Spellbound

The Spellbound exhibition at the Ashmolean begins with a rather familiar object: the witch bottle from the nearby Pitt Rivers Museum (‘They do say there be awitch in it, and if you let him out there’ll be a peck o’ trouble’). A lot of the other objects follow in the same vein;  a desiccated human heart inside a lead case, a Victorian poppet with a needle through its head (along with a toad and sundry animal hearts skewered in the same way), a Mandrake root, a barn door marked with magical symbols to protect livestock, a witches ladder from Somerset, fragments of Unicorn horn (Narwhal tusk), John Dee’s Obsidian mirror and crystal ball, a copy of The Discovery of Witches by Matthew Hopkins, an Italian magic mirror designed to invoke the demon Floron, a ‘Ghirlanda’ curse necklace made of feathers and silk ‘ectoplasm’ from the fake medium Helen Duncan. Some of the context provided by the exhibition is to draw modern parallels, with love locks cut from a bridge in Leeds or a modern medicine bottle thrown into the Thames mostly containing human teeth.

Downstairs, there’s a pair of LGBT exhibitions. The first includes a series of casts and sculptures of Antinous, ranging from his depiction as Osiris to Dionysus, alongside sculptures of Hadrian and Germanicus, the subject of a comparable cult. There’s also a small exhibition covering the anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act, featuring posters of Maurice, Cavafy drawings by Hockney, a portrait of the Ladies of Llangollen and eighties campaign badges.

 

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Open House

Open house in London starts for me this year with standing in the rain in a queue outside a hotel at Liverpool Street. When I’m finally allowed in, it’s to wait in the lobby to wait for the previous group to leave and for a marketing manager to subject me to a toe-curlingly awful brand statement about their new cocktail bar. Finally, the tour begins and I enter the Masonic Temple I’ve been waiting for. Bricked up sometime in the nineteen forties, it had been forgotten about until it had been rediscovered. A chequered floor expands out beneath a gold ceiling depicting the constellations, while red lighting illuminates the sculptures. At one point I find myself wondering about the music being played in the background, until I realise it’s one of Murray Gold’s Doctor who soundtracks.

Next up is 1 Finsbury Circus. I have to wait even longer here until being ushered through security checks into the rather opulent lobby designed for BP by Edwin Lutyens. The rest of the interior is rather more modern and somewhat anodyne; the original listed board room now rests in the basement, inverting what happened at the Lloyds building with its Robert Adam boardroom now sitting on the top floor of a skyscraper. After that, I visit the churches of St Andrew Undershaft and St Olave, before visiting the Lloyds Shipping Register. This renovated building includes a series of archaeological exhibits from its reconstruction, including a Roman Sphinx. The original interiors are especially impressive, including frescoed ceilings, Morris wallpaper, De Morgan tiling and Brangwyn paintings. Next is Clothworker’s Hall, which rather bizarrely veers from heraldic stained glass and tapestries to golden sheep, before Clothworker’s Hall, a modern reconstruction after damage in the second world war. There are some rather impressive carvings in the style of Grinling Gibbons.  Lastly, I leave the City and arrive at Soho to see Aston Webb’s French Protestant Church. There’s a small library near the door and my attention gets drawn to one of the books, a Bible with versions in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Syriac and Aramaic.

I also go on a late visit to the Soane Museum. I’d forgotten how labyrinthine the interior is, with spiral staircases, internal courtyards and balconies. I finally get to see the sarcophagus of Seti in the basement as statues of Apollo and Soane look down form above. I also like the visit to the art gallery, with its collections of paintings by Hogarth, Gandy, Fuseli and Canaletto, mounted on wooden doors that can be opened to expose a view down to the lower floors.

I’ve just finished reading Iris Murdoch’s A Fairly Honourable Defeat. As with a lot of her novels, it dwells on the muddled nature of morality. One of the aspects that does stand out particularly here is the implicit defence of gay rights in the novel. The relationship between Axel and Simon proves far more enduring than that of Rupert and Hilda when faced with attempts to undermine it. It also has what must count as one of the earliest discussions of the ethics of coming out, when Axel is forced to consider his hypocrisy in keeping his relationship separated from other aspects of his life. Oddly enough, something similar applies to The Hunger Angel by Herta Muller. Muller’s novel exists in a far more deterministic universe than Murdoch’s, one that is dominated by the objects of the Labour camp and the protagonist’s own drives and instincts, especially the hunger referenced in the title. Leo’s homosexuality is only obliquely referenced throughout until in the end it proves an instinct as powerful as the hunger in the camp, as it drives him out of communist Romania to Austria.

Ascending and Descending

Travelling to North Wales, I stop en route at Powis Castle. A medieval building updated to include Clive of India’s Elephant in its crest throughout, it has a collection of paintings by Sargent and Romney, the Tipu Sultan exhibition and the Hilliard painting of Lord Herbert. The garden at the castle is beginning to look somewhat autumnal, but a lot of the flowers are still blooming and the terraces are still filled with Banana plants and Bamboo alongside the English topiary. The clouds lazily clear and cast a warm light over the red stones. By contrast, when I finally arrive to visit the castles at Harlech and Cricieth, the weather is wet and blustery, as the sea winds sweep inwards. The landscape in this part of Wales could probably never really be called pretty; it’s a rather forbidding landscape of craggy hills that are often shrouded in mist. Much of the buildings are hewn from slate or pebbledash, so that the landscape’s palette is a muted set of greys and greens.

