Saturday, 18 March 2023


The Brunswick, Hove
Fri 10th March

I came across Burd Ellen the same way I did Fern Maddie, from the Guardian’s ten best folk album list of last year. But the release than won that accolade, ’A Tarot Of the Green Wood’, ploughs quite a different furrow. It’s all traditional numbers, but not as we know them…

They announce they’ll be doing "one of those long, continuous sets like you read about in that ’Wire' magazine”. But it’s separate tracks run together, like a mixtape without gaps. Which is, I suspect, to defamiliarise the familiar folk gig, with all the to-audience explaining that this next song is from South Shropshire, not North Shropshire as was once thought.

What’s more, individual tracks can run so this just plays up that continuous sense they have already. To sound like that ’Wire’ magazine a moment, duration is made into a compositional tool, as much as it is in Minimalist music. It’s a set which takes time to steep but them becomes flavoursome.

The duo play behind a table laden with folk instruments and knob-twiddling gizmos. Even the glass of water gets put to a musical purpose. But if that has you ready to say ‘folktronicia’, that’s a term which suggests creative collisions. Whereas Burd Ellen don’t seem to make any such distinctions in the first place. For most of the gig, you wouldn’t know who was playing what without looking… in fact, it wasn’t always easy while looking. ‘Drone folk’ probably fits them better, taking the natural drone qualities of folk instruments and amplifying them.

In fact, rather than cleverly adding stuff, they tend to work at their best while most stripped down. If that table was laden, the less they pick up from it the better they work. The encore (which they seemed genuinely surprised to get) was down to voice, vocal loops and taps on the violin. Yep taps, not even bowed or plucked. Though I confess the one acapella number perhaps pushed a point too far, and was the one point my attention wandered.

If we have to have a sound-bite description, imagine a Lankum who are less dour and more enticingly eerie. The album, they can be keen to say, was released on Halloween. ’The Lovers’, with it’s references to a “green wood”, could describe a little girl lost in that deep dark wood, or be a siren call drawing you in.

And it warrants stuff I’ve been saying for some while now. We can’t truly reconnect with the past, but neither can we just forget it. So it will continue to haunt us, and so we should talk about how it haunts us. This is music which works like a lightning rod for phantoms.

Not sure there’s any footage of this tour, but this is both Burd and Ellen (note to self, check this is their real names before posting), performing ’The Hermit’ from Gateshead. A low-lit basement made a better setting for their sounds than a brightly lit glass-fronted gallery, but go with it…

Then, the very next day…

Union Chapel, London
Sat 11th March

If Burd Ellen are a recent discovery, Current 93 are a long-time fave at Lucid Frenzy Towers, producing one of my all-time favourite albums. If Burd Ellen are drone folk, Current 93 go in for apocalypse folk. They’ve since confessed they only coined the term as a joke, but like so many of these things the tag stuck.

A near-universal assumption has dominated recent years, that downloading has killed the integrity of the album. Current 93, however, continue to be zeitgeist-proof, and David Tibet (frontman and sole constant member) was probably busy learning more ancient Akkadian when that was announced. (Not a gag! The new album title came from some Akkadian he was perusing.)

You can pick out and play individual tracks from their releases, should you choose. But the albums have a thematic unity which turns them into part of a greater whole. And the past two times I’ve seen them they’ve played their last album through in track order, usually (as here) with the track titles projected on a screen.

Except this time, there’s a twist. Up to now each album has stood alone, a unique project with its own dedicated line-up. This time it’s very much a sequel to its predecessor, ’The Light is Leaving Us All'. (Which I saw live back in 2018.) The title, 'If A City Is Set Upon A Hill', suggests a shifting uptown of imagery from the bucolic English village imagery of last time. And themes, images and musical styles recur.

Notably, the post-album section of the gig, the part devoted to the more standard best-of, is dominated by a series of tracks from ’Light’. There was precisely one number from neither album the whole night, ’Sleep Has His House’. I guess, if you see more gold in that seam, you keep mining. And, as I suspected after last time, it all works better back in the atmosphere of the Union Chapel than the regular rock venue they decamped to last time.

Lyrically, Tibet combines the epic and eschatological with the more everyday. (“Read it in the tealeaves, read it in the stars.”) And the music does something similar, somehow combining grandeur and intimacy. Which might stem in part from the characteristically idiosyncratic line-up. Piano probably dominated, but combined with guitar, violin, wind instruments (including bagpipes) and two guys on laptops. One of which occasionally doubled on drums and, solely for ’Sleep Has His House', organ. (But this time no hurdy-gurdy. Perhaps the hurdy-gurdy players have joined in with the strike wave.)

’If A City Is Set Upon A Hill’ refers of course to urban planning coming before a fall. Which leads us to Tibet’s near-fixation with death and dissolution. It would be easy to caricature him as some blood-and-thunder street preacher screaming at us we’re all going to die, who has inexplicably drafted in a backing band. Their Marmitey reputation might well come from here, some look at them and that’s what they see. But, while they are certainly a most intense experience, to me that isn’t really right.

Granted, I’d be harder pressed to tell you what he is doing, but then I don’t think he’s making music with some specific purpose in mind. Not a fan of Damian Hurst, but when he titled a work ’The Physical Impossibility of Death In the Mind of Someone Living’, he was raising an interesting point. (The title was certainly the best part of the artwork.) And Tibet is in part straining against the certainty of that line, devoting decades of music-making to pushing back at a solid-seeming wall.

Further, death was not always seem as an outside interruption to life, but something woven into the fabric of things. And Tibet’s also trying to take us back to those folk culture days where he was a figure you might meet while out walking. A somewhat single-minded character, perhaps, but not necessarily a malevolent one. Ultimately, the intention isn’t at all nihilistic, though it may be somewhat fatalist. And the sombre beauty of their music conveys that.

They sound not at all like the Residents, the last band I saw in this venue. But there’s perhaps a similarity of attitude, of sticking to your thing whether there be head or tail winds. It’s the mark of a band where you leave a gig feeling you’ll see nothing like that until their next thing, and just what I felt here.

