Picasso 1932

 

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I can’t be the first to think that Picasso is too profuse, that he painted too much. One way of coping with an overpowering surfeit of work is to limit your focus in an almost arbitrary way, and to concentrate on everything produced in a certain year, for instance.  Picasso is one of the few if not the only artist with whom such a bizarre tactic makes sense. We are helped a lot by the fact that in the early 30s he is dating his paintings by the day. So the works in the Tate exhibition were usually labeled with a day’s date, and only after that, a title.

Luckily the curators were not strict about the boundaries: a few works from 1931 crept in, and a couple from 1933-34. There’s no great consistency or sublimity about 1932. It was the year of his first big exhibition: that might have stirred him to produce more, but there’s still a pleasing arbitrariness in the choice.

Picasso is notoriously restless, but repeats subjects he likes, repetitions that are always variations not copies. Some of the most enjoyable moments came in following transmogrifications of simple themes, like the 26 small pages of Sketchbook no. 17 in  ultra thin pen-lines that summoned up beings like one-celled creatures seen under the microscope, who seemed to be floating or swimming when viewed sideways. In fact you could only have this experience in the catalogue, with a magnifying glass, but it was magical, and gave a more intimate sense of Picasso’s inventiveness than almost anything else in the exhibition.

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Strangely enough, the supreme display of invention in the show began with a kind of copy, a copy of Grunewald’s famous Crucifixion in Colmar. Apparently it is doubtful that Picasso ever saw the work itself. In any case, he must have depended more immediately on a photograph, probably in black and white. Almost at once the painting got away and became something else, a meditation on cruelty or alienation and the dispersion of the self. Images of these dark drawings below follow the sequence Picasso followed, moving further, then nearer, then further again from recognisability, an oscillating approach to something that keeps threatening to disappear.

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At almost the same moment he was doing a series of little sketches of women playing ball on the beach, sometimes crowding and even stepping on each other. Some observers have detected conflict or ambivalence in Picasso’s ability to entertain these two subjects almost simultaneously, violent cruelty and Dionysiac release, and they have also read both extremes into one another.

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It remains a question to what extent simple themes like women playing or sleeping are carrying heavy metaphysical burdens in the work of 1932. Two famous nudes, Nude, green leaves and bust and Nude in a black armchair, provoked enthusiastic response in the art-dealer Kahnweiler, who thought them the best things Picasso had done, ‘as if painted by a satyr just after he had murdered a woman’, his way of expressing their frightening intensity.

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T J Clark connects the two paintings to Rimbaud’s ‘Je est un autre’ and Picasso’s ‘I am a woman’, by which he evidently meant more than just ‘the artist enters his subject’. Clark finds them a searching examination of desire and of the experience of sexual differentiation. The ideas are fascinating but the paintings do not support them. I am reminded of Leo Steinberg grappling with Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, imparting a powerful sense of struggle as he erects an intellectual structure that doesn’t match my experience of the painting. I have enjoyed the chase much more than most disquisitions I agree with, but I back off from the conclusions. Likewise with Clark—all this firepower is trained on bland and nerveless work. Picasso is not a colourist, a failing he can often conceal. In many of the larger pictures of this period, including these nudes, either horrid pastel shades predominate, or dull thickness of paint.

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So I found more enjoyment in the sculpture, which was perhaps a fresher medium to him at that moment, which in plaster or clay versions has a visceral immediacy that the larger paintings mostly lack. An interesting sub-genre crops up repeatedly, paintings that depict sculpture-like forms, another instance of Picasso’s grabbing onto sources in the world of art. In one of the most interesting of these, the paint itself was more lively, as if the idea of fresh clay had stirred him to a vivid rendering of its wetness and the variety of sheens on the surface, aspects of reality that he usually ignores.

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Sculpture also seems to be a realm where wit is licensed. The Woman in the Garden of 1925 is full of hilarious analogues in the world of construction to organic shapes and details. Here Picasso can play, an impulse which appears in his painting both before and after 1932, but in the exhibition it is usually sculpture or small and sketchy works which provoke a smile or introduce narrative complexity. At the end of the year a theme emerges, Rescue, which has its mythic reverberations, and which at least once reverses direction and becomes Rape. Here that alarmingly divided character surfaces again, who is unsure whether he is saviour or destroyer.

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Picasso 1932 at Tate Modern from 8 March to 9 September 2018

Kahnweiler doesn’t identify precisely the paintings that have impressed him.  Clark thinks it likely that the two mentioned above are the ones that provoked the ‘satyr’ comment (repeated in a letter to Michel Leiris dating from the time in March 1932 when the two nudes were painted).

