As it was a nice day I decided to visit the Freud Museum in Finchley today. Bearng blue plaques to both Freud and his daughter Anna, he only lived here for a year after his flight from the flat he had occupied for 40 years in Vienna. The contents include drawings of Freud by Dali, woodblock prints of Mount Fuji by a Japanese psychoanalyst, drawings by the Wolfman, traditional Austrian furniture bought from their country cottage and, of course, the couch (in this case, covered with a Persian rug, with a description supplied by the Iranian embassy). The study is the most interesting area; Freud worked surrounded by archaeological exhibits (i.e. things unearthed from the ground, as he has excavated the unconscious), ranging from Egypt, Rome, Greece and Peru. The shelves are filled with books; Poe, Shaw, Wilder but not much obviously in the way of medical treatises. Afterwards, I visit St Augustine’s church in Kilburn, a cathedral like affair built by JL Pearson.
Edinburgh is a disorienting place for the English traveller. The neat Georgian buildings of the New Town recall Bath, but the symmetrical grid plan they are laid out on recalls Barcelona. The castle on the rock relates to Edinburgh’s history in the same way the Tower relates to London’s, but the vertiginous geography recalls Prague or Budapest rather than a customarily flat English city. The Prince’s Street Gardens recall Hyde Park, whereas the crowded kirkyards seem like a relic of London before the Magnificent Seven. Where London is a conflicting agglomeration of style, the use of similar stones (and decades of blackening air pollution) weld Edinburgh into a cohesive whole irrespective of whether the design is medieval, Georgian or Victorian.
I start my visit by exiting the tram at Princes Street. The first thing I notice is the Walter Scott monument. Where London lacks monuments to most of its major writers (even Shakespeare only gets a small sculpture in the city) this dominates the entire view of the New Town from the castle. It’s a lovely day with the castle rock still covered in Daffodils. I walk straight down to Calton Hill, where I am somewhat surprised by the rather bright and warm being unreasonably interrupted by snow and hail. Gratefully fishing my umbrella out of my rucksack, I walk around the hill and am taken aback by how far one can see from the Forth Railway Bridge in the far distance across the Firth of Forth to Arthur’s Seat. I walk back to the old town and visit the cathedral. The interior contrasts between the dark stone and the brightness of the painted blue gothic ceiling. The sun is back out while I’m here and rainbows stream into the church through the stained glass windows. Windows by Burne Jones remind me of England, others showing scenes from Scottish history remind me rather more of Amsterdam and Brussels. I step inside the Chapel of the Thistle before heading out and walking to the castle, looking out at the snow-capped hills and then ending the day at Greyfriar’s Kirkyard. The late afternoon sunlight casts long shadows around the blackened and weathered gravestones.
The following day I walk a little down from where I’m staying to the Canongate Kirk and its statue of Robert Fergusson, before walking back into the city and visiting the castle. It’s a rather more dark and forbidding day but the view from the castle is still extraordinary. The first thing I visit is St Margaret’s Chapel, with its Romanesque arch before visiting the National War Memorial. I’m rather taken aback at the scale and beauty of it, quite unlike the unassuming cenotaph in London. I then look round the castle chambers and the Great Hall (including the Honours, namely Scotland’s Crown Jewels) before visiting the various military museums, particularly exhibits like Napoleon’s eagle. Lastly, I visit an exhibition of planned designs for the castle; I especially like one modelled on a French chateau. Next, I visit Gladstone’s land, a tenement building and one of Edinburgh’s last 16th century skyscrapers from the time prior to the fall of the city walls. The renaissance painted chamber is easily the most striking thing here, with its ceiling painted with flowers and fruits. Lastly, I visit St Cuthbert’s Kirkyard and the nearby church of St John the Evangelist, with its plaster fan vaulting.
The next day I go for a walk in Princes Street Gardens – I notice a statue of Wotjek, the Polish soldier bear that I particularly like – before arriving at the National Gallery. I start with the renaissance section, with its paintings by Titian, El Greco, Botticelli, Bordone, Veronese, Bassano, Tiepolo and Canaletto. An entire room is filled with depictions of the sacraments by Poussin with paintings by Claude, Fabre and Gauffier outside. The next room concentrates on Spain; Velasquez, Murillo, Goya and Zurbaran. After that is the Netherlands; Massys, Ruisdael, Rembrandt, Saenredam, Dou and Vermeer. The upper floors dwell on modern art; Gauguin, Van Gogh, Seurat, Monet, Singer Sergeant, Sisley, Courbet, Pissarro.The Scottish sections contains names that are often to me; Gavin Hamilton, Nasmyth, Paton, Traquair and Ramsay; there are a few English works thrown in by Reynolds, Gainsborough. Martin and Turner. The basement has an exhibit of Schinkel’s drawings for a planned palace in the Crimea (somewhere between neo-classical and Babylonian) and for a redesign of the Acropolis. There’s also a small exhibition on romantic landscapes by Peder Balke, Dahl, Thomas Fearnley and Joseph Wright. The gallery architecture is often quite dramatic, with staircases filled with plaster busts in a manner similar to the Ashmolean. Afterwards, I visit the National Portrait Gallery; the building here is equally dramatic with a gothic revival entrance hall filled with sculptures of Burns and Stevenson. Much of the earlier sections are effectively a history of the Stuart dynasty and ultimate Italian exile before dwelling on Scotland’s role in the Empire. Lastly, I manage to cram in a visit to a National Trust Georgian House on Charlotte Square; I’m rather left struck by the combination of Chloroform and Rhubarb powder in one medicine cabinet.
The next day the sun is out again, so I go for a walk in the New Town, visiting the church of St Andrew and St George and St Andrew’s Square before walking back up Calton Hill and visiting the cemetery. I then visit Holyrood Palace. I walk around the grounds to begin with, looking at the ornate Renaissance fountain and the ruins of Holyrood Abbey. The palace facade is distinctly Scottish with its turrets but the interior courtyards remind me of a rather austere version of Hampton Court. Some of the striking aspects are the stairwell, with its swirling plaster ceiling, the long gallery with its reconstructed paintings of historical and mythical Scottish kings (Macbeth being the most prominent), orientalist tapestries with images of camels and the sepulchre-like Mary Queen of Scots chambers, with their collection of Stuart memorabilia through to the Winter King and Bonnie Price Charlie. My ticket also offers entrance to the Queen’s Gallery, so I get a chance to see the Dutch paintings I’d missed in London. The exhibition includes works by Gerrit Dou, Gabriel Metsu, Jan Steen and Pieter de Hooch, and Johannes Vermeer’s ‘A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman.’ Lastly, there’s still several hours left in the day so I set myself the task of climbing Arthur’s Seat. The gorse is in bright flower as I walk up past St Anthony’s chapel to the summit before returning past one a lake filled with swans.
My penultimate day is given up to the National Museum of Scotland. The Grand Gallery is extraordinarily impressive, featuring exhibits from a Nubian sculpture, a Giant Deer fossil, a lighthouse lens, a Gandharan Buddha, an ironcast fountain, a whale skull and an atom smasher. The Museum ranges from geology (a large amethyst geode and haematite rocks), natural history (a Tyrannosaurus Rex, Ammonites, a Stegosaur, a whale jaw with a scrimshaw of the whaing ship engraved on it, stuffed Pandas, Blaschka models, Elephants and Polar Bears) to the history of science (a Newcomen engine, a working model locomotive). I especially like the ethnography galleries, with their Benin bronzes, Columbian Thunderbird costumes, Ainu inaw sticks, Tibetan prayer wheels, Chinese headdresses made from Kingfisher feathers, Coconut fibre armour, Persian ceramics, a Ghanaian coffin in the shape of a car and Cham dance masks. The rest of the museum of dedicated to Scottish history, starting with the Picts, Romans and Celts. The main things that strike me; the Lewis chessmen, a copy of the tomb of Mary Queen of Scots, Renaissance wood carvings and painted ceilings, leather Covenanter masks, through to Mackintosh and Traquair art nouveau.
There’s not much time left on my last day, so I spend the morning at the Surgeon’s Hall museum. This ranges between a historical account of the achievements of medicine in Edinburgh (Lister, Simpson, Bell) through to a collection of shrunken heads, Hare’s death mask and a book made from his skin. Difficult not also to be struck by a pickle fish that had lodged in the throat of a fisherman and suffocated him. There’s also an exhibition on the fate of the voyage to find the Northwest passage.
Towards the end of the year, I visit two exhibitions in London; one at the Royal Geographical Society about Shackleton’s Antarctic Exhibition and Frank Hurley’s photographs in particular, the other at the Wellcome Collection, ostensibly about the Lukhang Temple in Lhasa but more generally about Tibetan Buddhism. I walk across Hyde Park to the first of these and come across a flock of parrots nesting in a tree. One of them comes down to eat out of my hand while a nearby group of Tufted Ducks looks rather unimpressed. The Lukhang temple is most notable for a series of Tantri murals on its walls, part of the dedication of the temple to placate a set of angry spirits (in the more animistic parts of Tibetan Buddhism, such spirits are both objects of veneration and fear). Tantric buddhism sought to overcome a divide between the physical and spiritual, with many of the exhibits being essentially anatomical diagrams. On the other hand, many exhibits are also intended to illustrate the transience of things, a form of Tibetan memento mori, like the Chitipati masks or tapestries of the underworld showing flayed bodies.
In the Midlands for Christmas, I visit some churches, starting with Kinwarton in Warwickshire, which has a pair of impressive Gibbs stained glass windows and a celtic cross outside. I revisit nearby Wootton Wawen with its medieval monuments and Norman font. Further up North I visit Youlgrave in Derbyshire, with its medieval sculptures, Burne Jones glass and rather odd pews with carved dogs. I also visit nearby Bakewell with its collection of grave slabs, Saxon pillar, Henry Holiday stained glass, medieval font & monuments and Comper altars. One of the medieval monuments has had a rose left on it. On Christmas Eve, I go for a walk at the National Memorial Arboretum; some Wolemi Pines have been planted along with some new memorials. The following day we visit the church at Armitage (a Victorian building designed to mimic the Romanesque) and Wightwick Manor. Finally, travelling back down South, I visit Preston on Stour, with its wonderful Georgian stained glass depicting Jonah and the whale and the apocalypse.
I’ve recently Boredom and The Conformist by Alberto Moravia. The latter establishes a premise early on that its protagonist is a nascent sociopath who simply enjoys inflicting pain. His flight from this into conformity takes him towards fascism, combining bourgeois respectability with a career as an assassin. Any suggestion of the heterodox drives him further towards conformism, often in a manner that makes it difficult to equate his childhood love of inflicting pain with the clinical death of his former professor. Boredom also establishes a premise it later aborts; the protagonist here exists in a state of ennui, as bored by bourgeois respectability as he is by his bohemian career as a painter. Nonetheless, most of the narrative from the point he re-enacts a relationship a deceased painter had had with a model, the narrative morphs from one being concerned with boredom towards one concerned with jealousy and obsession.
I also finally got round to reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. It seems to me to be composed of two overlapping but not entirely conjoined aspects. Firstly, the author seeks to unite Freud and Einstein, attempting to create a novelistic form that encapsulates the relativity hypothesis; the four books are respectively narrated by different characters offering different perspectives on the same events, and with some of the narratives emerging as a commentary on the others. If characters appear in a different light in each of these it is as much due to Durrell’s depiction of character as mutable as the difference in perspective. As Durell put it; “You see, Justine is written by Darley. It’s his autobiography. The second volume, Balthazar, is Darley’s autobiography corrected or revised by Balthazar. In Mountolive, written by me, Darley is an object in the outside world. Clea would be the new autobiography of Darley some years later, in Alexandria once again.” The narrative is to a large extent a palimpsest that works by the accretion of detail rather than a conventional narrative, creating a stance of irony towards the realistic depiction of events; “It seemed to me then to be somehow symbolic of the very reality we had shared – a palimpsest upon which each of us had left his or individual traces, layer by layer… Not unlike Pursewarden’s idea of a series of novels with “sliding panels” as he called them. Or else, perhaps, like some medieval palimpsest where different sorts of truth are thrown down one upon the other,” Pursewarden refers to Jesus as a great ironist and sees civilisations dying in the extent to which they become aware of themselves. Events like the death of the transvestite Scobie see him ironically transfigured to sainthood, while the feverish devotion of Narouz leads only to his death. But equally, the second aspect of the novel, with its interest in Gnosticism and Kabbalism fits awkwardly here; the overall narrative arch is a form of metempsychosis towards a spiritual rebirth, typified by Clea’s underwater death and resurrection. The demise of subjectivity effectively becomes a replacement metaphysic rather than a mechanism for treating it with irony.
