They do it with mirrors

The National Gallery has a small exhibition on Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites, based around the Gallery’s acquisition of The Marriage of Arnolfini at a time when it lacked a wider collection for North Europe. Some of the comparison holds well; both Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites tended to paint in meticulous detail, but the exhibition mostly dwells on the impact of the convex mirror in the Arnolfini portrait. Hunt’s Awakening Conscience, Burne-Jones’ Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor, Rosetti’s Lucrezia Borgia all use the trope, with Holman Hunt’s Lady of Shalott being the most famous example. Later examples include portraits by William Orpen and a self-portrait by Mark Gertler.

The following week I go to the British Museum’s Scythian exhibition. As you would expect for a Nomadic people, the exhibits are essentially grave goods, dwelling on their horses, weaponry and clothing. The goldwork is perhaps the item that stands out most, with a range of buckles and studs carved to show images of hunting. There’s also a great deal of elaborately carved wooden headgear, some worn by the warriors themselves and some by their horses.  It also dwells on the graves themselves, constructed out of logs and housing bodies that had been mummified due to the impossibility of burial during the winter. A decapitated head, tattooed skin fragments and cay death masks feature here. Overall, the exhibition is fertile territory for a game of ‘high status’ bingo, with bonus points to the word ‘ritual.’ Other things that stand out; a Kneller portrait of Peter the Great and a set of drawings of St Petersburg from that time. There are a series of depictions of the Scythians from other cultures, such as a Greek vase and Persian carvings.

Later, I go to St-Botolph-without-Aldgate for The Fourth Choir‘s Chiesa d’Oro concert. The first half of the concert was music from or influenced by Venice of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Some numbers were a capella, others accompanied by a theorbo, which I can safely say I have never seen wearing a woolly hat before. The concert included works by Schütz, Gabrieli, and Monteverdi, with Giovanni Legrenzi’s O vos insipientes mortales being particularly striking. It was also interesting to hear a piece by a female composer, Barbara Strozzi. I was perhaps less enthused by the second half, which dwells on contemporary music, although Kim André Arnesen’s Even When He is Silent stands out, being a setting of an anonymous poem scratched onto a wall of a concentration camp. From Venetian music in a Baroque church to Baroque music in a Gothic church, the following week I go to a New Choir performance of Handel and Bononcini in the Church of St John the Evangelist. There’s a full ensemble and soloists here and the church is much larger, making for a fuller but perhaps less intimate performance than the previous week.

A few weeks later and I’m at the Tate for their Impressionism in London exhibition.If anything, this is three exhibitions; French art at the time of the Commune, Tissot in London and only then the Impressionists in London. Of the first, I’m struck by a photo of the Tuileries in ruins; with a long exposure the apparently deserted sepia photo is populated by the ghosts of people passing in front of it. The paintings range from the apocalyptic (Corot imagining Paris in flames), the symbolic (Dore showing a sister of charity rescuing an orphaned child as the city burns) to documentary (Tissot’s sketches of the war wounded in the requisitioned Theatre Francais). His painting and letters describing the execution of the Communds stand out particularly. English ruin tourism to a Paris devastated in this period was apparently popular and it’s noticeable that a lot of the paintings showing the city in ruins were by Dutch rather than french artists.

In the second exhibition, Tissot has essentially created a new school of art; where French impressionism dwelt on nature and English art either preferred rural sentimentality or Pre-Raphaelite mythology, Tissot dwelt on social realism. The son of a tailer, he detailed how people dressed and behaved, showing society balls, garden parties and boat rides along the Thames. Criticised as having a French sense of morality (one man and two women together in a boat counted as immoral) it’s a more accurate sense of London than any Englishman of the time recorded. Much the same applies to Giuseppe de Nittis, with his paintings of Hyde Park, Trafalgar Square and the Houses of Parliament in the fog. Finally, the last exhibition gets round to the Impressionists. The highlights here are undoubtedly Monet’s series showing the Houses of Parliament along with Whistler’s nocturnes of the Thames. London fog appealed to the impressionist aesthetic but this only works for urban scenes; Sisley and Pissaro’s depictions of Sydenham, Kew and Hampton Court are picturesque but far from Monet’s depictions of rural France. Perhaps the most extraordinary piece is a view of Leicester Square lit up in the dark; it rather reminds me of the sort of work the Futurists were undertaking. As I walked back along the Embankment to Westminster, the sky is a pale blue with strands of dark cloud lazily uncoiling across it. The fading sunlight falls onto the Houses of Parliament washing the honey coloured stone in pink.

Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North is a novel of two contrapunctal movements, epitomised in the split between the narrator and Mustafa Sa’eed. Both are former Sudanese expatriates heavily exposed to Western culture and both are presented as mirror images of the other (as when the narrator enters Sa’eed’s study and believes he is seeing a portrait of Sa’eed before he realises it is a mirror). The novel deploys various ways to consider the nature of an expatriate experience that leaves individuals caught between two cultures, as when it mentions a tree that has been grafted to produce oranges and lemons, with the implication that the fruit is sterile. Similarly, Sa’eed creates an Eastern style interior to his bedroom in London later counterpointed by his Western style study on the banks of the Nile.

The role of the narrator in the novel is to look at events in Sudan through the eyes of a Westernised civil servant working to modernise the country’s infrastructure. When Sa’eed’s widow is forced to remarry against her will and kills both herself and her aged husband, it emerges as an indictment of the patriarchal Sudanese culture (although the novel implies that had the narrator agreed to a polygamous marriage with the widow she would still be alive). For a novel in which the role of woman is pivotal, it remains an oddity as to how absent they largely are, only emerging out of the shadows at key points. Conversely, Sa’eed attempts to invert the role of Othello in England, by adopting the role of the predatory libertine, saying “I have come to you as a conqueror.” Unlike his Shakespearean counterpart, he implies that he was no passive or innocent victim of events; “I am no Othello.” The truth of this is something the novel debates. Sa’ed’s seduction techniques rely on presenting himself as an exoticised other, in a way that belies his status as a respected Establishment figure, leaving his conquests in the role of Orientalist and him as their subject. Certainly the pivotal scenes with Jean Morris suggest that he is indeed playing the role of Othello, with her cast as both Iago and Desdemona combined. His role in her death is arguably little more than that of an instrument, hence the debate about the question of his agency in the trial scenes.

Prison literature is a particularly Russian genre, thinking of the various accounts by Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn in particular. Alexander Berkman’s Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist feels like an attempt to recast the genre in an American context. Guilty of attempting to assassinate the industrialist Henry Clay Frick, it’s reasonable to argue that Berkman does not get treated in the manner of a conventional criminal and his account does clearly depict a system that was both corrupt and inhumane. Equally though, Berkman’s view of human life is disturbingly instrumental and much of his account demonstrates little sympathy for his actions from the strikers he had sought to defend. Instead throughout, he sees his fellow inmates as victims of false consciousness.

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Things the mind already knows

Winter seems to have come early this year, as I find myself walking through drizzle at Piccadilly Circus. I’m mostly here to see the Jasper Johns exhibition at the Royal Academy and as I enter, the first thing I notice is how physical his work is, with oil thickly plastered onto the canvas, layers of encaustic and in later works in the exhibition, objects embedded into the canvas, from string, collaged newspaper, neon lights and brushes through to wax limbs. Much of his work plays with ideas of representation in this way, with images of numbers, the American flag, targets and maps turned into painting but also deconstructed, turn into monochrome representations of themselves. The nature of meaning is contested as numbers are super-imposed on one another, everyday objects like lightbulbs are replicated as sculptures and, in a reference to Wittgenstein, colour labels are written in a colour other than the one they refer to. Intertextual References abound to Holbein, Crane, Tennyson and Munch throughout. Like Warhol, he dwells on depicting a pair of ale cans as sculptures or creating a bronze sculpture of paint brushes in a coffee pot, questioning what is representing what.

The Academy is also running a smaller exhibition on the relationship between Dali and Duchamp. There are certainly similarities; both started in a cubist idiom (the exhibition includes a Cubist self portrait by Dali and a Duchamp portrait of a chess match in a Cubist style, The King and Queeen Surrounded by Swift Nudes) and both experimented with readymades (it includes Duchamp’s fountain and Dali’s lobster phone), both experimented with media (as with Dali’s Hitchcock collaboration or Duchamp’s rotoreliefs) and both shared a playful sense of humour (as with their joint rewriting of the Mona Lisa to include a moustache). But there are rather stark differences; Dali’s surrealism amounted to almost a private mythology (often borrowing extensively from Christian imagery, as with the painting of St John of the Cross, shown here) articulated largely through painting, neither of which are particularly true of Duchamp.

