A shared blog at the University of Kent, reflecting on aspects of culture and critical thinking, with contributors from across the University community.

Manet’s Execution: still shocking

February 24, 2014 No comments

The four pieces of canvas which comprise the reconstructed Execution of Maximilian by Manet currently hang on the wall in the Special Exhibitions room of Canterbury’s The Beaney. I’d seen the painting before, many years ago, in the National Gallery, but on visiting it recently in the walled city, I was struck anew by its power.

manet_execution

Manet: The Execution of Emperor Maximilian; c.1867-8

Large enough to make the viewer an implicit spectator at the scene, what shocks the most even after all this time is the matter-of-fact approach of the figure on the right, the soldier preparing his rifle for the finishing coup-de-grace. The collision of the act of violence – somehow made all the more vibrant because the pieces on which the emperor was painted have been lost, and only his hand remains to clasp that of one of his comrades, also facing execution - and the practicality of the soldier readying his rifle serves to heighten the tension in the painting.

the-execution-of-the-emperor-maximilian-of-mexico-1868An earlier lithograph of the same scene renders the commonplace even more apparent, as Manet depicts a ragged bunch of street-urchins looking over the wall behind the scene, like everyday gawkers or the tricoteuse, those women who would sit and knit beside the guillotines.

By dressing the Mexican army in French uniform, Manet caused the painting to be too controversial to be displayed during his lifetime. Even now, over one hundred and forty years later, the painting still has an explosive quality.

The painting is on display at the Beaney until Sunday 16 March.

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Dan Harding is the Deputy Director of Music at the University. Follow Dan on Twitter.

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Categories: Painting, Visual Arts Tags: , ,

My summer with Caitlin Moran

August 17, 2013 2 comments

I spent my summer with Caitlin Moran. Two heady weeks in a cottage in Sussex, in which she talked – she talked a lot – and I simply listened. I didn’t have to say anything, just had to sit there and listen as she poured out her heart. We bonded over a shared incredulity at Downton Abbey, a passion for libraries, and a mistrust of David Cameron. I found myself careening between emotional extremes, of asthma-inducing laughter and heart-stopping sorrow.

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Wolverhampton wanderer

As we sat there, Caitlin and I, time seemed to pass us by. My two young children were busy exploring new and exciting ways to injure themselves on the garden play-equipment; the cats were expiring through the suspension of their customary feeding ritual; phones were left unanswered; my wife took to her bed with a digital version of Scrabble in a desperate call for attention. None of it mattered; Caitlin and I had only each other, her needing to talk, my needing simply to listen.

Because that’s what reading the collection of articles that makes up her recent book, Moranthology, is like; it’s like chatting to a newly-discovered best friend. And not just that; a friend who’s funny, honest, brazen, unafraid of candid revelations, open about their moments of life-lunacy, and who writes from the hip.

Given its heart-on-sleeve admission of love for Sherlock, I have no qualms as an asthma-sufferer in declaring the book a Three-Inhaler Problem. The dispensary at the local Asda couldn’t issue me with new ones fast enough; I had my own parking-space, and was on first-name terms with the guy who sits in the entrance, watching the CCTV footage of people entering and leaving the store. It’s no understatement to describe the book as something of a roller-coaster; one minute, you’re giggling with sheer delight at the fearlessly inventive wit – the ‘And My Nanny Agress With Me Too’ put-down of George Osborne is going to become my default reaction to posh idiots – the next minute, you’re gasping as she devastatingly breaks your heart. Whether lamenting the cross-country closure of libraries, regaling you with the multitudinous ways in which she has Let Herself Down In Front of Celebrities, or campaigning for the rights of society’s down-trodden, her vigorous, no-holds-barred, attitude-busting prose is merciless in its scrutiny. Even, commendably, when that object of scrutiny is the writer herself. It’s like a very English incarnation of Hunter S Thompson’s Gonzo Journalism, with its wry attack on television soap-opera plotlines or the Welsh-o-centric nature of the latest incarnation of the Dr Who franchise, or its staunch championing of the Welfare State. And it’s the type of book that throws your assumptions back at you and makes you consider them anew; you come out a better person for reading it.