Food cooked: Azeri chicken with prunes and walnut, Lahmacun, Ossetian lamb with coriander, Romanian duck with apricots, Chicken Yiouvetsi, Beer Can Chicken, Merluza en salsa verde, Sardines and spaghetti, Garlicky Poussin with Beetroot and Gherkin salad, Crab with Almonds and Hazelnuts, Chicken Puttanesca, Chicken buried in vermicelli, Picadilo, Cuban Chicken Stew, Fiduea, Chicken and preserved lemon pie, Beef with Lemon and Pappardelle, Azeri lamb with fruit and rice, Macau Chicken, Chicken Ramen, Umbrian style Chicken alla Cacciatora, Lamb shanks with lemon, Chicken with chestnut, pancetta and pear, Czech beef in cream sauce with dumplings, Ramen with fish.
The British Museum’s latest exhibition is dedicated to the Ming dynasty. It begins by showing aspects of court life; life size paintings of the emperors, carriage models from their tombs (which seem much like Egyptian tombs in their use of grave goods), cloisonné jars, gold & porcelain vases (showing brass Islamic models for them) through to lacquerware. The next section focusses on aspects of social life, with a sculpture of the perfected warrior Zhenwu, calligraphic handscrolls, decorated suras, temple tiled decorations of elephants and winged goats, a beautiful calligraphic scroll showing a giraffe, gold sculptures of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas, grave rubbings and spirit way statues.
I’ve been reading Zola’s Money, a novel that I’m surprised hasn’t been adapted for television in recent years given that it revolves around a banking crash. The novel shows a rather ambivalent attitude towards capitalism; obviously much of it depicts an economy characterised by unprincipled gambling that leaves its victims destitute, showing both a bankrupt aristocracy and a poor working class at the mercy of loan sharks. However, it also repeatedly describes capitalism as a force for progress, precisely through this process of destruction. One of the voices most critical of capitalism is the Marxist Sigismund, who suggests the concentration of assets in bodies like the Universal bank presages the way to collectivisation; but the collapse of the bank essentially invalidates that argument, as is illustrated by Sigismund’s death alongside the victims of the bank crash. The collapse of the bank is ultimately attributable to excessive idealism and enthusiasm rather than the sort of ruthlessness shown by Buch or the calculation of Gundermann. The novel also shows a typically undecided stance on race and heredity. It repeatedly opposes the Catholic Universal Bank to a set of Jewish dominated rivals, with the character of Buch in particular being very much a Faginesque stereotype. Conversely, the character of Gundermann is very much humanised, as with Caroline’s observation that she finds Jews to be much as other people. Equally, heredity appears attributable to Victor’s rape of Alice, just as his father had treated his mother. But whereas affluence civilises Saccard, poverty leaves Victor as little more than an animal.
The gothic surroundings of Lichfield’s chapterhouse perhaps make for an odd setting for an exhibition dedicated to the Staffordshire Hoard, but it is one of the few places where the Hoard can be supplemented with other Saxon exhibits from the region, like the Lichfield Angel and the Gospels. The exhibition also contains a number of reconstructions of helmets, swords and seaxes, based on fragments of cheekpiece and sword pyramids. A lot of the exhibits show a very similar style to the pieces I’d previously seen in Stoke on Trent, with garnets set into intricate filigree gold spirals on fragments of crosses, weapons and jewellery. Nonetheless, some seen quite striking, like a stylised seahorse design. Elsewhere in the cathedral, the medieval stained glass is away for restoration, creating a somewhat disconcerting brightness inside the formerly gloomy interior.
After visiting the cathedral, I pass onwards to Hanbury Hall in Worcestershire. It’s a somewhat odd structure, a newer version of the Carolean Sudbury Hall, down to the elaborate wood carvings and plaster work decorating the ceiling, but the interior almost groans under its attempts at splendour. The main hall features a staircase decorated with frescos by Thornhill, the sort of things normally reserved for a much larger structure like Chatsworth or Greenwich Palace. Some of the more unusual features are the ‘Gothick’ corridor, lined with wallpaper replicating tracery designs, the neo-Moorish gazebos and the long gallery being detached from the house and standing apart in the garden. Afterwards, I visit the nearby church, perched high up on a hill. Storm clouds are gathering in the sky by this point and the church takes on a rather sinister aspect, particularly as the churchyard proves to be full of rather ancient and large tombstones and one rather bizarre tomb depicting a railway accident. The church interior was renovated by Street and is accordingly rather dark, with monuments by Chantrey and Roubillac clustered in the shadows.
The following day is taken up with a visit to All Saints at Claverley. The church interior is a mishmash of Gothic and Romanesque, as well as being lined with allegorical frescos of battling knights, consecration marks, lions and dragons as well as Early English carvings of faces being eaten by strange beasts that rather remind me of Kilpeck. The interior also contains a fine alabaster tomb, medieval tiles and a dual set of Norman and Saxon fonts. On my way back, I call in at St Mary in Adderbury, with its extraordinarily well preserved misericords.
A few weeks later, I go to a Temenid dynasty exhibition at the Ashmolean. The gold retrieved from the burial mounds at Aegae proves the most interesting items; oak and myrtle leaf wreathes, an image of Medusa from a cuirass, as well as a silver jug carved with an image of Silenus. Other items include ceramic clay heads and red figure ceramics. There are a couple of newly opened galleries in the Ashmolean; Maoist propaganda posters (suspiciously looking like advertisements for musicals) and Indian paintings.
Tarr by Wyndham Lewis offers a refreshing counterpoint to some of the author’s later works and the didacticism of novels like Lawrence’s Women in Love, instead suggesting a plurality of views that rejects both bourgeois conformism and romantic individualism alike. Instead, Lewis sees the self as a set of masks; "The closest friend of my Dr Jekyll would not recognise my Mr Hyde and vice versa; this rudimentary self I am giving you." Conversely, at the same time, it has an essentialist view of character; "humour may be exactly described as the most feminine attribute of man – and it is the only one of which women show hardly a trace." At other points, these two are opposed; "in the interests of his animalism he was about to betray the artist in him." In Tarr, the two sets of masks represent philosophical opposites, just as the opening declaration of Blast contains the same set of opposed concepts that it both blasts and blesses. For Lewis at this point, dichotomies are never something stable but rather something that tends to collapse in on themselves, hence many of Tarr’s orations seem an attempt to formulate a somewhat convoluted via media between Kreisler and himself; "an attempt to get out of art and back into life again… the sex instinct of the average sensual man had become perverted into a false channel." Much of this can be attributed to the anxiety of influence Lewis seems to have felt towards figures like Stirner, Nietzsche and Marinetti. In the case of the latter, much of Blast‘s stance is derived from Marinetti and the text describes itself as futurist at various points. However, it also condemns Marinetti for his romantic ‘automobilism’ and goes out of its way to praise Da Vinci as a Futurist, taking a diametrically opposed view of the art of the past out of what looks like contrarianism. Picasso and Kandinsky receive far more praise in Blast than Marinetti but it is the latter’s language that it is used to codify the attack on him; not an unusual scenario, as many manifestos of that period aped Marinetti’s tropes whilst articulating Kandinsky’s thoughts. By the same token, in Blast‘s self contained monodrama Enemy of the Stars (in many ways a parallel rendition of Tarr stripped of the novel’s realist veneer but retaining its carnivalesque parody of the Promethean hero), a copy of Stirner is thrown out of the window but the opposition of Hanp’s bourgeois predilections (Tarr) and Arghol’s romantic individualism (Kreisler) again proves far from stable; "He had wished to clean up.. accumulations of self… this man has been masquerading as me… Arghol has preached a certain life, and now insolently set an example of the opposite." To Lewis, romantic individualism is essentially a risible product of the bourgeoisie. Later on, Lewis further knocks down the opposition he has set up "in the old style, two distinct, heroic figures were confronted and one ninepin tried to knock the other ninepin over. We all today… are in each other’s vitals – overlap and intersect and are Siamese."
Reading Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is somewhat odd experience; in his afterword, Pullman notes that he normally supports plurality in interpretation but that in this instance he feels more obliged to offer a context for the novel. Certainly, the title leaves little room for plurality in interpretation but the novel still seems more more ambiguous than the title or afterword might suggest. For example, the novel assigns naturalistic explanations to many of its events but many still retain a certain degree of unexplained supernaturalism; even if the mysterious puppet master is stripped of being angel or demon by the end of the novel, his ability to foresee and manipulate events remains as unexplained as Christ’s miracles at the start of the novel. Equally, the moral dichotomy established between Christ and Jesus gets routinely undermined by some of Christ’s criticisms of the nascent theology; "if it were true that only children could be admitted to the kingdom, what was the value of such adult qualities as responsibility, forethought and wisdom… God surely created the Gentiles too and there are surely good men and women among them." Equally, Christ’s complaint that the stories Jesus tells manipulate the emotions while unfairly introducing extra-legal elements into his replies, has some force to it. When Christ observes that "to him, the kingdom of God is coming very soon and it makes no sense to be cautious and prudent" it reminds me of AC Grayling’s observation that New Testament Christianity was a millenarian cult that made no concessions to practicality in its belief in the apocalypse; in reality, the meek will not inherit the earth and turning the other cheek is not necessarily a sensible thing to do.
I’ve always been inclined to regard Plato as a great historical villain, turning Western culture away from empiricism and towards the transcendental. Reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics goes a long way towards reinforcing that prejudice; lacking any real interest in the mind body problem or the moral dilemmas of later philosophers, Aristotle’s notion of virtue is situational, grounded in social practice; "it is not easy to see how knowing that ideal good will help a weaver or a carpenter in the practice of their own craft… it does not appear that the physician studies even health in the abstract." At times, Aristotle sounds like Rorty in his dismissal of metaphysical preoccupations; "the virtues we acquire by first having practised them, just as we do the arts."
Going to the Proms this year, I’ve listened to Britten, Rachmaninov, Ravel, Debussy, De Falla (which came out rather better than either Debussy or Ravel who perhaps lack the necessary force needed for a venue like the Royal Albert Hall), Tchaikovsky, Verdi (a wonderful performance of the Requiem) and Handel. In the case of Rinaldo, the performance wisely decides to resist a historical Crusaders versus Saracens interpretation that would impart considerably more weight to the libretto than it could reasonably be expected to bear. Nonetheless, their camp St Trinians versus Monty Python and the Holy Grail interpretation goes to the other extreme, seeming to mock a text that gives a female character a remarkable degree of prominence and sway.
New York might be perhaps better known by its original name of New Amsterdam. Both cities are ports, formed from marshland at the ocean’s edge. During my visits, both cities were submerged in fog, although the appearance of damp and cold prove deceiving to a North European, as the weather actually proves to be hot and humid; Bellow may have had a point about New York resembling Bangkok. In the case of Amsterdam, the fog winds round corners and lingers in the distance. New York has no distance and it instead occludes the spires and summits of the skyscrapers. Neither city has any enormous number of outstanding buildings and where Amsterdam is an exercise in miniaturism, New York is typically an exercise in maximalism, with few buildings notable outside of their scale. In other respects, the city perhaps resembles London rather more, with its myriads of street stalls. New York’s grid system seems at times like a rational and sensible way of navigating the city, at others like something the city chafes against as each taxi driver attempts to force others out of the way. Freeways in New York alternately feel like an exercise in social Darwinism and at others like poorly designed car parks.
