Thursday, 4 October 2018

Learning from the Experts

Writers, especially writers of fiction long and short, sometimes have trouble getting their story structured so it makes the best sense, the most interesting read and yet becomes something fresh. In fact, structuring fiction is an elastic technique that can stretch story into new shapes. 
One of my favourite authors, David Mitchell, is a ‘structure Titan’, taking the way a novel works and starting from scratch, approaching storytelling with innovation. In a single book he can span the geographical and historical world, chop stories in half then join them together again, invite in characters from previous novels, and catch his reader out with shocks and surprise twists in books like Cloud Atlas,(Sceptre, 2004) which consists of six interlocking short stories spanning 500 years, each narrative breaking off suddenly at the half-way point before moving on to the next half-tale.
Mitchell has won a bookcase full of awards, including two Bookers and the Costa Novel prize and now, the Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence. On October 6th he’ll be at the Cheltenham Festival in conversation with Peter Kemp, and as a taster of what we can expect if we manage to get a ticket for that event, he was interviewed by Francesca Angelini for the Sunday Times, in which he revealed what she described as ‘his literary ticks and tricks’. 
I've just written a blogpost for We Are the OCA blogsite, to encourage my students to experiment like the experts, passing on five of his writing tips. 

Friday, 14 September 2018

Is it Art? The Battle of Orgreave

Is it Art? The Battle of Orgreave 

Part three of  Kitchen Table Writers' look at contemporary art

Seventeen years after the 1984 minor’s strike, conceptual artist Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave, reconstructed its most violent confrontation in documentary film and showed on the UK’s Channel Four. 

What was the battle? During the miners'strike, picketing took place all over the county of Yorkshire. One such picket was at a coking plant near Rotherham called Orgreave. The miners picketed and the police came to break this up so that the coke could continue to be shipped out. 

Jeremy Deller was asking…was it that simple?

The police had swelled ranks bussed from all over the UK – some were not police at all, but subscripted from the army. The miners also had many strike sympathisers bussed in to increase the picket numbers. The clash turned into a running battle, resulting in over 120 people injured and 93 arrests. Jeremy Deller wanted to reproduce the battle to get to the heart and the truth of it, which he believed did not emerge at the time.

I first encountered Jeremy Deller in 2012, when I heard, through my Druid friends, that he had conceptualised the idea of a life-sized bouncy castle replica of Stonehenge. I can recall him saying online, that this was ‘a bit of fun’. He reinforced this with the title ‘Sacrilege’. I’m a druid, and was horrified to hear that a group of druids wanted to hire the castle in an attempt to get into the Guinness Book of Records…how many fully-robed druids can you get on a bouncy castle shaped like Stonehenge…

Image courtesy of Jeremy Deller
Druids have a varied press, from satanic to dippy, and bouncing on Stonehenge wasn’t going to improve our image, in my opinion. I was somewhat pacified when the idea was abandoned due to lack of funds, but to this day, I shudder at the thought. 

Deller won the Turner Prize for Memory Bucket, (a video study of Texas) in 2004, but I was still not convinced. An artist who used the words bouncing and Stonehenge in one breath would surely do nothing more than fatuous hommage to the miner's strike with a single video reconstruction.

Before I watched it, I imagined that The Battle of Orgreave would hardly be art at all – despite becoming part of an exhibition at the Tate…The Battle of Orgreave (An Injury to One is an Injury to All).

The Channel Four documentary, directed by Mike Figgis, also wove together interviews, live filming of the battle’s rehearsals and footage of the original event. Such programmes are usually for entertainment and information, not art’s sake. What does one remember about a BBC 4 documentary on the Romans? Not Mary Beard talking about history. It’s the re-enactment that’s impactful. Done well, battle scenes can be good telly, but surely they are not a piece of art.

But watching it on Youtube, I had to admit to myself that The Battle of Orgreave was informative, dramatic and engaging. The re-enactment itself hit home emotionally, even knowing the truncheons were plastic and the bricks were foam. I was moved and newly informed. 

Artangle Media described the making of the documentary as a ‘decoy’ – it would raise sufficient money to pay for the reconstruction in the first place. This led me to rethink my position. Why would this reconstruction be a contribution to conceptualised art? I was reminded of Walter Benjamin’s argument…a work of art has a presence or aura that was the consequence of its authenticity.
The Battle of Orgreave (An Injury to One is an Injury to All).The Courtesy of The Tate 

Deller says of the original event, the clash in 1984;  I had witnessed as a young person on TV, images of striking miners being chased up a hill and pursued through a village. It has since become an iconic image of the 1984 strike – having the quality of a war scene rather than a labour dispute. Immediately after the original confrontation, questions were raised. There was a suspicion the operation was under government control, and that police instructions were to switch strategies from the defensive protection of collieries to actively breaking up crowds and making arrests. It was revealed that the police charged on horseback prior to any major violence by the pickets. The subsequent case made against the arrested miners was thrown out of court. 