The following week I go to a showing of the 1920 version of The Golem, accompanied by a talk on how while this film was a dead-end in terms of later re-makes, its aesthetic proved influential on Universal’s version of Frankenstein; certainly the scene with the monster and the child reminds me of Frankenstein. But a lot of the visual trickery in the film is more Melies while the gothic set design (at least on the interior sets; the exterior is Ruritanian) is a sinuously organic counterpart to Dr Kaligari.

That weekend, I go to a showing of Blade Runner 2049. The main thing that occurs to me is how much of its dystopian future is already here, from a world dominated to corporations and artificial intelligence to climate failure. Even the brands referenced in the film, whether Atari, Pan-Am or Peugot have the nostalgic sense of belonging to yesteryear.

The Great Wave

The combination of security theatre and a crowded exhibition with glacially moving crowds does make the British Museum’s Hokusai exhibition something of an ordeal, but it’s worth it for a chance to see some of the most famous non-Western artworks in history. The exhibition covers a range of Hokusai’s work, from hanging scrolls and paintings to wooden temple ceiling panels and woodblock prints. The series of prints showing views of Mount Fuji dominates along with views of waterfalls, ghosts and scenes from literature, showing how Hokusai had gradually introduced European style perspective and increased the range of colours in his prints; it was also interesting to note that the predominant colour used was the European Prussian blue. The paintings strike me as rather odd; the combination of bright colours with shading rather than flat blocks of colours lends it rather more of a cartoonish air than the woodblock prints. Some of the more unexpected items include bird’s eye style map views of Japan and China or a pair of scrolls showing two androgynous youths, who were probably sex workers.

The museum also has a smaller exhibition of British watercolours from artists like Whistler,  Nash, Minton, Moore and Sutherland, a small exhibition featuring masks and totems from the Northwest Coast Peoples of Canada, and a set of paintings depicting military figures from the Maoist era in the style of the terracotta warriors. Lastly, the Chinese admonitions scroll is on a rather brief display.

The area around the Albert Hall has now also been barricaded off with a set of concrete blockades and the entrance is subject to security checks. It is a little depressingly like living in wartime. I’ve gone to see Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina and Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust, with the former being easily the more impressive of the two. Around this, I visit the Natural History Museum. The whale that is now centre stage in the Hintze Hall is more impressive than the former occupant, Dippy the Diplodocus, in many ways; it floats above the visitors, its spine curved like it is diving. On the other hand, since it is facing downwards I find it a lot harder to photograph than Dippy.  While I’m there I visit the Anning fossils, the bird taxidermy, some Blaschka models and the geological hall with its Ostro stone centre piece. The following day I visit the Museum of London in Docklands, with its exhibition covering the slave trade through to the second world war and the regeneration of the area afterwards. There’s also an exhibition of the Roman remains unearthed by the Crossrail works.

Later, I go to a Czech Prom (which suffers from presenting dismembered excerpts from Dvorak, Smetana and Janacek; the best piece is easily Martinu’s Field Mass) and Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito. Metastasio’s plot does feel rather like a tragedy aborted in deference to contemporary political concerns. I also visit Dulwich Picture Gallery’s exhibition of John Singer Sergeant watercolours; pictures of watery locations like Venice and Istanbul work rather well but less so for more pastoral scenes where the detail of drawing might have worked better.

Reading JR Ackerley’s My Father and Myself is an odd experience. The essential intent of the book is to highlight the secret sexual lives of Ackerley and his father; in Ackerley’s own case, amounting to encounters with other a hundred other men, in the case of his father, a secret family and children kept hidden from his wife. Ackerley also speculates about whether his father had offered sexual favours to wealthy men during his time as an aristocrat. By the standards of the time, it would have been Ackerley’s own experiences that would have been deemed the more transgressive; the book makes perfectly clear that the puritanism of English culture at the time was perfectly compatible with heterosexual privilege. Certainly, Ackerley’s narrative is remarkably frank by the standards of the time, but by contemporary standards he seems a sexual cripple; a series of fixations and dysfunctions make clear that his encounters amounted to very little indeed. Where his father seems effortlessly able to marry his romantic and sexual lives across a series of three women, Ackerley’s quest amongst working class men for a Platonic ideal is doomed to failure.

