Some questions about hats

Next week we are going to Dubai and Oman. So, to Lock’s in St James’s to buy suitable headgear. It is essential to find something elegant to keep the strong Arabian sun off my nose. Fortunately Lock’s have something summery even though the autumn is on us. It probably comes from catering for the Empire in times gone by. Having made my selection I notice a selection of beautiful embroidered velvet caps with tassels. I ask the gentleman where they might be worn.

Not in Dubai or Oman, he says. There is an element of pastiche about them that the local people might find offensive.

What about an opium den in London, I ask.

The very thing, he says.

Before I can pay there is a drama. An America couple are in front of me. They have contrived to enter into the card machine a sum that is exactly 1% of what they owe. I thought that that was impossible but they have managed it. They demand to know the balance. A calculator is called for from the nether regions of the shop. The balance is calculated, recalculated, checked and agreed on. The card goes through again.

But which receipt will we have to produce if we want to return the hats, they wail.

Both.

Finally they stumble out onto the street. Panic creeps into the voice of the man and he reaches for his mobile phone. We’re on the sidewalk, he cries.

But the contract driver is nowhere to be seen.

*

Later in the day we went to the private view at The Annely Juda Gallery of two new shows, one of work by Francois Morellet based on Malevich’s black square paintings, and the other sculpture and drawings by Katsura Funakoshi. We went partly because we love the seriousness and effortless style of the Juda gallery, partly because it is nice to see a Malevich black square that isn’t in captivity and partly because we once spent an excellent holiday in a hotel owned and run by Francois Morellet’s son.

Indeed Malevich / Morellet is well worth seeing. There is a little Malevich black square. The passing years have qualified its impenetrable blackness, just as they have some of Mondrian’s flat areas of colour – and that’s good. There are also some drawings of the sort that it’s fascinating to see the master at work, but you wonder how fascinating they would be if you didn’t know that it was the master at work. The pieces by Francois Morellet are very shiny and new and therefore still impeccably impenetrable – and that’s also good.

We didn’t go with any expectations of the work by Katsura Funakoshi, but it is stunning. The sculpture is accompanied by preparatory drawings. Indeed in the drawings you can see ideas being tried out and sometimes discarded. The sculpture consists entirely of human figures, carved in camphor wood. The wood retains a faint smell of camphor, although very faint when competing with the confidently-perfumed private viewers. The figures are hieratic, intensely thoughtful, sometimes actually described as sphinxes. Sometimes they are male, sometimes female, sometimes both. Some of them have attributes attached to their shoulders: a building, a helping hand, an okapi.

(An okapi is a solitary, forest-dwelling member of the giraffe family, according to the BBC. It has a dark velvety coat, white stripes on its rump and legs and large ears. Funakoshi-san, when we spoke to him, stressed that the animal was solitary. Sometimes in his work it achieves a horn like a unicorn.)

I thought of the line from Hey Jude: “The movement you need is on your shoulder”. John Lennon’s only contribution to the song is said to have been to insist that Paul McCartney keep the line, notwithstanding its total opacity. Looking at these grave figures with helping hands and tutelary beasts attached to their shoulders, it makes sense at last.

As much as anything the figures resemble Madonnas, or saints bearing the signs of their deaths or of the means by which they help those for whom they intercede. Funakoshi-san referred to a painting of Christ’s scourging, by one of the early Italian masters. Christ stood impassive; the spitting was indicated by an insert depicting a mouth; the beating by a hand.

The work is profound, serious and moving. When we left and struck out for Chinatown to eat, we passed another private view, showing Chinese paintings, colourful and featuring the inevitable satirical portraits of Mao. They tried to entice us in. It was unthinkable, so soon after having seen the real thing.

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