The Power of Seeing

I missed the annual exhibition at Two Temple Place last year but this year’s exhibition on John Ruskin looked interesting, so I found myself there today. Ruskin is a subject I know reasonably well but there was still some new things to learn here; his interest in geology evidenced in his drawing of geological maps, his collection of botanical and nature illustrations from figures like Audubon and his collection of crystal and rock samples or his use of daguerreotype photography to help with his drawing. The exhibition draws from the museum Ruskin established in Sheffield and includes his own paintings and drawings as well as works by followers like John Wharlton Bunney. It’s not quite as extensive as previous exhibitions and space ends up being given to unrelated works from Sheffield, including paintings of the city and portraits of the inhabitants by William Rothenstein.

Food cooked: Chicken with chorizo and cider.

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Burning the Clocks

It’s been a few years since I visited Brighton. It’s still a place I find confusing; Georgian exuberance and Victorian elegance combine in a city that looks more like a rougher version of Shoreditch or Camden than a normal English seaside town. I recall that last time I entirely forgot to visit the Victorian church of Saint Bartholomew. So, I start there this time; it’s a cavernous dark warehouse of a building with only a brightly decorated set of altars to light up the gloom of the largest nave in the country.

I then walk into the centre and visit the Museum. The main hall here is dedicated to design, featuring chairs by Dali, lamps by Edward James,  tables and vases by Lalique and ceramics by Ravilious. There’s also a wing with traditional British ceramics. Nearby is a small Egyptian gallery, featuring the inevitable Sarcophagus, Fayum portraits and Canopic jars. I especially like a lot of the world galleries, featuring Iranian ceramics, Malagan sculptures and Tatanua masks from New Ireland in Papua New Guinea.  The Performance gallery is also rather striking, with Punch and Judy puppets, Vietnamese water puppets, Indonesian shadow puppets, Japanese Noh masks and ballet masks by Andre Derain. The museum also has a Transology section, making it in the first museum I’ve visited with a parental guidance notice on the door, which covers aspects of trans life from Pride t-shirts to prosthetics and some rather grisly bottled body parts removed in surgery. The fashion section also features outfits and costumes from LGBT residents in Brighton. Lastly, the fine art gallery is rather small but does include a loaned copy of Holbein’s Lady with a Squirrel.  The sun is beginning to fade by the time I leave, so I go for a walk along the Pier and watch the sunset near the ruins of the West Pier.

Back home, I visit the Tate’s Burne Jones exhibition. There are inevitably a lot of paintings I’ve seen many times before here but several that I haven’t like his depiction of Circe or the complete cycle of his Perseus works, with some normal oil paintings, others rather iconographic style  works designed as friezes and others done against wood with silver and gold. Represented together, the series of wan, etiolated figures in his works take on a coherent set of themes, with women seen as sinister and threatening and men as passive and helpless. There are several paintings of men being grasped and held by women; in some male nudity proved controversial at the time. One of a mermaid dragging a drowning sailor downwards is unusual for the malevolent smirk on her face. The overall themes remind me of Swinburne and Simeon Solomon, as well as the influence on decadent artists like Fernand Khnopff.

The question of the relationship between arts and crafts has always been a vexed one; why does a Burne Jones painting count as fine art but not a Burne Jones stained glass window? Or a Picasso ceramic or Sonia Delaunay’s fabrics? This is perhaps exacerbated in the case of modernist abstraction where the sort of geometrical patterns often used in decorative art were replicated in the likes of  Mondrian’s work. The Tate’s exhibition on Anni Albers has this at its centre, being dedicated not only to a female artist but entirely to her work in textiles and weaving. The work is heavily influenced by Bauhaus modernism in the first instance and then after her move to Black Mountain by Mexican textiles. Klee is an obvious influence as is her husband, Josef, with their squares of overlapping colour being mirrored in her work. She typically has a constrained palette of often only around four colours, but uses different materials to highlight differences (the use of metallic thread, for example) or brocading them to elevate one material over another to highlight tactile differences.

