Bite-sized Reykjavik

imageIceland had never really been on my radar. I had a vague knowledge of the place; I knew that it was where Bjork came from. I knew that they had taken a terrible hit during the financial meltdown of 2009 and that one of their temperamental volcanoes had brought European airspace to a standstill in 2010. But that was just about it.

All Europe-ed out after a few months of back to back visits to the continent and with a long week-end to spare and a stash of disposable pennies, that little flake of land, mid-Atlantic, began to look more and more attractive. An exciting in-reach wilderness, that wasn’t continental, but offered an independent culture and a thriving music scene.

Iceland, the very word conjures up thoughts of adventure, sliding down bloody great big glaciers, wandering down ravines cut into the earth thousands of years ago, bubbling springs and those grand, chilly, empty vistas of nothing. And Reykjavik too, the world’s northernmost capital of a sovereign state, with it cafe culture and it’s downright cosmopolitan nature, all amid, if you’re lucky, the ethereal shimmer of the Northern Lights. Yes, my initial disinclination gave way to inexplicable enthusiasm when I gave the idea some thought.

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The first thing that you realise as the airplane nose nudges into Icelandic airspace is the sheer emptiness of the space and the blackness of the volcanic land. The slightly melancholy introduction is quickly overcome by the friendliness of the airport, with its odd living room feel, a line of hardy out-doors-types reclining in arm-chairs amid the surprisingly, for an airport, relaxed atmosphere. It was like deplaning into an outlet of the Edinburgh Woolen Mill, a sensation that would be often repeated.

The bus to Reykjavik was buzzed by what appeared to be an American Air Force style B52, suddenly appearing over the brow of a grassy hill while I was gazing out across the flat landscape that comprises Keflavik. It was either taking off or landing behind me, I wasn’t quite sure, either way, its roar was such a surprise that I banged my nose on the coach window.

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Despite Reykjavik being home to over 200,000 people, the majority of the Icelandic populace, I was surprised at the village feel of Reykjavik central. Many, many coffee shops, enough record stores to satisfy even the most frenzied vinyl junkie and a surprising number of noodle bars make up the narrow, bicycle strewn streets.

My first meal in the Icelandic capital was in one of these eponymous noodle bars, but one recommended by a friend who had been before. The bowl was enormous, brimming with chicken noodle soup and I sat in the window slurping away, staring at the Hallgrímskirkja church, the city’s most bewitching building.

imageThe pristinely white structure sits at the end of the long and straight principle shopping street, Skólavörðustígur, towering over the city, it resembles an ice sculpture, the building’s curved and rippling sides bringing to mind the perfect fossilised shapes sometimes found on a volcano field. The church inside is refreshingly plain, all whites and creams, very calming, for a church, even the traditionally uncomfortable pews are upholstered.

I took a wander to the beautiful lighthouse at Seltjarnarnes, about a half an hours walk from the city centre, still within striking distance of town, but utterly deserted. Miles and miles of empty beach followed miles and miles of empty beach.  It was so quiet that the noiselessness seemed to pressure my ears, as if they were straining to hear something, but couldn’t and the strain to do so was making them ache. It was like the world had gone quiet. It was all right for a while, a different experience, but after a couple of hours I was yearning for a return to civilization and people. It wasn’t the true Icelandic wilderness, but it was interesting to experience the edge of emptiness.

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My visit happened, by chance, to coincide with what would have been John Lennon’s 73rd birthday. My temporary landlady told me that Yoko Ono always visited town on that day to light the ‘Imagine Peace Tower’ a light sculpture Ono had built on Videy, a small windswept island about five minutes sail from the harbor. I wasn’t entirely sure if it would be my kind of thing, but I went along anyway, sailing across the freezing water on a rickety boat while “The Ballad of John and Yoko” blared from speakers wedged in the wheelhouse. We all sang “Give Peace a Chance,” and I kind of thought it might be nice if we actually gave it a try, after all I’d been awarded peace in great big chunks during my visit to Iceland and I’d found it roundly enjoyable, so why shouldn’t the rest of the world get a fair crack at it too?

Amid the candlelit emptiness, someone strummed an acoustic guitar, Yoko Ono danced all in black, top hat strangely resistant to the blowing gale. It still wasn’t really my thing, but because of that, I was enjoying it.

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The Dandy Lion

imageI told her I’d meet her on Dandelion Fields where the lion who wears the tatty jackets and the purple polka dot neckerchief lives.

It rained probabilities over there, actual numbers, ones and twos, decimal points and fractions. You can stand up there and hold out your tongue and feel the figures drop into your mouth and then dissolve into a particular kind of liqueur, not sure which one, perhaps, Drambuie?

To get there I had to cut past the fairground with the three interconnecting Ferris wheels, all lashed together with ropes and wooden wedges, so when you set one going it automatically powers the interlocking next one and so on.

I walked through the pines until I came to a circular clearing, with a wind sock dead centre. The sock was multicoloured, red, vanilla and peach. I think the colours were these, or maybe sprout green instead of red, or instead of peach, I can’t remember.

