The Revolt of the Sage

Departing for London one morning, I found myself waiting for a train on a rural train station platform. It was a misty morning and I could see my breath curl into white patterns suspended in the air. The grey shadow of the church spire in the distance seemed to be floating aloft in the air, the mist divorcing it from the ground. Train lines disappear into the mist as they proceed beneath a bridge crossing the tracks. As I arrive in London, the mists gradually dissipate and the warmth of London’s climate leads to a pleasant summer-like day in the middle of February. Crocuses and Daffodils are starting to come into flower.

I begin by walking through Islington to the Estorick Collection. I pass the church of St Mary, with its baroque tower, classical portico and strange modernist baroque interior with its Egyptianate columns. Further along lies the Union Chapel, an eruption of redbrick gothic amidst rows of dun coloured Georgian terraces. The collection itself lies on a rather nondescript square adjacent to an old Tudor tower. The contents remind me of the Guggenheim in Venice, with its Chiricos, Severinis and Boccionis. More prototypical futurist works are represented by Boccioni’s Modern Idol, Russolo’s Music, Carra’s Leaving the Theatre and Severini’s The Boulevard and Cubist Still Life. Some of the most interesting exhibits are the more conventional, as with the neo-impressionist Balla’s Portrait of Carlo Fontana as opposed to his futurist Hand of the Violinist with its Bergsonesque interpretation of time. I have to admit that the further the painters deviated from futurism tenets, the more I warmed to them, especially Campigli’s Etruscan influenced works, Modigliani’s African-influenced portraits, Chirico’s metaphysical Revolt of the Sage and Guttuso’s Marxist polemic Death of a Hero.

Travelling southwards, I pass by St John the Evangelist, a Georgian Waterloo church before proceeding to Southwark. I look in Pugin’s Catholic cathedral with its gleaming white arches contrasting with its mundane exterior, the ruins of Christchurch and the peace garden at the Imperial War Museum with its iron mandala, circula dharma pattern, earth, air, water and fire sculptures and language pillar with inscriptions in Tibetan, English, Chinese and Hindi. There’s also a collection of the thirty four trees that colonised Britain after the ice age; Whitebeam and Pussy Willow, for example. Squirrels chase one another in the park. The day concludes with a trip to the Coliseum’s performance of The Mikado. I don’t particularly care for Gilbert and Sullivan but I suppose it was an pleasant enough diversion. The stage was distorted with slanted floors leading to trompe l’oeil rooms further back. Everything, from a giant gramophone to a pot plant is in bleached white. The singers appear dressed as if at a European spa in the nineteen thirties, making lines like "we are gentleman of Japan" sound rather odd, but in spite of the idea that this is Gilbert’s best researched and most realistic opera, the engagement with Japanese culture is superficial, restricted to one song. Stripped of the costume, the opera works rather better in a European context; the satire directed against Pooh-bar applies well to Britain’s rather nepotistic political culture. The result looks more like Jeeves and Wooster, with Richard Stuart’s Ko-Ko rather resembling Terry Thomas. The lyrics to I’ve Got a Little List had been customised for the occasion, referring to the Archbishop of Canterbury and our dear leader, Prudence Brown.

Returning the following week, I briefly visit Butterfield’s All Saints on Margaret Street, with its red and black bricks, tapering spire and an opulent interior with its tiles, mosaics and gilding. I also pass by the Georgian church of St George, Immaculate Conception on Farm Street and the Americana represented by the Grosvenor Chapel. Tracing my route back, I arrive at Piccadilly. There’s something a little forced about the From Russia exhibition at the Royal Academy, with its attempt to yoke a disparate set of paintings loaned from the Hermitage and Tretyakov galleries into a cohesive whole. The just so story used to achieve this is one of the influence of French art on Russian painting. The exhibition begins with discussing how both French and Russian art in the late nineteenth century turned away from mythical subjects towards naturalism (just at the same point as the Pre-Raphaelites retreated from the industrial age into legend and myth), as with Repin’s oddly Renoiresque Manifesto of October 17th, 1905. The likes of Camille Corot influenced landscape painting, as with Isaak Levitan (Chekhov’s favourite artist) hauntingly empty After the Rain. The Russian pastoralism is rather more ideological than simply picturesque though as with Repin’s Leo Tolstoy Barefoot, showing the Count dressed as a pesant or Nesterov’s mystical landscape showing the murdered Tsarevich Demetrius (a painting disturbingly reminiscent of Holman Hunt’s painting of the infant christ). This is then followed by showing French works purchased by Russian collectors; the pastoral theme being reciprocated with Monet’s The Pond at Montgeron, Haystack at Giverny and Poppy Field and Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire (at least one of the later Russian paintings could almost be taken for a Cezanne reproduction), Gauguin’s Vairaumati Tei Oa (Her Name is Vairaumati) and Landscape with Peacocks.

