18 Mar 2014

6 nations rugby 2014, what conclusions?

The top European nation's rugby tournament of 2014, known as the 6 Nations Tournament, has just finished, with the final three games being played last Saturday (and I watched all three). With the Rugby World Cup coming up in the autumn of 2015, this is a good opportunity to look at the results and assess the current strengths and weaknesses of the top European rugby nations, whilst keeping an eye on the southern hemisphere nations that played test matches in Europe in November 2013 and which will play their own 4-nations tournament later this year. Even though each edition of the Rugby World Cup has had its share of surprises and upsets, the top teams have rarely failed totally, so, with some variations within the upper hiearchy, those teams that show well in the two major international tournaments that take place within 18 months of a world cup usually do well in the following edition of the most prestigious rugby event.

Brian O'Driscoll, the brilliant Irish centre back, after a record 150 international games, retired from international rugby at this weekend's game in which his team narrowly defeated France. Hats off!

Ireland was the deserving winner of this 2014 European tournament, just a nose ahead of England. And this tournament victory provided a suitable send-off for their great centre back Brian O'Driscill, whose last internationla game this was. The only game that Ireland lost was a very tough game (in my opinion the best game of the whole tournament) that they lost by 3 points to England, but which was played on the English home ground of Twickenham, giving the home team an indisputed advantage in such a close game. Both these teams finished with 4 victories out of the 5 games played by each, but the Irish finished with a slightly better points balance (goal average if you prefer) than the English: 83 against 73. But I thought the Irish also deserved their overall tournament victory on account of the consistency of their play and their team discipline. Their only loss was in London, by just three points and that game could have gone to either team. Almost the same could be said of England, who also lost just one game, to France and in Paris, and then only by two points. But they were more frequently penalised overall than the Irish and their game, although it looked perhaps more adventurous, was also less well-oiled and solid that that of the Irish. But England are a younger team with quite a few new players on the side, so this may not be a handicap in the perspective of 2015.

The French scrum, once a source of pride, has not looked so good in this tournament and was reguarly dominated by its opponents, and penalised by the referees (here Steve Walsh in the game against Ireland). Combined with bad line-outs, this deprived the French backs of decent balls a lot of the time

Of the other teams, Wales, the reigning champions (they have won the last 2 editions of this tournament) played brilliantly on occasions, but more erratically than the top two teams. France was on the whole very disapponting, with the exception of 30 minutes of their game against England (which they manged to win) and their very good display against Ireland. They were lucky to win in Scotland, were not that impressive at home against Italy, the weakest side, and got well trounced by Wales in Cardiff. They finished in 4th place, which is about right for their current level. Italy and Scotland were clearly in another, lower league and took the last 2 places, with Italy trailing and losing all its games.

Dany Care, the English scrum half, one of the best players in this tournament and a key element in England's good overall performance 

Before coming back to some other comments on the way these 6 teams played during this tournament and what this could signify for the future, particularly in the light of the World Cup next year, let's take a look at the latest world rankings, which are regularly established by the International Rugby Board on the basis of statistics drawn from international games. The top three teams are still from the Southern Hemisphere, with, in that order, New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia. England is now a close fourth and could have taken third place had it won this 6 nations tournament. Ireland has moved up to fifth place, followed by Wales and France. So, at least according to the statistics, the world heirachy has been slightly shuffled in a minor key, but not exactly overthrown: the major Southern Hemishere nations still appear to be on top of the world or rugby, even if not all of them were present in the final stages of the last edition of the World Cup.

Luther Burrell, an impressive new player in the English back line who made his mark by scoring tries, breaking through regularly and defending well. Even with Manu Tuilagi absent for all but 20 minutes of the whole tournament, the English backs looked fast and were creative.

But here we should perhaps remember the words of Mark Twain (who attributed them to Benjamin Disraeli): "there are three kinds of lies; lies, damned lies, and statistics" The inference clearly being that the third of these categories is the worst. In any event, statistics are unable to reveal the tendencies as shown in recent games of international rugby. During the November test matches, both England and Ireland came very close to defeating the apparently invincible All Blacks, who had been beaten a year before by England. South Africa, although undoubtedly powerful and redoutable in a single game, looked solid but uncreative. Australia were clearly a notch below and could be regularly beaten by any of the top European nations. So the North/South gap could be closing, as the Irish played very well and the English, with a younger team that has finally found cohesion and resilience, looked more creative and dangerous than they have for a very long time. They must however sort out their discipline, as they give away too many penalties to win close matches against tighter teams.  

The next chapter, albeit in a minor key as this will be the end of  a long and tiring season for most top European players, will be written when the summer tours of Northern Hemisphere nations to the Southern Hemisphere take place in June. England will tour New Zealand, France go to Australia, Wales to South Africa and Ireland to Argentina.

10 Mar 2014

Albrecht Dürer, landscapes and portraits

It has been almost 2 months since I posted an article on this blog, so maybe a few regular readers have been wondering what on earth I have been up to. Too much else going on, mainly work, and so insufficient time to write about and find illustrations for several subjects that have occupied my mind recently. The 6 nations rugby tournament is in full swing here in Europe, but that is only part of the story and I will come to that subject when all five matches have been completed, in a week's time. So far, given the hammering the English cricket team took in Australia recently, that country can be proud of their rugby team who, so far, have looked the best of the lot, along with the Irish. Ireland is my favourite to win though, as their points average is way ahead of England's, and they should beat France in Paris next weekend. Yet both these teams, together with France (who have not looked good at all but have managed to scrape 3 narrow and lucky victories) are contenders for final victory in the tournament, each having lost just one game. All this has nothing to do with today's subject, which is the work of that very great German Renaissance artist, Albrecht Dürer. Would Dürer have played rugby? 

