#FirstWorldProblems: The Motion Picture – Joanna Hogg’s film ‘Exhibition’

23 Oct

Every so often a film comes along that seems intentionally designed to test the limits of its audience. In action movies, for instance, one can’t help but ask if Michael Bay is taking the piss with each successive Transformers sequel, wondering just how little plot and character development he can get away with, providing he fills the screen with explosions, giant robots and the pert bosoms of actresses half his age. Pretty much the same could be said of the art-house crowd and Joanna Hogg’s latest, if you replace explosions with shots of bespoke Swedish furniture, giant robots with vague dialogues about conceptual art, and Megan Fox with Slits guitarist Viv Albertine.

Exhibition follows two artists, H (played by real-life conceptual artist Liam Gillick) and D (Albertine), as they go through the process of selling their spacious London home. The film is made up of scenes from their everyday life, including dinner with friends from across the road and meetings with an estate agent, played by Tom Hiddleston. H works in an upstairs room (though at what, exactly, we never find out), while D spends a lot of time faffing about on a stool. And that’s about it.

Pictured: D (Viv Albertine) faffs about on a stool.

Pictured: D (Viv Albertine) faffs about on a stool.

To call the film plotless would be to invite comparison with a fragmented, dreamlike work such as Tarkovsky’s Mirror. Exhibition isn’t plotless. In offering us two fairly commonplace characters (at least in the middle class, affluent and mono-ethnic corner of London in which it’s set), and in presenting these moments from their life in chronological order, it reaches for a plot, without having the nerve to tell a story.

With its focus on the glacial, modern interior design of H and D’s lavish pad, Exhibition’s bum-numbing 101 minutes feel not so much like a movie as a particularly uneventful episode of Grand Designs. In its asking us to sympathise with D’s agony over having to move out of this dream home, the feeling isn’t so much one of a Brideshead or Il Gattopardo-style elegy, prompting our sympathy with the well-to-do in a time of crisis, but rather a big screen adaptation of the “First World Problems” hashtag and meme.

The real world, in which police sirens wail and bad things are happening elsewhere, is alluded to in the film’s admittedly excellent sound design, which does much of the heavy lifting when it comes to D’s character development. Albertine herself drifts through the role ghost-like, more or less a blank canvas, and apart from one – and only one – scene of confrontation (someone horribly working class parks in front of their garage) Gillick’s H is barely a character at all. Are their vague conversations about art meant to provoke thought or inspire contempt? I really couldn’t tell. If it’s the former, then culturally we’re doomed. If it’s the latter, then this is satire without teeth.

Ultimately, Exhibition is about very little of any consequence. Any interesting ideas (is D a little agoraphobic? When she searches every cupboard, is she checking for burglars or just looking at each one for the last time?) are abandoned almost as soon as they are introduced. This isn’t just a slow film, it’s a film in which nothing happens, and Hogg makes the mistake of thinking that these are one and the same, that an absence of character development, plot or suspense are the hallmarks of intellectual or artistic rigour. They are not.

"Shall we go into any detail about what it is either of us actually does for a living?" "Let's not."

“Shall we go into any detail about what it is either of us actually does for a living?”
“Let’s not.”

Adding to the frustration of having lost over an hour and a half watching this film – waiting for something, anything to happen – is the almost universal praise it received from the British press. Five star reviews in the Guardian and Times. Four stars from the Telegraph and Empire. Interestingly, once you stray outside the UK’s Londoncentric and incestuous cultural scene, the reviews cool off considerably, nowhere more so than in this bang-on assessment from the Village Voice. 

Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with films that explore, or attempt to explore the middle and upper classes in an age of bleak austerity; characters from all backgrounds are worthy of attention. What grates with Exhibition is its navel-gazing. This is Kensington property porn masquerading as art, and at a time when so many are struggling to put food on their own tables, let alone keep roofs over their heads, that just feels appallingly crass.

