Feasting on the arts in London

It was a bit of a jolt to come back into the press of people in London after our calm days in Devon. But we had several major events to look forward to, and we dove in, hearts first.

David Hockney has taken London by storm, and tickets for the show at the Royal Academy were being scalped at outrageous prices. Thankfully, we had booked our tickets before we left for Devon, and it was one of the first places that we headed when we got back.

Winter Timber. The painting takes up a whole wall of the gallery.

A Bigger Picture is one of the most vibrant shows I have ever seen. Hockney attacks landscapes. He spends years working on the same view at different seasons, different weathers. His colours are like no one else’s. When this show opened in February, Londoners flocked to it as to a vacation in the sun. You are viserally hit with almost impossible colour juxtapositions. And these pictures are huge. Really, really huge. He does full wall landscapes using grid sections, so that he can paint each section almost life size.

In one room, he displays a series of 51 framed prints of work that he did on an iPad. I hadn’t expected to like these, but I found them totally compelling. The way he uses the iPad is revolutionary. It is a medium that allows him to “work rapidly with a stylus to capture the changing light and conditions of a scene. The effect is significantly different to that achieved with a brush in other mediums.”

Hockney iPad art.

The 51 iPad prints record the transition from winter through to late spring on one small road. The work culminates in “The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011”, a 32 canvas painting that takes over a huge wall of the gallery. “The deliberate sense of theatricality in this gallery reflects Hockney’s many decades of experience designing sets for the opera: the view is placed centre-stage with the drama of the approaching spring played out on all sides.” (copy from the program) I guess it is no wonder that I loved it.

From landscapes we went to portraits. The Lucien Freud show at the National Portrait Gallery changed our focus from the changing colours of landscape to the changing minutiae of skin tone — small brush manipulations that reflect a complex life. “I’ve always wanted to create drama in my pictures, which is why I paint people. It’s people who have brought drama to pictures from the beginning. The simplest human gestures tell stories.” Lucien Freud.

Freud self portrait 1985

These are stories that you dig deeply into. Like our layers of skin, and the layering of our experiences, the paintings pull your eyes through layers of paint to reveal the soul within. These are raw portraits, reminding me of how little we really know of people, of how hard it is to go beneath the layers.

From visuals to sound. I was desperate for complex sounds to wash through me. I wanted to hear music that was as full of contrasting colours as the Hockney show, as personal as the Lucien Freud. It didn’t take long to find a perfect concert. Chick Corea and Gary Burton on their “Hot House” tour. Two brilliant, percussive artists who have been playing together for over 40 years. They come together almost as one. Chick Corea on piano and Gary Burton on vibes, they played a range that included original pieces, Miles, Dizzy, Monk, Mozart, Bartok, Antonio Carlos Joabim and Lennon & McCartney. These are musicians at the top of their game, playing, having fun and sharing that fun with an audience. And because it was so percussive, the sound came into my body just as the light vibrations from the Hockney paintings had.

From sound to words and thought. Lucy Prebble is a young and successful British playwright. She wrote, amongst other things, Enron, about the financial scandal of 2001. “It’s always useful to remember that free market economics – capitalism if you prefer – brought us the slave trade, the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression, as well as more recent events such as the near meltdown of the entire global financial system.” (from the London Theatre review of Enron.) Enron was a big hit on the West End and a magnificent failure on Broadway. “I think Americans don’t like ambiguity,” said Lucy. She gave an entertaining and engaging talk at the Haymarket Theatre as a part of their Masterclass Series. She prefaced the talk by saying that anything that she said about her past was, like all memory, a “retrospective rationalization”. In other words, we all make up our lives as we chose to tell them. Her talk was personal, honest and revealing, much like the Freud portraits. It is good to know that all artists are just working from one project to the next, trying to grow, to find ways of challenging themselves, and sometimes just trying to survive.

From words to movement. One of the most exciting young London dance artists is Maddy Wynne-Jones. While I might have a personal bias, I have to say that it has been a huge thrill to watch Maddy’s work evolve, even in the short time we’ve been here. We went to a scratch performance (a work-in-progress performance that encourages dialogue and discussion) of the new Tempered Body Dance Theatre piece under development. “Stand-By” is a piece about dependency. On people, on substances. It asks the questions, “Are we really saying these two categories of dependence are similarly devastating? When is independence destructive?” The scratch performance featured about 15 minutes of the piece, and we were moved to tears by the work. Big gulping, shaking sobs. But also smiles of self-knowledge.

Tempered Body Dance Theatre in rehearsal

I went to the studio this week to watch further rehearsals and was deeply impressed by the cohesiveness of the company, and by their open and generous exploration of these questions. They are dancers with amazing skill and integrity. Maddy’s choreography and direction guides them to movements that are honest and resonant. We’ll see another scratch performance next month. It is a privilege to watch this work in development.

