Friday, December 4, 2020

Costa Blanca Arts Update - ADDA Simfonica in Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky and Mozart

The symphony orchestra may rank among the most important of all human inventions. The fact that the very idea is absurd makes it a gem of human achievement. Around a hundred human beings, who have devoted their lives to mastering techniques in the use a technology invented specially for this product-less purpose. They join together in the presence of an audience, who is only in attendance to share the both intangible and abstract experience of hearing sounds, sounds that have been concatenated by the imagination of others who generally are not even present. The absurdity of the exercise can only be imagined. The permanence of its effect cannot be overstated.

The fact that we have concerts at all in these virus-dictated times is, in itself, a miracle. Duly temperature-checked at the door, socially-distanced and only in attendance by virtue of the musicians’ willingness to perform the same program twice each time, at six o’clock and then again at nine, we are privileged to assemble in Alicante’s ADDA concert hall. And this has happened three times in the last two weeks for this particular participant.

And, after some months away from real live orchestral sound, the opening phrases of Edward Tubin’s Estonian Dance Suite provided an immediate and major thrill. Tubin’s reputation for musical conservatism does not prepare the listener for the harmonic and rhythmic surprises in his work. We followed that with the performance by Adolfo Guitiérrez of Shostakovich’s second cello concerto, whose almost neurotic, obsessive concentration seemed to tap the general anxiety we are all feeling these days. Adolfo Guitiérrez had the time and energy to play and a little encore by Benjamin Britten, despite having to do the whole thing again just two hours later. We then heard the Symphony No. 1 of the fourteen-year-old Felix Mendelsohn. The music seems to fit the mental image of the early teenager in a frock coat and a cravat parading as a precocious adult. In some ways, the almost deliberate recourse to complexity, the calculated varied modulations of key speak of this lad frantically staking his claim to adulthood. The fact that the work convinces and generates communicative experience is testimony to the young mans invention and genius, indeed success in his personal project. Anu Tali’s conducting debut in Alicante was thus a brilliant success.

The second trip was for a concert devoted to the memory of José Enrique Garrigós, who was a significant figure in the business and cultural life of the province. He died last year and was clearly an acquaintance of Joesp Vicent, ADDA Simfonica principal conductor and artistic director. Josep Vicent also clearly has special regard for the major work on the program, Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, the Pathetique.

But the concert began with a finale, the final jota from the Three Cornered Hat of Manuel de Falla. The piece was perhaps a long-term favorite of José Enrique Garrigós and perhaps gave an insight as to how he himself wanted to be remembered. There followed a performance of Raise The Roof, a timpani concerto by American composer Michael Daugherty. To describe Javier Eguillor’s performance as soloist as virtuosic would almost belittle the achievement. Rarely silent throughout the work, the work began with an aurally blinding flash of a cymbal roll. The timpani then offered their notes to the orchestra, which then proceeded to play with and amongst them throughout a first movement that was almost entirely pentatonic. Overall, the piece layered gloss on gloss, sparkle on glitter to provide almost an evaporation of emotion and brilliance.

And then we had Tchaikovsky six. Certain pieces of music, quite rarely, it has to be said, only grow by greater exposure. Each time such pieces say something bigger, reveal layers of nuanced meaning previously missed or merely impact on the listener in a more vivid, immediate way. This Tchaikovsky symphony is one such piece. This particular performance I would place a few centimeters short of life-changing. A closer brush with raw experience might even have been dangerous. After the turbulence, the paroxysms and the joy, we were left with the pianissimo of two notes on the basses, sawn rather than bowed, the cuts of the last ties with hope. Strangely enough, such overt despair makes everyone, eventually, feel better, because the only remaining way is up. I am reminded that in the same hall in less than two months I expect to hear a performance of Shostakovich Symphony No. 4, which finishes with precisely the same two note fate in the basses, but repeated like a torture.

And so to the third of the recent orchestral events. Programmatically this one was unusual in that it presented a Saint-Saens-Mozart sandwich. Three shorter pieces by Saint-Saens, the Andromache overture, Spartacus and the Dance Macabre, surrounded the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20. The Saint-Saens showed off the orchestra to great effect, the brilliant orchestration producing color and effect in an almost Proust-like stream of consciousness, albeit considerably shorter. The brilliance of the composer’s orchestration contrasts with his musical conservatism, but the whole assembles like an Impressionist painting, albeit of a generation earlier than the composer’s own life.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 is a different experience from those previously described. This is a quiet, understated, deeply personal work the bursts with emotional states that are not advertised like self-promotion or worn like jewelry. The writing is subtle, reticent, suggestive of some deeper emotional experience than that being related to the listeners. It is a piece that needs a pianist with perfect touch married to an ability to communicate, a transparent virtuosity that allows the music to quietly come before technique, but a technique perfect enough to admit moments of sympathetic variations of emotion. The soloist achieving this perfection with apparent ease was none less than Maria João Pires.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Jerusalem The Golden by Margaret Drabble

 

Jerusalem The Golden by Margaret Drabble was published over fifty years ago. Reading it now, for this particular reviewer, is the equivalent of reading Arnold Bennett in the same year that Margaret Drabble’s novel was written. Bennett’s quintessential late Victorian and Edwardian identity was then and remains almost foreign territory to the contemporary reader, but – even given the fifty year time shift – one might expect that the reader who actually experienced the 1960s as a teenager might suffer no culture shock whatsoever in reading Margaret Drabble’s essentially 1960s novel. That assumption, however, would be quite wrong.

The mechanics of Jerusalem The Golden’s plot can be described without spoiling the experience of reading the book. Clara is a lower middle-class girl growing up in Northam, which is clearly not far from Margaret Drabble’s own Sheffield, despite being described as being fifty miles or so further from London than its real-life manifestation. Clara clearly rather despises Northam. In her third person narrative that always feels like it wants to inhabit the first, Margaret Drabble has her principal character regularly refer to the dirt, the lack of sophistication and general ugliness of the place, factors that convince Clara – and no doubt the author herself – that life should transfer to London at the first opportunity.

Clara’s family is far from dysfunctional, but then the jury might be out on this because it hardly displays any function at all. Mrs Maugham, Clara’s mother, seems to live her life at arm’s length behind a wall of collected prejudice and panic if experience gets too close. Clara seems determined not to be like her mother.

Clara is successful at school but ignores received opinion as to what she might study, preferring her own judgment to the conventional pragmatism of offered advice. Before she leaves school, Clara has already shown significant signs of maturity. Not only does she develop an obvious but inwardly not perceived independence and individuality, but she also matures physically, developing an early and fine bosom, which she soon realises can be used as a source of power.