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5 Observations About Netflix UK

20 Oct

I’ve been signed up to Netflix UK for a little over a year. On the whole, I’d say it’s pretty good value for money. I have eclectic tastes, so there’s always something I’ll want to watch, and its abundance of sitcoms and US shows gives me something to do on my lunch breaks. After a while, however, you do start to notice some funny little quirks the site has. Such as…

1) It’s not as good as Netflix US

Don’t ask me how (it wasn’t entirely legit) but I recently had the opportunity to compare UK and US Netflix, and OH MY WORD. While Netflix UK has plenty of TV series and some good (if not particularly recent) films, US Netflix is like a different site altogether. “They have this?” you’ll say. “Already? And this?” We were able to watch films I had seen in the cinema only a month or so earlier. And there are so many movies. And it has a “Classic Movies” section, because it has so many movies that a whole section’s worth of them count as “classic”.

2) But that doesn’t mean it’s rubbish

Peter Finch in Network

Peter Finch in Network

One complaint I hear all the time (not least of all from my partner) is that there’s never anything to watch on Netflix UK. To which I say, tish, piddle and nonsense. Taking a cursory glance at the “browse” homepage, I can see The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Breaking Bad, Pixar’s Brave, Annie Hall, The Fisher King, Blue is the Warmest Colour, The Secret in Their Eyes, The Shawshank Redemption, 9 to 5, Skyfall, Black Mirror, Pulp Fiction, the documentary McCullin, Network, and Downfall, all of which are excellent.

3) Hooligan movies are a cottage industry

Jesus… There are a lot of “hooligan” films out there. Whole sections of Netflix UK are awash with close-ups of snarling men with shaved heads superimposed over a red cross, invariably with titles like Rise of the Essex Lads III: Retribution. Still… I suppose it gives Craig Fairbrass something to do.

4) So that’s what Val Kilmer’s doing these days

As well as having ballooned, like some deep sea fish threatened by a predator, to about three times his normal size, Val Kilmer has been largely absent from the big screen for some time. The last mainstream movie release I can remember him appearing in was Werner Herzog’s not-quite-as-terrible-as-it-should-have-been Bad Lieutenant sequel/spin-off/remake/whatever, Bad Lieutenant: Port of New Orleans. Other than that, well… I’ll let Netflix UK do the talking:

The most recent film on there I’d recommend (Wonderland) was made in 2003. Twixt is the latest offering from the truly tragic Francis Ford Coppola (I’ve watched 5 minutes of it, and it’s terrible), while The Traveler (2010 – 20% on Rotten Tomatoes) looks as if it was shot on a mobile phone. In 2002.

Great actors make occasionally shitty films, and sometimes their careers dry up. We all know that. But if any actor’s career demonstrates that there’s no harm in being easy to work with, it’s Kilmer’s.

5) You should never, EVER watch InAPPropriate Comedy

Following in the less-than-hallowed footsteps of Movie 43InAPPropriate Comedy is made up of comedy sketches, was written and directed by someone called Vince Offer and stars Adrien Brody, Rob Schneider, Michelle Rodriguez and (but of course) Lindsay Lohan. Quite how Offer managed to convince them (well… all of them except Lohan) to appear in this is beyond me. To give you a taste of just how terrible this film is, Brody plays Flirty Harry, who’s a bit like Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, except the joke… get this… is that he’s gay and he flirts with people. And his catchphrase… brace yourselves… hold on to your sides… is, “Go ahead… Make me gay.”

Because Dirty Harry says “Make my day”, see? And “day” rhymes with “gay”.

"Go ahead, punk. Laugh at my career choices."

“Go ahead, punk. Laugh at my career choices.”

Having endured about 10 minutes of this shit before wanting to punch a hole through my laptop, board a flight to LAX, get in a cab, go to Adrien Brody’s house and kick him in the bollocks, then get back in the cab, go back to LAX and fly home, I can only assume that Vince Offer is a billionaire or a crime lord. Either Academy Award® winner Adrien Brody was paid a lot of money to appear in this film, or Offer kidnapped a close member of his family and wouldn’t let them go till Brody rocked up on set. Seeing as this is the actor who once dumped a girlfriend to get into character for The Pianist, I’ll assume it’s the former.