Hammered into the grass, about five meters or so away from the sock, but exactly parallel with it, was a little wooden sign that read, in a graceful Prunella Trieste font, “Don’t shout obscenities at the wind sock.”

Of course there was a fella there doing just that and I ran up to him, wildly flailing my arms about and yelling, “Hey, didn’t you read the sign man, I mean, can’t you read?”

The guy pleaded ignorance and scarpered and I could hear his hobnail boots clip-clapping as he hit the Roman Road that ran directly to the left of the clearing. I stared up at the sock, as it hung limp against the white metal pole, a breeze brought it to life a moment and it fluttered to its full length, before settling back down.

“Don’t shout obscenities at the wind sock,” I chuckled to myself, as I walked on.

When I got to Dandelion Fields Polly Lillianlion was there.

Gee, Polly Lillianlion, how can you not fall in love with a girl with six ls in her name?

Polly was sat on the ground, cradling the Dandy Lion’s head in her lap. It looked like he was dying.

Two crows scattered from the tree behind me.

I got over to them and he was all torn up, his jacket was in tatters, the boutonnière in his top button hole had wilted and was all brown and his pinstripe trousers were ragged at the bottoms. It was raining so both of our macs were covered in multi-coloured numbers, but he was covered mainly in blue nines.

The Dandy Lion’s paws were full of cuts and the white tape, from boxing I suppose, wrapped around them was bloodstained and unravelling. His top hat lay to his left looking like it had been punched straight through and someone had snapped the metal stretchers out of his umbrella.

I waved my hand in front of his face, tugged at his whiskers and peered into his eyes but registered no response. Polly shook her head. He seemed to come to for a moment and he breathed out and said, “I’ve seen some things in our world, but this really takes the cake.” Then he turned over on his side to face away from Polly, brought his knees up towards his chest and died.

Polly looked at me and said, “Let’s bury him and then go home.” So we buried him and started home.

Tantra Song – The Mystical Modernity of Paintings from Rajasthan

Energy fizzing about a turquoise sea - From Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan, selected and with writings by Franck André Jamme. Published by Siglio

Energy fizzing about a turquoise sea – From Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan, selected and with writings by Franck André Jamme. Published by Siglio

With our modern eloquence, our technology and our brash and inventive culture, contemporary artists have developed individual ways of expressing hopes, beliefs, doubts and fears through art. Yet magically, when arts and crafts are brought together from across the world — from cultures and nations completely separate from one-another — unlikely bonds emerge, suggesting a common human struggle for expression.

An excellent example of this can be seen in Tantra Song, a new book compiled by one of France’s leading contemporary poets, Franck André Jamme. The book features a collection of rare Tantric paintings from Rajasthan, India, used to awaken heightened states of consciousness through meditation. Collated by Jamme during many trips to his beloved India, the paintings bear an uncanny resemblance to 20th century abstract art, Bauhaus and Russian Constructivism, despite the fact that they are articles of the 17th century, replicated by generations ever since.

Having spent more than two decades in conversation with the private communities of Rajasthani tantrikas, Jamme—like other poet-ethnographers before him, Michaux, Leiris, and Bataille, was moved to highlight the paintings’ subtle magic.

The pictures presented are often joyful: filled with colour, they are both hypnotic and sensual, their simple geometry elegant yet immediate. Produced upon recycled paper, the paintings feature divine and religious diagrams and representations of deities and mystic forces, which are used to help believers visualise the deity they portray.

White arrows dance and fizz across a deep turquoise square representing energy, whilst colour filled wheels contain all the shades of the Earth. There are fiery triangles atop a tropical shade of blue — the tongue of the goddess Kali in duplicate — the repetition supposedly inducing true intoxication.

All the colours of the world - From Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan, selected and with writings by Franck André Jamme. Published by Siglio

All the colours of the world – From Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan, selected and with writings by Franck André Jamme. Published by Siglio

Jamme quickly recognised the simple logic of the Tantrika craftsmen: “They see time and day and night very naturally, they think of two stripes, black and white.”

“There are a lot of small rules with this kind of Tantric painting,” Jamme adds, “but [ultimately] they respect colour: if they want to express consciousness, they are going to use light blue; they are not going to use red.”

This favouring of colour over stipulation is indicative of Tantra, which is often looked upon with scorn by traditional Hindus who’s own religion is comprised of complicated rules and regulation. In comparison, Tantrism embraces freedom, personal liberty, and gender equality. “Traditional Hindus are skeptical and a bit afraid of this,” explains Jamme, “because Tantrism can sound a little bit devilish to them — there is so much freedom. They’re afraid of freedom. — [fear] is the standard for humanity.”

Returning to France from India with the artwork and a better understanding of its meaning, Jamme exhibited the paintings as part of Magiciens de la Terre (Magicians of the Earth) an exhibition held at the Pompidou Centre in 1989. The display brought together contemporary art from across the world in an attempt to answer the question: “Is there such a thing as a common world art?”

Jamme considers the answer to that question to be yes; the evidence lying not only in the distinct similarities between Tantric painting and our own contemporary art but in the art and culture of eras past.

