Wild Thing

It’s often easy to base artistic judgements against an illusory parallel with technological progress, so that modernist experimentation became the artistic standard par excellence of the twentieth century. Today we might well regard more atypical figures like Grossman or Shostakovich as being of equal or better merit to Schoenberg or Joyce. Similarly, the fact that the Pre-Raphaelites had reverted to a medievalistic conception of art as impressionism dawned in Europe or that Austen’s novels were all written against the backdrop of early romanticism seems largely inconsequential. It was difficult not to think of things like this as I went round the National Gallery’s exhibition of Spanish art. As with its earlier exhibition on Siennese art, the gallery seems keen to revive interest in minority subjects and this is a particularly acute example.

While medieval art routinely carved wooden sculptures for churches, the renaissance and reformation saw a trend towards carving statues from stone, leaving them unpainted in pure white, out of a mistaken notion that the Greeks and Romans had not painted their statues. In Spain though, the tradition of painting wooden sculpture continued unabated alongside increasingly realistic techniques of portrait painting. Paintings from the likes of Velasquez and Zurbaran deploy the same methods as Caravaggio and Veronese but retain all the hallmarks of artifice. Both painters add captions, writing and legends to their painters to destroy the impression of verisimilitude. Zurbaran tends to pose his things in stark white light against a dark black backdrop, as if the painting was a stage set. The sculptures seem eerily lifelike in comparison to Canova or Thorvaldsen, with eyelashes made out of hair, teeth from ivory and real clothing stiffened with glue used alongside glass eyes and tears. The sculptures would have had their clothing changed and be taken out for ceremonial processions; they were not simply static objects in galleries or museums. The rich detailing is often wonderful; the Virgin Mary by Montanes is a blaze of polychromatic colour. Equally though, the gory horror of some of the sculptures is frequently appalling; the severed neck of John the Baptist is rendered in anatomically correct detail while countless Christs are depicted in bathed in blood, their bodies pierced and lacerated. The images seen in glass cases below the altar in Catholic churches take centre stage here, like something from a casualty ward. Zurbaran’s painting of St Serapion, who appears to be simply asleep comes as a relief from the horror. I leaving not doubting the artistic merit of the works but feeling glad their have been consigned as a historical relic and a matter of obscurity.

The logic behind the Royal Academy’s exhibition on Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska and Gill is presumably that of artistic parallels between three contemporaries, but it is somewhat difficult to leave the exhibition convinced that the three have a great deal in common. Gill and Epstein shared a notion of ‘direct carving’ but Gill’s work seems more difficult to place, better connected to Blake and Palmer than Brancusi or Duchamp. The sexual politics of his work seem especially difficult to fathom; Ecstasy must have been one of the explicit paeans to sexual pleasure for thousands of years in Europe, but it sits alongside several Madonnas and Child. His religion and sexuality seem to combine in various odd ways; a shrivelled Christ on the cross was paired with a Earth mother figure that recalls his fecund Madonnas. Male submissiveness is frequently counterpointed to female dominance; he seems to have been less a Catholic and more a Mariolater. Something of the same sensibility certainly seem to apply to Epstein as well, but Rock Drill with its emphasis on aggressive male masculinity is quite unlike Gill, not to mention its adoption of readymades. Equally, his sculpture of Venus recalls the influence of African and North American art. Nonetheless, it’s Gaudier-Brzeska that seems the more mainstream figure of the period (albeit perhaps a rather less interesting one), with the increasingly abstract nature of his sculpture and the influence of Vorticism, as well as the same African and North American influences.

Before leaving London, I visit the Barbican’s conservatory. It’s an odd place, a small jungle rising above the concrete walkways and towers, not least because the Barbican’s concrete labyrinth applies every bit as much to the interior of the conservatory. With the concrete decayed under dripping water it looks like nothing so much as an enactment of Ballard’s Drowned World. Bromeliads and Bougainvillea are in flower while Zebra finches sing in the aviary and alarmingly large carp splash in the pools.

Reading Zola’s The Masterpiece is perhaps the reflexive of his novels, given the presence of himself and his circle of friends as characters. On the one hand, Sandoz proclaims that "this is the idea: to study man as he really is. Not this metaphysical marionette they’ve made us believe he is but the physiological human being determined by his surroundings" only to then undermine it with a lyrical hymn to the earth. The novel essentially proceeds as a critique of romanticism, as with Claude’s tendency to undermine the naturalism of his paintings; "the old streak of romanticism.. the generation we belong to was brought up on romanticism, it soaked into us and we can do nothing about it." Equally though, the novel critiques the idea of a scientific basis for art itself, as with Claude’s mistaken scientific theory of colours; "with characteristic over-indulgence he began to exaggerate the scientific theory of colours.. that way, it was obvious, madness lay.".

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