Eros and Anteros

Back down South, I go to the Edvard Munch exhibition at the Tate. In a lot of ways, Munch reminds me of Kafka, his work resembling a drama or film but one where the meaning of a scene is withheld; Two Human Beings is a case in point, where the two figures standing by the shore points to a wider dramatic implication whose meaning lies outside the picture. A lot of the subjects are inherently dramatic, as with his paintings of fires in Oslo. This sense is more marked with pictures like Murder on the Road or Red Virginia Creeper of then paintings Munch did as part of his set for Ibsen’s plays where the figures stare out of the frame and through the fourth wall. The exhibition dwells on Munch’s work in an age of mechanical reproduction, the parallels with photography and film (many of the perspectical techniques in his paintings arise from film) and the repeated replications of his paintings, whereby works like The Vampire, The Sick Child and Ashes were recreated on several occasions.

A few weeks later, I visit the Royal Academy’s exhibition of French art from the Clark Institute. Being derived from a personal collection it has both the advantage and disadvantage of stemming from the taste of one man. The landscapes range from Jongkind’s Frigates (a typically Dutch maritime scene) and Rousseau’s Farm in the Landes (which could be the work of Gainsborough) and traditional country scenes from Troyon and Millet to Monet, Sisley and Pissarro. The Pissarro collection tends to stand out, ranging from realist depictions of factories and merchant ships to pointillist landscapes. Renoir features heavily with paintings of the Doge’s palace and the bay of Naples. The portraits are rather more lacklustre, with a number of works by Manet, Renoir and Degas as well as Dutch style portraits by Stevens and more realistic paintings by Tissot and Boldoni. A set of orientalist scenes by Gerome are quite striking, if only for combining intricate details of Iznik ceramics with incorrect scenes showing Turkish snake charming. The most interesting portrait is probably one of Gauguin’s Breton paintings.

I then go to the proms for Judas Maccabeus and Pelleas at Melisande. The latter resembles a modern film soundtrack as much as an opera, with the narrative partially resembling a nineteenth century tale of domestic adultery in the vein of Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary and partially resembling a gothic novel or a fairytale. Maeterlinck was interested in Schopenhauer’s ideas on fate, as well as holding that the juxtaposition of eros and anteros forces brings about a never-ending cycle of calm followed by discord and then change. Nonetheless, although the narrative has to follow an archetypal pattern in which the character’s own strugglings doom them, as is the case in a novel they do engage sympathy throughout, in a manner that makes their fate seem unjust, even as it is shown to restore order. This seems to come over in the imagery whereby light and dark, death and life are conflated throughout.

Outside London, the reappearance of the sun after weeks of rain allows me to pay a brief visit to Romsey Abbey in Hampshire. A similar Romanesque structure to that at the nearby Kingsclere but perhaps more ornate and better furnished with various elaborate monuments and stained glass by Henry Holiday and Kempe. Some of the nave reminds me of Christ Church in Oxford. Nearby, I visit Mottisfont Abbey. The last time I visited it was early in the year; this time, the flowers in the walled garden were fully in bloom and fish were swimming in the river Test as it passed by the Abbey. On the way back, I visit Highclere Castle, a building transformed into a gothic revival style by Charles Barry. The interior is not the finest of Victorian but does have various Canaletto, Reynolds and Van Dyck paintings as well as a set of medieval tapestires hung up in the great hall. Most interesting is the exhibition of artefacts from Tutankhamun’s tomb; gold chairs, shabti, Alabaster vases, Canopic jars, faience sistrums, a sculpture of the King as a Harpooner and a wooden mannequin of the King.

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