Something similar applies to Crisp’s Naked Civil Servant. Crisp’s obvious effeminacy meant that he unavoidably had to ‘put his case’ to the world around him (to the dismay of other gay man at the the time, who did not wish to see attention drawn to what Crisp refers to as their abnormality) often at the cost of his safety after repeated queerbashings, but he is dismissing of legislation improving the position of homosexuals in any way. At times, he ridicules the idea that homosexuality is a sin but at others he’s frank that he considers his homosexuality as nothing more than an illness. Crisp’s wit is often (lazily) compared to Wilde, but if Wilde was a libertine, Crisp was an ascetic, leading a spartan existence and scorning camp as little more than drawing attention to a deficiency. For someone who once worked as a prostitute, Crisp mostly  seemed to regard sex as an unwelcome form of effort.

Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island presents a narrative based around the efforts of a ‘corporate anthropologist’ to find a unifying key to modern culture. The narrator often cites Levi Strauss and his failed efforts to locate an authentic form of culture that hasn’t been contaminated by exposure to the modern world. For all of the narrator’s references to theorists like Deleuze, one assumes that McCarthy is thinking of Derrida’s critique of Levi Strauss when he compares such corporate anthropology to icthyomancy or a cargo cult. The result in the novel is that the grand theory becomes a broken heap of images; of parachutes that fail to open or protests at a G7 summit in Italy. If there is a unifying idea it is waste, whether an oil slick or an island composed of the refuse of modern culture (the novel assumes its title is a malapropism for Staten Island refuse tip, a scenario that reminds of of De Lillo’s Underworld).

Tony Kushner’s Angels in America offers a similar cocktails of references, unified by the theme of the dismantling of the individual ego and its discover of community; Kushner references Brecht’s learning plays, Biblical stories of wrestling with the angel through to Bloom’s Oedipal ideas of the anxiety of influence. You can see such themes emerge in Joe’s realisation that his embrace of Mormonism, Heteronormativity and Conservatism (embodied in his relationship with Roy Cohn) are fraudulent. But equally, the play is at its best celebrating the outsider and the eccentric and perhaps at its worst at missing the role religion has played in homophobia.

Capriccios

The Canaletto exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery (the one in London, that is) is rather small but does cover a lot of territory I hadn’t seen before, from views of the interior of San Marco to large paintings of Rome, dwelling on the Roman ruins in particular. There are also a lot of capriccio paintings showing fantastical gardens and desolate ruins far away from the Venetian canals. There are also several paintings from Canaletto’s contemporaries; views of a ruined monument to Newton by Ricci, for example.

Omar El Akkad’s American War is ostensibly a dystopian novel depicting a second American civil war after the South opposes a Federal law banning fossil fuels. A lot of the detail, such as climate change causing the Mississippi to become a large inland sea relates to that theme but much of the book is essentially concerned with depicting events in Middle Eastern history grafted onto an American context, with a series of drone strikes, refugee camps, militias, suicide bombings and a prison camp essentially analogous to Guantanamo being shown. The novel is set in a period where the Maghreb has become one of the world’s largest empires and interferes in the American war as the former United States degenerates into a set of failed states, but it omits any of the features you might expect in American politics; the NRA, the Religious Right or race divisions are all entirely absent. I also feel ambivalent about some of the sexual politics; the novel shows an ideology that is intrinsically masculinist, noting boxing matches to the death while boys join militias and women become war widows. But the society of the Red States doesn’t seem especially patriarchal; for example, birth control or gay rights are never mentioned, making the decision to make the terrorist who unleashes a devastating biological weapon a lesbian seems awkward at best.

Reading Stendhal’s Love reminded me somewhat of Wollstonecraft’s version of feminism as a means of casting feminine wiles as a form of corruption born of subjugation opposed to more traditional masculine virtues; Stendhal certainly supports women’s right to education or to divorce but alongside a commitment to what would become female emancipation, the novel also invests in concepts of romantic love that did inherently paint a conservative picture of women.