“In Orissa, India,” Jamme says, “[they’ve] found a particular form of poetry from the Medieval times which is extremely close in form to Haiku poetry from Japan — very short pieces with the very same number of syllables. That’s fascinating! I think there is [universally] a collective, hidden human search for expression,” Jamme explains, “just think of yodelers in Switzerland — you have exactly the same thing in the North of Vietnam.”

The principal force driving this search is freedom of expression, something embodied by the Tantrika craftsmen who harbour a “mad and pure desire for mental elevation. They’ll think of any way, any manner, any practice to reach that goal, beyond many of the rules and regulations of their rite.”

These Tantric paintings are the colourful, disciplined result of concentration combining with freedom, beautiful to look at, yet also — to those who believe — an attempt to “assemble almost everything, out of almost nothing.”

Tantra Song, collected and with writing by Franck André Jamme is available through Siglio Press.

I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter – The Leonard Bernstein Letters

Leonard Bernstein

It is always a wonder, when doorstop volumes of letters belonging to dead icons are released, that people who led such gargantuan lives in scope and depth, found the time to achieve so much and still be such conscientious correspondents to so many people. But we are talking about a different time here, when you had to write to stay in touch. One of the considerable losses the social networking age will inflict on the generations it has hoodwinked will be to deny them a physical stash of handwritten letters. Thankfully though we can enjoy the archives of past notables who were not so deprived.

Such was the bountiful nature of Leonard Bernstein’s musical output and such was his influence as a conductor and a teacher internationally, that it is unsurprising to see that his correspondence, newly compiled by Nigel Simeone, takes up a whopping 600 pages. Bernstein’s letters are conversational and informal, surprising, given that he was an excellent writer. Strangely though many of the stand out letters in this collection are actually ones that Bernstein received, rather than the ones he wrote.

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Of particular note is the letter Jacqueline Kennedy wrote to Lennie in the early hours of June 9th 1968, the night after Robert Kennedy’s funeral. Bernstein had conducted an excerpt of Mahler’s 5th Symphony during the funeral mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and Jackie, moved by the performance, wrote to Bernstein to thank him. Jacqueline, who would of course go on to become a literary editor herself, reveals an elegant turn of phrase in her writing, describing her late brother-in law as ‘kaleidoscopic’, before going on to note that Bobby’s wife, Ethel, loved him ‘mystically’.

The Kennedy link is a strong one throughout the book, a childishly excitable Frank Sinatra writes on the 12th of January 1961 of the rehearsals for a gala performance he is organising for the Inauguration of President Kennedy in which Bernstein is to participate. The description of the social element of the Inaugural brouhaha is quintessential Sinatra: “Now for the social side of this hoedown,” he writes. “Exhibit A will be a supper party that Ambassador (Joe) Kennedy is giving in honour of the entire cast. This will be black tie for the fellows and something dazzling for the girls.” He goes on to sign off with a charmingly menacing “Love and kisses and I’ll be waiting for you.”

The correspondence between Jerome Robbins and Bernstein is of particular interest. Robbins was one of the co-creators of West Side Story and was a major influence on Bernstein, cajoling him to work, in often brutal terms, while striving for a punchy, exciting show. “In general,” Jerome writes, “suddenness of action is something we should strive for.”

His letter after receiving one of the first drafts of the show is the politely written equivalent of tearing up the score and shouting ‘no, no, no, take it back and start again!’ He disdains the downbeat nature of the early drafts, “We’re dead unless the audience feels that all the tragedy can and could be averted, that there’s hope and a wish for escape from tragedy and a tension built on that desire.”

Bernstein onstage at the kennedy Inaguration Ball, organised by Frank Sinatra.

Bernstein onstage at the kennedy Inaguration Ball, organised by Frank Sinatra.

Stephen Sondheim, another co-conspirator on West Side Story, also comes across as a sparkling letter writer. “You have the distinct privilege,” he writes to Lennie, “of being the first person in these Continental United States to receive correspondence typed on my new and not completely paid for IBM Electric Typewriter. How about these margins?”

Berstein’s exchanges with his contemparys in the composing world are also illuminating. There are a number of letters to and from Aaron Copland, the composer of the famous Fanfare for the Common Man and the better, but lesser known Appalachian Spring. Bernstein is an affectionate, informal corespondent in his letters to Copland. “I’m a dawg, a dawg, a dawg not to have done this before,” starts one letter dated 28th of September 1944. He goes on to talk about how his work on what would go on to become On the Town is dominating his life and reveals a shaky confidence in the piece: “The show is a wild monster now which doesn’t let me sleep or eat or anything, maybe it will lay the great egg of all time. It’s an enormous gamble.”

His marriage to his wife Felicia Montealegre was not always a happy one, although they were naturally in tune musically, collaborating on performances of Bernstein’s own Kaddish Symphony and Debussy’s Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien. Her letters, written during long periods of separation when he was off on foreign tours, are often the more fragile, but his don’t want for longing either. He writes from the Grand Hotel Duomo in Milan in February 1955: “I miss you terribly and love your letters. They carry a whiff of something warm and familiar and joyful.”

