24 Jul 2012

Caravaggio etc: the distance between light and shade is 200 kilometres?

There are currrently two major exhibitions running in France on the 16th century Italian painter Caravaggio and, in the widest sense, his followers. The only problem is that they are showing in places that are separated by 200 kilometres (about 130 miles). If you add in the fact that they are in major modern city centres, this means that it is virtually impossible to take a good look at each part of the show and get to the other part in the same day, as it will take you about 4 hours travel between the two parts. Could be done, but quite a challenge!

So, as this show is about light and dark; claire/obscure; chiaroscurro, whatever, one could deduce that 200 kilometres is the distance that separates light from darkness.

In fact the organisers of the twin shows, which imply a major transatlantic collaboration involving multiple museums on both sides of the pond, have decided, rather tritely, to divide the subject matter along a north/south axis. Hence, if you want to see Caravaggio himself and his Italian or other southern European followers, you must go south to Montpellier. And if Toulouse, also in southern France but not quite so far down, is your port of call (like me today) you will see only Dutch and Flemish paintings and drawings. Which is fine, but the posters and stuff advertising the show do not quite lead one to expect this type of restriction. So I found the show (at least the part I saw) to be interesting, but a bit of a let-down. I am sure that it was done this way for financial reasons, and it is a pure and rather mean calculation that inevitably frustrates the art-lover. It would have been far better to put it all together and move it from one place to another on different dates.

So what did I learn at the Toulouse part of the show?

That Caravaggio's real name was Michelangelo Merisi. And the liaison with that other Michelangelo, Buonarote, is perhaps not totally fortuitous when one thinks of the scuptural power of Caravaggio's painting of the human body. I also learnt that the man painted directly onto his canvases, without much drawing to outline his work, just a few marks. Painting as drawing, in a sense. But then I didn't see any real Caravaggio's today, so I cannot vouch for any direct impressions gleaned to back this up.

Who were the northern painters, from Utrecht (mostly) and Flanders, that most impressed me in this Toulouse part of the show?  Bloemaert, Finson, Ter Bruggen, Dirck van Baburen, Jan van Bijert, Jan Lievens and Johann Liss. Never heard of them? Or some of them? Never mind, here are a few samples :

Abraham Bloemaert, the Fluteplayer (not in the show, but it makes the point of his allegiance to Caravaggio better than the painting shown there!)

Finson (or Finsonius), a selfportrait. Again, curiously, not in the show although the quotation in the pose refers directly to the painting on the left by Caravaggio called Bacchus unwell. What were the curators thinking about or couldn't they get hold of this painting ?

Ter Bruggen, the lute player. They did get this one in the show as it came from Bordeaux, not too far away.

Just to continue the musical theme, this one (once again, not to be seen in the show, although there were some good works from this painter) by Dirck van Baburen and called The singer.

This is a poor quality reproduction of a work by Jan van Bijert, called, for obvious reasons, "The Go-between". The better quality image available needed rights to be paid and I cannot afford that! It is quite clear what is going on here but it is also perhaps interesting, for wine paople, to note that the wine in the glass held up on the left is clearly pink in colour, adding an element of proof that most wines were either pink or white until the late 17th or early 18th century and only then did they become, exceptionally, red. Oh, and to give the exhibition organisers their due, they managed to get this one in the show!

Maybe I will return to this subject of light and shade in painting later....
For the moment, it all looks a bit like sex, wine and music (no rock n' roll then)

21 Jul 2012

More on the KTM 690 Duke

Basic running-in is now completed on my new bike and the 1000 kilometre service has been done, very efficiently, by a small dealer called Squal at Rambouillet, about 50 kms west of Paris on the road to Chartres. I also had the seat changed for a more comfortable KTM accessory (and it works). This dealer is so much better than the people I bought the bike from (at Dardilly, just north of Lyon), who not only forgot to fit some of the mods that I ordered, they also neglected to hand over the service schedule and guarantee, not to mention other stuff that I may have already mentioned. Incompetent and unworthy!

