Cottonopolis

Manchester reminds me of London rather more than anywhere else in England. Some of this is attributable to some of its rather warren like streets, but its more to do with the nest of cranes covering much of the skyline. Whereas coming into Birmingham on the train still passes an empty waste ground near the former Euston station, the train into Manchester passes through a series of construction sites. The only substantial skyscrapers outside of London are to be found here, although there’s nothing comparable to the Shard or the Gherkin; the Beetham tower deserves more comparison with the Heron Tower. Equally, there’s nothing really to match some of the public sector projects in other English cities, like Birmingham and Liverpool’s new libraries or the Sage in Gateshead. With that said, it’s impossible not to notice that beneath all the new towers the number of rough sleepers in Manchester seems a lot higher than in London.

Arriving at Piccadilly, I walk into the centre of town. Most of the city’s architecture is unsurprisingly Victorian, but the walk passes through a range of periods; the central Library built in the thirties by Vincent Harris with its beautiful stained glass panels based on Shakespearean characters, the gothic revival town hall built by Waterhouse with its corresponding statues of Cobden, Gladstone and Prince Albert, the church of St Ann with its enamelled stained glass built just before the Georgian period and the medieval Cathedral. Damaged during the blitz, the interior is in itself a conflation of styles with medieval choir stalls sitting near contemporary stained glass.

I spend sometime in Barry’s art gallery. I recall most of the pieces from a previous visit years ago; it’s nice to re-acquaint myself with paintings like Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs, Mengin’s Sappho, Valette’s Windsor Bridge on the Irwell, Prinsep’s At the Golden Gate and works by Sickert, Augustus John, Lowry and Gewn John. There’s also a rare Giacometti painting. Annoyingly a lot of the galleries are shut, but there is an exhibition on work by Wynford Dewhurst, an early English advocate of impressionism, whose work is heavily influenced by Monet.  There’s also a small Dutch painting exhibition, including some landscapes by Ruisdael. Afterwards I visit the John Rylands Library. Built to a design by Basil Champneys, the interior is essentially based on a gothic revival church, with reading desks substituted for pews and statues of the founders substituted for the altar. Lacking Victorian high-church decoration, the gloom of the interior is only counterpointed by the lights. Lastly, I visit the Manchester Museum, through its collections of Egyptian sculpture and sarcophagi, coral, body casts from Pompeii, Palymran sculpture, Scrimshaws, Samurai armour, a stuffed Tigon, Benin ivories, a terrarium inhabited by rare frog species, an Elephant skeleton, gold Buddha statues, mounted Butterfly specimens, an Archaeopteryx fossil, Moche & Nazca sculptures, a Whale skeleton and a stuffed Dodo.

Liverpool is a more eclectic prospect. The area outside Lime Street Station is filled with Victorian building and monuments, from St George’s Hall to the Walker Gallery, but as you walk down towards the Mersey the area is filled with Edwardian designs that seem rather more reminiscent of New York than most English cities. The Portland stone recalls London more than Manchester or Birmingham. Liverpool’s most impressive buildings cluster around the waterfront here, facing outward to Ireland and the United States; combined with immigration from Ireland it’s little wonder that the city seems atypical for England.  Unlike Manchester, the skyline is not dotted with cranes and the contemporary buildings resembling black shards house the public sector bodies like the Museum of Liverpool. The redbrick warehouses around Albert Dock revert to Victoriana, while the two twentieth century cathedrals sit alongside Georgian houses. Statues of Queen Victoria compete with the Beatles and Cilla Black.

I start by visiting the Walker Gallery with its large collection of casts and Victorian sculptures; a painted Venus by Gibson mirrors a plain version I’d seen at the Fitzwilliam a few months earlier. There’s also an arts and crafts section showing Victorian ceramics from local potteries alongside stained glass and tiles by Burne Jones, a Minton peacock and Fornasetti plates. Upstairs houses the huge painting collection, featuring works by Holbein, Cranach, Rembrandt, a fake Mona Lisa, Titian, Veronese, Poussin, Hogarth, Wright, Freud, Doig, Minton and Knight. I’m especially struck by a set of Bosch like paintings by Albert Reynolds, a local artist who died in the First World War. As another local artist there’s also rather more of Stubbs than I would really have liked. The Victorian collection is quite large already but there’s an additional exhibition featuring works by Sandys, Rossetti, Millais, Maclise, Holman Hunt and Burne Jones. There’s also an unusual example of a Daguerre painting. Some of the artists are less familiar as they’d stayed with the Pre Raphaelite style well into the twentieth century, like John Struthwick or because of their gender, as with Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale. A lot of the paintings like Dante’s Dream by Rossetti or Stanhope’s Expulsion from Eden are new to me in any case.

Down at the Pierhead, I visit both the Tate and the Maritime Museum. The former has a small Ellsworth Kelly exhibition as well as a smattering of works by Rothko and Lowry; particularly memorable works include an abstract painting by Gabriel Orozco, Perlin’s painting of Two Orthodox Boys and above all Grosz’s Suicide. The Maritime Museum includes a set of paintings showing how the Liverpool seafront changed over time but the main exhibitions dwell on the sinkings of the Lusitania and the Titanic.

