The Finest Hour

This weekend I went to the National Gallery’s exhibition on Monet and Architecture.  It’s a rather problematic subject. Compared to someone like Ruskin who recorded architecture in considerable detail, it remains open as to what extent Monet was concerned with the subject matter of his painting. The subjects in question range considerably from medieval cathedrals to train stations; the implication often seems to be that Monet painted what was available to him; if much of his work consists of painting nature, it is because he lived in the countryside for financial reasons in his later life. Of his earlier works, a panorama of Paris looking at from the Louvre towards the Pantheon stands out as being reminiscent of Canaletto’s cityscapes. A lot of works from this period of his career do demonstrate some absorption with architecture, whether French churches or Dutch windmills. But in the later sections, there’s a sense that it is largely immaterial whether it is Giorgio Maggiore or the Palace of Westminster, as when we see repeated series of the same subject with only the weather and light conditions varying. The series of Rouen cathedral shows the same facade, lacking detail but with all of its essential aspects recognisable but lit entirely differently depending on the time of day.

Later that day, I go to the Barbican for a Battle of Britain concert, featuring music from Coates, Coward, Lynn and Glenn Miller. In retrospect, I’m not entitled sure how I ended up agreeing to this (by not paying sufficient attention to the programme, I presume) but if the concert is rather enjoyable it’s still rather unnerving to be one of the few people present under seventy. A mention of Gracie Fields during Peter Bowles’ narration gets a loud cheer, which is odd as even given the average age of the audience it seems unlikely many there can actually remember her anymore than I can. It all seems a lot like switching on British Weekend television, where British history apparently stopped some time circa 1963, in the midst of programmes about Victorian Monarchs and Nineteen Fifties Midwifes. Nostalgism, often for periods of time that no-one can remember, is always the dominant mode in English life. At least most of the audience spend an infarction of ‘Land Hope and Glory’ staring awkwardly at their feet, thereby leaving only a few people waving plastic Union Jack flags.

The following day I visit Northampton. It’s a somewhat forgotten town, as is evidenced by the number of rough sleepers on its rather rough high street. The Guildhall as a statue of the town’s most famous son, the former Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, whose main claim to fame was being the only British Premier assassinated in office. But it is nonetheless rather rich in history; a walk from the train station into town takes you past the remains of the castle and the Norman church of St Peter. The Northamptonshire stone is an orange ochre colour that is as distinct as the pink in Herefordshire or the honey colour of Bath stone. In the case of St Peter, the exterior is composed of layers of white and brown stone, while the interior includes a number of Romanesque carvings. As you come to the town centre the first thing you see if All Saints, a Georgian church that manages to include a portico and a dome on something that is otherwise a conventional parish church. Nearby is Guildhall, which is a beautifully elaborate piece of Victorian gothic comparable to anything by Pugin or Scott. I like how details of horseracing have replaced medieval scenes in the stiff leaf carvings. Walking on further, I come to the main thing I’d wanted to visit; 78 Derngate, the only surviving work by Charles Rennie Mackintosh in England. The building is a rather cramped and narrow terrace house, owned at the time by the owner of a company manufacturing model railways. Mackintosh did not visit but did provide designs for the interior. The most startling example of this is a rather small dining room, entirely decorated in black, with thing chequered lines leading up to a frieze of gold triangles, depicting a form of art deco forest. The effect is both rather striking and rather claustrophobic in a room this size. The owner was colour blind, so yellows were used as a preferred colour throughout, leading to the gold triangles becoming a motif. Later on I walk past some redbrick Victorian factories on the river (now inevitably rebuilt as housing) out from the town towards the Eleanor cross. It’s a really impressive thing, surviving where so many of its contemporaries did not and retaining much the same detail as its Victorian simulacrum at Charing Cross.

A few weeks later, and I take the train to Portchester. The castle here dates back to Roman times and is mostly a survival from Norman times; long since surpassed by Portsmouth, the castle feels like something of a time capsule. I walk in through pebble-dash suburban housing until I reach the external walls of the castle. The area inside is rather large but the only building inside are the keep and the church of St Mary. Walking to the other side through the landgate, and you can see sailing boats. Over the glimmering water rises the towers of Portsmouth dockyards.

