Moping Owl: Degas and garters

Nicholas McLeod: Drained

… from yonder ivy­-mantled tow’r The moping owl does to the moon complain Of such as, wandering near her secret bower, Molest her ancient solitary reign.


I knew there’d be trouble, the minute I heard the Keepers were bringing Old Edgar back to the Zoo on Piccadilly. ‘Degas & The Ballet’ sounds good, and is good, because Degas is always good, one way or another, whatever he does, which is quite a lot. And that’s the trouble, because no-one seems satisfied with good anymore, for it’s own sake. It seems it must always be turned into something else, to give everyone something to talk about, rather than look. So this show is called ‘picturing movement’ as well, to give a theme and analytical ring to it, and perhaps stop everyone thinking of Degas as just another Dirty Old Backstage Johnny who did nothing but leer up young girls’ tutus. But of course it doesn’t.

It certainly hasn’t stopped young Sookey, Old Mother Dorment’s number 2 Goose down at Telegraph Farm. Indeed he jumps right in, setting up the hare of doubt straight away supposedly to shoot it later – some hope. “Degas’s (sic) budding fascination with dance turned into lifelong obsession (you see)… [He] will always be remembered first and foremost as the painter of dancers (make sure we get the point). From the 1870s he haunted the Paris Opera, studying performances and scrutinising, yes fairly scrutinising the dancers’ rehearsals, warm-up exercises (oh my word yes) and gossipy antics backstage (there ought to be a law: there really should)…. Today it is tempting to write off Degas’s (sic again) pictures of ballerinas as overly pretty and effeminate visions of beribboned nymphets in tutus pirouetting across the stage.” Yes, yes: we know.

‘Effeminate visions’? I’m afraid he’s lost me there. “But (aha: the necessary ‘but’) nothing could be further from the reality (what a relief!) of his robust and vigorous studies of athletes sweating and straining their sinews (golly! those poor sinews: we hear them creak: we feel the pain). His ballerinas aren’t simpering, insipid creatures of fantasy, oh dear me no, but flesh-and-blood young women …” So that’s all right then, and let’s get this straight: why are these tempting effeminate visions of sweating, gossiping athletes so good? And, more to the point, why?

“He sketched everything, and fashioned beautiful paintings from his meticulous observations (well done, Edgar: keep it up)… [the RA] presents many scintillating studies in a variety of scintillated media, including charcoal, chalk, pencil and pastel (that’s pretty well the lot, then), as well as a number of impressive oil paintings.” Impressive eh? I’m sure the old Boy would have appreciated the compliment, especially from you.

But wait: there’s more: “watching him describe the trajectory of a limb in fluttering sweaty motion is compelling (the old eyes are riveted). He must surely have sketched from life (the penny drops at last) either backstage at the Opera or in his studio in Montmartre, or back home at his Mum’s perhaps, or down the pub with his mates.”

“Often he tentatively traces the contour of an airborne limb (ah, those airborne limbs, I can see ’em now, fluttering sweatily away) several times before deciding on the best line, and articulating it more heavily (cunning old bird, that Edgar). Rather than erase his initial impressions, though, he left them intact – and these ghostly echoes offer a brilliant approximation of movement.”

And that’s what passes for art criticism these days. But we mustn’t be too hard on the poor goose: I don’t know quite what they do for O Level (art crit.) these days down at the Poly, so perhaps Sookey hasn’t really been shown any decent drawings before, whether by Degas or anyone else. But I must say he seems to be getting the knack of the egregious image and superfluous adjective. The current champ, old Dicky Stork, still up there on one leg on the Academy chimney­pot, had better look out.


We know the nights are drawing in and we’re in for another hard frost and several feet of snow when assorted gulls, boobies (I’ve mentioned them before) and the odd albatross and lost penguin, set off into the far North for a spot of winter warmth and sunshine, and rescuing the occasional polar bear to keep the feel-good quotient up. I blame global warming. But this time it’s hard to know where to begin.