Prior to the reconstruction, Deller made posters he displayed at other art events he created (for example ‘Acid House’ at Tate Liverpool), printed on fake parchment and announcing a re-enactment of ‘The Bloody Battle of Orgreave’ under the title The English Civil War (part 2) . All this sounded very esoteric. You’d have to be in on the joke. On the other hand, it would raise anyone’s curiosity, so it was an excellent advertising move.

In the documentary, re-enactment expert Howard Giles pointed out how ‘Roman’ the original confrontation was, and how rudimentary the weapons were. The police were licensed to use only truncheons, but they did have protection; helmets and perspex shields had recently been issued as part of riot gear. The miners had stones, no protective gear, but a strong belief in what they were doing. They were lined up in traditional battle format, the miners in front of the coking plant. The police moved towards them with a basic strategy of hold the line and attack from the middle of the ranks, with a cavalry charge pursuing the strikers through the village. Roman, medieval, or reminiscent of the Napoleonic wars – certainly not the UK policing in the 1980s.

The re-enactment was held on a field very close to the original site. Over 800 people took part, mostly veteran re-enactors, but also former miners and policemen. The footage of interviews with them demonstrates how vividly they relived the events they’d taken part in. I had difficulty believing they considered what they were doing an artistic endeavour, it felt more urgent than that, and far more like a social protest. It came across strongly that they wanted people to be aware of what really happened. It’s also fair to say that many participants did not know the full extent of their involvement in an artistic project. Individually, some of them weren’t there to make art at all.

Photo of Deller Courtesy of The Tate 
Deller wrote…The image of this pursuit up the hill stuck in my mind and for years I wanted to find out what exactly happened on that day with a view to re-enacting or commemorating it in some way. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the strike, like a civil war, had a traumatically divisive effect at all levels of life. 

Deller then, did not plan to re-enact what was reported to have happened on that day (which most historic re-enactments strive to do), he wanted to document the truth as he perceived it…or, as it turned out to be when reconstructed. At first, this reminded me of factual media programming, investigative journalism and reconstructions of crimes ontelevision. But I recalled Pablo Picasso’s words, Art is a lie that makes us realise truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand’ . There is something in this which suggests an artistic concept, without leaving the social comment behind at all. 

Until that point I had been keen to spot ‘artistic filming’ or things like the use of music or heightened language (as in Pinter’s plays) in the television programme, and had been disappointed to realise that the reconstruction was almost as chaotic and unconstructed as the original battle. Once I began to think of art as 'realising the truth', I began to see how the work was propelled essentially by an aesthetic interpretation of passionate socio-political ideals, which Deller presented within an imaginative and original piece.

So, after viewing the documentary, and doing my research around it, I’ve had to extend my view about what art can be, and ask myself, can art be an idea in the mind an artist that will need many other people, often with skills artists don't have, to bring an artistic project to fruition? There are two aspects to this piece of art; the actual re-enactment itself, with or without the video that recorded it, and, afterwards, the TV documentary programme, that actually only showed snatches of the re-enactment alongside the other aspects. Both seem quite valid, and the entire project made me look at how art raises emotions and forces the viewer to re-evaluate their perceptions, often, as in this case, by creating a work appreciated for its integral truth.

Watch the documentary here

Jeremy Deller (born 1966) is an English conceptual, video and installation artist. Much of Deller's work is collaborative; it has a strong political aspect, in the subjects dealt with and also the devaluation of artistic ego through the involvement of other people in the creative process. He won the Turner Prize in 2004, and in 2010 was awarded the Albert Medal of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (RSA). Deller is known for his Battle of Orgreave (2001), a reenactment of the actual Battle of Orgreave which occurred during the UK miners' strike in 1984

Saturday, 8 September 2018

The Hogarth Project: Re-examining The Bard.

I've been reading the Hogarth Project.
Not sure what that is? Well, it's a series of books by renown authors. Each one has taken a Shakespeare play and turned it into a contemporary novel. 
I'm trying to keep up with the output - six books so far and many more to come. 
But the reception for the project hasn't all been welcoming, and what is the Hogarth Press, anyway?
Read about it in my latest  article for the Open College of the Arts blogsite,
CLICK HERE to read the full article

Thursday, 31 May 2018

New York - A Cultural Experience in Manhattan

New York - A Cultural Experience in Manhattan 
– Episode One.

Start spreading the news, 
We’re leaving today
We’re popping a cork,

These vagabond shoes
Are walking the grid
We’re popping a cork

When my daughter surprised me with a holiday in New York all I could say was 'you're being ridiculous'! I don't think I actually believed I was going until I got there.  We spent five marvellous days soaking up the history, literature, music, art and culture of Manhattan, with the added bonus of almond, pear and magnoilia blossom scenting the air and falling like confetti.

Sammy the Limo driver, who brought us from JFK, was a lively introduction to New York. He’d lived here all his life, but had been born in the Dominican Republic. ‘I love the DR,’ my daughter calls from the back seat.’ When I’m there with my work mates, we dance in the clubs to bachata music.’ ‘Bachata!’ Sammy yelled in delight. He had loads of this on his phone and we left Queens and saw the Big Apple skyline for the first time in our lives to the sounds of Bachata.  A sight of the Empire State gets us squealing. The skyline is unique; no two scrapers are the same, and older buildings fit between them as if they’d always been there…because they always have.