The Tate’s exhibition on The Shape of Light is an attempt to create a parallel history for photography as a form of abstract art. It covers various possible techniques for this, such as using perspective to dwell on abstract detail (so that Lorca’s Mondrian Windows is placed next to a Mondrian painting, Coburn’s vortographs are paralleled to Lewis’s vorticist painting or a Bourke White photo of a transmission tower is placed near one of Moholy-Nagy’s geometric paintings), interfering with the film chemistry (so that Jackson Pollock is paralleled to photographers like Roger Parry or Hannes Beckmann), circumventing the use of a camera (as with Vitkine’s use of an oscilloscope, Kolarova’s use of Roentgeonograms or Kasten’s use of cyanotypes), painting with light (so that Man Ray is paralleled to Otto Steinert) or by dwelling on found detail (so that Aaron Siskind’s photos of cracking paint are placed near Villeghe’s accretion of Parisian posters).

I’ve just finished reading Malaparte’s Skin. Malaparte’s dominant style is one of irony; much of the book is dedicated to the exposition of how winning a war was an act of shame or that American soldiers became a form of slave labour for the impoverished population of Naples. The most obvious example is his claim that he had found Casa Malaparte pre-built but he had designed the surrounding scenery of Capri. Such irony tends to dissolve normal binary oppositions and the novel accordingly is ambivalent on this score. The same applies to questions of form as much as style, as the novel oscillates between realism and gothic fantasy and often attempts to collapse the distinction between the two (as when Malaparte answers a question about how much of his books are true by fooling a French general into believing that he has just eaten a hand that had been missing since its owner had stepped on a mine). Much of the novel depicts the American soldiers occupying Italy as innocents within a depraved and corrupt civilisation. But it equally attributes much of its degradation to the war, as with Malaparte’s twin insistence that Naples has always been a heart of darkness for immorality and slavery and that the present corruption of Naples is on an abhorrent scale never been known before the war.  A great deal of the novel equally depicts Italy as a Sodom or a Gomorrah facing the rain of fire, where the embrace of freedom is simply an excuse for perversion and depravity.

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American Modernism

I went to Oxford this weekend to visit the Ashmolean exhibition on American Modernism. It begins with a series of works that show the greatest resemblance to European Modernism, such as paintings by EE Cummings, a ‘poster portrait’ of William Carlos Williams by Charles Demuth or even in some of Strand abstract photography. Much of Georgia O’Keefe’s work fits in here as well, such as a black study of her experience of anaesthesia. In some cases, such as Louis Lozowick’s Red Circle, the influence of Suprematism is evident. But most of the exhibition if occupied with precisionism, the quasi-cubist depiction of the modern city and the machine age. Painters like Charles Sheeler, George Ault, Francis Criss, Samuel Margolies dominate with depictions of factories and skyscrapers. It also blurs the line between painting and photography, showing Sheeler’s photography alongside Bourke White and Abbot. A film by Sheeler and Strand showing Manhattan in the course of a day rather reminds me of Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. The later sections are dedicated to Hopper’s depictions of the American city.

Afterwards, I go on a tour of the cast gallery, a basement in the Ashmolean crammed full of Greco-Roman casts. I recognise a lot of them; casts of the Elgin Marbles, a statue of Diomedes from the Munich Glyptothek, from Trajan’s column or the Winged Victory of Samothrace from the Louvre. In many cases, the constituent components of the casts remain arranged in configurations that are no longer regarded as historically accurate or show groupings that have been dispersed between different galleries and countries.

The Pattern of Friendship

Travelling up to the Midlands, I stop at Compton Verney, for its exhibition on Eric Ravilious and various figures from his circle like the Nashes, Bawden, Freedman, Marx, Garwood and Binyon. I’ve seen a lot of the Nash and Ravilious paintings before but a lot of the rest are new to me. There’s a considerable range of work on display, from painting and Garwood’s woodcuts through to Bawden’s Morley murals and Marx’s textile designs for the London Underground. It seems striking that the woodcuts are some of the most successful works here, largely due to the absence of colour, which often seems confined to a range of subdued colours.The obvious example is Marx’s London Underground seat covers, which set of a range of rather fussy tessellations in yellows and browns; the results are rather hard to like. The most striking work by her in the exhibition is an attempt at a male nude in a Cubist style, which is easily the most obviously modernist piece in the exhibition.  By contrast, Ravilious is successful in moving from painting to decorating ceramics. The exhibition dwells on a lot of his landscape painting, from images of the Downs to his maritime works, concluding in his work as a war artist. Of the other artists, Garwood’s woodcuts mark her as her husband’s equal in that field. Binyon’s illustrations for Penguin Classics similarly suggest that the role of women artists of this period has been undervalued.  By contrast, Bawden’s rather fantastical Morley college murals are one of the highlights in the exhibition but perhaps mark him as a talented illustrator more than an artist; certainly his paintings are less successful. The gallery also has an exhibition of war art, ranging from Victorian paintings to a nurse’s cape stitched with badges from all the regiments she treated (including the Wehrmacht).

