The epidemic has changed my ideas about a lot of things including food, money and London. Before Covid we had our own plague of books, which were driving us out of the house, so we built the book-hut to relieve the pressure, which mysteriously increased at just the moment when I gave up my last book project. Without a commanding tyrant of a subject my interests could irresponsibly fragment and seemed to replace one another at the rate of one a week, or even a new one on most days, each of which brought with it an exhibition catalogue and a supplementary volume or two. I looked on in horror and knew at the same time that this was a way of asserting I wasn’t finished, that there was life in the old root stock yet, as seen from this unpredictable new growth.
It is a sobering thought that the process was well underway before Covid, though it is not easy to illustrate this in detail. A lot of these important new topics existed only in lunchtime conversations now forgotten.
I want to rush ahead now to the current form of weedy growth – I made a strange purchase the other day, I ordered a book, immensely long, defined in fact by the way it had lost control of scale, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s concluding volume of his interminable family saga called Min Kamp in its native Norwegian. This part of it alone was 1150 pages long and I didn’t intend to read it. I had been captivated by a Canadian friend’s description of picking out a shortish digression within it and skipping over the novelistic wrapping that surrounded it. The subject of this digression was the early life of Hitler, which provided the occasion for a comprehensive treatment of the poetry of Paul Celan, which my friend described as brilliant. I love the idea of Hitler as the excuse for devoting oneself to Celan and, best of all, the absurd concealment of this discussion near the end of a 6000 page novel. You wouldn’t understand why this piece of information seemed so magical if you didn’t know that for several weeks I have been obsessed by Celan’s poetry in two beautiful new volumes that add up to about the same number of pages as the last volume of My Struggle.
I don’t really read or speak German, but after reading a review of the new translations I decided these poems were a puzzle I had to crack. When I ordered them I had no idea what my method would be. But once I got the books, I saw what I must do. In a sense they were only half as long as they looked, a truth already signalled by the book’s designer. Half the pages were taken up by the German texts and the facing half by translations, and only the German pages were numbered.
I couldn’t let all the German pages go to waste, so I bravely set out on the originals, ignoring the translations until the German had well sunk in. Certain words had crucial prominence, mostly nouns with capital letters, which even I could see were compounds made of two separate components. I had met Celan’s special use of such compounds already in the titles of his various collections. From the early 1950s onward he named his books of poems with one of these linguistic hybrids borrowed from one of the poems inside it.
For some reason one of these invented words took a special hold on me — Atemwende, breath-turning, breath-wandering — the name of one of the largest sub-sets, eighty poems written in 1963 to 1965 and collected in 1967. The word was a poem in itself, an unlikelihood that became more comfortable with pondering, without losing its strangeness. It was a beautiful name for poetry itself, a journey, physical but hard to hold in place, twisting like a wilful creature.
It didn’t bother me at first that I wasn’t understanding much of what took place in these poems. The compounds were often so surprising, so uncomfortably joined, more inharmonious than soothing, like the acts of someone not at peace with thinking. But I felt I was gaining admission to a new world of thought in which the speaker was starting over with the bare bones of language that refused to align themselves in the too-familiar forms of an exhausted medium. A poet who felt the need of new words, or of objects which weren’t exactly words, though made from remnants of words, that he wanted to re-cast.
Only very occasionally did Celan’s poems form themselves up into wholes for me. More often they remain amazing moments surrounded by more pedestrian passings-through that I couldn’t relate to. A great part of this was down to my insufficiency in German. I didn’t always know which phrases were common locutions and which were strange inventions and distortions. For now and for as far ahead as I could see, I had to let such things go.
How could I ever replicate here my instant recognition in English of when a poet strayed outside the bounds, or was outrageous in what he asked the words to do? How could I duplicate my enjoyment of all the oddities of Shakespeare’s choices, a writer whom someone memorably described as having uncanny recall of all the ways the words had ever been used before? But what I was getting in ‘reading’ Celan was enough, and something I hadn’t met anywhere else.
My friend remembered the sequence in Knausgaard wrongly, from a reading of who knows how long ago? Knausgaard’s interpretations of Celan don’t arise from his reconstruction of Hitler’s youth but the other way around. Celan’s poems lead onto Hitler, a crucial difference. It isn’t that Knausgaard gets their merits as writers wrong – he doesn’t – but that his real object is understanding Hitler, and Celan is incidental to that.
There is something compelling in Knausgaard’s interpretation of books and also of paintings. He is wonderfully focussed on particulars. With long novels he starts with a single sentence which he uses to represent the whole, the opening of Broch’s Death of Vergil for instance, which Knausgaard judges one of the greatest sentences of modern lit, or the opening of Olav Duun’s People of Juvik, a six volume saga which Knausgaard charmingly reveres, perhaps one of a more extensive crowd of Scandinavian monster-novels than I am aware, to which Knausgaard’s own contribution is greatly scaled down in literal scope and scaled up in gross extent.
So instead of the embracing treatment of Celan’s poems my friend remembered, Knausgaard singles out just two poems, one from early, the other from late, and describes both as Holocaust poems, Death Fugue and Engführung (a title obscurely rendered Stretto by my translator Pierre Joris). To say a poem of Celan’s is about this or that is usually a doubtful assertion in my view. Celan himself called Stretto the ‘atom poem’, referencing the debate about arming the Bundeswehr with atomic weapons in 1957-8 when he wrote it, but a subject which never crossed my mind when I read it, and honestly still hasn’t, though I couldn’t now write about it without mentioning that strange possibility. Luckily Celan isn’t a writer ceaselessly referring to the Holocaust by name. In fact it is Knausgaard’s central insight that this poet often leaves out the names of his subjects in every sense of the word. One of the most haunting moments in this vein comes in Stretto –
The place where they lay, it has
a name – it has
none. They didn’t lie there.
The delivery of my copy of Knausgaard’s final volume, The End as it is called in English, was accompanied by melodrama, delivered to our door by a young woman with two small children. Its large cardboard box had had a large hole punched in it by someone unused to Amazon packaging. Apparently they had seen enough to know it wasn’t for them, two immense copies of The End and, under them, two copies of the more esoteric Bachmann-Celan Correspondence. Now my argument with Amazon the day before made more sense. The books had been ‘handed to resident’ after all, but not the right resident, and not at the address on the label.
Two copies of the unwanted book – a deserved come-uppance – if I could throw away ten pounds, why not twenty? The smashed package had to endure its traditional quarantine anyway, so I couldn’t find out just yet that the digression on Hitler filled four hundred pages. It wasn’t long before I was wishing for a really detailed outline of this novel that would shorten my task. Later, using Amazon’s ‘Look Inside!’ or Google Books’ ‘search’ (I forget which) as a kind of index to the novel, I chase Knausgaard to page 973 where I find him referring to his 400 page ‘essay’ on Hitler and discussing it with an audience before he’d even finished it.
My own clever dodge hadn’t really worked. The short thing concealed in a longer one had turned out to be a long one itself, inside an inconceivably vaster container, in which the nugget’s separateness was lost in the great sea of print.
What a moment to be broadcasting the USA as ‘the greatest country the world has ever known’, just one of a stream of boastful claims collected in a news story called The Last Days of Pompeo. Maybe there is a weird modesty in spreading this greatness over a long period, not just the last four years, in which Trump has been MAGA, Making America Great Again, mainly by repeating this ugly made-up word and claiming so emphatically he was doing it, that millions of his people believe it, and are already prophesying that they will go to their graves thinking it, simultaneously insisting that it has been stolen from them.
It seems that the greatest president the world has ever known has driven them to an intensified sense of deprivation, not the expected satisfied fulfilment. It is turning out that his final monument will be the biggest ever Lost Election, a void more compelling and lasting than any of his earlier ‘achievements’.
Which brings me to an alternative version of American Greatness or – more modestly – Struggle, a series of small images which set out to tell the whole history from Columbus to the First World War and then drew back to cover only the country’s first sixty years, from the 1770s to the war of 1812 and its aftermath.
The teller of this tale is Jacob Lawrence, the best known African American artist of another tormented era like our own, when the country wrestled with threats or fantasies of Communist subversion orchestrated by a persuasive demagogue, Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the violent/non-violent struggle of the early Civil Rights movement, offspring of the unfinished Civil War, the central subject of Lawrence’s narrative, though it never appears there directly, an event or battle that keeps rearing its head in our present as a beast who remains shockingly un-dead.
Before and after the Struggle series Lawrence was a devotee of pictorial narrative. Struggle is the most interesting and problematic of the ten series he eventually produced, partly by its tortuous circumstantial history, partly by its tricky subject matter. It began as the story of the Negro presence in the U.S. (the terminology, no longer acceptable, of the late 40s, early 50s when it was conceived), was expanded to include the history of all Americans, shrank again to end before the Civil War in large part because the first thirty images Lawrence produced did not sell. Is it fanciful to think that the series offers a more interesting challenge in its truncated form, where tensions seethe beneath the surface, seldom emerging in full view?
The American Struggle is Lawrence’s most interesting work because the influence of Cubism and Eisenstein’s montage, a filmic analogue to some of the distortions of Cubism, is both more glaring and more thoroughly digested than in his later work, so that radical formal experiment and urgent political material appear together, fused.
Lawrence spent a summer at Yaddo in 1954 when deep in planning, executing and naming the Struggle scenes. Here he became friends with Jay Leyda, a pupil of Eisenstein’s who had just finished his remarkable Melville Log, conceived as a birthday present for the Russian film-maker. This two-volume work was a piece of extreme formal experiment, a biography in the form of a collage, a collection of short bursts of vivid voices from Melville’s time, impinging in detail, cacophonous overall, requiring active untangling to make a comprehensible whole.
Leyda encouraged Lawrence in his preference for primary research in the Harlem branch library which had a notable collection of Black history material. They collaborated in finding titles for Lawrence’s scenes that were fragments of longer texts, of which the titles gave a flavour, suggesting that each subject had a literary existence in parallel with its visual self.
Like the Melville Log, Lawrence’s American Struggle would be a work actively materialised from fragments by the viewer. Like early Cubist constructions, the Struggle scenes sometimes don’t make complete sense initially. Looking at them is almost a muscular form of study, taking them apart in order to understand how they go together.
Many of the scenes seem increasingly violent the better you know them. But there may be a simpler explanation. The first time I looked through the images after the riots at the Capitol in Washington on 6 January 2021, I saw them as nothing but clashing blades and forests of weaponry. Maybe this only means that that element is there if you are susceptible to finding it, or in a state given to imagining conflict everywhere.
In the fifth image in the series, the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, one of the most traditional subjects, blades are legion. Sometimes they are knives, but they can just as well be shafts and glimmers of light, bits of the horse’s bridle, cactus-like leaves of low-growing plants, even (forms I can’t find other ways of interpreting) a walrus’s tusks.
However long you look, however successfully you dissect the composite forms, they still revert to their strong clumping after your back is turned, like the triangular mass of figures wailing and defending themselves upper left in scene 2 (Boston Massacre), who resemble the damned in representations of Hell, or the cyclonic funnel rushing down to the left in scene 4 (Paul Revere’s Ride). The clumping is not really intelligible but it is undeniably there, a force overriding whatever we might think.
The next scene is the first vertical design in the series (see opening image), the most complete congestion or the most complex construction and the most obscure subject, A Petition by a slave named Felix which doesn’t look like the delivery of a piece of paper, as the first scene of all (Patrick Henry’s famous speech, which sparked the rebellion) doesn’t look like an event in a legislative hall, but among the damned in Hell (again), or Moses in Egypt (‘Let my people go’) . The room is on fire, the wall is bleeding, the audience is beside itself and making threatening gestures in every direction. The influence of Cubism is strong but obscure, more like a mask or veil for deep feeling than a means of direct expression. Raised fists are everywhere, but detached from their owners, just a bunched motif (see second image above).
The familiar scenes, known by schoolchildren, are few and far between and invariably unrecognisable in Lawrence’s versions. Like, above all, Washington Crossing the Delaware, a man in a fancy uniform standing up in a boat nearing the shore, of which my copy was so successful I was told to enlarge it in coloured chalk so that all the other children could enjoy it.
