Visiting the Vyne this weekend, I found the house is currently swathed in scaffolding as the roof is replaced; after a lengthy queue, you can take a lift up to the roof and look down at the works. Inside, the upper floor of the house has been shut and much of the furnishings are on display downstairs in rooms darkened by the scaffolding outside. Afterwards, I went for a walk in the woodland, through trees with yellowing leaves weighed down with red berries and with bracket fungi clinging to their trunks. After a summer of rain and cloud, the arrival of autumn seems somewhat anti-climatic this year.
The combination of security theatre and a crowded exhibition with glacially moving crowds does make the British Museum’s Hokusai exhibition something of an ordeal, but it’s worth it for a chance to see some of the most famous non-Western artworks in history. The exhibition covers a range of Hokusai’s work, from hanging scrolls and paintings to wooden temple ceiling panels and woodblock prints. The series of prints showing views of Mount Fuji dominates along with views of waterfalls, ghosts and scenes from literature, showing how Hokusai had gradually introduced European style perspective and increased the range of colours in his prints; it was also interesting to note that the predominant colour used was the European Prussian blue. The paintings strike me as rather odd; the combination of bright colours with shading rather than flat blocks of colours lends it rather more of a cartoonish air than the woodblock prints. Some of the more unexpected items include bird’s eye style map views of Japan and China or a pair of scrolls showing two androgynous youths, who were probably sex workers.
The museum also has a smaller exhibition of British watercolours from artists like Whistler, Nash, Minton, Moore and Sutherland, a small exhibition featuring masks and totems from the Northwest Coast Peoples of Canada, and a set of paintings depicting military figures from the Maoist era in the style of the terracotta warriors. Lastly, the Chinese admonitions scroll is on a rather brief display.
The area around the Albert Hall has now also been barricaded off with a set of concrete blockades and the entrance is subject to security checks. It is a little depressingly like living in wartime. I’ve gone to see Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina and Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust, with the former being easily the more impressive of the two. Around this, I visit the Natural History Museum. The whale that is now centre stage in the Hintze Hall is more impressive than the former occupant, Dippy the Diplodocus, in many ways; it floats above the visitors, its spine curved like it is diving. On the other hand, since it is facing downwards I find it a lot harder to photograph than Dippy. While I’m there I visit the Anning fossils, the bird taxidermy, some Blaschka models and the geological hall with its Ostro stone centre piece. The following day I visit the Museum of London in Docklands, with its exhibition covering the slave trade through to the second world war and the regeneration of the area afterwards. There’s also an exhibition of the Roman remains unearthed by the Crossrail works.
Later, I go to a Czech Prom (which suffers from presenting dismembered excerpts from Dvorak, Smetana and Janacek; the best piece is easily Martinu’s Field Mass) and Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito. Metastasio’s plot does feel rather like a tragedy aborted in deference to contemporary political concerns. I also visit Dulwich Picture Gallery’s exhibition of John Singer Sergeant watercolours; pictures of watery locations like Venice and Istanbul work rather well but less so for more pastoral scenes where the detail of drawing might have worked better.
Reading JR Ackerley’s My Father and Myself is an odd experience. The essential intent of the book is to highlight the secret sexual lives of Ackerley and his father; in Ackerley’s own case, amounting to encounters with other a hundred other men, in the case of his father, a secret family and children kept hidden from his wife. Ackerley also speculates about whether his father had offered sexual favours to wealthy men during his time as an aristocrat. By the standards of the time, it would have been Ackerley’s own experiences that would have been deemed the more transgressive; the book makes perfectly clear that the puritanism of English culture at the time was perfectly compatible with heterosexual privilege. Certainly, Ackerley’s narrative is remarkably frank by the standards of the time, but by contemporary standards he seems a sexual cripple; a series of fixations and dysfunctions make clear that his encounters amounted to very little indeed. Where his father seems effortlessly able to marry his romantic and sexual lives across a series of three women, Ackerley’s quest amongst working class men for a Platonic ideal is doomed to failure.
