Avebury

I visited Avebury on Saturday. As I arrived the sky was a rather watery white, and there was a particularly chilling wind; the only colour was the splashes of white snowdrops. This seemed entirely appropriate, adding considerably to the rather forbidding aspect of the stone circles. The windswept plain, the sarsen stones, the skeletal beech trees and the crows perched on them all made more of an impression than a verdant and sunny day would have, quite different to a later trip to an iron age hill fort through silver birch woods filled with flowering furze.

From the village and stone circles, I went on to Silbury Hill. This is certainly an oddity; it remains entirely artificial and alien to the landscape with erosion having done little to soften its conical shape or the abrupt plateau at the summit (as opposed to even the more genteel tumescences of the surrounding barrows). I rather like the fact that little seems to be understood about its purpose (excepting tiny details like the month construction began, determined by winged ants specific to August being found buried at the base); I expect it would be rather disappointing to determine exactly what it was for. As with most psycho-geography what meanings we impute to it are rather more important. After also looking at West Kennet Barrow, I returned via Stonehenge (and Salisbury Plain with all of its ‘Warning: Tanks Crossing’ signs). Since you can’t get close to the stones there, it’s difficult to be precise, but I think John Aubrey was probably correct to describe Avebury as the more impressive of the two, due to the sheer size of the Avebury stones alone, if not the scale of the circles (it might be more fair to describe Stonehenge as the greater work of engineering, Avebury as having the greatest aesthetic value).

I’ve been pleased to note the presence of cherry blossom on the trees, apparently here and abroad. Autumn with its gold and red leaves remains my favourite season, but the opening of the cherry blossoms always reminds me of the cherry tree we had in the garden at home. In the few weeks following, it was equally pleasing to see the flowering of daffodils, bluebells, hyacinths and magnolias, and for the first blush of green to touch silver birch and hawthorn. Oddly enough, I seem to notice the change of the seasons much more than I used to, even though I grew up in the countryside.

The Tate have had an exhibition on Pre-Raphaelite landscape painting. The exhibition outlined the Ruskinian principle of rejecting nothing and selecting nothing; the same philosophy that led Ruskin to advocate one of Inchbold’s paintings being viewed with a magnifying glass, recording geological and botanical detail with scientific precision (the archetype being the famous portrait of Ruskin against a waterfall by Millais). Such a philosophy has interesting effects; it creates the profuse imagery of a painting like Ophelia by Millais (where I could stare for hours at the intricate imagery, like the small robin in the upper left corner), but can create an impression of flatness (Edward Lear’s painting of a Syracuse quarry creates the awkward impression of a shepherd being the same size as one of the large flock of ravens).

It has to be said that the most interesting paintings are the least naturalistic (I could only nod in agreement at a quoted letter from Ruskin complaining that surely the painter could have found something more interesting to paint than a ditch); the dazzling colours and joy of the mere look of things in Holman Hunt of Ford Madox Brown, for example. Hunt’s paintings of the Middle east (where the atmosphere is sufficiently dry as to suit Pre-Raphaelite exactitude); are especially noteworthy, painted in far more livid colours than those of Thomas Seddon, who was painting the same subjects at the same time. Hunt’s painting of The Scapegoat with the purplish mountains, whitened ground and water with all the iridescence of a film of oil (as in his more picturesque paintings of
The Fairlight Downs
). The exhibition ends by chronicling the movement towards a more impressionist style and away from the Ruskinite conception of painting, such as that of Leighton or Whistler, and the lesser known John Brett, painter of some particularly impressive Italian seascapes, with consummate depiction of the play of light on the water while the haze in the distance is counterpointed to a Canaletto-like detail in the foreground.

One particularly interesting aspect of the exhibition was showing contemporary photographs alongside portraits of the same subject; photography was used for practising painting, a rather odd idea when we consider how photography’s strength at detail supplanted the Pre-Raphaelite ideal and led to impressionism and expressionism; when arguably a similar process is at work today.

Looking round other Tate galleries, I was impressed at the amount of other Pre-Raphaelite paintings on display, several of which I hadn’t come across before, such as Waterhouse’s Consulting the Oracle and Leighton’s Lieder ohne Worte. The entrance was rather impressively flanked by two portraits of Victorian actresses, one a livid redlight affair from Sickert (whose The New Bedford paintings were also new to me) and a painting of Ellen Terry by John Singer Sargent (again, whose magical expressionist painting Carnation, Lily, Lily was also new to me). Equally engaging were some of the later works; Various works by Beardsley, Tissot, Solomon’s radically androgynous The Moon and Sleep and various Whistler paintings such as Nocturne: Blue and Silver..

Beyond this though, English works before Turner are of little interest to me (at least until the sixteenth century; the gallery had a fine Hilliard painting of Elizabeth), and only a few artists really struck me and all of them on grounds of how opposed they were to the spirit of their ages; Blake, Fuseli and Hogarth. In contrast to the placid docility of a Reynolds portrait, Hogarth’s O the Roast Beef of Old England (`The Gate of Calais’) mercifully revived the spirit of Gilray. The only curiosity worth mentioning was a small gallery of Asian subjects, such as Daniell’s painting of Sher Shah’s Mausoleum; not especially brilliant but the more exotic subject matter came as a relief after some of the eighteenth century landscapes.