The weather is calmer when I visit Portmeirion. Here, the buildings have been painted in a series of bright colours that only warm in the light; blues, reds, yellows, pinks and turquoises. The architecture is an oddly postmodern mixture of styles; although often described as Italianate the architectural references seem much more diffuse, ranging from traditional English building elements through to Baroque and Palladian designs, with elements like Burmese sculptures. A Buddha from an Ingrid Bergman film defines a landscape that is already heavily mediated through viewings of the Prisoner and Doctor Who. A Norman Shaw fireplace is weirdly re-purposed as an entrance lodge while a pine figurehead sits atop a petrol pump. Much of the effect is deliberately artificial, featured trompe l’oeil designs of curtains and gods painted onto corrugated iron. A boat moored by the shore turns out to be made of stone. The surrounding landscape is equally contrived, planted with Rhododendrons and Gingko, while featuring Pagodas and Chinese bridges.

The weather is not so kind, when I visit Caernarfon the following day. The castle here doesn’t dominate the landscape in the way Cricieth does, but with towers built on top of towers it’s a rather more imposing prospect. Walking round is a repeated sequence of walking up and down spiral staircases inside the towers. There’s also a museum dedicated to the Royal Welch Fusiliers, featuring a stolen Napoleonic Eagle and a stuffed Regimental Goat. After that, I go to Bangor and walk down the Victorian pier over the Menai strait. The museum in the town has a small collection of Scrimshaws, traditional Welsh crafts and naval paintings.

The following day I go to Plas Newydd on Anglesey. The house is a mixture of neo-classical with early Regency gothick and the history is similarly layered; from an ancestor who lost a leg at Waterloo to a dress display for a Marquess with a taste for theatre, costumes and jewellery. The most impressive element are the Rex Whistler paintings and especially his mural scene covering the entire wall in a dining room. The trompe l’oeil effects rather remind me of Portmeirion, with the scene including Harlech Castle, St Martin in the Fields and Trajan’s column. The Italian gardens outside are mostly still in flower, with bees buzzing around the Dahlias and Autumn Crocuses. Walking around the estate, it’s filled with Eucalyptus and Palms, in spite of the winds blowing down the Menai strait. Afterwards, I go to Beaumaris Castle, another empty shell that formed part of Edward’s campaigns against Welsh insurrection. Unlike the others, it wasn’t built directly on the coastline and its moat accordingly represents a rather more classic idea of what a castle should look like. One thing that is also different is the survival of a gothic chapel building. Afterwards, I return to the mainland and visit Penrhyn castle. This time, the building is a Victorian attempt to create a hyperreal idea of a castle,emulating Norman design and building in Romanesque revival designs that are far more complex than in any actual medieval building. Perhaps rather fittingly, it’s being used as a filmset when I visit, with furniture jumbled up in storage and hospital beds laid out in the main hall.

On the last day in Wales, I visit Conwy Castle. I haven’t really allowed enough time for everything, but the castle is once more a series of travels up and down spiral staircases, with towers that are surmounted on top of other towers. The view out towards the bay is rather impressive, even with the incongruous spectacle of Telford’s now defunct suspension bridge sitting alongside Stephenson’s covered railway line and the modern motorway. Walking back, I quickly visit the church, with its monument to John Gibson and Burne Jones stained glass. Lastly, I stop off at Erddig Hall on the way back. The gardens here were originally filled with trees growing Peaches and Plums; today I see large orchards alongside Medlar and Fig trees. Some beehives have been placed in a corner of the gardens. The interior is rather striking but light sensitivity means that a lot of it is plunged into darkness and items like models of the Palmyra ruins and a Pagoda made out of Mother of Pearl have to be pointed out via torchlight. The family were clearly very musical; the house boasts two organs (only one of which was in the chapel), two pianos, a harp lute and a device called a Polyphon that played records that looked like circular pianola rolls or punched cards.

Walking around a lot of these places reminds me of childhood holidays; plastic buckets and spades on sale along with bags of shells, fish and chip shops and old fashioned shops you just don’t see in the South East. But there’s also a marked aspect of faded gentility to a lot of them, with each high street having shuttered premises. Lastly, I notice how widespread the use of Welsh is here; it seems odd that Wales is relatively well integrated into the UK (compared to Scotland) despite its linguistic exceptionalism, while the two tend to go together in places like Catalonia.

 

Eden to Empire

Thomas Cole was not a name I’d heard of prior to the National Gallery’s exhibition dedicated to him. It starts by placing him alongside painters like Claude, Turner, Martin and Constable as a context for his own work showing mythological scenes of Empires rising and falling as well as his more straightforward landscapes, ranging from scenes of Florence and Rome on the grand tour to New England.The mythological scenes do remind me of Claude and Martin a great deal, showing a fictional empire at its height through to its destruction and collapse into ruins. The final rooms place his work alongside American painters like Frederick Church; in spite of his own vision being pastoral and opposed to the industrialisation under Andrew Jackson, later painters depicting the same scenes as he did tended to show commerce and industry simply as a part of the landscape rather than something opposed to it. The exhibition is in the gallery basement and I briefly have a wonder round the galleries there; if I’ve visited them before I don’t recall. It mostly seems to consist of lesser works not considered worthy of more prominent display; I find myself very impressed by a series of Vernet historical paintings showing scenes from the Napoleonic wars though.