Something similar applies to Crisp’s Naked Civil Servant. Crisp’s obvious effeminacy meant that he unavoidably had to ‘put his case’ to the world around him (to the dismay of other gay man at the the time, who did not wish to see attention drawn to what Crisp refers to as their abnormality) often at the cost of his safety after repeated queerbashings, but he is dismissing of legislation improving the position of homosexuals in any way. At times, he ridicules the idea that homosexuality is a sin but at others he’s frank that he considers his homosexuality as nothing more than an illness. Crisp’s wit is often (lazily) compared to Wilde, but if Wilde was a libertine, Crisp was an ascetic, leading a spartan existence and scorning camp as little more than drawing attention to a deficiency. For someone who once worked as a prostitute, Crisp mostly seemed to regard sex as an unwelcome form of effort.
Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island presents a narrative based around the efforts of a ‘corporate anthropologist’ to find a unifying key to modern culture. The narrator often cites Levi Strauss and his failed efforts to locate an authentic form of culture that hasn’t been contaminated by exposure to the modern world. For all of the narrator’s references to theorists like Deleuze, one assumes that McCarthy is thinking of Derrida’s critique of Levi Strauss when he compares such corporate anthropology to icthyomancy or a cargo cult. The result in the novel is that the grand theory becomes a broken heap of images; of parachutes that fail to open or protests at a G7 summit in Italy. If there is a unifying idea it is waste, whether an oil slick or an island composed of the refuse of modern culture (the novel assumes its title is a malapropism for Staten Island refuse tip, a scenario that reminds of of De Lillo’s Underworld).
Tony Kushner’s Angels in America offers a similar cocktails of references, unified by the theme of the dismantling of the individual ego and its discover of community; Kushner references Brecht’s learning plays, Biblical stories of wrestling with the angel through to Bloom’s Oedipal ideas of the anxiety of influence. You can see such themes emerge in Joe’s realisation that his embrace of Mormonism, Heteronormativity and Conservatism (embodied in his relationship with Roy Cohn) are fraudulent. But equally, the play is at its best celebrating the outsider and the eccentric and perhaps at its worst at missing the role religion has played in homophobia.
The Canaletto exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery (the one in London, that is) is rather small but does cover a lot of territory I hadn’t seen before, from views of the interior of San Marco to large paintings of Rome, dwelling on the Roman ruins in particular. There are also a lot of capriccio paintings showing fantastical gardens and desolate ruins far away from the Venetian canals. There are also several paintings from Canaletto’s contemporaries; views of a ruined monument to Newton by Ricci, for example.
Omar El Akkad’s American War is ostensibly a dystopian novel depicting a second American civil war after the South opposes a Federal law banning fossil fuels. A lot of the detail, such as climate change causing the Mississippi to become a large inland sea relates to that theme but much of the book is essentially concerned with depicting events in Middle Eastern history grafted onto an American context, with a series of drone strikes, refugee camps, militias, suicide bombings and a prison camp essentially analogous to Guantanamo being shown. The novel is set in a period where the Maghreb has become one of the world’s largest empires and interferes in the American war as the former United States degenerates into a set of failed states, but it omits any of the features you might expect in American politics; the NRA, the Religious Right or race divisions are all entirely absent. I also feel ambivalent about some of the sexual politics; the novel shows an ideology that is intrinsically masculinist, noting boxing matches to the death while boys join militias and women become war widows. But the society of the Red States doesn’t seem especially patriarchal; for example, birth control or gay rights are never mentioned, making the decision to make the terrorist who unleashes a devastating biological weapon a lesbian seems awkward at best.
Reading Stendhal’s Love reminded me somewhat of Wollstonecraft’s version of feminism as a means of casting feminine wiles as a form of corruption born of subjugation opposed to more traditional masculine virtues; Stendhal certainly supports women’s right to education or to divorce but alongside a commitment to what would become female emancipation, the novel also invests in concepts of romantic love that did inherently paint a conservative picture of women.
There are certain classes of city for whom their geography is an intrinsic part of their aesthetic; thinking of the Venetian archipelago with its canals and bridges, Prague with its castle on the hill and the lower town separated from it by the river or Manhattan island. Lisbon, with its self-conscious series of miradours as new views unfold between differing combinations of hills overlooking the Tagus, certainly also fits into this class.
