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Let’s change the header from a despairing lady to a more joyful one: An Afternoon Rest by Guillaume Seignac.

On this Bank Holiday Monday that is today, I find inspiration in Seignac’s dozing lady. She makes me want to spend the last hours of summer gracefully reclined on marble (never has a stone bench looked so comfortable). Though perhaps with a not quite as see-through garment on.

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Today I am celebrating (or at least acknowledging) the 5-years anniversary of what has become le grande love affair between me and London. Our story begins on the 28th of August 2004 when I arrived in London for the very first time (the one time I had been here before doesn’t really count as it was part of a confirmation-trip and we spent the whole bloody day in St. Paul’s Cathedral. The most exciting thing I got to do was run across the street to buy a bottle of water). I remember that first weekend so well; the whole city was boiling in a tropical heat wave. I lived on Edgware Road and felt like I had ended up in a Moroccan tourist resort.

I spend an awful lot of time complaining about London. It’s noisy, it’s ugly, it smells. There are no stars, no birdsong, no fresh air; only polluted skies, sirens and fumes. And while people are busy being either rude, drunk or just plain stupid (or all of the above), the Victorian buildings wither away in the neon lights from the kebab shops. It makes me lose faith in humanity and everything feels more dystopian than the most hopeless of Heym-poems. Base and course and dreadful.

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Claude Monet, one of the paintings from the London Parliament Series (1904)

But then I have moments when the beauty of this city just overwhelms me. When I walk over one of the Thames bridges I am almost overpowered by the riverbanks’ majestic skylines and it is like the epiphanic moment Wordsworth had on Westminster Bridge*. And underneath our feet floats the river: cold, dark and quiet, reflecting the moon and the street lights like thousands of crystal on its surface. And it fills me with a feeling I never have anywhere else; that I am happy that I am here and nowhere else. Joie de vivre and all that.

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John Atkinson Grimshaw Reflection on the Thames, Westminster

Most of the time I am somewhere in between these extremes. I sit on Trafalgar Square with Landseer’s lions, probably arguing enthusiastically with the world over something trivial.  As I  glimpse Big Ben behind Lord Nelson I start to loose myself in the amazing sensation of having 200 years of historical greatness within an arm’s reach or the dreadful feeling of carrying 200 years’ worth of human misery on my shoulders. But then I have to divert my attention to swear at some tourist or pigeon or something else that annoys me. And so the love story continues.

* “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” by William Wordsworth

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This city now doth, like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie
Open unto the fields and to the sky,
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did the sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendor, valley, rock or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Ok, so I can tick Phédre off my wish-to-see-list. I am not too sure what I think about this. Mediocre maybe. I don’t really care to elaborate as I haven’t even read the play. I knew the story of Phaedra and Hippolytus but am not familiar with Racine’s version. I can say, however, that Dominic Cooper has stepped up a few notches since Mamma Mia but is still not quite the Greek Tragic Hero I had hoped for. As for Helen Mirren…not too impressed to honest. I am terribly pleased to have seen her; she has great stage presence and is very charismatic. But I thought her character Phédre was ill-defined and couldn’t work out if it was played for laughs or tears. I know she is somewhat of a British Untouchable and this feels almost blasphemous to say, but there was also something that distracted me in her appearance. She is gorgeous for sure and I’m not quite sure what it was exactly. Maybe her nose. Yes, most definitely her nose. Hmm, I sound really negative when I don’t mean too (just a little bit). It wasn’t bad at all, the ending in particular was good, and not merely because it was the ending but because of all the dying and blood and that. But I wanted it to rip my heart out and it didn’t. It barely moved it.

To be fair, I think I was also most unlucky with the audience. A lot of times you here actors say how much a performance can differ from night to night, being either extremely cheerful or very serious. Last night was certainly the former. I agree, some bits are funny, but the people behind me were chuckling away at every single line. I am really not exaggerating. Maybe they were high. Oh, and the great irony was that of course the whole company of queuers from the morning dispute were seated next to each other on the front row.  Ha! Now, if we don’t have ancient gods to play with our destiny anymore, at least we have the National’s ticketing system.

Some velvet morning when I’m straight, I’m gonna open up your gate and maybe tell you ’bout Phaedra..

