Roman Vishniac travelling east in 1935-38

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Vishniac was a refugee, who had moved (or fled?) from Russia to Berlin in 1920. He got married at the border, and his daughter Mara, who appears in his photos of Berlin in the 30s, must have been born there. She functions in them as a kind of decoy. Photography wasn’t an entirely safe activity for a Jew there and then, certainly not when snapping the Nazi posters and symbols that Vishniac wanted to record, so Mara posed in front or to the side of the real subject and tried to look like the reason for getting out the camera.

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I am fighting off various superstitions about this subject. I first saw Vishniac’s pictures of the Jews of Eastern Europe in a small exhibition in Camden Town which I caught on the last day. I soon found out that he set off on three years of exploring the lives of poor Jews in Poland, Ruthenia and Ukraine in the very same year that American photographers were sent into the Deep South to record the lives of sharecroppers driven into destitution by the Wall Street crash and years of drought. I am thinking especially of James Agee and Walker Evans who spent three months in the fall of 1936 living with three families in rural Alabama.

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In that case there’s a wonderful convergence between Agee’s words and Evans’ images. With Vishniac there are images and few words, at least for me, so far. I need to wait and find out more, about Vishniac’s routes and the length of his stays—did he keep returning to Berlin? And how deeply connected with his subjects did he become?

But I feel a superstitious urgency to write about Vishniac and his pictures now, in the heightened moment of first meeting, and I have found an Agee of that moment in Europe whom I can work into my account of Vishniac, or whom I can at least feel hovering overhead. My European Agee is Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jew who kept a remarkable diary and was deported with her family from the camp at Westerbork in the Netherlands to Poland, where she died on 30 November 1943. So the dates and places don’t quite match, but she stands as a strong arguer for catastrophe transfigured by imagination, the imagination of a 27-year-old.

I can’t stop even now to read Etty’s diaries, but have learned from first glimpses that she had the most powerful sense that the acts of the oppressor were not ultimately real, lacking the force and presence of an inner truth she felt most fervently. Maybe something like this conviction, though unconscious, contributes to the inordinate power I feel in Vishniac’s images from the East, though I want to resist the urge to read the Holocaust into every one of these pictures that so often seem directly comparable with Evans’ from the American South.

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In one of his most famous lectures Heidegger says something about nearness and farness that hit me, when I came across it, with revelatory force, and went like this: that we have lost track of what is truly near and essential to us, forsaking it for that which is far away, with which we have nothing important to do.

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Vishniac’s pictures of the furthest fringes of Europe seem at first to have the appeal of the exotic and primitive, of lives unimaginably far from ours. The exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Camden Town tried to represent all parts of his career equally, or at least not to neglect long stretches, such as the fifty-year aftermath he spent in the USA. I found I had almost no time for the American pictures, except the ones which showed the deprivations of wartime, like the image above of women waiting to buy rationed meat.

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The pictures from the East seem to get closer to the essence of things, as do the interiors of sharecroppers’ houses in the Alabama book, or the careworn faces of farmers and their underfed children who have imbibed anxiety with their mothers’ milk. We find such emotions in children from both these places so far apart.

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How does the child in the Warsaw basement flat learn his alert caution? I don’t know anywhere else except the Alabama images where you see the rudest elements of the barest lives brought so near, with such devoted attention, as here in this basement, in the infinite variety of the ragged kindling or the coarse richness of the curtain or the bleakness of the cupboard. Evans’ pictures generally look more posed, or is it composed? Vishniac’s daring in pushing the boy to the edge of the frame seems extreme, but it was probably also the way of getting him to feel that the camera wasn’t pointed at him, and thus of catching him starting to relax.

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So you have in some way lived these objects, if not these lives. If you feel you have lived the lives, they have often come to you through the faces, and it can almost be the number of lines in a not so old face that keeps you focused, deciphering it. The Ruthenian farmer above was also a tanner, the caption tells us, an economic complexity which makes a doubling in the character.

