Category Archives: Art

On crafting.


So, inspired by Mister Maker, you and the Star have been making clay animals.  This is a project which has run and run, because you could make a few one day and paint them the next.

The Star soon decided he would do most of the work himself.

Care to guess what these are?

The one on the left has a carefully modelled penis and bum crack, at the Star’s insistence.

More of the Star’s work. I defy anyone to recognise the one on the right. Which also has a penis, by the way.

You find crafting surprisingly enjoyable. Here’s one you made.

Does it help to see them painted?

The Star is bored now, but here are a few you made while he was cutting up bits of clay with the scissors.

A clue. The one in the middle is a penguin. With an egg, not a penis, in case anyone was wondering. The Star had been letting his toy penguin paddle in his puffed wheat that morning, and you were able to use the moment as an impromptu David Attenborough learning experience. This stuck long enough for him to demand it when he was patronising his hired artist later.

You can’t take the teacher out of the classroom.

On unrampant capitalism


So you woke up this morning* to find that the smog had irredeemably settled thickly over your block of flats and that taking the Star out, or even opening the windows was clearly not an option. You therefore fled the flat, leaving the Star to the tender mercies of his babushka, and went to the Tretyakov Gallery, the Twentieth Century version.

You had the place to yourself, almost literally. It’s not all Soviet Realism and paintings of St Alin. Some of it is Kandinsky, for goodness sake. There are baffling and slightly disquieting installations. And it’s particularly interesting, because all of it is Soviet, in the same way that the Old Tretyakov Gallery is interesting because all of it is Russian. Kandinsky on his own is less interesting than Kandinsky with all of his peers, the people who were thinking the same way, trying out the same things. Or rejecting that group’s vision. It’s not about whether the pictures are any good or not, it’s just about seeing the way people of a particular type of society thought and developed themes through art.

That said, in contrast, for you the Old Tretyakov is about the paintings although you lost the ability to tell if these are any good or not a long time ago. You’ve visited the gallery so many times that you just enjoy seeing some of your old favourites. And in doing so you seem to have absorbed some of the cultural optical baggage that Russians pick up in doing so. You feel right at home with sentimental forest views now. Birch trees. Luminous green colours. Bears. Bears hugging the birch trees. That sort of thing.

The ones in the gallery itself are rather better than these**.

You distinctly remember being somewhat snobbish when you first saw such scenes represented in hack artists work for sale on souvenir markets all over Moscow. Now, suddenly, you look at them almost fondly. Although you do wonder if they really sell as well to foreigners new to the genre as pastiches of iconic Soviet posters made over as adverts to McDonalds.

But such thoughts show that although you might think you have soaked up some cultural sensitivity, you have clearly been spending too much time away from the wellspring of the deep Russian soul.

So it should come as no surprise that what you found most shocking about the Tretyakov, Old or New, is the woeful lack of determination to strip the last tourist dollar from visitors. There is a pretty extensive selection of luscious looking art books. For the regular punter, however, there are a few mugs inscribed with various artists’ signatures, some coasters with one or two of the more iconic images on and one type of headscarf with another, but that is pretty much your lot. They don’t even offer a particularly good selection of postcards any more. In fact, in the New Tretyakov didn’t even have that, because both small memento kiosks were closed for your visit. Considering that the shops in the big art galleries in London are always busier than the rooms with the paintings actually in them, you feel that it’s an appalling waste of fund-raising opportunities.

You are quite disgusted. You wanted a T-Shirt of his namesake for the Star at least.

The Three Bogatyrs by Viktor Vasnetsov

*Or not. See What I did on my Holidays Part 1.

Also here, here, here, here, here,  here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

** I give you Shishkin. He does like the bears though.

On the Victoria and Albert Museum.


The Victoria and Albert Museum doesn’t expect many visits from the Star.

I’m not sure why this is true, given that its sumptuous cafe – there are glittering chandeliers, high ceilings, domes, columns, impressive interior tiles on the walls and the floors and the ceiling, as well as stained glass windows – was full of families with young children yesterday.

But having sculptures of interestingly textured stone at floor height is an invitation to disaster.

