Jacob Lawrence’s Haitian Revolution

lawrence toussaint .jpg

I am prone to a milder form of a disorder Ruskin suffered from, in the throes of which he convinced himself that he detected a hidden order in the random happenings of, say, a certain winter afternoon in Venice. So, on a recent afternoon in the British Museum I made a set of non sequiturs into a meaningful narrative. The sequence began with an anti-climax, a return visit to Nebamun’s tomb, in an obscure corner at the back of the building. I had discovered this wonder two months earlier, thinking it a new installation. Here the vividest wall paintings that survive from ancient Egypt show hunting in a marsh and dancing at a feast, well stocked with reeds, birds, an unexpected cat (every hair of whose fur stands out), plates piled high with food and unclothed dancing girls.

This small room had been my main goal, but now had nothing like the powerful effect of the day when I was the tomb’s discoverer. From this point onward, I was thinking of the exit, gave the Assyrian reliefs a distracted glance and halted only at some scanty fragments from Crete, just because we might be going there.

Then at the end of the corridor leading to the main entrance, an oversized image jumped out. It could have been a brightly lit mural like the mock-ups from Knossos I had just left behind, but in fact it was a projection which kept changing. The technique was bold, assembling flat patches of strong colour, no shading or detail to speak of, to depict violence in strangely satisfying ways.

The effect was very close to children’s cut-outs in colored paper, but a sophisticated feeling for design created exciting spaces in the flatness, as in one where a black man tied to a chair is threatened by white officers brandishing swords who form a web shrinking to a point in the distance. Or as in a troop of soldiers riding straight towards us and closing in on one of their number. It’s evident that these are not paper cut outs but paintings, so the primitive feel is deliberate, more like Picasso than a child. By now I’ve gathered that the traces of eighteenth century dress, and the uniforms with braid consisting of yellow squiggles belong to the story of the Haitian revolution of 1791-1804 and its exotic hero Toussaint l’Ouverture.

12208-842.jpgThe paintings date from 1938 and are late fruits of the Harlem Renaissance. The artist, Jacob Lawrence, had been trained in the art school in Harlem established by the movement, had seen W E B Dubois’ play about Toussaint in 1934 and then researched the subject in the New York Public Library. The series started out as 41 paintings in tempera on paper. It isn’t easy to come by reproductions of the whole set; Lawrence supervised silkscreen prints of 15 of them he considered the best. The painted versions, each only 19 by 11 inches, were used to make the ten huge projections in the British Museum display. They must be something like 9 feet by 5 on the big screen, the size of a large Jackson Pollock, and they support the enlargement brilliantly and become truly heroic images.

toussaint riders to right.jpg

In the years just before Lawrence painted them the United States had occupied Haiti for almost twenty years, from 1915 to 1934. Undoubtedly this dark history was in his mind as he meditated on the revolution and its miraculous success 130 years earlier. As another dark moment is in mine, encountering this small exhibition the day after it went up and six weeks after the current American president called Haiti a ‘shithole country’ in the course of an argument against allowing immigrants from such countries to remain.

Unpacking my library

I don’t know exactly when charity shops became a familiar sight on British high streets. Probably not long after the millennium—anyway I know where we had our first serious encounters with them, in Saltburn, a bleak seaside place in North Yorkshire, bleak in an appealing way. Streets near the cliff looking out on the sea are named after gems, Ruby, Emerald and so on. The little shopping street one block inland has a patchy little glazed arcade to protect its customers from rough weather. Here the first new businesses appeared, an Indian restaurant, an antique shop and eventually an eccentric delicatessen with novel cooked items we carried back to our outpost across the moors.

On the other side of the street was the Evangelical charity shop with Bibles religious books and a sprinkling of others like an Oxford Poems of Hardy and Mann’s Holy Sinners. In Yorkshire I had developed a weakness for jigsaws for the first time since childhood as a way of filling long winter evenings. The charity shop had plenty of jigsaws, most of them alpine scenes and the Mediterranean equivalent of the Saltburn seafront. But occasionally there was a good reproduction of a famous painting which I carted home.

I soon came to love dipping into charity shops in all the little towns round about, looking first at books and then at jigsaws. It was a long time before I brought this habit back to London, partly because we had mainly empty shelves in Yorkshire and crowded ones in London. And in Yorkshire you felt you might really need the books, buried by a blizzard on your moorland farm. So buying a few old books was like laying in supplies.

When we left Yorkshire for good, very few of those books made it back to London. They had been emergency rations and had served their purpose.

Unpacking My Library

I like Benjamin’s title and wanted to co-opt it, but I’ve never had a library, or thought of my books that way, as a real entity. They’re not arranged systematically, except by height in the hut and on the landing. They’re not dominated by my field because I don’t have one, and for years I’ve had an aversion to the one subject which should be mine, lit crit, which I only realised on noticing that I skipped those pages in the TLS.

So my ‘library’ grows randomly and unpredictably, fed by charity shops where you never know what you’ll find, or even if you’ll find anything at all. My last purchase was a mistake, expensive, heavy and horribly academic. The title got me—Relics of Old Decency. I still have no idea how it applies to these ‘Archaeological Studies in Later Prehistory’, which are mentioned in the subtitle of this ‘Festschrift for Barry Raftery’.

So many reasons not to want this gigantic book, but it was very fresh (a review copy, in fact, unwanted by the reviewer) and full of interesting diagrams of hillforts and ritual enclosures, and best of all the one I opened on first, a scrawly diagram of Scandinavian rock carvings with gawky figures of different sizes overlaid on each other haphazardly. I was very taken with the graphic style of the modern copyist who respected the ancient disregard for common axes or orientations, who reveled in the confusion of images plunked down on top of each other, and the complete absence of an overall composition.

DSC01870.jpgFor the sake of these three pages of weird drawings I was prepared to put up with endless axblades and broken pots with hardly a figure or decorative pattern to be seen anywhere. But if I comb the book more thoroughly I will doubtless find more amusing drawings, of rudimentary creatures without heads but sporting prominent tails and penises and hands with five fingers of equal length, and of fanciful temples of classical type from long before the Romans drawn by Italian scholars.