In London, where she attends university, Clara meets the unlikely-named Clelia, whose family turns out to be precisely the kind of befuddled, messy, propertied, sophisticated, if rather unclean lineage that would forever be diametrically opposed to her own Maugham household. One feels that if Clara’s mother were invited to the Highgate pad of the Denham family, her nose would turn up in silence as she reached for a mop to disinfect the floors. Strangely, Clelia is rather similar to Clara, both physically and personally, though we do not appreciate this until late in the book, when consciously or otherwise Clara seems to morph into the very identity of her friend.

Clara is a thoroughly credible 1960s character. This misunderstood decade, for most people, was not about free love, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll or protest. Ideologically, it may have become so, but day to day life was school uniforms, dance halls largely segregated by sex, social conservatism and conformity, allied to a newly won, for most people, glimmer of opportunity for self-betterment. Clara exhibits the values of her age, but also gnaws gently at the edges of the constraints, as the era appeared to expect one ought. She surprises herself on a school trip to Paris, but she does retain total control, a facility she learns to cultivate.

And it is this aspect of Clara’s character – its desire and ability to control, to extract exactly what she wants from life in general and circumstances in particular that comes to the fore. Clara desires, Clara gets. She is always self-deprecating, but she even learns to use this flawed confidence to focus attention and facilitation from others when she needs it. Gradually Clara is revealed as someone who ruthlessly uses her physical, personal and intellectual advantages to achieve precisely what she wants, despite the fact that she often tries to deny any conscious plan.

Margaret Drabble’s style throughout is both complex and backward-looking. Clara could easily be a character from fifty years earlier – an Arnold Bennett society debutante, aware of social niceties, protocols and conventions, but needing to make her own way through life’s challenges. But Clara is always ready to assert her presence in a way a woman from fifty years earlier might not have done and thereby she achieves her ends, often irrespective of any potential damage done to others. Her potentially self-destructive success in achieving her wishes is increasingly quite disturbing. Hers is an individualism that also could easily become self-defeating, as evidenced in the author’s assessment that Clara “thought nothing of” being sick in a Paris toilet when she decided to leave her married lover behind. We are left thinking that there is something unsaid to follow. And, if that were to be the case, perhaps a more general parallel with the 1960s decade is possible, in that it might have felt like a liberation for the individual, but also that it might eventually have threatened something that was both longer lasting and longer term. One feels by the end that Clara is set for some pretty rude awakenings.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Twelve years of Alfas del Pi Classical Music Society - alfasmusica.com

 

«Nuestro público es el fiel reflejo de lo que es la sociedad alfasina»

Tras doce años de existencia la asociación ha organizado ya más de 250 recitales

Entrevista > Philip Spires / Sociedad de Conciertos de Música Clásica de l’Alfàs del Pi (Wakefield -Reino Unido-, 1952)

Philip Spires representa, en cierta medida, el tópico del gentleman inglés. Su tono de voz suave, su verbo educado al extremo y, sobre todo, una cultura general que emana de cada una de sus palabras convierte una conversación con él en todo un desafío intelectual.

Spires preside la Sociedad de Conciertos de Música Clásica de l’Alfàs del Pi. Con todos estos datos, el lector seguramente se haya hecho una imagen muy definida en la mente sobre nuestro entrevistado y no diferirá mucho de un hombre estirado, pedante y, casi, con levita y monóculo.

Philip Spires es todo lo contrario. Es un tipo cercano con el que cualquier conversación, por larga que pueda ser, se hace corta. Su trabajo le llevó a vivir en distintos y exóticos lugares del mundo y ahora, ya jubilado, ha recalado en l’Alfàs del Pi donde puso en marcha la asociación que sigue presidiendo.

La Sociedad de Conciertos de Música Clásica nació hace doce años. ¿Cómo comenzó esta aventura?

Originalmente colaborábamos con Vicente Orts, en la Finca Senyoret, con unos conciertos de verano que reunían a una pequeña cantidad de personas y a unos pocos músicos. En aquellos días teníamos la ayuda de una entidad bancaria. No era mucho, pero organizábamos dos o tres conciertos en el mes de agosto.

Entonces, Joaquín Palorames, vicepresidente y director artístico de la asociación, también organizaba conciertos en colaboración con algunos ayuntamientos, especialmente en l’Alfàs del Pi. Fue él quien pensó en poner en marcha un programa de conciertos de pago a través de una membresía por parte de los asociados ya que pensaba que podía ser un modelo que funcionaría en un lugar como l’Alfàs.

«CELEBRAMOS NUESTRO PRIMER CONCIERTO EL DÍA DEL INCENDIO FORESTAL DE LA NUCÍA. ÍBAMOS A COMENZAR Y NO HABÍA SUMINISTRO ELÉCTRICO»

Sé que el día de su puesta de largo las cosas no salieron muy bien. ¿Qué sucedió?

(Ríe) Fue el día del incendio forestal de La Nucía. Íbamos a comenzar el concierto y no había suministro eléctrico, lo que nos obligó a arrancar tarde. Pero, desde entonces, hemos realizado unos 250 conciertos.

Ustedes han traído a l’Alfàs del Pi a artistas de todo el mundo sin olvidarse tampoco de los músicos de la zona. ¿Qué es lo más complicado a la hora de organizar un programa anual de conciertos?

¡Lo más complicado para mi es lidiar con Joaquín! Él es el director artístico y discutimos qué artistas queremos invitar. Lo bueno es que él tiene sus propios contactos y, a través de ellos, podemos llegar a la mayor parte de los músicos que queremos traer. Además, hay músicos que nos contactan directamente ofreciéndonos su repertorio y sus conciertos.

También contamos con distintos lugares para organizar los conciertos. Por ello, si contamos con un músico al que no conocemos muy bien, podemos, por ejemplo, probar su recital en el Forum Mare Nostrum antes de programarlo en la Casa de Cultura al año siguiente.

Su trabajo a la hora de contar con músicos de fama internacional es impresionante. ¿Desde dónde han sido capaces de traer concertistas?

Hemos tenido artistas que han venido, obviamente, de España; pero también de Italia, Alemania, Francia, Croacia, Serbia, Polonia, Rusia, Reino Unido, Irlanda, Bélgica, Estados Unidos, Albania, Bulgaria… ¡de muchísimos sitios!

Nuestros conciertos son, en cierta medida, fiel reflejo de la sociedad internacional y multicultural de l’Alfàs del Pi. Es una sensación que me encanta, porque yo me considero, por encima de todo, un ciudadano del mundo y, en segundo lugar, un habitante de un lugar concreto. Soy un absoluto convencido de que cuanta más interacción tengamos, mejor.

«TRAEMOS ARTISTAS CON LA CALIDAD SUFICIENTE COMO PARA HABER TOCADO EN ALGUNOS DE LOS ESCENARIOS MÁS IMPORTANTES DEL MUNDO»

L’Alfàs del Pi no deja de ser un pequeño municipio fuera del circuito de los grandes escenarios de la música clásica. ¿Es complicado convencer a los músicos para que vengan a tocar aquí?

