Posts tagged ‘arts & culture’

June 28, 2014

The Wonderful World of Jodi Le Bigre

 

 

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OVERGROWTH

What struck me about this picture at first viewing was the tight composition, the subtle palette and fascinating detail which draws the eye in and around the scene. It looked Japanese; the women’s faces slightly oriental and their costumes exotic and painstakingly depicted.  A finely drawn wooden hull rises out of the water – all bulk and weight and grainy texture.  On board the women are mostly bunched up with a few outliers, one immersed in the water.

I liked the piece immediately I saw it at the Aberdeen Artists Society exhibition in Aberdeen Art Gallery so I thought I’d look at more of the artist’s work.

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Jodi Le Bigre’s approach is truly fascinating. Take the oil on wood, Feathers – it is an amazing painting soft and multi-faceted and coloured from a restricted her palette. The birds’ feathers are as sensuous as any 18th century fabric in say a Ramsay painting. In a humorous aside a bird in the botton right corner gazes at its own reflection in a stone or something shiny.

Looking through her website the variety of Jodi’s approaches become apparent.  Just as she’s lived in different parts of the world – her native Canada, France, Japan and now Scotland so she’s been absorbing ideas and motifs from all manner of influences. It was in Paris that she learned printing which she’s used to great effect in Overgrowth.

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In her oil, A Lonesome Place another of her fascinations is demonstrated – medieval life and imagery. Here she has created a frieze-like effect with the line of blue-faced people ranged in front of four idealised trees while in the foreground there are exotic and monster birds along with a fleshy woman exposing her leg and her ghost-like companion to her right. I’ve no idea what’s going on in the picture but it is fairly surreal and the more you look into it the spookier it becomes. The overgrown bird reminded me of Max Ernst’s fantastic and threatening species partly human.

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Let’s take a closer look at Overgrowth, Jodi’s etching in black and sepia inks with touches of watercolour. The meticulous detailing that’s gone into the different costumes and effects in the water – hugely time-consuming and wholly worth it in the quality of the piece. The women share the same face, seen from different angles – pensive and guarded they consider their predicament.

If you look at the image at the start of this blog you can make out one or two strange green figures wrapped in ivy which I think allude to Jodi’s view that we become who we are by absorbing all sorts of influences from our environment  including the natural world we pass through in life.  In the picture ivy grows up around the boat, trapping it and some of the women within its tendrils – is this the overgrowth?

In Jodi’s own blog she  includes a poem by Aberdeen’s makar Sheena Blackhall on Overgrowth.

Twenty Geishas

Twenty Geishas went to sea
In a vessel of polished pine
The traders’ routes offered to fill their coffers
For sharing virtues free

The Flying Dutchman closed his sails
For the Geishas to step aboard
And what transpired it certainly fired
Their spirits which simply soared

The Marie Celeste, they encountered next
Do you wonder it’s not been found?
With kisses of honey and blandishments sunny
The steersman he ran aground

So if twenty Geishas you should see
When you’re sailing the ocean wide
Don’t let them on deck, your ship they will wreck
Keep hard on the starboard side!

melancholia I

Durer’s Melancholia I

I have always been delighted by illustrations from Grimms Fairy Tales and the like and pictorial references to medieval people, places  and things. I like shape and form and the intricate little details that captivate the eye.

My favourite artist is Albrecht Durer who lived in Nuremberg in the 15th and early 16th centuries.  Durer is the absolute master in precision and fine detailed draughtsmanship. His eye was impeccable. His sense of humour compelling. He was simply the greatest and most complete artist of his genre. His wonderful  engraving of Melancholia I may represent his own feelings of melancholia on the death of his mother. Melancholia’s face is black, signifying black bile – four humours were believed to determine the constitution of any person – sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic with the latter associated with creativity. On Melancholia’s head sits a garland of herbs suggesting suffering and headaches which Durer suffered from following his bereavement. It is one of the prints on exhibition currently at Duff House in Aberdeenshire.

Sadly not there is Durer’s painting of a Blue Roller bird.roller bird

This work shows how he meticulously captured the construction and texture of the bird’s feathers. An Italian painter once asked to see the brushes he used for depicting fur and feathers and did not believe Durer when he picked up an ordinary bristle paintbrush.

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This scene of Durer’s own city of Nuremberg, a mastery in composition leads us back to Jodi Le Bigre.

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La Rencontre is  a lovely example of her medieval hilltop town which could be anywhere in continental Europe. There are two figures in the foreground collecting branches presumably for fire or building. Behind them is the manmade world of stone town houses and churches and walls as in Durer’s picture the urban landscape occupies the background while around is the natural environment that supplies so much that is necessary for peoples’ existence.

Jodi recognises how we are shaped by our environments. Since coming to live in Aberdeen she has encountered the Doric. Take a look at this.

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Lizzie’s Dother is a sweet, magical watercolour. Lizzie is crouched into the too-small frame provided by the artist for a woman of her bulk and so her skirts fall into creases that flow and bunch and give her form. The sweep of Lizzie’s long hair is repeated in the lines of the bundle that is her dother. And they are surrounded by lilies, symbolising innocence.

I think it reads in Doric along the bottom, She wis mindit o aa the ither quines at she’d held the same wye, which is just brilliant.

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Communion belongs in a book of folk tales and shows Jodi’s undoubted talent to apply herself to so many different styles.  Here an old woman has her back to us as she communes with her geese in front of peasant houses. Notice how the woman’s headscarf echoes the orange and shape of the birds’ beaks.  Again the palette is muted and there is a sublime softness to the piece.

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Marginalia is set in Aberdeen with the Citadel in the background and a Bosch-like clamour of figures occupying the foreground. The city’s iconic bird the seagull are shown harnessed as draught animals. The saved and the damned are separated by a sturdy Aberdeen hoose and oil supply vessels grace the backdrop of the north sea.

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A Christmas card – Der Nikolaus – to my mind  shows Santa Claus as Robbie Coltrane.

This drawing of a procession of matryoshka dolls in a scene out the Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds. I don’t begin to understand the juxtaposition between the Russian granny dolls and the contemporary figures in the foreground but it’s fun and notice the third doll turning to gaze up at the gathering  threat of the birds flying overhead.