On my first day in the city, I go for a walk around the surrounding area. I turn out to be staying near to Times Square, which I later note for the way its lights continue to colour the sky long after the sun has set. I also rather doubt that Trafalgar Square is ever likely to be the setting for a military recruitment centre. The first thing I really want to look at is the Rockefeller Center. For all its grandiloquence, it feels like a very European building, planned in a similar way to the Barbican centre in London, with sculpture and art integrated into the structure of the building. Viewed that way, the idea of Diego Rivera contributing a frieze to the building seems somewhat less ridiculous. The nearby St Patrick’s Cathedral stands out an anomaly; something that would tower over the nearby buildings in most European cities but which simply recedes here. The gothic revival interior seems to take its tone from England, while the stained glass rather resembles that of Flanders. Traditional religious buildings in opposition to modernism proves a theme, as with the pairing of the Seagram building and St Barts, a study in Byzantine revivalism. At the time I visit, a rehearsal for Britten’s Noye’s Fludde is underway. I press onwards to the Empire State Building, whose summit is hidden in the fog, and the Flatiron and Metropolitan Life Buildings. The last place I look at is near the UN Building (where the Hepworth sculpture is much larger than the copy in London), the Chanin building with its art deco motifs and the Chrysler Building. Easily the best building in New York, it effortlessly combines art deco with the modernist ethos behind skyscraper design.
An early walk the following day is interrupted with a thunderstorm, as my clothes are drenched and the streets turn into rivers. I take refuge in the cavernous space of Grand Union Central. After the storm passes, I go for a walk in Central Park. Where London’s parks are essentially manicured expanses of lawn interspersed with trees, Central Park has rather more pretensions towards naturalism, with jutting rock outcrops giving it a slightly more romantic aspect. Black squirrels and American robins show little concern at the passers by. I then spend the rest of the day in the Metropolitan Museum. I begin in the Greek and Roman section. I’m particularly impressed with the Roman frescos and mosaics. The Egyptian section follows, with the entire Temple of Dendur transplanted from Aswan, Fayum mummy portraits and several statues of Hatshepshut. The last thing I see that morning is the Oceanian section, with its Papua New Guinean split gongs and Peruvian gold masks. In the afternoon, I come to the American arts section, with its Tiffany stained glass and mosaics. The medieval section is rather ecclectic, with Armenian khachkars, Limoges enamel, Coptic textiles and Byzantine jewellery. The paintings section is especially comprehensive, with a range of Titian’s showing mythological scenes (rather better than the religious scenes I’d seen in Venice), a few Caravaggio’s, Canaletto, Tiepolo’s and a view of Toledo by El Greco that looks like it should have been painted in the nineteen twenties. Velasquez and Goya contrast to Bosch, Brueghel, Van Eyck, Memling, Weyden, Hals, Ruisdael, Vermeer, Holbein and Rembrandt. Predictably, the modern section is dominated by Monet, Cezanne, Renoir, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Seurat.
In contrast to New York’s boldly assertive identity, the part of north Washington I’m staying in looks is more chaotic. Parts look like how I assume drab midwestern cities like Minnesota must look, with mediocre modern buildings. Other parts look like smalltown America and create the impression of a large village (even down to fireflies outside on evening) and both of these are interspersed with grandiose statues that wouldn’t look out of place in London. Tramps are sleeping in park benches while a queue forms at a soup canteen. An aggressive altercation over a slice of bread ensues between some ducks. The apparently endemic squirrels scamper about endlessly. As I walk downwards to Lafayette Park with its multitudes of statues the city begins to shift away from being a place of residence and commerce into something more monumental, a hyperreal emulation of ancient Rome. I was repeatedly told that the White House was rather small but in comparison to Downing Street it seems rather grandiose; I’m not entirely sure this degree of bombast is especially wise. Conversely, I had imagined the Washington Monument to be rather smaller than it is. In practice, it towers over the city just as St Paul’s used to tower over London. I then walk rightwards towards the World War Two Memorial, a somewhat sterile circle of iron wreathes enlivened by some small reliefs. The Vietnam memorial is even more drab, although the decision to include three disturbingly realistic statues of soldiers that use copper verdigris to depict the fatigues against their bronze skin redeems it. The presence of the human and scallscale on the National Mall gives it a rather considerable impact. The statuary at the Korean War Memorial is comparatively amateurish, although the photography of various soldiers shown on the granite wall is what makes that particular monument.
I then walk into the Lincoln Memorial. There’s something rather odd about the way that Lincoln is seated on something that resembles a throne, given that this is rather more ornate than anything any British Prime Minister ever received (and actually rather more ornate than anything most Kings ever got) but it’s undeniably rather powerful. I then walk along the Potomac Tidal Basin towards the Roosevelt Memorial. I rather prefer this; the sculptures form part of a narrative in which the President is only a part alongside representations of the great depression. I then walk onwards to the Jefferson Monument, another neo-classical structure created in the twentieth century. From here, you can see how broad the Potomac is and how quickly the city gives way to woodland, furthering the impression of Washington as an unreal place set aside from the rest of America.
I walk back towards the National Mall. The redbrick gothic of the Smithsonian Castle wouldn’t look at all amiss in Manchester or Birmingham but it looks very odd amidst the surrounding fake classicism. There’s something about the Capital Building or the various museums that looks too immaculate, a certain absence of weathering in their patina. I have a look in the sculpture garden with its sculptures by Lichtenstein, Calder, Miro, Hepworth, Moore, Pomodoro as well as the occasional Paris Metro station before heading into the National Gallery. I begin with the Italian section and the only Michaelangelo in North America. The gallery also has assorted works by Botticelli, Lippi, Raphael, Titian, Bellotto, Tiepolo, Panini, Canaletto and Bellini, but not for the first time, it’s the El Greco’s I’m most impressed by, given how they look as if they could have been painted hundred of years later in the twentieth century. The Spanish section is much as might be expected, but I’m impressed by a Murillo painting of two women at a window, if only for the absence of religious subject matter. As usual, the German and Dutch paintings form the highlight of the visit and especially Van Eyck’s Annunciation and Bosch’s Death and the Miser, as well as various works by Weyden, Van Gogh, Hals, Rembrandt, Cranach, Saenredam, Vermeer, Ruisdael, Memling, Gossaert, David and Bocklin. The British section is decidedly frightful with only Turner to redeem it. Georges de la Tour’s Repentent Magdalene is the clear highlight of the French section, with its Caravaggioesque use of chiaroscuro, as well as more familiar names like David, Manet, Daumier, Cezanne, Renoir, Sisley, Degas, Tissot, Monet and Seurat. Conversely, in the American section most of the names like Winslow Homer and George Bellows are new to me. The East wing houses the modern works, which translates into Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, Miro, Brancusi, O’Keefe (a new experience for me), Gorky, Pollock, Giacometti, Newman (another new experience) and Rothko. Finally, the gallery also turns out to have an exhibition on dedicated to John Taylor Arms, a latterday Ruskinite who engraved drawings of Stockholm, Paris, Seville, Burgos, Venice and some New York scenes. His work seems reassuringly familiar to European eyes for all of its oddity in Washington.
The last place I visit is Seattle. What Seattle lacks in terms of scale it compensates for with its setting, with the snowcap of Mount Rainier floating above the clouds in one direction and the wide expanse of Puget Sound on the other. My first view of the city is one of the cranes by the water and then the skyscrapers emerge from behind the trees. The city itself feels rather perversely like Brighton, both cities having the same counter-cultural stance, the same types of craft stall. I have a meal of crab followed by cherries in a waterfront park next to a totem pole. The difference is that where Brighton is full of dilapidated grandeur, Seattle simply feels rather more banal, with only more prosaic architecture in evidence for the most part. The main exception is the Space Needle, Seattle’s rival to the Atomium. Both represent a dated vision of the space age, but one that seems rather appealing than the future that actually happened. I first see the Needle early morning through the mist, where it looms like a Wellsian tripod. The other building in Seattle that is particularly striking is the Smith Tower, an elegant tiled skyscraper, whose interior is a vision of creamy marble and gleaming bronze. The upper floor is filled with gifts from Empress Xixi, giving an odd air of chinoiserie to the place.
During a tour of the Collegium Maius in Kraków, our guide periodically observes that it all went wrong for Poland after the partition of 1791 following a disastrous experiment in democracy during which no-one could agree on anything. Whilst this is doubtless not without a hefty degree of justification, the rather laconic fatalism is somewhat unnerving for a Westerner whose country has always cherished delusions of being in control of its own destiny. From a state that controlled much of Central Europe, Poland went to being divided between Russia, Poland and Austria; even now historical Polish territories like the city of Lvov lie within countries like Ukraine. As a city, Kraków retains the sense of being a mausoleum to better times, with little modern architecture being evident. Weathered plaster crumbles off the walls of buildings, leaving the brickwork beneath exposed. All of which, of course, endear the place to me.
I arrive at the main train station, where the rather grim underground subway connecting the platforms contrasts with the Hapsburg era white and yellow plaster of the main building aboveground. I walk down a covered iron walkway that leads into the city and am somewhat surprised to see a small square being patrolled by a robot. A small thing with treads and a CCTV camera, it resembles the sort of vision of the future last seen sometime circa the nineteen seventies or eighties. It turns out to be owned by one of the private security firms that are legion within the city. I can only assume that a rightwing politician probably decided that state police forces were inefficient when compared to the bracing vigour of the free market. There seems to be a similar approach to public transport, with most trains and trams running late and cars choking up roads and motorways. The latter state looks unpleasantly reminiscent of Britain rather than the usual European efficiency. Much of the city looks like a large market, although most of the larger names in evidence come from other European countries.
The city is heavily reminiscent of Prague and Budapest, with all three being dominated by a castle on a hill by the side of a river with a new town beneath where medieval churches and synagogues. One interesting difference is the Planty, a set of gardens ringing the city on the location of the former city walls. I begin by simply walking around the centre of the city, beginning with the market square. The largest medieval square in Europe, it’s dominated by the opposing figures of St Mary’s Church and the Town Hall tower. The church is a redbrick exercise in asymmetrical gothic with an exterior covered with monuments, it rather looks like a cross between the Tyn Church in Prague and the Frauenkirche in Munich. The dark interior is quite exceptional though, with the ceiling a dark blue burnished with gold stars and the ceiling covered in patterned red and friezes by Jan Matejko; the heavens above and hell below, I presume. Athough the Veit Stoss altar reflects the Mariolatry implicit in the name of the building, much of the interior decoration tends towards the grisly; tombs decorated with skulls and a painting of Saint Sebastian. Behind it lies the church of Saint Barbara, whose medieval facade is contradicted by a baroque interior. Across the square lies the cloth hall, the Sukiennice. The current use for this building is mostly selling tourist merchandise, with exterior arcades given up to cafes. The opposing side of the square sees Igor Mitoraj’s Eros Bendato sculpture placed at the foot of the town hall tower, making a rather odd contrast with the sleepy lion sculptures at the base of its steps. The other thing on the square is the rather squat church of St Adalbert, a small domed building, with a blue and gold art nouveau interior.
I then walk down the main street, towards the church of Saint Peter and Paul, modelled on the Gesu church in Rome and consequently in a somewhat austere Baroque style that contrasts with the rather more florid legions of gold angels in the neighbouring church of St Andrew. The crypt has a rather bizarre tomb with a number of carved griffin sculptures at its base. Opposed churches for the Dominicans and Franciscans occupy nearby streets. The former is a relatively simple affair, with a white interior and blue ceiling, accompanied by a set of cloisters. The latter is quite dowdy from the outside, but the gloomy interior is decorated in brilliant art nouveau by Mehoffer and Wyspianski, with the windows and walls decorated with iris patterns. Further along, the Bernardine church is a dark affair with extensive decay inside, although I’m quite taken with an elaborate dance of death painting cycle. The Collegium Maius is also located in the old town; rather resembling certain Cambridge colleges, the interior courtyard is flanked on each side with a set of cloisters. Ammonites have been built into redbrick walls and a grotesque serves as a fountain alongside various medieval crests. The exhibits include the old Jagiellonian University library, a medieval globe (which puts North America in the wrong place) and a set of paintings where depictions of clock towers had real clocks inserted.
