Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Helvetica and theatre

Sitting at the computer writing blog stuff is a fine occupation when you’re not doing a lot of sitting at the computer otherwise, writing or preparing for writing (e.g. reading and analysing and making notes). But that’s what I have been doing because of the history research I'm involved in -- hence my recent poor showing here.


I started a posting a few weeks ago saying that I'd been to the National Theatre – to see not a play (God, no) but an exhibition of James Ravilious’s photographs. Ravilious deserves a serious entry in himself but the point I wanted to make was about the National Theatre, that I've always felt a lack of affection for it and that part of the reason is its use of Helvetica as the house typeface. That link is to something I wrote about Helvetica before (right, when I was properly fulfilling my responsibilities as a blogger).

In that context I find Helvetica cold and corporate, inimical to thoughts of theatre’s excess. On the posters round the theatre and in tube stations and in the pages of the season’s programme booklet, all the different plays are announced in the same font of the same size, though differing in colour, alignment and orientation. The scheme evokes some bureaucrat’s masterplan: category Programme, subcategory Plays, item Individual Play. It’s not appropriate and smacks of executives and NHS hospital signs (they aren’t Helvetica but evoke the same spirit).

It’s a handsome typeface, of course, no doubt about it and it looks good against brutalist architecture.

But it doesn’t go with thoughts of the subtle variation of plays with their delicacies and crudenesses and wildnesses, where the spirit of buttoned-up self-satisfied Helveticaness is just one pole amongst the many that are set in dynamic tension. (That’s if you can have more than two poles.)

I suppose when Helvetica was first devised and issued it was exhilarating and Bauhausy. But by now it’s been tainted, like so many good modern things, through its Cold War appropriation by American capitalism. I think.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Constructivists at Tate Modern

Two Russian Constructivists, Aleksandr Rodchenko and Liubov Popova: the show ends this week, belatedly got there yesterday and now wish I had time to return for a longer look at some of the individual works.

Primarily painters, they were doing abstract works, including lovely drawings and linocuts, from the early days of the Revolution in 1917. What struck me in this exhibition, as in so many that show avant-garde artists who had theories, is what the captions and explanations never explain.

The blurbs – and the artists in the quotes – spell out is their ideas on what should go in a picture and what it should try to do in a technical sense: Rodchenko and Popova set out to be like engineers, ‘arranging materials scientifically and objectively, and producing art works as rationally as any other manufactured object’ (exhibition leaflet), banning representation, emphasising line over colour and texture. They talked about how lines meet, about how shapes interact with each other, how dynamism is created.

But for what? What was the whole enterprise for?

At one level it was to contribute to a new society, and in this respect the work seems heroic. Not only were their ways of working admirable (men and women were equally valued as artists; they contributed to the design of useful objects like textiles, packaging and buildings such as workers’ clubs), but one can imagine how important it would be in a revolution to promote a taste for new styles and a rejection of the hangovers of the earlier society as stuffy, reactionary and hideous.

But about straight works of art, especially paintings: what is a painting supposed to do when a viewer confronts it – or indeed when the painter is painting it? What is it that’s being made and what sort of happening is it that what is made induces?

In the absence of any clear answers from the artists (and the explanations of artists in general tend to be incoherent; I haven’t studied these two), we have the works to go by. My sense is that the pictures draw you into a parallel universe in which stuff goes on: relationships can be tracked, gentle transitions and abrupt changes happen, echoes and contrasts impress themselves. What for? No point in asking. These things exist; they are no more for anything than a tree is or a person’s unselfconscious smile or posture. They demand to be acknowledged as things that now exist and once didn’t and to be examined and explored like any other interesting and intricate thing that exists in the world. What’s especially mysterious about them is that they’re produced by deliberate human activity, yet their relationship to the person ‘behind’ them is unfathomable.

And in my theorising about art (and music), that’s as far as I can ever get. Ideas about expression, for instance, while relevant – there’s obviously something in them – never seem to explain the form taken by this work as opposed to works in general.

As for the experience of Rodchenko’s and Popova’s works? Abstract, striking, vigorous, exciting, intriguing and engaging to explore and get inside; and – I'm reduced to this – ravishingly beautiful.

Monday, 4 May 2009

More trees

Descending from Box Hill (see last posting) and White Hill into Mickleham, English oaks at their best. For me this is classic countryside as I've always imagined it.

Trees on Box Hill

Reading Oliver Rackham has made trees more interesting. On the heavily wooded Box Hill, which I went up the other day, fallen trees had been left lying and not cleared away. (The pics look much better if you click them.)

Rackham’s right. They grow again from the upturned root.

On that chalk hill a typical underside looks like this – it’s surprising how shallow tree roots often are:

But looking along the length of the fallen trunk the root mass seems like the source of whole new thicket.

David Hockney was sad recently on returning to a small beech wood in East Yorkshire that he regularly painted to find it had been felled by the owner .

Hockney saw this as a permanent loss to the landscape. But one of Rackham’s most insistent points (one also made by some respondents to the article) was that you don’t destroy a wood by chopping it down; only by grubbing out the roots. Provided you keep deer away, fresh shoots grow from the stumps and in a few years you have another wood. Indeed, most woods until a few generations ago were regularly felled because the main need was for the smaller growth that was used for firewood, poles and fencing. This was coppicing (see John Medway's blog on this).

Then the trees were allowed to grow again. Only certain trees were managed for their timber; that is, the mature trunks and branches that provided material for construction (furniture, buildings, carts etc.). The language made a clear distinction between timber and the smaller, more consumable wood that came from the younger growth.

I'm not sure if this is the wood in question – but it’s certainly the artist:

Hockney, of course, went to Bradford Grammar School, but that’s another story.