Much like the Rauschenberg exhibiton I visited last year, the Tate’s Paul Nash exhibition illustrates the various facets of a particularly complex artist whose work varied from landscape painting, collage, surrealism, found objects, sculpture and war painting. The initial sections show the influence of Blake and the Pre-Raphaelites; the work divides between mythical paintings (from an angel fighting a birdlike demon to pyramids in the ocean) and landscapes that dwell on a mystical but inherent genius loci (as with Wittenham Clumps or Whiteleaf Cross). Paintings of Dymchurch Steps with its pill box on the beach begin to show a Chiricoesque sense of the strangeness of everyday objects. A very English building shows an infinite regress inside it while a blue house on the shore emerges as a series of Eschersque angles. You also see how in spite of the notional realism, his work shares some cubist pre-occupations with geometry; clouds show as icebergs in the sky rather than as whisps of vapour while the sea emerges as a series of lines. The war paintings show a similar style, although the strangeness here often comes from the quotidian rather than the exceptional, as with a sun blazing out over the new world of a barren battlefield.
Pre-occuptions also begin to emerge with framing, with landscapes seen from an open window so as to bisect the scene. A view from Nash’s St Pancras flat out through scaffolding achieves the same thing in a unusual urban setting; later this feeds into works like his Mansions of the Dead painting. The landscapes become more obviously surrealist, with an infinite regress with Convolvulus at the centre. Others dwell on objects, as with scenes showing a petrified tree in a landscape. Objects begin to loom particularly large from this point onwards, with an emphasis on incorporating found objects as sculpture; glove stretchers assembled into a forest, photographs mixed with rocks in display cases, a skull painted gold and coated with shells in remembrance of The Tempest and Ernst style frottage drawings. His paintings begin to dwell on objects like dead trees and Avebury monoliths; the parallels between the tree paintings and his Totes Meer paintings of wrecked German bombers seems clear. Paintings of flowers in the sky recall the Spanish describing parachutes as flowers of the air. The last paintings return to landscapes and re-capture some of his original sense of mysticism, as with a painting of the sun as a flower.
The following week I go to the Estorick Collection’s exhibition of WW1 British artists in Italy. Much of the first room is taken up by Sidney Carline’s paintings; showing Sopwith Camel dogfights above the Veneto, Austrian prisoners being driven towards the Italian lines and British artillery in Vicenza. The other half is taken up with photos taken by William Joseph Brunell; I especially like his photos of ruined castles damaged in the war.
The following week, I go to the new Design Museum in Holland Park. The old Commonwealth Institute building is rather impressive with its sweeping lines; the vast empty interior seems somewhat anti-climactic by comparison. The permanent exhibition is on the second floor on a wending path up past an auditorium; once inside it is a rather cramped and rambling stretch through Harry Beck and Memphis to Zaha Hadid and Jonny Ives. After this, I visit the Sussex Modernism exhibition at Two Temple Place. The ground floor here is mostly occupied by Eric Bell’s commune at Ditchling and the Bloomsbury Group at Charleston. Covering Gill sculptures, Bell paintings and a coffer by Gauder Brzeska, I especially like Grant’s decorated Leda and the Swan chest and his homoerotic version of a Seurat painting, Bathers by the Pond. The upper floors are rather less coherent; the Mae West lips sofa by Edward James and Dali, Piper paintings of Chichester cathedral and Dover cliffs, Lee Miller photographs and Edward Burra paintings.
Reading LP Hartley’s The Harness Room leaves me wondering why its currently out of print, in contrast to Forster’s Maurice, another late gay novel from a writer who had only written previously of heterosexual themes. I assume that whereas Maurice had an ending in the greenwood that tallied with gay liberation themes, The Harness Room reflects a rather darker tone that is rather more in keeping with Hartley’s other work (or even with Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask). The boxing training offered by the bisexual Carrington to the soft youth Fergus does begin to toughen and ‘masculinise’ Fergus in the way his father intended, but as the two begin to sleep together, it also leaves Fergus unsympathetic to the feminine world denoted by his stepmother’s unwelcome attentions. Homosexuality becomes a rejection of the feminine rather than an expression of effeminacy. The parallels between boxing and fucking in the novel begin to take on a sado-masochistic tone; when Carrington accidentally kills Fergus in a boxing match, the ending is redolent of Freudian explanations, from internalised homophobia, through to Carrington unconsciously attempting to spare Fergus from a conventional heterosexual life, and whether the action was simply that of a jealous lover.
