Thursday, 15 January 2015

Top 10 0f 2014

In 2014 the world finally spun off its axis into a suffocating vortex of incomprehension (just like the last half of Interstellar). Yet consolation was always available in the form of culture, which continued despite the progressing apocalypse. The next few posts will include some of this year's cultural consolers and a few of its challengers too - from Chekhov to Aphex Twin, the Oxford historian Selina Todd to the posthumous Vaclav Havel, Gang of Four to Gyorgy Lucacs, Nietzsche to the economist Thomas Piketty and many more.

9. The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov (dir. Katie Mitchell) at the Young Vic, London

here for my post.

8. La Boheme by Giacomo Pucini at Prague State Opera

Mercifully bawdy, this opera by Pucini was amiable and exciting in all the right ways. Sort of like highbrow panto. Fuelled by cheap sekt (at least for us), we took our seats on upper balcony of the faded neo-rococo auditorium. Helpful subtitles kept us informed of the goings on far below. The building is the real star, however: much-loved and in need of a paint job, it nevertheless emanates a special charm, part glamour, part dysfunction. Originally opened at the end of the nineteenth century to cater for Prague's German minority, it feels a lot like something out of a Stefan Zweig piece or Grand Budapest Hotel for that matter.. Unsurprising, then, that the first performance here was of Wagner's The Master-Singers of Nuremburg. Things couldn't get more Dual Monarchy if they tried. Surrounded by the biggest road in central Prague as well as the central train station, its exterior balcony is also a fantastic place to watch the seething city pulse by. Prague in a nutshell then: glamour on the cheap with echoes of a vanquished past and a little hint of danger.

7. Ivan Lutterer, Photography Retrospective at Prague Museum of the Decorative Arts

Lutterer's photography examined the abandoned and forgotten. Action is suggested, incipient, but never actually present. There is a feeling that a quiet world is about to disappear for good, that a disturbance will soon wake the world up. But in capturing the moment before the change he prompts a longing for the disappeared world of the past. A quietly devastating collection.

6. Slav Epic, Alfonz Mucha, at Veletrzni Palace, Prague

The strangest but perhaps most ambitious single cycle of work I saw this year was Mucha's Slav Epic. It had to make the list for sheer ambition. In March I wrote:

"Though the ideas at work in Slav Epic - mostly self-conscious paeans to banished medieval wisdom - are very different to the earlier Paris work, the system of techniques remains the same. Thus the Slav spirit was to be articulated with more or less the same skill-set as his commercial period. Ecclesiastical interiors are rendered with the same lilting intricacy as the floral backgrounds of his Parisian street adverts. The adjustments of scope and scale, of symbolic and theatrical tropes, can hardly conceal the continuities. This is especially true of his recurring fetish for highly stylized, very white human bodies. Slav Epic, for all Mucha's attempts to juxtapose Slavdom with Germanic culture, unfolds in just as racially exclusive a world as anything more deliberately "Aryan". Not only is there no variety of skin colour (except in the case of the typically marauding Turks at Sziget), there's also little noticeable variation in the body-shape of the dramatis personae. Indeed the thing is composed entirely of easily transferrable and identifiable types - from steely youths to wizened kings, it all feels a bit Tolkien. Given that it ranges over hundreds of years, Slav Epic's cast is suspiciously homogenous."

5. Kazimir Malevich retrospective at Tate Modern

A reminder not only of Malevich's Suprematist shocker Black Square but also his painterly and experimental prowess. Also, brilliant contextualisation by Tate. Barmy in the best sense. In September I wrote:

"Malevich's defining work, The Black Square on White Background, is frequently described in punctuational metaphors: that is, as either exclamation mark or full stop. In this sense Malevich's key work of visual abstraction is quite often grasped in representational terms. More accurate than the punctuational image in this case, however, is the aforementioned syntactical one: that is, the injunction of the avant-garde. Black Square amounts to a kind of visual correlative to Mayakovsky's "Throw them overboard." (The pair collaborated in 1914 on, of all things, some cartoon satires of the German army). So imposing is the legacy of Black Square that the Tate has chosen to offset it by screening an off-kilter American staging of the opera which inspired it, Victory over the Sun (the stage backgrounds designed by Malevich). Thus "The Icon" (a pointed title for the room; one Malevich would probably approve of) is relatively marginalised in an exhibition which builds teleologically towards it. In the midst of such distraction (fuzzy Californian accents from on screen Futurist antics puncturing any air of reverence), Black Square can paradoxically be approached with fresh attentiveness. Its world historical importance is not foisted on the spectator by the gallery but rather left to hang dangerously in the suitably cacophonous air."

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