Leonard and Felicia Bernstein

Leonard and Felicia Bernstein

These letters matter because Bernstein matters. He understood and articulated the power of music better that anyone, not just classical music, but any kind of music and that, among many other things, makes him extremely important. “I am very happy tonight for music,” he said, on collecting a Grammy lifetime achievement award in 1995 “And I’ll be even happier and maybe even ecstatic if tonight can be a step toward the ultimate marriage of all kinds of music, because they are all one.”

The breadth of his musical creation, which stretched from musical theatre to boundary breaking classical music, was awe inspiring, but much of it is often overlooked. The collection features a letter from President Reagan, sent to the composer on the day of his seventieth birthday, celebrating his achievements from “West Side Story to Wonderful Town” two valedictory bookends Bernstein would have found dubious. Despite the greatness of his theatre work, he wanted to be remembered for so much more.

Leonard Bernstein died on October 14th 1990 at the age of seventy one and was outlived by his mother, Jennie. One of the last letters in the book is from her, dated 5th of September 1990, “I have confidence in you,” she writes, simply a mother worried about her son’s health, “I think you’re on the right track.”

The Leonard Bernstein Letters – Edited by Nigel Simeone – Is available from Yale University Press now.

F For Fake – Orson says: ‘Never Trust an Expert’

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Orson Welles and Elmyr de Hory – Picture courtesy of Mark Forgy

I am not an expert. I say that with all due consideration to you, the reader, who may well have found this page expecting expertise, thinned and straightened into horizontal lines, ready for you to take up your collective noses like Victorian snuff. We live in the era of the expert. The twenty four hour news media, to borrow an increasingly dreary phrase, screams for, day in day out, and thusly teems with, expertise, battalions of experts eager to validate any newspaper, any news network, any website with their considered meanderings into the anointed topics of the day.

Every statement needs validation. Every argument needs both sides. Two statements of fact. But with more and more statements being made, through countless platforms, mouthpieces and mediums, the clamour for authentication is prompting the bar for expertise to be lowered further and further.

Expertise is overrated. An expert can’t be trusted. Overarching statements and both subjects of Orson Welles’s recently re-released late-period film ‘F for Fake’. The film focuses on two notorious swindlers: Elmyr de Hory and Clifford Irving, one notorious recluse: Howard Hughes and a whole host of dubious experts.

“In the late 1960s Elmyr de Hory was the world’s most talented and most successful art forger ever,” says Mark Forgy, a writer from Minneapolis and one time assistant to Elmyr. Forgy is, you could say, one of the leading Elmyr experts still living, the holder of the deceased painter’s personal papers, he acted as de Hory’s confidant and bodyguard. When the painter committed suicide in 1976, with the law closing in, it was Forgy who found Elmyr dying from an overdose of sleeping pills.

Forgy certainly boasts all the trappings of the expert, he’s written a book (The Forger’s Apprentice – A True Story) that’s one peg up in the expertise stakes. The book has been turned into a play (directed by Sara Pillatzki-Warzeha, co written and co-produced by Mark Forgy and Kevin Bowen, first performed at the Minnesota Fringe in August 2013). Mark Forgy is even available for lectures. In fact at this juncture you might think it best for me to hand over to Mark Forgy to complete this brief lecture on Elmyr de Hory and the falling stock of expertise in our century, but, to paraphrase Orson Welles: “This isn’t that kind of article.”

Elmyr de Hory - Picture courtesy of Mark Forgy

Elmyr de Hory – Picture courtesy of Mark Forgy

Mark Forgy is not the only expert on the life and times of Elmyr de Hory, and he certainly isn’t the most famous, and fame counts for a lot these days. Clifford Irving (whose name you might have heard most often mentioned in regards to Howard Hughes – more on him later) was the first to publish a book on the great Elmyr after spending some time together with him on the island of Ibiza, where Elmyr planned to settle after spending years running from city to city avoiding the police. The book was Fake! and it told the story of how some of Elmyr’s fake Picassos, Modiglianis, Reichenbachs and Renoirs made their way, un-rumbled, into the most prestigious art collections in the world, where some of them may remain to this very day.

But Irving, the writer and momentary expert on Elmyr, had his sights set on becoming the authoritative source on a man even more fleeting and mysterious than the Hungarian born painter.

Howard Hughes was the great mystery man of his age, the Saran wrapped enigma, the man who engineered the uplifting brassiere and the grounded Spruce Goose, made movies and wooed Katharine Hepburn, before disappearing, to some top floor penthouse suite in Las Vegas where he kept bottles of his own urine, padded about with Kleenex boxes on his feet and saw no one. So the stories go. So the experts tell us. Sequestered in the Desert Inn, surrounded by a ‘band of mystery Mormons’, bemoaning that dago bastard Frank Sinatra who had stolen his girl, the world waited for the Hughes comeback, after all, nobody turns their back on celebrity, not in America, everybody comes back to the lights, eventually.