But despite my glowing recommendation, do not watch this film. Not even “ironically”. You can’t watch a terrible comedy “ironically”. If you want to laugh at a bad movie, check out Oliver “Downfall” Hirschbiegel’s Diana, which is also on Netflix UK, and which is fucking hilarious.

The New Literalism

2 Oct

It’s a fairly general trait of encroaching middle age that the world makes less sense and everything becomes more annoying, but I can’t be alone in thinking it’s been a terrible couple of weeks for common sense here in the UK, at least as far as the arts are concerned.

First there was Mantelgate Part 2. I’m calling it “Mantelgate”. I don’t think anyone else did. Mantelgate Part 1 came when Hilary Mantel, author of the amazing Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up The Bodies, wrote a piece in the London Review of Books about Royal women that was misconstrued as an attack on the Duchess of Cambridge by a media desperate to chase the latest storm in a teacup, like Bill Paxton in a shit remake of Twister. Part 2 involved Mantel’s short story, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Set in 1983 it depicts an incident in which an unnamed narrator – presumably based on Mantel herself – meets an IRA assassin hell-bent on killing the then Prime Minister.

Hilary Mantel (picture from the Telegraph)

Hilary Mantel (picture from the Telegraph)

The story is a fairly whimsical one, and explores the anger Thatcher inspired (and after last year’s hagiography-fest, it’s worth remembering that many people hated her), but which also cocks a snoop at her more comfortably off, suburban critics. It is not a textbook for how one might go about assassinating the late Prime Minister, and yet Tory peer Lord Bell thinks Mantel should be investigated by the police for writing the (fictional) story.

No sooner had that minor brouhaha died down than the Barbican chose to cancel Brett Bailey’s show Exhibit B (pictured at the top), a kind of theatrical installation featuring live performers, about the ugly 19th and early-20th Century practice of so-called “human zoos”, in which black Africans were paraded in front of white spectators as if they were animals. Birmingham-based blogger Sara Myers (who hadn’t seen the work) spearheaded a protest against Exhibit B, claiming it was “racist”, and the Barbican halted the show before it had begun.

Picture from the BBC

Picture from the BBC

Now, in the latest sorry chapter of idiots winning the day, Clacton-On-Sea council have destroyed some graffiti by Banksy (pictured above), because it was deemed potentially offensive and – yet again – racist. That the painting is taking the piss out of the anti-immigration lobby apparently flew over the council’s heads, and it’s worth emphasizing here that they didn’t say it was destroyed because it was graffiti, but because it might cause offense.

While Lord Bell has – so far- proven unsuccessful in getting the police to pay a visit to Chez Mantel, and while both the Banksy work and Exhibit B strike me as a little trite (though, in the case of the latter, it’s hard to form a judgment if you haven’t actually seen it), the three cases all speak of a wider problem; one of idiotic literalism.

It’s one of the hallmarks of a complete clod that he or she can’t tell the difference between art and life. Salman Rushdie learned this the hard way when the Ayatollah Khomeini couldn’t differentiate between a novel and a philosophical tract (not that the latter would have justified a death sentence). If Mantel can be grateful for one thing, it’s that the closest a British conservative (or Conservative) will get to issuing a deadly fatwah is writing an irate column for the Telegraph. 

If they're really pissed off, they'll set Simon Heffer on you.

If they’re really pissed off, they’ll set Simon Heffer on you.

As for the Banksy story, well… it’s graffiti. He must know by now – and hopefully has always known – that the majority of his works are ephemeral, and I always find it galling when some local authority expresses regret at painting over one by saying, “Well, if we’d known it was a Banksy…” An insult to other (and often better) graffiti artists, if ever I heard one.

The Exhibit B case is more concerning, but it once again demonstrates how an uninformed mob can silence artistic expression.

And how the word "privilege" has become the rhetorical equivalent of "no backsies". (Picture from the Guardian.)

And how the word “privilege” has become the rhetorical equivalent of “no backsies”. (Picture from the Guardian.)

The decision to cancel the show may have been the Barbican’s, but that decision was made under pressure and the fear of violent protest, disruption and worse, and all because Myers & Co can’t tell the difference between a work about racism, and racism itself.

