The hottest tickets in London last Saturday coincided with the hottest day in London for at least forty years. Both events were at the Barbican Arts Centre, which now has some claims to being one of the world’s best and most lively arts venues. Despite the spectacular traffic, the near-impossibility of navigating that area of London to find the sole entrance to the vast Barbican car park (owing, I think, to chaotic road closures for Cross Rail), and the brand-new London penalty charge for high-emission diesel-engine cars, we still managed to arrive in time to see the first major European retrospective of the work of Lee Krasner (1908-84), at London until 1 Sept., then at Frankfurt, the Zentrum Paul Klee in Switzerland, and finally at the Guggenheim Bilbao. A bit shockingly, Krasner’s first survey show was at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in 1966, organised by Bryan Robertson, followed by Barbara Rose’s great retrospectives of 1983-85 at Houston, San Francisco and MoMA, NY.
I have to declare not only my close friendship with Barbara Rose; but also that my wife and I gave dinner to Lee Krasner at our house in Oxfordshire, 35 or 40 years ago. I suppose we ought to put a Blue Plaque on the chair on which she sat. But I also have to make another disclosure, as the other hot ticket for Saturday was for the Peter Sellars production of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. My wife and I have been to so many of Peter’s productions in the last few decades that he must feel we are stalking him. (The most memorable time we encountered him was at the first-ever Ruhr-Triennale in Bottrop, Germany, in 2003, where he was staging Euripides’ The Children of Herakles in the local Gymnasium, and the audience was given a splendid dinner cooked by a large group of Kurdish refugees.)
Though it probably wasn’t very good for her career, Lee Krasner was the widow of Jackson Pollock. Comparisons being odious, let’s just say that on the evidence of the magnificent, generously installed Barbican show, she was a very great painter. The superb catalogue, edited by Eleanor Nairne, and Gail Levin’s exemplary 2011 biography of Krasner, give plenty of visual back-up to this judgement; and also make it clear that Krasner developed her talent and genius independently of her association with Pollock. Which is not to say that you don’t find parallels in their work, but Krasner’s artistic imagination was very much her own.
Starting with some academic nude studies of the early 30s, and carrying on with them into 1940, you can see her working out the principles of cubism for herself, and then, in her post-War work, she made her “Little Images” with a new feeling for colour, until in summer, 1956 she had the breakthrough of the “Prophecy” paintings, with their fleshy, looping brushstrokes, tinged with black and pink. You can’t help but think of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. On 12 August she received the terrible telephone call telling her of Pollock’s fatal car crash. Moving into Pollock’s barn/studio, she began working on the huge-scale. paintings we see at the Barbican. Most everything she touched became magical, even (or especially) the late 70s collages she made using a rediscovered portfolio of charcoal studies from art school. With the aid of a pair of scissors, she made them new. Unmissable.
You’ll almost certainly have missed The Cunning Little Vixen, as there were only two performances in London with the London Symphony Orchestra under Simon Rattle. (The production, but with the Berlin Philharmonic, was seen in Berlin in October 2017 – and doubtless elsewhere that I can’t now discover.) The LSO is on the stage, with a platform in front for the singers, which gives a fullness and resonance to the music, but also heightens the role the orchestra plays in the production. Of course Janáček himself reduced the score to a suite for orchestra, but, though I must have seen (and admired) more than a dozen different productions of this piece, until Saturday I don’t think I realised that it is more than half purely orchestral.
We don’t notice this in the opera house because there is usually so much (what we might call) pantomime, dance and stage-business during the many, many orchestral interludes. Peter Sellars’ semi-staged version makes you wonder why we think of the Vixen as opera at all? All the singers (and the groups of child actors, singers and dancers, plus the (I make it, counting those listed in the programme) 64-member chorus, are dressed in basic black. The props, aside from the Forester’s and the poacher’s rifles, are one table and three chairs. There is a screen above and behind the orchestra, which begins with the metamorphosis of tadpoles into quite fetching frogs, carries on with the mating of dragonflies, and injects a note of humour when the vixen massacres the hens in the farmyard, shown by having the title singer, Lucy Rowe, savaging a chicken kebab.
The remainder of the action, such as it is, is cleverly mimed by the troupe of 25 children (more-or-less; please forgive me if the two wearing kitten heels are old enough to vote). Among them is Olivia Solomu, whose concluding solo as the granddaughter of the original frog who ate the mosquito was bell-clear and stunning. When all 80-something of the chorus filled the Barbican Theatre from the aisles and wings, their writhing, twisting dance movements were a sight to behold (and caused me a deep intake of breath, imagining the cost of getting them all there). The mimed bottom-wagging dog, hopping frogs, buzzing mosquitos, cricket and grasshopper caused me no crisis of belief-suspending, and the dramatic economies of using mime and screened animation simply allowed me to concentrate on, and hear the gorgeousness of the music. The platform was spacious enough for Sir Simon to move from one section of the band to another – and I noted with pleasure that Janáček has given the viola section a good cut of the action. Fair’s fair, and these middle voices increase the fun of hearing the piping treble of the kids.
The score, with its reminders of the composer’s other much beloved operas and the Glagolitic Mass, was (so far as I’m concerned) conducted flawlessly, and brought many a tear to my eye – though the two principal performances were almost unsentimental. Lucy Crowe’s luscious soprano contrasted beautifully with the earthiness, the appetite, the occasional gentleness, and the absence of self-pity of her Vixen. Gerald Finley’s burnished, rich bass-baritone makes him an ideal Forester, with just enough pain and the right amount of cynicism. With his unpleasant wife, who wouldn’t prefer the love of a good vixen?