Did this really happen? In a literal sense, certainly not. It was a furtive achievement carried out at night, not a natural subject for paintings, unless like Lawrence you formed the drama out of the choppy water tossing the tippy boats, a thoroughly decentred scene, cut to pieces by the pervasive movement of warring oars and rifles, while any heroes kept themselves hidden.
The next great set piece, The Constitutional Convention, is usually shown as a crowd of little, stumpy figures congratulating themselves when the arguing is over. Lawrence concentrates on gear the delegates have taken off, their hats and coats, now a columned wall of shadows behind them, with their three-cornered hats as capitals. At the base, a spaghetti of discarded swords whose crinkled handles stand out. In the leftover slot across the middle of the scene two leaders in front are lying down like fallen heroes displayed in their coffins. Dense masses of delegates peep over them as over parapets. The leaders and two others languidly raise their arms to represent an exhausted vote. Drops of sweat stand out in everyone’s hair, replacing the displays of blood in the fighting. Is this the heroic tedium of democratic procedures, have swords been trampled into useful legislation, and could we claim we’ve converted barbarism to safety?
Another sword had lurched forth a little earlier, signifying another ambiguous end to conflict. It represents a cinematic close-up of the British commander Cornwallis admitting and denying defeat at once, signing the capitulation but refusing to give up his sword or attend the final ceremony. He cannot deny the loss but hangs onto the main symbol of aggression and absents himself at the last moment, cancelling his own reality and leaving a legal vacuum. Scene 13 Yorktown expresses the surreality of this attempt to deny full closure. The hallucinatory wall of twenty-two cannonballs corresponds to the days of the American siege, and above them the open hand of the law meets the closed fist of hollow defiance.
Lawrence is notably alert to cross currents in the story. Perhaps the only element more tortuous than the Black role in American life is that of Native Americans, one of the most ambiguous threads running through Lawrence’s narrative, never straightforward, ever more unnerving than we guess to begin with. Native Americans first appear as a convenient disguise for rebellious colonists dressed up as Indians to licence wild behaviour in the Boston Tea Party, a conceit adopted two hundred years later by radical right-wingers to push a corporatist agenda popular only in the most twisted sense: government itself is the enemy.
Lawrence’s Boston Tea Party is a kind of chaos, rebels and guards locked in a pinwheel in which it is impossible to pin down the participants. Forces of the law are reduced to enormous forearms which grab hold of Indians’ mask-like faces. We side with the Indians of course, their opponents don’t even have faces, but neither do the ‘Indians’, yet their painted-on masks and decoy-feathers seem more human and authentic than their opponents’ entire absence of characteristics. To all the scenes where they occur, the Indians bring colour and the jitter of movement. They embody sensory richness and the poignancy of choosing the wrong side – towards the end the great Indian orator Tecumseh repays the deception of treaty-breaking colonists by joining the British in the War of 1812. Another tangle like the Tea Party, seen from the other side. The powerful ox-blood-coloured skin of the Indians is set against the jangly baby-blue and white uniforms of the Americans. Now who was more authentically the keeper of the land?
Among the most poignant later scenes are a few from which human populations are missing, above all the scene called Nez Perce after the native trail across the northern limits of the country, which records another vanished population, the plentiful wild life that the various processes of human civilisation, both the fur trade and agriculture, will eventually crowd out.
This composition is dominated by a misshapen crown of thorns made of the antler racks of two different species of elk strung up against an icy Arctic background. The result is a scene both war-like and tranquil. It is hard to believe at first that all the linear excitement belongs to the two animals and not to a larger force or idea.
The main lines of American expansion over seemingly endless expanses are buried here and there in Lawrence’s narrative, in Jefferson’s humanist project of exploration, concealing a strong appetite for dominance in a manipulative tolerance of natives that is crystallised in a telling instance. An Indian woman given a job as an interpreter is thrown into contact with a long-lost brother now a chief with whom she is expected to negotiate, a rapturous reunion overshadowed by the white man’s bureaucracy.
Lawrence shows old totems intact but it seems more likely one or both of the natives has been corrupted into different mindsets by contact with white men. Maybe the strongest hint that all is not well are the primitive rigidities of all the figures here, native brother and sister, and the white technicians, momentarily on the fringes of the group.
The final scene with a missing population occurs when the series ends abruptly in a token image of the drive to settle the whole width of the continent. This takes the relatively harmless and unbelligerent form of two covered wagons, two oxen and no settlers, unless big blood drippings on one of the wagons stand for the settlers’ ordeal. Migration in various guises is the great subject of this phase of the nation’s growth, and Andrew Jackson, Trump’s favourite president, is the presiding genius of this section of Lawrence’s narrative. He only ‘appears’ once in the Struggle series, quoted but not shown, as the victor in the Battle of New Orleans, a decisive triumph at the end of the War of 1812. Technically the battle occurred after the Treaty of Ghent ending the war had been signed. In the time it took news that the war was over to arrive from Europe, the glorious triumph occurred, and Jackson’s reputation was made.
The scene representing the battle is the most inert in the series. Both sides are lifeless and exhausted, the Americans inside their fort at the top, the British lying crumpled beneath its wall at the bottom. Nonetheless, the pointless victory helped propel Jackson to the White House and the place most Americans know him from, the front of a twenty dollar bill.
Jackson’s greatest later claim to fame begins to seem less magnificent. It starts with ignoring a Supreme Court decision that treaties awarding territories in the southeastern United States to Native Americans are valid and must be honoured, and continues with masterminding the forced removal of 70,000 native Cherokees, Creeks, Seminoles, Chickasaws and Chocktaws from Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida to Oklahoma. Conditions in the seasons chosen for the move were harsh and unhealthy. Imported European diseases, especially cholera, rampaged among the migrants. Matching or paralleling the movement of willing European migrants westward is the reverse migration of the uprooted tribes, deported against their will from land they knew and belonged in to another they didn’t recognise. It’s a less up-lifting tale than the usual epic of continued westward expansion, but the Trail of Tears, with many thousands of deaths on the journey and after, needs telling too.
Thomas Jefferson, rightly revered for many reasons, played a limited but crucial role in stripping Native Americans of lands and rights. In 2020 there were cries in some quarters for tearing down the Jefferson Memorial in the centre of Washington, mainly I think for his role as a slave owner and an abuser of one of his female slaves in particular.
As a child I thought the Jefferson Memorial was one of the perfect things of the world. As an adult I came to like it and other works of its architect John Russell Pope (like the National Gallery of Art on the other side of the Mall) less unconditionally, for their sleek, almost moderne classicism, just one of the entertaining riffs later designers have played on Roman themes.
At the time of these demolition proposals it seemed to me that instead of tearing the Memorial down you could incorporate a memorial to Harriet Tubman in or beside or near the present one to Jefferson. This seemed a better idea than just substituting a Tubman Memorial. Of course their lives didn’t overlap, but Tubman took brave steps to realise some of Jefferson’s ideals more practically than he ever found a way to do, so they belong together in a real sense, and there are sculptors/architects/artists who could express this continuity which would make his Memorial more meaningful than it is for some at the moment. The new elements needn’t impinge grotesquely on the old, but they might.
Andrew Jackson was also due to encounter Harriet Tubman, but then Trump was elected and the meeting was cancelled or kicked into the long grass. Jackson was set to be replaced on the twenty-dollar bill by Tubman, when Trump’s Secretary of the Treasury put it off until 2028 ‘for technical reasons’. Now might be a good time to resurrect this idea and put a woman, a black woman and a former slave on American money at last.
I’ve just seen a wonderful film about a hunter in East Greenland. We meet no one but him. His daughters are there at the beginning, but we don’t meet them and they don’t look up from their smart phones.
This hunter doesn’t live in an igloo but a multi-storey construction of wood and cinder block, seen in passing as we root around for the sledge and its tackle among clothes lines in the semi-darkness of night or endless day. I think we glimpse two large salted fish hanging upside down, but can’t be sure.
He has told us about padded trousers he puts on to go hunting but he still seems underdressed, without any kind of coat. There are also no dogs, though I saw a pile of harnesses as he began pushing the long skinny sled laboriously up an incline. The village is rectilinear with wide spaces between its parallel streets. When the sky is lightening and we are well clear of the settlement, we see the first sign of dogs, a city of them, sleeping in the snow, strung loosely on lines like streets.
They make a complicated noise in a language we don’t speak. Hooking them up requires a big coil of pale turquoise-green nylon rope (possibly not nylon, remembering a terrible story of nylon springing back with near-fatal results when stretched). Once hitched to the sled, they aren’t tied in tight formation but loosely, and wander as they go (‘I wonder as I wander’ flits through my head). Soon it is full day and there are strange bird cries and aerial views of the dogs who never get tangled and form fascinating irregular patterns on the snow. Later in the day we see the hunter’s shadow reaching fifty times his height. Much later we notice from the movement of his lips that the hunter makes all the bird-cries himself.
We aren’t told where we are going, but it feels very far from home, through trackless wastes of snow and dark rock. When harnessing the dogs, Julius (the hunter, not that he ever has a name in his own narration, nor is there ever a word in any language but his) says dogs are intelligent but snow-mobiles are dumb. Dogs can warn of dangers, thin ice the greatest, which you intuit from their groupings, bunched or spread more thinly. At the time the beautiful views of the dogs’ movements seen from above didn’t make me think of helicopters, whose awful din and tell-tale shadows have been suppressed if present. They only burst into my mind when I heard a friend’s horrified response to the film, trampling he called it, a sign of our terrible intrusion into the remotest wildness. I wondered whether drones might have done the job, even more sinister, if quieter, some would say.
At first this friend’s response made me guilty and irritable. Wasn’t the filmmaker’s tact something special, no flashy successes for the hunter or the spies (us), no seal-kill, no polar bears, just the anecdote of the day the hunter’s brother never came back. It had not crossed my mind to think how much The Last Igloo cost, which is to say how many support staff, how much preparation, how many shoots, how many journeys. My friend is a film-maker as well as a guardian of the earth, whom I rightly admire, and he knows about these ramifications that films always conceal and want you to forget. When I think about it I am grateful to him for making me think further than I had about how this structure, meaning this film, fits in the universe, in the history of the human presence on the earth and in the sequence of works of art aiming at the kind of authenticity it aims at.
The best parts are yet to come, the stringing of the seal-net under the ice, using three holes to throw your spear under water with the net attached from each point to the next until it is secured on the surface at all three. This procedure is carried out in such detail that you could repeat it. From a distance it seems like magic. After the explanation, ingenuity and skill and less of the supernatural. This is also the single point at which a cultural comparison sprang to mind, a Hemingway fishing story from In Our Time. Like the father in the story, the Greenlander combines in his technique both the uncanny and the everyday.
A mystery accompanies every stage of the journey – the village, the seal-trap, the catfish well, the house-building. Every time, the dogs have entirely disappeared from the scene of the action. We are told they are ‘family’, one of the few sentimental touches in the film, sentimental because it is clearly not true. They are not treated with pet-style friendliness or indulgence. I don’t think they have individual names or personalities like the favourite dogs in Jack London. They are kept away from the hunt itself and we can only guess why.
I have puzzled over what to do with the film’s culmination which I want to keep hidden, as the film does, only springing it at the last minute, but need to emphasise, because it includes the essential point of the whole. The Last Igloo ends with the construction of an igloo, formerly the shape that Greenlanders’ dwellings took, in the days when they were nomadic, a stage still strong in memory and recaptured in part any time a hunter goes on a hunt. This is a guess, of course. The film doesn’t say this, but allows a strong feeling to arise that Julius feels he re-enacts his people’s history whenever he goes out alone to hunt.
Now igloos in Greenland are not family dwellings but temporary shelters in special conditions – when threatened by an unforeseen storm which you might not survive unprotected, or when you have ended up too far from home to get back before nightfall.
The film’s most satisfying ingenuity lies in making us feel, at least for a moment, that this has actually happened, that a storm has sprung up or is clearly brewing in signs a native would recognise, so there is just enough time to create cover before it breaks. Or – this alternative succeeds the other one – that we are too far from home to get back at a reasonable time and must resign ourselves to spending the night where we are. In the first period we are still scanning the sky for signs of violent weather on the way. In the second we are hoping the hunter has left enough time to build his tent before dark.