The following weekend, I visit the Royal Academy. For some unexplained reason there’s a copy of the Bates Motel in its front courtyard. I initially visit its Oceania exhibition. Covering a huge range of Islands and cultures, it does rather lack any great amount  of detail, covering boats, deities, weapons and housing. I find I recognise quite a lot of the exhibits from the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and the Pitt Rivers. There’s also an exhibition of drawings from Klimt and Schiele, showing the extensive influence of the former on the latter in the early phase of his career. I especially find myself drawn to one of Klimt drawings of a Lady with a Cape and Hat, along with Schiele’s nudes.

After that, I visit the British’s Museum’s Ashurbanipal exhibition, covering the civil wars provoked by dynastic successions and wars with neighbouring empires like Egypt & the Elamites, Relief after relief shows scenes of warfare, whether the siege of Babylon or the decapitated head of an Elamite king resting on a tree branch while Ashurbanipal reclines on a  lounger nearby. The scenes of peace are no less bellicose, with most of the reliefs here showing lion hunts, including one relief showing a dying lion gushing blood.

Finally for 2018, I take a Friday off before Christmas to visit the Wallace Collection’s exhibition on the life of its founder, Richard Wallace. The contents include the horn of St Hubert, Chinese cups used by the Qianlong Emperor and looted from the Summer Palace,an Irish bell relic, Sevres porcelain boxes, a silver Ostrich from Augsburg, Majolica plates and an Ashanti gold mask looted by British troops. Afterwards, I take the chance to visit some of the London churches that are never open at a weekend; St James Spanish Place (a vast Victorian gothic affair), St Peter Vere Street (a Gibbs church, somewhat confusingly featuring Burnes Jones stained glass) and the Grosvenor Chapel.

Simone Weil’s On the Abolition of all Political Parties shares some parts of its analysis with Arendt’s On Totalitarianism; Arendt viewed the broad church Anglo-American parties as less disposed to extremism than their much more cohesive European counterparts. Weil also sees European parties as being worse than their Anglo-American counterparts, although she takes the view that ultimately all such parties enforce conformism and inflame collective irrationality. Recent events would suggest Weil was closer to the heart of the matter than Arendt. As nationalism and increasingly polarised political extremes has risen throughout the world, European parties used to compromising with each other initially acted to preserve the political centre and lock out extremes. By contrast, Anglo-American parties already had significant bodies of opinion in favour of more extremist outlooks. The use of relative open nomination systems such as primaries equally facilitated extremist take-overs of the main parties; while the use of closed first past the post electoral systems acted to prevent any competition from the former centre once that was undertaken (therefore preventing the rise of any Anglo-American equivalent to the French En Marche). As a thesis this has its limits; in Austria and Italy the centre has now been either subverted or displaced as thoroughly its has been in the US or the UK. Equally, it’s entirely unclear how any form of meaningful  Nonetheless, any idea that the Anglo-American party model was better able to withstand the rise of extremist politics seems fundamentally misplaced.

Edmund White’s Our Young Man uses the device of the Dorian Gray mythos to explore gay history. Its ever young central character Guy is a model, and therefore effectively a blank canvas upon which different meanings can be projected over time. Throughout, Guy can be interpreted at will to be either a cipher in the face of events or a ruthless and manipulative intriguer. Partly, this can be attributed to White’s interest in Foucault’s ideas of the self; for example, time in prison transforms Andres from an academic to a thug while despite being twins Kevin and Chris pursue entirely different paths. But equally, as age catches up with Guy, there’s the sense that such matters aren’t infinitely malleable and that he has to decide who is.

Jean Genet’s aesthetic is well known to be that essentially valorises evil; theft, murder and homosexuality are described throughout his work in frequently adulatory terms. However, in Funeral Rites this becomes problematic at the point it intersects with a concept of politics, specifically in the narrator’s love for both a resistance fighter and a Nazi soldier. In some ways, this should not be too surprising; Sontag’s Fascinating Fascism made clear long ago the tendency to fetishise the oppressive, even when those doing so were frequently marginalised group who formed its principal victims. There’s little sense of the gays who ended their lives in concentration camps in Genet, as he depicts the Nazi soldiers fucking male French collaborators. But there is some form of normative concept of morals that is often absent in Genet, a sense of guilt and shame as well as a clear demonstration of the consequences of the occupation.

