Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Remembering and representing: World War I

Every museum worth its salt has a World War I exhibition this Autumn. I’ve almost lost count of the exhibitions I’ve visited.

Imperial War: through an imperial lens

The IWM have just reopened their First World War galleries, when I visited a mere fortnight ago the museum was rammed with grandparents and grandchildren making the most of this new, free, interactive exhibition. For an imperial war museum they’ve done a good job.  Technology has been used to good effect to create interactive games, and a reconstruction of a trench.  Subject wise there was plenty on the war as class conflict, a section dedicated to conscientious objectors, as well as an informative area on the world war beyond Europe particularly in the Middle East. There was some effort to represent the home front, but I felt women were under-represented in the exhibition particularly with reference to activity on the Front – but then I suppose I did buy the book which brought women to my attention at the IWM so maybe its not all bad!

('The Din', Imperial War Museum Gallery)

Upstairs at the IWM they have a collection of paintings from the First World War which cover the gender angle much better – featuring several paintings by women from the conflict as well as several paintings by the Nash brothers.

The Passing Bells

Another commemorative TV series on the BBC this Autumn – borrowing its title from Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. TPB jumps a major hurdle to remembrance from the first scene in genuinely representing 3 different nationalities experience; German, English and Polish. The producers have worked hard to show the shared experiences and get some comment on most of the major events –  1914 Christmas peace, the Somme etc. I felt the role of women in TPC was well covered and nothing was over romanticised. That said, unlike Our World War the show is designed to feel like a period piece. War is not glamorised, the character of Derek (Brian Fletcher) is used to mirror some of the questions we are asking today ‘in a hundred years’ time, I wonder what they will make of this?’. You can catch The Passing Bells on iPlayer til Dec 3rd.

(Enemies side by side. Photo credit: BBC Media Centre)

Burgh House: bringing the war home

To bring the conflict back to a very local scale I visited the free exhibition at Burgh House, Hampstead. Hampstead Heath played host to training troops during the conflict and artists famous from the era – including the Nash brothers and Richard Carline. The exhibition featured a copy of the Vorticist magazine, Blast and an original World War I nurses uniform as well as several photos of people using the hospital and the nearby heath during war-time. The curators had made good use of poetry on the walls to set the scene, and helped to set an international crisis into a local perspective – the personal drawn into stark relief through the smaller objects – a Princess Mary tin, a postcard home. The exhibition is open until 14th December. They also do great food!

(Troops work out on the Heath)

(The doorstep of Burgh House)

Monday, 3 November 2014

Madrid: a voyage into the unknown

Normally when I set out on adventures my friends have lots of recommendations. Not so with Madrid, only one friend had visited Madrid, most said by qualification, ‘I went to Barcelona’. If you are looking for a destination for a long-weekend I’d definitely include Madrid on your list; there was plenty to keep us busy across three days.

Apartementos Madrid Huertas

We found our lovely restored 18th-century apartment on booking.com. The bonus of an apartment and your own front door is being able to come back at any point for a cheeky coffee, a nap or a shower - we learnt this in Venice. We also had a balcony; I really enjoyed jotting down some lines, chorizo in one hand, coffee in the other watching the world go by of an afternoon.

Searching for cheese and chorizo

Our apartment was very near Calle León a street full of food and curiosities. So the first morning whilst my amiga was recovering from her jet-lag I escaped in search of bread and pastries, cheese and chorizo; and I was not disappointed. The bakery had baguettes the length of my arm and giant napolitanas (I bought 2). Buoyed by the experience I found what purported to be a wine deli, but when I asked to buy chorizo the gentleman behind the counter produced a foot-long sausage and asked how much I wanted! That was a serious breakfast!

(Breakfast at the apartment!)

We visited several churches whilst in Madrid but deliberately passed San Jeronimo on the way to the Parque del Retiro and it was the first of several churches we visited whilst in Madrid. Whilst the exterior is very impressive the inside features a lot of plastic and this was a bit disappointing. Somehow putting a euro into a slot which then turns on a battery operated tea-light wasn’t quite the same! That said there were several interesting depictions of Christ inside and I particularly liked this stained-glass window.

