Archive | July, 2012

Warning: this exhibition is gloomy, dull and depressing

29 Jul

Edvard Munch was unfortunate to say the least.  He suffered from depression, alcoholism, agoraphobia and misogyny but I personally have a feeling that he was one of those people who perversely enjoy the afflictions that life in their paths.  There can be no doubt that he had a tragic life but this exhibition has a tragic start.  For me, his works don’t explore his torment in an artistic way.  Rather, his gloom and misery just emanate from the canvases and rub off on us.  The show (with walls painted in depressing Tate grey) doesn’t grab us immediately.

Munch, Red Virginia Creeper, 1898-1900. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

Aesthetically, there’s an improvement from room two where both the works and the exhibition become slightly more vibrant.  This room looks at Munch’s fascination with repetition as many versions of his works exist.  In particular there are several versions of all his main compositions, some separated by as much as three decades.  Munch once said that ‘a great idea never dies’ and, rather than copy the works exactly, he created variants reinterpreting his initial ideas.  But, often the works weren’t good enough or the ideas strong enough to merit these constant re-workings.  Instead we are presented with one shoddily painted work after another obsessed with ideas of death and suffering.

Munch’s repetition. Own photograph.

The exhibition does make interesting light of his relationship with photography and film and his photography is used to guide us through the different sections of his artistic life.  As with the camera, Munch became addicted to cinematography (more than two thirds of the works here are photographs plus there are two films).  This understanding and experience helped refine his painterly skills and technique.  Entitled The Modern Eye, the exhibition aims to show that Munch was a modern thinker with modern concerns.  Fair enough, but he is certainly not a modernist which is one of the theses presented here.

Munch, Self Portrait Naked in the Garden at Asgardstrand, 1903. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

Munch’s oeuvre is very varied with limited progression and because of this he doesn’t always come off well as an artist. The absence of The Scream does force us to concentrate a bit more on the rest of his output.  I’m not convinced this is a good thing though.  Although multiple copies of it exist, it would have been practically impossible for Tate to organise a loan for the exhibition.  The Scream recently sold at Sotheby’s New York for £74 million after an incredible 12 minutes of telephone bidding.  It is one of the most famous paintings in art history although not that many people could name any of his other works.  To be fair, I’m not sure I could have done.  The anguish, however, of the screaming figure is omnipresent.

Munch’s The Scream sells at Sotheby’s.  Image via http://fineart.about.com

It is a bland show.  Maybe I shouldn’t have visited on a grey and rainy day or maybe it comes down, once again, to lighting levels that are slightly too low.  The catalogue, however, is brilliant and I’d recommend buying this rather than traipsing over to Tate Modern.  The first essay begins not with discussion of his origins and his birth but with the date of his death – death after all pervades everything that Munch did.  His sister died of consumption when she was only 15 and death and sickness haunt the majority of his works.  Six versions exist of The Sick Child – through this reinvestigation Munch was perhaps able to experience a sense of cathartic release.

Munch, The Sick Child, 1907. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

The exhibition begins and ends with his self-portraits.  Those in the final room are perhaps the most powerful works in the whole exhibition, following Munch’s self-destruction and the terrifying course of his own dark despair.  Munch had always had a poorly sighted left eye and, in 1930, he suffered a haemorrhage in his right eye.  Rather than consider this a reason to stop painting, he focussed (!) on painting the progression of the haemorrhage; the blind spot in his vision meant that he was able to dedicate himself completely to ill health and the subjectivity of his vision as his sight became further confused and images blurred.

Visitors to the Munch exhibition. Own photograph.

In 2005, the Royal Academy mounted a show of Munch’s self-portraits but few are held in public collections in the UK.  Tate doesn’t seek to engage with Munch’s key works, nor is this a retrospective exhibition.  Instead, it has been designed to illustrate the curators’ arguments and theses.  This is not an exhibition that is meant to be palatable to the public but to art historians with a strong interest in Munch – a narrow window indeed when you consider the gloomy outpourings of this depressive and one that I think is far too limited.  This isn’t normally a problem we encounter with Tate.  Such an institution should be seeking to engage more actively with all its public in a more inclusive way.

Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye is at Tate Modern until 14th October 2012, www.tate.org.uk.

Tate’s Tanks: Did they tank or triumph?

21 Jul

The build-up for the opening of Tate’s Tanks has been immense as this is the first major stage in the opening of the new section of Tate – The Tate Modern Project.