Cliff Irving erroneously believed Hughes had gone for good and should he, Irving, produce a book, an autobiography, a fake autobiography featuring fraudulent contributions from Hughes himself, then the missing billionaire would surely not stir from his rooftop hideout disturbing the desert sands covering his lair, in order to refute Irving’s fantasy. He’d been gone for fifteen years by then, could be dead for all Irving knew, or at the very least the Kleenex stories could be true and the old man would be too crackers to notice.

Hughes was a man desperate for his story to be told, said Irving, they had met in various locations around the world for interviews, including incredulously, on top of a Mexican pyramid, like a scene from a fake de Chirico painting. And why not a Mexican pyramid? Hughes was gaga, so the more outrageous the better. After all if there is one thing people hate more than anything it’s an unfinished story, think Kennedy in Dallas, Princess Grace in the hills above Monaco and Diana in the Alma Tunnel. An unfinished story leaves a void ready to be filled with bunk, scurrilous sculch, which people believe, if it gives meaning to a meaningless end, or in this case, something even more ethereal and infuriating (for the gossip hound) than death, an unexplained disappearance.

Howard Hughes

Howard Hughes

The world bought it. Time Magazine bought it to the tune of $250,000 for serial rights to the manuscript while Dell Publishing Company offered a further $400,000 for the paperback rights. But before money exchanged hands, Irving’s big book of lies had to pass muster with the experts. Hughes’s signature on the documents agreeing to the publication of the book had to be authenticated. The best handwriting experts in the whole-wide-world were summoned and pored over the documents like pigs over a trough of satsumas. They huffed and puffed and wiped their sweaty brows and concluded, after much study, that yes, this was the signature of the real Howard Hughes and with the approbation of the sainted experts given, Irving had his scoop, the scoop, bar the (phoney) Hitler diaries, of the century.

Hughes should never have had to stir from his stupor to dismiss the story, there should have been countless experts on hand to do that for him, people in possession of the plain facts. And yet that is exactly was he was forced to do, not physically though, instead his disembodied voice appeared over a phone line to a room full of invited journalists.

“I don’t remember any script as wild or as stretching of the imagination as this yarn has turned out to be,” said the supposed voice of Hughes. “I don’t know Irving. I never saw him. I never even heard of him until a matter of days ago when this thing first came to my attention.”

Despite the fact that it was known that Howard Hughes had used voice doubles in the past, the journalists, who were all supporters of Hughes, concluded that the voice did indeed belong to the dyspeptic billionaire, just as the handwriting experts had identified the hand of a Hughes in Irving’s phoney web.

When the flush of a newborn sun fell first on Eden’s green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mold;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves: “It’s pretty, but is it Art?”

Mark Forgy (left) and Elmyr de Hory (right). Picture courtesy of Mark Forgy

Mark Forgy (left) and Elmyr de Hory (right). Picture courtesy of Mark Forgy

When Adam scratched Eve’s name onto the Eden tree, its my guess he didn’t initial it, but for as long as that tree stood, way back in the BC’s I bet there was some knowing character on hand to point out the landmark, and I’m sure that when that etching was weathered off the bark, or the tree was felled, that someone was quick enough to whittle a replacement, so as not to loose the tourist trade.

“It’s pretty, but is it art” wrote Ruddy Kipling, a verse quoted by Welles in F for Fake. You could say that Elmyr’s fakes are pretty, but certainly not art, because of their carbon copy nature. But then again, can’t deception be artful? Irving’s bogus autobiography was certainly artful in its circumvention of the truth. Expertise is easy to fake if you are able to say something well enough.

Speak delicate untruths in an authoritative voice and you will most likely be believed in the heat of the moment. Anything jump out at you when you read earlier: “Fake! told the story of how some of Elmyr’s fake Picassos, Modiglianis, Reichenbachs and Renoirs made their way, undiscovered, into some of the most prestigious art collections in the world.”? Reichenbach? An artist who ranks with the greats? No such person. Francois Reichenbach, the producer of F for Fake, the more likely candidate here. But did you briefly believe in this new artistic master as you skimmed these paragraphs? Were you willing to give me the benefit of the doubt, just for a moment?

Howard Hughes

Howard Hughes

Perhaps the more pertinent question, in an age where news and celebrity have become intertwined is should we be more realistic about the outlets we turn to for truth? Anyone who looks towards a blog say, or a tabloid newspaper, the Daily Mail, for example, for hard, provable fact and then screams bloody murder when they are left disappointed is misguided. It is blatantly obvious that the purpose of the Mail, in its current form, is not to inform, but to entertain, in the same way as a Beano comic will.

A character assassination here, a sexing up of the facts there, from the ‘fascist den’ at the Daily Mail to the supposed ‘nest of Marxists’ that comprises the BBC, these aren’t sins against the public, but are the well-meaning acts of a new and fine breed of storytellers, currently residing in the one time impenetrable fortresses of truth and justice that once made up the media in the UK and the US. Ranks of Clifford Irvings, willing to put fiction before the truth for the sake of entertainment, backed by cherry picked experts frothing at the mouth to contribute. And what of it? Why not enjoy the hapless flinging of cream pies that constitutes our national discourse. Just don’t start believing everything you hear, the recorded voice of Howard Hughes appearing out of the ether won’t always be there to dismiss the inexactitudes of the experts. Today, that job is up to us.

