Competition over the tracks: the EU seems to learn nothing from the British experience?

Back in the 1990s a wrote a PhD thesis. It was about railways. The privatisation of the UK rail system. Actually, it was two theses. The first part was about privatisation; the second, contrasting part, was about the Beeching years where the network was significantly reduced. Anyone wanting to read it can do so here.

The UK passenger rail industry was privatised using a franching model. The infrastructure management was separated from the provision of train services. Contrived competition came as a result of competition for 7-year franchises, not between trains running over the same track. However, there was to be limited “open access” whereby new operators could have rights over train paths in competition with franchise holders. Out of that provision came Hull Trains (now owned by FirstGroup) and Grand Central (Deutsche Bahn) linking towns and cities that were essentially cut from the Intercity services on privatisation. These open access services have been, arguably, some of the successes of rail privatisation.

I remember at the time the “blame” for privatisation by advocates as coming from the EU. It was true, back in 1991, the EU required national rail operators – largely state-owned providers – to account for infrastructure separately to train services. All in the name of transparency, seemingly. What the EU did not require was wholesale route or infrastructure privatisation. The UK got both; though after a spate of accidents, the privatised infrastructure provider, Railtrack, collapsed and the assets were re-nationalised. The rest is history.

It would seem, however, that the EU’s intention was, after all, to force national operators to liberalise their services and, by implication, allow competitors access to all routes, not just the minor ones as is common at the moment. In Bavaria, for example, Transdev, the French multinational, has run the BayrisheOberlandBahn (BOB, left) under this limited franchising model since 1998. Deutsche Bahn bought Arriva in 2010 but had to sell its German Arriva rail franchises to comply with EU competition policy.

The current European scenario is familiar to British rail observers. In Germany the new operators may well be major coach operators. Now coach operation is a relatively new thing in Germany. Who needs a national coach network when there is a comprehensive national rail network with connecting buses to non-connected locations? Well, one was created and, as might be anticipated, there was a flurry of new operators which, over not very much time, consolidated into a new dominant operator. In particular, I point to Flixbus. In the UK it was Stagecoach, FirstBus and GoAhead leading the bus-to-rail charge.

Flixbus was founded in 2013, has three main backers (General Atlantic, Holtzbrinck Ventures and Silver Lake Partners) and operates throughout Europe and in the United States. Taking on Deutsche Bahn is an interesting diversification. Another entrant is thought to be Leo Express, a Prague-based start-up. But more interesting is perhaps competition from other state operators. In Germany, for example, we might expect the French national operator, SNCF, Dutch national railways (Nederlandse Spoorwegen), Trenitalia and Spain’s RENFE to enter?

The EU’s position seems to be championing of customers. The argument goes something like this:

  • rail travel is too expensive across Europe;
  • monopoly providers keep fares artificially high due to producer interests at the expense of passengers;
  • more competition leads to lower fares.

Lower fares have implications. In this case, as has been seen in the UK, national operators subsidise their existing operations by taking on potentially lucrative operations in other countries. In the UK, services run by Deutsche Bahn/Arriva and Dutch state railways (Abellio/Nederlandse Spoorwegen) qualify in this respect.

Cheerleading this nonsense, as ever, is the Economist. Take the case of the Czech Republic: “new operators have achieved costs per seat kilometre that are 30-50% lower than those of the state operator. Passengers are benefiting: the average ticket price from Prague to Ostrava has fallen by 61% since 2011, when the state rail firm lost its monopoly.” The Economist notes also that it leads to greater yield pricing similar to what airlines use. The closer to time of travel – or on particularly-known busy times – prices go up to choke off demand. Great! OK, the opposite is also true, fares go down at quieter times. But trains are not like planes; people use them because they have to and have limited flexibility. Rail has a social purpose, planes, largely not. Innovation is not what is needed per se. Reliability is what is needed.

The Economist goes on. Nederlandse Spoorwegen carry more passengers in the UK than in the Netherlands!  Scotrail had to be bailed out by its parent, Deutsche Bahn, to the tune of £10m, presumably making services in Germany even less-well funded? Liberalisation and privatisation fracture national networks and reduces network effects (the Germans already know about declining network benefits; British passengers have understood this since privatisation).