The following day, I visit Attingham Park. It’s been a while since I visited and photography is now allowed in the house. The most impressive thing is still the Nash staircase spiralling down to the art gallery and originally from thence to the main hall. The gallery shows a good taste for art, albeit without the means to acquire the most expensive works there are few well known artists (a lot of the works belong to a school or are imitations); Kauffman and Tournier are probably the best known. Some Italian scenes by Hackert are especially striking; a scene showing the excavations at Pompeii springs to mind. I also like a painting showing King William by candlelight. The rest of the house is also beautifully decorated with Scagliola marble and wall frescoes; Fagan’s trompe l’oeil friezes in the entrance hall are especially impressive. By contrast, Calke Abbey remains a mournful relic to aristocratic indolence. Much of the house was left in the state the National Trust found it, which generally means filled with antique junk, bare walls with peeled wallpaper and an alarming amount of taxidermied birds that the family had shot. It feels like an exercise in Urbex more than visiting a stately home. Although some of the rooms remain fairly ornate, the taste for art seems to have been largely absent, with wall after wall filled with paintings of obese cattle in improbably rectangular shapes, painted in the style of Stubbs or Cuyp. The most interesting items are an extensive collection, ranging from Shark’s teeth, Geodes, Fossils and a Crocodile skull. Afterwards, I visit the church at Ticknall, with its William Morris stained glass and medieval tombs.

Lastly, I go for a walk at Bradgate Park. This was the only sunny day all week. I walk up to the Old John folly and head down for a tour of the remains of Bradgate House. The house grounds included a fishing lake, a tiltyard, a bowls court, a formal garden, a kitchen garden (with black Mulberry Tree) and an orchard. A herd of Deer roam about inside, with several of them locking antlers. A Green Woodpecker makes a laughing cry as it watches. Walking round the ruins, I’m able to visit the interior of the only surviving building; the chapel. An impressive monument to Henry and Anne Grey is surmounted by a lion and unicorn design where the face of the lion appears human and is surmounted by horns to suggest the Devil.

Reading Where the Air is Clear by Carlos Fuentes, I’m struck by how much of the narrative could be in an Anglo-American novel. The story of a financier who lgoes bankrupt could come from Dickens or Trollope, but here Roble is lifted to a tragic figure more comparable to Oedipus or Lear, after he is forced to return to an impoverished life he had spent his life escaping. This tension seems fundamental to the narrative; it is partly concerned with how the middle-class had betrayed the Revolution and built their success on the poverty and death of others. It depicts a Mexico desperate to embrace American prosperity at all costs, but it is also concerned with how the Mexican lake of blood is always filled, suggesting that violence and death is simply a cyclical part of Mexican life, epitomised by Ixca’s role as the avenging demon throughout. It’s a novel filled with deaths, many of them simply incidental victims rather than fitting into the moral pattern that brings about Norma’s demise and Roble’s downfall.

Reading Aciman’s Enigma Variations reminds me a bit of DH Lawrence. For all of Lawrence’s tendency to treat heterosexual love as a sacrament his depictions of women lack physicality whereas his depictions of men are emphatically physical. In Aciman’s case, the novel depicts a series of polyamorous affairs with both sexes, but it’s only the male characters who are depicted as intensely physical (the sense of pressing a leg next to another man to see if they move it away springs to mind). Equally, most of the male characters are either depicted as gay or bisexual but none of the women are depicted as anything other than heterosexual.