There’s also a small companion exhibition from Ed Ruscha, showing 5 paintings he had created in the nineties of a series of buildings and 5 companion pieces showing the same scenes now; A company called Tech Chem now bears the sign Fat Boy. The sky around it is blood red. The bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima were called Fat Man and Little Boy. I’m not sure the comparison with Cole is tremendously effective though; Ruscha’s illustrative style is sparse and often the differences are often slight.

The Tate is running a free exhibition on Weimar art for the next year; the parallels with current affairs were presumably sufficiently glaring as to warrant this. It divides between magical realist works (dwelling on more gothic subjects like cabaret and circuses) and Verism (more satirical work of the kind we are familiar with, such as Dix and Grosz). In practice the distinction is often blurred, with both sets dwelling on subjects like suicide and murder. The style equally veers between  grotesque caricature combined with lurid colouring to photorealistic portraits.

The following week, I visited the new Triforium gallery at Westminster Abbey. It’s a great many years since I last visited the Abbey and I’d entirely forgotten how wondrous it is. This is also entirely true of the Triforium. I ascend to it via the rather steampunk staircase in the new Weston Tower. The designer, Ptolemy Dean, has combined glass and metal with the Abbey’s own gothic leitmotifs and the effect is extraordinary as I walks upwards and peers through the stained glass of the lady chapel. The rose windows at the top that look out do so through a maze of buttresses lined with marching ranks of heraldic greyhounds, lions and dragons. As you face inwards, you can see what Betjeman called the ‘best view in Europe,’ that is from above the altar straight down the nave. It’s breathtaking stuff but the galleries themselves are full of interest, from a wooden model of Wren’s design for a spire, copies of the crown jewels and coronation chairs through to wooden funeral effigies of medieval kings and later wax models of Elizabeth, Anne, William, Mary and (oddly enough) Nelson. A stuffed grey parrot belong to the Duchess of Richmond is one of the more unusual exhibits, but my favourite is  an elaborate concertina paper model of the interior of the abbey, made for the coronation of Queen Victoria in the 1830s, a kind of “peep show.” Back downstairs, I note a new plaque for Stephen Hawking. I don’t think I visited the Cloisters on my last visit so I do so now, along with the rather collegiate gardens that surround the Abbey on this side, with the Abbey facing one side and the Palace of Westminster another.

That evening, I go to the Proms for a performance of the German Requiem by Brahms, following a visit a few weeks back to an organ recital of Fauré, Franck & Widor’s Toccata. The next week, I listen to the German requiem by Brahms and the Budapest Festival Orchestra performing Liszt and Brahms, interpolating them with more traditional Gypsy instruments and orchestrations. Finally, the last week of the Proms is rather exhausting. It starts with a Tango prom, including familiar pieces from Piazzolla and rather less expected diversions into Finland’s experiments from prog-rock Tango, including Veli Kujala playing his own quarter-tone accordion and a version of Bowie’s Life on Mars, before reverting back to Pablo Ziegler’s more jazzy interpretations of Piazzolla. Next is Britten’s War Requiem and finally, there is Handel’s Theodora, a chirpy piece on Early Christian martyrdom, performed by the astonishing countertenor Iestyn Davies.

A few weeks later, I go to the Indian subcontinent exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery. It’s divided into two halves; the first gifts from a tour made by the Prince of Wales (covering various perfume holders, swords, card boxes and inkstands) and the second including various paintings and manuscripts, mostly reflecting the art of the Mughal court. After that, and it’s Open House weekend in Reading and Oxford. In Reading, I see a demonstration of the Victorian Town Hall organ playing Mendelssohn and visit some of the town churches. In Oxford, I visit the gardens near the Thames at Magdalen school, Merton College Chapel, the church of St Edmund and St Frideswide, the church of St Alban the Martyr and Comper’s church of St Peter the Evangelist in Hinksey.

Reading Trollope’s Autobiography, I have to say that I find him harm to warm to. He talks of writing as a craft comparable to shoemaking, whose purpose is mainly to make a living; a statement which might be honest but is still hard to imagine many other Victorian writers saying. He includes a table outlining how much he has earned from all his novels. He sees literature as a form of moral instruction. He defends fox-hunting. He decries the use of competitive examination as he sees the idea that the son of a cleric and of a farmer as having equal potential as a fallacy.

Thackerary’s Barry Lyndon reminds me rather more of early picaresque novels like Moll Flanders and Roxana than most other Victorian novels. The protagonist proceeds through a series of adventures, starting off much in the vein of Tom Jones, which become progressively more immoral until he dies in a debtor’s prison after his wife escapes him. The novel is accordingly something of a morality tale but the reader’s reactions frequently bifurcate between  disgust at his actions and identification with a poor Irish interloper as he defrauds wealthy British and European aristocrats; nor is it coincidental that he attributes his downfall precisely to the point where he ceases to be an outsider and gains wealth, status and respectability. The bifurcation in the text is often a literal one, with the narration being divided between an omniscient narrator and that of the character himself, whose accounts of events diverge and debate with one another.

Disraeli’s Coningsby is in many respects a vehicle for his own rather romantic interpretation of Toryism, denouncing what he refers to as the existing Venetian constitution.  For a novel so emphatic in denouncing the Conservative party of that time for failing to want to conserve anything, it’s surprisingly sympathetic to modern England, with Coningsby wondering at the might of Manchester’s industry at the time and listening to Millbank’s own complaints against the aristocracy.