If this is the way things are going to be, where do we stop? Do we ban Schindler’s List for its antisemitism, or Nabakov’s Lolita for its hebephilia? In the Mantel case enough people called bullshit for it to come to nothing, but if she had been a conservative author, would she have enjoyed the same level of support? The counter-argument for Exhibit B only came, in the pages of the Guardian and Independent after the show was cancelled. Unless the Left learns to defend freedom of expression, even when it disagrees with what’s being expressed, the literalists will win, and that means everyone else will lose.

‘Ivan the Terrible’ (1944)

29 Sep

I love discovering new things, or – if not discovering – then finally getting around to watching, reading or listening to things I should have read, watched or listened to a long time ago. I’ve known about Sergei Eisenstein’s two-part biopic of Ivan the Terrible since (rather lazily) doing an A-Level in Film Studies, and had read about it in books about the Stalin era, including a biography of the film’s composer, Prokofiev, but still hadn’t seen it until last week.

Thankfully, the film’s production company, Mosfilm, have made much of their extensive back catalogue (which, incidentally, includes some of the greatest films ever made) available on YouTube, and in as high a def as you can ask for from a free online streaming service, including both parts of Ivan the Terrible.

Telling the story of Russia’s most tyrannical Tsar, and made under the watchful, oppressive gaze of its most ruthless dictator, Eisenstein’s film followed on from his earlier biopic of another major character from Russian history, Alexander Nevsky. That film was made after a brief period of state-enforced inactivity; Eisenstein – much like Shostakovich, Akhmatova and countless others – having gotten himself into a spot of bother with the authorities. His last major films before Nevsky had been produced during the silent era, and watching both Nevsky and Ivan (which were made in late 1930s and ’40s), you realise that Eisenstein still wasn’t quite comfortable working in sound. Happy to let Prokofiev’s incredible music do all the talking, he’s far more interested in mise-en-scene (see? that A-Level didn’t go entirely to waste) and in the physicality of his performers; their movements and facial expressions, than in dialogue.

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While many American and European filmmakers were moving towards a grittier, more naturalistic feel (Ivan was made only 4 years before Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves and 10 years before Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront), Eisenstein’s films are still heavily stylised, nowhere more so than in the performances. Taking the title roles in both Nevsky and Ivan, Nikolai Chersakov never knowingly underplays a scene; his acting verges on a strange kind of ballet. As Ivan he tilts his head dramatically, sticking out his beard – which grows longer as the films progress through Ivan’s life – so that it comes to resemble the beak of some malevolent raven.

Elsewhere, the supporting cast are similarly expressionistic, whether it’s Mikhail Nazvanov’s Kurbsky squinting covetously at Tsarina Anastasia or Ivan’s wicked aunt Efrosinia (Serafima Birman) skulking in the shadows as she plots her next Machiavellian move.

As you might expect from the man who gave us Battleship Potemkin’s “Odessa Steps” sequence, the film is ravishing to look at – every single shot is good enough to frame and hang on your wall – but this isn’t at the expense of character or emotion. While the first film moves through Ivan’s early career at a fair old gallop, Part 2 allows the characters some room to breathe, and an extended flashback to Ivan’s childhood serves much the same purpose as the Robert DeNiro sequences in Godfather Part II, helping us to understand the exact circumstances that could forge a tyrant in the first place.

It was Part 2 of the film that once again got Eisenstein in hot water with the Powers That Be. While the first half, which details Ivan’s military conquests (and even tries turning the absolute monarch into a collectivist hero), the second part doesn’t shy away from showing his descent into megalomania. All this was a little near the knuckle for Stalin, and the parallels between Ivan’s terribleness and Stalin’s Terror are further accentuated by the film’s only colour sequence, which is bathed in a hellish red glow from beginning to end.

Having incurred the wrath of Stalin and his censors, the second film – which was completed in 1944 – wouldn’t be released until 1958, by which time both Eisenstein and Stalin were dead.When Part 2’s release was cancelled, plans for a third, concluding episode were shelved, but while the film remains essentially unfinished the diabolical climax to the two-volume version still provides a satisfying enough ending.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you’re not particularly au fait with Russian history. If you love films, and want to see filmmaking at its most stylish and its most engrossing, I’d recommend you check out Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible.