My next to last purchase shares next to nothing with Decency but may prove just as ill judged. It is wonderfully well written and imaginatively thought out, but it is 1050 pages long. It belongs to a genre for which my track record is decidedly poor, biography. Faced with a solid biography of someone in whom I am particularly interested I forget that I have only read one biography from start to finish since Ellman’s Joyce in 1970, which was Susie Harries’ life of Nikolaus Pevsner, riveting throughout. Incidentally, my architectural historian friends to whom I have raved about this book have not been moved to read it. So last week I bought Michael Scammell’s Solzhenitsyn and still hope to defeat my intolerance of long biographies. Not long ago I picked up the long biography to end them all, Reiner Stach’s three volume Kafka in such a beautifully fresh copy I could not resist, though I already have the first volume to appear, with my marker stuck at page 100.

DSC01867.jpg

In all this tediousness about length I have lost sight of what is so magical about the charity shop as a source for books. Before last week I did not know that I would soon be reading about Solzhenitsyn’s experience of the war and his attempts to go on studying (while leading a brigade at the front) the philosophical and political subjects that obsessed him, which against the odds he was determined to incorporate in large ambitious novels. From somewhere along the way he commandeered a library of books on these subjects left behind by the Germans (or was it stolen from a Ukrainian country house)? The path of your own intellectual or imaginative pursuits which seems so inevitable in retrospect is seen in prospect as swayed by all sorts of random breezes and chance intrusions. Seeing this gives one, gives me at least, the most tremendous sense of freedom.

Relics of Old Decency, £4 in South End Green, in the same shop a real Panama hat, one or two sizes too large, £15; Solzhenitsyn, £1.50 in Muswell Hill.  To be continued…

McQueen

This wonderful film is billed as a documentary but doesn’t exactly feel like one. True, it is stuffed full of interviews with the amazing crew of youngsters (now older) that Alexander McQueen assembled round him, or drew toward himself by the strange attraction that his early designs exercised on those susceptible. It must also include, when you think about it, much archive footage, especially the reruns of old fashion shows, dating back to the 1990s. I can’t tell how much of their own magic the directors have worked on these materials, which are electrifying.

I have a problem with high fashion, which is just the extreme tip of humankind’s insane interest in clothes. McQueen is wonderful because he understands instinctively what is so awful about the catwalk as conventionally practiced. He doesn’t abandon it though, but turns it into a scene of deep conflict and confrontation, a form of torture for everyone involved, the models or actors and the audience or spectators, who are faced with ugliness so unexpected and elaborate that it comes to seem a weird kind of beauty.

In McQueen’s shows this is wrapped up with feelings about the body, with things done or threatened to young bodies, suggested not by actual abuse of persons, but by violence practiced on the clothes, on the cloth they are constructed of, and by the shapes they are made to assume or prevented from assuming. From the beginning McQueen inspired terror with a pair of scissors, feeling a destructive urge to upset harmonies and continuities by simply ripping large complacent expanses of cloth, or cutting roughly apart elements that had been too neatly joined together.

There is occasional talk about where his urge to deface settled orders comes from, from ‘my dark side’ or from abuse suffered as a child. Family plays an inordinate role in McQueen’s life, not just in the early scenes where he is noticeable for an excitement always on the point of exploding. There’s something in there waiting to get out, ungovernable, and at this point more mischievous than alarming, but never quite comfortable.

Later this will seem an innocent time, when Lee (his name in the family, only changed to Alexander, his original middle name, by Isabella Blow to give him gravitas) applied himself with maniacal intensity to learning the tailoring trade from a fascinating series of employers, conventional and unconventional, who supply some of the most perceptive comment on his character. He impressed them all, but none of them could really contain him. Then, how he got to St Martin’s School of Art, definitely the place to be, but what made him want it or think he could do it?

His first designs and shows are my favourites, made of materials found on the floor (cling wrap) or in Borough Market (thin wire mesh) and paid for with his dole money. Although he had a powerful drive to be noticed, at this point he had to keep himself out of public view in case the job centre caught sight of him. It’s a wonderful moment when he and the art school crew come crashing into Paris, where Lee has been hired by Givenchy, who’ve just lost a key designer.

But it is also the first breath of the frightening worldly success that will destroy him. It’s easy to detect this pattern in his life, too easy, because Alexander McQueen is not just another casualty of the Romantic cult of genius, corrupted by fame, money, stardom. The destruction which is a powerful element in so many of his designs was not just a personal aesthetic but something desperately seeking expression. With success, a nasty side of this seemingly benign character began to appear. He cut old friends off from his later triumphs and abandoned others for supposed betrayals. Fashion’s obsession with the body eventually swallowed up Lee too. He lost weight—we aren’t told how—and stopped being the pudgy mess who was such a paradoxical container for that wild imagination. He succumbed to the frightening treadmill of production, 14 shows a year at his peak, and we get quite a good idea of what these cost in every part of life that isn’t work. How strange that the most ephemeral of trades should make such unending demands on its practitioners.

The film involves us to a daring degree in the rat race of these shows, each outdoing the last in lavishness, weirdness and narrative power. McQueen had always tried to make all the designs, impossible to call them ‘dresses’ or ‘outfits’, take parts in the overall story of the show, but it is also important to let individual designs have their own space. Not in the way they would have it in the big museum exhibitions where they’d be standing there motionless as if on pedestals, but filmically, as they are in the brilliant credits at the end of this film, one dress after another that progresses into kaleidoscopic distortions of itself before the next name and next ‘dress’ replace it. So we end with a fluid sense of how far beyond our ideas of something to wear McQueen took what he constructed. These were as remote from everyday life as modernist art and music have regularly been from what people ordinarily see or hear.

