The Spellbinders

by Aleardo Zanghellini published by Lethe Press. 3 stars

The Spellbinders is an historical novel set between 1299 and the early 1330s which spans the life (and some) of Edward II, King of England and his loves. Penned by Eleardo Zanghellini in 2018, an Italian born professor of Law and Social Theory at Reading Law School, this is his first novel although he has previously written The Sexual Constitution of Political Authority.

It is a quick read, broken into short sections which move back and forth in time, and there is a large cast with a broad setting which includes the vales of Scotland. Curly flourishes head all 334 pages with the name of the author on every left one – The Spellbinders is perhaps hinting at the design of the Renaissance manuscript.

The monarch Edward, who came to the throne at the tender age of 22, is renowned as ‘England’s most infamous homosexual prince’ (Lethe Press). Despite his marriage to Isabella of France aged 12 years, the book’s joint hero is actually Piers Gaveston, common soldier from across the Channel, whom Edward made second most important gent in the land.

As we have come to expect from the bulk of the factual information surviving from those Medieval times, there is a great deal of political debate between Earls and other men jostling for power. However, taking equal place in the narrative are the erotic exploits of Edward, Piers and, after the latter’s violent murder, those of Lord Audley and Hugh Damory the Young Dispenser. We do learn about the naive and accepting Isabella; Margaret the very practical King’s cousin who was married to Gaveston; of Pembroke and Lancaster, but it’s the graphic sex which takes centre stage.

Apparently as true to real life as possible, Zanghellini, in the tradition of historical writers, imagines the unknown details and pens them with relish, introducing a useful hidden corridor and other devices to link the famous events and add atmosphere. He relishes physical description (“the Younger Dispenser: fiery-haired and good-looking in a base, brutish sort of way – which meant not good-looking at all, really.” ) and there is a seer with a curse as well as the ghost of a monk with self-professed “woman’s hands” who stitches Gaveston’s head back on and embalms him. He has clearly researched the flora, costume and typical pets of the day, with many a gilly flower, and phrases such as “a mohair cape about her shoulders” and, “‘a camel’, gasped Isabella. ‘What’s to love about a camel, dear husband?'”

This is oerhaps a book for reading on the train or by the poolside.

Pitzhanger Manor

Pitzhanger Manor, also with Soane’s Kitchen (restaurant and bistro), events, shop and park. Currently showing Anish Kapoor. March 2019

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Pitzhanger Manor, Ealing, London (official photograph)

 

There is a playful air in the central gallery where Contemporary Art meets Hall of Mirrors. Like little children at the funfair we want to touch the shiny surfaces and test what is real and what is not.

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Anish Kapoor, opening exhibition, Pitzhanger Manor, London (official photograph)

Disorientated, I wonder where I am, what my relationship is to the space and the other people around me. Sparsely placed in a white box of a room, these apparently simple, shiny cubes and discs shimmer and float. They distort and shift reality so much that I question gravity itself

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Art mimics architecture

Transported through portals, doors beyond doors, the floor extends out of the window. The central tardis-shaped work beguiles and bemuses. Although my feet are firmly planted on the floor, I get the feeling that I am teetering on the edge of a cliff.

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I was not the first to want to put my head in this hole!

Looking somewhat like a front loading washing machine, we peer in. All unsuspecting we find we are spun around, divided into segmented slices, ending up all topsy turvy and stained in primary colours.

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Right side up in silver; heads down in rainbow coloured contact lenses

Leaving this rabbit hole world I explore the rest of the house. The sun shines through the amber and Derek Jarman blue stained glass, making patterns and further playing with what is real and what not.

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Unexpected doorways; spines of puce.

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Trellises on the ceiling; walls of scarlet glimpsed through mirrors

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Monasterial archways; a vestibule of make-believe marble; Classical columns, charyatids and statuary.

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Unexpected urns and hand-painted aviaries delight me and I spend a happy afternoon in this fascinating place.

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Roof scape, Pitzhanger Manor
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The Upper Drawing Room, Pitzhanger Manor

Sir John Soane’s Museum, London This was his main residence and is now a museum containing some of the furniture and artefacts from Pitzhanger – well worth visiting.