Walking away from the waterfront I arrive at the Anglican cathedral. Despite the gothic detailing it’s hardly less imposing than his power station designs; the vast interior is incredibly dark with floodlights doing little to illuminate the cavernous interior. More than anything, it reminds me of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Brussels (and to a lesser extent Sacre Coeur in Paris), which also towers over the city. As I leave on the train, the only thing visible from a distance is the cathedral tower rising up above the sea of terraced roofs. Close-up, walking around the building takes you down a cliff edge to a Victorian graveyard (including Huskisson’s tomb) and then leads back up a to quiet wood at the back of the building. Not too far is its Catholic counterpart; an unusual circular building designed by Gibberd which already seems to be falling apart if the bad state of the interior is enough to judge by. The main interest is the Lutyens crypt which extends well beyond the area of the building. Plans showing the full Lutyens design for a building which would have dwarfed everything else in the city do rather remind me (almost certainly unfairly) of Speer’s Germania plans.

The last place I visit in the North West is Chester. I walk in from the train station, noticing the redevelopment of the derelict shot tower and steam mills by the canal before heading into the centre with its half-timbered buildings. The main thing I’m interested in is the cathedral; a red sandstone affair like Lichfield whose exterior is covered in grotesques and gargoyles. The first thing you see are the cloisters, whose windows are filled with Victorian stained glass and whose interior garden pond seems popular with the local ducks.  The cathedral proper has a wonderful set of medieval misericords, an Austrian cobweb painting, Minton tiling and some unusual Victorian wall mosaics.  Afterwards, I go for a walk along the Roman walls, stopping at the amphitheatre and baths.

Lenin’s Finger

The Design Museum’s Imaginary Moscow exhibition recalls a lot of points from the Royal Academy’s Revolutionary Art exhibition that I’d attended the week before; suprematist inkwells, ‘Those who do not work do not eat’ porcelain or the film of the destruction of Moscow’s cathedral to build the Palace of the Soviets (although the film of the freezing cold swimming pool Brezhnvev converted the aborted construction project into is new). A suprematist children’s book featuring the adventures of two squares is also something of a novelty.

This exhibition dwells on unbuilt aspects of Moscow; the Palace itself (including a fullsize model of the finger from the Lenin statue),  designs for Lenin’s mausoleum, the Lenin institute, communal housing and government buildings. Architectural blueprints from Lissitzky and Melnikov are punctuated by suprematist drawings from Popova and propaganda posters. Leonidov’s Lenin Institute and Lissitzy’s Cloud Iron designs are utopian gravity-defying designs that would be challenging now, while Vesnin’s Commissariat of Heavy Industry and Iofan’s Palace are much more similar to buildings that were actually constructed at the time (in concept if not in scale). The designs for Lenin’s Mausoleum are rather more fantastical given that many of those submitting designs worked in professions like carpentry; in one such concept Lenin is precariously balanced on top of a large globe surmounting the building. A film showing all of the planned construction in Moscow sits alongside Aelita Queen of Mars, and much of it does indeed look like a set of model for a science fiction film.

Afterwards, I walk round Holland Park, looking at the lovely Kyoto and Dutch gardens; the waters in the pond are perfectly clear and carp can be seen swimmingly lazily about below. I also run into a squirrel and encounter a peacock before walking down the Thames to Albert Bridge and then back to Victoria.

The following week I go to the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition. As one might surmise the interest is as much in a social history than in art; items include the fatal calling card from the Marquess of Queensbury (unsurprisingly his handwriting was as terrible as his spelling), physique magazines, Wilde’s cell door, stills from Victim, Noel Coward’s dressing gown, a copy of the Wolfenden report and (most entertainingly) a set of over two hundred buttons collected as trophies from guardsman a gay couple had slept with. Much of the exhibition dwells on theatreland and music hall; there are probably few exhibitions where photos of historical drag acts sit alongside the Bloomsbury Group.

The exhibition begins in the Victorian period with Simeon Solomon, Edward Leighton and Henry Scott Tuke; I’d previously been unaware that Evelyn de Morgan’s relationship with Jane Hales is often interpreted as like that of Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal, with Jane’s face recurring on paintings like that of Aurora, shown here. Interpretation plays greatly here; if Meteyard’s painting of Love in Bondage was not intended as an allegory of forbidden love, it gains that interpretation by the association of its context here. Equally, figures like Semele and Endymion take on a same-sex aspect purely due to Solomon’s androgynous rendering (which is not intrinsically all that different to someone like Burne Jones) rather than by the specific subject matter. Even so, it’s often a rather mournful section; a Solomon drawing shows a male bridegroom holding the hand of his melancholy lover behind his back as he embraces his bride. A cup is dedicated ‘on the mournful occasion of his transition into matrimony.’

In a lot of cases, the gay element is the subject rather than the artist; the next room features paintings of Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis along with a series of beautifully elaborate miniatures designed for a lesbian couple (one of the many reminders that while figures like Solomon and Wilde loom large so many people quietly lived, loved and passed away unremarked). Two portraits of Radclyffe Hall and Oscar Wilde stand near one another. Both are dressed similarly but where the Wilde portrait is a full length depiction of a confident and successful man (auctioned after his disgrace), Hall’s is more emphatic. She looks away from the viewer and her expression is somber. Much of the exhibits are much defiantly pagan; Beardsley’s Yellow Book illustrations, Cecil Beaton’s glittering photos of figures like Stephen Tennant through to Duncan Grant’s paintings of bathers.  A painting of Laura Knight painting a female nude is another example of the layers of meaning being accrued to a work rather than something inherent in it, in contrast to the more explicit intention behind a similar nude by Dora Carrington.