He has already told us that in good conditions he can construct an igloo in an hour, but this is hard to believe. He starts by looking for the right kind of hard snow, cured by wind sweeping over it. Then he makes flat blocks of the snow like plates or crispbread which don’t look strong but easily broken. Next he ties a rope to a shovel, a move that doesn’t make sense at first. He ties the rope to a post, around which he walks at a constant distance. Then he tramples the snow in the resulting circle to make a trench in which he sets thicker blocks upright, trimming off lots of snow from all sides, provoking anxiety that they are dwindling. Successive rows slope increasingly. He has the geometry down to a T and cuts off triangular sections from each new block to fit it onto the one before. Finally he throws loose snow against the inner wall then packs this layer down and a matching one outside.
There are many moments when the building blends completely with its surroundings. You have stepped back — that is the secret of this invisibility — and the igloo has disappeared. The light changes continually without your seeing it. The snow is blue when viewed from inside, as the last two pieces are dropped in, rough half-circles, to close the dome.
He has brought two candles and a cooking burner which blazes away against the side wall, as if we are daring it to melt the snow, which it has turned to ice and toughened in a mysterious way. Further applications of snow will make it even stronger.
Lit up from inside, the invisible igloo is a glowing jewel visible from far away. We abscond into the sky, leaving the igloo far below like a planet in a black sea. It is the last moment before that culture disappears. But this is not absolutely the last igloo; Julius will build others. It was a brilliant simulacrum, not a real or necessary building, for he wasn’t really trapped by time or weather, but brought us very close to thinking so. I don’t entirely enjoy remembering how much concealed trampling is required to bring about such raptures of loneliness in a world magically emptied of the human presence. Yet I can’t unwish the film and cling to the memory of one place in the world, inside an igloo, where melting leads to strengthening.
The Last Igloo (2019, 89 min) is available on BBC iPlayer for 21 days from the date of this posting. A drone supervisor is mentioned in the credits, Julius does wear a coat outdoors most of the time and there are other small errors of recall (the shovel is itself the post for plotting the igloo’s circle, for instance), errors common in plot summarieswhen reviewers have seen their films only once.
Vivian Maier is a street photographer who died completely unknown in 2009. She left behind an astonishing body of work. Estimates of how many images it contains are still vague. There may be as many as 150,000, most of them undeveloped when they came to light.
She was a hoarder, who spent much of her adult life working as a nanny and living in single rooms in other people’s houses, which she insisted should have secure locking arrangements and were found, on the rare occasions when anyone else gained entry, to be full of chest-high piles of newspapers, leaving paths between them for reaching bed, wardrobe, windows.
There is a riveting 84-minute film Finding Vivian Maier made by John Maloof, who stumbled across a few boxes of the pictures in a Chicago auction house when working on a local history topic about his neighbourhood and bid on a large box of negatives. He thought the photos might be useful for illustrating his research. They turned out not to be.
Maier was still alive at this point, as Maloof didn’t know. He put the pictures aside and forgot them. His interest was awakened again in 2010 and he began collecting further images and other remains, including audio-tapes of interviews with subjects of the pictures. Maloof’s wonderful short film is available at the moment on MUBI and tells the story as a kind of whodunnit, looking for all the people who knew Maier – her employers, her relatives in France, one of her friends (not a numerous class) and a sociologist who met her, I forget how. The film shrewdly delays telling the most startling and disturbing things about its subject till towards the end.
So this isn’t a subject where I have any deep familiarity. I’ve only been looking at the photographs for about two weeks. Of the hundred and fifty thousand, I have seen at most 200. I haven’t had time to understand this category ‘street photographer’, a fascinating one but new to me. So at last I have the type of subject I have been dreaming of, where I am truly in the dark. I think my method will be to put together a larger set of images than usual and let them speak for themselves, except for a few comments about why I find them interesting. Inevitably I am drawn to certain images and certain themes, and not others.
Pictures of people asleep are among my favourite Maiers. The display of magazines and newspapers makes a cosy room or a dragon’s cave, an over-communicative construction, turned inside out, and balanced between neatness and disorder.
Another homemade construction concealing a building site. It’s a subversive architectural moment, in which buildings are forced to reveal their backsides. The single overbearing car, oblivious strider and lamp post are a typically queasy, surreal group.
More sleepers, more obverse and reverse of a repeated motif. I love the grittiness of this and the perversity of the geometrical consistency imposed by the bench and the fence (and its shadow). A highly structured space, yet anything but. The subject does not end at the side-edges.
This priest-like ten-year-old is surrounded by fragments of architectural pretension. Is it waste ground or a graveyard? A metal stairway to where? The first of many impenetrable enigmas.
A father and two children walking away from us. A low wall dividing us from a ravine. A puddle creating a double Rorschach – a black snowflake in the centre of the picture that counteracts their forward motion, or rather multiplies the directions in which things move.
First self-portrait, first instance where we see the image being produced right this minute by her hand, in the painting which she has made of the portrait, as if the part she is responsible for can be isolated in the centre. The doll on the counter a weird touch, the light from the side another ghost.
A complex trick. It looks as of these figures are hanging from a ceiling which is below the floor in a no-space.
Another nap, or an accident? The house peering into the car window an uncanny touch.
Another nap, another far-away element lined up with the sleeper, an Oldsmobile across the street. All these sleepers – are they pictures of the unconscious?
Another self-portrait with an attendant looking at something else. The shops behind her are behind us, though in front. Mirrors are baffling, however long you’ve had to get used to them. Strange that the brushed metal makes their lower parts look as if we’re seeing them through a gauze curtain.
Looking down into another room below the floor. Something wonderful about the head-on view.
More mirror tricks, though I still want to think I’m seeing him through a glass door, his legs chopped off by it, but there on the other side. The label on the ‘door’, around which you see the sky, has less force if it’s stuck on a mirror. The two flaps on either side of the central scene are like wings on an altarpiece. The tiny corridor running on forever on the left is an insoluble mystery. The building with fire escapes on the right fits perfectly until you look closely, then it doesn’t: light and shadow are in the wrong places.
Someone else building his private cave.
Emerging from the subway, a group of escaping captives.
One of the most incomprehensible, presumably made more confusing by how it is cropped. Is there glass any more in this large opening? The man’s foot seems to puncture it. If not, how explain the reflections of two cars in the tarp? Is the man, consisting entirely of shoes and sagging cuffs, just rolling up the tarp to begin selling the peaches from a stall, not a more permanent shop? The surrealest of all.
She sprawls on her front step and deploys the torn-out page like goddesses did scraps of cloth in their modesty.
A ferry docking, uncharacteristically atmospheric.
Self-portrait on a crooked slice of mirror which chops up the building behind.
A self-portrait which creates a circular or angular pavilion out of reflections and projections of walls and canopies.
A composite creature created by a fire hydrant.
Another car interior as a magically complex space in another stationary vehicle.
Another seller’s hut as a dense, complex space or cave. Colour used sparingly.
Again red/orange accents, searing here. A scene of mythical import.
How many people? They multiply.
It looks as if they are materialising a woman’s leg from a piece of mosquito net or spun sugar at a carnival – magic.
Depths of a sideways look, solitude in crowds, both near and far.
This one came after a series of colour pics and landed with unexpected solemnity.
Maier isn’t usually a minimalist—this one comes nearest.
What are they saying?
The most inscrutable of all.
Full of contrasts, a great composition.
Where’s Hoffa? The violence of it, perpetrated against paper.
Apparently the piles of newspapers in Maier’s room often featured lurid crimes, a passion of hers.
Sleeping news vendor whose shoe has mysteriously migrated.
An expression that holds you. The spare colour is gripping.
A found object.
As a way to convey movement. A realm of ghosts. Maier’s world is one of strange accidents which occur in the midst of life but stand apart from it. The outsider finds outsiderdom reflected back at her wherever she looks. She discovers loneliness in city streets, confirming in myriad ways what Baudelaire noticed all those years ago.
Ruskin was one of the most amazing people of his century. His prose broke over his contemporaries like a great unstoppable wave, thirty-nine volumes of it in the great collected edition published soon after his death. So his art got left behind and undervalued. He put it to practical use, illustrating his lectures and books rather than giving it a free-standing existence. Still, his watercolours and drawings remain the quickest, most immediately startling means of accessing Ruskin’s visionary perceptions of architecture, sculpture and the natural world. His interpretations of old texts are always original and usually astonishing and his perceptions of the natural world are overwhelming in their force. Little studies he calls ‘fast sketches’ of seaweed, shown broken off and lying flat, still convey the movement of the sea, a sense of turbulence and change in the twists and struggle of their fronds and the surprising complexity of their colour. The ‘fast sketch’ of withered oak leaves suggests a tragic development, of decay tending toward death but filled with energy, of youth consumed in a bonfire of bright colour, Baroque exuberance in the vagaries of how these leaves live their lives. We have arrived at death, but the work is still all about life and the richness of interior spaces, such depths, such distances and shadows, discovered in a final burst of activity.
Ruskin is wonderful in his waywardness above all, pulled in contradictory directions that he must find ways to bridge. There are two main poles in his thinking and interests. He begins a defence of Turner, the great landscape painter of his era and, led by the subjects of the pictures, finds himself waylaid by the structure of the Alps and the meaning of clouds.
His next big project, after Turner and mountains, is to decipher the relevance of a great Gothic survival, Venice, a city and civilisation which Ruskin will approach through its stones, not just its buildings in the common sense of the word, but its spiritual sources in properly revered materials – marbles, brick, limestone, tufa — the relevance of these basic facts of traditional life to the estranged conditions of life in the new industrial cities of his homeland. Looking at or being in Venice or Abbeville, Ruskin never forgot Sheffield or, at least, turned more and more to writing and drawing the history of Venice and its art to heal the wounds of the nineteenth century he lived in, though as soon as he was free to move himself, he left the city for the Lake District.
At times Ruskin liked to claim that Abbeville or Verona meant more to him than Venice, but the idea of a Stones of Verona to equal that of Venice didn’t get very far. Abbeville, which had an even more circumscribed place in Ruskin’s map of significance, turns up in a fascinating episode that brings together his great themes of nature and art and time passing. This is a sequence that starts from Ruskin’s photograph of the courtyard of a late Gothic house in the northern French town of Abbeville. Leaving aside much surrounding picturesque detail, Ruskin singles out the convergence of leaves of living ivy and leaves of carved wood which form the structure which supports the ivy. His earliest gouache of the subject reduces the leafage to a set of grotesque shapes of almost Japanese abstraction, arriving at an outcome like a paper cut-out, which dismembers the plant’s continuities in favour of a thrilling blizzard of scraps.
Ruskin’s next drawing thinks better of this and reintegrates the fragments until the leaves become chunky cabbages and the woodwork retains the only traces of the splitting apart. Ruskin assigned these studies to his Elements of Drawing, where they became early stages in a student’s development, who learned to draw by taking familiar objects apart and putting them back together, after discovering their essential principles.
The cluster of oak leaves keeps turning up in different guises, most notably in the last volume of Modern Painters where it appears in a more dignified form, now known as the Dryad’s Crown, an appliance in a ritual that looks like a piece of Art Nouveau metalwork, uncannily symmetrical yet unfathomably quirky in its forms, irregularity which comes from its origins in actual, not stylised leaves, which twist and turn in multiple movements hard to keep up with. The entire figure, shown still growing round its supporting twig, also resembles a skull, as if it were the plant’s bony residue, missing its flesh but recognisable in eye-sockets and nose-hollow focussed on the spectator.
The text of Modern Painters doesn’t mention the dryad at all; only the names of the engraved illustrations carry this particular burden of meaning. In further, more elaborated moments the dryad lays claim to the qualities or character of the branching plant. ‘The Dryad’s Waywardness’ is the name of one of Ruskin’s most original drawings of the growth of oak twigs, which shows them exploding or growing, with us as their target, careening to the left as they lurch forward like a sailing boat cutting the water dramatically, a figure Ruskin actually uses to describe the evolving space we are pushed to imagine, arising from the plant’s desire.
