Saturday, 4 February 2012


“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” - Albert Einstein
For Art Sunday today, a painting by Gustave Doré (1832 – 1883). Doré was the second of the three children of Pierre Louis Christophe Doré, an engineer, and his wife, Alexandrine Marie Anne Pluchart. He was born in Strasbourg on 6th January 1832. He was a child prodigy and as such received little formal artistic training, his talents as a draughtsman already apparent during his school years. Something that characterised this artist was the prodigious speed with which he drew and his output, which was as noteworthy for its quantity as it was for its quality

Doré’s first lithographic album was published by in Paris in 1847. He worked as a caricaturist until gaining fame as an illustrator in 1854 after working on a book by François Rabelais. Other commissions included illustrations for works by Honoré de Balzac, Dante Alighieri, Miguel de Cervantes and John Milton. In 1863 he was asked to illustrate the works of Lord Byron. This was followed by other work for British publishers including a new illustrated “Doré’s English Bible” (1865).

In 1867 Gustave Dore had a major exhibition of his work in London. This led to the foundation of the Doré Gallery in New Bond Street. In 1869, Blanchard Jerrold, the son of Douglas Jerrold, suggested that they worked together to produce a comprehensive portrait of London. Doré signed a five-year project with the publishers, Grant & Co, that involved him staying in London for three months a year. Doré was paid the vast sum of £10,000 a year for the proposed artwork. The book, “London: A Pilgrimage”, with 180 engravings by Doré, was eventually published in 1872. Although a commercial success, many of the critics disliked the book. Several were upset that Doré had appeared to concentrate on the poverty that existed in London. Gustave Doré was accused by the Art Journal of “inventing rather than copying”.

“London: A Pilgrimage” was a financial success and Doré received commissions from other British publishers. Doré’s later work included illustrated editions of “Paradise Lost”, “King Arthur: The Idylls of the King” and “The Works of Thomas Hood”. His work also appeared in the Illustrated London News.  Gustave Doré continued to illustrate books until his death on 23rd January 1883.

The painting above of 1862, is a detailed and painterly rendition of one of the drawings Doré made for an illustrated edition of Perrault’s (1628 – 1703) classic French Fairy Tales, which were reprinted in 1862. Doré chose to illustrate the more gruesome and bloody original fairy tale rather than the sanitised versions we are more familiar with nowadays. It depicts the near end of the tale where the already satiated wolf prepares to bite off Little Red Riding Hood’s head. Terror was a common theme in children’s tales in the past, where a strong moralising subtext was supported by striking a fear of retribution for sins committed. Romantic artists like Doré were attracted to such high drama and may explain why the artist chose a medium (oil on canvas) uncharacteristic of him to depict this scene. We are lucky to have this painting in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne.


“And you would accept the seasons of your heart just as you have always accepted that seasons pass over your fields and you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.” - Kahlil Gibran

A quiet, relaxing day today with household shopping in the morning and then some chores at home. A brief lunch, and some relaxation. Out to dinner tonight and thoughts of serenity. Feelings of gratefulness for this ability to enjoy simple pleasures amidst a world where not much can be taken for granted any more. How many people around the world could say they had a day of serenity today? I doubt if it were the majority…

This post is part of the Saturday Sareenity meme.

A beautiful piece by Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) tonight. His Notturno D 897 played by the Rubinstein Trio (A.Wesolowska, A. Kostecki, S.Firlej). This substantial but relatively neglected piece has affinities with the slow movements of both the String Quintet in C major D. 956, and the Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat, D 898. Completed in the Autumn of 1827, it is possibly a rejected slow movement of the Piano Trio No. 1. It has the sublime slowness of the string quintet movement, together with a similar use of pizzicato at various points, and with the same paradoxical effect: the pizzicato decorations of the main tune seem to enhance the underlying tragedy of the music, rather than lightening it. The main thematic idea has a characteristic common to a number of Schubert’s most celebrated melodic ideas, including the second subjects of both the C major string quintet’s first movement and the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony No. 8's first movement: that of ‘not going anywhere’, pitch-wise, but seeming to revolve round a single note (the third note of the scale in this case).

Thursday, 2 February 2012


“Ice-cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn't illegal.” - Voltaire
Thank goodness it’s Friday! It’s been another very tiring week and I am looking forward to the weekend. When I came home this evening I just plopped down on an armchair, took off my shoes, stretched my legs and did nothing for a few minutes. The heat didn’t help either and it was stifling hot in the train coming home. Fortunately, home was a cool, shady haven of serenity and sanity!

We shall have some more hot days over the weekend and then a cooler week next week. So while the sun shines, let’s make cassata ice cream cake!

