18 Mar 2014

6 nations rugby 2014, what conclusions?

The top European nation's rugby tournament of 2014, known as the 6 Nations Tournament, has just finished, with the final three games being played last Saturday (and I watched all three). With the Rugby World Cup coming up in the autumn of 2015, this is a good opportunity to look at the results and assess the current strengths and weaknesses of the top European rugby nations, whilst keeping an eye on the southern hemisphere nations that played test matches in Europe in November 2013 and which will play their own 4-nations tournament later this year. Even though each edition of the Rugby World Cup has had its share of surprises and upsets, the top teams have rarely failed totally, so, with some variations within the upper hiearchy, those teams that show well in the two major international tournaments that take place within 18 months of a world cup usually do well in the following edition of the most prestigious rugby event.

Brian O'Driscoll, the brilliant Irish centre back, after a record 150 international games, retired from international rugby at this weekend's game in which his team narrowly defeated France. Hats off!

Ireland was the deserving winner of this 2014 European tournament, just a nose ahead of England. And this tournament victory provided a suitable send-off for their great centre back Brian O'Driscill, whose last internationla game this was. The only game that Ireland lost was a very tough game (in my opinion the best game of the whole tournament) that they lost by 3 points to England, but which was played on the English home ground of Twickenham, giving the home team an indisputed advantage in such a close game. Both these teams finished with 4 victories out of the 5 games played by each, but the Irish finished with a slightly better points balance (goal average if you prefer) than the English: 83 against 73. But I thought the Irish also deserved their overall tournament victory on account of the consistency of their play and their team discipline. Their only loss was in London, by just three points and that game could have gone to either team. Almost the same could be said of England, who also lost just one game, to France and in Paris, and then only by two points. But they were more frequently penalised overall than the Irish and their game, although it looked perhaps more adventurous, was also less well-oiled and solid that that of the Irish. But England are a younger team with quite a few new players on the side, so this may not be a handicap in the perspective of 2015.

The French scrum, once a source of pride, has not looked so good in this tournament and was reguarly dominated by its opponents, and penalised by the referees (here Steve Walsh in the game against Ireland). Combined with bad line-outs, this deprived the French backs of decent balls a lot of the time

Of the other teams, Wales, the reigning champions (they have won the last 2 editions of this tournament) played brilliantly on occasions, but more erratically than the top two teams. France was on the whole very disapponting, with the exception of 30 minutes of their game against England (which they manged to win) and their very good display against Ireland. They were lucky to win in Scotland, were not that impressive at home against Italy, the weakest side, and got well trounced by Wales in Cardiff. They finished in 4th place, which is about right for their current level. Italy and Scotland were clearly in another, lower league and took the last 2 places, with Italy trailing and losing all its games.

Dany Care, the English scrum half, one of the best players in this tournament and a key element in England's good overall performance 

Before coming back to some other comments on the way these 6 teams played during this tournament and what this could signify for the future, particularly in the light of the World Cup next year, let's take a look at the latest world rankings, which are regularly established by the International Rugby Board on the basis of statistics drawn from international games. The top three teams are still from the Southern Hemisphere, with, in that order, New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia. England is now a close fourth and could have taken third place had it won this 6 nations tournament. Ireland has moved up to fifth place, followed by Wales and France. So, at least according to the statistics, the world heirachy has been slightly shuffled in a minor key, but not exactly overthrown: the major Southern Hemishere nations still appear to be on top of the world or rugby, even if not all of them were present in the final stages of the last edition of the World Cup.

Luther Burrell, an impressive new player in the English back line who made his mark by scoring tries, breaking through regularly and defending well. Even with Manu Tuilagi absent for all but 20 minutes of the whole tournament, the English backs looked fast and were creative.

