Rhapsody

The first Proms concert of this year opened with Part’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten and Rakhmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (both rather backward-looking works that set a conservative pattern to the night) before finishing with Gliere’s Symphony No.3 ‘Ilya Murometz.’ I didn’t know Gliere’s work before and was somewhat surprised to find him to be a contemporary of Stravinsky rather than of Borodin. The symphony was based on narrative, in the style of the likes of Rimsky Korsakov, and its derivation from folk tales was clear in the way events seemed discontinuous, happening without apparent logical sequence or sense of causality, often for magical reasons. I was mostly reminded of Wagner; scenes of Ilya listening to bird song in the forest recalling Siegfried understanding the language of the birds after killing Fafnir in the forest. It also has to qualify as the loudest symphony I can recall, working up to a crescendo early on and maintaining it for much of what followed.

Following this, I was overjoyed to complete my viewing of the Ring Cycle with Gotterdammerung. I did find myself that given the cycle’s odd compositional history it can be best described as two narratives. Firstly, there is the narrative of the downfall of the gods brought down by the curse of the ring as they give way to mankind. Secondly, there is a narrative about the destructive nature of desire, with the story of Siegfried and Brunnhilde being rather reminiscent of that of Samson and Delilah. The two seem to rather cancel one another out, with the destruction of Valhalla having little to do with the coming of the great hero but rather with Brunnhilde. What is admirable in Brunnhilde is her masculine qualities as a warrior, what is contemptible in Siegfried is his emasculation by Hagen and Gutrune; particularly given that the weak and decadent Gunther is permitted to atone for his crimes through a heroic death whereas Gutrune is simply insignificant and fades out of sight. Equally, although the opera hinges on the restoration of the corrupting ring to the Rhinemaidens they are nonetheless depicted as frivolous and vicious (and hence the means of a suitably humiliating death for Hagen). Following this, I was struck by Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn a rather odd combination of A Shropshire Lad and The Brothers Grimm with lieder telling of the transience of youth and mortality in wartime but fringed with themes like the Totentanz.

Following this I went to a Baroque concert (Handel, Purcell, Telemann) jointly performed by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra (giving the Fireworks Music a rather stereophonic feel, with all of the instruments doubled). It’s always odd seeing an archestra playing without a conductor; although romantic music is supposed to be more spontaneous and free it seems a paradox that it actually requires the discipline of a conductor to wield its larger number of players together in contrast to more ordered (or playful?) Baroque music. Haitink’s performance of Wagner (Parsifal, Tristan und Isolde and Lohengrin) and Debussy (Nocturnes and Six Epigraphes Antiques) was surprisingly effective, drawing strong parallels between the two composers. Both seemed steepted in the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk. In the case of Wagner this largely meant welding music and lyric poetry in the contest of dramatic performance while for Debussy, it meant playing with symbolist motifs from painting (as in Whistler’s Nocturnes) and literature, thereby introducing a form of music whose impessionistic style belied a frequently concrete approach. One of the paradoxes of twentieth century music is that although much of it was concerned with formal experimentation (Schoenberg) much of it was also concerned with reviving earlier musical traditions, such as that of folk music. Works like Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta and Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody fit into the latter category while Ligeti’s Atmospheres fits into the former, its performance showing each tonal layer individually, like a conventional work dissasembled and suspended in time. Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is the msot impressive work of this Prom though, managing to combine both strains.

Nicholas Nickleby cleaves closely the idea of the novel established by Fielding, whereby misadventure and financial hardship forces a young man out into a world where he is exposed to all manner of temptations. Nontheless, Dickens elaborates rather more polyphonic plot strands, taking his hero to the country rather than moving him from rural morality to urban decadence, depicting instead the perils faced by his sister in the city and the corruption and downfall of his uncle. Rather than suggesting that youth is corrupted by the city, Dickens instead suggests that vice is born of desperation ("ignorance was punished and never taught"), something that considerably complicates the moral fable at the heart of the novel. Although a Dickens novel tends to function by drawing together the different individuals that makes up its hetergenous plot strands, it nonetheless has the effect of depicting an atomised society ("this wilderness of London") rather than a community.