Big Fat Gypsy Opera – WNO’s ‘Carmen’

22 Sep

Operas are a trashy old business. Don’t let anyone tell you any differently, and don’t let the occasional audience member wearing a bow tie or the Italian jargon fool you into thinking operas are highbrow, because most of the time, they’re really not.

Take Carmen, for example. One of the most famous operas of all time, with more than its fair share of “hits” (Habanerathe Toreador Song), Bizet’s Carmen tells the story of Jose, a young soldier torn between the affections of goody-two-shoes Micaela and rambunctious gypsy bad girl Carmen, with a jealous lieutenant, showboating bullfighter and a band of gypsy smugglers chucked in for good measure. From its galloping overture to its violent conclusion, subtlety is not Carmen’s strong suit.

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The WNO’s production makes much of its Spanish setting, capturing the look of Goya’s paintings in an otherwise very simple, stripped back set (something of a hallmark in recent productions). A just-about-visibly pregnant Alessandra Volpe gives a great account of the eponymous anti-heroine, revelling in her brazen sensuality and in the role’s comic side, and Peter Wedd makes a convincingly befuddled “hero”, but for me the star of the show is Jessica Muirhead as Micaela.

The “good girl” role in many operas is a thankless one. Most of the time, they’re only there as a concession to the morality of the time in which the opera was written. It simply wouldn’t do to have the main characters cavorting about without at least one voice of moral guidance, and that’s the purpose Micaela serves in Carmen, but where she’s allowed to soar is in her Act 3 aria, “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante”. Now, “sublime” isn’t a word I use casually, but it really is the only way to describe Muirhead’s performance. Her voice is crystal clear, reminding me of the amazing Gundula Janowitz, and earned the soprano some well-deserved “Bravos” and a standing ovation from many in the audience.

As always, the WNO’s chorus proves itself world class, and are given plenty to sink their musical teeth into, and I loved Christian Fenouillat’s expressionistic curtain, which descended between each act. Through some deft lighting, its giant, painterly swirl changed in colour with each appearance, brilliantly helping to set the tone for the following scene.

Some (very) minor criticisms: The whole thing ends a little anticlimactically (Carmen’s death is sudden, so she doesn’t have the kind of barnstorming “goodbye” aria that someone like Puccini would have given her – though, admittedly, that’s not the WNO’s fault!), and the “bullfighting” theme is used to misguided comic effect during the last scene. There were a few points where the singing from other members of the cast could have been a little tighter (including the adorable moment when one of the children’s chorus came in a beat too early), but this was the opening night, and I’m sure this will have been ironed out in future performances.

Carmen is at the Wales Millennium Centre on September 27th and 28th and October 2nd, before going on a national tour.

“Look On Our Works, Ye Mighty…” – The problem with grand projects

9 Sep

Atlantic Wharf

When I first moved to Cardiff in 2001, there were acres of the city now occupied by apartment buildings and houses that were still wasteland, but those areas which had been developed were gleaming and new. For a spell I lived in an area between the city and the bay known fancifully as Atlantic Wharf, surrounding the old Bute East Dock. Here, developers had built an L-shaped complex of Albert Dock-style apartments, offices and shops, and a friend of mine lived there, overlooking the water. I, meanwhile, lived in a nearby maze of cul-de-sacs, and was envious.

Fast forward to 2014, and while walking to a job interview in the bay I decided to take a brief detour along the Bute East Dock, but what I saw there was depressing. Though it had never been crystal clear, the water was stagnant and covered in a film of algae and weeds, with a flotilla of plastic bottles and fast food cartons bobbing on its surface. The walkway around the dock’s edge was severely overgrown with unplanned buddlejas, and of the ground floor shops and offices, all but one had “FOR LET” signs in their windows. The place had really gone to seed.