Even 2 hours after arriving in JFK, I still can’t quite believe it. I don’t know what I deserved to be granted such a special a wish; a dream come true. I’ve always wanted to see New York. I wanted to prove to myself it really is the city of culture it says it is. I want to see the Art Deco of the thirties, when a lot of Manhattan was being built in the depression. I want to see the famous Radio City, the art galleries and experience the world-famous sights. And, if possible, I want to meet some of NY’s people.

So now we’re sitting on the 35th floor of the Mandarin Hotel in the Asiate restaurant, overlooking Central Park. Becky describes the view as ‘zen’; the skyscrapers suddenly judder to a halt at the edge of the huge park, lime-green with spring growth, as if someone held up an invisible hand to stop the onrush. Directly below us, in Columbus Circle, a statue of Columbus looks down on two dancers as the pirouette as they did in La La Land. The circle is the only roundabout in NYC; heaven knows what New Yorkers think of it, they are so used to the grid system, which we are going to learn to love, and the traffic light intersections, which seem kinder to pedestrians than it does to the stop-start traffic. We’re eating fabulous food and drinking champagne, and for pudding, I get an individual chocolate birthday cake with a candle and fruity sorbets to share. 

To get back to our hotel, we decide to risk the subway, imagining it’s even more maze-like than the Tube. Turns out it’s not a bit difficult because of the finger-shape of Manhattan  –simples! There are four north-to-south lines that take you from the top to the bottom of the island, while getting from side to side is actually easier on foot.

This evening we’re getting the Baton New York, a glass-sided river cruiser that takes us down the Hudson River as the sun goes down and the lights of NY start winking and twinkling. There’s a sort of romance in the air (perhaps it’s all the couples who have booked tables for two) and as we pass the little wharfs that hold boats of all description ready to travel this very wide river, I’m thinking that one of the things that makes New York such a place of romance is its story.
It’s a narrative that started in 1609 when an English captain called Henry Hudson navigated his clipper the Half Moon into New York Harbour. He had been sent by the Dutch East India Company to find an Artic passage to the Far East, but he went no further. Did he think…why not stay here, build a town, let it grow, make it a city? The first Dutch settlers first had to bargain with the native Lenape, who sold the island of Manhatta for what seemed a bargain $24 worth of beads, worth about $1000 today, but actually the Lenape might have been cannier that this suggests, as they only used the land to hunt and probably only sold the camping rights. Generations of settlers fought the aboriginal people to keep the land they thought they owned…and as we know, they won. The Dutch called Manhattan New Amsterdam, but in 1664 the British gained it and changed the name…and the rest really is history. 

I’m starting to ask, can Champagne become an addiction? I hope not, we’re ordering like it will be out of fashion tomorrow. We go out on deck to watch the wharfs dissolve into evening mists. The live band starts up, a little trio all of whom can sing. Every so often, one breaks off from the song and begins to tell us something new about what we are seeing, and we all dash outside to the helm of the boat to catch a proper glimpse, and maybe a photo or two. We order our evening meal, which we’ll eat as we cruise. Suddenly, two of the staff arrive to present me with a birthday bouquet of flowers. They seem delighted to do it and asked to have their photos taken with me. This lovely gift lasted all week in our hotel room.

 As the night deepens to navy blue, Wall Street and the Financial District is redolent with light; I’m betting you can see it from the moon. We pass under Brooklyn (described, the tour guide suggested, as the ‘prettiest bridge in the world’, but only, I would say, by those who have never seen the Clifton Suspension Bridge). 

We slide under Manhattan bridge, steadily turn round in the East River and head back towards the great lady herself; the Statute of Liberty. She is lit from below, illuminating herself solely with her torch and coronet. We are told that she is a colossal neoclassical design, built in France and given to the people of New York after their revolution. To me, she’s divine, literally, like a goddess, gigantic and sea-green, her face exuding peace and warmth. Her figure, though, is strong, powerful, she reaches up as if calling out, ‘there is justice here…’ I can imagine those ‘huddled masses’ as they stood at the prow of so many ships watching her grow close, and it occurs to me that the sensations they would have felt if the statue had been in the form of a man, would have been very different. She is a mother, and a goddess, offering and protection liberty, and a new start. Hopefully, very soon, she’ll be back in business, welcoming desperate emigrees hoping for a better chance in life into the US.

More Manhattan Adventures on KITCHENTABLEWRITERS soon...

