Thursday, January 17, 2013

LS Lowry – painter of working-class life

  • 16 Jan 2013
  • The Guardian
  • Charlotte Higgins Chief arts writer

Tate to pay homage to matchstalk master

Hopes that retrospective will persuade art world to take Lowry seriously at last

The exhibition at Tate Britain will compare works such as The Fever Van (1935, above), Industrial Landscape (1955, below) and Piccadilly Circus (1960, left) with works by Pissarro and Seurat. Anne Wagner said of Lowry (below, right): ‘To have represented the lives of the working class and not become a propagandist is an astonishing achievement’
Lowry was most celebrated, Clark said, in the immediate postwar era up to the end of the 1960s – “in socialdemocratic, postwar Britain” when, he argued, Lowry’s work was more in tune with the times.

The exhibition, say its curators, will explode the myth that Lowry – who, in 1939, turned down an offer to become the Manchester Guardian’s art critic – was a primitive, barely competent painter. His strong links with French realism and post-impressionism will be drawn on, and comparisons with painters such as Camille Pissarro and Georges Seurat established – “though Lowry is tougher and cruder and deliberately so,” said Clark.

His teacher at the Municipal College of Art, Manchester, where he took evening classes, was the French late impressionist painter Adolphe Valette and, according to Clark, Lowry “chose to show consistently in Paris from the 1920s and 30s.” He was, said Clark, “truly immersed in French impressionism”.

The exhibition will also show how Lowry, a rent collector with the same firm from 1916 until his retirement in 1952, recorded the “grimness and melancholia of urban life”, said Clark.

“He thought hard and worked hard to find a way of doing industrial landscapes that was honest and faced up to the fact that industrialisation was, in some senses, disastrous. But he did not wallow in its misery – which is the stock charge against Lowry. He tried for an art that struck a balance between recognising the beauties of the world and what was awful in it.”

Wagner paid tribute to his handling of paint and use of colour: in his picture Excavations in Manchester (1932), which shows workmen digging out the foundations of a new building, she said “he looked into the belly of modern life... building up his painting in a way analogous to the building going on apace in the scene he was depicting.”

Wagner also said that Lowry should be placed in an international context, and his work assessed alongside that of peers working in the 1930s in Germany or in the postwar Soviet Union.

“Part of Lowry is that he’s not kitsch. Kitsch is doing your thinking for you, telling you how to thin think and feel. Lowry never tells you how to feel... to have represented the lives of the working class and not become a propagandist is an astonishing as achievement.” Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life is at Tate Britain, London, from 26 June to 20 October 2013 LS Lowry – the quintessential painter of northern, working-class life – is among the most divisive of British artists. A household name, beloved of the public and commanding huge prices at auction, he is at the same time wildly unfashionable in the art world, derided for his apparently naive images of “matchstick men and matchstick cats and dogs” set among the industrial landscapes of Salford, Pendlebury and Manchester.

But this June Tate Britain, in London, is to mount the first major retrospective devoted to Lowry since the artist’s death in 1976. The show is co-curated by one of the world’s pre-eminent scholars of French impressionism, TJ Clark.

According to Clark, Lowry is “an artist who is taken for granted and condescended to. The reaction from London art world friends over the last year and a half, when I have said I am working on Lowry, has been of deadpan incomprehension and disappointment.”

There has, said Clark, been a “metropolitan resistance to taking the north seriously as a subject for art”. He added: “It may now be possible to look beyond that condescension at a time ... when the limits of the London art world’s view of art are pretty obvious.”

Lowry has long been a contentious subject for the Tate, which has come under fire from figures including the actor Sir Ian McKellen for only rarely putting its seven Lowry paintings and 16 works on paper on display. In a 2011 TV documentary, McKellen said it was “a shame verging on the iniquitous that foreign visitors to London shouldn’t have access to the painter English people like more than most others”.

Penelope Curtis, Tate Britain’s director, said the exhibition – about half of whose 80 works have never before been seen in public – will take an artist “people thought they knew and reveal that they didn’t know him. At the same time Lowry needs to take his place in British art history – alongside such artists as Ben Nicholson”.

Curtis acknowledged that Lowry “has been an issue for Tate: many people love his work and would like to have seen it dealt with more seriously”. She was delighted when Clark and co-curator Anne Wagner had proposed an exhibition. “Whatever we did, it was important that we did it in a way that wasn’t cynical but was authentic and serious,” she said.

Responding to the suggestion that the work was sentimental, Clark said: “There is a difference between sentimentality and social awareness … though in the post-neoliberal era the very idea of social awareness is supposed to be wrong. I see nothing sentimental in the pictures.”