Aftermath

The Tate’s exhibition on the impact of WW1 art begins in relatively familiar territory, showing works from British war artists like Nevinson,Nash and Orpen. For all of the variation in their styles from Cubism to Realism, they’re still fairly close to their French contemporaries like Felix Vailloton or Paul Jouve in their depiction of the war. Nevinson’s depiction of dead bodies in the trenches, Vailloton’s painting of a war cemetery and Orpen’s painting of the Unknown Soldier at Versailles are very much of a piece. After the war, Vailloton and Nash both revert to pastoral rationalism while Nevinson’s art coincides with that of Lissitsky and Nerlinger in depicting the machine age. It also shows departuresinto surrealism from the likes of Max Ernst or collage from Kurt Schwitters. Most of the post war story in this exhibition becomes emphatically a German story though. There isn’t a great deal of German art showing the war itself, but in its wake the exhibition shows the work of Kollwitz, Beckmann, Grosx and Dix.

Between Gandhi and Fawcett

The last time I went on an anti-Brexit march, Theresa May’s position still seemed formidable; the election that destroyed her majority was still three months away. Since then, the negotiations have essentially stalled and the path ahead appears to consist of either no-deal or Brexit in name only, neither of which are exactly as originally advertised. That might be why this year’s march was clearly a lot larger than last year. Far from diminishing, the anger against Brexit has only grown as the deceptions surrounding it continue to unravel. After a very long wait and a march that frequently seemed more of a shuffle, we arrive at Parliament Square and manage to find a spot between the statues of Millicent Fawcett and Gandhi to match the speeches. Some of the speakers are familiar from last year (Peter Tatchell, David Lammy, Caroline Lucas) others I hadn’t seen before (Vince Cable, Gina Miller, Anna Soubry) while the organisers had obviously sought to include a much larger set of ordinary speakers, ranging from the owner of a haulage company to students and war veterans. There was also entertainment at being able to boo and hiss the pantomime villains from the pro-Brexit march.

 

White Nights

Riga is an odd mixture of architectural styles. The area I’m staying in is filled with nineteenth century buildings, this and their state of dilapidation reminds me somewhat of Budapest. But walking further and one comes to the Art Nouveau district, which is rather more reminiscent of Brussels. The walls on the Eisenstein designed buildings here are encrusted with owls, dragons, peacocks and sphinx like faces. The Art Nouveau museum here is especially lovely, with a sweeping spiral staircase and Stained Glass Windows filled with Irises. There’s a slightly strange exhibition about early Twentieth Century musclemen, showing their medals.

I then got for a walk in the nearby parks, starting with the nearby Russian Orthodox cathedral. The interior is covered in gold and is full of people even outside services (something I notice repeatedly with Orthodox churches but not the Catholic or Lutheran). A sign asks for donations for the restoration of the cathedral after its time as a Planetarium in the Soviet period; it doesn’t seem to be doing too obviously bad though given the sheer weight of gold coating most of the interior. Riga’s parks are rather lovely, with a canal winding through them and follies like a lighthouse, a Chinese pagoda, a statue of Mirzo Ulugbek and a statue of Pushkin donated by Russia.  There’s also an odd series of installations, like a black metal cage releasing steam into the air and a ‘Brexit booth,’ which would probably have been funny if it hadn’t been so depressing.

When you walk into the centre of the city, the contrasts continue with the medieval gothic cathedral sitting on the same square as the Nineteenth Century terracotta bourse and the Twentieth Century Latvian Radio building. I’m  left slightly confused by the presence of an Armadillo sculpture. The medieval House of the Blackheads (actually a Frauen Kirche style hyperreal reconstruction) with its astronomical clock and sculptures of King Arthur and St George stands near to the quasi-Cubist Latvian riflemen monument. The Blackheads building has a lot of the original statues inside along with a contemporary Silver collection. The frequent representations of African men leave me somewhat ambivalent. There’s an uncomfortably cartoonish and stereotypical quality to a lot of them but it equally seems extraordinary for a medieval guild to take a black saint as their  emblem. Walking out of the centre leads to a series of Zeppelin hangers now used as a market, a Soviet skyscraper and a wooden Russian Orthodox church. It’s pretty noticeable that when you get into this ‘Moscow district’ that it gets noticeably rather more down at heel than the other city districts.

The following day I visit the Castle, which like Dublin Castle or the Tower of London was started as the seat of occupation but which now serves as a Government building.  I then visit the Cathedral, with its beautiful Stained Glass showing scenes from the city’s  history. Its cloisters offer the appearance of a  junkshop, being filled with old weathervanes, statues, bombs and the Head of a Pagan Deity. I go for a walk by the dark waters of the Daugava. The river is lovely, with very little on the other bank save a few recent skyscrapers. I then  walk to the medieval churches of Saint Peter and Saint John, both extraordinary instances of brick Gothic. St Peter’s has an exhibition of paintings and woodblocks of Saint Petersburg. Lastly that day, I visit the City History Museum, with its wooden statue of Saint Christopher, gilded medieval reredos, and a drumming automaton.