Though a wood sprite, the dryad seems a sedate figure, tying the natural world to the classical past, to poetry in forgotten languages. The drawings are anything but sedate, even ‘The Dryad’s Toil’ which Ruskin says is the most uninteresting view, lateral or sideways-on movement, from which the spectator has stepped aside and views analytically rather than being caught up in, as he was in the head-on view.
Ruskin based a whole theory of perception on the contrast between frontal and lateral views. Only by facing growing things head on can you understand growth and represent it truly. Does the principle, or a version of it, apply to objects not capable of movement which we can actually perceive, like mountains or buildings?
As it happens Ruskin is often focussed on views of his subjects that suggest or intimate change. One of his favourite forms is that of a crevice or cleft which can be a gentle hollow like the land-form of a mossy cushion grown over by the soft hair of wild strawberry, toad flax and primroses, or whatever these more fleshy leaves are. This famous drawing is set apart by how lopsidedly it fills the space, leaving most of it bare. This was drawn on paper bluer than it is now, stronger colouring which would have spoiled its purity, of a virginal feminine sort, which makes it easier to imagine as part of a large, soft human body.
Mountain forms provide more powerful versions of the cleft or crevasse which also attracted Ruskin strongly. Two of his strangest, most magnetic drawings depict a rocky ravine at Maglans in the French Alps seen from above, which makes the opening in the earth look like surgery, a violence practised on or erupting from turbulent depths. Here not a single bit of the terrain is quiet and every inch heaves with forceful detail like scarring or splitting, writhing or shaking. I can’t help speculating about how Ruskin found the vantage from which to see this sight, not a concern when looking at Blake or John Martin, but Ruskin makes you expect that he must actually be looking, not idly making things up. And here again appears one of the signs of a fully equipped landscape, the little tufts of growth, in this case whole trees or copses, not the delicate tendrils crossing the mossy cushions. In ‘Moss and Wild Strawberries’ we felt ourselves voyeurs, here we are adventurers, looking into depths precariously, then plumbing them and feeling effective.
Ruskin finds such dynamic ensnarled forms in unlikely places, in the carved arches over the doorways of San Marco, where by feats of eyesight he singles out whirlpools in stone which represent plants catching up birds in their movement and forming them into bosses or beautiful filigreed bumps, which Ruskin also finds at larger scale scattered on the ground, again wound up, sweeping different substances into unified movement which scatters itself profusely and unevenly. What system can we see in it? Impaction? Construction? A kind of anti-construction? Richness, but why so satisfying? Lessons of geology made palatable?
Is it a lesson? It doesn’t feel like it, but perhaps it does get you thinking who is doing what to whom, trees resisting movements of stone, an invasion of stone. Ruskin remained an inveterate animator of dumb creation, as earlier, when voicing the thoughts of developing oak twigs, their concessions, their escapes.
This scene is animated by the contending wills of rocks and trees, rocks brought here by a force, moving water in the form of ice, which has now disappeared but survives in the light blue-green wash that sweeps over the ground left free by the contending forces on a scale we could almost call domestic, like the sub-Homeric battle of the frogs and mice.
Ruskin’s knack for grandiose names in many of his titles was matched by a corresponding openness to ludicrously humble ways of conceptualising his subject, on the one hand the Dryad of the oak sprig, and on the other, streaky bacon as the familiar deity of one of the most venerable Venetian palaces. Tantalising references in his notebooks and diaries point us to a mysterious Bacon Palace named, we discover, for its beautiful panels of rosso di Egitto alabaster. This façade is known from a murky daguerreotype like something dug up from the sea, and a Ruskin drawing based on it, in colours made more complex by fading. In reality the alabaster has faded entirely – it was removed in Ruskin’s lifetime. The bacon of the bacon palace was already only a memory for Ruskin, another sign that Venice was becoming a ruin and a shadow right before his eyes. Important and unimportant memories were hard to hang on to, a conviction just as visible in Ruskin’s renderings of rocks as in his records of buildings.
He was fascinated by glacial erratics that had been stuck for who knew how many hundreds of years but could still be rendered to suggest that they might again be washed away by forces we detect undermining them.
Even cliff-faces, the most imperturbable of natural surfaces, suggested fracture more strongly the longer we looked. I’ve read somewhere that gneiss (the oldest rock? another un-tethered memory) was Ruskin’s favourite kind of stone. Because it seems the most unchanging? or the most complex in variety of form and surface? This great face is the blankest and most expressionless of all, or pure and infinitely changeable expression, loaded with emotions, but not human ones, so that we can crack our heads against it forever wondering what it is saying. It is a face, with forehead, eyes, broken nose, laughing or yawning mouth, and beard, yet this is a travesty which one wants to un-see, what happens when one stares too long at a featureless subject.
This drawing is often reproduced in black and white, which levels it still further toward sameness. There are many touches of bluish Chinese white, and there is also the pale brown or cream of the paper.
Another big lump of Scottish stone of a few years later displays more surface variety but suggests an inexhaustible world in a grain of sand less successfully. Not that the close-up view in the Pass of Killiekrankie is trying for that effect, but the earlier Glenfinlas monochrome is more overwhelming, which must arise from its simplicity and unitary concentration, a preposterous claim for a subject which breaks into incalculably Many instead of the One you saw or thought you saw at the beginning.
There is an important class of Ruskin’s drawings that I would prefer to leave out, intense studies of single natural objects wrenched from their seating in a surrounding world. The Glenfinlas drawing fills every inch aggressively, every microscopic pore of the paper surface, almost crowding any element which isn’t rock, including the crucial contrasting element of water, out of the picture.
The drawings of single specimens which I am thinking of sit in the middle of emptiness which is a true blank and not a real space at all. The velvet crab on a vaguely velvety cloth is not an exception to this rule. Even this creature’s name is a compliment to its refinement, a quality we appreciate, of which it is unaware. All its mysterious colours and textures can’t overcome the subject’s lack of engagement with its surroundings. The limpness of its minor legs gives away that it is not alive and makes it hard to imagine the movements of life.
You might assume that the famous drawing of a single feather from a peacock’s breast would produce the same effect. What sense does an isolated feather make? And this marvel of complexity is too reduced to be visible to our sense, a problem exaggerated by reproduction, like a further shrinking of the subject. In a letter Ruskin gives a minute account of making the drawing, plugging on as long as he can without re-dipping his brush. To get the fullest sense of the drawings nothing equals the richness that comes from catching Ruskin at work on particular drawings in his diaries or letters home to his parents, a thrilling integration of the drawing and its own circumstances, so that it too has its place in a human narrative and becomes a character. Ruskin’s gift for dramatising his subjects is applied also to the works which embody his animating gift, an almost unimaginable doubling of our involvement, extending from the subject to the process of its capture.
The feather drawings are in one sense too stark for deep enjoyment. The drawing of single rays of the breast feather leaves us unsatisfied, more a concept than a sensation. We want instead the whole feather enlarged to this scale, which is more a comment on our voraciousness than on Ruskin’s failure to pursue his perceptions far enough.
When he turns to buildings we recognise the same perceiver who senses the developing processes of life and change in whatever he is looking at. Like plants and mountains, buildings are growing and decaying, moving slowly or quickly towards their death, sharing the joys and hazards of mortality with everything around them.
The wonderful view of St Wolfram Abbeville in its setting comes close to those views of rocky landscapes in how it chops off the view, which it approaches from behind and sideways. Though he fills the sheet entirely, he gives us the subject unevenly, leaving out its most prominent features, its towers, which we can catch up with in other Ruskin drawings.
Even the parts which are included receive unequal attention. The main focus is the triangular stretch of transept wall with its motley assemblage of rich tracery, partly broken, or never finished, or worst of all completely punched out. In fact, like many of the buildings Ruskin cared about most, this building is already a ruin though still in use. The whole scene has suffered since in ways he couldn’t anticipate, though they might not surprise him. The low domestic buildings to the right, which give us the scale of the church, disappeared in the brutal bombing of Abbeville in 1940. The river, like those streams which rush past Ruskin’s cliffs, no longer passes the church, reminding it of subtle forces and the dissolution of solid things. It has disappeared in post-war re-building.
Ruskin writing in 1850 called Venice a ruin and a shadow. This drawing is another witness to melodramatic warnings coming grimly to pass. And yet . . . it is also one of the most wonderful renderings of inconsistency as the ruling genius of architecture just as surely as it is of the natural world, in the ups and downs of that slice of tall traceried wall, in the variations of the boundary wall, in the precipitous shrinking of the whole view into the right-hand side of the picture, and of the life that Ruskin goes on finding in lop-sidedness.
His most finished works still manage to incorporate these pleasures, and there are also the many close-ups of architectural details which parallel the botanical or zoological specimens, and a fascinating in-between class, of architectural details presented in context and separated from context at once, like the portrait of two late-Gothic niches (or, strictly speaking, just their tops with gable forms and balustrades above them) from a building in Caen in Normandy. This drawing is a work by the same man who writes a guidebook to Florence, the cradle of the Renaissance, that treats only Gothic sculpture on the base of the cathedral tower and two sets of medieval frescoes in Gothic churches at opposite ends of the city, that is to say of a man who delights in overturning conventional ideas of what is important and redrawing the map in a violently skewed form.
So we have the drawing of parts of two traceried niches, the sheet chopped off long before we reach the ground, leaving big and inconsistent blanks even in the part of the building there is room for. But the intensity of attention to the parts that remain, there has never been anything else like it. And to fill in the gaps between the flashes of high focus would spoil the rhapsody of having seen just these patches of richness. The mind and eye can only focus this intently on a small stretch at any moment. And then, the rhythm of the drawing wants to tell us, it moves on, and lights again, like a nervous bird, at another spot not too far off and applies its attention again. The inconsistency of the drawing is a picture of the mind and eye’s progress across a surface, miles away from a strictly methodical progress. The drawing enacts this in more than one way, in sudden darkenings and shadows suggesting depths or sub-moments of concentrating more deeply. The message is, thrillingly and repeatedly, unevenness, variance continually, so at-odds with the supposed stability of architecture. Yet in looking at other people’s books about Venice, one often gets the sense from how they defer to Ruskin for detailed reports on minor Venetian palaces, that no one since Ruskin has examined these buildings as thoroughly as he did. Always inconsistently – the buildings he concentrated on are in the oddest corners and scattered all over the territory, a peppering of examples that seems to obey no pattern or rule.
Among all the minute details of Venetian buildings, I came across a drawing in coloured chalk purporting to be Ruskin’s but looking like an ideal illustration of a castle in a children’s story, a very un-Ruskinian kind of fantasy-building. The chalk has got smudged since, an effect not intended but suitable, vanishing before our eyes like a dream-building not in its upper reaches but towards the bottom.
The first drawing of Ruskin’s I ever saw, in the monochrome illustrations to Seven Lamps, showed San Michele in Lucca, covered in stories which charmed me by their wildness, various animals at odd angles mixed up with over-sized plants, like a child’s idea of all creation, much more random ungainly and full of life than anything Gothic, enhanced and clarified by its flatness so that it wasn’t sculpture, though made of stone, but picture, and true to his truthfulness, represented by Ruskin in all its wild strength and impulsiveness. Just last week I came across Ruskin’s description of these stories in a letter home to his father, a description full of life like these bold mosaics which read very easily from the ground in spite of the damage which drives Ruskin incandescent with rage when he finds pieces of green serpentine infill from around the pale figures lying disregarded on the ground beneath, so that he calls his drawing ‘part of the destroyed church of San Michele’.
In the drawing the glare of the sun is powerfully rendered, and maybe the way Ruskin’s drawing trails off to the right even renders further levels of glare at different times of day in the same drawing. The building’s mass is surprisingly caught at the outer edge, but even the way it breaks off marks it as a precious fragment, whose hallmark, the building’s not just the drawing’s, is inconsistency too, in types of pillar, of scenes and even of colours of the infill. Though maybe the orange is where the green has fallen out, rather than another colour of stone.
Other drawings of this same façade do it less savagely and more meticulously, showing the figured bulges under each arcade, left out in the folkish version and given a lovely glitter with white highlights that make it a different kind of building, drawn in a different mood by a different artist whose extremely variable moods are one of the strongest features of these letters. Someday someone will meticulously key these letters to these drawings, or they already have. Hundreds or thousands of pages of Ruskin’s diaries over a fifty-year period remain to be deciphered and published online, like the wonderful set of his Venice notebooks where one can switch back and forth at will between his handwriting and a transcription. But that too is only another example of a human record too rich and complete for our powers to keep up with it.