Tempered Body Dance Theatre in rehearsal for Stand-By.

It is a constant river of inspiration here. Sometimes we need to stand outside, on the banks to catch our breath. But knowing that our time in London is limited, we are diving in as often as we can.

Glamourous Limping with family and friends in London

Although we were sorry to bid goodbye to our Spanish adventure, it was wonderful to get back to London. No sooner had we gotten off the plane than we whisked off to a large Lunberg family outing to see Tosca at the English National Opera. It was great to be back with our noisy and passionate family, wildly gesticulating and explosively laughing through our pre-opera pizzas. We hadn’t seen Tosca before, and it was a fabulous production, with bold, dramatic lighting designs that emphasized the violent emotions of the story. And when Tosca fell backwards off the set to her death, there was an audible gasp in the audience.

The next day, with barely a moment to unpack, I went to the Haymarket theatre to see a really interesting play called the Two Worlds of Charlie F. The production was an outreach project that the Haymarket did in collaboration with the British Legion. Soldiers from the Bravo 22 Company who were wounded in Afghanistan worked with a director, writer and professional actors to create an incredibly moving piece of theatre. They brought their stories to life with shocking honesty. They showed me the effects of war and created images I will never forget. They performed with humour, integrity and insight.

However, I could only stay for the first half of the show. My foot, which had been sore for a number of days, began to swell up and soon I was in tremendous pain. Nothing close to the pain I was seeing on stage, but nevertheless, I had to leave. I hobbled home to Surbiton and headed to the emergency department of the Kingston hospital. The NHS (National Health Service) was terrific and diagnosed it as cellulitis, an infection brought on by my excessive walking in Barcelona. I was proscribing an aggressive round of antibiotics. It was going to be a while before I could put on any shoes.

Even though I was taking it a bit easy, nothing was going to stop us from having a great Robbie Burns party later that week. Bryan and Robbie Burns share the same birthday, so it is a tradition here in Surbiton to have a big party to celebrate. Because my birthday was in the same week, we got to share in the festive dinner, which included a huge roast beef, various root vegetables (parsnips, turnips, swedes, carrots, potatoes) and vast amounts of haggis (vegetarian and non). A fabulous meal, and about as far from our Spanish diet of shellfish and squid that you could get!

A birthday party for Bryan, Amanda and Robbie Burns

The next night, I was able to hobble out so that we could go for a farewell evening with David and Hinda. We went to the new movie of Coriolanus (incredible—one of the best adaptations of Shakespeare I have ever seen. See it in the theatre if you can, because the sound track is amazing.), followed by dinner at Pollen Street Social, offering “de-formalized fine dining”. I was still wearing my hiking boots because of my foot, which felt very embarrassing in such a posh environment. Definitely “de-formalized”. But the meal soon made me forget everything else. Starters of Cornish crab vinaigrette with Nashi pear and light cured Sheltland Salmon with avocado; mains of roasted sea bass with truffle sauce and halibut bourguignon; finishing with a cheese plate of 10 different cheeses from throughout the UK and Europe. Each dish was a unique sensation, with incredible attention to detail.

Suddenly it was after midnight. We bid a fond farewell to David and Hinda and hurried to catch the last train to Surbiton, racing to Waterloo in a cab, since the Tube was already closed. It was the first time I had realized that the Tube closes so early. Seems crazy!

I was still in my unlovely but functional hiking boots a few days later when we went to the opening of the “Works on Paper Art Fair”, an art exhibit and sale. There were 54 different booths from art dealers all across the country. It was like a scene from a movie with dealers, aficionados, speculators and investors walking around with bottles of champagne and talking about the first Hockney/Renoir/Matisse that they bought. I decided to pretend that I was so fabulously rich that I didn’t have to care how I looked, and within minutes was having a long conversation about some exquisite (and expensive) Samuel Palmer lithographs. I took the dealer’s card as regally as I could, and promised to visit the gallery when I was next in Herefordshire.

Retreating from that rarified atmosphere, we headed to the Phoenix Artist’s Club to see “La Chunga”, a play by Peruvian-Spanish writer Mario Vargas Llosa. A friend from Ottawa, Jessica Ruano, was the assistant director on the production, and it was great to see her, and her work. The play is a really compelling exploration of machismo culture and sexual politics, stylish and honest in its approach. It was performed in a tiny space at the back of the pub, downstairs from the Phoenix Theatre. A great venue and perfect for the play, which takes place in a bar. We loved it.

Sometimes, it drives me crazy to be here with so much going on all of the time. The possibilities are infinite. There is a new adventure around every corner. It is great to be back in London.