Red Star

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

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

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

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

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They do it with mirrors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things the mind already knows

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

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

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

That weekend, I go to a showing of Blade Runner 2049. The main thing that occurs to me is how much of its dystopian future is already here, from a world dominated to corporations and artificial intelligence to climate failure. Even the brands referenced in the film, whether Atari, Pan-Am or Peugot have the nostalgic sense of belonging to yesteryear. As Fredric Jameson argued, science fiction does not offer us the future, but rather a transformed present. In this case, the Asian dystopia of the original film has given way to a multi-cultural world of Russian-speaking toughs and African merchants. The figure of K as a white, male victim-hero seems problematic against this background; like Ghost in the Shell, the main characters are all white in spite of the setting.

On other films, comparing Call Me By Your Name with God’s Own Country is an interesting exercise. Both deal with a foreigner awakening the main character but differ sharply beyond that. The former presents the unusual proposition of an adolescent gay romance; guilt and shame are essentially absent from the film. But equally, it far more coy over gay sex that it is with Elio’s straight sex. Nor does the conclusion seem satisfactory; Oliver’s declaration of marriage is retained while the section in which it is made clear that Elio remains gay is omitted. It makes the episode set in a summery past somewhere in the eighties seem like a transience. Conversely, the gay sex in God’s Own Country is pretty explicit and often both dirty and brutal; presented as an artefact of Johnny and Gheorghe’s lives as much as skinning a dead lamb. The film depicts repression as the dominant characteristic of English life; not solely in relation to sexuality but to the hardship of farming life and the Eastern European immigrant experience.

The Great Wave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capriccios

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

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

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

 

Lenin’s Finger

The Design Museum’s Imaginary Moscow exhibition recalls a lot of points from the Royal Academy’s Revolutionary Art exhibition that I’d attended the week before; suprematist inkwells, ‘Those who do not work do not eat’ porcelain or the film of the destruction of Moscow’s cathedral to build the Palace of the Soviets (although the film of the freezing cold swimming pool Brezhnvev converted the aborted construction project into is new). A suprematist children’s book featuring the adventures of two squares is also something of a novelty.

This exhibition dwells on unbuilt aspects of Moscow; the Palace itself (including a fullsize model of the finger from the Lenin statue),  designs for Lenin’s mausoleum, the Lenin institute, communal housing and government buildings. Architectural blueprints from Lissitzky and Melnikov are punctuated by suprematist drawings from Popova and propaganda posters. Leonidov’s Lenin Institute and Lissitzy’s Cloud Iron designs are utopian gravity-defying designs that would be challenging now, while Vesnin’s Commissariat of Heavy Industry and Iofan’s Palace are much more similar to buildings that were actually constructed at the time (in concept if not in scale). The designs for Lenin’s Mausoleum are rather more fantastical given that many of those submitting designs worked in professions like carpentry; in one such concept Lenin is precariously balanced on top of a large globe surmounting the building. A film showing all of the planned construction in Moscow sits alongside Aelita Queen of Mars, and much of it does indeed look like a set of model for a science fiction film.

Afterwards, I walk round Holland Park, looking at the lovely Kyoto and Dutch gardens; the waters in the pond are perfectly clear and carp can be seen swimmingly lazily about below. I also run into a squirrel and encounter a peacock before walking down the Thames to Albert Bridge and then back to Victoria.

The following week I go to the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition. As one might surmise the interest is as much in a social history than in art; items include the fatal calling card from the Marquess of Queensbury (unsurprisingly his handwriting was as terrible as his spelling), physique magazines, Wilde’s cell door, stills from Victim, Noel Coward’s dressing gown, a copy of the Wolfenden report and (most entertainingly) a set of over two hundred buttons collected as trophies from guardsman a gay couple had slept with. Much of the exhibition dwells on theatreland and music hall; there are probably few exhibitions where photos of historical drag acts sit alongside the Bloomsbury Group.

The exhibition begins in the Victorian period with Simeon Solomon, Edward Leighton and Henry Scott Tuke; I’d previously been unaware that Evelyn de Morgan’s relationship with Jane Hales is often interpreted as like that of Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal, with Jane’s face recurring on paintings like that of Aurora, shown here. Interpretation plays greatly here; if Meteyard’s painting of Love in Bondage was not intended as an allegory of forbidden love, it gains that interpretation by the association of its context here. Equally, figures like Semele and Endymion take on a same-sex aspect purely due to Solomon’s androgynous rendering (which is not intrinsically all that different to someone like Burne Jones) rather than by the specific subject matter. Even so, it’s often a rather mournful section; a Solomon drawing shows a male bridegroom holding the hand of his melancholy lover behind his back as he embraces his bride. A cup is dedicated ‘on the mournful occasion of his transition into matrimony.’

