All The People, So Many People | Pushing the Wave

All The People, So Many People

Culture, 13 July 2023
by L.A. Davenport
Olympic Way After Seeing Blur at Wembley Stadium
Olympic Way after seeing Blur at Wembley Stadium
Last Saturday, I was lucky enough to see Blur at Wembley stadium. And I was even luckier to be in the middle of the pitch, surrounded by thousands upon thousands of people joyously sharing a moment.

It was not just about the performance, brilliant though that was, or even everyone singing along at the tops of their voices, which was somehow very cathartic, but it was what we were singing.

To hear Damon Albarn’s beautifully melancholic lyrics roared by 70,000 people in unison from the middle of the crowd felt like a coming together of more than 30 years of history, both personal and collective.

But this was no museum piece performance; no raking over of old coals to search for a faint glow and a little heat to warm our decaying memories. This was a performance that was much a part of the present and the future, as it was of the past.

This is partly due to the timelessness of many of Blur’s songs, and the musicianship of its members. In particular, Graham Coxon once again showed his abundant talent, and underlined that he is, without doubt, one of the finest, if not the finest, rock guitarist of his generation.

And then there was Albarn, arch and cynical on one level, yet passionate and committed, and loving, on another. He seemed amazed, and sometimes overwhelmed, by what he was experiencing but he never quite let go of being aware of himself.

It is a quality he shares with David Bowie: Of being only ever partially immersed. To me, and clearly many others, it is a fascinating thing to watch.

Some people prefer utter commitment from their pop and rock stars, if Albarn can be called that. Some others like dispassionate professionalism. Yet others are content with some fake sheen and the veneer of connection.

I, on the other hand, like my stars to be complex, and reflect their layered humanity.

I don’t want them to ‘be themselves’ in the modern, unidimensional, sterile and commercially viable sense, however, in which only the consumer friendly aspects of an individual are displayed.

And of course those that are displayed are shared to such an incredible depth that it gives fans a false sense of knowing their idols completely, as if they are friends and confidantes.

But they are not. They are performers, as remote and unknowable as an astronaut.

Personally, I prefer my musicians and stars to be conflicted, thoughtful, and aware enough to be doubtful and unsure, and those were the qualities that Albarn displayed on Saturday night. That and being touched deeply by the sheer scale of what was happening, and by Blur having become, in the end, a two-night stadium-filling band, at least in the UK.

Looked at it in that sense, it seems almost odd that a group like Blur, and Damon Albarn in particular, should end up becoming so big, while being so obviously ‘uncommercial’. As with Bowie before him, is a testament to their unbounded talents as a musicians, as songwriters, and as performers.

And Saturday evening proved that in spades.
Bocca Baciata (Lips That Have Been Kissed) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
There are a few exhibtions on in London at the moment that I do not want to miss, and this week I got the opportunity to see The Rossettis, at Tate Britain.

The show runs until 24 September, and includes paintings, poetry and references to all the siblings of the Rossetti family, and their partners and loves, although the principle focus is, of course, on Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

I should state right at the beginning that (apart from Ivanhoe) I don’t like medievalism, with all those tales of fantasy, chivalry, swords and dragons, unless the stories, paintings or art were created at the time, and so are contemporary with what they depict.

For me, art is primarily about the here and now. It does need to be escape route into a romanticised past in which one can pretend that one might have been a knight or a princess in ancient times, rather than the keeper of the latrines, which would almost certainly have been one’s lot.

One exception to this is Pre-Raphaelite art, which stemmed from the establishment of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1948 by group of young British painters, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in protest at what they saw as the unimaginative and artificial historical painting of the Royal Academy.

They, instead, sought to return to the return to the rich detail, intense colours and complex compositions of 14th and 15th century Italian art.

I suspect the Pre-Raphaelite style of art appeals to me so directly because, for all the medievalism and exoticism on the surface, the paintings are so obviously allegorical and speak to so much more than long swords and swooning maidens.