Ye Gods! Actual gig footage! The title track (sorta) and 'There Is No Zodiac’…

Sunday, 12 March 2023


Can there ever be enough Spotify playlists? I say thee nay! This time we kick off in style with post-industrialists SPK sounding like an unknowable artefact unearthed from some ancient civilisation, and Eno & Byrne like a radio tuned to several foreign frequencies at once. Things then take a backwoods turn with the traditionalist country of Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris. Other sights encountered en route are the playful creativity of Robert Wyatt, the Ex recounting a chance encounter in a Cold War era bar (with some acrimony) and Melt-Banana… well, doing that thing which Melt-Banana do. The illo is Dali's 'Knight Of Death.'

SPK: In the Dying Moments
Brian Eno & David Byrne: Mea Culpa
Massive Attack & Young Fathers: Voodoo In My Blood
Gillian Welch: The Way It Will Be
Emmylou Harris: Poncho & Lefty
Oakley Hall: Hiway
Robert Wyatt: Team Spirit
The Fall: Kurious Oranj
Mission Of Burma: Max Ernst
The Ex: Grimm Stories
Melt-Banana: Shield For Your Eyes, A Beast In The Well Of Your Hand

“The poets tell how Pancho fell,
“And Lefty's living in cheap hotels,
“The desert's quiet, Cleveland's cold
“And so the story ends we're told”

Saturday, 4 March 2023


Tate Modern, London

”I paint as I see, as I feel. They also feel and see like me, but they don’t dare. I dare.”

The Dissident Impressionist

When a young man, Cezanne was told by his banker father to abandon his foolish art aspirations and start studying for a respectable career in law. At the same time his best buddy, the radical writer Emile Zola, suggested he join him in Paris. Now, we know how this sort of thing goes. We are already suspecting that it is not eleven rooms of neatly ordered legal papers which lie ahead of us. And indeed, in 1861, at the auspicious age of twenty-one, he did indeed leave his home in Aix-en-Provence for Paris and Zola.

But ultimately, he chose not to choose. Never what you would call a team player, after less than a year he’d left Paris too, and split pretty much the rest of his life between the two places. This cemented him as intellectually as well as literally peripatetic, self-isolating, beholden to no other. He was a paradoxical combination of cantankerous and curmudgeonly, wilfully argumentative while at the same time a recluse who shunned, if not the ways of men, the world of art as much as he could. He fell in with the Impressionists early, exhibiting at their very first group show in 1874. But from then he only appeared in one further. (The third, from a total eight.)

’Rooftops In Paris’ (c.1882, above) neatly demonstrates this by giving up nearly half of the frame to a single angled roof. It’s less of an element in the picture than a barrier placed in front of it, suggesting that even when the artist was in Paris he was never really in Paris.

Early Cezanne, it’s easy to forget, looks almost absolutely unlike his mature style, with paint often slathered on with a palette knife. The show describes this era as “dark, brooding, violent.” (And suggests he was at this point most influenced by Zola’s writing.) He called it Couillarde, which critics and shows take delight in explaining means “ballsy”. Much of it, it’s true, is juvenalia. In fact it’s often literally juvenile, hyper-heightened dramatics - as if he’d gone through a teenage Goth phase. The show seems embarrassed by these, giving only a couple of examples. But in truth, there’s good stuff in among them.

’Sugar Bowl, Pears and Blue Cup’ (1865/70, above) is an example of that rare genre, the ballsy still life. There’s a collision between form and content which makes it involving. The objects are painted in such an intense way, then set against a near-black background, that it feels like rather than simply there they’re asserting their presence.

Landscape In Doubt

From 1870, Cezanne was living at least part of the year in L’Estaque, on the south coast. And quite frequently painting nature scenes en plein air, just like a regular Impressionist. But take 'The Bay of Marseille Seen from L’Estaque’ (c.1895, above) and mentally hang it next to a Monet landscape. In fact why don’t we pick the Monet seascape, the one that gave the school its name, 'Impression, Sunrise'? They don’t look like brothers in arms, they look worlds apart.

First, Monet’s vivid use of colour, so integral to what we now think of as Impressionism, is replaced by something much more muted. (On-line, Cezanne’s paintings are often artificially brightened, seen as an error that needs correcting.) More crucially, as we’ve already seen, Monet’s subject wasn’t objects so much as moments, his method to capture fleeting changes of light and weather. To Cezanne, such things were just an encumbrance. Not only does he give us no clues as to time of day, we can rarely guess what season it is. (It’s often suggested he preferred Provence because of its lesser seasonal variation.)

His work is more delineating, more dispassionate, even clinical. There’s no particular focus of interest, the whole view faithfully depicted in paint, with no more favour than a map-maker would show. Not a record of a fleeting moment, more of a summary. Unlike his view of Paris shown above, there’s no formal barrier between us and the landscape. But it still feel distanced from us, an object for examination. We know that Monet painted rapidly, and Cezanne deliberatively. He used small, diagonal ’constructive’ brush strokes, much more regular and even than Monet’s dabs. Look at some of those spanning dates given behind his paintings’ titles. He could hang on to works for years, and died with many still officially finished.

Also, Cezanne’s father may have issued plentiful orders but also left his son privately wealthy. So he had no financial incentive to be as productive as Monet, something he took full advantage of. Richard Verdi states “only thirteen works of Cezanne’s maturity were accorded the distinction” of his signing them. (Disclaimer: Cezanne was closest to Pissarro, whose work is less distinct from his. But Monet is the go-to Impressionist for most.)

Two terms almost impossible to avoid using over Impressionist art are verite and joie de vivre. They’d paint flaneurs perambulating around Paris, with the sense that they could at any time swap places with the figures in the frame. While with Cezanne there are no figures in the frame to be bothered by swapping with. Not even those diminutive dash figures so often used to convey scale.

And this sense of distance should be seen not as any kind of deficiency but what Cezanne does. ’Turn In the Road’ (c. 1881, above) feels less effective for being more of a close-in view, almost like its a section of a larger canvas which has been blown up. (And note even here there’s not a soul on that road.)