Sentimental Education seems to invert every convention of the nineteenth century novel, as with the absence of a clear telelogical structure (directed either at marriage or tragedy) or with the manner in which the hero is depicted in terms more suitable for female characters such as Madame Bovary (the only other comparison that comes to mind is Turgenev’s superfluous man). Deslauriers is perhaps a more obvious candidate for the role of hero, resembling rather more a Stendhalian protagonist (indeed the reference to how "Frederic’s physical appearance.. had almost exerted a feminine charm on him" suggests a homerotic relationship between the two male protagonists that threatens to eclipse female characters like Madame Arnoux). The absence of a teleological structure for depicting the characters is depicted by the absence of any such structure in Flaubert’s view of history, which is as present here as in Eliot, Stendhal, Balzac or Zola but is far more disconnected from the central narrative. While the depiction of Dambreuse is not that far removed from that of Merdle or Melmotte (the poverty of Madame Arnoux and Rosanette is also no that far from Dickens), Flaubert is equally cynical as to the alternatives, as with his observation that Senecal is filled with love towards the mases in their aggregate state and is merciless towards individuals; "a sort of Athenian Sparta in which the individual would only exist to serve the state… anything which he considered hostile to it he attacked with the logic of a mathematician and the faith of an inquisitor." Frederic is at once an aristocratic snob ("he felt utterly nauseated by the vulgarity of their faces, the stupidity of their talk…the knowledge that he was worth more than these men lessened the fatigure of looking at them.") and is fired with revolutionary ideals ("I think the people are sublime"). Deslauriers similarly notes that "he had preached fraternity to the conservatives and respect for the law to the socialists." Sentimental Education is the great novel of the middle ground, with all viewpoints contested and all found wanting Frederic and not steering a straight enough course, and Desluariers being too rigid, with the same applying to the aesthetic debates of Pellerin and Senecal.

Laughter in the Dark compares itself to Anna Karenina but seems in many ways an intertextual satire at Tolstoy’s expense, with its depiction of the heroine as both vapid and ruthless and destructive of a hero who represents rather mediocre rebuttal to the likes of Vronsky. The gender roles are instead inverted, with Albinus playing the part of a frustrated Emma Bovary, reduced itself to a frustrated and failed artist. Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev oscillates between a sense of communism as an entirely failed project (as with Koestler or Solzhenitsyn) and of it as something betrayed and corrupted. During the course of the novel Rublev finds himself pinioned by inescapable logic; political action (where factories can conquer hovels and the "the old suffering of toil is extinguished forever.") can only be attained through unity as vested in the party. Individual conscience is a bourgeois luxury but if the party has betrayed the revolution then conscience must stand aside from that unity; "in that iron circle Rublev’s thoughts never ceased to travel." Others argue that terror cannot form the basis of a state only its property relations and use this to distance the Soviet Union from fascist states, particularly given that the economic progress of the Union is forging a new type of consciousness (the novel incessantly compares Russia to the West, as when Xenia realises that poverty in Paris has a sort of abundance when compared to Moscow.) Koestler wrote that continued belief in communism could only be attributable to a personal mythology; it seems unclear whether this was true for Serge or not. Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno reminds me stronly of its Austro-Hungarian counterparts The Castle and The Good Soldier Schweik, all depicting events as being born of unpredictable chance rather than of agency, with freedom something only intermittently possible. Throughout it remains unclear whether events occur due to accident (the marriage to Augusta, the recovery of Zeno’s fortunes where Guido had squandered money on the same stocks) or by Zeno’s own design (his longstanding antipathy to Guido). As Guido puts it in response to Zeno’s disavowal of his caution; "curious that the cautious person should feel obliged to defend the scatterbrain." The novel is set against a backdrop of psychoanalysis (utilised as a framework for self-understanding whilst simultaneously dismissed), a framework that presupposes an underlying unity to events that the episodic narrative seems to deny, in spite of the suggestion of unconscious motivations towards Guido and Ada throughout. The novel ends with the modern man leads an unnatural existence and his life is poisoned to the root, but although this is ostensibly applied to Zeno it seems a better label for his erstwhile rival Guido (himself perhaps more resembling the hero of Svevo’s tragic A Life), with his artistic temperament and inability to comprehend business. Like Schweik, it is unambiguous throughout as to whether Zeno is saved from Guidos’ fate by cunning and guile or simply by his foolishness being protected by serendipity. Having asserted competence and strength throughout it such a way as to persuade the reader that he is neither, the suggestion hangs that those statements should have been taken at face value (in the same manner Zeno refutes arguments from the psychoanalyst with Schopenhauerian non sequiturs; life may be a disease but it can only be cured by death or obtains a medical certificate as proof of his sanity thereby convincing all that he is mad).

Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood Around 1900 shows Benjamin looking back in the style of his own Angel of History. At one point he notes that "one forms an image of a person’s character according to his place of residence and the neighbourhood he inhabits." It’s a statement characteristic of the nineteenth century (described elsewhere as a hollow shell) that could have been shared by Marx or Eliot, but Benjamin only partly accedes to it. One the one hand, his Berlin is a place where there are only surfaces, with subject and object essentially coterminous.; "I was enveloped in the world of matter" The metaphor is that of the painter disappearing into his own picture. On the other hand, the Berlin he depicts is a liminal place shown through imagistic fragments (repeatedly characterised as part of a labyrinth one gets losts within) rather than a linear narrative and where the places are often as liminal as his arcades (for instance, the text begins with a descriptions of Berlin’s loggias on the grounds of their uninhabitability to one who no longer had a fixed abode). Although the young Benjamin and his elder counterpart share a passion for collecting but refuse to arrange their acquisitions in a neat order. Equally, the places in questions are defamiliarised; the Victory Column is compared to a setting for Dante’s Inferno while the Zoological Garden seems more ancient than Rome. Magic and myth are repeatedly invoked, contrary to an otherwise materialist strain.

Ballard’s Kingdom Come frequently re-iterates a surrealist manifesto; "nothing is true and nothing is untrue." The novel is true to this statement of intent and aims to disorientate the reader, forcing them to participate in the elective insanity that follows. As Ballard puts it, the snakes are only pretending to be asleep and the ladders lead nowhere. Characters in Ballard novels rarely follow clear patterns, but instead shift their perspectives across ideological divides and back again; like many of his protagonists, Pearson plays the role of seeking to investigate and stop the violence but also incites it. Equally, characters like Falconer and Fairfax seek to turn the tide back but the methods they use only provoke the violence they are trying to assuage. As a consequence, the role played by the Metro Centre in the novel is ambiguous. On the one hand we are told that "it’s an incubator. People go in there and they wake up and see their lives are empty. So they look for a new dream." But equally, it is also defined as an entire philosophy rather than simply a reaction to vacuity; "all his emotional needs, his sense of self, were satisfied by this huge retail space." Equally, one the one hand the novel uses the familiar Ballardian formula of a new type of human being created and the equally familiar trope that they are reverting to something primeval ("a primeval species with an unbelieavsble need for violence") expressed over the centuries in religion and the politics of fascism rather than becoming something new. Finally, on the one hand, we are told that "the great dream of the Enlightenment, that reason and rational self-interest would one day triumph led directly to today’s consumerism" but those are also characterised as a brake against the delirium of consumerism that unfolds in the course of the novel.

Mann’s Confessions of Fleix Krull presents a narrative that initially appears cast in the vein of a a moral fable, dealing with the exploits of a confidence man, only for this to be aborted in favour of a narrative about his love affair with a Portuguese mother and daughter. The initial narrative draws a Platonic parallel between art and deceit, with Felix inspired by seeing actors and by being a model for painting. It also draws a parallel between this indeterminacy in Felix’s identity (the real Felix is something that does not exist) lends itself to a suggestion of homosexuality (itself something criminal at the time), with him being sexually admired by Herr Sturzli and Stanko.

"”Dali’s masterpiece and, I believe, the greatest painting of the 20th century is The Persistence of Memory, a tiny painting not much larger than the postcard version, containing the age of Freud, Kafka and Einstein in its image of soft watches, an embryo and a beach of fused sand. The ghost of Freud presides over the uterine fantasies that set the stage for the adult traumas to come, while insects incarnate the self-loathing of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and its hero turned into a beetle. The soft watches belong to a realm where clock time is no longer valid and relativity rules in Einstein’s self-warping continuum.” – JG Ballard"

Dali is something of an anomaly, an artist who moved seamlessly between avant-garde and popular culture, between the influence of Vermeer and Velasquez in one instance and between Breton and Magritte on the other. Many of his techniques were either familiar from classical painting or from film (many of the car crash scenes in Un Chien Andalou make the influence on JG Ballard manifest), but grafted onto a rather writerly personal mythology that was reminiscent of Blake (eyes, ants, eggs, soft watches, ruins, plains and so on). Time, space and motion feature prominently in his work rather than depicting images as static and frozen moments. At the same time, objects melt into one another and cease to be stable elements in their right. Equally, his experiments in film do dissolve linear narrative into a "heap of images." Film was seen as a variant of automatic writing.

