7 April 2017

0407F

What Damien Hirst has been up to.

We’ve been in Venice, partly to check out the rather delightful new Casa Flora rental apartment, and partly to check out what Damien Hirst has been up to for the past ten years.

The former was a pleasure: a designy addition to the Romanelli family’s Venetian accommodation options which felt comfortable and unfussily sophisticated and calm in a pretty busy bit of the city.

0407GThe latter was more troubling – though I admit it was going to take much to convince me that Damien Hirst is anything other than an artistic charlatan. There was an awful lot in this overwhelmingly phantasmagorical exhibition, but it failed utterly to win me over.

Of course I’m a common-or-garden punter rather than a contemporary art conoisseur, but I try to approach these things in an informed and open-minded manner (well, as open-minded as I can be about DH… and I was amused by his gynecologist’s surgery in a fish tank that time in Milan). But my verdict was: silly.

It’s odd reading the reviews of this first – immense – show he’s done in ten years. Praising or panning, they make many of the same points. The initial reaction to the ropey old ‘found an ancient shipwreck and polished up the pieces’ narrative that underpins the whole thing is: yawn, this feels tired. The ‘amazing fortuitous find parlayed into artistic masterpiece’ trope was done to death decades ago.

0407HThen just occasionally as I trudged around Punta della Dogana and then Palazzo Grassi, surveying these wild excrescences of Hirst’s mind, I would almost find myself (like most reviewers) sucked in, almost admiring the sheer size and shamelessness of it. Almost.

Some critics – Jonathan Jones of the Guardian most notably – fell for it hook line and sinker, letting themselves go with the brazen cheek of it. Not me. Time and time again something would pop up to make me think ‘kitsch rubbish: you’re fooling no one Damien’. I could almost see the smirk on his épater-les-bourgeois face.

All in all, it did very little for me, and certainly moved my soul far less than my long slow traipse around the Accademia this morning. I hadn’t been there for many years. I wanted to see what upheavals the gradual opening of the new wings had brought about. The answer, of course, was: hardly any because they don’t seem to have done much with their massive new spaces. A few of the made-over bits are being used to house second-rate things (I consider icy, lifeless Canova second rate, I’m afraid), with little or no indication from the long-established corridors that they even exist.

Downstairs in an area signaled only as the route to the loo, an exhibition about little-known Michele Giambono included, somewhat inexplicably, the most magnificent Enthroned Madonna triptych by Antonio Vivarini and Giovanni D’Alemagna. There’s a high built screen around the Virgin, child and attendant saints, but the hugely detailed, true-to-life vegetation that bursts out – lawn daisies and pimpinella herb at their feet, pears and apples on trees thrusting above the screen, lush rose bushes through window openings – is all-involving and truly (as the complete title of the work says) paradisiacal.

0407A

I came back to CdP to find progress on my town house. Already before I left I was hugely heartened by talk of needing bathroom tiles pronto. I hauled them out of my office/builders’ yard storeroom and up to the chicken house and left them where they were easily reachable by avid tilers, anxious to transfer them from country to town. Three days later, they’re still there but hey, I can accept that lack of celerity when the insulation has finally been put on the roof and the first floor ceiling is now beautifully white.

Really I should have had someone in to sandblast my ceilings and reveal the beams and bricks beneath the shiny chocolate gloss (beams) and dingy, chipped grey whitewash (bricks). But the thought of such mess and cost got me down. So they’re becoming white, all over.

The odd thing is, I thought a white ceiling would seem lofty and make the place look even bigger. Not at all. It seems to have brought the ceiling lower. Why is that?

Maybe it was just the evening light when I called in en route back from the station. Maybe the fact that the big trees on the other side of the road have miraculously clothed themselves in leaves in the three days I was away has changed the light quality. Who knows. It’s looking good anyway.

The holes are disappearing from floors and walls too, and I noticed that the configuration of the stairs is different, to take account of the fact that there will be no top tread – just a landing.

These all feel like finishing-up things. I’m not deluding myself. I know that my builder can make finishing-up move on an almost geological timescale. But I’m seeing glimmers of something like – dare I say it? – hope.

0407D

The other week at our town fizzy water dispenser, an elderly couple were filling their bottles. She was striking, her piercing eyes gleaming from a deep-tanned face with National Geographic furrows. She apologised for keeping us waiting. We said we didn’t mind at all on such a mild evening.

Ah yes, she said, but siamo ancora sotto la luna di febbraio (we’re still under a February moon). It could get very cold… at least that (she added as though slightly embarrassed at peddling old wives’ tales) is what gli anziani used to say.

So I looked it up. That was on March 25. The moon that was new on February 28 died out on March 27. The mild weather continued, however, until a couple of weirdly chilly days at the very end of the month. So much for what the anziani said. Which is a shame. There’s nothing I like so much as ancient country lore come true.

0407E

Our cleaning lady – Albanian, with many years spent in Greece – baffled L a few weeks ago with another folkloristico gem.

In a valiant attempt at small talk – L’s least favourite activity – he asked her if she had plans for Easter and when she said no, he said just as well really because it always tips down anyway.

Of course it does, she said, as if any fool kno. It’s in the hands of le tre streghe (the three witches). At which she set the vacuum cleaner in motion and left a confused L staring after her.

Which witches?

All my attempts at research have drawn a blank. (There’s some Scandi witch that rushes about with the devil at Easter but I don’t think Arctic folk tales hold much sway in Albania. And triple witching is something technical that happens on stock markets four times a year, but that’s unlikely to be causing the downpours). My path has not crossed hers since. I must remember to ask her to elucidate when it does.***

0407C

***I found her and quizzed her, and L got it wrong: not three streghe at all, but three vecchie – old women. These three run riot with the weather all through Lent and up to the end of Easter, after which they fade away. She didn’t know who they were, or where they went or why they existed at all. But that’s what her parents taught her, and she’s sticking with the story. (8/4/17)

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About Gardens, Food & Umbria

I am a garden designer, working throughout central Italy. I have lived in Italy for over 30 years – for many years in Rome but now in the wilds of Umbria where I have fixed up one wreck of a house, am working on another, and tinker endlessly with two and a half hectares of land, some of which is my garden.
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