Endless Poetry is endlessly poetic

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Last Sunday was grey and empty  until I found myself in the cinema, in the strange comfort of octogenarian Chilean directing legend Alejandro Jodorowsky’s latest film, Endless Poetry.

I had bought my ticket on a whim – All I knew was that it was in Spanish, in Chile and might be a little weird and poetic, as the title suggested.  What I got was the most eye-opening, jaw-dropping two hours and 8 minutes of 2017 so far, unless Jodorowsky’s sequel comes out this year…

And I’m so pleased, in these unsavoury times, that there are 4 more delicious courses I’ve yet to eat, that Endless Poetry is the second in a 5 part film cycle, that there’s  The Dance of Reality and soon the other 4 will be ready…

Meantime, instead of giving away the menu of his surreal feast of a film, I’m going to list the thoughts that have fed me (not without a little indigestion) ever since…

…It doesn’t matter if it’s written on a wall or floorboard and no one but the poet will ever read it, everything disappears eventually; prayers are like poems, they are never seen but always needed by the prayer…

…Everything is beautiful, even and especially the mutations of normality…

…Anyone can walk in a straight line to anywhere they want to go; obstacles are illusions we can erase…

…Also, alongside linear there is cyclical, since maths is inexplicable; life is a cycle, returning to where it came from and filled with returns all along a direct way…

…Meantime Death is always there; suicide is blindness…

…Through misguided fear, we hide and make ourselves up like clowns.

… In reality, reality is up for grabs, and so we have nothing to hide and nothing to show…

…The naked soul and body are uplifting and captivating and no less so for being marked and scarred by the passage through life…

…We are all puppeteers and our puppets dance together. When we are holding our  puppet-selves, our own identity is unclear and maybe this is because…

…We are connected to each other…

…That we are each exclusively in charge of ourselves is an illusion…

…In reality we are all in the same puppet show together and share manipulation mutually, all our limbs are up for grabs to the nearest puppeteer…

…And with this power, love  is not in the keeping, it’s in the letting go, the negation of the urge to manipulate, the diffusion of our fixed idea, it’s acceptance – no interference, no orchestration; just the acknowledgement of a God in the other person, the godliness that is beyond perfection….

…The job of poetry is not to have to say it all like this, in a clumsy list, in so many words, but to say it in fewer and to trigger a response that lasts forever in the consciousness, which is universal, and endless.

The job of this film  is to demonstrate poetry, in action, and indeed it accomplishes this almost impossible task, sometimes effortlessly, perhaps endlessly.

Muchas Gracias Mr Jodorowsky!

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Wiki links worth looking up:

Endless Poetry

The Dance of reality

World’s best comic, written by the Alejandro Jodorowsky

 The Holy Mountain, funded by John Lennon

Psychomagic psychotherapy, pioneered by Alejandro Jodorowsky

Interview with Alejandro Jodorowsky about where he thinks things are heading

Interview with the FT and general overview of Alejandro Jodorowsky

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King Lear: Glenda V Anthony

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And so out they come and stand in the spotlights to two rounds of standing ovations. I stand up to put my coat on and leave, no one will miss my feeble claps amid the din of whoop whoops.

What have I missed? Why does Glenda and her stellar crew leave me numb? There was nothing in this production that was any better, to me, than any of the productions I’ve ever seen. There was much that was was unnecessary at best; at worst, a smutty distraction from the glory of the text.

But this audience and no doubt the packed house watching tonight, lapped up every drop of mostly dreary, conveyor-belt delivery, washed down with large glasses of “shocking” nudity, loud “atmospheric” music and stark lighting that, from a purely practical perspective, made long tracks of the best scenes, however loudly throttled out,  almost  inaudible, let alone moving.

The best thing about it was the digital display overhanging the stage, telling us what act and scene we were on. I found myself looking at it more and more with that sinking feeling you get when the next bus isn’t for another 25 minutes, finding myself hoping there’d been a tech hitch and the final scene was already “due”.

In contrast, the Barbican’s Anthony Sher-led production was the triumph that critics should hail as one of the best  since John Hurt and Timothy West,and,  I’d say, better. But for Anthony and co, there was no standing ovation.