I’ve also read John Rechy’s City of Night. Most of the text is essentially a picaresque series of depictions of the narrator’s life as a hustler across different American cities, reflecting little on his own motivations until his rejection of an offer of love towards the end of the book. The book repeatedly uses two contrasting metaphors throughout; the mask and the mirror, reflecting the extent to which gay identity is either something constructed or something imposed. Gay identity is something that is a parody of both masculinity and femininity but also something inescapable. The life of the hustler is at turns either a tragic and nihilistic existence that is fated to fail as the hustler ages and as a form of incipient counter-culture in revolt from society. Comparing City of Night to Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn though and the shift from first (gay) person to third (straight) person does make a marked difference; Selby’s tale of the transvestite hopelessly in love with an indifferent straight man casts her as a victim in a way that Rechy’s narrator doesn’t accept.
Aciman’s Call be Your Name has a Proustian obsession with time; the novel draws an anaology between the church of San Clemente’s Mithraic past, its Christian present and between the gay affair of its narrators and the later marriage and parenthood of at least one of them. Prelapsarian metaphors abound, albeit with apricots (as much in apricating as in the actual fruit) and clementines (as in Clemente as much as in the actual fruit) replacing apples. Gayness seems oddly transient in a novel where both of the main characters are bisexual, and the novel often dwells on the idea of existence as a series of parallel lives (which gayness largely figuring as the road not taken) and the idea of gay love as a blurring of the boundaries between two selves; Elio and Oliver do indeed call each other by their own names as well as wearing each other’s clothing (although the only explicitly gay couple in the novel are mocked for wearing matching clothes). A poet in Rome tells of a visit to Thailand and his confusion over the gender of someone he drank with, but the novel does seem to imply that such confusion is as temporary as a holiday, whether to Rome or to Bangkok.
Edmund White’s two specifically autobiographical works, City Boy and My Lives, both remind me a lot of Isherwood (albeit White’s tone is considerably more gossipy); both writers re-use material from their own lives but depict it in shards and fragments and never as an entire narrative. City Boy depicts White’s time in New York while My Lives eschews the linear narrative in favour of a series of themes; hustlers, parents, friends and lovers but also places like Paris and concepts like his Genet biography. As White admits it omits as much as it includes; the process of writing his novels, his teaching career or two lovers he frequently references but never devotes chapters to. One aspect that comes over is the influence of Genet and Foucault; White describes how Genet was an effeminate youth who transformed himself into something more masculine in his thirties, just as White writes that his gym visits predated this becoming a common aspect of gay culture. White seems ambivalent about Foucault’s concepts about the construction of the self, but does share them to some extent; he writes about how gay men in the fifties had no narrative available to them other than those of sin, illness and criminality. The convergence of Stonewall, feminism and black civil rights created an entirely new narrative that transformed self perceptions even as gay men themselves were unsure how much they believed. One consequence was the transformation of the gay male from the sort of gender transgression White had depicted in Hotel de Dream to the hyper masculine clone. Conversely, White spent so much time in therapy, Freudian in particular, to entirely give up on such ideas about the development of the self, with the sections on his parents especially abounding in them.
Food cooked: Latvian fish and mushroom pie, Veal with grapes and apricot, Chicken and preserved lemon pie, Masala Roast Chicken, Wiener Schnitzel, Miso potato salad, Vietnamese lime and coconut curry, Chicken Marbella, Chicken Bastilla, Bouillabaisse, Russian Salmon pie, Chicken cooked in milk, Rakott káposzta, Gammon cooked with cola.