Golden Grove Unleaving

Where this year’s summer was damp and dark, the autumn has mostly been bright and warm, as leaves on the trees slowly turned gold and red. This weekend remained true to this pattern, although the wind has become newly cold and biting. I decide to visit Windsor, having previously been to the town but not the castle. The castle itself is perhaps not atypical of Berkshire architecture, being constructed out of the flint that is so typical of the vernacular architecture of the region. The exception is St George’s Chapel, which rather looks as if it should be attached to an Oxford college, with its warm Bath stone. The ornate interior is considerably more ostentatious than most English cathedrals, especially the Albert chapel. The chapel is one of the many examples of Victorian medievalism in the castle, where the history is less striated into defined periods and more blurred into liminal zones that could come from any period or none. The interior of the State Apartments is a case in point, given that the post-fire reconstruction leaves an ancient building lacking any patina of age and instead still retaining the gleam of newness. Statues of Queen Victoria and plundered treasures from Benin and Mysore sit resplendent within reconstructed chambers.

The following week I visit the Bronze exhibition at the Royal Academy. I feel rather ambivalent about exhibitions like this; lacking focus on a single individual, movement or period diminishes the interest for me. In this case, the only connection between the objects is their material, with the exhibits arranged according to whether they depict animals, gods, figures or are simply objects. The exhibits are drawn from every culture and period, with pieces from ancient China, Nigeria, Scandinavia, Rome, India and Greece. I recall seeing some of them elsewhere, like the Chimera of Arezzo, Remington’s Off the Range, Rodin’s Age of Bronze, Durham Cathedral’s Door Knocker, and a cast of Cellini’s Perseus but many of them are new to me like the Chariot of the Sun from Sweden, the Chariot of Strettweg, the Crosby Garrett helmet, Leopard Benin Bronzes, the Asante Ewer, the Uffizi Boar, an Islamic lion, a statue of Shiva. I’m particularly struck by an emaciated Buddha from Thailand, which recalls much of medieval European funerary art. Some of the 19th works are particularly elaborate, like a lion killing a crocodile, a Japanese incense burner or a Jewess from Algiers created in marble and bronze. Modern works include a baboon by Picasso, a spider from Bourgeois, a mirror by Kapoor, Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity, Brancusi’s Bird a baseball by Jeff Koons, sculptures from Hepworth and Moore, and beer cans by Jasper Johns.

The Pre-Raphaelite avant garde exhibition at the Tate offers few surprises; presumably as a dependable money spinner in straitened times it is not intended to. As such, it’s less a matter of novelty and more a matter of greeting old friends. The exhibition is organised thematically, beginning by highlighting Nazarene influences on the Pre-Raphaelites. Some of the themes tend to emphasise Pre-Raphaelite weaknesses; the section on religion frames their tendency toward sentimentality (The Blind Girl, The Woodman’s Daughter) and preaching (as in The Awakening Conscience or The Hireling Shepherd). Holman Hunt’s work in particular tends to have a rather crude symbolism; his better works are the more abstracted such as The Scapegoat or The Strayed Sheep, both of which need little metaphysical sublimation to what are essentially landscape scenes. As a theme, nature works considerably better, highlighting the influence of Fox Talbot’s photography in the hyper-realistic detail of paintings like Ophelia, Inchbold’s At Bolton, Brett’s Val d’Aosta, Dyce’s Pegwell Bay and Chill October by Millais. Some of the social paintings also demarcate an area of weakness; the Pre-Raphaelite cult of beauty precludes the sort of social observation seen in French naturalism. The section on portraiture highlights an opposing aspect of Pre-Raphaelitism; it’s love of surface and texture rather than detail, especially in Rossetti’s Bocca Baciata, The Bride, Monna Vanna, Lady Lilith Beata Beatrix and The Blue Bower, Hunt’s Il Dolce far Niente, Isabella and the Pot of Basil, Watt’s Portrait of Edith Villiers and Sophie Gray by Millais. It’s also good to see Solomon’s painting of Bacchus in this section and I’m also struck by a photograph of Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs of female historical figures such as Hypatia; not a choice that would have occurred to the male painters. In the history section, epic battles are sidelined in favour of domestic scenes realistically rendered – and with women in a passive role, as devoted wives (The Order of Release or abandoned lovers (Mariana). The section on mythology probably highlights their strongest area where they touch most of European art movements. Burne Jones emerges as the strongest figure here in works that largely lack the hyper-realism associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, with paintings like Laus Veneris, The Golden Stairs, A Vision of Fiammetta and Love Among the Ruins. I’m also impressed by Maddox Brown’s Don Juan and Haidee, a work that is new to me. A couple of other things catch my eye in the gallery before leaving; a set of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s concrete poems, photography by Dean and Tillmans and paintings by Bowling.

