Snowdrift

The Lady Lever art gallery is a particularly idiosyncratic collection covering pre-raphaelite painting, Roman sculpture, Wedgewood pottery, Chinese porcelain and assorted design pieces. The collection dwells on the fantastic and exotic, reflecting its role in advertising Sunlight soap (after all, it is difficult to think of an equivalent collection that did not emerge from an aristocratic background); on the whole, I found it difficult to think any worse of it for this. Most of the pre-raphaelite painting is quite well known (Rossetti’s The Blessed Damozel, Alma-Tadema’s The Tepidarium, Holman Hunt’s The Scapegoat, Millais’s Sir Isumbras at the Ford,) but there some good pieces that are less well known (Leighton’s The Daphnepohoria, Madox Brown’s Cromwell on his Farm), as well as some interesting pieces by more obscure Victorian painters (Etty’s Prometheus). Some of the sculpture was also quite exceptional, such as Onslow Ford’s Snowdrift. The Wedgewood collection was surprisingly interesting, containing a number of Wedgewood’s experiments beyond the more familiar jasperware (as with the Portland and Borghese vases), to imitate Egyptian designs and Greek red figure ceramics with encaustic black basalt. The authentic classical collection covers Attic ceramics (including a black figure Psykter showing a Dionysiac revel) and Roman sculpture (including a statue of Antinous and busts of various emperors, especially dwelling on Hadrian for some unknown reason). The Chinese collection ranged from Kangxi period (including blue and white prunus blossom jars to famille noire vases) to Qing dynasty jade vases and Ming dynasty cloisonne enamel.

The surrounding village of Port Sunlight itself is a model village designed to house Lord Lever’s factory workers. Though a benevolent project, its rather hard not to feel a little uncomfortable in the place, which seems too geometrical, too designed and too neat. The homogeneity is unsetting and unreal, emphasised by the obsolescence of its industrial feudalism. Though the buildings were designed by thirty different architects the arts & crafts style is consistent throughout (though it does jar awkwardly with the austere Lutyens-style classicism of the gallery and war memorial) with the doors still being painted the same colour on each street. As a rural idyll it is decidedly hyperreal.

The collection of Futurist art at the Estorick collection is housed in an unprepossessing building, where the spire of the Union Chapel can be seen from behind the metal sculptures and plants in the back garden. The collection is largely concerned with changing ideas of time and space In EM Forster’s Howard’s End Helen Schlegel finds the speed of travelling in a car disorientating, causing a loss of a sense of space (Forster describes how the landscape appears to congeal as the car gets up to speed). The advent of high-speed transportation radically changed perceptions of both of these, with much of futurism seeking to create a more dynamic concept of art that recognise this, as with Carra’s Hand of the Violinist where multiple hands can be seen simultaneously; "Time and Space died yesterday," as Marinetti put it. In the case of flight (the current exhibition dwells on aeropainting), this was combined with an art-deco machine-aesthetic, again as with Marinetti’s elevation of the motor car as art above the Victory of Samothrace.

The current Aeropainting exhibition ranges from Crali’s vertiginous Nose Diving on the City with its jagged edges to the more organic lines of Tato’s paintings. One disturbing suggestion is the linkage of these paintings with Guernica and the Blitzkrieg against East Europe, respectively. Certainly, in some cases propaganda is clearly apparent, with one painting showing the planes as christian crosses. Although futurism was closely linked with fascism (not least in its glorification of war and a military aesthetic) fascism itself diverged into forms of expression better suited to an establishment (becoming more Catholic and neo-classical) and it seems somewhat harsh to read most of these paintings in such terms. The aesthetic behind them might well be disturbingly militaristic, but on the whole, there is little that is directly political about them. With all that said, it does come as a relief to come across Modigliani’s Dr Francois Brabander.

The Royal Academy’s Turks exhibition covers successive imperial states and nomadic Turkic tribes that went to the form the basis of the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey; beginning with the Central-Asian Uighur tribes, Iranian Seljuks, Mongolian Timurids through to the creation of the Ottoman dynasty itself. This combination of cultural and religious influences from an area that represented the central axis of the silk road, produced a varied and rich number of decorative arts. In the Uighur period, Chinese silk painting was emulated, the Seljuks produced extraordinarily intricate woodwork (wooden doors and Koran stands arranged in arabesque patterns) and metalwork (especially elaborate lamps and mirrors where the back is decorated in cursive or geometrical Kufic scripts) and textiles (carpets showing stylised birds and dragons; the latter being endemic in Ottoman art, from candleholders and doorknockers to Chinese-style dragon paintings), while in the Timurid period the illuminated manuscripts and calligraphy of Herat and Samarkand far outstripped those of medieval Europe.

