I’ve spent a lot of time looking at art so far this year. The reopening of the Courtauld Institute Galleries has been a wonderful chance to reacquaint myself with their superb collection. Somerset House has been closed for three years for a huge renovation project, so it was particularly good to see all the old favourites again. I have been familiar with the collection ever since I was at art college, fifty years ago: Manet’s bored-looking barmaid at the Folies-Bergère with its massively distorted perspective and the bizarre pair of legs of a trapeze artist in the top left-hand corner, the row of seven Cezannes, including the Card Players. They are all so familiar, like old friends. I’ve been four times now since they re-opened, the last time to see the Van Gogh self-portraits. They already had one of the most famous ones, ‘Self Portrait with bandaged Ear’ which they have simply moved from one room to the next, but it is wonderful to see it surrounded by dozens of others. The Courtauld has spent millions on the building, but the pictures are in the same old frames, which means that most of them have a harsh black shadow cutting off the top inch or so of the picture, changing its dimensions, altering the tonal relationships, and interfering with the composition. These pictures would have originally been seen in natural light coming from windows on the same level as them, so no shadow would have been cast on the canvas. With the overhead lighting now prevalent in virtually all galleries – the National is just as bad – the elaborate nineteenth century frames cast dark shadows. Sometimes these are not even straight black lines, but wavey, curved lines from great scalloped frames that further distort the composition. They have re-written the labels – particularly the Gauguins – so why not upgrade the whole collection to the 21st century? My friends are sick of hearing about it.
To stick with art, I also saw the Francis Bacon: Man and Beast show at the R.A.. My first thought was that it was too big. With these blockbuster shows I always take a quick stroll through the exhibition to see how many works there are and pace myself in order to see it properly. Though most of the paintings are fantastic, I didn’t think the concept really came off, it was too forced. Whereas the September 2019 Francis Bacon: Books and Painting show at the Pompidou , which came complete with readings from the texts that influenced Bacon, filmed interviews with him in both French and English about literature, really worked because it investigated the idea behind the show in some depth. It was a superbly curated selection of just seven single paintings and a dozen triptychs and one left feeling strangely elated. Somehow the theme of this show didn’t work – Man and Beast – it was too contrived, too forced and just didn’t seem a strong enough reason to bring this particular group of paintings together, wonderful as most of them are individually. Both shows ended with his ‘Bull’, the last picture he ever painted. It is a powerful, sad work. You can see him checking out.
There was a really great show at the Fitzrovia Chapel, curated by Hannah Watson from the T. J. Boulting Gallery of Leigh Bowery’s costumes called Tell Them I’ve Gone to Papua New Guinea. I wrote the introduction to the rather beautiful catalogue. No-one else could possibly wear Leigh’s costumes so he was hardly haute couture, though there was a certain parallel to Thierry Mugler’s seventies work (Sadly Mugler just died, 22 January 2022). Leigh did however make outfits just for friends of his like Sue Tilly, who was interviewed at the show by Gregor Muir from the Tate on February 2nd.
Naturally I’ve cooking a lot over these winter months; there is now nicer way of spending time with friends than over a meal. One of the more memorably evenings was when I did a rabbit. I always cook the head with it but forgot to remove it before serving. My son was a bit taken aback when he found it on his plate, but my friend Valerie, who is half French, seized it from him when he set it aside. She regarded it as a delicacy and carefully pulled out the brains, saying they were particularly toothsome.
A bit more follow-up to my remarks about Peter Jackson’s Beatles Get Back film. Here’s Paul talking back in the 90s about some of the other songs in the film I didn’t mention last time:
The way it worked was, if we’d done, say ‘Let It Be’, I would sometimes send them around to other people. I sent ‘Let It Be’ to Ray Charles, because I just thought he’d do a great job on it. Sometimes, when you are writing, you imagine someone doing the song. When I wrote ‘Long and Winding Road’ I definitely was Ray Charles as I wrote it. He did a great version of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ It’s great. So I always used to do a song with the Beatles and then sort of think, ‘Well okay, it’ll have its Beatles life which will probably be its prime life. But it would be quite exciting if some other people did it. So I might send ‘Let It Be’ to Aretha Franklin, just because, Boy, she’ll storm it!
It has always been a slight regret for me, not a disappointment because it’s just part of the game, but almost a regret for me, that I write the specific song and somebody else gets to do the scat version of it. I’ve established the tune, so everyone knows the tune. And I always want to do the ad-libby, the scat version of it. To be that loose. But I always feel I can’t because I’m establishing the song. I’ve got to lay down the melody at least. I suppose a way to do it, and how I’d get round it, would be to develop it within the song live, but I don’t tend to do that. Live, I tend to stick basically to the arrangement, mainly because whenever I’ve been in the audience with people who’ve not stuck to the arrangement, it’s very rare that it’s improved. It’s nearly always, ‘Ah, they’re goofing on this, and it is kind of interesting, but I do wish they’d just done “Satisfaction”, to my satisfaction’. I want to hear it exactly like that, only massive. With all these people, and I want to go ‘Shit, that’s it, that’s the fucker, that’s the fucker!’ So I always do that for audiences. Not always, but mostly I do that.