The Horrors of War & Trauma inside the Mouth

Aftermath at Tate Britain, & Teeth at the Wellcome Collection, two exhibitions on disparate themes–artistic responses to the First World War and ways of coping with a troublesome part of the body.

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Much of the time Aftermath looks like another art exhibition. It leads off with paintings like Orpen’s Grave in a Trench, a bleached-out scene long after the battle, and Roberts’ Shell Dump, France, crowded with zombie figures underground.

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But then curiosities creep in, like paper knives with shrapnel handles or ‘nail art’– patriotic icons made mainly of nails, each banged in by a different member of the public, who thus gets the illusion of contributing to the war effort. Then there are documentary photos of damage to Reims cathedral and a fascinating film of a trip over the ruins of Ypres in a balloon. I didn’t question the pictures of Reims, especially the ruined stone angel bandaged with ropes and pads which both personalises and distances destruction.

I began to wonder though when presented with old photos of second-rate decorations in the centre of Paris or plans for humdrum war memorials, especially when Lutyens’ astonishing arch at Thiepval is left out. Charles Sargeant Jagger’s No Man’s Land follows the format of a memorial, a long horizontal slab, but disrupts the convention with a scene that is above all jagged, jammed with severe and heartrending detail scratched into bronze gone grey from grief. It shows six corpses strung up on barbed wire or stretched out in mud, and a lone sentry who is taking cover among the relics of death.

No Man's Land 1919-20 by Charles Sargeant Jagger 1885-1934

Among the most uncomfortable but thrilling exhibits are Henry Tonks’ pastels of soldiers’ badly damaged faces. Jagger gets too close to what death looks like for comfort, and Tonks gets even closer, with living subjects, who are walking, breathing memorials or ruins of war. These works are redeemed by Tonks’ skill, by an unexpected artistic flair, and by sympathy which penetrates the men’s carefully controlled anguish.

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My heart sank when I came to a room called The Print Portfolio, a category which appears out of nowhere, as if we’ve run out of thematic subjects and turned to technical forms narrowly considered. It happened that two of the series were among the highlights of the exhibition, not because they fit the inappropriate category but because they were powerful. Otto Dix’s War prints gave the most nightmarish visions of all, far more interesting than his paintings, and Max Beckmann’s Hell created a kind of spatial anguish in everyday situations where all is splintered fragments.

Now comes a room that you should skip, the largest in the exhibition, full of big paintings. It is called Return to Order and constitutes a denial of the excitement generated by the preceding denser displays. It feels un-assimilated, included just because this too happened in this period, 1916-32, boundaries which look arbitrary when used to excuse the presence of forgettable work on a bigger scale than the little prints and drawings.

The limitation to France, Britain and Germany is here exposed as both too wide and too narrow. It has pushed curators to include such dire painters as Marcel Gromaire and dim Germans only present because they illustrate particular social-historical themes.   What a relief to get back to the authentic seriousness of Dada, in Grosz and Heartfield’s The Bourgeois Philistine Heartfield Goes Wild, a work of 1920 (reconstructed 1980) held over until the last room of the exhibition. It shows the human figure turned into a tailor’s dummy by modernity, with a light bulb for a head, as if it were the war-wounded in a perversely perfected form, pure prosthesis.

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Comparing Aftermath to Teeth at the Wellcome is unfair in one important way. Most of the exhibits in Teeth were never meant to be displayed to a curious public. They include models of teeth and mouths for dental students to practice on, and actual skulls containing outstanding decay or dental work in rare materials, of which photographs are politely discouraged. They also include lots of obsolete devices, some of which are mainly quaint, like drills operated by a foot pedal, while others now seem instruments of torture, like heavy metal ‘keys’ for yanking out teeth with a sudden twist.

The energy and fun of Teeth comes largely from abstracting these objects from their normal locations, a transposition which changes them utterly. There’s often a dose of  the surreal, even Dada, when they move from the world of work to the realm of play, where most of the Tate’s exhibits started out.

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The closest crossover came when we met another mechanical man with a smooth wooden skull implanted with obscure metal devices and genuinely carious teeth who, like the Heartfield mannequin, sat on a spindle or post, which brought him up to normal human height and tempted you to endow him with human traits.

Enormous model teeth with cave-like hollows for demonstrating different kinds of filling are here just creatures from nightmares, material for stories. Sometimes you wonder if the Gothic element in a howling face wasn’t relished by the original fabricator. Maybe there has always been an almost clinical enthusiasm for certain kinds of horrendous but unthreatening pain. This head, which calls up the mad researches of the 18c Austrian sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, seems prepared to drown analysis in feeling.