I suspect the inside of Jodi’s brain is fairly interesting. I’ve not come across another artist who has reduced her figures to such a bare minimum as Jodi does in her composition comprising a group of skeletons oot and aboot including the child waving to us while her or his, it’s impossible to tell, parent is trying to direct the child’s attention to a birdy in the sky.

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Here a plague doctor from Renaissance Italy shares space with a walrus, an acrobat and a stilt walker. As I said, the inside of Jodi’s head must be a place of wonder.

Young and brimming with talent Jodi Le Bigre – you can find her website at http://jodilebigre.com

February 5, 2014

SCOTLAND HEADS AND TALES IN 15 MINUTES

Scotland, how we are and what we are – or a 15 minute version of something of the kind.

Scotland 

Tens of thousands of years in the making

and here we are

July 24, 2013

Elizabeth’s Gift to the City: Duthie Park

Duthie Park

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Duthie Park has long been a favourite with the people of Aberdeen, usually referred to as ‘the Duthie Park, but in recent years it had become pretty tired looking with some of the old favourite activities having been stopped by successive council administrations.  Only the award-winning Winter Gardens was kept in anything like its former glory. That hasn’t changed but thanks to Heritage Lottery Funding Duthie Park is looking glorious all over once more.

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In 1880 Elizabeth Duthie gave a parcel of 44 acres of land to the city to establish a park in memory of her family. Responsibility for its layout went to William McKelvie from Dundee and so a grand Victorian park close to the River Dee opened to the public three years later.

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Work continues  but essentially the park has been restored to much of its original appearance, which is a vast improvement on its recent guises.  Those people desperate to destroy Aberdeen’s unique Union Terrace Gardens because it is Victorian, and so old fashioned, could do worse than learn from what has taken place in Duthie Park – old is not necessarily bad and new is most definitely not always progressive or an improvement.

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Join me, if yous will, for a tour around the park.

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Duthie Park has several entrances all with those fabulous moulded iron gates, which incidentally my grandfather’s brother worked on before he emigrated to the USA. That was a year or two back. He worked for Aberdeen iron founders McKinnons of Spring Garden so presumably that was where the gates were made.

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Hygeia soars up into the sky on her fluted  Corinthian column.  

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Hygeia (it has various spellings) is a goddess of health from Greco-roman mythology and naturally this is where the word hygiene originates.  This said you can understand why she was chosen to grace the new park in 1881 for it was realised that green areas were essential oases amid the filth and squalor of industrialised urban areas – refuges for people to relax in and breath clean air. This is no less important today as urban sprawl continues to cement over our green spaces.

4oct2012 039Hygeia holds the cup that is her symbol with a snake drinking from it, a reference to living in harmony with mother earth. According to tradition the snake has wisdom and is associated with healing and was believed to visit the dead whose souls the snake would carry off – hence their accumulated wisdom.  The emblem of Hygeia’s snake and cup was adopted as the symbol for pharmacy in the 18th century and is still used by some health organisations.

 

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Sculpted by Arthur Taylor in a light grey granite Hygeia stands on a base surmounted with pink granite recumbent lions with lovely expressions.

Arthur Taylor ran a granite yard in Aberdeen’s Jute Street from where several other significant sculptures in the city were sculpted.

Aberdeen Granite Trail pdf

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The Gordon Highlanders Memorial is a Celtic cross  of grey granite. Did you know that the author Raymond Chandler served with the Gordon Highlanders in France during World War 1?

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Their motto Bydand (stand fast) can be seen above.

The Gordons took their name from Clan Gordon which occupied land around Huntly and so the Gordons, the cock o’ the north, were very much a northeast Scotland regiment, aside from Raymond Chandler.

Several Gordons won the Victoria Cross, the first of these was Thomas Beach, a Dundonian  who was awarded the medal for gallantry during the Crimean War. On 5 November 1854, Private Beach tackled a group of Russians interfering with a British officer as he lay injured during the Battle of Inkerman. Beach killed two of the Russians and defended the injured man until help arrived.

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The last, as far as I know, recipient of the VC was Allan Ker  (with one ‘r’) from Edinburgh. In March 1918 during the Great War he single-handedly held back a German attack on the British line and remained at his post to protect badly injured comrades during which time he was being assaulted with bayonets. The Vickers gun he had been using ran out of ammunition but he held his stance for three hours against 500 enemy assailants, surrendering eventually when the situation became impossible. Bandstand 4oct2012 008 (72)

The decorative bandstand stands on a granite plinth with 5 steps up to the platform. There are cast-iron supports and railings and various decorative features and cartouches with Aberdeen’s coat of arms. It is topped with a weather vane.

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What are called the lakes are being restored. They consist of the upper lake and Aberdonians can once again take to boats, during holidays at least when the pedalos are on hire.

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The central lake is supposed to represent a lochan which can be used for pond dipping.

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The lower lake is, well just that.

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The Iron Bridge over the lake is supported by grey granite piers and nicely worked cast-ironwork on the parapets . There are lion rampants on both north and south parapets.

This bridge was once used by the folk of Rosemount to get around the Denburn area, near where the Central Library now is, and where Mutton Brae and Black’s Buildings with their overcrowded slums used to house many from Aberdeen’s working population.

The Boating Pond being renovated

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and it turned into this

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The magnificent boating pond at the riverside which generations of Aberdonians visited on Sundays to sail their model yachts has been cleaned and resurfaced so that once again boys, isn’t it always?, will again sail their toy, sorry model, boats and more sporty people can kayak.

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Nearby is another pond, circular with a spout of water.

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Fountainhall Well

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Still on the theme of water, the  Fountainhall Well predates the park but was re-situated here.  Constructed in 1706 by James Mackie and John Burnet it consists of a small cistern of a brick and stone lined vaulted inner chamber with a rectangular pool and stone steps leading down to the water.

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The people of Aberdeen used to get their water from the loch but by 1706 its water had become polluted and lead pipes were laid to take water from Carden’s Haugh Well.  The water from it was carried by pipe to 6 cisterns or fountain-houses along Fountainhall Road and on through to the Water House in Broad Street until 1866. Once a new means of supplying water was introduced the old wells were no longer needed and in 1903 the Fountainhall Well found a new home in Duthie Park. 

Silver City Vault

The plaque reads Old Well from Lands of Fountainhall, erected in connection with the first city water supply 1706, Re-erected 1903.

