Saturday, 18 January 2020

Tullio Crali: A Futurist Life review

The Forces of the Bend, 1930

Tullio Crali: A Futurist Life review – a head-on revelation
The lifelong Italian futurist shared his peers’ obsession with planes and fast cars. But, as this riveting first UK show reveals, his radiant, humane paintings set him apart

Laura Cumming
The Observer
Sun 12 Jan 2020

The Italian painter Tullio Crali ought not to be quite such a head-on revelation. After all, his astonishing vision of a solo pilot nose-diving straight into a canyon of skyscrapers, light shattering round his helmeted head, is one of the great masterpieces of futurist art. Yet this riveting survey at the Estorick Collection comes as a surprise from first to last, and not only because it is his first in Britain.

Crali (1910-2000) is a strange case, in life as in art. He grew up in Zadar, on what is now the Croatian coast, but which once belonged to Italy. His family moved to north-eastern Italy in 1922, and it was there, at the age of 15, that he created his first futurist work after reading an article about the movement.
Jonathan Monoplane (1988, detail) by the painter Tullio Crali
Jonathan Monoplane (1988, detail)

Crali fell hard for the futurist manifesto, with its addiction to motion, speed, modernity and roaring machinery – from the espresso maker to the Gatling gun, the aeroplane to the hurtling motorcar, notoriously described by Marinetti, futurist leader, as “more beautiful than the victory of Samothrace”.

But Crali’s own painting of a car rushing round a bend is more sophisticated than anything by his contemporaries. The vehicle itself is long gone, leaving only the hint of a wheel among magnificent curving vectors of black, cream and red – scintillating traces of its fast departure.

Tricolour Wings (1932)

And though he was as committed as his colleagues to the plane as ultimate futurist symbol, Crali’s aeropittura, as they are called, are frequently more original. A terrific painting at the start of this show, called Tricolour Wings (1932), has the plane ascending in sudden stages, scattering its target markings up through the sky like urgent thought bubbles. The plane’s geometry, repeated as if in stop-start motion, perfectly describes the sharp sensation of sudden uplift, catching at each new thermal current. And the sky around it – running all the way from hyperreal clouds to gracious, Titianesque beauty – amounts to a painted collage.
an abstract painting showing the motion of an aeroplane propeller
Broken Engine (1931)

Indeed, though you could never mistake him for anything else, Crali often seems the odd man out of the futurist gang. For one thing, he is a tremendous colourist. Planes rise into moonlight-blue skies or descend through lavender mists. The scarlet stripes of a biplane burn like a cigarette among pearl-grey clouds. And in a work such as Broken Engine, the polished wood of the slowing propeller shines gold against smoke and slate-blue heavens, its deco sheen ineffably glorified.
Roarings of an Aeroplane (1927), Tullio Crali.
Roarings of an Aeroplane (1927)

What is more, there is an undeniably human aspect to Crali’s art. People get into the picture. There are two vast seamen at the prow of a gigantic battleship, trying to steer the ship through a storm with their muckle hands. A female figure raises her shapely arms like elegant wings and the blue air around her vibrates. He can paint the most complicated machinery – steam-driven pistons in a shipyard, or high-rising cranes – and there will be an intimation of human beings moving about below.
a painting of multiple propeller engines
Assault of Motors (1968)

Crali himself kept on moving. He left Italy after the second world war for an art school in Paris, remaining there for almost a decade. His drawings of the city describe the brasseries, stairwells and metal chairs of the Jardin du Luxembourg, the shadows along the Seine embankment: Paris, in his words, as “mysterious, deep and moody”. In the 60s he quit Paris for Cairo, then back to Italy, eventually ending up in Milan.
a painting of swirling skies and clouds
Acrobatic Sky (1970)

But somehow Crali’s art stands still, as the man does not. In the late 1980s he is still painting aeroplanes as if they were brand new inventions, still showing solo pilots swooping about in glass cockpits. It is as if the international space race never happened.

And his devotion to futurism never seems to waver, even though Marinetti died in 1944 and the movement had its final meeting in 1950. It is hard to decipher Crali’s own politics from anything he wrote or painted; the curators of this show emphasise his belief in futurism as an aesthetic rather than political ideology. But the association with Mussolini’s fascism can hardly be ignored.
The Eruption (1977), Tullio Crali.
The Eruption (1977)

So perhaps that is why his later career lies in shadow. The Estorick is showing a number of Crali’s Sassintesi – startling collages of stones, seaweed and assorted bric-a-brac found on beaches and presented upright, on canvases. These appear entirely novel. And every now and again they hit the mark, when Crali takes some sea-carved rock and twists it out of kilter, so that it suddenly looks like a rushing futurist figure.