This engagement with the East was to continue, as with the adoption of Mamelak Egyptian Koran caskets and the imitation of Ming porcelain to produce Iznik pottery with its serrated leaves and lotus blossoms. Ottoman attempts to ‘improve’ Ming porcelain by adding gold and jewels go a considerably long way to reassuring all concerned that the Ottoman Empire did indeed deserve its reputation for tastelessness. However, by this point Ottoman Turkey began to engage with the West as much as the East. Although all of the other works in the exhibition have been decorative arts, the Ottoman section begins with Bellini’s portrait of Sultan Mehmed the Second. By this point, the European use of oils and shading to achieve perspective had already outclassed Islamic rivals; there is something odd about comparing Bellini’s utterly European portraits with Ottoman attempts to produce the same effect in traditional stylised poses (the holding of flowers while sitting cross-legged). It’s also somewhat incongruous that this cultural engagement went hand in hand with the point where the Ottoman Empire began to engage with Europe in a more direct fashion; through the invasion of Constantinople and much of the East of Europe. However, as with the difference between Venetian and Ottoman painting, the Empire was already being left behind as Western Europe explored trade routes that did not rely on the silk road.

Amongst the exhibition’s curiosities are a medieval computer; a geomantic engine where soil proceeded through a set of what we would call logic gates to produce the desired divination. Similarly, if a dice was rolled a book of divinations could be used to look up precisely what this portended (rather like a Tibetan prayer wheel, I suppose). Any observation that a culture’s most bizarre relics can usually be expected from its religions can probably be taken as read.

Ogier Ghislan of Busbecq was Habsburg ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century, a period when the Ottomans controlled most of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. With the Ottomans closely allied to the French and constantly making incursions into Hapsburg territory, Busbecq was sent to negotiate improved terms. However, progress was slow and uncertain, with much of his Turkish Letters consists of his observations on matters antiquarian, numismatic and botanical (Busbecq appears to have introduced Tulip bulbs into Europe; though the Turkish taste in such flowers bore little resemblance to the modern version).

His attitudes towards the Ottomans are rather schizophrenic, fearing its order, discipline and military supremacy while describing it as backward and primitive (with surprisingly little sense of the apparent contradiction). On the one hand, the Turks had a highly disciplined standing army; "on their side, the resources of a mighty empire, strength unimpaired, experience and practice and fighting, a veteran soldiery, habituation to victory, endurance of toil, unity, order, discipline.. on our side is public poverty, private luxury, impaired strength, broken spirit, lack of endurance and training; the soldiers are insubordinate, the officers avaricious, there is contempt for discipline, licence, recklessness, drunkenness and debauchery are rife." It seems a somewhat odd judgement; in practice most of the wars that were to come resulted in stalemate (excepting the seizure of Cyprus), though it would be another hundred years before the Ottoman decline would begin. To take the example, of technology, Busbecq himself cites the Ottoman refusal to adopt clocks (as it would undermine the authority of the muezzin), the printing press and the destruction of Ottoman forces by a smaller European force armed with rifles. Equally, Busbecq portrays Ottoman society as meritocratic rather than hereditary; something of a distortion from someone whose illegitimacy had left him shut out from the upper echelons of the Hapsburg aristocracy.

Some counterbalance can be found in Busbecq’s depiction of the Turks as backward barbarians. Though the ruins of Christian Constantinople do provoke an outburst against the Infidel from him, his outlook is essentially rationalistic rather than religious, characterising the Turks as superstitious and easily swayed by auguries and omens (though he doesn’t seem entirely immune from such matters himself). He ascribes to the Turks a form of fatalism attributable to their religion; "they are persuaded that the time and manner of each man’s death is inscribed by god on his forehead; if therefore he is destined to die, it is useless for him to try to avert his fate," citing a sanguine approach to containing the plague (the number of fatalities a day shocking Busbecq) as an example. On the other hand, when a Turkish official expresses the view that all men of piety are likely to be rewarded with salvation, Busbecq does not hesitate to condemn the view as blasphemous (perhaps somewhat oddly; the idea is present in Dante and can hardly have been an entirely alien concept); though he condemns Turkish oppression of the Greek and Hungarian peoples, the Ottomans still appear to have been more tolerant than christendom would have been.