But here we should perhaps remember the words of Mark Twain (who attributed them to Benjamin Disraeli): "there are three kinds of lies; lies, damned lies, and statistics" The inference clearly being that the third of these categories is the worst. In any event, statistics are unable to reveal the tendencies as shown in recent games of international rugby. During the November test matches, both England and Ireland came very close to defeating the apparently invincible All Blacks, who had been beaten a year before by England. South Africa, although undoubtedly powerful and redoutable in a single game, looked solid but uncreative. Australia were clearly a notch below and could be regularly beaten by any of the top European nations. So the North/South gap could be closing, as the Irish played very well and the English, with a younger team that has finally found cohesion and resilience, looked more creative and dangerous than they have for a very long time. They must however sort out their discipline, as they give away too many penalties to win close matches against tighter teams.  

The next chapter, albeit in a minor key as this will be the end of  a long and tiring season for most top European players, will be written when the summer tours of Northern Hemisphere nations to the Southern Hemisphere take place in June. England will tour New Zealand, France go to Australia, Wales to South Africa and Ireland to Argentina.

10 Mar 2014

Albrecht Dürer, landscapes and portraits

It has been almost 2 months since I posted an article on this blog, so maybe a few regular readers have been wondering what on earth I have been up to. Too much else going on, mainly work, and so insufficient time to write about and find illustrations for several subjects that have occupied my mind recently. The 6 nations rugby tournament is in full swing here in Europe, but that is only part of the story and I will come to that subject when all five matches have been completed, in a week's time. So far, given the hammering the English cricket team took in Australia recently, that country can be proud of their rugby team who, so far, have looked the best of the lot, along with the Irish. Ireland is my favourite to win though, as their points average is way ahead of England's, and they should beat France in Paris next weekend. Yet both these teams, together with France (who have not looked good at all but have managed to scrape 3 narrow and lucky victories) are contenders for final victory in the tournament, each having lost just one game. All this has nothing to do with today's subject, which is the work of that very great German Renaissance artist, Albrecht Dürer. Would Dürer have played rugby? 

This article will be followed by another, concerning other aspects of this fascinating artist's work

The excellent Städel Museum, on the river Main, in Frankfurt, which also houses a good restaurant with a fine wine list.

I made the trip from Paris to Frankfurt-am-Main one weekend in January this year especially to see the very considerable collection of Dürer's work that had been put together by that city's Städel Museum. Frankfurt, almost totally destroyed in the second world war, is not an attractive city today as it must have been before in its medieval-based organisation. But it is a great city for museums, as they are all lined up alongside the river and one can hop from one to another in no time at all.

I have always admired Dürer's work, mostly at a distance as it were, via illustrations, and in any case sporadically, like when I have come across the occasional work in a museum somewhere. These have been paintings, engravings or drawings, or even other objects since Dürer was as eclectic as he was prolific. And clearly very successful, business-wise, but more on that in the second article perhaps. So this was the first time that I had seen a large number of all kinds of his work together, and very impressive it was too.

The Wire-Drawing Mill, c.1489 (watercolour)

One of Dürer's first known paintings (above) is a watercolour which dates from 1489. It appears both slightly gauche and surprisingly modern. One has to bear in mind that his first trade was that of his father's: a gold and silversmith, which probably goes some way to explaining his quite extraordinary precision and sureness as an engraver. Although afterwards he did not paint many landscapes (at least that have survived) Dürer did, as most of his Renaissance contemporaries, use landscape extensively in the backgrounds of many of his religious subjects. But there are a few others and they clearly show, at least to me, something that foreshadows later German romanticism, if one may allow me this anchronism!

View of Arco, 1495 (watercolour). This was painted on Dürer's return from his first trip to Italy

Willow Mill c.1496/8 (watercolour). 

This painting, made near his home town of Nuremberg, includes the same mill as in the first painting shown above, but Dürer has moved on in his manner and preoccupations. This work is more about mood and less about precise topography. But if landscape played a minor part in Dürer's work, portraits, as singular works and not just a part of epic or religious paintings, were very significant, 

Self-portrait aged 22, 1493 (oil on linen)

By the time the last two watercolour landscapes shown above had been painted, Dürer was already a master of the portrait in oils: in this case the self-portrait. Symbolism was very often an element that told a story in portraits at this time, and this one is no exception: the artist holds in his right hand a sprig of sea-holly, whose German name signifies "man's fidelity". In addition the plant was also considered to have aphrodisiac qualities and some commentators therefore consider that this painting was intended as a gift for his future wife, Agnes Frey, whom he married the following year.