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One of my own uncanny overlaps with Etty Hillesum is that someone gives her a copy of Crime and Punishment in two volumes, thinking it the right reading for such desperate times. This has just happened to me too, and I am looking everywhere for the lopsided proportions I love in Dostoevsky and finding them in Vishniac’s portraits. In the image above, as with Marmeladov, one of the writer’s most memorable creations, who disappears when you’ve barely met him, a strongly characterised figure appears round the corner of a larger, less characterised one, and their enigmatic exchange is never explained.

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Some images have eluded me almost entirely. Rabbis in ill-fitting, food- or mud-stained robes with three books under one arm, a bookcase with three shelves of battered books, the library of one of many rabbis in the remote, semi-mythical town of Mukachevo. The only image I can find of this collection of books adds its own faintness to this precarious sight, on which much ink has been spilt by later writers.

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My nearness to these places and these people, both like and unlike the ones Agee and Evans discovered, mostly urban not rural, and thus not conforming to the usual American idea of the most rooted kind of life, my nearness comes over me in those dirty crowded rooms devoted to reading, the yeshivas and perhaps even more the cheders, where one boy looking up in a visionary way is, we learn, one of the survivors, now living in Woodstock, New York, and a Buddhist.

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I have learned since writing this that Vishniac’s explorations were much riskier than I realised, so the parallel with Agee and Evans could seem frivolous to those who know the situation better.  The Jews of Warsaw were already subject to crippling regulation, like a government-sponsored boycott of Jewish shops that forced many out of business.  Jews were eventually prohibited from practising most trades except those considered low, like portering, a group Vishniac joined and lived among, loading and pulling wagons himself, which led to some of the best, most intimate pictures (and brought him nearer to Agee and Evans’ kind of immersion than I knew).  There were streets in which Jewish bagel-sellers were not allowed.  Such restrictions and indignities are all too familiar from Victor Klemperer’s diaries recording life in Dresden in the 1930s, and Polish techniques of oppression may sometimes be copied from German precedents.

Lee Krasner at the Barbican

 

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Lee Krasner spent a lot of time and energy interpreting and promoting the work of her husband. In a real sense Jackson Pollock was worth it, but it was thrilling to see in the recent exhibition at the Barbican that Krasner was producing at the same time a rich variety of work not in the least cowed by or under the spell of the Dionysian Pollock.

It is work of great intellectual depth and force, of ceaseless searching and renewal, so demanding and various that one visit wasn’t enough to take it all in.

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The exhibition began with the so-called tiny paintings, small in themselves and full of further levels of tinyness, little knots of activity scattered over the canvas. Labels spelled out the theory of this organisation, that small things can become monumental depending on context and your own focus. So you grasped from the start that Krasner was a visionary who saw metamorphically, which set you up to expect transformations in which all is not what it seems.

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Soon after, we came to her student work, charcoal nudes called life studies, that started looking like Michelangelo and moved on to Picasso-like fractures, a radically disruptive idea of taking dictation from nature. At this point did any of us dream that the end of it all would be the beginning?

After the impinging nearness of the nudes came unlikely wartime collages meant for window displays and populated by bombs, bombers, scientific instruments and scientists’ laboratories, full of fractious life. This was the period in which she met Pollock, as she oversaw a group of mainly male artists in a bold, practical project.

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Soon after the war she is doing something even more imaginative with collage, slicing up compositions she is dissatisfied with and forming them into powerful explosions which still carry narrative force, bursts of light, tangles of undergrowth, tumult in the heavens. Unlike most of her contemporaries, she went on giving descriptive or allusive titles to her pictures, which told viewers to look for rich imagery in seeming abstraction. Not just ‘seeming’ perhaps, for Krasner shows that these canvases can be both pure construction and individualised narrative at once.

One of the best surprises was to move from one side to the other of the square donut of the upper storey at the Barbican, from the small, dense collages of 1954 to large, free Pollock-sized ones of the very next year.