Taken in the Troncais forest, a famous source of oak for wine barrels. This was a fortunate but accidental pilgrimage as I just happened to go through this beautiful hardwood forest early one morning, having taken a wrong turn. The KTM looks perhaps a bit more more laden that in reality, with my helmet and back pack on top. The stuff was all light anyway.

So off we head on mainly small roads for an 800 kilometre meander down to my holiday place in South-West France. A bit loaded up, but not too much and well balanced enough to test the KTM's handling on the small, mostly deserted minor road network that is one of the joys of biking in France. As the kms pile up, I notice that the motor begins to loosen up a bit, protesting a bit less less at trickling through towns. In fact it becomes almost flexible below 3500 rpm, although she still protests a bit by making its chuntering and rattling sounds if I forget to drop down a gear or two entering urban areas. The acceleration is amazingly good for a bike that size. In fact it behaves more like a twin than a single-cylinder, buzzing up between 4,000 and 7,000 rpm, but with none of the bottom end slog that you feel from the old-style singles. Bit of a buzz-box in fact, with the vibes that go with that. Nothing insupportable mind you; just making you feel its there and metal bits are moving around quite fast. And the handling is just fantastic. The bike hangs fairly low but has been really well designed to have plenty of ground clearance and I expect I'll need to take in onto a race-track to find its limits, as I just don't dare on open roads. It feels like it could lean forever!  It is very stable at all times, with the supension perhaps showing some limits when banked over and hitting a rough patch. At high speed it doesn't budge, and you can even stay upright for a while when stopped without putting foot to ground, making town work really easy. Slinging the Duke from one bend to another is a pure joy, and you can even get on the front brake a bit if you are over-enthusiastic coming into a bend without the bike righting itself violently. 

Any moans? Very minor, as we all know that perfection is not of this world. With the KTM tank bag on, getting the ignition key in and out or even turning the thing can be a bit fiddly. I definitely recommend the KTM Power Part seat as a necessary replacement for the original seat, whose rear wad makes you feel your coccyx too much. The silencer makes a subdued and tinny sound at slow speed. One can live with that and it gets better as one speeds up, but I am sure that this can be improved and also let the motor breath a bit better. We shall see when the replacement part I have ordered arrives. Braking is good and the incoporated ABS system seems efficient. I have only felt it kick in once so far, so have not really hauled on the brakes that much yet. I also recommend fitting the hand-guards. Apart from taking the edge off cold wind, they probably saved me a broken finger when some silly car driver negelected to look in their mirror before pulling out to overtake. The bang on the car's side mirror barely scraped the guard which is well braced and I kept the bike upright enough to use suitable hand language on the driver.

And so what about the roads? French roads fall into 4 official categories. Motorways (called autoroutes). These are very good, blue coloured as to their signs, and nearly all toll paying and costly (in addition to the fact that fuel in the stations along these is more expensive than off them). And they are totally boring on a bike. National main roads (route nationales) have a lot of radar and police on them, especially on the busy sections. They are marked red on the signs and, on a bike, are to be used mainly for getting into and out of major cities. Minor local roads, or routes départementales are link roads between major ones and between smaller towns and villages. They have far less traffic, few or no radars, and can be in perfect condition. One needs to watch out for gravel in the summer when they have been patched up, and sometimes they can get a bit ratty, but, on the whole, they are a joy to ride. Yes, France is an agricultural country and you need to watch out for tractors and stuff. But there is space for all and plenty of it. The final category concerns local lanes in each village or commune. 

Ride safely and enjoy the summer.....if you are in the Northern Hemisphere

16 Jul 2012

Gerhard Richter: back again

I was so impressed by the Richter show (of paintings and some glass sculptures) in Paris that I feel compelled to return to the subject. I will also, a bit later, take myself back to the show once again. The exhibition is entitled Panorama, and that title seems so suitable to the apparently 360° vision that this man manages to give of painting.

Among the things that struck me with some force in this retrospective of Richter's work, which stretches from the late 1950's to 2011, is the man's total freedom from any preconception of what painting should be, that is apart from just what the word says: painting. As I mentioned in my first article, Richter considers painting to be an essential and vital human activity, like dancing or singing. And the incredible vitality and diversity of his work makes that point so well. 