Of course you are now so very into your toddler game that, as you saw the Star heading delightedly for a particularly inviting looking East Asian dragon, you reasoned that, as they had put these statues out on display within easy touching distance of all and two-year olds, they must expect, nay, perhaps encourage, a bit of tactile investigation. And having run a mental check on how sticky he was likely to be, you let him get on with it.

But as the Star gave the priceless piece of work a few energetic pats, out of the corner of your eye you saw two museum workers give identical jerks of involuntary horror, came to your senses and dragged your boy away. And thereafter spent an energetic, although by and large succesful, half hour chasing the Star through the galleries, heading him off whenever he looked like he was getting too close to something irreplaceable.

You did have a slightly anxious moment when the Star started playing peekaboo around the bases of some busts. You were leisurely strolling towards him, having ascertained that none of the sculptures were in reaching height, when you distinctly saw George Wyndham* wobble. Surprisingly flimsy, those plinths.

George Wyndham

George Wyndham, before his nose was mysteriously broken off.

With nightmarish visions of a Rodin masterpiece in pieces at your feet, you sprinted the last few feet and attempted to grab your son.

Who thought this was great fun and commenced playing hard to get.

The bust wobbled again, and I swear time stopped for a second or two.

However, the Star was retrieved without further incident in the end and escorted from the building, tucked firmly under one arm.

You will be going again, but perhaps you will stick to the collections behind glass.

The problem with that is just as your heart swells with pride as the Star lets our a howl of obvious delight and sprints towards a display case is what he is actually interested in is the little placard describing what’s on show. And the one in the case next to that. And the one next to that.

That Star, in fact, remained distinctly underwhelmed by the art and design masterworks, being far more interested in the fire extinguishers, the way his voice echoed when he shrieked, the marble steps in the Raphael gallery, the slipperiness of the floor and the pull out rope barrier dispensers on the walls.


*Although it could have been Honore de Balzac. Adrenaline surges really interfere with your ability to read plaques.

On the Royal Academy.


You are finding that certain things strike you in an entirely, and usually unanticipated light, now you have a child in tow.

Take the early darkening evenings, for example. You used to quite enjoy this. Coming home in the dark, twinkly lights, a chill in the air. It all gave you an excuse to eat hearty food and curl up under a blanket with your slipper socks on, a mug of tea at your elbow and a good book clamped firmly in your hand. Even if you don’t have a roaring fire to edge slowly away from.

You never noticed when it actually got dark either. Four, five. Doesn’t really matter when you rarely left before six.

Now, however, you are genuinely put out, not to say a little shocked to discover that even if you and the Star make it out by 3pm you’ve missed the best of the (quite impressive lately) sunshine, and dusk will be descending any minute. This is all wrong, particularly as your optimal routine calls for a walk between 3 and 4.30pm.

God forbid the facts of life should interfere with your routine.

You also failed to visualise what certain aspects of taking the Star along to an exhibition of Byzantium treasures at the Royal Academy would entail.

Not everything was a surprise. You are now totally familiar with the idea that for any trip out with the Star you need to start preparing well in advance. You have to check that the changing bag is well stocked. You need to make sure he’s slept fairly recently. You need to leave plenty of time to feed him before you go out. You need to remember to change him before you put his outside clothes on. You need to actually put his outside clothes on. Then you must dance around to calm him down after that a bit before pouring him into his bear suit. Then you need to take that off while you get dressed and then put it back on again, find the sling, put it on, add your coat, wrestle the Star into the sling, put his hat on and jiggle up and down in front of the mirror to stop him screaming, realise you left the keys upstairs, find the keys, unlock the door and make a break for the street.

And that’s just a regular trip. This time you also had to take bottle making accouterments as well.

However, all of that went quite well for once. The Star didn’t scream on public transport, despite your having to get two buses and you were early enough that you had time to find the cafe strip off all your outer wear, make up the Star’s bottle and be relaxing with a cup of tea for you and your Mother in Law and a cup of hot water for the Star’s bottle to stand in when your Mother and her friend arrived.

