They do it with mirrors

The National Gallery has a small exhibition on Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites, based around the Gallery’s acquisition of The Marriage of Arnolfini at a time when it lacked a wider collection for North Europe. Some of the comparison holds well; both Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites tended to paint in meticulous detail, but the exhibition mostly dwells on the impact of the convex mirror in the Arnolfini portrait. Hunt’s Awakening Conscience, Burne-Jones’ Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor, Rosetti’s Lucrezia Borgia all use the trope, with Holman Hunt’s Lady of Shalott being the most famous example. Later examples include portraits by William Orpen and a self-portrait by Mark Gertler.

The following week I go to the British Museum’s Scythian exhibition. As you would expect for a Nomadic people, the exhibits are essentially grave goods, dwelling on their horses, weaponry and clothing. The goldwork is perhaps the item that stands out most, with a range of buckles and studs carved to show images of hunting. There’s also a great deal of elaborately carved wooden headgear, some worn by the warriors themselves and some by their horses.  It also dwells on the graves themselves, constructed out of logs and housing bodies that had been mummified due to the impossibility of burial during the winter. A decapitated head, tattooed skin fragments and cay death masks feature here. Overall, the exhibition is fertile territory for a game of ‘high status’ bingo, with bonus points to the word ‘ritual.’ Other things that stand out; a Kneller portrait of Peter the Great and a set of drawings of St Petersburg from that time. There are a series of depictions of the Scythians from other cultures, such as a Greek vase and Persian carvings.

Later, I go to St-Botolph-without-Aldgate for The Fourth Choir‘s Chiesa d’Oro concert. The first half of the concert was music from or influenced by Venice of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Some numbers were a capella, others accompanied by a theorbo, which I can safely say I have never seen wearing a woolly hat before. The concert included works by Schütz, Gabrieli, and Monteverdi, with Giovanni Legrenzi’s O vos insipientes mortales being particularly striking. It was also interesting to hear a piece by a female composer, Barbara Strozzi. I was perhaps less enthused by the second half, which dwells on contemporary music, although Kim André Arnesen’s Even When He is Silent stands out, being a setting of an anonymous poem scratched onto a wall of a concentration camp. From Venetian music in a Baroque church to Baroque music in a Gothic church, the following week I go to a New Choir performance of Handel and Bononcini in the Church of St John the Evangelist. There’s a full ensemble and soloists here and the church is much larger, making for a fuller but perhaps less intimate performance than the previous week.

A few weeks later and I’m at the Tate for their Impressionism in London exhibition.If anything, this is three exhibitions; French art at the time of the Commune, Tissot in London and only then the Impressionists in London. Of the first, I’m struck by a photo of the Tuileries in ruins; with a long exposure the apparently deserted sepia photo is populated by the ghosts of people passing in front of it. The paintings range from the apocalyptic (Corot imagining Paris in flames), the symbolic (Dore showing a sister of charity rescuing an orphaned child as the city burns) to documentary (Tissot’s sketches of the war wounded in the requisitioned Theatre Francais). His painting and letters describing the execution of the Communds stand out particularly. English ruin tourism to a Paris devastated in this period was apparently popular and it’s noticeable that a lot of the paintings showing the city in ruins were by Dutch rather than french artists.

In the second exhibition, Tissot has essentially created a new school of art; where French impressionism dwelt on nature and English art either preferred rural sentimentality or Pre-Raphaelite mythology, Tissot dwelt on social realism. The son of a tailer, he detailed how people dressed and behaved, showing society balls, garden parties and boat rides along the Thames. Criticised as having a French sense of morality (one man and two women together in a boat counted as immoral) it’s a more accurate sense of London than any Englishman of the time recorded. Much the same applies to Giuseppe de Nittis, with his paintings of Hyde Park, Trafalgar Square and the Houses of Parliament in the fog. Finally, the last exhibition gets round to the Impressionists. The highlights here are undoubtedly Monet’s series showing the Houses of Parliament along with Whistler’s nocturnes of the Thames. London fog appealed to the impressionist aesthetic but this only works for urban scenes; Sisley and Pissaro’s depictions of Sydenham, Kew and Hampton Court are picturesque but far from Monet’s depictions of rural France. Perhaps the most extraordinary piece is a view of Leicester Square lit up in the dark; it rather reminds me of the sort of work the Futurists were undertaking. As I walked back along the Embankment to Westminster, the sky is a pale blue with strands of dark cloud lazily uncoiling across it. The fading sunlight falls onto the Houses of Parliament washing the honey coloured stone in pink.

Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North is a novel of two contrapunctal movements, epitomised in the split between the narrator and Mustafa Sa’eed. Both are former Sudanese expatriates heavily exposed to Western culture and both are presented as mirror images of the other (as when the narrator enters Sa’eed’s study and believes he is seeing a portrait of Sa’eed before he realises it is a mirror). The novel deploys various ways to consider the nature of an expatriate experience that leaves individuals caught between two cultures, as when it mentions a tree that has been grafted to produce oranges and lemons, with the implication that the fruit is sterile. Similarly, Sa’eed creates an Eastern style interior to his bedroom in London later counterpointed by his Western style study on the banks of the Nile.