Richter likes beauty and can also face horror, without making us flee before ugliness like so many contemporary painters. He has lived through horror and so considers that some things cannot be shown directly, although anything can be a subject. He integrates equally and thoroughly the recent and troubled history of his country, Germany, his family, both past and present, the landscapes and other objects that strike him, great painters of the past and their way of seeing as these interact with his own vision, the modern world and the technological possibilities that it offers, and, above all, a love of looking and producing. In response to the interviewer's question "and why do you paint your family members so often?", Richter answers "because they are the people that move me the most",  Richter is demanding of himself when it comes to technique, and, as a result, one simply forgets the technical aspect of his work (apart from the occasional close-up peek), just to concentrate on the images and their impact on us. And this impact is, at least for me, considerable.

So let's abandon words and just look....

a shot from the very well set-out exhibition in the Pompidou Centre in Paris, which uses light so well.
The painting is one of Richter's large dark abstract works.

the framing is mine, and not brillant !

The intelligent use of scales and contrasts in the hanging. The large picture on the left was done using computers, while the small one on the right is entirely figurative and a landscape. Both are beautiful and finely executed.

See what I mean? Richter just does it, again and again and again. Knocks me out! If you own one, you are probably very rich. Just looking at them, in the show or in the catalogue I bought, makes me feel even richer...

10 Jul 2012

Gerhard Richter: a timeless painter

Some (those who like sensational and meaningless headliner statements, I suppose) say that painting is dead as far as contemprary art is concerned. I recently went to see the very impressive exhibition of the German painter Gerhard Richter, currently on show at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and would beg to differ. Richter himself has this to say on the subject: "Many people feel that other techniques are more seductive: you place a screen in a museum and nobody looks at paintings. But my business is painting. This has always been what has most interested me. I am now of a respectable age and I come from a different tradition. In any event, I don't know how to do anything else. Yet I am convinced that painting is one of the human being's most fundamental aptitudes, like dancing or singing, an activity that holds sense, that is part of us as human beings." 

1). Tiger (oil on canvas, 1965)

2). 180 colours (oil on canvas 1966)

3). Cage 6 (oil on canvas 2006)

4). Reader (oil on canvas 1994)

5). Abstract Painting (oil on photograph 1999?)

6). Aunt Marianne (oil on canvas 1965)

The few samples of Gerhard Richter's work shown above should suffice to illustrate the fact that Richter alternates between figurative works, produced from photographs found or taken by himself, to abstract ones that may be highly calculated or improvised. And sometimes the two tendancies collide, as in number 5.

7). Mustang squadron (oil on canvas 1964)

Richter is 80 years old this year, and was born in Dresden before the second World War. This troubled period marked him, as is shown in many paintings both of war events and of family members, such as the paintings number 6 or 7 in the series above. Number 6 is from a photograph of himself as a baby with his aunt Marianne, who, because of her mental handicap, was killed by the nazis under their eugenist programme. Richter has regularly worked on images of his own family, including wives and children, of which he says "because they are the ones that touch me most deeply". Gerhard Richter's use of photographs, taken by himself or chosen from archives or newspapers, is recurrent at various periods of his work. An example is shown in number 5 above where he has worked over a blown-up photographic image of Venise with oil paint that partially destructures the image whilst adding colours that seem very Venetian to me. This to and fro between figuration and abstraction, here coming together in a single painting, forms a constant dialogue throughout Richter's work and is in no way specific to a single period.

Ema (nude on staircase) (oil on canvas 1966)

His first wife, Ema, was the apparent subject for the above painting. But this also constitutes a dialogue at a distance with Marcel Duchamp and his 1912 painting called "Nu descendant un escalier" (see below). I will return to the topic of Richters visual dialogues with famous painters from the past a bit later, but it is clearly no accident that he chose Duchamp who, shortly after the work below was shown in New York, abandoned visual art to play chess.