No, en absoluto. No estamos en las grandes ligas, es verdad. Debemos ser realistas y sabemos que no vamos a poder contar con Lang Lang, así que nos centramos en lo que nos podemos permitir y ahí sí que somos capaces de atraer a muy buenos músicos. Artistas con la calidad suficiente como para haber tocado en algunos de los escenarios más importantes de ciudades como Ginebra, París, Nueva York, Viena, etc.

En nuestro caso, muchos de los músicos con los que contamos vienen de Italia por una cuestión de relaciones históricas. Algunos son muy conocidos y otros menos, pero eso es la música. Debes estar abierto a escuchar lo que te ofrecen y lo que te llevas es esa experiencia.

«ALGUNAS VECES HEMOS PEDIDO A UN MÚSICO QUE CAMBIE ALGUNA PIEZA, PERO SOLO HA SERVIDO PARA QUE NO CAMBIARA ABSOLUTAMENTE NADA»

Una vez han cerrado el acuerdo con el músico, ¿quién propone o decide el repertorio que tocará en su visita a l’Alfàs?

Una vez me crucé con un pianista, cuando dirigía una asociación en otro lugar del mundo, al que le pregunté cuántas piezas podía tocar sin necesidad de ensayar demasiado y me dio que unas mil. Eso es algo extraordinario. Normalmente, los músicos llegan con un repertorio y lo que hacen es repetirlo en cada una de sus actuaciones.

Lo más habitual, por lo tanto, es que cuando hablamos con ellos nos digan “voy a ir con este programa”. Algunas veces les hemos pedido que cambien alguna pieza, pero sólo ha servido para que, llegado el momento del concierto, no cambiaran absolutamente nada.

«LA MÚSICA CLÁSICA ES PERCIBIDA COMO ALGO ELITISTA. RECHAZO ESAS ETIQUETAS DE FORMA ENÉRGICA Y CATEGÓRICA»

¿Cree que es acertado el término de música culta para referirse a la música clásica? ¿No supone etiquetarla de una forma elitista que podría espantar a buena parte del público?

Entiendo lo que dices. En inglés, por ejemplo, no tenemos ese sinónimo, pero la música clásica también es percibida como algo elitista dirigida a la clase media-alta en adelante. Rechazo esas etiquetas de forma enérgica y categórica. Pero voy más allá: odio el término ‘música clásica’. Sé lo suficiente de música como para saber que el periodo clásico comenzó alrededor de 1720 y acabó en 1800.

Supongo que su propia colección de música será enorme.

Arranca en el siglo X y termina en una grabación de una pieza que se compuso la pasada semana. Tengo 32.000 piezas musicales en mi colección en más de 2.000 discos. No quiero repetirme, pero muy pocas de todas esas grabaciones podrían ser consideradas música clásica. Son, principalmente, música moderna y es imposible de clasificar.

Pero esas etiquetas, de una u otra forma, se han impuesto en casi todas las expresiones artísticas.

Así es. Si lo comparamos, por ejemplo, con las artes visuales, tenemos el periodo clásico, pero también el romanticismo, el barroco, el rococó, el renacimiento o el gótico. Y luego, tienes la era moderna, que arrancó entre 1880 y 1900. Mi opinión sobre todos los movimientos en el mundo del arte se resume con un dicho muy conocido en inglés: “el que paga al gaitero compone la pieza”.

Es la gente que paga el arte la que decide su estilo. Desde 1880 o 1890 el arte ha sido más la expresión de un gusto individual, de algo que va a ser patrocinado por un benefactor. Ese es el motivo por el que tenemos esa explosión de diferentes estilos.

Entonces, ¿a qué nos referimos con el término música clásica?

Hoy en día, en pleno 2020, se puede referir a un cuarteto de cuerda, pero también a una grabación, como la que me llegó el otro día, de alguien creando un ritmo tirando granos de arena sobre una mesa para explorar sus efectos sonoros. La clave, para mi, es que el mercado no sea el principal objetivo que marque lo que el artista está intentando hacer. Eso es todo.

En cualquier caso, los artistas también deben de pagar sus facturas y eso lo consiguen siguiendo las demandas del mercado.

Antes me has preguntado sobre el término música culta. Es algo que contrasta con la música que se crea para el mercado. Este te marca una serie de patrones a los que te tienes que amoldar y a la gente no le produce ningún tipo de sorpresa. Cualquier cosa que sorprenda a la gente, que no resulte familiar, crea automáticamente una reacción. A veces, al público no le gusta que se le presenten cosas que no le resultan familiares.

«PARA QUE PODAMOS APRECIAR ALGO EL PÚBLICO DEBE COOPERAR QUEDANDO LIBRE DE PREJUICIOS»

Si uno hace el experimento de escuchar cierto tipo de música, como por ejemplo el rock, y dar marcha atrás en el tiempo, verá que cada nuevo estilo de música entronca con un movimiento anterior y que no es difícil llegar a la llamada música clásica desde cualquier propuesta. ¿Por qué cree que eso no es algo mucho más evidente y que cuesta tanto que el público se acerque a ella?

De nuevo, falta de familiaridad. En esta sociedad es imposible, y eso es algo que en l’Alfàs del Pi sí que se ha conseguido en cierta medida, escapar de la música pop y su influencia. Oirás música pop en cualquier tienda, en cualquier calle, en los medios de comunicación… Te la están metiendo a todas horas. Es una fijación de consumo.

Si la gente se familiarizara de la misma manera, por ejemplo, con Chopin, también lo reconocerían. Hace poco escribí que para que podamos apreciar algo el público debe cooperar en el proceso y debe quedar libre de prejuicios. Eso es lo que mucha gente hace con la música clásica: prejuzgarla.

Disculpe la osadía, pero Puccini fue, seguramente, uno de los grandes artistas pop de su era. Al fin y al cabo escribía pensando en el mercado y en conseguir un nuevo ‘hit’. ¿No cree que es injusto prejuzgar la música pop de esa forma?

Eso que dices es muy interesante. Si repasas la biografía de Puccini descubrirás que fue prohibido…

Sólo por ciertos sectores, los más conservadores de su época. Sus obras llenaban los auditorios y él era inmensamente popular y rico.

Así es. Schubert apenas tuvo éxito durante mucho tiempo porque lo que proponía era nuevo y la gente no lo aceptó. Puccini era muy accesible, pero también hubo otros compositores de ópera como Leoš Janáček, conocido como el Puccini checo, que tuvieron un mayor legado sobre la ópera que vino después. Puccini, en ese sentido, fue una vía muerta.

Pero, volviendo a tu pregunta original, también rechazo, aunque lo he usado antes, el término de música pop. No es popular. Más del 90% de los discos pop que se publican no producen ningún beneficio porque no son populares. Lo correcto, por lo tanto, sería decir música populista.