Self-portrait at 28, 1500 (oil on wood panel) 

Dürer made three self-portraits (apart from drawings, including a remarquable nude one that I will show later), which is a lot less than Rembrandt. They are all masterly. The one above is the last of the three and bears on it this purely factual inscription, in Latin : "Thus I, Albrecht Dürer from Nuremburg, painted myself with indelible colours at the age of 28 years."  The enigmatic and Christ-like image of the artist intrigues. Indeed Jesus Christ was often represented like this in mediaeval art, looking straight ahead and with one hand showing. But the clothing is contemporary for 1500, so there is no anachronism that could lend confusion as to the painter's intention. The theory about this image is not that Dürer took himself for God, but that it was a statement of his faith: that his talent was a gift from God. Not being either a believer or an expert in such matters, I have no idea whether this was the case, but it is plausible. 

Portrait of the artist's father, 1490. (oil on panel)

Dürer's first oil painting, and, as far as we know, his first portrait, was this one of his father. He also portrayed his mother at about the same time. Dürer has served an appreticeship under his father, who was a goldsmith. Sobriety and realism, toned by a form of humility, seem to be the key notes of this painting.

 Portrait of Hieronymous Holzschuher, 1526 (oil on panel)

This much later portrait shows Dürer's total mastery of the genre. This work was not in the Frankfurt exhibition, but I saw it more recently in the Berlin Gemäldegalerie, on a wall with at least three other Dürer portaits that are equally impressive. The subject was a close friend of the artist and his social and economic status shows clearly in his clothing of fine fur. Holzschuher has been a mayor of Nuremberg, Dürer's home town and this portrait was kept by the subject's family until the late 19th century. The detail of the face is almost hyer-realistic and a close zoom in to look at the facial hair, or the fur of his coat, and then back at the overall impression, shows how the incredible precision of Dürer's look and touch was never detrimental to the power of the picture as a whole. Another thing that is impressive in Dûrer's portraits is how simply direct they are. No clutter or confusion in the background. The head is the focus and the clothing, when shown, has significance and acts as a support.  

Portrait of a young Venetian woman, 1505 (oil on panel)

Dürer's portraits of women although less numerous, are just as good as those of men. This earlier work was done in Venice, during the artist's second visit to that city. It is probably unfinished, although one may not notice that from this reproduction.  Nobody knows who the young lady was, and the painting, currently in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, was discovered in a private collection in Lithuania in 1923.

You may have noticed that most of the illstrations that I have used come from a single source. It is remarquable and very useful that there is a full collection of images this artist's work available here: 


Go and have a look there for yourselves. I will be doing another article on Albrecht Dürer quite soon, this time more focused on his drawings and engravings. I will perhaps leave the religious works to others as I mst admit to being saturated with that stuff.

15 Jan 2014

Bracque again

Yes, I have to return to this fantastic restrospective exhibition that has recently closed in Paris of the work of Braque. I may well do so again, such was the density and interest of this show.

I mentioned in my previous article on Georges Braque that his work probably started to change again after the shock caused by the First World War. But this is not all that evident in the chronology of the show, since the almost completely cubist period, in one form or another, actually lasted until well into the 1930's, as the image below shows. He clearly had to pick up where he left off in 1914, but changes there were.

This painting, called "The musician", dates from 1917-18, but it already shows a significant change in the preoccupations of Braque's work as it reintroduces colour as a major element of the composition. Now let's look back to 1907 and see how things have turned around with regard to Braque's relationship with colour, as in this painting of a woman's back.