McQueen prided himself on bringing gritty reality to the catwalk, but his work twists clothes beyond recognition to create profound experiences that speak of suffering and death, instead of a dogged concentration on what is wearable. These experiences are often not just costumes, but intensely engaging actions, like large robots spraying a rotating model with paint that begins with bold curves on her skirt and ends with a random spatter of dots on her face and her surroundings.

McQueen, 2018, 1 hr 51 min, directed by Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui

 

In Darkest Southwark

Every unfamiliar part of London is infinitely strange to begin with. This bit of Southwark had no distinctive features. After you left the main road the place consisted entirely of big rectangular solids, presumably council housing, but such pure, unpenetrated masses as you had never seen before. These hulks seemed to push against the pavements that ran along them until there was barely room to pass comfortably. Opposite, a low building spread itself behind a high metal fence, to which were tied rubberised banners with enthusiastic comments by parents selling the building within. So this unfriendly sprawl with windows in mirror glass was nothing but a harmless school.

How could an art gallery have landed in such barren soil, we wondered, as we turned into its street? Here was a little row of slightly older buildings, with a couple of former shop fronts painted an incongruous oxblood colour. You had to get extremely close to read the words ‘Matt’s Gallery’ and only then did you notice a row of artists’ names, half of them scored through in white paint which only half obliterated them. Were these artists formerly represented by the gallery, who’d left, and were now like deposed emperors remembered only in scratched out inscriptions?

The doorbell was answered quickly by a man looking surprised but not unfriendly, like one of those characters in Alice who has just waked up for no other reason than the story’s needing him in order to continue.

I didn’t notice then how ingenious the room he ushered us into was, only that it was incredibly small. It was also bright, and empty. We had come to see a friend’s exhibition, and we soon knew that we were in it, because the two small paintings on the entry wall contained small, nearly identical butterflies, and our friend is fascinated by moths and butterflies, about which she has some interesting ideas that I haven’t got to grips with yet. On the wall opposite was a larger painting consisting of patterns and marks in colours so subtle you even wondered if they were there at all.

DSC00902.jpg

The house we were in, for it felt like a house, was very small. We had already sensed that, having caught a glimpse as we entered of packed-in slivers of space beyond, in which someone was working. So we hardly needed to ask, is this all? is this room it? The man came back and said yes, I always pare down the work: leaving things out is the main task in a gallery. He put it better than that, and I believed that he meant it. He thought the small butterfly paintings were enough, and our friend had added the larger painting from an understandable fear of the void even in the confines of this little cube. For it was a cube, inserted into the fabric of the house on a pronounced diagonal, with its one way in, diagonally, at the corner.

This minimal insertion was the brainchild of the gallery man’s son, an architect who had studied and taught at places I knew and had taught in. So had the gallery man, who had spent longest at a place where I had given one of my worst lectures ever. I began to see the gallery man as quite an art work in himself. His shirt, half concealed by a purple fleece, was a hilarious display of summertime drinks. But it was the way the conversation jumped around that was particularly delightful, and before long I heard my wife inviting him to Kentish Town to carry on with this.

DSC00908.jpg

He explained the scoring-out of the artists’ names: it only meant that their exhibitions were over. They were minimal too and always lasted exactly eleven days. It seemed the same anarchic and even half-destructive impulse was surfacing in all these forms. It was an impulse that didn’t continue for that long in the same course but shifted its orientation continually. He told us he’d just bought a new batch of ISBNs, having used up his initial supply of 100. So we wanted to see all the past books, which turned out to be stylish fold-outs, not books, most of them.

Coming away, we saw the desolate scene with different eyes. In the large industrial hulks, like council blocks without the windows, we now knew that 100+ artists’ studios had formerly lodged. The runaway property boom that is destroying much of what anyone has ever loved about London has also sent these artists packing to create high class rentable space with the soulless anonymity of money itself.

At least one large drafty leftover of the big studio spaces survives as a funky café-gallery inhabited by a riff-raff of second hand furniture and assorted survivors of the art schools, one of the last jewels in the crown of British culture.

 

photos by Esther Menell     for more see esthermenell.com

 

 

Modern works from the Brera, Milan at the Estorick

 

bWFpbi9pbWcvRXhoaWJpdGlvbnMvMzVGNEI4OTItMEJCNi00NkQxLUFFOUYtNUIxQTg3M0I5QjVBLmpwZWc=.jpg

This was the most enjoyable small exhibition I can remember. It’s partly the domestic scale of the spaces at the Estorick Gallery in Islington, partly too the modest scale of the paintings, and maybe something un-doctrinaire and playful in the way most of them approach the task.

It’s just luck which painting you start with, but it can make a difference. Sironi’s The Lamp shows a plump tailor’s dummy in high heels adjusting a lamp hanging over a table. It hovers somewhere between Cubist rigour and a homely interior. The next Sironi tries something else entirely, a telescoped fragment from a city street dominated by a big motor car jammed against impressions of architecture, a more typical Futurist subject but not quite rigorous enough to qualify. This is what I’ve always liked about Sironi, that he doesn’t entirely believe in whatever mode he has adopted, like the almost-Fascist classicism that comes later, for which he is mainly remembered now.

Next came Filippo de Pisis (a pseudonym) entirely new to me and a favourite, who does Surrealist subjects in an exuberant sensuous style that is a send-up of Surrealist dread. Marine Still Life with Shrimps does take place on a beach, just about. Wonderfully impressionistic open clam shells and shrimps are displayed on tilted sand-coloured rectangles and also on the bits of ordinary beach that are allowed to remain around the edges. De Pisis is also present in an almost cartoon version of the façade of St Moise in Venice (already a cartoon in reality), where frenzied (the catalogue’s word) Baroque brushwork practically dissolves the subject.

With de Pisis goes Ottone Rosai who enjoys the paint in which he renders his Cubist glasses and bottles too much to stick to his agenda of deconstructing reality, which is thwarted too by his full blooded palette. The serious backup in this first room was provided by Carlo Carrà whose de Chirico-like interiors come with their own brand of wit: mannequins are connected by lead pipes into a general system of heating or circulation. An earlier Carrà, Rhythms of Objects, perhaps the most demanding picture in the show, outdoes the Cubists in its impossible density of ordinary objects multiplying themselves for unfocused eyes. Are they crockery on a table, or fragmentary human figures, or a combination of the two?

