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.
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.
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.
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.
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, Rice with Ribs and Black Pudding, Apricot and almond curry, Chicken curry with sweet potato, Portuguese pork with clams, Javanese Chicken Curry, Chicken and apple pie, Czech peach chicken with croquettes.
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).
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.
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. As Fredric Jameson argued, science fiction does not offer us the future, but rather a transformed present. In this case, the Asian dystopia of the original film has given way to a multi-cultural world of Russian-speaking toughs and African merchants. The figure of K as a white, male victim-hero seems problematic against this background; like Ghost in the Shell, the main characters are all white in spite of the setting.
On other films, comparing Call Me By Your Name with God’s Own Country is an interesting exercise. Both deal with a foreigner awakening the main character but differ sharply beyond that. The former presents the unusual proposition of an adolescent gay romance; guilt and shame are essentially absent from the film. But equally, it far more coy over gay sex that it is with Elio’s straight sex. Nor does the conclusion seem satisfactory; Oliver’s declaration of marriage is retained while the section in which it is made clear that Elio remains gay is omitted. It makes the episode set in a summery past somewhere in the eighties seem like a transience. It also doesn’t entirely help that Armie Hammer’s rather stolid Oliver doesn’t seem an entirely suitable fit for the role of a Jewish academic. Conversely, the gay sex in God’s Own Country is pretty explicit and often both dirty and brutal; presented as an artefact of Johnny and Gheorghe’s lives as much as skinning a dead lamb. The film depicts repression as the dominant characteristic of English life; not solely in relation to sexuality but to the hardship of farming life and the Eastern European immigrant experience.
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.
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.