Apollo Pavilion

By chance, that evening I watched a documentary about abstract art which featured the artist Victor Pasmore, and the brutalist concrete pavilion he created for Peterlee new town in 1969. The Apollo Pavilion, which formed a bridge over a small, man-made lake, was intended by the artist to be a “…sculpture of purely abstract form through which to walk, in which to linger and on which to play”. Within a decade it had become a magnet for vandals and petty criminals, and was a no-go area for many locals, who came to despise it. When the developers who commissioned the pavilion disbanded, the local council refused to take on the responsibility of its upkeep, and it was left to rot until 2009, when it received a £400,000 restoration grant from the National Lottery.

The pavilion’s failings were two-fold. Firstly, Pasmore didn’t so much underestimate human nature as approach it with complete and utter naivety. Educated at Harrow, perhaps he simply hadn’t met the kind of teenagers most of us grew up with – or, indeed, were – and thought that creating a secluded concrete hut on a housing estate might give us the 20th Century’s answer to ancient Greek gymnasia, where great thinkers and their students gathered to discuss philosophy and mathematics. Needless to say, this wasn’t the case.

High Rise

Still, Pasmore wasn’t alone in his utopianism. The pavilion project began in 1955, a time when cities across Europe were rebuilding themselves, and using their poorest inhabitants as the guinea pigs in a series of social experiments. In a bid to meet the demands of a booming population, while giving residents wide open spaces, architects looked up, and gave us the council high rises that became such a mainstay of British housing in the 1960s and ’70s. 

Buildings such as Ernő Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower have acquired a kind of cult following (not to mention Grade II listed status), and when you compare many of them (including Trellick) to today’s equivalents, they often boast more space, more light and a better build quality, but there was still a fundamental flaw to the thinking behind high rise housing that would see them fall out of favour. Place people below and on top of their neighbours, and you diminish the amount of everyday contact they have. Suddenly, your neighbours aren’t the people you nod to every morning but the thump thump thump of footsteps across the living room ceiling, or the annoying music coming up through the floor. 

This isn’t to say estates such as Trellick Tower’s in North Kensington have no sense of community whatsoever – I’m sure the locals there feel otherwise – but simply that treating people as units to be stacked for the sake of convenience can’t help but exacerbate community breakdown.

“Trunkless Legs of Stone…”

Another problem with many of the housing estates that sprang up in the 1950s and ’60s was their isolation. While planners were sure to give each estate a small block of shops and maybe even a pub, urban sprawl left the majority of these estates isolated from major hubs. On top of this, in many small-to-medium sized cities, residents of those estates often have to contend with unreliable or unaffordable public transport. 

These grand projects, both residential and commercial, are signed off with little in the way of dialogue between developers and local authorities, and with virtually no long term planning, and so the Apollo Pavilions of the world are left to rot until some Lottery Funding comes along, and the waterside walkways of Atlantic Wharf become overgrown with weeds. On the Greek island of Kos last year, I saw what happens when grand projects meet with periods of decline, and it’s left the place scattered with half-built hotel complexes. Kos is lucky enough to be blessed with year-round sunshine, so that even in this state, it has a certain beauty.

 

But with our often grey skies and unforgiving weather, it seems unlikely that Britain could survive another dance with boom and bust without becoming an exceptionally ugly place to live.

Pictures

Atlantic Wharf by me.

Apollo Pavilion by John Lord via Flickr.

Trellick Tower by Ben B via Flickr.

Stuff I Love – 5: Velázquez’s Faces

5 Sep

Wander around any major museum, and you’ll notice a funny thing about pre-Renaissance art, namely: There were some fugly and very generic looking people about before the 16th Century. A couple of years ago I went to the Royal Academy’s Byzantium exhibition, and while I was blown away by the sheer volume of stuff on show, and by the craftsmanship of certain pieces, I was also struck by how much the Virgin Mary looked like Nicholas Cage, and by how baby Jesus looked like some sort of shaved marmoset or laboratory experiment gone hideously wrong.

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Even as technique improved, and perspective brought added realism to painting, we still see the same wan, oval-faced women and the same dead-eyed, bearded men. All that began to change in the 1500s, with the advent of artists such as Il Bronzino (1503-1572) and Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). Suddenly we see faces animated by the spark of life, characters who it’s possible to imagine having lives, emotions and expressions outside of the paintings in which they appear.