This article will be followed by another, concerning other aspects of this fascinating artist's work

The excellent Städel Museum, on the river Main, in Frankfurt, which also houses a good restaurant with a fine wine list.

I made the trip from Paris to Frankfurt-am-Main one weekend in January this year especially to see the very considerable collection of Dürer's work that had been put together by that city's Städel Museum. Frankfurt, almost totally destroyed in the second world war, is not an attractive city today as it must have been before in its medieval-based organisation. But it is a great city for museums, as they are all lined up alongside the river and one can hop from one to another in no time at all.

I have always admired Dürer's work, mostly at a distance as it were, via illustrations, and in any case sporadically, like when I have come across the occasional work in a museum somewhere. These have been paintings, engravings or drawings, or even other objects since Dürer was as eclectic as he was prolific. And clearly very successful, business-wise, but more on that in the second article perhaps. So this was the first time that I had seen a large number of all kinds of his work together, and very impressive it was too.

The Wire-Drawing Mill, c.1489 (watercolour)

One of Dürer's first known paintings (above) is a watercolour which dates from 1489. It appears both slightly gauche and surprisingly modern. One has to bear in mind that his first trade was that of his father's: a gold and silversmith, which probably goes some way to explaining his quite extraordinary precision and sureness as an engraver. Although afterwards he did not paint many landscapes (at least that have survived) Dürer did, as most of his Renaissance contemporaries, use landscape extensively in the backgrounds of many of his religious subjects. But there are a few others and they clearly show, at least to me, something that foreshadows later German romanticism, if one may allow me this anchronism!

View of Arco, 1495 (watercolour). This was painted on Dürer's return from his first trip to Italy

Willow Mill c.1496/8 (watercolour). 

This painting, made near his home town of Nuremberg, includes the same mill as in the first painting shown above, but Dürer has moved on in his manner and preoccupations. This work is more about mood and less about precise topography. But if landscape played a minor part in Dürer's work, portraits, as singular works and not just a part of epic or religious paintings, were very significant, 

Self-portrait aged 22, 1493 (oil on linen)

By the time the last two watercolour landscapes shown above had been painted, Dürer was already a master of the portrait in oils: in this case the self-portrait. Symbolism was very often an element that told a story in portraits at this time, and this one is no exception: the artist holds in his right hand a sprig of sea-holly, whose German name signifies "man's fidelity". In addition the plant was also considered to have aphrodisiac qualities and some commentators therefore consider that this painting was intended as a gift for his future wife, Agnes Frey, whom he married the following year.

Self-portrait at 28, 1500 (oil on wood panel) 

Dürer made three self-portraits (apart from drawings, including a remarquable nude one that I will show later), which is a lot less than Rembrandt. They are all masterly. The one above is the last of the three and bears on it this purely factual inscription, in Latin : "Thus I, Albrecht Dürer from Nuremburg, painted myself with indelible colours at the age of 28 years."  The enigmatic and Christ-like image of the artist intrigues. Indeed Jesus Christ was often represented like this in mediaeval art, looking straight ahead and with one hand showing. But the clothing is contemporary for 1500, so there is no anachronism that could lend confusion as to the painter's intention. The theory about this image is not that Dürer took himself for God, but that it was a statement of his faith: that his talent was a gift from God. Not being either a believer or an expert in such matters, I have no idea whether this was the case, but it is plausible. 

Portrait of the artist's father, 1490. (oil on panel)

Dürer's first oil painting, and, as far as we know, his first portrait, was this one of his father. He also portrayed his mother at about the same time. Dürer has served an appreticeship under his father, who was a goldsmith. Sobriety and realism, toned by a form of humility, seem to be the key notes of this painting.

 Portrait of Hieronymous Holzschuher, 1526 (oil on panel)

This much later portrait shows Dürer's total mastery of the genre. This work was not in the Frankfurt exhibition, but I saw it more recently in the Berlin Gemäldegalerie, on a wall with at least three other Dürer portaits that are equally impressive. The subject was a close friend of the artist and his social and economic status shows clearly in his clothing of fine fur. Holzschuher has been a mayor of Nuremberg, Dürer's home town and this portrait was kept by the subject's family until the late 19th century. The detail of the face is almost hyer-realistic and a close zoom in to look at the facial hair, or the fur of his coat, and then back at the overall impression, shows how the incredible precision of Dürer's look and touch was never detrimental to the power of the picture as a whole. Another thing that is impressive in Dûrer's portraits is how simply direct they are. No clutter or confusion in the background. The head is the focus and the clothing, when shown, has significance and acts as a support.  

Portrait of a young Venetian woman, 1505 (oil on panel)

Dürer's portraits of women although less numerous, are just as good as those of men. This earlier work was done in Venice, during the artist's second visit to that city. It is probably unfinished, although one may not notice that from this reproduction.  Nobody knows who the young lady was, and the painting, currently in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, was discovered in a private collection in Lithuania in 1923.

You may have noticed that most of the illstrations that I have used come from a single source. It is remarquable and very useful that there is a full collection of images this artist's work available here: 


Go and have a look there for yourselves. I will be doing another article on Albrecht Dürer quite soon, this time more focused on his drawings and engravings. I will perhaps leave the religious works to others as I mst admit to being saturated with that stuff.