The Star, once fed, enjoyed being fussed over by your Mother, her friend, your Mother in Law and every single female patron of the gallery you met in the lobby. Who greeted his broad ‘people, bright lights, bustle, shiny Christmas decorations, wayhay’ smile with positive cries of delight and who all said how wonderful it was that you were introducing him to culture early.

That was before you stepped into the dim hushed interior of the exhibition rooms proper and the Star, now thoroughly overstimulated, let out a squeal of excitement.

Excellent acoustics, this particular antechamber, you thought. That sound really carried.

Luckily, you were carrying the complementary leaflet the entrance guard had thrust into your hand on the way in. The Star soon busied himself with holding it, crinkling it, scrunching it and putting it in his… oh no you don’t, son. Here look at this big plate. This big silver plate. Look Star, shiny shiny.

The Star, usually so interested in the contents of your china cabinet at home was uninterested in jewel encrusted communion plates. Still, you still had the bit of paper, so that was alright.

For three of the eight rooms, whereupon, the Star, concerned that there was no noise and no light and no one telling him how cute he was decided to do some energetic commentary to compensate.

It was at this point that you realised that you had never before really noticed how quiet and how dark exhibitions of old precious things are, or how diffficult they are to escape from. Particularly when you have to track down the rest of your party first to let them know you are abandoning ship. 

Still, you managed to get out eventually, rescued you coat, wrapped the Star firmly back up in his snowsuit, accepted more compliments about how wonderful it was that… and  made it onto the street. Where the Star promptly went to sleep.

Happy and, probably, replete.

Because despite the fact that today was scheduled as the First Day of Weaning, and in the face of your carefully chosen packet of organic baby rice, judging by the condition of the edges of your complimentary leaflet, the Star’s first meal seems after all to have been a (small) bit of chemical encrusted paper ingested at some point during your distracted dash for the exit.

On misleading advertising


Now you wouldn’t want to give anyone the impression that you are anti advertising.

Far from it, in fact. You find ads endlessly fascinating.

You take a secret delight in an industry that is blatantly all about manipulation. So much more honest than the pretence of making objective news reports.

It’s quite soothing just to be able to relax and let your brain get washed without constantly having to count how many pejorative adjectives the anchor has used about Vladimir Vladimirovitch or analysing the effect of having the Russia-based correspondent, wearily urging some sort of perspective, interviewed rather than introduced as a reporter, placing him on the same ‘this is just one side of the story’ footing as Berezovsky’s mouthpiece.

Because you are also not under any illusions about whether or not it works. The existential crisis you felt when first shopping in Russia for washing powder which was brought about by not finding any of the familiar brand names certainly would have put paid to that.

If you hadn’t, years before, found yourself in McDonald’s ordering some special new type of chicken burger after being caught at a weak moment in front of the TV on a Saturday morning with a hangover by a particularly seductive shot of sizzling meat and lettuce in a sesame seed bun, of course.

It’s such a pleasingly functional art form as well. The thing that occasionally bothers you about the more self indulgently incomprehensible items of Modern Art is that you find it difficult to work out what’s it’s for. Especially if it seems to require very little actual skill to produce.

Of course, art generally is clearly for historians. Likewise, literature. But you find it hard to decide what a historian will gather from Hirst’s cows pickled in formaldehyde or Emin’s bloody underwear other than the fact that clearly some people in the late 20th Century had too much time on their hands.

Advertising is obviously for something. Even if it is making money, this, somehow, makes it OK.

And not without its own sociological interests either.

You were quite pleased with the latest series of BT ads at first. They represent the latest attempt at one of those advertising soap operas, with a set cast of characters all singing the praises of various aspects of the product whilst unfolding some kind of storyline.

You were amused that in contrast with Nescafe’s very 80s inspired tale of two urban sophisticates flirting in their chrome laden apartments, and the 70s homely Bistro family, with its housewife mother, plump children, pine kitchen and dog, this set of skits is all about the difficulties of a man taking on a woman who has two children and an annoying ex husband. Very appropriate, you though, particularly as the man is doing a very good impression of a chap out of a Nick Hornby novel.

However, all enjoyment of this particular series has been destroyed by the latest episode, which is on distressingly heavy rotation at the moment.

