The Deserted City

I saw the work of Vilhelm Hammershøi during my visit to Copenhagen a few years ago, but I can’t say with any honesty that it made any great impression on me at the time. This is perhaps unsurprising; understated paintings in grey tones of spartan and austere subjects are comparatively easy to miss in the midst of other works; it’s only when one sees the paintings together that one realises the obsessive theme driving them.

Hammershøi’s loose brushwork and restricted palette immediately associate him with his contemporary Whistler, but seventeenth century Dutch painting was also a significant influence on him. As with Vermeer, Hammershøi is frequently found depicting figures in interiors, showing the play of light from nearby windows. Where the Western tradition is for the subject to stare out of a painting and challenge the viewer, Hammershøi follows Vermeer in denying this, having his figures (or figure; his wife was his persistent model) turned away from the viewer to give a hermetic aspect to the painting. In tandem with the grey, barely furnished interiors (photographs of the same rooms show them filled with furnishings and decoration), where the light from a window largely serves to suggest that life is somewhere else, this creates the melancholic air that pervades his work. Durer’s figure of melancholy was turned away from the viewer as well. Hammershøi returns again and again to the same interiors, the same piano, the same pictures, the same bowls. But his work also rather resembles Escher or Piranesi, showing long corridors with successions of doors, looking out into interior courtyards through layers of interior windows, with doors that are slightly warped and distorted against the overall geometry of the work. There’s a disjoint between the realistic, objective, settings and his imprecise impressionistic brushwork; what is being depicted is an objective correlative for his own state of mind.

The other component to Hammershøi’s work is his landscapes, both rural and urban. Whether showing the Danish countryside, Copenhagen’s royal palace or church spires, the British Museum or a London street, the scene is always devoid of people and depicted with grey wintry skies that seem somewhere between Whistler and Atkinson Grimshaw. I recall Copenhagen as a colourful city with painted buildings and red church towers surmounted with verdigris encrusted baroque spires. But I recall being fascinated by the same buildings, showing the same empty streets. I discover a certain fellow feeling for Hammershøi that I’m rather unaccustomed to.

The following week I return for two exhibitions near Trafalgar Square. I start with an Wyndham Lewis at the National Portrait Gallery. I recall Angela Carter complaining that all of Lawrence’s women were just clothes without bodies, as opposed to his meticulous depiction of male physicality. Something similar can be said of Wyndham Lewis’s paintings. The subjects of these portraits are puppet or simulacra. They have the quality of remaining just what they are, fixed in a particular epoch to furniture which is now dust (hence Froanna’s liminal character in her Red Portrait as she fades ino the background). "The process and condition of life, without any exception, is a grotesque degradation." The stress on dehumanisation in his writing manifests itself in his painting by his focus on clothes rather than people. The portrait of Edith Sitwell shows her with her eyes shut, her face turned from the viewer, buried in a mass of clothes. Sitwell thought her hands to be her finest feature; here, Lewis hides them altogether (the same applies in his painting of Mrs Schiff, unlike Edwin Evans whose hand blends into his trousers). Hats and helmets abound throughout the paintings. Depicting TS Eliot, he gave the poet a "gioconda smile." Sketch after sketch shows the face left unworked till last. Eliot looks downwards, Pound closes his eyes. Like Modigliani or Picasso (albeit without their primitivism), Lewis saw the face as a mask, indistinguishable from the hat he always painted himself wearing.

Confronted with demands for a return to the classicism of Raphael, Lewis responded by suggesting Shakespeare as an exemplar, praising the famous woodcut of the playwright as serene and empty. Lewis develops various personae in his painting and writing like ‘the enemy’ as his satirical response to the literary and art world, or his embodiment of satire, the tyro. Lewis caught sight of his face in a cracked mirror and saw "the mask of a syphilitic Creole." Whatever was worth recording in life, he asserted, could be mapped in surface forms. On the whole, I find myself thinking tht Lewis is a rather more sympathetic as a painter than as a writer. His painting of Froanna is a particular masterpiece; red tones predominate excepting the blue of her eyes as she stares directly at the viewer, one of the very few subjects to do so in the entire exhibition.