Nu descendant un escalier (Marcel Ducamp 1912)

Richter considers his work from enlarged photographs, painted in a traditional way using oil paint on canvas, with the images usually rendered soft and unfocused by various techniques with wet paint, to be his abstract work, and he says that his abstract series form his "concrete" work. I find this apparent paradox interesting and indeed it obtains when you look closely at the powerfully physical presence and performance of many of his abstract paintings, with the successive layers of wiped-over paint, such as number 3 above, which was done listening to music by John Cage, hence the title. And it so happens that Cage produced what is sometimes known as "concrete music". The painting is indeed musical in its tonalities, and also reminds me of the (almost abstract) late water-lily paintings by Monet. But this is also because Richter's figurative images, partially becase of their blurred focus, have a timeless, quintessential quality that makes them seem distant; in any case they appear to hover and float, more alluding to reality as we perceive it rather than attempting to describe it precisely. The images 1 and 4 above may give you some idea of what I mean.

Portrait of youth (oil on canvas 1988)

The above "Portrait of Youth", although produced, once again, from a photograph, made me think immediatly of some of Titian's portraits. And indeed, Richter did do a series of works based on Titian's Annunciation, for which he used a postcard of the orginal, and worked through the series before declaring that it was impossible to paint like Titian today and admitting his failure.

Annunciation after Titian (oil on linen 1973)

This dialogue with illustrious forebearers is another recurrent feature of Richter's work. The Reader painting (number 4 above) uses a very similar theme and pose and lighting (although the direction of the lighting is modified, as well as the composition) to this famous picture by Vermeer, another painter greatly admired by Richter.

I was also struck, when looking at several works in the show, by references to Hammershoi, Caspar David Friedrich, and Constable or even Claude Lorrain. The painting below, made after one of Richter's own photographs, seems to me to hints at the last two painters in its archetypal rendering of a gentle landscape near Chinon, in the Loire valley of France.

Whilst I was looking at this very well set-out show, a huge storm burst above Paris and this, shortly after the storm is the view I had from the top floor of the Centre Pompidou....

Now which is more "real" in this image? The barely discernable townscape or the "abstract" drops of rain and other effects on the window pane that act as a filter to our vision?

The show will continue until September 26th, and I for one plan to go back to see it again.

There is also an exhibition of Gerhard Richters drawings and watercolours at the Louvre (until September 17th). Haven't seen this yet, but watch this space.....

3 Jul 2012

Girls on bikes once again (for Luc)

Well Luc, you asked for it, so here it comes...

From Russia, with love...
Maybe the dog will win?

Or This one, from England? I'm sure you recognize the young lady....

Watch out, here come the cops And what happened to her helmet ?

Don't think this lady likes the cops that much, but she does have a helmet.

And this one (Leslie, the Queen of Speed, you are...wonderful) is much too fast for any of us....

And this is where it all began, maybe. Hey, wait a minute....

2 Jul 2012

Return of the big thumper: my first test ride of the KTM Duke 690

On the way back, taking a break from the joys of the small twisty roads that link the villages of Beaujolais. This is in the vineyards of Fleurie, complete with tank bag and helmet.

So there it is now, sitting in my garage, the big plonker from KTM that I have been thinking about ever since I saw it released at the beginning of this year and read the first reports. Rode it up from Lyon last Saturday on small roads, avoiding motorways until the last, inevitable, stretch into the big city. Not just on account of it being brand new and requiring variable speeds while running in, but also becouse I dislike riding on motorways.

and again

I took delivery of the bike last Friday from the KTM dealer just north of Lyon, at a place called Dardilly. These people are friendly enough, but not too efficient. About half the modifications I had asked for over a month ago when I ordered (and paid for) the bike had not been carried out when I turned up, as expected and confirmed, to collect the machine. I had to wait around for hours while they struggled to find the parts (or not) and offer vague explanations. In the end I took it without some of the stuff it was supposed to have on it, so I have to carry the mandatory U-lock in a tank bag, instead of clipped onto the frame, there is no electrical supply for my navigation system, and the rear bag is not available although all of this had been verbally confirmed by them. I had asked for the nasty garish stickers on the tank and front light fairing to be removed and they had to do that when I was there. They said that they deliver their new bikes with a full tank of petrol but, when I checked, there was room for at least another 5 or 6 litres, which they duly put in.