To get what the Pitzhanger Manor curators have done in collaboration with Kapoor, you should imaginatively travel to Soane’s self-built London home in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, with his collection of antiquities and artworks.

The London Evening Standard newspaper

5 stars in The Telegraph

5 stars Timeout, London

4 stars The London Evening Standard

Double page spread in The Times

Pitzhanger Manor & Gallery can be found in Ealing – Mattock Lane, London, W5 5EQ.

3 Days in Quiberon

Emily Atef/ Germany Austria France/ 2018/ 115 mins

@Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Mon 18 Feb 2019. German/French with subtitles.

Actress Romy Schneider is at the core of the emotionally disturbing 3 Days In Quiberon, the 2018 film from writer-director Emily Atef which won seven Lola’s at the German Film Awards last year. The versatile Marie Bäumer plays Schneider who was born in Vienna, Austria in 1940 into a stage family, and who made her name before she was 20 years old in the Sissi Trilogy in which she played the Empress Elisabeth of Austria. In this, her most famous role, Schneider epitomises the innocent and regal bearing of the subject.

This containment and control are evident in the tense modern film, as are the opposing emotions and behaviour of desperation, hysteria, and recklessness. The harrowing interview which the profoundly disturbed Schneider gave to the magazine Stern, on which the film is based (shortly before her son tragically died and during what we know was the final year of her own life) is the main section. Taking place at a spa where she repaired to reputedly recover from the excesses of alcohol and drugs, Schneider’s family have announced that they do not support the addict version of her which Atef depicts. The French-Iranian director is said to have admitted to fictionalizing parts of the interview in making the film, and the connections she draws are very clear: a drunken Schneider cries that her life has fallen apart, that the balance between her work and her children is wrong, and that she does not know how to solve it. Plied with champagne by the journalist, she ‘reveals’ a side to herself which she apparently hadn’t previously, although he then purports to be affected by her plight and it is unclear how blunt the final piece actually is. We are not sure if we can trust her judgment by this time – we have seen how changeable and malleable she is, and how she often makes decisions which are not in her own interest or that of her children. Are we to believe that she is now in control?

The film is in black and white with brooding skies and sharply contrasting angles and lines. To match the constantly switching moods, Atef utilises very short scenes – snippets of interchange or single shot outcomes. Just as the focus is on the characters and their reactions to Schneider, so 50% of the frames are realistic close-ups showing their humanity; wrinkles, under-eye shadows and all. When the camera retreats showing wild Breton seascapes and wide sweeps of the angular hotel we are shocked by the bleak outlook and impersonality of the surroundings.

Here is the helplessness, the hopelessness of the human condition. I didn’t feel charmed by Schneider, I didn’t feel her charisma. Personally I felt a sadness and confusion. I saw her addiction, a woman with mental health problems who needs help – struggling to help herself, the people around her are awe struck by her and using her to their own ends.

It isn’t all depressing; there are a few humorous episodes around the plain food to which she is restricted, and a lively early scene in a local cafe where she is full of wine-induced conviviality and fun, albeit OTT with strangers. However, the viewer is left with a heavy heart and much sadness after witnessing such a lot of media, and self-abuse. A sense of foreboding lingers.

399 Days – Rachel Kneebone

Contemporary sculpture at the V & A, London.

399 Days is a tower of white ceramic, a monumental contortion of barbie legs by Rachel Kneebone  at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Standing nine panels high and seven around, each one the size of a large floor tile, it consists, as much of her sculpture has, of female human limbs sticking out at all angles – a 3D tumble of lower body parts. Holding its own amongst the classics, it is sited cheek by jowl with traditional male statuary – sculpted nudes the colour of blanched almonds: the Rape of Prosperpina, the massively violent Samson Smiting a Philistine (by Giambologna), Jason, and Narcissus (incidentally the name of one of her other works) – and is redolent of Rodin’s famous studies but lacking the muscularity.