I follow this with the nearby Divisionism exhibition at the National Gallery. Like Pointillism or Impressionism, Divisionism was a response to new scientific theories of light and colour, like colour wheels. Nonetheless, where French art often has an art for art’s sake philosophy, with low-lifes or nudes (Longoni’s pickpocket painting is the nearest to that here) featured to epater les bourgeoisie rather than for political ends. By contrast, Italian artists were unhappy with technique alone. Italian reunification has created considerable social upheaval, poverty and inequality that lent itself to a realist style of portrature that much of the rest of Europe had already explored. Equally, symbolism offered a more escapist response to the same conditions, one that especially appealed to Catholic artists. Often, divisionist artists would veer between these extremes. Nomellini paints grey scenes of striking workers at one point in his career, and then paints an extraordinary indigo blue symbolist work showing the sea, entitles Symphony of the Moon. Segantini’s nature scenes remains sufficiently detailed to sit alongside Pre-Raphaelite painting, but his later symbolist works show a bizarre depictions of sins being punished in hell. His Return from the Woods is the most perfect fusion of the two strains shown in the exhibition; showing a peasant woman dragging wood in a snow scene, but withthe church spire at her destination is reminiscent of David Friedrich (the same applies to some of Grudicy’s autumnal scenes; I’m struck by the spider’s web drawn on the frame of one of them). Some of the realist paintings, such as those by Morbelli could have been painted fifty years earlier in terms of their technique, even if light falling through windows is a particular theme. Morbelli also painted melancholy quasi symbolist works of sunsets though. In other works, the divisionist technique, so effective in Segantini’s Alpine scenes, imposes a stillness and imprecision that fits oddly with the social agenda of the paintings. Morbelli’s luminscent painting of women working in the rice fields utterly fails to convey any sense of misery; it’s much too tranquil and beautiful. Either these artists assumed that a method that was ‘scientific must be allied to social progress, or the political posturing was actually an alibi for aestheticising the predicament of the working class. Much of the symbolist work is also quite socially engaged though but in a more reactionary fashion, as with Previati’s paean to the virtues of the madonna. Volpedo’s country scenes are reminiscent of Sisley but show christian processions. Many of the forms are religious, such as the tondo or the polytych. At the very least, religious symbolism is used to evoke a sense of secular national identity; Mazzini had argued that Italians must develop a "religious concept of their nation."

It wasn’t until futurism that the techniques developed by divisionism could be applied to a specific programme, albeit one where the interest in light was often centered on electric lighting. The exhibition depicts a move from Boccioni’s early pastoral landscapes to a picture of a seamstress (albeit one where the focus is on her cobalt blue dress) to his explicitly futurist painting of a dam being constructed. Other works by Balla and Carra show the futurist depiction of movement in still life or the energy of technology.

As I child I recall seeing a particular statue during a visit to Osbourne House on the Isle of Wight; a black basalt statue of Antinous. I couldn’t place my interest in it exactly at the time, presuming it to be due to the exotic Egyptinate character of the statue. I now presume that my interest was mostly taken by the frank sexualisation in the semi-nude depiction of Hadrian’s lover. No wonder Winckelman had been so enthused at the imagery that showed Antinous as being somewhere between Athena and Apollo. The story of the doomed youth is one of the central myths of gay history, alongside that of Edward the Second. It’s the prospect of seeing Antinous that attracts me to the Hadrian exhibition at the British Museum. The depictions of him are many, from the Egyptianate statue of him as Osiris (with whom he had shared a death day), Ephebian depictions of him as Bacchus (another arisen deity) with vine leaves in his long hair or versions of him as a Greek fertility god. In some of these he conforms to the Roman ideal of the beautiful youth (shown here with the inclusion of the Warren cup), in others his sexuality is more aggressively that of an adult male. I find myself wryly amused at the prospect of his cult competing with christianity; if only it had won. Otherwise, the material at hand is rather more conventional; accounts of Hadrian’s brutal suppression of Jewish rebellion, retrenchment and consolidation of the empire’s borders after Trajan’s overly ambitious expansion, the amnesty on public debts, construction of the Scottish wall (admittedly a turf bank for much of its length that could have served little defensive purpose, instead presumably it served as a means of channelling and controlling the border), anf finishing with the construction of buildings like the Pantheon, his Mausoleum and the architectural fantasisa of his Tivoli villa. The images of Hadrian himself seem surprisingly individual, with his beard setting him out (cited as evidence of his love of all things Greek or a means of covering his blemishes, depending on your preferences) as well as a dimple in his ear that may be evidence of heart disease. Giant busts and statues alternately show him as emperor, priest, warrior and deity. Some of the reliefs from Tivoli, showing Parthenon style depictions of naked figures alongside detailed carvings of vines, birds and squirrels also stand out, but I’m especially drawn to two beautiful peacocks that formerly were in place on the walls of Hadrian’s mausoleum.

The great court of the Museum currently has a striking work by Zhang Wang inside it; following the Chinese inclusion of weathered stones in gardens, Wang has taken the image of such stones and encased it in silvery metal, which looks as if it were frozen mercury. This questioning of the relationship between nature and art is counterpointed by some temporary gardens outside, where a genuine stone can be found amidst the dogwood, wisteria, lacquer tree, willow, bamboo and peony. An exhibition of Chinese nature painting inside continues this theme. I’m struck by the role of literary allusion in the paintings and ceramics shown; many of the flowers and animals are chosen for their symbolic connotations (like the lotus) others by homophones suggested by their names (bamboo sounding like congratulations, narcissi sounding like immortality) or for compounds formed from the combination of different items. A few weeks later I’m revisiting Silchester and an archaeological dig is on. A small garden has been created illustrating the sort of plants found in a Roman garden and illustrating their symbolic functions. There are some overlaps with the Chinese symbolism, as with peony being used in protective amulets.

