Feature: ArtScene

ArtScene: Florence

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Florence: I was a student in Paris. Cold? It was the winter the sewers froze. My studio sliding window never properly closed and the brown blanket curtain never fitted and I had no money. Hungry? The mice left me scraps by the skirting board. So when my tutor (the thinnest man in the world) said there was a seat in his car for Florence I cried. You ever tried Paris to Florence in horizontal sleet in a Citroen 2CV with a rag top, no seat belts, and a spindly driver whose wet wool mittens slip on the wheel and who wants you to put your hand on his knee? That's art to go.

I remembered that time yesterday as I sipped my morning doppio espresso by the Santa Croce in magical sunlight. A stout Englishman in a straw Panama with a red and yellow silk band had followed me (casually, of course) from the Uffizi where he'd made a pass. Now he wanted to explain. Why not? Florence is a city of sad Englishmen wanting to explain. Harold Acton knew that.

It was Acton, from American and English stock and an aesthete, who pulled together the post-War decaying English community of Florence. I remembering him dying here in the winter of 1994. He died in his wonderful villa La Pietra outside Florence. He had no heirs so Acton left it to New York University. With it came the Acton Collection. Seven thousand objects. Very early Italian panel painting. Tapestries from the Lowlands. Art Nouveau silver side by side with Chinese ceramics. Not arranged in some formal gallery style, but laid out in rooms as if they were still used and the 12,000 books still read. Enquire. Don't be waylaid in the Uffizi. Go see it.

I'm teaching here. All ages. Americans, a couple from Vienna, Venice, London, and of course Dutch. Dutch art students travel well. They're here to paint. From dawn to dusk they need encouragement, technique, and style. Because when they go home they need to be able to say, 'Look what I did in Florence'. So drained, I sneak away because Angry Young Men: The Birth of Modernity has opened at the Palazzo Strozzi. More Miro, Dali, and Picasso. It sits well in Florence. It's like a filmed documentary of these three Catalans. Just imagine: they met. It answers all the questions. What did Dali say to Picasso? What did they talk about? What they were saying is in the 60 early works (1905-1925) on display. This was the new language: the lingua franca of Modernism.

But my students, hardly angry except about the salad dressing last night, are painting the Ponte Vecchio. I'm back here teaching in September. Come along. We'll meet at Acton's 15th century La Pietra. In Florence, even the oldest is new to someone.

Berlin. In August 1962, Peter Fechter, became the first person shot dead by East German guards as he attempted to escape over the newly built Berlin Wall. On Wednesday, the Germans unveiled a statue of the slain Fechter. I may drive back to London via Berlin just to stand and stare, and to remember. Mind you, not in a 2CV ragtop with a skeletal hand groping for attention.

Ai Weiwei is still under 'house arrest'. Who've you told?

ArtScene Quote of the Week: So often is the virgin sheet of paper more real than what one has to say, and so often one regrets having marred it. - Harold Acton

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Fiona Graham-Mackay, is London's newest royal portrait painter. She is also recently back from painting in the Pakistan-Afghan border. She studied at London's Royal College of Art, had a studio in Paris before returning to the UK to paint and teach in London, Spain and Italy. Her next assignments areā€¦

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