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The McGrigor Obelisk

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Designed by architect Alexander Ellis and Aberdeen  artist James Giles in 1860 this is  a memorial to Sir James McGrigor who was Director-general of the army medical department for 36 years and Lord Rector of Marischal College.

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Built of polished pink granite on a square base and plinth it has a recessed tooled grey granite panel on its north side.

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Until 1905 it stood in the quad at Marischal College, now the HQ of Aberdeen City Council, and formerly part of the University of Aberdeen. The obelisk now dominates the area of the park overlooking  the River Dee.

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 The Taylor Well

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 Grey granite was used to create this decorative drinking well to quench the thirsts of both people and dogs. Notice the dog basin at the bottom.

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The inscription explain the well was provided by Alexander Taylor’s daughter Jane in commemoration of her father.

It is decorated with leopard and lion masks, a reference to Aberdeen’s coat of arms.

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 The Temperance Fountain

 

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This is a bonnie piece of work: polished pink and grey granites by James Hunter and originally stood in the Woodside area. Some old codgers from the city still refer to the bus stop there as ‘the fountain’.

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The temperance movement was very strong during the 19th century when pubs might outnumber people in some places and a working man could drink much of his weekly pay away in a single night which left a problem for his wife and children.

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The fountain comprises a polished pink granite basin sheltered by a groin vaulted roof held in place by three slender columns of turned granite.

On top of the whole structure is a spherical finial.

This fountain, unlike the Taylor one, was designed to go into Duthie Park, a gift from Aberdeen Temperance Society, to provide uncontaminated water and healthy alternative to alcohol. If the prospect of pure water was not sufficient an attraction then the message carved into the base might provide the persuasion required.

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‘In commemoration of the advance of temperance under the auspices of the Aberdeen Temperance Society in the year 1882.’ And ‘Thou givest them water for their thirst, IPH 9-20’

The text comes from the Book of Nehemiah  in the Hebrew Bible.

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Seats along the viewing terraces overlooking the River Dee.

The Swan Fountain

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The Swan Fountain is a cracker. Made from red Peterhead granite it sits on a rustic  circular base with a polished plinth on which sits four swans from whose beaks water pours – when it’s switched on.

4oct2012 048The Swan Fountain under restoration

Admire the time taken to produce the impressive polished basin which might have been hand-polished or perhaps was a combination of machine and hand polishing.

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The Swan Fountain was made by A. Macdonald & Co, granite merchants whose yard was in Constitution Street.

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Bowling Pavilion but what – no tennis?

This timber building with overhanging eaves stands at the back of the bowling green.

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Unfortunately Aberdeen Council continues to shut its eyes to the upsurge of interest in tennis in the wake of Andy Murray’s great achievements and mothballs courts around the city, or as in this case, removes courts altogether – here the area will be transformed into what it calls community gardens and rockery. It will be lovely no doubt but surely the authorities should be encouraging people of the city to become active by providing readily accessible facilities for them. Removing the tennis courts is a backward step.

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The Mound or ziggurat used to be covered in roses but now it has been taken back to its original look with grass. A ziggurat is a raised area often involving a shrine. There isn’t one in Duthie Park but the view from the top is nae bad.

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The Winter Gardens complex is among the biggest in Europe with different climate areas including its famous cactus and succulent house and home to the world’s only talking cactus, Spike.

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People of Aberdeen used to take their unwanted budgies there to live in its urban tropical environment but they appear to have gone.

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Kelly’s Cats

Aberdeen’s famous Kelly cats, those removed when part on Union Bridge came down to accommodate, wait for it, wait for it – retail units – ie shops. Now wasn’t that a lesson which went unlearned by some of Aberdeen’s prominent citizens when hoping to create a similar money-making desert over Union Terrace Gardens.

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Imagine how better the centre of Aberdeen would be with the complete bridge back – incidentally the largest single-span granite bridge in the world. Some folk have no sense of worth.

It won’t happen but some of the cats are here. They are actually leopards, which appear on Aberdeen’s coat-of-arms and are metal cast. It is commonly put about that the cats which decorated the bridge’s balustrades, and still do on one side, were designed by Aberdeenshire architect William Kelly but apparently they were the work of Sidney Boyes who taught at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen.  Kelly designed the metal plaques on the bridge.

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All of above gets the thumbs up but there has to be a down side and her it comes.

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Children’s park areas top and bottom. The one at the Ferryhill end has always been a pretty dark and chilly spot and it is a pity that the opportunity hasn’t been taken to shift somewhere more open to the sun. It has good facilities but for parents hanging around while their youngsters play it can be an uncomfortable wait.

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The bottom play area near to the River Dee is far better although there’s traffic to contend with down there.

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The present café isn’t really much of a facility with floppy paper plates, paper cups and very little choice of anything to eat and no napkins!  Don’t know why there can’t be a proper restaurant there as I recall the old one used to be fairly busy. 

I have been told the queue at the ice cream kiosk can stretch back a mighty long way. Now call me picky but isn’t there anyone employed there with the gumption to get hold of a box, fill it with ice creams and ice lollies and some cool drinks and go out into the park and sell the stuff?  Remember when little ice cream wagons used to be common along sea fronts?

No points for effort.

19july2013 062 Nice blooms

The only toilets are in the Winter Gardens which is fine but why is there only one soap dispenser in the women’s toilet? And why was there no soap in it when I was in? Perhaps because there is only one soap dispenser in the women’s toilet – don’t you think?

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Does no-one at Aberdeen City Council remember the great typhoid epidemic of 1964? Those were the days and if there’s not another soap dispenser put into the women’s toilets soon those days will be back with us.

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Finally there are no rubbish bins in the park.  Not totally correct, as I spotted at least one in one of the squares in the Winter Gardens but outside in the park itself – well what’s that all about? Please do not suggest it is from a fear of weapons of mass destruction being deposited in Miss Duthie’s Park because, frankly, you are on your own with that one.

19july2013 088Bananas

Is it that you, meaning the Council, can’t get the labour to empty them anymore? If it is you’re going to have to find someone to go round picking up the litter being dropped in the park because there are lots of minkers out there who are doing just that. 

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And I can assure you I never came on any weapons of mass destruction anywhere, except in the women’s toilets where the lack of soap could potentially lead to a pretty messy situation.