Sunday, 20 May 2018

The Devil's Tune, by Fran Kempton

I've just read a great new release; a book set in Italy in ther 16th Century, but as full of dark evil as any recent Lee Child. Set on true events, it's a gripping read. It's The Devil's Tune, by Fran Kempton, and I'm lucky enough to have her here this week, guest-blogging on Kitchen Table Writers.
I asked her what she meant, when she describes the writing process as 'dream spinning' – is this how she wrote The Devil's Child? This is what she says…
If you are reading this you are probably a dream spinner, or hope to be. This is my name for a writer struggling with their one thousand words each day – or not. Instead of conjuring up the all- too- familiar vision of a lone, stressed creature slumped over a computer while wearing coffee-stained pyjama bottoms, it envisions a more spiritual creature, possibly clad in a cashmere lounge suit, weaving tales in the manner of Scheherazade at the feet of her Sultan.
Jean's cat often helps her write
    Oh, all right, I am getting carried away here, but I have just launched a new book under a pen name and I am quite euphoric about having another set of stories in hand, quite different from anything I have written before. I understand a little of what Dr Jekyll felt when he escaped from Mr Hyde, but in happier circumstances.
    There is a useful lesson here for any writer. Creating a different persona even for a day or two in your own writing space can be a liberating tool. You will be surprised at what your imagination throws up. It’s also a useful tool for a creative writing class.
    We know that writers get their ideas from everywhere – out of the ether, in dreams, from a place, a scene, a weird thought. It is fitting in this year when we are celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to remember that she read something in a scientific journal about ‘galvanism.’ From this came her idea of galvanising a corpse and bringing it to life. Essentially, we writers or dream spinners, are trying to galvanise our imagination into coherent life so that we can form the words of our stories.
    In my case the fascination with the subject of my book, the 16th century composer, Carlo Gesualdo, was sparked by strange music, the Italian Renaissance and grisly murder. A tale that Hollywood might have rejected as over the top appealed to me immediately. Gesualdo’s life has been the subject of two operas, plays, a film by Werner Herzog and even a ballet by the New York City Ballet Company. Fortunately for me, few books have been written about him in English.
    There is a particular problem in writing historical fiction about real people. You are spinning a story around someone who actually lived. Is it permissible to take imaginative liberties with this person? When I wrote my first book, a spin off from Pride and Prejudice featuring Lydia Bennet, I was occasionally reproached for taking liberties with Jane Austen’s sacred characters, but I pointed out that they were fictional and therefore fair game for a writer’s imagination.
    After writing two spoofs and two travel memoirs I decided that my venture into serious historical fiction warranted a new name. Thus Fran Kempton was born and I feel I should create a life, a back story for this shadowy character. Marjorie Bowen, one of my favourite HF writers wrote more than one hundred books under various names. I can’t match her output but I approve of her imaginative take on her own personality.
    Many writers have used pen names for a variety of reasons, not all of them honourable. Dean Koontz, writer of horror stories, used eight or more pseudonyms because his output was so vast that publishers could not cope. Food for thought there, I think.
   Mostly, writers use pen names in order to change direction, veer into a new genre, as I have done. JK Rowling famously departed from boy wizards to write detective fiction as Robert Galbraith. Agatha Christie, when wearied of crime and its trappings had fun writing romance as Mary Westmacott, Anne Rice, celebrated creator of memorable vampires had a previous life as a writer of erotic fiction under the name AN Roquelaure.
The launch of Who Needs Mr Darcy
    Sometimes a writer is so uncertain of his abilities that he starts out in disguise. Stephen King published his first novel as Richard Bachman. If the he is a her there is a powerful reason for altering the name. If the writer is perceived as male it is a definite advantage. PD James used this formula – the initials give an impression that the writer is a man. Another writer of historical fiction, S J Sansom, admits to using this formula. It is a sad that this should still be the case in 2018. Perhaps I should have called myself Francis Kempton – or even Frank!

I moved to Bristol from London many moons ago having lived in the USA and Latin America at various times. I studied at Exeter University and did a Master’s Degree at Cardiff,University of Wales.
I write historical fiction ranging from the Regency period to the Italian Renaissance. I have also written two books of travel memoirs, including: 
The Devil’s Tune  by Fran Kempton (Jean Burnett)l 2018 (Chetwynd Books).
Who Needs Mr Darcy? (Little Brown). Published as The Bad Miss Bennet in USA (Pegasus)
The Bad Miss Bennet Abroad (pub. By Canelo)
Vagabond Shoes –a travel memoir-(Chetwynd Books)
A Victorian Lady in the Himalayas (Brown Dog Books)
The Italian Trilogy-Book One-The Devil’s Tune (Chetwynd Books) (Written as Fran Kempton) Available Here at Amazon

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Creative Arts Today…Learning about Contemporary Fine Art.


Part One; Contemporary Fine Art 

Hello Kitchen Table Writer fans. 
There's been a huge pause in my blogposts, and you can probably guess the reason...I'm wrting another book.
But just to add to my busy time, I've started a course in art as well.

I'm a bit of a philistine art-wise, a sort of 'I know what I like' person (which often means… 'I don't know a thing, and I can't be bothered to find out'). So I enrolled for one the the courses offered by the Open College of the Arts on art appreciation. This course doesn't expect the student to actually 'do' any art at all, which is a relief! I may know what I like, but I certainly couldn't emulate it myself. I can't even sew, let alone draw, paint, or take a good photo. 

better understand your strengths and weaknesses
identify and question your underlying values and beliefs
acknowledge and challenge possible assumptions on which you base your ideas, feelings and actions
recognize areas of potential bias or discrimination
acknowledge your fears, and identify possible inadequacies or areas for improvement.

