Hidden London

I visited Bevis Marks Synagogue a few years ago as part of Open House weekend and in the meantime I had acquired a rather long list of otherwise closed places I wanted to visit this year. So, I started with GE Street’s design for Law Courts on the Strand. One enters into a great hall that, unsurprisingly for Victorian architecture, is rather reminiscent of a cathedral (Street had left one pillar deliberately unfinished, a notion like a deliberate error being introduced into Turkish carpets), only much more empty and stark, lacking pews and only decorated with the occasional bust or painting. To each side stairways lead into a labyrinthine series of courtrooms and corridors, some of the lower ones rather resembling crypts. Only one room is at all ornate; unsurprisingly it is called the Painted Room. I follow this by walking along Fleet Street until I come to the Daily Express. While its vitrolite and glass exterior has a certain cold elegance to it, it’s difficult not to see it as the progenitor of scores of more utilitarian modernist structures. The interior lobby is rather more what one expects of art nouveau though; all gilded in silver, with Indian styled reliefs, curved patterns on the floor and swirling spiral staircases.

I then walk to Westminster and visit Scott and Wyatt’s foreign office. Scott had originally wanted to construct the building in gothic, but had been overruled by Palmerston. It’s rather difficult not to imagine Scott scowling at having to design a classicist structure (albeit one where some of the corridors rather resemble St Pancras and the cupola of the grand staircase has a somewhat Byzantine feel). A lot of the rooms, such as Wyatt’s Durbar Court or the Muse’s Staircase, is wonderful, but much of it also looks as if it could have been designed at any point in a period covering around three hundred years. It seems to lack individuality. Finally on that day, I visit Holy Trinity in Kensington. This is another building I had walked past many times without seeing the interior. As it proves this is one of Bodley’s later works, but with an especially ornate set of gold reredos and stained glass windows.

The following day begins with a more straightforward means of following my visit to Bevis Marks; by travelling to Lauderdale and New West End Synagogues. Both Victorian redbrick affairs, the former is a domed structure in Maida Vale, with a light green interior illuminated by bright stained glass decorated with natural patterns and dominated by dark wood furnishings. The latter is close by to the Orthodox cathedral and rather resembles it in many ways; although the ceiling is in plain white the design is essentially Moorish with the lower area decorated in marble and gold. Walking back, I briefly enter St Matthew’s church, a Victorian gothic affair with Burne Jones style reliefs, side chapels with ceilings painted blue and a black and gold studded nave ceiling.

I then travel to Westminster and enter Westminster Hall. I’m rather reminded of the Tithe barn I’d seen at Great Coxwell; although this is more ornate the cultural continuity between these two different buildings seems enormous. Stone kings line up on the walls, wooden angels line the ceiling while the floor is annotated with notes concerning the trial of King Charles, Monarchs lying in state or the trial of Warren Hastings. The end of the hall leads to a long corridor that serves as an entrance to the Victorian Houses of Parliament; Minton tiling, statues of figures like Pitt, Fox and Clarendon, paintings of scenes from British history (a Jacobean ambassador visiting India, Elizabeth and Drake) mosaics of St Stephen. It’s probably a lapse of taste but I can’t help preferring Victorian gothic to its medieval counterpart. Finally, I visit the Inns of Court where I find the Temple Church open for the first time. As one would expect the interior is a mongrel of styles. The round section is entered by a Romanesque arch into an area dominated by Templar graves. Romanesque designs in the Triforium are followed by gothic arches and gargoyles below, including a figure whose face is being attacked by an animal. The font is also typically Romanesque, with various animals and mythological scenes shown on it. This section leads through to a gothic chancel, which still retains various Tudor and baroque monuments. Although the Victorian restoration has not survived, the bright blue modern stained glass is rather striking. Nearby, the Middle Temple Hall is also open; a dark hammer beamed ceiling above white walls and paintings of monarchs from Elizabeth to Anne. Much of the Elizabethan carving remains, with figures guarding the entrance ways.

A few weeks later, I travel to Hackney to visit Abney Park Cemetery. I rather like the Egyptian revival gates that Pugin so disapproved of, although the interior of the cemetery lacks any similar monuments and is mostly rather more restrained. The place is surprisingly bustling with people walking their dogs, assorted youths, vagrants and cruising men. As a nondenominational cemetery Abney Park was not set aside solely for cemetery use by Act of Parliament, and was not formally consecrated as burial land. Perhaps more so than any other it was entitled to be considered as a park as well as a cemetery; Abney Park was unique in being the first arboretum to be combined with a cemetery in Europe. I find myself amused by a squirrel frozen on the side of a tree trunk with a large nut in its mouth, presumably in the hope that it would not be observed. Falling leaves gently stray to the ground, like snow blowing in the wind. The most striking thing is the ruined chapel that sits at the very centre of the cemetery. The rose window at the front is a shattered hole partially covered by wooden boards, like a smashed eye. The front is covered in dead ivy above locked gates that allow one to see the derelict interior with another shattered oculus at the apex of a decaying arch, but not to gain access. I note that someone has written ‘watch your skin peel’ on the walls. Conversely, one can walk into the interior of the towers and see to the summit, past wooden boarding and cracks in the walls. The nearby grounds are a mixture of war memorials and statues in honour of the non-comformists who were the first to be interred here.