The following day is given up the Polish equivalent of the Hrad, the Wawel. The castle straddles the medieval and renaissance periods, with redbrick towers contrasting with colonnaded courtyards. Many of the rooms have elaborate wooden ceilings decorated with gold flowers, Cordovan leather and friezes by Hans Durer. Many of the ceiling frescos were completed in the early twentieth century; a model shows Wyspianski’s earlier scheme for restoring the Wawel, with the inclusion of a large dome at the opposite end to the palace and cathedral. Some of Augustus the Strong’s porcelain collection is included, as well as a Bosch painting. The Cathedral is a bizarre jumble of architectural styles; a medieval gothic building with several domed classical structures and renaissance accoutrements. The interior is much the same, red marble monuments in side chapels sit alongside gothic tombs to saints and kings alike in the nave. Some of the painted chapels show a Byzantine influence in their wall decoration (at one point Poland did share a border with Turkey after all). The crypts remind me of the Hapsburg tombs in Vienna, with iron and stone coffins. The poet Mickiewicz and the patriot Kosciuszko are interned here, although the Polish pantheon is located in the nearby St Catherine’s church, where the crypt contains the tombs of Czeslaw Milosz, Szymanowski and Stanislaw Wyspianski. The base of the castle contains a small cave, named after the dragon that features in the city’s founding legend. A metal dragon sculpture has been erected, which breathes fire every five minutes or so. Kitsch but not unamusing. Finally, the Wawel has an oriental exhibition, centered around the Ottoman booty gained after the battle of Vienna; Persian and Turkish carpets, Iznik plates, Chinese & Japanese porcelain and Chinese bronzes.
The following day is taken with visiting Kazimierz, formerly a separate city and site of the Jewish ghetto. I begin at the Remuh synagogue and cemetery. The cemetery stones are some of the oldest in Poland and are decorated with images of lions and stags; broken stones are assembled to form a ‘wailing wall.’ Nearby, the new cemetery also contains sets of monuments to Nazi victims made from fragments of smashed gravestones; those still standing vary in terms of resembling older Yiddish gravestones or a style more in keeping with that found in the Polish cemeteries. Many of the headstones have stones placed on them, although much of the cemetery si rather overgrown with long grass and ferns burying many of the graves. Of the other synagogues, the Progressive Synagogue strongly reminds me of the Spanish Synagogue in Prague, with Moorish designs throughout, while the Izaaka synagogue tends towards the baroque, with Yiddish script still visible on the walls in spite of whitewashing. The High synagogue is perhaps rather more nondescript but is notable for an exhibition showing collections of old photos of Jewish life in Poland. Most of the people shown in them would have ended up in the concentration camps. Finally, the Stara Synagogue is a beautiful gothic structure with a wrought iron Bimah at its centre. The annual Jewish cultural festival was in progress during my visit, so the streets were full of school parties, rather resembling Israeli versions of St Trinians. I also visit the Botanical gardens in Krakow; Acanthus, Ferns and Astilbes are clearly much favoured by the staff, although it also has large, if oddly shaped, conservatories. Finally, I visit one of the conventional cemeteries, the Racławice cemetery. I’m struck by the number of both lit candles and metal crosses, neither being common features in Britain. Some of the symbolism is also somewhat unusual; a butterfly for instance, but the grid layout and combination of gothic and classical designs does make the place look like Highgate. There’s even a large Sphinx on one tomb.
Kraków’s museums and galleries are centred on a building that looks as if it was built during the Stalin era but wasn’t. It contains a set of Młoda Polska paintings from the nineteenth century to the present day. Some of the highlights include Wojciech Weiss’s Melancholik, Leon Chwistek’s futurist City and Lodz, Szancenbach’s Lake – Sunset, Zbigniew Pronaszko’s nudes, Czajkowski’s Orchard in Winter, Stanisław Kamocki, Henryk Szczygli ński and Jan Stanisławski’s landscapes and Jacek Malczewski’s strange symbolist paintings. I couldn’t make up my mind whether I liked Tadeusz Makowski’s odd toy scenes or not. There was also an exhibition of Weegee photos, ranging from New York’s architecture to drag queens, murder victims and carbonised bodies burnt in fires. The Stanislaw Wsypianski house also houses a number of interesting collections; several paintings of the Kosciuszko mound, modernist-gothic furniture for his theatrical sets and stained glass designs and views of St Mary’s and the Wawel. There’s also a collection of Ignacy Krieger’s photographs, showing black and white photographs of Kraków. On a similar note, the Mehoffer house showcases his art nouveau stained glass designs, paintings of his wife and garden, paintings of the market square and of the Vistula, as well as a bizarre drawing of a lady encountering a skeletal death in the form of a gardener. One rooms includes a Japanese collection of Hiroshige woodcuts. In the garden, a black and white cat sits amidst the roses, secure in the knowledge of its perfect camouflage. The Manggha collection expands on the Japanese theme, containing Felix Jasienski’s collection of oriental art. At the time of visiting it was showcasing a set of Noh masks and showing Japanese influences on Julian Falat’s paintings, mostly landscapes. The next most prominent museum is the Czartoryski museum; this is next to last remaining section of the city wall and the Barbican, adjoined to it via a sighing bridge; a bronze cast of Hermes by Thorvaldsen stands outside. The interior houses a set of enamel and porcelain designs from Limoges, Italian majolica, Meissen, paintings by Da Vinci (Lady with an Ermine) and a Rembrandt landscape. The antiquities collection contains a number of Etruscan funerary statues, mummified cats (plus a fake mummified mongoose) and a set of Fayum portraits. Finally, there is the archaeological museum; containing a number of mummy cases and Peruvian artefacts (some of them erotic) but especially a stone totem pole showing a slavic pagan deity, Swiatowit. Each side has a face, making it look like a four-face god with the peculiarity that it also seems to be wearing a top-hat.
On my final day in Kraków, I travel to the salt-mine at Wieliczka. This is the sort of trip that makes it clear that one is a tourist rather than a traveller due to the industrial system used to process the volume of visitors; it’s also the sort of trip that makes it clear that the difference between Catholic kitsch and Disneyfied schmaltz (via Tolkein’s Balrog) is a slender one. The mines contain rock salt carvings of kings, dwarves and biblical figures, as well as more recent figures like Goethe (who visited due to his interest in geology) and statues that reflect a more socialist realist style. Some of the chambers have been flooded while the wooden struts used to construct some of the larger chambers give them the same sort of feeling as a church. The actual chambers range from long corridors to ballrooms, chapels and a cafe. Much of my interest in the place is as an inverted Magic Mountain; certainly either the dryness of the air or the temperature seem to have a beneficial effect on my asthma. Finally, before leaving I spend some time in a park near Blonia; a promenade walkway has busts of famous Polish figures on either side (Curie, Herbert, Kosciuszko) leading to a hedged circle with other busts (Chopin, Mickiewicz).
Arriving in Wrocław the following day (having managed to avoid being run over by a police truck driving down the train station platform), it occurs to me that this more than most places deserves the title of the Venice of the North. The Oder river is relatively shallow here and the islands cluster in the centre of it, on which many of the city’s churches and cathedrals are built. The main part of the town would originally have been walled off from the mainland by a defensive moat. Looking at a plan of the medieval city it’s clear that it must have essentially been afloat. Its subsequent identity has been equally indeterminate, switching from being Polish to Bohemian to Prussian and back again, its name changing from Breslau to Wroc?aw at the same time that a new population arrived from Lvov. Buildings by Langhans, architect of the Brandenburg gate, sit alongside the medieval structures. Even its religious identity was somewhat indeterminate, with a Protestant majority having previously tolerated a Catholic minority and competed between them to build churches; the presence of a Jewish minority only further complicated matters.
I start my visit with the Cathedral Island, home to the some of the tallest spires in the city. The cathedral, with its twin Baltic spires is the most impressive, and like its counterpart in Kraków, baroque chapels have been added on either side. Behind it, the city’s Botanical gardens have been built. A bust of Linnaeus features at its centre, alongside pools filled with frogs, alpine gardens and an arboretum. The green iron Tumski bridge connects the Cathedral Island to the Sand Island, and the squat and dark church of Saint Mary of the Sand, its interior a combination of striped redbrick, white plaster and red stained glass. The University mathematical tower in yellow & white and the Osslinski library in red and white look out over the river; it’s a scene that rather reminds me of Saint Petersburg. The town hall in the market square is an untidy medieval building, its surface pullulating with gargoyles in addition to an astronomical clock. The town square reminds me of Copenhagen’s Nyhavn as much as Kraków, due to the bright painting of each house, many of which are identified with animal signs (e.g. the house of the golden deer). The square next to the cathedral houses the cathedral of St Mary Magdalene. Destroyed during the war and largely reconstructed, it still lacks the original baroque spires gracing each tower, as well as having gone from Protestant to Catholic. I’m rather taken with the slender bridge that adjoins the two towers. The interior chapels are filled with renaissance and classical tombstones and monuments, as well as dragon sculpture beneath the pulpit. On the opposed side of the main square is the church of Saint Elizabeth, another redbrick gothic structure surmounted by a squat metal cupola on its tower. I’m quite drawn to a renaissance tomb with a depiction of a sea monster on it. Outside, I spot one of the city’s features; a small bronze dwarf sculpture sitting next to an accompanying house. Several of these are dotted round the city; a somewhat amusing, if rather twee, idea.
Much of the heart of the city was destroyed by the Russians, as Breslau only capitulated at the same time as Berlin. Grim ‘blokowisko’ housing proliferates alongside the older structures. Some of the most interest does reside with the newer structures though; for example, the train station combines a long glass and iron barrel roof with a gothic revival exterior. Various modernist department stores are also contained within the city, some of which were the first in Poland to have elevators. Similarly, the Grunwaldzki bridge was one of the largest iron bridges in Germany and is now the largest in Poland (it rather resembles Budapest’s chain bridge). More strikingly, a market hall combines a redbrick facade with a cavernous concrete interior. This culminates in the concrete Centennial Hall, a gigantic concrete dome built as Wrocław’s belated answer to the Eiffel tower or the Crystal Palace. With that said, the use of concrete does bring the slightly more unfortunate example of the Royal Festival Hall to mind; the building is presently in a rather bad state and was undergoing extensive restoration work. Upon arrival one walks though a series of concrete pillars (some currently entirely immersed in ivy) and past a tall metal spike, rather reminiscent of Skylon. A lake is in front of the hall, which is surrounded by a concrete pergola. A semi-derelict kindergarten by Le Corbusier sits rather forgotten in the grounds. Beyond this, a Japanese garden was created to go with the hall; Acers surrounded a pool, spanned by wooden bridges. In the centre of the city, the most modern landmark can be found in one of the parks; the Racławice panorama, a nineteen sixties concrete structure built to house Styka and Kossak’s panoramic representation of the battle where Kosciuszko lead an army of peasants armed with scythes to defeat the Russians. Much of the foreground before the picture has been designed to create the illusion of perspective; trees and landscape designed to patch the picture. It’s a slightly kitsch effect but an undeniably effective one. Behind the panorama building rests an iron statue to the dead of Katyn, featuring a woman weeping for the dead while the figure of death is suspended above. The materials and treatment are quite contemporary but the theme is very classical.