Cassata Cake
Light vegetable oil
1 x 20 cm square plain sponge cake (bought or homemade)
2-3 tbs Galliano liqueur
700 mL vanilla ice-cream
700 mL chocolate ice-cream
250 mL whipping cream
2 tbs icing sugar
Vanilla essence
100 g (2/3 cup) candied peel, chopped dried apricots and glace cherries
2 tbs grated dark chocolate
Cocoa powder, to dust

  • Grease a 6cm-deep, 20 x 10cm (base measurement) loaf pan with oil.
  • Line the base and 2 long sides with plastic wrap, allowing the sides to overhang.
  • Carefully cut the cake in half horizontally. Halve each piece lengthways to make 4 cake rectangles. Line the base of the prepared pan with 1 cake rectangle. Press down slightly.
  • Use 2 cake rectangles to line the 2 long sides. Halve the remaining cake rectangle crossways and use to line the 2 short sides. Trim excess and use to fill any gaps. Brush the cake with liqueur to moisten the surface.
  • Transfer the chocolate ice-cream to a bowl. Set aside to soften slightly. Spread over the cake base. Smooth the surface and sprinkle with grated chocolate. Place in the freezer for 30 minutes or until firm.
  • Whip the cream, sugar and vanilla essence until stiff. Add the fruit and fold until just combined. Spoon into the prepared pan. Smooth the surface. Place in the freezer for 30 minutes or until firm.
  • Transfer the vanilla ice-cream to a bowl. Set aside to soften slightly. Spoon into the prepared pan carefully over the cream/fruit layer. Smooth the surface. Trim the excess cake. Cover with overhanging plastic wrap. Place in the freezer for 2 hours or overnight, or until firm.
  • Turn out the cake onto a serving platter and remove the plastic wrap. Dust with cocoa powder and if desired, decorate with whipped cream. Cut into slices to serve.

Buon appetito!

Wednesday, 1 February 2012


“Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable for, not the rightness, but the uprightness of the decision” - Thomas Jefferson
Today is Candlemas Day, or if in North America, you may know it as Groundhog Day. Forty days after the birth of her Son, the Virgin Mary went into the Temple of Jerusalem to ritually cleanse herself and present the infant to the rabbis.  There, the elderly Simeon prophesied that Christ would be “a light to lighten the Gentiles.” Hence the association of this feast with the lighting of candles – hence “Candle Mass”.  The image of the Virgin Mary was removed from its place in church and ritually cleaned.  Snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, were scattered in its place.  The following couplet associates snowdrops with Candlemas:
            The snowdrop, in purest white arraie
            First rears her hedde on Candlemas daie.

Therefore, snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, is the birthday flower for this day.  It symbolises purity, hope in sorrow and friendship in adversity. A legend concerning the origin of the bloom relates how when Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden of Eden, snow began to fall. They were dejected as they had lived in the perpetual spring of the garden before that.  An angel took pity on them and changed a few of the drifting snowflakes into snowdrops, a promise that Spring would soon return.  Galanthus is from the Greek and means “milk-white flower”, while nivalis means “of the snow” in Latin.

In ancient Rome, the Februalia Festival honoured Demeter who searched for her daughter Persephone after she had been abducted by Pluto, the god of the underworld. Priests of Ceres (the Roman Demeter) paraded in her temples with lit candles, recreating the goddess’s search day and night for her daughter. This festival was absorbed into the Christian tradition as the festival of Candlemas, the pagan Demeter becoming syncretised with the Virgin Mary.

In the USA, this day is celebrated as Groundhog Day, where these creatures help to predict the weather for the year ahead. It is an oracular tradition that is based on contraries similar to the British Candlemas oracular rhymes:

            If Candlemas day be bright and clear
            There’ll be two winters that year.
            But if Candlemas be mild or bring it rain,
            Winter is gone and will not come again.

In a similar vein:
            If Candlemas Day bring snow or rain
            Winter is gone and won’t come again;
            If Candlemas Day be clear and bright
            Winter will have another flight.

            On Candlemas Day, if the thorns hang a drop,
            Then you are sure of a good pea crop.

            Candlemas Day, plant beans in the clay
            Put candles and candlesticks all away.

The last reference was to the increasing light in the afternoons and evening, which allowed indoor work to be done at that time without the aid of candlelight.


“Nostalgia is a seductive liar.”  George Wildman Ball
It’s hard to believe that January is already over and the first of February is with us. How quickly time has flown! The older I get, the more rapidly time marches forth. As we age and slow down, time accelerates, careening inexorably faster. Someone once told me it was relativistic… When we are ten years old a year is a tenth of our life, when we are 50 years old, a year is one fiftieth. We have much more to compare it with, and our hectic days are filled with busy tasks that consume the hours rapidly.

