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Monday, January 30, 2017

The National Gallery: Australian Impressionists

InsideThe National Gallery

Yes, I’m going to talk about one of the great art museums in the world, but first let’s chat a bit about London itself.

One thing that makes London so easy to visit is the transit system.  Subways, buses, taxis are all available, convenient, and very affordable.  But, another thing that’s even better is that you can easily walk between many attractions.  Five minute walk too much?  Drop into a pub and refresh yourself.  Consider it a stroll between pubs.  I do.

Let’s say you’ve just taken the Piccadilly Line to Leicester Square to buy some discounted theater tickets.  From there you can walk six minutes in one direction and you’re in Piccadilly Circus, with the famous statue of Eros at it’s epicenter, and where the finest of London’s shopping streets, Oxford, Piccadilly, and Regent Streets branch out like the spokes of a wheel.

The famous Covent Garden is only seven minutes away.

From the balcony of The National Gallery looking into Trafalgar Square

Walk another direction for six minutes and you’re in the equally famous Trafalgar Square, with its heroic column holding a statue of Admiral Lord Nelson.  You’ll pass The National Portrait Gallery on the way, which is also well worth a stop.  From Trafalgar it’s a quick walk to The Strand for more shopping, some famous restaurants (Simpson’s on the Strand) and the famous Savoy Hotel.  Pop into the American Bar for a drink and a gander at all the photos of the celebrities who’ve imbibed there.  Maybe you’d like to visit the parade ground for the Queen’s Cavalry, and stroll past Number 10 Downing Street, home to the Prime Minister.  Fourteen minutes, max.

Honestly, we’re only talking about a few easy steps from one perfect spot to another.

When you enter, don't forget to look up!

But, while we’re in Trafalgar Square, let’s walk up the short staircase to The National Gallery.  Free admission and open over 360 days a year.  What’s special about The National Gallery?  One of the most famous art galleries in the world.  Name some painters you like, or that your art teacher mentioned while you thought about the cute blond at the desk across the room.  Rembrandt?  Van Gogh?  Monet? Michelangelo?  Bells ought to be clanging!  They’re all there, from the old masters to the French Impressionists and beyond.

The current special exhibit is Australian Impressionists.  Yes, there is a fee for the specials.

Let’s digress and talk about the Impressionists.  I thought they were all French, sez you.  That’s what I thought too.  Boy was I wrong.  The French are only the most well known.  You might like to know (because of your insatiable thirst for knowledge) that the label impressionism began as a satirical term by an art critic writing for a Parisian newspaper, as in “It’s not really art, just an impression.” The strict judges of the French art establishment wouldn’t let Monet, Renoir, Pissarro. Cezanne, Degas and others, enter the prestigious events at the Académie des Beaux-Arts.  Not to be stifled after being turned down several times, the artists formed their own group and had their own exhibit.  The public went wild.  Seldom does the establishment know what the public wants.

What freed artists from the old rules?  One thing was the invention of the camera (1814) and by the 1860’s it was in wide use. Remember Mathew Brady and his famous American Civil War photos?   No longer did artists have to paint an exact replica of what they saw. 

What was different about the Impressionist paintings?  The artists used lighter colors, feathered brush strokes, and faintly recognizable forms.  They also had a passion for painting en plein air, meaning outside, which allowed them to paint as the natural light changed during the day.  As light changes, color changes. Ever see an exhibit of Monet’s Water Lilies?  He painted dozens of gargantuan canvases, attempting to capture the changing light, a reflection of how he viewed the same scene.  Monet found that light changes every seven minutes.  We intuitively know that the day grows lighter, then darkens, but every seven minutes? You can easily test it yourself with a camera and a watch. 

But, enough dallying.  Let’s get to the Australian Impressionists, and specifically the four artists on exhibit, which runs through 26 March 2017.  You don’t want to miss it.  The word I use to describe these paintings by Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Charles Conder, and John Russell is:  Astounding!

What’s so special about the Australian painters?  For me, even more than the French impressionists, they bring a scene to life.  You find yourself stepping into the painting to feel the swirling dust, to smell the cows, and hear the sound of a rippling stream.  But, endless discussion of paintings is as sleep inducing as slugging through the rules of Ping Pong, so let me stop there and just offer some poor photographic evidence of what I mean.  Photos weren’t allowed in the museum and stern faced attendants saw to it, so I had to scavenge on the internet.