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July 22, 2013

Aberdeen’s City of Culture Bid: A Lesson in Mediocrity

Aberdeen’s bid to become UK City of Culture 2017 fell at the first hurdle and has provided the  current Labour administration’s rent-a-quote councillor  Willie Young to jab an angry finger once again in the direction of the Scottish government.

22sept2012 053For those of you unfamiliar with Silly Willie to say he has a bee in his bunnet is an understatement. Each travail affecting the city of Aberdeen can be traced back to shortcomings of the Scottish government in Willie’s opinion. Sometimes he may be correct. On this occasion he is not.

If Willie Young paused for breath just one moment and read the City of Culture judges’ report on the Aberdeen bid he might actually learn a thing or two which could just help Aberdeen in any future bid, or at the very least help the city to tackle its cultural deficiencies.

The major failing referred to by the Bid judges was not the low base from which the city would begin to grow its cultural activities – and Willie Young’s point that Aberdeen fails again and again to get fair central government funding (this happened when Labour was in charge at Holyrood as well) which necessarily limits its cultural life – but the dearth of ideas submitted by those involved in Aberdeen City Council’s bid – criticised for their limited expertise; lack of coherent vision and having  no wow factor.

This is pretty damning and far from spluttering about the Holyrood government Willie Young and his colleagues who agree with him should look closer to home – to the people given the responsibility of developing a programme of ideas worthy of a city of culture and who have been shown to be, well mediocre.

Now this is not to say nothing of note goes on in Aberdeen. The city plays host to lots of great cultural activities and it has outstanding museums and an excellent art gallery which is innovative in its exhibition programme.  There is a thriving artist community and community arts. The theatre often has shows and plays from London’s west end although it has to be said that too often the same ones appear year after year. There is quite a bit of criticism of the city’s main theatre for its tendency to go back to old favourites.  

But back to the bid. Judges concluded that:

‘Despite the potentially compelling need and offer to Aberdeen’s bid, it does not deliver a compelling case in terms of vision or deliverability.’

That is less than complimentary to those with responsibility for drawing up the bid. And it is clear the issue had little to do with the current state of culture in Aberdeen but an unfortunate paucity of ideas for sustaining a year of innovative cultural events.  

Sad isn’t it – and an indictment of those chosen to lead the bid.

When I heard Aberdeen’s Bid Manager was to be Rita Stephen I did raise an eyebrow. She has been around at the council in various capacities for a long time but what, I wondered, does she know about culture?

Not much it transpired.

I groaned when I learned she was surprised at just how much was happening in the arts in the city. Well she shouldn’t have been. The impression given was that Ms Stephen was not familiar with Aberdeen’s cultural life or why would she be surprised? And if she wasn’t someone involved at some level in the cultural scene in the city then why was she put in charge of a bid of this kind?

The reason was surely that Rita Stephen has been at the centre of the council’s economic links with private business for a long time and she was until the bid job came up development manager at Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Forum (ACSEF) who were behind the disastrous plan to cement over the unique Union Terrace Gardens.

Of the bid she said:

‘The whole process for us is about making sure everyone in this city has access to art and that Aberdeen becomes a creative city.’

What does this mean? Currently everyone does have access to art, if they choose. There are no charges in the first-rate Art Gallery or museums and there are various community arts projects which take place, well in communities around the city.  So what did she mean?

If she envisaged, as it appears those who cobbled together this bid did, that Aberdeen 2017 would be built on community arts projects with the opera Madam Butterfly thrown in for the high brows then it’s no wonder the judges were quick to throw out their dull plan.

If you judge success by the numbers participating then what does that say about quality? How good, how exciting, how worthwhile are the events? What about people who choose not to participate? Will this be seen as a failure? Why should it be?  I’m fairly arty and middle class but take my sister-in-law – she would not thank you for levering her out of her seat at the bingo to sit through a performance of Madam Butterfly and neither would she be interested in any community arts scheme to paint shop shutters in her neighbourhood. It is not that my sister-in-law does not know what is going on, she’s not interested. And there’s no reason why she should be.

I am perplexed by Rita Stephen’s remark that :

‘We see the bid as a catalyst to bring Aberdeen’s culture back into the sunlight, because it has been hugely overshadowed by the city’s reputation as an oil and gas capital.’

This is nonsensical. The wealth that there is in the city should have been just the catalyst for the arts not a reason for their demise. The fact that oil companies have failed to put anything back into the city, other than jobs, is a well-rehearsed argument in these parts and it ill becomes Ms Stephen whose work has involved her directly with the very business people in the energy sector, mainly hugely wealthy, who have failed to invest in the cultural life of the city to any degree.

Rita Stephen cannot get away from her economic background. She emphasises the shortage of workers, sorry employees – no-one is a worker anymore – in Aberdeen which boasts very high employment.  To win the City of Culture bid would be the perfect means of attracting more people into the area and so increase the supply of potential employees.

She wants to anchor business in the city. Well here’s the bottom line Rita Stephen, business will stay in the city as long as the area has sufficiently profitable business opportunities – as it has now – and has had for over forty years sans culture. (I exaggerate) And a few more murals on shop shutters is never going to be the deciding factor.

‘The ethos of the bid is in economic necessity.’

Is the cultural emphasis being lost here to the interests of the industry that Rita Stephen knows so well?

Among other unhelpful remarks was one from Councillor Marie Bolton who said,

‘We have a huge wealth of culture, but it’s all under the surface. This will give us the opportunity to start people talking. They’re beginning to get involved in such cultural offerings as music, arts, drama and food. It’s seeing the greater population actually starting to get engaged.’

Yes well she is a politician and probably doesn’t know that arts is a collective term which takes in music and drama – though strangely not food. Maybe she was thinking about art. Maybe not.

I see what the bid judges mean by saying the vision of the bid group was limited. They wanted more opera, more dance, more music, more theatre but precious little detail emerged in their proposals. Still they had worn out the handbook of council workers, sorry employees, clichés for filling in bid forms.  Lots of:

aspirations, driving forward, transform our communities, cultural identity, community cohesion, renewed engagement with culture,  help close the gap between rich and poor

Oh it takes me back

beacon for culture,  a magnet, an anchor, regenerated communities, fundamentally change people’s perceptions, cultural confidence, bold vision, shared vision, culturally vibrant city.

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STOP! Enough of this empty rhetoric.

The bid goes on to say that regrettably Aberdeen does not feel like the ‘vibrant city it should be’ which is strange because Aberdeen’s cultural vanguard has been ‘driving forward’ Aberdeen as a ‘vibrant city’ for a long long time. Clearly they’ve failed.