Lights at Sunset in Ostia (1930)

But he is at his best when most liberated from the movement. One of the most beautiful works in this show is a landscape of Ostia in late evening sun, as the shadows of hill and vale deepen, and rays of dying light arch between earth and sky. Translucent green patches stand for trees and clouds, and everything meets at the vanishing point of the ocean, radiant and serene – perhaps the most beautiful scene Crali ever painted.

• Tullio Crali: A Futurist Life is at the Estorick Collection, London, from 15 January until 11 April

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Maigret over four decades...

Put that in your pipe: why the Maigret novels are still worth savouring
As a six-year reissue project of the series reaches completion, Scottish author Graeme Macrae Burnet explains why Simenon’s Parisian sleuth still matters, 90 years after his first case

Graeme Macrae Burnet
The Guardian
Sat 4 Jan 2020

At the beginning of Maigret and Monsieur Charles, the 75th novel in Georges Simenon’s detective series, the celebrated inspector lines up his pipes on his desk. He plays with them for a while, arranging them into amusing shapes, before selecting one that suits his mood. He has just reached a decision on the future of his career. “He had no regrets, but even so he felt a certain sadness.”

Simenon also began his writing day by lining up his pipes on his desk, and one cannot help but wonder if, as he wrote these lines, he too felt a certain sadness. It was February 1972 and, after four decades of writing up to half a dozen novels a year, Maigret and Monsieur Charles would be his last.

Its publication by Penguin Books later this month also marks the culmination of a six-year undertaking by the publishing house to reissue the series in its entirety, all in crisp new translations. This project has introduced a whole new audience to Simenon’s work, and provided long-standing fans with the chance to renew their acquaintance with the world of Maigret. When Simenon was asked how the Maigret novels differed from his other books – his romans durs – he described them as “sketches”. But are they more than that? Ninety years after the series was begun, are they still worth reading? Yes, and yes.

The decision Maigret has made at the beginning of the final novel is to turn down a promotion to head of the police judiciaire. “He needed to get out of his office, soak up the atmosphere and discover different worlds with each new investigation,” writes Simenon. “He needed the cafes and bars, where he so often ended up waiting, drinking a beer or a calvados.” For this is, above all, what Maigret does: he waits. And he observes. For Maigret’s mission is not merely the solving of the crimes. The apprehension of the culprit is secondary to his desire to comprehend the motivations of his opponents. In Maigret’s Childhood Friend, he tells a suspect, “I’m not judging you. I’m trying to understand.” It’s a phrase that perfectly encapsulates both Maigret’s and Simenon’s work.
Simenon in 1962

The character of Maigret is introduced in Pietr the Latvian (1930). It’s a novel that bears some of the hallmarks of the hundreds of pulp novels Simenon had written in the previous years (a surfeit of action and exclamation marks), and this embryonic manifestation of Maigret is more of the alpha-male action hero than in the later novels: “He was a big, bony man. Iron muscles shaped his jacket sleeves. He had a way of imposing himself just by standing there.” But even at the very beginning, there was something else. Maigret has his pet theory: “Inside every wrong-doer and crook there lives a human being. What he waited and watched out for was the crack in the wall, the instant when the human being comes out from behind the opponent.”

The eponymous Pietr is an elusive figure seemingly in possession of several personalities. It is Maigret’s goal not just to gather evidence of his guilt but to break down these identities: to reach an understanding of the man. This he does through patience and observation. The climax of the novel is not the protracted chase and brawl which precedes it, but comes when the two men share a bottle of spirits in the upstairs room of an inn and Pietr unburdens himself to his confessor.