Equally enigmatic is Gino Severini’s Le Nord-Sud which mixes the indoors and the outdoors, as a ride across the city on an elevated train usually does. Here sudden incisions in reality let you see through to fluffy seascapes sliced through by orderly ranks of sharks, or dark interiors mistaken for tunnel entrances. Somewhat difficult to pick out and superimposed on all the hints of journeys are two sedate matrons with effusions of broken lace at their throats.

Marino Marini’s bronze head of Emilio Jesi, collector of all these paintings, presides over the second room. It is mounted at a pronounced tilt and exudes a genial calm. This is a less serious room, or is it just the children’s tables for sketching and colouring-in which make it feel this way? For here we meet a powerfully spiritual or at least ectoplasmic Giorgio Morandi, whose bottles are transparent or luminous and coated with a mysterious dust at the same time. One little pitcher emits a strange pink glow, at least around its neck, which makes it look something like flesh.

There are other Morandis, as well as the whole room of Morandi etchings and drawings from the permanent collection on the top floor. There’s another Sironi landscape of a desolate urban scene crossed by railway tracks with three promising industrial portals in the second Jesi room. This is matched by one upstairs, smaller and even bleaker. Two artists not included in the Brera selection, Medardo Rossi and Renato Guttuso, are also up there, permanently, the first in a richly grimed wax sculpture of a moment glimpsed in a city street, the second in a characteristically crude but gripping work, a dead proletarian hero in a hospital bed. Is it just my imagination or is Guttuso thinking of Mantegna’s similarly foreshortened dead Christ? Guttuso’s shroud is a riot of angular folds and colours—green, purple and ochre all lurking in the monotonous white of the sheets.

The biggest painting in the second Brera room is Mario Mafai‘s Butchered Ox which shows two oxen rendered in what the label calls an ‘intensely expressive and emotionally painterly style.’ But I had to put Soutine’s much wilder versions of the same subject out of my mind to enjoy the abandon of this one. The catalogue prints Butchered Ox upside down. The tradition of inverting modern paintings, deliberately or inadvertently, is a venerable one.

This instance made me turn the catalogue upside down to look at Mafai the right way up and I couldn’t help carrying on, like a thwarted Baselitz, with the rest of the collection. It’s a better joke with some than with others. Almost all the paintings I have singled out survive the experiment well, especially the Carràs and the still lives generally. A zaniness which is always there in Morandi, not far beneath the surface of these quiet, obsessive pictures, is revealed even more clearly when you invert them.

All too human at Tate Britain

Francis Bacon, one of the key painters in this exhibition, took the critic David Sylvester to see the Soutine landscapes at the Redfern Gallery because they had shown him how he wanted to paint at that moment. Some of the links that matter most in this exhibition are intuitional and will burst upon you, not argue their way into your head. So the connection between Bacon and Soutine, who inhabit adjacent rooms in the layout, is there in a visceral love of paint, though Soutine’s is thick and Bacon’s is wonderfully thin at this point; is there also in the abruptness with which they broach emotions, Bacon with a howling maw that is also a cultural reference (to Eisenstein), Soutine with faceless animal carcasses (flesh of a terrible directness). Flesh is the subject, encountered in a treed baboon (another awful view of teeth inside the head) and a cornered dog.

souza.jpg

Flesh appears too in the strongest F. N. Souzas, like the Crucifixion where Christ’s body is also the tree and the cross, sprouting thorns from legs and arms as well as its head. Two attackers, or more likely supporters, are also liberally thorned. In fact very little space is left on the surface for anything that is not thorn. Even Souza’s signature is prickly, something to steer clear of. The catalogue makes much of Souza’s outcast status as an immigrant, and he did eventually flee Britain for New York, but contextualisation can go too far, and coming after Bacon, we don’t find Souza’s an outlandishly alienated vision. There’s also an eerie link in their gravitation to Catholic themes (Souza’s family Goan and devout), only to distort them, of course.

Coldstream comes next, like an icy bath. I seem to remember that Souza sampled the Slade but it didn’t agree with him. If different ways of paying attention to the flesh are a thread running through the whole, Coldstream and his students represent an incredibly strange strand. For me his endless measurements trying to get sizes and relations exactly right, and marking each estimate with a little cross, produce some unusually dead results. A big nude in the exhibition is awkward overall, but full of interest when you focus on details. It is hardly credible that Coldstream thought he was serving truth by not moving pieces of furniture out of his compositions when they got in the way. He must surely have followed this principle selectively, and even then can you really call it a composition if it must obey prior placements as if they were divine laws?

His student Euan Uglow carried this idea of truth even further, and spent seven years on a painting of one of his students–in a sports jersey and pink tights–lying on and half-obscuring a bold pattern designed by Uglow. The result (finally finished?) is so bland we are fascinated by where all the careful thinking can have gone.

Next comes Bomberg, a rambunctious corrective. He is the first of three reprises that punctuate the exhibition, a brilliant way of startling us with a new role or a new approach to painting which would have less effect if Bomberg, Bacon and Freud had each been presented just once in the sequence. This is Bomberg the teacher, seen too in his students. There’s a violent landscape by Dennis Creffield, with an absurdly exact note of its location (The Isle of Dogs seen from Greenwich Observatory) which sets us scrambling to find all its parts. And a blotchy nude by Dorothy Mead, the nearest approach to Cubism in the show.

The most serious consequence of David Bomberg’s teaching, many would agree, is seen in the work of Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, who in the immediate aftermath of the teaching took his idea of the spirit in the mass to extreme lengths in canvases where the paint lies so thick that it seems to thrust itself into the room and defies you to find distinct forms in it. Paint is the subject and content of these paintings, sensuous enough to feel something like flesh.

