views, reviews and previews
BRI DGET RILEY
Paintings and Related Work Sunley Room, National Gallery 24 November 2010–22 May 2011 Admission free
S OP(TICAL) Art anything more than visual tricks? Is it a series of trompe l’œil effects with no substance behind them? Bridget Riley is one of our most successful and critically acclaimed artists and one of the great practitioners of Op Art. Her new, compact show at the National Gallery provides all the evidence anyone might need to answer those questions about this fifty-year-old style in modern art.
The evidence is largely to be found in one room devoted to recent works by Riley, ten in all. Two of these are painted on the walls, and of these, ‘Composition with Circles 7’, is a very large set of circles outlined in black on a white ground. It covers a complete wall. There is a set of four sketches, a black and gray dot painting, a stripy painting and three wavy ‘leaf’ paintings. One of these is a red leafy painting which takes its inspiration from the National’s ‘Portrait of a Man’ by Van Eyck. A very precise copy of this by Riley is shown outside the main room along with one of her gray and white wavy painting. Other than the Van Eyck, the paintings are all in pale, matt colours. They are abstract and part of the thinking behind the show is that we can trace how Riley has brought out the essence as she sees it in the works of some of the masters of the past. Riley is a great devotee and former trustee of the Gallery and we see some of its pictures which have influenced her – her Van Eyck copy, Raphael’s ‘Saint Catherine of Alexandria’, Mantegna’s ‘Introduction of the Cult of Cybele’ and three sketches by Seurat for his ‘Bathers at Asnières’. To help us understand how all this fits together there is also a short film which introduces Riley’s work.
The essence of painting and how the eye sees, these are Riley’s great interests. She reduces great art and our own seeing to the most basic shapes and colours, investing them with an energy and rhythm which give them life. The same interest in life and rhythm we can find in some of Leonardo da Vinci’s studies of waves, and less scientifically in the printmakers of nineteenth-century Japan.
The patterns which Riley makes – unscientifically since they are by trial and error – fascinate and tease the viewer. They make us experience more intensely the act of seeing and how we respond to light and movement. Were these Arabic works we could easily appreciate them as part of the Islamic non-representational tradition, but since Riley explicitly links her work with the great Western tradition we might wonder whether the concept of influences which lies behind the show has become a rod to beat her with.
In fact the works show that Riley is part of the great Western tradition, but that she focuses on only a small part of it. You can see where previous artists have influenced her own rhythms and patterns, notably in the one work of hers which is hung near one of the older works – generally the organizers have sensibly kept Riley’s work apart from its forebears since works of
different ages rarely hang well together (just try going through an historically arranged gallery backwards). And like those past masters she too has developed over time. Today she paints far fewer of the hallucinogenic stripy pictures which characterized her work in the Sixties, and the suggestion of waves and wind and leaves in her more recent work are a move away from the purest abstraction.
Just as you can be sucked into a picture of a maze so it is very easy to be sucked into Riley’s paintings, but unlike most mazes there is no sense of sterility here. You can look at these pictures in the same way as you look at flowing water or rippling leaves and become aware of unsettling rhythms in what at first looks so obvious. And the colours, ultimately derived from Ancient Egyptian art, help distance the viewer from the specificity of the source vision. But they too have a sense of energy if the viewer gives them time.
Riley is famous for giving a lot of time to looking at other painters’ works. When we give her the time she gives to Raphael it soon becomes apparent that her works are not meticulous optical trickery but a careful gaze at the act of seeing and of painting. And that might help us see more clearly the art and the world around us as we move off into the next room and on to the ‘Rokeby Venus’.
ISBN 978-1-85424-948-7 £9.99 156pp
APPROACHING GOD is a beautifully produced hard back geared to helping people find solid ground in life through Christian faith.
If we are meant to live so as to be evidence of the existence of God the way we see God has great significance. Lisa Borden provides insight into God as friend, father, mother, healer, guide and artist.
To gain intimacy with God means recovering the sense of how he validates us and raises us up as much as he seeks to deal with our frailties. As 24-7 founder Pete Greig writes in his foreword, misunderstanding God can mean misunderstanding everything else in life.