 

Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon

There are certain classes of city for whom their geography is an intrinsic part of their aesthetic; thinking of the Venetian archipelago with its canals and bridges, Prague with its castle on the hill and the lower town separated from it by the river or Manhattan island. Lisbon, with its self-conscious series of miradours as new views unfold between differing combinations of hills overlooking the Tagus, certainly also fits into this class.

The first day on my arrival is spent in the Gulbenkian. It’s a rather odd building building; a Barbican style brutalist conceit surrounded by pleasant gardens occupied by swimming ducklings and sunbathing terrapins. It looks like stumbling across an illustration of Speer’s theory of ruin value in the jungle. Some of the things that leap out to me; the Lalique jewellery, the Islamic tiles and ceramics, a Rembrandt painting of an old man, Greek coins depicting Alexander, Chinese porcelain, Majolica and Della Robbia roundels, paintings by Hubert Robert, Guardi views of Venice, a Monet winter landscape, and some unexpected Burne Jones paintings. Afterwards, we got to the modern art museum; less interesting but I like some of the paintings by Amadeo de Souza Cardoso and, a Sonia Delaunay painting and the tapestries by José de Almada Negreiros. Afterwards we go for a walk in Parque Eduardo VII to the Aqueduto das Aguas Livres.

The following day I get off the Metro at the Praca dos Restauradores and visit the Igreja de São Domingos, with its ruined interior. I then wonder down to the steampunk Elevador de Santa Justa before visiting the Convento do Carmo, the bleached bones of a church ruined in the 1755 earthquake combined with a museum in its surviving buildings, that spans medieval tombs, Peruvian mummies, English Alabaster, Incan sculptures and an Egyptian mummy. After that, I go to the Igreja de São Roque. Like a lot of Portuguese churches, it’s an especially elaborate exercise in gilded baroque, in this case with a large collection of Saint’s head reliquaries. The accompanying museum features a range of medieval painted sculptures. I then walk down past the Pessoa sculpture at the Cafe Brasileira towards the city’s riverfront at the Praça do Comércio.  It’s an especially beautiful square with the open vista of the Tagus on one side and the yellow of the Arco da Rua Augusta buildings on the other side. I then walk eastwards in the direction of the Alfama, past the Manueline remains of the Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, and the Casa dos Bicos up to the Sé. The cathedral is a dark Romanesque building with  a later gothic cloister in contrast to the rather colourful architecture surrounding it. After that, I head further up the hill to the Castelo de São Jorge. Little remains of the Moorish castle beyond an extensive series of walls that seem to meander endlessly. It’s hot in the late afternoon sun and I finally sit down to watch a rehearsal for a Tango concert.  A somewhat territorial part-albino peacock occasionally cries out.

The following day I travel out on a rather crowded tram to Belém and the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. I’m a little surprised at how busy this is relative to anything else in Lisbon and have to queue for a rather longtime. Once inside, the detailing on the Manueline gothic is incredible, while the church of Santa Maria is rather more impressive than the cathedral in Lisbon, complete with Vasco da Gama’s tomb. Afterwards, I walk around some of the nearby park, looking at a Thai temple and the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, before visiting the Torre de Belém. The queues are again rather long here, but once inside it really does feel like looking out on the edge of the world as one stares off into the infinity of the Atlantic ocean.  I spend a bit of time in the Archaeological Museum; some impressive gold torcs, Lusitanian warrior statues, Egyptian cartonnage masks, Roman mosaics, and a beautiful plate depicting Perseus and Medusa. Lastly, I go for a walk along the Tagus to get a view the Golden Gate style Ponte de 25 April.

The next day sees me to take a train out to Sintra. I make the mistake of walking to the Palácio da Pena, which proves a rather uncertain path, but it’s certainly worth it on arrival. The Palace is a blazing riot of colour and fantastical architectural styles. Elaborate gargoyles compete with ceramics to detail the exterior walls. I begin by walking round its outer walls; the view off into the distance is surprisingly hazy. I walk inside the chapel with is strikingly colourful stained glass before entering the palace; I especially like a lot of the detailed stained glass and Turkish sculptures. I then walk around the park; it’s effectively a botanical garden with valleys filled with ferns, giant Redwood trees, lily filled ponds,  all dotted with follies of Islamic domes, Swiss style chalets and Greek temples, before ending in a series of lakes. Dragon flies flit across the lake. I then walk up to the  Castelo dos Mouros. Butterflies flit about and rest in the sun on the walls.