Volvamos al ámbito local. ¿La mayoría del público de sus conciertos está formado por residentes extranjeros?

No. Nuestro público, te lo aseguro, refleja fielmente la sociedad alfasina, es decir, está formada al 50% por españoles y extranjeros. Y todo, con dos excepciones llamativas: no conseguimos que vengan muchos ingleses y tampoco, y esto me duele más, mucha gente joven.

«ES LÓGICO QUE LOS JÓVENES NO VENGAN A NUESTROS CONCIERTOS. ESTÁN EN UNA EDAD EN LA QUE LO QUE QUIEREN ES SOCIALIZAR»

¿A qué cree que se debe?

Mira, durante un tiempo viví en Brunéi. Allí todas las chicas jóvenes de origen chino tocaban el piano, pero nunca vimos a ninguna en nuestros conciertos. Creo que es algo lógico. Un concierto de música clásica implica estar dos horas en un sitio sentado y escuchando música y los jóvenes están en una edad en la que lo que quieren es socializar.

Pero sí van al cine.

Sí, pero eso lo haces con tus amigos e, incluso, puedes cuchichear con ellos sobre lo que estás viendo. Si eso lo haces en un concierto de música clásica la gente comenzará a quejarse y a decirte que te calles.

La música es una constante en la programación cultural alfasina

Entrevista por Nico van Looy

 


Thursday, November 26, 2020

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

There is perhaps no other tale in European culture that synthesises history, myth, literature and perhaps religion as famously and as frequently as Homer’s Iliad. So often has this story of Bronze Age conflict been adapted, one might wonder why an accomplished writer, known for her apposite, pungent and penetrating comment on contemporary society and its issues should turn to it for inspiration. It is a question that recurs throughout a reading of The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker.

Surely an intentional pun on the similar film title, the substitution of Girls for Lambs, plus the associated allusion to insane slaughter and violence ought to point a reader toward the eventual direction of the book. The fact that this contemporary reality emerges gently and subtly is further evidence of Pat Barker’s profound writing skill. In a less accomplished writer’s hand, this rather blunt concept might just bludgeon the reader’s experience with polemic in a similar way to Achilles’s sword occasionally dealing with heads. But in Pat Barker’s hands, the idea works supremely and subtly.

The Silence of the Girls begins with a victory for Achilles in which a Trojan adversary is defeated and killed before his city is sacked. Men and boys are slaughtered, as well as most of the women, except for those deemed worthy of abduction as slaves, an office that would demand regular calls to duty. Young women thus become the chattel of victory, the spoils to be despoiled at the hands of the brutes, all to be suffered in the submissive silence of slavery.

Briseis is a king’s daughter who loses most of her family in the city’s sacking and it is through her eyes that the story is seen. She herself becomes a prize. Achilles, the half god, half man superhero, is the obvious claimant, but Briseis ends up in the confused clutches of Agamemnon. Achilles mysteriously withdraws from battle, apparently to sulk, and the Greek cause in the war with Troy suffers severely as a result.

Now thus far this might sound like a conventional rewrite of a well-known and well covered story, but Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls sees events through the eyes of the newly enslaved Briseis and her viewpoint adds much to the familiar territory. It is through her prism that we see an ancient world that is foreign to us but familiar to her. Her observations become interpretations of its customs, beliefs and assumptions. Like Helen, the beauty whose abduction started the conflict, Briseis is young, eligible and marriageable. Unlike Helen, Briseis was already on a losing side and must endure her gender without privilege, though in the bedroom their differences in position might just have been minimal, mere details of posture. While the males enact their increasingly ritualised conflict, Briseis and the other women hold everything together via food, comfort, kindness and tolerance. Their reward is further use, always with the threat of death nearby, if ever the fancy were to wear off.

In the case of Briseis, the fancy of Agamemnon was always in question, like his geography, but Achilles, it seems, regards her as something more than a mere bed-mate, though he seems have difficulty expressing his feelings. A thoroughly modern man, we presume. When Agamemnon gives way and Achilles claims his prize, there develops a bond which might pass for marriage. But somehow, any acknowledgement of a woman’s rights seems to be beyond the imagination of these committed warriors.

And this lack of ability to see self-interest extended by greater tolerance is doubly underlined when, at the end of the conflict, a sacrifice to the gods is needed to ensure a fair wind for the voyage home and this automatically has to entail killing someone who is young, virginal and female. Old habits, no matter how hard-set, simply do not die.

By the end, the significance of the title and Briseis’s relationship with Achilles has thus become clear. Contemporary films and genre fiction still make their point by sensationalising male violence against women, and perhaps relations between the sexes still bear some of the hallmarks that characterised the behaviour of these Bronze Age brutes. The difference, perhaps, is merely one of degree.

The Silence of the Girls is a challenging read, but not because of difficult language or deviousness of plot. Indeed, like much great drama, we know what is going to happen in advance, since the story is so well known. The joy is learning how things happen and how they are interpreted, and thus the difficulty arises because the reader must operate on different levels of awareness throughout. To ignore this contemporary parallel would render The Silence of the Girls just another re-write of an old story, and it is much more than that.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Sweet Caress by William Boyd

Sweet Caress, the tile of William Boyd´s 2015 novel, refers to the gentle contact the individual makes with the very surface of existence, the contact we loosely call “life”. It presents “The many lives of Amory Clay” that are contained in its principal character’s existence. As has become the author´s forté, William Boyd again brings to life a character who lives through the history of the twentieth century, impinging upon it, influencing it, being influenced and changed by it and thus consumed by it. It´s called life, and it’s linear, constantly reviewed but never relived, always surprising, but at the time apparently predictable. Like history, it’s just one thing after another.

William Boyd´s characters are always carefully but lightly drawn. They are never easily caricatured, and even less easily summarised, rather like people, in fact. Their identity is amassed from their experience of life, congeries of circumstance and chance. And, like a great artist, the author manages to create rounded, credible people from the very lightest strokes of his brush, leaving the reader to create whatever detail makes sense. But they also retain a complexity that makes them convincingly real. These different lives of the subtitle always evolve apparently authentically from Amory Clay´s circumstance and so the transition from one setting to the next, though often abrupt, appears possibly inevitable, but always credible.

Amory Clay, female, lives this sweet caress of life, despite having been described at birth as her parents' son. She is taught an intriguing habit by a relative of describing people in four adjectives. Complex, indulgent, direct, driven. It´s a game that Amory Clay plays throughout her life and one she passes on to others, so this activity emerges occasionally throughout the book and introduces the reader to people that otherwise might take pages to describe. It is the verbal equivalent of a snapshot, a partially accurate freezing in time of a view of another person, but inevitably always taking a selfie.