It’s often been observed that counterfactuals are a politically confused genre. On the one hand, they tend to be predicated on a whiggish view of history, presenting alternative histories where the course of events has been deformed from how it should have progressed. On the other, they tend to assume that history is not so much born of deep social causes as hinging upon the actions of a few individuals. Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is very much a specimen of these contradictions; the narrative had history derailed by Roosevelt’s defect at the hands of Charles Lindbergh, of progressive forces routed by reactionary opposition. At the same time, the narrative essentially hinges upon Walter Winchell’s assassination, precipitating as it does the demise of the Lindbergh administration. While much of the narrative is told from the viewpoint of one Jewish family, Roth seems to struggle to achieve a consistent view of history; although much of the text depicts mass riots, other parts describe American fascism as an a temporary aberration, the result of a blackmail plot against Lindbergh’s son. Conversely, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union manages to present a counterfactual that eschews any discussion of why this history differs from our own; Israel’s settlers were massacred and the Soviet Union never existed and that is all there is to it. Chabon appears ambivalent at the prospect of a world without Israel; the novel is highly critical of Zionism but also depicts the Jewish homeland of Sitka in Alaska as a miserable backwater. There’s no definitive sense of what the ‘right’ version of history might be; perhaps that’s why the novel is rather more successful than Roth’s at establishing the actions of his characters as meaningful and significant rather than historical ephemera.

Reading Hofmannstahl’s short stories, I noticed that his characters frequently have epiphanic moments of revelation (where "I saw all of existence as one unity. The mental world did not seem to me to be opposed to the physical"), but which often prove to lead only to disaster. Finally, in The Lord Chandos Letter language itself denatures; "abstract words.. disintegrated in my mouth like rotten mushrooms." Hofmannstahl comes over as a thwarted platonist, raising the spectre of the infinite only to dismiss it. Something similar seems to apply to Andrei Biely’s St Petersburg, a novel that is ostensibly concerned with the acts of terrorism in Tsarist Russia that were leading to the Russian revolution. The theme is misleading as the narrative tends to approach events symbolically rather than through the lens of historical realism. Instead of social tensions, events are depicted through a set of chiastic oppositions; reason and unreason, occidental and oriental (at times it reads more like Sax Rohmer than Conrad’s The Secret Agent). St Petersburg is at once a real city with places that can be found on the map and also a Escheresque labyrinth made unreal by mists ("he wondered as in a dream about the relation of appearance to reality"); the geometry of the enlightenment reverts to the swamp that lies beneath it. Unsurprisingly, the mutability of language emerges as a recurrent theme; "my words get entangled… a modernist would call it the sensation of the abyss and search for an image."

I was surprised by Kangaroo; there’s a markedly dialogic element in all of Lawrence’s work but it seems markedly stronger here than elsewhere, with the novel almost forming a debate between Lawrence and Frieda, between differing aspects of Lawrence’s personality. As Harriet waspishly puts it; "I’ve seen you fiddling away hard enough many times.. why, what do you do, all your life, but fiddle some tune or other?" At the heart of this debate is Lawrence’s division between the normal self and their central absolute self, a state from which women like Harriet are barred; "in short, he was to be the Lord and Master and she was the humble slave.. she was to believe in his vision of a land beyond this charted world.. and she just couldn’t." The novel deconstructs Somers’ vision in several ways; by his arguments with Harriet, with Kangaroo and with himself. For example; "Him, a Lord and Master!.. he was the most forlorn and isolated creature in the world.. so isolated he was barely a man at all." And later; "the bulk of mankind haven’t got any central selves. They’re all bits." A central part of Lawrence’s absolute self is the implicit theme of Lawrence’s repressed homosexuality, a theme that is disturbed by Kangaroo conceiving of it simply as conventional love rather than as worship of Lawrence’s dark god; "he half-wanted to commit himself to this whole affection with a friend, a comrade, a mate. And then, in the last issue, he didn’t want it at all… all his life, he had cherished a beloved ideal of friendship – David and Jonathan… it took Lovat Somers some time to admit and accept this fact." Kangaroo responds in exactly the same terms; "the perfect love that men may have for one another" but Somers can no more respond to him in this way than he can to Harriet – he is too isolate; "I don’t want to love anybody… Somers would never be pals with any man. It wasn’t in his nature."

