FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS*** Concert in a Minor key


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FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS is a genial enough movie, buoyed by the brilliance of its three principals: Meryl Streep as FFJ, frumpish in a fat suit, with a bald head (she suffered from syphilis as a result of an earlier marriage) looking out upon the world with eyes of self deluding naïveté; Hugh Grant as St Claire Bayfield, her husband: pitch perfect as her besotted, formal, faux upper class Englishman; an essentially honest man living a less than honest life. And Simon Helberg (from The Big Bang Theory) as Cosme McMoon, her incredulous pianist, through whose gob-smacked eyes we view the self-contained bubble of a world he’s found himself in.

This is the war time story of the eponymous Foster Jenkins: a tone deaf music loving society lady who’d convinced herself that hers was the voice of an angel. She was humored by her friends and tutors, who preferred the cash she gave them to the criticism they could have given her; and by her husband, blinded by love, over-protectiveness and her maintenance of his life style, which, since theirs was a celibate arrangement, included sharing a love nest with his lively paramour, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson from Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation).

The story builds to a climax when, moved to ‘repay’ and entertain the troops, FFJ books and hosts a solo concert at Carnegie Hall. There, away from the protective devotion of friends and family, she’ll finally have to confront reality in all its unsympathetic and bitchy force… to face the music as it were.

Director Stephen Frears (Philomena, The Queen, Dirty Pretty Things) never hides the layers of deception that keep Foster Jenkins in her gilded cocoon, but he does so with such a light touch – a slight of hand, really – that it becomes a story without villains. Like her theatrical audiences, our first response to hearing her sing, hearing her massacre what passes for opera, is one of hysterical laughter. It’s a very funny film: the sight of the sixty eight year old FFJ, dressed like a teenager and warbling hopelessly out of tune is priceless. But it’s too easy to laugh at her; the laughter quickly fades. For FFJ is so unworldly a person, so good natured and selflessly generous that you can but empathize with hubby and pianist in their need to protect her from the vile outside world…to simply sit back and be charmed.

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If there is a complaint, it is that Frears and writer Nicholas Martin work so hard to keep the tone light – to keep away the darkness of a self deceiving woman dying of syphilis and preyed upon by an army of sycophants, one of whom is her husband, love her though he so clearly does – that you do feel the story that’s being told is overly superficial, even dishonest. Nevertheless, through his use of ever shifting perspectives (we mainly see FFJ through the eyes of others which lends the story both its whimsy and its emotional escape route), Frears manages to avoid the quasi documentary feel of so many bio movies…the result is a small movie with a big heart

 

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS. With: Meryl Streep, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Helberg, Hugh Grant. Dir; Stephen Frears. Screenplay: Nicholas Martin. Cinematographer: Danny Cohen (The Danish Girl, Room). Composer: Alexandre Desplat (The Danish Girl, Suffragette, The Imitation Game)

 

SONGS OF WANDERERS**** Dance of Zen


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WHEN THE LIGHTS slowly go up, we become aware of a single beam. Its narrow ray, we come to realize, illuminates a glowing flute of falling rice, descending, as if from a narrow portal in the sky, upon the head of a standing, statue-like monk, praying, perhaps for this blessing of the stuff of life. There emerges from the shadows of the stage a dozen or so figures…wanderers. They move with agonizing slowness, as if underwater, or as if the air is clogged with the burden of living. They carry long tree-like staffs: a moving forest. It is another element (the rice, the rain, the light, the forest) to complete an entire world, a dreamscape, magically panoramaed on the Sadlers Welles stage.
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Songs of Wanderers, a dance performance from the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan really offers very little ‘dance’. For one thing, the principal performer – the monk – imbuing, as he does, the zen-like calm of the piece, never moves. The others sometimes either writhe in stiff contortions of agony, like upended insects, or drift, like dreams across the rice carpeted stage. From time to time a lone figure with a long squeegee type broom tries to part or clear or make a pattern – an understanding – in the drifts of golden rice – a Sisyphean task as the rain of rice – that bounty of heaven, perhaps in response to the suffering needy – never stops. His futile sweep and the footsteps of the performers on the rice create odd, abstract patterns, as if they were bent on leaving memories…some visual trace of existence.