In a lot of cases, the gay element is the subject rather than the artist; the next room features paintings of Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis along with a series of beautifully elaborate miniatures designed for a lesbian couple (one of the many reminders that while figures like Solomon and Wilde loom large so many people quietly lived, loved and passed away unremarked). Two portraits of Radclyffe Hall and Oscar Wilde stand near one another. Both are dressed similarly but where the Wilde portrait is a full length depiction of a confident and successful man (auctioned after his disgrace), Hall’s is more emphatic. She looks away from the viewer and her expression is somber. Much of the exhibits are much defiantly pagan; Beardsley’s Yellow Book illustrations, Cecil Beaton’s glittering photos of figures like Stephen Tennant through to Duncan Grant’s paintings of bathers.  A painting of Laura Knight painting a female nude is another example of the layers of meaning being accrued to a work rather than something inherent in it, in contrast to the more explicit intention behind a similar nude by Dora Carrington.

I’m surprised to see examples of Halliwell and Orton’s legendary defaced library books and equally surprised by how funny they are; there’s also one of Halliwell’s paintings. For all his reputation as an artistic failure, it’s rather good. Finally, the later sections are taken by with Hockney and Bacon alongside less well known artists like Keith Vaughan, John Minton and John Craxton. The Minton paintings particularly interest me; I also like some of John Deakin’s photographs of London’s gay scene, from Francis Bacon to a woman dressed as a drag queen, Afterwards, I go to the David Gwinnutt photos at the National Portrait Gallery, extending the same theme into the eighties. I also note one of Grayson’s Perry’s drawings; Map of Days. It uses a medieval town map as a model for mental states, including pastiches of a range of architectural styles. Not sure I’ve liked all of Perry’s work, but I like this.

Corbet’s Childhood of a Leader is something of an oddity; an attempt at depicting the childhood of a future fascist leader during the drafting of the Versailles treaty. Some of the incidents used echo actual events (Mussolini would throw stones at a church in his childhood just like his proxy here) but the comfortably bourgeois background as the son of an establishment diplomat looks little like those of Hitler, Stalin or Mussolini, who all came from rather more lower class milieu. The abstraction is something of a problem; it doesn’t really tell us much about the likes of Franco or Mosley and doesn’t really seem to apply well to contemporary demagogues either; it would work as well as a frame for a serial killer film as for the purposes devised for it here. The film intends to show how power changes depending on the social status involved, with this being paralleled to the peace conference; the sacking of an elderly servant forming one of the key events.  Nonetheless, the film mostly stresses the personality traits that go into the development of such a mentality and decentres social or economic elements (perhaps this is rather welcome given the contemporary tendency to stress the former above all else). The film is loosely based on a Sartre story showing such a scenario in Freudian terms; The boy’s infatuation with his tutor turns to anger when he discovers her alone with his father; the plot does deviate from the straightforward Freudian line when  his conspiracy against both of them to end in an act of violence against his mother whose absence had previously given him nightmares.  The child’s feminine appearance is often commented on (with the boy’s long hair he looks a lot like Bjorn Anderson in the film of Death in Venice). The use of the same actor to depict both a family friend and the adult dictator (this time with his hair entirely cropped) further suggests the issue of paternity is complicated.

I get taken to a couple of plays as well; firstly, The Miser at The Garrick. Played as a straightforward farce with plenty of topical references (trickle down economics, boom and bust) and audience interaction (mostly to an unnamed banker in the front row), it works very well. A pointed reference to the Guardian’s three star review (on the grounds that all the characters were played as grotesques, not just the Miser) doesn’t really diminish this. By contrast, Salome at the National Theatre is plain dire; the staging is often very imaginative (as a character walks along a ladder into the light or as a curtain of sand falls in the background) but even the incessant wailing in the background and the turning of the circular stage are just plain annoying but its turned from an exercise in eroticism into rather trite political agitprop.

Pastoral and Industrial

With a few exhibitions that I wanted to visit closing shortly, I had something of a marathon session in London today. At the Royal Academy, I started visiting the Russian Revolutionary Art exhibition. The main interest of the exhibition is perhaps historical rather than artistic (having already seen more than a few of the works by Rodchenko, Malevich, Popova and Vertov), showing responses to the revolution from a range of different schools operating in different media. For example, the first room shows 19th century style historical paintings of the revolutionary demonstrations,  iconographic style depictions of Lenin, Wedgewood style figures sewing pro-Soviet banners (not nearly as good as a later figurine of a bourgeois woman selling her possessions), realistic portraits of Lenin and naif portraits of Stalin that were judged suicidal to attempt to present to him.

