Archive for 20th century

Alberto Burri: Form & Matter

Posted in Culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 18, 2012 by Robin Gosnall

Sacking and Red 1954

Alberto Burri (1915-95) was an avid footballer who played for the Umbrian first division, a qualified doctor who worked for the Italian army during the Second World War and for the final 18 months was interned in Texas. His first picture, made with canvas and paints supplied by the YMCA, was a view of the desert he could see from the prison camp.

The great postwar pioneer Alberto Burri blazes a trail of sackcloth and ashes in this long overdue UK retrospective, writes Laura Cumming

Alberto Burri: Form and Matter is at the Estorick Collection, London N1 until 7 April 2012

1911 No. 4: Mervyn Peake

Posted in 1911, Books with tags , , , , , , , , on July 13, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Mervyn Peake was born in China in 1911, and educated at Tientsin Grammar School, Eltham College, Kent and the Royal Academy Schools. His first book of poems, Shapes and Sounds, was published in 1941. He also wrote Rhymes Without Reason (1944), Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1945), The Craft of the Lead Pencil (1946), Letters from a Lost Uncle (1948), Mr Pye (1953), The Wit to Woo, a play (1957) and The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (1962). He also illustrated several classics, notably The Ancient Mariner, Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island and The Hunting of the Snark. The Titus novels – Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950) and Titus Alone (1959) – are considered to be one of the 20th century’s most remarkable feats of imaginative writing. For Gormenghast and his poem The Glassblowers Peake was awarded the W.H. Heinemann Foundation Prize by the Royal Society of Literature in 1950. He died in 1968.

The book ends with its titular hero not yet two years old, but there is plenty of time for him: we have finished a mere third of the tripartite epic. And it is as we near the end of Titus Groan that we realize the propriety of applying the term ‘epic’ in an exact sense. The book is closer to ancient pagan romance than to traditional British fiction. The doomed ritual lord, the emergent hero, the castle, the hall of retainers, the mountains, the lake, the twisted trees, the strange creatures, the violent knives, the dark and the foreboding belong (however qualified by tea, muffins, tobacco and sherry wine) to a prehistoric England. And the magnificence of the language denotes an epic concept.

(Anthony Burgess, Introduction to Titus Groan)

Lord Sepulchrave, the seventy-sixth Earl of Groan, arrives for breakfast:

Arriving, as was his consistent habit, at exactly nine o’clock every morning, he would enter the long hall and move with a most melancholy air between rows of long tables, where servants of every grade would be awaiting him, standing at their places, their heads bowed.

Mounting the dais he would move around to the far side of the table where hung a heavy brass bell. He would strike it. The servants sitting down at once, would begin their meal of bread, rice wine and cake.

Lord Groan’s menu was otherwise. As he sat, this morning, in his high-backed chair he saw before him – through a haze of melancholia that filmed his brain and sickened his heart, robbing it of power and his limbs of health – he saw before him a snow-white tablecloth. It was set for two. The silver shone and the napkins were folded into the shapes of peacocks and were perched decoratively on the two plates. There was a delicious scent of bread, sweet and wholesome. There were eggs painted in gay colours, toast piled up pagoda-wise, tier upon tier and each as frail as a dead leaf; and fish with their tails in their mouths lay coiled in sea-blue saucers. There was coffee in an urn shaped like a lion, the spout protruding from that animal’s silver jaws. There were all varieties of coloured fruits that looked strangely tropical in that dark hall. There were honies and jams, jellies, nuts and spices and the ancestral breakfast plate was spread out to the greatest advantage amid the golden cutlery of the Groans. In the centre of the table was a small tin bowl of dandelions and nettles.

Search terms for 7 days ending 2011-04-07

Posted in Blog Stats, Culture, Food, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 7, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Not done this for a while. Just to show what an excellent blog this is, here are the results of a quick look through my blog stats:

anna netrebko
tracey emin
jean simmons
pasta alla genovese
spencer tunick
tracey emin naked
ingrid pitt topless
bob dylan fender
haggis what is it
beverley callard curly hair
lancashire cheese
manchester in the snow
cultured duck eggs
beverley callard leather
snail soup
why go to an opera

what did the music of alban berg add to the development of western music in the 20th century (good luck with that one … not really a search term)

cigarette vintage woman
afghanistan’s only pig

why was it traditional to eat porridge standing up (again, more of a question than a search term, yielding results for every website that contains any of those words)

Giacinto Scelsi

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 3, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

Is Scelsi the forgotten man of 20th century music par excellence?

Well, perhaps not forgotten, as such. I do think that he didn’t, and doesn’t, fit neatly into the usual mould of musically and intellectually bankrupt avant-garde composers because he wasn’t musically and intellectually bankrupt. The destructive, screaming left, that champions anything it sees as being against tradition, has a hard time with the aristocratic Scelsi who remained all his life a benign, decent, conservative and fascinating man.

In addition, most of what Scelsi wrote he worked hard at and he actually meant to write it. Not for him the random chance, but, as for Webern, every note mattered. He was a craftsman who took immense pains over what he wrote. Moreover, he was an extremely talented virtuoso pianist. Such a combination of skill and hard work sits uneasily with the usual run of posturing and pretentious frauds calling themselves composers in the 20th century. This unease has continued, so that the sycophants and fellow travellers of contemporary music today don’t give Scelsi the space that they allot to other talent-free artists whose music is as empty as their own heads.

That the man was slightly mad is probable; that his madness was akin to genius is also likely. I doubt anyone would enjoy everything he wrote but there is much of fascination and much of beauty, with influences way back to medieval chant and Renaissance polyphony – all of which Scelsi studied assiduously.