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Indigenous Indian Ancestors

  • 16 Jan 2013
  • The Sydney Morning Herald
  • Nicky Phillips SCIENCE

Ancient Indian arrivals spark rethink on birth of Gondwanaland

LONG before Australia and India faced off on the cricket pitch, people from the subcontinent arrived on our shores and bred with Aborigines, scientists report.

A genetic study has found ancestors of modern Indians may have come to Australia about 4000 years before Europeans colonised the continent.

Modern humans are thought to have arrived down under about 40,000 years ago, having made their way out of Africa around the coast of the Arabian Peninsula and India to Australia.

Most scientists believed these ancestors of modern Aborigines remained isolated from other populations until Europeans appeared in the late 18th century.

But a genetic analysis of more than 300 Aborigines, Indians and people from Papua New Guinea and island south-east Asia has found a ‘‘significant gene flow’’ from India to Australia about 4230 years, or 141 generations, ago.

The study’s lead researcher, Irina Pugach, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, said the arrival of these people during the period known as the Holocene coincided with many changes in Australia’s archaeological record.

‘‘[ There was] a sudden change in plant processing and stone tool technologies, with microliths appearing for the first time, and the first appearance of the dingo in the fossil record,’’ Dr Pugach said.

‘‘Since we detect inflow of genes from India into Australia at around the same time, it is likely that these changes were related to this migration.’’

Alan Cooper, the director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide, said this early Indian movement was a ‘‘complete mystery’’.

The Aboriginal DNA used in the study comprised more than 10 per cent Indian genetic markers, which suggested there had been substantial interbreeding between the groups. ‘‘[ The Indians] could have been sea traders,’’ said Professor Cooper, who was not involved in the study.

The researchers said it was possible Indian ancestry came to Australia indirectly, through south-east Asian populations that had trade links with northern Australia and Indonesia. But the analysis found no evidence of this in the genes of the island south-east Asian populations.

The study also found a common origin between Aboriginal Australians, New Guinea populations and the Mamanwa – a Negrito group from the Philippines. The researchers estimate these groups split from each other about 36,000 years ago.

A study co-author, Mark Stoneking, said this finding, which is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, supported the view that these populations were the descendants of an early southern route migration out of Africa.
Professor Cooper said the study highlighted how little scientists knew about Australia’s human legacy.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Kumbh Mela Festival of Ritual bathing

  • 15 Jan 2013
  • The Sydney Morning Herald

Millions hope pilgrimage will make light of their sins

Photo: Afp/roberto SchmidtWorkers fix a light pole in Allahabad, in northern India, which hosts millions of Hindu devotees over the next couple of months to celebrate the Kumbh Mela. Worshippers believe a dip in the holy waters cleanses them of their sins. The Kumbh Mela, which started on Monday, stretches over 55 days and attracts ash-covered holy men, who run into the frigid waters, and millions of ordinary Indians to Allahabad.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Dinosaurs on tippy-toes

  • 10 Jan 2013
  • The Sydney Morning Herald
  • AAP

Scientists put brakes on dinosaur stampede

Queensland paleontologists have discovered the world’s only recorded dinosaur stampede is largely made up of the tracks of swimming, not running, animals.

A University of Queensland PhD candidate, Anthony Romilio, led the study of thousands of small dinosaur tracks at Lark Quarry Conservation Park in Queensland’s central west.

The tracks, which are 95 million to 98 million years old, are preserved in beds of siltstone and sandstone deposited in a shallow river when the area was part of a vast, forested floodplain.

‘‘Many of the tracks are nothing more than elongated grooves, and probably formed when the claws of swimming dinosaurs scratched the river bottom,’’ Mr Romilio said on Wednesday.

‘‘Some of the more unusual tracks include ‘tippy-toe’ traces – this is where fully buoyed dinosaurs made deep, near vertical scratch marks with their toes as they propelled themselves through the water.

‘‘It’s difficult to see how tracks such as these could have been made by running or walking animals. If that was the case we would expect to see a much flatter impression of the foot.’’

Mr Romilio said the swimming dinosaur tracks at Lark Quarry belonged to small, two-legged herbivorous dinosaurs known as ornithopods.