It may have to do with our lifestyle too, of course, with our modern rush-rush, clock-dependent lives propelling us and time ever-forward. I can quite imagine in the past, when life in some small town or village was more sedate, where things were taken more easily, where technology was minimal and where leisure activities were also slower, more gentle and dependent of one’s own resources. If you wanted to hear music, you had to make it yourself. If you wanted to while away some hours you went for a walk in the countryside or visited family and friends. Arts and crafts were more widespread – drawing, embroidery, crochet, knitting, quilting, weaving, painting, tatting. Sports and other active pastimes were indulged in by more people and all at an amateur level.

Nostalgia may be all well and good, but all was not rosy in the past, I know. Disease, high mortality, endless chores, little technology, hard manual work, poorer living standards, low life-expectancy, etc, etc… We tend to concentrate on the best things when considering the past and discount the bad ones. That is human nature and that’s what makes nostalgia such a bitter-sweet exercise.

What can one do? The answer may well be easier than we can imagine. It all has to do with personal responsibility, making choices, and maintaining balance. We are responsible for our lives and what we make of them. We are presented with a number of choices and most people opt for the easiest, most convenient, less arduous one – even though this may not be the right one. Most people will make the choice that gives them the most comfort, pleasure and advantage. They then complain about the consequences of such choices, surprised that everything has price. Few people understand the importance of balance, the yin and yang of life. To pleasure there is pain, to beauty there is ugliness, to rest there is work, to life there is death…

Monday, 30 January 2012


“When blue sinks almost to black, it echoes a grief that is hardly human. When it rises towards white ... its appeal to men grows weaker and more distant.” – Vassily Kandinsky

Magpie Tales has a Vassily Kandinsky painting for us today: “Red Spot 2”. Kandinsky is now considered to be the founder of abstract art. His work, which was exhibited throughout Europe from 1903 onwards, often caused controversy among the public, the art critics, and his contemporaries. The exuberant colour in most of the canvas and the bright red spot may make for a joyous first impression, which is nevertheless tempered by the black and white menacing upper left corner. Enough to ruin it for me…

Red Heart

My red heart bleeds;
A slow exsanguination,
That robs me gently
Of my life.

My gray eyes fade,
Like the gradual darkening
Of wintry twilight,
Into long night.

My pink flesh pales,
A coldness fast approaching
A flower withering,
Dying, drying.

My warm breath slows,
Each inspiration laboured,
As if it were my last, which it could be,
In a death rattle.

And in my tissues masses of rebel cells,
Still thrive and spread, invading,
Destroying me as they multiply.
The enemy within too strong,
Too treacherous, too well camouflaged,
Too full of life in this dying shell
Of my dwindling carcase.


“When we’re incomplete, we’re always searching for somebody to complete us. When, after a few years or a few months of a relationship, we find that we’re still unfulfilled, we blame our partners and take up with somebody more promising. This can go on and on - series polygamy - until we admit that while a partner can add sweet dimensions to our lives, we, each of us, are responsible for our own fulfilment. Nobody else can provide it for us, and to believe otherwise is to delude ourselves dangerously and to program for eventual failure every relationship we enter.” - Tom Robbins

We watched a famous film at weekend, one that we had heard a lot about – some of it quite controversial – which made us reluctant to watch it at first. However, we were in the right sort of mood at the weekend and we finally watched it. It was Woody Allen’s 2008 “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”, starring Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz. The film was pleasantly surprising and once we had finished seeing it, we understood the reason for the controversy, given the “cheeky” plot.

In a nutshell, the plot revolves around the adventurous and more sexually bold Cristina (Johansson) and her friend Vicky (Hall), who is bright but conservative and cautious, who are on holiday in Barcelona. By chance, they meet the celebrated and seductive painter, Juan Antonio (Bardem) who makes them a frank and outrageous offer – that they should both go to bed with him. Vicky is flabbergasted, and unwilling to enter into such a sexual adventure, not the least reason being that she is committed to her forthcoming marriage. Cristina, however, is immediately attracted to Juan Antonio and his Latin and thinks of nothing to saying yes to his offer.  Juan Antonio’s fascination is cemented by the fact that he has just been through a scandalous divorce from Maria Elena (Cruz), a fiery and temperamental fellow artist. Things don’t quite work out the way they are planned and Vicky finds herself in a situation that cause her to question greatly her relationship with her fiancé, but also the type of married life she is committing herself for.

Woody Allen is a quirky filmmaker and this movie is another of his sublimated fantasies spiced just a little bit with comedy (don’t expect extremely witty one-liners or raucous belly laughs – the humour is much more subtle). He is obviously making a philosophical statement, perhaps influenced by the true-life story of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Woody is certainly a filmmaker who enjoys making films, so much his work being so utterly self-indulgent. That the public likes his work is of secondary importance and quite inconsequential to his art.