Paradoxically, when Auerbach gets further from Bomberg, the teacher’s influence becomes more visible, in urban landscapes centred around Mornington Crescent station.

In the largest room of all, Freud reappears, moving away from the smoothness of finish we saw around the time he taught with Coldstream, toward an equally exaggerated intensity of attention, now expressed in thicker paint and ultra-visible brushstrokes. Here are the famous nudes whose flesh goes on and on, changing colour monotonously, following what imperative–just to demonstrate fierce mental concentration, which will exhaust sitter or lie-er and viewer alike? The great example of the new, larger minuteness in this enormous room devoted to Freud’s production from the late 1970s to the 1990s is a maniacal portrait of two species of house plant which fills twenty square feet of canvas from top to bottom, and makes us perceive Freud in that moment as a close inheritor of the Pre-Raphaelites.

We’ve been set up to forget the fact that Bacon too suffered a great transversal of values in which his subjects became sensuous male nudes, or amputated sections of them, like sausages that have split their skins and begun spilling out. Paint is thicker, silkier, and runs on for longer uninterrupted.

Of all the painters in the exhibition Michael Andrews and R. B. Kitaj are least well served, partly by being forced into the same room. But Kitaj leads well into Paula Rego, present in five giant pastels, a big watercolour drawing and an older oil of great human interest.

T07919

The three Rego pastels ‘based’ on Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode have pride of place and fill a whole wall. Hogarth is exploded to many times his original size and introverted to domestic privacies where someone has turned over a stone and let the pullulating life spill out. Commentators have said that Hogarth’s humour is missing: instead, pure black comedy with monstrous men like babies, grandmothers full of venom and furniture that has the power to thwart, the only salvation lying in the brio (especially the bursts of colour) with which it is recorded.

In the last room of all, four impressive women, two of whom stand out: Jenny Saville with the sideways head of a gigantic baby, not really a baby but bald and pink like one and nightmarish to inspect close up; and Cecily Brown, new to me, the actual daughter of David Sylvester and the spiritual daughter of Willem de Kooning. Boy with a Cat does have a naked human figure of a kind and a whole background of cats, but it is really just an exuberant explosion of paint that leaves patient observation gaping helplessly.

boy w cat

The way to visit this exhibition is to let it unfold in front of you, even wash over you, not that it is a mindless journey or an assorted jumble, but that the paintings have more to say to each other than such collections usually do, and that some of the oddest conjunctions could turn out to bear the best fruit, not perhaps immediately. Both the sequence and the hubbub of the whole make it clear that British figurative painting of this period has not become old hat or lost its power to engage viewers deeply.

Living with the Gods

Lion-man-full.jpg

This exhibition at the British Museum expands in the mind of the visitor and becomes a phantasmagoria of objects produced by cultures from across the world, of stories connected with them, of idols and charms, warding off illness or encouraging devotion, a general mental excitement in which all the human practices which might be called devotional or superstitious, otherworldly or magical seem equally interesting and equally valuable because they are human and rated highly by their practitioners. The exhibition lulls the visitor into a receptive state with faint but compelling background music, a combination of wind noises, human whispering and tinkling bells. The physical layout of the exhibits, grouped in sections separated by sinuous gauze curtains, which makes them feel like something taking place in the mind, seems to encourage the idea that these are in some way all phantoms.

Not that the objects are not real and often extremely vivid, but that they are mixed in ways that break down normal categories. A few of the objects are venerable, like above all the Lion Man from 40,000 years ago, discovered in a Swabian cave a week before the start of World War II. He is made from a mammoth’s tusk and dated by taking radio carbon readings of the soil he was found in. His lion-part is judged to represent an extinct species now called a cave lion, which, going by drawings on cave walls, did not have manes. Thus the uncertainty can arise over whether he is lion or lioness, male or female. He is thought to be an implement in a religious practice, based on the widespread attribution of spiritual powers to human-animal hybrids in other cultures and on traces of wear which have been taken as signs of frequent handling by the group that commissioned or made him.

He is the most numinous object in the exhibition, pieced together in the 70+ years since he was found by adding hundreds of further bits identified in the detritus surrounding him, leaving him in spite of all the careful attention looking extremely ruined. Except that, by the time I saw the Lion Man the ivory original had gone back to Germany, to be replaced by a piece of high quality 3D printing. Thus he had become a deceptive picture of himself, the most up-to-date kind of magic.

It seems appropriate to the ethos of the exhibition that the oldest object displayed has been transfigured into the newest without losing its aura, and is still displayed in a dark space all by itself. There’s a sprinkling throughout the exhibition of extremely fresh objects, made of cheap materials like plastic or commissioned by the Museum from contemporary artists and thus showing for instance that Jahrzeit candles go on being needed because ancient practices survive. In the world of belief time does not need to behave historically. Someone who wants to determine the qibla direction can trade his little compass and sundial with exquisitely small directions in Arabic for a simple mobile phone app, and Tibetan priests fit their prayer wheels with prayers on computer print-outs that squeeze in more pleas than human handwriting ever could.

The idea of art doesn’t apply or is downgraded in many of the territories we visit. A series of household altars is one of the most moving sections, more appealing for being genuinely home-made or at least produced for humble customers, like an Ethiopian reredos crudely inscribed in a language unspoken since 1200 (Ge’ez) and completely covered in familiar stories.

I found myself leaning on the words ‘folk art’ at many points, but this is not the right term, except as it expresses our distance from much of what we see in Living with the Gods. Last week I was dazzled by an interior just around the corner, in a Victorian church I had passed hundreds of times and never thought of entering. This ordinary space was covered from head to foot in Byzantine-style paintings of saints and angels and biblical scenes. Down in the corners at two points were the dates 1993 and 2003. I can’t interpret the weird symmetry of the numbers but I can sort of imagine how the local Greek church got its job-lot of holy scenes and personages. They’re completely ordinary regarded as art, but overpowering as an enclosure for devotion.

