wastebin, a three-foot ruler and a plastic bucket (a caption reveals that Herr Muller worked on this masterpiece from 1991-1997). Still, in one respect at least, Herr Muller is on the right lines. After many years of sniffing round exhibitions of snaps, mainly taken by amateurs on the Yorkshire coast, I've come to the conclusion that an evocative title, preferably poetic in tone, is an essential component of any self-respecting photograph. For example, it seems compulsory that a moody study of an isolated post or monolith should be entitled Sentinel.
Similarly, any shot after, say, 4pm is automatically Nocturne, though Eventide is equally acceptable in the case of a maritime scene. Still on this theme, a close-up of netting may be designated Interstices, a fishing boat heading out to sea becomes Odyssey, while any portrait of a fisherman over the age of about 40 is traditionally dubbed The Ancient Mariner. A misty view is often Crepuscule, while a star-fish is customarily Etoile. Any natural pattern, such as ripples on a beach, may be conveniently covered by Motif. For my money, the Photographers' Gallery should adopt this lyrical nomenclature forthwith. Sentinel is spot-on for Herr Muller's much-loved standard lamp.
I WAS sorry to hear of the departure of Paddy Ashdown, not least because I can boast a fleeting familial association with the great man. It happened a few years ago, when Mrs W and self were watching a Lib Dem party political before a significant by-election in Ryedale, North Yorkshire. Mr Ashdown was fielding questions from no-nonsense tykes who happened to be passing by. "Paddy, what d'yer think of this `ere EMU [or some other issue of the day]?," asked a cloth-capped codger, and the leader produced a brisk analysis. All of a sudden, Mrs Weasel emitted a shriek: "That's my sister's house." True enough, the cottage was providing a picturesque backdrop to the Lib Dem's vox pop. Now, the odd thing is that my sister-in-law lives down an idyllic country lane outside Pickering, where half a dozen people might stroll in the course of a busy day. The ability to institute a spontaneous debate in such isolated circs is a tribute to Paddy's magnetic powers. When will we - and, in particular, Mrs W's sister - see his like again?
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