In 1948, Simenon was to provide something of a second introduction to Maigret. Maigret’s First Case predates Pietr the Latvian by some 20 years. Maigret is the 26-year-old secretary to Superintendent Le Bret of the Saint-Georges station in Paris. Simenon was by then at the height of his powers as a novelist, and the portrayal of the detective is now more nuanced. We find Maigret, the son of a Loire valley gamekeeper, cowed by the butler of a wealthy Parisian family, unsure how to act among the more seasoned cops. He is dogged, in his belief that status should not place anyone above the law, but is also riven by self-doubt and a sense of purposelessness: “Was it really a man’s work to hang around all day in a bistro, to watch a house where nothing happened?” he wonders. He recalls his early ambition to become a doctor, then more vaguely to be a kind of sage whom people consult: “a repairer of destinies, because he was able to live the lives of every sort of man, to put himself inside everybody’s mind.” This is Simenon’s supreme virtue as a novelist, to burrow beneath the surface of his characters’ behaviour; to empathise.

The plot of Maigret and Monsieur Charles concerns the murder of a wealthy playboy-lawyer, a man who like Pietr the Latvian leads a kind of double life. The prime suspect is his estranged alcoholic wife, Nathalie, a former nightclub hostess, but the question that most vexes Maigret is not that of her guilt or innocence, but that of how she can tolerate her “suffocating existence”. It is a crime novel, yes, but more than that it is an investigation into how we become what we are, and how we become entrenched in lives we might not wish to lead.

One does not read the Maigret novels in expectation of wild revelation or plot twists, but to inhabit the vividly realised world of Parisian streets, dives, bistros and high-class hotels. If the books are sketches, they are the sketches of an old master. But the thread that runs though all the books is Maigret’s inquiries into the psychology of his adversaries, and it is this unfailing humanity that makes the Maigret books truly worth reading.

Friday, 10 January 2020

Clive James and Pete Atkin

Image result for pete atkin and clive james
Pete and Clive

Pete Atkin and Clive James have shared a partnership in songwriting for half a century since their University days in Cambridge, creating an archive of 300 or more songs known for their intellectual ranking.

"Writing song lyrics is my favourite form of writing anything. But I've never managed to become famous for it" declares Clive.

Pete and Clive's songs are reminiscent of The Great American Songbook. Although Pete is well known for performing the songs, they were also writing songs for other people to sing in a similar tradition to Tin Pan Alley.

In the 1970s, their musical partnership was described as "one of the best song-writing partnerships alive", alongside Elton John, Joni Mitchell and The Beatles. At this time, Pete Atkin was the most booked artist on The John Peel Show for two years running. The songs gained most recognition in the 1970s thanks to DJ Kenny Everett and recordings by singers Julie Covington and Val Doonican.

In this programme, we hear revealing and personal reminiscences from Pete and Clive today as they discuss how it all began, the differences between writing poetry and song, and their thoughts on the future of their songs. Friends and colleagues contribute a personal insight into this unique pairing, considered to be masters of their craft by Stephen Fry, Bruce Beresford, Daniel Finklestein, Simon Wallace and Russell Davies.

Why is this the missing part in Clive James' career despite it being the one thing he wants to be most remembered for?

Producer: Hayley Redmond
A Sue Clark production for BBC Radio 4

Friday, 3 January 2020

Alasdair Gray RIP

Alasdair Gray obituary
Artist in words and pictures whose novel Lanark sparked a creative flowering in his native Scotland

James Campbell
The Guardian
Sun 29 Dec 2019

Alasdair Gray, who has died aged 85, was the father figure of the renaissance in Scottish literature and art which began in the penultimate decade of the 20th century. Gray’s great novel Lanark (1981) was an almost preposterously ambitious concoction of thinly disguised autobiography, science fiction, formal playfulness (the four-part story opened at Book Three) and graphic design by the author on a monumental scale. Scottish fiction, which had lain in a depressed state for years, suddenly took off in unexpected directions.
Image result for Lanark: design for the title page, Book 4, 1982
Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner, AL Kennedy and Janice Galloway, among others, were all Gray’s bairns. Authors invited Gray to illustrate their books. Little magazines sported his self-portraits and cursive designs on their covers. A graphic artist known locally for his eccentric appearance and behaviour became, at the age of nearly 50, a central figure of the literary world.

Born in Riddrie, in the east of Glasgow, Alasdair was the son of working-class parents with an inclination towards “Fabian, non-revolutionary socialism”. His mother Amy (nee Fleming) worked in a clothing warehouse, but nurtured a love of music, particularly opera. His father, Alexander, who ended his working life as a builder’s labourer, sought consolation in the countryside, and was a founder member of the Scottish Youth Hostels Association.
Self Portrait, Night Street, 1953

Their efforts to hold to a life of imagination or adventure, while bound to the necessities of raising a family in an imposing industrial city, infused Gray’s own artistic vision and political instinct. He was a lifelong socialist and Scottish nationalist, who lived in the city of his birth all his life, save for a four-year spell during the second world war, when the family moved to Yorkshire.