The Economist then highlights what it knows about such firms when put under pressure. Surprisingly they use their control and knowledge over the infrastructure to gain an advantage. They collude. They even sever track across borders (Lithuanian Railways on rail link with neighbouring Latvia – detailed in the Economist article).

Let us finish on Economist optimism: “And the high costs involved in starting a new railway firm mean that it will take time for the full benefits of competition to be felt by EU passengers, says Lorenzo Casullo of the OECD, a think-tank. Europe’s railways are on a long journey, but commuters will surely be better off down the line.” Same old, same old.

Economist article published 30 June 2018

Photos: Flixbus: Florian Fèvre

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All a bit quiet on the cigarette advertising front

Despite my best efforts with my blog – posts about politics, art and travel – it is the cigarette advertising that brings in my readers and sparks interest. It seems, in particular, that Germans are the most curious about my posts, even though all of the examples are free to be seen in any German city.

Of late, the billboards have been few in number, and when they do appear they are boring as anything. The latest JPS (left) is a case in point. “Maximales Vergnügen” translates literally as “maximum pleasure (in death)”

Then there is “Passt Perkfekt ins Jetzt” (right) sort-of Perfect Fit now? And this “compact” innovation. That is interesting. Does that just mean it is narrower because it seems to be cheaper than “Maximales Vergnügen”?

There is, however, a new kid on the block, as it were (left). The no batteries needed, of course, refers to the considerable competitive challenge coming from e-cigarettes. And whilst I do not like the latter – users fail to appreciate that the vapour that they produce smells and has emanated from their mouths. It is also voluminous (I am sure this is deliberate on the part of the manufacturers and is unnecessary for the efficient delivery of nicotine). Users Blythely inhale and exhale with no care at all for anyone behind them who gets a face full of the stuff. I almost prefer the real thing.

Anyway, not only are batteries not needed, but users get American Spirit. New to me. Looking forward to more genius straplines from this brand and its marketers. And here’s me thinking the Germans were in hock to Russia!

 

 

A return to Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna: Low Countries and Germany

We made our first visit to KHM at Easter and we managed but a fraction of the artworks (largely the Habsburg’s Italian collection). So we went back to see the work of some of my favourite 15th and 16th Century artists.

Let me start with Valckenborth whose series of scenes from the months of the year. Five are in Vienna. They are hung really badly (high), one has to take a photo to study them; but the snow on this one is almost 20th Century impressionism.

Talking of snow, Pieter Bruegel the Elder made his career out of depicting ordinary people in the landscape. His show scenes are always cold, but equally, there is always people enjoying themselves. Skating is a particular outdoor fun activity, but here there are also hunters. For some, I assume, that is worth getting out of bed for.

There are some 12 Bruegel the Elder’s paintings in this collection (more than a quarter of all those that survive in the world). All that I have seen in various museums are always a thrill. Though the subject matter of another winter scene, “The Massacre of the Innocents” is not a positive thrill. It recreates the biblical scene of Herod’s infanticide in the low country winter landscape.

Perhaps Bruegel’s most recognised painting is his depiction of the Tower of Babel (1563). What is remarkable about this picture is its encyclopaedic detail and depiction of considerable technical and craft skills. All made up of course.

This period is great if you like ghouls, demons, witches and hell. H Francken the Elder’s wonderful Hexenküchen (witch cooking) is a wonderful example of the genre. I particularly like the church in background as a reminder of some sort of duality. But the witches surely win? I am not quite sure what is going to happen to the naked individual on the far right, but I suspect it is not good.

Next up, Hell. I rather like David III. Ryckaert’s “Dulle Griet” (on a Raid before the Entrance to Hell). I have to say I am not quite sure what is going on but the thrashing woman seems to be managing the fantastical collection of ghouls. Difficult to know how long she was going to keep them off.

Here is another great depiction of Hell. This time from Herri me de Bles (somewhere around 1540). It is circular – maybe Hell is circular? – and the hellish colours are brilliant. It does not look so bad relative to other depictions. It is almost Boschian in the strange creatures that are there. Maybe it is some sort of subterranean eco-system? It is not the usual hellfire. Survivable, maybe?