And with that the writer drops his authoritative voice, takes off his mask and returns to civilian life.

‘You can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you!’ Hotel Texas – An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs John F. Kennedy

Skyway, 1964 Robert Rauschenberg - Oil and silkscreen on canvas Dallas Museum of Art, The Roberta Coke Camp Fund, The 500, Inc., Mr. and Mrs. Mark Shepherd, Jr., and General Acquisitions Fund © Rauschenberg Estate/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Skyway, 1964 Robert Rauschenberg – Oil and silkscreen on canvas Dallas Museum of Art, The Roberta Coke Camp Fund, The 500, Inc., Mr. and Mrs. Mark Shepherd, Jr., and General Acquisitions Fund © Rauschenberg Estate/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

There are many iconic images of the 22nd of November,1963, the day President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Amid all the poignant pictures the relevance of a small collection of artwork by Picasso, Franz Kline, Thomas Eakins, van Gogh and Charles Marion Russell has become lost. Nearly fifty years on from the tragedy in Dallas, ‘Hotel Texas – An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs John F. Kennedy’ offers a different perspective on those infamous events.

The Kennedy’s three day trip to Texas, an early salvo in the president’s 1964 re-election campaign, had already seen the first couple visit San Antonio and Houston, before they arrived, exhausted, at the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth, in preparation for visits to Dallas and Austin the next day. In their hotel suite the pair were met by a treasure trove of art hanging from the room’s walls and went to bed assuming the pictures to be replicas. On closer inspection, the next morning, they discovered that the artworks were authenticated originals.

This unprecedented exhibition was the work of Owen Day, a Texan art critic. Day learned that the seventy-five dollar a night suite reserved for the president was not the most luxurious in the hotel, the ritziest room had instead been reserved for the Texas-born Vice President Lyndon Johnson and his wife Lady Bird. The Johnson’s suite had hand-me-down items from the Ritz Carlton in New York, while the Kennedys had to make do with views of a bus station and some underwhelming furnishings.

Spirit Bird, c. 1956, Morris Graves, Tempera on paper, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Gift of the William E. Scott Foundation.

Spirit Bird, c. 1956, Morris Graves, Tempera on paper, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Gift of the William E. Scott Foundation.

Knowing the first couple were art lovers, Day began to organise a ‘customised art experience,’ in an attempt to brighten the suite where John and Jackie would, ultimately, spend their last night together. After a flurry of telephone calls it was arranged that the rooms would be decorated with a selection of art and sculpture assembled from the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Private collectors also offered work, all expertly negotiated by Ruth Carter Johnson, a civic force in Fort Worth, who didn’t vote for Kennedy but still wanted to contribute to the effort.

President Kennedy spent his last night sleeping beneath van Gogh’s ‘Road with Peasant Shouldering a Spade’, while Jackie slept below ‘Swimming’ by Thomas Eakins. It was supposed to have been the other way around, but the couple changed beds unexpectedly.

Traditional American art was represented with the inclusion of Charles Marion Russell’s ‘Lost in a Snowstorm – We Are Friends’, while modernist works, more tailored to Mrs Kennedy’s art tastes than to her husbands, were also featured, such as Franz Kline’s ‘Study for Accent Grave’ and ‘Spirit Bird’ by Morris Graves. There was even a Picasso sculpture, the charming ‘Angry Owl’, which sat in the suite’s entrance hall, running the risk of courting controversy given the artist’s flirtations with Communism.

Lost in a Snowstorm – We Are Friends, 1888, Charles M. Russell, Oil on canvas, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas.

Lost in a Snowstorm – We Are Friends, 1888, Charles M. Russell, Oil on canvas, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas.

Of the twelve artworks displayed in Suite 850, Eakins’s ‘Swimming’, is given the most consideration in the book, which features an essay on the painting by Alexander Nemerov. The picture depicts several swimmers lounging upon an eighteenth century sawmill platform by a newly created lake. The ruined platform remains the same, for now, but the water is slowly eroding it and changing its environment. A new world is coming while another is leaving and the figures swimming seem trapped somewhere between the coming and the going. Nemerov notes that when Father Oscar Huber gave Kennedy Extreme Unction, the Last Rights of the Catholic Church, at Parkland Memorial Hospital after the shooting, his words like Eakins’s painting ‘marked Kennedy’s passage from one world to the next’.

Thomas Eakins himself, in a self portrait, breaststrokes in the lower right of the picture, echoing, writes Nemerov, a Professor of Art and Art History at Stanford University, JFK’s famous four hour swim to Plumb Pudding Island, with a severely injured man on his back, after his PT boat was sank by the Japanese during WWII.