Sublimation

As it was a nice day I decided to visit the Freud Museum in Finchley today. Bearing blue plaques to both Freud and his daughter Anna, he only lived here for a year after his flight from the flat he had occupied for 40 years in Vienna. The contents include drawings of Freud by Dali, woodblock prints of Mount Fuji by a Japanese psychoanalyst, drawings by the Wolfman, traditional Austrian furniture bought from their country cottage and, of course, the couch (in this case, covered with a Persian rug, with a description supplied by the Iranian embassy). The study is the most interesting area; Freud worked surrounded by archaeological exhibits (i.e. things unearthed from the ground, as he has excavated the unconscious), ranging from Egypt, Rome, Greece and Peru. The shelves are filled with books; Poe, Shaw, Wilder but not much obviously in the way of medical treatises. Afterwards, I visit St Augustine’s church in Kilburn, a cathedral like affair built by JL Pearson.

I went to the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition of Victorian photography a few weeks later. Covering work by Julia Margaret Cameron, Clementina Hawarden, Lewis Carroll and Oscar Rejlander, a lot of them cover mythological scenes, either showing scenes from drama  (as with Rejlander’s portrait of Iphigenia or Cameron’s countless Shakespearean scenes) or recasting famous painting (as with Rejlander’s portrait of the Virgin in Prayer  or Reni paintings). Rejlander’s Two Paths of Life, a vast canvas with multiple exposures to deposit a series of figures into it reminds me of the large scale of Victorian history painting, but it equally attracted criticism as its depiction of nude bodies could never match the idealisation they received in art.

Restoration

The Royal Academy’s exhibition on Charles the First’s art collection re-unites the pieces sold off by under the Commonwealth; many of the pieces are marked as on loan from the Queen but a number are also on loan from the Prado and the Louvre. Unsurprisingly, a large amount of the exhibition dwells on the work of the court painter, Van Dyck. Works like his Self-portrait with a Sunflower and Charles the First in Three Positions are quite striking but he remains a painter I find hard to care about. A lot of exhibition also dwells on portraiture; Velasquez’s painting of Philip the Fourth, Titian’s painting of Charles the Fifth as well as Van Dyck’s paintings of Charles himself. Some of the pieces that stand-out for me include Veronese’s Venus, Mars and Cupid, three Gentilleschi paintings of mythical subjects, Mantegna’s cycle of paintings On The Triumph of Caesar and The Crouching Venus sculpture. I often find a lot of the older works especially interesting; Holbein’s portraits, Gossaert’s Adam and Eve, a Massys portrait of Erasmus, Hilliard miniatures of Holbein paintings.

Afterwards, I visit the National Gallery; it’s the final day of a small exhibition showing the four different paintings Akseli Gallen-Kallela painted of the same view of Lake Keitele, as well as related paintings. I do find myself reminded of how Munch tended to show reflections on water.

The following week the Royal Academy exhibition is bookended by a Charles the Second exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery. Amongst other things the number of works in the first still owned by the monarch is explained by Charles passing demanding the return of any items sold from the collection. The focus here is more historical, with numerous prints showing the coronation, popish plots, frost fairs and the glorious revolution, as well as maps showing the extent of the damage from the great fire. However, it does also include Mezzotint (then a new technique) drawings of Charles and James, court paintings by Lely and allegorical paintings by Verrio. Some of the highlights are paintings by Dolci, Gentilleschi (again) and a version of Brueghel’s Massacre of the Innocents (toned down under the Hapsburgs to paint barrels over the children to create a more general scene of plunder).  I especially like a Dutch painting showing the Lord-Mayor’s procession on the Thames past Whitehall palace. Lastly, there are some of Holbein and Leonardo’s drawings. There are some extraordinary works like The Exeter Salt (in the shape of a gold castle), the recast Royal regalia), the Order of the Garter and an ivory sculpture of James the Second.

The Estorick Collection has a small exhibition of works from the Pinacotheca de Brera in Milan. There are some impressive works; a Boccioni self-portrait, a Mondrianesque painting by Licini, a Severini futurist painting of the Paris Metro a Mario Sironi industrial cityscape, three Chirico paintings, portraits by Modigliani. But on the whole, I’m underwhelmed.

Food cooked: Pique Macho, Chicken with Harissa and Fruit, Pork with grapefruit, Masala chicken, Nasi Goreng, Satay chicken, Moussaka, Sweetcorn with lime and feta, Apricot and almond curry, Chicken curry with sweet potato, Chicken and apple pie.