Next up is Man at a Window by Samuel van Hoogstraten. Hoogstraten, apparently, specialised in trompe l’oeil – translated as “deceive the eye”. So we have a wonderfully painted window in a frame with a man’s head protruding from it. Forgive me, I am not entirely sure what the deception is in the literal reading. However, historically, Jews were not permitted to live in the Leopoldstadt district of Vienna in the 16th Century. The man depicted may well be Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller who achieved permission to live there. The picture has a symbolism associated with looking into the forbidden district?

This being a Low Countries collection there is Rembradt, one of his many self-portraits (I am sure the Habsburgs would have been delighted to have The Nightwatch instead). However, there is this fantastic Vermeer, The Art of Painting. The model is Clio, the muse of history, who inspires and proclaims the art of painting in the old Netherlands. These can be seen on the maps with the provinces prior to their division into North and South.

Left is a picture that looked familiar and indeed it was. This is the work of Hans III. Jordaens entitled the Cabinet of Curiosities. I always feel that I may be developing a bit of cultural capital if I can draw a comparison.

 

There are a couple of depictions of stag  hunts in the collection. Actually, they look more like massacres in terms of scale (Lucas Cranach the  Younger, Stag Hunt of Elector John Hendrick). These are all Court commissions. Frederick of Saxony himself can be seen on the far left with Emperor Charles V. But the scale of the endeavour is troubling.

 

So there we are wandering around and there is a Holbein! Holbein, of course, was Henry VIII’s court painter who famously got sent out to paint potential wives for the King. Sometimes too complementary for the king’s liking. This is his portrait of the elegant Jane Seymoor.

By contrast, Albrecht Dürer portrait of the semi-naked grinning mature woman was unlikely to charm a king. It is unclear what this picture is about as the woman grins with her bag of money. Maybe it is a picture of seduction or avarice. Maybe Dürer’s patron wanted to caricature his then wife, the wealthy Dorothea Landauer? I am a shade confused on this, but whatever the meaning, older people are always more interesting sitters.

One thing I  have learned to do is not to focus always on the central characters. As a form of communication, the whole canvass carries messages, some more interesting than others. For example, Bernaert van Orley’s Alterpiece of St Mattewand Thomas. St. Thomas is being martyred. This involves walking on hot coals, accepting a poisoned chalice and, of course, being thrown in an oven (left). I think I will stick to mortal being-hood.

Finally, a branch of feminism that I was not previously aware of. Otto van Veen’s Persian Women, depicts a scene from Plutarch’s Brave Women (new to me, I have to say). They revealed their nethers to shame the men from fleeing in the face of the enemy. I am not quite sure how that works, but apparently it was a great victory in the end.

 

University of Brighton School of Art Degree Show 2018 pt 2: collage, nature and protest

The exhibition has now been closed for a few weeks, time for me to write my second review (part 1 is here). Let me start with the work of Sola Olulode. Olulode is Nigerian and has produced her pictures using a representation of Adire – a regional indigo-dyeing technique. Essentially, these canvasses are collage. Look closely and the texture is clear. With four of these enormous canvasses enveloping the viewer in the gallery, the space is discernibly uplifting. They are like major keys in music.

Not dissimilar in terms of texture is the work of Dannielle Scott (right). Scott presented a series of portraits, each rather distorted. She incorporates the technique of Julian Schnabel, an artist new to me, who painted on to velvet, a most unlikely canvass? The first layer is an undercoat of acrylic which prevents subsequent layers from soaking into the fabric. But there are also unpainted areas which allow the fabric to show through – black, red and blue.

And so on to some discussion about art itself. This show’s artists are a largely a digital generation. Fine art as a discipline seems to me like doing social science with fountain pens and card indexes (I do admit to retaining the former). So to find a piece of work that explores this raised my level of interest. Rosie Burt (left) grapples with it through inserting “a diagrammatic language of the digital into scenes of nature…to explore the omnipresence within our modern society and our detachment from our once ‘natural’ environment”. Now there is clearly a lot going on in that statement. The pronoun “our”, “omnipresence” and “detachment” are open to challenge. But I take it as an attempt to raise awareness of those factors through visually stunning paintings of contrived nature.

