Friday, March 28, 2008

RIP Philip Jones Griffiths

Sadly world-class Welsh photographer Philip Jones Griffiths died last week. Best known for his inspirational work in Vietnam Griffiths was also for a time head of the Magnum photo agency in New York.

In 2004 he was kind enough to do an email interview with me. Odd, over the past few days, to see quotes from it appearing in everything from the New York Times to the International Herald Tribune.

Above is a video from Griffiths' year long US exhibition (2005-6) entitled 50 Years on the Frontlines. Also check out more of his work at Magnum.

The biggest photographic influence on Griffiths was Henri Cartier-Bresson. The respect was mutual. According to Cartier-Bresson: "Not since Goya has anyone portrayed war like Philip Jones Griffiths."

Thursday, March 27, 2008

William Randolph Hearst at St Donats

This is a rare photograph of American newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (centre) at St Donat's castle. Taken in 1928, he is pictured with Alice Head and Spanish artist Federico Beltran-Masses (noted for his portraits of Valentino, Joan Crawford and the Shah of Persia).

Below are extracts from an interview Hearst gave to the Cardiff Times (also in 1928) in which he discusses buying the Welsh castle and the problems of Prohibition:

My first word was one of congratulation that he had secured one of the glories of South Wales. His eyes beamed.

"Yes" he said, "it is a charming place. It was very beautiful last night and as we sat on the terrace in the moonlight, with the waves plashing below, it was almost poetical."

"Is this your first visit to Wales?"

"No I have been here two or three times before, and it is a beautiful country."

"But how came you to buy a castle in Wales?"

"Well," he said, with a disarming smile, "I had seen some of your great castles such as those at Caernarvon and Conway and they made such an impression on my mind that I decided to acquire something in the same way, only smaller and more domestic, as it were."

"Is it your intention to spend much time here?"

"I shall certainly come here as often as I can for a week or two. Besides I have five sons, three of them with families and they will also like to spend some time here. Two of my boys have already been here and they are delighted with the place. I am already charmed with the place and its associations. I think it is delightful."

"Do you intend to make any alterations?"

"I shall have the decorative work seen to and I have Sir Charles Allom, the well-known architect and Sir Joseph Duveen, the distinguished art connoisseur, here now to advise me. Some of the modern panelling I propose removing and substituting with something more appropriate. I also propose to furnish the place in period style, cheifly Gothic and to bring some fine old tapestries here. I have a lot of beautiful things which I shall put in. My first object of course is to make the place habitable as the former owner took everything out. Two or three of the rooms are already habitable."

Asked if he intended to identify himself with Welsh life or movements in any way Mr Hearst said he would see how things developed. At present he did not know how he could be of service to Wales but if there were developments in which he were interested he would be only too happy to take his part in them. (Roughly translated this means "no")

And on the question of Prohibition in America? "I don't think Prohibition is a success. I don't mean to say that the people are not in favour of temperance but they are beginning to doubt the effectiveness of Prohibition as a temperance measure. It has practically eliminated light wines and beers which could make no harm to anyone and has substituted them with illicit drink, not stronger alcoholic drinks. The American cocktail is the most pernicious thing conceivable and it is not confined to our own country."
*Ironically, there has been much recent speculation that the obscenely rich and powerful newspaper magnate was once involved in an alcohol-fuelled murder on board his luxury yacht. Get the low down here.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

CZJ and Welsh Culture

Catherine Zeta Jones is a modern day Nest (the Welsh Helen of Troy). By going to America, conquering Hollywood, and marrying into its leading acting dynasty she has both updated and reversed the myth. In the process she has also become the undisputed queen of Welsh popular culture.

Over the past decade Zeta Jones's face has launched a thousand magazine covers. No other Welsh person has featured on the front of so many journals. Only Richard Burton as male consort of La Taylor could come close to matching her pop cultural ubiquity.

It's a shame then that we don't yet have in Wales a permanent public space dedicated to showcasing aspects of our popular culture. I would love to see, for example, an exhibition of 100 magazines that have featured Zeta Jones on their cover. These periodicals would come from all over the world and encompass the entire span of her career. In glass display cabinets I would have open key editions like the infamous Hello (2003) wedding issue; or the 1999 Paris Match; the Slovakian Playboy (1999); or the Life magazine of 2005. They would be presented with the same kind of reverence that is accorded to say, the Gwen John collection at the National Museum of Wales.

Such an exhibition would be of interest on many levels: as a celebration of Zeta Jones's triumph as a pop icon; as a demonstration of how women are commodified in the entertainment industry; as a recent history of aesthetics in magazine design. And so on. I would be quite interested just to see how her hairstyle has evolved over the last ten years. In essence then it would have both intellectual and popular appeal. It might even entice through its doors those exotic and seldom seen creatures in the Welsh Arts world - the general public.

This is just one example of how to approach Welsh culture from an alternative perspective. It is something we need to do more often. Recently there have been a number of handsomely funded projects in Wales which whilst being worthy enough - and forming part of a wider process of cultural reclamation - are depressingly conservative in outlook. If we merely compile encyclopaedias of dead people; or attempt to construct artistic canons of "classic" works based upon notions of taste (ideas outdated and discredited for decades in other countries) we will risk condemning ourselves to a future of cultural sterility.

I've mentioned on several occasions the cultural stock-take currently being undertaken in Wales. This is a natural consequence of Devolution. The next phase will inevitably centre on an analysis of what we have discovered - ie the 'critical' phase. How we interpret and present this new found information is of great importance. If we do it in creative and imaginative ways then this will help to invigorate our culture. Personally I would much rather see the emergence of a Welsh Camille Paglia or Julie Burchill in the coming years than say, another competent but irrelevant poet.