Amory Clay´s family is inoffensively middle class, dangerously so, especially after her father returns a changed man from the First World War. Parcelled off to boarding school because someone else is paying for the opportunity, Amory does well, resentfully well, until events change her life. There will be no going back. Life´s sweet caress becomes a push onto a different and diverging path.

Photography motivates Amory. From her first click of a box camera, she is captivated by its possibilities. She turns her back of what the average professional might pursue to make a living to explore the possibilities of social record, photojournalism, the bizarre or images of chance. And then she pursues a photographer’s life, making her living from whatever genre of her chosen profession presents opportunity. She is afraid it will not pay the rent, but it does, and often things go quite well, for a while. She has ideas that it might even make her famous, but infamy is always near, always an option, sometimes preferred. Circumstances are often dangerous, both for her and the objects of her gaze, but then danger often unlocks new doors and paves a way via a new chapter to security.

Professionally and personally, Amory Clay visits various countries and continents, places and events, wars and country estates. She has relationships with men she encounters, but rarely on a short-term basis. She both drinks and makes love copiously. She is injured and recovers, partially, she thinks. She endangers her own life and places others in peril, but she adds emotional and experiential value to the lives of all she encounters, including the readers of William Boyd’s invention of her history. She even once kisses a woman, albeit one dressed as a man, in a doorway as a ruse to divert the attentions of potential attackers on the rampage.

By the end of this beautiful novel, we feel we not only know Amory Clay, but we also empathise with her and identify with her. Saying goodbye leaves almost a sense of bereavement. We have lost someone close and dear, perhaps we have even lost a part of ourselves, as a certain Lady Farr comes to the end of her adopted aristocratic life. It is she who writes her contemporary journal as a commentary to the memories of Amory Clay, the photographer, and who is, we know from the start, that same Amory Clay who became Lady Farr. How she became a titled landowner is just another story, completely unlikely, but no more so than any of the rest and, in the hands of William Boyd, utterly credible. Our encounter with Amory Clay’s many lives takes us to places we have never been and will never go, allows us to share a life we will never live and enriches our own memory via its shared, imagined, experience.

As ever in William Boyd’s writing, there is always one real gem only partially hidden amongst the history. In Sweet Caress it appears via a photograph taken by chance in Vietnam by Amory Clay, a record that will have to be expunged from the record if history is to remain written in its usual partially inaccurate way. But why single out one particular gem in this veritable jewel box of a novel?

Friday, November 20, 2020

The Leopard by Giovanni de Lampedusa

We are in the mid-nineteenth century in what we now call southern Italy. But then it was specifically Sicily and the Kingdom of Naples under the Bourbons. Within the pages of The Leopard, there unfolds a tale of landed gentry doing their specific things alongside the nation's general struggle for unification. There are numerous touches of brilliance, but overall it's a book I probably would prefer not to have read, despite particular moments of brilliance. Talking about the Bourbon's palace - Capodimonte - he says that the architecture is sound, but the decor and detail leave a lot to be desired - rather like the Bourbons themselves.

There are betrothals, weddings and much celebratory eating. There are also politics and liberation for Italy, albeit elevating yet another King, Victor Emmanuel, who was nevertheless something of a foreigner for these people in the south.

There is much to commend this book, especially the elegance and wit of the writing. But the modern reader may find the atmosphere just a little too stuffy.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

The Innocent by Ian McEwan

The Innocent by Ian McEwan is a spy novel. It's a love story. It's not a whodunnit, but it is a who did what. It's also a tour of 1950s Berlin. Getting tied up in labeling genres becomes a pointless exercise, when it is far easier to state that this book is a novel. And this label denotes something much broader, deeper and certainly less predictable that any genre placement. When an author writes a novel, the imagination involved can take the book, its characters, the writer and then the reader along any path, towards any subject. Like the writer, a character need not feel duty bound to spend every waking hour in pursuit of a linear plot to ensure it reaches some endpoint. Life, like experience, itself, is not like that. No matter how focused we may become on any activity, consciousness always presents us with a jumble of stimuli and experiences. We may select  what we choose to see, to hear or to acknowledge, but the rest is always there, intruding. And for The Innocent of Ian McEwan's novel life takes numerous unforeseen turns, despite having started in a form that for most people would itself be a very special starting point.

The principal character is a telephone engineer-cum-electronics whizz-kid. But we are in the 1950s, when such things still relied on old fashioned telephones, cables and, crucially, tape recorders. This last ingredient gives away the fact that the novel is set in the permanent spying of the Cold War and this is also spiced by the setting near the division in Berlin between East and West, between a British-American capitalist enterprise and Soviet communist experiment. The plan is to tunnel as far as a run of cables on the other side, listen in and then analyse the recorded communications. Our lad from Dollis Hill in London has not only been trained for such work, but has a reputation for being something of a genius of the genre.

But like most lads, he likes a drink and, though he is far from experienced with women, he is also capable of falling for a woman. He, of course, does just that. She is German, older than him and more experienced. An essential art of Ian McEwan's book is the way these lovers discover how to be with one another from their individually different starting points.

Unfortunately, she is married, and the husband, who is still current and not former, is a tough guy who drinks a lot and doesn't look after himself. He unfortunately can look after himself and is well known for doing just that.

It has to be recalled that Ian McEwan's nickname at the start of his career was Ian Macabre, and The Innocent does not disappoint. The triangle works itself out and becomes at least a quadrilateral when an apex is deleted only to be replaced by others.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Love Is Blind by William Boyd

Love Is Blind by William Boyd is a real page turner. But the reader’s interest is never generated by cheap melodrama concerning threatened turns in an essentially linear plot. On the contrary, many a reader might finish this book and muse on exactly what the plot might have been. The revelation is that, as with most novels by William Boyd, it is the credible and unique lives of the characters that have provided both the interest and the stimulus to know more.

These characters are not what might be encountered in most novels of the page-turner variety. Brodie Moncur is a Scottish piano tuner who is employed by the quality makers Channon in Edinburgh. Brodie develops some neat tweaks that enhance the sound and playability of the machines placed under his care. He also has some ideas about how Channon might become a little more than a Scottish name. A period in the company’s emergent Paris office might help.

Brodie’s great idea is to sponsor a concert performer who will thus advertise the brand. An Irishman called Kilbarron accepts Brodie’s offer and all seems to be going very well indeed. And all does go very well, especially in relation to Brodie’s relationship with Kilbarron’s partner, a Russian soprano called Lika Blum.

A novel like Love Is Blind is simply about people. To describe their lives is to spoil the book’s currency. Suffice it to say that there are complications of many kinds along the way. Neither true love nor commerce nor music runs along a smooth path for these characters. Central to the book’s success is the credibility of Brodie’s commitment to his relationship with Lika, however, and it is this that binds everything together.