Finally, the pallet protest (right). It is tough for students with fees, living costs, work and the desire and pressure to study. Though there was in this case additionally a discussion around the curriculum. Mhairi Lockett’s pallet is an unlikely graduate-show entry. It was made to make a particular point but increased in significance after the University, sensitive to the message, put it in safe storage. I have a bit of a soft spot for pallets having had a period myself of austerity back in the 1980s. I collected them having seen the Channel 4 programme called Low Tech based on the challenge of making stuff from discarded materials, largely found in skips. Pallets were a key source of wood, though the presenter never said how difficult they were to take apart. The barbed nails fail to defeat only the most persistent.

 

 

 

 

University of Brighton School of Art Degree Show 2018 pt 1: dystopia/utopia

This year’s review of the degree show is split into three parts: dystopia/utopia, collage, nature and protest.

The academic year of 2017/18 has been a tough one both internal and external to the students graduating this year. Externally, the world has turned progressively ugly. Artists have traditionally represented the ugliness of epochs in all of art’s forms: painting, sculpture, textiles, ceramics, etc. It would have been surprising if this year’s graduates had not reflected the external world in their work for this show. A disclaimer here: some of the artists I mention here may dispute my classification; but in the accompanying panels for much of the work, dystopia/utopia kept appearing.

So, for example, Judyta Sokolowska’s work (left) investigates the represention of mould, decay and rotting flesh on canvas. This is done, admits Sokolowska, because of her sense of our disconnection from nature and recognition of its vulnerability. In the same room one finds the work of Harley Redford (right). Redford’s style, we are told, “conveys the abyss of my longing”. Abyss is a dystopia-type word, even if the self-penned panel continues “the erratic nature of my brush strokes contrast the seductive and more finished presence of the nude male figures in my images. They have the effect of luring you into their own fetishised utopia”. I have to say that I am not entirely sure what that means. But the stylised nude males did it for me.

And so to a series of three pictures entitled Endenic by Angelica Pownal (left). At first sight, Pownal’s work is familiar (forest), warm, albeit a shade surreal. Indeed, she says of her work “while my images don’t project any evil, they entice a sadness within the viewer that mirrors the disappointment we all feel as part of the human condition”. A curious thought. Projecting on to us a possibly unwarranted disappointment seems presumptuous. But her method of progressively distorting her original images (using photoshop) beyond recognition is bound to result in alienation and a sense of foreboding.

For my next choice, I’m afraid I have not recorded the artist’s name. However, her artefacts have been created under the title “Bohemian Allegory of Slavic Beginnings of my Journey through Pattern and Form”. The journey in question is the transformation of what was Czechoslovakia between 1973 and 1993. As the artist says, it was a time of communist nomenclatura, propaganda, brutalist architecture in a “post-Prague Spring chaos…before the velvet revolution”. It was an “unsettling” time. The form has, she notes, “hidden meanings”. Whatever they are, they unsettled me. Incidentally, if anyone knows the name of artist, please tell me.

Next comes the graphic design work of Bertie Cloutman. Cloutman’s work, if I understand it correctly, focuses on political unrest around certain policies and represents it as some sort of dystopian future in the style of war propaganda. Mr Cloutman has certainly achieved his aim. I was curious, however, about his mixing of eras and styles and whether these were his view of our collective future or were just his sense of nostalgia.

This has been the year of our waking up to the surveillance capabilities of states (and increasingly corporations). As if were not sufficiently paranoid already, Tom Cafferkey elevates our “sense of fear” with his quirky but sinister cardboard-sculptured CCTV cameras (right).

Next I turn to the work of Yasmine Amanda Ansari (left) who has catalogued the actions of “The Save Movement” dedicated to bearing witness to the journey animals make to the slaughterhouse. As someone who has spent much of his life doing just the same, Ansari’s work is poignant. The photographs are haunting. It is not just the facing death, which my own witnessing tells me is clear to the animals themselves, but the dreadful journey there (physically in trucks, but also metaphorically). I always found the pigs to be particularly aware.

Let me move on to utopias – or more probably the natural world and our place in it. The work that potentially generated the most laughs was the Heath Robinson/Wallace and Gromit presentation by Peter McConnon (right). The premise here is flight. McConnon is a former mechanic with the urge to fly. Most of us would buy an airline ticket, but McConnon seems to want to do it in a bird-like fashion with flapping wings. He creates a collection of overtly mechanical and unnecessary devices ranging from a mechanical tooth brush, a food stirrer and a bath scrub. There is an accompanying video of McConnon in some sort of farm environment living the life – there is one scene of him sat in a bath being towed by a driverless tractor.