Un Chien Andalou and L’Age D’Or present an equally heady combination of Freudianism and Marxism, showing the revolt of the protagonists and their desire against an ossified social order. In Un Chien Andalou, a character is held back by being tied to pianos, priests and rotting donkeys (though the protagonists are still left buried and the film repeatedly blurs the distinction of Thanatos and Eros as it does with all other contraries, including gender itself). In L’Age D’Or, a character throws priests and burning giraffes out of the mansion while the Majorcan Bishops are left to starve to death. However, his Marxism at that time forbids him from regarding the bourgeoisie as rebels, showing them as heartless and indifferent to the suffering of others (as with the shooting of the gamekeeper’s son or the fire in the kitchen), thereby forming the nucleus of Pasolini’s Salo or The 120 Days of Sodom.

The Bramah Museum records the distinction between tea and coffree elaborate by Kakuzo Okakura; the former, aristosratic and calming, its origins lying in ceremony. Conversely, the latter was bourgeois and stimulating, its orgins somewhat disreputable. The museum records the assimilation of Chinese and African beverages (though Ethiopia regarded coffee as a food source) into European culture, showing beautifully designed teapots in the style of bamboo and recording the origin of willow pattern as a fairytale of doomed lovers. I especially liked an anti-coffee house satirical pamphlet set to the tune of The Roast Beef of Old England, entitled The Grumbling of Old England. The Rose Cougou and Lemon served in the shop was rather pleasant too.

Walking around The Mall and St James’ Park, I found myself rather indifferent to much of the architecture, which seemed rather dour and pedestrian with the only architect of note being William Kent. I noticed a blue-billed Ruddy Duck swimming in the park near to a black swan before visiting the Wellington Arch. I was struck by how it and Marble Arch formed yet another vision of how London might have been with their removal from their original location and the existence of earlier designs by Adam and Soane (not to mention a more grandiose design from Decimus Burton than was realised). Having walked back to Paddington, I visited the church of St James. Although rather nondescript on the exterior, Street’s interior combines pink marble with a black ceiling lined with gold angels. Elaborate tiling and mosaics line the aisles while a modern window replacing one destroyed in the Blitz shows scenes from the station and the war. Visting Kensington, I walked round the round Pond and Palace, the statyes of William and Victoria, before coming to Scott’s St Mary Abbot’s, with its tall and spire and bending entrance through a set of cloisters through the churchyard. The interior is rather more minimal with marble floors and mosaiscs. I walk to see the Queen’s Tower at Imperial College, which I’ve seen in the distance before but never from closeby.

The Courtauld Institute was a striking omission from the list of London galleries I had visited, so I accordingly decided to rectify this. Walking along one of London’s bridges, I was met with one of Gormley’s sculptures, joining the one I had seen on the roof of the Shell Mex house and on the rood of Freemason Hall (looking like potetential suicides in both cases). The collection conspicuously bears the mark of having been formed through a relatively small set of bequests, accounting for the presence of Mamluke metalwork, ivory caskets, eighteenth century silverware, Maioloica and painted Italian cassone. The initial collection was formed by a Victorian more interested in the Florentine than Pre-Raphaelite, containing triptychs that demonstrated the transition from Byzantine perspectives to a more naturalistic style. Particularly striking is Bellini’s Assassination of St Peter Martyr, where the cut tree stumps bleed in sympathy with the murdered saint. The gallery was running an exhibition revolving around Cranach’s Adam and Eve. For all of his connections with Luther, there’s something pagan about Cranach, with his paintings of Apollo and Diana and Cupid complaining to Venus sharing the same poses as his christian painting, both interpreting classical myth as christian allegory and violating the Biblical symbolism at the same time. Something similar applies to his twin fascinations with depicting hunting scenes in tandem with a prelapsarian vision of man living in harmony with nature.