The publication in 2010 of A Life in Pictures, a combined visual and verbal autobiography and an essential companion to Lanark, revealed not only how much of Gray’s novel was straightforwardly personal, but that the formative events of his life took place in a relatively brief period of his late teens. His mother died in 1952, before he turned 18. In the same year, he was admitted to Glasgow College of Art, despite lacking the necessary paper qualifications. There, he immediately impressed both his teachers and fellow students with fantastic, even visionary, projects; but his artistic stature was cruelly undermined by social failures, particularly involving the opposite sex.
Image result for Lanark: design for the title page, Book 4, 1982
Lanark: design for the title page, Book 4, 1982

Gray suffered from chronic eczema and an accompanying shyness which gave rise to unpredictable outbursts and an excitable delivery that remained characteristic all through his life. Lanark, like later novels including 1982, Janine (1984) and Something Leather (1990), is blistering with sexual frustration. Romantic proposals are rejected with misplaced kindliness; healthy erotic wishes are twisted into ugly shapes. The realistic portion of Lanark ends with a prostitute recoiling at the sight of the hero’s reptilian skin, which precipitates his descent to perdition.

Some of the pictures he painted at art school were still being exhibited many years later. One was Night Street Self Portrait (1953), which depicts a brooding figure in half-darkness against a background of kissing lovers and happy families. A black cat depicted nine times suggests that life is draining away. During the same period, Gray drew a remarkable Marriage Feast at Cana, in which the faces of the disciples are modelled on travellers on the Glasgow underground railway. The picture exists only in reproduction, the original having been lost after having been “left too long with a photocopying shop. When I went to collect it the firm no longer existed.”

Immediately after leaving art school, in 1958, Gray received a commission (unpaid, apart from expenses) to paint a set of murals on the subject of the Creation, in Greenhead Church of Scotland church in Glasgow. “I showed God as the third sentence of Genesis says,” Gray wrote in A Life in Pictures, “moving over the waters, not like a dove as sometimes depicted, but more like Superman.” The building was neglected over the following decade, and was demolished in 1970, leading to the loss of what Gray called “my best and biggest mural painting”. He did several other murals: in Belleisle Street synagogue, in Greenbank church, on the walls of private houses, among other places. Among the last he carried out (2012) was the 40ft mural for the entrance hall of Hillhead subway station in the West End of Glasgow. In addition to local landmarks, including the university, it has a section devoted to “All kinds of folk” – “hard workers”, “head cases”, “queer fishes” and so on, all represented in Gray’s typical witty and accessible style.
Cowcaddens Streetscape in the Fifties, 1964

The impulse to write as well as draw emerged in childhood. While at art school, he began a novel called Portrait of the Artist as a Young Scot, which contained the seed that grew into Lanark, almost 30 years later. In the 1960s and 70s, he wrote plays for radio, television and the stage, including some which would later be converted into novels. The Fall of Kelvin Walker (1985), his third novel, began life as a TV play in 1968. McGrotty and Ludmilla (1990) and Mavis Belfrage (1996) had similar origins. Some 20 of these plays were later collected in A Gray Play Book (2009). It included The Cave of Polyphemus, written in 1944, when he was nine.

Many writers have had subsidiary careers at the easel, just as artists have written books. What set Gray apart was a determination to integrate the different skills in the process of bookmaking. A words-only version of Lanark, without the elaborate plates, would be tantamount to an abridged edition. His collection of tales, Unlikely Stories, Mostly (1983), was likewise lavishly decorated. In these and other instances, Gray employed motifs and images which became recognisable staples of his design: amazonian women; biblically bearded men; a foetus inside a skull; self-portraits (often showing the subject drawing the artist); doves and dogs; and always an impish figure at the end holding a sign saying “Goodbye”.

Another recurring habit was to introduce portraits of friends into his work, including the church murals. The Scottish writers James Kelman, Tom Leonard, Liz Lochhead, among many others, have found themselves immortalised in this way. When I asked Gray to sign a copy of his book Old Men in Love (2007), he took it and drew my portrait on the endpaper (handing it back with “Hmmm. Not very flattering”).