DSC02435 copy.jpgDeciphering the spirit in which the Wellcome’s objects were collected would be an absorbing study. A fantastic intent surfaces more than occasionally. Among my favourites were a poster showing the furthest nightmare of a user of the old kind of toothpaste tube that split or fractured easily, resulting in mock carnage that takes unspeakable humanoid form.

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Next to it came the unsettling magnification of a decayed tooth into a wonder of the ancient world. A dentist once explained to me why what goes on in the mouth feels so much bigger than it is, but it seems self centred to dwell as we do on the affairs of these little hidden universes, which, like the Colosseum, occur in storeys and arched shapes.

DSC02428 copy.jpgLike the Tate, the Wellcome tempts you to keep going when the exhibition is over, straying into other rooms wondering what you will find there, perhaps another instrument of torture, like the early X-ray machine that resembles a treadmill turned on its side

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or another Surrealist juxtaposition in a ball-gown decorated with a huge collection of contraceptive pills in their plastic bubbles, enough for 26 years of daily doses, someone’s calculation of how many fertility-suppressing tablets a woman would need to take in a lifetime, reduced or elevated here into a bewitching glitter.

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Aftermath at Tate Britain, Millbank until 23 September 2018

Teeth at the Wellcome Collection, Euston Road until 16 September 2018 (admission free)

 

 

Rodin and Ancient Greece, or Rodin and the Fragment

Rodin never went to Greece. He was the most anti-academic artist imaginable, who defied every classical rule. Yet the recent exhibition at the British Museum on this unlikely theme was a revelation. From his first sight of them, Rodin was besotted with the Parthenon sculptures, but he took an unorthodox view of the stones, prizing them for their fragmentary and ruined state.

There had been an earlier Rodin who invented immense epic schemes, like the Gates of Hell, six metres high, and seething with hundreds of figures. This project combines the medieval material of Dante’s Inferno with the modern spirit of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal. The static form of this set of monumental doors becomes a great field of movement and upheaval, a gate which shudders convulsively, rather than a stiff and stable barrier.

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Rodin’s responsiveness to the art of the past is full of surprises. He writes imaginatively about Gothic cathedrals as vast poems, not all of which can be taken in at once. He focuses on their porches, which he likens to grottos or caverns lit unevenly by the sun, which brings certain figures into view while it hides others, shifting throughout the day. His Gates are a kind of condensed porch, and reading him on the subject one inevitably applies these ideas to his own project, too vast and various to be comprehended all at once, so that the sun’s movement becomes a metaphor for our attention, shifting over the surface, continually leaving parts of it behind.

Thence perhaps arises Rodin’s strange conviction that every part of the Gates allows us to intuit the whole. And so he detached small and incomplete elements from high on the cliffside of the work and brought them down to eye level,

 

DSC02075.jpgattaching them to notional cornices with new flourishes of plant matter or fabric. They are complex little knots of movement composed of flying and falling figures, but they are at the same time defiantly fragmentary, parts not wholes, more suggestive than complete and perfect entities, like shorn-off pieces of the Parthenon that have long evoked for some observers earlier, fresher stages of the work, as if you had stumbled into Phidias’s studio.

One of the achievements of the exhibition was to create a continuity between Rodin’s appreciation of the antique fragment and his understanding of his own work as metamorphic, continually re-forming itself in new combinations, seen from fresh angles. At the entrance to the exhibition a strange hybrid appears, a woman’s head with a small Greek temple planted on it as if growing from it. The carving of the marble face is soft and subtle as if it fades before our eyes, but her hair and shoulders are rough-hewn. The temple doesn’t fit, in more than one way. It is plaster and crudely fashioned; the stone has been abruptly sawn off to accommodate it.

DSC02056.jpgIt makes some observers think of Athena born violently from the head of Zeus; others are reminded of those allegorical busts with castellated headdresses who represent classical cities. The face is recognisable as the wife of an Australian painter, a favourite model of the sculptor’s: perhaps it is his awkward way of representing antiquity inspiring the present.

Another work (called Thought at some point in its life) shows a woman’s head emerging from an uncarved block, recognisable as one of the most interesting women in Rodin’s life, the sculptor Claudine Claudel, whose work, which resembles his, he tried generously to promote. Other small elements detached from the Gates are shown attaching themselves to, as if growing back into, the blocks they came out of. A couple of these in the exhibition acquire cosmic titles like Earth and Moon and Constellation but seem to have shrunk from their original dimensions.

 

DSC02095.jpgMore often Rodin enlarged small figures from the Gates to greater than life size and lopped off their heads and one or two of their arms, with the effect of making them more powerful and less specific, more like survivors from ancient civilisations or pioneers in the modern drive toward abstraction.