On a more mundane note, I had a look round Reading Museum. This is, in truth, nothing very special but it does have some rather nice Samian pottery imported from Gaul and Roman glassware taken from Calleva Atrebatum. It also seems to have acquired an odd room filled with various pieces of bric a brac; an Indian stamped metal and enamel vase, a portrait of Elizabeth the First, delft tiling, a fossilised Icthyosaur, a Sudanese scimitar seized after the battle of Khartoum (held together by metal strips taken from a huntley and palmer biscuit tin) and an Egyptian tombstone. More oddly, there’s also a replica of the Bayeux tapestry made in Staffordshire in the 1880s. I also had a look at the rather small Ure Museum, which has some rather fine Egyptian wall reliefs and faience scarabs, and some good examples of Attic red and black figure ceramics.

Of late, I’ve been reading assorted novels from the Austro-Hungarian Empire (an unusual interest, albeit one shared by Michael Moorcock in The Brothel in Rosenstrasse). Most of the interest in that period stems from the benefit of knowing its fate; everything acquires a certain romantic lustre as a result of that. Foremost amongst these is Robert Musil’s The Confusions of Young Torless. This is a dialogic interpretation (a modern greek tragedy) of Nietzsche’s division in The Birth of Tragedy between the Apollonian (connected with modes of appearance and representation; Torless is described as an aesthetic character) and the Dionysian (connected with modes of reality); "a portal led from the bright, daytime world which had hitherto been the only world he knew and into another world that was gloomy , surging, passionate, naked, annihilating… between the life that is lived and the life that is felt, sensed and seen from a long way off, that invisible frontier lies like a narrow door." The novel is caught between differing modes of realism and existential or stream of consciousness fiction as a result of this. Like Foucault, Musil sees individuality and modernity in problematic terms, though the anti-essentialist critique mounted by Foucault is only implicit in Musil.

The novel posits differing responses to this conflict; Reiting’s will to power and Beineberg’s mystical Schopenhauerian approach; "cosmic human beings, capable of losing themselves until they connect with the great universal process.. the outside world is stubborn." In this context, the erotic is seen as a form of mystic experience. The novel endorses neither approach, where these Nietszchean responses are contradicted by what seems a Freudian view; "People in whom there has not been a proper confluence of the affectionate and the sensual currents . . . have retained perverse sexual aims . . . whose fulfilment seems possible only with a debased and despised sexual object." Again, the affectionate and sensual are Nietzsche’s Apollonian and Dionysian, suggesting that the means of reconciling the two also represent a symbol of their schism through sexual repression. Equally, the novel suggests that conventional morality (depicted as slave morality in the character of Basini or in the deceitful silence from Torless) is also an inadequate response.

I also read Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March; I found it interesting that both of these novels were essentially concerned with the illusory nature of appearances; to quote AS Byatt "The Austrians, according to both Mitchell and Magris, have complementary passions for detail and for the dissolution of boundaries – between the real and the unreal, between dream and waking, between life and death." For instance, Schnitzler’s Dream Story portrays Vienna as an unreal mirage, behind which the machinations of the unconscious lie. By contrast, Roth’s characters are all surface (only DH Lawrence devotes so much attention to clothing) and civilisation is seen as being founded on courtesy rather than truth (not unlike Freud’s argument in Civilisation and its Discontents). This is the opposite to Kafka, where there is nothing beyond appearance. Given the importance of sight and sound to writing, Patrick Suskind’s refreshingly amoral Perfume (inverting the moral function of that genre in exactly the same way De Sade did with Justine) presents the interesting idea to dwell on one of the other senses instead.

Nabokov’s The Gift reminded of Camille Paglia’s observation that every time she read Shakespeare she was struck by how hostile the text was, and how resistant to interpretation it is; in this case Nabokov’s dense thickets of prose are often prolonged for whole pages before a reprieve is offered in the shape of a new paragraph. As with John Bayley’s The Uses of Division, Unity and Disharmony in Literature there is a glacial quality to the artifice of The Gift, as opposed to the untidyness of a Dickens, where truth is an immediate concept and not a stylised one. At the centre of the novel is a thesis written by the poet Chernyshevski entitled The Relation of Art to Reality; "art is thus a substitute or a verdict, but in no wise the equal of life, just as an etching is far inferior to the picture from which it has been taken" Much of the text consists of Godunov-Cherdyntsev exploring the history of others, but always from a distance, so that the relation of sign and signifier becomes distant, as when he glances a man on the train he presumes to be a stereotypical German but who proves to be one of his countrymen. For instance, he speaks of "butterflies not as they really existed but as of a certain attribute of my father, which existed only insofar as he existed," or of Godunov-Cherdyntsev’s relation to Chernyshevski "projecting inward the coincidental similarity of external features… in reality, the little there was within us corresponded to the little there was without." In each case, truth is kept at one remove (for instance in the question of the veracity of Godunov-Cherdyntsev’s biography, a question mirrored through a series of uncertain reviews). In writing of his rather or in his biography of Chernyshevski, Godunov-Cherdyntsev faces questions of the anxiety of influence; "words are pale corpses, incapable of expressing our thingummybob feelings… an excessive trust in words" and broader questions of truth beyond that "perhaps I am wrong in retrospectively forcing upon him the secret which he carries now."

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