Faust in his Study, 1958

In 1961, Gray married Inge Sørensen, a Danish nurse then in her teens. They bought the wedding ring from a jeweller’s shop on the way to the registry office. “I believe she married me because she found me more interesting than men with steady jobs and money,” Gray stated – not out of boastfulness but as an explanation for an otherwise puzzling acceptance. He and Inge had a son, Andrew, the subject of many affectionate portraits. The couple separated after eight years and later divorced. He had a long relationship with another Danish woman, Bethsy Gray, and in the late 1980s met Morag McAlpine. They married in 1991. She died in 2014.

Even at the height of his literary and artistic success (in the autumn of 2010 there were two Gray exhibitions showing in Edinburgh at the same time), Gray feared poverty. “I am a well-known writer who cannot make a living from his writing,” he would say. Despite the status of Lanark, its sales never equalled its reputation.
Eden and After, 1956

Moreover, any book by him threatened high production costs, and even the most indulgent of his publishers – Canongate in Edinburgh, and Cape and Bloomsbury in London, all catered to his demand for full artistic control – felt the need to pass at least some of the burden back to the author. The unearthly metropolis in which Duncan Thaw arrives after death in Lanark is called Unthank, and is not all that far removed from Glasgow in certain respects.

Gray’s pictorial autobiography contains many tales of an ungrateful city press – his church murals, like his early exhibitions, were practically ignored, if not mocked. At the beginning of the 21st century, Gray was reduced to applying to the Scottish Artists’ Benevolent Fund for money. Residual resentments were apt to surface in remarks such as: “Lanark won the publishers – not me – a design award.”

A peculiarity of Gray’s graphic work is that it sometimes appears at its best in reproduction. He himself observed that his art lacked “tactile values”. Different portraits – often gorgeous to look at, with particular attention paid to background details such as flowers in a vase or a sofa covering – tend to have similar atmospheres. A Conservative politician breathes the same air as an experimental poet. “My portraits show me as an illustrative decorator,” Gray said, in one of many perceptive comments about his own work in A Life in Pictures.

He related his definite-outline method to “fear or distrust” of “anything liable to shift or depart”. Much of his best work was executed in the spirit of friendship. As he promoted fellow writers, he enjoyed painting friends and their children. He had a likable tendency to idealise his sitters, making them appear more innocent than they were in life.
Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man (Seven Days, 2004)

In person, Gray himself presented an arresting spectacle. He had what was once described as a “benignly nutty professor” persona, with “thick spectacles and haywire hair”.

There was a high-pitched laugh which always threatened to leave mirth behind and enter the realm of mania. He would turn up for an appointment, half an hour late, in paint-stained trench-coat, with turned-up flannels flapping well above sandalled feet. Much of the time he was humorous and kind, but could snap impatiently at a remark he considered ill-thought-out, especially with reference to Scottish politics. His ideas about independence are contained in the pamphlet Why Scots Should Rule Scotland (1992).

In 1977, he was Glasgow’s official artist recorder, painting portraits and streetscapes for the People’s Palace Local History Museum. The major project of his later years – perhaps the greatest of his non-literary career – was the mural decoration of Oran Mor, an arts and leisure centre in the converted Kelvinside parish church, at the northern corner of Glasgow’s Byres Road.
Image result for alasdair grey  oran mor
Òran Mór

Sponsored by the owner, Colin Beattie, Gray began the work in 2002, lying on his back on a scaffold like a Clydeside Michelangelo, painting constellations of the zodiac in each of 12 ceiling sections. A stream of stars streaks across the central roof beam. The apse is dedicated to his favourite subject, the Creation. In is an astonishing achievement, which required the work of several assistants in addition to the artist himself.

Following a serious fall into a basement outside his home in the summer of 2015, Gray was hospitalised with a broken back, though he later returned to work. A dramatisation of Lanark by the playwright David Grieg was presented at the Edinburgh international festival that year.

His Collected Verse (2010) was followed by Every Short Story 1951-2012. Hell and Purgatory, the first two parts of his version of Dante’s Divine Comedy, “decorated and Englished in prosaic verse”, appeared in 2018 and 2019. In November Gray received the inaugural Saltire Society Scottish Lifetime Achievement award.

He is survived by Andrew and a granddaughter.

• Alasdair Gray, writer and artist, born 28 December 1934; died 29 December 2019