I think my bed would be an excellent example of conceptual art; not in the same way as Tracy Emin’s though. At the start of the night, it looks so inviting, all dressed with cushions and pillows and throws, and warm inside because of the electric blanket. By morning it’s a mess. But between those two points, there is a creative process and a descent into another place. Even before I dream, I’m dreaming, losing myself first in books, sometimes in notebooks, then in the dark, drifting into a trance, then…the various stages of sleep, light, deeper, into the depths… 

Cathy Stocker is a friend on mine, and kindly allowed me to interview her about contemporary art.

She’s predominantly a painter, although some of her work she describes as ‘craft items’, and these include a series of birch bark artworks to hang, which represent Swedish soldiers and which sold very well. One of her first points when I went to see her was that she would not consider making further of the birch bark pieces. “I’m in a position now where I can create what I want and I don’t want to sell my soul…although I do want to sell my work!”

This is her in her studio, in front of one of a series of paintings about seaside memories. The artwork is entitled, 'Close your eyes, feel the heat. Remember’. She says, “The narrative in my recent seascape paintings attempts to unlock childhood memories and how these memories inform how we perceive the world as adults. A world we see when we allow ourselves space and time to ‘be present’, a child’s way of looking. I aim to create a dialogue with my work. This may be done through posing a question in the title. Or via a topic or theme I consider an important springboard to discussion. I think it is important to always question what you are doing, why you are doing it and whom you are doing it for.”

I asked her about mentors, and she’s lent me a book of George Hainsworth’s paintings, saying that, at Leeds, he taught her that you needed courage as an artist to break away from the mould. “I like to work with some fear in me. If it’s too safe, you don’t feel afraid and it won’t be a driven piece. There always needs to be an element of fear in making work.

Cathy showed me some of the work she’d made prior to the seaside pictures. These were called Brechfa, 1,2,&3. These are small paintings onto board, which represent a local forest, which I’d waked through myself. It’s partially a conifer plantation, and I immediately connected to these pictures, bearing in mind the skies in Wales are often a mixture of cloud and blue. These can be viewed on her website

Also on her website, in their incomplete form, are the six pictures she’s working on at the moment – Roots. They were on the studio floor. 
Cathy’s method usually starts with her sketchbook, and while out walking, she’d come across a high bank that had crumbled away, exposing the roots to ancient trees. She sketched them without further thinking, and when she transferred the sketches to the next stage. I use acrylic a lot, wiping off or erasing paint, the process of building up and taking away, laying the paint bare and staining the canvas rather than adding thick layers of impasto. I try not to be too precious as I work.” Even so, she didn’t instantly like what she’d produced, and put them away for a while.

Between that time and this moment, things escalated on the world stage, especially remembering when people were fleeing Syria, and the welcome they did or did not receive as they left their country.  Roots, of course are symbolic of one’s initial culture. Cathy wanted exposed roots to represent the way people are torn away. “In times of increased intolerance to immigration, I’m trying to demonstrate that our nation is made up of immigrants and we should be proud of this fact and look after our people and celebrate in this. Diversity is what we should be championing.” She added shining colour to remind the viewer that they had not lost their identity, personality and individuality,  even if it was not evident from their situation.

“I added further acrylic to the work, in bright colours,” she explained. And today she had been slurping clear resin over the colourful middle ‘ball’s of the pieces, which had the effect of clarifying and highlighting the bright colours. But I noticed that the effect also, at angles where the resin caught the light, made those patches black and mirrored, as if the bright colours had become faceless.

The six root pictures will be displayed as one painting, raised up, and slightly separated from the edges of a deep black frame. Cathy makes her own frames, partly to save costs and partly because she can experiment as she goes and change the framing if she pleases. “I think the frame is part of the picture.”

She’d just heard that a portrait she’d entered for a London Prize had reached the short list. This picture, Mr Foster from High Wycombe was still on her wall; it’s also on the link above. “It’s a portrait of my brother,Karl,” she said, “We’ve been family since we met when we were 17 – my brother from another mother. He used to love to visit my great grandmother, Athene, with me; they formed a bond. She was a Ealing Comedy actress  in her day. She’s dead now, but she was born in 1898, so she was actually Victorian. She would insist on calling him ‘Mr Foster from Barbados’, although he was born in High Wycombe. She wanted to honour his roots. But when I did his portrait from a live sitting, I wanted to fix its name in the reality of what Karl actually is. I started with a line drawing directly onto canvas. I like that the paint represents physically a fleeting moment in time, something caught, then gone, a shadow perhaps or a trick of the light. Something you can only get from a sitting from life. And I always leave some part of the canvas completely bare to remind the audience this is a painting, a creation from looking, not from a reproduction.”

Cathy really inspired my understanding of how art is made, right from the conception - in fact before the conception, back to the moment Cathy just ‘sketched what she saw’. The more I looked at her work, the more I fell in love with it. She also lent me  John Berger’s Ways of Seeing.