The role of the narrator in the novel is to look at events in Sudan through the eyes of a Westernised civil servant working to modernise the country’s infrastructure. When Sa’eed’s widow is forced to remarry against her will and kills both herself and her aged husband, it emerges as an indictment of the patriarchal Sudanese culture (although the novel implies that had the narrator agreed to a polygamous marriage with the widow she would still be alive). For a novel in which the role of woman is pivotal, it remains an oddity as to how absent they largely are, only emerging out of the shadows at key points. Conversely, Sa’eed attempts to invert the role of Othello in England, by adopting the role of the predatory libertine, saying “I have come to you as a conqueror.” Unlike his Shakespearean counterpart, he implies that he was no passive or innocent victim of events; “I am no Othello.” The truth of this is something the novel debates. Sa’ed’s seduction techniques rely on presenting himself as an exoticised other, in a way that belies his status as a respected Establishment figure, leaving his conquests in the role of Orientalist and him as their subject. Certainly the pivotal scenes with Jean Morris suggest that he is indeed playing the role of Othello, with her cast as both Iago and Desdemona combined. His role in her death is arguably little more than that of an instrument, hence the debate about the question of his agency in the trial scenes.

Prison literature is a particularly Russian genre, thinking of the various accounts by Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn in particular. Alexander Berkman’s Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist feels like an attempt to recast the genre in an American context. Guilty of attempting to assassinate the industrialist Henry Clay Frick, it’s reasonable to argue that Berkman does not get treated in the manner of a conventional criminal and his account does clearly depict a system that was both corrupt and inhumane. Equally though, Berkman’s view of human life is disturbingly instrumental and much of his account demonstrates little sympathy for his actions from the strikers he had sought to defend. Instead throughout, he sees his fellow inmates as victims of false consciousness.

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Things the mind already knows

Winter seems to have come early this year, as I find myself walking through drizzle at Piccadilly Circus. I’m mostly here to see the Jasper Johns exhibition at the Royal Academy and as I enter, the first thing I notice is how physical his work is, with oil thickly plastered onto the canvas, layers of encaustic and in later works in the exhibition, objects embedded into the canvas, from string, collaged newspaper, neon lights and brushes through to wax limbs. Much of his work plays with ideas of representation in this way, with images of numbers, the American flag, targets and maps turned into painting but also deconstructed, turn into monochrome representations of themselves. The nature of meaning is contested as numbers are super-imposed on one another, everyday objects like lightbulbs are replicated as sculptures and, in a reference to Wittgenstein, colour labels are written in a colour other than the one they refer to. Intertextual References abound to Holbein, Crane, Tennyson and Munch throughout. Like Warhol, he dwells on depicting a pair of ale cans as sculptures or creating a bronze sculpture of paint brushes in a coffee pot, questioning what is representing what.

The Academy is also running a smaller exhibition on the relationship between Dali and Duchamp. There are certainly similarities; both started in a cubist idiom (the exhibition includes a Cubist self portrait by Dali and a Duchamp portrait of a chess match in a Cubist style, The King and Queeen Surrounded by Swift Nudes) and both experimented with readymades (it includes Duchamp’s fountain and Dali’s lobster phone), both experimented with media (as with Dali’s Hitchcock collaboration or Duchamp’s rotoreliefs) and both shared a playful sense of humour (as with their joint rewriting of the Mona Lisa to include a moustache). But there are rather stark differences; Dali’s surrealism amounted to almost a private mythology (often borrowing extensively from Christian imagery, as with the painting of St John of the Cross, shown here) articulated largely through painting, neither of which are particularly true of Duchamp.

The following week I go to a showing of the 1920 version of The Golem, accompanied by a talk on how while this film was a dead-end in terms of later re-makes, its aesthetic proved influential on Universal’s version of Frankenstein; certainly the scene with the monster and the child reminds me of Frankenstein. But a lot of the visual trickery in the film is more Melies while the gothic set design (at least on the interior sets; the exterior is Ruritanian) is a sinuously organic counterpart to Dr Kaligari.

That weekend, I go to a showing of Blade Runner 2049. The main thing that occurs to me is how much of its dystopian future is already here, from a world dominated to corporations and artificial intelligence to climate failure. Even the brands referenced in the film, whether Atari, Pan-Am or Peugot have the nostalgic sense of belonging to yesteryear.

Autumn

Visiting the Vyne this weekend, I found the house is currently swathed in scaffolding as the roof is replaced; after a lengthy queue, you can take a lift up to the roof and look down at the works. Inside, the upper floor of the house has been shut and much of the furnishings are on display downstairs in rooms darkened by the scaffolding outside. Afterwards, I went for a walk in the woodland, through trees with yellowing leaves weighed down with red berries and with bracket fungi clinging to their trunks. After a summer of rain and cloud, the arrival of autumn seems somewhat anti-climatic this year.

Dublinesque

Dublin is often a confusing mixture of styles; the Georgian brick buildings look like parts of Bloomsbury while the bright wall paintings make it resemble Copenhagen and the number of bridges along the course of the Liffey makes it resemble Amsterdam. Upon arrival I walk down to the banks of the Liffey where the dome of the Georgian Custom House is reflected in the water. I then cross over the river and walk down towards College Green and visit Trinity College. Trinity seems very familiar; with its lodge looking out onto a quadrangle with a Henry Moore sculpture, it obviously resembles Oxford and Cambridge. Details like the campanile differ though and I visit the Old Library, looking first at the Book of Kells exhibition and then the Long Room. I then walk down to Merrion Square, with its slightly bizarre Oscar Wilde statue. I notice the green post boxes, some of them still bearing the emblem of the last British King. The relics of British imperialism recur throughout my visit, with plaques, posters and memorials of the Rising visible throughout. There’s also the awareness of British symbols that have been erased as thoroughly as Marx statues in Eastern Europe, like a statue of King George in Dublin Castle or the demolished Nelson Pillar near the General Post Office. I spend sometime in the Natural History Museum, with its Victorian collection of skeletons (an Irish elk and a whale) and taxidermy (amongst many others; a panda, a walrus, a rhino, a hippo, an elephant a giraffe and a polar bear still bearing a visible gunshot wound to its head).