The Tanks at Tate. Own photograph.

The galleries will be permanently dedicated to exhibiting live art, performance, installation and film – the first spaces in the world to have these objectives as their focus.  This is a hugely important moment in the progression of the art world; one day in the not too distant future the Tanks will be part of the Survey course at the Courtauld, included in an introduction to art history and we are witnessing this at its inauguration.  It is all part of the evolution of Tate Modern, as Nick Serota cornily said the Tanks are a “new instrument in the orchestra that is Tate Modern.”  Tate wants the tanks to challenge the arts, they aren’t simply white cubes or black boxes, they are a new zone that falls somewhere in between.

The Tanks at Tate. Own photograph.

To kick-start this space Tate has launched, Art in Action, a fifteen week programme that will allow visitors to explore these art forms.  Originally designed to hold one million gallons of oil, the tanks are found industrial spaces of a particular shape.  I must say that I expected something more spectacular, the three interlinking spaces that attach to the Turbine Hall are beautiful but not domineering.  These are not neutral spaces, there is a lot of history associated with the tanks and all artists are responding very differently.  But, the reopened Tanks, for me, don’t connect strongly enough architecturally with their antecedents.

The Tanks at Tate. Own photograph.

The Turbine Hall has always felt as if it is the heart of the power station; the space is often compared to that of a cathedral in its proportions, the cavernous architecture lending power and majesty.  We know what this was and we know what it has become.  It perfectly gestures to its past while acting as one of London’s most well-known and best-loved public art spaces.  The Tanks are too austere to beckon to their heritage.  Whilst they use concrete and an industrial language, Herzog & de Meuron could have taken this further to better effect.  However, it’s great to see the spaces of hidden London being utilised.

The Turbine Hall at Tate Modern.  Image via www.powerinspace.org

At the press preview, we were able to watch a dance performance, Fase: Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich choreographed by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker with Ann Veronica Janssens.  The piece explores the relationship between music and dance, outlining the principles of music composition rather than just dancing to music.  As they closed the doors to this tank, the space became appropriately claustrophobic for this hugely repetitive piece of structured dance.  The audience watch from around the dance floor, enclosing the dancers and creating the walls of the room with their bodies.  Although Fase didn’t really grab me, it is a very accomplished performance linking the genres of dance and art and Tate has produced some very interesting programme notes to accompany the whole series that are well worth a read.

Fase in the Tanks. Own photograph.

The next stage in expanding Tate’s orchestra (ick!) will use the foundations embedded in the Tanks to support the creation of ten new storeys that radically reinterpret the brickwork of the original power station.  Due to the amazing pace that this project is unfolding, Tate has been fortunate enough to work again with Herzog & de Meuron for this extension.  The new part of Tate will use the same language with a literal twist.  Herzog & de Meuron have ensured that the Tanks seamlessly open from the Turbine Hall (which will remain as the building’s backbone), showing that they intend to maintain the integrity of the building with a continuous flow.  Due to these ambitious plans, the Tanks won’t yet remain open full time but they are giving us a taster of what is to come.  By 2016 we should have access to it all.

The plans for the next stage.  Image via www.hughpearman.com.

The Tanks are currently quite confusing.  We didn’t really know what was where, the labels are outside the galleries and don’t guide people satisfactorily and generally we weren’t sure what was going on.  But I imagine these are all teething problems and by the end of the fifteen weeks when over 40 artists will have performed, the Tanks will be an integral part of the London art scene and we’ll be starting the countdown to the opening of the next section of Tate.

Fifteen Weeks of Art in Action will be in Tate Modern’s Tanks until 28 October 2012, www.tate.org.uk.

Slipping to Galleries on a Rainy Day in London

13 Jul

I was reticent to return to the BP Portrait Award this year as it’s become so predictable.  But, having attended a lunchtime talk downstairs it seemed churlish not to have a quick whizz round.  Now in its 33rd year at the National Portrait Gallery, the BP Portrait Award once again presents us with a selection of great portraits – great in the sense that these artists are obviously technically advanced and can paint well but the works don’t blow you away.  Portraiture does not have to resemble photography though and this is an important issue that the prize should remember – on this note, there’s slightly less photorealist work than usual which is refreshing.  This exhibition proves the age-old mantra that size isn’t everything and some of the smaller works capture remarkable intimacy and should be afforded more attention that their larger rivals.

