I the end, I saw very little of Manchester. It rained as I arrived and it rained as I departed, which rather curtailed most of my plans. The one thing I did see was the main Art Gallery, a Greek revival building by Charles Barry. The main hall is especially impressive, with the stairs winding around a square courtyard lined with copies of the Elgin marbles in relief. Quite a contrast to Waterhouse’s nearby gothic town hall.
The seventeenth seventh collection is small but impressive. Ruisdael’s A Storm off the Dutch Coast is the only seascape I’ve seen from him, while there’s a matching Van De Velde landscape. The usual assortment of Dutch art is present and correct; an iceskating scene from Arent Arentz, still life from Willem Kalf and an interior from Quirin Gerritz van Brekelenkam. For English art of the same period, John Souch’s Sir Thomas Aston at the Deathbed of his Wife is particularly powerful; it’s the way that it combines modern portraiture with something that looks like a medieval allegory. It rather reminds me of Holbein’s The Ambassadors. As the galleries move forward in time, the rather dreary Gainsborough and Reynolds paintings make their inevitable appearance, although a Stubbs painting of a Cheetah and Stag at least has novelty value compared to his usual fare. More impressive is Belotto’s The Fortress of Konigstein: Courtyard with the Brunnenhaus, Claude’s Adoration of the Golden Calf and several Turner paintings. There’s also a series of Blake paintings of poets; Homer, Chaucer, Milton and Spenser, accompanying Palmer’s The Bright Cloud. This particular gallery featured various Wedgwood and Flaxman designs.
Nonetheless, the collections have an unsurprising emphasis on the Victorians. Minton tiles and Burges cabinets compliment Holman Hunt’s Hireling Shepherd, Madox Brown’s Manfred on the Jungfrau, Stages of Cruelty and Work, Rossetti’s The Bower Meadow and Astarte Syriaca, Watts’ The Good Samaritan Hughes’ Ophelia, Leighton’s Captive Andromache and The Last Watch of Hero and Millais’ Autumn Leaves. Mengin, an artist I wasn’t especially familiar with, dominates the collection with a rather funereal Sappho. There’s a large amount of minor Victorian art, such as Wagner’s Chariot Race or Frederick Lewis’ The Coffee Bearer, Dicksee’s The Funeral of a Viking or Butler’s Balaclava which is often surprisingly impressive, Etty’s rather inevitable nudes notwithstanding.
One particular highlight is the work of Adolphe Valette, who was also unknown to me but surely deserves a place alongside Atkinson Grimshaw in documenting the sepulchral aspects of the industrial north, although his work perhaps resembles some of Whistler’s Nocturnes or Monet’s paintings of London smog rather more. Paintings like India House or Rooftops surely deserve as much recognition as those of the more famed Pre-Raphaelites. Lowry, a pupil of Valette’s certainly thought so and the slightly cartoonish quality to Valette’s figures is something you can see in Lowry as well. The gallery also has a good modern collection; Augustus John’s painting of Yeats, Piassaro’s A Village Street, Louveciennes, Ginner’s Flask Walk, Hampstead (quite reminiscent of Valette and Lowry actually), Sickert’s ripper paintings, Spencer Gore’s paintings of Richmond. I’m especially taken with Mervyn Peake’s The Glass Blowers. I hadn’t realised Peake painted; asked to do war paintings this somewhat carvnivalesque painting was the result of a trip to a factory making cathode ray tubes for radar. Fry cabinets, Clarice Cliff crockery, Leach pottery and a Hepworth dove sculpture decorate the room alongside Modigliani, Bacon’s Portrait of Henrietta Moraes on a Blue Couch, Ernst’s La Ville Petrifiee and Hockney’s Peter C. I hadn’t heard of Evelyn Dunbar, but her 1944 Pastoral is especially striking.
Back in London, the visit to Manchester had made me interested in going to see the Royal Academy’s JW Waterhouse exhibition, thereby allowing me to see the loaned copy of Hylas and the Nymphs. The exhibition flags Waterhouse as the ‘Modern Pre-Raphaelite,’ noting the anachronism of his interest in history and myth in an age of abstraction. The fact that this is the first Waterhouse retrospective alone notes how quickly and completely he was erased from art history. Certainly, much of his work is obscurantist; it seems difficult to imagine that either Emperor Honorius or Saint Eulalia were much more well known figures at the time then they are now. His mystical interests connected with the likes of Yeats and the symbolists, but much of his work remains firmly founded in literature and history. On the other hand, if he shared his subject matter with Millais and Rossetti, his technique was quite different, composed of loose brushstrokes rather than points of detail; his famous Lady of Shalott is quite different from Millais’ Ophelia. The other charge frequently laid against Waterhouse is his habit of depicting women as devilish seducers; Circe and Medea are representative figures in this respect. The description is essentially true, although one does wonder whether the traditional depiction of women as models of virtue is preferable. Waterhouse is certainly free of the more moralistic tendencies of earlier Victorian art, tending to show women as powerful rather than weak and passive. Contrast Hylas and the Nymphs to any number of Victorian depictions of fallen women.