Both sets, the small and the large, are among her best works, and those viewers who thought they saw suspiciously Pollock-like scribbles in one of the larger set called Bald Eagle were absolutely right. Here Krasner cannibalised her own rejected canvases and one of Pollock’s too, which plays the part of the bird.

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In these pictures it’s more evident that new work is made from the ruins of the old, that new energy springs from the destruction of what went before, through ripping, shredding or cutting without much respect for earlier effort.

So certain colours have special meanings, and red is a kind of bloodshed in Bird Talk for instance (opening image). In this room Milkweed provided a measure of this—its cool colours seemed out of place.

Krasner’s best years in paint were difficult years with Pollock. One of the most exciting and disturbing rooms contained four violent paintings on bodily themes from just before and just after Pollock’s death, which occurred when Krasner had escaped briefly to Paris. You could fill a much larger room with the anguished work of that year and the next, among the most wonderful things Krasner ever did.

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This is where my attention finally wore out, after these pictures in flesh tones and grey, which might be evenly divided between anger and grief, but there’s nothing balanced about them. They are barely controlled, which makes them so uncomfortably exciting. They keep calling themselves back to order, and the canvas gets more and more crowded with colliding forms. They are sometimes said to derive from Picasso’s Demoiselles, to which they seem worthy rivals.

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Perhaps Krasner had already been shifting to soberer palettes in works like Cauldron (not in exhibition), but when we moved to the lower floor at the Barbican we were in a surprising new monochrome-world which might at first seem a diminishment, but resulted in a pair of masterpieces on a grand scale, a calm cloudscape or vast Northern expanse called Polar Stampede, and the wildest depiction of movement, The Eye is the First Circle, which incorporates whirlwind vortexes and heroic striding figures, a range of diffuse and focused motion which accompanies you as you walk past it. Did Krasner have in mind Pollock’s largest canvas, the regular/irregular Mural, meant for Peggy Guggenheim’s New York flat, Krasner’s seething crowd played against Pollock’s orderly procession?

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The almost-grisaille effect of Krasner’s umber paintings lets the formal power of the composition come out more clearly, but there’s also a more prosaic explanation of the source of this unexpected swerve in her work. The larger canvases are possible because she has moved into Pollock’s much bigger studio at their Long Island house. And the absence of colour has its source in her insomnia—she takes to painting at night by artificial light, doesn’t like what happens to colour in these conditions and hits on brown as a tone unspoiled by them.

There are more new departures in the 1960s and 70s, ‘flower’ paintings like Through Blue of 1963, made with a broken right arm which left her manipulating paint with her fingers, leading to great density of surface, and a spate of cartoon-like canvases including Courtship and Mister Blue of 1966.

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The exhibition ended with a startling return. Rooting around in the studio, a British friend found a large cache of charcoal nudes from student days. Krasner meant to destroy them, but looking more closely, felt she was being directed to turn them into something new. Instead of tearing, this time she cut them up with scissors. Out of this destruction came remarkable and unnerving works, in part her revenge on a teacher she had both revered and resented. He had once torn up one of her drawings.

The results of the butchering are tantalysing and confusing, like a Baroque ceiling with figures tumbling out of the corners, like Michelangelo’s lounging or sprawling figures anchoring an indistinct turmoil of other figures, like a series of movements only beginning to clarify themselves, and suggesting as so often in Krasner’s canvases that much bodily business remains to unfold.

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Writing: an exhibition at the British Library

 

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Writing is so familiar that it takes a real effort of imagination to remember that it needed to be discovered or invented. The Writing exhibition at the British Library put us back in the time when writing lay in wait for us, before we had stumbled upon it. The early stages remain obscure, images on cave-walls that we find expressive, a handprint surrounded by dots, at Pech Merle in France, for which the book of the exhibition supplies a literal translation, ‘I was here, with my animals.’

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That might be regarded as proto-writing. What does the earliest true writing look like, then? Little pictures scratched on the shoulder-blade of an ox and standing for what the cracks and fissures in the burnt bone are trying to say?—this is a widely shared idea of the beginnings of writing in China, written characters springing out of the same natural forces that reveal themselves in animal remains. So writing keeps a flavour of the divine and never loses, however abstract it becomes, its strong link with the visible world.