DSC02152.jpgIn the 1890s Rodin got more interested in and more able to afford antique fragments. Twenty examples from his much larger collection were included in the exhibition. Some of them would hardly get a second glance, except that we read his rapturous comments and try to see them with his eyes, as precious visitors from Phidias’ time, remembering also his endorsement of the child’s fresh vision.

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The exhibition also made one see the British Museum’s Parthenon fragments differently, first by mounting fully rounded figures below eye level and allowing nearer views and freer passage round them than we are used to. Strange to find or to remember that Ilissos the river god and two lounging deities are fully carved all the way round though they were originally mounted high overhead at the narrow ends of pediments.

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And curators have singled out especially fragmentary sections of frieze where it is exciting to imagine plunging or rearing movements continuing beyond the edges of the slice we are left with. Rodin had radical ideas about restoration and argued publicly that restoring the Parthenon would change something natural into an unnatural pastiche. His famous Walking Man was originally found in a garbled state in his studio and was further ruined when enlarged, by removing his head and arms. Now critics like Rilke find the deepest profundity in those absences. It is in any case a direction in which the sculptor increasingly moved. Hard to believe therefore in a last grandiose project of which Rilke gives the only report known to me, a great Tower of Labour (or Work?) with a spiraling relief representing human occupations, starting with miners at basement level.

One of the highlights of the exhibition was the treatment of the Burghers of Calais, brought indoors from their normal location on the Embankment. Apparently at Meudon Rodin always moved much of his work outdoors every spring, because that is where, following Greek practice, he thought sculpture belongs. The hill at Meudon was or became his Acropolis where he emulated his hero Phidias, surrounded by his own work mixed with his antiques.

Though brought indoors, the Burghers had the next best thing to changing daylight and natural air, standing next to a tall glass wall, conveniently lower than Rodin ended up displaying them, with ample room for circling round them. The grouping of the six over-life-size figures is one of the great triumphs of his career. They walk as you walk round them, changing their relations with the others, arriving and departing in endless combinations, all within a basically frieze-like format, like planets following their different trajectories, but pulled finally back into place by the gravitational force of the others.

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The result is more unruly and more dynamic than the processions in the Parthenon frieze, but the one has probably inspired the other, vertical elements in horizontal movement, each strongly characterised but all moving to the same tragic end in spite of the reprieve awaiting them, which we know about and they don’t.

 

 Rodin and the art of ancient Greece, by Celeste Farge, Bénédicte Garnier and Ian Jenkins, book of exhibition at the British Museum from 26 April to 29 July 2018, with exceptional photographs and stimulating text.

The New York Times and Trump’s first year

Another documentary, another boring subject! We’re only halfway through Trump’s second year and already we want a rehash of his first? That sounds like the quintessence of staleness—material well known, and too close to have been forgotten. On top of that nearness, the far-ness of dealing not with the primary subject himself, but a second hand view through the distancing filter of the media.

How did anyone know there’d be such a good story here? I suppose the campaign of 2016 gave warning of that. One characteristic of the Trump era is that things don’t hold still, but move at nerve-wracking speed. We have never seen anything like this before, and might thus imagine that Trump is setting the pace himself, like a reality show host manufacturing rivalries, creating bogies, throwing out childish nicknames.

But these four programmes show over and over again that ‘events’ do not sit there for the taking, clearly marked and distinct. Especially when the government is bent on keeping you from finding out, the task of recognising what will constitute a real event with important consequences often presents an intellectual challenge of a high order. The nature and significance of the famous meeting between Donald Trump Jr and Russian emissaries had to be pieced together out of scattered hints threatening to vanish under a flurry of lies.

Often stories don’t have single authors and contributions come from far afield. The cast of characters is vast and verges on confusing. These films disobey one of the basic rules for creating human interest: pick out one or two individuals and stick with them, making a person stand for an amorphous group. The filmmakers opt instead for breadth, jumping from reporter to reporter to convey the headlong plunge of this terrible period in the history of the country.

Participants in the films never allow themselves a melodramatic phrase like ‘this terrible period in the history of the country.’ They avoid heat and vehemence to a superhuman degree. Their devotion to finding out the truth is expressed in tellingly individual ways. In a quixotic quest for neutrality one reporter hasn’t voted in the last two presidential elections. A striking expression of their search for accuracy is the evolution of headlines for crucial articles, shown on screen as successive versions blotting each other out.