Those who wield power in the Welsh Arts establishment have a responsibility here. University arts faculties, magazine editors and publishers need to be a lot bolder in their approaches to Welsh culture. And those who control the cultural purse strings must stop subsidising the middle-brow (almost always in Wales masquerading as high-brow culture) and start rewarding innovation, originality, experimentation as well as, of course, artistic excellence.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Jon Langford at Dempsey's

A couple of weeks back I went to see Bloodshot Records stalwart (and punk legend) Jon Langford perform live at Dempseys in Cardiff (see pic). The purpose of the gig was to raise money for a book about the history of Garndiffaith RFC to be put together with the help of local socially excluded kids. You can find out more about the project here.

It was an enjoyable occasion - a fine mixture of punk and country reflecting Langford's Gwent/Chicago cultural heritage. He kicked off with a version of Delilah, dropped references to Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and John Sicolo who runs TJs in Newport. At one point he was even joined by Carlton B Morgan on harmonica.

Between songs Langford entertained the audience with amusing rock'n'roll anecdotes delivered in the kind of transatlantic-Welsh accent that Catherine Zeta Jones would be proud of.

As he sang one number - dedicated to a Newport undertaker - a Welsh dragon unfurled on the flag pole outside the window behind him and waved defiantly in the stormy Cardiff night. Langford was of course completely unaware of this uncanny meteorological backdrop but it looked kind of impressive. God was evidently on his side.

Later on after the show photographer/psychologist Joni Karanka and I had a quick chat with the singer during which he explained the difficulties of getting a pint in Finland. Apparently Finland's strange alcohol laws combined with the disorienting nature of their long sunlit days plus the idiosyncratic architecture of your average Finnish hotel makes getting pissed a complex and labyrinthine process. It clearly isn't always easy being a rock'n'roll troubador.

*More info on Jon Langford's music can be found here. And you can buy his much sought after artwork here.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

John Cale - I've Got a Secret

Check out this astonishing footage from 1963 of John Cale appearing on an American game show called I've Got A Secret.

It quickly transpires that Cale's secret is that he participated in an avant garde performance of Erik Satie's Vexations which involved 10 pianists playing the same piece of music 840 times. John Cage was one of the other participants. The full performance lasted 18 hours and 40 minutes.

What's noticeable is that despite being on a tacky panel show and at times even being laughed at, Cale remains uber-cool throughout. A little over 12 months after this programme was recorded he would co-found the Velvet Underground with Lou Reed.

Special thanks to Rhys Davies from Cardiff who alerted me to this jaw-dropping piece of film. It is one of the most interesting collisions of pop culture and the avant garde I think I have ever seen.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Kinky Dylan Thomas

As much as it pains me to admit it, reading the work of Wales' greatest cultural albatross, Dylan Thomas, is invariably an enjoyable experience. The cult of Dylan Thomas and its cottage industry on the other hand never fails to depress me. Talk about flogging a poetic stereotype to death.

However there is one item of Thomas memorabilia that I'd love to get my mitts on and that's the September 1968 edition of Man to Man magazine (see pic). As you can see the trashy American publication contains some startling revelations concerning Thomas and his alleged fondness for naked women and wet mackintoshes!

A no good boyo indeed. Adventures in the skin trade, one presumes.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Bo Diddley - Shaken not Stirred

Back in the '80s I saw Bo Diddley perform live at the Butetown Carnival, Cardiff. Spending hours in the sun drinking cheap beer ensured that I was totally inebriated by the time the legendary rhythm'n'bluesman arrived on stage. I can vaguely recall running around playing football whilst his classic track Hey Bo Diddley blasted from the speakers. I digress.

That wasn't his first visit to Wales. As the above advert for Cardiff Top Rank shows he was also in the capital in 1967. As luck would have it on the same day as his Welsh gig three "Bond Girls" were in town promoting the film Casino Royale. Obviously it was too good a photo opportunity to miss and an excellent chance to promote the venue.

The quality of the resultant photograph is not great but you can just about discern Bo Diddley shamelessly hamming it up while the Bond Girls point plastic guns at him. Not sure if the dickie bow is part of the act or whether those were the kind of threads he wore back then. Anyway, it's a nice piece of pop cultural ephemera.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Woman With a Beard

Lancashire artist LS Lowry was no stranger to Wales. He sketched many early scenes at Rhyl and along the north Wales coast where he often holidayed. Later he was introduced to the industrial landscapes of south Wales by friend and collector Monty Bloom. In fact for six years he was visiting Wales twice a year. His oil paintings Ebbw Vale (1960), Hillside in Wales (1962), Six Bells Colliery, Abertillery (1962), and Bargoed (1965) are rightly regarded as being amongst his finest works.

However my favourite Welsh Lowry is his Woman With a Beard (1957). In his introduction to The Paintings of LS Lowry Swansea artist Mervyn Levy recounts the story behind this unusual artwork. Lowry (who was a friend of his) apparently told him that while travelling on a train from South Wales to Paddington a bearded lady boarded at Newport and sat opposite him. Naturally he was shocked by her appearance. But not so shocked as to stop himself getting out a sketch pad and doing a drawing of her. Unsurprisingly she was a bit miffed by his artistic attentions and reprimanded him severely. Nevertheless the artist and the bearded lady got talking and by the end of the journey they were on friendly terms. On the platform at Paddington they even shook hands. From the train-bound sketch Lowry painted Woman With a Beard in 1957.

So next time you are stuck on the Swansea to Paddington due, no doubt, to engineering works somewhere near Swindon console yourself with the cultural significance of your journey. And keep an eye out for that bearded lady when you pass through Newport.