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Why? Because it was a great tragedy. We should all be highly suspicious of any tragic play that leaves you with enough energy to get up afterwards, let alone smile, clap and chat to your neighbor about how good it all was, not least Glenda.

Sher and his troop, through 5 acts and almost 3 hours , truly suspended my disbelief. Not for a half line did I look up to see if the scene’s ticking was digitally indicated overhead. Not for a second did I think I am here watching a load of celeb actors reciting Shakespeare like it needed their help, another language peppered with the odd ‘top ten  catchphrases of all time”.

No, unlike Deborah Warner’s Old Vic production, Gregory Doran’s Barbican show was life, on stage, and we were on it too, with the actors, just as Shakespeare intended. Every line had its own intrinsic timeless resonance, which was then expanded, sometimes creating new and unusual contexts, sometimes merely amplifying well-known interpretations, always keeping us hooked.

The bad characters were not all bad, the good characters were not all good, there was nuance. All parts had their nuances and got subtle treatment, whereas it seemed at the Old Vic that all the characters dangled off Glenda’s Lear like annoyingly obnoxious puppets she had grown bored of or lost the skill to move. To Warner’s credit, perhaps that was the point?

The props and scenery at the Barbican worked to evoke a sense of the play’s contexts, amplifying subtly, never clumsily varnished on for ‘effect’, always using and trusting the weight of voice and text. I won’t say how or carry on with any comparisons. Anyone who sees it should come at it fresh. You’ll leave utterly drained yet uplifted.

The Barbican’s production was the best I’ve ever seen, the Old Vic’s one of the worst. But that’s just me and most may disagree, I’d just say, ignore the media hype around Glenda and take advantage of the fact Sher’s reigns on at the Barbican until 23rd December 

Taking my mind off to La Gomera

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After a week spent in the Canaries, at La Finca eco-retreat on the verdent island of La Gomera, I find I’m relaxed, happy and well nourished. The only images I have been exposed to have been 100% natural, organic, no added flavours or colourings.

My eyes have been feeding on a natural diet of flora, fauna, sea, sky and the odd statue, here and there.  I have drawn some pictures – a Whale, a tree, two Buddhas, some leaves, a frog playing a violin, some pond fish, a dolphin.

I have not been force-fed 200 marketing messages every hour, not mentally farting away my afternoons, as glossy mags,news, tweets, posts, ferment in my bloated brain.

On La Gomera I was free of this uninvited eye food, free to walk lighly without the constant call to eat or save or recycle or compost what I’d seen. I wonder if app developers have already come up with a mind-watchers programme, like weight watchers, complete with its own fit-bit that tracks how many visual calories you’ve consumed, giving tips for cutting down and making what’s seen and read less fattening and flatulence inducing…

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Back in London, this app, in analogue, would simply be a pair of human blinkers that would filter  ads on the escalator and other periphery visual onslaughts we unknowingly consume while on the go.

These human blinkers would probably have a company behind them: ‘BlinkedIn’. People could sign on to connect with like-minded BlinkedIners or BlinkInIdiots and share lots of images of what blank things you haven’t blinked@ that day 😉  #BlinkBlank

No doubt you’re already aware of the mushrooming ecosystem of ‘switch it off’ apps and new ‘old skool’ devices designed to cut down on sensory overload. But this is not just a tech problem. It cannot be switched off through an app or a device.

Its branches reach offline. It’s billboards, it’s newspapers, it’s endless supplements within supplements in the Sunday and Saturday news. It’s magazines, its more box sets and more telly and more sport everywhere, in the corners and centres and sides of our eyes, all the time.

In one 45-minute journey, the average London commuter is exposed to more than 130 adverts, featuring more than 80 different products. Only half of that information makes any impact, while unprompted we can remember none of the blur of adverts. In an entire day, we’re likely to see 3,500 marketing messages (Source: Guardian)

I’m not saying that we don’t need and like and even love some and/ all of these things, even some ads. I’m just repeating the ancient Greek maxim that still seems to stand the test of time ‘meden agan’ (μηδὲν ἄγαν) – ‘Anything in excess is too much’. We must be more aware. We must pay more attention to things, one at a time. Our brains, under the strain of sensory overload, start to shut down to conserve battery power, in self-defence, as any sensible computer would. This shutting down amounts to a growing inertia, disconnection from ourselves and what really makes us tick, both physically and mentally.