Though I’ve started off with a view which is very Cezanne, they’re not all quite as distanced. ’The Sea At L’Estaque Behind Trees’ (1878/9) has a Parisian-like barrier before us. But those trees transform what would otherwise be quite a similar work to ’Bay of Marseilles’. By inserting themselves between us and the view, they give more of a sense of composition and involvement. They create a contract between their twisting and and the rigid geometry of those roofs and (especially) that jutting chimney.

While ’Chestnut Trees At Jas du Bouffan’ (1885/6, above) also uses trees to create compositional order. It’s not just their even spacing. In the lower half, the verticals of the trunks are echoed in the other straight lines of the farmhouse and wall, if at times at right angles to them. But the contoured mountain appears just as the trees break into branches, with the result the trees at once divide and unify the composition. While, from this perspective, the rugged mountain is the same heigh as the two buildings, creating another compare and contrast.

The mountain is Mont Sainte-Victoire. Cezanne painted twenty-nine portraits of his significant other, Marie-Hortense Fiquet. (One is coming up.) A high number, until you consider he painted that mountain no less than eighty times! He read books on it’s geology, the way a portraitist might get to know the backstory of his subject, and in 1902 even moved his studio nearer to it. What was it’s fascination for him?

The later work ’Mont Sainte-Victoire’ (1902/6, above) may answer that. It’s all something of a blur, particularly the foreground. But it’s not like Cezanne came across a blurry image, from a moving train or on a hazy day. This is more like a rough sketch, where lines are tentatively filled in then shifted, then transposed to the painting exactly as they are. Or more like several rough sketches, all combined into one. It’s not the result of a process, it’s the record of a working out.

What could be more of an unchanging fact than a mighty mountain, dominating the horizon? But how well do we truly see it? Is it even possible to capture it on canvas? Isn’t the more honest method to record our continuing failed attempts? In this way the mountain became his white whale.

The show describes his approach to painting “as a process and investigation, where uncertainty plays an integral role.” Robert Hughes is more poetic: “Cezanne takes you backstage...The Renaissance admired an artist's certainty about what he saw. But with Cezanne...the statement ’This is what I see,’ becomes replaced by a question: ’Is this what I see?’ You share his hesitations about the position of a tree or a branch; or the final shape of Mont Ste-Victoire, and the trees in front of it. Relativity is all. Doubt becomes part of the painter's subject.” Cezanne’s method is not about dazzling you with sights, but whispering doubts in your ear.

An Apple For Art History

You can read everywhere about how Cezanne took to still lifes in order to upset the traditional hierarchy of the arts. And there’s little doubt he exulted in that. A famous quote, stuck up on the wall in this show, is “with an apple I will astonish Paris!” But the crucial point is why they were held in so low regard. Which was because they gave little opportunity for either narrative or symbolism, widely regarded as art’s positive and enduring qualities.

With ’The Basket of Apples’ (c. 1893) the basket isn’t just upturned, it’s angle is emphasised by being set against the upright bottle. Added to the white cloth pushed so far in the foreground, and the effect is as if those apples are tumbling out at us. In fact, this ‘still life’ seems a lot more dynamic than may of his landscapes!

Though there’s other reasons. Richard Verdi is probably right to say still lifes partly appealed because in the studio he could control all conditions. (Though even then he could take so long the fruit would start to rot.)

I overheard one punter asking what the apples represented. Which is the wrong question squared. Cezanne is not interested in the apples as apples. To him, the fruit, the bowl, the bottle, all are mere props with which to create form. He’d return not just to these themes but the very same objects, repeatedly, until familiarity stops us noticing them for their own sake, reduces them to elements in a composition. (Picasso and Braque played a similar trick with their short-list of objects used in Cubism.)

And so two contradictory-sounding things are true at once. There’s no great difference between the way he looks at his stiff lifes and his landscapes, they’re both objects of contemplation from which the artist is distanced. Mountains and baskets, bottles and chimneys, apples and cottages, they take on an equivalence. And also, the essence of Cezanne lies in the still lifes. (See up top how they make it into the poster image.)

Even without the title, it’d be clear what the main figure was in ’Still Life With Plaster Cupid’ (c. 1894, above). But here the mini-statue isn’t treated as one more decorative element, as if the pitcher had the week off, the composition is centred around it as if a portrait. Which seems something of a statement, if not an active taunt, rubbing the viewer’s nose in the fact these are not figurative works.

But what we really need to talk about is that table. Nothing has been slipped in your drink, it actually looks so sloped and bent. Then has one solitary apple placed at the end of it, as if atop a slide which it is somehow not rolling down. Yet the foreground is so accurately painted we take a while to notice, we instinctively trust the artist to portray pictorial space ‘correctly’. There’s the second figure at the end, which we come to realise isn’t another statue but a painting within the painting. Then there’s the second frame on the left, forcing us to ask what there is painting-within-painting and what is still life object?

Cezanne does this sort of thing all the time. And he does it to mess with you. To play games with you, to undermine your confidences, to slyly undermine the rules of art you normally take as read. (And the degree to which he took personal delight in being confounding shouldn’t be underestimated.)

One Foot In Arcadia

It’s curious that Cezanne was the Impressionist who most pioneered Post-Impressionism, yet also the one most indebted to Classicism. But to him the timelessness of Classicism, so at odds with the Impressionist drive to capture the moment, appealed. Along with its sense of overarching order. (Which, with typical perversity, he at once pursued and questioned.) This is most evident in his series of Bather paintings, which include the largest work in the show - ’Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses)’ (1894/1905, below).

With everything so idealised, with such disinterest in evoking a real place, the doubting Cezanne essentially disappears. For once, we know just what we’re looking at. And the ditching of ‘difficulty’ seems deliberate, for these were the works which Cezanne wanted to be remembered by. Verdi says they were “clearly intended as his artistic testament.”

The trouble is, it’s not good. Not at all.