In his enthusiasm for the crude energies of the Romanesque and the naiveté of its stories Ruskin was ahead of his time. Likewise in his enthusiasm for the innocent narratives of Carpaccio, which snared him in ways we would like to head off before they really get hold of him. St George and Ursula peopled his imagination too successfully. His childishness and his seriousness, his love of saints and monsters and his susceptibility to reading himself into their stories is beautiful shading into treacherous from the beginning.
There are photographs probably commissioned by Ruskin of the Pisano pulpits, especially of the caryatid lions eviscerating their prey, a subject which appalled and fascinated him, that could be Ruskin drawings, and make one think art aged differently in those days.
In his views of Romanesque buildings Ruskin often leaves architecture behind for narrative, as in the drawing of the Gryphon caryatid at the Duomo, Verona, a ruined fragment of a mountain, whose rents are as powerful as its continuities, whose textures are a commentary on savagery as part of life, whose hybrid obscenities are the more shocking for the damage they have suffered with the years. The mouth composed of beak and jaw, the eye erased, feathers in several distinct guises joined uncomfortably, signs of much smaller prey inescapable, and finally stains of colour like a bath of blood with a result perhaps more demonic than intended.
Ruskin’s interest in mountains is an interest in structures grander than architecture, but continuous with it. Mountains are the largest structures on the earth. Ruskin saw architecture as obeying some of the same laws, and finally decaying in similar ways. His ideas about ruin in architecture, and in cities and societies, derived from his experience of the natural world. You don’t repair mountains, and Ruskin believed you shouldn’t replace original materials in old buildings with new ones, but let them fall down. He hated restoration, which set itself in opposition to the laws of the universe. Old builders knew better than present ones. Ruskin inspired William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement with ideas of repair unobtrusive and very lovely when done well. Carlo Scapa and Alvar Aalto are among the inheritors of this line of thought.
In some of his most interesting close up views of mountains, which aren’t always the most satisfying aesthetically, we see Ruskin searching for the underlying form of the mountain. More than once the search yields an answer that looks as if it is taken from an extreme weather event, a whirlpool or a hurricane, an image of circular movement centripetal or centrifugal, one can’t always say which, because against all likelihood there is a suggestion that the mountain is flying apart.
One of the most interesting comes with a vague title and a teasing resemblance to more familiar mountain complexes, a close-up only in the sense that it feels crammed with detail, though clearly representing a patch of peaks stretching miles across. It seems to push at the edges of the sheet and to show barely contained movement, hammered into shape until the main curve is made to return on itself without losing its powerful tension.
I started out thinking that the next, more distant view is what the more uneasy one would be if it could, as if the second one’s grander, calmer bowl were the kind of crown or ideal that all mountains are unconsciously striving for, or that we are wishing they would. It is a wonderfully complex as well as tranquil form, perhaps holding together a little unnaturally the geometrical perfection of the low snow-covered curve and the miniature ruggedness of the peaks like teeth at the top. Ruskin discovers here a satisfying symbolic form among mountains, of all places, but only the ghost of a mountain, or a mountain floating away, a mountain ending its life as a metaphor.
This piece began as an online talk for Leila Davis’s students at Anglia Ruskin University
My initial idea was to write about grisaille, that strange old custom of painting without colour, using only various shades of brown, or alternatively, of grey.
But then to add to that deprivation, another one, of light, and choose painters who try to paint the dark or in the dark, at night in which colour naturally disappears, so it is no longer just an artist’s trick but rendering a large area of reality commonly cut off from painting. This could be a huge undertaking, so I narrowed it to just two paintings by two of the greatest artists, Bruegel and Rembrandt, painting almost a century apart but both using the voluntary restrictions of a colourless world to provoke viewers to more intense scrutiny, like an intelligent version of the harder looking forced on someone stuck in a dark room and becoming slowly used to the new conditions.
Wallace Stevens says somewhere that good poems defeat the efforts of intelligence almost successfully. This comes as close to an explanation of my love of obscurity in art as anything I’ve ever heard or thought.
There’s something doubly perverse in setting out to collect and write about outstanding cases of obscurity in art—to share their unrecognised beauties, yes, but also, inevitably, to clarify them and end up making them less obscure, as if—horrid conventionality—the final goal in thinking about anything were always to make something clearer. Easy to accept that poetry doesn’t usually make things clearer, but prose is different–is it really acceptable to write an essay with the aim of making something un-clear?
Certain painters, Rembrandt above all, are drawn to depicting night and darkness while at the same time telling stories. And there’s a wonderful little Bruegel that takes place at night in a large room, half of which is packed with people (the crowd in the left background) you don’t even see at first. In some sense you never see them, they are so indistinct and so inessential to the main event, the Death of the Virgin lying in bed, the main piece of furniture in a room cluttered with others, and a stray figure or two, like a young man asleep beside the fire, often mistaken for St John, who usually has an important role in this traditional scene.
The great events here are the various candles and the fire, most of them scattered rationally but also pointlessly, as far as illuminating the main event goes. The brightest candle is outshone by a light which encompasses and dwarfs it and has no visible cause, the radiance of the about-to-be corpse that critics connect with the imminent appearance of Christ, which hasn’t happened yet but is spelled out in conventional sources.
So the painting shows a supernatural event on the verge of happening, but is also entirely (almost entirely?) explicable as an episode in the story of Light, how it travels and stops just short of a certain desired goal, how it sets out bravely and that is the end of that. How the destruction of certain modest lengths of wood has the incidental effect of putting a cat to sleep and showing human onlookers a big expanse of floor, the most collected view available of the context in which the great event is going to occur.
The most enigmatic element in the whole obscure scene is one of the painter’s slyest tricks. Someone has rigged up a little theatrical display for an audience of one, or maybe two or three. At the end of Mary’s bed propped on a cushion is a very early emblem of Christ’s crucifixion, a little model of His Body on the cross.
The picture simulates eyes getting used to the dark, and that is a metaphor for something wider or more universal, the search for knowledge. The experience of deciphering (almost successfully)–which is also what we do with any work of art, obscure or not—puts lots in play, as if much remains undecided, so it becomes a testing ground for something like experimental thinking.
Rembrandt puts much more in play than Bruegel—when you look closely, the elements of this picture of Christ’s Entombment in Glasgow do not look like anything that you’ve seen in reality before.
It’s making a fresh point about itself as a fiction, and it becomes a multiple reality. It’s at least two different things at once, a set of marks and a human story, a divergence extreme enough to make a chasm in perception, provoking an excitement that waited to be rediscovered by Cezanne.
The Glasgow Entombment creates insistent doubts we don’t find it easy to settle: are we standing in, or looking across the hollow of the grave? The level area the group has gathered in seems to drop off abruptly into a dark space we can’t fathom. How big is this void? It’s impossible to tell.
I’ve just noticed today how the sensation of Christ’s weight pulling the shroud he is wrapped in down towards the earth is created – by two strong, wide, mainly black strokes drawn through and along the bottom of the pale sheet, which has a strong white highlight at its near edge, the largest area of pure white in the picture. Mary’s lap and Joseph of Arimathea’s forehead are the only other spots of white, and the forehead is markedly less intense.
Fascinating how detail begins to be lost the further you go from the centre, but it’s not as simple as that. Those to the left of Christ are less sharply defined, defined in fact by a different method, which is only partly accounted for by their being caught in the glare of the lamp or candle. The tall man behind the kneeling woman (not everyone accepts that she is Christ’s mother) is seen in almost the same register as the servant holding the shroud, who is much more clearly defined. It’s almost as if it’s our attention which determines how characters will be shown. You move in different directions, up to the right of the central group, for example, and the mode of consciousness represented by the picture changes. Fascinating too how the indistinct crowd follows an almost invisible slope – the whole subject occupies a diagonal slash caught in a more pervasive darkness. The rising trajectory of this indistinct extension is unaccountably pleasing, as are smaller tunnels of darkness behind the kneeling woman/ Mary and in front of the figure holding Christ’s feet.
Exploring the picture is again analogous to getting used to seeing in the dark. It can be a long process, working out various relations in this composition, which intrigues us so much because it is so unclear. It’s another subject showing, like the Death of the Virgin, people gathered round a prone figure, a quintessentially static subject.
Christ has sunk to near the bottom of the space and dragged the rest with him. All the movement is downward, yet the light suggests otherwise, as if it is on the point of bursting out, and radiates upward, not downward. Magical how far left the subject has moved, the picture is radically asymmetrical, unless you see it as a light half on the left balanced by a dark half on the right, but this equality doesn’t exist. The left is far stronger, no halves.
In Bruegel’s Death of the Virgin supernatural light has created a strangely perfect little room within the room, with top and bottom defined by their corners, and clear back and side walls, the two front walls removed, and partly indicated by bunched and dangling bed curtains. Just as weirdly asymmetrical as Rembrandt’s Entombment, with a wider range of definition in things represented, among which you cautiously pick your way, as usual in Bruegel, an inventory enhanced here by the struggle with continuing gloom.
The connection between Mary and the little crucifix is at the heart of the picture, and forms the top and bottom of a larger cross, whose arms are defined in living form by Peter and the female attendant, like a deliberate mistranslation of the crucifixion subject. Christ is shown perversely lying on a comfortable bed in the form of a plump pillow. This is impressionistically rendered, with bold abbreviations (where are His hands?). As the exemplary Courtauld catalogue of 2016 points out, His feet have retreated until they are just two small blobs, the tiniest individuality paint can have. This crucifix is such a strange detail that you have a momentary fear you could have overlooked it.
If this is the threshold of a visionary moment, as some people think, then the sleeping figure may be important—what looks like a stupor is actually the disguise for a private vision, and an essential thread links the about-to-be ecstatically-raised Virgin and the young person lost in his vision, or not—could his oblivion be the dumb version of an out-of-body state, as common as sleep and at the furthest remove from the action, like a planet at the edge of its solar system?
The table and chair between him and the bed do indeed seem the impediments of an earthbound not a visionary mode. He is the furthest and not the nearest sharer of the great moment, on a par with the cat. I don’t like this interpretation, though, and would rather see him as human ordinariness getting on with daily life, harmlessly, and regardless of the earthshaking Assumption about to happen.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Death of the Virgin, c 1562-65, 36.9 x 55.5 cm, Bearsted Collection, Upton House, Warwickshire (The National Trust)
Rembrandt, The Entombment Sketch, late 1630s-early 1640s, revised mid 1650s, 32.2 x 40.5 cm, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow
Curators in Glasgow have made a point of naming The Entombment a sketch and not a grisaille, because it incorporates reddish earth tones (unlike most grisailles), because it was named that way when Rembrandt had to sell it to pay his debts, because it hung for twenty years on a wall in his house and he kept reworking it (as extensive technical examination has shown). The figures on the left in the bolder mode of the 1650s are the strongest signs of the reworking, but new highlights and deletions are evident throughout. The painting is a striking instance of Rembrandt’s constant rethinking of his own ideas.
The Entombment, infrared reflectogram, showing bold black strokes defining forms
How do you decide on the proper length for any work? It’s not the same question as deciding when a painting is finished or considering the ways in which it can be left unfinished. The interesting thing about very long texts can sometimes be how they got to be that long. Finnegans Wake isn’t literally the longest book in the world, but how could you outdo it for intricacy, crucial for working out how long it will take to get to the end of it.
Among its other effects, the Covid epidemic has driven me to seek out long books, because I want things that will last a long time. This hasn’t been a conscious plan until now, but perhaps its length had something to do with my gravitating for example to Vladimir Nabokov’s longest work, his 1000-page Commentary on Pushkin’s blessedly short ‘novel in verse’ Eugene Onegin. Illogically, I group with Nabokov Jozef Czapski’s Lectures on Proust, a brief work about an enormous one, that drew me because he gave these lectures in a Soviet prison camp and never wrote them out. They only exist because his listeners thought it worthwhile to reconstruct them. I am beginning to wonder if they won’t project me into a reading of Proust, on which illness has pushed me to embark at least once before.