From this point, the narrative becomes more diffuse, with the introduction of works like Manet’s In the Bar, Renoir’s In the Garden. Tatlin visited Picasso, Alexandra Exter worked with Leger, Chagall settled in Paris – giving new protein to French painting. And with the arrival of Diaghilev, Leon Bakst and the Ballets Russes, Paris became enamoured of all things Russian. The 1910 Jack of Diamonds show had exhibited Ivan Mashkov’s Self Portrait with Pyotr Konchalovsky, a parody of Cezanne’s Girl at the Piano, replacing the two girls with the artists as strongmen, playing Spanish popular tunes rather than Wagner. Simultaneously, the French started to go east, literally in the case of Matisse who was stunned by the candlelit icons in Orthodox churches. The most prominent works of the exhibition include Picasso’s The Dryad and Farm Woman (Bust) (I can never really like Picasso after his Cubist phase and tend to prefer a nearby Braque painting; Picasso seems too intent on dehumanising, on decomposing individuals into objects) and Matisse’s The Dance and The Red Room (Harmony in Red). The former almost has the quality of a graphic design to it in its simplicity, although the latter seemed the more engaging to me with its innocuous domestic setting conflicting with the riotous patterning and an inset view of the green wilds that’s rather reminiscent of Velasquez. Fauvism was to become a critical influence on Russian neo-primitivism, with Vlaminck’s Stream, Rousseau’s The Muse Inspiring the Poet and Derain also represented (though I find myself preferring his later De Chiricoesque The Old Town Cognes) alongside Van Gogh’s Portait of Dr Felix Rey.

The Russian response to this is interesting, taking French ideas and incorporating them into the context of orthodox iconography and folk art. While Picasso drew inspiration from Oceanic and African art, Goncharova and a number of her contemporaries formed a group who looked to folk art, peasant carvings and street signs. Picasso’s massive Farm Woman, resembling a Moai or totem, speaks to Natalia Goncharov’s Pillars of Salt, taking the Biblical scene and applying it to the context of folk Baba images. From the Union of Youth group, David Burlyuk’s Portrait of Vasily Kamensky is essentially a secularised icon, with painters like Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin having originally been trained as icon painters (an icon of the Madonna is indeed included as his response to the first world war, alongside his Matisse influenced The Bath of the Horse). Chagall’s work also dwells on subjects both Russian and Jewish, as in The Red Jew. Nonetheless, some of the most interesting work is more directly influenced, as with Altman’s Cubist Portrait of Anna Akhmatova (alhtough something about the colouring and the use of modern techniques in a conventional manner reminded me of Lempicka). Alexandra Exter’s Still Life, Filonov’s crystalline painting of war and Nadezhda Udaltsova’s City at Night are a distinctly Russian synthesis of Cubism and Futurism. Much more individual and unusual are Kandinsky’s Winter and Composition VIII, followed by Malevich and his Suprematist trinity of Black Cross, Black Circle and Black Square, as well as other works that could easily sit alongside the likes of Mondrian.

Predictably, there are also some more odd and awkward works. Bakst’s conventional Portrait of Sergei Diaghilev with his nanny introduces a room filled with works like Vrubel’s symbolist Six Winged Seraph, landscapes by Diaghilev’s set painter Roerich and Boris Grigoriev’s portrait of the theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold showing him as both clown and impresario. A couple of Cezannesque paintings like Fish Seller are included by Tatlin, before showing one of his constructivist sculptures, Corner Counter Relief with its echoes of Duchamp, and a model of his proposed tower with its grim forecast of art becoming subservient to the state.