BP Portrait Award at the NPG. Own photograph.

Painting portraits of unknown figures is a challenge; we demand an insight into the lives of complete strangers.   This year’s winner is American artist Aleah Chapin for her large-scale nude of a family friend – Auntie.  Chapin views the figure’s body as a map of Auntie’s life journey, she sees this woman as a strong role model, accepting and unguarded.   No doubt she is a talented artist but I’m not quite sure what Chapin was trying to invoke.  The stretched skin becomes almost repulsive while she smiles out at us.  This is not a sympathetic image.  Is she really content?  We don’t know what she’s doing, who she’s addressing.  It is, however, a great painting – one filled with empathy and emotion but the message seems diluted and somewhat confused.

Aleah Chapin, Auntie, 2012. Image via www.huffingtonpost.co.uk

Having missed Tuesday night’s PVs I had some catching up to do and so I headed over to Edgware Road for the Lisson Gallery’s latest double whammy.

My next comment may be a bit controversial as I know not everybody feels this way but I love Julian Opie.  I vividly remember seeing some Opie works during sixth form at school and devoting a section of my sketchbook to them and his practice.  Ignoring the rest of my beautifully executed sketchbook and all the work I’d done, my art teacher asked if I was taking the piss.  The Opie stayed in the sketchbook.  I most certainly wasn’t!

Julian Opie at the Lisson Gallery. Own photograph.

Famous for his portraits of Blur that now reside in the NPG, Opie’s work is easily recognised, looking at ideas of representation through the reinterpretation of the vocabulary of everyday life.  For this exhibition, Opie has returned to walking figures, working unusually to capture passers-by rather than using subjects he knows personally.  The apparent visual simplicity of the pieces is always striking and these new works are particularly effective looking at the idiosyncrasies of individual figures.

Julian Opie at the Lisson Gallery. Own photograph.

The exhibition also includes two major new bodies of work; first, a group of mosaic portraits bringing his portraits more into the realms of sculpture.  I have to say I don’t like these works and the idea is further extended with a series of painted busts.  For me, the exhibition would have been stronger without these.  I think Opie should have stuck with his bread and butter.  However, I still adored the show.  Also exhibited are six digitally animated landscapes on LCD screens that reminded me of Hockney’s recent iPad drawings at the RA.  Still using his trademark simplified vocabulary, the works offer an idyllic picture, enhanced by the calming soundtrack.

Julian Opie, Summer, 2012. Own photograph.

Outside in the courtyard are two more LED works; mounted on a plinth is a galloping horse so high that it can be seen from the street, referencing other equine monuments around London.  Next to it and on a vastly different scale is Peeing boy – the works couldn’t be more different in subject; the horse powerful and dominant while the boy quietly urinates alongside him, oblivious to anything else.  It is this juxtaposition that shows off how well Opie’s distinctive style can translate to different subjects.  You can’t help but smile.

Julian Opie, Galloping horse, 2012 and Peeing boy, 2012. Own photograph.

In Lisson’s other space is an exhibition of works by Ryan Gander.  My advice would be to read the press release before you go round.  Without knowing what this exhibition stands for, it comes across as rather bland but the concepts behind the work move the pieces to a whole new level.  The exhibition is about visibility and invisibility, Gander is the ultimate magician and joker, only revealing what he wants us to see, when he wants us to see it.  The Fallout of Living recalls the moment in an artist’s life when, having become so fluent in visual language, life and practice becomes indistinguishable.

The main gallery of Ryan Gander’s The Fallout of Living at Lisson Gallery. Own photograph.

One room is filled with a giant ball of discarded pieces of stainless steel but the work blocks the door and we can’t get into the room.  We have to leave the gallery to see it properly.  Equally, a sculpture of Gander’s nose in a glass cabinet turns opaque if we approach.  Gander holds all the control.  Upstairs, The Best Club encourages us to pull back the curtain but, of course, there’s nothing there.   The exhibition subtly explores the relationship between spectacle and spectator and, as ever, Gander knows how to make us think through layered systems of meaning that elude and obstruct the viewer.

Ryan Gander, More really shiny things that don’t mean anything, 2011. Own photograph.