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There is no linear narrative in this piece of Zen meditation. The meditation – the unfolding of life – expresses itself over a few key ‘chapters’. First there is life, the rice descending upon the monk, the god. The emergence of the staffs that become forests morph into rods that encourage a sort of courtship and copulation…a union of bodies; that morph into protective enclosures. Perhaps the agonies that follow are the agonies of birth or of life itself. But they are balanced by the joyfulness of rice scattering abandon…of rice filled abundance. From the darkness emerges figures bearing bowls of fire – the final essential element from which the rice of the heavens is converted into food. And life.

At the end of the piece, after the performers have taken their bows, the sweeper continues his task. In ever widening swirls, he moulds from the rice (three tons of it) a meditative zen garden of widening circles…eradicating the past, obliterating the -futile- movements of the performers, leaving only a record of stillness and a sense, after all the wandering and agony, of harmony and of peace.

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CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR** More Fighting, More Explosions, Less Sense


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THE ACCURATE, IF prosaically named Captain America: Civil War, promised well.

The respected critic, Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian gave it four stars. So did the critics of the Telegraph and several other UK newspapers. And the premise (not too far removed from the premise of Batman v Superman) was interesting: after an Avengers’ assault on some bad guys (intent on unleashing some sort of chemical weapon) results in massive collateral damage, the World has had enough. Enough of all the destruction that accompanies the battles of these super heroes. So, in steps the UN Security Council by way of the Secretary of State (William Hurt). Though the UN seems to take decades to agree to anything world threatening (say, climate change), here they rapidly agree on clipping the Avengers’ wings. They demand that this group of territory violating, take no prisoners vigilantes fall in line, and henceforth, act only upon the initiatives vetted, approved and voted on by a special UN panel.

Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, aka Robert Downey Jr. perhaps driven either by conscience or guilt, rapidly falls in line, along with a few of the others (Natasha, the Black Widow – Scarlett Johansson- James Rhodes, the War Machine – Don Cheadle- and Vision – Paul Bettany). Captain America (Chris Evans), however (along with his group of, now, outlaws: Falcon (Jeremy Renner), Wanda (Elizabeth Olson) and others) are having none of it.

It’s a showdown between the – inhibiting – rule of law and the – lawless- freedom to respond as deemed necessary. Is collateral damage just a small price to pay in the battle against terrorism? Or is collateral damage a manifestation of uncaring recklessness?
What a premise! What thought-provoking questions! What a story waiting to be told!

It’s all a sucker punch.

Having gotten the heavy philosophical lifting out of the way in the first fifteen minutes, the next six hours (you mean Captain America: Civil War wasn’t six hours long?) mashes up plot lines about Tony Stark’s murdered parents, a small African country where vibranium (used in Captain America’s shield) has been discovered, and a bomb supposedly planted by Bucky (Sebastian Stan as the super-enhanced Russian soldier). Basically however these are distractions from what is essentially a slug-fest between an invincible Iron Man and an unstoppable Captain America. They bash, smash, crash and make an unsightly hash of each other as they destroy an entire airport and fleets of aircraft. They love each other, they really do (as they keep saying), but, since diplomacy isn’t high on their agendas and fighting is their only way of resolving conflict (not that they’re ten years old or anything), fight they do.

Unbeknownst to them (and maybe directors Anthony and Joe Russo’s sly comment) there’s an uber baddie, Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) who’s worked out (in a way that doesn’t hang together at all) that he’s dealing with mindless action figures and who will kill each other given the right stimulus. So rather than trying to kill them, better to let them kill each other

This super-hero meta-fiction (that probably began with the black suited Spiderman) that our most destructive battles are with ourselves and not others, has finally collapsed under the weight of these six hours of CGI destruction…six hours with absolutely nothing to marvel at.