I completed my visit to modern painting exhibitions with Tate Britain’s exhibition on the Camden Town Group. Passing first by Westminster Cathedral, I felt that it would be ideal if the building is never finished; it’s present state of sepulchral gloom being far preferable to the prospect of it glittering with gold mosaic. I hadn’t really noticed the Eric Gill Stations of the Cross before. The Camden Town Group represented a kind of kitchen sink avant gardism (I’m not using the term lightly; Spencer Gore and Harold Gilman did both paint their kitchens). Once one removes social realism, the group fractures into a different styles, with the older Sickert influenced by Whistler and Degas in the midst of a group that favoured Van Gogh (transparently so in Gilman’s painting of a Norwegian canal bridge), Cezanne and Gauguin, albeit at time when Kokoschka and Beckmann might have been better models. It’s a particularly literary form of painting that rather looks like a visual representation of Hangover Square or Keep the Aspidistra Flying (if not The Forsyte Saga and Anna of the Five Towns. Their social realism often has something rather anitquated about it, as with Robert Bevan’s paintings of the London horse cabs in contrast to Ginner’s juxtaposition of flower girls in Piccadilly with the taxis and buses rushing past. Sickert’s Gallery of the Old Mogul and Drummond’s In the Cinema engage with cinema but the music hall and the circus were nonetheless the preferred venues for the group, along with Drummond’s painting of Brompton Oratory. Much of the London landscapes focus on the pastoral aspects of London, as with Gore’s The Fig Tree. Although Ginner and Gilman did several paintings of industrial Leeds or showing factories at work, Spencer Gore was more interested in places like the new garden cities or Brighton, and the group as a whole (save Sickert) did many paintings of locations like Romney Marsh, Richmond, Devon and even rural Sweden. These paintings seem to take them closest to the spirit of chosen modeles like Gauguin and Cezanne, as with Bevan’s Dunn’s Cottage or Ginner’s cloisonnist Clayhidon. It’s difficult not to conclude that their excursions amongst the lowlife are a form of tourism felt to accompany the mantle of bohemianism. Relatives tried to persuade them to lead proper English lives. Their reports on the city are slightly apologetic.

Vast swathes of the paintings being exhibited fell into the category of showing solitary figures, usually female, in down at heel surroundings as exemplars of ennui, with Gilman’s Marxism in particular feeding into this (although Gore’s parallel portraits of his wife and his servant seems more born from snobbery, in contrast’s portraits of his landlady). Gilman’s Meditation, The Coral Necklace and Girl with a Teacup, to name but three, are all variations of a theme handled by Sickert in rather more novelistic terms, often showing what look like frozen moments in a wider narrative, as in Off to the Pub, The Little Tea Party or Ennui with its use of stuffed animals to symbolise the relationship being shown. This is particularly so with Sickert’s Camden Town Murder series, with this title ambiguously competing with others like What Shall We Do for the Rent?. On these paintings it’s difficult to tell whether the passive clay-like flesh of the women is already dead (something here reminded me of Lucien Freud), whether it is showing two lovers or client and prostitute, whether the poses are of despair or of threat. They rather remind me of Hitchcock’s Frenzy. It’s also worth comparing this to Manet’s Petit Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe or Olympia Where Manet is erotic, Sicket is seedy, using dark midtones that revolted Gilman, the "frigid Anglican" as Lewis called him. Nudes had to be removed from the easels of the studio at 19 Fitzroy Street, where Spencer Gore’s cleaning woman dispensed tea on Saturday afternoons, so that the sensibilities of Gore’s uncle, the Bishop of Oxford, would not be affronted. Sickert is also distanced from the rest of the group by his sense of enthralled melancholia with pictures like Noctes Ambrosianae and The New Bedford; only Ginner comes close to replicating it in his painting of The Circus. Ginner in fact emerges as the strongest of the group overall besides Sickert, with paintings like Evening, Dieppe. I depart, walk past the Buxton Memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens, enter the tube station and disappear.

Had PG Wodehouse been inclined to wrote medieval morality plays, the result might well have been quite similar to Waugh’s Vile Bodies. Occupying an awkward vantage point somewhere between The Radetzky March and The Good Soldier Schwejk, the centre of the novel is Father Rothschild and his observation that "these young people have got hold of the other end of the stick and for all we know it may be the right one. They say ‘If a thing’s not worth doing very well, it’s not be worth doing at all.’" Waugh veers between a denunciation of the Bright Young Things born of sexual disgust (the vile bodies of the title) and of the moribund and decrepit society that is about to destroy itself in the first world war, "we shall all be walking into the jaws of destruction again, protesting our pacific intentions." Some parts of the novel also remind me of the parts of Howard’s End where Helen goes for a ride in a motor car; "the real cars that become masters of men, who exist solely for their own propulsion through space, for whom their drivers, clinging precariously to the steering wheel, are as important as his stenographer to a stockbroker. These are in perpetual flux, a vortex of combining and disintegrating units." The same thing happens with Nina’s sickness as she looks down from the plane, a representation of the machine age that rather recalls Celine. Zorba the Greek was apparently written under the influence of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Buddhism and it would certainly appear to uneasily veer between these respective extremes, between Nietzsche’s idea of the superman ("in other more primitive and creative ages, Zorba would have been the head of the tribe… I think of god as being exactly like me" with Zorba’s anecdote of telling god to get out of his way) as counterpointed to Schopenhauer’s idea of seeking a point of stillness ("life is trouble.. I listened to Zorba’s words and realised that they showed me a sure, attractive and very human path to tread. It was again the spirit of the Mara…"). The novel flits between these two extremes and others, as with the christian Saint Bacchus becoming entangled with Dionysus or the paradox that the fulfilment of the narrator’s Buddhism is to kill the Buddha; "and ordered the Buddha within me to dissolve."