I’ve been reading Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans recently; it’s interesting to contemplate the aspects of her argument that still hold true. Much of it is born of snobbishness and the horror at recalcitrant Americans being reluctant to enter service or to curtsy is as unpalatable to read today as Burke’s rapturous descriptions of the wonders of chivalry. However, many of her arguments seem remarkably prescient; for example how the love of liberty and self reliance would curtail the development of any welfare state (“quot;there is less alms-giving in America than in any other country") or any kind of national infrastructure as she argues that if congress were to tax money for road building it would be seen as an act of tyranny. Another area where seems most pertinent is her observation that religious tyranny could most easily take hold in the absence of a state church. The distaste she feels at American religious enthusiasm as something degrading still seems accurate. She is especially acute of the subjects of slavery and the treatment of the Indians, especially the hypocrisy of this sitting alongside a self-professed love of liberty ("there is a glaring falsehood on the very surface of such a man’s principles that is revolting"). Her observation that much of the populace fared worse than slaves, such as Irish emigrants who died at their labour (being more despised than negro slaves), is also one that seems to unexpectedly (and unintentionally) anticipate later socialist arguments.

I’ve recently read Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun. The setting of a christian Rome surmounted on top of a pagan foundation forms a backdrop to a similar transition in how Donatello changes form pagan hedonism to the development of a soul through suffering in atonement for his sins. As an allegory though this is complicated by the lure of the old Rome that draws the characters there in contrast to American puritanism ("he had foregone to be a Christian reality and had perverted himself into a pagan idealist,") and in preference to masochistic implications of such belief ("the growth of a soul, which the sculptor half imagined he had witnessed in his friend, seemed hardly worth the heavy price it had cost"). It is also complicated by Hawthorne’s perception of Catholicism as a corrupt religion, which dismisses sins through confession rather than repentance through suffering, although it is to the confession that Hilda turns; "there appeared to be a contagious element rising foglike from the ancient depravity of Rome.. the guilt and corruption which paganism had left there." As such, the Capuchin who forms a representative of original sin in the novel is cast in decidedly gothic terms rather than those of spurned repentance.

I’ve recently been to two films that relate to the same subject (an adulterous affair set in a historical period) but with extremely different treatments. A Royal Affair recreates eighteenth century Copenhagen in detail, cast in a mode that sees film as an extension of the realist novel. Even the subject matter echoes the nineteenth century novel, albeit with a very different ethical perspective. Anna Karenina is explicitly founded on a realist novel whose application of dramatic principles renders it ideal for film adaptation. However, the film repeatedly subverts realist conventions; it instead sets the narrative in a theatre with sets and props carried about by stagehands and much of the action set in the wings. Characters walk off the stage and into meadows or get onto toy trains. Much of the film seems more like ballet than ordinary cinema. It is only as Anna falls through the veneer of social conventions that the narrative hardens into a more realist treatment. It set me wondering why more films don’t discard some of the realist conventions, why there are so few equivalents of Peter Hall’s dramatising Shakespeare in empty white spaces.

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