Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Both before and after our fantastic trip to Dorset a couple of weeks ago, I seemed to find plenty of reasons to be downcast. But in the big scheme of things, my life is pretty OK, really. I have plenty of reasons to be cheerful. I have a job I enjoy, working with people I like and respect, a load of great friends and a terrific family. And I get wonderful things from my daughters like this, that I was given on Fathers’ Day last weekend…

BecauseyouaremydadAnd so I should be grateful for what’s still around, and all the things I’ve been privileged to experience in the last couple of years, that I’ve been able to write about in this blog…

I’ve been to some pretty amazing places…

The Alhambra, the Orangerie & Musée d’Orsay in Paris, Swimming in lakes and rivers in France, and enjoyed the simple pleasures of camping and basking in the sunshine of the Jurassic Coast in Dorset

I’ve experienced some fabulous events…

More than 11 years after the first time, I saw Radiohead in concert, Thomas Voeckler at the Quillan Criterium, and marvelled at the delicate beauty of the songs of The Bookshop Band (twice)

I’m proud to be a cinephile and aficionado of classy TV…

We rewatched then entire 7 series of The West Wing, we roared with laughter at Green Wing & Horrible Histories. We’ve rejoiced in the surreal joys of Amélie, gasped at the spectacle of Skyfall

All this, plus I’ve become a bit of a MAGA (middle-aged gym addict)… I feel fitter than I have in years, and have lost (and kept off) the 25lbs I promised myself I would at the start of 2011.

So, in all, not too bad. Consider this the start of me getting over myself.


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…(according to Wikiquote) The poet Francisco Alarcón said this to a girl who did not give a blind beggar charity and regretted that the blind could not enjoy the beauty of the city of Granada.

Friday 27th August has been logged in my memory as a pretty near-perfect day. It was the mid-point of our holiday in Andalucia, and possibly the hottest day of the week. We spent the morning mostly doing not very much; reading, writing postcards home with the girls, playing UNO, and in the swimming pool, where every day was a joy to me to see Hannah & Eleanor jumping, playing, splashing and swimming with such confidence and enthusiasm.

After a terrific late lunch of crusty bread with fresh beefsteak and plum tomato salad, serrano ham, avocado and manchego cheese, we got ourselves ready to go to Granada to visit the Alhambra. We’d booked tickets online in advance, hoping to avoid the worst heat of the day and queues of visitors.

The A7 Autovia del Mediterraneo is a masterpiece of engineering. The whole thing stretches from Algeciras at the Southern tip of Spain over 1,300km practically to the French border. It makes for an amazing drive along, or rather through and over the rocky Andalucian coastline. Large sections of the road from Nerja to Motril are either viaducts over gorges or tunnels through the mountainous terrain. As you turn inland to head North towards Granada, the drive gets even more spectacular. Alongside the roads of the Lake District and the French Autoroute over the Millau Viaduct and South towards the Mediterranean, this is one of my favourite drives…

In barely 30 miles the road travels from sea level to 860m over the Puerto del Suspiro del Moro (Pass of the Moor’s Sigh), so named after Muhammad XII, the last Moorish sultan of Granada, crossed the pass in 1492 after being ejected from the city and loudly sighed while looking back and longing for his palaces; an act which moved his mother to whip him with the famous “Now you weep like a woman over what you could not defend as a man” (ouch!).

When we arrived in Granada around 4pm, the car thermometer was reading 38.5º Celsius (in the shade). Despite having acclimatised to temperatures in the low-mid 30s over the previous few days, getting out of our air-conditioned car was like stepping into a sauna: dry, intense, soul-sapping heat.

Thankfully, the clever Moorish architects and designers (and indeed the current Alhambra management) thought to build shaded courtyards, paths and gardens which help reduce the searing heat of the full sun.To be honest, it’s a minor miracle that the gardeners could keep so many flowering plants alive in such heat.

The Generalife Gardens (as indeed is the whole palace) were designed to recreate ‘paradise on earth’, with column arcades, birdsong, flowers and the sound of running water. Even on a scorching August afternoon among thousands of visitors, I was astonished at the peacefulness, the silence and the greenery on such a bleached hillside above such a bustling city.

At the other end of the complex, the Alcazaba was like an open-air oven. Perched on the end of the promontory above Granada, this 10th Century fortress is forbidding indeed. Thick, thick walls, indeed layers of unforgiving walls and monolithic towers give amazing viewpoints over the surrounding plateau. Hannah and I climbed the Torre de la Vela. It was cooler inside the walls, but the stairs were steep and high. By the time we reached the top, she was almost literally melting into collapse, and I was worried about having to carry her down. But the overview of both the city and the palaces was terrific.

Alhambra Granada Alcazba Nasrid Palaces

But while this is all mightily impressive, the real joy, the uplifting inspiration of The Alhambra that elevates it above other places I’ve visited comes within the Nasrid Palaces. We had timed our tickets so we had the last entry slot of the afternoon at 7pm. By now it was gradually beginning to cool, and the shade within the courtyards made it almost pleasant!

I’ll try not to go completely overboard with my adjectives in recalling my reactions and response to these Palaces. The precision and simplicity of design is amazing. The quality of work and detailing is astonishing. The display of wealth and power is in every arch, every ceiling, every niche, but so too is the dedication to Allah.

My ‘left brain’ loved the tessellating tiles, the repetitiveness of patterns and motifs, the extraordinarily clean lines and symmetry in the design of arches, doorways, and courtyards.