The next day, I visit the Nineteen Thirties Freedom Monument and the Laima clock from the same period (albeit intended to advertise chocolate rather than celebrate national liberation). I then visit the Art Gallery in the old Bourse. There’s a wonderful Art Nouveau exhibition (with England somewhat awkwardly represented by William Morris and Burne Jones), an oriental gallery (filled with Indian Ivory, Indonesian Shadow Puppets and Masks) a porcelain gallery (with a small version of Pompon’s Polar Bear) and a paintings gallery (I like Blomstedt’s Archer and there’s a small number of works by the likes of Ruisdael). In the afternoon, I visit the Latvia National Gallery.I discover that one the advantages of not really knowing many of the artists is that you can look at the paintings without many preconceptions. There are some beautiful Winter Landscapes by artists like Johans Valters and Vilhelms Purvītis, a series of Revolutionary era collages by Gustav Klucis, Cubist paintings by Jazeps Grosvalds and the rather fun Madonna with Machine Gun by Karlis Padegs.  There’s also an exhibition of Nicholas Roerich’s paintings, mostly showing Tibetan landscapes but also some of Russia.Later, I visit the Mentzendorff House, an 18th century Merchant’s House, which retains jolly wall murals and stained glass windows. Finally, I visit the small porcelain museum,  which is mostly noticeable for its Soviet section, with plates showing Red Square and Lenin’s speeches, alongside a vase of Stalin where one of the figures on his side has very clearly been painted over (the Commissar always vanishes).

There’s not  much time to do anything else on my final day in Riga, save for a quick visit to the rather beautiful Synagogue. After that I board a coach for Tallinn. It’s a very quiet trip, mostly on long roads through the forests and countryside. The road is very quiet, with only other coaches and lorries on its rather than cars. There are also more than a few deserted buildings (give or take a giant wooden beer tankard), with storks using them for nesting. The suburbs of Tallinn are rather pretty, filled with painted wooden houses surrounded by trees.

Tallinn is considerably less varied in its architecture than Riga. The city is essentially intact in its medieval form, with much of the original city walls still standing (and a very large cluster of skyscrapers denoting the presence of a new town outside, far more than Helsinki has). The main street in the centre runs past medieval guild houses and another Blackheads house, alongside a smattering of a few Art Nouveau houses. I get very little opportunity to explore the city centre on my first day though as the heavens open and rain descends. I decide to visit the Art Museum at Kumu. The first thing I see here is an exhibition on the work of Michael Sittow, which is essentially to write an Estonian artist back into history. Sittow mostly painted portraits, in a manner reminiscent of Holbein or Gossaert. The works exhibited range from 19th century views of Tallinn and the Baltic coast, mythological paintings of Kalev, historical paintings of war with Russia and Germany (such as a meeting of the Estonian communist party with most of them wearing Balaclavas), male nudes by Adamson Eric,  modernist paintings by Arnold Akberg and Konrad Magi and political deconstructions of Suprematist designs from Leonhard Lapin. The basement allows you to see the ‘stack’s area for the undisplayed paintings.

As  the weather clears I go to Kadriorg Palace in the afternoon. The main hall is a striking affair with ceiling frescoes and stucco angels blowing gold trumpets. As one would expect for Peter the Great’s palace, a lot of the interior has a distinctly Russian feel; Malachite surfaces, Faberge eggs, wooden marquetry scenes of Tallinn and Soviet era Porcelain. The gallery also has a permanent collection of paintings, including works by Brueghel, Strozzi, Repin, Shishkin Kauffmann and Cranach. I especially like a view of Tallinn by ,which is rather reminiscent of the subject of the temporary exhibition; Ivan Aivazovsky. Praised by Turner, a lot of his paintings do use a similar historical setting but the resemblance primarily resides with the depiction of light in his seascapes, showing ships in settings like Venice, Crimea, Constaninople, Valletta and Odessa. I then walk for a bit around the gardens, from the formal gardens near the palace to a Japanese garden, and then go to see the Rusalka monument on the nearby seashore. Lastly, I visit Peter the Great’s house, a house the Tsar lived in prior to Kadriorg’s construction, filled with paintings of the Tsars, model ships and maps of Europe.

The following day I visit the Kiek in der Kok tower, one of the remaining defensive towers along the city walls, which includes travelling down into the city bastions and into an underground museum of stone carvings. I for a walk along the old city walls and then visit the city’s Cathedral. There’s an exhibition of silver guild emblems, medieval wooden statues and the Notke Dance Macabre painting. I then visit the ruins of the Dominican Monastery and the Church of the Holy Ghost, with its painted clock and wooden pews with medieval paintings. The next day I visit the Estonian Maritime Museum. This is some way out of the city in an area that is semi-derelict near an old fortress and former prison. I go round a steam powered ice breaker, Suur Toll, used in the war of independence and the evacuation of Tallinn during WW2 as well as the Lembit submarine. That afternoon, I visit the city museum, with exhibits including the original ‘Old Toomas’ weathervane on the Town Hall and an Executioner’s sword (with no point at the end, as it was used like an axe). Lastly, I visit the Estonian History Museum. I especially like a private collection bequeathed to the museum, ranging from mummified hands, Aleut masks, Canopic jars, Polar Bears and Seals fashioned out of tusk, Japanese fans, Peter the Great’s boots and a document signed by Napoleon.

The last city I visit is Helsinki. I take the ferry over, which means sailing past a series of islands like Suomenlinna before arriving at the port. The first place I visit is the redbrick Upsenski Cathedral, which is probably the first Orthodox church on this trip not to have been packed by worshippers. I then walk past the harbour where there is a market and visit the Old Market (a brick building which is now rather reminiscent of Borough Market in terms of its gentrification).  I arrive at Senate Square; this vast and largely empty square is lined with colourful buildings in the same sort of classical style as Saint Petersburg. Along with items like a double headed eagle on an obelisk dedicated to the Tsarina, the Russian influence on the city is evident throughout but much of the city’s style seems to exist in reaction to it, preferring dark patterned brick or rusticated walls. If it looks grittier than the other two cities this equally seems expressed in the considerably larger number of beggars on the streets. The Cathedral in the centre of Senate Square must have been rather reminiscent of Berlin in its original domed design by Engels, but the addition of four cupolas at each edge makes it appear rather more Russian in style. By contrast, the austere white interior reminds me of the Cathedral in Copenhagen. I also visit the wonderful University Library opposite, with is domed ceiling.