Brodie’s relations with his family are strained by a father who wants to disown him, and his relations with the Channon company also hit hard times for unexpected reasons. He moves across Europe in search of somewhere both safe and convenient to ply his trade and pursue his interest in Lika. In an unlikely turn of fate, he eventually finds his way to India to work alongside an American anthropologist. But then the detail is the plot, and we learn about his journey to India at the very start of the book, before in fact we have even met to protagonist himself.

But what is so engaging about William Boyd’s characters is their total credibility, no matter how unpredictable the events themselves become. By the end of the book, we feel we really have shared their experience and indeed lived through it with them.

Monday, October 26, 2020

The Shores of the Adriatic – The Austrian Side – The Künstenland, Istria, and Dalmatia by F Hamilton Jackson 1908

 

Interesting to read this account of a journey – not the author’s first to the area – while travelling through part of it. The writing makes me regret I did not include a trip to Aquileia in our itinerary. It makes one realise that it’s not possible to do everything and that there is an awful lot of human history to see.

The striking thing about Hamilton’s book is his forensic approach of church architecture and decoration. It seems that each and every ecclesiastical site is for him a veritable museum full of artefacts, artistic styles and architectural techniques. Even the smallest of churches is treated with the same meticulous eye and pen.

A second and utterly memorable part of his work is how his historical paradigm is so completely different from that of the contemporary traveller. He spends most of his time in Austria. It was indeed only in the 1950s that Trieste, for instance, became part of Italy. Piran was a Venetian city. Places have been part of Yugoslavia, Hungary, Papal States, Venice, Genoa – and more than once! Serbia, Byzantine empire, Roman empire, Greek, Slovenian, Croatian, Kingdom of Naples, Norman… Our eyes can only see the world it has experienced. And so when the contemporary traveller visits places like these, we somehow cannot shake off the assumption that the historical evidence ought to fit into the same paradigm. We all know that Maribor used to be Marburg, that Bratislava used to be Pressburg, that it was once the capital of Hungary… But how much of this is merely part of our specific and therefore biased assumptions? Hamilton seems fully aware at all times that the very identity of these places has been transformed many times, but he is also aware of the fact that the most powerful influence is always found in the identity of those who live there. His approach to culture is rather anthropological for today’s tastes, but he is usually sympathetic, except when exigencies of travel intervene. It must also be recorded that there have been, even recently, major population movements, expulsions and attempted genocides. It’s all part of the history… human, at that…

The quality of his portrayal makes me want to revisit the area quite soon and travel down the coastal towns and islands of the Adriatic. There is much to see, though the ramshackle quaintness he encountered is certainly no longer in evidence.

A surprising and often-encountered aspect of the book is the number of times he and his party of travellers are stopped by police, immigration officers and the like on grounds of security. They were carrying cameras and the official types could not comprehend that people wanted to record architectural details such as mullions and roofs. They must surely be spies or thieves or both. In an era where there is a photo every centimetre, where we travel freely without borders and even use the same currency across countries, one has to utterly thankful for the changes. Tell that to the British.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Costa Blanca Arts Update - Claudi Arimany plays Mozart Flute Quartets and Marco Tezza plays Schubert, Janacek and Schumann

 

Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the middle of October, and Alfas del Pi has three concerts in the renewed cycle of La Sociedad de Conciertos de la Música Clásica. Friday and Sunday were solo piano recitals by Marco Tezza, while on Saturday, in Casa Cultura, we heard Claudi Arimany and the Beaux Arts Trio in Mozarts four flute quartets.

The Mozart quartets offer about an hour of music. As soloist, Claudi Arimany called the tune and chose generally fast tempi for the allegros, including the rondos. This is not demanding music, but it is pleasurably tuneful, memorably so. But there are also moments of elegance. It is this mix of the simple and sophisticated, the utterly ordered alongside elements less predictable that has maintained the popularity of Mozarts music for over two centuries. It was a perfect opportunity for Claudi Arimany to display his unquestionable virtuosity, whilst Joaquin Palomares, David Fons and Gonzalo Meseguer, the members of the Beaux Arts Trio, played their substantial part.

The two piano recitals by Marco Tezza presented the Alfas audience with something of a challenge. The Friday programme was Schubert’s Sonata in B flat D960 coupled with In The Mists by Leos Janacek, whilst on Sunday he repeated the Schubert, but coupled it with Schumann’s Gesänge der Frühe, opus 133.

Schubert’s last sonata for piano is a challenging work under any hands. It is one of the longest piano sonatas ever written and its deceptively light textures often give way to dark, depressed corners of the human psyche as its composer contemplated what was to prove a fatal illness and an approaching death that was only weeks in the future. And, given he had suffered symptoms for several years, he was certainly aware of the process.

The work’s tempi markings are possibly ambiguous, but most pianists stick at least roughly to the broad moderato of the first movement in the even broader andante of movement two. But the first movement is moderato qualified by the composer with “molto” and the andante of the second with “sostenuto”. The mind could spend quite some time working out how to be “very” moderate or indeed how walking maybe “sustained”, other than by not actually stopping.

Now it appears that most pianists interpret the first movement’s pace at the allegro end of moderato and the second’s andante towards adagio. The notable exception to this pattern was Sviatoslav Richter, whose YouTube performance of the piece from 1972 is timed at over forty-seven minutes, with the opening moderato running to twenty-four minutes. Most performances, however, do not run to such lengths. Alfred Brendel, for instance, albeit ignoring a repeat or two, could deliver the work in just over thirty-five minutes.

Imagine, then, the level of surprise when, preparing to introduce the concert, Marco Tezza asked me to request that there should be no applause between movements because the piece would last no less than fifty-five minutes. And it did. I would not have been surprised if he had said thirty-five minutes. I would have questioned forty-five, but fifty-five just passed over me, so unexpected it precluded reaction.

And it was the first two movements that stretched time. Rather than a life story told at a story-teller’s pace, the movement became an autobiographical reflection, a series of questions, perhaps from a dying composer’s rambling diary, all of which led to the repetition of “Did I deserve this?” It is a work I have heard hundreds of times, but Marco Tezza’s performance was immediately something different when, at the end of the opening phrase, I became conscious for the first time that there is a clashing semitone in the harmony. The second movement became a long bout of self-pity, interspersed with what came across as memories, telling of better times in the past that contrasted ever more bleakly with the dark present.

Movements three and four were more conventional, but because of what had preceded them, they took on the sense of denials, expressing an inability to face up to the reality that had demanded attention in the first two.

I admit that after the Friday concert I was not convinced. After Sundays concert when he repeated the work, I was. Its an approach that will not replace the existing B-flat sonata in my head but will now live forever alongside it as a different take on what had become the composer’s uncomfortable reality. And, by the way, the Janacek In The Mists on Friday night and the Schumann Gesänge der Frühe on Sunday both contributed to and indeed emphasized the feeling of introspection. On both occasions, we were sent home with a little encore, Chauncey Olcott’s arrangement of My Wild Irish Rose, played, believe it or not, very slowly and introspectively. Music is a very powerful language, especially when understated.

