El Dorado

The British Museum’s El Dorado exhibition reminds me of Junichiro Tanizaki’s observation that part of the historical appeal of gold (shared here by the Colombians and the Conquistadors alike) rests with how it catch the light in the darkness. With the artefacts lit up amidst the shadows inside the British Museum’s reading room. For the Colombians, the glittering of gold in the light was an emblem of the sun; wearing a gold headdress or jewellery was to bring one closer to the sun’s power. Gold was used to form emblems of the natural world, from crocodiles and bats through to birds, jaguars (I especially like one that resembles a Cheshire cat), frogs and lobsters and as a component of religious ceremonies with cups and dipping sticks used to mix coca and lime. Gold was even used in the rattles and bells that formed their musical accompaniment. The most striking story is of the golden one,their body painted with body casting gold offerings into a lake, recalling at once the founding of Tenochtitlan or the marriage of Venice to the sea. The exhibition at one stroke trades off the prominence of gold and at another seeks to diminish it, noting that as with the Aztecs other objects such as feathered headdresses held similar votive qualities.

Next, I head into central London one evening to visit the Pop Art exhibition at the Barbican. Ranging from videos of the Smithsons at the Daily Mail’s Ideal Home Exhibition, Aarnio ballchairs through to lip sofas, plastic cacti & lamp shades, Warhol’s Marilyn prints, Lichtenstein comic panels and Hamilton collages. Obviously, pop art expressed itself through re-purposing contemporary industrial design and advertising but there does remain quite a difference between the design of an Eames chair and Chair 1969 by Allen Jones. Much of pop art is infected with irony and surreal humour in contrast to the rather spartan design ethic of much of the age. The inclusion of Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip rather serves to remind me that much of pop art probably had more in common with the demotic mass culture it appropriated than it did with a lot of the official design placed alongside it here. I’m a little less taken with the Klee exhibition at Tate Modern, as I find myself liking some of his protean incarnations more than others. The one I respond most to is perhaps the most Cubist; the ‘magic squares’ that make up his conception of pictorial architecture. Afterwards, I go for a walk from the Tate through to London Bridge.

Next weekend, I visit Oxford for its exhibition of Bacon and Moore works. The exhibition notes that these two artists have not been exhibited before but compares them by noting that both tended to work by deforming conventional representations of the human body; as Bacon’s work became more plastic and definite so did Moore’s work become less static. Both shared an interest in Christian themes, with Moore both drawing & sculpting the crucifixion and Bacon’s screaming Popes. I’m not sure I’m wholly convinced though; amongst the Moore sculptures in the exhibition are various sketches, which tend to resemble Chirico rather more than Bacon. Moore’s work is emphatically concrete, emphasising the physical. Bacon’s idea of the flesh is that it dissolves, so that the boundaries between his figures become indistinct. Although works like his drawings of miners discover a sense of dynamism, Moore’s drawings of sleepers in the London Underground are perhaps more typical. The following weekend comes and I visit the Chinese painting exhibition at the V&A. The early sections dwell on Buddhist influences on Tang silk screen paintings, originally painted in bright colours and marking what are essentially chantry offerings. With the advent of the Song dynasty, colours becomes sparse and muted, and forms like landscape emerge more clearly, where images of clouds and mountains blur into one another. The use of ‘mi dots’ to create blurred, stippled, brushstrokes, rather recalls pointillism and divisionism. Literati painting emerges as a style where calligraphy, poetry and painting merge. My favourite piece through is Xu Yang’s Prosperous Suzhou a detailed panoramic depiction of the city from its opera house, temples, markets to its harbour. I wonder why it would have been like if a European city of the time had been depicted in such detail.

Greyfriars house in Worcester is a medieval building, its interior combines medieval wooden furniture and tapestries with Georgian wallpaper, Chinese porcelain, Ostrich eggs, majolica tiles, William Morris furniture and Worcester ceramics. I particularly like a spice cabinet in one room, showing examples of now largel unused spices like Zedoary, Cubeb and Grain of Paradise. Even in autumn, the garden is rather pleasant with a sale under way of apples, pears and quinces grown in it. One gateway is flanked by a pair of ceramic dolphins given by Clough-Ellis. Elsewhere in the city, the art gallery has a Joseph Beuys exhibition combining some of his experiments with textiles and materials with some of his installations and polemical posters; otherwise the gallery has some good Roman mosaics, Worcester pottery, Icthyosaur fossils and an assortment of stuffed animals including a Sturgeon and an Albatross.

Travelling back to the Midlands at Christmas, I stop off at Banbury and visit the church of St Mary, with its Georgian exterior, Victorian interior decoration and Antarctic stained glass window, as well as looking at the nearby Banbury cross and statue by John Gibbs. Back in the Midlands, I visit the National Memorial Arboretum; the nearby rivers are flooded and the ground is marshy but it’s a beautiful day, with the reflections of the leafless tree boughs reflected in the muddy river water. I also note that the redwoods planted at the far side of the arboretum have grown tremendously since I last saw them. I head up to Derbyshire to visit the ruins of the Georgian house at Sutton Scarsdale. It’s a rather bright but cold winter’s day and the ruins cast a forlorn prospect on the horizon. On what were once the interior walls decayed plaster casts of the decoration remain I then visit Bolsover castle, where I’m rather pleasantly surprised. Initially, I start by looking at the stables, where the wooden roof beams form a cathedral-like interior before I walk onto the ruins that form part of the castle, with a terrace that runs along the edge of the ridge that the building surmounts. Lastly, I look at the ‘little castle’ where wall frescos of Hercules remain, alongside frescoed ceilings, painted wood panelling and fireplaces built with English marbles, all in a combination of gothic and Jacobean domestic design. I then briefly visit Hardwick Hall; the building is closed but the grounds are open. I’m struck by the row of white painted trees leading up to the main door. On my way back down south, I visit the Rollright stones.

Reading Rider Haggard’s main novels, I was struck by the contrasts in his attitudes towards colonialism and gender. In King Solomon’s Mines and Allan Quatermain African natives are frequently depicted as barbarous (as with the Zulu kidnapping of a missionary’s daughter) but as is often the case in such depictions, Haggard frequently seems to prefer the noble savagery of warrior natives like Umslopogaas and Ignosi to the civilised effeminacy of Alphonse. In King Solomon’s Mines Haggard suggests the possibility of inter-racial love between Good and Foulata, only to withdraw it through the deus ex machina of her death. Whereas in King Solomon’s Mines the white explorers participate in a colonial narrative that benevolently deposes a despot, their intervention in the affairs of the white Zu-Vendis is a force of destruction, leading to the anti-colonial indictment at the end of the book. One notable aspect of Allan Quatermain is that it takes the Zu-Vendis religion seriously; this is even more apparent in She and Aysesha where Egyptian and Tibetan mysticism presents a challenge to Christianity that is left answered. As with the queen in Allan Quatermain Ayesha’s gender is not presented as an impediment to her rule; if anything her behaviour is often similar to that of the male tyrants in Haggard’s novels while her glamour tends to leave her male servants passive to her; however, even so she is often portrayed as weak and indecisive, as when Leo is at the point of death.

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