The National Museum in Wrocław has a somewhat odd collection of art that includes a painting of a bearded lady and a clock painting where the eyes tock back and forth. Much of the medieval art is string on portraiture but weak on narrative scenes. It also tends towards the infernal, with paintings showing a rather canine beast from the book of revelations, a hellmouth, a winged devil with a man’s body and a bull’s head, and a set of the damned being menaced by skeletons and some rather catlike demons. Praying figures of the painting patrons often feature in the lower sections of scenes, making the paintings a form of indulgence. A set of wooden votive figures are missing their hands, creating the inadvertent impression of a scene from Titus Andronicus. A temporary sculpture exhibition shows Behrens’ The Kiss of the Sphinx. The collections also includes many of the Piast tombs removed from various city churches. The later sections include several Matejko paintings and a work attributed to Bellotto, showing an entry into Rome, Józef Chełmońsk’s symbolist paintings and Maz Wislicenus’ landscapes. I’m slightly bemused by one painting that shows the same figure replicated several times; I can’t tell whether it was deliberate or not. The building itself is rather Dutch in style covered in icy and facing a Nazi era city council building. A bronze statue of Durer stands outside.
On my final day in Wrocław, I travel outside the city to the Jewish cemetery. Even now, this is far outside the city boundaries, sited near a rather eccentric nineteenth century water tower. Most of the tombs are in a bad state of decay, with ivy overgrowing everything; it certainly qualifies as one of the most decayed cemeteries I’ve seen. This is particularly unfortunate, as the tombs are quite unusual. This is a nineteenth century cemetery and accordingly many of the tombs are Egyptianate or classical, but some of the Sephardic tombs were created in an Arabesque style.
I saw the work of Vilhelm Hammershøi during my visit to Copenhagen a few years ago, but I can’t say with any honesty that it made any great impression on me at the time. This is perhaps unsurprising; understated paintings in grey tones of spartan and austere subjects are comparatively easy to miss in the midst of other works; it’s only when one sees the paintings together that one realises the obsessive theme driving them.
Hammershøi’s loose brushwork and restricted palette immediately associate him with his contemporary Whistler, but seventeenth century Dutch painting was also a significant influence on him. As with Vermeer, Hammershøi is frequently found depicting figures in interiors, showing the play of light from nearby windows. Where the Western tradition is for the subject to stare out of a painting and challenge the viewer, Hammershøi follows Vermeer in denying this, having his figures (or figure; his wife was his persistent model) turned away from the viewer to give a hermetic aspect to the painting. In tandem with the grey, barely furnished interiors (photographs of the same rooms show them filled with furnishings and decoration), where the light from a window largely serves to suggest that life is somewhere else, this creates the melancholic air that pervades his work. Durer’s figure of melancholy was turned away from the viewer as well. Hammershøi returns again and again to the same interiors, the same piano, the same pictures, the same bowls. But his work also rather resembles Escher or Piranesi, showing long corridors with successions of doors, looking out into interior courtyards through layers of interior windows, with doors that are slightly warped and distorted against the overall geometry of the work. There’s a disjoint between the realistic, objective, settings and his imprecise impressionistic brushwork; what is being depicted is an objective correlative for his own state of mind.
The other component to Hammershøi’s work is his landscapes, both rural and urban. Whether showing the Danish countryside, Copenhagen’s royal palace or church spires, the British Museum or a London street, the scene is always devoid of people and depicted with grey wintry skies that seem somewhere between Whistler and Atkinson Grimshaw. I recall Copenhagen as a colourful city with painted buildings and red church towers surmounted with verdigris encrusted baroque spires. But I recall being fascinated by the same buildings, showing the same empty streets. I discover a certain fellow feeling for Hammershøi that I’m rather unaccustomed to.
The following week I return for two exhibitions near Trafalgar Square. I start with an Wyndham Lewis at the National Portrait Gallery. I recall Angela Carter complaining that all of Lawrence’s women were just clothes without bodies, as opposed to his meticulous depiction of male physicality. Something similar can be said of Wyndham Lewis’s paintings. The subjects of these portraits are puppet or simulacra. They have the quality of remaining just what they are, fixed in a particular epoch to furniture which is now dust (hence Froanna’s liminal character in her Red Portrait as she fades ino the background). "The process and condition of life, without any exception, is a grotesque degradation." The stress on dehumanisation in his writing manifests itself in his painting by his focus on clothes rather than people. The portrait of Edith Sitwell shows her with her eyes shut, her face turned from the viewer, buried in a mass of clothes. Sitwell thought her hands to be her finest feature; here, Lewis hides them altogether (the same applies in his painting of Mrs Schiff, unlike Edwin Evans whose hand blends into his trousers). Hats and helmets abound throughout the paintings. Depicting TS Eliot, he gave the poet a "gioconda smile." Sketch after sketch shows the face left unworked till last. Eliot looks downwards, Pound closes his eyes. Like Modigliani or Picasso (albeit without their primitivism), Lewis saw the face as a mask, indistinguishable from the hat he always painted himself wearing.
Confronted with demands for a return to the classicism of Raphael, Lewis responded by suggesting Shakespeare as an exemplar, praising the famous woodcut of the playwright as serene and empty. Lewis develops various personae in his painting and writing like ‘the enemy’ as his satirical response to the literary and art world, or his embodiment of satire, the tyro. Lewis caught sight of his face in a cracked mirror and saw "the mask of a syphilitic Creole." Whatever was worth recording in life, he asserted, could be mapped in surface forms. On the whole, I find myself thinking tht Lewis is a rather more sympathetic as a painter than as a writer. His painting of Froanna is a particular masterpiece; red tones predominate excepting the blue of her eyes as she stares directly at the viewer, one of the very few subjects to do so in the entire exhibition.
I follow this with the nearby Divisionism exhibition at the National Gallery. Like Pointillism or Impressionism, Divisionism was a response to new scientific theories of light and colour, like colour wheels. Nonetheless, where French art often has an art for art’s sake philosophy, with low-lifes or nudes (Longoni’s pickpocket painting is the nearest to that here) featured to epater les bourgeoisie rather than for political ends. By contrast, Italian artists were unhappy with technique alone. Italian reunification has created considerable social upheaval, poverty and inequality that lent itself to a realist style of portrature that much of the rest of Europe had already explored. Equally, symbolism offered a more escapist response to the same conditions, one that especially appealed to Catholic artists. Often, divisionist artists would veer between these extremes. Nomellini paints grey scenes of striking workers at one point in his career, and then paints an extraordinary indigo blue symbolist work showing the sea, entitles Symphony of the Moon. Segantini’s nature scenes remains sufficiently detailed to sit alongside Pre-Raphaelite painting, but his later symbolist works show a bizarre depictions of sins being punished in hell. His Return from the Woods is the most perfect fusion of the two strains shown in the exhibition; showing a peasant woman dragging wood in a snow scene, but withthe church spire at her destination is reminiscent of David Friedrich (the same applies to some of Grudicy’s autumnal scenes; I’m struck by the spider’s web drawn on the frame of one of them). Some of the realist paintings, such as those by Morbelli could have been painted fifty years earlier in terms of their technique, even if light falling through windows is a particular theme. Morbelli also painted melancholy quasi symbolist works of sunsets though. In other works, the divisionist technique, so effective in Segantini’s Alpine scenes, imposes a stillness and imprecision that fits oddly with the social agenda of the paintings. Morbelli’s luminscent painting of women working in the rice fields utterly fails to convey any sense of misery; it’s much too tranquil and beautiful. Either these artists assumed that a method that was ‘scientific must be allied to social progress, or the political posturing was actually an alibi for aestheticising the predicament of the working class. Much of the symbolist work is also quite socially engaged though but in a more reactionary fashion, as with Previati’s paean to the virtues of the madonna. Volpedo’s country scenes are reminiscent of Sisley but show christian processions. Many of the forms are religious, such as the tondo or the polytych. At the very least, religious symbolism is used to evoke a sense of secular national identity; Mazzini had argued that Italians must develop a "religious concept of their nation."
It wasn’t until futurism that the techniques developed by divisionism could be applied to a specific programme, albeit one where the interest in light was often centered on electric lighting. The exhibition depicts a move from Boccioni’s early pastoral landscapes to a picture of a seamstress (albeit one where the focus is on her cobalt blue dress) to his explicitly futurist painting of a dam being constructed. Other works by Balla and Carra show the futurist depiction of movement in still life or the energy of technology.
As I child I recall seeing a particular statue during a visit to Osbourne House on the Isle of Wight; a black basalt statue of Antinous. I couldn’t place my interest in it exactly at the time, presuming it to be due to the exotic Egyptinate character of the statue. I now presume that my interest was mostly taken by the frank sexualisation in the semi-nude depiction of Hadrian’s lover. No wonder Winckelman had been so enthused at the imagery that showed Antinous as being somewhere between Athena and Apollo. The story of the doomed youth is one of the central myths of gay history, alongside that of Edward the Second. It’s the prospect of seeing Antinous that attracts me to the Hadrian exhibition at the British Museum. The depictions of him are many, from the Egyptianate statue of him as Osiris (with whom he had shared a death day), Ephebian depictions of him as Bacchus (another arisen deity) with vine leaves in his long hair or versions of him as a Greek fertility god. In some of these he conforms to the Roman ideal of the beautiful youth (shown here with the inclusion of the Warren cup), in others his sexuality is more aggressively that of an adult male. I find myself wryly amused at the prospect of his cult competing with christianity; if only it had won. Otherwise, the material at hand is rather more conventional; accounts of Hadrian’s brutal suppression of Jewish rebellion, retrenchment and consolidation of the empire’s borders after Trajan’s overly ambitious expansion, the amnesty on public debts, construction of the Scottish wall (admittedly a turf bank for much of its length that could have served little defensive purpose, instead presumably it served as a means of channelling and controlling the border), anf finishing with the construction of buildings like the Pantheon, his Mausoleum and the architectural fantasisa of his Tivoli villa. The images of Hadrian himself seem surprisingly individual, with his beard setting him out (cited as evidence of his love of all things Greek or a means of covering his blemishes, depending on your preferences) as well as a dimple in his ear that may be evidence of heart disease. Giant busts and statues alternately show him as emperor, priest, warrior and deity. Some of the reliefs from Tivoli, showing Parthenon style depictions of naked figures alongside detailed carvings of vines, birds and squirrels also stand out, but I’m especially drawn to two beautiful peacocks that formerly were in place on the walls of Hadrian’s mausoleum.
The great court of the Museum currently has a striking work by Zhang Wang inside it; following the Chinese inclusion of weathered stones in gardens, Wang has taken the image of such stones and encased it in silvery metal, which looks as if it were frozen mercury. This questioning of the relationship between nature and art is counterpointed by some temporary gardens outside, where a genuine stone can be found amidst the dogwood, wisteria, lacquer tree, willow, bamboo and peony. An exhibition of Chinese nature painting inside continues this theme. I’m struck by the role of literary allusion in the paintings and ceramics shown; many of the flowers and animals are chosen for their symbolic connotations (like the lotus) others by homophones suggested by their names (bamboo sounding like congratulations, narcissi sounding like immortality) or for compounds formed from the combination of different items. A few weeks later I’m revisiting Silchester and an archaeological dig is on. A small garden has been created illustrating the sort of plants found in a Roman garden and illustrating their symbolic functions. There are some overlaps with the Chinese symbolism, as with peony being used in protective amulets.