 

Monday, October 19, 2020

Theodoric the Goth: Barbarian Champion of Civilization by Thomas Hodgkin (1897)

The fifth and sixth centuries of the Christian era are often listed as part of what we dismissively label as the “Dark Ages”. These times saw the fall of Rome, repeatedly, and the following centuries that were not well documented, compared to what had gone before. For many of modern mind, this era marks the end of what was assumed to be the civilizing influence of the Roman Empire on the world as it was known. This assumption is immediately challenged by the title of Hodgkin’s provocative and detailed account of the life of Theodoric and his dynasty.

History, when truthfully and fairly examined rather than pre-judged is always more nuanced than populist assumptions allow.  There were not many of Rome’s emperors, especially those from the later years of the empire, that can claim to have done much for civilization. Constantine, of course, two centuries before the period covered by this book had adopted Christianity as the Empire’s official religion and had moved the imperial capital to Byzantium. But on closer examination it can be argued neither of these acts was driven by anything other than pragmatism or perhaps the vanity we still associate with absolute power. For Constantine, Byzantium was simply closer to home than Rome and the iconography of the new religion provided opportunity for political self-promotion in a way that would not offend those who retained previously established beliefs. Early Christian art in the period after Constantine’s adoption of the religion suggest that it was the Emperor, himself, who became the acceptable image of Christ, if perhaps not God. And it was this image that persisted for several centuries before the long-haired, bearded and heavily romanticized image we generally associate with the name became currency.

Anyone who has visited Ravenna knows the artistic achievement of the so-called barbarians. There was perhaps no great innovation in their work, but the very fact that continuity is an identifiable trait again contradicts the populist view that civilization was brought to an end by these sackers of Rome.

It is true that for many decades Theodoric and his dynasty were associated with warfare, power struggles and political intrigue. But was this any different from what had preceded their rule? Probably not very much, not so different from what went before to justify the label “barbarian” that we generally attach to the era.

Hodgkin’s book has much detail, and sometimes that detail is quite hard to assimilate, especially so since many people appear to share names. But reading an account of this era is nothing less than eye-opening for anyone not familiar with the all-important detail that so often contradicts the popular view. The Barbarian Champion of Civilization is thus capable, like all good historical accounts, of challenging these received opinions, encouraging re-evaluation and thus enlightening dark minds in perhaps darker ages.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Orlando by Virginia Woolf


Orlando by Virginia Woolf claims it is a biography. A young man, the eponymous Orlando, is in London in the sixteenth century. At the outset, we meet him in an attic, having fun with a severed head and a sword. Virginia Woolf also tells us to expect Orlando at a later date to become a woman. It is destined to be a book of surprises.

He is, of course at court. Where else? He rubs shoulders with Tudor bigwigs, even monarchs. Of course, he is at court. Where else might such a character reside? Bloomsbury, perhaps… A few years later he even looks up at the dome on Saint Paul’s Cathedral, many decades before it was built. Despite its historical settings, Orlando does not much care for accuracy. It is not long before this biography becomes something decidedly less definable, though its author continues to invoke her declared intention of presenting the life of an individual.

Orlando, both the book and the character, is rather hard to define. Though it ostensibly focuses on the life, or perhaps lives of an individual, the book is not a biography, even a fictional one. It's not really a novel either, since it offers neither thread of plot, nor characterization, nor description of relationships. There is a lot of name dropping, and many references to historical figures, but history it definitely is not, the author often preferring to drop personal opinion almost at random alongside a name. Orlando meets and even spends time with several literary figures from the past, notably Pope, who is even quoted from time to time.

The writing is often poetic, but Orlando is not poetry. Neither is it a poetic novel. Some markers are needed, so here are some highlights from the text to illustrate both the inventiveness of Virginia Woolf and also how the text often appears disjointed, like random flashbacks into a dream.

“What’s the good of being a fine young woman in the prime of life”, she asked, “if I have to spend all my mornings watching blue-bottles with an Archduke?”


“Life and a lover” – a line which did not scan and made no sense with what went before – something about the proper way of dipping sheep to avoid the scab. Reading it over she blushed and repeated,

“Life and a lover.”


He started. The horse stopped.

“Madam,” the man cried, leaping to the ground, “you’re hurt!”

“I am dead, sir!” she replied.

A few minutes later they became engaged.

Orlando lives for the better part of 400 years, at least within these pages, and has numerous different lives, both as a man and a woman. He is a man, becomes a woman, marries and has children, and then becomes a man again. He or she is a writer, a poet, a courtier, whatever the page appears to demand for him, or her. Orlando displays a little in the way of character, let alone consistency within these different identities. The character increasingly feels like a vehicle for the personal gripes of its creator. On several occasions, the reader seems to occupy the back seat in a taxi, with the driver repeatedly saying, “And another thing…”, over her or his shoulder.

It may or may not be relevant, but it has to be noted that Virginia Woolf, for all her talent as a writer, for all her skills as a constructor of dream-like word pictures, was mentally unstable, and became more so as she aged. The unfortunate observation about Orlando is that the book appears to be a series of randomly assembled, almost disconnected thoughts, illusions, memories, prejudices, spiteful digs and opinionated rant. Orlando is also no less of an achievement for any of this, however, since it contains some real gems, but also much that is impenetrable and obscure.

What is clear, throughout, is Virginia Woolf’s 1920s version of feminism. It provides a thread that binds together the bones this book, but it is a thread that is far from golden, and the skeleton thus constructed has little recognizable form or shape. Also, in fact, she often seems sanguine, almost defeatist in her analysis, more often than not equating “female” with poverty, ignorance or failure, even when the female characters themselves, as individuals, are nothing less than assertive. It could be, of course, that she is projecting stereotypes associated with the people she describes, but it is hard to be convinced of this, since consistency is not a word that can be used in describing Orlando, which is a unique book, its success a genuine achievement of a vivid and strange imagination.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Costa Blanca Arts Update - Suite Havana, paintings by Anthony Miró in Palau Altea

Suite Havana is a newly inaugurated exhibition of paintings by Anthony Miró, hung in Palau Altea on Spains Costa Blanca. It complements and amplifies an existing show of the artist’s sculpture, an exhibition entitled de mar a mar, throughout the town. Altea is a long-established artists’ town, a white town whose appearance might suggest its location on a map might have slipped north from Andalusia by a couple of hundred kilometres. But this is Valencia and Altea is a Valencian town hosting Anthony Miró, very much a Valencian artist.

