The Spellbound exhibition at the Ashmolean begins with a rather familiar object: the witch bottle from the nearby Pitt Rivers Museum (‘They do say there be awitch in it, and if you let him out there’ll be a peck o’ trouble’). A lot of the other objects follow in the same vein; a desiccated human heart inside a lead case, a Victorian poppet with a needle through its head (along with a toad and sundry animal hearts skewered in the same way), a Mandrake root, a barn door marked with magical symbols to protect livestock, a witches ladder from Somerset, fragments of Unicorn horn (Narwhal tusk), John Dee’s Obsidian mirror and crystal ball, a copy of The Discovery of Witches by Matthew Hopkins, an Italian magic mirror designed to invoke the demon Floron, a ‘Ghirlanda’ curse necklace made of feathers and silk ‘ectoplasm’ from the fake medium Helen Duncan. Some of the context provided by the exhibition is to draw modern parallels, with love locks cut from a bridge in Leeds or a modern medicine bottle thrown into the Thames mostly containing human teeth.
Downstairs, there’s a pair of LGBT exhibitions. The first includes a series of casts and sculptures of Antinous, ranging from his depiction as Osiris to Dionysus, alongside sculptures of Hadrian and Germanicus, the subject of a comparable cult. There’s also a small exhibition covering the anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act, featuring posters of Maurice, Cavafy drawings by Hockney, a portrait of the Ladies of Llangollen and eighties campaign badges.
The National Gallery’s Mantegna and Bellini exhibition dwells on the relationship between two brothers in law who influenced each other but painted in different milieu, in Venice and Mantua. In the first room, both artists have painted the presentation of Christ in the Temple. The detailing is finer in the Mantegna but what sticks in the mind is Bellini’s addition of two onlookers at either side of the original, one of whom looks directly out at the observer. It was Mantegna who developed the style of painting figures against dark backgrounds, but the examples from Bellini are rather more striking, with paintings of (apocryphally, at least) Mategna himself or The Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene. His portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan is also here, which also reminds me of Holbein with its soft blue background. When it comes to landscapes, I find myself much preferring Mantegna. When Bellini paints landscapes, the focus is dramatic with the focus on the foreground. By contrast, Mantegna’s work overflows with detail from Escheresque cities on the horizon through to flowers and rabbits in the foreground. A painting of Saint Sebastian has a background filled with classical ruins reflecting Mantegna’s interest in the pagan world through to clouds in the shape of gods. The riotous surrealism of Minerva expelling the Vices with its Centaurs and Putti is a particularly striking example of this, compared to Bellini’s understated symbolised of woodcutters in the forest forming a background to the murder of two priests in the foreground.
Reading Zola’s His Excellency Eugene Rougon, I find myself thinking of the distinction Zola drew between heredity and the influence of the environment. The Macquart branch descend into vice and criminality while the Rougon branch ascend into the upper classes, in these case into the Council of State. In the novel, Rougon alternately falls from grace with the Emperor only to be restored to a different position and with an entirely new political ideology to suit. What’s noticeable is in the sections where Eugene is ousted from power his behaviour is not vastly different from his Macquart relatives; he falls into idleness and dissipation, just as much as in a novel like L’Assommoir.
Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus reflects the author’s interest in “a situation well described by Heidegger’s term Geworfenheit: being thrown without explanation into an existence governed by obscure rules”. It serves as an allegory, but like Kafka’s work, one that lacks any clear objective correlative. A man and a child arrive as refugees at Novilla. Spainish is widely spoken but details often seem incorrect; German is referred to as English while Cervantes is not credited as the author of Don Quixote. Life in Novilla seems oddly absent of the normal conditions of being, with its inhabitants feeling little sexual desire or longing. They have no memory of their previous lives. Although Simon explains the need to earn a living most of the housing and services seem free. Meat is rarely eaten. Simon’s work at the docks solely revolves around grain, which mostly ends up being consumed by rats in a warehouse. The Stevedores at the docks spend a lot time in discussion of Platonic forms. The suspicion is that Coetzee is depicting an afterlife, possibly a form of atheist’s heaven, but enough detail of the physical aspects of life remains. By contrast the child David wishes to raise the dead and treats spelling and arithmetic as a form of private language. He speaks of cracks in the world or holes between the pages of a book (Derrida opposed to the prevailing Platonic norms), a non-comformity that leads Novilla to expelling him from the school system, transforming the Novillan utopia into a dystopia that must in turn be fled from.