Anyone remember Vibrant Aberdeen2010-15? No?

key drivers

I said stop. Enough of the pen-pushers’ guide to positive terms guaranteed to enhance any funding application.  We’ve all been there. All done that.

 new opportunities, the city already getting behind the bid, the process is already creating a “buzz”

Just over 700 on its Facebook page last time I checked (only time I checked). So less of a buzz more of a zzzzzz then.

empower collaborative thinking and planning, key strategic partnerships, empower partnerships, embedded in the ACSEF Economic Action Plan, Aberdeen Inspired, the city’s Business Improvement District, there is an appetite for culture in Aberdeen

Aye. Read that how you like.

Aberdeen is unique in the UK

Oh yes so it is and so is every city – unique. Aberdeen is unique in the world, in the universe.

Our vision is bold, ambitious and unusual

Unusual?  So it is.

Aberdeen can be an illuminating beacon

Uhu. Maybe not quite yet. Anyway I think I’ve done that one already. Must have picked up His Majesty’s Theatre syndrome.

Aberdeen saw its bid as different as it had –

 potential to make a cultural impact that is well beyond the reach of any other regional UK city

Only words. And meaningless words at that.

There were attempts to pin down what their vision was:

local engagement – does this mean community centres ? and learning partnerships  and not least they were taking the Aberdeen public on a journey.

Think we were all being taken for a ride.

It’s easy to scoff. It is true that Aberdeen is largely ignored by the Scottish, never mind UK cultural media. BBC Scotland has an appalling reputation in this regard and the bid quotes the Arts Commissioning Editor of The Herald saying he had not visited the city in 25 years. That is a disgrace and born of central belt ignorance and laziness. There is a view that while other parts of Scotland, indeed the UK, will shout and make a lot of noise about very little Aberdeen and northeasters in general are far more self-deferential and not given to bumming themselves up.

There is more than a hint of this in the Aberdeen bid.

  • Storytelling: traditional and singing – Aberdeen’s story of fishing, granite and oil and the Doric and the city’s international residents.
  • Working with school kids.
  • Connecting to the rest of the world. Aberdeen – Japan link through Blake Glover  hence  performances of Madam Butterfly, Japanese movies, a symposium on Japans influence on western culture, student exchanges.
  • World acclaimed theatre directors involved in new productions.

Are you persuaded?

And the city’s cultural and artistic strength?

  • The city
  • Our education sector
  • Festivals and events
  • Literature
  • Tradition and heritage
  • Visual arts and crafts
  • Performance
  • Music
  • Film, media and new technology

 

For anyone involved in culture in Aberdeen over the last two decades most of the above is familiar territory. It may be that the same personnel are involved today as they were then and so fresh ideas are thin on the ground. What they offer is a well-trodden path albeit dressed up in inspirational lingo – although not that different come to think of it.

Vision? Vibrant? There’s nothing to show that it is.

Click on culture on Aberdeen City Council’s website and it mentions ‘high quality arts and cultural activity’

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When you scroll down to SEVENTEEN it refers to the need for ‘a central space for artists and arts organisations’, ‘an information point for residents and visitors’, ‘workshop space for artists and arts organsiations’ – is this different from the ‘central space’? and ‘a flexible meeting and networking space for the arts sector’

All necessary I’m sure but not very ambitious.

The bid’s community arts mentality was never going to hack it for the City of Culture 2017 and unless Willie Young, Rita Stephen et al actually pause to consider and address their shortcomings then Aberdeen’s cultural life will bob along as it has been doing but won’t be wowing the world with its creative originality any time soon.

July 14, 2013

Towie graveyard: fire claims a whole family and Victoria Cross awardee

The very pretty hamlet of Towie lies in Strathdon, Aberdeenshire. It has a fairly typical Presbyterian kirk built of harled granite in 1803 which has a distinctive bell-cote and attractive roof ventilator.

Towie Kirk

I wondered at a quite Germanic-looking cross while wandering through the cemetery. I’d never seen anything like it before in a graveyard.

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I thought it might have been the made as the memorial for Victoria Cross recipient James Leith as it has a look of the medal but this isn’t so.

Leith is in fact buried close by and his grave marked by a modest pink granite cross.

During the Indian Mutiny of 1858, at Betwa in India, the then Lieutenant Leith of the 14th Light Dragoons went out alone to the rescue of a wounded company Captain in danger from a rebel attack.  As a result of his actions he was awarded the Victoria Cross medal –

For conspicuous bravery at Betwah, on the 1st of April, 1858, in having, charged alone, and rescued Captain Need, of the same Regiment, when surrounded by a large number of rebel Infantry. Despatch from Major-General Sir Hugh Henry Rose, G.C.B., dated 28th April, 1858.

He was 31 years of age and as well as receiving the medal was promoted to Major.

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Leith was no simple country loon however but a  son of General Sir Alexander Leith of Freefield and Glenkindie. Born in the district of Glenkindie in 1826 Leith was educated in London and Cambridge, and played cricket for the university.

This painting of Major James Leith Winning the Victoria Cross is wrongly titled as he wasn’t a major then.

James Leith

Another Leith buried alongside the General is John Disney Leith who was  a son of Lt Col Alexander Henry Leith. He married Mona Simpson, whose plaque lies here. John Disney Leith was fond of fast cars and died in a car crash in 1968 near Lockerbie at 59 years old.  He is remembered in the racing world as Jock Leith and I think there is a race trophy still bearing his name.

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Yew trees are commonly found in Scottish cemeteries. Links between yews and the dead go back through the millennia to Druid worship in pre-Christian society and the connection was carried through to the Christian era by the tree’s association with the life of Pontius Pilate. Pilate’s father was a diplomat with the Romans and living in Scotland at the time his son was born  under the ancient yew at Fortingall (2000-4000 years old).

The Gaelic name for yew is iubhair or euair and sprigs of the yew were worn in bonnets by men from Clan Fraser.  Ioua is Pictish for yew, from where Iona is thought to have been named.

Stems of yew used to be placed in coffins along with the dead.

Towie 30june13 001

Towie cemetery has been used for burying the dead from the area for a long time so that some of the inscriptions on the freestone and granite memorials have become weathered and difficult to read over time.