The following day, I decide to return to Sintra, having not had enough time for everything I’d wanted to do the previous day. This time I stay closer to the centre of the town and visit the Palacio Nacional. There’s a series of centrepiece rooms revolving around their ceiling designs; the Swan room, the Magpie room, the Galley room and the Mermaid room. The Mudejar style chapel and Coat of Arms room are probably the most impressive, along with a pagoda model given to the Portuguese Queen by the Senate of Macau. The kitchens are actually also rather striking, given the massively over-sized chimneys that resemble kilns more than anything else. Finally, I walk to Quinta da Regaleira. The house here is rather small, albeit with much of the interior covered in elaborate plasterwork, frescoes and mosaics. The grounds by contrast are extensive and filled with follies, from crenellated towers through to spiralling wells and underground tunnels. As I pause for a break a small vole scurries across the path.

The next day is back in Libson and I visit the Pantheon. Loosely modelled on its Parisian equivalent, most of the building was originally an uncompleted church until the Salazar government had the dome added to complete it for this purpose. The monuments are eclectic, ranging from cenotaphs to Vasco da Gama and Henry the Navigator, Fado singers and football players. You can walk up to the dome gallery and from there out onto the roof of the church. After that, I go to the church of São Vicente de Fora, with its elaborate series of cloisters whose walls are lined with Azulejo tiles, many of them based on Fontaine’s fables. The monastery also contains a series of Royal tombs and you can go up onto the roof here as well. Lastly, I visit the rather steampunk Water Museum at Barbadinhos.

The next day I take the tram out to Alcantara and the Museu do Oriente. It’s rather out of the way and seems somewhat sparsely visited but it’s a really excellent museum. It covers Portugal’s colonial history, dwelling on Macau and Goa in particular, with exhibits ranging from Namban screens, porcelain, Bodhisattva sculptures, Netsuke and carved ivory; there’s a good set of paintings of early Macau and a small area dedicated to east Timor, including carvings of Westerners. The upper floor in the museum is dedicated to Chinese opera; from Mao-era glove puppets through to series of strange masks and costumes. I then walk eastwards back to the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga. There’s a range of paintings by Memling, Metsys, Cranach, Tiepolo, Bosch (a painting I’d seen last year in the Prado) as well as Nuno Gonçalves. There’s also a complete Della Robbia statue, something I’d not seen before. The crafts section spans Islamic tiles, Brussels tapestries, an ornate monstrance, a Benin saltcellar, Mughal cabinets and medieval Portuguese sculptures made of wood. The museum has a pleasant garden filled with statues and I pause for a bit for the view out to the Ponte de 25 April.

The next day I take the train up to Porto. The train station itself is particularly impressive, its walls covered in Azulejo depictions of scenes from Portuguese history. The first thing I do is visit the nearby cathedral; like Lisbon, it’s a dark Romanesque affair but here the gothic cloisters have been covered in Azulejo tiles. I then walk downhill to the Rraca da Ribeira and the Dom Luís I Bridge; it’s a rather more impressive waterfront than in Lisbon due to sharp incline down to the river on both sides. From where I stand, I can see over to the monastery and port cellars on the others. I then visit the Igreja de Sao Francisco, a beautifully gilded baroque church filled with elaborate painted wooden statues showing scenes from the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian to a Tree of Jesse.  The church has an extraordinary series of catacombs, filled with named niches for dead priests until it ceased to be used as an ossuary in the mid 19th century. I then visit the Lello bookshop with its Escheresque staircase.  I then visit the Clerigos tower, with its rather labyrinthine series of stairwells sitting between the outer and inner walls before visiting some of the churches and returning to the train station.

On the final day, I walk to the nearby bullring before visiting the Decorative Arts Museum and the Casa Museu Dr A Gonçalves.