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In Mesopotamia writing appears more mundanely in fixing boundaries and accounting for possessions. There’s a persistent effort (a wish?) to trace these beginnings to Egypt. In 1905 this little sphinx was found, on which a British archaeologist thought he saw the first inklings of an alphabetic order, an ox-head facing left who was an early striving toward the letter A. His theory was refuted, only to rise again, with new evidence, in the 1990s.

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The contest between syllabic and alphabetic systems reappears periodically in the exhibition, one of the most striking outcomes being the Chinese typewriter of the mid 20c, which instead of 40 keys has 4000+ characters lying on a flat bed, which must be picked up individually, pushed against the paper and then put back. Twenty characters a minute is the maximum speed achievable in this language, which can’t easily be atomised.

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Apparently, switching alphabets is easy.  Stick-on Hebrew, Thai and Tamil keyboards appeared in the exhibition. Above is an Arabic keyboard, which I cannot evaluate for completeness or attractiveness. It seems to double-up along different axes from the cap/ lower case mode of Roman keyboards.

The evolution of the letter A was traced through five stages, and we cheered them on as they got closer to the truth. We also delighted to learn that the last known inscription in cuneiform occurred in 75 AD and the last hieroglyphic text in 394.

The Vai language of Liberia and other parts of West Africa waited until the 1830s to find a written form, which was revealed to its discoverer Momolu Dwalu Bukele in a dream. This is syllabic not alphabetic; the text below tells part of a family history.

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It is easier to believe that writing is intrinsically magical when everything about it is as foreign as it is here, but even Latin in cursive form, explained by the need to produce texts quickly, becomes mysterious again, all the more because it is clearly not fine writing striving for an artistic effect.   This comes from the record of a sale of property in Rimini in 572.  

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Latin turns up again in coded form recording conventional material in 9th century shorthand, which again achieves prosaic savings of time and space. A slave of Cicero’s is credited with the invention of this system of abbreviations originally devised for preserving his master’s speeches. One wonders if the strange variety in the length of the strokes isn’t a form of play or mystification, throwing decoders off the track.

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One of the most tantalysing exhibits was a Burmese album of tattoo designs in an intricate folding form.   The images, all in white on black, were often obscured or interfered with by inscriptions in gridded lozenges, one letter or character per compartment, which made the text eat up large areas of the image.   A horse-like animal’s head and chest were completely consumed by twenty-four characters in an 8 x 3 grid. Presumably the words that seem defacements to us were charms for which the whole project existed, and which only took effect when they were written on the body of the tattooee by a miracle-worker, equivalent to or more special than a priest.

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It is apparently a respectable theory and not just a Wordsworthian fantasy that the idea of the alphabet first appeared in the mind of a child. It is now a commonplace that the very young are most adept with the new forms of communication, which carry their oft-mooted threat to old forms of writing (by hand, for instance) or of dissemination (by printed books, above all).   These changes inspired the present exhibition, which reminds us of a long and precious history but isn’t blind to such thrilling new forms of expression as eL Seed’s (a version of a medieval hero’s name, el Cid) calligraphy on an urban scale, an inscription urging us to cleanse our sight that stretches over fifty buildings in a despised district of Cairo populated by garbage collectors.   The casual scribbles of teenage graffitists lie somewhere behind this enormous work, finally brought to pass in 2016, writing which transfigures the ruinous fabric of the city.

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Another teenage ‘writer’ (the technical term in New York for a graffiti artist) was among the group of Syrian boy-graffitists whose arrest and torture for covering walls with slogans sparked off the Syrian revolution. Against this new outdoor form of writing we can put the old indoor, solitary form represented by an old white novelist, another breaker of moulds in his time.