Walking around the city, I visit the interior of St Mary Alderdmary, an exercise in hyperreal gothic by Wren. The effect is quite odd; the fan vaulting is decorated with floral patterns that seem to belong rather more to the baroque period. The effect of the interior being coated in white plaster is rather sepulchral, giving it the effect of an alabaster tomb and contrasting oddly with the colourful Victorian tiling on the floor. While I’m there the organ starts playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue. I move onto Wren’s St Stephen Walbrook. The interior here is more like a playfully decorated version of the pantheon; unlike Hawksmoor whose eccentric designs seem to match the English character, Wren would have been a much greater architect in a catholic country, where his designs could have made with red marble rather than Portland stone and his interiors gilded and painted. One detail I am struck with is a totentanz on one of the pillars, showing a bride dancing with a skeletal death. This evening, I go to Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppaea at the Proms. Even if Monteverdi is best known for his ecclesiastical music, this amorality tale does rather confirm the reputation of renaissance Venice as indifferent to religion at best. The plot begins with Cupid asserting her primacy over Virtue and thereafter protecting Poppaea as she schemes her way to becoming Nero’s wife, displacing the rather more virtuous Octavia. Poppaea’s mother attempts to dissuade her from this course, but only on the grounds of practicality, advising her to go for someone less ambitious instead. Similarly, Octavia’s nurse attempts to persuade her to take a lover as a form of revenge. Seneca is depicted as the moral centre of the play but also as a tedious windbag. The only character to receive any punishment is the wronged Octavia, while the assassin Otto is allowed happiness with Drusilla. The staging attempted to draw attention to later events (Poppaea’ death at Nero’s hands) by having him come close to slapping her as well as introducing an unscripted (and historically inaccurate) scene where Nero drowns Lucan. Since the drama is essentially concerned with Poppae’s triumph, I wasn’t especially sure I appreciated these interpolations, even if the original audience would have been well aware of Poppaea’s eventual fate and that she would have achieved her ambition by remaining faithful to Otto. The Skakespearian approach to casting works bettwe, with both Nero and Poppaea played by women (Nero would originally have been played by a castrato) and various female parts like the nurse played by men (the nurse here bears a disturbing resemblance to Margaret Thatcher).

Later at the Proms, I listen to Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. The full version is rarely performed in ballet (the story being slight, Tchaikovsky had padded it with various dances). I find myself surprised at the idea of Tchaikovsky writing an opera under the influence of Rameau, although the idea of parallels to Wagner and Brunnhilde’s sleep is more natural. In later works, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kaschkey the Immortal inverts this, with the hero’s kiss to an evil witch killing her and releasing the princess. I follow this with Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances and Janacek’s Osud. The latter is quite odd, reminding me of the role of neuroticism in Schnitzler or the sense of impending fate in Kafka (Mann also leapt to mind, prompted by the spa setting). The first two acts describe a conductor’s love affair and its end in madness and death. His opera is only written to comprise two acts and the third has his describing the above events it to music students at its premiere, thereby forming the third act.

The following weekend, I go to a Taraf de Haidouks concert in Cheltenham. Much of their music is intended to take orchestral settings of gypsy music by the likes of Bartok and Albeniz and to place in back into its original context, playing it as dance music on the violin, accordion, bass and cymbalum. The result is rather like rock music and it’s difficult not to think that where nineteenth century Europe preferred to take folk music and to apply it to orchestral works, twentieth century America preferred to allow black artists to pioneer jazz and blues. The irony of re-appropriating Bartok is born out by the venue, a rather gaudy regency affair. The audience look as if they go there often to attend classical concerts; standing for this one they occasionally manage to sway a bit (aside from one rather energetic elderly lady). It’s also worth mentioning the supporting act, the London Bulgarian Choir, who performed a capella folk songes dressed in traditional costumes.

Cheltenham itself, with its rows of regency buildings, seems rather tepid to me. I’m more struck by my visit earlier in the day to Tewkesbury Abbey. It reminds me of Southwell, another place where the isolated location seems to have helped the building survive with comparatively little destruction or alteration. The exterior is rather ungainly; a squat central tower is flanked by various side chapels and fronted with a facade composed of two towers dwarfed by a central window, recessed back as if it were a romanesque arch. The interior is dark, supported by round pillars (each with a face as a corbel facing its counterpart opposite) above a gothic ceiling painted green and white. The effect is rather like a forest. After the rood screen the effect becomes more markedly gothic, with Victorian Minton tiling below matched by white, blue and red patterns above. England’s oldest fan vaulting in some of the chantry chapels, some of it still painted. One of them has an effigy of its knight suspended above it, others show statues of mouldering corpses, others show fights with the devil. I’m also quite struck by the lady chapel, with a Byzantine mosaic and icon of St Benedict.