And while Iron Brain batters away at Captain Foolish, their second fiddle players flutter around to add a few blows here and there, pout lips, flaunt their perfect bods and offer a running commentary of smart-Alec one-liners. In all this tedium, there’s the small sparkle of genuine wit and fun with the introduction (re-boot, re-launch) of the new Spiderman (Tom Holland from Billy Elliott the Musical), a gauche, out of his depths teenager and his hot aunt (Marissa Tomei).

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I do owe this movie a debt of gratitude though. Finally, after years of louder and louder destruction, I have finally decided that enough is enough. I’ll stick to lesser super heroes…bring it on Jason Bourne

 

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. DIr: Anthony and Joe Russso. With Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olson, Paul Rudd, Tom Holland, Daniel Bruhl, William Hurt, Martin Freeman. Marisa Tomei. Production Designer: Owen Patterson (The Matrix series), Cinematographer: Trent Opaloch (Elysium)

 

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL**** Spellbinding


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WHEN THE UNBELIEVABLE, the fantastical flies in the face of ‘reality’, of everything we’ve grown to believe about how the world functions, writer, director Jeff Nichols suggests (as he did in the brilliant Take Shelter and Mud) that we can choose one of two routes: succumb to the wonder, the quasi religious ecstasy of the supernatural or shut it out, pretend (since there’s no rational explanation) that the experience you know you experienced, simply never happened.

Nichols’ movies live in that space between science fiction and religion; between fiction and faith; perhaps they’re both the same thing.

The – very libertarian – story centers on the picaresque flight of a small nuclear family (and a friend) as they battle to protect their son from the threat of the shadowy forces of government. Alton Meyer (twelve year old Jaeden Lieberher) is a strange – literally – otherworldly child, whose eyes barely hold in check explosions of fatally destructive light (he must wear heavily tinted shades and hide, like a troglodyte, from the sun), who talks in tongues, mutters indecipherable coordinates and has powerful kinetic abilities. He even seems to have the unsettling ability to appear to be in two places at the same time.

Up to now, he has been carefully guarded by his close-knit, Amish-like, farming community, amongst whom he’s seen as a –the– God figure. But word of his powers has reached the wider community and on his tail is a- seemingly- sympathetic NSA agent, Paul Sevier, the ever popular Adam Driver (Star Wars VII).

Alton is a cute enough kid, tenderly devoted and dependent on his protective dad (the always compelling Michael Shannon). And on dad’s broad shoulders rest the need to protect him from the increasingly aggressive community that wants to keep him and feels ownership of ‘their God’ and now an implacable government that wants to take him away and study him. (At its emotional heart, this is simply a very tender and touching parent/child story.)

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This child is either a god to be worshipped or an alien phenomena to be studied and feared.
So…in the silence of the night, a well armed dad and an old friend (Joel Edgerton, from Black Mass etc.) steal away, driving in darkness to reunite with mom ( Kirsten Dunst) and thence to one of the coordinates identifies by Alton.

Violence ensues and strange worlds unfold, some of which quite take your breath away.

Nichols leaves no ambiguity in showing us the close encounter of the third kind (though the sensibility is radically different, there certainly are elements of Close Encounter… + ET). But, in the face of the ocular proof, that which we cannot understand, we must simply deny. The last few scenes (like the early movies of M Night Shyamalan) turn the movie on its head.

If the unexplained cannot be converted – as it has been since the beginning of time – to (dumb) faith, then deny, deny, deny.
The truth is out there…

 

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL. Dir/writer: Jeff Nichols. With: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver. Cinematographer: Adam Stone (Mud, Take Shelter). Production Designer: Chad Keith (Take Shelter, Begin Again)

 

JUNGLE BOOK**** Shere Magic


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JOHN FAVREAU’S VERSION of Walt Disney’s version of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book is a wondrous delight.