30june13 008There are some nice bits of carving on several of them, especially the freestone ones for the obvious reason that the stone is softer than granite so more pliable.

30june13 005I like flower details. I think this is a lily so signifying innocence and purity. A nice carving by the mason.

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This beautiful Celtic cross has been hewn out of pink-red granite, possibly Corrennie. It is a superb example of this type of memorial and must have cost a packet. Click on the picture and look at the detail for yourself. Better still get yourself out to Towie.

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I like a gravestone which gives information on the incumbent. I mean where’s the interest in a list of names? Why people stopped adding occupations or causes of death, or the odd address beats me. Such information provides interest and scope for those of us who value the past. The stone above is a good example of this.

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The upturned mortsafe  is a reminder that corpses were in demand by resurrectionists hoping to make money from medical doctors desperate for cadavers to dissect for anatomy lessons. Many Scottish graveyards still have their mortsafes I’m glad to say.

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A lovely detail on this lichen-encrusted stone. Is this a rose? Could be then it tells the person only lived a short life.

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I loved the addition of these fine conch shells and the flowers secured beneath the one on the left.

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A familiar sight in the northeast of Scotland is a granite urn draped with a cloth. The urn is for remembering a loved one who was long-lived. The cloth refers to the mort cloth which covered the body or the coffin.

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And finally we come to a tragic story of a young family devastated by a domestic fire.

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A newspaper article from the 27 November  1945 tells how a cottar house in Glenmuick , over on Deeside, which went on fire the previous Saturday, claimed a third victim with the death of Mrs Ness.

Mrs Ness died in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary leaving only her eighteen-month –old baby, Dorothy, surviving at that point but critically ill.

Mr James Ness who was a farm worker had died on the Saturday from his injuries. The couple’s three-year-old daughter Sheila died in the burned-out house.

You can read the report of the accident here.

ness top

You will be struck by the extreme bravery of the Ness’ neighbour Mrs Annie Smith. I couldn’t help thinking that she deserved a bravery medal every bit as much as the Major above.

Ness end

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July 8, 2013

A Reputation Set In Stone: Alexander Macdonald

Bronze of Macdonald from his memorial stone at Nellfield

Bronze relief of the head of Macdonald from his gravestone in Nellfield Cemetery

Perthshire stone mason Alexander Macdonald was used to working with marble but when he arrived in Aberdeen in the 1820s he had to learn to handle and cut the local granite, a far harder and less tractable rock.

Medico-Chirurgical officesThe Medico-Chirurgical offices on King Street

The granite industry was already synonymous with Aberdeen for it had been a popular export from the city since the mid 18th century when its cassies or setts were used for paving London streets. Cassies became a staple of the local quarrying industry and continued to be so into the 20th century. In addition bigger stone was supplied for large-scale constructions and civil engineering as in London Bridge and the Bell Rock Lighthouse and in the city itself there were significant landmarks such as its Union Buildings and Medico-Chirurgical offices and, of course, the magnificent span of Union Bridge over the Denburn … all demonstrating the versatility of granite.

Wishart Memorial FourdonThe Wishart Memorial at Fourdon

Macdonald’s interest in the trade’s decorative and monumental aspects is said to have been the result of his visit to the British Museum’s collection of polished Egyptian granite. He set out to emulate the beauty and fine finish achieved by masons from antiquity knowing the very feature which made the local stone so attractive for civil engineering, its hardness and durability, was its drawback for producing elaborate decoration. It could be cut, carved and even polished but not on a scale required to satisfy the rising demand for larger items of graniteware so around 1830 Macdonald set out to find ways of generating profit from the North East’s vast deposits of granite.

19 Sept 12 069A carved gravestone in Aberdeen featuring funerary pall and ivy denoting everlasting memory 

Working conditions during the Industrial Revolution were hard and brutal but Macdonald could only dream of a labour force as large and compliant as that of Ancient Egypt. Still, 19th century Britain had the steam engine and an expanding consumer market and with steam power already employed in other industries including mining and textiles the question he asked was … why not in granite?

Granite sculpture on gravestone at Nellfield Cemetery 2Carved granite memorial in Aberdeen with the broken column denoting the death of the head of the family and an angel holding a wreath of remembrance

Adjacent to Macdonald’s stone yard on King Street were premises belonging to combmaker Stewart & Rowell which operated a steam engine and this fortuitous link led to Macdonald driving his own trade forward. Combmaker John Stewart recalled that he had supplied a belt to Macdonald so the mason could experiment with steam to quicken production and meet the increasing clamour for expensive granite products.

Granite statue of King Edward VIIPopular meeting point on Union Street and Union Terrace at the King Edward Statue – music is usually extra

However many disappointing trials he endured Macdonald eventually triumphed – developing machinery able to cope with the three central challenges of transforming rough granite: of dressing one of the hardest of stones; of enabling the most effective rotation for fast polishing discs; and for applying graduated abrasives (sand from Aberdeen’s beach combined with water) to give a fine smooth finish. By 1840, the new technology was up and working and Macdonald’s business was flourishing to the extent that the marble trader became Aberdeen’s leading granite manufacturer supplying decorative stone to a luxury market.

Detail from gravestone in Nellfield CemeteryDetail of a beautifully worked Celtic knot on a gravestone in Aberdeen

Advertisements from the period reflect his confidence: Pedestals, Vases, slabs, Urns and Garden-Seats to Noblemen, gentlemen and the public generally . . . superior to any object of the class hitherto produced, and to be purchased at extremely reduced prices on account of their being executed by improved machinery. This improved machinery included steam-driven saws which still took weeks to cut through great lumps of granite but this relative speeding up of the process meant polished memorial stones and blocks for monumental plinths could at last yield profit.

Aberdeen granite 22sept2012 098This beautifully carved freestone memorial tablet set into a wall at St Nicholas graveyard in Aberdeen illustrates the intricacies of carving possible with softer stone compared with the difficulties of working hard granite

Macdonald, now in partnership with William Leslie, architect-mason and one-time Lord Provost of Aberdeen, moved from his small yard at King Street to a purpose-designed site in Constitution Street. Just as Alexander had marvelled at the skills of Egyptian masons so his contemporaries were in awe of his innovative machinery equipment and output. A proud Macdonald encouraged visitors into his yard and in 1848 it was given the royal seal of approval with a visit from Prince Albert when it was said the Queen’s Consort evinced great interest in the machinery. Five years later, in the wake of the success of her anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe visited Aberdeen and accompanied by William Leslie toured what she called the marble yards where amidst the bustle of sawing, chipping, polishing she saw superb red granite columns being prepared for dispatch to Riga and a sepulchral monument bound for New York.

