Pirates!

‘Fifteen men on the Dead Man’s Chest / Drink and the devil had done for the rest…’  Treasure Island, R.L. Stevenson’s story (1883) of peglegs, parrots and buried gold has immortalised (and glamourised) the cutthroat world of piracy on the Spanish Main. Some things are just fiction, like ‘walking the plank’ – as Captain Hook (an Etonian gone wrong) did in Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904). Yet the camaraderie of these outcasts is true; they were a collective, a sort of Read More

Lichtenstein

ROY LICHTENSTEIN (1923-1997)  ‘The cliché gave my work a certain power. It was brave, risky. I try to organize its forms to make it monumental. The difference is often not great, but it is crucial.’ Lichtenstein, a New Yorker born to a wealthy family, blurred the distinction between commercial art and fine art. With Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and Jasper Johns he became a leading figure in the Pop Art movement. Although initially trained by an American realist who spurned French Read More

Vermeer

VERMEER AND THE GOLDEN AGE OF DUTCH ART Bertrand Russell wrote: ‘It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of Holland in the 17th century, as the one country where there was freedom of speculation… Spinoza would hardly have been allowed to do his work in any other country.’ Alongside freedom to speculate, to philosophise, there was freedom to reinvent art, unencumbered by church or state. Realism, particularly in genre painting, flourished in the seven northern provinces of the Dutch Republic in Read More

Cézanne

PAUL CÉZANNE (1839-1906): Father of Modern Art ‘I point the way. Others will come after.’ The Post-Impressionist Cézanne was, according to Picasso, ‘the father of us all – my one and only master!’ Braque’s revolutionary Cubist painting Houses at l’Estaque (1908) owes everything to Cézanne. The critic who coined the term ‘Cubism’ was being rude when he wrote that Braque ‘reduced everything, places and figures and houses, to geometric schemes, to cubes.’ But it was essentially what Cézanne invented: the Read More

Mean Streets and Murder

FILM NOIR ‘I have done many pictures which I suppose are film noir. And I can see the roots of that in Citizen Kane… but I couldn’t define it for you, then or now.’ Robert Wise, director of noir classics like Born to Kill (1947) and The Set-Up (1949), was wary of a definition, perhaps because film noir encompasses many genres from private eye thrillers – like perhaps the first noir, Huston’s ‘depraved’ (LA Times) The Maltese Falcon, 1941 –  to erotic Read More

Hitchcock

ALFRED HITCHCOCK (1899-1980), Master of Suspense Hitchcock knew how to manipulate: ‘I enjoy playing the audience like a piano,’ he admitted. ‘There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it…’ He recognised that ‘everybody likes to be scared. Nothing has changed since Little Red Riding Hood faced the Big Bad Wolf.’ And he knew how to scare. Through anticipation, tension. And through the unexpected, as in Psycho (1960), perhaps his most original film. Rope (1948), made Read More

Sherlock Holmes

WHAT SORT OF MAN WAS HOLMES? SHERLOCK HOLMES (b. 1854), a consulting detective, first appeared in A Study in Scarlet (1887), for which its author received £25. Holmes’s fame spread through short stories in The Strand Magazine, beginning with A Scandal in Bohemia in 1891. The oeuvre continued until 1927, spanning four books and 56 short stories, most narrated by Holmes’s friend and biographer Dr John H Watson, who shared lodgings with him at 221B Baker Street in London, where Read More

New York

NEW YORK, NEW YORK, it’s a helluva town! I thought so too when I arrived in 1964 on the Queen Mary to see the World’s Fair. First impressions were of size. Steaks, cars, skyscrapers… all huge. The World’s Fair, a paean to consumerism, was no different. The Illinois pavilion had a huge robotic Abraham Lincoln who sat in an armchair and then actually rose and spoke – a five-minute medley of his speeches. Disney created it. There was stirring music. Read More

Propaganda – Campaign Posters

THE ART OF PERSUASION How far can ELECTION POSTERS go in demonising the opposition? In 1999, a UK poster featured Tony Blair with the caption BLIAR in lurid yellow. Strong meat in decorous Britain. Yet pallid compared to US politics. In 1856 the (newly formed) Republicans depicted the Democrats’ candidate, James Buchanan, as a jackass. ‘A true likeness’ the text said and added ‘P.S. Jimmy, you cannot win!’ Wrong. In the US 1828 election, handbills accused the Democrat Andrew Jackson, the hero Read More

Austria – Classic Travel Art

A VERY BRIEF HISTORY OF AUSTRIA Austria’s history is rich and complex. Tiny (the size of Maine, with a population of 9 million) compared to her powerful neighbours, she has inevitably looked warily east towards Russia and west towards Germany. The Anschluss of 1938, the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany, though popular with most Austrians at the time, was a calamity. The union of German speaking peoples had been a utopian dream but Hitler, albeit Austrian, brought merely destruction. Read More