I have asked myself, what is it about the Impressionists that over a hundred years later still grabs people and makes them stare and dream?  My answer is: unexpected encounters that pull you in and brand your memory.  The Impressionists were experimenters, changers, collaborators, switching from one style to another, merging reality and dreams.  Even today they still represent freedom of expression.  No rules except eyes, light, and a paintbrush.

And the style and feeling weren’t exclusive to the French.  John Paul Russell painted along side Van Gogh, and in fact was the only Australian artist to be directly in touch with Monet.  Yes, these men and women in many ways broke down the walls of art.  They were slaves to shifting light and ambient hues, and shameless copiers who borrowed from each other.

These photos in no way do justice to the paintings. But, they give you an idea of how the artists captured the raw roughness and stark beauty of turn-of-the-century Australia.  You just gotta go see the actual painting for yourself! 

Charles Conder:  A Holiday at Mentone

Arthur Streeton:  Fire's On!

John Russell:  Rough Sea

Tom Roberts: Winter Morning After Rain

Tom Roberts:  Bourke Street West

The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London!  Somebody in your party lukewarm about art museums?  Use this to entice them:  Pubs are close, very close, before and after.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Truefitt & Hill: A Shave That’s Pure Silk

Truefitt & Hill has been a British institution since 1805, or at least the Truefitt part.  That’s when Francis Truefitt opened his shop. The date ring a bell?  Admiral Lord Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar?  Yep, same year.  This barbershop, the world’s oldest according to The Guinness Book of World Records, has served British royalty since the time of George III.  Remember that name?  He was the British sovereign during the American War For Independence (1776-83).  Didn’t know it lasted that long, did ya!

Long time to be in business.  They must be good.  Better than good.  They must be special. Yes, they are.  I’ve never sprung for a $50 (approx.) haircut, but I do use all their shaving products.  Just for the name?  No way.

If it’s good enough for Queen Elizabeth’s husband, The Duke of Edinburgh  (T & H go to Buckingham Palace) and all the other royals (They come to T & H), then it’s good enough for the lowly likes of yours truly.

So, what’s the deal with the Royal Family? I asked.  What happens when one of the royals comes in?  Are the streets a mess?  A dozen bodyguards?  No, said the person I asked.  Usually a bodyguard or two come in, along with the royal personage, but if you look out to St Jame’s Street, you’ll see cars parked here and there that are not usually there.

Without mentioning names, how nice are the royals who come to you?  Doesn’t matter what name you mention, came the reply.  They are one and all sincerely polite.  True gentlemen.

Now let’s move on to shaving. You may wonder why I bother to use these fairly expensive Brit products when there are dozens of perfectly good shaving creams and aftershave balms and men’s scents on the market, most of which cost much less.  Let’s not dwell on the initial cost. With a T & H product, you don’t have to use much.  Unlike a palm full of foaming cream, you only use an amount of T & H cream that would barely cover a dime.  No telling how many shaves I get from one tube.  You can easily get 4 shaves from one sample.  Perfect for that weekend surprise trip you promised the missus.  Scents are the same way, so are the shaving balms.  Couple of dabs and you’re good for the day.

Believe me, I’ve tried a lot of shaving products, including everything from Wal-Mart selections, to higher end products from department stores. I live and die by results.  No matter how much or how little you pay, there is no comparison. These T & H shaving creams let the razor glide as if it’s on soft satin.  You have to feel it to believe it.  And such a variety of scents:  Trafalgar (spicy wood), Grafton (warm and spicy), West Indian Limes, Number 10 (a gel with several oils), Sandalwood, Almond, 1805 (fresh sea breeze, and Ultimate Comfort.

My suggestion is, if you can’t walk in the door at 71 St Jame’s Street and get a few samples, order a sample pack.  Must you go all the way to London?  Heavens no.  T & H has shops across the globe, from Europe to Asia, to Chicago, but personally, I’d go to London!  The beer is the best in the world and the theatre is superb, also you get to chat with the very helpful staff on St. Jame’s Street.

If you’re lucky enough, or plan well enough, and are in London on 21 October, drop into Truefitt & Hill and help them celebrate Trafalgar Day, with champagne and 25% off on all products bearing the Trafalgar name.

While you’re there, ask about the other celebrities who have dropped in for the royal treatment.  Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens. Oscar Wilde. Fred Astaire. Alfred Hitchcock. Frank Sinatra. John Wayne.