I have left it to the very last minute but tonight I am finally going to see Helen Mirren in Phédre at the National Theatre. The last performance in London is tomorrow before they go on a world tour. I am very perplexed by the fact that  Michael Billington at the Guardian has given the production five out of five possible stars while Michael Coveney at the Independent only thought it was worth one. That it has gotten very mixed reviews I knew, but this is quite ridiculous. Admittedly, Billington is reviewing the broadcasted performance that the NT screened a while ago at cinemas around the country, but still, have they seen the same play one has to wonder? Anyway, a little disagreement is always entertaining.

As I was reminded of this morning when queuing up outside the National for the tickets. The ‘amateur-queuers’ were austerely informed by the more experienced ones, who had been ‘doing this a millions times,’ that their queuing was quite unordely and most intolerable. People have apparently been lynched for less. This became even more amusing when the pride that English people take in being quite superior in the fine art of queuing was being hurt. As an American gentleman remarked that this sort of thing never happens in New York, we were all quite assured by the self-acclaimed queuing-queen that normally ‘neither does it in London.’ Of course, as often is the case, both sides had their fair point, but the way people get worked up about things is just hilarious.

Here is a painting I like of Hippolytos (who is being played by Dominic Cooper, that lame boyfriend in Mamma Mia, hopefully a bit more manned up for this role) being dragged to death behind his chariot.

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The Death of Hippolytos (1860) by Sir Alma-Tadema.

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I have left it to the very last minute but tonight I am finally going to see Helen Mirren in Phédre at the National Theatre. The last performance in London is tomorrow before they go on a world tour. Am very perplexed at the fact that Michael Billington at the Guardian has given the production five out of five possible stars while Michael Coveney at the Independent only thought it was worth one. That it has gotten very mixed reviews I knew, but this is ridiculous. Admittedly, Billington is reviewing the broadcasted performance that the NT did a while ago but still. Anyway, a little disagreement is always entertaining.

As I was reminded of this morning when queuing up outside the National for the tickets. The ‘amateur-queuers’ were austerely informed by the more experience ones, who had been ‘doing this a millions times,’ that their queuing was quite unordely and most intolerable. People have apparently been lynched for less. This became even more amusing when the pride that English people take in being quite superior in the fine art of queuing was being hurt. As an American gentleman remarks that this sort of thing never happens in New York, we are quite assured by the self-acclaimed queuing-pros that normally ‘neither does it in London..’ Of course, as often is the case, both sides had their fair point, but the way people get worked up about things is just hilarious.

Up until September 6, Tate Modern is holding a retrospective exhibition of Danish artist Per Kirkeby including many of his paintings, sculptures and writings. The exhibition presents an artistic career spanning over 40 years moving from pop-art collages on Masonite, water-colour studies to huge oil-paintings. Originally a geologist student, Kirkeby’s artistic explorations takes him through historic and popular culture and the major subjects of landscape and natural forces.

I am feeling rather ambivalent towards Kirkeby. Much of his work is too abstract and impenetrable for me. As with most abstract art I feel I don’t really know what I’m looking at. Or maybe I don’t take the time to really look at anything that does not make sense or at least appeal to me instantly. With Kirkeby, I’m first puzzled (the opening paragraph explains a recurring subject of a hut but I see no hut…), then intrigued (his fusion of ‘high art and pop-culture’ and ‘hybrid composition of the figurative and the abstract’) and then rather impressed (when taking a few steps back and looking, although admittedly still not too sure at what exactly). Like if hidden in layers of dynamic colour composition in earthly hues (I think of soil, fossil, minerals, magma, rock and wood) are figures and shapes that do form some kind of impression after all. It feels raw, natural and forceful and it smells like sweet pine needles, dewy moss and burning sulphur. What did Bridget Riley say about nature? It’s not landscape, but the dynamism of visual forces…an event rather than an appearance. Seems apt here too. I am not sure about what the philosophical aspect of the work is though. If there is one.

