Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Favourite paintings

"I love Dorothea. I want to spend the rest of my life with her. The picture is part of that life." 
Max Ernst, refusing a collector interested in Birthday, quoted in Tanning, Dorothea: Between Lives, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Illinois 2004, p.72

Even though I lived in Spain for ten months years ago, I never made it to Madrid during that time. For my birthday this year John was going to take me there, as he knew how obsessed I was with Las Meninas by Velázquez; ever thoughtful, he wanted to make sure I would get to see it in real life. This was back in May, and due to some sporting event flying to Madrid wouldn't have worked out, so we picked Edinburgh instead, another place I had never visited.

As fate would have it, my chemo started sooner than expected and the first round was on my birthday, so we had to cancel the trip. While we still haven't gone to Edinburgh, going to Madrid in November turned out to be perfect timing. Not only did we get to see Las Meninas (and had the room to ourselves for 15 minutes, as we went first thing in the morning) and Picasso's Guernica, both of which moved me to tears, but the Reina Sofía museum happens to be hosting a large exhibition of Dorothea Tanning's work, so I got to see another of my favourite paintings, Birthday (see first photo). Seeing those three paintings, and all within the space of two days, was so powerful, I won't even attempt to describe the impact they had on me.

I had read Tanning's memoir Between Lives, and while I knew her later work was very different from the surrealism of paintings such as the ones pictured above, I only properly discovered that part of her oeuvre through this exhibition. Her soft sculptures, including this installation, were also quite an experience.

I am highly attuned to synchronicities these days (my sister wrote about one relating to books here): I was delighted that Birthday came to me during a trip which should have marked my birthday; the significance of rooms and doors both in this painting and in Las Meninas; and later in the Prado I was struck by how some of El Greco's work had similar neon-like accents as Tanning's later paintings - vibrant pigment on writhing abstracted bodies. And just now, I realised that I wrote about Velázquez here exactly a year ago. And I can echo Laura Cumming's words, which I quoted at the beginning of that blog post. I, too, am so grateful for and consoled by Velázquez.

Thursday, November 22, 2018


 Meditating in the grounds of Ballynahinch Castle,  August 2018

Our hens and one of our four-legged neighbours

Aidan at the beach in Spiddal

Since I wasn't able to enjoy the outdoors much during this summer's heatwave, I have been making up for it in the subsequent colder months. The week before my surgery we spent a magical 24 hours in Connemara, staying in the wonderful Screebe House, where we were greeted with a hug and glasses of bubbly by Ursula and a surprise awaited us, courtesy of thoughtful friends. The following day we went to Roundstone and one of Ireland's best beaches, where I walked barefoot in the water (the closest I have got to swimming in the sea this year) and then to Ballynahinch Castle for more walking and a meditation amid mosquitoes by the lake.

While work in the garden is less now, there is always something to do, and we are surrounded by animals (though poor Daisy is no longer with us). We got two hens in the summer, chosen and named by my nephews: Petunia and You-Know-Huhn (the naming required some prompts from the adults. Huhn is German for hen). They may not be very affectionate, but I love closing the door of the hen house in the evening and saying goodnight to their huddled shapes, and opening it in the morning and watching them devour their breakfast (organic food - only the best), with their fluffy behinds up in the air. The two donkeys faithfully show up nearly every day, knowing there are carrots, apples and the odd oatcake waiting for them. The other neighbouring field is home to two horses at the moment. Then there is Phoebe, our neighbours' dog, and sometimes one of the other dogs from the baile turns up, as well as various cats, who know where we feed the birds. 

My current favourite song - and one of my all-time favourites - is "Galileo" by Declan O'Rourke. My own curly-haired bearded man sang it as part of Culture Night, accompanied by this amazing quartet. It was shortly after my surgery, so I wasn't able to go, but he sent me a video, and it makes me emotional watching it. A few weeks later Declan O'Rourke played a gig on campus, and John came home with two records, one for me, one for him, which we have been playing non-stop.

Friday, November 9, 2018


Some normality has crept back into my days, and that includes getting things done around the house (we are still renovating three years after moving in). In autumn last year I deliberated over decisions, mixing three paint colours to get a calming shade for our bedroom walls (named 'Marina's Tears' by John), and spent hours painting. Fast-forward to October 2018, and it took me five minutes to pick a new colour without seeing it in real life, and this time we hired a professional.

For months we had noticed a strange smell in our bedroom, and after some detective work and paranoia (a diagnosis like lung cancer makes you extremely sensitive to any smells) it turned out we had got a bad batch of paint from a well-known company. In an effort to make their low-VOC paint even greener (not the colour), something to be applauded, they ended up with paint that allowed bacteria to grow, hence the cat-pee smell. The summer's heatwave aggravated it, but with everything going on we left it and moved into the spare room.

When I had recovered sufficiently from the surgery, the painter came and Marina's Tears disappeared under coats of stain block primer and the new colour (see first photo), which goes well with the blush colour in the dressing room. He also painted all the remaining timber and the radiators, and it has made a huge difference. We moved back into our bedroom, and that in itself has brought back more normality.

Though I happily interrupt that with different sleeping arrangements. My sister and her family stayed the night recently, and Aidan and I slept on the pull-out bed in the map room / yoga room. I had never shared a bed with a three-year old before; it melted my heart hearing his breathing.

I decided to tackle some small projects of my own and finally finished knitting the blanket that had been sitting in a big lump in various places for months and, momentum thus built, went on to knit a cushion cover for the guest room in two days, designing it as I went along, necessitated by running out of yarn: the other side features a pink square on a grey rectangle that has drawn generous comparisons to the art of Patrick Scott and Mark Rothko (apologies to both). 'Great to get that bit done', as they say here.