These are films about Trump in which he hardly appears. That seems a stroke of genius. We see him very briefly around the white supremacist episode in Charlottesville, once when he is saying there is fault ‘on both sides, on both sides,’ repeating the key claim as a fragment, drumming it in. The other clip is equally chilling, when he is blaming ‘the fake media’ for what happened at Charlottesville and sicks the crowd on reporters sitting at their desks behind flimsy barriers at the back of the hall. The scene turns nasty and the reporters pack up their gear and file out silently.

Americans will still be obsessively interested in these topics for a long time to come, however and whenever Trump’s direct influence on events ends. However it all finishes, the quiet persistence of the team of reporters and editors we meet in these films stands right now as a heroic example, inspiring hope for better days.

 

Reporting Trump’s First Year: The Fourth Estate, 4 hour-long episodes by Liz Garbus on BBC Storyville

Soutine and suffering

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Soutine is a neglected outlier in 20th century art, for reasons all too obvious. He constantly disturbs the calm and balance of his subjects, and does this so relentlessly that at first he seems wilful and arbitrary. Even in still lives the furniture teeters and threatens to fall, and if the vegetables don’t slide off the table, one wonders what keeps them in place. In Soutine there are no apples or pears, reliable geometrical solids, but gnarled peppers and ageing tomatoes which are losing their shape. The plates that hold them wobble, their edges indescribably vagrant.

Much worse is to come. Soutine delights in the corpses of small animals, small enough to fit on a table. There is something unseemly about bringing them into domestic settings, food perhaps, but not quite ready for the table, like the eviscerated rabbit in the Barnes collection whose posture reminds us of a human infant warding off a blow.

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Another still life at the Barnes contains Soutine’s most involuted reference to animal suffering at the table. This is one of his most deliberately awkward pictures and includes several nearly indecipherable objects—a stiff smoked herring propped against the wall or hanging from a rope and held in place by a long-handled wooden spoon (participant in many Soutine still lives), a lumpy, twisted turquoise form that might be a kind of pitcher judging by its top, which has a lip for pouring.

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But to interpret this strange form you really need to know another Soutine of a goose with a broken neck. Then it dawns on you that the turquoise monstrosity is shown upside down, with its pedestal in the air and its top dangling below, a duck’s head with open beak held onto its body by a thread, like the doubled-over goose’s head still attached to its body by its windpipe. The Barnes still life is a picture that gets grislier the more recognisable it becomes. Its most unrecognisable bit (just to the left of the upside down duck) is the misshapen form standing up in what looks like a bread basket. Is it a primitive carving of a dwarf figure, or a twisted ginger root, or a broken fragment of bread? Is there another Soutine somewhere that shows the same object from another angle and clears up the mystery? It’s only the duck that makes us think this might be the case. Or is the contorted figure a traveler in the basket-boat which is moving out of the picture?

Soutine’s magic springs from his visceral involvement in paint, deeper than almost anyone’s but largely missing from the Barnes still life, which was only able to help us (if it did) understand something about his attitudes toward his subjects. That is a kind of instruction, but the Soutine who wins allegiance revels in paint, and the rapture that this produces silences our misgivings at the idea (for instance) of an animal brought to the table with its fur intact in order to be attacked with forks, which hold it firmly in place.

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Colours change or coruscate unpredictably, a ceaseless pulsation of life, a nature morte that is defiantly alive. The table-top comes near to matching the shape of the picture space, only slipping downward to show that there is motion after all in the motionless subject. To describe every sensation of motion in the tablecloth would take a long time. The most surprising is the wave motion of the scalloped and re-scalloped edge, which flirts with the lifeless horizontal of the bottom of the canvas.

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His involvement in paint sweeps all before it in a picture like Two Pheasants on a Table, the ultimate topsy-turvy of dead objects, where anguish and pathos are submerged or concealed in giddy sensations of motion, of the spinning and teetering table, of the flailing limbs and speaking facial expressions of the birds. As often, the colours are inappropriately and almost unbearably beautiful, blue on their backs, red on their mouths, cream on the shroud and green and ochre on the wall behind. Blurring in the forms and surroundings seems to describe our unwillingness to look straight at what lies in front of us. In this whole series of images of  animals prone and animals hanging, strung up by their necks or their heels, Soutine diminishes his subject, the death (often in conditions like torture) of creatures, by choosing animals smaller than us and canvases smaller than those favoured by most of his contemporaries. This has an untoward effect, of slipping profound material past us before we realise what is happening.

Soutine once made what seems a crucial confession. He recounted an occasion in childhood (was he 8? or 10?) when he watched a butcher wring the neck of a goose. At the moment of death he had a powerful desire to scream, and at that moment the butcher looked at him and smiled, and the cry was stifled in his throat. Soutine said that all his paintings of dead animals and cuts of meat were attempts to release that strangled cry.

