Of chickens and men. In the first to two otherwise unrelated blogs, Richard Stemp considers some connections between art and politics, and celebrates a monumental bird.

There is no art without politics, I thought to myself the other day as I crossed Trafalgar Square. Built – or rather cleared – to celebrate Nelson’s victory at the eponymous battle, the square has at its centre the Admiral himself atop the eponymous column. He is joined by a number of notable monuments to the great and the good, British military heroes of whom, we are told, we should be rightly proud, and a big blue chicken.

 

Hahn/Cock, Katharina Fritsch, 2013

The sculptures include a spendthrift King and two suppressors of India. That is why I am far more fond of the chicken. Or cockerel, rather  – a big blue cockerel, to be precise, by German sculptor Katharina Fritsch, whose English is surely good enough, that when she titled her work Hahn/Cock, she must have realised the subjects of the other sculptures might be made to look like a bunch of – well – Hähne, I believe is the correct German plural, more paltry than poultry. It stands there, puffing out its chest (as do the other heroes), trying to look as important as possible. The German word for this I learnt just the other week: Schwanzvergleich. You’ll have to look it up. The only differences between Hahn/Cock and the occupants of the other plinths seem to be that it’s blue, and a bird. This was Fritsch’s intention: to puncture the manly posturing of the other figures.  I love its irreverence, I love its sense of anarchy, and I especially love its colour, particularly on a sunny day. It’s made me realise that I hope that the Fourth Plinth remains ever free for a celebration of our freedom in the 21st Century – in Britain at least – to say what we think and to live how we feel. It would be awful if it were replaced by another permanent authority figure, a member of the supposedly great and apparently good who would become institutionalised as a figure of respect.

 

Trafalgar Square, with the National Gallery top centre, Canada House centre left and South Africa centre right: a pleasant place for tourists, or a monument to Empire?

It is, after all, an entirely institutionalised Square. After the British victories at the Battles of Trafalgar (1805) and Waterloo (1815) Britain could (rightly?) claim to be ‘top nation’, and it was thought that this should in some way be recognised and celebrated. It helped that the Regency was in full swing, and when, in 1820, the Regent came to the throne as King George IV, he wasn’t happy with his palace. After all, St James’s had been constructed as a hunting lodge for Henry VIII, and in no way represented the newly affirmed status of the nation. Before long, Buckingham House was converted into a Palace, but not before the King’s stables, not far from Whitehall (which had been the location of the Royal Palace until it burnt down under William III in 1698), were demolished and rebuilt (next to the new Palace) as the Royal Mews. This left an open space for Trafalgar Square, not to mention an ideal location for two of Britain’s great artistic institutions, the National Gallery and The Royal Academy.  Both moved into a new, shared building on the North side of the square in 1838, which filled so rapidly that 30 year later the RA moved to its present location on Piccadilly.

 

George IV, Sir Francis Chantrey, 1828. The bronze equestrian monument was commissioned by the King himself, to go atop the entrance arch designed by John Nash for the courtyard of the newly refurbished Buckingham Palace. However, after the profligate King’s death in 1830, the plans were changed, and before long the archway was moved to the North East corner of Hyde Park – Marble Arch. The sculpture found a temporary location in Trafalgar Square in 1843 – and has been there ever since.

 

By this stage the sculptures had started to arrive as celebrations of Empire, and in 1925 the buildings to the West of the square became a monument to one of the bastions of the British Empire, Canada. Shortly after this, another monumental edifice, South Africa House, was constructed opposite. In this day and age it may seem a little surprising that Canada and South Africa are given such a central role in that celebration of national pride that is Trafalgar Square, a surprise which only goes to remind us that we cannot escape history (as friend and AHA colleague Catherine Macaulay and I never fail to point out to one another). But maybe we can learn from history and escape some of its posturing: we should always be careful about what we choose to monumentalise. That’s why, from time to time, we need a big blue chicken.

Lion, Edwin Landseer, 1860-67. One theory about the lions is that they were intended to cut down the space in the square to limit the size of crowds and therefore the possibility of protest. However, lions (though not Landseer’s) were envisaged as part of William Railton’s original design of Nelson’s Column. It was the fountains, installed originally in 1838, which were intended to limit the size of the square for precisely this reason.

 

 

 

An Evening at the Opera: Helena Roy attends London’s Open Screens…

It sometimes seems everything in London is gaining the prefix ‘pop-up’. Restaurants, cinemas, galleries and shops: you name it, and somewhere you can bet there is a temporary, compacted and quirky installation offering fleeting services.

Opera, however, was ahead of the curve. Pop-up screenings of Royal Opera House performances have been taking place for over twenty years across the UK. This summer, the ballet blockbuster Mayerling, Puccini’s La Rondine and Tosca all hit the big screen.

Ballet is a pretty popular spectacle, but opera has garnered a bit of a Marmite reputation. So the perfect way to see my first opera was to choose the iconic Tosca and watch it – G&T in hand, picnic at the ready – with friends, free of charge, in Trafalgar Square.

The fantastic thing about open screenings is how informal they are. As much as I love the Royal Opera House, it would have been hard to learn to appreciate opera in a stuffier,  more intimidating atmosphere. Outside, on a blistering hot day in Trafalgar Square, the ambiance was idyllic.

Everyone brought picnics, and laid out their blankets so we were packed into the Square like sardines. People were sharing food and opera trivia. Free and unticketed, everyone appreciated being there – a select few decided it was not to their taste and left before the final act, giving the remainder space to lie down and watch the tragic finale.

BP Open Screen in Trafalgar Square 2013

The sun set slowly – neatly imitating the chronology of the plot itself – but the evening was balmy, and with the National Gallery softly lit behind us and Nelson’s Column in front, the setting was as impressive and mighty as Rome was in Puccini’s masterpiece. In the first interval, one opera singer was whisked away from the stage of the Royal Opera House, fresh from his performance in the first act, to teach us the final verse of the superlative finale. Singing opera with the whole of Trafalgar Square – a man in priest’s vestments conducting us – felt surreal.

The view of the National Gallery during the performance

Tosca is brilliant. Its powerful story and intense emotion has all the Othello-esque drama Shakespeare can offer, combined with magnificent music. The backdrop of Rome in 1800 gives opportunities for ornate and splendid stage decoration: from a church filled with cardinals and priests, to a palace complete with winding golden railings.

Martina Serafin as Tosca, in the Royal Opera House's 2013 production

Blending passion, intrigue, murder, religion and revenge in one heady mix revolving around a love triangle, it is inescapably captivating. The eponymous star, beautiful soprano Tosca, is tragically torn between two men in a world of political intrigue, lust and love.

The finale of Act I of Tosca at the Royal Opera House

I would indubitably go and see Tosca again. But although I now know I like it, I still may not choose the Royal Opera House. The open screens were so enjoyable in the atmosphere and appreciation they created, that I would be sad to miss out.

Molière said ‘of all the noises known to man, opera is the most expensive.’ In terms of this experience, it was not expensive, but priceless nonetheless. Enjoying outstanding cultural talent with a myriad of strangers, where the only thing that got you there is enthusiasm and the willingness to lose some time by queueing early, is a uniting and unique experience.

With thanks to the Royal Opera House for photos.