I then walk further inland to the train station, with its clock tower and Atlantes bearing lamps on either side of the entrance. From here I go to the Chapel of Silence, which is rather typically Nordic in its minimalism and use of wood as the sole material (although the way the light enters reminds me of the Chapel at Cuddesdon). Much the same applies to the Rock Church, with the raw rock as its walls beneath a domed ceiling. I then go the Athenaeum. Pretty much the first thing I see here is Simberg’s Wounded Angel alongside paintings by Repin, Munch, Signac, Werner Holmberg, Serusier, Zorn and Albert Edelfelt. There’s also a special section on Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s Kalevala paintings. The modern section has works by Vilho Lampi, Corbusier and Martti Ranttila. There’s also an exhibition of works of magical realism on modern Italian art by painters like Antonio Donghi, Chirico, Carra, Severini, Carlo Sbisa, and Ubaldo Oppi. Lastly, I have time to visit the Finnish History Museum, with exhibits like a Romanov throne, the shirt worn by the Russian Governor’s assassin (complete with blood stains after he killed himself), Moomins, wooden church pulpits and sculptures. I also particularly like Gallen-Kallela’s ceiling frescoes in the entrance hall, along with a bullet hole in the glass door from the civil war.

 

 

The Finest Hour

This weekend I went to the National Gallery’s exhibition on Monet and Architecture.  It’s a rather problematic subject. Compared to someone like Ruskin who recorded architecture in considerable detail, it remains open as to what extent Monet was concerned with the subject matter of his painting. The subjects in question range considerably from medieval cathedrals to train stations; the implication often seems to be that Monet painted what was available to him; if much of his work consists of painting nature, it is because he lived in the countryside for financial reasons in his later life. Of his earlier works, a panorama of Paris looking at from the Louvre towards the Pantheon stands out as being reminiscent of Canaletto’s cityscapes. A lot of works from this period of his career do demonstrate some absorption with architecture, whether French churches or Dutch windmills. But in the later sections, there’s a sense that it is largely immaterial whether it is Giorgio Maggiore or the Palace of Westminster, as when we see repeated series of the same subject with only the weather and light conditions varying. The series of Rouen cathedral shows the same facade, lacking detail but with all of its essential aspects recognisable but lit entirely differently depending on the time of day. I also visit the Guildhall’s exhibition of De Morgan ceramics (I hadn’t know about the mathematical career pursued by much of his family or his later career as a writer) and the Maqdala treasures exhibition at the V&A. I then go to the Rodin exhibition at the British Museum, placing Rodin’s works alongside the Elgin Marbles and other classical sculptures that Rodin has sketched or collected, in the absence of having visited Greece himself. You do suspect that Rodin was at least in part interested in them, due to their shattered and damaged status. I also realise there’s a free exhibition at the British Museum on the work of Nikos Ghika and John Craxton; I particularly like Craxton’s portraits and Ghika’s landscapes, most of which seem like Cubist labyrinths.

Later that day, I go to the Barbican for a Battle of Britain concert, featuring music from Coates, Coward, Lynn and Glenn Miller. In retrospect, I’m not entitled sure how I ended up agreeing to this (by not paying sufficient attention to the programme, I presume) but if the concert is rather enjoyable it’s still rather unnerving to be one of the few people present under seventy. A mention of Gracie Fields during Peter Bowles’ narration gets a loud cheer, which is odd as even given the average age of the audience it seems unlikely many there can actually remember her anymore than I can. It all seems a lot like switching on British Weekend television, where British history apparently stopped some time circa 1963, in the midst of programmes about Victorian Monarchs and Nineteen Fifties Midwifes. Nostalgism, often for periods of time that no-one can remember, is always the dominant mode in English life. At least most of the audience spend an infarction of ‘Land Hope and Glory’ staring awkwardly at their feet, thereby leaving only a few people waving plastic Union Jack flags.

The following day I visit Northampton. It’s a somewhat forgotten town, as is evidenced by the number of rough sleepers on its rather rough high street. The Guildhall as a statue of the town’s most famous son, the former Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, whose main claim to fame was being the only British Premier assassinated in office. But it is nonetheless rather rich in history; a walk from the train station into town takes you past the remains of the castle and the Norman church of St Peter. The Northamptonshire stone is an orange ochre colour that is as distinct as the pink in Herefordshire or the honey colour of Bath stone. In the case of St Peter, the exterior is composed of layers of white and brown stone, while the interior includes a number of Romanesque carvings. As you come to the town centre the first thing you see if All Saints, a Georgian church that manages to include a portico and a dome on something that is otherwise a conventional parish church. Nearby is Guildhall, which is a beautifully elaborate piece of Victorian gothic comparable to anything by Pugin or Scott. I like how details of horseracing have replaced medieval scenes in the stiff leaf carvings. Walking on further, I come to the main thing I’d wanted to visit; 78 Derngate, the only surviving work by Charles Rennie Mackintosh in England. The building is a rather cramped and narrow terrace house, owned at the time by the owner of a company manufacturing model railways. Mackintosh did not visit but did provide designs for the interior. The most startling example of this is a rather small dining room, entirely decorated in black, with thing chequered lines leading up to a frieze of gold triangles, depicting a form of art deco forest. The effect is both rather striking and rather claustrophobic in a room this size. The owner was colour blind, so yellows were used as a preferred colour throughout, leading to the gold triangles becoming a motif. Later on I walk past some redbrick Victorian factories on the river (now inevitably rebuilt as housing) out from the town towards the Eleanor cross. It’s a really impressive thing, surviving where so many of its contemporaries did not and retaining much the same detail as its Victorian simulacrum at Charing Cross.