So forgive the cheap sensationalism of my title; under its same conditions, I’ve just spent several similar weeks with Tony Hawks (A Piano in the Pyrenees), Peter F Hamilton (Pandora’s Star), and am furthering my literary bigamy in being heavily involved with Humphrey Carpenter (Benjamin Britten). As Martin Amis said of Tom Wolfe’s A Man In Full (that’s just the sort of ghastly, navel-contemplating literary referencing that, after our weeks of companionship, I feel confident in declaring she would hate); this book will be a good friend to you. In fact, it won’t: Moranthology will be your best friend. Read it. Soon.

Dan Harding is the Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent. He writes about music on the blog Music Matters. Follow Dan on Twitter.

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Dealing with a dilemma: focus and concision in art

November 4, 2012 2 comments

I have a dilemma. I find that Downton Abbey gets on my nerves, yet I love The Paradise. The operas of Wagner drive me mad, yet Debussy’s Pelléas et Melisande is one of my favourite pieces. Mahler drives me mad, but Steve Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians remains the sole piece I would pluck from a blazing conflagration of classical music.

Image credit: BBC

As I assess my lists of likes and can’t-stands, trying to work out why I both love and loathe examples of period drama, opera and music, I have come to realise that, for me, it’s a question of scale, of concision in utterance and narrative focus.

The overblown hyperbole that is opera, where it can take anywhere between two and five tiresome hours for consumptive maidens to expire, giants and demons to fight over treasure or someone’s soul, and for jealous lovers to work their revenge, means that generally, the genre has few recordings in my listening library. But Pelléas, and Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortileges are present in more than one recorded incarnation and appear on my Recently Played lists quite often. How can this be, when normally opera sends me screaming into the comfort of John Adams or Nico Muhly ? Similarly, how can the yawn-inducing tedium of Downton Abbey be equated with my sheer and utter delight in the story of the evolution of England’s first department store that is The Paradise ? How can I rationalise both standpoints ?

As I said before, it’s a question of scope, of scale. Titanic myth-making in Wagner calls for similarly titanic music, and grand time-scale, the sort where the opera is so long that you have to have dinner in between acts simply to fortify yourself for what is still to come. But Pelléas concentrates instead on the dynamic between three characters wrapped in a love-triangle – Goloud, Pelléas and the object of their affections, Melisande – and is set often in small-scale situations: a room, a secluded garden, a cave, settings which are a geographical manifestation of the claustrophobic romantic tangle in which the three characters are entwined. Likewise, Ravel’s one-act opera is concerned with a single character, the mischievous child, whose wayward misbehaviour sparks off the magical episodes which follow, and which is similarly set in a room in the first half and a garden in the second.

And while Mahler’s view of the symphony was that it should ‘embrace the world,’ (his first symphonic outing is called ‘The Titan,’ which should give you some idea of its lofty ambitions), this also requires musical gestures built on a grand scale, sustained by a musical architecture that needs to be epic in size. The music of someone like Reich, for instance, and to a certain extent the early works of John Adams and recent pieces by Nico Muhly, is much more about concise musical gestures, small-scale motivic thinking that may yield a piece lasting near to an hour (in the case of Music for Eighteen Musicians), but sustains its large-scale forms through the gradual unfolding of initially small ideas, into which can be condensed a range of harmonic and rhythmic expression.

Image credit: BBC

The epic narrative sweep in Downton takes on such themes as social hierarchy and the re-defining of class divisions in the wake of the First World War, the troubles in Ireland, and the minutiae of upstairs/downstairs relationships in the Grantham household with plodding tedium and lashings of cliche, painted in great swathes of block colour that don’t require the viewer to have to think too much for themselves about what’s going on, or what’s coming next. In contrast, The Paradise concentrates on a particular stretch of street, on one store in particular, and the characters within both; the focus is on a smaller scale, and as such it doesn’t need to make glib, sweeping gestures to allow large themes to be depicted in a small amount of on-screen time.

In his second volume of autobiography, ‘The Fry Chronicles,’ Stephen Fry recognises his own penchant for verbosity, for taking one hundred words to write what could be said in ten. But the book reads like an effortless conversation with Fry, and pages turn almost of themselves before you realise that many hours have gone by and you’ve read more than you intended, your wife and children have moved out and the dog is starving. Whilst the object of Fry’s book may be the re-telling of thirty year’s worth of life, the focus is again small-scale; himself, and what makes him tick.