After just a week of so called ‘disconnection’ i.e. no wifi, no city, no TV, No news, pure visual detox, I felt completely rebooted and ready to start smaller, healthy doses of meaningful visual connection.  Now I’ve been back ‘in the world’ a week, I’m visually farting already, but my gut is stronger and digestion is, I think, more efficient. My visual blood-sugar is more stable, better able to cope with any force feeding/self-indulgent binging I might do to sweeten up tonight’s commute.

I’d thoroughly recommend a week on La Gomera, one of the quieter, most verdant of the Canaries. And while I’m on the subject of Islands and birds I’d recommend devoting some precious attention to ‘The Island‘ by Aldous Huxley, if you need a healthy complement to watching the flora, fauna sea and sky….

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Some final links, if you fancy risking more information overload…

Where to stay  – La Finca Argayall’s ‘ alternative, experimental and experiential community

Article –  how much we involuntarily see..

Article –  how our visual bellies are getting bigger and bigger

Article – 5 apps that switch you off

Is a home without chess complete?

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I had just moved in. I had made a list. It was a shopping list for the flat. I had already got the essentials. The list was decadent. It came to me like a poem, a mixture of the ephemeral and the sublime. It came to me out of nowhere, a combination of inner and outer brain we use when daydreaming. As far as I can remember – this is it:

Lemon tree, Toaster, Grater, Chess set, Tea strainer, Colander, Cuckoo clock, Hot water bottle, Candle (fig/frankincense) with 3 wicks

I didn’t even know how to play chess, really, beyond knowing that pawns are at the bottom of the food chain and that, confusingly, some call Rooks Castles and others call Castles Rooks…And yet, ‘chess set’ had crept onto my list like a canny knight, sneaking between two smug bishops..

My boyfriend came round the next day. He gave me a package he’d wrapped in brown paper, for surprise. It wasn’t my birthday and  the house-warming box had already been ticked twice with a spice rack and knife block. “What was it?” I asked as I unwrapped it under his calm silence “How did you know a chess set was on my list?”, “I didn’t” He said “Do you play?”

And so we played every Sunday, for 4 or 5 weeks, until he got bored of winning and I of losing. One Sunday we silently agreed to let the pieces rest in their box. It’s now over 2 years they’ve spent in the dark.

Neither of us really wanted a chess set but we both somehow needed it.  During chess, we mapped something outside ourselves and yet part of ourselves and entwined our maps and followed the tracks the other had made, both deliberate and unintended.

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Through these 4 or 5 short games I feel some foundation  was constructed in my mind and his that has acted like a bridge between us ever since.

I think all mates should at some point have tried check mating each other. And I mean mate in both senses: friend and spouse. The board is a microcosm of the universe, the way you behave on it mirrors what you do off it, inside and out.

It’s not a question of who wins or loses, but how and why they won or lost and what they were willing or not willing to risk and do along the way.  And how they felt afterwards, immediately and long after the event.

Off the board, without squares and pieces to orchestrate reality, truths are less visible and opportunities cannot be traced mathematically. In chess, the future is tangible and multiple, perhaps the closest we will ever get to getting reality out of maths and in front of our own eyes.

You cannot be in any other time or place but now and here if you want to stay in the game. To play chess with someone is to share the present moment with them, as you see it, to communicate a truth, in all its danger, safety and  possibility, without speaking. It’s like being an animal again, back in Eden, just the problem of life to be solved, all thoughts shared through actions, not words.

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Watching the film, Queen of Katwe has reminded me that, although my set is likely to gather more dust, the lessons of those first few games will stay with me forever.

I’d recommend the film as the best I’ve seen all year. Chess it seems is a teacher fit for a Queen and the film does it justice, whilst teasing your tear-ducts, right up to the final move. The crowd in the Stratford Picture house didn’t stand up, but we did feel compelled to clap, who cares if no one in Stratford, let alone Katwe, could hear us? We felt good, we felt better and we needed to show our gratitude to something, and it wasn’t the glowing fire exit or the digital projector. Was it the god of Chess we were applauding? Hallelujah!!!