So in some sense many of the paintings are repetitions of a single experience. And of course much more than that, meditations on the universal facts of death and dissolution and the local experience of cruelty.

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b3 16a 20 DSC00717 copy 2.jpgMost harrowing of all the variations on these themes are a series of dangling victims strung up in the throes of death or its bedraggled aftermath. One of the chickens uncannily resembles a familiar form of ample female nude met in Hellenistic sculpture. This one also appears to crane eagerly upward via a grotesquely elongated neck, at odds with the tranquillity of the torso beneath.

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A whole series of grotesque possibilities are explored in this series. One loaded to excess with bitter ironies appears to dance, set off against a background in two shades of blue reminiscent of fabric patterns found in Cezanne and Matisse. Soutine delivers some of his sharpest shocks from within the world of painting. They are normally comforting colours but in this setting leave you with nowhere to turn, fooled by a background into letting down your guard in front of a horror, which combines an eighteenth-century minuet (in the crook of arm, wrist and ankle) with a bloody corpse (in the virulent colours of the body).

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Others are less grotesque and more surreal, like a scene from Frankenstein’s laboratory, where a stream of ghostly bubbles escapes from the tormented body caught perhaps in the final spasm of death. The feet are dematerialised, on the way to becoming fog or smoke, and eerily beautiful. Mysterious activity goes forward, the neck caught between a threatening and mesmeric piece of machinery and a black ruff of feathers left behind in  plucking the bird. It summons up Kafka’s Penal Colony, a world which writes obscure messages on its creatures. In other paintings victims are dangled head first–a rabbit stiff like the subject of a lynching, and another turkey spread eagled on an ornate chair until its head almost touches the floor. This unlikely moment gives rise to some of Soutine’s most exuberantly Baroque handling.

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Soutine first forced himself on my notice on a visit to one of the world’s great museums,  a day full of frustration.  I was turning away from Picasso’s Three Dancers which had disappointed me by its coldness and distance, by its excessive size for what it was trying to say, and I noticed a small picture facing the Picasso that wasn’t ashamed of its paint, letting it run wild across its modest surface. It was a landscape by Soutine, and I rushed toward it, captivated by its love of paint. Not that it was just a painting about paint, without any other discernable subject, but that its meaning couldn’t be separated from its material presence. It wasn’t mainly propounding an idea or proposition. It seemed nearer to living, breathing experience than the more conceptual work on every side and I was grateful to it for having appeared at just that moment.

‘Chaim Soutine: Flesh’, an exhibition of 30+ paintings at the Jewish Museum, 5th Avenue at 92nd Street, New York, until 16 September, including all but one of those illustrated here.

The Bhagwan

I met the Bhagwan first in London. Every night at midnight a small group dressed in red went down our street laughing maniacally. They seemed possessed, but conveyed at the same time that they knew what they were doing. They were followers of an Indian guru with their local headquarters in a nearby street. At the time I assumed they were just on their way home from a meeting; now I wonder if it wasn’t something more sinister.

Later I heard their leader, the Bhagwan Rajneesh, on the radio. He had a hypnotic voice and drew out the ends of words with a hiss like the snake in Disney’s Jungle Book. He was preaching freedom while casting a spell to which you might submit.

Now, thirty-three years after the Bhagwan’s most ambitious venture imploded in a remote American location, along come two complementary versions of the history of the cult and the debacle in Oregon. There’s a six part Netflix series called Wild Wild Country with a large cast of outlandish characters you might think it would take a novelist to invent. And there’s a soberer and more compact version from the Oregon Historical Society which talks to an almost entirely different set of locals and a more mainstream group of cultists.

The story begins in India with a successful ashram headed by an ex philosophy professor who attracts well heeled Westerners, who throw everything they have into the pot. We get a sanitised version of why they need to leave India. Later, large scale tax fraud is floated as the stimulus. Anyway, Oregon is selected as the destination, to which the Bhagwan absconds without telling his followers he is leaving. They have bought a huge ranch for which they have extensive plans and soon find themselves in conflict with the nearby town of Antelope, population 40. The Rajneeshis despise the locals, which they don’t trouble to conceal. They soon outnumber the natives and peace and love give way to oppression.

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The star of the Netflix series is not the Bhagwan but someone few viewers will have heard of, his deputy Ma Anand Sheela. She is physically attractive and alarmingly intelligent and energetic. As time goes on she reveals darker sides, more than one. The most wonderful feature of the series is the powerful suspense it creates about the characters and where their warring impulses will lead them next. Inevitably the most profound conundrums are posed by the cultists, but there are enigmas among townspeople and officials too.