The later sections are mostly organised thematically rather than chronologically; paintings of factories and workshops, photography of construction sites, textiles replacing bourgeois Accanthus leaves with tesselated patterns of machinery; Arkady Shaiket’s photos particularly stand out. The agriculture section counterposes Malevich’s faceless peasants with rather sentimental images from collective farms. Other section dwell on nostalogia for the Russia that was lost; images from expatriate journals printed in Berlin, scenes of birch woods and cathedrals from Konstantin Yuon and Igor Grabar. Other sections include Lissitsky’s architectural designs, a glider design from Tatlin, Petrusov’s architectural photography, models of Iofan’s designs for the Palace of the Soviets and Shchusev’s designs for Lenin’s mausoleum. Other sections counterpoint this with pure artistic subjects; a recreation of Malevich’s room at the ‘Thirteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic’ along with paintings submitted by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. I hadn’t see his work before, which comprises a set of still lives defined by odd angles and a series of rather spiritual portraits, like the Petrograd Madonna.

I also go to their other exhibition, American painting in the 1930s. Some of it rather reminds me of the Russian exhibition (not least the picture of Lenin placed in a post-industrial wasteland by Gugliemi); Charles Sheeler’s industrial paintings mirror similar Russian paintings. The pastoral paintings seem rather different though; Russian paintings operate in a romantic or impressionistic mode, whereas someone like Grant Wood operates in a mode that is more reminiscent of Stanley Spencer. The landscape undulates and flows in a strange fashion  and Grant’s paintings focus on details like imminent car crashes rather than Spencer’s mystical pre-occupations. There are also some interesting American responses to European art; Ilya Bolotowsky’s Miro style paintings or surrealist paintings by Gugliemi or Castellon. There are also two very striking paintings by Hopper (a gas station and the interior of a cinema) and a familiar painting by Georgia O’Keefe. I don’t really care for a lot of the paintings, but it’s worth it if only to see Wood’s American Gothic.

Lastly, I make my way to the V&A for an eleventh hour visit to their Lockwood Kipling exhibition, which includes a range of Indian textiles, jewellery and arms he brought back from Lahore and Bombay, his arts and crafts designs, paintings of the Great Exhibition,  drawings of Indian craftsmen, illustrations for his son’s book, koftgari plates, illustrations of Islamic architecture, a beautiful wedding chest  and Indian wooden door carvings.

 

Unity for Europe

About 9 months ago, I wrote a piece here about the horror and despair I felt about the outcome of the EU referendum. Have my feelings changed at all in the intervening time? In all frankness, no. Brexit is proving every bit as bad as I had feared. In the time since the referendum we’ve witnessed attempts to undermine the independence of the Bank of England, the judiciary, the civil service, the BBC and the sovereignty of Parliament. The integrity of the United Kingdom is threatened. The fall in the value of the pound is now feeding inflation into the economy while financial services firms begin to enact plans to move operations into the European Union.  Racism is normalised into the political mainstream even as the first warnings of job shortages begin to set in as people choose not to stay in the UK. We’ve seen the early signs of the promulgation of a Dolchstoßlegende from a Leave camp that had never believed it would win and seems keen to pre-emptively lay blame for their own failure. The putative benefits to Brexit have begin to dissipate while the risks begin to crystallise.

That’s why I found myself at the Unity for Europe March to Parliament today. Getting on the Tube at Marble Arch I  joined the Liberal Democrat contingent, managed by a minor miracle to meet up with a friend on Park Lane before walking through to Parliament Square.  We watches speeches from Nick Clegg, Alastair Campbell, Peter Tatchell and David Lammy; Lammy is surprisingly blunt in saying his own leadership is now following the UKIP line as much as the Tories but the best speech is from Clegg in making clear how many of the wounds since the referendum have been inflicted by the government on itself. It’s noticeable that the Liberals are very visible throughout; Labour much less so. At one point the arrival of a sound system playing ABBA makes me wonder if I’ve stumbled into a Pride march by mistake. We bumped into a few famous faces like Tim Farron  along the way and enjoyed quite a lot of the placards – ‘Hurdy Gurdy Players Against Brexit’ and ‘Botanists Against Brexit’ (complete with Rafflesia hat) probably deserve to win some form of award, although my personal favourite remains the concisely eloquent ‘Tut.’ The one that sticks in my mind though is a banner that looks like an old NUM banner. It reads ‘Our Yorkshire Rose:Jo Cox.’

Parallel Lines

The Hockney exhibition at the Tate is one of the most popular exhibitions I can recall there, with a long queue snaking round the central hall. We wait for our time slot for a while wondering around the permanent collection; a few things that leap out are Sunil Gupta’s photographs of gay couples, Wolfgang Tillman’s photographic series around Heathrow, a Bridget Rile line painting, Chair by Allen Jones and a sculpture of Saint Sebastian by Eric Gill.