The first day on my arrival is spent in the Gulbenkian. It’s a rather odd building building; a Barbican style brutalist conceit surrounded by pleasant gardens occupied by swimming ducklings and sunbathing terrapins. It looks like stumbling across an illustration of Speer’s theory of ruin value in the jungle. Some of the things that leap out to me; the Lalique jewellery, the Islamic tiles and ceramics, a Rembrandt painting of an old man, Greek coins depicting Alexander, Chinese porcelain, Majolica and Della Robbia roundels, paintings by Hubert Robert, Guardi views of Venice, a Monet winter landscape, and some unexpected Burne Jones paintings. Afterwards, we got to the modern art museum; less interesting but I like some of the paintings by Amadeo de Souza Cardoso and, a Sonia Delaunay painting and the tapestries by José de Almada Negreiros. Afterwards we go for a walk in Parque Eduardo VII to the Aqueduto das Aguas Livres.
The following day I get off the Metro at the Praca dos Restauradores and visit the Igreja de São Domingos, with its ruined interior. I then wonder down to the steampunk Elevador de Santa Justa before visiting the Convento do Carmo, the bleached bones of a church ruined in the 1755 earthquake combined with a museum in its surviving buildings, that spans medieval tombs, Peruvian mummies, English Alabaster, Incan sculptures and an Egyptian mummy. After that, I go to the Igreja de São Roque. Like a lot of Portuguese churches, it’s an especially elaborate exercise in gilded baroque, in this case with a large collection of Saint’s head reliquaries. The accompanying museum features a range of medieval painted sculptures. I then walk down past the Pessoa sculpture at the Cafe Brasileira towards the city’s riverfront at the Praça do Comércio. It’s an especially beautiful square with the open vista of the Tagus on one side and the yellow of the Arco da Rua Augusta buildings on the other side. I then walk eastwards in the direction of the Alfama, past the Manueline remains of the Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, and the Casa dos Bicos up to the Sé. The cathedral is a dark Romanesque building with a later gothic cloister in contrast to the rather colourful architecture surrounding it. After that, I head further up the hill to the Castelo de São Jorge. Little remains of the Moorish castle beyond an extensive series of walls that seem to meander endlessly. It’s hot in the late afternoon sun and I finally sit down to watch a rehearsal for a Tango concert. A somewhat territorial part-albino peacock occasionally cries out.
The following day I travel out on a rather crowded tram to Belém and the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. I’m a little surprised at how busy this is relative to anything else in Lisbon and have to queue for a rather longtime. Once inside, the detailing on the Manueline gothic is incredible, while the church of Santa Maria is rather more impressive than the cathedral in Lisbon, complete with Vasco da Gama’s tomb. Afterwards, I walk around some of the nearby park, looking at a Thai temple and the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, before visiting the Torre de Belém. The queues are again rather long here, but once inside it really does feel like looking out on the edge of the world as one stares off into the infinity of the Atlantic ocean. I spend a bit of time in the Archaeological Museum; some impressive gold torcs, Lusitanian warrior statues, Egyptian cartonnage masks, Roman mosaics, and a beautiful plate depicting Perseus and Medusa. Lastly, I go for a walk along the Tagus to get a view the Golden Gate style Ponte de 25 April.
The next day sees me to take a train out to Sintra. I make the mistake of walking to the Palácio da Pena, which proves a rather uncertain path, but it’s certainly worth it on arrival. The Palace is a blazing riot of colour and fantastical architectural styles. Elaborate gargoyles compete with ceramics to detail the exterior walls. I begin by walking round its outer walls; the view off into the distance is surprisingly hazy. I walk inside the chapel with is strikingly colourful stained glass before entering the palace; I especially like a lot of the detailed stained glass and Turkish sculptures. I then walk around the park; it’s effectively a botanical garden with valleys filled with ferns, giant Redwood trees, lily filled ponds, all dotted with follies of Islamic domes, Swiss style chalets and Greek temples, before ending in a series of lakes. Dragon flies flit across the lake. I then walk up to the Castelo dos Mouros. Butterflies flit about and rest in the sun on the walls.