 First of all, I have to sort out in my mind what ‘contemporary art’ is, and even reading the course materials, defining it is troublesome. Even the exact starting point of the genre is debated; the Tate Gallery’s website says that the Institute of Contemporary Art was founded in 1947, while many art historians go for the late 1960s. The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York chooses the later date of 1977. My course book takes it further back again, to 1917, when a chap called Marcel Duchamp exhibited a urinal to an art exhibition in New York. The piece was a bog-standard piece of porcelain  from a men’s loo (pun intended!)  signed "R.Mutt" and titled Fountain. The work is regarded by art historians and theorists of the avant-garde, such as Peter Bürger, as a major landmark in 20th-century art. In my coursebook, I’m asked to think what I make of this; is it art? I believe it’s going to take me all of this course to answer that question. 

In the papers is a fascinating, not to mention timely article that raised the question,  Was Marcel Duchamp's 'Fountain' actually created by a long-forgotten pioneering feminist’ came into my sights today. First, I heard a snippet on Radio Four news, then found this on line;

The article suggested that a woman called Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven actually sent Duchamp the urinal he later exhibited as his own conception. She was born in 1897, so was the generation slightly before Carrington  while Rega came after her.She  seemed at least as wonderfully mad a woman as both of them. She was interested in making ‘life art’ and using her own experiences, direction and even the clothes she wore to excite interest in the artistic. Here’s an excerpt from the article; In March 1917, the Philadelphia-based modernist painter George Biddle hired a 42-year-old German woman as a model. She visited him in his studio, and Biddle told her that he wished to see her naked. The model threw open her scarlet raincoat.
Underneath, she was nude apart from a bra made from two tomato cans and green string, and a small birdcage housing a sorry-looking canary, which hung around her neck. Her only other items of clothing were a large number of curtain rings, recently stolen from Wanamaker's department store, which covered one arm, and a hat which was decorated with carrots, beets and other vegetables.

It excites me that women were able to throw off the modes of behaviour that were expected of them and behave in  completely outrageous ways, and it’s a relief too. It’s all to do with our attitude of modernity, I think…we’re always believing that we were the ones who discovered everything that seems modern, but perhaps just the outward expressions are the things that change. Perhaps it’s the numbers who allow themselves that expression that change.

After being asked to stare at a toilet, we moved on to  cans of soup. Pop Art, staring in the 1950s through the 1970s but having it’s payday in the Swinging Sixties, was pioneered by artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein who wanted to portray mass culture through art. It lasted roughly. And thanks to artists like Jeff Koons, it was reborn as Neo-Pop Art in the 1980s.
Andy Worhol,
Photo: José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, 
via Wikimedia Commons

Ai Wei Wei, ‘COCA COLA VASE’ (2011)
Photo: Sotheby’s
In turn, Pop Art also art helped shape Conceptualism, which fought against the idea of art as a commodity. Though this experimental movement is rooted in art of the early 21st century, it emerged as a formal movement in the 1960s and remains a major contemporary art movement today. In conceptual art, the idea behind a work of art takes precedence. Major conceptual artists include Damien Hirst, Ai Wei Wei, and Jenny Holzer.

Sol LeWitt, ‘Wall Drawings’ (2006)
Photo: Lisson Gallery

Like Conceptualism, Minimalism materialized in the 1960s and is still prevalent today. According to the Tate, both movements “challenged the existing structures for making, disseminating and viewing art.” What sets Minimalism apart, however, is that its simple, abstract aesthetic invites viewers to respond to what they see—not what they think a given work of art represents. Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, and Dan Flavin are some key Minimalist artists


One of the first contemporary art paintings shown in the course materials is a picture of green.  My first thought (very unoriginal) was “even I could do that. Thick paintbrush, thin the colour out as you move up the paper.”
So I had to work out what this was about and why a picture of  green hues might be ‘art’. On going to Izabella Godlweska de Aranda’s page, I could see she was drawn to green There was a lot of it and the one the OCA had chosen was one of the least interesting, in my view. Certainly, the green painting feel as if it come from nature, except nature is rarely formed in straight lines. I preferred the Kensington Garden series, there was more to look at. I’d never heard of the painter, so I looked her up.  She took painting classes with Jozef Pacewicz, then in 1959 she married the Spanish diplomat Eduard Aranda y Carranza and moved to Madrid. She began to experiment with colour and horizontal strips. After her husband's death she worked in sculpture. I found this quote from her. "I try to understand the abstract as infinity in the concept of the absolute. An unrivalled absolute where imagination connects with the vision of reality known to us. It is a vision of nature, landscape, sunrise and sunset, moonlight, the ultimate and only truth, which is also infinity. It is the specific language of the world around us who seeks its own expression to find a way to reconcile destiny. (Wikipedia It reminds me of the night, in a strange way. The memory of waking up under canvas before, or at the point of first light, when the colours are muted to grey. 

It was hard to find anything in English about this artist, but the subtext of what I found intrigued me. The fifties was my mother’s time; it was a repressed time for women, even though they now had full suffrage and were able to go to work, especially prior to marriage or babies. It must have been hard to become an artist, but perhaps one could ‘do them at home’, which, like writing, might have allowed housewives to secretly practice their art. I began to wonder about the female artists pre-equality times. I’d just listened to A Good Read, the longstanding programme on reading and books on BBC Radio Four, when I first heard about The Hearing Trumpet. “This is a bonkers book,” said one of the programme’s guests, who’d been asked to read it. “It’s mad. Utterly bats in the belfry.” I rushed to Amazon and ordered a second-hand copy. I had to find out if he was right. 