Next up – my favourite from the textile exhibition – is the work of Ella McGarry. Taking her influence from the work of Charles Darwin and in particular the Galapagos Islands, she has imposed some stunning prints on to swimwear (left), shawls and handkerchiefs.

Not dissimilar is the work of Rosie Rara-Avis with her collection entitled “Planet Bloom”. Rara-Avis is clear about her objective “the collection is derived as a reaction to the world we live in an age of pending doom”. That is first-order pessimism. From that though comes beauty captured in a couple of wonderfully printed jackets (right).

Finally, two further artists – Antonia Packham and Robyn Edwards. Both create beautiful objects from detritus. Edwards’ work is entitled “Plastic Planet: An Exploration of Plastic Waste Through Jewellery” (plastic waste is a recurring theme). She has created a number of exquisite items – a little bulky for me (necklaces and earrings, left). But listening to some of the other visitors, there was a collective approval of her designs.

Packham’s collection of artefacts is entitled “Mining the Antropocene”. She creates this material called Plastiglomerate which is a stone formed of sand, wood, shells (natural stuff from the shoreline) cemented together in molten plastic (unnatural stuff from the shoreline). The artefacts are great. My favourite was the candle holders (right). I’m not entirely sure about the sustainability of process by which they were made,  but there you go.

 

 

 

Joan as Police Woman, Vienna, 31 March 2018 and Hove, 23 April 2018

We are regulars at Joan as Police Woman gigs. I think this is about our fifth time, though the first outside of the UK. All bar one of these share one thing in common: the intimacy of the venue. Intimacy enables Joan Wasser to play to her key strength: emotion. The venue matters, therefore. Last time we saw her, in her collaboration with Benjamin Lazar Davis in Brighton, UK, the venue was rammed and the bar was simply in the way. Tonight was perfect, though as bizarre as they come. At the Ottaker Brauerei (a real working brewery) one might have expected the bar to be in the way again. But no, the bar has its own room and the concert space is what it says on the can. Space. Nothing fancy – a dark hole with steel girders. Perfect for Joan as Police Woman (seemingly she has performed there twice before).

l-r Parker Kindred, Jacob Silver, Joan Wasser, Eric Lane and Jared Samuels

By contrast, The Old Market in Hove, UK, is rather less industrial. Once it was a market hall, but as venue it is versatile, fully furbished, though with visible wooden beams holding up the roof. I think it was her first time at the Old Market (having previously also appeared at Brighton’s Concorde 2, if I am not mistaken). It did not matter, the intimacy was there. The audience engaged, though clearly the band, coming to the end of a comprehensive European tour, were admitting their weariness. For some bands, this could easily lead to fractiousness; but these musicians seem very much at ease with one another. It was a much more relaxed performance than Vienna.

Now this was the Damned Devotion tour. Dammed Devotion is her latest solo album and it is worthy of a collection to add to her existing body of work. Actually, it was not until seeing Joan as Police Woman in Vienna that I realised how different this album is from its predecessors. The big clue came in the stage setup – three sets of keyboards – not seen before. We were reassured to see her long-time percussionist, Parker Kindred (left), mount the stage. He was intricately supported by bassist, Jacob Silver. Together they kept an order to the proceedings; Kindred’s timing is impeccable and it was great to be close enough to spend time watching a master caress and cajole a drum kit. It was also the first time that I have listened to a band from the drum kit outwards. By which I mean, the beats come first, followed by bass, keyboard and vocals. And with Joan as Police Woman live, that seemed to make sense.

And that is another reason why Damned Devotion is different, Kindred gets his moment to let rip on Joan’s uncharacteristic “dance track”, Steed (for Jean Genet).   I’ve never heard Wasser sing so high at such tempo and with so much noise

Wasser with Jared Samuel in background

behind her, not only Kindred’s percussion, but also two sets of keyboards played by Jared Samuel and Eric Lane. Equally, Wasser must rightly assert herself. On her album, Classic, I always celebrate her divinity captured in the song The Magic: “And I find I am face to face with none other than me; I’ve got the mirror up against the marquee; And all it reads is, I am fine, I am divine; But there is a wild side going on behind the sign”. We got it in the set, of course, but it is now complemented by her lastest self-anthem, The Silence with its clear lyric “My body, my choice, her body, her choice”. The Magic is subtle in tone, if not lyric. The Silence is neither.