He is arguably most famous for Quattro Pezzi and his fascination for the constituent elements of sound, but it would be a mistake to believe that this was all he was. Personally, I think it’s a very minor part and there is much to enjoy in the works of a hard-working, deep-thinking, unusual, original and eminently capable musician.

For anyone interested in listening to some Scelsi, I’d suggest two pieces in particular that would repay the time involved are his Uaxuctum and the Suite No. 9.

Do you hate modern art? What about modern music?

Posted in Culture, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 22, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

I think the principal problem with someone saying that they “hate modern art” is the dismissal of a lot of very diverse works completed over a century or so, in widely differing circumstances by a host of unconnected artists.

The people who say they don’t like “modern” art are actually saying that they like paintings or sculpture to “look like something” and haven’t bothered going too far beyond that. Thus, it’s hardly surprising that, when confronted with something abstract, that they are less than impressed. It’s interesting that in those modern works which people do say they like, it is the design element which they highlight.

Music doesn’t usually start from a representational perspective – we don’t expect a dance to literally represent the dance (other than rhythmically) so people are perhaps more ready to accept more divergent sounds. I’d say however that film music has done more to bring modernist music into the wider sphere than it gets credit for.

So instruction and education is the key. The less you understand (or are prepared to understand) art – any art – the more you will be willing to dismiss entire genres outright, no matter whether it is visual or musical art.

Just having a willingness to be open to art is only the first step. While it’s true that there are musical prodigies, there are few, if any, in the written and visual arts. The reason seems clear. What we tend to see in a lot of artistic production and consumption is mirrored in a degree of experience of the world, and some sort of processing of it (meaningful or otherwise). Children don’t yet possess that (or enough of it), nor, I suggest, do adults who have never had, or have never taken, the educational opportunities to expand their horizons. I suppose I’m rather old-fashioned in that I don’t feel that anything truly worth having comes easily, and that the big, insightful benefits in art only come with study and reflection.

The irony is that in order to see the “plain truth” about artworks, you need to understand a lot more than most of the “I know what I like” brigade are prepared to be bothered with.

This Modern Music

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on June 23, 2009 by Robin Gosnall


The changes in serious musical composition from 1911 to, say, the late 1960s were quite monumental. The journey from, say, Stravinsky to Boulez and Stockhausen took us to brave new wonderful worlds. I feel in the last 30 years we have been given some interesting pieces but sadly nothing really new and shocking. I think we may be a period of decline.

Recently I have being playing recordings of the Stravinsky ballets and the Bartók orchestral works, amongst others. What exciting worlds of music these are; and yet they are from a bygone age and there is nothing today to touch their invention.

I’ve often felt that since Gruppen and Pli Selon Pli the emphasis has changed away from advancement to re-exploration. Quotation, back-reference, parody and austerity have opened the spectrum.

I remember Michael Berkeley saying a while ago that there’s never been a more exciting time to be a composer. It’s a little like ladies’ fashion. There’s not so much distinction between new and old-fashioned now. You could even begin a new piece with a scale of C major and few would mutter “how dated” as they would 40-50 years ago.

I don’t think we’re really in a “modern” era any more, maybe a post-modern era.

The main problem with “modern” music is that the vast majority of people have no interest in listening to it. There is no point intellectualizing it or telling people a certain piece or composer it better because you think it is less derivative, or contains more of the composer’s personality, or that it is “saying something new” or deriding another composer for “having nothing to say”.

Composers of “modern” (or for that matter any other kind of) music ultimately can only be composing to please themselves. Anything else is a bonus which the composer may welcome but has no right to expect.


Posted in Books, Culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 15, 2009 by Robin Gosnall


I’ve recently resumed reading novels as a major activity, and I’ve had to face the fact that I know so few recent ones. I’m trying to find out why this is and what has happened to the novel in the last 100 years and whether there are still “great” novelists today.

It all started when I couldn’t enjoy D.H. Lawrence, so I never went beyond E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf and Ford Madox Ford, and although I have enjoyed some of Kingsley Amis, George Orwell, Patrick Hamilton, Jean Rhys, Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh, among others, they aren’t really novels of today, nor are they, to my mind, great novelists by 19th century standards.

One difficulty I face, unless I’m mistaken about it, is that there doesn’t seem to be a divide in modern novels corresponding to the divide in modern music between “classical” and “popular” idioms. I’ve tried Libby Purves and Katie fforde who seem to be the literary equivalent of Celine Dion. Is there anyone publishing today who’s as profound and absorbing as Scott, Turgenev and Conrad?

I devoured the classic French novelists in the 1980s – Zola, Balzac, Flaubert, etc., all in translation of course, as well as most of the British 19th century novelists, preferring Hardy to Lawrence.

There has definitely been a blurring of categories during the 20th century, and I welcome that development, though the literary canon, academically speaking, remains fairly secure up to the 1950s. After then it has become extremely fluid, and again, that is to be welcomed. I certainly don’t see it as a difficulty.

Not exactly of today, but I would cite Robertson Davies as being among the finest of novelists, and for different reasons, Terry Pratchett is worthy of serious attention, though is unlikely to receive it from those who mourn for the past. There’s plenty of good stuff to be read, and an awful lot of dross to wade through too. Now, though, we can do that for ourselves, instead of being told what has merit, and what hasn’t.

There is only one measure of a good novel of whatever age, of literary pretension or none. Does one devour it from cover to cover, or skip and dip into it, or simply discard it after the first few pages? I am with Somerset Maugham when he asserts that if one finds a book not enjoyable, whatever its reputation as a masterpiece or the favourable opinions of critics, one should put it down and not pick it up again. It was not original advice, of course: Montaigne and Samuel Johnson offered similar thoughts on reading.

I think Zadie Smith has it in her to write a great novel, and her On Beauty is pretty good, if not quite there yet.

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