Leaving the gallery and knowing I had a bit of walking to do, I changed into flipflops which seemed to trigger the heavens to open.  As I walked into Edgware Road station, I had to grab a post to stop myself going flying (I reckon the bruise will get more colourful today). This should have been my cue to change back into my far more reliable heels but for some reason, partly due to a lack of seats on the tube, common sense temporarily abandoned me.  I was in Oxford Street when I slipped for a second time. Thank heavens a kindly tourist caught me (I kid you not) or I’d have been on the floor in a giant puddle.  I changed back into my stilettos and feeling shaken but not deterred I continued on my gallery adventure.

I wanted to pop to Blain|Southern to see a work by Amelia Whitelaw.  I first met Whitelaw a few years ago when she installed a piece as part of our East Wing Collection VIII at The Courtauld, a mighty installation  of falling dough that explored the fragile balancing act between life and death, between stabil­ity and flux.  The flesh-like dough seeped through a labyrinth of nets at a variety of speeds, the dough constantly morphing and evolving along its downward path.  Whitelaw has a new work in Blain|Southern’s Gravity and Disgrace.  Based around a similar premise, a solid rock anchors a rope that, via a pulley, suspends a net of raw salt dough.  Both sculptural and performative, the organic material ends its journey on the gallery floor where it dries out leaving twisted, elongated shapes in stark contrast to its initial bulbous, clean appearance.  I would have liked to see the work at the very beginning but it is still effective and still manages to present the same unusual medium in a new guise.

Amelia Whitelaw, There are no Accidents, 2012. Own photograph.

The show also includes work by artists Jane Simpson and curator Rachel Howard, focusing on pieces where materiality is key.

It was time for a rest and I managed to resist strong alcohol and head to Joe & the Juice for a ‘stress down’ and a sit down.  Next stop was Haunch of Venison on Eastcastle Street showing a series of new works from Simon Patterson – the man famous for The Great BearUnder Cartel (a historic term regarding the status of exchanged prisoners of war or hostages) is a series of photographs of equestrian statues from around the world.  Each statue is paired with another, suggesting ideas of bartering or exchange.  The proposed swap is illustrated by flashing neon arrows that indicate the journeys the sculptures will take.  Additional photographs rest on the floor on foam blocks, waiting in reserve in case one of the first choice works was ‘unavailable’.

Simon Patterson’s Under Cartel at Haunch. Own photograph.

It’s a truly brilliant exhibition raising questions of ideological, historical, political and cultural values.  Patterson asks if we would notice if these works were swapped?  Are these statues and their ideas outmoded?  Opie obviously thought not with this modern version of an equestrian statue but maybe they are indeed relics of another time, relics that we would not want to live without and that form part of the heart of, not only London but, cities across the world.

Simon Patterson’s Under Cartel at Haunch. Own photograph.

We sheltered outside waiting for a taxi as no way was I risking another slip and we headed to White Cube, Hoxton Square for an exhibition of cast iron blockworks by Antony Gormley.  Now, of course, we knew what to expect – the gallery was filled with sculptures of the artist himself.  I joke but I do really like him and his work.  These pieces show a new direction in Gormley’ sculpture as he uses the blockwork to attempt to describe the internal mass and inner state of the body through architectural language.

Antony Gormley’s Still Standing at the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Image via www.antonygormley.com 

The 17 figures on the ground floor gallery are each composed of small rectangular iron blocks that map the body’s internal volume, investigating the verticality of the human form in spatial and conceptual terms.  Upstairs is a work from Gormley’s Proper series which continues these ideas.  Here, the body is made playful and elongated, recalling childhood Jenga or high-rise towers.  The austere geometric blocks are remarkably emotional and receptive considering the formal nature of their construction.

Antony Gormley at the State Hermitage Museum in 2011. Image via http://www.flickr.com/photos/britishcouncil/6194705382/

I was getting hungry and it was time to pop to the final gallery of the evening.   Celebrating the launch of Dennis Morris’s photo essay of The Stone Roses, the Londonewcastle project space (where I spent most of June) has been temporarily transformed into a music festival.  With dry moss on the floor (that wasn’t easy to walk on), dim lighting, stage areas and loud music, the space is unrecognisable.  I’m not a big festival fan and I’ve never really seen the fun in standing in a muddy field and queuing for dirty toilets.  I think last night was the closest I will get as Londonewcastle even had the dodgy portacabins so I could truly do the festival thing.

Crowding in at Londonewcastle. Own photograph.