A few weeks later, and I take the train to Portchester. The castle here dates back to Roman times and is mostly a survival from Norman times; long since surpassed by Portsmouth, the castle feels like something of a time capsule. I walk in through pebble-dash suburban housing until I reach the external walls of the castle. The area inside is rather large but the only building inside are the keep and the church of St Mary. Walking to the other side through the landgate, and you can see sailing boats. Over the glimmering water rises the towers of Portsmouth dockyards.

The following week I have a brief visit to Edinburgh. I spend some time in Gilbert Scott’s Episcopal cathedral, with its Paolozzi stained glass and the church of St Cuthbert, with its Tiffany stained glass.

The Tate’s exhibition on The Shape of Light is an attempt to create a parallel history for photography as a form of abstract art. It covers various possible techniques for this, such as using perspective to dwell on abstract detail (so that Lorca’s Mondrian Windows is placed next to a Mondrian painting, Coburn’s vortographs are paralleled to Lewis’s vorticist painting or a Bourke White photo of a transmission tower is placed near one of Moholy-Nagy’s geometric paintings), interfering with the film chemistry (so that Jackson Pollock is paralleled to photographers like Roger Parry or Hannes Beckmann), circumventing the use of a camera (as with Vitkine’s use of an oscilloscope, Kolarova’s use of Roentgeonograms or Kasten’s use of cyanotypes), painting with light (so that Man Ray is paralleled to Otto Steinert) or by dwelling on found detail (so that Aaron Siskind’s photos of cracking paint are placed near Villeghe’s accretion of Parisian posters).

I’ve just finished reading Malaparte’s Skin. Malaparte’s dominant style is one of irony; much of the book is dedicated to the exposition of how winning a war was an act of shame or that American soldiers became a form of slave labour for the impoverished population of Naples. The most obvious example is his claim that he had found Casa Malaparte pre-built but he had designed the surrounding scenery of Capri. Such irony tends to dissolve normal binary oppositions and the novel accordingly is ambivalent on this score. The same applies to questions of form as much as style, as the novel oscillates between realism and gothic fantasy and often attempts to collapse the distinction between the two (as when Malaparte answers a question about how much of his books are true by fooling a French general into believing that he has just eaten a hand that had been missing since its owner had stepped on a mine). Much of the novel depicts the American soldiers occupying Italy as innocents within a depraved and corrupt civilisation. But it equally attributes much of its degradation to the war, as with Malaparte’s twin insistence that Naples has always been a heart of darkness for immorality and slavery and that the present corruption of Naples is on an abhorrent scale never been known before the war.  A great deal of the novel equally depicts Italy as a Sodom or a Gomorrah facing the rain of fire, where the embrace of freedom is simply an excuse for perversion and depravity.

Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting narrative is a sort of inverted Robinson Crusoe, written from the perspective of Friday. I’m struck by how the narration occupies two perspectives, one that could be loosely termed Equiano’s, the former slave, who pleads for its abolition and the other Vasa’s (the European name given to him), who acts as a missionary to his fellow Africans in spite of repeatedly describing European society as far more immoral.

Reading Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, I’m reminded of Sontag’s observation about our tendency to ascribe metaphysical characteristics to medical or physical conditions where in reality there are none. Dealing with an intersex protagonist, Middlesex is replete with metaphysical aspects, many of them contradictory. One is clearly Biblical (subtly indicated by a character called Milton), with the exodus from Smyrna representing a form of fall into sin. One is mythological, with references to Plato and Ovid on hermaphroditism. Genetics is equated to fate, so that the incest leads to the intersex condition years later, something touched on with Cal’s casting as Tiresias in a school production of Antigone. In reality, incest has little connection with intersex children. But the novel also has a social dimension, covering the immigrant experience in America and the fall of Detroit; in this case, it plays on the theme of self-reinvention as an aspect of American life typifying Cal’s transition from female to male. The consequence is that the novel sets up a tension between the failure of Luce’s theories due to the rise of evolutionary biology versus Zora’s assertion that gender is cultural.

American Modernism

I went to Oxford this weekend to visit the Ashmolean exhibition on American Modernism. It begins with a series of works that show the greatest resemblance to European Modernism, such as paintings by EE Cummings, a ‘poster portrait’ of William Carlos Williams by Charles Demuth or even in some of Strand abstract photography. Much of Georgia O’Keefe’s work fits in here as well, such as a black study of her experience of anaesthesia. In some cases, such as Louis Lozowick’s Red Circle, the influence of Suprematism is evident. But most of the exhibition if occupied with precisionism, the quasi-cubist depiction of the modern city and the machine age. Painters like Charles Sheeler, George Ault, Francis Criss, Samuel Margolies dominate with depictions of factories and skyscrapers. It also blurs the line between painting and photography, showing Sheeler’s photography alongside Bourke White and Abbot. A film by Sheeler and Strand showing Manhattan in the course of a day rather reminds me of Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. The later sections are dedicated to Hopper’s depictions of the American city.