I’m surprised to see examples of Halliwell and Orton’s legendary defaced library books and equally surprised by how funny they are; there’s also one of Halliwell’s paintings. For all his reputation as an artistic failure, it’s rather good. Finally, the later sections are taken by with Hockney and Bacon alongside less well known artists like Keith Vaughan, John Minton and John Craxton. The Minton paintings particularly interest me; I also like some of John Deakin’s photographs of London’s gay scene, from Francis Bacon to a woman dressed as a drag queen, Afterwards, I go to the David Gwinnutt photos at the National Portrait Gallery, extending the same theme into the eighties. I also note one of Grayson’s Perry’s drawings; Map of Days. It uses a medieval town map as a model for mental states, including pastiches of a range of architectural styles. Not sure I’ve liked all of Perry’s work, but I like this.

Corbet’s Childhood of a Leader is something of an oddity; an attempt at depicting the childhood of a future fascist leader during the drafting of the Versailles treaty. Some of the incidents used echo actual events (Mussolini would throw stones at a church in his childhood just like his proxy here) but the comfortably bourgeois background as the son of an establishment diplomat looks little like those of Hitler, Stalin or Mussolini, who all came from rather more lower class milieu. The abstraction is something of a problem; it doesn’t really tell us much about the likes of Franco or Mosley and doesn’t really seem to apply well to contemporary demagogues either; it would work as well as a frame for a serial killer film as for the purposes devised for it here. The film intends to show how power changes depending on the social status involved, with this being paralleled to the peace conference; the sacking of an elderly servant forming one of the key events.  Nonetheless, the film mostly stresses the personality traits that go into the development of such a mentality and decentres social or economic elements (perhaps this is rather welcome given the contemporary tendency to stress the former above all else). The film is loosely based on a Sartre story showing such a scenario in Freudian terms; The boy’s infatuation with his tutor turns to anger when he discovers her alone with his father; the plot does deviate from the straightforward Freudian line when  his conspiracy against both of them to end in an act of violence against his mother whose absence had previously given him nightmares.  The child’s feminine appearance is often commented on (with the boy’s long hair he looks a lot like Bjorn Anderson in the film of Death in Venice). The use of the same actor to depict both a family friend and the adult dictator (this time with his hair entirely cropped) further suggests the issue of paternity is complicated.

I get taken to a couple of plays as well; firstly, The Miser at The Garrick. Played as a straightforward farce with plenty of topical references (trickle down economics, boom and bust) and audience interaction (mostly to an unnamed banker in the front row), it works very well. A pointed reference to the Guardian’s three star review (on the grounds that all the characters were played as grotesques, not just the Miser) doesn’t really diminish this. By contrast, Salome at the National Theatre is plain dire; the staging is often very imaginative (as a character walks along a ladder into the light or as a curtain of sand falls in the background) but even the incessant wailing in the background and the turning of the circular stage are just plain annoying but its turned from an exercise in eroticism into rather trite political agitprop.

Pastoral and Industrial

With a few exhibitions that I wanted to visit closing shortly, I had something of a marathon session in London today. At the Royal Academy, I started visiting the Russian Revolutionary Art exhibition. The main interest of the exhibition is perhaps historical rather than artistic (having already seen more than a few of the works by Rodchenko, Malevich, Popova and Vertov), showing responses to the revolution from a range of different schools operating in different media. For example, the first room shows 19th century style historical paintings of the revolutionary demonstrations,  iconographic style depictions of Lenin, Wedgewood style figures sewing pro-Soviet banners (not nearly as good as a later figurine of a bourgeois woman selling her possessions), realistic portraits of Lenin and naif portraits of Stalin that were judged suicidal to attempt to present to him.

The later sections are mostly organised thematically rather than chronologically; paintings of factories and workshops, photography of construction sites, textiles replacing bourgeois Accanthus leaves with tesselated patterns of machinery; Arkady Shaiket’s photos particularly stand out. The agriculture section counterposes Malevich’s faceless peasants with rather sentimental images from collective farms. Other section dwell on nostalogia for the Russia that was lost; images from expatriate journals printed in Berlin, scenes of birch woods and cathedrals from Konstantin Yuon and Igor Grabar. Other sections include Lissitsky’s architectural designs, a glider design from Tatlin, Petrusov’s architectural photography, models of Iofan’s designs for the Palace of the Soviets and Shchusev’s designs for Lenin’s mausoleum. Other sections counterpoint this with pure artistic subjects; a recreation of Malevich’s room at the ‘Thirteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic’ along with paintings submitted by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. I hadn’t see his work before, which comprises a set of still lives defined by odd angles and a series of rather spiritual portraits, like the Petrograd Madonna.

I also go to their other exhibition, American painting in the 1930s. Some of it rather reminds me of the Russian exhibition (not least the picture of Lenin placed in a post-industrial wasteland by Gugliemi); Charles Sheeler’s industrial paintings mirror similar Russian paintings. The pastoral paintings seem rather different though; Russian paintings operate in a romantic or impressionistic mode, whereas someone like Grant Wood operates in a mode that is more reminiscent of Stanley Spencer. The landscape undulates and flows in a strange fashion  and Grant’s paintings focus on details like imminent car crashes rather than Spencer’s mystical pre-occupations. There are also some interesting American responses to European art; Ilya Bolotowsky’s Miro style paintings or surrealist paintings by Gugliemi or Castellon. There are also two very striking paintings by Hopper (a gas station and the interior of a cinema) and a familiar painting by Georgia O’Keefe. I don’t really care for a lot of the paintings, but it’s worth it if only to see Wood’s American Gothic.