Shugborough’s gardens and estates are pleasant enough for a variety of reasons, most obviously the follies dotted throughout its grounds; a temple of the winds, a victory gate, a Chinese pagoda and a romantic ruin. But I was more interested in the Shepherd’s Monument, a structure that depicts a Poussin painting with an encoded inscription beneath it; interpretations of its meaning relate to heretical sects that denied christ’s divinity, the Templars and the grail and to Latin love poetry. Elsewhere, Middleton Hall, is an odd building surrounded by a moat and trees on two of its sides and gardens on the other two. The buildings are a hodgepodge ranging from Tudor to Georgian. I saw it covered with snow and with red squirrels playing on its front lawn. More forlorn is Bradgate Hall, the ruin of a Tudor palace now surrounded by open parkland with only a hilltop folly for company. Food cooked: Partridges and grapes, Chicken with black fruit stuffing, Persian duck with pomegranates, Moretum, Chicken and bacon in Tokay, Hungarian chicken in wine, Catalan Paella del Mar, Elizabethan chicken with sack mead, thai chicken legs, chicken Baltic, Hungarian cherry soup, prawn and crayfish laksa, Swedish fish and potato casserole, Moroccan pigeon pie, German pork and sausage casserole, white chocolate cheesecake with blueberries, Catalan chicken with figs, cherry and pomegranate khoresh, milanese risotto, chicken biryani, Singapore noodles, Corsican stew, baklava, Hungarian lamb with pickle sauce, chicken foo yung, chicken satay, Himmel und Erde, chicken tikka masala, Italian vinegar poached chicken with gnocchi.

Down south, I spent the day in Oxford, first climbing both St Michael’s & Carfax Towers and gazing out over Oxford’s rooftops and weather vanes (rather reminded me all of the viewing platforms from Prague’s towers, particularly with the medieval clock on Carfax Tower; not unlike Prague’s Horologe) and then going to the University and Pitt Rivers Museums. I love the iron forest canopy that makes up the University Museum, especially with various whalebone jaws propped against the pillars. The effect of walking into the main hall with its glass ceiling is more like one of Kew’s palm houses than the London Natural History Museum. I was especially struck by the faked dragon embryo; as it suggested such a creature would be quite difficult to categorise (opposable thumbs more typical of mammals, and a combination of wings and limbs more typical of insects). Equally, I love the clutter of the Pitt Rivers and the totem pole that dominates the interior of the hall. Finally, I went walking amidst the emerging snowdrops and crocuses from the parks. The idea of a genetic garden to plant hybridised species alongside their forebears is a rather interesting one; it’ll be worth coming back when more of the plants are in full leaf.

The QI bookshop in Oxford is based upon the excellent idea that the books are arranged by abstract themes rather than the usual classification by genre. As such, the themes included ‘Ice,’ ‘Sea,’ ‘Bohemia’ and ‘Watching.’ Since the usual divisions between specialisms were absent you found that a heading like ‘The Big Picture’ would include Milton’s Paradise Lost, Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach and Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. I thought these serendipitous connections between works that would otherwise have been on completely different shelves was rather engaging; perhaps the Radcliffe Camera should be re-ordered.

Recently, the sun was shining and the sky was blue, while a sudden snow shower drifted down to the ground. With odd meteorology like this, I wonder why people find the English obsession with the weather to be so unusual. I’m always struck by how snow makes the familiar unfamiliar, making every leaf stand out, making one’s own footprints tangible. The presence of newly opened daffodils and crocuses only accentuated this even more. A watery and pale sun struggled to make its presence felt
in a clouded sky. One morning I found myself face to face with a fox (presumably in search of food amidst the cold). I’d never been this close to one before, and though it wasn’t an especially dramatic encounter (it simply stood still, meeting my stare, until the cold persuaded me to go inside) it was wonderful to see such an impressive creature.

Reading The Motorcycle Diaries I had much the same reaction as I had to the film. Che’s mestizo nationalism has racism at its centre; "Anglo-Saxon immigrants in Chile do not mix, so preserving the purity of the indigenous race… the pure expression of the most powerful indigenous race in the Americas still clean of contact with a conquering civilisation… the African race who have maintained their racial purity." However, Che is not consistent about this – he heaps praise on the Spanish general Validivia for his will to total authority, also striking an unpleasantly fascist tone.