In the afternoon, I visit the castle and walk around the State Apartments, decorated in a range of Regency Gothick and Victorian styles.  I then visit Christchurch; both it and St Patrick feel very familiar, with extensive Victorian design work on their interior from stained glass through to floor ceramics. Both feel a lot more like the cathedrals in Newcastle and Edinburgh more than York or Lincoln.  The crypt of Christ Church is very distinctive though, with its collection of old monuments and statues; the last Stuart Kings share the space with a cat mummified inside the cathedral organ while chasing a rat. There’s also an Armenian Khachkar outside in commemoration of the genocide. From here I pass onto St Parick’s Cathedral; sets of Tudor monuments are balanced with the flags of Victorian regiments and monuments to Victorian imperial campaigns in Burma and China. Lastly that day, I spend sometime walking around St Stephen’s Green with it statues to Joyce, Tagore and Yeats. There’s a heron on an island in the lake that doesn’t seem to get on with the crowd of rather aggressive gulls. I’m amused by some of the details about the park during the rising; a cease fire had to be declared between English and Irish forces so that the park keeper could feed the ducks.

The next day I visit the National Gallery of Ireland. The collection of European art is extensive; a set of medieval Russian icons, paintings by Perugino, Titian, Moroni, Velasquez, Poussin, Zubaran, Ruysdael, Panini, Bellotto, Goya, Monet, Sisley, Feininger, Caillebotte, Reynolds, Lawrence, Hogarth and Fra Angelico. Much of the Irish art is new to me, like the work of John and Jack Yeats. It also includes works by Douglas Hamilton,  Danby, Hone, Leech (Leech’s Breton paintings seem especially memorable) & Lavery and stained glass by Harry Clarke. Lastly, there’s an exhibition of Kathe Kollwitz engravings. In the afternoon, I visit the National Museum of Ireland. Although it does have a small Egyptian section (more mummified cats), it mostly focuses on Ireland from the neolithic period through to the Viking and Medieval periods. That includes a log boat, bog bodies, gold torcs & lunulas, medieval relquaries and crosses as well as a psalter retrieved from a bog. There’s also a small collection of objects gathered by Roger Casement in his travels in South America and Africa.

On my final day, I go for a walk along the Liffey past the Ha’penny bridge down to Four Courts. I then backtrack and walk north of the Liffey, past the General Post Office and the Parnell and O’Donnell monuments to the City Gallery. The collection of Impressionist paintings is very good, with works by Pissarro, Renoir, Manet and a Rodin sculpture. There’s also more stained glass by Harry Clarke and the contents of Francis Bacon’s studio, transplanted here from London. Some paintings that catch by eye are Robert Ballagh’s pop-art Third of May – After Goya,  Brian Duggan’s Wall of Death Rider, Paul Seawright’s Invisible Cities: Mist and some of Elizath Magill’s landscapes.

Bristolian Open Doors

Having comprehensively photographed Oxford out in previous years, I decide to visit Bristol instead for this year’s Heritage Open Days. When I arrive a visit a few of the churches first, starting with St Thomas the Martyr and Christ Church with St Ewen. I’d wanted to see the latter for a long time; the beautiful Georgian interior glows with light as painted cherubs look down. The original Quarter Jacks that used to stand outside on the church clock are on display inside. I then walk to St John on the Wall, with its long & thin interior and medieval monuments. I then go to St James’ Priory, with its Romanesque interior and Tudor monuments.

After these, I walk to the Red Lodge. Originally built in the Elizabethen period, as evidenced by the knot garden, while the interior is a mix of Tudor and Georgian; the chimney and some of the carved wooden cabinets are especially impressive. Next to it is the Bristol Wigwam, home of the Savages artistic society, filled with odd paraphernalia and generally not very good paintings. The weather becomes a bit unpredictable at this point and my umbrella makes an appearance. I walk to visit the small Colston Almshouse Chapel and the Emmanuel Meeting House before visiting the interior of the church of St Stephen, which has a particularly elaborate set of monuments.

Walking back towards the town centre, I notice that the statue of Edward Colston has had its face spray-painted white; presumably a protest against a statue of a slave owner given the recent removal of Confederate statues in the United States. While I’m walking around someone asks me if I’m going on the march; I have no idea what they’re talking about but I notice later that there’s an anti-austerity demonstration outside City Hall. I wryly note placards attacking Bristol’s Mayor for cutting the city budget and calling him to pass an illegal budget instead; Bristol’s Mayor is of course from the Labour Party.

I then visit the Georgian House Museum; the house of a slave owner who made his wealth in the sugar trade. The museum does a good job in explaining the background. My visit is drawing to a close at this point; I visit the Cathedral and the church of St Mary Redcliffe before going round the Redcliffe caves. The caves are unlit and I find myself stumbling around somewhat, but there’s enough light from phones and torches to show details like the roots of trees intruding through the save ceiling.