It seems that one fine warm Arctic summer’s day some years ago, wheeling away high in the sky and far from home in the Southern Ocean, a prize albatross, Hartley’s Albatross no less, than which no self-respecting twitcher would rather catch a glimpse, thought he’d found a little island never seen before, for it had been hidden hitherto beneath a dutifully shrinking glacier in Svarlbard, somewhere to the north of Greenland. So this year he’s gone back with a boatload of said gulls, boobies and lost penguins, including, I understand, “some of the UK’s leading thinkers, ie. experts in climate change, human migration, global governance, international law and environmentalism”, to see if it’s still there. And lo and behold it still is.

So what Captain Albatross and his brainy-heavy shipmates have now done is load up their boat with some ‘island territory’ – which I can only suppose to mean a few bucket-loads of earth, some rocks and pebbles, a clod or two of turf and a bunch of flowers – and sail away with their booty into international waters. All done, I have to say, with the official blessing of Svarlbard’s Governor, good man, who we’re told managed to keep an admirably straight face throughout the proceedings.

Anyway, and follow this closely, once on the high seas, Captain Arty put on his cocked hat and gold chain over his balaclava and declared his boat­load of ‘territory’ a New Nation, though we still wonder quite how a Nation can quite be a ‘Territory’. But we mustn’t quibble at this proud moment. Whatever it is, and do control yourselves at the back there – and do excuse me while I get this speck out of my eye – it is now called Nowhereisland, to which 2000 birds of all descriptions have already flocked in spirit and signed up as citizens.

And it is sailing south as we speak, crew, tackle and trim, on its noble quest to “redefine what a nation can be, thereby inviting us to debate some of the key issues of our time, including migration (yeah!), nationhood (hurrah!), global responsibility (right on, man!), human rights (mustn’t forget them) and (wait for it) climate change.” Simon Anholt, its independent policy penguin and ‘Resident Thinker’ (who is advising the expedition remotely, in case you ask: wise bird) tells us we live “in an age of global threats and global challenges. Most of them are getting worse… Nowhereisland is a place where we can start thinking in a borderless way about borderless problems.” Well, I’ll have to sit down somewhere quiet for a bit of remote residing, and give that some thought, if you don’t mind.

Need you be told Captain Alex the Albatross is an artist working primarily with photography, sculpture, installation and funding applications? Nowhereisland, need you be told, is funded by the Arts Council of England? Phil Gibby, Arts Council Chief Booby for the South West says “this is an exciting moment for our flagship arts project for the Cultural Olympiad.” It will reach England’s south­western shores during the Olympic Games. Don’t say you weren’t warned.


Oh dear: I do enjoy a swoop over St James’s Park and down the Mall now and again, especially on a nice warm autumn evening when the leaves are on the turn, and, who knows, the odd vole or mouse might poke his nose out in the twilight to live a shade too dangerously. Keeps me going, that sort of thing. And on the way home I might even catch a glimpse of Her Majestic Self on the lawn behind the house, giving the corgis their Pedigree Chum – she always gives me a cheery wave, which is more than can be said for some.

You see I do like to keep abreast, and see what’s going on, or not as the case would seem to be with the ICA these days, that nest of self-important, wonderfully creative and challenging stoats and weasels snug in their Arts Council House by the Duke of York’s Steps. I can’t remember the last time I saw a queue at the door, or even a poor

301 Moved Permanently

soul going in to buy a ticket. How time flies. A bit like me really.

