Monday 28 May 2018

300 Years Of Passion

Over the last little while, I have been living through three hundred years of Russian history, specifically in the company of the mighty Romanovs. It has been through the scholarship of Simon Sebag Montefiore and his books Catherine The Great And Potemkin: The Imperial Love Affair and The Romanovs that I have been able to skate through the centuries so swiftly. Masterpieces both.

My new relationship with the Romanovs has admittedly been at times a harrowing affair; indeed, eyes have needed to be averted (like when watching "The Vikings" on the telly) when torture and blood and gore have spilled across the page, and I have had to occasionally set my acquaintance aside for a day or two in order to settle my unease over some revelations. While I can't say I now know all the family members and their associates well (the cast of characters is unsurprisingly enormous), I am familiar enough to realise I would not really have wanted to be friends with them ... Nor enemies ... Especially not enemies.

Dealing With A Miscreant Russian-Style

The Romanovs positively races through the dynasty. The scene is set with a brief background to the ascension of Michael I to the throne in the wake of the last of the Rurikid tsars, of whom Ivan The Terrible cast the longest shadow. Between Michael I and Michael II (tsar for one day after the murder of Nicholas II) lay one family of autocrats who variously ruled over Russia either wisely and with enlightenment or not for 304 years, of which 64 years were under the long reigns of three formidable women, including the sadistic and possibly mad Anna, in bed below, who left the detail in the hands of her German lover, and all branded with a Passion for Russia.

Hijinks in the Court of Empress Anna
Valery Jacobi, 1872

While my small amount of Russian reading has to date been focussed on Exile and the Plight of the Serfs, the lives of these elite also made for some hard reading. The family showcased wisdom and folly in equal measure; we follow them as Russia's borders slip and slide about, cities are raised and destroyed, and wars are fought. We follow, too, as vast armies and entourages marched thousands of miles to and fro their own country and across the continent of Europe with enviable stamina. Murder and mayhem, pretenders and exile mark the transitions between most of them, and aristocratic families are made and fall as courtiers scramble to keep a toe-hold on imperial favour. The Romanov strengths are at time weaknesses and even those who reluctantly took the throne, embraced their role with the firm belief that only they had the right to rule over their vast country and millions of peasants, come hell or high water.

Fire Of Moscow After Battle Of Borodino
A. Smirnov, 1813

Catherine The Great, too, assumed the role of Mother to all Russia, despite her German birth, and her separate story of imperial rule made for a fabulous read. She and her lover and effective co-regent Prince Grigory Potemkin made an incredible team and both books rely extensively on vast swathes of gossipy primary materials. Thousands of letters were written between them as Potemkin spent long periods away from her on campaign, conquest and tour of the empire. Their correspondences are a hybrid of business and love letter, as they set out their ambitions and create their dream together for Russia, and continue through their long partnership and (assumed) marriage and subsequent affairs.

Catherine The Great
V. Ericksen, 1779

While the landowners and aristocracy played key roles in Russia, fascinating is the new-to-me idea that as long as you weren't born into slavery, there was also essentially a meritocracy at work. All manner of energetic courtesans, adventurers and foreigners washed about, from Scottish soldiers and English landscape gardeners to French artists and African bodyguards. Merely by pledging allegiance to the sovereign, you could find a place in society and rise through the ranks of the military and court, all the while engaging in the national courtly sport of espionage; a comely face and figure and an enthusiasm for, ahem, naked romping helping enormously.

Almost to a man, one of the most startling personal traits to shine through for a phlegmatic Anglo-Saxon reader is the amount of weeping capable of all Romanovs. Hot tears were constantly being shed through jealousy, rage, vexation and grief. Passion for the homeland, for religion, ambition, conquest, love, sex, wealth, and power ran through their veins and bubbled over every page ... This has been for me quite the introduction to Russia’s history.

Monday 21 May 2018

Ladies Day At The Gallery

Self-portrait, after George Lambert
Yvette Coppersmith

A small gathering of the Pipistrello colony met at the Art Gallery of New South Wales today to see the 2018 Archibald Prize for portrait painting. It's always Controversy Corner when it comes to the winner, and even the selection of finalists, and very rare that the Punters will agree with the Pundits. As a family, we seemed to share rather similar tastes today, so there was no vociferous squabbling over the relative merits of the entrants, and we all agreed upon what we most certainly did not like.

This year's winner, the self-portrait by Yvette Coppersmith, above, did meet with my approval and made my own shortlist, for which I am sure she is delighted (ahem, no cash prizes forthcoming from me, however). The Russian-born Australian artist George W. Lambert is a favourite painter of this artist and you can see she has captured his spirit in her quite lovely self-portrait. It is modern but convincingly of another era and I do adore her choice of colours (and so complementary with my blog's wallpaper). G.W.L. did seem to rather enjoy painting hands, so she has made a good fist of her tribute with those four confidently rendered fingers.

Just look at these masterful hands:

Self Portrait With Gladioli, 1922
George W. Lambert

 And these:

Miss Helen Beauclerk, 1914
George W. Lambert

The field of favourites was a little thin for me this year, I do admit, and it was a surprise to realise afterwards that my choices were all portraits of women.  My favourite was this painting of the actress Alison Whyte, by Paul Jackson. He was aiming for a Renaissance-style of luminosity and I think he did succeed. The Elizabethan ruff was a quirky accessory to remind us both of her craft and that he didn't just knock this off in a weekend.