Reading about the circumstances of the Proust lectures reminded me of another prison-camp product, Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales. I didn’t know until recently that there are 1300 pages of them. The collections I read in the 1980s were just a sample. How could you know what this writer really amounts to based on such a small selection? Isn’t the most remarkable thing about this great act of recall that he pursued it so persistently, until his piercing little shards formed a single work as long as this?
At the beginning I thought I would write about Shalamov standing on the threshold (looking out from page 50, say) and imagining the vast expanses beyond. Now it is too late for that; I have rushed ahead to p. 300 and lost the freshness of the first glimpse. I’ve done the same with a poetic work of monstrous extent which I have also just taken on, Melville’s Clarel, a 500-page verse epic set in the Holy Land, taken on because I can’t believe that a writer as interesting as Melville would have persisted long enough to produce a poem much longer than Paradise Lost which wasn’t compelling.
In Moby Dick Melville is often at his best when he cuts freest from the narrative and submerges himself in the ocean of language. It’s too early to say if Clarel bears out these hopes.
In the meantime, a film. A film that in its different versions ranges anywhere from 145 to 210 minutes, the longer versions being the director’s favourites, the shorter ones obeying the dictates of the studio. The plot of the film is absurdly or magnificently simple. It is an extended car-chase (briefly pursued in a biplane by one demented group) down/ up? the Coast Highway of California. The protagonists have been multiplied mercilessly to make space for about a dozen famous comedians who are each upstaging the others, crossing and tangling paths, getting lost and breaking down, fighting with each other. It is a simple gag—what a strange expression, as if we might choke on laughter—painfully extended. I saw the shortest version and can’t imagine how it could reasonably be lengthened—are there whole new episodes and stars? If 13 is good, won’t 14 be better? Or does the longer form just lengthen the pain of an existing awkwardness? The most interesting comic writers and actors must often be pushing toward the limits of comedy, philosophical not in the deeply reflective sense but a sense abstract and not truly particular, escaping the limits of individuality into types of human potential.
When I started blogging I was pleased when the subject carried me unexpectedly to greater lengths, 1000, even 2000 words, though it seemed dangerous to let them go far beyond that. Now I dream of a short one and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World doesn’t seem the ideal stimulus for this.
Except if you concentrated on one of the most inventive elements in the whole film, the credits by Saul Bass, ‘Saul Bass’ who was really a couple to which Elaine Makatura, the female partner made a key contribution. These credits, which seem to go on forever and actually last two or three minutes, pack in a wonderful series of transformations, a globe from inside of which a saw appears, cutting doors and windows, out of which crowds spill, or via which gangs enter, a globe which becomes an egg by a quick dramatic stretch, brooded on by a hen, breaks open, spawns a chick, is tied back together, cuts loose as a balloon, flies, deflates, spits out a pile of words that clatter like dominoes and carry the names of important functions in the film, make-up, sound, stills etc.
So I thought I wanted to analyse this shifting poem of images, not in colour but in two-tone, a kind of harsh minimal vocabulary like a cartoon, sometimes violent like a cartoon, always moving. So I sat down to follow these credits carefully on the screen of a laptop, stopping the action looking for stills which would make good illustrations, and found that none of them would. When you stopped the frames, the life went out of them. On top of that, they were all in widescreen, a weird invention of the 1950s or 60s when cinema was locked in a death clasp with television and had to find visual effects TV couldn’t duplicate. By now TV screens are all widescreens of a kind and have lost their own battles with later sorts of display.
Some of Saul Bass’s most radical shake-ups make letters and words into beings or at least give them a kind of mechanical life. I wonder if the designers were consciously harking back to when writing was pictures. They brought about a poetic condensation of the two or three hours of material expanded and diversified in the film into 2 or 3 minutes of action drawn by the hand of the designer and projected at a speed or speeds that challenged the eye to follow it. By comparison, the film that came immediately after seemed delightfully, impossibly old fashioned.
Moral: The antidote to a long work is a short one (and vice versa).
The big Beardsley exhibition at Tate Britain was the first major exhibition that the virus kept me from visiting, and I got the idea that, using Linda Zatlin’s catalogue raisonné, I could stage a more comprehensive exhibition at home. So I buried myself in her giant volumes and saw a lot I hadn’t seen before. That was five months ago. Now the library has finally recalled Zatlin and sent me back to the topic from March.
Beardsley the Modernist, Beardsley the Pornographer, Beardsley the Puritan, Beardsley the Decadent, Beardsley the Teller-of-Stories or Beardsley the Burier of Secrets.
These strange appliances that continually recur, they must mean something else, because they are so exaggerated. Impossibly spindly candles burning away above the characters’ heads, consuming their own substance without end. They must be emblems of the temporary in spite of their inhuman stiffness and their appearance in phalanxes of three, impossibly near each other. Beardsley learned that he had consumption, the nineteenth century name for tuberculosis, when he was seven. He died eighteen years later in the South of France, a Catholic convert who sent desperate pleas home to burn his wicked work, which his friend and publisher disobeyed. His room in France was a shrine to Mantegna above all, one of the most secular of classicists. His religious pictures are feeble. His favourite Gospel story, Salome’s unsatisfied passion for a saint she couldn’t corrupt (until death did it for her) was a favourite with Symbolists, who wrenched it away from the very idea of abstention. Beardsley’s drawings purporting to illustrate Oscar Wilde’s play, several of them completely re-thought to outwit censorship, had been calmed down perhaps, but were still lewd, if less directly.
How can it be that this grisly, even necrophiliac subject pushes Beardsley towards a purely two-dimensional abstraction? One of his most revealing remarks, quoted by Linda Zatlin (who produced the invaluable catalogue raisonné) from an interview in the Boston Evening Transcript (previously familiar to me only via one of T. S. Eliot’s jokey early poems), was that his works were just as good when you turned them upside down. Early abstractionists have described being pushed further by seeing their own designs upside down. Beardsley was trying to de-toxify his work with this suggestion and making a claim to seriousness for Art’s sake. I took him up on it and spent an inordinate amount of time holding Zatlin’s volumes upside down. This works better with some than with others. Seeing growth hanging down instead of sprouting up can be invigorating. Some of the temporal dislocations in Strauss or Debussy feel like musical phrases turned upside down to echo a character’s alienation.
Beardsley is a radical and perceptive theorist of line who realises what he is doing when he prescribes that you should maintain the same thickness of line both in foreground and background, rather than getting thinner as you go further away. It sounds like a narrow point, but he is discarding illusions of space for the realities of the picture plane.
Yet who has ever managed to look at Beardsley primarily as a formalist? Fifteen years before Beardsley, Gustave Moreau had been obsessed with the story of Salome in a whole series of paintings and watercolours of mesmerising richness, where a small company of onlookers provide sub-focii in the dense forest of detail, tile-covered walls, mosaic-encrusted vaults and flesh inlaid with jewels, from which Huysmans got the idea of planting gems in a live reptile’s shell, which would then grow around them, a description perhaps of the relation between characters and setting in Moreau’s frozen tableaux.
At this point in his career Beardsley is stripping away detail from his narratives. In a mechanically reproduced form of the drawing much of the filigree has to be sacrificed to pure line and pure contrast, black and white and nothing in between, where both became stronger in this poverty or isolation.
Something became stronger but it wasn’t the bodies of man and woman. In this Beardsley composition Salome is a ghost, and Jokanaan a metaphysical phallus, a candle flame burning itself out and a liquid dripping into a lake where it remains on the surface like an oil slick or the design on a carpet. Mysteriously it inspires growth, an erect and a wilted version of the phallus which seems to be the story of Jokanaan telling itself over again.
This confrontation of the levitating woman (orgasm? the illustration is called Climax – or is that just my name for it?) and the decapitated head – the essence of the man, or an utterly emasculated form? This is a confrontation that goes on occurring–next time or the time before he is presented on a platter like a dish you could consume, but at the end of a hairy post, so another phallic terminus, and now there is nothing delicate about the effusion of liquid, it’s a dark mess spilling off the edge in more than one direction.
I thought I had to begin the story at the end because that is where Beardsley began it, but there is a sense in which these episodes do not take place in ‘real’ or ordinary time but in a world of archetypes which all exist at once. So you have a couple looking at the moon who has the features of Oscar Wilde (their author?). Are they John and Salome? They both look utterly inexperienced, like frightened children who hesitate. Male underdevelopment often takes the form in Beardsley of childish genitals which seem to signify somebody who isn’t ready to embark, a spiritual as much as a physical condition, and hard to connect with Beardsley himself, however much we try, who was well on his way to producing over a thousand separate works in a career that lasted six years, much of which must have been spent in devoted labour.
As the moonscape is empty, this one is full, full of contending forces. Wilde is there again as a weird priest or impresario with the owl of wisdom functioning as a tribal headdress, ending in horns (a joke? Beardsley seems to treat him as fair game). Herodias is bigger than the others who exist to serve her, including a foetus with what critics take for an unsatisfied erection pushing up through his clothes–if so, the most economical lewd reference ever. Beardsley’s fascination with elderly foetuses must have a neo-Platonic explanation, the soul’s pre-birth and corruption occurring simultaneously.
Zatlin always plumps for Beardsley’s seriousness but goes on finding little erections all over the place, as if there could never be too many. Kenneth Clark surprises us with almost moralistic disapproval of Beardsley’s fascination with corruption. I can’t help seeing Beardsley as a kind of troll, offending Victorian sensibilities so plentifully that many references will escape. The effeminate creature who sports a vine-fig leaf formerly possessed a typically shrinking cock with feeble pubic hair. He got curtailed, while the delicate penis-candlesticks got waved through.
The Toilette which follows is one of the outrageous ones and was replaced by the most abstract and severe, without the bystanders or the upsetting jokes. Here exquisite appliances lend themselves to suggestive acts. The long tall extension of the stringed instrument, the strange dripping forms under the left-hand boy’s seat, the glances exchanged or not exchanged by the two nude boys, one with pubic hair and a hand that doesn’t look innocent – there’s all that ‘activity’, and then the amazing emptiness of Salome’s clothes which are no more than two extra-thin lines making a bounded place in which nothing is allowed to take place. These disparities are rich with irony and an almost philosophical appreciation of the void. The distancing around Salome and the coiffeur, who mixes hints of bats (his mask) and spiders (his hands), creates a whole other world.
Arthur and the Questing Beast is a step back into a different and earlier world still working itself free from William Morris and Burne-Jones’s medievalism and an earlier Victorian love affair with the Middle Ages. Beardsley’s drawing shows an encounter between a knight and a dragon, as you’d never guess, or not quickly, and not a heroic but an entangled one, which you settle into disentangling, which has set a hundred traps for comprehension.
Beardsley has equalled Moreau in density and also—without colour!—his own form of richness and of confusion, making things out of lines and vice versa. Turning things into other things obscenely, giving new meanings to the word, metamorphosis as anarchy and detail as madness—all of Beardsley’s themes tumbled together—gawky erections that disappear out of sight, snakes, spiders, satyrs from a different world of myth entirely, clothes as intricacy and prison, acting like tourniquets on the flesh. The overpowering sensation is the fickleness of matter, solid one moment and a beguiling scribble the next. Stringy birds deconstructing themselves into individual feathers, snakes made of curlicues slithering through viscous liquids, and really monstrous forms whose eyes are fringed with rows of tiny breasts like Diana of Ephesus, or tiny growths like leprosy or testicles, whose tufts of hair are like lines gone completely crazy, a trap for perception rushing everywhere or nowhere. Arthur looks sideways at the graphic riot as if it is all a hallucination he has had, not a comforting thought because it means he is trapped in the web.
There was a way out via a simpler printing process that allowed you, if you gave up subtle differentiations of tone and texture and settled for black and white in their full crudity or purity, the chance to reach bigger audiences much more cheaply. Beardsley found his way there via his biggest project, a commission to illustrate Malory’s Morte d’Arthur with an incredible plethora of 350+ separate designs which became a laboratory for simplifying without giving up mystery and power, an effort which offered him a vast field for subversions, antagonising William Morris who accused him of plagiarism, seemingly unaware of how radically Beardsley overturned Arts and Crafts ideals. Beardsley’s knights set off a disruption like a flurry of shrapnel—leaves, shields and oversized thorny stems all slicing, chopping and piercing their way through the mellow world of the past.