This is a challenging book with invitations to seek God after each chapter. It is also very affirming in both its illustrated content and beautiful appearance. It could be a good book to drop by a friend who wants guidance to see Christianity as less fearsome than it presently seems to them.
THE THINK TANK
100 adaptable discussion starters to get teens talking
Martin Saunders Monarch 2010
ISBN 978-1-85424-964-7 £12.99 293pp
IF YOU can get talking to teenagers this book of adaptable discussion starters will prime your input on Christianity. In a fast moving culture finding something new to engage with is always a challenge and Martin Saunders has some weird and wonderful novelties assembled here. Betrayal on Facebook, a four-year old chain smoker, online bullying and a Hawaiian shark attack give you a taster. The index includes celibacy, downloading, laziness and masculinity. Each story can link in to a scripture where God is seen ‘to breathe life into a great library of stories – filled with heroes, villains, sex, violence, intrigue, sacrifice and most crucially of all, redemption’. This is a book for youth leaders and others to browse as part of improving the capacity to engage today’s teenagers with the word of God in the many ambiguities that surround us all.
THE WORLD’S RELIGIONS
The New Lion Handbook flexiback edition Christopher Partridge (Editor)
ISBN 978-0-7459-5394-6 £18 495pp
LION HANDBOOKS have a track record of accessibility and engagement with core Christian conviction so one on world religions is something different. With all the distortions of religion both from within and outside the different faith traditions reliable information is hard to access which makes this volume timely.
The revised handbook has evident authority and a fair feel about it. The fruit of contributions from eighty academics drawn into its preparation from across the world by Professor Christopher Partridge it sets out one by one chapters on twelve principal religions. These chapters are identically structured and address four areas: historical overview, sacred writings, key beliefs, worship and festivals to end with developments in the modern world. There are opening and closing chapters touching on religion in general, the sacred, the spiritual and religion and politics.
Hans Kling wrote famously: There may be no peace among the nations before there is peace among the religions, and no peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions. For gaining the quick clarifications essential to this vital dialogue as it works out in life it is hard to beat this newly improved volume. The best representation of other people’s beliefs is a service both of the truth that is in
Jesus and the peace of the world.
A handbook is not a book to read from cover to cover but reading the ‘insider’ pages is a quick route into getting a feel of what it is like to live as a Sikh, Muslim etc. The ‘I am a Christian’ page is written by an evangelical believer and reads well though the Christianity chapter is matter of fact on the sacramental and doctrinal with more enthusiastic coverage on church growth.
Overall the book seems to me, a Christian, to communicate fairly and well information that serves any seeker of truth who wants to get through the parodies of religion and find any solid truth that lies there.
FOR ALTERNATIVE SACRAMENTAL WORSHIP
Canterbury Press 2010
ISBN 978-1-84825-023-9 £18.99 137pp with CD Rom
REACHING OUT to the un-churched demands missionaries travel light for fear of making Christ inaccessible through unintelligible stuff. Evangelicalism at its best throws out simple lines that draw people into the orbit of Christian worship. It needs complementing by ongoing efforts to make Christian worship more luminous of Christ in word and sacrament.
Simon Rundell, fully convinced of the power of Christian sacraments, provides such a resource with ideas galore to engage newcomers to the eucharist. He hands on the experience of his alternative worship community Blesséd known from Greenbelt, Walsingham and the fresh expressions sacramental network. The philosophy outlined is Christocentric working from a belief that ritual practices that fail to touch heart and soul for Jesus need ditching.
One of the fruits of the 20th century liturgical renewal has been to make the sacraments more intelligible by removing obscure ritual. Simon Rundell sees the multimedia resources of our age as God-given aids to further bring out the meaning and power of sacramental worship. He shares ideas aplenty for refreshing the different parts of the eucharist and some other Christian rituals. His suggestions range from the mundane – making sure your projection slides can be read – to the awesome as in dramatic meditations that can be re-used by readers, not least his moving set of Stations of the Cross.