(Electronic candles :( )

(Christ on the cross)

Parque del Buen Retiro

The PdBR is 350 acres of beautiful public park complete with statues, cocktails, the Crystal Palace, a rose garden and a lake. Not just any lake, a lake you can hire a boat and row on - all the way past a monument to Alfonso XII. We spent a good 3 or 4 hours in the park, boating, pausing, smelling the roses. A top class park thoroughly reminiscent of San SouciBerlin and Jardin de Luxembourg, Paris.

(The monument, and the boating lake)
El Prado

Did you know the Prado is open for free between 6-8pm on some weekdays? We made the most of this free window to see numerous works by Rubens. I particularly enjoyed comparing the pictures of Adam and Eve painted by Titian and then copied by Rubens – it was like those games of spot the difference! I prefer Rubens version because it’s got a parrot!

(Titian and Rubens - Adam and Eve)

The time we bought biscuits from a closed order of nuns...

I had read online that there was a closed order of nuns in the city who sold biscuits. We decided this was an opportunity not to be missed and thus dedicated a morning to finding the spot where ‘sweets are for sale’. We found the church attached to the convent and after a brief tour of Hapsburg Madrid to allow the school group to disperse we returned to the door. A cyclist emerged and we asked him about the protocol for acquiring the sweet treasure. He said very little, ‘you’ll have to find out for yourselves. A gnarled beggar woman rang the bell for us to tell the nuns we were on our way. 

The door shut behind us with a clunk and there we were in a silent convent in the middle of a bustling city. We couldn’t believe it. With little to go on we followed the tin-plate signs round the nunnery til we got to this hatch with a wooden door in it. The door appeared to have taken on the voice of an octogenarian nun, ‘Aqui!aqui?' Having established that ‘yes’, we were there, and ‘yes’, we wanted to buy biscuits, the lady rattled off a long list of biscuits they had for sale. We were still making up our minds when a beautifully packaged pack of nevanditos emerged and a request for 'dinero' was made. We put our cash down, and our change re-emerged as a part of this rotating transaction. The American and I made our way back to the front door still silent in awe of the whole experience and remained silent for quite some time.

(The mysterious revolving door)

Calle Cava Baja

This is the road for all your tapas needs! We were in quite a particular mood so it took us a few goes before we found our ideal spot but we did find it, the ever kitsch, La Perejila. The pictures of Spanish senoritas on the walls, all the lace, even the octopus on toast (tentacles still very much on!). We experienced great kindness from the waitress who plied us with free sherry and sugared almonds.

(La Perejila)

Palacio Real

Official residence of the Spanish Royal family and the biggest palace in Europe. The palace in its current form has been there since the mid-18th century but built on the same site as 9th century fort mayrit (from where we get the name ‘Madrid’). 

There were several overlaps between the Palacio in Madrid and the Hofburg in Vienna. I guess that is not so surprising when the connections between Philip IV of Spain and Leopold I of Austria are considered. Margaret Theresa (immortalised below by Velázquez) was betrothed to her cousin and uncle as a child, and married at 15; producing 4 children only one of whom survived her, when she died aged 21.

The palace itself is very impressive, particularly the murals, the clocks and ceiling paintings. They also have an extensive royal armoury. Well worth the 10 euros entry fee in my mind. If you don’t want to part with cash, the Palacio Real also offers a free entry time later in the day.

(Margaret Theresa)

(The ceiling at Palacio Real)

Temple of Debod

For our last adventure before flying home we went to Parque del Oeste to visit the Temple of Debod – an ancient Egyptian temple given to Spain by the Egyptians as a thank-you present for their help in preserving Abu Simbel. It’s a surreal experience being surrounded by hieroglyphs in the middle of Madrid but definitely worth the hike up the hill. Free entry.

Honourable mentions go to:

 The Gran Via, Puerta del Sol (only tube stop I’ve known named after a phone network) Café Mallorquina, numerous churros venues and the Brazilian couple we met who were fab, Plaza Mayor.