It tells the story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi), the man cub, raised as a wolf, befriended by Bageera, a panther (Ben Kingsley) and Baloo, a bear (Bill Murray) who must escape the dangers that surround him: Shere Khan (Idris Elba) the despotic tiger ruler of the jungle, Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), the hypnotic snake and King Louie (Christopher Walken), the gorilla giant. Kipling’s original series of stories (written when he lived in the US, for his six year old daughter) were written as instructional fables, the spirit of which still infuse and inform Favreau’s joyous, brilliantly executed romp.

The piece is a visual tour de force: following Mowgli’s hyperactive race through a dense, vine draped, river threaded, magical jungle, Favreau’s camera (this actor known from  Iron Man and Entourage also directed  Chef and Iron Man – 1 and 2)  swoops and ducks under trees, up rock sliding cliffs and through the feet of thundering bison in a breathtaking masterclass of CGI genius. His Life of Pi-esque animals are awe shucks unbelievable. These are the jungles of India filmed entirely on location in LA.

Magical.

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Marvel, DC Comics, Michael Bay, look upon this work ye mighty and despair; it’s one of Hollywood’s Avatar/Jurassic Park moments, when you feel you’re in the presence of a huge technical leap forward.

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But it’s not just the quality of the CGI (the seventy eight artists that brought this thing alive) that gives the movie its credibility and charm (in as much as a boy raised by wolves and singing a duet with a floating bear is credible), but the engaging characters coaxed into life by the likes of Idris Elba’s suave, ruthless Shere Khan, Scarlett Johannson’s sexy, sinuously seductive Kaa (the semiotics would suggest that the poor boy’s first brush with a woman is a harbinger of dangers to come), Bill Murray’s world weary, contentment seeking bear, and Christopher Walken, who has turned king Louie into a Wise Guy.

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Favreau has updated Disney’s story in a few nice ways: he’s turned Shere Khan into more of a territorial overlord, a despotic jungle ruler and made Kaa female (he felt there were too many men). But he was wise enough to keep two of the most famous songs, seamlessly integrated into the action: Bare Necessities and I Want to be Like You

The standout performance is that of the young Indian New Yorker, Neel Sethi. Can’t imagine what it must be like to act all of this in front of a green screen with nothing to interact with. But young Neel pulls it off magnificently.

So, for a few hours, with this movie, you truly can, as the song urges,  “forget about your worries and your strife…”

 

ALSO OF NOTE:

Writer: Justin Marks; Cinematographer: Bill Pope (Men in Black 3, Spider Man 3); Production Designers: Christopher Glass and Abhijeet Mazumder, Art Directors: Ravi Bansal (Victor Frankenstein), John Lord Both III (Oz, the Great and Powerful), Andrew L Jones (The Adventures of Tin Tin), Mike Stassi (Alice in Wonderland)

 

EYE IN THE SKY**** Worth Watching


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IT’S EASY ENOUGH to assume (as I have) that drone warfare is a kind of indifferent, impersonal intrusion into someone else’s country that often enough results in ISIS-recruiting collateral damage. The intelligent, nuanced, stunningly gripping Eye in the Sky says “hang on, I beg to differ”.

The action, which takes place over the course of a single day, follows the, mainly aerial, pursuit of three high value al-Shabaab targets (two Brits and an American) as they plot a couple of suicide missions.

Col. Katherine Powell (a purposeful, take no prisoners Helen Mirren, in a role originally written for a man) is the intense, driven officer who has been tracking these three for the last six years. Finally, as they all rendezvous in a dilapidated house somewhere in Kenya, via the snooping eyes of menacing, invisible drones (one, a large Hellfire-carrying aircraft and two other smaller ones disguised as a bird and an insect), she has them in her sights. The – approved – joint task force mission is to capture the suspects. But this is no gung-ho right wing Clint Eastwood action movie where American macho wins the day. This is (we assume) the real world of what a joint task force ‘surgical attack’ really looks like.