Morris’s works showing The Stone Roses live at Spike Island and Glasgow Green are projected onto the gallery walls.  The photographs offer a glimpse into the world of the band, showing their timeless image and the hysteria of their fans.  The atmosphere was electric.  It was no longer a gallery.  My stomach won and we popped across the road to the Albion for dinner but we couldn’t resist heading back for another look.  It was even louder, even grimier and generally what a festival should be at the mid-way point!

BP Portrait Award 2012 is at the National Portrait Gallery until 23rd September 2012, www.npg.org.ukJulian Opie is at Lisson Gallery until 25th August 2012 and Ryan Gander: The Fallout of Living is at Lisson Gallery until 24th August 2012, www.lissongallery.com.  Gravity and Disgrace is at Blain|Southern until 25th August 2012, www.blainsouthern.comSimon Patterson: Under Cartel is at Haunch of Venison, Eastcastle Street until 31st August 2012, www.haunchofvenison.comAntony Gormley: Still Standing is at White Cube, Hoxton Square until 15th September 2012, www.whitecube.comDennis Morris: This is the One will be at the Londonewcastle Project Space until 19th July, www.londonewcastle.com.

A Collaborative Conversation: The Power of Metamorphosis at the National Gallery

9 Jul

I’m not enjoying this weather.  Waking up in July and putting on winter boots because of the rain and puddled pavements just doesn’t seem right.  The mixture of clothes is so incongruous.  Some are determined that it’s July and are donning summer dresses and flip flops no matter what.  While others are more resigned and have brought their Uggs back out.  So, it was with a heavy heart that I set off in the dank this morning to the National Gallery.

But I’m pleased to say that with Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 the National Gallery has once again pulled it out of the bag.  The exhibition is part of a much larger collaborative scheme which sees artists, choreographers, composers, poets and librettists responding to three paintings by Titian. Each visual artist (Chris Ofili, Conrad Shawcross and Mark Wallinger) has been afforded one room at the National Gallery as well as space in which to illustrate their costume and set designs for newly commissioned ballets that will be performed by the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House.  Two of each of their costumes are shown here: Ofili’s using his trademark vibrant colours, Wallinger’s employing a tile pattern derived from Siena Cathedral and Shawcross’s using configurations of geometric spirals that originate from the light patterns created by his robotic Diana.

Chris Ofili’s costume designs. Own photograph.

The source of all these new works in various media is the three Titian paintings, displayed here together for the first time since leaving Titian’s own studio.  The dark and enigmatic curation of the exhibition means that the paintings shine from the walls.  The only downside of the darkness is that the wall labels are practically illegible but in terms of the atmosphere it conjures up it’s worth the loss.  There is no cop-out here with dim lighting, this is dark, powerful and evocative.

Titian, Diana and Actaeon, 1556-59. Image courtesy of the National Gallery and via www.nationalgallery.org.uk

I have been a Conrad Shawcross fan since I first saw one of his works but, even without this bias, his Trophy is the clear winner (although in no way are the works intended for comparison).  Shawcross’s Diana is a robot, reminiscent of not only his past works but also Tim Lewis’s mechanised pieces.  His Diana moves around her glass case in a beguiling way, her seductive movement leaves us heady.  Actaeon is represented by a wooden antler and, here, Diana examines her trophy with a light at the end of a wand.  The work is mesmerising and hypnotic.   By looking at Diana through innovative modern and technological design, Shawcross has redesigned Titian’s figures so they are now in tune with our modern world.  I came back to this work time and time again, following Diana’s journey and joining her in this ritual.

Conrad Shawcross, Trophy, 2012. Own photograph.

Mark Wallinger’s work superbly plays with the ideas of voyeurism found in these Titian pieces.  He has created a bathroom within a closed box which we are able to look into through peepholes.  By doing this we invade Diana’s space and ruin her privacy, recalling Actaeon encroaching on Diana’s sanctuary.  Wallinger explores Diana bathing through a contemporary motif by using a real Diana to explore the themes of Titian’s paintings. The piece is very physical and six actual women called Diana will play the role throughout the duration of the exhibition.  It’s brilliant – you can’t help but look and want to see more.  One viewing hole is a broken pane in a frosted window (even in high heels, I had to strain on tiptoes to see through, which may make the work a bit too obtuse for those of us on the smaller side) and another opening (better for those in flat shoes) can be found in the slats of a wooden window.  Intentionally, this only affords us partial glimpses of the scene.