Winter

It was a cold day and I went for a walk around the grounds of Calke Abbey. Herds of Roe and Fallow Deer roamed around the parkland while Ducks slipped across the ice on frozen lakes. There are a few hides dotted around the estate and I could quickly see a lot of different Birds; Siskins, Goldfinches, Greenfinches, Reed Buntings, a Nuthatch, a Tree Creeper, a Marsh tit, a Woodpecker and a Water Rail. Nature was similarly evident in a visit to Shugborough Hall, where long horned cattle roam the grounds and chickens are in the farmyard; no Tamworth Pigs yet though. A few days later and I visit Middleton Lakes, a wetland nature reserve populated by wild horses. The main thing here is the discovery that Robins will eat out of your hand if it has mealworms on it.

I’ve been reading Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School. It come over as Beat literature after the fact; like the Beats, Acker, sees sex as a revolutionary act against a  puritanical society. But she also writes about how capitalist materialism has commodified sex and separated pleasure from feeling. When re-writing a version of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, it leads her into praising the Puritans for being less materialistic if more socially repressive than her time; it’s not quite a view I can imagine Burroughs or Kerouac quite articulating.

I generally tend to be somewhat suspicious of historical novels; the further events recede from living memory, the greater the resemblance becomes to a form of ersatz science fiction, irrespective of how well researched the depiction may be. In the case of novels set in the Victorian period this is compounded by the tendency for the contemporary author to sit in judgement of Victorian sexual repression and the extremes of inequality and poverty endemic to the period, as can be clearly seen in novels like Fingersmith and The Crimson Petal and the White. Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace is, in truth, no exception to this.

The novel revolves around the relationship between a working class prisoner, Grace Marks and a middle-class proto-psychiatrist, Simon Jordan as he attempts to penetrate her amnesia to determine whether she was complicit in a murder. Jordan’s masculine attempts to dominate and discover the truth are counterpointed by her tendency to narrate unreliably and only tell him what is fitting for him to hear. In both cases, Atwood’s central concept is the dichotomy between the Virgin and the Whore. Jordan discusses the idea of female irrationality at one point with a colleague, dismissing the idea that prostitutes could be regarded as hysterics, given the strength needed to survive under such circumstances; equally the background of the 1837 rebellion creates a tendency to view the lower class as irrational beasts as much as to define it by gender. But events critique much of this, with Grace’s narration depiciting upper-class men sleeping with servant women.  Jordan himself becomes entangled in an affair with his down at heel landlady, proving shocked at her descent from respectability into sado-masochistic frenzy that leads her to suggest a plot to kill her husband.  Like Grace, he becomes an amnesiac after serving in the American civil war, and therefore becoming an unusual Victorian figure; a man exhibiting the same traits of mental illness as a woman. In the case of Marks, she presents herself as a sexless being who is frequently shocked at the coarseness of other people. Her account of events presents herself as a passive victim who neither participated in the murders nor did anything to prevent them.  Under hypnosis, a second personality emerges, that of the coarse and sensual Mary who had previously died after a botched abortion and who fully implicates herself as an active agent in the murders; as often in such novels there is a degree of anachronistic Freudianism in the presentation of such things; the novel is structured with each chapter named after a single panel from a quilt, suggesting that a whole can only be made out of fragments.

Something similar applies to Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim Two Boys, where the Easter Rising is used as a backdrop to a romance between two working class boys, centering something that would have been historically marginal. I’m not entirely sure it works; paralleling the development of a nationalism to the awareness of sexual orientation seems an awkward juxtaposition.