The following day, I decide to return to Sintra, having not had enough time for everything I’d wanted to do the previous day. This time I stay closer to the centre of the town and visit the Palacio Nacional. There’s a series of centrepiece rooms revolving around their ceiling designs; the Swan room, the Magpie room, the Galley room and the Mermaid room. The Mudejar style chapel and Coat of Arms room are probably the most impressive, along with a pagoda model given to the Portuguese Queen by the Senate of Macau. The kitchens are actually also rather striking, given the massively over-sized chimneys that resemble kilns more than anything else. Finally, I walk to Quinta da Regaleira. The house here is rather small, albeit with much of the interior covered in elaborate plasterwork, frescoes and mosaics. The grounds by contrast are extensive and filled with follies, from crenellated towers through to spiralling wells and underground tunnels. As I pause for a break a small vole scurries across the path.
The next day is back in Libson and I visit the Pantheon. Loosely modelled on its Parisian equivalent, most of the building was originally an uncompleted church until the Salazar government had the dome added to complete it for this purpose. The monuments are eclectic, ranging from cenotaphs to Vasco da Gama and Henry the Navigator, Fado singers and football players. You can walk up to the dome gallery and from there out onto the roof of the church. After that, I go to the church of São Vicente de Fora, with its elaborate series of cloisters whose walls are lined with Azulejo tiles, many of them based on Fontaine’s fables. The monastery also contains a series of Royal tombs and you can go up onto the roof here as well. Lastly, I visit the rather steampunk Water Museum at Barbadinhos.
The next day I take the tram out to Alcantara and the Museu do Oriente. It’s rather out of the way and seems somewhat sparsely visited but it’s a really excellent museum. It covers Portugal’s colonial history, dwelling on Macau and Goa in particular, with exhibits ranging from Namban screens, porcelain, Bodhisattva sculptures, Netsuke and carved ivory; there’s a good set of paintings of early Macau and a small area dedicated to east Timor, including carvings of Westerners. The upper floor in the museum is dedicated to Chinese opera; from Mao-era glove puppets through to series of strange masks and costumes. I then walk eastwards back to the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga. There’s a range of paintings by Memling, Metsys, Cranach, Tiepolo, Bosch (a painting I’d seen last year in the Prado) as well as Nuno Gonçalves. There’s also a complete Della Robbia statue, something I’d not seen before. The crafts section spans Islamic tiles, Brussels tapestries, an ornate monstrance, a Benin saltcellar, Mughal cabinets and medieval Portuguese sculptures made of wood. The museum has a pleasant garden filled with statues and I pause for a bit for the view out to the Ponte de 25 April.
The next day I take the train up to Porto. The train station itself is particularly impressive, its walls covered in Azulejo depictions of scenes from Portuguese history. The first thing I do is visit the nearby cathedral; like Lisbon, it’s a dark Romanesque affair but here the gothic cloisters have been covered in Azulejo tiles. I then walk downhill to the Rraca da Ribeira and the Dom Luís I Bridge; it’s a rather more impressive waterfront than in Lisbon due to sharp incline down to the river on both sides. From where I stand, I can see over to the monastery and port cellars on the others. I then visit the Igreja de Sao Francisco, a beautifully gilded baroque church filled with elaborate painted wooden statues showing scenes from the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian to a Tree of Jesse. The church has an extraordinary series of catacombs, filled with named niches for dead priests until it ceased to be used as an ossuary in the mid 19th century. I then visit the Lello bookshop with its Escheresque staircase. I then visit the Clerigos tower, with its rather labyrinthine series of stairwells sitting between the outer and inner walls before visiting some of the churches and returning to the train station.
On the final day, I walk to the nearby bullring before visiting the Decorative Arts Museum and the Casa Museu Dr A Gonçalves.