Lastly, I make my way to the V&A for an eleventh hour visit to their Lockwood Kipling exhibition, which includes a range of Indian textiles, jewellery and arms he brought back from Lahore and Bombay, his arts and crafts designs, paintings of the Great Exhibition,  drawings of Indian craftsmen, illustrations for his son’s book, koftgari plates, illustrations of Islamic architecture, a beautiful wedding chest  and Indian wooden door carvings.

 

Unity for Europe

About 9 months ago, I wrote a piece here about the horror and despair I felt about the outcome of the EU referendum. Have my feelings changed at all in the intervening time? In all frankness, no. Brexit is proving every bit as bad as I had feared. In the time since the referendum we’ve witnessed attempts to undermine the independence of the Bank of England, the judiciary, the civil service, the BBC and the sovereignty of Parliament. The integrity of the United Kingdom is threatened. The fall in the value of the pound is now feeding inflation into the economy while financial services firms begin to enact plans to move operations into the European Union.  Racism is normalised into the political mainstream even as the first warnings of job shortages begin to set in as people choose not to stay in the UK. We’ve seen the early signs of the promulgation of a Dolchstoßlegende from a Leave camp that had never believed it would win and seems keen to pre-emptively lay blame for their own failure. The putative benefits to Brexit have begin to dissipate while the risks begin to crystallise.

That’s why I found myself at the Unity for Europe March to Parliament today. Getting on the Tube at Marble Arch I  joined the Liberal Democrat contingent, managed by a minor miracle to meet up with a friend on Park Lane before walking through to Parliament Square.  We watches speeches from Nick Clegg, Alastair Campbell, Peter Tatchell and David Lammy; Lammy is surprisingly blunt in saying his own leadership is now following the UKIP line as much as the Tories but the best speech is from Clegg in making clear how many of the wounds since the referendum have been inflicted by the government on itself. It’s noticeable that the Liberals are very visible throughout; Labour much less so. At one point the arrival of a sound system playing ABBA makes me wonder if I’ve stumbled into a Pride march by mistake. We bumped into a few famous faces like Tim Farron  along the way and enjoyed quite a lot of the placards – ‘Hurdy Gurdy Players Against Brexit’ and ‘Botanists Against Brexit’ (complete with Rafflesia hat) probably deserve to win some form of award, although my personal favourite remains the concisely eloquent ‘Tut.’ The one that sticks in my mind though is a banner that looks like an old NUM banner. It reads ‘Our Yorkshire Rose:Jo Cox.’

Parallel Lines

The Hockney exhibition at the Tate is one of the most popular exhibitions I can recall there, with a long queue snaking round the central hall. We wait for our time slot for a while wondering around the permanent collection; a few things that leap out are Sunil Gupta’s photographs of gay couples, Wolfgang Tillman’s photographic series around Heathrow, a Bridget Rile line painting, Chair by Allen Jones and a sculpture of Saint Sebastian by Eric Gill.

When we do get in, it’s interesting how although Hockney’s style changes over time, the focus on perspective remains consistent; early works showing a flattened box of tea or a flat figure pressed against  an illusionary window foretell the compound eye approach to photography and painting later adopted. Some of the early works fit into a whimsical approach to trompe l’oeil; an abstract painting of geometrical objects that is actually a realistic depiction of a red rubber ring floating in a swimming pool or a Hogarth parody where a woman holding a candle out of a window can have it lit by a figure standing on the hill behind her. The early work that most predicts his later work shows his boyfriend sleeping while Hockney is shown behind him sketching; only for this to become clear as an unfinished self portrait hung behind the figure.

This theme continues in the Californian paintings; the various pools occupied by naked men tend to be shown as flat blue planes whose surfaces are covered in snaking lines t reflect the play of light. The buildings are always modernist structures characterised by rigid lines; even lawn sprinklers spout water in precisely triangular shapes. The turn towards naturalistic painting maintains this focus; in each portrait the two figures are essentially shown at right angles to one another; often a figure stares out towards the viewer while the other figure looks at the first. Mr and Mrs Clark are unusual in both looking out at the viewer and it is appropriately left to Percy the cat to turn his back on the viewer and stare out of the window instead.

The compound eye approach I spoke of becomes evident in the photographs; the photo of Gregory Swimming replaces the intersecting lines of the pool paintings where the water, the building and a diving board converge with a series of fragmented moments in both time and space, concurrently showing Gregory at multiple points. The same follows as Hockney’s interest in landscape emerges with photos of the Grand Canyon, Ryoanji and Yorkshire. The landscape paintings differ from the photographs in deliberately warping space; a painting of the Wolds piles each field up in a series of vertiginous planes. The result looks more like one of Escher’s Italian drawings than traditional English pastoral. Something similar goes for the Grand Canyon paintings’ it’s noticable that a forced restriction of Hockney’s palette (to Red in this case or Green for England) is helpful in counteracting the surfeit of primary colour in some of his Californian paintings. His further series of Yorkshire paintings and videos (some of which I’d seen before at the Royal Academy) are always split between multiple canvasses, even where one large canvas would be perfectly possible. In the video series, each screen represents  a different camera showing slightly different angles.