AN00031553_001_l.jpg

We, meaning visitors from the West, can certainly be fooled by other people’s devotional objects, or imitations of them. Juggernaut’s car, for instance, which I took as a genuinely Indian product, was ordered by a bored Englishman stuck in an out-of-the-way spot in South India in the 18c. It was the biggest of all the exhibits but still a very reduced model of a festival chariot which would carry an avatar of Vishnu on a nine-day holiday in the country, together with his brother and sister each of whom had their own similar transport.

The exhibition comes in another form which I have barely sampled yet. I don’t know which came first, a series of 30 fifteen minute radio talks by Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum, or this exhibition. I gather that MacGregor uses many of the objects that appear in the present show, and more besides, re-combining them in different orders, an appealing possibility because they already seem a ferment of metaphors or physical analogues for modes of thought, translations of bodily sensations into something else, like prayer flags which disperse prayers into the atmosphere or bells that incorporate lamps or scarves which clothe cross-shafts and shield Christ’s nakedness.

The radio version of the subject ends with one of the largest and oddest of all religious gatherings, the Kumbh Mela, which takes place in the riverbed of the Ganges in the dry season. The British Museum version does not try to represent this gigantic hubbub, noisily present in the radio form. To attempt devout contemplation in the midst of a crowd numbering millions, to build a great tent city to accommodate all of them on the understanding that it will be taken down a month later, after which the river will rush in and erase all trace that it has ever been—can these ideas of passage and progress make sense of the bewildering variety of appliances and practices we have met, and transform agitated thought into a source of comfort?

Simon Schama Civilisations, episode 1

A disconcerting start, Schama talking about civilisation as collective memory while aerial images flash by of ancient public spaces in desert landscapes. Is it a version of that trick of modern cinema, a bit of the action before the film remembers to introduce itself? There’s a noticeable urgency in Schama’s voice and in a few seconds we see why.

Now come shocking images of a temple blown up with explosives and men taking sledgehammers to statues in a museum. Then the story of the guardian of the site at Palmyra who wouldn’t tell where the antiquities were hidden and details of his gruesome death. In rushed hindsight the disorienting plunge into the material at the beginning seems a brilliant stroke, and Palmyra will cast its shadow over all that follows: civilisation’s survival is precarious, and all civilisations come to an end. The episode at Palmyra can stand as an allegory or emblem of that.

Then we’re off looking for beginnings at the tip of Africa where our species first appeared, finding them in a small lump of iron-rich red ochre, on which is inscribed a repeating pattern from 70 thousand years ago, which Schama insists, against the archaeologists, is the first stirring of the impulse to make new forms that drives all art.

Then a brilliant link via red ochre to the cave at Altamira 7000 miles away in Spain where the same pigment is blown and painted onto walls to represent animals mythical to us but familiar to the first visitors to this place. We’ve been in the cave for a while marveling at more animals and imprints of human hands when we stumble on someone like one of the hired hermits in 18th century English gardens. He’s a scientist from the University of Huddersfield, weirdly illuminated by his computer screen and studying the cave’s echoes because he believes the paintings were originally accompanied by music. Now a brief concert of prehistoric music played on bull-roarers and hollow bird-bones.

Picasso is one of the modern artists who have praised their earliest predecessors, and Schama draws a thrilling parallel between Picasso’s bulls, almost a primitive obsession of his, and the drawings in the caves. This outlandish comparison is sprung on us through the evidence of our eyes—the resemblance between the two bulls is uncanny, and this sudden glimpse of the continuity of art creates something like religious awe.

Now we move to little objects, a lion man from Germany, a tiny woman’s head in bone (birth of the idea of beauty, Schama says, but that was already there among the animals), a scene of combat on almost microscopic scale on a gemstone found recently at a new excavation somewhere in Greece. This object is hard to see, hard to grasp the whole of, and all the more magical for this trick of slipping away.

I think it was at about this point that we begin to jump more promiscuously from culture to culture. The photography at Petra does a marvelous job of putting you there, showing crevasses from just above and deep inside, perfectly keyed to Schama’s words about the improbability of such elaborate culture in this place. He has great fun conjuring up the luxury resort built on the trade in expensive perfumes and attracting the different races of the region.

We also make a stop in China at a recently uncovered site which yields a forest of bronze heads of various sizes, grotesque and strangely compelling with their huge, wedge-shaped eyes. All in all, there is such a flood of impressions, such a trove of marvelous objects never seen before, that it would be impossible to give a coherent account without watching the whole pageant again. The effect is magical, magical and unencompassable, and ought to waken the most jaded palate and worn out eyes.

I was thrilled by my first viewing of this and hesitate to mention what didn’t seem exactly right to me. I was brought up on Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, which I am watching alongside the new Civilisations, a name I thought trendy until I got a taste of how gigantically wide the new vision is; that exhilarating scope justifies the ‘s’, also necessary in a practical way to keep the two series straight. In anticipation I imagined Schama following the new normal for presenters, crowding the objects they talk about, walking breathlessly along while reciting carefully crafted text, whispering when pretending to respect some creature nearby, waving their arms, talking about their excitement or how lucky we are to have gotten into this exclusive location. Worst of all, standing in front of the work we came to see.

It was a great relief to find Simon Schama behaving more like Kenneth Clark than current presenters, as someone in awe of what he is talking about, not in chummy familiarity with it. His gestures weren’t the exaggerated dumb-show you sometimes get and are probably just what he would do if he were lecturing. But in the presence of the things themselves, I don’t need for presenters to supply animated movement, distracting me from the painting or building. Mostly Schama was not getting in the way, except when he stood behind the glass case the lion-man was in, so that you saw the sculpture and the much larger man behind, like a reflection in a mirror. This work is not humanised by measuring it against a visitor; it is momentarily degraded.

The choice of unfamiliar sites instead of old standbys, Altamira instead of Lascaux, Calakmul instead of Palenque, is invigorating and wakes one up. The sense of cultural production as part the rest of life, workers in Chinese fields, old Mayans and present Mayans in the same territory, both anchors and widens our view. Is it fanciful to think that Civilisations has learned from BBC nature programmes?