Mark Wallinger, Diana, 2012. Own photograph.

On one side are two eyeholes that reveal the model in more detail and it is this that diminishes the work slightly for me as I felt that here the piece lost part of its mystery.  Notwithstanding, this is still very powerful and very Wallinger.

Mark Wallinger, Diana, 2012. Image courtesy of the artist and Anthony Reynolds Gallery and via www.nationalgallery.org.uk

For me, Ofili’s works are the least effective and are partly lost alongside the other two responses. His body of seven new paintings embraces the female form, transposing the Classical world to his home in Trinidad. These works don’t have the force or immediacy of the others.  Placed in between Shawcross and Wallinger they didn’t grab me in the same way.  Maybe they would have been better set apart.

Some of Chris Ofili’s new paintings. Own photograph.

There is also a choreographic room affording a glimpse into the work of the seven choreographers and a room showing working models of the artist’s sets.  The exhibition is designed to give a taster of the overall project and it certainly does this.  I now want to go to see the ballets at the ROH, I want to spend more time with Shawcross’s Diana.

Conrad Shawcross’s Royal Opera House set design. Own photograph.

I was disappointed that a publication hasn’t been produced to accompany this exhibition although I’m told that a leaflet is to follow.  I find the cross-media conversation intriguing, especially as there can be no doubt that it’s been a success and has resulted in some very powerful new works.

Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 is at the National Gallery from 11th July until 23rd September 2012, www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

Getting Away to Garda…Verona and Padua

8 Jul

Last week I escaped to Lake Garda for a week of sun, reading and relaxation.  Now, relaxation is rather an alien concept to me so, being in the Northern heart of Italy, I couldn’t resist squeezing in some cultural excursions alongside our fun-filled activities (which included me driving a motorboat and lots of wonderful meals).

Out on the lake. Own photograph.

One of the main reasons for the trip was to see Aida at the Verona Arena.  The Arena itself is housed in Verona’s Roman amphitheatre; completed around 30AD, it is the third largest in Italy and can seat 25,000 spectators.  This is the best preserved amphitheatre in Italy and it is this that helps to create an unrivalled experience and spectacle explaining why so many people (not necessarily opera-lovers) flock to watch the opera during the summer months.

Verona’s Arena. Own photograph.

Although I’m familiar with Verona, any excuse to wander round the marble paved streets is a welcome one.  All there was time for on this visit was a brief walking tour to reacquaint myself with the city.  Verona, like most Italian cities, is littered with Roman monuments and examples of stunning Italian architecture.  Of course, there’s also La Casa di Giulietta with a romantic balcony that Romeo is thought to have climbed to.  It is in fact a 13th century inn that was called Il Cappello which is how it sort of links to the Capulets.  This tenuous connection doesn’t stop tourists flocking to the courtyard off Via Capello and graffiti-ing their love messages on the walls.  There is also a bronze statue of Juliet and rubbing her left breast is thought to bring good luck in love.  Also of particular note are the Scaliger Tombs, a group of five exquisite Gothic monuments in celebration of the Scaliger family who ruled in Verona, found in the courtyard of the church of Santa Maria Antica.  The three major tombs show their occupants in dominating equestrian poses and reposing in death below them.

Detail of the Scaliger Tombs in Verona. Own photograph.

After a 2.30am finish (Aida is a long opera, made even lengthier by numerous intervals and curtain calls), I was up bright and early, in the scorching heat, to take a coach to Padova (Padua).  This was my first trip to Padua and we began on a guided walking tour of the city admiring the palazzos that appear on nearly every street.  With only a few hours and being forced to work around the lunchtime closures, I had to be selective with what interiors I saw.

Padua. Own photograph.

Padua is known for its university; founded in 1222 it is one of the earliest in the world.  I was lucky enough to be walking past on graduation day which is certainly a bit more frisky than any UK equivalent.  After formal photographs with a laurel wreath, giant posters are pinned up in the piazza.  They are made by the graduates’ friends and each poster shows a large caricature of the student in question and a multitude of stories about their time at the university.  They are taped to the university wall for all to see and read out by the graduating students in costume in the square.  And, there’s a local anthem to accompany this madness, “Dottore, dottore, dottore del buso del cul.  Vaffancul, vaffancul.”  I’ll let you translate that of your own accord if you’re interested but it’s very catchy and rather rude.