The first thing about this film that struck immediately was that it was beautiful in terms of cinematography, sets, locations and sheer gorgeousness of its settings. It was quite delightful to be taken on a whirlwind tour of Catalonia and Barcelona and drink in the scenery, the beautiful vistas and delightful neighbourhoods, art, architecture and villages. The actors are good-looking and immediately win over the viewer, not only because they act well and look good, but because they seem immersed in their roles and have an ingenuousness about them, despite the rather complex and steamy relationships they involve themselves in. Patricia Clarkson, who plays Judy Nash (the middle-aged wife of an American couple who are friends of Vicky's parents and with whom solid Vicky and impetuous Cristina stay in Barcelona) deserves a special mention, even though she has a supporting role, which nevertheless is quite a pivotal one.

In terms of the philosophy espoused by Woody in the film, it is crystal clear that Woody suggests that romantic happiness is achieved best in a relationship where three people are simultaneously involved, and that such a relationship is of necessity ephemeral. This is pure anathema to monogamists, and Vicky certainly is the typical monogamist that voices that view. However, she is also the one who has the most doubt about her version of a perfect relationship, something that is underlined by Judy’s failed “perfect” marriage. Cristina is a much more complex character and seems to be the one who surprises Juan-Antonio and Maria-Elena the most – despite their “progressive” ideas about relationships.

The film was engaging and enjoyable, not the least attractive part being the delicious music in the soundtrack and the gorgeous scenery. I could see that it would be offensive to some people, especially those with deep religious beliefs and of a conservative background. However, as Woody Allen states himself, it is ultimately a sad film, especially given Vicky’s suggested fate at its end. We would recommend it for viewing by open-minded people with a sense of humour.

Sunday, 29 January 2012


“For an impressionist to paint from nature is not to paint the subject, but to realise sensations” - Paul Cezanne
For Art Sunday today, Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro (1830 – 1903), one of the foremost French impressionist painters of the 19th century. He was born on July 10th, in the Danish West Indies, the third son of a Jewish French merchant of originally Portuguese descent. When Camille was 12 years old, his parents sent him away to a school in Passy, near Paris. The young Pissarro showed an early talent for drawing, and he began to visit the collections of the Louvre. At age 17 he returned to St. Thomas, where his father expected him to enter the family business. Young Camille, however, was more interested in sketching and painting and ran away to Venezuela. He returned to St. Thomas in August 1854 and after convincing his parents that he wanted to become an artist, he moved to Paris in 1855.

Pissarro arrived in time to see the contemporary art on display at Paris’s Universal Exposition, where he was strongly attracted to the paintings of Camille Corot. He began to attend private classes at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1856, and in 1861 he registered as a copyist at the Louvre. He also attended the Académie Suisse, a “free studio,” where he met future Impressionists Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, and Armand Guillaumin. Through Monet, he also met Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley.

Pissarro painted rural and urban French life, particularly landscapes in and around Pontoise, as well as scenes from Montmartre. His mature work displays an empathy for peasants and labourers, and sometimes evidence of his radical political leanings. He was a mentor to Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin and his example inspired many younger artists, including Californian Impressionist Lucy Bacon. Pissarro’s influence on his fellow Impressionists is probably still underestimated; not only did he offer substantial contributions to Impressionist theory, but he also managed to remain on friendly, mutually respectful terms with such difficult personalities as Degas, Cézanne and Gauguin.

Pissarro exhibited at all eight of the Impressionist exhibitions. Moreover, whereas Monet was the most prolific and emblematic practitioner of the Impressionist style, Pissarro was nonetheless a primary developer of Impressionist technique. Whilst in Upper Norwood, Pissarro was introduced to Paul Durand-Ruel, the art dealer who overstocked a large amount of oil paintings for sale, who bought two of his ‘London’ paintings. Durand-Ruel subsequently became the most important art dealer of the new school of French Impressionism. Pissarro died in Paris on 13th November 1903 and was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery. During his lifetime, Camille Pissarro sold few of his canvas paintings. By 2005, however, some of his works were selling in the range of U.S. $2 to 4 million.

The painting here is one in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. It is his “Boulevarde Montmartre, Morning, Cloudy Weather” painted in 1897. In February of that year Pissarro had begun a series of paintings of the grand boulevards of Paris. Between 10th February and 17th April he painted fourteen views of the Boulevarde Montmartre seen from the window of a hotel room. The artist is less interested in topographical accuracy and detail, but rather wishes to observe and capture the constantly changing effects of light and weather and mood. The fixed viewpoint of the hotel room upper-storey window allowed him to record the ever-changing configurations of crowd and traffic. The painting is as impressionistic and as Parisian as any and represents what for most people is the essence of the impressionist school.