Walking around the city, I visit the interior of St Mary Alderdmary, an exercise in hyperreal gothic by Wren. The effect is quite odd; the fan vaulting is decorated with floral patterns that seem to belong rather more to the baroque period. The effect of the interior being coated in white plaster is rather sepulchral, giving it the effect of an alabaster tomb and contrasting oddly with the colourful Victorian tiling on the floor. While I’m there the organ starts playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue. I move onto Wren’s St Stephen Walbrook. The interior here is more like a playfully decorated version of the pantheon; unlike Hawksmoor whose eccentric designs seem to match the English character, Wren would have been a much greater architect in a catholic country, where his designs could have made with red marble rather than Portland stone and his interiors gilded and painted. One detail I am struck with is a totentanz on one of the pillars, showing a bride dancing with a skeletal death. This evening, I go to Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppaea at the Proms. Even if Monteverdi is best known for his ecclesiastical music, this amorality tale does rather confirm the reputation of renaissance Venice as indifferent to religion at best. The plot begins with Cupid asserting her primacy over Virtue and thereafter protecting Poppaea as she schemes her way to becoming Nero’s wife, displacing the rather more virtuous Octavia. Poppaea’s mother attempts to dissuade her from this course, but only on the grounds of practicality, advising her to go for someone less ambitious instead. Similarly, Octavia’s nurse attempts to persuade her to take a lover as a form of revenge. Seneca is depicted as the moral centre of the play but also as a tedious windbag. The only character to receive any punishment is the wronged Octavia, while the assassin Otto is allowed happiness with Drusilla. The staging attempted to draw attention to later events (Poppaea’ death at Nero’s hands) by having him come close to slapping her as well as introducing an unscripted (and historically inaccurate) scene where Nero drowns Lucan. Since the drama is essentially concerned with Poppae’s triumph, I wasn’t especially sure I appreciated these interpolations, even if the original audience would have been well aware of Poppaea’s eventual fate and that she would have achieved her ambition by remaining faithful to Otto. The Skakespearian approach to casting works bettwe, with both Nero and Poppaea played by women (Nero would originally have been played by a castrato) and various female parts like the nurse played by men (the nurse here bears a disturbing resemblance to Margaret Thatcher).
Later at the Proms, I listen to Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. The full version is rarely performed in ballet (the story being slight, Tchaikovsky had padded it with various dances). I find myself surprised at the idea of Tchaikovsky writing an opera under the influence of Rameau, although the idea of parallels to Wagner and Brunnhilde’s sleep is more natural. In later works, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kaschkey the Immortal inverts this, with the hero’s kiss to an evil witch killing her and releasing the princess. I follow this with Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances and Janacek’s Osud. The latter is quite odd, reminding me of the role of neuroticism in Schnitzler or the sense of impending fate in Kafka (Mann also leapt to mind, prompted by the spa setting). The first two acts describe a conductor’s love affair and its end in madness and death. His opera is only written to comprise two acts and the third has his describing the above events it to music students at its premiere, thereby forming the third act.
The following weekend, I go to a Taraf de Haidouks concert in Cheltenham. Much of their music is intended to take orchestral settings of gypsy music by the likes of Bartok and Albeniz and to place in back into its original context, playing it as dance music on the violin, accordion, bass and cymbalum. The result is rather like rock music and it’s difficult not to think that where nineteenth century Europe preferred to take folk music and to apply it to orchestral works, twentieth century America preferred to allow black artists to pioneer jazz and blues. The irony of re-appropriating Bartok is born out by the venue, a rather gaudy regency affair. The audience look as if they go there often to attend classical concerts; standing for this one they occasionally manage to sway a bit (aside from one rather energetic elderly lady). It’s also worth mentioning the supporting act, the London Bulgarian Choir, who performed a capella folk songes dressed in traditional costumes.
Cheltenham itself, with its rows of regency buildings, seems rather tepid to me. I’m more struck by my visit earlier in the day to Tewkesbury Abbey. It reminds me of Southwell, another place where the isolated location seems to have helped the building survive with comparatively little destruction or alteration. The exterior is rather ungainly; a squat central tower is flanked by various side chapels and fronted with a facade composed of two towers dwarfed by a central window, recessed back as if it were a romanesque arch. The interior is dark, supported by round pillars (each with a face as a corbel facing its counterpart opposite) above a gothic ceiling painted green and white. The effect is rather like a forest. After the rood screen the effect becomes more markedly gothic, with Victorian Minton tiling below matched by white, blue and red patterns above. England’s oldest fan vaulting in some of the chantry chapels, some of it still painted. One of them has an effigy of its knight suspended above it, others show statues of mouldering corpses, others show fights with the devil. I’m also quite struck by the lady chapel, with a Byzantine mosaic and icon of St Benedict.
The following day is taken up with a brief visit to Glasgow. I find the Victorian buildings in red sandstone mixed with baroque church spires, Marcochetti statues, greek revival art galleries, elaborate corbel figures and art deco building fronts quite wonderful. I’m equally delighted with the police boxes I keep on seeing on street corners. The back of Prince’s Square behind the City Chambers is labyrinth of arches that reminds me of Piranesi. In front, I’m struck by the column surmounted by Walter Scott. London has no statue of Shakespeare, let alone dedicating Trafalgar Squate to him. I walk out to the cathedral and walk around the graveyard. The monuments are eroded and weathered, decorated with skulls and morality symbols. The symbols seem wraithlike when corroded in this manner. On one of them Minton tiling has been badly blackened by industrial pollution. Several more modern tombs are caged in with rusted iron, the interior overgrown with weeds. I walk over to the Victorian necropolis. The presence of the tombs on this hill reminds me of Prague, as does the presence of an old town next to a new one on a grid layout. Presumably Mackintosh would figure as the Glaswegian Gaudi. Paths spiral around the hill, as one passes celtic crosses, Egyptian tombs, funerary urns, all encrusted with rust and weeds as they crumble to dust. The style of the monuments seems rather diverse, from Moorish gothic to Romanesque chapels. Returning, I enter the cathedral. Its stone is quite black with the roof covered in a rich, dark wood. The modern stained glass is a lovely blue. The interior seems as labyrinthine as the necropolis with a crypt where Saint Kentigern’s tomb had rested. Medieval German stained glass creates phovist patterns on the floor of a side chapel. Here alone the walls are painted in white and I notice a roof boss in the shape of a skull. Elsewhere, the sacristy’s floor is lined with Minton tiles. I look at the funerary memorials in the cathedral. Unlike even those in Tewkesbury they are brightly painted, somewhere between gothic and Tudor in their design.
Lautreamont’s Maldoror follows in the path of Baudelaire and Nerval in delighting in contradictions, even as Lautreamont condemns it in his poems. Similarly, the poems are explicit in rejecting the romanticism of Byron, even as Maldoror follows in the path of Manfred, Goethe and Maturin (although he also speaks of tragedy, such as that of Mervyn, as moral, exciting pity and terror). Where, Maldoror denounces god the poems state that "I reject evil… man never fell from a state of grace." Maldoror itself is far from monologic. At one point, Satan is Maldoror’s great rival, elsewhere god is essentially identical to satan ("I created you so I have the right to do whatever I like to you… I am making you suffer for my pleasure") at another the archangel speaks of Maldoror in the same terms as Lucifer himself, a fallen angel they would welcome back as one of their own. Since the text accepts the binary logic of christianity throughout, it is split between salvation and damnation as mutually exclusive choices, even as the narrator rejects god as an evil tyrant; "this god who is insensible to your prayers.. this shapeless and bloodthirsty idol… I should like to love and adore you but you are too powerful and there is fear in my prayers." Since man is made in god’s image it follows that man is as corrupt and vicious as his creator ("the creator who ought never to have bred such vermin"), making murder a moral act. Applying Blake’s dictum that one should soon smother a child in its cradle than nurse unacted desires, Maldoror emerges as a Sadeian rebel in the same way Blake envisaged Milton’s Satan. But at the same time the narrative voice can still shift to utter conventional homilectics; "that torch of unjustifiable pride that is leading you to your damnation."
Roderick Hudson reminded me of an observation I’d heard that while homosexuality forms an obvious subtext in many novels by gay authors, the sense can permeate other works (the example cited was a rereading of 1984 as story of gay love and persecution). Here, there are grounds to suspect a subtext; Cecilia introduces Roderick as "a pretty boy" while in Venice Roderick and Rownland watch "a brown breasted gondolier making superb muscular movements." The core of the novel can as easily be read as concerning Rowland’s unrequited love for Roderick as it can for Mary. In spite of the depiction of Mary, women essentially figure throughout as sexual threats that destroys men of talent as much as Rowland’s interference; "a buxom, bold faced, high-coloured creature… she used to beat him and he had taken to drinking." Then later; "he had married a horrible wife.. it was said she used to beat poor Savage." Similarly, Christina is "as cold and false and heartless as she is beautiful… her disrelish of a man who lacked the virile will."
"Since first the dominion of men was asserted over the ocean, three thrones, of mark beyond all others, have been set upon its sands: the thrones of Tyre, Venice, and England. Of the First of these great powers only the memory remains; of the Second, the ruin; the Third, which inherits their greatness, if it forget their example, may be led through prouder eminence to less pitied destruction . . . I would endeavour to… record, as far as I may, the warning which seems to me to be uttered by every one of the fast-gaining waves, that beat like passing bells, against the Stones of Venice." – Ruskin, The Stones of Venice
Venice is a place that is difficult to summarise in conventional terms. A place of so many different styles seems best described as a set of fragments; the light shimmering on the fade waters of the lagoon, images of the Virgin Mary (even included in glass and metal shrines in the canals), the crumbling white I…strian marble, cracking plaster revealing rotted brick, the gondalas like Turkish slippers riding the waves, the chiming of the bells, red Veronese and white Istrian diamond patterns in the tiling, the seaweed and mussels clinging to the canal walls, the splashing of the waves, the minaret like campaniles, wells in each square, seagulls resting on wooden buoys, images of dragons, sphinxes and winged lions adornining squares, the precarious roof gardens, the capricious (if not Escheresque) medieval streets where serendipity is of rather more use than conventional navigation. Grandiosity and decay sit side by side. As a city it is an anomaly; a place of refuge that became the seat of empire, the product of the accretion of Roman, Byzantine styles. In its present form it is less of a subject in its own right than an object for the gaze of others. The city whose churches are adorned by works from Titian, Vivarini and Veronese became a place depicted instead by foreigners like James, Whistler, Mann, Monet and Turner. It is trapped like a fly in amber, forever preserved more or less as it was at the fall of the Republic, when its history ended.
The one exception to this is the Lido. Until recent times this was simply a sandbank that did little to disturb the oppressive flatness of the lagoon; Byron would ride his horses here; the nearby island of Saint Lazarus, which housed the city’s Armenian community and a rather Central European church spire, is rather older. The church of San Nicolo is easily the oldest structure on the island, the scene of Venice’s marriage to the sea. It’s a somewhat understated church with a brick exterior and painted pink campanile. The local cemetery (incongruously, this is also where the city’s Jewish cemetery can be found) is nearby, whose large mausoleums have potted plants and welcome mats for visitors to enter and use the small chapel. Watering cans are on sale to water the flowers planted on the graves. Lizards flit across the stones in the late afternoon sun. Today, these stand alongside an old flack tower errected during the second world war; the Lido is indeed the only part of Venice to include fascist architecture, such as rather drab casinos and cinemas. It’s main street also features an art deco hotel, albeit not the one Von Aschenbach stayed at, its exterior covered in beautifully painted stucco sculptures of the muses. There’s an art exhibition on at the time I visit and a car painted in red with the hammer and sickle is parked outside. A large black Buddha statue rests further down the main street. A cat bathing in the afternoon sunlight looks suitably unimpressed.
By contrast, the view that greets one at the Piazza San Marco is essentially the same as that depicted by Canaletto, with the conflicting styles of the gothic and Byzantine cathedral next to Sansovino’s classical Loghetta and Biblioteca. The iconography is equally conflicted, with St Theodore’s column representing the city’s links with Byzantium next to the winged lion of the stolen Saint Mark, representing the city’s independence. I begin with the Doge’s Palace and following Ruskin’s recommendations, examine the decoration on the capitals outside; kings, moors, birds, beasts, knights and allegories. Entering inside, the inner courtyard (itself a rather Arabic concept) is lined with colonnades and is overlooked by a clock on a facade filled with Sansovino sculptures that backs onto the Basilica. The Palazzo is entered through a gold and white stucco staircase leading to rooms filled with maps, globes and images of the winged lion. The walls are decorated with paintings by Titian, Carpaccio, Bellini, Bassano, Tiepolo and Veronese. Inevitably, the central Council Chambers is the most impressive, with its paintings of all the Doges (save the black space where Faliero should be), and Tintoretto’s Paradise fresco. Coming across Bosch’s Triptych of Heaven and Hell, I finding myself once more responding to them rather more readily than the Titian and Veronese paintings, perhaps due to perverse surrealism being their dominant mode rather than the crude allegories of god blessing Venice elsewhere in the palace. Later rooms show other aspects; magistrates in eighteenth century portraiture, the prison cells and bridge of sighs.