Eden to Empire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aftermath

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

The Finest Hour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

American Modernism

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

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

The Pattern of Friendship

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

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

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

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

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

Restoration

The Royal Academy’s exhibition on Charles the First’s art collection re-unites the pieces sold off by under the Commonwealth; many of the pieces are marked as on loan from the Queen but a number are also on loan from the Prado and the Louvre. Unsurprisingly, a large amount of the exhibition dwells on the work of the court painter, Van Dyck. Works like his Self-portrait with a Sunflower and Charles the First in Three Positions are quite striking but he remains a painter I find hard to care about. A lot of exhibition also dwells on portraiture; Velasquez’s painting of Philip the Fourth, Titian’s painting of Charles the Fifth as well as Van Dyck’s paintings of Charles himself. Some of the pieces that stand-out for me include Veronese’s Venus, Mars and Cupid, three Gentilleschi paintings of mythical subjects, Mantegna’s cycle of paintings On The Triumph of Caesar and The Crouching Venus sculpture. I often find a lot of the older works especially interesting; Holbein’s portraits, Gossaert’s Adam and Eve, a Massys portrait of Erasmus, Hilliard miniatures of Holbein paintings.

Afterwards, I visit the National Gallery; it’s the final day of a small exhibition showing the four different paintings Akseli Gallen-Kallela painted of the same view of Lake Keitele, as well as related paintings. I do find myself reminded of how Munch tended to show reflections on water.

The following week the Royal Academy exhibition is bookended by a Charles the Second exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery. Amongst other things the number of works in the first still owned by the monarch is explained by Charles passing demanding the return of any items sold from the collection. The focus here is more historical, with numerous prints showing the coronation, popish plots, frost fairs and the glorious revolution, as well as maps showing the extent of the damage from the great fire. However, it does also include Mezzotint (then a new technique) drawings of Charles and James, court paintings by Lely and allegorical paintings by Verrio. Some of the highlights are paintings by Dolci, Gentilleschi (again) and a version of Brueghel’s Massacre of the Innocents (toned down under the Hapsburgs to paint barrels over the children to create a more general scene of plunder).  I especially like a Dutch painting showing the Lord-Mayor’s procession on the Thames past Whitehall palace. Lastly, there are some of Holbein and Leonardo’s drawings. There are some extraordinary works like The Exeter Salt (in the shape of a gold castle), the recast Royal regalia), the Order of the Garter and an ivory sculpture of James the Second.

The Estorick Collection has a small exhibition of works from the Pinacotheca de Brera in Milan. There are some impressive works; a Boccioni self-portrait, a Mondrianesque painting by Licini, a Severini futurist painting of the Paris Metro a Mario Sironi industrial cityscape, three Chirico paintings, portraits by Modigliani. But on the whole, I’m underwhelmed.

Food cooked: Pique Macho, Chicken with Harissa and Fruit, Pork with grapefruit, Masala chicken, Nasi Goreng, Satay chicken, Moussaka, Sweetcorn with lime and feta, Chicken with Walnut and Pomegranate, Tandoori Roast Chicken, Amish Yumasetti Casserole, Rice with Ribs and Black Pudding, Apricot and almond curry, Bigos, Tanzanian Fish Curry, Grapefruit and chicken stew, Eritrean Beef Stew, Chicken curry with sweet potato, Squid stuffed with chorizo, Lamb with Coriander, Portuguese pork with clams, Squid and Couscous, Macau chicken, Javanese Chicken Curry, Smoked Chicken Stroganoff, Chicken and apple pie, Czech peach chicken with croquettes, Baltic Chicken with Tamarind, Thai Peanut Chicken Ramen, Pesto Chicken Stew, Chicken with Rhubarb and Ginger, Chicken Paprikash,Vietnamese chicken with sweet potato.