Colour is clearly a major ingredient of the impact of this work which dates from the early years of the 20th century and Bracque's "fauvist" period, in which form and shape is also of growing importance, as is shown in this painting. Just a year later, form, and its breaking down into geometrical components, had taken over from colour, the use of which which had become very much more subdued, as in the painting below, of a similar subject.

As I said in the first article, one can then clearly trace the decline of the role of colour in the hierarchy of Braque's interests, and the corresponding rise of the analysis of form and the creation of a type of synthetic vision that we call, for want of a better word, cubism.

Possible inspirations for this line of work can be seen in architectural situations like this one, from the Normandy village called Varangeville where Braque had a studio.

A beginning of what was to be gradual abandonement of what Bracque possibly saw as a dead-end in the pursuit of cubist exploration shows in the painting above, dating from 1939, and which, while continuing the use of many subject matters that had served him throughout the cubist phase (musicians and their instruments for example, and here we should remember that Bracque was himself a good musician), is also in a much freeer, more playful style and includes the use of colour.

Later still-lifes and studio interior paintings take this playfulness much further, moving away from the systematic approach of cubism. This painting also shows that black was always an important colour with Bracque, at least after the fauvist period. And he never seemd to find the sky again (see the previous article). The still life below, which dates from 1942, shows yet another shift towards greater simplification of forms and composition in a way that parallels that of Matisse, for instance, and which introduces his final period of work.

Parallels between Bracque and Picasso have often been drawn. Whilst the two had an intense relationship of exchanges during the early cubist period, Bracque had perhaps a more studious and less spontaneous appraoch to panting then Picasso, as show in this painting of the artist and his model, a theme also much used by Picasso in a different vein.

More to come on Bracque probably, as and when I find suitable images to illustrate it. But we will also move to Dürer shortly, as I recently saw a fantastic exhibition of this great Grema,n artist's work In Franfurt am Main.

7 Jan 2014

Bracque, an overlooked master

Saying that the painting of Georges Braque is overlooked is perhaps stretching a point. But how many people would recognize his name, not to mention his rightful place in modern painting, alongside Matisse, Cézanne or Picasso? And yet he truly belongs there, as the magnificent recent show in Paris of his work has convinced me.

Georges Braque at the end of his long and very productive life

In the matter of painting, I feel that images usually speak louder than words. Still in some cases, words can be useful, if only to comment, put in context, or attempt to explain what one sees and understands. Because seeing, rather than looking, is all about feeling and understanding. A dog may be able to see a painting. But what it feels or reads into it is another matter and anyway it will not be able to express this, and thus communicate with us. Birds are perhaps another matter, as one Japanese scientist has attempted to prove here.

Georges Braque, born in 1882, lived quite a long life of 81 years and apparently hardly ever ceased working at his painting and other visual work, except during the First World War when he was seriously wounded as a soldier. The recent exhibition of his work in Paris, which has just closed at the Grand Palais, was extremely impressive for its sheer density, as well as its quality. Braque is, for me, a great and truly admirable artist. He just kept at it, whathever the path he was exploring at any time, working, often simultaneously, on several varaiations of the same theme.  After seeing the show, an acquaintance of mine made the remark that his painting is very masculine and that she did not like much of it. I am unsure whether one can qualify painting as "masculine" or "feminine", so I will rest on that one.  Is it really because I am masculine that I liked this show so much?

The Port of La Ciotat, 1907

His early works in this show were very much a part of the fauvist style, as in the above painting, and I did not find them, with a few exceptions, to be among the best examples of this movement that ushered in the 20th century. 

The viaduct at Estaque, 1908

His study of Cézanne then led him to a more rigourous approach, analyzing and simplifying forms and colours that, in turn, then led into the cubist style for which he, as well as his contemporary Picasso, are well known. This constitutes (visibly in the hanging I saw) a first major break in his approach. For one thing the sky disappears (last appearance I saw was in the painting above), never to reappear again. And with it the colour blue, at least for a long time. Braque became concerned mainly with form, with light acting at times a shaper of form. His pallet of colours also shrinks dramatically, from the bright primary and secondary coloured dots, lines and patches on a white surface (which lends its added brilliance) to the use of just three subdued colours in various shades : grey, ocre and green. 