A few weeks later and I visit the Ashmolean’s Degas to Picasso exhibition. A lot of this consists of drawings; Gericault’s equestrian drawings, Daumier’s satirical drawings of the French assembly, a Manet drawing of his mistress, studies for his paintings of Berthe Morisot and The Execution of Maximilian, an Ingres study for his Odalisque painting and Millet drawings of shepherds and sailors. Paintings tend to be from more minor artists; a Cubist city view from Gleizes, a Mother and Child from Leger, a Villon Cubist portrait of his father or a Metzinger landscape. More diverting is a smaller exhibition showing Hiroshige views of Mount Fuji; I especially like an unusual urban scene showing a Tokyo street stretching off into a vanishing point with Fuji appearing to rise up at that juncture.

The following week and I go to London to see a performance of The Taming of the Shrew at the Globe. It’s perhaps played a little too much as a comedy for my taste, with frequent interludes of modern music, whereas arguably it’s better to treat it as a problem play. The production tries to soften some of the problematic aspects of the text; for example by interpolating a puppet sequence to draw out some of the abusive implications of Katherina’s last speech; Gloria Onitiri certainly plays it as a tragic role.  I have a brief look around the Tate afterwards, looking at some of Agnes Martin’s white paintings, Anish Kapoor sculpture, Bridget Riley op-art, surealist paintings and work by the New Tendencies group.

Totes Meer

Much like the Rauschenberg exhibiton I visited last year,  the Tate’s Paul Nash exhibition illustrates the various facets of a particularly complex artist whose work varied from landscape painting, collage, surrealism, found objects, sculpture and war painting. The initial sections show the influence of Blake and the Pre-Raphaelites; the work divides between mythical paintings (from an angel fighting a birdlike demon to pyramids in the ocean) and landscapes that dwell on a mystical but inherent genius loci (as with Wittenham Clumps or Whiteleaf Cross).  Paintings of Dymchurch Steps with its pill box on the beach begin to show a Chiricoesque sense of the strangeness of everyday objects. A very English building shows an infinite regress inside it while a blue house on the shore emerges as a series of Eschersque angles. You also see how in spite of the notional realism, his work shares some cubist pre-occupations with geometry; clouds show as icebergs in the sky rather than as whisps of vapour while the sea emerges as a series of lines.  The war paintings show a similar style, although the strangeness here often comes from the quotidian rather than the exceptional, as with a sun blazing out over the new world of a barren battlefield.

Pre-occuptions also begin to emerge with framing, with landscapes seen from an open window so as to bisect the scene.  A view from Nash’s St Pancras flat out through scaffolding achieves the same thing in a unusual urban setting; later this feeds into works like his Mansions of the Dead painting. The landscapes become more obviously surrealist, with an infinite regress with Convolvulus at the centre. Others dwell on objects, as with scenes showing a petrified tree in a landscape. Objects begin to loom particularly large from this point onwards, with an emphasis on incorporating found objects as sculpture; glove stretchers assembled into a forest, photographs mixed with rocks in display cases, a skull painted gold and coated with shells in remembrance of The Tempest and Ernst style frottage drawings. His paintings begin to dwell on objects like dead trees and Avebury monoliths; the parallels between the tree paintings and his Totes Meer paintings of wrecked German bombers seems clear. Paintings of flowers in the sky recall the Spanish describing parachutes as flowers of the air. The last paintings return to landscapes and re-capture some of his original sense of mysticism, as with a painting of the sun as a flower.

The following week I go to the Estorick Collection’s exhibition of WW1 British artists in Italy.  Much of the first room is taken up by Sidney Carline’s paintings; showing Sopwith Camel dogfights above the Veneto, Austrian prisoners being driven towards the Italian lines and British artillery in Vicenza. The other half is taken up with photos taken by William Joseph Brunell; I especially like his photos of ruined castles damaged in the war.

The following week, I go to the new Design Museum in Holland Park. The old Commonwealth Institute building is rather impressive with its sweeping lines; the vast empty interior seems somewhat anti-climactic by comparison. The permanent exhibition is on the second floor on a wending path up past an auditorium; once inside it is a rather cramped and rambling stretch through Harry Beck and Memphis to Zaha Hadid and Jonny Ives. After this, I visit the Sussex Modernism exhibition at Two Temple Place. The ground floor here is mostly occupied by Eric Bell’s commune at Ditchling and the Bloomsbury Group at Charleston. Covering Gill sculptures, Bell paintings and a coffer by Gauder Brzeska, I especially like Grant’s decorated Leda and the Swan chest and his homoerotic version of a Seurat painting, Bathers by the Pond. The upper floors are rather less coherent; the Mae West lips sofa by Edward James and Dali, Piper paintings of Chichester cathedral and Dover cliffs, Lee Miller photographs and Edward Burra paintings.

Reading LP Hartley’s The Harness Room leaves me wondering why its currently out of print, in contrast to Forster’s Maurice, another late gay novel from a writer who had only written previously of heterosexual themes. I assume that whereas Maurice had an ending in the greenwood that tallied with gay liberation themes, The Harness Room reflects a rather darker tone that is rather more in keeping with Hartley’s other work (or even with Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask). The boxing training offered by the bisexual Carrington to the soft youth Fergus does begin to toughen and ‘masculinise’ Fergus in the way his father intended, but as the two begin to sleep together, it also leaves Fergus unsympathetic to the feminine world denoted by his stepmother’s unwelcome attentions. Homosexuality becomes a rejection of the feminine rather than an expression of effeminacy. The parallels between boxing and fucking in the novel begin to take on a sado-masochistic tone; when Carrington accidentally kills Fergus in a boxing match,  the ending is redolent of Freudian explanations, from internalised homophobia, through to Carrington  unconsciously attempting to spare Fergus from a conventional heterosexual life, and whether the action was simply that of a jealous lover.