Swimming, 1885, Thomas Eakins, Oil on canvas - Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, Purchased by the Friends of Art, Fort Worth Art Association, 1925; acquired by the Amon Carter Museum, 1990, from the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth through grants and donations from the Amon G. Carter Foundation, the Sid W. Richardson Foundation, the Anne Burnett and Charles Tandy Foundation, Capital Cities/ABC Foundation, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The R. D. and Joan Dale Hubbard Foundation and the people of Fort Worth. 1990.19.1.

Swimming, 1885, Thomas Eakins, Oil on canvas – Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, Purchased by the Friends of Art, Fort Worth Art Association, 1925; acquired by the Amon Carter Museum, 1990, from the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth through grants and donations from the Amon G. Carter Foundation, the Sid W. Richardson Foundation, the Anne Burnett and Charles Tandy Foundation, Capital Cities/ABC Foundation, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The R. D. and Joan Dale Hubbard Foundation and the people of Fort Worth. 1990.19.1.

The picture, like the president, is rooted in Catholicism, the figures in the painting with their perfectly sculpted bodies and proud postures are reminiscent of Caravaggio’s religious depictions of martyrs, John the Baptist and David. Yet these characters are simply larking about by the water’s edge, they aren’t saints or apostles, they look like heroes, but they lack a story.

Jackie Kennedy loved the display and remarked that she wished she could have stayed longer to admire the pictures, while Jack Kennedy rang Ruth Carter Johnson to thank her for organising the surprise; it was the last phone call he ever made. After breakfast Kennedy was presented with a ten-gallon cowboy hat by the civic leaders of Fort Worth, he refused to try it on, but promised to wear it on his return to the Oval Office.

Respect and good intentions evidently supported the First Lady of Texas, Nellie Connally, when she turned to President Kennedy, as their open top car moved slowly into Dealey Plaza, and said: “Mr President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you!”

“No, you certainly can’t!” Kennedy answered. A second later, history took its shocking course.

President Kennedy speaks to the crowd outside the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth, Texas, November 22, 1963. William Allen, photographer/Dallas Times Herald Collection - Courtesy of The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.

President Kennedy speaks to the crowd outside the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth, Texas, November 22, 1963. William Allen, photographer/Dallas Times Herald Collection – Courtesy of The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.

Hotel Texas – An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs John F. Kennedy is available now from Yale University Press.
One of the most shocking moments of radio ever recorded: Erich Leinsdorf breaks the news of President Kennedy’s death to a packed Boston symphony hall:

Factual Nonsense – The Art and Death of Joshua Compston

flowers

Those Kray twins were right bloody bastards weren’t they? With all that filching, cly faking, dewskitching and dollyshop demandering. Should have gone into scrap metal like their old dad instead of always being a few sour moves away from a pair of silver derbies. Ronnie and Reggie were both born in Hoxton, London, which today is sewed together with bordering Shoreditch. Back in those fun filled glamorous days that we collectively term England’s Middle Ages, the body of Jane Shore, a noteworthy tart and one time gumar to Edward IV, you know, that pudgy faced, all cheeks and very little mouth, David Cameron lookalike of a Plantagenet monarch, was dumped in a ditch in the area, leading to the district’s ironic dubbing, or so the highly dubious and historically disputable story goes.

Hoxton and Shoreditch used to be characterised by bustling small industry, factories and workshops, but in the years after the Second World War industry began to move out, leaving behind a great number of empty warehouses and shop floors cheaply available. Because of the large spaces and low rents artists and musicians began to move in, giving birth to a burgeoning creative scene. The cultural bridge between the tail end of the industrial Kray scarred Shoreditch and its early days as an artistic haven in the early nineties was dreamed up, built and cemented by Joshua Compston. Artist, impresario and curator.

Compston is best known for the gallery he set up in a former factory on Charlotte Road named Factual Nonsense. Described as a “cultural think tank” Compston wanted the gallery to aim towards revolutionising the lives of the working classes. In his lovingly crafted new book on Joshua Compston, published in conjunction with an exhibition of work and materials related to Joshua’s career at the Paul Stolper gallery in London, Darren Coffield, a friend and contemporary of the artist, writes of Shoreditch in the early 1990s. Coffield describes the area as “a dilapidated and unpopulated place”, in the wake of another British recession, a place that appeared to Joshua as something of an ‘undiscovered country’, a million miles away from the late-era Thatcherite middle class hedonism that had taken root in London’s west.

Factual Nonsense organised a number of public events that, if one, like a complete fucking buggerlugs, were to analyse Shoreditch’s recent cultural development, would be regarded as key moments in the area’s rebirth. The Fete Worse than Death (1993) was one such event, a kind of art house street party organised by Joshua and located in Hoxton Square around ‘the notorious triangle of Great Eastern Street, Old Street and Curtain Road, a Victorian artisan area famous for its nobler design.” Damien Hirst and Angus Fairhurst famously dressed up as clowns for the event, producing spin paintings at one quid a pop, just as anyone who has bought a Hirst in the following years should have adopted similar jovial gear.

Damien Hirst and Angus Fairhurst at the Fete Worse than Death dressed as Clowns by Guy Moberly.