The Great Wave

The combination of security theatre and a crowded exhibition with glacially moving crowds does make the British Museum’s Hokusai exhibition something of an ordeal, but it’s worth it for a chance to see some of the most famous non-Western artworks in history. The exhibition covers a range of Hokusai’s work, from hanging scrolls and paintings to wooden temple ceiling panels and woodblock prints. The series of prints showing views of Mount Fuji dominates along with views of waterfalls, ghosts and scenes from literature, showing how Hokusai had gradually introduced European style perspective and increased the range of colours in his prints; it was also interesting to note that the predominant colour used was the European Prussian blue. The paintings strike me as rather odd; the combination of bright colours with shading rather than flat blocks of colours lends it rather more of a cartoonish air than the woodblock prints. Some of the more unexpected items include bird’s eye style map views of Japan and China or a pair of scrolls showing two androgynous youths, who were probably sex workers.

The museum also has a smaller exhibition of British watercolours from artists like Whistler,  Nash, Minton, Moore and Sutherland, a small exhibition featuring masks and totems from the Northwest Coast Peoples of Canada, and a set of paintings depicting military figures from the Maoist era in the style of the terracotta warriors. Lastly, the Chinese admonitions scroll is on a rather brief display.

The area around the Albert Hall has now also been barricaded off with a set of concrete blockades and the entrance is subject to security checks. It is a little depressingly like living in wartime. I’ve gone to see Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina and Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust, with the former being easily the more impressive of the two. Around this, I visit the Natural History Museum. The whale that is now centre stage in the Hintze Hall is more impressive than the former occupant, Dippy the Diplodocus, in many ways; it floats above the visitors, its spine curved like it is diving. On the other hand, since it is facing downwards I find it a lot harder to photograph than Dippy.  While I’m there I visit the Anning fossils, the bird taxidermy, some Blaschka models and the geological hall with its Ostro stone centre piece. The following day I visit the Museum of London in Docklands, with its exhibition covering the slave trade through to the second world war and the regeneration of the area afterwards. There’s also an exhibition of the Roman remains unearthed by the Crossrail works.

Later, I go to a Czech Prom (which suffers from presenting dismembered excerpts from Dvorak, Smetana and Janacek; the best piece is easily Martinu’s Field Mass) and Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito. Metastasio’s plot does feel rather like a tragedy aborted in deference to contemporary political concerns. I also visit Dulwich Picture Gallery’s exhibition of John Singer Sergeant watercolours; pictures of watery locations like Venice and Istanbul work rather well but less so for more pastoral scenes where the detail of drawing might have worked better.

Reading JR Ackerley’s My Father and Myself is an odd experience. The essential intent of the book is to highlight the secret sexual lives of Ackerley and his father; in Ackerley’s own case, amounting to encounters with other a hundred other men, in the case of his father, a secret family and children kept hidden from his wife. Ackerley also speculates about whether his father had offered sexual favours to wealthy men during his time as an aristocrat. By the standards of the time, it would have been Ackerley’s own experiences that would have been deemed the more transgressive; the book makes perfectly clear that the puritanism of English culture at the time was perfectly compatible with heterosexual privilege. Certainly, Ackerley’s narrative is remarkably frank by the standards of the time, but by contemporary standards he seems a sexual cripple; a series of fixations and dysfunctions make clear that his encounters amounted to very little indeed. Where his father seems effortlessly able to marry his romantic and sexual lives across a series of three women, Ackerley’s quest amongst working class men for a Platonic ideal is doomed to failure.

Something similar applies to Crisp’s Naked Civil Servant. Crisp’s obvious effeminacy meant that he unavoidably had to ‘put his case’ to the world around him (to the dismay of other gay man at the the time, who did not wish to see attention drawn to what Crisp refers to as their abnormality) often at the cost of his safety after repeated queerbashings, but he is dismissing of legislation improving the position of homosexuals in any way. At times, he ridicules the idea that homosexuality is a sin but at others he’s frank that he considers his homosexuality as nothing more than an illness. Crisp’s wit is often (lazily) compared to Wilde, but if Wilde was a libertine, Crisp was an ascetic, leading a spartan existence and scorning camp as little more than drawing attention to a deficiency. For someone who once worked as a prostitute, Crisp mostly  seemed to regard sex as an unwelcome form of effort.

Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island presents a narrative based around the efforts of a ‘corporate anthropologist’ to find a unifying key to modern culture. The narrator often cites Levi Strauss and his failed efforts to locate an authentic form of culture that hasn’t been contaminated by exposure to the modern world. For all of the narrator’s references to theorists like Deleuze, one assumes that McCarthy is thinking of Derrida’s critique of Levi Strauss when he compares such corporate anthropology to icthyomancy or a cargo cult. The result in the novel is that the grand theory becomes a broken heap of images; of parachutes that fail to open or protests at a G7 summit in Italy. If there is a unifying idea it is waste, whether an oil slick or an island composed of the refuse of modern culture (the novel assumes its title is a malapropism for Staten Island refuse tip, a scenario that reminds of of De Lillo’s Underworld).