I’ve also read John Rechy’s City of Night. Most of the text is essentially a picaresque series of depictions of the narrator’s life as a hustler across different American cities, reflecting little on his own motivations until his rejection of an offer of love towards the end of the book. The book repeatedly uses two contrasting metaphors throughout; the mask and the mirror, reflecting the extent to which gay identity is either something constructed or something imposed.  Gay identity is something that is a parody of both masculinity and femininity but also something inescapable. The life of the hustler is at turns either a tragic and nihilistic existence that is fated to fail as the hustler ages and as a form of incipient counter-culture in revolt from society. Comparing City of Night to Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn though and the shift from first (gay) person to third (straight) person does make a marked difference; Selby’s tale of the transvestite hopelessly in love with an indifferent straight man casts her as a victim in a way that Rechy’s narrator doesn’t accept.

Aciman’s Call be Your Name has a Proustian obsession with time; the novel draws an anaology between the church of San Clemente’s Mithraic past, its Christian present and between the gay affair of its narrators and the later marriage and parenthood of at least one of them. Prelapsarian metaphors abound, albeit with apricots (as much in apricating as in the actual fruit) and clementines (as in Clemente as much as in the actual fruit) replacing apples. Gayness seems oddly transient in a novel where both of the main characters are bisexual, and the novel often dwells on the idea of existence as a series of parallel lives (which gayness largely figuring as the road not taken) and the idea of gay love as a blurring of the boundaries between two selves; Elio and Oliver do indeed call each other by their own names as well as wearing each other’s clothing (although the only explicitly gay couple in the novel are mocked for wearing matching clothes). A poet in Rome tells of a visit to Thailand and his confusion over the gender of someone he drank with, but the novel does seem to imply that such confusion is as temporary as a holiday, whether to Rome or to Bangkok.

Edmund White’s two specifically autobiographical works, City Boy and My Lives, both remind me a lot of Isherwood (albeit White’s tone is considerably more gossipy); both writers re-use material from their own lives but depict it in shards and fragments and never as an entire narrative. City Boy depicts White’s time in New York while My Lives eschews the linear narrative in favour of a series of themes; hustlers, parents, friends and lovers but also places like Paris and concepts like his Genet biography. As White admits it omits as much as it includes; the process of writing his novels, his teaching career or two lovers he frequently references but never devotes chapters to.  One aspect that comes over is the influence of Genet and Foucault; White describes how Genet was an effeminate youth who transformed himself into something more masculine in his thirties, just as White writes that his gym visits predated this becoming a common aspect of gay culture. White seems ambivalent about Foucault’s concepts about the construction of the self, but does share them to some extent; he writes about how gay men in the fifties had no narrative available to them other than those of sin, illness and criminality. The convergence of Stonewall, feminism and black civil rights created an entirely new narrative that transformed self perceptions even as gay men themselves were unsure how much they believed. One consequence was the transformation of the gay male from the sort of gender transgression White had depicted in Hotel de Dream to the hyper masculine clone. Conversely, White spent so much time in therapy, Freudian in particular, to entirely give up on such ideas about the development of the self, with the sections on his parents especially abounding in them.

Food cooked: Latvian fish and mushroom pie, Veal with grapes and apricot, Chicken and preserved lemon pie, Masala Roast Chicken, Wiener Schnitzel, Miso potato salad, Vietnamese lime and coconut curry, Chicken Marbella, Chicken Bastilla, Bouillabaisse, Russian Salmon pie, Chicken cooked in milk, Rakott káposzta, Gammon cooked with cola.

The Winter of Our Discontent

Travelling up to the Midlands for Christmas I visit the church at Binton in Warwickshire to look at the stained glass; a series of four panels depicting Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition. The panels show a range of scenes including the departure of Captain Oates from the expedition tent. I later visit some other churches and National Trust houses in that area; a church at Lapworth with a Norman font, the house at Baddesley Clinton (including a Saenredam style stained glass panel showing an exhumation inside a church that I don’t recall having noticed before) and the nearby church with  medieval stained glass.

A few days later I visit Leicester and the tomb of King Richard. The tomb, an austere affair in marble with the shape of a cross cut out of it, contrasts rather oddly with the ornate Victorian cathedral it is housed in. The nearby Tom Denny window depicting scenes from Richard’s life seems rather more at home amidst the green man corbels, polychromatic wooden angels and Tudor tomb monuments. Next, I visit the nearby Guildhall with its long gallery and wooden clock showing Father Time and the church of St Mary De Castro. Lastly, I visit the Museum and Gallery. I dimly recall visiting it as a child after the discovery of the Rutland Dinosaur and some of those memories come back to me now. Alongside the Plesiosaur and Cetiosaurus bones, the Charnia fossil and a piece of the Barwell meteorite, some of the fossils from the Oxford Clay formation are also impressive. The museum’s collections are rather wondeful beyond that; a series of Egyptian sarcophagi and funerary stelae, Persian ceramics, an arts and crafts section showing work by De Morgan and Ernest Gimson, blue john vases and a set of Picasso ceramics bequeathed by Richard Attenborough. There’s an especially striking German expressionism exhibition, featuring work by Franz Marc, Lyonel Feininger, Max Pechstein, Kathe Kollwitz, Kokoschka, Max Beckmann and Kandinsky. The work I’m most impressed by is Stormtroopers Advancing Under Gas by Otto Dix.