Houses at Estaque, 1908

And then, at the height of his analytical cubist work, to almost monochromatic work, as below, but with very subtle use of nuances to provide volume to the very complex and imbrecated shapes.

Violin and candle 1909

Mandoline (1910?)

Braque seemingly came to the end (the limit?) of his cubist experiments with the almost abstract drawings and collages as below, which further retricted means to an austere use of a few elements, relying mainly on pencil or charcoal on paper and scarce introduced materials. To prevent these works from becoming totally detached from any form of recognizeable reality, Braque used subterfuges as "reality quotes", such as lettering or bits of newspaper or small parts of an identifiable object drawn.

Bar counter and glasses, 1912

Still life with tenora, 1913

I feel that, scrolling down these images much as walking through the exhibition (which was naturally far denser), one can follow the evolution of his work over the period that led up to the First World War. This terrible episode (Braque was a soldier and suffered a severe wound in 1915) was to produce a break in his work in many senses, I felt, looking at all this very impressive work, that Braque really blossomed after the war. The intense exploration and applied workmanship of this early period paid off later as he became much freer in his whole approach.  But I will resume the story in another article.

Braque the wounded soldier, 1915

4 Jan 2014

Fashion, stupidity and the superfluous

I suppose that one could say that the first two are synonymous, to a point.The third being a frequent corollary and companion to both. The reason for raising this topic is a recent short article that I noticed in today's edition of the weekend magazine supplément of what I consider to be regularly the best French daily newspaper, Le Monde. However this supplement, recently renamed M, has unfortunately become pretty much a fashion catalogue, the majority of it's pages, formely full of in-depth articles, now being polluted with totally uninteresting stuff about of "trends", "fashion icons" and other superflous crap. The newspaper istelf continues to be good, but this is pure decadence, and uninteresting decadence at that.

a past cover of the M magazine, which I consider to be unworthy of its parent newspaper Le Monde

Flicking through the pages of this latest edition, which is usually the most I feel inclined to do with this thing before stuffing it in the waste bin, I noticed a short piece on the recent rush by fashion victims in the USA to purchase the latest model of sneakers produced by the Nike brand under the Air Jordan logo. Put on sale on December 21st, this shoe apparently caused some idiots to queue up all night and then fight for places in the queue. I don't know what the price of this useless object is, and I don't care, but I find something quite revolting about people going to such extremes for soemthing so totally superfluous and, probably, over-priced. There may be good reasons for standing in queues, like getting food when you are starving, but doing so (and all night!) for something you don't need seems the ultimate in consumerism gone mad.

former basket player Michael Jordan with one of the shoes made by Nike that use his name and, probably, bring him even more money

Why does this get my goat? Maybe I just felt like a little rant. Who knows? I know that this is not the most serious sign of madness in this world, but it is definitely one of them and I hate it.

31 Dec 2013

Building stone walls and paving

There is for me something deeply satisfying in the work involved in building stone walls, stone paths and paved areas. Such work, which can be physically demanding on account of the weight and abrasive nature of the items as well as the repetition of tasks, combines the physical and the useful with the aesthetic, like indeed many forms of craftsmanship. I have, in the past, practiced the trade of carpenter/cabinet-maker and I would say the same of that too. I don't think of the end products of either of these crafts as works of art. They are made by hands and tools and the human mind, but, above all, they are functional. Art is, by definition, useless, and so is perhaps essential in other ways.

The photographs in this article show some of the stone work I currently have in progress in Gascony. All of it uses local materials, much found, some purchased. Very little mortar (lime and sand, with an occasional dab of white cement) has beeen used, except for some of the bottom and top layers, and the angle stones. As the walls have been back-filled with rubble and small stones for extra drainage, and then with earth, this dry stone technique should enable surplus water to find its way out without creating undue pressure. At least that is what I hope! 

work in progress: the second layer terrace is under way in this photo, but is now more or less finished, as below, taken from the mid-level and with plantings in progress

the second-level terrace, now finished apart from the topping stones, still to be cut and laid.

