Having attended two of London's major art events last week, I feel a little confused. One is a Chelsea Flower Show of the art world, the other is renowned as its radical, cutting edge
Saturday 28 June 1997
The centrepiece at the RA show is as angry a piece as I've ever seen. Called Sandra Three, it is a 16-item assemblage (price: pounds l million) executed in a ferocious outburst by the American artist, R B Kitaj. A couple of rooms away, there is a wonderful bust by David Mach made of coat-hangers. At Goldsmiths College in south-east London, the work on display includes several delicate still-lifes of fruit by May-May Jungsai. (The literal nature of her titles may mislead art-lovers seeking bargains. A work entitled St Michael Ripe and Ready-to-Eat Nectarines. Save 50p, pounds 1.99 is actually selling for pounds 450.) Elsewhere, Emily-Jo Sargent is displaying stylised landscapes entitled Weston-Super-Mare and Hastings, Famous since 1066.
Despite the manifold ironies, there's lots on show at Lewisham Way SE 14 which is unlikely to make an appearance at the RA's posh joint on Piccadilly. Melanie Verhille's luxuriously displayed hair-balls, Kyoto Ebata's distressingly stained white jeans, and Catherine Armell's trouser-shaped shopping trolleys are still a touch outre for the academicians. On the other hand, I doubt if Goldsmiths would thank you for Hong Kong Panorama, a vast, frigid landscape by Ben Johnson which opens the RA show. A bragging notice explains: "The preparatory drawing took over 2,500 hours, the mixing of more than 500 colours took 240 hours... Time spent making the painting was 10,860 hours or 271 weeks, equal to six working years." I may not know what I like, but I know this isn't art.
Well, have you read it? At the press preview of Channel 4's version of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, the Weasel was obliged to adjust his tie nervously and mutter something about "capturing the spirit of the work". No, since you ask, I haven't actually finished the 12-novel sequence. Never started it, to be honest. Anyway, by this autumn, we'll all be experts. The star-studded televisual version is a treat. Perhaps the last of the classy TV block-busters, it is the brainchild of screenwriter Hugh Whitemore, who had the task of boiling down the monumental 12-novel sequence into four two-hour episodes. At the press preview I attended the other day, the films were further condensed into a 45-minute selection of clips. Like the most important bits of real life, the screening mainly consisted of sex and death.
There can scarcely be another work of modern fiction which rouses such fervour among its readers. Dance fans will be pleased to hear that the 90-year-old author has seen and approved the first three films to be finished. At the press screening, the Daily Telegraph's Hugh Massingberd expressed doubts about the style of a cap worn by an undergraduate in the Twenties. Personally, I felt that a violent student demonstration set in 1963 was somewhat premature. Channel 4's commissioning editor, Peter Amsorge, agreed: "I suggested they move it on a few years, but that's when it is set in the book."
At the heart of all four films is a remarkable performance by the fine classical actor, Simon Russell Beale, who plays the pompous and power- hungry Kenneth Widmerpool. In the course of the action, he ages from 16 to 60-odd. As the decades roll by, his hair thins and a corrugation of fat accumulates at his collar. I asked Alvin Rakoff, the producer of the films, how the actor achieved this astonishingly credible transformation. "Partly make-up, but he did put on a few pounds," he said. I'm sure the estimable Mr Russell Beale will not follow the example of fellow thesp Robert De Niro, who accumulated 60lb for his role as Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. Finding he had trouble in shedding this load when filming finished, he sued director Martin Scorsese. As if anticipating a similar occurrence, a Channel 4 spokeswoman remarked, "Well, Simon has never been exactly wafer-thin, you know."
Wilde, starring Stephen Fry as the incomparable wit, is another eagerly anticipated feast at the cinema. Though it's a pretty safe bet that "the love that dare not speak its name" will play a not insignificant part in the film, it is interesting to speculate which other aspects of the brilliant Irish polymath will be explored in Julian Mitchell's screenplay.
We know of Oscar as an aesthete, as poet, as loving father, as fabulist, as triumphant playwright and as dazzling conversationalist - even Oscar as the editor of Woman's World. But an unexpected facet of this generous but ill-fated genius is: Wilde as roadbuilder.
Oscar the hod-carrier made a brief appearance in 1874 when the great art critic John Ruskin encouraged Oxford students to beautify their city by transforming a swampy lane called Ferry Hinksey into a flower-bordered country road. Wilde, who generally preferred to rise in the afternoon, made a rare effort to wake at dawn. He later boasted that he had been privileged to fill "Mr Ruskin's especial wheel-barrow", and was instructed by the master himself in the mysteries of wheeling such a vehicle from place to place. This intriguing sidelight on Wilde comes from Richard Elliman's monumental biography, which notes that, for all the efforts of this unlikely gang of navvies, "the road slowly sank from sight". As Oscar might have said: "There is only one thing in the world worse than being walked about, and that is not being walked about."
A letter sold for pounds 84,000 at Sotheby's last week. Not letter as in missive, but letter as in symbol or character. To be precise, it was a capital "V" torn from an illuminated manuscript. Attributed to Fra Angelica, the richly embellished initial is a long-lost page from a sumptuous gradual or book of chants owned by the Florentine monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli. For his own sake, I hope the new owner is not familiar with the works of M R James, the unparalleled maitre of the horror genre.
The sale of the lost letter is uncannily reminiscent of James's fleshcreeper, Canon Alberic's Scrapbook. This concerns a 19th-century academic who, while touring the cathedrals of southern France, buys a hoard of illustrations ripped from medieval manuscripts: "Such a collection Dennistoun had hardly dreamed of in his wildest moments. Here were 10 leaves from a copy of Genesis, no later than 700AD. Further on, a set of pictures from a Psalter, the very finest that the 13th century could produce."
But, as always with M R James, that most moral of tale-spinners, a heavy penalty is exacted from the recipient of such vandalism. Much to Dennistoun's alarm, one of the illustrations comes to life: "...eyes, of a fiery yellow, against which the pupils showed black and intense, and the exulting hate and thirst to destroy life which shone there, were the most horrifying features in the whole vision."
Though I trust no such outbreak of unpleasantness accompanies the magnificent "V", I would have thought that for pounds 84,000, some guarantee against supernatural retribution might be included
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