Baudelaire’s On Wine and Hashish makes an excellent reading of DeQuincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Where DeQuincey is concerned with a Kantian dialectic between reason and emotion, the ability of the mind to intuit the infinite rather than itself. By contrast, Baudelaire’s concerns are more firmly materialistic and indeed visceral, as Benjamin put it "Baudelaire placed the shock of experience at the very centre of his artistic work" For much of the time, Baudelaire’s language is as mystical or transcendentalist as that of DeQuincey or James; "the proportions of time and being are distorted by the innumerable multitude and intensity of sensations and ideas… you have cast your personality to the four winds of heaven." However, in many respects, his concerns are not with ethics or with mystical experience but with something more utilitarian; the transformation of authentic experience into a commodity; "what indeed is the point of working, ploughing writing, producing anything at all, when you can paradise at a stroke?.. enthusiasm and will-power are sufficient to raise him to supernatural existence… incapable of work, action or energy." As such, DeQuincey was concerned about solipsism, truth is not of concern to Baudelaire. He is instead concerned that if hashish simply opens up inner experiences then it represents a failure of will to be unable to access them without the use of artificial means; "a magic mirror in which man is invited to see himself.. the abyss by which he may admire his face like Narcissus… hashish reveals to the individual nothing but the individual himself." Benjamin suggested that Baudelaire was concerned with the commoditisation of culture and certainly such metaphors as "selling himself wholesale" recur. Marx supplants Kant.

I’ve described Orhan Pamuk as an existentialist mystic before and Black Book would add ‘semiotician’ to that list. Reality in the novel emerges as a form of text, where the link between signifier and signified is the key to a form of transcendental reality; "the world was not a place that yielded its secrets right-off, that it swarmed with secrets, and that in order to comprehend the secrets it was necessary to comprehend the mystery of letters," to see clues in things like in a detective novel. But equally Galip "despised the way he couldn’t live without narratives…there was no room in this world for signs, clues, secrets and mysteries." Interpretation becomes a subjective affair; "he might get lost between these interpretations." Between solipsism and mysticism pamuk seeks a via media "realms unavailable to the ‘objective and subjective styles’ is the third voice: the dark persona, the dark style!" Reality becomes a narrative the characters can rewrite and reinvent, but only through a glass darkly. The novel accordingly teems with the imagery of darkness, literal and figurative in place of the white of Snow; "these dark, black, pitch-black pages." Peering through the darkness is far from easy, as with the Bektasi alchemists unaware their acolytes were Marxist-Leninists; "whichever realm was successful in seeing the world as an equivocal, mysterious place that swarmed with secrets got the better of the other."

In part, intertextuality counts as a means of rewriting reality; "he was being drawn into a world that was unintentionally transformed into a fairytale… the man in the street began to lose his authenticity because of these damn moves that came in canisters from the West." Cultural identity, is driven into the darkness like the ships at the bottom of the Bosphorus or the puppetmaker’s figures in the tunnels. However, as with the narrative of the westernised Sultan, there is no identity without emulation; "we are also affected by those who have a distinctive personality and command our respect because we unconsciously begin emulating them.. I was unable to be myself," just as much as Galip becomes Jelal or the journalist becomes Proust (and the same reason Galip will not spend time in the Anglicised world of Ruya’s detective novels); "No-one can ever be himself in this land!.. I am someone else therefore I am."

Peter Ackroyd’s biography of London reminded me of an argument I had heard that histories dedicated to cross-period thematic approaches were eroding more scholarly works limited by their period. Certainly, Ackroyd approaches London as if it were a text to be interpreted, using literary criticism as much as non-fictional historical sources. He discusses London as a city dominated by symbols and theatricality, where the division between such things and the real is not clear (I was especially struck by his citing an example of Conan Doyle’s The Man with the Twisted Lip being used as the basis for a begging career by one middle-class professional). In particular, much of the biography recalls Ackroyd’s discussion of Blake and in particular Blake’s dictum that without contraries there can be no progression. Accordingly, a chapter on noise is followed by a chapter on silence and Ackroyd alternately condemns London (for its imprisonment and cruelty towards its inhabitants, its ugliness and rapacity) and celebrates it (for its self-renewal, energy and enterprise).

Ackroyd’s novel Hawksmoor, like Winterson’s Lighhousekeeping dwells on the same ideas of permanency within mutability, but perhaps weights the balance in favour of the former. On the one hand, there is the architect Dyer’s mystical demonism and on the other, Hawksmoor, a detective that forms Dyer’s modern counterpart. People, places and events recur between the two time periods. The two characters gain a perverse communion, both alienated from their selves through various means (gazing into convex mirrors, insanity, drunkenness and sex). Hawksmoor notes that the Thames was “perpetually turning and spinning: it was going in no certain direction.” He imagines tracing a murder “backwards, running the time slowly in the opposite direction (but did it have a direction?).” He might then “have to invent a past from the evidence available,” which would make the future an invention too. Toward the end: “the future became so clear that it was if he were remembering it, remembering it in place of the past which he could no longer describe. But there was in any case no future and no past, only the unspeakable misery of his own self.’ As such, the novel’s two narratives proceed in parallel lines like trains on opposite tracks, mirroring each other but never converging. Ackroyd’s conception of time is one founded on eternity and permanence; it does not admit of resolution or conclusion (a perhaps somewhat awkward conception, given the pulp fiction nature of the plot. For example, at one point a lunatic in Bedlam tells Dyer that Hawksmoor will be his undoing, a promise that remains unfulfilled).