The Radical Eye

On a rare sunny day in early December, I head into London to see the Tate’s exhibition of modernist photography. The first room is dominated by Man Ray’s portraits, contrasting his erotic depictions of Kiki de Montparnasse with Brassai’s depiction of gay nightlife. Later sections dwell on the male body more closely in photos by Lynes, Maar, Kertesz and Drtikol. This section is perhaps also noteworthy for the theme of masks in photos by Sougez, Quigley and Steichen. The next section is dedicated to photographic experimentalism; montages by Bayer and Breitenbach, solarised Man Ray photographs. Then, it moves onto documentary; photos by depression America in the twenties by Adams, Evans and Lange. The penultimate section dwells on perspectives; Rodchenko’s photo of the Shukhov tower and Bourke White’s photos of electricity pylons,the Chrysler Building and the Washington Bridge. The last section features abstracts by Funke and Man Ray again.

I also visit the Robert Rauschenberg exhibition at the same gallery. The main image that sticks in my mind  is a collage showing Bobby Kennedy, Janis Joplin and the body of Martin Luther King; I start to wonder whether Rauschenberg  formed part of the same counter-culture as Joplin or was parasitic upon it. A lot of the propositional aspects of his work stem from the photographs and objects he re-uses in them, while much of his approach to art, especially given his various scientific collaborations, was essentially technocratic, focused on formalistic experimentation. Each section in the exhibition seems an exercise in self-reinvention; the first room dwells on his cyanotypes and Malevich style painting of solid blocks of white and black. The next dwells on his use of collage and real objects in the red paintings and the combines and the increased use of animated objects like alarm clocks, lights and radios. The next covers his use of transfer drawings and silkscreens before showing  footage of his dance collaborations . The next section of technological collaborations is probably the most bizarre, with ‘Mud Muse’ (complete with a sign warning that the mud geysers may splash clothing) probably counting as the strangest thing I’ve seen in a museum.

Some of the pieces I like; boxes filled with surreal objects in imitation of reliquaries (I’m more reminded of Joesph Cornell), a square filled with thickly and coarsely layered gold leaf, his transfer rendition of Dante’s inferno with riot police replacing demons and astronauts replacing angels, the hoarfrost transfer drawing,  the ‘glut’ sculptures of twisted metal made from gas station signs and car parts to showcase the ruin of greed during the oil crisis and lastly a silkscree transfer of his photographs onto aluminium. The most famous piece is obviously ‘Monogram’ – it’s reasonable to conclude that I am unlikely to ever see a piece labelled ‘Oil painted onto a taxidermied Angora Goat’ again.

The following weekend, I visit Dulwich Picture Gallery. When I’d thought of the name van ve Velde  I’d mostly think of maritime paintings by Willem van de Velde, of which the gallery includes a couple. The gallery’s exhibition of paintings by his son Adriaen, dwells instead on landscapes and is more reminiscent of someone like Ruisdael or Constable than the work of his father or brother. Some beach scenes occupy the first room but the focus is on the figures not the landscape. The exhibition feels rather padded, with rather too many sketches and drawings showing his working method and too few paintings.  The highlights are a portrait of a family (erroneously once thought to show Velde himself) staring intently out of the frame while walking in the countryside and a set of ice skating scenes.

Ascending and Descending

I’ve wanted to visit University College for sometime now, mostly because of the Shelley Memorial. Set in a railed off part of the college the memorial is a beautiful piece with the white marble of the naked figure set against spare purple walls. The college chapel is also rather wonderful with a series of stained glass panels showing Genesis and Jonah & the whale. Next, I visit the Blavatnik building. The circular exterior has an amphitheatre as its lecture hall as the base, with concentric ramps up to the upper floors. There’s a series of spiral staircases that lead upwards to a terrace looking out over the city. Later, I go to Pembroke where the chapel has a Bach organ concert.

The following weekend is the open doors days for London. I visit the baroque church of St John Smith Square (an orchestra here is giving a  rendition of the Van der Valk theme tune) before visiting Cutler’s Hall in the city. As one might expect the hall features elephant designs everywhere; in the stained glass, the banisters, cushions and rafters. There’s some rather beautiful stained glass showing a series of industrial scenes; rather unusual for the Victorian period. I then visit some of the Victorian dock warehouses at Wapping before visiting the Royal Society. Exhibits like Newton’s death mask and some of Priestley’s electrical equipment are on display. Lastly, I visit the William Morris gallery in Hammersmith, where a printing press demonstration is being held. The next day, I visit the Sandys Row synagogue. Tucked away in a warren of lanes, the interior is rather expansive, although the combination of an old Bimah with a set of what look like thirties pews is rather odd.

A few weeks later, and I head to Reading for the open day at Reading Gaol.  A tour leads us throughout the original debtor’s prison, through rooms that look like they were only abandoned a few weeks ago.  The highlight of the main prison wings is obviously Oscar Wilde’s cell and the prison chapel, along with photo and video installations by Nan Goldin and Wolfgang Tillmans. Alongside the modern installations are various photographs of the prisoners and of the prison as it originally stood.