Tony Kushner’s Angels in America offers a similar cocktails of references, unified by the theme of the dismantling of the individual ego and its discover of community; Kushner references Brecht’s learning plays, Biblical stories of wrestling with the angel through to Bloom’s Oedipal ideas of the anxiety of influence. You can see such themes emerge in Joe’s realisation that his embrace of Mormonism, Heteronormativity and Conservatism (embodied in his relationship with Roy Cohn) are fraudulent. But equally, the play is at its best celebrating the outsider and the eccentric and perhaps at its worst at missing the role religion has played in homophobia.

Capriccios

The Canaletto exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery (the one in London, that is) is rather small but does cover a lot of territory I hadn’t seen before, from views of the interior of San Marco to large paintings of Rome, dwelling on the Roman ruins in particular. There are also a lot of capriccio paintings showing fantastical gardens and desolate ruins far away from the Venetian canals. There are also several paintings from Canaletto’s contemporaries; views of a ruined monument to Newton by Ricci, for example.

Omar El Akkad’s American War is ostensibly a dystopian novel depicting a second American civil war after the South opposes a Federal law banning fossil fuels. A lot of the detail, such as climate change causing the Mississippi to become a large inland sea relates to that theme but much of the book is essentially concerned with depicting events in Middle Eastern history grafted onto an American context, with a series of drone strikes, refugee camps, militias, suicide bombings and a prison camp essentially analogous to Guantanamo being shown. The novel is set in a period where the Maghreb has become one of the world’s largest empires and interferes in the American war as the former United States degenerates into a set of failed states, but it omits any of the features you might expect in American politics; the NRA, the Religious Right or race divisions are all entirely absent. I also feel ambivalent about some of the sexual politics; the novel shows an ideology that is intrinsically masculinist, noting boxing matches to the death while boys join militias and women become war widows. But the society of the Red States doesn’t seem especially patriarchal; for example, birth control or gay rights are never mentioned, making the decision to make the terrorist who unleashes a devastating biological weapon a lesbian seems awkward at best.

Reading Stendhal’s Love reminded me somewhat of Wollstonecraft’s version of feminism as a means of casting feminine wiles as a form of corruption born of subjugation opposed to more traditional masculine virtues; Stendhal certainly supports women’s right to education or to divorce but alongside a commitment to what would become female emancipation, the novel also invests in concepts of romantic love that did inherently paint a conservative picture of women.

 

Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon

There are certain classes of city for whom their geography is an intrinsic part of their aesthetic; thinking of the Venetian archipelago with its canals and bridges, Prague with its castle on the hill and the lower town separated from it by the river or Manhattan island. Lisbon, with its self-conscious series of miradours as new views unfold between differing combinations of hills overlooking the Tagus, certainly also fits into this class.

The first day on my arrival is spent in the Gulbenkian. It’s a rather odd building building; a Barbican style brutalist conceit surrounded by pleasant gardens occupied by swimming ducklings and sunbathing terrapins. It looks like stumbling across an illustration of Speer’s theory of ruin value in the jungle. Some of the things that leap out to me; the Lalique jewellery, the Islamic tiles and ceramics, a Rembrandt painting of an old man, Greek coins depicting Alexander, Chinese porcelain, Majolica and Della Robbia roundels, paintings by Hubert Robert, Guardi views of Venice, a Monet winter landscape, and some unexpected Burne Jones paintings. Afterwards, we got to the modern art museum; less interesting but I like some of the paintings by Amadeo de Souza Cardoso and, a Sonia Delaunay painting and the tapestries by José de Almada Negreiros. Afterwards we go for a walk in Parque Eduardo VII to the Aqueduto das Aguas Livres.

The following day I get off the Metro at the Praca dos Restauradores and visit the Igreja de São Domingos, with its ruined interior. I then wonder down to the steampunk Elevador de Santa Justa before visiting the Convento do Carmo, the bleached bones of a church ruined in the 1755 earthquake combined with a museum in its surviving buildings, that spans medieval tombs, Peruvian mummies, English Alabaster, Incan sculptures and an Egyptian mummy. After that, I go to the Igreja de São Roque. Like a lot of Portuguese churches, it’s an especially elaborate exercise in gilded baroque, in this case with a large collection of Saint’s head reliquaries. The accompanying museum features a range of medieval painted sculptures. I then walk down past the Pessoa sculpture at the Cafe Brasileira towards the city’s riverfront at the Praça do Comércio.  It’s an especially beautiful square with the open vista of the Tagus on one side and the yellow of the Arco da Rua Augusta buildings on the other side. I then walk eastwards in the direction of the Alfama, past the Manueline remains of the Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, and the Casa dos Bicos up to the Sé. The cathedral is a dark Romanesque building with  a later gothic cloister in contrast to the rather colourful architecture surrounding it. After that, I head further up the hill to the Castelo de São Jorge. Little remains of the Moorish castle beyond an extensive series of walls that seem to meander endlessly. It’s hot in the late afternoon sun and I finally sit down to watch a rehearsal for a Tango concert.  A somewhat territorial part-albino peacock occasionally cries out.

The following day I travel out on a rather crowded tram to Belém and the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. I’m a little surprised at how busy this is relative to anything else in Lisbon and have to queue for a rather longtime. Once inside, the detailing on the Manueline gothic is incredible, while the church of Santa Maria is rather more impressive than the cathedral in Lisbon, complete with Vasco da Gama’s tomb. Afterwards, I walk around some of the nearby park, looking at a Thai temple and the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, before visiting the Torre de Belém. The queues are again rather long here, but once inside it really does feel like looking out on the edge of the world as one stares off into the infinity of the Atlantic ocean.  I spend a bit of time in the Archaeological Museum; some impressive gold torcs, Lusitanian warrior statues, Egyptian cartonnage masks, Roman mosaics, and a beautiful plate depicting Perseus and Medusa. Lastly, I go for a walk along the Tagus to get a view the Golden Gate style Ponte de 25 April.