I haven’t said much about the film because I can’t say it better. Everyone should see it. Everyone must. Also everyone should play chess at least once and play it with someone they need to know better, to find and expose yet unfound weaknesses and possibilities, both in their opponents and in themselves.

queenofkatwe.com

 

Hurricane hardened Havana

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Hurricane Mathew’s recent Cuban rampage made me think back to February 2009, when I visited in the wake of hurricane’s Ike and Gustav.

I had just finished a TEFL course and Googled, ‘volunteering’. ‘Three weeks teaching English in Havana’ came up. I pictured creaky pianos on dusty verandas and old Cadillacs wheezing on shampoo. I was curious to see if the clichés were true, see what was really left.

The location was central Havana, I didn’t need to drive, and I could use my new TEFL skills – no former experience required…

The arrivals conveyor belt was empty and still. Our luggage hadn’t been stolen. It had been hidden. In corners, behind doors, in bins. I found my plastic-wrapped suitcase, conveniently just outside the women’s toilets. It was shaken up, but intact.

The airport staff, bored out of their lively Cuban brains after 5 years of seemingly futile university education, had given we tourist-voyeurs our first taste of Cuban wit.

I am met by my tour guide and find we are taking an exclusive ‘taxi’ that looks like someone’s car, driven by her friend. Not an old Cadillac but the new shiny fruit of last season’s tourist dividend. We arrive at an expensive hotel and make our way to the cool basement whose menu could have been from anywhere in America – hot dogs, hamburgers, chips, ice-cream sodas, club sandwiches, etc. She orders profusely and eats ravenously.

It’s the very beginning of the tourist season and, like many, she’s still haunted by low-season austerity.  I pay for us both, on her recommendation. I would have offered first, had I not been confused by her smart manicured appearance, had I realised where I was – in Cuba, with a Cuban. For any time spent, I felt I was expected to tip, as I would a waiter, for a tasty plate of conversation. It’s not that they didn’t enjoy the exchange, but that’s what it is, an exchange –  Cubans need food and loo-roll and crave treats like a glass of beer once a month, something that the state never supplies, and their wage of £30 a month cannot buy.

The next morning. My first day. My hotel was a high rise 90s eyesore, complete with dusty fake ferns. My room was on the top floor, had cold running water, a fridge that worked well as a tepid storage cupboard and a bird’s eye view across city and sea.

I drank in the hurricane-blistered rooftops, windowless apartment blocks and the seawall called ‘The Malecon’. It draws a grey line between Havana and the rest of the world, curving slightly against every passing wave. At its midpoint, the ‘Hotel Nacional de Cuba’ stands out with the loud confidence of New York in the late 20s, once mafia HQ. Florida might even be visible now from the top suite…

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So, down to my dusty  fern-decked  hotel lobby. I was late. The group was already sitting comfortably. I was the only non-Canadian, the youngest by at least 40 years and the only one, it seemed, not to have retired from head-teaching at a renowned education institution. No doubt my fellow volunteers had all been a punctual 5 to 20 minutes early. Had I missed something on the website? I was obviously not its target group. Anyhow, the Canadian-Cuban company I’d paid had welcomed my sterling with open arms and here I was, with everyone smiling at me with that ‘can do’ magnanimity particular to philanthropic Canadians on volunteering ‘vacation’ in Cuba.

In my mornings I taught at the university. As the sole Brit on the trip, it had been deemed apt for me to take the Anglo Saxon history class, on my own. There was only one book, one physical book, for the class of 60. I knew no more about Anglo Saxon history than that King’s names often ended in ‘red’ and had vague memories of Alfred, whom I confused with King Arthur and the Knights of the round table.  Needless to say the Cubans, as in all other physical and mental respects, gained the upper ground, quizzing me intensely on Anglo Saxon involvement in Byzantine trade routes. My responses were garbled and evasive. Requests for repetition were frequent, “It’s difficult to understand your German accent” they chorused in pitch-perfect Canadian. My Queen’s English was new to them, brought up on a constant maple-barked volunteer stream, with no access to the BBC. Anyhow, without me, books or broadband, it seemed they were managing to quite well.

After a particularly gruelling lecture, I found myself sitting on the steps outside the Law Faculty.  A student walked pointedly up to me and asked me if I was a student. I was shocked. I had been spoken to in Spanish. I had never been mistaken for anything other than a pasty Aryan, in Cuba, or anywhere else.  I said no, carefully. I said I was a teacher, unconvincingly.  I wondered if I had enough Spanish in the tank to carry me through this conversation sprint. I did.