It’s supposed to be telling us all about the amazing facility BT Internet services offers to back up all the data stored on your computer, and the way we hammer the message home is by having the Woman greet her Bloke all distressed one evening with the horrifying news that she has deleted an important folder on her computer. The implication is that this is the only place where the important things inside the important folder exist.

The thing is, this important folder contains all the photos of her children ‘from when they were babies’.

What sends you rocketing out of your chair screaming obscenities at the TV and totally unable to appreciate the hysterically funny little exchange that then takes place when the Bloke reassures Woman that it’s OK, they can make another one, and the Woman thinks Bloke means a baby, is that even you can see that the eldest child is into his teens.

And you may be a bit backwards when it comes to technological innovations, but you very much doubt that anybody much had a digital camera in, what, 1996, and are certain that only the nerdiest of techno nerds has transferred all their paper photos and film onto the computer and destroyed all the paper negatives since then.

On activating your schemata.


You can be very boring on the topic of grammar. And punctuation. Particularly commas. The rules are comforting, even if you do treat them as something of an abstract concept when it actually becomes time to apply them.

You are considerably more interested in how we actually use language, though. And the routines we follow and the skills we employ when doing so. Pragmatics. Discourse analysis. Psycho and sociolinguistics and all that jazz.

And reading.

Isn’t it interesting to discover that we do not read word by word and certainly not letter by letter? Instead we chunk words together in groups of about four or five and hop our eyes along the page from chunk to chunk. In fact, if we were to watch someone read, their eyes wouldn’t be moving smoothly across the page, but going along in a series of little jerks. The chunks aren’t random either, but grouped for sense. We’d be more likely to group together ‘there are four chairs’ followed by ‘in the kitchen’ than ‘There are’ followed by ‘four chairs in the’ followed by ‘kitchen’, for example.

There’s also the issue of schemata. This is all the background knowledge about a subject that you have that helps you process new information, written or spoken.

Imagine coming downstairs and seeing a letter on the front door mat. Looking at it, it’s generally clear from the style of the envelope whether it’s a bill type letter or a personal one. Imagine it’s a personal one, although goodness only knows who writes real letters these days. Picking it up and looking at the address – assuming it’s handwritten - might give away who it’s from. We tend to recognise the handwriting of our nearest and dearest, after all. If that doesn’t work, the Preston postmark might help. Only 90 year old Auntie Doris lives in Preston and she hasn’t been told about email yet in case it over stimulates her. Which explains the anachronistically handwritten letter.

However, let’s just imagine for a minute that it isn’t from Auntie Doris, but old friend Tom. Look his computer is clearly being particularly bloody minded at the moment. OK? Hence the letter. No, his mobile doesn’t work either. Or the land-line. Oh shut up.

Next time, remember to choose email for this illustration.

Anyway. It’s Tom, and we tend to know what’s going on in the lives of our friends – to the extent that we have a reasonable idea of which country they are in, whether they are still married, that they have a particular fondness for flinging themselves off bridges tied to a bit of knicker elastic and such. We also know the sorts of things which we gossip about with them. And so, by the time we open that letter, we are going to gave a very good idea of what it contains, which will help us charge through it, hoovering up the information it contains very efficiently. Although we may pause and reread a bit more closely if he reveals he’s just seen the light and is moving to a small commune on the outskirts of Las Vegas to await the second coming of The King.

Anyway, the reason you mention this is because you’ve just had a rather dislocating experience, somewhat akin to finding out Tom’s hitherto unsuspected obsession with Elvis, or that the letter you thought was from Tom reveals itself, after a few confusing paragraphs, to be from Auntie Doris after all.

There you are happily whomping though a new detective story and all of a sudden you start noticing that there are a lot of references to Spain and all thing Spanish. This could be because this particular section of the book is set in Spain, of course, but you’d rather assumed that this was just a sort of shorthand for underlining that the subject of the story is High Art and therefore demands the sophistication of a continental location. And the fact that we had already been dragged around Vienna and Holland by the author did nothing to dispel this notion.

So why the obsession with Spanish motifs? It nagged. And so when you came across a particularly incomprehensible skit involving an Argentinian character’s pronunciation of ‘w’, you were actually forced out of the book and onto the blurb in search of enlightenment.