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Looking down Marischal Street towards the harbour

Despite the ground-breaking machinery protected by patents which had made the yard the foremost granite manufacturer in the city Macdonald was still not satisfied. As a trained mason he anticipated the day when the hand carving skills of the stonecutter would be applied to granite monuments commemorating the great and the good of the Victorian world. His faith that granite was every bit as capable of producing sculptures as fine as anything wrought in marble or cast in bronze led to the extraction of a seventeen ton stone from Dancing Cairns quarry for cutting and carving into a statue of the Fifth Duke of Gordon.

Aberdeen Duke of GordonStatue of the Duke of Gordon

Around one hundred men assisted with the grey monolith as it was mounted onto a cart drawn by seven horses and carried in procession through the city’s northerly outskirts to Macdonald’s yard. The year was 1840 and with no local carver thought good enough to undertake the work Alexander Macdonald turned to London sculptor Thomas Campbell for its fine modelling. The work took around two years and stood some ten feet high and would be placed on a pedestal of comparable height. The Aberdeen Journal described its noble simplicity and vigour with the likeness of the late lamented Duke preserved with singular fidelity. It would be a further eighteen months before what was declared to be the first statue that has been executed in granite in modern times was eventually erected on Castle Street. Whether the claim was true or not it was certainly significant for it demonstrated the potential of the local stone. However, Macdonald’s grand ambition went unrealised as marble and bronze continued to be the material of first choice for Victorian sculptors. We need look no further than the public works displayed in the Granite City to see how far dignitaries lacked the nerve to break out of this traditional aesthetic and eschewed its native granite: a marble Victoria in the entrance to the Town House; and bronzes of Burns, Wallace, Albert, General Gordon and more recently Bruce. The bold exception is the figure of Edward VII and the war memorial Lion. It could be said that Alexander Macdonald’s dream of widespread granite statuary was only realised in monuments commemorating the dead of the Great War.

Union Stree Aberdeen 22sept2012 041Looking down Union Street from Castle Street

The Gordon statue which originally gazed the length of the once proud granite frontages of Union Street was moved to Golden Square in 1952 where it still stands casting an eye over motorists frantically searching out parking spaces.

M'Grigor obelisk Duthie Park 2The McGrigor Obelisk in pink granite in Duthie Park

Despite there being no real demand for granite public statuary Macdonald’s business prospered winning awards for quality and beauty of workmanship at numerous international exhibitions and important decorative commissions including the fountains at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight and Trafalgar Square; the sarcophagus for the late Prince Albert at Frogmore, the M’Grigor obelisk in Aberdeen’s Duthie Park, which once stood at Marischal College, and the Wishart memorial at Fourdon.

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Marischal College now Aberdeen City Headquarters –

the second largest granite building in the world *

Alexander Macdonald died in March 1860 from what was described as a bronchial attack. Given his life in the stone trade it is distinctly possible that his illness was a result of the trade’s harmful dust. Macdonald’s son, also Alexander, inherited the business. Not a mason and disabled from his twenties and confined to a wheelchair the younger Macdonald used his wealth to support the arts and promote a stronger aesthetic sense amongst the citizens of Aberdeen. He died in 1884 having bequeathed the city funds for purchasing contemporary works of art. This was a most fitting legacy particularly so with the opening of the Marshall Mackenzie Art Gallery itself a fine building of Kemnay and Corrennie granites and its interior of marvellous polished granite columns.

Aberdeen HMT 22sept2012 013Aberdeen City Library, St Mark’s Church and His Majesty’s Theatre

(Education, salvation, damnation)

On a more modest level local cemeteries are full of examples of Macdonald’s revolutionary techniques: serried ranks of granite slabs, sawn, carved and polished – all testimony to the virtues of the deceased and the ingenuity and business acumen of the man from Perthshire.

First published Leopard Magazine

(*The Escorial Madrid is the largest granite building)

March 5, 2013

Photographs by Oliver Godow

Plan B – Side A Photographs by Oliver Godow

Pink all over 1

A small exhibition of photographs by the German artist Oliver Godow is currently on in the McBey Room at Aberdeen Art Gallery.

Godow’s painting-like photographs present us with combinations of angles and colours which I would love to show examples of but unfortunately the Gallery has a policy of zero tolerance of photographing its stuff – unlike Manchester Gallery, Tate Modern, Guggenheim Bilbao – you get the picture.

The two-dimensional angular forms on the left of the door are reminiscent of early 20thC abstract paintings. Perhaps that was just me. I always relate one art form to another when it’s likely the artist wasn’t thinking of anything of the kind. Doesn’t mean to say it isn’t there of course.

Regular readers will know I like to illustrate my blogs so in lieu of images from Plan B I am including some colourful angles from the delightful Union Terrace Gardens which lie close to the Art Gallery.

Union Terrace Gardens

Godow was born in Lübeck but has lived and studied in Scotland.

Union Terrace Gardens 1mar13 yellow

These photographs were shot in Augsburg in Bavaria. Godow’s Plan B that is not Union Terrace Gardens ones.  Just thought I’d make that clear.

Union Terrace Gardens, Aberdeen

Godow’s works encompass a very wide subject area: documentary, urban spaces, objects or as he has here geometric shapes, texture and colour. He captures detail of all kinds of objects with his camera lens so that colour, as in his Pink all over 1 above, saturates the eye to the extent you can almost taste its sugary pink pig quality.

Union Terrace Gardens, Aberdeen

In this exhibition it is colour which is one of the  most striking aspects of his work.  That said his umbrella image is not one of these with its subtle soft fringe of umbrella silk cutting through the 2-dimensional surface as it carries the eye down and across the composition.

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Apart from the Pink my favourite is his Green on Green or a title fairly close to that.

http://www.olivergodow.com

February 7, 2013

The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil – watch it here

The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil was a tour-de-force in political theatre.

Written as a musical drama by John McGrath, from Liverpool, it looks at how Scotland and its people have been systematically tricked, beaten and exploited for its resources of land, sea and people.