This is a tour to promote The Damned Devotion, it is certainly not a greatest hits. Though it was good to hear Eternal Flame, the song that introduced me to Joan as Police Woman back in 2005 with its beachy-kitsch video. And there is one other addition to the repertoire. What is it Like to be You?, Wasser tells the audience, in a peculiarly revelatory exchange with the audience, is about her deeply missed father who passed away a couple of years ago. Of course, she is not the only daughter to fail to ask questions of a parent before they die. Wasser laments this with her father and captures her lament in this song. This is doubly intimate and it is why venues matter.

Vienna’s washrooms

So there we are looking for breakfast. We end up at Schwedenplatz. We cross the Donau Kanal using the Schwedenbrücke and stumble into Spelunke on Taborstraße. It is one of those cafés that doubles as a nightclub. Versatile. But as we have found over the years, the proof is in the toilet, and Spelunke is special. The breakfast was ok, too.

So, the first challenge is to get in. Because one does not expect to find instructions on the floor, the tantalising glass door just refuses to open. It takes a couple of helpful women to point out the floor sensor (above left).

Once in, there’s more going on. Now I did not go into the women’s toilet, but my partner came out with a couple of interesting shots from inside a cubicle where the portal window has a couple of surprises (left and right).

And just in case you cannot find the loo roll, it is illuminated.

So the next day, we are after breakfast again. We concede Stadtcafé adjacent to Freyung, a rather central location. The café is pretty regular. The porridge was good. Then in the toilet one finds another mysterious piece of equipment, albeit designed by Dyson (right). These three-in-one contraptions never seem satisfactory and always challenge. The wash basin itself is a bit of a mystery. It is more of a drainage channel.

As a design idea, this borrows directly, I think, from the old ghastly Wallgate three-in-ones that seemed very popular with English public authorities either building or refurbishing their public conveniences (left).

Wallgate picture by Retroscania (Flickr) from Dudley bus station

Das Kunsthistorische Museum, Vienna

This museum and art gallery is just about as outrageous as it gets. The only concession to normality is the cloak room. Everything else screams empire, wealth, kleptocracy and vanity. It’s great.

Recently, our favourite art historian, Andrew Graham-Dixon, made a series of four documentaries about the British Royal Collection. It’s a familiar story of European royals, they have all used art for propaganda, as a store of value, diplomatic gesturing and self-gratification. The Habsburgs were no different. Their collection is equally outrageous, but at least the Austrian Bundes Republic now owns the collection and a grand building in which to display it.

David Teniers’ fantastic picture of Leopold Wilhelm (1614-62) inspecting his haul of 51 Italian works from the collection of the Duke of Hamilton in Brussels (above left) just captures the obscenity – or scale economies – of art buying and collecting. It is simply my favourite picture in the Italian collection on show which took us 3 hours to view with as much respect that we could.

The curators enjoy juxtaposition. Some of which vaguely work. Others not. Putting Titian up against Picasso is an interesting one (above right). Titian’s intimate portrait of Pope Paul III (1546) was, I sense, intended to humanise him, without diminishing his stature as Pope. He sits. His hands and arms are almost close enough to touch. But not quite. By contrast, Picasso’s portrait of Carlotta Valdivia (painted, not surprisingly, in his blue period in Barcelona, 1904) is not accessible at all. She was not ostentatiously rich, but her pearl earring and cowl suggest more wealth than Picasso had at that time as a bohemian. The slight rosy colouring of her face suggests, apparently, a former physical beauty swept away by the years.

This flattery of sitters is not uncommon. In England, we know that Holbein, Henry VIII’s court painter, overdid it on Anne of Cleves before the King married her. Probably not a good idea. This overdoing is on display again with Titian’s second  portraits of Elisabeth d’este (1534) who looks amazingly good for her 60 years’. Good work.