Next time I’m letting my hair grow long enough to sit in the chair and get treated like royalty.  If you’re going for a night at the theatre, you might as well look the part.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Zucchini Spaghetti - Delizioso!

Oh, baby, it's cold!

Ice on the trees and the chilly winds rake you this time of year.  Even if your home is only 65 degrees, when you step through the door it feels like Florida.  And, speaking of Florida, I do not appreciate my so-called friends writing me to gloat: “Are you chilly?  We spent the afternoon by the pool.”  Just to show how big my heart is, I do not wish them the bad fortune to have to seek medical care, but a good dose of sunburn might do them some good.

Meanwhile, the rest of us reach home, kick the snow away from the car door, wade ankle deep to the front steps and have that sinking feeling that nothing would taste better than the great, hot, rib-sticking meal we don’t have the time or ingredients to prepare.

Ok, I concede, when the cupboard is bare, it is bare.  I have no magic words of consolation, and I’m not about to pay two exotic dancers to knock on your door and heat things up.   One maybe…maybe I could afford one…

How about the fast semi-exotic meal?  Spaghetti.  I see the look of disappoint in your eyes.  Stand-by to change your mind and feel your spirits soar.  How simple can this recipe be?  20-30 minutes (depending on how fast you can slice (fingers not included), plus a few ingredients:  zucchini, mushrooms, peas, garlic, spaghetti, chicken broth,  thyme, cream, grated Parmesan.  You can even skip the chicken broth and use water, if you prefer. 

How great could it be?  Great enough to put a smile on your face and open that second bottle of wine.

You’re going to quibble and say “I have to go to the grocers to get all that.”  Use your head!  Write the few ingredients down and pick them up on your way home TOMORROW!  Five minute shopping spree!  You can’t even arrange for exotic dancers that fast!

Here’s the best part, this dish is so wonderful you can invite that cute somebody next door for supper, or even … wait, can’t go there.  My wife might read this and find out what I’ve…holy celibacy!…I mean, let’s get to the recipe.

Zucchini Spaghetti

1 package (8 oz) of spaghetti – I use Quinoa spaghetti, only because it’s lighter and I like the flavor
2 Zucchini, thin sliced and the slices quartered.
1 Pound mushrooms (I use the brown ones, Cremini, but button mushrooms will do)
3 Cloves garlic, peeled, thin sliced and chopped
1 Cup frozen green peas
Few small sprigs of thyme
1/3 Heaping Cup Parmesan cheese
1/3 Heaping Cup heavy cream (1/3 Cup, plus a splash or two)
16 Ounces chicken broth or 4-4 ½ Cups of water
2 Tablespoons butter
salt and pepper to taste

Use a big pot.  Pour in the chicken broth or water, toss in the sprigs of thyme and bring to a boil.  Meanwhile, put the butter in a medium sized frying pan and sauté the mushrooms and garlic until they are beginning to turn golden.

(Now you know why I keep a small herb garden.  Thyme, Rosemary, and Sage all last through the winter snows) I also keep a pot of basil in the kitchen window.

Pour the mushrooms and garlic into the chicken broth and add the zucchini, peas, and spaghetti.  That’s right, everything at the same time!  Cook until the pasta is to your liking, about 10-12 minutes.  You’ll notice that much of the liquid has steamed away. 

Take the pot off the stove.  Add the Parmesan and the cream.  Stir until everything is blended.  Took me about 3-4 stirs.

Serve with a light white or red wine and buttered toast points.

Bellissimo!  (Which in Italian means: You gotta greata mushrooms, Baby!)

Red wine???  Yes, you fools!  I love Primitivo from breakfast on… 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Globe: Shakespeare On the Wrong Side of the River

Been to London innumerable times, but never visited The Globe, the wonderful, full-scale repro of the most famous of 16th Century theaters.  This is the third Globe and was finished in 1997, about 150 yards from the original.

I’ve been a Shakespeare fan since 10th Grade English class, when the witches’ cauldron boiled and bubbled for me in Macbeth, Act IV, Scene 1, and when ‘Out out damned spot’ flew out of Lady Macbeth’s mouth during her incessant hand-washing scene.

Tried reading Shakespeare?  Found it only as entertaining as a bad cold?  Bet you didn’t know you quote The Bard almost everyday, even if you lack a proper education and don’t know Macbeth from Big Mac, or King Lear from King Kong.