Set up in the 1970s, the agit-prop theatre group 7:84 – a reference to 7% of the UK population who owned 84% of the wealth of the UK – it proved a great hit with audiences in small venues all around Scotland.

Bill Paterson and Alex Norton are probably the best know of its actors from this time but the talented cast was excellent.

For those in Aberdeen who watched the first run of The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil in 1973 it proved an unforgettable experience

This film comes from a television version broadcast in 1974 so is nearly 40 years old. Allowing for issues of quality given its age stick with it. It’s great fun and you will undoubtedly learn a thing or two about Scotland and be hugely entertained into the bargain.

http://digital.nls.uk/scottish-theatre/cheviot/index.html

 

September 16, 2012

Roland Coget Sculpture at Cransdale, Collieston

Flotsam and Jetsam by Roland Coget

Sculpture made at the Scottish Sculpture Workshop at Lumsden, Aberdeenshire

July 1, 2012

August Sander’s incredible photographic record of 20th century life

If summer wouldn’t come to me I would go to it. And so I drove up to the beautiful if past its prime town of Banff and the magnificent Duff House.

 

 

Why? That’s where summer has been hiding in this part of the world – and to see an exhibition of the German photographer, August Sander’s work.

I first came across Sander’s absorbing portraits when I picked up a postcard somewhere in Germany. It may have been Cologne, then again it could have been anywhere. The place escapes me but the image never has for it seemed to encapsulate so much that was German – the stocky, round-faced figure of a cook with his pastry basin and wooden spatula before rubbing flour to fat with a touch of sugar, his podgy fingers nimbly blending and separating, rolling and baking to produce some wonderful light and delicious concoction of pastry for which his nation is famous.

I must admit I find the baker a slightly scary figure with his eyes staring away from the camera and it is the contrast between irrational prejudice and his innocuous trade which adds to the fascination of Sander’s whole approach to portraits. He might have chosen a scrawny weedy looking baker but he chose this well-rounded figure who wouldn’t look out of place in a painting by George Grosz. Sander’s Pastry Cook wears a spotless white tunic over dark trousers and highly polished shoes although the tiled floor of the bakeshop is flour splattered and the bench none too clean. I look from the cook to those intriguing metal drawers by his head and wonder what they contained – currents, ginger pieces, preserved violets or perhaps sharp-edged cutters and pastry moulds.

August Sander died in 1964 at the age of 88 years and throughout his long life he set out to capture the face of Germany. It was his fortune and misfortune to have been alive during the period of greatest notoriety in his country and it was all recorded by this great man.

At Duff House there is a selection of these portraits displayed under Sander’s categories: The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City, and The Last People. By 1945, his archive amounted to more than 40,000 images including the pastry cook, a policeman with his enormous whirlybird moustache, a cleaner and an incredibly charming one of a porter – here on the right his face 

weather-beaten, in need of a shave his eyes sparkle with humanity and humour and exhaustion. It is a magnificent portrait of an ordinary man representing his dignity as a worker. There are bohemians looking as they should, slightly unkempt and cerebral and Nazis upfront, eagerly having their pictures recorded. One is set in a rural setting, against one of those old rural houses with exposed timber, reminiscent of Heimat.

And a beautiful image of a bride who might have been fashioned from a German woodcut with her fresh, freckled complexion, deep inset eyes and a garland of flowers attached to her hair.

Sander was at home in the country and city. He was the son of a carpenter from the small town of Herdof  – which few have – in Western Germany and began his career as an assistant to a photographer working for a mining company. Such was Sander’s enthusiasm for his work that he took to creating his own images capturing his native countryside as he cycled from place to place and it was not until 1911 that he embarked on his ambitious project – People of the 20th Century – his record of ‘45 types’. ‘Let me speak the truth in all honesty about our age and the people of our age,’ he wrote. By this time Sander was established in Cologne.

It is clear that Sander saw his work in terms of the wider art movement and he associated his brand of uncompromising exact photography with the Kölner Progressive – a group of progressive artists working in Cologne – artists such as the constructivist Franz Wilhelm Seiwert and Heinrich Hoerle whose art was condemned as degenerative by the Nazis.

Sander, too, felt the oppressive hand of Nazism on both his approach to his work both factual and conceptual and in his personal life. The plates for his book of German life, Antlitz der Zeit  – Face of our Time, were destroyed and his son, Erich, a left-wing political activist and member of the Socialist Workers’ Party was picked up and imprisoned by the Nazis and died in jail in 1944.

The publication Face of our Time acclaimed by the likes of Thomas Mann and Walter Benjamin but was banned by the Nazis, although individuals were happy to have themselves recorded by this prominent photographer.

Sander’s subject matter took in all sections of German society including workers and financiers, socialists and socialites, bohemians and Nazis, death and brides, circus performers and farmers through the lens of his large tripod camera. He captured the juxtapositions of person and place, people and time, humanity and inhumanity, humility and arrogance, indulgence and suffering, poverty and excess. Life as it is. And the contradiction of assumptions we all hold.

At Duff House you can see his Young Farmers on the Way to a Dance scrubbed and dandified with smart ribbon hats, stiff white shiny uncomfortable looking collars, well brushed dark jackets, cravats and canes as they make their way to find fun and romance in the village hall instead of ploutering knee deep in soil behind the plough.

His category of The Last People is intriguing for its title and for what Sander includes. At Duff House there are a very few images including Two Blind Children and Midgets. Both of which were likely to have succumbed to the Nazi quest for perfection.

Apparently Sander had advised his subjects not to smile while he was photographing them which given his laborious method of operating with glass plates was no difficult feat for his subjects had to remain still an unnaturally long time. There are, however, half smiles playing across the lips of some of his individuals, or as in the case of the porter, through his eyes. Sander may have been looking for objectivity and consistency across the breadth of his series but the result is overwhelmingly sombre which may account for my attraction to the aforementioned porter. What is clear throughout the exhibition is that Sander allows the people in his portraits to speak for themselves. He has not set them up to imply his view. In this way he is not favouring one over another nor caricaturing any. He presents them equally and it is up to us to make what we will of them whether that be his wife holding their newly born twins, one dead, or the young SS officer proudly confident posing  in his black uniform.

Die Photographische Sammlung der Kulturstiftung der Sparkasse KölnBonn contains a huge catalogue of Sander’s photographs – over 5500 original prints and 11000 negatives.