The following periods are rather barren for the gallery, save for Claude’s Landscape with an Imaginary View of Tivoli, Pieter Brueghel painting of Landscape with flight into Egypt and Eworth’s bizarrely allegorical Portrait of Sir John Luttrell. The strength of the collection emrges again when it comes to modern French painting, with a large collection of works by Manet, Renoir, Degas, Pissaro and Sisley. Some of the wotks surprise; early oil paintings in an impressionist style by Seurat, as well as a pointillist painting depicting his mistress in a comic parody of traditional portraiture (a theme also repeated in Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe where an unidealised nude sits alongside formally dressed men, while still resting in a classical pose as if she had casually strayed into the scene by accident) or Monet’s still lives. A large number of landscapes by Cezanne show his depiction of natural subjects in geometric terms, while Monet’s landscapes show his abandonment of chiaroscuro. Van Gogh’s famous Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear is also present, showing a contrast behind the gaunt figure in the foreground and a colourful Japanese print hanging on the wall behind him (something similiar emerges in Lautrec’s painting of Jane Avril, showing the glamorous and expensively dressed Moulin Rouge dancer in dark and subdued tones). Two of the Gauguin paintings are especially striking; Nevermore depicting a Tahitian nude in the same vein as an artist like Ingres while suggesting connotations of the fall in her facial expression, the presence of two whispering women in the background and the reference to Poe in a raven. Te Reriora or The Dream also draws a counterpoint between the foreground of the painting (a woman nursing a child while a man leaves behind her) and its background (frescos of lovers painted onto the walls of her house). Gauguin’s depiction of ‘noble savages’ does seem to invest a rather ‘writerly’ quality into his work that makes it particularly fascinating for me.

This section was completed by one of Rousseau’s naive Toll-Gate paintings and a Modigliano nude, showing again a classicised subject shown in terms derived from Oceanic sculpture. The gallery has recently increased its collection to include a number of works by Kandinsky, Sickert (a painting at an underground station), Pechstein, Vlaminck and Derain. There’s also a brief British section, showing Frank Dobson’s sculpture, Ben Nicholson’s Mondrian-influenced Painting 1937, an Eric Gill engraving of a latin motto and a Graham Sutherland painting. The final section of interest formed the bequest of Roger Fry, ranging from Chinese bronzes and pottery to African masks. This section includes works by Vanessa Bell (praised by Woolf as a social satirist in painting), Duncan Grant and Fry himself, as well as the various pieces of crafts that came out of the Omega workshops.

Visiting Hampstead, I began at St John at Hampstead, a Georgian church whose interior opulence is only matched by its exterior dowdiness. The graveyard is more ornate, filled with older tombs decorated with skulls as well as with Victorian angels and celtic crosses. As with most London graveyards, it has an odd assortment of denizens, including Constable, Harrison and a relative of the last Tsar. Hampstead Cemetery is if anything rather more mannered than the tangled briars of St John’s, having remained rather more faithful to the idea of the garden cemetery than Highgate. Comparatively unostentatious graves are laid out in neat rows interspersed with arboretum-like plantings of trees and shrubs (including a large palm treet at one point). Crickets chirped away in the background. One or two grandiose tombs do intrude; one in the shape of a church organ or the art deco Bianchi tomb with its Blakesque angel. Following this, I visited Fenton House with its collection of marquetry furniture, stumpwork, Kangxi Porcelain, Song paintings, snuff bottles and painted Chinese mirrors. The house has a quite good collection of paintings, including Duncan Grant, Sickert (paintings of Figaro and London music halls), Charles Ginner (a painting of Hampstead High Street at night that rather resembled Atkinson Grimshaw) and a rather poor GF Watts painting of waves turning into horses.

Visiting Wollaton Hall, I was struck by the classical and historical figures in circular niches along the walls (as at Ham House and Hampton Court) and the gargoyles underneath the windows. The overall effect is rather more ornate than Smythson’s other building, Hardwick Hall. The interior is equally impressive, with its hammer-headed celing in the Great Hall, James Thornhill murals on the stairwells, the organ and single-handed clock. The interior included glass Blaschka models of aquatic life (octupi, squids etc) and geological displays of desert roses and haematite. Travelling onwards to Southwell Minster, I was impressed by the Norman exterior with its Rhenish caps and the remains of the ruined Bishop’s Palace alongside. The interior balances different periods; Flemish and Victorian stained glass by Kempe, Norman arches at one end and early English gothic at the other. Wall plaster remains of a Roman bath house hang on the wall showing a male figure. Medieval misericord carvings of green men are displayed in the pulpitum. Green men carvings also predominate in the Chapter House, itself resembling a forest canopy. A Saxon tympanum rests in one of the transepts while an alter dedicated to fallen Polish soldiers has a triptych as its centrepiece – a Monet-like painting of lilies on the outside, depictions of barbed wire and a dead soldier on the outside.

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