In addition to the above, the guy who showed me the machine clearly doesn't know it that well since it has, under the passenger seat, a small dial to vary the programme of the ride-by-wire throttle and he told me that position 2 is the standard position. This I duly selected for running in the machine and my first steps, only to find that the bike was very jerky at low speeds in towns. Whilst reading the manual that evening, I discovered that 3 is in fact the standard position, whilst 2 is the "racing" mode and 1 is the soft setting for town and tricky surfaces. Okay, that's enough griping, let's hit the road!

The first impression is that this KTM single makes a noise like a large sewing machine when you start it up. Very disappointing for what is said to be (and maybe is) the most powerful single-cylinder road bike ever produced! In fact the delivery from the single cylinder is pretty smooth and it doesn't always feel like a single. Anyways, now I know what to buy for the next modification, and have indeed found a silencer produced in Spain that should make a difference buth in looks, sound and feel. We shall see when it arrives. Here is a picture of one...

As to the sound, I am told that things get better as you speed up, but I cannot really hear that for the wind, so.....All the rest is easy, with bars, pegs and controls falling easily to hand. I had to adjust the gear shift down a bit to suit my way of sitting, and may do the same for the rear brake pedal. As soon you start rolling, you can feel how light the whole thing is and how well balanced it is. And later, when the pace moved up a few notches after a couple of hundreds k's on the clock, this impression of stability remained. This bike has one of the best combinations between a low centre of gravity to give it low-speed stability, and wheel base length to ensure high-speed stability, that I can remember experiencing on any bike.

Remember this machine is still running in, and I have been pretty careful so far, only occasionally revving it up to 6000 rpm, but it has plenty of poke coming out of corners as from about 4000 rpm. Below 3000 or thereabouts it tends to baulk and rattle a bit. It only weighs about 150 kilos when dry, for an annouced 70 bhp. That's a useful power-to weight ratio. The tyres are some excellent Michelins that I couldn't fault, after their share of running in of course. I have still to try them in the wet though. The real joy of this machine has to be its handling. It will go exactly where it is pointed, has leaning capacity beyond my bravery, and is always stable, even if a series of sharp bumps can test the firmish suspension a bit. The brakes seem very good too. The mirrors offer a good enough view of behind and don't vibrate too much. The instruments are simple and clear and, joy of joys, will tell you what gear you are in which can be useful as the engine hates being used  seriously below 3,000 rpm. The gearbox seems fairly precise and has a clutch that is not exactly an anti-dribble, as I understand it, but which does prevent the rear wheel from locking if you drop down gears sharpish coming into a bend.

So what are its defects? I mentioned the exhaust sound. But number one has to be the standard seat. When I first tried the machine over a short distance, I quite liked it. One feels well ensconsed and it is initially confortable enough. But sit on this thing for 2 hours riding and you will find your tail end suffering in the region of the coccyx. There is a kind of rolled wad that forms the rear of the seat and this punishes that part of your body mercilessly, to the point that I found myself sitting back on the firm passger seat for long straight spells. Need to change that seat fast! I see that KTM have one in their catalogue of extras, but why not fit it in the first place? Obviouly this bike is not cut out for long hauls down the motorway, but it will do legal speeds in its stride and without pummelling your neck. One has to remember it is a mono and so vibration is a part of the game, but, so far, I have not found this unbearable. But then I am used to twins, not multis...

On the way back, after staying in a small, ordinary but friendly hotel in Villié-Morgon, I stopped for luch in the village of Irancy, near Auxerre and Chablis. If you go that way, I strongly recommend a bar/restaurant in the main street called Le Soufflot. Run by Fabien Espana, who also rides a Triumph 675 and pays scrum-half for the Chablis rugby team, it has a lovely bright dining room made in a covered courtyard with vines growing inside. The food is very good, the service friendly and there is a good wine list at very decent prices. Further south the road that leads up from Autun to Château-Chinon is pure joy for bikers !

Le Soufflot Irancy,
Rue Soufflot
89290 Irancy
tel : 06 79 89 57 82