A few weeks later and I visit the Royal Academy’s Abstract Expressionism exhibition. The most impressive room is dedicated to Clyfford Still’s work; where Pollock’s work aims to emulate the entropic element of nature, Still’s work does often rather resemble natural patterns; the bark peeling off a silver birch, rust on old machinery or paint peeling off a wooden door. The sense of depth is a lot greater than on Pollock’s accreted layers of dripped paints. The other highlight is the room dedicated to Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt. Reinhardt’s work composites layers of similar paint combinations on top of one another; the black paintings in particular require quite a lot of time for the eye to adjust to see the colour variations. It’s like the visual equivalent of  a Philip Glass painting. The Newman works remind me rather more of Mondrian, with their flat planes of bold primary colour intersected by vertical ‘zips.’ Other things that strike me; Barbara Morgan’s black and white light paintings, Lee Krasner’s The Eye if the First Circle, Kline’s Vawdavitch, De Kooning’s Villa Borghese and a small collection of Rothkos. There’s also a small John Gibson exhibition, showing a range of scuptures and funerary monuments.  A few weeks later and I go to the National Gallery’s Caravaggio exhibition.  Works by Caravaggio are interspersed alongside pieces by his followers.  Some of the earliest works, like those by Francesco Buoneri mirror his master closely. Later works by Gentilleschi, Reni and Ribera, Regnier and Tournier diverge more in their greater use of colour. Later sections record the irony that while Caravaggio never painted a candlelit scene this was arguably  his greatest influence, shown here in works by Honthorst and de la Tour.

Lastly, I find myself spending an afternoon in Cambridge. I visit the chapel at Robinson college, with its wonderful stained glass landscape window by John Piper, before spending a few hours in the Fitzwilliam. Things that catch my attention; a bust of Antinous, Greek dramatic masks, a Roman mosaic, a Gibson Venus, the collection of Egyptian sarcophagi, the spectre of Braze Alonzo, a Burges cupboard and a trillion Dollar Zimbabwean note.

Tombland

Arriving in Norwich, I walk over the Wensum river and through a park with a Hepworth sculpture in it, through to the church of St George Colegate. The exterior of the church looks a lot like other buildings in the city, the exterior is of beautiful flint but the interior is Georgian, with plain white walls and wooden furnishings. Walking into the centre, I visit the main square, which is a slightly bewildering concoction of architectural styles. The Guildhall’s wall are filled with white and black diamond patterns while opposite is the City Hall, a sort of brutalist art deco building with an entrance flanked by two rather elegant lions. I then visit the church of St Peter Mancroft, with its ornate wooden flèche.  The interior includes a medieval wooden font canopy, Flemish tapestries, medieval stained glass and a Comper designed reredo. The architectural gallimaufry is further compounded by the nearby presence of a beautiful art nouveau shopping arcade. I then wonder around some of the other nearby churches in Norwich, many of them shut like St Giles, or others that have been turned into shops like St Michael-at-Plea or indoor markets like St Gregory Pottergate.

The next day begins with a rare burst of sunlight and I visit rather dark and gloomy Catholic Cathedral before visiting its Anglican counterpart. It seems somewhat odd to have to walk in through a modern visitor centre, although I do like (admittedly rather incongruous) Zen gravel garden. This leads out into the cloisters and I spend some time looking at the ceiling bosses; Green men, Hellmouths, Demons and the Many Headed Beast from Revelations. Inside the cathedral I look at medieval frescos, Burne Jones stained glass, medieval stained glass, a former toffee vat re-purposed as a font and the famous Gooding monument. I also visit some of the now open churches nearby; St George Tombland with its papier mache civic dragon, Flemish reliefs of St George and the dragon and Kempe stained glass. I also visit St Peter Hungate, which is mostly empty and home to a photo exhibition of Norfolk churches. There are some old wooden pews with carvings of muzzled bears, medieval stained glass and brass monuments left though.

That afternoon the weather worsens and I visit the Museum and Art gallery in the castle. Sections like the Norwich school of painters with their bucolic scenes of the local countryside do little for me, although I do like one night scene set in Amsterdam.  There aren’t many works I recognise; a version of the Anunciation by Burne Jones and a portrait by Zoffany. There’s also the painting of the Paston treasure, accompanied by some of the objects in it. Things I like; the original Snap the Civic Dragon from St George Tombland, medieval stained glass showing the seasons, Roman metal bowls showing mythological scenes, the original Romanesque entry door, the Spong man ceramic lid, the Worthing helmet, the Snettisham torcs and medieval alabaster carvings. I’m also rather struck of the country’s largest collection of teapots; stoneware through to Wedgewood, teapots cast as tanks and as camels, as well as the world’s largest teapot, a chinoiserie affair from the Great Exhibition. The design section has a large collection of medieval stained glass, de Morgan tiles, while the Natural History section has a large collection of taxidermy animals; lions, a boxing Kangaroo and a Cassowary. I also like Scrimshaw Whale teeth and Nautilus shells. As in Exeter Museum, there’s a small room showcasing the displays of a Victorian collector, ranging from mounted butterflies through to custard pots. I’m especially taken by the Egyptian room, including a Mummy sarcophagus and Rider Haggard’s faked sherd from She. Lastly, there’s a rather macabre basement dwelling on the castle’s time as a prison and featuring casts of the heads of various murderers and criminals.

On my last day in Norfolk, I take a train out to Wymondham. It’s a rather dark and gloomy day and the old ruins look suitably gothic against a blackened sky. The interior is actually rather colourful, with another vivid set of Comper reredos in the midst of a series of Romanesque arches.