Over the years we have learnt a lot about how to look at pictures and, indeed, what to look for. Andrew Graham-Dixon taught us to go for the detail. For example, Lazarus in, what is simply a landscape painting by Pieter Breugel. So, when viewing landscapes, it is the little detail that makes the difference. Take, for example, the view of Schönbrunn Palace gardens (1758/61) by Tintoretto (right). There are lots of court figures in the grounds. But, of course, to keep everything perfect, the groundsmen had to follow them with their rollers. And look closely (left), we can see them!

More recently, Waldemar Januszczak’s documentary about Mary Magdelene, has us always looking for her in depictions of Jesus’ body after the crucifixion. To be honest, I’m not sure if I have found her at Jesus’ foot in The Lamentation of Christ by Savoldo (around 1513, right), but probably.

Another Graham-Dixon prompt is to look for Ghouls, particularly done by Germans. Now this one doesn’t quite qualify, but by goodness, that is one heck of a snake (Raphael in 1518) that St Margarete has to slay (left).

The Gods are always good value in 16 Century art. Venus and Adonis, in particular. Of course, Adonis is destined to be killed by a wild beast (Venus knows this because she has that most awkward of powers, the divine power of prediction). But when if comes to affairs of the flesh, this does not really matter. I trust that when one’s nipple is being squeezed (right), the future is of little concern. Veronese’s picture tries to warn us with storm clouds, but my eyes are elsewhere.

Tucked away in one of the small rooms off the main gallery is a series of four pictures about the seasons by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1566). Each one has a profile portrait to make the point. The portraits are entirely made up of non-human components – for want of a better word – such as fruits and, here (left), fish. They are extraordinary pictures. Peculiarly unsettling.

There are, of course, pictures that remind one of earlier times. My mother was particularly enamoured by the biblical story of Samson and Delilah. Delilah was a lot of a baddie, and not only took away Samson’s strength by cutting off his hair, but also had him blinded. My mother was keen for me to grow my hair, which I did, but I was never strong enough to push down a temple (top panel, right Tintoretto 1543).

Finally, there are some pictures that quite simply do not belong in this part of the collection. There’s a Turner, for goodness sake (another attempt at juxtaposition). There is also Bathers by Paul Cezanne (1890, left).

OK, we had no time for the huge collection of low countries art, Gustav Klimt and Dürer. We’re coming back, soon, to mop up.

Unconscious bias

As a lecturer at a university, I am confronted on a daily basis with my own biases. After all, I’m a middle-aged white male in a relatively powerful position vis-a-vis my students (a discussion about relative-ness, is for another time). As a course leader, I am charged with achieving inclusivity targets (however it is measured) and widening participation. These are good things, but achieving them is very hard indeed. I’ve been on the training courses, studied exemplars and worked with knowledgeable colleagues. To some extent, it is not for us to define. One cannot wish into existence wider participation, for example, in a climate – economic and political – that is structurally biased against the very people we are trying to include.

Last week I was driving home listening to an edition of BBC Radio 4’s Analysis, entitled: Why are even women biased against women? As a white male, naturally, I’m looking to get off the hook. In my head, I can hear things like, “well, if women are biased against themselves then I’m ok”, etc. And so I listen. The programme is presented by former Times journalist, Mary-Ann Sieghart, but that is not significant other than her admitting to her own biases against women.

In the programme are two scenarios. I was listening whilst driving paying reasonable attention. I am mortified that I got caught out by both of them. I have been naughty taking a bit of BBC intellectual property and posting it on to my blog. But as Sieghart says, not only are we complicit in our unconcious bias on a daily basis (the conscious bias is another question), but we must find ways of exposing ourselves to our biases on a daily basis also. So here goes:

Scenario 1: 

Scenario 2: 

So, how did you get on?

If readers want to try something else, go to the Harvard Implicit Bias project website and do the test. I did it myself (before the Analysis programme) expecting the worst. I came out of it neutral. But as my failure in Scenarios 1 and 2 demonstrates, there are no laurels to rest on.

 

JPS identity crisis

John Player Special is trying to knock us over with its striking new campaign, Make your Day. There’s a lot of red. It is supposed to “fit in”, as the strapline indicates. Because it is compact! What is a compact cigarette? More tobacco? If so, the bit they do have to put on the poster “Rauchen ist tödlich” is as fitting as ever. Deadly.