Like Pedro Lemebel’s My Tender Matador, Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spiderwoman describes the love of an effeminate gay man for a straight Marxist revolutionary. Of the two, Puig’s is the rather more interesting. As a text, it eschews conventional narration in favour of dialogue (it reads like a film script) and a series of intertextual references to a series of other texts. The novel is structured like One Thousand and One Nights, with Molina taking the part of Scheherazade as he recounts various films he has seen, such as Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie (clearly Puig and I shared taste in horror films). Just as Scheherazade sought to defer her execution, Molina seeks to defer the completion of her mission to extract intelligence from Valentin. Each film has dialogic relationship with the main text; from the suppressed sexuality of Cat People to the implicit sexual jealousy directed at Valentin’s lover Marta through the re-telling of I Walked with a Zombie. Many of the films depict a hero or heroine dying nobly for a cause, but the cause varies from Marxist guerrillas through to Nazi propaganda; Molina claims throughout to be disengaged with politics, and the ending is ambiguous as to whether her death is attributable to a sense of drama, as Valentin suspects or any genuine commitment. This ambiguity also extends to the sexual politics of the novel; Valentin critiques the way in which Molina’s sexuality manifests as a sense of submissiveness as much as a sense of effeminacy, but he arguably exploits this when asking for messages to be passed outside the prison. Conversely, as the title implies, Molina powerfully manipulates many of the novel’s events throughout, arguably up to and including her own death. One of the other dialogic aspects of the novel that relates to this lies with the citation of a mock academic treatise on homosexuality at the end of many of the chapters, arguing that homosexuality is initially normal but also vital in playing a socially disruptive role that is implicitly revolutionary (something suggested by Valentin and Molina’s sexual encounters, unlike the forlorn longing in Lemebel).

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is an autobiographical text that moves constantly between the concrete instance of her and her family’s experience and a theoretical strata layered around it. As a means of offering its own commentary on its events, I found difficult to avoid a sense of dissatisfaction with this approach. Although Nelson does have a certain hagiographical way of referring to theory (I defy anyone not to roll their eyes at her horror at Sedgwick’s admission that she had undergone therapy to become happier, as if referring to some sort of disgraced prophet) she is certainly willing to critique it; for example, she correctly lambasts Zizek’s transphobia, notes that she finds Freud and Lacan unhelpful to her own experience of maternity and notes that the Foucauldean tendency to seek to avoid labels or to simply create a form of self from the trap one finds oneself in is a form of political disengagement. More tellingly, she criticises an academic who had attacked a colleague on the grounds that her “maternity had rotted her mind,” with much of Nelson’s thesis being to deconstruct the binary division between the maternal and domestic on the one hand and life as someone who does not conform to hetero-normative expectation.

Reading Nelson, I found myself thinking a lot about Hal Niedzviecki’s thesis that modern society has made rebellion and individuality into a new form of conformity, only for their expression of rebellion to typically manifest in highly stereotyped ways. For example, a discussion on, of all things, an X-men film leads to a dialogue about her partner’s sympathy for revolutionary versus assimilationist politics, one that is substantially undercut by their own rush to marry when proposition 8 was set to restrict same sex access to that right. It’s equally noticeable that any discussion of the lgbt rights beyond this is absent, figuring only as a form of assimilationist guilt rather than out of any sense of engaged struggle. Similarly, there isn’t any discussion of the alignment between revolutionary politics in this sense and the conservative establishment. For all of the book’s fetishisation of the transgressive or the radical there is no real political programme there, unless one really does want to embrace Francis Bacon’s regret that the death penalty was not available for the homosexual acts he himself participated in. By contrast, Nelson’s guilt at Army Service men saluting her as a pregnant mother seems somewhat piffling while her snobbish dismissal of Pride Parades becomes more than mildly irritating.

Reading Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, a particular paragraph did give me pause. Much of her thesis rests on the ways in which imputing metaphorical dimensions to illnesses that should have none acts as obstacle to sensible treatment. In the case of AIDS, that meant that the view of it as a gay plague (even though in most countries it was not) led to the advocacy of false solutions like abstinence. But at one point, Sontag does describe the sexual culture of gay men in the seventies as the most efficient machine for sexual consumption ever devised, linking it to the prevalence of consumerism as the central aspect of social life. It seems a rather jarring note that undermines much of the book’s central arguments.

 

Red Star

The Modigliani exhibition at the Tate does essentially reveal that his pre-occupation with long elongated figures depicted in the manner of African masks was his overriding pre-occupation.  Aside from a few early works in the manner of Cezanne they from the entirety of the exhibition in a manner that can often be quite disturbing; in particular the section of nude paintings shows a series of forms barely differentiated by hair colour. In combination with the blankness of the faces, where the eyes are solid colours as if they are holes cut out from masks the impersonal nature of the erotic proves rather unsettling. Even in a room of sculptures, the styling does little to stray from the two-dimensional, with faces flattened at either the front or the side as if they were masks rather than complete representations. On one portrait, Cocteau is quoted as saying that it looked nothing like him but did look like Modigliani, which was better. It’s not entirely true; where a satirical caricaturist would inflate the most representative features of their subject in a distorted form, Modigliani’s method is to deform his subject’s features into his own predefined schema (to such an extent that the number of fakes spawned by his work is hardly surprising). The result does indeed always look like a Modigliani but each of his subjects does remain recognisable. In an era of abstraction they are in many ways highly conventional portraits, with the seated subject looking out of the painting at the viewer in most cases.