You can see the thinking. Bathers lack the clothing or other trappings which would tie them to one time period. So they make the ideal subject to combine Classical and Modern themes. But the figures don’t convince as figures. The seated one on the left looks like a sack of flour, strangely sporting a head. Yet neither do they reduce neatly to elements in a composition, the human equivalent of those bottles and apples. Cezanne has one foot in Provence, the other in Arcadia. And it leads to an awkward stance.

Yet these works were popular, including among other artists. Matisse bought one when he could little afford it, and made his credo “if Cezanne is right, I am right.” Now Picasso’s inheritance from Cezanne seems clear enough. There’s twin tracks of it; first Cubism took a similar analytically questioning approach to subjects, and later he took up a similar Neo-Classicism. Matisse’s debt seems harder to discern. Even more than Monet, he was known for his rich and vibrant colours. Colours he delighted to find in the Mediterranean, colours Cezanne stood in front of and disregarded.

But squint at it and it all comes into focus. Cezanne has aligned his figures with the landscape. Look for example at that leftmost angle. Which has it’e echo in Matisse’s ‘Dance’ (1910), where the figures are shown in such abandon they have almost lost individuation, while their surroundings reduced to two simple colour blocks. ’Bathers’ occupies an interchange between more regular depictions and Matisse. Perhaps at the time a necessary one. Yet by the time we get to Matisse it’s just a stepping stone across a river, which we’ve no need to step back on after we’ve crossed. As ever, the peril of being ahead of your time is that time won’t keep you there forever.

The better works here are the ones Cezanne has less grandiose plans for, which he probably regarded as ancillary, such as ’Boy Resting’ (c. 1890, above). The casual pose suggests this figure could get up and walk away, as soon as he chose to.

Friends, Relations, Gardeners

So does this show that Cezanne had a problem with the figure, a stumbling block he was better of circumventing? Nope. In fact, nothing about him could ever be so simple. In fact he could excel at portraits.

’Madame Cezanne In a Yellow Chair’ (18880/90, above) is of Marie-Hortense, as promised earlier. It’s hardly an ostentatious or attention-grabbing work, but a supremely effective one. Her face is more iconic than ‘realist’, yet perhaps for that reason conveys a great sense of self. Accounts usually focus on her inscrutability, those narrow features enhanced by being set in the highly rounded head, the eyes looking off. But that inscrutability can only come through her sense of presence. Much as with his other subjects, he returned to the same few sitters - family, friends or workers on his father’s estate.

’Scipio’ (1866/8, above) is portrait enough to be named after its subject. But it seems pitched to occupy the impasse between portrait and narrative painting, with it’s figure largely turned away from us. With the emphasis on his physicality yet stillness, the mood is one of weary rest. And of course at this time black people would have been very much associated with physicality. The white… well, whatever that white thing is that he’s leaning on seems there to emphasise his blackness.

So is this, as has been suggested, an anti-slavery work? Perhaps. But we should forever be cautious about reading into art what we want to see. Despite his association with the radicals Zola and Pissarro he was mostly silent on political questions, allowing us to project our wants onto him.

Sombre Still Life

By the late Nineteenth century, Cezanne was becoming increasingly plagued by ill health. At which point many of the themes of his early years return, but with a twist. The young man’s thrilling sense of dalliance with death is replaced by an old man’s sense of grim inevitability. What was brooding and violent becomes sombre.

Compare 'Still Life With Apples and Peaches’ (c. 1905, above) to the earlier ’Sugar Bowl, Pears and Blue Cup’. The colour scheme, the paint style, all is less in your face. And yet while it’s closer in composition to his mature still lifes, it seems nearer in mood to that early work. It’s as if all the elements are the same as he’s been using, save for Cezanne himself, whose older eyes now see in more sombre colours. The contained white of the cloth seems there just to set those colours off.

An Artist For Artists

As we’ve seen both Matisse and Picasso owned works by Cezanne. A list to which we should add Monet… yes the Monet we’ve sent so much time contrasting him from. And he continued to appeal to later generations of artists, including Gauguin and Van Gogh, and - some time later - Henry Moore. As the show says, he’s an artist’s artist. And you can see why. Some artists close off a direction simply by occupying it, straddling it until others are forced to detour around. Cezanne, who always posed questions and foregrounded problems, was the opposite of that.

Yet, whenever anyone is called an artist’s artist or musician’s musician I’m tempted to ask - all very well, but what about the rest of us?

Cezanne himself said he was influenced by the Realists. Who, as mentioned before now, are normally written out of popular art history, their existence challenging the popular myth the Impressionists arose from nowhere. (The indicia here has a particularly absurd sentence claiming art had been unchanged the past four centuries before Impressionism.)

True, the art isn’t the same, but the tone is. There’s a dourness to it, a sense of thrusting the truth in the publics’ face and demanding they look. Their truth was (more or less) political, while Cezanne’s is that we cannot claim to know the truth, but the effect is the same. Aesthetic appeal is seen as a distraction, painting exists to prove a point. A sign you can tap, only done in oil.

And this line continues. You can see the roots of Cubism in Cezanne, clear as day. It’s already budding in those neat, angled little brush strokes of his. (And Braque, Picasso’s co-conspirator in Cubism, praised Cezanne just as much.) Which, of all the well-known Modernist movements, was the most formalist, most concerned with questions around painting, the conventions used to convey objects, and so on.

And Modernism was concerned with such questions, inherently so. Anything that wasn’t simply wasn’t Modernism, by definition. Yet Modernism was also concerned with the modern condition, and how changed times might be reflected in changed art. Impressionism was deeply concerned with this, even if that’s part-obscured by hindsight. It’s central paradox was to create paintings which were unambiguously painted, with brush strokes entirely recognisable as brush strokes, which were still of something. Cezanne’s paintings are primarily paintings, his primary subject art and representation.

And without this second half of the equation Modernism soon becomes dry, hermetic and uninvolving. The reclusive Cezanne seems pitched on the edge of this abyss, falling in, pulling himself out, falling back in again. And it’s consequently almost impossible for those of us who aren’t artists not to have a love/hate relationship to his work. Art should interest the viewer, yes. It should be more than merely decorative. But it should also appeal.