'Portrait of a Lady in Green' (c.1528-1532) by Bronzino

Portrait of a Lady in Green (c.1528-1532) by Bronzino

For me, no other artist between 1500 and 1700 captures faces with the same degree of vitality as Diego Velázquez. Born into a fairly wealthy Seville family in 1599, he trained in Madrid and Italy and spent much of his career as an official court painter to King Philip IV of Spain. As well as capturing members of the royal household in candid and often very frank portraits, Velázquez had a keen eye for some of their more eccentric hangers on.

In tackling even classical subjects, he gave his characters a humanity that makes the paintings immediate and fresh-looking, even to a modern eye. In Apollo in the Forge of Vulcan, the Sun god Apollo appears Vulcan, the god of Fire, and his fellow smithies, as they go about making the weapons of war. What’s striking about the painting is that apart from Apollo, who wears a laurel crown and whose head is surrounded by a heavenly glow, the other characters in the painting, even though they represent gods and demigods, are so very human. Apollo is here to break the news that Vulcan’s wife, Aphrodite, has been shagging Mars, god of War.

It’s the closest thing to an Eastenders doof-doof-doof moment that Greco-Roman myth has to offer, and – despite having died more than 300 years before Eastenders hit our screens – Velázquez understands this perfectly. Look at the blacksmith second from the left:

 

Some credit must, of course, go to the model for his performance, but it’s Velázquez’s genius that captured that spontaneity and authenticity on the canvas.

In The Triumph of Bacchus, another painting based on a classical theme, we have a vaguely disinterested-looking Bacchus god of Wine and Merriment “crowning” one of a band of drunken revellers.

The characters I’m drawn to here are the two chaps to Bacchus’s left, the ones looking directly at the viewer. Their sozzled expressions – the guy on the left trying (and failing) to hold it together, as if posing for a wedding photo, while the man next to him can only raise one eyebrow and leer – are just sublime; one of the most subtly recognisable depictions of drunkenness in the history of art.

Of course, it’s one thing to humanise two (potentially pissed) models you’ve just dragged in off the street, another to treat a well-respected, high profile client to the same degree of unflinching scrutiny; yet that’s exactly what Velázquez did when he painted Pope Innocent X.

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I must admit, I don’t know a great deal about Innocent X’s eleven year tenure as pontiff, but if I had to hazard a guess I’d say he was a cantankerous old git. Look at that face:

Whether it’s contempt for the artist himself, for the business of having to pose for an official portrait or for the tedium of everyday Popeing, I couldn’t say. Certainly, contemporaries of Velasquez were worried the Pope would hate the painting’s honesty, but to everyone’s surprise Innocent X loved it. Maybe because it makes him look like a badass. 

Perhaps it was that very honesty which brought Velázquez so much success as a court artist and portrait painter, that made him stand out from the crowd in an age of sycophants. The subject he painted most often of all was the Spanish king himself, and thanks to an… erm… convoluted family tree (read: lots of uncles marrying nieces) he was no looker, but other than to make his nose slightly less bulbous Velázquez never flattered him.

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Philip IV, painted by Velazquez in 1623 and 1656

There is always, in Velázquez’s paintings of Philip, a note of uncertainty behind the haughty facade that you just don’t expect to see in royal portraiture of the time. The Habsburg dynasty was nearing its end and Philip’s son, the severely inbred and disabled Charles, would prove the last of the line.

That quality of taking the viewer unawares is present in almost every portrait Velasquez made, whether he’s capturing the melancholy of someone who is employed simply to be laughed at…

Detail from 'Don Sebastian de Morra'  (c.1646)

Detail from ‘Don Sebastian de Morra’ (c.1646)

The bellicose pomposity of a clown…

Detail from 'The Buffoon Don Cristobal de Castaneda y Pernia' (c.1635)

Detail from ‘The Buffoon Don Cristobal de Castaneda y Pernia’ (c.1635)

Or the nobility of his own Moorish servant (and fellow artist), Juan de Pareja…

'Juan de Pareja' (1649)

‘Juan de Pareja’ (1649)

Velázquez’s faces are not simply “well painted”, they’re alive. Costumes aside, they look like people you could meet here and now. And that’s why I love them.