Powell may be the leader of the task force, but she reports in to- and has her every move puppet-mastered by – a Cobra committee (that’s the UK government’s military/government anti terrorism force). Her London operating base is linked to the (American) drone piloting base in Nevada, an (American) facial recognition unit in Pearl Harbour and the (Kenyan) on the ground operatives in the small, busy village where the high value suspects have been tracked.

Director Gavin Hood and Production Designer, Johnny Breedt’s (Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom) recreation of these often claustrophobic spaces – Powell’s underground bunker, the windowless cabin of the drone operators, the confining rooms of the terrorist retreat and the dusty, jihadi patrolled streets of the village – are all meticulously recreated. We are there with the protagonists.

Pretty soon, the reality of the mission changes: any attempt to capture these jihadists would lead to massive loss of civilian and military life. Much easier to simply bomb the group by air.

But there will be some collateral damage (between 45-65% within a radius of about 5 meters we’re told)…mainly that of a cute little girl, tasked with selling her mom’s home baked bread (as a nice, glancing aside, we see the dreadful lot of women – girls – in this al-Shabaab controlled world).

Powell’s perspective is a clear, rational, militaristic one: if these Jihadists aren’t killed, the suicide missions they’re presently plotting will result in the lives of dozens. Better to sacrifice the life of the few to save the lives of the many. Her opposite number (Monica Dolan…prim, smug, superior) is a junior minister who has all the liberal moral certitude of the tea sipping, biscuit eating arm chair critic who’d really rather not be associated with (in other words bury her head in the sand from) a targeted kill. If Powell’s perspective is all emotion-free hard-nosed realism, hers is all specious, sanctimonious sentiment.

Between these two opposed camps are the dithering, buck-passing, ass-watching politicians (with a wonderful turn by Jeremy Northam as a sweaty, vacillating, scared minister), their lawyers and their spin doctors whose main concerns are self protection and managing the optics of the occasion. It’s better they note (from a PR perspective) for al Shabaab to kill eighty, a hundred, two hundred persons, than for the West to be seen as causing the collateral damage of one bystander.

This military v moral v political debate is further complicated by the questions of the law. As the movie demonstrates, these deep ethical issues are, in this world, determined (perhaps rightly) by lawyers and a cover your ass mentality that inhibits any rapidity of response. The nail biting tension in the movie lies in the trembling space between pulling the trigger and triggering the permission to do so.

And where in this ‘conversation’ lies the value of human emotion…of intuitive judgment? At the movie’s beating heart are two old fashioned heroes, whose intuitive sensibilities cut through the bullshit to shape the action: Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) is the drone pilot, located in the desert in Nevada who is charged with controlling the drone and effecting the kill. His conscience gets in the way and he is – alone- prepared to stand up to authority to question their indifference to the plight of the innocent bystanders.

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The other hero is the on-the-ground operative (Barkhad Abdi from Captain Phillips) who has to literally fight his way past jeep-loads of guards to spy on the targets and to do anything to minimize civilian casualties. His real life attempts to keep himself alive and to save others is nicely contracted with the save your ass mentality of the politicians.

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The multiple moral perspectives are all seen through multiple perspectives: literally through shifting viewpoints; we view the action through the eyes of the multiple drones (when one dies it’s as though reality has stopped), through the eyes of various teleconferences (as the on-camera speakers, in particular Col Powell, present themselves, their public faces, to their audiences) and through the eyes of the camera that swoops in, like a drone, on some of the more intimate moments of the protagonists.
Eye in the Sky is a very filmic, tense action movie that’s also like the best of good theatre…in that the quality of the writing (made real by the quality of the acting) is so strong.

Writer Guy Hibbert’s screenplay (he also wrote TV movies Complicit and Omagh) is a very talky debate about the rightness/wrongness of drone warfare. But it’s never dramatized propaganda; never feels like an armchair discussion. Director Hood (Ender’s Game, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Rendition and who has a minor role in the movie) cleverly steers away from simply making his characters mouthpieces of his rich philosophical debate. He keeps the action fast, pulsing the need for speedy decisions with the agonizing delays of political buck-passing; and he involves us completely with his ensemble of very recognizable (engagingly flawed, cowardly, intelligent, thoughtful) players.