Inevitably, this is followed with a visit to the dark and cave-like Basilica of Sant Mark, with the half light glittering across the gold and marble mosaics. Images pullulate across every surface and leave the eye disorientated. The treasury still houses works taken from Alexandria (as well as the corpse of Saint Mark), including the inevitable holy relics, the bone encased in previous metals that simulate the limbs that once contained them as well as a reliquary in the shape of a domed church. As with the Piazzo itself, the originally simple Basilica design has been added to, with gothic spires, painting by Veneziano and later artists as well as statuary on the outside and the more incongrous Tetrarchs statue of Dioceletian. This is followed by the Correr Museum, where I am most struck by a Chinese statue of Marco Polo. Bewhiskered and with round eyes, the statue is covered in gold and in all other respects Buddha like. The interior dates from the Napoleonic era and seems to have been designed in imitation of Nero’s palace. The first exhibit is a set of Canova reliefs of Homeric scenes, followed by his statues of Priam, Daedalus and Icarus. The museum also houses an eighteenth century library, complete with Murano chandelier as well as various items like globes, maiolica, cassone, maps and Sevres porcelain. The highlight of the museum is its art gallery though, beginning with the Byzantine work of Paolo Veneziano, proceeding onwards to the more gothic work of Stefano Veneziano and Bartholomeo Vivarini and from thence to the Renaissance and the Bellini family, as well as exhibiting some works by Damaskinos and El Greco. As ever, I find the religious subject matter of all these periods decidedly hostile; it is possible to enjoy them as abstract pattern and colour but as little else. Conversely, a painting like Carpaccio’s The Courtesans or Brueghel’s Adoration of the Magi are quite different, both displacing the christian in favour of the human. The collection also has a painting in the school of Bosch, The Temptations of St Anthony, which I also enjoy; it seems fitting company for the paintings by Dali and Ernst that I saw a few days later. Finally, the museum also houses a smaller Ancient History section, containing busts of the Roman Emperors, Hellenic statues of the defeated Galatians, Assyrian reliefs and Egpytian statues (as well as a somewhat homoerotic statue of Dionysus and a satyr).
The following days are dedicated to exploring the city; from Castello to the Dorsoduro, San Polo and Cannaregio. The church of San Giuliano in San Marco is an especially elaborate baroque church, with Veronese paintings and a nearby wall relief of St George (who seems especially popular here in spite of not being its patron saint) and an iron dragon as a street sign (rather reminding me of Barcelona). I also note some rather odd calendars on sale in some of the squares. I walk to Santa Maria Dei Miracoli in Canaregio, one of the particular highlight of my visit. The outside is firmly encased in every hue of marble on a comparatively small Renaissance building tucked beside a canal. The interior shares this, with the wooden barrel roof also being studded with paintings in addition to the Pietro painting of the Madonna that the church grew around (most churches in Venice seem to have been founded through some vision of the Virgin or a bird leading out to a reed bed, something that reminds me of the founding of Tenochtitlan more than anything else). For a complete contrast, the gothic Santo Stefano in Castello represents another highlight of my visit. The same red and white diamond patterning seen on the outside of the Palazzo Ducale can be seen on the interior walls here, next to leaf frescos painted atop the arches and a studded ship’s keel roof. The pillars are covered in red cloth, something I note in several of the churches. The arches have to be supported by corss beams, presumably due to the lack of firm foundations. The interior is filled with elaborate gothic, classical (one of the equestrian monuments being especially striking hung on a church wall) funerary monuments, including some by Canova and Lombardo, as well as paintings by Vivarini and Tintoretto. San Francesco della Vigna is a pleasant church with a pink and white campanile, offset by an elaborate facade designed by Palladio.
The church of Santa Maria dei Giglio has an especially elaborate Baroque facade, showing maps of the city. Its sacristy is not dissimilar to that at Saint Marks, setting silver reliquaries in the dubious company of a painting by Rubens, while the rest of the church places Tintoretto in the equally strange company of a Creto-Byzantine Madonna icon. The same holds true for the rather understated Santa Maria Del Formosa, which sets a Byzantine icon alongside a Vivarini triptych. Ruskin disliked this church for a baroque gargoyle at the base of its rather pleasant campanile (on grounds I can rather understand) but also for decorative facade by Codussi designed to honour the Venetian nobility rather than god (on which point, I am considerably less in sympathy with Ruskin). Santa Maria Della Salute is rather more famous than any of these, but its Baroque dome seems a more familiar design than many of the city’s other churches (in spite of the Byzantine references). It too has a Byzantine icon taken from Crete, from the time it lay within the Venetian empire. Titian’s painting of Saint Sebastian in the church is especially striking; it is the first of many in a city routinely decimated by plague and which had come used to invoking him as a patron. The city’s interest in Saint Sebastian is nowhere better exemplified than in the church of San Sebastiano. Sebastian appears in a painting by Veronese in a church whose walls are lined with works by him, even covering the organ. Any part of the wall not containing a painting is home to a trompe l’oeil effect. There is even a stone sculpture of him outside, in the place normally reserved for the Virgin Mary.
Another highlight was Santi Giovanni e Paolo. It’s funerary monuments are very bit as ornate as those of Santo Stefano, such as the Mocenigo tombs, supported by griffin sculptures while others are emblazoned with double headed eagles. Otherwise, the interior is more plain, in bare stone and redbrick, save for the red painted arches and cross beams. This time it is Bellini who depicts Sebastian in a triptych. Other paintings include Giovane and a Vivarini triptych. The ornate sacristy is filled with Veronese paintings and rather recalls the Doge’s Palace. Similar in style is Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. The main nave here is largely empty, filled only elaborate funerary monuments. Most of these are in conventional styles, including one to Titian, which leaves Canova’s pyramid all the more striking. It looks as if it should be Pere LaChaise or Highgate, with veiled figures and angels entering the tomb. Next to it is something equally odd, with Moorish bearers and skeletons. The church has been described as a pantheon, given the numbers of the great and the good buried here (though Monteverdi only merited a floor plaque). There is than an elaborate wood and gold choir and beyond that is something altogether more elaborate; here the brick walls are painted and are hung with works by Titian. The sacristy is dark, covered with wooden panels, and here Veneziano, Vivarini and a Bellini triptych can be found, alongside a wooden clock by Lombardo. The Gesuati in Cannaregio is more rococo than classicist, with the walls covered in floral patterns of green and white marble, even down to representing a set of curtains around the pulpit and gold on the ceiling. The weight was enough to cause subsidence and the chapels around Titain’s painting of Saint Lawrence’s martyrdom are riven with cracks and damp. Its namesake in the Dorsoduro, is a more plain baroque church, with paintings by Tiepolo and Tintoretto and the unusual presence of the earlier church it replaced alongside. The Carmini is perhaps not the best building in the city, but it is quite unusual; paintings depicting the history of the Carmelite order hang on either side of the nave under the ceiling, with dark wood and gold statues beneath. The pillars are again wrapped in red cloth. The windows have red curtains, giving the place a rather gloomy effect. The Scuola Grande di San Rocco, a lay fraternity, has a rather spartan, churchlike, hall on its groundfloor, while its dark wood panelled upper floor has more of the feeling of a sacristy, lined with Tintoretto paintings of the New Testament. A collection of Maiolica and Iznik ceramics is on display in an annex. Similarly, the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni is devoted to Carpaccio, showing narrative cycles based on the lvies of St George, Tryphone and Jerome on the ground floor. The upper floor is also more elaborate, though there is something rather bathetic about its painting of fraternity members in Biblical scenes (not unlike a painting of god, the Doge, Dogessa and the guild of poulterers or St Christopher fording the Venetian lagoon).
The church of Madonna Dell Orto is another of the city’s highlights, with an exterior that most closely approximates Northern Gothic. Inside, it is perhaps rather more understated, with painting on the interior of the arches and paintings by Tintoretto, with a set of rather apocalyptic themes of the day of judgement and the golden calf. Nearby is Santa Alvise, with a rather bizarre set of paintings showing the theft of the body of Saint Mark (whose corpse, needless to add, is perfectly preserved). The interior feels more like an art gallery than a church, with an ingenious trompe l’oeil ceiling by Bastiani that seems to extend the church several storeys upward. More striking is a cycle of Carpaccio paintings, alongside works by Tiepolo and Giovane. The church of San Geremia, is a rather bland affair, with some gothic paintings of Lucia (whose stolen corpse the church contains) and Geremia. The church of San Giobbe is also rather uninteresting, save for one chapel containing a glazed terracotta ceiling in beautiful blues and greens, Lombardo carvigs and a Vivarini triptych in the sacristy. San Giovanni Elemosinario, also built to house a pilfered saint’s corpse, contains a Pordenone painting of Saint Sebastian, alongside various Titian paintings. The building is largely hidden in the Rialto market (certainly when compared to the nearby San Giacomo di Rialto, with its large, if entirely inaccurate, clock) and is mostly rather austere, save for a sudden lurch into baroque splendour in one of the side chapels. San Giacomo dall’Orio is a rather more spartan church, with only the capitals and ceiling woodwork gilded below its ship’s keel roof. A Byzantine style cross by Veneziano hangs in the centre of the nave (several of the columns and font are looted from Byzantium). The church is mostly home to Giovane paintings (especially in its sacristy). Of lesser note, is San Giobbe, a simple building with a wooden rood and some Tiepolo paintings.
San Giorgio dei Greci is hidden in a small courtyard, whose iron railings are overgrown with ivy. The wellhead, walls and exterior mosaics are decorated with representations of George and the Dragon, and the interior with its walls of iconic paintings by Damaskinos, also features him. Finally, there is San Zaccaria, a building with one of the most impressive facades and one of the one of the most drab monochrome interiors in the city, the walls of paintings by the likes of Bellini and Vivarini notwithstanding. There is also San Giovanni in Bragora, the church where Vivalid was baptised, with its lovely Vivarini triptych and San Martino with another saint’s corpse and trompe l’oeil ceiling. Across from the main island lies La Giudecca, with its Palladian churches, Santissimo Redentore and San Giorgio Maggiore. In spite of paintings by Tintoretto, Bassano and Vivarini, I find myself sympathising with Ruskin’s preference for gothic over classicism; there’s something rather puritannical about Palladio’s designs. The first example of classicist architecture in Venice is the Arsenale though, with its clock towers and lion statues (stolen from the Peloponnese).
For all of the corrosion of the city’s walls through brine laden winds and subsidence, nature is something largely banished from Venice. Its narrow streets accommodate few trees or grass. One of the few exceptions to this is the more easterly districts. The Giardini area is filled with public gardens, divided by a boulevade dedicated to Garibaldi. A statue of the man himself stands at the entrance, atop a large rock down which water spills. Ferns and moss have grown over the rock and terrepins sunbathe at its base or swim alongside carp in the waters below. The gardens are otherwise filled with statuary; a bust of Richard Wagner, a rostral column and assorted statues in a Roman style. The pine trees continue to San Elena, where birds sing as the sun sets. The small church at the end of the island has a rather unpleasant modern campanile but also a beautiful set of cloisters, filled with plants.