The next day sees me to take a train out to Sintra. I make the mistake of walking to the Palácio da Pena, which proves a rather uncertain path, but it’s certainly worth it on arrival. The Palace is a blazing riot of colour and fantastical architectural styles. Elaborate gargoyles compete with ceramics to detail the exterior walls. I begin by walking round its outer walls; the view off into the distance is surprisingly hazy. I walk inside the chapel with is strikingly colourful stained glass before entering the palace; I especially like a lot of the detailed stained glass and Turkish sculptures. I then walk around the park; it’s effectively a botanical garden with valleys filled with ferns, giant Redwood trees, lily filled ponds,  all dotted with follies of Islamic domes, Swiss style chalets and Greek temples, before ending in a series of lakes. Dragon flies flit across the lake. I then walk up to the  Castelo dos Mouros. Butterflies flit about and rest in the sun on the walls.

The following day, I decide to return to Sintra, having not had enough time for everything I’d wanted to do the previous day. This time I stay closer to the centre of the town and visit the Palacio Nacional. There’s a series of centrepiece rooms revolving around their ceiling designs; the Swan room, the Magpie room, the Galley room and the Mermaid room. The Mudejar style chapel and Coat of Arms room are probably the most impressive, along with a pagoda model given to the Portuguese Queen by the Senate of Macau. The kitchens are actually also rather striking, given the massively over-sized chimneys that resemble kilns more than anything else. Finally, I walk to Quinta da Regaleira. The house here is rather small, albeit with much of the interior covered in elaborate plasterwork, frescoes and mosaics. The grounds by contrast are extensive and filled with follies, from crenellated towers through to spiralling wells and underground tunnels. As I pause for a break a small vole scurries across the path.

The next day is back in Libson and I visit the Pantheon. Loosely modelled on its Parisian equivalent, most of the building was originally an uncompleted church until the Salazar government had the dome added to complete it for this purpose. The monuments are eclectic, ranging from cenotaphs to Vasco da Gama and Henry the Navigator, Fado singers and football players. You can walk up to the dome gallery and from there out onto the roof of the church. After that, I go to the church of São Vicente de Fora, with its elaborate series of cloisters whose walls are lined with Azulejo tiles, many of them based on Fontaine’s fables. The monastery also contains a series of Royal tombs and you can go up onto the roof here as well. Lastly, I visit the rather steampunk Water Museum at Barbadinhos.

The next day I take the tram out to Alcantara and the Museu do Oriente. It’s rather out of the way and seems somewhat sparsely visited but it’s a really excellent museum. It covers Portugal’s colonial history, dwelling on Macau and Goa in particular, with exhibits ranging from Namban screens, porcelain, Bodhisattva sculptures, Netsuke and carved ivory; there’s a good set of paintings of early Macau and a small area dedicated to east Timor, including carvings of Westerners. The upper floor in the museum is dedicated to Chinese opera; from Mao-era glove puppets through to series of strange masks and costumes. I then walk eastwards back to the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga. There’s a range of paintings by Memling, Metsys, Cranach, Tiepolo, Bosch (a painting I’d seen last year in the Prado) as well as Nuno Gonçalves. There’s also a complete Della Robbia statue, something I’d not seen before. The crafts section spans Islamic tiles, Brussels tapestries, an ornate monstrance, a Benin saltcellar, Mughal cabinets and medieval Portuguese sculptures made of wood. The museum has a pleasant garden filled with statues and I pause for a bit for the view out to the Ponte de 25 April.

The next day I take the train up to Porto. The train station itself is particularly impressive, its walls covered in Azulejo depictions of scenes from Portuguese history. The first thing I do is visit the nearby cathedral; like Lisbon, it’s a dark Romanesque affair but here the gothic cloisters have been covered in Azulejo tiles. I then walk downhill to the Rraca da Ribeira and the Dom Luís I Bridge; it’s a rather more impressive waterfront than in Lisbon due to sharp incline down to the river on both sides. From where I stand, I can see over to the monastery and port cellars on the others. I then visit the Igreja de Sao Francisco, a beautifully gilded baroque church filled with elaborate painted wooden statues showing scenes from the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian to a Tree of Jesse.  The church has an extraordinary series of catacombs, filled with named niches for dead priests until it ceased to be used as an ossuary in the mid 19th century. I then visit the Lello bookshop with its Escheresque staircase.  I then visit the Clerigos tower, with its rather labyrinthine series of stairwells sitting between the outer and inner walls before visiting some of the churches and returning to the train station.

On the final day, I walk to the nearby bullring before visiting the Decorative Arts Museum and the Casa Museu Dr A Gonçalves.

