Monday, 24 February 2014


I saw them yesterday, two of van Gogh's five remaining 'Sunflower' paintings (the other three are in Munich, Philadelphia and Tokyo) juxtaposed in the National Gallery. One resides there, the other is on loan, from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. It is the first time they have been displayed together in London for sixty-five years.

I'm no Sister Wendy. Nor do I count the decades since I studied Art History. But any painting will speak to anyone, if you stand there long enough.

We know that van Gogh was the first painter to use colour to reveal emotion; that 'Starry Night', to which Don McLean paid eternal homage, stands as a reflection of Vincent's mental torment towards the end of his life. I'd seen both of these 'Sunflower' paintings in their usual homes. Would I see more in them by viewing them side by side?

The visual variations are obvious. The explanations given as to how these were achieved make sense to the non-artist. But what struck me was the music in those canvases. You can almost hear the southern French fields in which they grew. There's a rustle and a hum about them. Through their luminosity leaks an awkwardness and insecurity that makes you gasp. There is terrifying darkness in all that light.

In a yellow house, Vincent painted yellow flowers in a yellow jug against a yellow wall. An explosion of sun, light and optimism. Beyond the odd dab of red, blue and green, it was fifty shades of the colour which least reflected his soul. A bouquet of barbed wire, hinting at the mania consuming him from within.

Two-dimensional canvases. Pictures. Impressions. This pair are worth millions. Why are they so valuable? Why do they matter? Because they exude more energy and more truth, perhaps, than any other painting you've ever looked at?

'Le Peintre des Tournesols', Paul Gauguin called his friend, with whom he had at best a fractious relationship. 'The Painter of Sunflowers.' We admire and respect Still Life because of the way it speaks of the relationship between mankind and the natural world. But we admire van Gogh for much more. There is humility in the simplicity of these paintings. An admission, possibly a spiritual one. We can observe, appreciate, reflect. We can put a flower in a vase and paint a picture of it. We can write a poem or a play or a novel, compose music inspired by it. We can dance to the tune of the sunflower, but we can never create it in the first place. You see? 

Wednesday, 19 February 2014


'Don Giovanni', the opera with everything: glamour, power, tragedy, ghosts, not to mention a meaty sexual predator, irresistible to all women and the architect of his own doom. Which of course, being a man, he refuses to accept. Mozart must have been about thirty years old when he wrote this. His handle on the complexities of male-female attraction - the woman will see it as 'falling in love', the man as just another conquest - is as good as it gets, and as relevant today as when he came up with it in the late 1700s. When he died in 1791, Mozart was only thirty five.

The Royal Opera's/Kasper Holten's latest, in-your-face, innovative production of this piece crammed with hits has not charmed all critics. What does? I'm just your average music-lover. I adored it. As did Andrew 'Plebgate' Mitchell, who was sitting directly in front of us, street-chic in his pale blue gingham shirt. The irony of his attendance at perhaps this most extreme of all 'morality plays' was not lost. Great comedy and high tragedy. Sell me more.

Bravo Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan, who stepped into the shoes of an ailing Antonio Poli only yesterday morning to sing, splendidly, the role of Don Ottavio. This lesser Don is a sap compared to the louche sex god portrayed beguilingly by forty one year-old Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien. Giovanni gets the girls, but Ottavio gets one of the greatest arias ever composed for the tenor voice: 'Il Mio Tesoro'. There is a God.

Talking of Whom. French author Gustave Flaubert ('Madame Bovary') described 'Don Giovanni', together with 'Hamlet' and the sea, as 'the three finest things God ever made.' 

Covent Garden goes mad for it. Unrepentant Giovanni goes to hell. We all do.