Previous research had identified two types of small dinosaur tracks at Lark Quarry: long-toed tracks, called Skartopus, and short-toed tracks, called Wintonopus.
The new research about the nature of the Lark Quarry tracks was published in this month’s Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Portrait of a Pox Doctor by Titian

  • 8 Jan 2013
  • The Guardian
  • Jonathan Jones

Titian painting buried for decades in depths of National Gallery

Clever detective work leads scholars to attribute portrait to great Italian artist

Tiziano Vecellio – or Titian as he is called in English – is a painter’s painter, and a lover’s painter too. His exquisite eye is charged with sensuality. Time after time he portrayed the beauties of Venice, in the long-ago days when the city was famous for its courtesans rather than its tourists (of course there were sex tourists, like the English traveller Thomas Coryate who raves about the courtesans in his 1611 book Coryate’s Crudities).

Into the light A detail from the Titian portrait, which has just been rediscovered in the basement of the National Gallery Photograph: National Gallery

A visitor to Titian’s studio by the Grand Canal in the 1520s claimed the painter was exhausted from sleeping with his models – a claim that seems to fit the sheer enthusiasm of his paintings of women. But now his name can be linked with another, more painful aspect of sexuality in Renaissance Italy.

Glaring back proudly from a portrait newly attributed to Titian stands a famous doctor who gave the most terrifying sexually transmitted disease of those times the name “syphilis”.

Girolamo Fracastoro analysed the pox in an epic poem. The searing infection that he was one of the first to study probably came to Europe from the Americas soon after Christopher Columbus “discovered” the New World in 1492. Italians also called it the French disease, because French soldiers carried it into Italy in 1494.

Is it just possible that Titian paid for a syphilis cure with a portrait? If so, it would not be the only astonishing thing about this painting, which has just been rediscovered in the basement of the National Gallery.

As Nicholas Penny, the gallery’s director, asked himself when we met to look at it: “How can it be that buried in the bowels of the National Gallery there is a Titian?”

The National Gallery has owned this portrait of Fracastoro (his name used to be written on it) since 1924, but only this month, in an article in the Burlington Magazine, do its curators and leading scholars claim once and for all that its painting is a true Titian.

It hung for years in a remote lower room, forgotten, but now it has been brought into the light of the main collection. There, for now, the placard says “attributed to Titian”, but as Penny wonders in his frank way, “‘attributed to’ – what does that mean?”

It is a style of scholarly waffle he would like to eliminate from the National Gallery. Under the cautious language they have no doubt this portrait really is by Titian, making it the third painting by him added to the National Gallery collection since 2009.

The other two, Diana and Actaeon, and Diana and Callisto, were bought for millions of pounds. Titian’s portrait of Fracastoro has been recognised in a dusty corner of the museum at no expense at all, thanks to clever detective work and the restoration workshops hidden high in the building above Trafalgar Square.

This must mean the National Gallery now has the finest collection of Titians in the world – it already owned (among others) the elegantly frenzied Bacchus and Ariadne, the heartbreaking Easter landscape Noli me Tangere, and his portrait of a man with a mesmerising blue sleeve. But Penny, who is not given to hype, points out that the Museo del Prado in Madrid also has a few Titians. I think he is being modest.

How was this painting misrecognised for so long? When a painting is regarded as not by anyone famous and put in a museum’s dark corners, Penny suggests, a self-fulfilling process starts: curators are less likely to examine it, or clean it, or even properly frame it. But in this case fresh eyes, including those of the art historian Paul Joannides, were cast on a forgotten painting and it was taken to the lab to be restored. Discoveries there about the canvas and technique blaze the name Titian.

Fracastoro’s portrait has been damaged over the centuries, although the new cleaning by the National Gallery has revealed a very characterful face. The background is more problematic and Penny admits its clumsy architecture remains a puzzle.

But Titian’s genius flares in one fantastic detail that makes this painting – warts and all – truly captivating. “It’s not the head that is so amazing in this picture”, as Penny puts it, “but the fur.”

We are feasting our eyes on a flecked mist of white, gold, brown and black, a virtuoso, nearly abstract performance that has all the magic of Titian. With joyous freedom and a casual command of fluffy gossamer colours, the master sensualist has recreated the richness of a lynx fur on Fracastoro’s shoulders. “The great thing about the lynx is that it has got this brown smudge as well as black and white,” enthuses Penny about the fur Titian so convincingly copied.

Fracostoro worked in Verona, in the empire of the Venetian republic. As well as naming syphilis, he came up with a modern theory of contagion, saying diseases were transmitted by tiny “spores”. This was a big advance on the orthodoxy of the time that sicknesses such as plague were caused by bad air.

The lynx is an appropriate animal for such a man to sport on his shoulders, for this cat was famous for its eyesight. Italian scientific pioneers including Galileo belonged to the Academy of Lynxes, which associated the creature’s eyesight with the pursuit of empirical truth.