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Per Kirkeby “The Murder in Finnerup Lade”, 1967

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Per Kirkeby “Retrospect I”, 1986

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Per Kirkeby “Brett-Felsen” , 2000

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I so wish I had a garden. Uhm…and as I’m not exactly horticulturally talented, maybe also a gardener.  Quite the opposite to being green-fingered; I cannot even keep a cactus alive, a fact that has been proven numerously. I became a little bit fanatic about cactuses (or cacti or whatever, I’m sorry but I simply refuse to write that) for a few years, after having watched Kalifornia where Brad Pitt cold-heartedly throws away Juliette Lewis’ little cactus and then, even more cold-heartedly, kills her in a cactus-garden.  I would beg my mom for one whenever we went to the supermarket so I had loads and would name them after Roman gods (I think this period might have coincided with my short-lived obsession with ancient mythology) and plant them in nice pots  with special cactus-soil. But despite all that care and devotion, and no matter how many cactus books I would take home from the library (not an awful lot to be honest but quite enough; Hatiora gaertneri, Disocactus phyllanthoides, Grusonia bulbispina and such) they would still go and die on me. After a few months they would all shrivel up like raisins. Then I saw the film Adaptation and gave them up altogether and opted for orchids instead, which is what I go with still. I have six of them right now, dead or alive, I am not too sure, either way they truly are a sorrowful sight.

So here I am, a very sorry excuse for a garden aficionado. Luckily, I have Regent’s Park practically around the corner. Good for inspiration until that gardener of mine comes along.

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Two days to go to A Streetcar Named Desire at the Donmar and I’m watching the 1951’s film which NY Times’ Arts Beat are discussing this week. All this talk of Marlon Brando and method acting and its perils reminds me of something I read in a Gielgud biography about Vivien Leigh, who I think used much more classic acting techniques, but who still was considerably affected by playing the role of Blanche. She hesitated at accepting the role as she was already mentally unstable and feared the role would drain her emotionally but was more or less talked into doing so.  My point being, I don’t think it has so much to do with the acting method per se, rather the circumstances of life in which a demanding role can be damaging to your psyche. But then again, I’m no actor.

There is another high-profile Streetcar opening soon in Sydney. It is somewhat surprisingly Liv Ullman who is directing with Cate Blanchett starring as Blanche. At the moment it looks like there are only plans to tour the U.S but one can always pray it will eventually come to London. Wouldn’t that be something.

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And I really cannot wait for tonight’s episode of Desperate Romantics, as William Holman-Hunt (my favorite Pre-Raphaelite…or they are all favourites really, but if we’re talking about the painter and not their paintings he’s it) is going to return from the Holy Land and therefore, finally, will have grown his beard.  I like looking at pictures of Holman-Hunt  as much as his paintings (much owing to that beard). There is a painting in the NPG of a crowded exhibition room at the Royal Academy, and it was in that painting I first discovered Holman-Hunt, because he stands out so exceptionally as a character himself with his slightly unruly, auburn hair and eccentric fur frock.

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I am really enjoying this tv show. Most of all because it is based on reality. I know everything did not happen exactly like that or in that order of events, and while some things are completely fabricated and others most ridiculously embroidered and almost everything very over-acted, much of it really did happen. Intrigues, rivalry, jealousy, love affairs…most fascinating. And of course the paintings. I love that they are letting the paintings play a role as vital as the people.

And Lizzie. They have turned Amy Manson into an absolute perfect Elizabeth Siddal. It’s worth watching just because of her really.

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(Holman-Hunt self-portrait; photgraph by Hollyer at V&A; Amy Mason as Lizzie Siddal)

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New header is: Isabella and the Pot of Basil by William Holman-Hunt (from Keat’s poem) because I just bought a pot of basil and the kitchen smells absolutely lovely. Well, at least if you stand really close to the basil plant.You would almost think that that is what Isabella is doing too, sniffing herbs. But actually, she’s caressing her Basil pot because that is where she has buried her sweetheart Lorenzo’s head. He was killed by her brothers as Isabella was to be married off to some rich guy and certainly not a simple servant. Heartbroken she withered away with her pot of basil which she watered with her tears. And as if that’s not tragic enough, they then take her basil pot from her, consequently making  basil-pot-stealing the worst thing you can do. Symbolically speaking I mean. Or something.

My basil is not quite so interesting, thank god. Just about good enough to go in the pasta, which is all you can ask of a pot of basil really.

I can’t believe I am sick, again! I have been back in London for three days and have barely managed to unpack. Have been completely wiped-out with fever, migraines and god knows what. Is this what it’s supposed to be like when you come back from holiday? I guess, a somewhat unnecessary high alcohol intake is bound to have some effect on you body’s immune system but still, this is ridiculous. And really, really boring. Plus I have ant bites on my knees and weird holes in the skin on my arms from sunburn. I look like a heroin addict.