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The supporting cast is brilliant: in this, his last movie, Alan Rickman as a Lieutenant General, is the experienced, frustrated, cynical, fearless army man who must molly-coddle, influence and tolerate the likes of his calculating, vacillating, strong looking, but spineless ministers (in particular, Northam), beholden to the almost faceless, characterless legal authorities. There’s a small role for Phoebe Fox (The Woman in Black 2 and other minor roles) as one of the drone pilots who personifies the raw emotional drama (the antithesis of the indifferent drone killer) hidden under all the political pomp and posturing. I’m sure we’ll be seeing much more of her.

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Apparently 30% of US military drone operators are treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. After Eye in the Sky, you can understand why.

 

PAINTING THE MODERN GARDEN*****


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NOW ON (AND soon leaving the RA) is a fascinating exhibition on the art of the impressionists (from Monet to Matisse) that features their gardens. It’s called Painting the Modern Garden. Although you probably don’t associate Monet, Renoir et al. with being avid gardeners, they were part of a vast horticultural movement that took place in the late nineteenth century, fuelled by peace and prosperity. Many of the Impressionists seemed to spend as much time in their gardens (finding many deep-rooted sources of inspiration) as in their studios. Who knew that Monet was a talented horticulturalist, experimenting with flower and plant hybrids as much as he was experimenting with new ways of seeing the world. Indeed, at one time he employed over six gardeners to tend to his vast garden in Giverny with its more than seventy species of plants.

These large canvases of small, flower-rich enclosures often feature the ethereal figures of women (the garden ­– almost exclusively painted by men – was strongly associated with femininity and fecundity), gliding as delicately as the flowers that framed them, as well as hints of houses proprietorially peeking over the blooms. They stand in stark and deliberate contrast to the earlier art of the Romantic landscape. For the Romantics, the wild untamed vastness of open fields or, better yet, deep, dark gorges, was a powerful spiritual image of the sublime.

For Ruskin, landscape painting was, at its best, a manifestation of the “strength and depth of the soul”. God was present in every leaf.

And if the landscape wasn’t a display of the hand of God, it was at least the sylvan setting for mythology and a demonstration of classical knowledge.

By the 1890s, as if to deliberately distance themselves from such overwrought sentiment, the Impressionists offered the world the decidedly secular (there were precious few attempts to link gardens with THE garden), seemingly everyday prettiness of their gardens. The exhibition and the stunning art on display is not about prettiness, however. Here, there is no less “strength and depth of the soul”. Monet said what mattered to him was not the subject per se but the space between the subject and the artist. And it is the ‘measurement’ of this space that makes this such a tremendous exhibition.

Let’s for a minute imagine the typical ‘Sunday’ garden painter. Call him Thomas. He paints extremely well; his friends and the collectors who snap up his offerings from the village gallery all admire his craft…the delicacy with which he seems to conjure the brilliance of buds with a few deft strokes, the accuracy of his colours, the fluffiness of his clouds, the texture of light and shade that give his images warmth and depth.

But here’s the difference between Thomas and Monet. Thomas’ art is only ever about its subject. There’s no depth beyond the painterliness of the image. That ‘space’ is missing. For what this exhibition brings to the fore isn’t how accurate Monet’s chrysanthemums were, or how beautiful Pissarro’s garden was (he incidentally preferred to paint his allotment or vegetable patch to flowery enclosures); rather, it celebrates the extent to which the garden was an idea, a signifier of so much more.

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The garden, in reality as in art, was the place that offered a moment of escape, an oasis against the rapidly encroaching concrete aridity of the modern world. It was a place of silence and contemplation. It was a place where colour wasn’t a description but had its own raison d’être, its own abstractness (Van Gogh said he only really understood colour after studying the flowers in his garden). Indeed, this man-made creation (unlike ‘nature’ or the wild Romantic landscape), created to encourage visitors to pause and contemplate, to re-jigger their viewpoints, to express its creator’s whimsy and style, was, in its ambition, no less than the ambition of art itself.