The first programme bodes extremely well for the series, which can be as inspiring in its different way as its predecessor. And yet… will there continue to be such studied avoidance of the most wonderful sites of all? Lascaux is far richer than the others and one of its marvels, the ‘Chinese pony’ did seem to flit quickly across the screen. In the course of writing that sentence it occurred to me that Lascaux has been so ravaged by visitors’ breath that only a replica is now shown, and that Palenque or Tikal which I would put in place of Chalakmul, are over-visited already. Still, the very best that these cultures have done is what got us interested in them in the first place. Leaving that out runs the risk of removing the soul from the body.

Since then I’ve seen Schama’s second programme, where the sequence of examples is even more eccentric and reaches a nadir of dull Dutch ordinariness with Jan van Goyen, whom Schama apologises for and then dwells on. The episode is redeemed in the end by Ansel Adams, whose luminous photos of Yosemite can support the unexpected weight Schama loads them with, leaving us in his debt again.

Age of Terror: Art since 9/11

What did you expect? An exhibition called Art in the Age of Terror, housed in a building full of over-sized weaponry, planes banking downward toward their targets or accelerating upward, rockets of various types, some, like the V-2, so big they would only fit into the huge space if sitting on the ground. Even with its skin stripped off to show its innards, it’s hard to view this monster as a toy that we can study as if it were just a model of its evil former self.

Of course I know that this display space was designed by an architect, yet it feels as if the building has been hollowed out by a bomb or another kind of explosion. The hollowing has left a weird shrunken plan for the upper floors—they’re essentially corridors ringing the central void, relatively dark and cramped, as if that’s the right sort of space in which to think about war.

To top it off the Imperial War Museum is a space mainly populated by children. Not the Terror exhibition though; at first it is populated by no one. I have the amateur film of the events of 9/11 entirely to myself. It has no words except the screams and chopped off sentences of passers-by. The only connected speech I can remember is an exchange with a man who was meant to be on the 79th floor right now, but had missed his train. He seems crazed by his feeling of misplacement.

All of a sudden it gets much worse and the buildings collapse silently into themselves, producing giant clouds that chase people down the narrow streets, coat them in grey dust and shower them with paper like the unwanted contents of a thousand offices. The film drags, it was not composed, often it is milling in one spot, one spot after another. Yet there is something like fascination….

The exhibition is cleverly or fiendishly laid out. The walls and ceilings are a uniform dark gray, there are plenty of narrow corridors that may lead to another room with a few art works on the walls, or to an emergency exit or a pure dead end. It is a long time before another visitor appears, but after an initial absence guards are more actively present than usual, pacing without looking left or right. I even wonder if this is theatre; it feels like surveillance. I only think this after works which tackle interrogation, torture and surveillance, imaginatively to be sure, yet how do you make art of something like the famous photo of Obama’s National Security Council watching the assassination of Osama bin Laden? In this case you make it by matching a glossy widescreen TV of that photo to a blank white screen, to signify the blackout on any images of the corpse.

Grey corridors turn up again in one of the most interesting works, a film by an Israeli maker which explores the use of drones, a secret territory, by ingenious indirection: following a fictional family on a torturous journey of checkpoints, threats and near misses; interviewing a fictional drone pilot and splicing that with the anguished reminiscences of a real one, his face masked by blurring; and using shots of downtown and suburban Las Vegas to illustrate his talk of choosing his target buildings.

Otherwise, the rooms contain a catalogue of ways to express displacement from home and homeland, feelings that never go away and often seem relieved by forms of defacement, defacement of the map of the lost country for instance, or of a model of the family home. More often than not it seems a cry of pain that will end by being endlessly repeated.

I wasn’t thinking when I let myself drift next into the permanent Holocaust exhibition. This one wasn’t empty but packed with people, who moved at times like those being herded to someone else’s choice of destination. There were children here too, some very small, who were fortunately saved from reading the too-numerous texts.

Now that it’s over, I can’t imagine that my little war-excursion did me much good. When I got home I heard there’d been another mass shooting in an American school, this time in Florida, like another small incident in a worldwide disturbance that continues.

Two exhibitions in Chichester

 

sutherland noli mi_SH_068 copy.jpg

The distinguishing feature of Chichester cathedral is a collection of modern art, meaning mostly pieces from the period 1957-77 when Walter Hussey was Dean and patronised living artists. These are scattered around the building like the hidden prizes in a children’s game. They make an unorthodox focus for a visit and aren’t picked out on the free guide distributed at the entrance, or known to the friendly volunteers who each recommend their own favourite features to visitors.

Ian Nairn wrote the West Sussex half of the Pevsner for Sussex where he claims that Chichester is the outstanding example of a typically English cathedral. Of course Nairn is famous for finding irreplaceable uniqueness in ordinary buildings, a fruitful kind of delusion that his readers willingly fall in with. Chichester is quintessentially nondescript, but it is his. He describes its steeple looming over the surrounding landscape with the devotion of a native.

But he is wrong: the beauty of this cathedral as a background for twentieth century art is its self-effacing ordinariness. In the neutral setting the works count as they never could in Lincoln or York. Hussey’s favourite artists are still figurative — modernists who straddle an important divide, but remain thrillingly heretical in a Gothic building.

Hans Feibusch is a fascinating figure, a Jewish refugee from Nazism who made his name with large murals on religious subjects in Christian churches bombed in the war, where his weird colours make the familiar subjects into conflagrations. Feibusch’s Baptism of Christ by the font in Chichester is painted on canvas instead of the wall and isn’t big enough to take charge of the space.

I have to do some detective work to see a Graham Sutherland at the end of the aisle ahead of me, too small to catch my eye the first time round. I find a postcard of it in another building, the shop, and retrace my steps, crossing a quad to find it. Because I now know what it looks like, I can see it staring me in the face. It’s a Noli me tangere which Sutherland has twisted into his characteristic brand of grotesque by putting Christ halfway up a stair clinging to a building and Mary Magdalene contorted on the ground but craning upward. Like Feibusch Sutherland brings colour harmonies wonderful in themselves, but improbable in the context, to dislodge expectation.