While out in Lisbon, I was reading Multatulis Max Havelaar. It’s an interesting book; I can’t think of any English account of its colonial practices that was so critical, although the author does veer between a number of positions; criticism of the colonial principle as intrinsically wrong, criticism of specific aspects of colonial administration and criticism of the corrupt rule of the native aristocracy; for all of the criticisms of colonialism there is little here to advocate self-rule. Part of the reason for this diffraction lies in the Matryoshka like structure of the book. It is ostensibly the product of the editing of a set of documents written by Droogstoppel’s former’s classmate Sjaalman, with the distance in views between them being satirically foregrounded. Then within the novel itself, Havelaar’s narrative is counterpointed by the tale Saidjah and Adinda, the one point in the novel where the Javanese are allowed to speak for themselves.

I also read Interzone, a set of stores and drafts that preceded Naked Lunch, albeit mostly written in the still realistic style of Junky. Much of the content is familiar; Burroughs makes clear that he was in Tangier due to its lax attitude to gay sex, but the narratives are filled with internalised homophobia; he writes of a “silly fairy… under (whose) vacuous camping, I see pure evil… a loathsome insect.” Elsewhere he writes of “embattled queens… histrionic guestures and pathetic screams.” It also shows a lot of the fear of the feminine, as when he writes of “her cunt clicks open like a snap-knife.”As ever Burroughs’ homosexuality is partly a revulsion against femininity but which manifests itself further in fear of male effeminacy.  One of the ways this manifests itself is in the creation of the William Lee character, a version of Burroughs distanced from such things; “I include the author, Lee, in the novel and by doing so separate myself from him so that he becomes another character.” Everything in the narrative is fractured; “Tangier seems to exist on several dimensions…. fact merges into dream and dreams erupt into the real world… nobody in Tangier is what they seem to be.”

 

 

 

 

Disagreeable objects

Back up in the Midlands, I visit one of my favourite places; Wightwick Manor. The De Morgan collection of William’s ceramics and Evelyn’s paintings has recently opened in its new home at the Manor, so this is the first time I’ve seen it since it left its former home in London. The lustreware ceramics are easily as beautiful as I remember them; the paintings are more mixed. The best of them recall Botticelli and Burne Jones; the worst can be rather garish exercises in symbolism.  I also visit Shugborough while I’m up there. It’s not really a place I’ll ever love as such; the grounds are beautiful in the summer, with the reflections of the bridge in the water by the Chinese house being particularly lovely but the brutalist house never really seems in keeping. Some more of the follies are open to visitors than I recall, including Hadrian’s arch.

Back down in London, I visit the Tate’s Giacometti exhibition. The main thing that strikes me is the paintings,which rather remind me of Bacon’s Screaming Popes series. I also rather like some of his earlier surrealist inspired objects as well as his design work, but once he reaches his style for sculpting figures it sets fasts and quickly becomes repetitive.

My choice of reading Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism was obviously prompted by currents events, but in practice her definition of the term is heavily restricted, with it only being applied to Hitler and Stalin and exempting Mao, Lenin and Mussolini. There are parallels to current events though; I’m struck by how she describes totalitarianism are aiming to impose a fictitious mythos rather than producing realistic policy aims. Liberals aiming to critique consistently fail to understand that it has no intention of being a realistic response to events and will not be impaired even as its policies demonstrably fail; Arendt specifically says totalitarian states were often characterised by confused and contradictory government structures and counter-intuitive aims (such as the waste of resources entailed by the final solution in the middle of  a war). The essence of government is reduced to the erratic and inconsistent dictats of the leader. It’s difficult not to think of Trump or the Brexit vote here; Gove’s dismissal of experts obliterated all rational discussion from the campaign and left only fraudulent bromides behind. Blizzards of disinformation in both cases have settled to a point where the populations of both countries seem indifferent to the flagrant charlatanism of their political classes.

Arendt’s analysis of the rise of fascism in the thirties is also interesting; with England remaining stable she characterises the two party system as the source of it, given that it forced both parties to accept a stake in government that could only me met with realistic policies. By contrast, parties in multi-party states could simply retreat into ideological fantasy. In contemporary events, the reverse has been true with the US and UK winner takes all systems embracing ever more extreme and polarised politics even as European parties continued to draw cordon sanitaires around the sources of the infection.

 

Cottonopolis

Manchester reminds me of London rather more than anywhere else in England. Some of this is attributable to some of its rather warren like streets, but its more to do with the nest of cranes covering much of the skyline. Whereas coming into Birmingham on the train still passes an empty waste ground near the former Euston station, the train into Manchester passes through a series of construction sites. The only substantial skyscrapers outside of London are to be found here, although there’s nothing comparable to the Shard or the Gherkin; the Beetham tower deserves more comparison with the Heron Tower. Equally, there’s nothing really to match some of the public sector projects in other English cities, like Birmingham and Liverpool’s new libraries or the Sage in Gateshead. With that said, it’s impossible not to notice that beneath all the new towers the number of rough sleepers in Manchester seems a lot higher than in London.

Arriving at Piccadilly, I walk into the centre of town. Most of the city’s architecture is unsurprisingly Victorian, but the walk passes through a range of periods; the central Library built in the thirties by Vincent Harris with its beautiful stained glass panels based on Shakespearean characters, the gothic revival town hall built by Waterhouse with its corresponding statues of Cobden, Gladstone and Prince Albert, the church of St Ann with its enamelled stained glass built just before the Georgian period and the medieval Cathedral. Damaged during the blitz, the interior is in itself a conflation of styles with medieval choir stalls sitting near contemporary stained glass.

