At the Bal Bullier figures tango with abstraction shape and colour move in time as well as space – the spinning depth the opening in form and light that Sonia Delaunay captured. Long loved for as long as I’ve loved looking at paintings well loved since long before that well remembered time so long ago it seems no time at all. Simultané (simultaneous) is the word she used. Nineteen eighty-three? four? A survey of Post-Impressionism was it? I mostly remember the three of us – me and you and the women you were with now. I wore a red tee-shirt to hide the blood seeping from my heart. Remember our dance around one another around the paintings among the colours: the blood red the jealous green the wide blue skies of our comparative youth. Colour is the skin of the world she said. Swirling colours and our swirling three-step towards and away and away. We three were a luridly coloured eternal triangle with wavering edges and sharp points but we talked only in twos. With you the happiness of looking at painted light an exhilaration we’d long shared and could still share but would not be sharing ever again. And with her the immediately shared outcry: why was Sonia less famous than her husband? Why when those energetic joyful rhythms…? Light and colour she said are confounded. And when her multi-colours coalesced in concentric circles did the repeated colour wheels catherine wheels swirl and spark into a suggestion of violence? Target practice. My red tee-shirt hid the blood after I cornered her in the Ladies and stuck her with my sharp point. Did I even notice then the fragility of her lines which I now find as startling as the force of her colours and rhythms? Some perceptions change some don’t the driving rhythms forward movement memories moved on. Today for Sonia I’m wearing not red but black. Le Serpent noir is a late work. Long life long love slips around me like a silk scarf the black snake dances to the music of time.
The retrospective is room after room of encompassing light and depth that draw you into Agnes Martin’s long journey. Here. Now. Over and over. These big, pale, calm abstractions, and moving among them the pale hologram of a lone, determined woman. Colour. Lines. Straight lines. And one small drawing that is different: a single, sure, if quivering, line that curves back and forth as it describes the contours of a potted plant.
This beauty’s not for everyone
blind windows like a prison
said a friend indifferent
to Soane’s genius
but I exult in it.
The honey-coloured bricks
and the harmonious outline
are earth and air.
It’s here that I come
to be grounded in a space
where sorrow and regret
can be felt but can’t annihilate
where hope can briefly soar.
The sheer heft lovely lines
are what I love
so the old photo was a shock.
Many bombs fell on south-east London
You can see the places still
where a modern house interrupts
a Victorian terrace.
Around Dulwich small plaques
give the date the names
and ages of the dead
and in July 44 the gallery took a hit
that reduced its heart to rubble.
In this picture no sweet geometry
The honey drips
a waterfall of chaos
a radical artwork depicting
the horror of war.
Today’s fine structure
bears few traces
but once seen never forgotten
The rebuilt harmonies become a hymn
to resilience and repair.
On the corner by the pub car-park is a new mural
after van Dyck’s Venetia Lady Digby on her Deathbed.
Let me count the ways this work based on a portrait
of a dead woman fills me with paradoxical happiness.
Huge and bright and apart from the rose mostly blue,
it’s by the German artist MadC – C is for Claudia,
a woman of bold vision and talent and about the age
Venetia Digby was when she died in her sleep in 1633.
The painting was the muralist’s choice: a clever project,
these “old master murals” by street artists talking back
to their chosen works in the gallery have flashed up
on blank walls and gable ends all over Dulwich, but
none has taken my breath, none makes me stop and
smile and ponder each time I see it the way this does –
a mistressful meeting of past and present, private and
public art, death and unrestrained but not unthinking life.