Red Star

The Modigliani exhibition at the Tate does essentially reveal that his pre-occupation with long elongated figures depicted in the manner of African masks was his overriding pre-occupation.  Aside from a few early works in the manner of Cezanne they from the entirety of the exhibition in a manner that can often be quite disturbing; in particular the section of nude paintings shows a series of forms barely differentiated by hair colour. In combination with the blankness of the faces, where the eyes are solid colours as if they are holes cut out from masks the impersonal nature of the erotic proves rather unsettling. Even in a room of sculptures, the styling does little to stray from the two-dimensional, with faces flattened at either the front or the side as if they were masks rather than complete representations. On one portrait, Cocteau is quoted as saying that it looked nothing like him but did look like Modigliani, which was better. It’s not entirely true; where a satirical caricaturist would inflate the most representative features of their subject in a distorted form, Modigliani’s method is to deform his subject’s features into his own predefined schema (to such an extent that the number of fakes spawned by his work is hardly surprising). The result does indeed always look like a Modigliani but each of his subjects does remain recognisable. In an era of abstraction they are in many ways highly conventional portraits, with the seated subject looking out of the painting at the viewer in most cases.

The Cezanne exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is an interesting contrast. Cezanne’s portraits can also be fairly conventional in their depiction of the subject matter (even if using his technique of applying paint with a palette knife or brushing in diagonals), either showing a cropped view of their head and shoulders or a view of them surrounded by objects that represent them; books for a critic or a cafetiere next to a woman (there is, however, only one painting where the subject’s legs and feet are visible). In others, this is diminished, with backgrounds formed of textured wallpaper or curtains that bleed into the foreground. One painting of his wife is mostly a study in different patterns from the stripes on her dress to the diamond shapes on the wallpaper behind. If Modigliani is most notable for his nudes, the opposite applies to Cezanne; everything is realistic and frequently unflattering. The numerous portraits of his wife are especially striking. In all of them, her hair is fastened back, creating a rather austere and asexual appearance. In some, she wears a red dress that stands out against the greens and blues of the background, whereas in a lot of them, her dress simply fades direct into the background. There’s also something about the way he often represents the features, so that the face resembles the sort of masks Modigliani preferred.

The Tate also has an exhibition on what it refers to as Russian visual culture, but which is essentially a history of Russian agitprop. Beginning with the Tsars use of collage and manipulation to create happy images of the Royal family, it traces the development of Russian propaganda throughout the twentieth century. Initially, that ranges from the collages of artists like Rodchenko, Stepanova, Klutsis and Lissitsky to the use of Agitprop trains during the civil war. Some pieces like Deineka’s bland paintings for the Russian pavilion at the 1937 International Exposition clearly foretell where this stress on propaganda was to lead as the Stalinist era beckoned. But a lot of it comes to be dominated by the techniques used to erase individuals from history, from cropping Trotsky out of photos to simply cutting out the faces of those who had fallen into suspicion.

The Tove Jansson exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery includes a range of her Moomin illustrations, satirical illustrations from the war years, illustrations from other children’s books (Tolkien and Lewis Carroll) as well as her paintings. Her paintings mostly dwell on self-portraits, often rendering her striking features against bright teal backgrounds. A family portrait showing Jansson flanked by her parents and brothers seems particularly striking; her parents wear artists smocks and one of her brothers wears his military uniform while Jansson appears cut off from them, dressed in black as if in mourning. Only her mother looks at her, with a quizzical expression. Conversely, the landscapes are altogether more fantastical.

A few days later, I visit the re-opened Mithraeum in the city. I went many years when it was just a rather forlorn set of walls by a roadside, and while the substance hasn’t changed setting inside a dark but dramatically lit interior does give a somewhat better idea of the original function (even if the effect can be a bit Yorvikesque).

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.