While out in Lisbon, I was reading Multatulis Max Havelaar. It’s an interesting book; I can’t think of any English account of its colonial practices that was so critical, although the author does veer between a number of positions; criticism of the colonial principle as intrinsically wrong, criticism of specific aspects of colonial administration and criticism of the corrupt rule of the native aristocracy; for all of the criticisms of colonialism there is little here to advocate self-rule. Part of the reason for this diffraction lies in the Matryoshka like structure of the book. It is ostensibly the product of the editing of a set of documents written by Droogstoppel’s former’s classmate Sjaalman, with the distance in views between them being satirically foregrounded. Then within the novel itself, Havelaar’s narrative is counterpointed by the tale Saidjah and Adinda, the one point in the novel where the Javanese are allowed to speak for themselves.
I also read Interzone, a set of stores and drafts that preceded Naked Lunch, albeit mostly written in the still realistic style of Junky. Much of the content is familiar; Burroughs makes clear that he was in Tangier due to its lax attitude to gay sex, but the narratives are filled with internalised homophobia; he writes of a “silly fairy… under (whose) vacuous camping, I see pure evil… a loathsome insect.” Elsewhere he writes of “embattled queens… histrionic guestures and pathetic screams.” It also shows a lot of the fear of the feminine, as when he writes of “her cunt clicks open like a snap-knife.”As ever Burroughs’ homosexuality is partly a revulsion against femininity but which manifests itself further in fear of male effeminacy. One of the ways this manifests itself is in the creation of the William Lee character, a version of Burroughs distanced from such things; “I include the author, Lee, in the novel and by doing so separate myself from him so that he becomes another character.” Everything in the narrative is fractured; “Tangier seems to exist on several dimensions…. fact merges into dream and dreams erupt into the real world… nobody in Tangier is what they seem to be.”
Back up in the Midlands, I visit one of my favourite places; Wightwick Manor. The De Morgan collection of William’s ceramics and Evelyn’s paintings has recently opened in its new home at the Manor, so this is the first time I’ve seen it since it left its former home in London. The lustreware ceramics are easily as beautiful as I remember them; the paintings are more mixed. The best of them recall Botticelli and Burne Jones; the worst can be rather garish exercises in symbolism. I also visit Shugborough while I’m up there. It’s not really a place I’ll ever love as such; the grounds are beautiful in the summer, with the reflections of the bridge in the water by the Chinese house being particularly lovely but the brutalist house never really seems in keeping. Some more of the follies are open to visitors than I recall, including Hadrian’s arch.
Back down in London, I visit the Tate’s Giacometti exhibition. The main thing that strikes me is the paintings,which rather remind me of Bacon’s Screaming Popes series. I also rather like some of his earlier surrealist inspired objects as well as his design work, but once he reaches his style for sculpting figures it sets fasts and quickly becomes repetitive.
My choice of reading Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism was obviously prompted by currents events, but in practice her definition of the term is heavily restricted, with it only being applied to Hitler and Stalin and exempting Mao, Lenin and Mussolini. There are parallels to current events though; I’m struck by how she describes totalitarianism are aiming to impose a fictitious mythos rather than producing realistic policy aims. Liberals aiming to critique consistently fail to understand that it has no intention of being a realistic response to events and will not be impaired even as its policies demonstrably fail; Arendt specifically says totalitarian states were often characterised by confused and contradictory government structures and counter-intuitive aims (such as the waste of resources entailed by the final solution in the middle of a war). The essence of government is reduced to the erratic and inconsistent dictats of the leader. It’s difficult not to think of Trump or the Brexit vote here; Gove’s dismissal of experts obliterated all rational discussion from the campaign and left only fraudulent bromides behind. Blizzards of disinformation in both cases have settled to a point where the populations of both countries seem indifferent to the flagrant charlatanism of their political classes.
Arendt’s analysis of the rise of fascism in the thirties is also interesting; with England remaining stable she characterises the two party system as the source of it, given that it forced both parties to accept a stake in government that could only me met with realistic policies. By contrast, parties in multi-party states could simply retreat into ideological fantasy. In contemporary events, the reverse has been true with the US and UK winner takes all systems embracing ever more extreme and polarised politics even as European parties continued to draw cordon sanitaires around the sources of the infection.