So I have no compunction about dismissing endless hours of operatic bilge whilst secretly loving some examples of it, of casually being scathing about the tedium of Downton Abbey whilst revelling in the puff-pastry delight of The Paradise, and no sense of self-contradiction in writing off epic symphonic yawnathons whilst delighting in works of Minimalism that may last just as long as a piece by Mahler or Beethoven. It’s simply a question of focus.

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Whatever floats your boat

June 13, 2011 No comments

As people all over the world gather to celebrate the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, a remarkable boat will set sail on its maiden voyage. The boat will be made from the lives and memories of people across the South East.

Click to view PDF

We want your wood: but not just any old wood, we want something that’s a part of you, something with a story to tell. Come and tell us that story – your donated wood will be used along with donations from thousands of others to build this unique 30ft sailing boat, a living archive of our lives.

Donations will be accepted in the foyer of the Gulbenkian Theatre between 1- 7pm this Wednesday.

www.theboatproject.com

The Boat Project is part of Artists Taking the Lead, a series of 12 public art commissions across the UK to celebrate the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. The Boat Project is the winning commission for the South East region and is funded by Arts Council England.

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Brought to Booker: can science fiction ever make the prize list ?

February 7, 2011 1 comment

An article in last week’s Guardian laments the lack of speculative fiction – that’s science fiction and fantasy in common parlance – novels making the Booker prize list.

Science fiction and fantasy, traditionally viewed with grave suspicion by the supposedly more ‘serious’ of the mainstream fiction genres, have together been a flourishing literary canon for years; Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings regularly polls in high places as ‘Most Read,’ whilst writers like China Mieville, Alistair Reynolds and Peter F Hamilton have been patiently carving out successful careers with epic science fiction and fantasy novels for many years.

Perhaps part of the difficulty lies in the boundary-defying nature of some of the novels associated with sci-fi and fantasy. Alistair Reynolds and China Mieville include a luxurious element of the gothic in their novels; Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell offered an alternative history take on fantasy, where magic is commonplace and is used in the Napoleonic Wars. Similary, Mary Gentle’s sprawling Ash: A Secret History follows the same character across centuries. Perhaps it’s simply the scope of the novels that causes them to be dismissed: Peter F Hamilton’s epic space-opera sagas, Michael Moorcock’s long-running Elric or Hawkmoon tales stride across whole volumes.

But with writers such as Philip K Dick, John Brunner and Michael Moorcock all a part of the canon, it’s hard to ignore the impact of science fiction and fantasy literature.

Perhaps this year will change all that.

Posted by Dan Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent. Click here to read his music blog, ‘Music Matters.’

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Pot luck: music education funding ring-fenced

October 24, 2010 No comments

As reported over on The Guardian’s classical music blog, the culture minister Ed Vaizey reveals that there will continue to be a pot of money allocated to music education next year.

The previous government had set up a Music Standards Fund, dedicated to music provision, which is due to end next year. Vaizey declares that a ring-fenced amount of funding will replace it.

Music provision in primary education is a matter of hit and miss, dependent on local variables: it depends on whether the school values the arts generally and music in particular, whether it has a dedicated music specialist teaching a focused music curriculum; sometimes, it’s just a matter of whether a member of staff happens a) to have an interest or a facility in a particular musical discipline and b) to be sufficiently motivated to run such classess off their own bat.

This creates widespread inequality in provision at primary level across schools, quite apart from the LEA-allocation model that existed under the Conservatives in the mid-80′s. Hopefully, music education and county music provision will continue to be funded under the Coalition, although with arts funding cuts announced earlier this week, whether there will be musical opportunities for the current generation of primary school children when they come to the employment market as adults remains to be seen…

Posted by Dan Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent. Click here to read his music blog, ‘Music Matters.’

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Letters, pray: more Larkin correspondence published

October 3, 2010 No comments

Philip LarkinFor over forty years, Philip Larkin wrote to Monica Jones, the woman who shared his life. As Anthony Thwaite, Larkin’s literary executor and friend, revealed in The Telegraph this weekend, letters and postcards the two exchanged have now been published for the first time.

