Sunday, June 26, 2011

Étienne-Louis Boullée - Sliding Doors

Cénotaphe à Newton (1784, sphere of 150 m or 500 ft in diameter)

I was doing some serious time-travelling this morning, way way back into distant antiquity: my first degree in fine art.

I was browsing one of my trusty but now metaphorically yellowing course books for a unit I took on C20 architecture, naturally from the aesthetic rather than engineering perspective. As Isipped my coffee (I wonder why 'sipping' seems such a tea thing?), I was flicking through the tome in question, my Charles Jencks's 'Modern Movements in Architecture', and was put in mind of megalomaniac and a visionary C18 architect Étienne-Louis Boullée (1728-1799).

Boullée's abstract geometric style, inspired by C17 and C18 French Classical architecture, took geometric forms to a giagantic and simplified scale. His proposed works that were devoid of ornament and used light and shadow and a sense of movement in highly innovative ways.

Cénotaphe à Newton: Interior

'Newton's cenotaph was designed to isolate, to reinvent, the huge movement of time and celestial phenomena. Inside, the viewer is isolated too, on a small viewing platform. Along the top half of the sphere's edges, apertures in the stone allow light in, in pins, creating starlight when there is daylight. During the night a huge and otherworldly light hangs, flooding the sphere, as sunlight. During the day, the "night effect." During the night, day.'

Entree du cimmetiere (c1780-90)

The French architect was interested in making architecture expressive of purpose, an approach his detractors termed 'architecture parlante' ('talking architecture').

Interior space is opened up to flow from one functional area to another rather than such areas being closed off in descrete separate 'rooms'.

By now you can see where this is heading!

Cénotaphe de Turenne

Cénotaphe égyptien (c1786)

Of course Boullée's work was re-discovered in the late C19 and early C20, influencing architecture, even as recently as that of Aldo Rossi (1931-1997) ...

... in his Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht ...

Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht

You'll also know Rossi from his designs for Alessi ...
'La Cupola' Espresso Maker

'Il conico', 1986

'La conica', 1982

However, apart from a number of private houses designed beween 1762 and 1778, none of Boullée's large scale works were ever built, though his designs in engravings were circulated widely in professional circles.

I can't help having a sliding doors moment, wondering about the course of C19 architeture had it moved forward on Boullée's ideas and not taken to its various backward-looking Gothic/Rennaissance/electic diversions.

PS: Boullée recently-ish popped up unexpectedly at the movies. In Peter Greenaway's film 'The Belly of an Architect' (1987), whose main character, Stourley Krackite, is obsessed with celebrating the C18 French architect's work.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Oscar Wilde Reaches Across Time

After recently posting on gay hero Quentin Crisp, there seemed a kind of follow on logic for one on Oscar Wild as recently I came across the only recording of the poet and playwright's voice. In which he recites nearly two verses from the fourth canto of 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' ...

In Reading Gaol by Reading Town
There is a pit of shame,
And in it lies a wretched man
Eaten by teeth of flame,
In burning winding-sheet he lies,
And his grave has got no name.

[And there, till Christ call forth the dead,
In silence let him lie:]

No need to waste the foolish tear,
Or heave the windy sigh:
The man had killed the thing he loved,
And so he had to die.

As we all know, Wilde was imprisoned in 1895 for two years with hard labour after the follow-up trials to his failed attempt to sue the Marquess of Queensbury for the calling card libel of 'For Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite'.

'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' was written in France in Berneval or Dieppe on or about 19 May 1897 and was initially published under the the name 'C.3.3' - for cell block C, landing 3, cell 3 of Wilde's incarceration.

Wilde in Exile in France c1900

The poem was inspired partly by the hanging in 1896 of a fellow prisoner, Charles Thomas Wooldridge, for the throat-cutting murder of his wife - 'The man had killed the thing he loved, And so he had to die.'

I am fascinated to know the particular character of the poet and playwright's voice, as it must give a clue to the delivery of those deliciously paradoxical aphorisms we love to find occasion to remember and perhaps quote ...

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

A man's face is his autobiography. A woman's face is her work of fiction.

A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.

A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.

Ambition is the last refuge of the failure.

A man can't be too careful in the choice of his enemies.

Alas, I am dying beyond my means.

All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his.

All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.

Wilde seems much more theatrical and arch than I would have imagined, even taking into account the performance tradition of the time. In this context and in retrospect, Lord Olivier used to make fun of this earlier style of delivery, likening it to singing arias in opera.

Curiously and incidentally, Wilde's voice reminds me more than a little of the vocal manner of a particular group of older queans I knew as a kid in London and so has a further resonance for me.


This audio recording, imaginatively at least, lets me know this great writer just a tiny bit better. There is something of the quality of the living breathing human voice that reaches across time and emotionally connects up.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Circus Really Does Eventually Come To Town

Being in Australia can at times leave you feeling just that little bit disconnected from the rest of the world and the things that go on out there.

And, as a kid, I guess this was probably one of the driving forces for me living in England and France for five years. With numerous European top-ups since - and a year in the Peoples' Republic of China.

But then sometimes the big things come to us here.

Like the Ballets Russes visits from the mid thirties to the early forties, taking the opportunity to perform during the disruptions of World War 2 elsewhere. It came in various guises - The Original Ballets Russes, Colonel de Basil's Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, Covent Garden Russian Ballet.

A highlight of these visits would have been the 1940 re-staging by Serge Lifar of his ballet 'Icare' (1935), with new percussive music by Antal Dorati and with new sets by Sydney Nolan ...