Two of the most articulate cultists, a young Australian woman and an American lawyer, speaking in the present, keep us in perpetual doubt about whether or how much they ever got out from under the spell. However many explanations one comes up with for how so many intelligent people succumbed to the Bhagwan’s persuasions, it remains a puzzle without a solution, or at least without a remotely palatable one.

 

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How could the 1960s and the expansion of consciousness and greater openness to experience which they brought have spawned the essentially totalitarian attitudes of cults? ‘Extremes meet’ was Coleridge’s favourite proverb: freedom’s excesses are adjacent to slavery, it seems. The happy grins of the Bhagwanites call up in me a mixture of envy and mistrust, and share something with the calmer stares of lobotomised patients.

The Bhagwan himself remains an enigma to the last. His smile looks witless judged by the standards of the world. Even intelligent disciples find his enthusiasm for Rolls Royces a lovable trait, which they feel compelled to indulge. For me, it rules him out as a spiritual teacher. He was wise to keep quiet for most of the time in Oregon. When he unleashes his ire against the disloyal Sheela his unexpected coarseness is shocking. The morning after her departure he turns up fully informed of her crimes, hidden from him before. Now he judges her regime a fascist state and relaxes the main rules, like the red clothing and his own sanctity. Collapse is bound to follow: god has come out as an unbeliever.

 

Harry’s ‘Spider’ again

Just had the unlikely idea of mounting a new assault on Harry’s poem every morning, for a couple of reasons. Because I was defeated yesterday and fell into a patchwork of quotation and line by line description which if carried on would end up longer than the poem and make this very untedious work tedious.

Because, even more, I felt the poem would be spoiled if you said right out what it was about, like knowing the identity of the murderer too soon in a detective story. How to preserve the marvelous sensation of being at sea with a huge set of unfixed possibilities, without keeping too much uncertainty for most readers’ tastes? Maybe by the third or fourth assault you could say what you thought the poem was about – that The Spider was an account of a drug trip which lasted around four hours (as the poem told you near the end), though one of the strongest impressions it left you with was a rush of sensation with no gaps between. Above all else it was experience unrolling in front of you at natural speed, or as they say nowadays, ‘in real time’.

Someone must already have written that book On Difficulty which I have long wanted to write*, which would explain and justify the fascination with works of art like puzzles that hid themselves and needed disentangling, disentangling that you might or might not actually buckle down to. Sometimes, as with late Geoffrey Hill, you could almost count the number of specific allusions you weren’t penetrating, but still insisted on rushing past, not wanting to lose momentum and buoyed up by the amount you were not getting, because there wasn’t time or because the writer hadn’t bothered to name the subject of a whole section, because he knew there was a special pleasure in grasping a structure without knowing what it was the structure of.

The Spider isn’t obscure in the way The Waste Land is, an elaborate structure worked out, then deliberately buried, and waiting there for the reader to disinter. Harry’s poem isn’t premeditated to nearly that degree, isn’t nearly so gnomic. The Spider feels more accidental, at the mercy of chance thoughts and especially of associations stirred by the last thought that lead on to the next one.

Images follow each other in an unforeseen order, yet are at the same time the record of an experience, narrating an afternoon, in a place teeming with other presences, yet we’re sure there’s no one else there—it’s the teeming brain of the poet.

harry fainlight 2.jpgA future assault might tackle the relation of Harry’s sad life to the poem. Is it, as I sometimes think, not just the record of a freak episode located in a moment far back in time, but an accurate picture of his mental life in the present? Or, more exactly, a sketch of what his life had become under the spell of the ruinous drugs he had needed to travel to New York to subject himself to?

I hadn’t known Harry before the drugs, in those Sussex days when he was an outstanding cricketer, unimaginable by the time I knew him (only slightly, just barely). By then he made such a strong impression of a delicate mechanism which, though ruined now beyond a doubt, was still capable of striking insights. One day he looked at our cat-flap with its rounded corners and decided it was where the TV had gained entry to the house.

I take this observation as a loose fragment of an unwritten poem, the kind of thing that The Spider strings together in almost unmanageable density. Maybe the trouble with the poem is that it is too pure, too undigested, and that its transformations happen with a speed impossible for ordinary consciousness to keep up with. It sounds wonderful that sentences should change their subjects and objects their shapes from one word to the next, continually. But maybe there is just too much going on in this poem. And maybe this is part of what went wrong for Harry, that his idea of poetry and of himself as a poet demanded that every moment take place at peak intensity, leading to an exhaustion that was truly permanent.

