Monday, 3 January 2011


I went to London with my son yesterday. We took the underground to London Bridge and walked along the river to Tate Modern (popping into Southwark Cathedral on the way) where we went to see the Gauguin exhibition.

I never quite know what to make of Gauguin. A good Gauguin is a lovely thing indeed, but a bad one is pretty awful, and many never seem to rise above the level of merely interesting. We really enjoyed the early landscapes from Brittany and there was one Tahitian landscape - it may have even been called 'Tahitian Landscape' that we both really liked - but, with a few exceptions, the many, many paintings of Tahitian women leave me a bit cold.

My son pointed out that Gauguin was really good at painting animals, and I don't think I had noticed that before. He's right. He does not paint them in a pedantic way, but he does seem to get the essence of whatever creature he's painting. If only he'd applied the same skill to portraying the essence of those dead-eyed Tahitian women.

I do like the way he paints, though. I mean, I like the way he puts the paint down. It is tentative at first, and quite restrained in colour, but then he just seems to hit on a way of working that really suits him. Like all good painters he makes this seem inevitable - but of course it is anything but, as anyone who has ever tried to paint will tell you.

I have few problems with the way he painted. It's what he painted that I struggle with.

Outside the Tate we saw an extraordinary scene. We heard bagpipe (of the medieval, rather than Scottish variety) coming from a boat on the Thames and saw that on board was a tall man dressed from head to foot in green leaves and crowned with holly.

Much to my son's embarrassment I yelled to the crew and asked what was going on and was told that they were wassailing the boat and the nearby Globe Theatre in a series of pre-Twelfth Night celebrations.

Twelfth night - Epiphany - has lost most of its significance to us, apart from the name of a Shakespeare play and the day most of us take down our Christmas decorations. It was much more of big deal in the past of course. And supposedly marking the visit of the magi to the baby Jesus, it was clearly seen as an appropriate day to hand out gifts by Elizabeth I who used to dole out treats for her favourites at her lavish Christmas celebrations in Greenwich Palace. A knighthood for Walter Raleigh was a Twelfth Night gift, if memory serves.

It was wonderful to see something so rich and colourful in London. The Holly Man was magnificent and the whole thing was done with affection and a kind of joyful reverence. The crowd was happy to join in and why not? It was freezing cold and grey and a Green Man was a welcome sight.

We wassailed the boat (effectively blessed it with alcohol) and the crowd moved off to wassail The Globe. I've only ever associated wassailing with apple trees, but who cares? It was great. And I think Paul Gauguin would have enjoyed it.

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