For the publisher of Malory he designed an icon based on a pun. Dent, the publisher’s name, became the dandelion’s tooth and in Beardsley’s hands the prong of a phallic explosion observed by an unlikely serpent.
Further unlikelihood in pagan youths, pure immaturity instructed by satyrs who only belong in Malory as general disruptors of Christian principles.
There’s a whole category, calligraphic grotesques., which Beardsley produced on demand for Dent in years overlapping with the work on Malory, mostly small designs which are some of the purest expressions of his kind of iconoclasm, images where every feature is senselessly perverted into something else–eye for mouth, eyebrow for moustache, lips for eyes, breasts for horns, leaves for hair, face for chest and curlicues throughout to undermine the last illusion of representing anything sincerely or consistently.
Reptilian foetus-forms keep it from seeming real play. Innocent designs are few and far between, and even they upset things by turning the lower half of a cheery face to opposed 3’s lying on their sides.
Finally, we hit on a scrap of harmless peacock fluff, but it too conceals a plump Wilde-decadent.
The later Beardsley went through the most astonishing series of style-shifts. Each new commission seemed to provoke another twist of the late style: TheRape of the Lock prompted a fantasia on the Rococo, with a sub-species consisting of welters made entirely of dots, a new orthodoxy for rendering lace or reality at its most intricate, in tapestry, upholstery and foppish dress. Next come the Lysistrata illustrations where the erect penis finally has its day, in which all mystery has departed and the idea of flesh is flattened.
The last project Beardsley worked on was an edition of Ben Jonson’s bitter, disillusioned play Volpone, orthe Fox about a miser’s corrosive progress. Beardsley took this as a chance to send up the pompous version of Baroque, piles of fruit as imposing as cannon balls, satyrs as thick as oak stumps. The single fresh note in this heavy world comes in a hypnotic design for the cover, which he drew first in black and white but always meant for transfer into its opposite, turning light to dark and vice versa. The black and white version (which I only heard about when I had long known the gold on blue result) is much crazier, jumping with demented motion, a jitter missing from the printed cover.
The cover, a brilliant disintegration of Baroque continuity, translates pomp into a storm of fragments, but feels as if, if you worked at it, you might be able to cajole all the confusion and repetition to fall back into its proper places. But why would you want to do that? Isn’t the lumbering old Baroque better as an explosion than as the symmetrical reassurance of the old order? Brilliantly, the new cacophony consists entirely of recognisable elements of old conventions, which Zatlin suggests Beardsley meant as the phantasmagoric flashing of the fox’s tail.
And if you let yourself sink into it, you find there are even more frantic jitterbugging couples here, like the pair standing on V O L P. It’s a fertile field for hallucination, full of birds, mammals (including sharp-nosed foxes) and who knows what else, filling all the left-over dark forms.
To get these effects you need to read the blue as solid forms, and the gold as background or surrounding void, as I forgot to say clearly enough.
Dhamnar, complex of shrines from NW with recent brickdust coating
Gyaraspur, Maladevi temple, plan with the cliff that hugs the building on its right flank entirely omitted, and the upper right corner, a part of the building which does not exist, because of the intrusion of the rock, filled in in ghostly form as if it had been there at some time in the past.
Dhamnar, Dharmanatha complex, plan of main shrine and seven sub-shrines, shown as if they existed in a wide empty space, though they are hemmed in on all four sides by the high walls of rock left by the excavation of the temples from the rock that formerly filled the space which now holds the buildings.
Below: We are standing on the rockface at the top of the plan, looking east over the complex in its pit seen from above. The tower of the main shrine is nearest to us. Four of the small shrines are visible, two at the top, two on either side of the tower. The three shrines across the top of the plan are not visible; to see them we would need to lean over the ledge in front.
Below: Masrur, plan of the unfinished monolithic temple
There have been studies of how this project would have been extended further, based on existing symmetrical temples.
Osian, Harihara temple 1, plan. At some time in the past the fourth sub-shrine, in the NW corner, has been leveled. leaving a poignant vacancy that the visitor fills in or just feels the ache of, and appreciates the plan all the more through its disruption. Only one of the sub-shrines keeps its porch semi-intact, and there are other anomalies (missing pediments and images etc) that are brought out more strongly by the dispersion of the plan, which draws attention to the isolated, widely separated parts.
Osian, Harihara 2, plan. Hard to appreciate the similarity of this building’s plan to the previous one. The scale of the colonnade that turns an empty court into a large draughty hall is so unexpected and out of keeping that everything is changed utterly. But this project too has to cope with incompleteness, and feels just as much a ruin as Harihara 1, but not a peaceful one this time.
Osian, Harihara 1, jagati (platform) base. This surrounds the whole site with carving of incredible richness and raises its little shrines to visionary heights.
Osian, Harihara 2, jagati base. Another powerful foundation something like a fort. Very near the preceding temple. The habit of Indian rulers of endowing whole cities of temples, very rich and sometimes almost indistinguishable, remains unfathomable to me. Pattadakal and Osian are prime examples and there are others. Is it the old idea of creating heaven on earth?
Kanchipuram, Kailasanatha temple, plan
The heavily indented wall at the top of the main mass creates some of the most powerful effects in Indian architecture, weaving in and out in continuous zig-zag movement to join a series of sub-shrines to the sanctum at the top. I don’t know how these apparently separate spaces work or how you get into them, but the sculptural effects as you circle the building and get temporarily lost in cavern-like narrowings guarded by nrsimha-beasts with monstrous eyes, claws and feet make a wonderful and fearful experience like one of Blake’s alarming epics brought to life.
I am looking for a way to describe the last two months of activity which have sometimes felt like being lost in a maze, or like falling down a hole into another world to which there is no end, and no obvious structure, that has you wandering in a wilderness of moss, a wide expanse of the tiny, where an obsession with detail makes you lose sight of the larger themes from which you originally set off. The series of objects, in this case Indian temples, keeps unfurling and leading you on, unsure whether it’s a boon or a curse that the series has no end or obvious shape.
The model lurking here seems to be that of finding forms concealed in the ground itself, discovering buildings in the living rock like the figures Michelangelo senses waiting to get out of the stone block, buildings which combine the qualities of sculpture and architecture, which you release from captivity rather than invent or devise according to the rules of a human craft.
Bruegel’s Tower of Babel is not generally considered a mythological painting, but it taps into primitive ideas about the connectedness of different life forms, in particular of human societies and mountains, combining god-like scale and a multitude of petty human devices like cranes and hoists. It depicts a faltering technology and a huge and concentrated effort that will set human civilisation back a stage or two via burgeoning misunderstandings. But the fact remains that someone has imagined a symbiosis, though in ruined form, between geology and building, the one growing into and out of the other, like a weird actualisation in the 16th century of the creation myth in which the largest distinct natural form, a mountain, gives birth to the full later complexity of species and cultures, like a comprehensive explanation of what we are all doing here.
Tremors in consciousness provoked by that much later composition together with the Cambodian creation stories can help us understand what Indian architects might have been driving at in searching out solid masses of rock near the surface, signalled sometimes by the caves already tunnelled through them by slippage or erosion, in which with minimal removal they could discover buildings.
It was never a high proportion of Indian religious buildings which were made or half-found In this way, but they had an imaginative force out of all proportion to their numbers. Whenever you come across them, they take you back to the mythical origins of architecture, spaces found not made, and then brought up to the surface and into the light. That is the direction we imagine such spaces heading in, but for us the excavated temples usually speak strongly of a darkness we have mostly left behind, which it seems part of the task of the temple, whether rock-cut or not, to drag us part-way back into.
The first time in India our only rock-cut temple was only partly discovered in the hill. Most of it was added onto the cave-bit, so the whole effect was like the tower of Babel, built bits merged with more primitive elements to make a patchwork whole, all of which resembled bricolage, a hybrid tumbled together like a rock fall, not entirely stable.
The temple lay at the foot of the hill as if partly hidden by scree which had slid downward as the hill eroded. The entry porch and the mound rising behind it didn’t look as if they were all in the right order, but scrambled, as in a half-collapsed structure.
Crawling round the interior was a powerful experience. I’m not sure you could follow the ambulatory passage the whole way round. At a certain point your way was entirely cut off after you had crouched or crept through the lowest bits. Certainly you were bothered by the bees. They had set up their hive in the furthest reaches and came and went continually, their buzzing amplified by the vault.
The plan in the Encyclopaedia of Indian Temple Architecture gives such a bland idea of this dangerously impeded interior and doesn’t attempt to show architecture turning abruptly into crags along the temple’s right flank or at its west end.
But the whole force and value of the Maladevi temple at Gyaraspur, which makes it a great beacon among all the buildings I have seen, is this uneasy truce between the violence of geology and the ingenuities of architecture.
If I had it to do all over again, I would go on to Gwalior (as we did) and make a stop at the little Caturbhuja shrine in the Fort (as we didn’t) to gauge how the raw power of rock makes itself felt in a rock-cut building the size of a plaything.
Next I would stop at Dhamnar (a substitute for the grandest of all rock-cut temples at Ellora), an instance of the fascinating type that finds an entire world below ground level, ground level which still exists on every side at Dhamnar, where eight temple buildings form a tight cluster, a main shrine and seven complete children of the parent, which each possesses all the parts of a temple on a reduced scale. Or I would have done this in 2001, but I am not sure I would now, because this complex has apparently been renovated by drastic cleaning and the addition of a protective coating that contains a lot of brick dust, which gives it an orange colour, most un-stone-like, like the healthy glow favoured by failing Presidents.
Even in the old days the buildings at Dhamnar were rough and raw in a wholly different way from Gyraspur. Sculptural detail had the smudged look of attempts in very hard stones like granite, but here it was the stone’s softness that had made it easy for time to erase all sharpness, until you felt the day looming near when it would all disappear. Hence the well-meaning renovator, who didn’t want to hear that he had replaced a beautiful ruin with a lifeless model born yesterday. Did he know how the building was made? Turning it to brick was such a cruel travesty.
My next stop (on my would-be journey) is safe from such destructive interference because it was left so incomplete that the effect is like camouflage. In this group of magical buildings it is perhaps the most magical of all.
It is like a sketch for a large temple complex more begun than completed, blocked-in lightly across the whole site, so it is all there and full size, but barely detectable. Perhaps uniquely in the whole history of architecture, this temple group at Masrur in the Himalayan foothills preserves the natural inspiration of the building and even the full value of its magical materials before they are spoiled by being squared up and smoothed, yet conveys the entire architectural concept in a shapely and complete form as well.
It is both a building and a vivid landscape, a mountain range bristling with crags and a symmetrical city of towers, an ideal vision like a Chinese landscape representing heaven, and a whole world of natural rock always entirely itself and (almost) nothing else, the most natural as well as the most perfect temple.
Some readers may think they’ve already seen something like this in their local zoo, artificial crags constructed for mountain goats to climb on in captivity. But the distance between constructed and actual crags is unbridgeable. Not that hybrids can’t contribute something to the discussion, like the miniature rock-cut pavilions at Mamallipuram lined up in a row as the outcroppings seem to have allowed, with the quaintest indication that these were carved from the top down and (in at least two of them) left deliberately incomplete so you couldn’t miss the point. Bhima ratha and Valayankuttai ratha turn back into wild rock for a last few moments before they reach the ground, which makes them at one and the same time, levitating architecture and a natural growth rooted in the earth, a botanical/geological marvel giving birth to a strange child, the phantasm of civilisation.
Instead of purely human constructions these are Eternal Forms like those which emerge on the walls of caves as a teeming population, buildings something like creatures with their own internal principles of life.
In a sense it’s wonderful there is no end to the territory and no single logic according to which it is laid out. At the other end of the field of possibilities from temples camouflaged as mountains are seemingly overplanned complexes leaving nothing to chance, which look in plan more like wiring diagrams than rich plastic compositions binding together their widely dispersed elements. Among examples of this type, both monotonous and scattered when seen first in plan, the so-called Harihara temple 1 at Osian in Rajastan stands out, ‘so-called’ because the interesting dedication to Harihara the bifurcated deity, who suits the site which can’t consolidate or make up its mind, this name has been retracted for something blander.