Damien Hirst and Angus Fairhurst at the Fete Worse than Death dressed as Clowns by Guy Moberly.

Gavin Turk did a bash the rat stall, Brendan Quick a pubic hair exchange for those who wished to pluck and barter with their tangled diamonds, Sarah Lucas had an empty stall with a piece of cardboard placed on it reading ‘our thoughts on any matter for 20p’ and James Goff (these are all names of artistic veks who were on the scene at the time, quoted diligently in Coffield’s book) was particularly proud of his tuna fish tail stall. “We went to the bloody fish market and got all these tuna fish tails and then we got this grill and we barbecued together and we sold it. And I remember at the end of the day, we were sweating and stinking and we were selling tuna fish tails for five quid a piece. And Damien Hirst was selling his fucking spin paintings for a quid a piece.” Across the way from Goff’s tuna fish tail stall Tracey Emin was running a kissing tent, 50p for a kiss and by 7pm of the same day you could get a lot more for the same price. Did James Goff of the tuna fish tail stall stop by for a snog on the rot from Jane Shore, oh, I mean Tracey Emin. “No, we were to busy doing the fucking tuna,” he remembers. The Fete ended with the traditional drawing of a raffle (the prize: a bag of dildos) and someone yelling at them to turn the music down.

The Fete was successful in binding together a disparate set of characters into a community, but the cool reputation it garnered as the event fell into crystalline memory began Shoreditch’s transformation into what it is today. “Within a year and half,” Gary Hume notes in the book, “everything had gone up in price. People could no longer be there. A coffee house arrived and another one. The Fete was the beginning and the end of it.”

In the meantime Factual Nonsense continued its pioneering work. There was The First Party Conference (1993), a string of cultural events of the kind that if you remember them then you weren’t really there, the cock and yarbles posters that publicised the programme are fondly remembered, but caused a great deal of controversy when they tried to plaster them down the King’s Road. There was also the Fete Worse than Death II, which Compston said attracted “over 4000 people of different descriptions and denominations, making myth of the area of Hoxton and Shoreditch as an upbeat up and coming cultural zone.”

Darren Coffield and Graham Bignell -  Factual Nonsense  - Sex Art Money

Darren Coffield and Graham Bignell -
Factual Nonsense – Sex Art Money

Compston’s public work, such as the Fete, in many ways foreshadowed some of the recent public artworks by Jeremy Deller, yet aside from the public events, the book also highlights Compston’s more conventional artworks. Coffield praises Joshua’s ‘Other Men’s Flowers’ collection as “one of the most underrated and overlooked artworks of the last twenty years.”

Coffield notes that he and Compston were interested in printed ephemera and says that the two of them would attend ephemera fairs at the Victory Services club near Marble Arch, with Joshua going on to recycle the purchased turn of the century paper curios by sending people letters scrawled on the back of “old ocean liner menus, Edwardian cheques and pre-war public health posters.” Compston’s ‘Other Men’s Flowers’ project saw him recruit a number of leading British artists, old and new, to produce a series of prints, inspired by ephemera and based on old texts, so Mat Collishaw recreated a page from Lady Chatterley’s Lover, for example, while Henry Bond contributed a description of Monaco.

The title was inspired by a collection of poems collated by Viscount Wavell, a general in the Second World War, who had the habit of reciting poems to encourage his men on the eve of battle, he was later persuaded to compile these poems into a collected volume, which he titled ‘Other Men’s Flowers’, flowers being an age old term for writing. Compston’s father had given him a copy of the book and he later discovered that the title was not Wavell’s own, but belonged to the French writer Michel de Montaigne, who had written to describe his own collection of other men’s poems, “I have gathered about me a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is my own.” Which is rather a good description for the stories presented in this fine book, Coffield gathering together and binding up for the sake of posterity the life’s work of a dear friend.

Darren Coffield and Graham Bignell Factual Nonsense - Verbage

Darren Coffield and Graham Bignell
Factual Nonsense – Verbage

Joshua Compston died in 1996, at the age of 25, and was buried with all the fuss and shenanigans usually accorded a pharaoh or a brave and true conqueror of great panoramas of giant stuff. “Joshua’s funeral, it kind of looked a bit like one of the Kray twins funerals,” writes Coffield, “it was a lot of people.” His coffin was painted with a William Morris pattern and bottles of wine were stashed by his body as crowds of people thronged the East End while Joshua made the journey from Factual Nonsense to his final resting place. “I found the funeral quite strange,” says Andrew Wilson. “I remember thinking, who are all these people? It was a sort of circus and it was, almost, dare I say it, one of the most successful events that Joshua inspired, but he didn’t benefit from it at all.”

London characters come and go, but the city is eternal. Rejoice by the dusty railings around the steps to the pedestal of the statue of this great and incorruptible youf. Rejoice. Rejoice. Rejoice.

 
Factual Nonsense – The Art and Death of Joshua Compston is available now: http://www.factualnonsense.com

All images (except the first) courtesy of the Paul Stolper Gallery, London ©Dosfotos