 

*George Steiner published an essay On Difficulty in 1978, which traces a line of modernist obscurity through Michelangelo, Góngora and Wallace Stevens (Mallarmé a constant presence throughout), to end in Heidegger and Paul Celan.

‘The Spider’, or the case for incoherence

Harry Fainlight’s The Spider is a poem in the way that Willem de Kooning’s paintings of the late 1940s are pictures. It starts in a room, with a speaker looking at the thread of a spider’s web hanging from the ceiling. But then all hell breaks loose, and the dangling thread (without an actual spider anywhere to be seen) spawns a whole host of monsters, beginning with an ominous quotation about what happens when spiders are fed a certain drug–is it the one the speaker has just taken? This sentence doesn’t hold still but rewrites itself twice as nonsense, nonsense full of smirking lewdness (Monsters 2 & 3).

Then the radiator throbs as if with a huge entrapped insect trying to get out, which reminds the speaker of the giant spider which his tape recorder became ‘last time’ when his voice shook a shadow on the ceiling like a fly caught in its web. His stomach throbs now and he longs in capital letters to vomit up a spider. He would feel better afterward and stagger weakly back up onto his legs and walk away, and so would the spider, in the very same phrases.

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The poem is like one of de Kooning’s paintings in the way it is fragmentary, suggesting much and completing little. References tumble over each other and collide. Something like frenzy is the dominant mode. Certain forms in the painting are almost recognisable, borrowings from cartoons or other low sources, like the spotted dog sitting bolt upright in the lower left corner. The poem’s equivalent is elusive traces of familiar clichés. Which of the two is harder to pin down or be sure that one has comprehended? Could it be that the greatest feat of both poem and painting is to resist analysis and elude the reader or the looker in some deep and final way? De Kooning has an advantage here. His forms are inevitably more incomplete and more obscured by smudges and interference from nearby bodies than anything made of recognisable words can ever be. On the other side, the painting has the comprehensibility of being there all at once and thus not reliant on our keeping hold of parts which have already disappeared.

Harry and the spider are indistinguishable or not easily disentangled. He has an ulcer which is the centre of a web and wants to speak, vomit, be unraveled. The ulcer has twists like ‘this writing–the sick clutches of my signature… all its wrinkles of old age and tiredness that make a kind of brain—for what is a brain but certain muscles contorted into the stratagems of their tiredness. AN ULCER IS THE BRAIN OF COMMERCE.’

I have now got myself completely tangled in the web of the poem. I thought I could pick out a few of the threads and give a sharper sense of its movement than by external commentary. One of its most wonderful features is its lack of continuity, which also makes it hard to keep up with or describe. Its own phrases or its most insubstantial events seem to influence or determine what will happen next.

The ulcer has layers or ‘twists’, like the writing so far. Writing calls up handwriting, and your signature which is a form of you, which looks old because it is twisted or ‘wrinkled’ and not unlike the brain in layout, the brain now seen as the most contorted and inflexible of bodily tissue. This line of thought ends in a dreary capitalized aphorism, which almost swallows the speaker, who is saved by a series of lips breaking out on his hands, which might be able among them (as pronouncers of words) to think up a name for what is happening, which would help the speaker keep the first stab of pain to the scale of ‘a tiepin or the chirp of a bird outside, and not, or not yet the birth pang of this monster inside me kicking to get out’.

Giving birth is an overarching figure in the poem, seen most often as a hideous eruption, but the speaker can also imagine being born as an adorable young female spider or returning home as ‘a fat successful old spider.’ Contented visions are liable to turn sour, though, and sinking back into the ‘concentric pleasure of being a spider’ doesn’t last.

The Spider ends where it began, with the light bulb on the ceiling, which looks at him ‘like some Deva’s asshole—its rays just aching to be spread—to be opened out into some huge, gruesome Vision of the Universe, which common decency rightly forbids.’ It is typical of the piece that the most comprehensively gloomy statement picks itself up and relishes a final flippant flash of wit.

Now when it is too late I wish that instead of falling in too easily with the ragged style of the poem (much more exhilarating in the poem, which is in reality not anything so orderly as a poem), I had got serious about showing how thoroughly The Spider breaks down the continuity of the web and keeps the reader continually off balance with a series of devices I have left uncharted.

 

I’ve read this poem in a samizdat copy, so I am unsure about line divisions. I would like to include the entire text in the blog but have no permission to do this. I will try again tomorrow…

 Willem de Kooning. Asheville, 1948, Phillips Collection, Washington

Jacob Lawrence’s Haitian Revolution

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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.

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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.

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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…