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.