(Just in case anyone’s wondering, why does his formalism bother me more than Giacometti’s? After all, both are about constantly re-positing the most essential questions of art. And I’m not sure I’ve much of an answer. Perhaps because Giacometti’s white whale was the human figure, not an apple or a distant mountain. So there’s always a subliminal association between his capturing the figure and getting to know the person.)

Yet Cezanne fits well into art histories, particularly those which reduce to simple flow charts. An original Impressionist who went on effectively found Post-Impressionism? An artist particularly interested in art theory? Those who see their job as telling us about art are likely to be telling us about Cezanne before long. This prestigious Tate show is thick with punters. But had his name slipped from art history and now needed re-inserting, if this show was the first people were seeing of him, would he then prove so easy a sell? Like Cezanne himself before a subject, I remain skeptical.

Saturday, 25 February 2023


Cafe Oto, London
Tues 21st Feb

The first time… the only other time I saw Zoviet France was way back in the Nineties. At one of those DIY arts events that happened more frequently before that much-feared dystopian future became our present. Not in a ‘proper’ venue, without stage or bar, we sat on the floor sipping from mugs of tea as the music wafted round us. Which was the perfect way to hear this legendary and possibly semi-mythical ambient duo, who I always like to think are named after an imaginary country. (Do I lie about semi-mythical? That ‘publicity’ photo of them ain’t exactly giving much away.) I was even apprehensive about seeing them again, fearing it couldn’t be the same… 

Then again, Cafe Oto isn’t a bad venue either.

They’d be another example of ‘the changing same’ in music. Dynamics are mostly eschewed. There are breaks and changes at times, true, but mostly there’s a slowly ever-morphing quality, where everything turns into something else before too long. The one time there was something like repetitive beats, their forward momentum was balanced out by a slow harmonica drag, played live and as if it were a drone instrument.

We tend to think of music, more than other arts, as a direct way to express an emotion. But a set such as this makes you realise how ill-suited regular music is to this task. Even a pop song has verses, choruses, bridges… too structured to capture the flow of thought, it works more like a speech or an essay. Whereas this, I contend, is the true music of the heart.

And so, of course, the thing which makes it appealing also makes it challenging to write about. It can be like trying to remember dreams, the act in itself pushes away the spirit that had once been there. But in my foolishness, I try to keep up this blog, and so…

They’re often tagged as dark ambient, even appearing on the Wikipedia page devoted to that genre. But if they came from the same post-industrial scene as Lustmord, they don’t really sound much like him. The nearest common descriptor for the sounds they produce would be analogue or organic, despite the abundance of shiny things on stage. In fact, the set starts with something sounding like vinyl crackle. Nothing even sounds sampled, referenced or ‘quoted’, even though it surely has to be. It’s not a melange of ingredients, it feels cut from whole cloth.

The mood’s serene, in fact I’d go as far as hymnal. (If that word could be shorn of its religious associations.) There’s the same mixture of quiet calmness with ecstatic states. It’s like one of those old Chinese paintings which depict an inherently ordered cosmos, in balance with itself.

The duo seemed to go quiet in recent years. (Though that’s a relative term in their case.) But there’s signs they’ve become more active again of late, and we can only hope so. No footage from this gig I could find, but this from supporting Autechre back in the Autumn… (Not as good a set, but still worth your time.)

Saturday, 18 February 2023


Royal Academy, London

“She was an exceptionally strong, spirited personality, full of revolutionary spirit against all things timid and lukewarm.”

Visual Soliloquies

…that was said of Marianne Werefkin. (And said by Elizabeth Erdmann, should you like to know that sort of thing.) But you could apply it as easily to any of the three other artists featured here - Paula Modersohn-Becker, Kathe Kollwitz, and Gabriele Munter. All come from the classic era of Modernism, the early twentieth century. All lie somewhere in the interchange between Fauvism and Expressionism. All were, more or less, German. (Werefkin was Russian by birth, but lived in Germany and Switzerland for much of her life.) And, as you may have already guessed, all were women. Co-curator Sarah Lea has said the show “celebrates women artists on their own terms.” (See viclip, linked at end)

We kick off with photos of these four, then a room devoted to their portraits and self-portraits, a genre defined by Kollwitz as a “visual form of soliloquy”. And as said many times before, all portraits are a displaced form of self-portrait. But let’s narrow that field for now by looking at either self-portraits or portraits of other women. Of which there’s plenty. (Though at a time when there were all sorts of barriers to women being artists, part of the motivation may simply have been using what was to hand.)

Unusually, the poster image is the first thing we see, Munter’s ’Portrait of Anna Roslund’ (1917, up top). Equally unusually most versions of the poster give us the whole image. But the ones that don’t noticeably focus in on that pipe-smoking face, as a kind of icon of female empowerment. (Which makes the slightly generic show title a bit odd. Perhaps the Academy used up their good name back in ’99, when they staged ’Amazons Of the Avant Garde’.)

But, as Magritte might have said, ceci ne’st pas qu’un pipe. The main things about the pose is that there isn’t one. She sits casually, framed off-centre, and looks off as if more interested in her own thoughts than acknowledging us. Only the red bob looks particularly ‘feminine’. There’s a quiet air of self-assuredness to it, and we’re not surprised to discover Roslund was an author and musician.

Women as subjects rather than decoration, the easiest means to achieve this might seem androgyny. Which is what Modersohn-Becker uses in ’Portrait of a Woman in Black With Handkerchief’ (1906, above). But such works perhaps blur concepts in place of overcoming them. And it turns out there are smarter ways…

In her earlier ’Self-Portrait In Front Of Window’ (1900, above) she’s not trying to look ‘masculine’, she even sports a white bow. But the elements which hit you are the calmly meeting gaze and upraised chin. Symmetry is often held to bestow power in art, and here she uses to it convey an ordered, directed mind. She’s not there to look demure or appealing, but to announce her presence.

Let’s return to Modersohn-Becker a moment, with ’The Sculptor Clara Rilke-Westhoff’ (1905, above). The interesting element isn’t the composition so much as something which will convey less well via internet thumbnail, the painting style. She makes her subject look solid, present and … well, sculpted. As if, were you to touch it, it would have physical shape.