Nature is more of an emphatic presence at the outer island of Torcello. Once the first settlement on the lagoon, it is now all but deserted. Ruskin opened The Stones of Venice with an account of the fall of previous maritime empires like Venice and Tyre, in comparison to a Britain that still ruled the scenes. By contrast, Torcello reminds me more of Jeffries’s After London and a recent account of what London would like after having been deserted by humanity for hundreds of years; the last thing to collapse would be Canary Wharf, standing above what have reverted to swampland. In Torcello, the trees, reeds and broom grow thickly over what would once have been a settlement. Egrets and herons can be seen flying. The tower of its erstwhile cathedral looms large over the island and can be seen for miles around. As you draw closer you come into a piazza that must once have been equivalent to San Marco. Today, the cobbles are broken up with weeds and parts of the building lie in ruins. The quiet of the lagoon seems unearthly. Statues and ornaments stand silent witness around the square. The cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta itself is home to a dramatic gold mosaic of the day of judgement on one wall (complete with skeletons, demons and ouls burning in hell) and the Virgin at the other. As Ruskin notes, together for the bright and airy character of the church, it was an obvious expression for a people in need of reassurance and hope after the Hun incursions. Plain romanesque arches are supported by elaborate corinthian columns, the walls are decorated with images of peacocks with the floor glitters with a rainbow of marble patterns. A museum stands on the the opposite side of the piazza, including early mosaics, a gold iconostasis and various reliefs. It also includes a history of objects found in the lagoon; Roman lamps, a bust of Hermes, Etruscan metalware, Egyptian statues and other votive objects.
The Island of Murano is rather less interesting, with most of its palaces having been torn down. One of the most interesting buildings is the lighthouse, with an Eric Gill style sculpture of the Madonna at its base. The church of San Pietro Martire is a modest white and red affair, with frescos between the arches and a collection of paintings by Bellini and Veronese. More striking is Santa Maria e Donato, with its mosaic flooring with depictions of eagles and rabbits (nastily depicting the triumph of christianity over the pagan), alleged dragon bones hung behind the altar and a mosaic of the Madonna in the apse. Saint’s bones are once more stored under the altar, as at Saint Fosca at Torcello.
More fascinating is the Bocklin like island of San Michele. The product of the Napoleonic era, it feels more like Pere LaChaise than the rest of Venice. The grid layout seems alien to a city whose streets are so chaotic. As often in Latin countries, many graves are simply in shelves, with photos on the outside of each box and an electric light illuminating a fake candle. Where there are conventional graves, the cemetery takes on the aspect of a flower garden, with the plants growing profusely. Ornate tombs line the walls of the cemetery, at corners and intersections and in cloisters; everywhere white marble and orange brick prevails beneath the shade of cypresses. The orthodox and protestant tombs are in their quarantined areas and both have become decidedly more ramshackle. A larger tomb in the orthodox sections has mosaics ion the outside, but the graves of Stravinsky and Brodsky are somewhat nondescript. So too proves the case with Pound in the dilapidated Protestant cemetery where the presence of Highgate style angels seems decidedly odd.
Venice’s art galleries are split between medieval and renaissance paintings on the one hand and the modernist collection in the Guggenheim on the other. The Guggenheim begins with a futurist collection reminiscent of the Estorick collection; Boccioni, Balla and Severini. Peggy Guggenhiem’s own collection bifurcates between broadly abstract or expressionist works, like Braque, Kandinsky, Delaunay and Picasso (as well as a large Pollock collection) and surrealism, including Brauner, Delvaux, Dali, Ernst, Chirico and Magritte. Although I enjoy most of the collection, it’s the surrealist paintings I enjoy the most. There’s also a good sculpture collection; Giacometti and Brancusi. At the other extreme, is the Ca’ d’Oro and Accademia. Ca’ d’Oro is a palazzo on the ground canal. Entering inside through a gothic gate, one walks through a verdant courtyard into the ground floor portego. Statues of satyrs and gods are scattered around and the waves of the lagoon lap against the steps. The floor is mosaic, decorated with stones from North Africa and Greece. The collection is most famed for a Mantegna painting of (unsurprisingly) Saint Sebastian, as well as Carpaccio Annunciation and a striking Andrea Bartolo coronation of the Virgin. Again though, I’m most impressed by Titian’s profane Venus at the Looking Glass. There’s also a collection of Flemish works; a Van Eyck crucifixion, Van de Velde seascapes and a Van Scorel painting of the Tower of Babel that distinctly resembled the more famous Brueghel. Finally, there is the Accademia. Again, it begins with Veneto-Byzantine artists like Veneziano and Vivarini, containing some rather grandiose depictions of the Book of Revelations and the coronation of the Virgin, though Carpaccio’s Crucifixion and Apotheosis of the Martyrs on Mount Ararat and his Ursula cycle is probably the most dramatic. Inevitably, Saint Sebastian is again much in evidence, with two paintings of him by Bellini. The gallery then progresses onwards to the Renaissance, with Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese, though I am again most struck by Lotto’s Portrait of a Young Man in his Study. The collection again progressed forward, showing Claude-like paintings of ruins by Giuseppe Zais, a series of architectural fantasias by Marieschi, Gaspari and Battaglioli. There’s also the handful of Canaletto pictures to remain within Venice.
"High the vanes of Shrewsbury gleam
Islanded in Severn stream;
The bridges from the steepled crest
Cross the water east and west." (AE Housman)
Shrewsbury is one of the best preserved towns in England, with streets lined with half-timbered buildings (one of them stayed in by Henry prior to the Battle of Bosworth Field), a castle on a hill and a profusion of churches from a number of a variety of different periods. Outside the town and besides the Severn lie the remains of the old Benedictine monastery (including a rather eeriely isolated refectory pulpit standing outside) and the present Abbey. The red sandstone exterior left me rather reminded of Hereford. The interior remains largely gothic, with the remains of St Winfrid’s shrine having an orthodox icon of the saint by them (it’s not really my sort of reading but I did always rather like the alternative story of Winifrid’s arrival in Shrewsbury from A Morbid Taste for Bones), Tudor and Norman tombs, Norman remains, a font made from an upended Roman column as a font and Victorian reredos depicting Winifrid.
Within the town lies the church of St Mary the Virgin, with the third largest spire in England (half of it from the original sandstone, the rest much later). This is one of the most impressive churches that I’ve seen; the windows are filled with 13th to 16th century stained glass from Belgium and Germany, purchased at the same time as the Lady Chapel of Lichfield Cathedral. The ‘Tree of Jesse’ window showing Edward the Third is 14th century, Saxon tomb slabs, the floor is covered with Minton tiles, while the wooden ceiling is filled with elaborate angel carvings. Nearby is the more modest St Alkmund, a Victorian church with a painted East window and St Chad, a baroque round tower church with a circular nave. Outside, yellow and red leaves had fallen and covered the ground around the large tombs. Over the road is a park with a classical war memorial containing a statue of the angel Gabriel. Past a statue of Darwin outside the library, lie the remains of the castle, as red as the Abbey. A tower built by Thomas Telford when an earlier part of the structure collapsed stands overlooking the river. Down in the town, the museum houses a number of interesting exhibits from the Roman city of Virconium (Wroxeter), including soldier’s gravestones (originally garishly painted) and Samian wear.
Elsewhere, St Michael’s in Lichfield is set in one of the largest graveyard in the country. Though it lacks the elaborate tombs in the London Victorian cemetery, one of the larger tombs had it’s own clock and gas supply to light it up. St Mary and St Hardulph, or Breedon on the Hill, is siutated atop a hill above the surrounding plain. Originally, the site of a Monastery, the largely Norman church is notable for its extensive Saxon carvings; an angel like the one at Lichfield, Vine scroll above the altar and Anglian beasts. Seventeenth century slates tombstones line up in the windswept churchyard, each decorating with elaborate neo-classical etchings that have survived well. A Tudor family memorial depicts the deceased at prayer as well as showing a skeletal corpse beneath. A wooden pew surives that served as the box for the local gentry during services. Nearby is St Michael and St Mary at Melbourne, a Norman cathedral in miniature, with thick columns and round arches supporting a gallery that runs the length of the church. A wonderful medieval mural of the devil survives on one of the walls, near to columns where Saxon carvings of animals remain, including a Sheela-na-gig, a pagan fertility symbol. Further on is St Mary at Tutbury, a rather more restrained affair which does nonetheless have an extraordinary Norman arch in alabaster (another shows scenes of boar hunting). Finally, I had been to Repton before, but was interested to note the same slate tombstones outside and the statue of St Wystan bearing a metal sword above the door.
Autumn is my favourite time of year, with the world transfigured with green thoughts to shades of bronze, gold and burgundy and where the fallen leaves are suddenly siezed and thrown through the air by the unseen force of the wind. I think what I increasingly like about looking at buildings and the natural world is a sense of transfiguration, something similar to Shklovsky’s concept of ostranenie translates as ‘making strange.’ I think of how buildings take on different characters in different lights, of how the fog I can currently see from the window makes the innocuous and familiar sinister and hidden, of how autumn leaves transform the living into something artificial. Autumn has come late this year and it still feels more like October than November. Travelling into London to the Velasquez exhibition at the National Gallery, the sun is bright and the air still seems gentle. The exhibition itself shows Velasquez as a consummate realist, concerned with the mundane in his genre paintings (in spite of the number of religious or mythical subjects), while also continually suggesting, as with Foucault’s analysis of Las Meninas, the limits of representation, as with the two kitchen scenes shown here where christ is seen as being somewhere else beyond everyday concerns. The same applies to The Rokeby Venus, where the mirror image only shows a dim reflection of Venus and one that is at the wrong angle (although most of the portraits show the subject facing the viewer, Velasquez also has his sibyl turned away and hidden). Two other small exhibitions were being held, of Cezanne and Dutch winter scenes. The former seems striking for Cezanne’s almost cubist approach to nature painting while the highlight of the latter was Jan Beerstraten’s The Castle of Muiden in Winter and Avercamp’s Scene on the Ice Near Town. Elsewhere within the gallery, I walked through the Sainsbury wing, responding to the colours, but as ever, finding it hard to respond to the subject matter of works like The Wilton Diptych, until we come to the lascivious mythological painting of Florentine artists like Botticelli, Di Cosimo (though a Crivelli altarpiece with real jewels and gold embedded in it was rather striking), Cranach’s Greek allegory of Cupid Complaning to Venus and Venetian portrait painters like Bellini’s portrait of The Doge Leonardo Loredan. Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait also stands out for me and I next visit the Dutch section, with its Vane De Velde maritime paintings, De Hootch allegories (although he always seems more amused at vice than outraged) or Ruisdael landscapes. Other striking works included Moroni’s aristocratic portraits set in the midst of ruins and Rosa’s proto-romantic scenes.
Like several other Icelandic sagas, Njal’s Saga depicts the conversion of Iceland to Christianity. Njal is himself shown as an unearthly figure gifted with second sight and whose death has all the hallmarks of a saint’s martyrdom. Zola’s Therese Raquin shows less of a conflict between physiological and environmental considerations than that seen in his later works, cleaving to a theory of the body as the wellspring of all action (Therese and Laurent do not act consciously but are instead two people, driven by their physiogonomy), something that looks back to the medieval humours and forward to Ballard’s instinct driven idea of consciousness rather than inahbiting a conventional idea of character. The results can be somewhat uncomfortable; Therese’s actions are attributed to her African blood. Nonetheless, Zola is far from being consistent in this regard; Therese speaks of having her upbringing made her into a hypocrite and liar, while Laurent’s suffering is seen to induce a change in his body and character, making him more nervous and feminine. While Laurent is held to act only out of fleshy desire, Therese is supposed to take pleasure in knowing why she acts. Their very guilt seems to product of consciousness rather than the instincts of the flesh, while such tropes as the ghost and their eventual suicide seem to suggest the structure of a moral fable.
The figure in the carpet is often cited as a characteristic of Jamesian fiction. The Europeans exemplifies this through the way it depicts its characters in relation to their environment (America and Europe) but elides description of those environments. Felix resembles a Turgenev protagonist while Eugenia resembles Flaubert’s most famous heroine. But both Turgenev and Flaubert depict their characters as part of a complex web of social relationships, while James only briefly limns such matters in. Whereas earlier novelists like Dickens and Eliot had assigned a deterministic element to a character’s environment, no such element exists for James whose characters are rather more unpredictable, with the lackadaisical Felix settling down while Gertrude discovers herself out of kilter with her home.