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Samson Smiting a Philistine by Giambologna in the V & A Museum, London

Complex in both its sexuality and asexuality, the shiny, almost alabaster surface is similar to, but contrasts with, the matt marble skin we are used to in the halls of the Greeks. 399 Days is chaotic and disorderly next to the Classical form and structure of the ancient ones. Some of Kneebone’s have neat, hairless hints of vaginal cracks – there is nothing natural or wild about them except the overall disarray and partial sculptural splits as if they broke in firing and have been purposely left as reminders of the changes we undergo through age, and of imperfection. These types of legs in fact call to mind the physical ‘perfection’ of upright models with oh-so-slim pins. Have these shop dummy legs been discarded? Are they unwanted or rejected? If so, by whom? 

We think of  more contemporary artists such as Louise Bourgeois’ Untitled (with foot) who subverts the feminine image in order to both comment and question.

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Untitled (with foot) by Louise Bourgeis

There are sections which include the ornate decoration familiar from Old Master’s picture frames: cloth and wreaths cast in cold porcelain not gilt, orbs and semi-orbs which are a recurring theme in her work (The Area on Whose Brink Silence Begins 2015), and which I then notice on building facades and ornate Rococo altars as I make my way around London. Referencing the art and decoration which went before hers in this way forces us to site the work in the context of the voyeurism and appropriation of that tradition.  

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399 Days by Rachel Kneebone

More chilling are the images of mass graves which are invoked – interlaced piles of chilly nudeness – again that implication that human life is worthless, throw-away, making it impossible to identify them. There is no personal element, as if that would make us question the apparently random distribution. On closer inspection, it is clear that some have pregnant bellies though they are the bodies of girls not women. There is no prettiness, and there are some arrangements and juxtapositions which almost trick the viewer into forgetting they are life copies, where the legs protrude from a central point, for example, like a bunch of stalks with feet as flower heads.

Depending how you approach the Medieval and Renaissance Collection where Kneebone’s sculpture is situated, you may glance into the Cast Courts and see Master Oudrey‘s plaster version of the original 1st century AD stone Trajan’s Column, ‘iconic monument of the classical world’.

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Trajan’s Column, V & A Museum, London

It is a frieze of low relief from Rome depicting the history of Trajan’s campaign. Once again using a form from an earlier era, 399 Days literally turns such figures upside down, depriving them of the rest of their body and fascinating the onlooker who must tour and crane to appreciate her artistry.

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Lengths of white fake flowers adorn a shop in Regent’s Street London. 


This V&A is at Cromwell Road, London, SW7 2RL. There is also a new one in Dundee., Scotland.

Vu – Compagnie Sacékripa

Compagnie Sacékripa were part of the Manipulate festival (2 – 9 Feb 2019) at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh. 5 stars.

See also my review of Void, part of the same Manipulate Festival, when it first showed in Edinburgh during the Fringe 2018.

In Vu – translated as ‘viewed’ or ‘seen’ from the French – we spy on a grown man sitting on a tiny chair, knees squashed into his chest, playing. Ostensibly alone with household items and inhabiting a persona somewhere between adult and boy, he ruefully explores their usefulness. In a series of lightly connected actions and experiments – some mundane (making tea), some scientific (what happens if I…?), and others just plain silly (lots of stuff with marshmallows) – Etienne Manceau entertains us.

A one-man show from Compagnie Sacékripa, this 50 minute mime show is full of delight and laughs. Years of juggling and acrobatics on the streets with fellow performers has clearly honed Manceau’s acute sense of timing and meticulous measurement. He displays an acrobat’s precise judgment of distance (where do I position the spring board so that when I bounce off I land exactly on his shoulders? / where do I put the sugarlump so that when I ping it across the table it will land where I want it to?) and the brilliant bungling of the clown. The tricks are not always perfect but it seems clear that they could be if he wanted them to be. Indeed his deep sighs and wry facial expressions when something doesn’t work out are very much part of the humour.

Initially vaguely curious and then annoyed by the audience, he enters down stage right and leaves his coat on the only empty seat in Traverse 2. Wiping his feet on an imaginery mat (perhaps OCD, perhaps simply well trained) he steps across the line and becomes absorbed, somewhat resignedly, in his private antics – leaving us as mere onlookers.