Then compare that to something she show smartly hung next to it. ’The Dancer Alexander Scharoff’ by Werefkin (1909, above). It’s not just the femme fatale expression, impish and inscrutable. The figure looks lithe and fluid, but with it she becomes slightly insubstantial. An effect enhanced by the background being the same shade of blue. As if women were things of spirit.

Then compare her to a portrait of Werefkin. To be precise, ’Portrait of Marianne Werefkin’ (c. 1910). (Not by one of our Fab Four but Erma Bossi.) Werefkin’s looking less alluring, but there’s the same swish sweep of clothing dominating the frame, the same pose that looks like a pose, with the head turned to profile. These are, I don’t deny, good paintings. They shouldn’t be ‘cancelled’, or whatever hysterical term the GB News clowns are using this week. It’s just that this is a more traditional way of representing women, while Modernism should be modern.

Women & Children First

The show makes much of this era deciding the child has an inner life, and isn’t just clay to be set in the correct mould. Didn’t the Romantics already do that? Well, sometimes things need to get discovered over again.

Werefkin’s ’Portrait of a Girl’ (1913, above) works quite differently to the portraits we’ve encountered so far. The radiant colours (painted in tempura, a favourite of hers), set in combination with the closed eyes make for a figure that’s quite present (for example, pushed forward in the frame) yet at the same time feels removed and inscrutable. She looks sensual and devotional, at the very same time.

Werefkin was in her Fifties at this point and age was supposed to hit you harder and faster in those days, so perhaps the beautific inscrutability of youth seen from the perspective of age is the point. The theory that all portraits are self-portraits seems to be scuppered here. There definitely seems something pre-Roaring Twenties about it. (Or alternately, I’m in my Fifties too so this may well just be me talking.)

Perhaps we shouldn’t make too much of Munter’s ’Portrait Of A Boy’ (1908/09, above) having so similar a title. Besides, her ‘boy’ looks more a child age. The rough way he’s painted rubs off on him, so the work looks immediate and he dishevelled. He looks at the same time defiant and vulnerable, caught on the canvas like an animal in a trap.

There are also naked portraits of children.


With the blunderbuss approach to censorship taken by our Google overlords, I’ve take to cautiously linking to paintings of nudes rather than thumbnailing them. This time I may well have done that anyway. Modersohn-Becker’s ’Seated Nude Girl, Her Legs Pulled Up’ (c. 1904) comes quite accurately self-described. And granted, we all know the defensive postures which children take on.

’Beta Naked’ (c. 1900) is by another artist outside the big four, Ottilie Reylaender. With the girl’s skin so pale and wan, she’s hard both to look at and away from. While her defiant return of our gaze only amplifies that awkwardness.

It’s curious that one title uses ‘nude’, an art genre which often has sexual connotations, and ‘naked’, a more general term just meaning undressed. (Though of course they’re coming to us through translation.) Particularly when they seem so similar. One says “go away”, the other “what are you looking at?”, but that’s not a vast difference.

The indicia tells us Modersohn-Becker had to bribe this girl a mark to pose naked, after which “I blushed inwardly and hated myself.” There’s little doubt that’s the goal here, to paint that discomfort. But that only raises the question - why paint the discomfort? It’s tempting to glibly respond that you don’t intend bribing young girls to get naked, so you don’t really need telling what it feels like.

Yes, it’s possible these works had more traction in their day, where there was far less concern over child protection. But that would scupper the show’s thesis, that this was the time which first saw children as people. Yet interestingly, other works by Modersohn-Becker do suggest precisely this, depicting small children life-size but captured by tiny frames, which keep them as the focus.

Four Artists Means Four Styles 

Women artists from this time were often kept in an obscurity they didn’t deserve. And rescuing them from that, even this belatedly, seems the right thing to do. But while the show acknowledges “each developed a distinctive style,” it does at times feel over-keen to present them as a group. When in actuality they didn’t all even know one another. Yes, they may all be Expressionist to some degree or another. But we should probably look at movements in Modernism as murmurations, rather than schools. And besides, really, what do you call a woman artist? You call her an artist, right? So let’s look at them more individually here.

It’s always tempting to see Modernism as a fascinating failure, which set itself the somewhat monumental task of transforming the way we look at art, which we study in order that we can fail better. The Russian revolution of aesthetics. But if you look at its artists on their own admittedly narrower terms, of whether they made the art they wanted to make, and very often it’s a great success.

Modersohn-Becker’s ’Still Life With Goldfish Bowl’ (1906, above), it hardly has the most enticing title. But the work itself is quietly rhapsodic! There’s a slightly naive quality to the depictions, particularly over those goldfish, which make it engaging. But mostly, it just is engaging. It has me half-convinced I’ve never seen a still life before, in fact it has me semi-convinced I’ve never even seen orange before. 

Modernism’s greatest challenge had been to escape the dead weight of art history, to see things again as if they were fresh and new. And here it’s like Modersohn-Becker doesn’t even see the obstacles to overcome, she just goes ahead and does it with no need of methods or manifestos. How did she manage such a feat?

A clue may lie in a work of hers from the previous year, ’Boy In the Snow’ (c. 1905, above). Much of its achievement may lie in placing the boy figure in the foreground, yet turning him so he looks at the same scene as us. It’s like we see through his eyes, take on his perspective of all this fresh snow.

We’re told Munter collected child art. And Modersohn-Becker, as we’ve seen, painted children frequently. My guess would be that she took similar inspiration from their art. Which was not imbued with any sense of exotica strange otherness to get sidetracked by. This was art made by Westerners, who had not yet been warped by the Western tradition because they’d not had time to learn it. No-one had ever needed to go to the South Seas in the first place.

Munter may be the least significant artist of the four, simply because she’s the least individual, the most representative of a style. For example ’Interior In Murnau’ (1910, above) is clearly indebted to Van Gogh’s interiors. A debt she wasn’t shy of acknowledging, she called a place she lived in the Yellow House, after his often-painted lodgings in Arles.