Alison Whyte, a mother of the renaissance
Paul Jackson

This portrait by Marcus Wills is of another actress, Lotte St Clair, and was tiny. It measured a mere 12.5cm x 10.5cm! I love miniature artwork and there were only a couple of entrants this year that were small enough to spirit away in a handbag. Most of the artists take a rather literal approach to Go Big or Go Home. I would have liked a bit more colour and some fancy fabric or embellishment to show off his technical skills but I'm sure Lotte loves her compact little portrait.

Marcus Wills

I have included a Special Mention for this portrait of Susan Carland by Andrew Lloyd Greensmith because his biography describes him as a plastic surgeon! How wonderful is it that there are still gentlemen hobbyists out there?

The serenity of Susan Carland
Andrew Lloyd Greensmith

Moving on to the Wynne Prize for Landscape Painting or Figurative Sculpture, I only had a few favourites to write home about. The first was the winner of the Trustees' Watercolour Prize of a snowy, mountainous landscape by Philip Edwards, Glory be, water tree.

Glory Be, Water Tree
Philip Edwards
The next was a series painted on 35mm glass slides by Keith Fyfe, because Miniatures!

As I Recall
Keith Fyfe

Finally, who cannot be swept away by the technical brilliance of Tim Storrier? When I first think of him, I usually think of his fire paintings, so this broiling sea was a cooling change. The bottom left corner shows flowers and the ashes of the American actor Lee Marvin, scattered into a favoured fishing spot off the coast of Cairns in Queensland. Who knew he had an Australian connection?

At Sea (for Pamela)
Tim Storrier
As my taste in art is so very safe, as my little selection above will attest, I am going to be an artistic philistine and say that there was nothing I liked in the Sulman Prize ... Move along, nothing to see ... 

Our arty and foody afternoon was capped off by a family viewing of the film, "The Death of Stalin", which was Unanimously enjoyed (yes, an in-joke from the film there). What a delightful and harmonious family outing we had!

Monday 7 May 2018

The Merry Widow

Wooing The Widow

Mr Pipistrello and I treated ourselves last week to the much-anticipated ballet The Merry Widow, and had ourselves a delightful night out at the Sydney Opera House. The music was joyful and everyone danced beautifully, of course. This frothy and home-grown staple of the Australian Ballet repertoire has been danced by all the Big Names* since 1975 and was long overdue for us to have seen it, so naturally we gussied up for the occasion.

The setting is Paris, 1905, thus the costumes and staging are Belle Époque lavish and gorgeous, with sumptuous fabrics, sparkling jewels, big hats and plenty of sweeping hemlines for the ladies and white tights, braided jackets and debonair moustaches for the gents. The storyline, an adaptation of the romantic operetta of the same name, hums along amusingly and is extremely light-hearted and completely preposterous.

Pontevedrian Partying

Read on for for some, ahem, antiquated social mores:

The bankrupt Grand Duchy of Pontevedro needs some fast cash to keep afloat. The Pontevedrian Ambassador to Paris, old Baron Zeta, is a firm devotee of the now-discredited trickle down theory of economics, but without any money left to prove it so to J.K. Galbreith, there is nothing to be done but drink the cellars dry of champagne and be grateful you have a gorgeous young wife, Valencienne. The first fun fact here is that lo! the nubile Valencienne is cuckolding him with the French Attaché to his Embassy, Count Camille.

Along comes a gorgeous and newly widowed compatriot Hanna, (we never know how her husband died but you can be sure he was old) and a plan is hatched to seize her monies for the state by marrying her to a fellow Pontevedrian diplomat, Count Danilo. It appears that fa! they are in fact "known" to each other and Danilo had sadly ditched her when she was poor, allegedly because of parental pressure. He's happy to fulfil his patriotic duty now that she's loaded, but of course Hanna isn't going to make it easy this time around.

Hanna throws a party, more champagne is drunk, everyone gets to have a dance, things get a bit out of hand and some wires get crossed and things start to look dire for the Pontevedrians. The men need to get out of their tights and don top hats and tails and the ladies to put on their best dresses and giant hats and troop down to Chez Maxim for the cancan girls and to drink some more champagne to the ignoble end of their mismanaged nation.

Helping To Forget Your Sorrows

Through the alcoholic haze it all comes right in the end. Somehow the Baron realises he's just an old duffer and it's perfectly okay for his wife to go off with the dashing Frenchman, so he gives them his blessing (and probably saves himself from some matrimonial "misadventure"). Luckily Hanna and Count Danilo finally get together too and dance off happily into the future, but you are left wondering if she realises that she's going to be economically bailing out her country ... hmmm, methinks the anticipated Financial Miracle might have a couple of future Complications. But it's not for me to get all Cassandra here; let's just agree it's a Happy Ending.

Maybe It's Best Not To Say

For our performance the principal dancers were Lana Jones and Ty King-Wall as Merrily-Widowed Hanna and Old Flame Count Danilo, and Benedicte Bemet and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson as Adulterous Valencienne and Her French Lover, Camille. The Cuckolded Ambassador Baron Zeta and his Secretary Njegus were played by veteran dancers, Stephen Heathcote and David McAllister. And fabulous they and all the dancers were!

* Dame Margot Fonteyn danced the rôle of Hanna in her late 50s!!

Haha, I'm 57!

Bats In The Belfry