While out in Lisbon, I was reading Multatulis Max Havelaar. It’s an interesting book; I can’t think of any English account of its colonial practices that was so critical, although the author does veer between a number of positions; criticism of the colonial principle as intrinsically wrong, criticism of specific aspects of colonial administration and criticism of the corrupt rule of the native aristocracy; for all of the criticisms of colonialism there is little here to advocate self-rule. Part of the reason for this diffraction lies in the Matryoshka like structure of the book. It is ostensibly the product of the editing of a set of documents written by Droogstoppel’s former’s classmate Sjaalman, with the distance in views between them being satirically foregrounded. Then within the novel itself, Havelaar’s narrative is counterpointed by the tale Saidjah and Adinda, the one point in the novel where the Javanese are allowed to speak for themselves.

I also read Interzone, a set of stores and drafts that preceded Naked Lunch, albeit mostly written in the still realistic style of Junky. Much of the content is familiar; Burroughs makes clear that he was in Tangier due to its lax attitude to gay sex, but the narratives are filled with internalised homophobia; he writes of a “silly fairy… under (whose) vacuous camping, I see pure evil… a loathsome insect.” Elsewhere he writes of “embattled queens… histrionic guestures and pathetic screams.” It also shows a lot of the fear of the feminine, as when he writes of “her cunt clicks open like a snap-knife.”As ever Burroughs’ homosexuality is partly a revulsion against femininity but which manifests itself further in fear of male effeminacy.  One of the ways this manifests itself is in the creation of the William Lee character, a version of Burroughs distanced from such things; “I include the author, Lee, in the novel and by doing so separate myself from him so that he becomes another character.” Everything in the narrative is fractured; “Tangier seems to exist on several dimensions…. fact merges into dream and dreams erupt into the real world… nobody in Tangier is what they seem to be.”

 

 

 

 

Disagreeable objects

Back up in the Midlands, I visit one of my favourite places; Wightwick Manor. The De Morgan collection of William’s ceramics and Evelyn’s paintings has recently opened in its new home at the Manor, so this is the first time I’ve seen it since it left its former home in London. The lustreware ceramics are easily as beautiful as I remember them; the paintings are more mixed. The best of them recall Botticelli and Burne Jones; the worst can be rather garish exercises in symbolism.  I also visit Shugborough while I’m up there. It’s not really a place I’ll ever love as such; the grounds are beautiful in the summer, with the reflections of the bridge in the water by the Chinese house being particularly lovely but the brutalist house never really seems in keeping. Some more of the follies are open to visitors than I recall, including Hadrian’s arch.

Back down in London, I visit the Tate’s Giacometti exhibition. The main thing that strikes me is the paintings,which rather remind me of Bacon’s Screaming Popes series. I also rather like some of his earlier surrealist inspired objects as well as his design work, but once he reaches his style for sculpting figures it sets fasts and quickly becomes repetitive.

My choice of reading Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism was obviously prompted by currents events, but in practice her definition of the term is heavily restricted, with it only being applied to Hitler and Stalin and exempting Mao, Lenin and Mussolini. There are parallels to current events though; I’m struck by how she describes totalitarianism are aiming to impose a fictitious mythos rather than producing realistic policy aims. Liberals aiming to critique consistently fail to understand that it has no intention of being a realistic response to events and will not be impaired even as its policies demonstrably fail; Arendt specifically says totalitarian states were often characterised by confused and contradictory government structures and counter-intuitive aims (such as the waste of resources entailed by the final solution in the middle of  a war). The essence of government is reduced to the erratic and inconsistent dictats of the leader. It’s difficult not to think of Trump or the Brexit vote here; Gove’s dismissal of experts obliterated all rational discussion from the campaign and left only fraudulent bromides behind. Blizzards of disinformation in both cases have settled to a point where the populations of both countries seem indifferent to the flagrant charlatanism of their political classes.

Arendt’s analysis of the rise of fascism in the thirties is also interesting; with England remaining stable she characterises the two party system as the source of it, given that it forced both parties to accept a stake in government that could only me met with realistic policies. By contrast, parties in multi-party states could simply retreat into ideological fantasy. In contemporary events, the reverse has been true with the US and UK winner takes all systems embracing ever more extreme and polarised politics even as European parties continued to draw cordon sanitaires around the sources of the infection.

 

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.

 

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.