The book is supplemented by a CD Rom with ready to use DVD clips. Despite copious helpful detail on working with multi-media, the best software etc Fr Rundell makes plain that all of this would be useless without the gift of the Lord’s own presence in bread and wine, a gift whose meaning and power he seeks to unwrap for us.
A Ministry of Nothing?
Parish Pie Publishing
ISBN 978-0-9566074-0-9 £10 311pp
AS THE Church of England is poised to consecrate women bishops those of us with traditionalist vision feel the axe over our heads. One way of dealing with the crisis is the therapy of writing your autobiography. This can be a vanity but for Trevor Vaughan the story has sufficient humour and self-mockery to make it valuable to this reader at least.
Nowt! A Ministry of Nothing! is a formidable title which picks up the rejection of those like Trevor whose allegiance to the Catholic Faith as the Church of England has received it. In his case it has compounded the ostracism of his family that occurred when he welcomed God’s call to be a priest.
You sense the fighter all the way through the forty year chronicle peppered with stories that made me laugh out loud several times. It also disturbed me since I know and love Settle Church where he fell out with a powerful lady who was kind to me but not so kind to others it seems.
The life narrative concludes with sections of funny stories about weddings, funerals and so on. This section is a raconteur or preacher’s quarry. My favourite story was that of Bishop Frere being stranded by bad weather after a confirmation in a Cornish vicarage. As he was going down the dark landing to the bathroom the Bishop got a hefty smack around the head from the vicar’s wife saying ‘That’ll teach you to invite the Bishop when we’ve nothing in the house’!
Nowt! similarly does not pull it’s punches when it comes to parish life. It can be hard hitting but it keeps humour to the end leaving the reader to decide whether the author is, in his own words, ‘earthly fraud or holy fool’.
CRIMEA: THE LAST CRUSDADE
575pp. £30. 978-0-713-99704-0
FOR THE general reader the Crimean War is probably merely an assemblage of clichés: the heroism of Florence Nightingale the incompetence of Raglan; and (for those educated more recently) the career of Mary Seacole. Orlando Figes has set himself to penetrate the myths and reveal the history. And he does so triumphantly in this very readable account.
The narrative begins and ends with Easter in the Church of the Holy Sepulch re. What is easily forgotten – but here takes centre stage – is the extent to which Russia in the mid-nineteenth century was a self-consciously and proselytizing Orthodox state. Not only was the claim to represent all the Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire important politically. It went to the very heart of Russia’s self -nderstanding. And Constantinople (Tsargrad) was the visionary capital of the expanding Russian Empire. Nicholas I was buried in the Peter and Paul Fortress in Sr Petersburg with a medal of Hagia Sophia laid on his chest. On one side at least the conflict had all the elements of a crusade.
On the other –the allied- side motive s were very different. Palmerston and the English Russophobes now seem rather crude in their realpolitik, and Napoleon III emerges as a self-seeking opportunist. Cavour had only Italian ambitions in mind, and Franz -Josef, hovering on the edge of the conflict, seems already to have sensed the fragility of his tottering empire.
Perhaps Figes greatest achievement is to show us how this half-forgotten and often caricatured war set up the structures and the conflicts which led to 1914 and even 1945. The creation of Italy as a nation state and the failure to reconstitute any sort of Polish identity were major factors, both related (if tangentially) to the bloody battles of the Crimea. This moreover, was the trial run for the trench warfare of the Somme, with all its toll of human misery and human life.
Figes is good on the immediate outcomes of the war – the reform of the British Army, the turning of Russia from Europe to the East. And good, too, on the monuments of war. The Guards Monument in Waterloo Place, for example, was moved and extended to include not only the iconic Florence , but also Sidney Herbert, whose career the Crimea had all but destroyed. By 1940, it seems, there was a more compassionate outlook, which the Crimea had done something to foster..
Why read history? It is a perennial question to which there can be only one answer: that all things human are fascinating in themselves, and that we assimilate truth best through story. Figes is an accomplished and urbane story-teller.
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