Venturing south of the river, I find an entirely opposing exhibition at the Tate, dedicated to futurism. Perversely, it can easily be argued that much of this has dated much more badly than Waterhouse; while the ‘Modern Pre-Raphaelite’ never intended to be a’la mode, the futurist depictions of steam trains and cruise liners as the epitome of modernity look decidedly quaint now. In many respects, Futurism is a by-road in art history. Marinetti’s literary interests idolised the machine age, speed and electricity, which acted to tether much futurist art to a representational model, as much as Waterhouse was to myth and history. The inclusion of a more emphatically abstract artist, like Frantisek Kupka, is quite stark. Where the Cubist decomposition of perspective tended to dwell on the still life, futurism sought the same effect against a cinematographic conception of time; much Futurist painting accordingly resembles a flick-book in one frame. It was this addition of time to Cubist conceptions of space that proved influential, although the exhibition documents how this influence was a heavily contested one. In particular, French figures saw space in Cubist terms of simultaneity rather than a cinematographic one. French figures like Delaunay developed their art in a similar direction but denied an influence. Russian Cubo-Futurists, like Popova and Malevich, disliked the reactionary tendencies in Marinetti’s thought, while Wyndham Lewis preferred to establish Vorticism than use the Futurist term. Only one French, Del Marle, and one English artist, Nevinson, were prepared to label themselves Futurists. In this respect, the first world war proved the tipping point; Severini and Balla propagandised in favour of Italian entry while Nevinson and Epstein were to withdraw from the idiom altogether after what could be termed excessive exposure to the realities of Marinetti’s manifesto.
The British Museum’s Garden and Cosmos exhibition presents a form of art unfamiliar to Westerners in many respects. The axonometric views, in which street plans are viewed on an identical plane to frontal views tend to value pattern over perspective. No Western distinction between decorative and fine art is observed here, with repetitions of design being played out on a large panorama rather than any close-ups. The same figures recur throughout the paintings, partly in order to illustrate a narrative, partly due to a tendency to regard time and space as samsara or illusions. In the Nath creed favoured at the time in Jodhpur, the body becomes emblematic of the universe and vice versa. Several of the paintings take the form of yantras. The results look more like Blake than most Western painters, although the idea of reality as simply a nothingness of shimmering gold or some of the more Boschlike sequences are equally unfamiliar in that context. The court paintings are quite odd as well; the emphasis on pleasure, though concubines or tournaments contrasts oddly to the likes of Velasquez or Holbein.
Reading Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End it’s difficult not to be struck by his contrarian view of Englishness; the ‘last Englishman’ in the novel is of Dutch extraction while one of his comrades is an Oporto Protestant and his brother marries a Frenchwoman. The Welsh, it should be noted, are apparently rather less capable of attaining Englishness. Moreover, Tietjens is also defined by his Francophilia ("you’re a Franco maniac") as much as his Englishness; "one could have fought with a clean heart for a civilisation; if you like for the eighteenth century against the twentieth, since that was fighting for France meant." By contrast, England (and, by extension, Prussia; "our cabinet won’t hate them [the Prussians] as they hate the French for being frugal and strong in logic) represents the twentieth century and a form of barbarism. Tietjens’ antiquarianism and traditionalism in many respects represents a form of subversion, just as the characters in the novel take it to be.
Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa is in many respects a picaresque novel in the tradition of Cervantes. However, where the picaresque novel tends to focus on the carnivalesque and materialistic, Potocki is equally concerned with the transcendent and metaphysical. Indulgence in sexual pleasure usually acts as a prelude to disquisitions on sin or guilt, with the polyphonic nature of the narrative emphasising sin in some tales and assigning no consequences in others (as with Alphonse’s views that Rebecca prefers "the concrete joys of this mortal life to idle speculation about an idle world"). With its ghosts and robbers, the narrative is connected to the gothic as much as the picaresque, with the gothic emphasis on horror acting to undercut the transcendent as much as some of the picaresque elements. The polyphonic aspect of the narrative allows it to express various heretical ideas alongside orthodoxies ("the stories begin in a simple enough way and you think you can predict the end… inextricable confusion is the result"), as with Emina’s denunciations of Catholic persecutions and their Muslim victims. Potocki seems to see the transcendent in Kantian terms, as something that can be intuited but not grasped; "a religion that is still thought of as the same ends up by offering different things for men to put their faith in." Throughout the narrative, deceit and illusion emerge as persistent themes, emphasising the disjunction between the phenomenal and the noumenal. The intellect can only dimly grasp matters; "we are blind men who can feel some walls and know the end of several roads… imbeciles are a living proof of the power of god." The story of Hervas or the geometer’s father in particular stresses scepticism of reason; "beware of human wisdom." Conversely, unexpected congruences emerge, as with Alphonse’s observation that the eucharist is shared between christianity and mithraism or Ondina’s switching between christianity and islam. The result is that the geography of the novel becomes a liminal space, in which different religions and none merge.