Ever said: it’s a forgone conclusion?  Ever refused to budge an inch?  How about it’s Greek to me - vanished into thin air - slept not one wink -stood on ceremony – seen better days – too much of a good thing – own flesh and blood – the game is up – the crack of doom????  Or maybe you’ve said your teeth are set on edge – one fell swoop – the long and short of it – for goodness sakes – what the dickens.  Yep, those are all quotes from Will Shakespeare and there are dozens of other common expressions he injected straight into the heart of the English language.

Still think Shakespeare is just important between snoozes at the back of the classroom?

Maybe the next words out of your “raised on TV and video games” mouth is, “Yeah, but the words are too hard to understand.  I read a play and have no idea what the hell is going on!”

I’ve got two pieces of advice.  Firstly: Plays are meant to be seen and heard, not read.  Reading Shakespeare in English class is about as much fun as reading about Ping-Pong in the locker room. Secondly:  It helps to know the story.  Grab yourself a simple synopsis, then go see the play.  You may read about comic relief and have no idea what the hell it is, but when you see the obese and sometimes cowardly Falstaff prancing around the stage in Henry IV, parts I and II, the words suddenly come to life.  If you know the plot before you go, you’re in for an unexpected and surprisingly understandable treat.

By the way, in the 16th Century, women were not permitted to be in stage productions, so all the parts were played by men.  As if women were incapable of drama!

Thrilled by witches and ghosts?  Kings doing battle?  Castles? Murderous plots?  Good versus evil?  Love stories? Romance and tragedy?  Comedy?  “Can’t all be in Shakespeare’s plays,” you say.  Well, they are!

You can tell I’m wrapped up in The Bard.  So, getting a tour of an almost perfect reconstruction of this famous Elizabethan playhouse seemed just the thing to wedge in between pints at waterside pubs.  Tours are from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and begin every half hour, no reservations needed.

Ok, so you get to see a building.  My friends, a tour is much more than that. You get to find out all about life in the 16th Century, which makes you appreciate today’s lifestyle even more.  The first thing you notice is The Globe is round and the second thing you notice is, it has no roof.  It was built in the round for a very good reason.  No microphones.  The round shape has wonderful acoustics.  No roof because the only source of light after sundown was candles.  Guess what happens when a massive amount of candles burn under a thatched straw roof?

Also a tour tells you a bit about how the people lived.  The poor paid a penny to sit in the middle of the theater where there was no roof.  Because many could not read or write, nor did they have large vocabularies, stage plays often used symbolism everyone could understand.  Devils, demons, and witches appeared from a trap door in the floor. Angels and such descended from a trap door in the stage ceiling. 

Shakespeare used flashing swords, ghosts, teary-eyed lovers, raving lunatics, and life and death drama to turn 16th Century language into passions and actions anyone can understand.  He had to.  He had a tough audience.

The poor were also known to drink a lot of beer, since water carried disease. They also never bathed, so you have the center of the theater filled with smelly, drunken people who laughed too loudly and had a habit of throwing trash and rotten vegetables at the actors.  This rowdy mob was irreverently known as the ‘penny stinkards.’  We call them Shakespeare’s bread and butter.

By the way, you put your penny in a box as you entered, hence the modern word:  Box Office.

Those who could afford to pay a penny more sat in covered seats that rose up stadium style.  And just like in a stadium, vendors sold food and drink.

The original Globe is in the center, right across the river, and you will note the river is frozen.

I should mention, 16th Century London was nothing like London today.  A collection of wooden buildings, mostly unpaved streets, and only 200,000 souls. The city limit was the River Thames (Tims).  On the other side of the river sat the theatres, brothels, gambling dens, pubs, and pretty much everything you find in today’s Las Vegas.  Wonder if they had the expression, “What happens across the Thames stays across the Thames?”

I suspect you’ve reached the foregone conclusion that I haven’t scratched the surface when it comes to Will Shakespeare, The Globe, or 16th Century life. I may also have played fast and loose with the tale of the Globe.  I hope this doesn’t make me a laughing stock, or make you think I’ve written without rhyme or reason!   But, that’s the long and short of it. Yep, the boldface is more of Will’s work.

Now, go take a tour on your next visit to London, that city of ceaseless delight.  Better yet, go see a play or two.  Watch Shakespeare come to life.