As to the exhibition itself, it was fascinating, particularly as I had recently read a mid-20th century appraisal of the Pre-Raphaelites and their art, an account that was extremely revealing and put the artists and their work in context.

What is clear from that and now this seemingly exhaustive and certainly thorough exhibition is that Rossetti, right from the beginning, was a great sketch artist, and produced charming drawings in a pleasingly ironic style.

His first attempts at serious painting, as the show demonstrates, are interesting, in that there is abundant promise there, but they are really quite flawed.

This is partly a problem, I imagine, of having studied painting in a rather haphazard fashion, and having swung between poetry or painting as his primary focus, with the result that he did not devote sufficient time and attention to one or the other to become really good at either.

Then, as you turn a corner in the exhibition, you see that, all of a sudden, he became a great painter and a visionary artist.

For me, the first clear example of this is Bocca Baciata (see above), in which Fanny Colworth is cast as Alatiel, a Babylonian princess in The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio.

It displays all of that remarkable sensuality and ambiguity, all in a more-is-more fashion, that is so characteristic of Rossetti’s best work. I found it deeply impressive.

And yet this exhibition also displays his limitations as an artist.

Even when Rossetti was at his greatest and producing genuine masterpieces, such as Proserpine, he was capable of turning out second-rate daubs that leave you baffled.

For me, it’s important that the curators included these, as they underline, first, that no one is perfect, with no artist is equally good from one day to the next. Each creation, no matter how established and proficient you are as an artist, requires a huge amount of dedication, effort and attention to detail.

The second thing the inclusion of second-tier Rossetti works shows is that he was apparently sometimes driven more by an idea of an image and consciously creating it than by the image simply emerging from his subconscious in a natural way.

For me, the painting that laid bare some of the less agreeable attitudes he had towards his work, and the people who sat for his paintings, is The Beloved, or The Bride.

This painting contains a prominent portrait of a young black boy he met on the street and hired via an American known as his ‘master’. For all his commitment to socially progressive ideas, it is clear Rossetti used him merely as an exotic decoration in a visually beautiful and arresting painting that is, unfortunately, compositionally muddled and faintly ridiculous.

As I stood there examining the work, and thinking about its context and creation, I wondered how he could be so blind to the humanity beneath the colour of the boy’s skin, despite all his professed humanity.

Once again, it underlines how people are capable of compartmentalising their values and their morals as it suits their purpose.
The moral dilemmas were far less acute at the Summer Exhibition, on now at the Royal Academy.

It has been my tradition for I don’t know how long to make a yearly pilgrimage to this celebration of art and artists, which has been running every year since the mid-18th century.

For me, it is an opportunity to take the temperature of art and architecture as it is being created today. The fact that a lot of it can be bought adds a certain frisson to what would ordinarily be another, if extremely large and cramped, art show.

The other thing I like about it is the rooms are, for want of a kinder word, a jumble, and there is something about having so many different styles and standards of art juxtaposed across wall after wall, in room after room, that seems to trigger my creative side in the most unusual manner.

Every year, I walk out with an idea for a story, image or other sonne such creation, and Tuesday was no exception. I found myself hovering about in one of the rooms, tapping on my phone to jot down, as quickly as possible, the plot for a film, which I immediately fired off to a friend with whom I have written extensively in the past.

Let’s see what comes of it.
Alongside that, and continuing with the follow-up to My Life as a Dog, I have started on a very exciting idea that occurred to me during by my trip to the opera house in Budapest, about which I hope to talk about more soon.

Not only that, but I was inspired to write a short story based on a painting at The Rossettis exhibition, which I saw in the flesh, so to speak, for the first time, and so finally felt the power of the image.

To me, it reinforces the importance of making the effort to see works of art in person, rather than relying on flat electronic reproductions. Art cannot be understood without standing in front of it and taking it in.
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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All The People, So Many People | Pushing the Wave