Leonora Carrington was born in 1917 in Lancashire to a strict Catholic family, and began to paint when she first came into contact with surrealism through her lover, painter Max Ernst. But she also wrote; her stories are as surrealist as her paintings, original, imaginative and charming. The Hearing Trumpet  is a classic of fantastic literature, reminding me of a childhood favourite, Alice in Wonderland, but rather than falling down a rabbit hole, we view the world through ninety-two-year-old Marian Leatherby’s ornate hearing device. Marian’s family commit her to a sinister retirement home, with buildings shaped like igloos and birthday cakes. The occupants have  to endure the twisted religious sermons of the proprietor while they eat their weird meals overlooked by a portrait of a leering Abbess. Marian happens upon a book detailing the life of the Abbess, and the book’s pace, remarkably, hots up into a magical adventure of escape. The guest on A Good Read was perfectly right. This book is bonkers, but such fun to read. The cover was her own work, and it sent me off to find more of her work.

Not only did she write in this surreal way, but she also painted and sculpted. Perhaps, this was due to her association with Ernst, but I wonder about life experience, too, because during the war, Ernst was taken by by the Nazis and Leonora had a nervous breakdown. She fled to Spain, but was incarcerated in an asylum. In her memoir she describes the brutal regime, the use of hallucinatory drugs sexual assaults and filthy conditions. This feels pretty surreal to me, and her response was both to write and create art. She has a big following in America and Mexico, where she lived for many years, but Britain has ignored her for most of her life, until an OBE in 2000 when she was 83; I had certainly never heard of her and can only thank A Good Read for the introduction.
Searching the BBC site for anything similar, I came across Paula Rego. After the Spanish links of  Izabella Godlweska de Aranda and the Mexican/European links to Leonora Carrington, there was quite a frisson of interest when I realised that Paula Rego, born in 1935 was Portuguese, but studied at the Slade. Her work, especially her early work, filled with animals in association with humans, reminded me of the hyena paintings and short stories by Carrington. The fact that both women are attracted to magical realism, which to me, feels like ‘grown up fantasy/fairy story, seems to link them in my mind, although their styles and the sense of the work couldn’t be more different. Rego is described as producing ‘art of the beautiful grotesque’, while Carrington’s work is almost fey in its fantastical aspect, using muted colours and softened outlines.

In a video made by Rego’s, Secrets and Stories it became clear, that, in a link to Carrington, she loved to paint story and she’d started early in her life. She’d paint next to her mother, but, she explained on the video, once her father started reading stories to her at bedtime (including Dante’s Inferno),  the ideas came fast,and she wanted to get them down as images. She suggests that folk tales are an imaginative source; images that we have inside, giving a reflection of what the imagination is.

In 1965 she had first exhibitions in London and Lisbon. When she returned to Lisbon in1957, it was to have her lover’s baby. The father, Victor Willing followed her, divorced his wife and they married and settled outside Lisbon, where she continued to work prolifically. At the same time, she was raising 3 children. In Secrets and Stories, she says…It was brush or baby, not part of the same lifeies and art are separate parts. painting pictures is the part of you that is The Man. After the revolution in
the 70s, she came back to London. In the 90s she created a series of works that seemed to suggest images of women undergoing abortion (it was, she explained in Secrets and Stories, the way the female students at the Slade managed their sex lives), and this became part of the move for  a referendum in 2007 to legalise abortion in the very conservative Portugal. Here, at the British Museum round room she began to read folk tales. The Portuguese tales were particularly cruel - and the most close to her. Out of this research came a new phase. One of  Rego’s most famous series of paintings are from the 80s, when she began to paint  dogs with women.. Finally, after Vic’s death from MS, she had a show at the Serpentine, which presented a complete, but whole dark narrative. “Let me paint you a story” said one newspaper report, but that story seems to be of childhood fantasies, vicious and sexual. At that time, she met Marina Warner. In an interview, Warner says that it was thanks to artists like Rega that the female artists now are in a very different place, although not an easy one. (Although I suppose it was never easy to be an artist. Despite using a model, many of the paintings seem to depict a caricature ‘Paula’. Or, rather than charicature, ‘hated’, perhaps. She’s a slim woman who was a desirable beauty in her youth, yet the images show stumpy, thick-set women with masculine faces and berry-brown, almost grimy skin.
At this time, she produced her ‘ostrich’ paintings of stumpy women dancing in (mainly) black tutus, with Disney’s Fantasia as her influence . I have no idea why, but I like these. Perhaps the incongruity is too much for me.  I much prefer the story pictures, like The Blue Angel talks to Pinocchio. In one series, the women in them behave like dogs – the ‘dog women’ paintings, in which the women are      
Dog Woman doing what men tell them, often on all fours, biting their own flesh or being kicked under the bed, with titles like ‘Waiting for  Target, 1995, shows a woman undoing her dress zip and exposing her bra strap as if readying herself to be attacked.
One thing I’ve learnt as I looked particularly at Carrington and Rega’s work, is that you get to like an artist’s work as you study it. The more you understand it, the more attractive it is on the eye, the mind and the soul. I believe I’ll look for further female artists’ stories in the future