But on the other hand, this is a Van Gogh by someone who at least gets Van Gogh. The vibrant colours and expanded perspective serve to make an empty room (bar one distant figure) pulse with life. Her composition cleverly not only places the rag rug along the length of the room, it aligns it with the discarded shoes at one end and sideboard at the other, then crosses it against the floorboards. What could seem mere empty space instead pulls at the eye.

’Man In an Armchair’ (1913, above), as the show points out, aligns the man’s head with the table, and so compares it to the geometric objects of her folk art collection. It’s a witty demonstration of her style, built into one of her works. Notably, it’s achieved by flattening so many other objects, including the man’s torso and legs. The door is so straight there’s effectively an even line running right across the lower part of the painting. Only the two chairs have dimension. (The “man”, incidentally, is thought to be Paul Klee.)

As suggested over ’Portrait Of a Girl’, Werefkin’s vibrant tempuras make her art a distinctive from Modersohn-Becker and Munter. And if that was a splendid work, ’The Contrasts’ ( 1919, above), painted after moving to Switzerland, is possibly better still. Since Romanticism we’ve assumed depictions of mountains call out for the solidity of oil paint. Yet here the tempura makes them look shimmering and otherworldly, as vertiginously distant as clouds. (And, as anyone who’s been to the Alps knows, there’s times of day when they do glow like that.)

Moreover, they’re otherworldly enough that the humans below, bent over their daily tasks, are oblivious to them. Humans who are notably depicted more solidly. Only the statue atop the water fountain peeps from one realm to the other, enhancing the distinction.

Alas she goes on to repeat these contrasts with increasingly laboured emphasis, and decreasing effect. In ’Life Behind Them’ (1928, above) the humans are shown, ostensibly on some viewing bench, but obstinately fixing their eyes against those peaks. Their folded arms suggest this is a deliberate snub, as if they’ve fallen out with them. The title may be too on the nose, but then us visitors to such areas do often find the locals taking for granted what we gawp at.

Then with ’Eternal Path’ (1929, above) everything is pushed more into a symbolic realm. It virtually begs to be read metaphorically. The small figures at the base must climb the frame, to reach that white tower, but how? It’s almost the layout of a puzzle game. Which only takes you away from those vertiginous descending lines, and ultimately from the painting itself. Werefkin, you never needed to spell out what you were painting. You just needed to paint it.

Sorrow Not Confined

An alert reader like yourself, you’ve doubtless have noticed I’ve said nothing about Kollwitz as yet. That’s because, however different Werefkin is to the others, it’s Kollwitz who really seems at a remove. She was the only artist I’d heard of when the show was announced, and may have been included as the ‘name’. (Though notably she didn’t bag the poster.) For one thing she abandoned painting early, for the more reproducible print-making. But it’s the reason she did this which marks her out. Her art was politically motivated, and she found prints more disseminable. And all her works here are of human figures, rather than environments.

Because of this, she has a reputation for dourness. Which isn’t always the case. The charcoal drawing ’Lovers Nesting Against Each Other’ (1909/10, above) is warm and tender, created not by the composition but those sinuous lines. You feel less you’re looking at this embrace than it’s incorporating you.

…whereas the charcoal drawing ’Love Scene 1’ (1909/10)… well that’s a sex scene, okay, but as they grasp one another like wrestlers the title really questions whether it could be called ‘love-making’. It’s more like each person is convinced the other has something which they need to get at. It’s twisted and grotesque.

…and the etching ’Death And Woman’ (1910) demands to be read symbolically, if not existentially. Giving birth was then much more fraught with danger, Modersohn-Becker essentially died from it. And the female figure is grasped between the skeleton figure of death and the demanding child, less torn between them as brought down by a tag team.

There’s two tensions to her work. She saw Expressionism as “the expression of profound emotion through portrayals of the human body”. But its a style which often takes the body as a seismograph to display emotional states, contorting it past the limits of possibility. Expressionists are interested in how things look only insofar as that’s a signifier of how they feel. Yet she also took a strong interest in the actual human body, in anatomy. We’re told she was highly influenced by Michelangelo. And these are diverging roads. Ultimately, you have to pick one.

Also, her work is pitched between an expose of social misery, an inevitable result of a class system which should be done away with, and something more existential, concerned with the inevitabilities of birth and death. And this is a tension which is more creative. As she said “sorrow isn’t confined to social misery. All my work hides within it life itself.”

The big London galleries can sometimes feel like those ‘classic rock’ radio stations, which just play the established hits on rotation. Attempts to widen the field a bit further should be welcomed, and this show demonstrates well enough there’s more talent out there. (And raises the question of how many times you could do this before you ran out of artists worth discovering. Some while, I would guess.)

But the necessary price for that is this ‘bundle’ kind of a show, as if several lesser-known names add up to match one big one, copper put together to equal silver. And when a three-room exhibition is devoted to four artists, it inevitably ends up as a kind of appetite-whetter. Whereas in all likelihood, for at least three of these artists, this won’t be the start of a rediscovery but their belated moment in the limelight. I’d tell you what the solution to all this was if I knew it.

Saturday, 11 February 2023


Apologies for the lack of a post last week. I was brought down by the left-wing economic establishment. Oh alright then, it was flu...

Union Chapel, London
Tues 31st Jan

I originally saw the Residents on their fortieth anniversary, and it seems now here we are at their fiftieth. I’m not sure how that happened, but seems it has. Their pronouns are…

”Alternately seen as a rock band, an arts collective, and a spirit, THE RESIDENTS have been regarded as icons in the world of experimental music for almost fifty years… the group has also been credited with being among the originators of performance art and music video.”

And I’ve asked before whether they really were a band, or a multi-media arts collective who found it easiest to masquerade as a band, just one of their many masks.

Well never to be pinned down, tonight a band is just what they are.There’s an accompanying film show, but bar that they work dilligently through a set. Even hearing tracks timed in by the drums seems curiously ‘regular gig’ for them.