Lifar took the lead role of Icarus at the premier ...

... but then it was danced on subsequent performances by Roman Jasinsky ...

Amazingly, there's quite a lot of colour film of the performances of the Russian Ballet during these visits, including of footage of 'Icare' with Jasinsky.

So I've cobbled together a video around Serge Lifar, Roman Jasinsky, the Ballets Russes in Australia and 'Icare', and included some black and white 1950s film of Lifar teaching the principle role to a dancer at Le Palais Garnier in Paris ...

Hope you like it as much as I did putting it together!

I must say I really like ruminating on all the angles of being drawn to the arts of places elsewhere on the planet other than where you live ... while not descending into some kind of cultural cringe.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Caught on Film!

I'm not a royalist or a monarchist but have always had a soft spot for horny old Lothario Edward VII - known fondly as 'Edward the Caresser' (as opposed to Edward the Confessor).

And I was surprised, the other day, to find so much film existed of the king. In social as well as ceremonial occasions. Surprising given that the king died in 1910 at the very dawn of motion pictures.

So I thought a compilation seemed in order - sadly now split into three cos of Blogger upload limits ...

These little scraps of footage, some quite up-close and personal, really do give some sense of this larger than life Dionysian character.

I've added, as the audio track, part of Edward Elgar's 'Enigma Variations' as this music so strongly reflects the nostalgia an empire quickly slipping away at the turn of the C20.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Serge Lifar - 'Les Sylphides

This is unique June 1928 silent film footage of the original now fabled Ballets Russes of Serge de Diaghilev.

It shows Serge Lifar and rehearsing 'Les Sylphides' with a corps de ballet outdoors at the 'Fetes de Narcisses' in Montreux, Switzerland.

What makes this discovery particularly exciting is that Diaghilev never permitted the Ballets Russes to be filmed, and so this unauthorised rehearsal footage may well be the only record of the company.

The footage was originally uploaded by British Pathe onto their website (, unrecognised, until identified in February 2011 by Jane Pritchard, curator of the Ballets Russes (Ballet Russe) exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and Susan Eastwood, a member of the London Ballet Circle.

They were aided in their identification by a photograph taken during the Ballets Russes' first visit to the 'Fetes de Narcisses' in 1923, which showed the company on an outdoor stage performing 'Aurora’s Wedding'.

The Ballets Russes, 'Aurora’s Wedding', the Fêtes des Narcisses, 1923

There are now many articles on the internet about the discovery including one by Jane Pritchard herself:

Ms Pritchard says:

What we see is I believe the June 1928 Festival (the topiary arch indicates this is the Ballets Russes second visit to Montreux when they danced 'Les Sylphides', 'Cimarosiana' and the Polovtsian dances from 'Prince Igor'). I believe that Serge Lifar was dancing the lead role – sometimes referred to as the poet. No doubt the long wig worn confused the [British Pathe] cataloguer to suggest ‘One female dancer (representing Narcissus?).

The film confirms what many have said - that while the principle dancers were often extraordinary (Vaslav Nijinsky, Tamara Karsavina, Leonid Massine and so on), the corps could be a far more ordinary affair.

I have added an audio - music from 'Les Sylphides' which does not attempt to be that of the various little mini segments of choreography in the footage.

Hope you are as bowled over by the find as I was - I never expected such a thing!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Scrapbook Memoriam of Great Charm
Angus Fitzroy
Toby McCutcheon
The other day, Art Mariano sent me the URL for a curious little 85 page scrapbook memorial put together by Angus Fitzroy to commemorate the thirty year relationship with his friend/lover (?) Toby McCutcheon.
I thought it was absolutely charming, if somewhat slight, but have found myself coming back to it over and over again. A sure sign of something of greater interest. And for a post.
The book charts the relationship between the two men in a potpourri of sketches, photographs, cards, magazine covers and stamps. Most are captioned - with pithy, erudite, thought-provoking, gay funny, or just plain quirky remarks.
There are images of the two friends at home in England. And in gay company. The comments here often reflect the particular humour of the period - like a photograph of two men dancing captioned 'Foxtrot anyone?'
There are pictures of Angus and Toby in all corners of the globe - from France to Cuba to Algeria to Athens to Istanbul to Egypt. One with the cute 'I was forever hungry in Hungary'.
Snaps of muscular athletic men, mostly from the athletics/health magazines of the day. One sticks in my mind - of a body builder whose nipples Angus has saliently 'annotated' with gold stars.
Tender reflections on the relationship - Will something of me survive? And ask 'What was that?' 'You?'
There are sketches of nudes - the one I love best is of a guy with a hard-on, captioned 'Surprise!'
This is the most easy and delicious document of gay social history.
Now I've probably overdone the inclusions but ...
Then, after all the gaiety and lovely lightness of the scrapbook, there is a final entry opposite a woodblock of a medieval knight ...
... which brings the notebook into closing dedicatory focus:
Dear Toby, you shall forever be my number one man. My knight in armour. You will forever shine in my dreams as hero. Galahad has nothing on you. I would rededicate myself to you over and over again for all time.
The perfect epitaph we'd all want our loved one to be able to write of us. Or vice versa!
After wiping the tear from your eye, were there any entries that particularly took your fancy?

The source of this extraordinary diary is JD Doyle’s site - I hope Mr Doyle will let us keep this post but I perfectly understand if he would like it removed.