Now at last the scientific hero Girolamo Fracastoro takes his place among the gods and goddesses, patricians and prostitutes painted by one of the most beguiling magicians ever to wield a brush in what I believe is the greatest collection on earth of Titian’s paintings.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Pin-up Duce

  • 4 Jan 2013
  • The Sydney Morning Herald
  • Guardian News & Media

The fashionable fascist: Il Duce on the rebound

Many in modern Italy see no shame in venerating Benito Mussolini, writes Tom Kington in Rome.

Pasquale Moretti pulls the latest Benito Mussolini calendar off the shelf at his Rome cafe and flips it open to a photo of the pouting, strutting dictator taking part in a grain harvest.
Photo: APRehabilitation agents . . . Silvio Berlusconi and Gianfranco Fini.
‘‘I was born in that era and he put bread on the table,’’ the 78-year-old said. ‘‘I cannot betray my culture.’’

At the turn of each year, Mussolini calendars appear in newspaper kiosks up and down Italy. They are often tucked away with the specialist magazines, but they are much in demand, according to the manager of one firm that prints them.

‘‘We are selling more than we did 10 years ago,’’ said Renato Circi, the head of the Rome printer Gamma 3000. ‘‘I didn’t think it was still a phenomenon but young people are now buying them too.’’

Sixty-eight years after the fascist dictator was strung up with piano wire from a petrol station in Milan, Mussolini has quietly taken his place as an icon for many Italians.

Among his adherents are the masked, neo-fascist youths who mounted raids on Rome schools last year to protest against education cuts, lobbing smoke bombs in corridors and yelling ‘‘Viva Il Duce’’.

A mob that ambushed British football fans drinking in a Rome pub in November was also suspected of neo-fascist sympathies.

But the cult of Il Duce has also slipped into the mainstream. Last year’s decision by a town south of Rome to spend A127,000 of public funds on a tomb for Rodolfo Graziani, one of Mussolini’s most bloodthirsty generals, was met with widespread indifference.

One leading businessman has proposed renaming Forli Airport in Emilia Romagna, the region of northern Italy, where the dictator was born – Mussolini Airport.

The man who gets some credit for dusting off Mussolini’s reputation is Silvio Berlusconi, who described the dictator’s exiling of his foes to remote villages as sending them on holiday.

Berlusconi brought Italy’s post-fascists, led by Gianfranco Fini, into his governing coalition in 1994 and 2001.

‘‘Today, Mussolini’s racial laws against Jews remain an embarrassment but people don’t care about his hunting down antifascists,’’ says Maria Grazia Rodota, a journalist at Corriere della Sera. ‘‘That became one of Berlusconi’s jokes.’’

Admiration for Mussolini is common in Berlusconi’s circle. The showbusiness agent Lele Mora, now on trial for allegedly pimping for the former prime minister, downloaded a fascist song as his mobile ringtone. Berlusconi’s long-time friend Senator Marcello Dell’Utri has described Mussolini as an ‘‘extraordinary man of great culture’’.

After Mussolini’s murder by partisans in 1945 as the Allies pushed up through Italy, the country did not exorcise the ghosts of fascism, as Germany sought to. A 1952 law forbidding fascist parties or the veneration of fascism has never been seriously enforced.

‘‘It was not used partly because banning parties was potentially anti-constitutional, and also due to a sneaking admiration for fascism,’’ says James Walston, professor of politics at the American University of Rome.

Decades on, the memory of Mussolini has been decoupled from the ideology of fascism, says the writer Angelo Meloni.

‘‘He is now a pop icon, an archItalian, a personality whose legend is linked to the years of consensus in Italy,’’ he says.

But for Italy’s neo-fascist groups, Il Duce is still very much about ideology.

‘‘Whoever buys the calendar admires his work – the two things cannot be separated,’’ says the vice-president of a group called CasaPound, Simone di Stefano. ‘‘There is a need today for his politics, for someone who will put the banks and finance at the service of Italy. Youngsters who come to us already see Mussolini as the father of this country.’’

The well-to-do streets around Piazza Ponte Milvio are plastered with posters and graffiti by neofascist groups, including CasaPound, and the local bars have become a hangout for gangs of right wing lads in regulation Fred Perry shirts and Ray-Ban Wayfarers.

Further down the road, the entrance to the Olympic stadium, shared by Rome’s two dominant football clubs, Roma and Lazio, is marked by a massive fascist-era obelisk with ‘‘Mussolini’’ written in huge letters down the front.