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He makes himself paper fingers and at one point chops off the ends with a very sharp knife – aargh!

Gradually, however, there’s a change of emphasis: the odd sly glance outwards or a hint of a gesture draws us into increasingly frustrated situations when, next thing we know, he has subtly beckoned someone onto the stage and has an accomplice, nay a dogsbody. It is charming, although he is not; he somehow cajoles and wheedles help with the merest hint of an expression or tap of a finger. Was the man a part of the show? Probably not, but he certainly added value and was endlessly patient despite being made to look foolish at times. Without a word until the final ‘merci’, Manceau insinuates, cocks an eyebrow, purses his lips and all but grimaces as he communicates his needs, playing on our willingness, yet always holding the power.

Sparsely crafted and spaciously presented by the performer with Sylvain Cousin’s ‘outside eye’, we come to love this character, always shambolic in his gait and posture. It’s not much more than a series of japes and yet has a powerful and lasting effect. Afterwards I found I was hyper aware of my own gestures as I hung my umbrella hook over the door knob. My life felt better – an effect only really good theatre can conjure.

If Vu is representative of the calibre of the Manipulate festival’s programme this year, I recommend you snap up any last available tickets.

 

In the title photo you see Manceau playing with fire as so many little children are drawn to do.

Vu is showing in March 2019 in France and Egypt. See their website for further venues

Orla Kiely, A Life in Pattern

Exhibition opens 7 February 2019 at the Dovecot, Infirmary Street, Edinburgh.

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If you have an eye for a strong pattern, if you recognise an iconic design, you will know an Orla Kiely when you see it. Crammed with colour and deceptively simple, Kiely’s patterns adorn hats and handbags, scarves and record sleeves, a Citroën and a sleek pair of shoes. They feature on John Lewis shelves, in Japanese boutiques and the front cover of the Design Museum’s Fifty Bags that Changed the World – you can’t get much more lauded than that in the fashion world!

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The new exhibition at the Dovecot is by no means a straightforward collection of items from an artist’s dusty back room. Care, attention and creativity has gone into the concept of it, developing organically through various stages, as has her internationally famous business, by her own account. It is brightly curated with plenty of space to stand back and admire the larger-than-life-size dresses hanging as if in a massive wardrobe, replicated in a set of miniature stick dolls with names like Agatha and Ivy.

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Colour and print are at the centre of both her life and success. After being encouraged at her convent school by the art teacher, Kiely won a place at the National College of Art and Design in her native Dublin. After a sojourn in New York where she honed her craft painstakingly mixing precisely the right paint shade, she wanted to learn about knitted textiles and attended the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and  Commerce (RSA) in London ”where you can go in with one idea and come out something completely different, where you can find yourself. “ In 2011 she became an Honorary OBE and in 2017 was made Senior Fellow of the RSA.

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The exhibition starts with the Print Library. Panels of natural, especially floral images in a broad palette range from turquoise to olive, and sunshine to the classic orange of the 60s childhood home. Scarlet discs amidst petals of muted blues reminds of Dick Bruna‘s Miffy illustrations which were popular with young readers of the late 60s. Retro yes design which ‘yearns for certainty in tumultuous times’, as the information panel put it? possibly, but look closely and you will discover an intelligence of design which bears living with on a day-to-day basis. Upended owls fit together nicely, playful juxtapositions of original shapes create something new: a peacock tail of flower stalks, parachutes made from petals, apples with flower cores, and somehow they lend themselves equally to dress fabric as to place mat.

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Around the corner is the Wall of Bags and opposite that a set of V and A clothes stands inspired by the mid to late decades of the 20th century. Glorious auburn zigzags, organza baby blue collar, and a raincoat made of the ubiquitous PVC (aka tablecloth material). There is a dated looking bathing costume to die for!

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Like many artists, she represents herself better in her work than in words. Let the vibrancy and clarity of colour speak for her, allow the focus and precision with which she has built her signature and brand do the talking, and you will believe that she is truly one of the ‘excellent women’, to steal Barbara Pym’s novel title with cover design by Kiely herself.