The same sort of issues manifest themselves in the novel’s social concerns and its depiction of Australia; "some men must live by this unremitting inwardness.. they must not let the rush of the world’s outwardness sweep them away." As far as the normal social self is concerned Australia is in many respects the model of Lawerence’s vision; as far as his absolute self is concerned, quite the converse. The novel begins with Lawerence praising the inhibited, Whitmanesque character of Australian life; "like a full river of life… for the first time felt himself immersed a real democracy," only to promptly retract it; "and this was what Richard Lovat Somers could not stand… you admit the necessity for rule… the colonies make for outwardness. Everything is outward, like hollow stalks of corn" At this point and beyond, the novel leaves the point open; "Richard was wrong… you can get on for quite a long time without rule.. is it merely running down? Aah, questions!" Hence the novel ends with Somers unable to give himself to Australia or anything else; "you won’t give in to women.. you wouldn’t give in to Kangaroo. You won’t give in to Labour or socialism." Lawrence talks of his worship of the dark god as taking men "nearer the magic of the animal world," a state that the inaptly named Kangaroo finds absurd. But in practice, Lawrence is revolted by the ‘unthinking masses;’ "the masses are always strictly non-mental… this is the state where they society, tribe, herd degenerates into mobs… the disintegration of the social mankind… a herding together like dumb cattle, a promiscuity like slovenly animals." All of a sudden, the magic of the animal world seems tenuous. Mobs are seen as weak souls lacking direction and discipline, hence Lawrence’s attraction to Kangaroo’s fascism (and the various anti-semitic comments in the book, not lease making the fascist leader a Jew); society can only exist as a hierarchy.

In common with figures like De Sade, Bacon was the type of artist who cannot exist without a contrary that defined him. In his case, this meant all that was theological, transcendent and metaphysical. Perhaps this is why his is an art of pastiche, taking Velasquez’s painting of Pope Innocent and counterpointing it to the dying nurse in Eisenstein, or recycling imagery from Michaelangelo, Van Gogh landscapes, Physique Pictoral, war photography and counterpointing it to images of the crucifixion. Conversely, although his art frequently cited literary sources, such as Eliot, he disavowed narrative in favour of sensation; “Some paint comes across directly on to the nervous system, other paint tells you the story in a long diatribe through the brain.” Throughout he is a materialist, obsessed with the sexual and the decomposing body alike but depicting it in the terms of religious iconography. The current exhibition at the Tate dwells on his paintings of man and animal alike, showing both in terms of their ravening maw; a form of Darwinian iconography. This is followed by the figures in his ‘space frames,’ constructs that recall prisons or zoo cages. In each case, the features of the face and any sense of individuality are effaced. The focus on the individual in isolation recalls Hopper and could well be interpreted as a commentary on a pre-Wolfenden society, but the screaming faces has more in common with horror film imagery than Hopper’s poignancy. The images of entwined figures leave it impossible to tell if the two male figures are lovers or wrestlers, emblems of violence or death. In the same way, his crucifixion scenes clearly guesture towards Nazi concentration camps or simple charnel houses, but conjoin this with religious imagery. Flesh melts in the same way it seems to in Dali. I’m left feeling reminded of Helene Cixous’s rather simplified observations about Western culture being characterised by a set of dichotomies between male and female, eros and thanatos, sacred and profane and so on. Bacon’s work could easily be construed as a riposte that seeks to take these chiastic oppositions and blur them.

At the same time, the other Tate gallery is holding an exhibition dedicated to Rothko. The two artists could not be more dissimilar; more essentially programmatic, the other abstract to the point of constantly having to defend himself against accusations of simply being a decorative artist. Most of the paintings here do not even have titles. On the one hand, Rothko withdrew his paintings from appearing in the context of the Seagram building’s restaurant, preferring instead the environment of the Rothko chapel. Pollock’s epic canvases are horizontal, like cinema screens. Rothko’s – such as Number 10, 1950, which once belonged to the architect Philip Johnson – are vertical, like skyscrapers. He was also particularly interested in the hanging of his paintings and of how the size of the canvas affected the space (arguing that a small work is dominated by the viewer, while a large canvas dominates the viewer). On the other, the octagonal design of this structure uses no conventional religious design and the paintings do not correspond to any religious symbolism. There is no content, only layers of closely related colours; greys and blacks, purples and maroons, browns and greys, blacks and blacks.

During the 1960s, Rothko’s paintings become poised between the materiality of their surfaces and forms, and the emergence of an image, even if it is an image of nothingness, or an image denied: a blank black screen, or a simple near-horizontal division which we unavoidably see as a horizon, between grey and brown, or black and grey. Rothko believed that all serious art was about death and sought to pursue what he called the ‘tragic.’ Hence his paintings, appear with frame-like forms painted over bloody depths, as if the canvases were windows or portals. The Rothko chapel utilises doorways that lead nowhere, that evoke the closed doors at the corners of Michelangelo’s New Sacristy at San Lorenzo in Florence; Michelangelo similarly used sealed doors and sealed windows for one reason: to suggest death.

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