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Soon after, we were in a cafe he claimed had been a favourite of the young Castro. We weren’t paralysed by choice: chicken with rice and or beans. These were delicacies craved by the children I taught in the afternoons. All had chimed “Rice and chicken” in joyous unison to my question “what’s your favourite food?” two mischief-makers daring to add “beans” to the decadence.

It occurred to me, looking around the cafe, opposite this Cuban aqua-physiotherapy student, that I was blending in and not because I was developing a mahoganous Caribbean tan.  My lunch companion was the only Cuban who wasn’t working behind the bar. Customers, as in most ‘Cuban’ bars I visited, were tourists – For Cubans a glass of beer once a month was a treat to be shared, once a month, maybe, between two.

He explained his frustration at being a student of aqua physio with no real access to still water, the pool they practiced in was dry.  I thought of my hotel pool, cracked and economical with chlorine, but full nonetheless. Seemed Havana had two faces, one for me and one for him. After lunch he bid me goodbye politely and returned to his empty pool on a full stomach, hunger abated for another day. I felt regret, perhaps naively, that I had no spare things or money to give him and wondered what he needed.

I later looked back and thought how nice it was that we had managed to have a meal without bartering. My later experiences taught me that everything I was wearing or carrying, down to my bra’s underwire, was on the market, to the highest bidder, and the currency is banter. The sweetest talkers are the best dressed – they can be your best friend in 5 minutes, in any one of the world’s top 5 languages.

One afternoon we had a tour of the university from the head of the law faculty, who carefully stuck to architectural did you knows about the faculty’s buildings and mentioned he had been a translator for Jimmy carter, but was careful not to elucidate. He finished his tour with a plea for toothpaste and loo-roll, he said, since the hurricane, his wife and he struggled for the bare essentials. We were all apologetic that we hadn’t thought to bring any out with us. Some of the Canadians, indeed, studied veterans of former trips, had brought these with them in extra suitcases and distributed them as and when they could.

The next week we visited a hospital where we were told that Venezuelans came to learn to be doctors in exchange for oil. It was like a garden centre, with large glass roofed plants, sourced from all over South America. Cuban scientists are leading the way, our guide informs us, with pioneering research into local sourcing and cheap production of herbal cures and preventions, circumventing costly imports of patented drugs and vaccines.  It sounded utopian, evocative of Huxley’s “The Island” –  One morning, I stumbled into a square with a troop of octogenarian chicas practicing Tai Chi. In my best, newly acquired Canadian-Cubano confidence, I asked, ‘Where are the men?’, ‘Not dead, just lazy” one called out cheerfully, mid flying-crane.

The last morning, my last afternoon in the school. The electricity was off, again. The children’s planned performance ‘to music’, their parting thanks for our teaching, was now a little tricky. Without hiatus, however, their collective Cuban brain shortcut resourcefully to a percussive solution.

Pencils and chair legs doubled as drum sticks. Table, wall and floor morphed into drums. Stamp, click, stamp, click, cluck the tongue, snap the finger. Repeat. All while curling spines and swinging tiny hips. Those who weren’t busy being the band paired up: chiquitos with chiquitas, and moved their toes in sync, like professional, post-pubescent pros. In the audience their parents swayed their approval, in perfect time, smiling with the relaxed futile pride unique to Cubans.

These ‘street’ children were as academic as they were physically adept. Their English already very good, aged 7, they were writing in cursive script that puts Oxbridge graduates to shame. Indeed, between their Cuban teachers and Canadian volunteers, someone was getting something right. As for me, they certainly didn’t need my help when it came to perfecting their Canadian accents or indeed, lifestyle tips. Fuelled by innate rhythm and, arguably, austerity, these children and their, seem happier and healthier than I’d thought possible.

I got the sense that Havana was a party that keeps dancing, challenging the band to play on and on and inviting whoever is listening, to join in, even though the taps have run dry and the night is over. Doubtless things have changed over the past decade. Cubans seem to act quickly with steps as ingenious and spontaneous as the music that fills Havana’s many cracks. Obama came in during the second of my three weeks and already the lightening mood and arrival of some newish looking furniture, suggested change had already begun to seep through. I wonder how resilient this change will be, in the wake of horrendous Mathew.