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Aviary, art exhibition

 

19 January – 17 February 2019 The Royal Scottish Academy, Princes Street, Edinburgh

On entering the exhibition, held in the lower Academician’s rooms at The Royal Scottish Academy, one moves instinctively to the right where the title sign and information hangs. A fitting first work greets the viewer; Elizabeth Blackadder‘s jagged black and white Parrots, four of them tilted and arranged in a quirky manner on poles. Continuing anticlockwise to Aberdeen Ibadan Dronte Chook by Michael Agnew and Ade Adesina, I find a dodo, large enough to jump out of the frame, fixes the viewer with its bulls-eye, possibly with a nod to Edward Lear’s nonsense animals.

‘In that case,’ said the Dodo solemnly, rising to its feet, `I move that the meeting adjourn, for the immediate adoption of more energetic remedies–‘

`Speak English!’ said the Eaglet. `I don’t know the meaning of half those long words, and, what’s more, I don’t believe you do either!’ And the Eaglet bent down its head to hide a smile: some of the other birds tittered audibly.

`What I was going to say,’ said the Dodo in an offended tone, `was, that the best thing to get us dry would be a Caucus-race.’

from chapter 3 of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

While many of the works are black/white or in neutral tones, there is colour to be found in Elspeth Lamb‘s Hyne Awa series further on – a shocking pink sky above and blue down below where the savageness of the painted badger manages to overpower the red kite under a full moon.

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Elspeth Lamb, Hyne Awa

A quarter of the way around the exhibition, it becomes apparent that the artwork’s numbers are moving backwards from fifty. Did the curator plan to start at Blackadder’s #1 only to have the viewers retrace their steps clockwise to #2? I consider changing direction but opposite is the work of the prestigious female artist, Joyce W. Cairns. Not only has she produced the painting with arguably the most depth, Head Study from the Deadly War series, but on 28 Nov 2018 she was appointed the first ever woman to be Director of the RSA in its 193 year history.

Initially unclear as to why the Head Study portrait was included, closer scrutiny reveals a long necked ornithological creature whispering into the girl’s ear. With eyes askance, the girl appears to be listening intently.

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Joyce W Cairns

In conversation, Cairns reveals that she is currently too busy settling into her new role to finish the new painting she started for this very event. Standing in front of Head Study she eloquently explains that its subject, the Bosnian War of (1992-1995) was, ‘like a merry go round where no-one was helping anyone, that this woman is expressing my feelings about the misery that that war caused, the unrest of the soul’.

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Gordon Mitchell, Vista

Later I went back past the door through which I entered to find that #2: a beautiful pen and ink print, Bird and Plant by the late Jack Knox which is redolent of Lear in its simple composition and humorous air.

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The works are packed in with as many as 19 on one wall. Mentions must go to the child-like, stylised Owl for Megan by Michael Agnew (who inexplicably has another work at the opposite end of the room); the pencil line fragility of Will Maclean’s suggestion of wing as can be found on many a mountain path, feathers upright; and Littlejohn’s collage of paper-bird-boats in orange and pink with duck in flight. There is realist work (Busby, Guild) and concrete poetry (the elegant work by Mackenzie with Paterson, and the fold-out Shetland Bird Names by Marion Smith, also on paper).   

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Concrete Poetry: Edward Summerton with Don Paterson
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Mixed media on paper: William Littlejohn, Origama, Cranes and Colour Wheel

There is a vast range of bird life encapsulated in these drawings, sculptures, poetry and other media, notably Eileen Lawrence‘s spacious Prayer Sticks, and Frances Pelly‘s soapstone trio depicting a subtle shrug of raven shoulders; touching hunger of sparrow young; and haughtiness of hen harrier. It is no wonder that one has a red dot (sold) at opening time.

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Lino cut print: Ade Adesina, Another Life
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Sculpture: James Castle, Green Leaf (which is in the fish’ mouth, behind)
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Stuart Mackenzie’s angry bird (above) and Edward Summerton’s 2 gouaches: the hippy Tree Creepy and The Golden Feathered Lover

All photos my own (with permission) except Joyce W Cairns. Title work: Frances Pelly Hen Harrier 

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Murmuration, Greece.