DSC00500.jpg

The retrochoir at Chichester is the one real architectural inspiration here, a perfect space lurking between the choir and the Lady Chapel and functionless for centuries, until the cult of the local saint was reinstituted with the help of some modern art in the twentieth century. This includes a large German tapestry on the theme of St Richard. There’s a very good label explaining it as full of symbols, all made unrecognisable by representing them as fragments of rock crystal, art hiding its spiritual teaching in ambiguous forms. I thought it mainly a crowd of angels with plant shapes at the sides and exploding flowers, all forms that had to force themselves into being. I didn’t detect the sea or the lotus or the fire until they were pointed out, or the serpent climbing the cross. It took a long time to produce and it mesmerised me.

DSC00479.jpgIn a corner of the space was a little model of a piece of very Baroque sculpture whose swirls of drapery were hard to pick out against the dark background. Improbably high overhead stood the sculpture itself. Can the sculptor have had any idea where his finely wrought work was going to end up? Without the model to point you toward it, would anyone ever notice it?

As time went on your eyes got better at picking out the newer art concealed among the architectural shrubbery. The main goal of the day was an exhibition in a museum, and it just happened that the cathedral lay across the path to the real goal and the true museum. In retrospect the cathedral’s kind of display came to represent nature, or offered something like finding rare minerals washed up on a beach, objects camouflaged just enough by the way they partook of their setting to let you think that you were their discoverer.

The cathedral, framed on one side by its own wilderness, was joined abruptly to the town on the other side, whose West Street ran right along the whole north flank of the building. It was a miniature model of a city left intact by time, which seemed very normal and which only experience taught you to recognise as miraculous.

The museum lay in the heart of a quadrant of the regular town that replicated the form of the whole, scaled down a stage or two. Like the cathedral the gallery was a strange hybrid, the grandest eighteenth-century house in Chichester (i.e., not that grand) yoked to a modern extension by a Scandinavianly-inclined architect (not that modern). It was a discord that grew on you until it seemed a harmony.

It could almost function as a definition of childishness to be unable to wait a decent interval for something you want, or until, say, its time came round naturally in the calendar. I knew that the Bomberg exhibition I had come here to see was going to arrive in London before very long anyway, but after chafing for weeks, I finally decided I couldn’t wait. The only rational excuse, a flimsy one, was a little display of Paula Rego’s drawings which ran alongside Bomberg, certainly not enough by itself to justify the commotion of this trip.

Maybe the imaginary nature of the journey made it almost metaphysically necessary. I started with the Bomberg, which didn’t disappoint, enhanced by the unlikelihood of finding this very urban, Jewish artist in Chichester. The exhibition made sense of some of his least accessible works, like Jujitsu, which was shown as if occurring in stages, first in a geometrical tangle which remained a three-dimensional space, like some labyrinth of Hebrew thought, before it turned right before your eyes into the flat pattern of the later painting, which preserved a clue to its source in the absurd name Jujitsu, pointing you to the gym in Whitechapel where Bomberg had made the first sketches.

I broke the exhibition in the middle, for even a small display can seem big, or too big for devouring all in one go, if you are looking too hard. With hindsight, I see I was lucky to break it where I did (though in a sense I had no choice) because late Bomberg is another universe and ideally requires a starting over.

My holiday from Bomberg was not rushing outside for real air, but more paintings, the permanent collection at Pallant House, all British or even English, all from the twentieth century, beginning with Sickert and carrying on to painters like Kitaj, Michael Andrews and Peter di Francia, anathema to me until almost this very year now. Imagine liking the 1940s 50s and 60s best of all! What has come over me? Something about the local and the inconspicuous, about things that all belong together and would almost prefer to be overlooked so that they could get on with the business of looking. At Pallant House they are often small scale, the Sutherlands for instance, a gnarled crucifixion, or even more wonderful, a Thorn Head like Blake’s magnified cross section of the head of a flea with the biting machinery exposed, like a Christ who has internalised the crown of thorns, inviting his suffering inside, appropriate in Chichester and in Walter Hussey’s own collection.

sutherland thorn head_SH_069 copy.jpg

The Chichester gallery calls itself a collection of collections. So far for me two of the collectors stand out, Hussey and Colin St John Wilson, architect of the British Library, one of my favourite 20c public buildings. Sandy Wilson (as we learned to call him when he was external examiner at the architectural school where I taught) also designed the bold (for Chichester) extension to Pallant House (no longer big enough, I heard just the other day). I try to imagine how Hussey and Wilson might have got along. Their collections accord wonderfully well, like the two buildings that don’t look as if they are going to at first.

Wilson’s pictures are larger; the biggest room in the extension was purpose-built for them, where they hang like the masterpieces in the big gallery at the Wallace Collection. One of the most interesting pictures here is a big Kitaj of Wilson and his wife (also an architect) called ‘The Architects’. Does one like this intermarriage of the building, the collector and the collection? Does anyone find it claustrophobic, as my wife did Chichester when we brought students here ten years ago? Then I liked the place well enough, but didn’t appreciate it the way I do now, as something that keeps modestly cross-referencing itself to make a perfect little realm of art.

At this point I realised that to catch the last daylight for a walk in the town I needed to escape from the gallery into the streets and onto the walls, scaled down remnants in this human-scaled place. Even so, I was too late for the Octagon Chapel, an architectural curiosity, and for the grounds of the Priory with their own captive section of the town walls. Dusk was a show for my benefit and gave me just time to get back to the Gallery for the last part of Bomberg with its disturbing explosions of colour and form, and for the mildly disturbing apparition of a well-known critic many years my junior, who appeared twice looking pretty senior, and nervous before his lecture. I was the truant whose only responsibility lay with the paintings, so I got on with looking.