I spend sometime in Barry’s art gallery. I recall most of the pieces from a previous visit years ago; it’s nice to re-acquaint myself with paintings like Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs, Mengin’s Sappho, Valette’s Windsor Bridge on the Irwell, Prinsep’s At the Golden Gate and works by Sickert, Augustus John, Lowry and Gewn John. There’s also a rare Giacometti painting. Annoyingly a lot of the galleries are shut, but there is an exhibition on work by Wynford Dewhurst, an early English advocate of impressionism, whose work is heavily influenced by Monet.  There’s also a small Dutch painting exhibition, including some landscapes by Ruisdael. Afterwards I visit the John Rylands Library. Built to a design by Basil Champneys, the interior is essentially based on a gothic revival church, with reading desks substituted for pews and statues of the founders substituted for the altar. Lacking Victorian high-church decoration, the gloom of the interior is only counterpointed by the lights. Lastly, I visit the Manchester Museum, through its collections of Egyptian sculpture and sarcophagi, coral, body casts from Pompeii, Palymran sculpture, Scrimshaws, Samurai armour, a stuffed Tigon, Benin ivories, a terrarium inhabited by rare frog species, an Elephant skeleton, gold Buddha statues, mounted Butterfly specimens, an Archaeopteryx fossil, Moche & Nazca sculptures, a Whale skeleton and a stuffed Dodo.

Liverpool is a more eclectic prospect. The area outside Lime Street Station is filled with Victorian building and monuments, from St George’s Hall to the Walker Gallery, but as you walk down towards the Mersey the area is filled with Edwardian designs that seem rather more reminiscent of New York than most English cities. The Portland stone recalls London more than Manchester or Birmingham. Liverpool’s most impressive buildings cluster around the waterfront here, facing outward to Ireland and the United States; combined with immigration from Ireland it’s little wonder that the city seems atypical for England.  Unlike Manchester, the skyline is not dotted with cranes and the contemporary buildings resembling black shards house the public sector bodies like the Museum of Liverpool. The redbrick warehouses around Albert Dock revert to Victoriana, while the two twentieth century cathedrals sit alongside Georgian houses. Statues of Queen Victoria compete with the Beatles and Cilla Black.

I start by visiting the Walker Gallery with its large collection of casts and Victorian sculptures; a painted Venus by Gibson mirrors a plain version I’d seen at the Fitzwilliam a few months earlier. There’s also an arts and crafts section showing Victorian ceramics from local potteries alongside stained glass and tiles by Burne Jones, a Minton peacock and Fornasetti plates. Upstairs houses the huge painting collection, featuring works by Holbein, Cranach, Rembrandt, a fake Mona Lisa, Titian, Veronese, Poussin, Hogarth, Wright, Freud, Doig, Minton and Knight. I’m especially struck by a set of Bosch like paintings by Albert Reynolds, a local artist who died in the First World War. As another local artist there’s also rather more of Stubbs than I would really have liked. The Victorian collection is quite large already but there’s an additional exhibition featuring works by Sandys, Rossetti, Millais, Maclise, Holman Hunt and Burne Jones. There’s also an unusual example of a Daguerre painting. Some of the artists are less familiar as they’d stayed with the Pre Raphaelite style well into the twentieth century, like John Struthwick or because of their gender, as with Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale. A lot of the paintings like Dante’s Dream by Rossetti or Stanhope’s Expulsion from Eden are new to me in any case.

Down at the Pierhead, I visit both the Tate and the Maritime Museum. The former has a small Ellsworth Kelly exhibition as well as a smattering of works by Rothko and Lowry; particularly memorable works include an abstract painting by Gabriel Orozco, Perlin’s painting of Two Orthodox Boys and above all Grosz’s Suicide. The Maritime Museum includes a set of paintings showing how the Liverpool seafront changed over time but the main exhibitions dwell on the sinkings of the Lusitania and the Titanic.

Walking away from the waterfront I arrive at the Anglican cathedral. Despite the gothic detailing it’s hardly less imposing than his power station designs; the vast interior is incredibly dark with floodlights doing little to illuminate the cavernous interior. More than anything, it reminds me of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Brussels (and to a lesser extent Sacre Coeur in Paris), which also towers over the city. As I leave on the train, the only thing visible from a distance is the cathedral tower rising up above the sea of terraced roofs. Close-up, walking around the building takes you down a cliff edge to a Victorian graveyard (including Huskisson’s tomb) and then leads back up a to quiet wood at the back of the building. Not too far is its Catholic counterpart; an unusual circular building designed by Gibberd which already seems to be falling apart if the bad state of the interior is enough to judge by. The main interest is the Lutyens crypt which extends well beyond the area of the building. Plans showing the full Lutyens design for a building which would have dwarfed everything else in the city do rather remind me (almost certainly unfairly) of Speer’s Germania plans.

The last place I visit in the North West is Chester. I walk in from the train station, noticing the redevelopment of the derelict shot tower and steam mills by the canal before heading into the centre with its half-timbered buildings. The main thing I’m interested in is the cathedral; a red sandstone affair like Lichfield whose exterior is covered in grotesques and gargoyles. The first thing you see are the cloisters, whose windows are filled with Victorian stained glass and whose interior garden pond seems popular with the local ducks.  The cathedral proper has a wonderful set of medieval misericords, an Austrian cobweb painting, Minton tiling and some unusual Victorian wall mosaics.  Afterwards, I go for a walk along the Roman walls, stopping at the amphitheatre and baths.