I don’t generally read a great deal of contemporary fiction but have recently decided to try a little. While revered by the mainstream press Ian McEwan tends to be reviled by many weblogs for a combination of perceived artistic (his novels broadly use the techniques of the realist novel and while Gabriel Josipovici’s description of his writing as being little different to Defoe or Dickens is a rather trite complaint, it could certainly sit easily alongside Forster and James) and political conservatism. On Chesil Beach certainly contains several passages that suggest a degree of scepticism as to political radicalism; Florence’s mother describes the Soviet Union as little different to Nazi Germany. As Florence believes it to be essentially benevolent it is a little inconsistent for her to describe Edward’s membership of CND as being akin to a medieval millenarian cult (particularly when she too belongs to it). However, whether any of this really translates to support for conservative ideas is an extrapolation the novel fails to justify, particularly when McEwan comments that he has not disavowed any of the views he once held as a member of CND. My own reservations about McEwan are rather different. As the above descriptions attest, the novel is concerned with events in the years that Larkin described sexual intercourse as having invented in ("This was not a good moment in the history of English cuisine …This was still the era when to be young was a social encumbrance.") At one point McEwan’s omniscient narrator declares that "Their personalities and pasts, their ignorance and fear, timidity, squeamishness, lack of entitlement or experience, then the tail end of a religious prohibition, their Englishness and class, and history itself." This seems true of one of the characters, Edward, who travels in the course of the novel from English middle class awkwardness to becoming a sixties dropout. However, Florence’s "visceral dread" of sex is deliberately left unexplained and can certainly not be laid at the hand of history. Similarly, her suggestion that their relationship be platonic, with her tolerating him having sex with other women hardly seems to be ahead of its time in the way McEwan seems to believe it to be; quite the contrary. The idea that Edward’s life would have been much better if he had accepted also seems somewhat unwarranted, given that the novel itself holds out little more than a post in her father’s firm for choosing that road. McEwan generally seems to prefer the aberrant and unexplained too much to be able to work fully within the constraints of the realist novel, where the struggles of Julien Sorrel or Dorothea Brooke is entirely in keeping with the spirit of their age. By contrast, one if left wondering why McEwan chose a historical setting at all and least of all one that can barely be within the bounds of his own memory.

The other writer I have recently read for the first time is Martin Amis with London Fields. Following some rather disappointing comments he has recently made, the Guardian did feel it had to praise him for his political engagement, quoting Ryszard Kapuscinski:

"Twenty years ago, I was in Africa, and this is what I saw: I went from revolution to coup d’Etat, from one war to another; I witnessed, in effect, history in the making, real history, contemporary history, our history. But I was also surprised: I never saw a writer. I never met a poet or a philosopher—even a sociologist. Where were they? Such important events, and not a single writer anywhere?

Then I would return to Europe and I would find them. They would be at home, writing their little domestic stories: the boy, the girl, the laughing, the intimacy, the marriage, the divorce—in short, the same story we’ve been reading over and over again for a thousand years. You know, the other day I was reading about the novels that won the annual French prizes. It was incredible. None of these books had anything to do with our world, our reality—nothing. There was one about an unwanted child, and another about a boy, a girl, the laughing, the intimacy… so much of our literature is so very traditional, even when seen as being avant-garde. And if avant-garde, it is only avant-garde because of its style—as if assembled in a workshop. It is never avant-garde for its subject; it is never caught actually looking out at the world. The writer is always looking over his shoulder, noting the position of his predecessor. Contemporary literature is a very private affair."

It’s a valid point but London Fields is characterised by a sense of English life as an irrelevance, a place from where history has fled ("Bellow says that America is the only place to be, because it contains the ‘real modern action’"). I recall him later comparing England to Switzerland, making me think of Greene’s comment about centuries of peace and prosperity creating nothing more than the cuckoo clock. The England depicted by Amis has the vestigial trace of social importance, whether it is the economics of Thatcher’s Britain ("no-one seemed to have thought through the implications of a world where everyone cheated") to the vague threat of nuclear devastation. In terms of style too, Amis is far from McEwan’s realism. His characters appear as automata with names that reflect allegorical or ironic descriptions ("in fiction people become coherent and intelligible – and they aren’t like that… people are chaotic quiddities"), his prose style draws attention to the narration rather than establishing it as a transparent window on events. Amis is preoccupied with the idea of the unreliability of narration, with lies being woven by most of the characters in their speech and writing ("the truth doesn’t matter anymore and is not wanted"). The novel reassigns the role of author to the character of Nicola, describing her as a puppermaster, using this to thwart the generic constraints of the detective novel at every turn ("she outwrote me"). In short, it’s a very English compromise between realism and post-modernism.