Let’s take this Japanese bridge by Monet.

It’s a scene he painted twelve times, interested as he was not so much in the bridge or the stream running below but, like all Impressionists, in the fluctuations of light. The Impressionists painted light; and each fluctuation revealed a different scene, a different mood and different perspective on life as you can see from the two examples shown here.

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In the one, the light is bright and summery; the reflecting pond is cool and inviting; the greenish hue of the bridge makes it an integral part of the scene.

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In the other, the bluish bridge feels like an outsider; makes the whole scene feel colder, less jolly, more sombre and lonely.

Monet wasn’t the first painter to repaint scenes, hoping to observe and pin down how light alters your viewpoint. For it’s the viewpoint, not the subject that matters. Like poetry, the aim of (the) painting is to wrench the viewer away from him/her self to see the world through the sensibility of the artist, through his internal world. Thomas, our Sunday painter is only really interested in showing you how pretty the scene is.

And is this scene ‘pretty’? It is; and maybe it isn’t. The paintings are bisected by the empty bridge, the only obviously artificial element in this – slightly less artificial – wilderness. It is also the closest the scene has to a horizon point. Monet has filled the canvas with the greenery of the stream, the trees, the bushes, etc. It’s heavingly busy, enveloping the viewer – creating an entire world apart – as it must have done the artist. The bridge (it was Monet’s copy of a Japanese bridge as imagined by the Japanese woodcut printmaker, Hiroshige…an artist’s ‘representation’ of an artist’s representation) emerges from the greenery and disappears into more greenery. Where is it coming from? Going to? In the summer painting, the bridge offers an inviting place to lean on and escape from everything else. But the blue winter bridge seems to be an intrusion in the scene. Far from being an invitation to escape and contemplate, this version feels claustrophobic as if the artist were feeling trapped, overwhelmed; the garden as antidote has become the garden as an expression of angst.

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For these painters of the open air, the garden was also a studio. In this painting by Renoir of Monet, standing commandingly in his ‘studio’, note the multiple planes that make up the picture shorn of distance and perspective: of the urban world of just visible houses coloured by a monochromatic yellowish sky, almost screened out (from sight and from interfering) by the other plane of an abundance of flowers and colour… the world of the garden, of leisure and ease. And yet, the fence that bisects the painting, almost acting as a brake against the wild, seems to suggest two separate ontologies: house and garden v artist and studio. In the foreground is the artist, surveying all before him, just as the painter of the scene is surveying him. He is discretely placed on the right hand side (and the same colour palette as the blue house – his house?). Perhaps the suggestion is the futility (never recognized by Thomas) of attempting to observe all this, to record all this on a tiny canvas – here described by a single off-white line. Perhaps this is the artist’s essential everyday Herculean task: To turn all this – the sky, the houses, the wild explosion of natural abundance – into a pattern that offers meaning and regeneration

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This is a painting called The Lady in the Garden. The image is perfectly balanced: notice the centrality of the tree, how its branches are echoed by an almost mirror image of the flower bed beneath. It is the woman in white (just what is she looking at? Is she in a state of reverie, or is her face deliberately, coyly, turned away from her observer?) that completely upsets the balance. Despite the solid calm and gravity of the greenery, all eyes turn only to her. She almost renders the garden a mere context to her commanding presence…there is an incredible tension between her and the central tree with its verdant bursts of flowering fertility. They echo each other. Her white dress, like a bride, a virgin, a ghost, is in stark contrast to everything else. Compare how she shines out with the muted blues of Monet’s figure in his garden. She was apparently not the painter’s lover… but this is not a study of a picturesque garden with an ornamental lady around, I think it’s a study in longing; an unambiguous study in, perhaps a never satisfied, but absolute adoration.

Cicero said, “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need”. He would have loved this show.