Afterwards, I go on a tour of the cast gallery, a basement in the Ashmolean crammed full of Greco-Roman casts. I recognise a lot of them; casts of the Elgin Marbles, a statue of Diomedes from the Munich Glyptothek, from Trajan’s column or the Winged Victory of Samothrace from the Louvre. In many cases, the constituent components of the casts remain arranged in configurations that are no longer regarded as historically accurate or show groupings that have been dispersed between different galleries and countries.

The Pattern of Friendship

Travelling up to the Midlands, I stop at Compton Verney, for its exhibition on Eric Ravilious and various figures from his circle like the Nashes, Bawden, Freedman, Marx, Garwood and Binyon. I’ve seen a lot of the Nash and Ravilious paintings before but a lot of the rest are new to me. There’s a considerable range of work on display, from painting and Garwood’s woodcuts through to Bawden’s Morley murals and Marx’s textile designs for the London Underground. It seems striking that the woodcuts are some of the most successful works here, largely due to the absence of colour, which often seems confined to a range of subdued colours.The obvious example is Marx’s London Underground seat covers, which set of a range of rather fussy tessellations in yellows and browns; the results are rather hard to like. The most striking work by her in the exhibition is an attempt at a male nude in a Cubist style, which is easily the most obviously modernist piece in the exhibition.  By contrast, Ravilious is successful in moving from painting to decorating ceramics. The exhibition dwells on a lot of his landscape painting, from images of the Downs to his maritime works, concluding in his work as a war artist. Of the other artists, Garwood’s woodcuts mark her as her husband’s equal in that field. Binyon’s illustrations for Penguin Classics similarly suggest that the role of women artists of this period has been undervalued.  By contrast, Bawden’s rather fantastical Morley college murals are one of the highlights in the exhibition but perhaps mark him as a talented illustrator more than an artist; certainly his paintings are less successful. The gallery also has an exhibition of war art, ranging from Victorian paintings to a nurse’s cape stitched with badges from all the regiments she treated (including the Wehrmacht).

The following day, I visit Attingham Park. It’s been a while since I visited and photography is now allowed in the house. The most impressive thing is still the Nash staircase spiralling down to the art gallery and originally from thence to the main hall. The gallery shows a good taste for art, albeit without the means to acquire the most expensive works there are few well known artists (a lot of the works belong to a school or are imitations); Kauffman and Tournier are probably the best known. Some Italian scenes by Hackert are especially striking; a scene showing the excavations at Pompeii springs to mind. I also like a painting showing King William by candlelight. The rest of the house is also beautifully decorated with Scagliola marble and wall frescoes; Fagan’s trompe l’oeil friezes in the entrance hall are especially impressive. By contrast, Calke Abbey remains a mournful relic to aristocratic indolence. Much of the house was left in the state the National Trust found it, which generally means filled with antique junk, bare walls with peeled wallpaper and an alarming amount of taxidermied birds that the family had shot. It feels like an exercise in Urbex more than visiting a stately home. Although some of the rooms remain fairly ornate, the taste for art seems to have been largely absent, with wall after wall filled with paintings of obese cattle in improbably rectangular shapes, painted in the style of Stubbs or Cuyp. The most interesting items are an extensive collection, ranging from Shark’s teeth, Geodes, Fossils and a Crocodile skull. Afterwards, I visit the church at Ticknall, with its William Morris stained glass and medieval tombs.

Lastly, I go for a walk at Bradgate Park. This was the only sunny day all week. I walk up to the Old John folly and head down for a tour of the remains of Bradgate House. The house grounds included a fishing lake, a tiltyard, a bowls court, a formal garden, a kitchen garden (with black Mulberry Tree) and an orchard. A herd of Deer roam about inside, with several of them locking antlers. A Green Woodpecker makes a laughing cry as it watches. Walking round the ruins, I’m able to visit the interior of the only surviving building; the chapel. An impressive monument to Henry and Anne Grey is surmounted by a lion and unicorn design where the face of the lion appears human and is surmounted by horns to suggest the Devil.

Reading Where the Air is Clear by Carlos Fuentes, I’m struck by how much of the narrative could be in an Anglo-American novel. The story of a financier who lgoes bankrupt could come from Dickens or Trollope, but here Roble is lifted to a tragic figure more comparable to Oedipus or Lear, after he is forced to return to an impoverished life he had spent his life escaping. This tension seems fundamental to the narrative; it is partly concerned with how the middle-class had betrayed the Revolution and built their success on the poverty and death of others. It depicts a Mexico desperate to embrace American prosperity at all costs, but it is also concerned with how the Mexican lake of blood is always filled, suggesting that violence and death is simply a cyclical part of Mexican life, epitomised by Ixca’s role as the avenging demon throughout. It’s a novel filled with deaths, many of them simply incidental victims rather than fitting into the moral pattern that brings about Norma’s demise and Roble’s downfall.

Reading Aciman’s Enigma Variations reminds me a bit of DH Lawrence. For all of Lawrence’s tendency to treat heterosexual love as a sacrament his depictions of women lack physicality whereas his depictions of men are emphatically physical. In Aciman’s case, the novel depicts a series of polyamorous affairs with both sexes, but it’s only the male characters who are depicted as intensely physical (the sense of pressing a leg next to another man to see if they move it away springs to mind). Equally, most of the male characters are either depicted as gay or bisexual but none of the women are depicted as anything other than heterosexual.