The bases of Indian temples are one of their most distinctive features, elements more central to the building’s way of being than any equivalent in Western buildings, elements which often attract careful diagrams in the Encyclopaedia. Bases come with many stages and bristle with Sanskrit terms in the Encyclopaedia entries.
The platform-bases of both Harihara 1 & 2 pile up seven distinct stages, like multi-storey structures in miniature. all of which is distinguishing the building from its setting in the world and asserting its essential complexity. The platform-base at Harihara 1, which is like an elephantine enlargement of the bases of its component shrines, has the unity and coherence of a whole symmetrical cosmos made of clearly marked layers and dotted with architectural miniatures, niches which contain their own versions of walls, roofs, thresholds, openings and inhabitants. The resident spirits of the Harihara temples are the figure sculptures which appear three to a side on the walls of the platform, and then at least five to a side on walls of each of the five shrines planted in the peculiar symmetrical system on the roof of the platform.
The Encyclopaedia includes neat little charts of the sculptures placed on the four cardinal aspects of the building, charts which take for granted that these layouts carry crucial meanings. So I found myself becoming obsessed with pinning down who was looking out from where, as I reconstructed a visitor’s journey around this multitudinous complex.
To begin with, this exercise required being sure of the compass points. Hindu temples normally face east, contrary to the usual orientation of Christian churches. Anyone who deals with the plans of western religious buildings gets used to finding the east end at the top and the west entrance at the bottom, north to the left, south to the right. With Hindu buildings these norms are reversed. Except that a few important Eastern buildings, Angkor Wat, for instance, Kailasa at Ellora, and Harihara 1 and 2 at Osian, face west.
This anomaly has caused confusion in the Indian Encyclopaedia, where the charts of sculptures on the Harihara shrines show the sequences of deities on all four sides of the platform and the five shrines reversed from their actual order.
I started out not knowing what some of these deities should look like and only began to notice that they weren’t in the right places when the elephant’s trunk appeared on Kubera not Ganesa, and the boar’s snout on Buddha not Varaha. At this stage it felt exactly like solving a puzzle, and no one would believe the satisfaction I got from putting Buddha in the right place. But Buddha on a Hindu temple? Was it tolerance or co-opting?
How pleasing to learn that the very same order is repeated on Harihara 2, not the attitudes and emotional tonalities or relations between other creatures in the scenes, but the basic sequence of deities was the same, so the content must be at some level deeply valid, and therefore it was probably a structure worth pondering. It took a long time to dawn on me that Harihara 2 also has the same floor plan as Harihara 1, but with a large intruder plunked down in the middle of it, an overscaled colonnade made of diverse column-forms which allows the roofing-in of the open space between the shrines. I felt let down by Michael Meister, my favourite among the different Encyclopaedia authors, above all for his responsiveness to natural settings and his appreciation of all kinds of architectural novelty. Why didn’t he announce the startling alteration in Harihara 2 more emphatically?
Why didn’t he make plain how radical it was to stick this heavy awning on an essentially outdoor space? And why weren’t there any photos showing how the new elements collided with or related to the existing shrines, which they treated as buildings within a much larger building, where they were now lost or marooned or holding court in a sort of surreal parody? Which was it? Were contradictions exaggerated or suppressed, enjoyed or disguised out of existence? One of the really explosive moments in Hindu architecture had been slipped past us unawares, a missed opportunity which made me wonder if my hero hadn’t been paying attention. But there was proof that he admired these buildings tremendously, so he had certainly noticed.
One of the pleasures of Harihara 1 is the assembly of five (four surviving) exquisite separate works into a new whole. Harihara 2 gives up those pleasures to make a more imposing singularity, or is it a more ungainly diversity? You would need to go there to decide which. In any case architect no. 2 wasn’t content to repeat. I still miss the photos capturing the bold new spatial effects where the canopy meets the shrines.
Your analogy or model for the process, that it is like solving or putting together a jigsaw puzzle of separate pieces, is faulty and much too confined for what is taking place, because a jigsaw has one answer and follows a narrowing process to a goal that is almost meaninglessly clear and definite. This other process is a loosening and tightening as you go, sometimes a limited task like identifying all the figures which swarm on the outsides of buildings, then finding that the sculptures on two related buildings follow the same sequence and can help solve each other, because different ones are recognisable in each, and others are obscure, and some are missing entirely, or not in their proper places but lying some distance away, like the semi-human creature planted temporarily in a blank space on the back wall of Harihari 1 at Osian (Harihara, who isn’t the single deity linking all three of these buildings–Harihara temples 1, 2 and 3–after all).
Chasing the Hindu stories round the outsides of these buildings can seem a childish activity. In truth we are now reduced to chasing them mainly through photographic archives of disconnected views, shattered but in some odd way a more continuously sensuous activity than many visits to actual buildings can consistently be. The photographer is making choices, continually selecting. And leaving out the wider context can result in more intense experience.
I find myself thinking of a remarkable French series that concentrates on obscure Romanesque buildings in obscure or at least very particular corners of (mostly) rural France. In some sense it is literally true that I have never been closer to the textures of carved limestone than when transfixed by the black and white photos in these modest-sized books.
‘Black and white’ isn’t good enough. These were images printed in heliogravure and bled off the edges of the page, leaving no room for captions or other distracting words diluting the confrontation with all the tones between light and darkness, glare and shadow in all their heights and depths, in a total concentration on the grain of the stone, the scuffs and breakages that describe its life over time, the contest between tools and the rock’s varying resistance, between the slow taming of mineral surface by wind and water, and the bursting forth of rude ideas about animal energy, and emotion crossing or breaking out on human features, all this filtered through a photographer’s eye, who’d been brought up on early modernism which had played havoc with religious belief.
For the Zodiaque series of Puritanical (in the best sense) treatments of Romanesque buildings were the brain child in the first place of a single Jesuit monk, trained as an artist and a priest, who combined these two strands in strong forms to produce (with committed collaborators) one of the most compelling visions of a phase in the story of art, especially vivid and alert to forces beyond a narrowly rational view of human culture and especially of animal life, a spirit it would be apt and inspiring to bring to bear on Indian architecture and sculpture of an equivalent period to the French Romanesque.
Perhaps our best hope of such an encounter lies in the photographic archive of around 120,000 images of Hindu temples assembled by the American Institute of Indian Studies, mostly in the late 1960s and early 70s. I haven’t tried to pin down images to particular photographers but have picked out a few that come closest to those in the Zodiaque series, especially the volumes in which Dom Angelico Surcamp took a sizable part.
To try and distinguish different photographers’ contributions in the Indian pictures is a project beyond me at the moment. So far I’ve barely thought of these Indian photos as works in themselves, but used them to understand the buildings.
But the Hindu stories—there I am still at an early stage. I come across ‘Natesa’, and after 4 or 5 occurrences I realise it’s a name for Siva, meaning ‘Dancer’, which is attached to him when he’s quelling demons by dancing on their heads.
I keep seeing Nrsimha, a god in the form of a man-lion, with a much smaller creature– human with an animal head?– the images too ruined and me too inexpert to make out these figures clearly. Lion-man seems to be tearing the little person open and letting his innards spill out. The lion-man must be an aspect of one of the main gods, given the prime positions he is awarded. I am putting off looking him up.
I get a kick out of Siva dancing on the heads of demons. I am fascinated but appalled at Nrsimha sitting there calmly eviscerating a child-victim. A few days ago I watched a film which E soon realised she didn’t want to see called Map to the Stars that was loaded with the exhilarating crudity of Greek myth. Children were doing awful things, setting fires in which they accidentally burned up themselves as well, strangling smaller children across their knees (cf Nrsimha) in Portacabins. Therapists acted out their clients’ fantasies, crouching over them like predators. These events took place mainly in Hollywood, and star maps showed you where the huge egos of film had their castles. Stardom was obscene and mysterious, yet had some connection to the heavens. All the grisly violence wasn’t just senseless. Hindu gods can also seem quite un-benign, but you need to know about them, and feel as you learn that you’re in touch with something that matters.
I am late realising that E and I are embarked on similar quests. She is working her way through a limited number (a quarantine, as it happens), 40 holy men (including only a token scattering of holy women) from all over the world, a number to which there is an end, which she can break down into a compassable number of distinct tasks and can even take a week off to do more pressing work, an inventory of an existing population, the furniture and ornaments of the house, or something which has a fixed terminus, like a gigantic shopping list, a survey in its way of all creation, but one which has a submission date by which it will be done, whereas mine keeps expanding from the dimensions of a single blog post to that of a book, or a couple of them, as if in cataloguing certain contents you went on discovering further series of rooms in a ramifying structure which kept on growing like Topsy, like a god who developed new limbs to accommodate new functions or new tasks, which were or became new identities, so the total number of gods might range anywhere from three to three hundred million.
[Excursus on Kanchipuran and Pattadakal] Here was meant to come a brief treatment of the Kailasa temple at Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu, a fascinating instance of a building as a mountain that I was put onto by a witty drawing of my friend Adam Hardy’s, which clarifies the organisation of this super-intricate, angular ‘mountain’, built of an impossible number of sub-units each complete in itself with a final result like an enormous, many-faceted lump of quartz. The drawing brings out the cartoon-like quality in the battery of horrific and comical lions who follow the twists of walls intensely indented, like an abstract rendering of rocky crags.
I intended to follow Kanchipuram with a treatment of the Virupaksha temple at Pattadakal, so the imaginary journey would begin and end with buildings I had actually visited, and Pattadakal would allow a final summation of the plenitude of Indian architecture, the whole human and natural worlds collected and summarised on the outer surfaces of a single building.
This plan came a-cropper through a discovery that seemed at first a miraculous validation. Somehow I came across a description of Ellora, the biggest and best of all rock cut temples, which derived it from the very buildings at Kanchipuram and Pattadakal I had chosen for purposes of my own. The account was even embellished with a sick king and his fasting queen, like inhabitants of a fairy tale, and I was off on a lengthy burrowing in the complexities of Ellora, plentiful sculptures, decorative innovations (the Rococo many centuries before its time), undreamt-of forms. Would I never be done? Every ending sprouted a further beginning. Except that this time the link between Ellora and the other temples was a fantasy, and the story of the building finished before its initial courses were laid, saving the queen from wasting away, was an opportunistic appropriation of an architectural paradox.
The number of interesting old temples in India kept growing and was the most numerous population anywhere in the world, which would only be manageable if I were 20 or 30 or 40 years younger and could fit in 5 or 10 or 20 annual trips to keep up with the expanding and deepening field. The Shell Guide to English Parish Churches might be the template – surprising it took me so long to notice the parallel, or Pevsner’s twenty-four years covering England which began at least ten years before it surfaced in a form visible to anyone else. In some sense this was the ideal ancestor, which kept popping up or beckoning, seeming to stand for any sustained human effort, a plan so ambitious it encompassed an entire place, a large island that resembled a continent, a task so huge it was probably not do-able. I set forth on my truncated version of such a task, consuming two years, not twenty-five, which still became a trap I was dying to get free of, as now I regretted being still a prisoner of Indian temples after almost two months.
The beginning of this obsession was lost in the mists of one of the intensest and at the same time blankest periods, when I could hardly leave the house or escape an isolation that would perhaps never end, except that here ‘never’ meant only a short span, a year or two until you inadvertently caught the disease you wouldn’t survive. Life had become both a nothing and a gigantic cosmic allegory, like the ones medieval folk went around thinking they had always been engaged in.
So that was a kind of template and its content was a series of temples, dictated by an unfathomably complex series of examples in a couple of books organised according to a series of local rulers who were locked into an extremely foreign geography or a history of exotic styles and the shifting stimulus of a big collection of images which all sat in four over-lapping volumes you kept picking up in no fixed sequence. Four was just enough to feel unencompassable like India, though it covered only two arbitrary blobs of territory over a not easily identifiable set of years Far Away and Long Ago. (The title of a book which bewitched me when I was just beginning to read on my own.)