The Cezanne exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is an interesting contrast. Cezanne’s portraits can also be fairly conventional in their depiction of the subject matter (even if using his technique of applying paint with a palette knife or brushing in diagonals), either showing a cropped view of their head and shoulders or a view of them surrounded by objects that represent them; books for a critic or a cafetiere next to a woman (there is, however, only one painting where the subject’s legs and feet are visible). In others, this is diminished, with backgrounds formed of textured wallpaper or curtains that bleed into the foreground. One painting of his wife is mostly a study in different patterns from the stripes on her dress to the diamond shapes on the wallpaper behind. If Modigliani is most notable for his nudes, the opposite applies to Cezanne; everything is realistic and frequently unflattering. The numerous portraits of his wife are especially striking. In all of them, her hair is fastened back, creating a rather austere and asexual appearance. In some, she wears a red dress that stands out against the greens and blues of the background, whereas in a lot of them, her dress simply fades direct into the background. There’s also something about the way he often represents the features, so that the face resembles the sort of masks Modigliani preferred.

The Tate also has an exhibition on what it refers to as Russian visual culture, but which is essentially a history of Russian agitprop. Beginning with the Tsars use of collage and manipulation to create happy images of the Royal family, it traces the development of Russian propaganda throughout the twentieth century. Initially, that ranges from the collages of artists like Rodchenko, Stepanova, Klutsis and Lissitsky to the use of Agitprop trains during the civil war. Some pieces like Deineka’s bland paintings for the Russian pavilion at the 1937 International Exposition clearly foretell where this stress on propaganda was to lead as the Stalinist era beckoned. But a lot of it comes to be dominated by the techniques used to erase individuals from history, from cropping Trotsky out of photos to simply cutting out the faces of those who had fallen into suspicion.

The Tove Jansson exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery includes a range of her Moomin illustrations, satirical illustrations from the war years, illustrations from other children’s books (Tolkien and Lewis Carroll) as well as her paintings. Her paintings mostly dwell on self-portraits, often rendering her striking features against bright teal backgrounds. A family portrait showing Jansson flanked by her parents and brothers seems particularly striking; her parents wear artists smocks and one of her brothers wears his military uniform while Jansson appears cut off from them, dressed in black as if in mourning. Only her mother looks at her, with a quizzical expression. Conversely, the landscapes are altogether more fantastical.

A few days later, I visit the re-opened Mithraeum in the city. I went many years when it was just a rather forlorn set of walls by a roadside, and while the substance hasn’t changed setting inside a dark but dramatically lit interior does give a somewhat better idea of the original function (even if the effect can be a bit Yorvikesque).

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.

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. As Fredric Jameson argued, science fiction does not offer us the future, but rather a transformed present. In this case, the Asian dystopia of the original film has given way to a multi-cultural world of Russian-speaking toughs and African merchants. The figure of K as a white, male victim-hero seems problematic against this background; like Ghost in the Shell, the main characters are all white in spite of the setting.

On other films, comparing Call Me By Your Name with God’s Own Country is an interesting exercise. Both deal with a foreigner awakening the main character but differ sharply beyond that. The former presents the unusual proposition of an adolescent gay romance; guilt and shame are essentially absent from the film. But equally, it far more coy over gay sex that it is with Elio’s straight sex. Nor does the conclusion seem satisfactory; Oliver’s declaration of marriage is retained while the section in which it is made clear that Elio remains gay is omitted. It makes the episode set in a summery past somewhere in the eighties seem like a transience. It also doesn’t entirely help that Armie Hammer’s rather stolid Oliver doesn’t seem an entirely suitable fit for the role of a Jewish academic. Conversely, the gay sex in God’s Own Country is pretty explicit and often both dirty and brutal; presented as an artefact of Johnny and Gheorghe’s lives as much as skinning a dead lamb. The film depicts repression as the dominant characteristic of English life; not solely in relation to sexuality but to the hardship of farming life and the Eastern European immigrant experience.

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.