When we do get in, it’s interesting how although Hockney’s style changes over time, the focus on perspective remains consistent; early works showing a flattened box of tea or a flat figure pressed against  an illusionary window foretell the compound eye approach to photography and painting later adopted. Some of the early works fit into a whimsical approach to trompe l’oeil; an abstract painting of geometrical objects that is actually a realistic depiction of a red rubber ring floating in a swimming pool or a Hogarth parody where a woman holding a candle out of a window can have it lit by a figure standing on the hill behind her. The early work that most predicts his later work shows his boyfriend sleeping while Hockney is shown behind him sketching; only for this to become clear as an unfinished self portrait hung behind the figure.

This theme continues in the Californian paintings; the various pools occupied by naked men tend to be shown as flat blue planes whose surfaces are covered in snaking lines t reflect the play of light. The buildings are always modernist structures characterised by rigid lines; even lawn sprinklers spout water in precisely triangular shapes. The turn towards naturalistic painting maintains this focus; in each portrait the two figures are essentially shown at right angles to one another; often a figure stares out towards the viewer while the other figure looks at the first. Mr and Mrs Clark are unusual in both looking out at the viewer and it is appropriately left to Percy the cat to turn his back on the viewer and stare out of the window instead.

The compound eye approach I spoke of becomes evident in the photographs; the photo of Gregory Swimming replaces the intersecting lines of the pool paintings where the water, the building and a diving board converge with a series of fragmented moments in both time and space, concurrently showing Gregory at multiple points. The same follows as Hockney’s interest in landscape emerges with photos of the Grand Canyon, Ryoanji and Yorkshire. The landscape paintings differ from the photographs in deliberately warping space; a painting of the Wolds piles each field up in a series of vertiginous planes. The result looks more like one of Escher’s Italian drawings than traditional English pastoral. Something similar goes for the Grand Canyon paintings’ it’s noticable that a forced restriction of Hockney’s palette (to Red in this case or Green for England) is helpful in counteracting the surfeit of primary colour in some of his Californian paintings. His further series of Yorkshire paintings and videos (some of which I’d seen before at the Royal Academy) are always split between multiple canvasses, even where one large canvas would be perfectly possible. In the video series, each screen represents  a different camera showing slightly different angles.

A few weeks later and I visit the Ashmolean’s Degas to Picasso exhibition. A lot of this consists of drawings; Gericault’s equestrian drawings, Daumier’s satirical drawings of the French assembly, a Manet drawing of his mistress, studies for his paintings of Berthe Morisot and The Execution of Maximilian, an Ingres study for his Odalisque painting and Millet drawings of shepherds and sailors. Paintings tend to be from more minor artists; a Cubist city view from Gleizes, a Mother and Child from Leger, a Villon Cubist portrait of his father or a Metzinger landscape. More diverting is a smaller exhibition showing Hiroshige views of Mount Fuji; I especially like an unusual urban scene showing a Tokyo street stretching off into a vanishing point with Fuji appearing to rise up at that juncture.

The following week and I go to London to see a performance of The Taming of the Shrew at the Globe. It’s perhaps played a little too much as a comedy for my taste, with frequent interludes of modern music, whereas arguably it’s better to treat it as a problem play. The production tries to soften some of the problematic aspects of the text; for example by interpolating a puppet sequence to draw out some of the abusive implications of Katherina’s last speech; Gloria Onitiri certainly plays it as a tragic role.  I have a brief look around the Tate afterwards, looking at some of Agnes Martin’s white paintings, Anish Kapoor sculpture, Bridget Riley op-art, surealist paintings and work by the New Tendencies group.

Totes Meer

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). Written by a straight author, it’s a novel that lacks an idea of being gay as an identity, seeing it instead as a state. 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, Beef Stroganoff, Veal with grapes and apricot, Chicken and preserved lemon pie, Masala Roast Chicken, Wiener Schnitzel, Miso potato salad, Vietnamese lime and coconut curry, Toad in the hole, Chicken Marbella, Pork with clams, Sangria, Chicken Bastilla, Bouillabaisse, Arroz al Horno, Portuguese pork and chestnuts, Marmite and pancetta spaghetti, Coq au Riesling, Mac and cheese, Russian Salmon pie, Lamb shanks with lemon rice, Paella of the Land, Chicken cooked in milk, Rakott káposzta, Gammon cooked with cola, Chicken cooked with lemon and cola, Azeri Lamb Plov, Seafood and feta lasagne,  Lithuanian lamb with apples, Chicken cooked with Saffron and Sherry, Cuban chicken stew, Pork and porcini lasagne, Romanian Mutton Stew, Chicken with Almonds and Pine Nuts, Varna chicken, Braised steak with gravy and chips, Latvian veal steak with beetroot salad.