And it turns out that the book is in fact written by a Spanish author. And has been translated from the Spanish. Which explained everything.

It was extremely disconcerting to discover that all the dialogue of the last few chapters had been conducted in Spanish, though.

It’s a good book, by the way. The Art of Murder by Jose Carlos Somoza.

                                    The Art of Murder.

Calling it a murder mystery is a bit misleading, actually. You’d say it was an alternative universe construct, but again, you are sure the author isn’t much of a sci fi geek.

Nevertheless, everything in this universe is the same except for the word of Art, which is now all about using people as canvases, specially trained to be quiescent and hopped up on mind and body altering drugs. The killing of various of these canvases, who have all been painted by the same artist, is not seen by the Art world as murder, but as the destruction of masterpieces.

What you like about the book is the in depth exploration of the ins and outs of this artistic trend and the way that this is woven into the story neatly rather than, as so often happens, being dumped in unwieldy chunks awkwardly all over the plot.

And this world turns out to be absolutely fascinating and very well thought through by the author. 

Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that the whole thing is one big satire on the absurdities of Modern Art, with the author clearly giving a lot of effort to topping the outrageousness of any pieces the real Art world can produce. You vigorously approve of this sort of thing.

Although the expose would be more convincing if you weren’t finding the descriptions of the art works he’s created so utterly compelling.

On being beside the seaside.


 Pembrooke Castle, Wales. You have always considered that Turner’s paintings of the sea are often a bit on the beige side.

You are aware, of course, that water is not necessarily blue in the same way that holiday brochures of Caribbean islands, children’s paintings and remote mountain tarns would have us believe. Nevertheless, you always assumed that the correct colour was more a rather grim slate grey. So imagine your surprise when you pitched up in Margate last week and discovered that under certain conditions, the water is, in fact, sand coloured.

Those conditions are when there is such a determindly piercing gale blowing onshore that not only do you get to remind yourself what it is like to be blue with cold most of the time, but that the violent churning the wind whipped waves produce has picked up half the seabed on its way up the beach.

They were quite superior waves though. Particularly when they crashed over the harbour boundaries. Although you were less impressed by this when you realised there was a lot of sandy water heading straight for you while you were hanging over the wall yourself, trying to get a better view of the maelstrom.

Anyway. People may be wondering why Margate. It’s true it is the sort of seaside resort which offers the perfect opportunity to introduce a foreigner to the cultural phenomenon of British seaside towns. And you did indeed spend time pointing proudly to such features of the experience as sticks of pink chewy rock, risque postcards, those amusing painted boards you can stick your head through and have your photo taken which make it look as though you are a fat policeman chasing a swimsuit challenged busty B, amusement arcade after amusement arcade, enough greasy spoon cafes to provide a reason to decide that from now on you will lead a life of lettuce and acres and acres of retirement homes.

B, however, was somewhat underwhelmed by this. So it was a good thing that the actual reason you chose Margate over, say, St Ives, as your coastal getaway was that as well as being closer, it also happens to be home to the Hornby model train company. Although I use the word ‘you’ there quite loosely, of course.

What this actually means is that you can find their corporate headquarters on a grim looking industrial estate surrounded by cabbage fields, as their actual manufacturing is now done in China. You and B are convinced that this has caused a bit of a rift with local residents as there was a big ringing silence throughout the town on the topic of Hornby. Nothing in the local museum, which considering how concerned they were to tell you how there used to be a glass making factory in a shack on the beach for approximately five minutes in 1972 was quite striking. Even the local toy-shops don’t stock any of their products. I’m afraid you both found this quite amusing and insisted on seeking out such retailers just to check.

The B&B was everything you could ask for though. It was covered in knick knacks, shakily executed nursery murals and teddy bears and had a landlady who always wore a terrycloth dressing-gown, one of those hair-dying hats and a cigarette. Even better was the fact that your room had a safari theme, with a huge toy lion on the bed and leopard skin printed bedclothes and polyester tiger-skin rugs on the walls.

It also had a superb view of the beach.

Which meant that you hardly needed to go out at all.