Nearby, the bar run by Pasquale Moretti, where Lazio fans meet before games, contains a minisupermarket of fascist memorabilia, from bottles of wine with Mussolini’s portrait on the label, to fascist flags and T-shirts, and oil portraits of Il Duce.
‘‘He built housing for workers, something no Roman emperor did,’’ Moretti says. ‘‘How can I not respect that?’’

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Ancient Viking Troop Carrier

  • 28 Dec 2012
  • The Guardian
  • Maev Kennedy

Rebirth of the Viking warship that terrorised Europe

Ancient troop carrier rises from depths of history and heads for British Museum

When the sleek, beautiful silhouette of Roskilde 6 appeared on the horizon, 1,000 years ago, it was very bad news. The ship was part of a fleet carrying an army of hungry, thirsty warriors, muscles toned by rowing and sailing across the North Sea; a war machine like nothing else in 11th-century Europe, its arrival meant disaster was imminent.

Now the ship’s timbers are slowly drying out in giant steel tanks at the Danish national museum’s conservation centre at Brede outside Copenhagen, and will soon again head across the North Sea – to be a star attraction at an exhibition in the British Museum.

The largest Viking warship ever found, it was discovered by chance in 1996 at Roskilde. It is estimated that building it would have taken up to 30,000 hours of skilled work, plus the labour of felling trees and hauling materials. At just over 36 metres, it was four metres longer than Henry VIII’s flagship Mary Rose built 500 years later, and six metres longer than the Viking ship spectacularly recreated as Sea Stallion, which sailed from Scandinavia around Scotland to Dublin in 2007.

“This ship was a troop carrier,” said Gareth Williams of the British Museum. It was built some time after 1025 when the oak trees were felled, and held 100 warriors taking turns on 39 pairs of oars if there was not enough wind to fill the square woollen sail. They would have been packed in tightly, with little room for supplies except a minimal amount of fresh water – or ale or mead, which would not have gone stale as fast – and dried salt mutton.
It would have been an uncomfortable journey, but short: they did not need to carry much as their ship could move startlingly fast – Sea Stallion managed an average speed of 5.5 knots, and a top speed of 20 knots. Once they landed, the warriors could forage with ruthless efficiency, as many a coastal community or wealthy monastery discovered.

The ship would probably not have come alone. “There are records in the annals of fleets of hundreds of ships,” Williams said. “So you could be talking about … up to 10,000 men suddenly landing on your coast, highly trained, fit, capable of moving very fast on water or land.” Such luxury ships were fabulously expensive to build and a devastating display of power, Williams said.

The dates suggest Roskilde 6 may have been built for King Canute, who according to legend set his throne in the path of the incoming tide, to prove to his courtiers that even a monarch could not control the force of nature. At the time the Vikings were consolidating their power from temporary raiders to permanent invaders.

With all the original timbers fitted into a steel frame that will recreate its full length and form, the ship will be the centrepiece of Viking, an exhibition opening at the Danish national museum in June, before being transported to London to launch the British Museum’s new exhibition space in 2014. It will travel in two containers, by freighter and lorry.

The vessel was found by accident when an extension was being built to the Roskilde ship museum in Denmark, itself built to hold an earlier find of Viking ships that had been deliberately sunk to narrow the fjord and protect the approach to the town, the old royal capital of Denmark.

In 1996 archaeologists watching the construction work discovered huge timbers in the new foundations, some chopped in half by the piling. It proved to be a treasure trove of nine ships, of which Roskilde 6, almost half of which was recovered, was the most spectacular. The timbers stayed in storage while the museum worked out what to do, until the exhibition provided the opportunity for full conservation.

The original Roskilde ships are displayed in a purpose-built ship hall, but could never travel: the timbers look solid but might shatter like glass. When excavated, the sodden timbers of Roskilde 6 would have disintegrated into a heap of dust if left exposed to air. National museum conservator Kristiane Straetkvern managed the project, which has been drying timbers up to 10 metres long far more slowly than the older techniques, then replacing the lost moisture with synthetic resin, leaving them lighter but stable.

The exhibition will display finds from across Scandinavia and from deep into the countries they penetrated wherever a river could carry their shallow draft ships – as far inland as Lichfield in England, deep into Russia, to Byzantium in the east, where Vikings fought as mercenaries on both sides, and beyond. Objects from 12 countries will demonstrate that Vikings were traders, farmers, fishermen, and superb craft workers in timber, bone and metal.

The Roskilde team are now experts on recreating ancient ships, regularly commissioned to build them. One day they hope to recreate a full-size, ocean-going replica Roskilde 6, and send it across the sea to awe rather than to terrorise the coasts of the British Isles.