Fantastic news for those who enjoyed Larkin’s Selected Letters published by Faber in 1993, and who read the replies to Larkin by his friend and fellow literary giant, Kingsley Amis when HarperCollins published a vast tome of Amis’ vibrant correspondence in 2001, The Letters of Kingsley Amis.

Notoriously reclusive, shunning travel and avoiding the limelight, not much of Larkin, other than the few slim volumes of poetry he published, reaches the public eye; at his request, Monica Jones destroyed Larkin’s journals when he died.

Some of the letters are published in The Telegraph here.

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Where has the past gone ? Erasing history

September 24, 2010 No comments

I watched Westworld again recently, a Michael Crichton film from 1973 in which two characters go on holiday to a mock Western resort, populated by gun-toting robots. Holiday-makers can live out their fantasies of being cowboys, and shoot these robotic residents: alas, one of the robots malfunctions in a shoot-out and pursues the pair throughout the film on a relentless quest for revenge (the robot in question played with menacing remorselessness by a fantastic Yul Bryner.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oYvyiruWzYo

The formula of historical theme-park-going-wrong is one Crichton would repeat with greater commercial success with dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, and to a certain extent in the disappointing novel Timeline with knights.

Seeing the film again made me reflect that its whole scenario is akin to the way in which we perceive our own history, and how sometimes we experience it. Much of our view of history can come from film and literature – think of the multitude of Vietnam films such as Platoon or Full Metal Jacket, or Norman Mailer’s Vietnam-novel The Naked and the Dead,or Ridley Scott’s swords-and-sandals vision of Rome in Gladiator.

Our learning about the past can come filtered though the film-maker’s lense – Spielberg’s account of the Holocaust in Schindler’s List – or the novelist’s imagination – Bernard Cornwell, Henry Treece, etc.

Yul Bryner in Westworld

Yul never walk alone

Re-enactments and displays are popular ways of bringing historical events to some sort of ‘life;’ mock jousting tournaments at English Heritage castles across the country, or air displays featuring the dwindling number of aircraft from World War II. Like Crichton’s automaton-populated holiday resort mock-ups, these create an artificial snapshot of a generalised sense of a moment in the past, and purport to bring it to life for popular consumption.

But are we losing a real sense of our past, our history, buried under (or papered over by) a fictionalised representation of it ? And, like the remorseless robot in Westworld, will populist reinventions of our past, in representing it, actually destroy us in the end ?

Real history – if it possible to define something which we haven’t experienced for ourselves, because it occurred before we were born, as such – is being eroded by our reinventions, or re-imaginings of it; the glare of Hollywood’s limelight fails to illuminate most of history’s shadowed corners: in fact, it creates those obscuring shadows precisely because it spotlights heroes and villains for our entertainment. The same strobe lighting up the hero necessarily blinds us to the realities lost out of sight beyond the lit circle in which they stand.

Ironically, it’s almost as if the very media working to preserve history, whether for our education or entertainment, are instead serving, as the writer and cultural analyst Fredric Jameson puts it, ‘as the very agents and mechanisms for our historical amnesia.’ (‘Postmodernism and consumer society’ in Gray & McGuigan, 1993: 205.) Fredric makes this point in relation to the function of news media, but arguably it’s also a pertinent definition of the methods by which film, television and historical novels are making history disappear in the very act of trying to bring it alive.

Where has our past gone ? Or, more accurately perhaps: where did we begin to erase it ?

Posted by Dan Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent. Click here to read his music blog, ‘Music Matters.’

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Categories: Film, Literature Tags:

Arts funding cuts: An Important Message

September 14, 2010 No comments

Video artist David Shrigley’s message about the proposed dangers to UK arts organisations in the face of proposed funding cuts (via a recent article in The Guardian).

Visit the blogsite at http://savethearts-uk.blogspot.com/

Posted by Dan Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent. Click here to read his music blog, ‘Music Matters.’

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How does music mean ?

September 10, 2010 No comments
Picasso Three Musicians

'Three Musicians,' Picasso

How does music mean ? Indeed, can it mean anything at all ? Does its meaning derive from its internal sequence of events, or is part of its secret its ability to resonate with a listener’s wealth of previous experiences ?

Thoughts on these, and a short video of the great Leonard Bernstein lecturing at Harvard on this very issue, over on Music Matters: click here to read.

Posted by Dan Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent. Click here to read his music blog, ‘Music Matters.’

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