There was a local exhibition at the Mwldan Theatre in Cardigan, just half an hour from me.  Lea Sautin’s “Through the Paper Window”, Sautin’s work made me feel wide-eyed. She started with wire and paper, to  create little models of creatures from the Mabiniogion. I love this book of Welsh Myth, in fact, I’d say I was a bit obsessed. Then, Sautin took her models and moved on - that was the really exceptional part of her work. I’d’ve been happy with just the little paper models because they are quite exquisite but she used photography and woodcuts, dry and photopolymer etching, (I must look into these more to understand just how she used these and what they are! I’ll ask Cathy when she’s back from her travels in August). With these mediums, she produced what was the actual ‘art’, I guess – wall-hung pictures of  two and three visual representations. Inside the frames, the pictures had a cubist feel; here and there you spotted little bits of the mythological creatures from the sculptures against the wonderful welsh landscape backgrounds – an eye, a foot, a tree branch. 

This was important because the Four Branches of the Mabinogion are confused, lost, broken and probably retold in the 11th century from earlier tales. The broken and repaired pictures seemed to say that to me…”feel this, rather than think it, because, I am as lost and torn as the stories themselves, but my meaning, if you peer hard, is clear.”
Here are some of my own interpretations of these myths, written down in the 11th century, but with roots lost in the mists of time:


Men and their vile wands cause war and rape; 

A misshape child, hidden, was
Stitching up of all my flaws,
Chance for me to touch the stars.

In women’s wombs every child of the world;
            Lies unfurled. A whispering, mild ,
Cell, to grow, or be expelled...
Miss; expect to be reviled.

Men and their wands leave me cold. I possess 
A veiled caress, protective fold,
Hidden power, uncontrolled
Not cheapened or undersold.

Locked in a tower, do not quake, weep or wail,
 Spun in a wheel, do not break:
Look to the stars and partake
            Of the moon’s beams, ride their wake. 


 No one asked me;
Oak, meadowsweet and broom,
They fashioned a frock of floral gauze
And stood me ‘fore the sun
Legs up to my elbows, quivering like a fawn.

 No one asked me;
Oak, meadowsweet and broom,
Crushed petals bursting from the crystal trap 

He, too stood before the sun
The halo burning round him blurred his face.

No one asked me;
 Oak, meadowsweet and broom,
Slipping from the banquet hall, all aflush,
How you doing, Petal? 
A willowy sylph in a dress of flowers.

No one asked me;
Oak, meadowsweet and broom,
If he was tiring of my primrose laugh.
If my own gaze slipped or
If my pistils swelled as the fine gauze slid.

No one asked me;
Oak, meadowsweet and broom,
 Conspired assassination of a Prince – 
Were you both so desperate?
 Swift punishment; brutal, mocking, timeless.

No one asked me;
 How you doing, feather? 
Flight against the white moon,
Warm flesh swallowed whole. Downy love in the trees. 


 When did I know your pedigree was forged?
After battle, the great feast of victory,
/Toasts of mead and plates of boar our gathering gorged

Your watchet eyes a valedictory, 
Even the gold-tipped merlin-feathered crown
Hinted at departure, contradictory.

When did I first hatch my plan? My baffled frown 
Took me to my cousin, Queen of Annwvyn
 –You seem distracted, sweet, have you felt down?

 Her pale cheeks warmed like apples in the sun
 – He’s been distracted. Not for one full year 
Has he touched me. But, darling coz, I swoon...

Her breath was sweet, her lips soft on my ear
 –Last night was...rapture! Her smile told me all. 
The veiled and hidden secret became clear.

My head buzzed with my singing birds whose call
Shoos time away. My heart fluttered like wings.
My thighs wet with desire. Him, I’ll enthral.

I straddled my white mare, encircling 
The mound of wonders, miracles and harm.
In dreams he sat, saw this sweet fay appearing 

And rose, pulled to me by my whispering charm.
Enchanted hoofs restrained his mortal reach, 
 His face the colour of a farrier’s arm. 

My lady, will you rein in and have speech! 
I would, sir, for your horse’s better health.
For we are well-matched, therefore must well meet

I choose a man for character, not wealth,
Star fortune and star cross as my birds sing,

Will more befall? Our fates emerge with stealth...

I think that final reflection above, when I thought about it over some nights (in my Emin bed…) is how art works its magic on people. It’s why people spend a long time at galleries in front of one work. The more you know, the more you understand deeply, the more you can appreciate, and, then, on some occasions, appreciation transforms into love. But because love is unguessable and without logic, so one could not guess which works one appreciates more fully will turn into a love affair, and which will not. So I can now say I appreciate Carrington’s work, but I quickly loved Rego’s, and I still don’t know why, except to say that the solidity and opened-faced quality of what she says suits me better than the most unsettling of Carrington’s paintings.