Caffè Pedrocchi in Padua. Own photograph.

The lewd songs started to give me the true feel of the city – vibrant, noisy and energetic.  Just across the piazza is Caffè Pedrocchi, built in 1831 and famous for never being able to close as it had no doors – glass doors are now incorporated into the design.  It is still a hub of intellectual and social discussion with very refreshing and special mint coffees.  The first floor also contains a museum that recounts local and national history.

Padua is famous for its Giotto frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel.  As our guide told us that visits to the chapel had to be pre-booked months in advance my heart sank.  I couldn’t come all the way to Padua and miss it so I decided to try my chances and, after much debating with the ticket desk in a mixture of Italian and English, they let me in.

The Scrovegni Chapel. Image via www.padovacultura.padovanet.it

The works are so delicate, that in order to protect the frescoes, there is a state of the art entrance system that controls a microclimate inside the chapel itself.  True to form, the Italians were running late with their supposedly regimented entry system but, finally, I went into the pre-room where we were shown a video – firstly a marketing tool about their other museums and then a look at the history of the chapel.  Considered to be the medieval equivalent of the Sistine Chapel, the building is a magnificent funeral chapel with a barrel vaulted ceiling showing a starry sky.   Divided into two, the back held the public while a smaller section at front was exclusively for the Scrovegni family.  A small door on north wall connected to the Palace, to avoid them having to mingle with the commoners.  While Giotto was responsible for all the paintings, Pisano was commissioned to execute the three altar pieces.   This is the most complete cycle of Giotto frescoes remaining, looking at the lives of Joachim and Anna, episodes from the Virgin Mary’s life and episodes from Christ’s life and death.  The lower walls depict allegories of the vices and virtues.

A detail of the Scrovegni Chapel. Image via www.walksofitaly.com

The architecture is thought to have been designed around the scheme for the painted fresco cycle.  The chamber is completely covered in paintings and there is no doubt that this is impressive but I had expected to be more overwhelmed, more in awe.  The colours would have been brighter and more intoxicating in their day but, for me, the chapel lacked something.

Although I was short of time I had a speedy scoot around the Museo Civico in the same complex.  This is an absolute goldmine and I was taken aback by the sheer range of their collections.

Museo Civico. Own photograph.

Scurrying over the cobbles, I headed to the Baptistery at the Duomo which houses a fresco cycle by Giusto de’Menabuoi – sadly the Duomo itself was shut for a long lunch.  The pictorial cycle here shows The Paradise, The Creation, The Crucifixion and the Descent of the Holy Ghost.  These frescoes have been relatively recently restored, emphasising and bringing out the natural colours and revealing the full wonder of the layout and iconography.  This imagery is so overwhelming that it is exhausting – in a good way.  For me, this building had the effect I had hoped for at the Giotto chapel.   With over 100 scenes you just don’t know where to look first.

Frescoes at the Baptistery. Image via http://therealchrisparkle.wordpress.com

I stopped in one of the main squares at an all-Italian (always a good sign) scruffy looking bar that served mainly sandwiches  and spritzes – lunch was divine and gave me the boost I needed to get back up in the 40 degree heat and continue my whirlwind tour.

Prato della Valle. Own photograph.

Next, I wandered through the largest and most impressive piazza in Padua, the Prato della Valle; surrounded by a moat it houses 79 statues of those associated with Padua’s prosperity.  Down one of the side streets is the Basilica Sant’Antonio, a building designed to house the Saint’s remains.  The Italians, as ever, have gone all out with a cluster of seven domes, a beautiful cupola, two campanili and two smaller minarets.  The treasury holds the tongue and larynx of Il Santo and queues form to see this – I have to say the architecture and Donatello’s altarpiece appealed more than someone’s old tongue.

Basilica Sant’Antonio. Own photograph.

It was time to sprint back to the coach although I wouldn’t have minded being left in Padua.  It’s a town that hasn’t yet been overrun by tourists and still has an amazing truth to it.  We headed back to the lake via a tour and tasting at a Soave vineyard.  The dessert wine was divine and my trick of wrapping it in towels and packing two bottles in my case worked fine.  It wasn’t even overweight – I knew I should have got another bottle.  But now I’ve got an excuse to head back soon to stock up.  I’d better book some more opera tickets and flights!

La Cantina di Soave. Own photograph.

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