The following day is taken up with a brief visit to Glasgow. I find the Victorian buildings in red sandstone mixed with baroque church spires, Marcochetti statues, greek revival art galleries, elaborate corbel figures and art deco building fronts quite wonderful. I’m equally delighted with the police boxes I keep on seeing on street corners. The back of Prince’s Square behind the City Chambers is labyrinth of arches that reminds me of Piranesi. In front, I’m struck by the column surmounted by Walter Scott. London has no statue of Shakespeare, let alone dedicating Trafalgar Squate to him. I walk out to the cathedral and walk around the graveyard. The monuments are eroded and weathered, decorated with skulls and morality symbols. The symbols seem wraithlike when corroded in this manner. On one of them Minton tiling has been badly blackened by industrial pollution. Several more modern tombs are caged in with rusted iron, the interior overgrown with weeds. I walk over to the Victorian necropolis. The presence of the tombs on this hill reminds me of Prague, as does the presence of an old town next to a new one on a grid layout. Presumably Mackintosh would figure as the Glaswegian Gaudi. Paths spiral around the hill, as one passes celtic crosses, Egyptian tombs, funerary urns, all encrusted with rust and weeds as they crumble to dust. The style of the monuments seems rather diverse, from Moorish gothic to Romanesque chapels. Returning, I enter the cathedral. Its stone is quite black with the roof covered in a rich, dark wood. The modern stained glass is a lovely blue. The interior seems as labyrinthine as the necropolis with a crypt where Saint Kentigern’s tomb had rested. Medieval German stained glass creates phovist patterns on the floor of a side chapel. Here alone the walls are painted in white and I notice a roof boss in the shape of a skull. Elsewhere, the sacristy’s floor is lined with Minton tiles. I look at the funerary memorials in the cathedral. Unlike even those in Tewkesbury they are brightly painted, somewhere between gothic and Tudor in their design.

Lautreamont’s Maldoror follows in the path of Baudelaire and Nerval in delighting in contradictions, even as Lautreamont condemns it in his poems. Similarly, the poems are explicit in rejecting the romanticism of Byron, even as Maldoror follows in the path of Manfred, Goethe and Maturin (although he also speaks of tragedy, such as that of Mervyn, as moral, exciting pity and terror). Where, Maldoror denounces god the poems state that "I reject evil… man never fell from a state of grace." Maldoror itself is far from monologic. At one point, Satan is Maldoror’s great rival, elsewhere god is essentially identical to satan ("I created you so I have the right to do whatever I like to you… I am making you suffer for my pleasure") at another the archangel speaks of Maldoror in the same terms as Lucifer himself, a fallen angel they would welcome back as one of their own. Since the text accepts the binary logic of christianity throughout, it is split between salvation and damnation as mutually exclusive choices, even as the narrator rejects god as an evil tyrant; "this god who is insensible to your prayers.. this shapeless and bloodthirsty idol… I should like to love and adore you but you are too powerful and there is fear in my prayers." Since man is made in god’s image it follows that man is as corrupt and vicious as his creator ("the creator who ought never to have bred such vermin"), making murder a moral act. Applying Blake’s dictum that one should soon smother a child in its cradle than nurse unacted desires, Maldoror emerges as a Sadeian rebel in the same way Blake envisaged Milton’s Satan. But at the same time the narrative voice can still shift to utter conventional homilectics; "that torch of unjustifiable pride that is leading you to your damnation."

Roderick Hudson reminded me of an observation I’d heard that while homosexuality forms an obvious subtext in many novels by gay authors, the sense can permeate other works (the example cited was a rereading of 1984 as story of gay love and persecution). Here, there are grounds to suspect a subtext; Cecilia introduces Roderick as "a pretty boy" while in Venice Roderick and Rownland watch "a brown breasted gondolier making superb muscular movements." The core of the novel can as easily be read as concerning Rowland’s unrequited love for Roderick as it can for Mary. In spite of the depiction of Mary, women essentially figure throughout as sexual threats that destroys men of talent as much as Rowland’s interference; "a buxom, bold faced, high-coloured creature… she used to beat him and he had taken to drinking." Then later; "he had married a horrible wife.. it was said she used to beat poor Savage." Similarly, Christina is "as cold and false and heartless as she is beautiful… her disrelish of a man who lacked the virile will."

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