But I have to say I still have a soft spot for the dear old FBA, and for that gaggle of birds of assorted colours it gathers to its bosom at the Mall Galleries just a bit farther along towards Admiralty Arch (another recommended perch, that arch, and the things I’ve seen and heard there: but later, later). As for those old birds, they are, I know, a bit foxed and mildewed and lacking a few feathers, but even so, sailing under their various flags of convenience as they do (the New English, the RBA, the RIP, you know the sort of thing) they’ve never had a penny of public subsidy and owe no-one a penny either. Indeed the only time they asked for help, for a few light bulbs some years ago, they were turned down by the Arts Council, who were very polite and tactful but told them they stood for ‘the wrong kind of art’. And, as I say, all they wanted were few light bulbs, and a box of matches and some candles just in case.

Anyway, when I heard that some of those sharp-beaked financial types in the City – hawks, kites and buzzards the lot of them, who’d have you’re shirt off you, and much else besides, as soon as look at you – were interested in backing an open-submission exhibition at the Mall Galleries, along with a suitably lavish prize (25,000 smackeroonies since you ask) for good old figurative art, I thought: well, why not.

So along came the Threadneedle Prize, and here we are four years down the line. It has had some hiccups along the way, I must say, but much to be encouraged by too. And now, as I say: oh dear. For this year, if it’s figurative art in any meaningful sense of the term you want, look away now. And what makes it worse, so my mole (an ordinary sort of chap, you’d never guess) tells me, is that it is not that such art, in all its variety of approach and practice, wasn’t sent in: indeed the submission was larger than ever. Nor was it not of acceptable quality (I know: these triple negatives confuse me too: but you get the drift). To put it simply, the problem was that the three distinguished judges chucked all such stuff out.

And that is what judges of a certain stamp (one not hard to spot) are likely to do, unless they not only understand, but are prepared to accept the nature and intention of the exercise, and act accordingly, if necessary with their arms firmly twisted behind their backs. I’ve seen often enough how these things work, believe me, and how things can go seriously wrong if a firm line is not taken. A good crack of the whip early on certainly concentrates the mind, and a few rings and padlocks left lying around, and perhaps the odd transformer with some wires sticking out – but where was I?

Oh yes: it was bad enough the first time, when our old friend Dicky Stork, and a Bird of Paradise with lots of locks called Hew Locke, were on board and would have ended up with a show of barely 20 works out of some 2000 if they’d had things entirely their own way. You see, anything with a bit of drawing or technique to it was just too dreary and old-fashioned for them. No message or concept to it, don’t you see. It didn’t challenge, interrogate or subvert accepted notions or perceptions. It was simply boring. Can’t have that. And then when it came to prize-day, Corky couldn’t even remember who had won.

But the next two shows weren’t too bad, lessons learnt and all that. And then this. So who were appointed to the Judges’ Bench this time? Brace yourselves. Julie Lomax, London Head of Visual Arts for the Arts Council (aarggh); Lisa Milroy, artist and Head of Graduate Painting at the Slade (groan, groan 301 Moved Permanently and groan again); and Godfrey Worsdale, Director of Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, and juror of the Turner Prize 2011 (we lose the will to live).

In short, it is why, dear children, there are about four paintings in the entire show graced with any true painterly quality of attention and discrimination, anything of the observed, anything of true touch or sensibility. All else is gestural, narrative or conceptual posturing and self-indulgence. Mr Mole tells me it is Ms Lomax alone we must thank for those few mercies that won through. A surprise perhaps, but thank goodness for her.

QUESTION: By the way, while I was near by, I looked into Trafalgar Square and had a breather for a moment on the fine bronze statue of Charles I, our sometime King and Martyr, that commands the long view down Whitehall to where the poor old boy lost his head all those years ago. Mind you, it was his horse’s head I sat on, not Charlie’s – you’ll get no ‘lese majeste’ from me. It is the work of a Frenchman, Hubert le Sueur, dating from 1633 in the days of the King’s glory. But the point is that it now stands

on its own on a fine broad traffic island I’d not noticed before, which means that it can be properly admired and enjoyed without risk to life and wing.

It is one of the two best sculptures in the whole of London on open public view: so which is the other?

The Jackdaw Nov-Dec 2011