My ‘right’ brain was constantly dazzled by the colours, the intricacy, the beauty of the workmanship way beyond the functional requirements; the detailing and ‘over-specification’ of the ornaments. Every door, every arch, every niche, every ceiling is stunningly conceived and decorated. It’s mindblowing. And over 600 years old.

When the Christian monarchs overthrew the Moors in 1492, they evidently recognised the tremendous value of the Alhambra, both as a fortress and symbol of power, but also its artistic brilliance, and they preserved its heritage, including the never-ending devotion to Allah. I’d seen this before in Istanbul, where Muslem and Christian ‘conquerors’ recognised the beauty and intrinsic value of the other religion’s artefacts, and did not destroy them, nor seek to impose their will and values over them. Hmmmm…

And after all that, we didn’t even have time to explore the wonderful Albaicin,  the old Moorish Quarter of Granada, that spreads over the hillside facing the Alhambra.

Instead, we ate at Cafe Central, just a few yards from the Plaza Nueva in the centre of the city. The food and service was fantastic, and we enjoyed terrific Salmorejo soup (similar to Gazpacho), a sausage of black pudding wrapped in filo pastry and deep-fried, wonderful cod steaks and arroz con leche with amazing almond icecream.

We also had a terrific time watching the tapeadors sampling the delights of Granada’s bars. As we left around 11pm, the city was truly alive, and there were families with children everywhere. Toddlers were snoozing in their buggies while their parents grazed or walked with friends. The heat was finally dissipating (it was still around 80º), and it was the end of a brilliant day.

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I recently wrote about the beautiful art of Andy Goldsworthy, and how it moves me. Natural materials adapted into new organic forms, his works are sometimes massive arches of stone or huge walls, and sometimes extremely ephemeral, a ‘throw’ of powdery snow into bright sunlight, an opportunistic ‘rain shadow’ or an ice sculpture that is at once both illuminated and destroyed by the rays of the rising sun.

rivers & tides ice sculpture

After writing that post I was recommended to watch Rivers and Tides, a documentary by Thomas Riedelsheimer about the artist and his work in Nova Scotia, Southern France and near his home in Scotland. Today I had to travel to London and back for work, and I decided to watch the film while I was on the train. It was a beautiful and yet disorienting experience.

At times he seems a quiet, insular, almost isolated man, but then we see him with his wife and four children, a well-known member of his local community. Nevertheless, quietly-spoken, he evidently feels most at home when he’s working with ‘the earth’ and its materials, whether stone, ice, leaves, mud or wood. His work can be painstaking and painful, in that he works with ice in the crepuscular light on frozen riverbanks, or building precarious cairns of stone and wood that threaten to collapse (and often do).

Watching him work is a calming, meditative experience. By the time I emerged from the train at Paddington I felt distinctly out-of-place, almost unsure what to do next. The contrast between the raw beauty of his work and the peaceful environments in which he creates it was a complete contrast to the steel and glass and noise of the station.

But its images have remained with me all day: the gushing streams and bubbling white water, the pools filled with dandelion flowers, the immensely long chains of leaves, the ice cairns and arches. It’s truly beautiful, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. You can watch it on YouTube

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I am in no way qualified to discuss the natural art of Andy Goldsworthy. I can’t discuss his often temporary creations in learned analytical terms. I can only respond to them as a breathing, organic being. I can’t rationalise why I respond the way I do: in fact, I don’t want to. My reactions are entirely spontaneous: utterly visceral and emotional, unlike my reactions to any other artist’s work.

A few years ago, when I climbed the hill from the car park in Grizedale Forest in the Southern Lake District, I already knew I was looking for his ‘wall that went for a walk’. I had seen pictures of it before, but when I encountered it, among the scrub and bracken, snaking in and out of the edge of the woodland, I was left breathless.  I grinned like a loon at its insanely complex construction, and loved its irreverence. I marvelled at its craftsmanship. I loved it.

Taking a wall for a walk

Andy Goldsworthy uses natural materials to create new forms which are often surprising, often deliberately temporary. Ice sculptures are built overnight to melt in the morning sun. Cairns of pebbles are constructed, then swept away by the next tides. Sometimes there’s a sense of decay, but always a gentle, awesome beauty.

It’s clever, but not in an intellectual way. He presents us with natural substances in a (sometimes) manipulated form that in itself creates a new natural proposition, making us reflect on both the original and manipulated manifestation of nature.

One of his more famous creations was the series of Midsummer Snowballs. Fabricated in a freezer using snow transported from the Scottish Highlands, this was a wonderful piece of cognitive dissonance.  Positioned around the City of London, these massive snowballs could only have been created by man. But here they were, in London, on Midsummer’s Day. And then they took days to melt, revealing yet more layers of dissonance, as the snowballs were filled with feathers, or pine cones, or barbed wire, or wheat. All this is catalogued in a terrific book, capturing not only the reactions of onlookers, the disparate ways in which the snowballs disintegrated, but also Goldsworthy’s own thoughts.


more than just a snowball

Most of Andy Goldsworthy’s work is displayed through his amazing photgraphy. Much of this is catalogued by the Crichton Campus of The Univesity of Glasgow in Dumfries, near to where the artist lives. This is a fantastic archive.

There are countless other sources online, perhaps most notably a group on Flickr. I guarantee you that I can’t do his beautiful work full justice. I just hope that you too will be silenced into a moment of reflection, stunned by its simplicity and skill. It might not change the world, but it made me think about my relationship with nature, and I think I’m more respectful, and thankful for it.

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