I cannot pretend to be an expert in building rough stone walls, and I make many mistakes for sure, but I do apply myself when I work at this and try to do a good job. So far, the ones I have built seem to be holding up alright, but time will tell I suppose. We are definitely not in the pyramid league here! This project revolves around a two layer stone terrace with a mostly stone (I will be replacing the non-stone parts with stone steps) stairway leading up 17 steps and linking the top level to the bottom via an intermediary terrace which I have also paved. Since these pictures were taken, I have started to extend the bottom layer to the left of the staircase. The system will be similar on each side, with some changes in levels to adapt to the ground.

As well as some of the steps (temporary), the pathway that leads from the house to this staircase is made of river-bed pebbles that come from the Garonne river, nearby (see first photograph below), which are also used, alternately with irregular off-cut slabs salvaged from a local stone-cutter's yard, to pave the middle terrace part (bottom two photographs below).

Plantings are under way on the top terrace, and also in beds set into the middle level. At the bottom level lies a wide, sloping and grassed field with a lake at the bottom of it, about 100 metres from the bottom wall and, in between, some fruit trees that I have planted and which will probably be increasing in numbers.

This article also shows, below, some photographs of stone paving in other places that I have seen and thought to photograph. These will probably provide inspiration for future work.

Stone floor paving inside a chateau currently being restored: Château de Fargues, in Sauternes, near Bordeaux. An example of how to do it!

pebble stone paving in Granada, Spain

At the end of last-summer's work sessions, I cremated my favourite espadrilles which had been worn out by so much unsuitably hard effort. At other times I try to wear more suitable footgear for this work. 

13 Dec 2013

Valloton again

There are so many more paintings (and engravings) that warrant commentary in the Felix Valloton exhibition that is currently showing at the Grand Palais in Paris that I cannot resist going back for a second look.

This painter clearly had a very solid classical training, togther with a taste for composition and craftsmanship that he never really lost. This shows in many of his works such as these two:

But there is also a more personal twist to his vision that begins to emerge in the second of the above two paintings, and which becomes increasingly obvious as time goes by. This is sometimes accompanied by clear quotations from, or references to, paintings by artists that he clearly admired, such as Ingres or Manet. Manet's Olympia, which caused such a scnadal when it was first shown, is right here in Valloton's version, and this is followed by another painting with similar inspiration that is given a marvellous touch of additional ambiguity by the cigarette in the mouth of the black woman on the right hand side.

As well as Manet, Valloton's was clearly inspired by Ingres, and this shows in the way he portrayed the female body in many other paintings, even if I found many of these hovering between a form of academicism and something far more synthetic but equally rigid in a way. Nevertheless, they have their qualities...

As far as his paintings of women are concerned, I prefer the ones where composition and colour take on a different and more important role and the painting works perhaps better as a formal whole, the body being an essential part but not the sole or, in some cases, the dominant theme. In other words, when Valloton steps back a bit from his understandable obessesion with feminine pulchritude. In the two following paintings he also shows his mastery of drawing, brilliantly combining form and line.

With the exception of works like the two immediately above, my favourite paintings in this exhibition dealt with landscapes or people in natural surroundings, and Valloton's admirable capacity to synthetize something quintessential from observed nature. 

I should add that one or two of the paintings above, like the last one, are not in fact in thie exhibition that inspired these 2 articles, but who cares? They illustrate my points I think.

I would like to finish this sort article with a couple of the woodcuts, which are equally impressive.

I have deliberately placed these as small as they really are, more or less (and smaller than the versions I showed in the previous article). The proof of their qualities is that they do not lose impact on account of the drop in their scale.

Valloton is, I think, an ignored (or at least underrated) master. I will take his work anytime rather than that of the dreadfully overrated Renoir, for instance. And he can even, at times, stand with the three big M's : Manet, Monet and Matisse. At times, but not all the time.