As ever, their vibe is still sinister clown, one lyric espousing their credo: “everyone comes to the freak show/ But nobody laughs when they go”. Which works with the ever-present masks and costumes they sport. Something taken (as it always is) to be about anonymity. But like it always is in actuality, it allows them to take on other characters. This succession of deranged personas aren’t exactly satire, in the way someone like Zappa stuck it to Western consumerism and the like. (Even if both had Beatles-based album sleeves.) The Residents are more like weaponised parody, turning the form of popular music against itself.

Take ’Kill Him!’, which might ostensibly seem another example of the singer impersonating born-again preachers in order to undermine them. But what powers the track is an underlying ambiguity; is this God recast as devilish tempter, or some psycho using The Old Fellah as an alibi for his murderous actions? (“Blood is thick but/ God is thicker/ I am sick but/ He is sicker/ God says, Die!/ So I must kill him, but/ Why does God want/ To kill children?”)

And the extremity and ambiguity seem to marinate together, into something more unsettling. (I confess I was slightly disappointed afterwards to discover it was on an album of Bible-based songs, which seems to give too much away.)

And their musical style is still like Kurt Weill was leading a drunken carnival parade. But the gigness of this gig (if you follow) makes you aware how many of these numbers might once have been tuneful ditties, before being thrown into their hall of distorted mirrors. (Though there’s not one of their patented twisted cover versions.) You need to be good at music to be this good at anti-music.

Something like Anarcho-Punk always felt to me like making deliberately bad music in the hope it would undermine the good, when it actually just made the good music sound better. Whereas the Residents make good music gone bad, a very different order of things. What can seem like regular and quite innocuous features of songs, such as repetition, transform into something menacing. I fear ’Constantinople’ will now always be one of those anxiety-inducing ‘trigger words’ in my mind.

…all of which means there’s a disruptive, culture jamming feeling, a sense of interrupting regular programming. And, as said after their Brighton show, a whole set of that can have diminishing returns, a sense of sucking on too many sour things at once. Perhaps accentuated by this night being just about their songs, without the film show breaks.

I’m not quite sure what the best way to hear them is. I listened to ’Duck Stab’ afterwards, which was all over the set list. And it sounds more varied, more inventive on record but more intense live. You pays yer money…

The Fab Four saying ’Constantinople’ (quite a lot)….

The Foghorn, Portslade
Mon 6th Feb

Someone standing up and signing from the corner of a craft beer bar, which is about the size of a bedsit, there could hardly be any more of a classic folk gig setting. Okay, it should be a pub serving real ale by pulling at brass handles. Even folk has to make some concession to the times.

Except I’m only here because of That Thar Interweb, when the Guardian named Fern Maddie's self-released debut one of the ten best folk albums of last year. It turns out, so did the promoter. Who stepped in for a last minute save, after a mooted Brighton gig fell through.

She sings a combination of self-penned songs and traditionals. A New Englander, she may be well placed to drawn on both the British and American songbooks. But as she sings each the British songs sound British and the American American, they’re not at all blended. Which is handily visualised by her switching between banjo and guitar. (Though one isn’t used exclusively for either.)

She talks of being attracted to the cyclic, ritualised form of those old ballads. And folk is perhaps the blank verse of music. But when she performs them she tends to throw in extra sections. Not so major you’d necessarily even notice where these rock songs, but a bigger deal with folk. Which is probably the point, occasionally breaking from the circle both has it’s own effect and draws attention back to the circle. And I can’t help but associate both those things with her singing style. Which is dramatic without ever tipping over into the melodramatic, using less to go further.

Her own songs match all that, walking the dark side of the street. Maidens are a-drownin’ part-way into the first number, while another’s about a Mayflower passenger who died before even sighting land. (Who also drowns, though other forms of demise are available.) She often alludes to the fantastical without ever saying such a thing outright.

’Hares On the Mountain’, which may well be becoming her signature song, is built round a series of metaphors, but when sung somehow feel more than that, as if singing it might make it all happen. Her album’s titled ’Ghost Story’, though as she points out it contains no actual ghost stories.

The gig’s only downside was the odd structure it was given, stopping for a Q&A not once but twice, which worked against the spells being woven. Added to which the interviewee seemed an almost entirely different character to the singer, as if Maddie’s not yet used to this attention. There was also the lack of CDs for sale, perhaps all snapped up earlier in the tour. (Self-released means hard to get hold of over here.)

Those darn folkies look to have been too laid back to film anything from her UK tour. So instead, this is the video for ’Hares On the Mountain’…


De la Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea
Fri 10th Feb

Between buying my ticket and this multi-delayed gig taking place, I gave a listen to Cale’s latest release, ’Mercy’. Only a cursory listen so far. But from it his post-millennium purple patch, well represented by his last visit to this venue, seemed over.

When the gig proved full of songs I didn’t recognise, I assumed it to be dedicated to that album. It seems there were older tracks, if chosen with characteristic eccentricity, but ’Mercy’ still dominated. Which meant I didn’t take to this gig as much as the last one. Though my problems with the gig weren’t the same as with the album…

The album’s main drawback are the smoothed-out electronic beats, which seem a characterless but constant presence across the tracks, like a plastic tablecloth stretched across a cafe. Whereas with the gig, it’s a live band with a live-band sound.

Multiple times, a song would initially seem skippable, only for some mysterious reason start to work mid-way. But others… well, others just seemed skippable. At times, almost MOR-ish. They also seemed to go in for long durations, a curious combination.

The old songs? Classic number ’The Endless Plain of Fortune’ was essentially the words to an entirely new backing. Then equally classic ’Chinese Envoy’ was played pretty much straight, but alas wasn’t a great version.

Late on he switched from keyboards to guitar, rousing a cheer. This proved to be like ending a set and starting another, mid-way through. The second half proved to be one extended Velvets-style workout, taking in ’Pablo Picasso’ along the way. A left turn from the rest of the night, and all the better for it.

Cale is clearly going to only follow his own star at this point. And at times that’ll coincide with where you’re going, and at others it won’t. Leaving it up to you, John.

’Moonstruck’ is, IMHO, one of the new album’s better songs. From Liverpool…