I have hope, however. Cubans are masters of survival, used to emptying everything and float lightly, like Hemmingway’s Old Man, only to fill up again, and see how much won’t sink them. I hope this resilience sees them through Matthew as it saw them through Ike, Gutav and their predecessors.

One day I would like to go back and mark changes, mourn Cadillacs. See if glassless window holes have been filled and shuttered and Cubans are unhappier or unhealthier, or if they still smile and sway their hips while queuing all afternoon for a single scoop of state-supplied ice-cream.

 

Venice has a mask for every face

In 60 years sea levels will have crept 8 more inches up the Doge’s already stumpy columns. In 60 years, I, on the verge of death, hope to take my zimmer for one last ride up San Marco’s bell-tower lift and survey Venice’s mysterious, sinking glory.

There is nothing wrong with Venice. The stalls teeming with tack only set in relief the sheer beauty of this cunning floating city, scene to so much stinking tilted wonder.

It’s impossible to get lost in Venice. Every track, if you ignore ambiguous signs to the Rialto and San Marco, leads to some new, somehow intended, discovery: a part of Venice meant just for you, at that particular moment.

Lions  lead the way.  Immortalized in stone and bronze, they look down regally from the balconies or, guarding doors, gaze up watchfully. I feel intrusive, cruel and a little scared, as I push one of the many brass doorbells that is also a lion’s tongue.

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Having witnessed so much for so long, at such intimately close quarters, Venice and its lions have become somehow animate and wise. Whatever your mood, you feel it is sensed by more than the Venetian authorities’ liberal peppering of CCTV. The ancient canal-veined piazzas are like crafty Venetians, canny as they are charming – they play your mood up or down to suit their whim. You find that one piazza offers sweet antidotes, another plies irresistible corruption, the next lays you bare and leaves you pitifully exposed. And they swing from mood to mood. Today Santo Stefano is expansive, Campo Bandiera e Moro is vacant, San Marco is indecisive.  Tomorrow, the opposite may be true, depending on the light, the fog, your mood and theirs.

This is, I suppose, how we project our thoughts onto our environment at home, but Venice is a city of mirrors and the reflections are clearer, never quite what you expected. No two people or objects ever share the same view.

One day it will all be buried under the sea, like Atlantis.  Maybe a dozen lucky lions will be rescued and revived and speak of their masters.  Men who tricked geology and the waves for 3 millennia. Tricks of bricks and glass-flutes and chandelier-like masks, all continuously and elaborately confessed beside Tintorettos and Titians under precariously high belfries, with here and there a freshly minted icon, for luck and good measure.

I feel privileged to have seen Venice in all its weary decadence, before it puts on the final death mask. A place of constant magic. However old and jaded, it never tells the same story twice. Mother of the Commedia dell’ Arte, it too, is an unscripted drama. The light and sound and smell is forever switching, bringing out something new or secreted, in both itself and its audience. One moment it’s thick and clogging and fools you into thinking you can predict it; the next, it’s free and crisp and glistens anew with a brilliance that strikes fresh awe.

How I hope, beyond hope, that Venice somehow manages to carry on its magic tricks, recklessly ignoring the inevitable swell, facing sea, silt and pestilential swarms of selfie-sticks with its myriad of shimmering masks, grimacing and grinning into eternity!

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What makes a portrait great?  

Photographs capture a moment in time.  In exchange for the depth and truth of this one moment, photographs risk loosing the whole truth of all the other moments that have brought it to the viewer.

Saint-Exupéry, in  The Little Prince,  says ‘What is essential is not seen’.  A great portrait can be entirely abstract or ‘warts and all’; the final goal should never be  to get a visual likeness, but to take us to unseen dimensions, beyond the skin.

A bad portrait  can be replaced by a photograph. A great portrait layers experience over appearance, to conjure up something that’s part of time and yet beyond it.

Many of the portraits in this year’s exhibition pointed towards this extra dimension.

The National Portrait Gallery’s 2016 BP Portrait Award runs until September

 

Recommended reading

‘Diversion’ by Charlie Masson, oil on board, shown above

The Little Prince by Antoine Saint-Exupéry

The origin of the phrase ‘warts and all