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…