DH Lawrence’s Sketches of Etruscan Places is a later text in his ‘savage pilgrimage’ series of travel narratives, it is built on a series of dichotomies between Ancient and Modern, Roman and Etruscan. Accordingly, it is a good example of the progress paradox where one of the more marked features of civilisation and its discontents is an avowed preference for more primitive modes of society. To Lawrence, the Etruscans represented a more natural existence that was extinguished by Rome, something he sees continuing throughout history and exemplified by the distaste with which he responds to Italian fascism (given that he is often accused of fascist tendencies in his own thought, it is interesting to see how he reacts to it its manifestation). Lawrence’s response to the Etruscans is essentially one of pagan mysticism; "In my tissue I am weary of personality.. all the pearly accretion of personality in mankind – what a disease it has become. Stubborn pagan indifference and sufficiency in the self; where can one find it?" Though Lawrence dwells on the balance of male and female sexual symbolism in Etruscan art he suggests a modern inequity; "if a navvy working in the street takes off his shirt to work with a free, naked torso, a policeman rushes to him."

Lawrence’s Sea and Sardinia presents a less clearcut case and rather reminded me of an especially acerbic observation Angela Carter made of Women in Love; that all the men were depicted in close physical detail ("hard cheek, and hard dangerous thighs… to see these limbs in close knee breeches, so definite, so manly") while all the women were depicted as little more than walking piles of clothing (with detailed descriptions of the pleating and colouring of female peasant dress). Later, Lawrence approvingly describes how the young men all masquerade as women during the carnival and describes their two male drivers as being like man and wife, Jane Eyre and Rochester; "so terribly physical all over one another. They pour themselves one over the other like butter on parsnips. They catch each other under the chin, with a tender caress of the hand."

In Orlando Figes’s Natasha’s Dance he speaks of Russian literature as being a fusion of Europeanised upper-class culture and the folk traditions of the peasantry. Though Turgenev is always cited as a zapadnik rather than a slavophile Sketches From a Hunter’s Album shows this quite clearly, in spite of the political mythology concerning the emancipation of the serfs that surrounds it. The sketches certainly do depict the oppression of the peasantry ("They work for him like they were in bondage to him.. bled them white he has"), with the aristocracy either being seen as rapacious, indifferent or ineffectual, with the results being similar in each case (with the rather totalitarian ‘Peter the Great of his own village’ in The Reformer and the Russian German being a case in point). How ever, the peasantry are instead often transmuted into mystical figures ("a strange and wonderful man he is, truly a holy man" or with the suffering and death of Lukeria in Living Relic). The suffering of the serfs is simply part of this transmutation; "What an astonishing thing is the death of a Russian peasant!… he dies as if he is performing a ritual act." The oppression of the serfs is not necessarily much attributed to the social order as to the moral corruption of the aristocracy (most starkly in Meeting where the jaded valet can only speak of the wonders of St Petersburg to the peasant girl he is abandoning or the Dasha mentioned in Death). For example, in Tatyana Borisovna and Her Nephew, the eponymous nephew is corrupted by his time in the city, but the narrative equally shows contempt for Russian parochialism against European internationalism.

Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Bronte records some of the more interesting ambiguities in the Bronte attitudes towards religion. Anne had inclined towards a heterodox notion of universalism, wherein suffering for one’s sins would lead all towards salvation (an idea with an obvious resonance within both Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre; though not Villette which ended in tragedy in spite of Charlotte’s proscriptions against such melancholia). Charlotte’s attitudes do indeed appear ambivalent (though she does repeatedly denounce "ghastly Calvinistic doctrines" of predestination; if christian perfection is necessary for salvation she admits she will never be saved; however, her attitude to existence if one of submission to what is predetermined). Gaskell records that "She had a larger religious toleration than a person would have who had never questioned, and the manner of recommending religion was always that of offering comfort, not fiercely enforcing a duty." Elsewhere, she speaks of how "it is more in accordance with the Gospel to preach unity among the christians than to inculcate mutual intolerance and hatred." She is struck by one of Mr Heger’s exercises in portraying a subject from differing perspectives, using Cromwell as an example. However, she is revolted by Catholicism, describing her reaction as to that of the false Duessa.

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