But despite its homegrown nature, the exhibition Suite Havana, like the sculptures of de mar a mar have done for several months, will provoke controversy and calls for its removal amongst that segment of the town’s population for whom sexual taboos retain their significance. For, like his sculptures, the subject matter of the paintings in Suite Havana is sensuality, sexuality and sex, three different facets of the same taboo. But whereas the three-dimensional bronzes portray both positive and negative images of various sexual acts, the paintings in Suite Havana portray only naked or near-naked Cuban women. And they are all beautiful women, all desirable, all at first sight arguably ideals of their type. This, in itself, does not separate them from the Greek pottery or poetry-inspired images of the sculpture, since ancient Greece was not noted for the realism of its own depiction of the human form. But the gender specificity does.

Whether Western art of the Christian era portrayed sensuality as its prime message before Titians Venus of Urbino is a matter for the art historian, which I am not. But for me that particular painting is representative of a turning point in the history of art. Titians Venus is naked. Her left hand cups her pubic area, conveniently hiding its detail. There is nothing new either in art or life. But what is immediately different about the Venus of Urbino is that she engages the viewer. And she smiles. There is an engagement in her expression, almost a recognition, indeed a recognition that may even be personal, but equally it could be contractual. We could be her friend or her lover, but we could equally be her customer, with a hand to reveal its detail only after a contracted payment is made. The taboo here may go well beyond mere sex and sexuality. It may indeed extend as far as prostitution, deception and even might reach as far as a notion of pleasure, even worse, pleasure for its own sake. Its an image whose public display would be controversial today, let alone in mid-sixteenth century Venice.

A century or so later, Rembrandt was painting his canvases that glowed with the human reality. He produced images of ordinary people powerful enough to provoke even todays observer with feelings of recognition, sensations of association, and the desire to greet by name, a need almost to renew an acquaintance. As observers, we cannot fail to feel the humanity, the proximity to our own experience, an empathy with what we assume are the subject’s concerns. But is this quality diminished, enhanced or unchanged by our knowledge that, largely still hidden from public view, there are hundreds of drawings and sketches by Rembrandt the depict the erotic, the sex act, the aroused genitalia and expressions of sexual ecstasy? Do we find humanity to an equal degree in such images? Does our knowledge of this side of Rembrandt´s interests change the way we view his ability to penetrate the human psyche?

And, as a third observation on the theme that is in danger of overstatement, how do we personally react to Courbet’s Origin of the World? Courbet - we now assume – was of the realist school, the group that grew out of the Brabizon painters of the early 19th century, where the everyday was both subject and object of interest. For those who do not know this particular work, its in the Musée d’Orsay and depicts, no more and no less than, a close-up of the hirsute genitalia of an unnamed, unknown and an identifiable woman, a viewpoint of a torso that might be achieved just before oral sex. After many years of not seeing light of day, the work is now in the gallery for all to see. It stays the right side of voyeurism, opinion has it, but why, how or in whose opinion is rarely possible to define.

There exist other examples, of course. Velasquez’s Venus was painted some years after that of Rubens. In both paintings a voluptuous back view is presented and in both the viewer is engaged via a mirror held by Cupid. Goya’s unclothed Maya stares at her viewer and she incurred the wrath of the Inquisition. Manet’s Olympia caused a scandal as late as the mid-nineteenth century in Paris, of all places, where brothels were an accepted part of commercial life, where there were at least 150,000 registered prostitutes and where the state took fifty per cent of the transactions in taxes. And it was a woman, Mary Richardson, who attacked the Velasquez in London in 1914. She later said she did not like the way men gaped at the picture, though the initial motive was to protest against the arrest of a suffragette leader.

It has often been said that female nudes in painting exist for the eyes of men. The women depicted, the nostrum has it, are always ideal types, worthy of voyeuristic scrutiny, of elevation to the status of the pornographic. The twentieth century did challenge that notion, especially via the work of artists such as Lucian Freud or Tracy Emin, both of whom have their own complex relationships with sexuality. Indeed, at the opening of Suite Havana in Palau Altea, a companion of mine stated that in her opinion these seemed to be works painted for men.

It is time to describe the work themselves, lest the critique take centre-stage over the content. Suite Havana is a collection of 50 or so naked or near-naked Cuban women. Each painting features one or sometimes two models. Most paintings feature a named individual and she is often returning the gaze of the viewer, just as Titians Venus does. Facial expressions vary from neutral to inviting, from distance to ecstasy. Some works concentrate on particular parts of the body and some subjects are wearing pants or a bikini. All the women are beautiful.

The paintings are mainly acrylic on canvas. There are a few abstract prints, but the style is predominantly what might be called photorealism. These are named, identifiable women, posing naked for us to look at. And, because of the realism of the style, the viewer must get very close to these images to appreciate how they differ from photographs. There are outlines here and there, sometimes in black or blue or white. There are added lines that accentuates something extended from the image itself, for example a lengthened lock of hair, a circle accentuating the buttocks. And most of the women are lying on beds. Just like the one-dimensional imagery of Courbet’s Origin of the World, these subjects are in your face. And clearly intentionally so.

But lets suppose they were all wearing enough scanty clothing to be socially decent, to break no taboos, and let’s introduce a product of consumer capitalism into the fray. The smiling woman then becomes an enticement to buy, to consume, to associate the perhaps subliminal pleasure the image creates with the featured product, without ever wanting explicitly to suggest that the woman is part of the product being sold. Suppose we remove the womans name from each title and replace it with that of the product. I use only generics as examples: toothpaste, 4 x 4 gas guzzler, washing powder, fast food outlet, dishwasher. We all know this is a woman. We all know that women have breasts and genitalia. We all know that these are being offered alongside the commercial product. Why is it seen as taboo if these qualities, these realities, which we all know exist, are revealed? Does our collective problem lie in the suggestion that these women might just be selling themselves? I wish I could answer the question, but asking it is the important act.

I now read that the artist’s Instagram account has been threatened with closure because he has promoted his exhibition with some of its publicly displayed images. Suite Havana and work like it always asks the same question. The medieval European mind was clear at least institutionally that nakedness was a matter of shame. The Renaissance forced a reassessment of this attitude, and it is a reassessment that is still underway, despite Titians, Rembrandt’s, Courbets and other artists’ contributions.

The images themselves are pleasing, in their provocative, arousing and challenging way. They might promise ecstasy, but sometimes the detail differs, such as in the canvas where across the womans lower abdomen there is a scar of a Caesarian or a hysterectomy, with a strange, almost umbilical cord of thread trailing towards it from the navel. My friend pointed at the womans labia and declared she thought it looked like a wound. I was reminded of Margaret Atwoods feminist work, The Gash.

Suite Havana is a collection that would cause some people offense. My advice to such people is, “Dont go there”. But, as ever in art, the questions are always more interesting than the answers. The beauty of these images and their capacity to move anyone who does seek the experience is indisputable.