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Writing: making your mark at the British Library until 27 August 2019

 

Antoni Tàpies: writings on the wall

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How to explain never noticing Antoni Tàpies until now? Is it because of insoluble problems with the reproducibility of the work, whose material presence is essential and doesn’t come through in photographs? Tàpies goes on calling his works paintings long after this word ceases to fit. Instead of pictures of suffering, Tàpies presents the martyred body itself, a canvas defaced by gouging, tearing and brutal insertions, obscured by coverings that largely obliterate it or disguise its existence. He calls the surface he works on a battleground, and all the marks or adjustments he makes, wounds, but his paradoxical goal is tranquility. He quotes Heraclitus, ‘all arises from discord,’ and ‘harmony comes from its contrary.’

Besides the Pre-Socratics one of his main inspirations appears to be Zen Buddhism with its appetite for sweeping away complexity of content in order to contemplate the void, in the shape of a blank wall or an expanse of raked sand.

It isn’t immediately evident from the work that Tàpies is a learned artist, whose grandfather owned a well-known bookshop in Barcelona, destroyed by bombing in the Civil War, and whose father had a large library. Wandering in the war-ravaged city Tàpies had the sense of a heritage taken away, a feeling exacerbated by two years recovering from tuberculosis (from age 17 to 19), confined first in his bedroom at home and then in a sanatorium.

Later he attributes key features of his work to all that time passed within the same narrow walls, in a space furnished only with a bed and a wardrobe with large mirrors on its doors; features—wall, door, mirror—which dominate much of his work. He calls this period his forty days in the wilderness, a painful experience of deprivation ‘that may not have ended even now’. When you first meet the phrase, it is a shock to find him pointing to a Scriptural model in trying to describe his own progress as an artist. Is there really a religious painter hidden in the work of Antoni Tàpies and trying to get out?

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I first encountered this work in a little display called Writings on the Wall at Waddington Custot in Cork Street, which included six artists, half of them completely or nearly unknown to me (Tàpies one of these), only Brassai. Dubuffet and Twombly previously familiar. Brassai was represented by photographs of defaced walls in Parisian streets, defaced by punctures that someone chanced upon later and turned into the eyes of faces made with a few gouged lines, which were under- and over-written by other rough attempts at writing or drawing.

Brassai called these eyes ‘the eyes of the street’ and felt a demonic force in the rudimentary scratchings.  Dubuffet had photographed graffiti in similar places and drew graffiti-like pictures of his own, which became austere and illegible lithographs and etchings in black and white.

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Tàpies was present here in the largest work by far, called DUAT, consisting of a long horizontal expanse of sand like a beach, a surface of sufficient depth to write and draw in it with no finer instrument than a stick.  The main word duat (if it is a complete word) which I still don’t know the meaning or even the language of, is written in two different mediums—as dug out of sand, and as scrawled with an oversized pencil (the right half of A, and the whole of T). I can’t tell you how pleasing it was that someone had given up gouging and reverted to writing this word halfway through. It’s not the only sign of randomness in the work, just the most unapologetic.

I didn’t notice one of the main consistencies in Duat in the course of lots of looking (on more than one occasion). I’ve noticed only now that there are three ‘doors’ drawn in sand, evenly spaced across the top two-thirds of the canvas. All three are drawn in sand; only one is ‘open,’ having had the sand excavated from the rectangle and the missing door drawn in perspective (‘hanging open’) to the left of the empty opening.

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A frame is drawn in the sand around the middle door. There’s a mysterious build-up of sand like braided hair down one edge of the third door, evidence of raking or clearing the sand with some kind of scraper. These are not the most interesting details in the whole work, but sand is the most arresting of the various materials, and the one with the most life in it. The effect of the sand standing up on the wall, and not falling off, is like a magic trick that goes on delighting the spectator for a long time, like the drips and spirals of paint in a Pollock that you know came down onto the canvas from a height, but are now standing up and cancelling gravity.

Maybe the doors are windows, and the indoor shutters lying or falling at the bottom of the picture belong to them and have been exploded off, like a rock blocking a tomb, and the white (beach) towel is what’s left of the grave-clothes.

One of the first things someone coming to Tàpies notices is all the crosses. There are two of them here, in insignificant locations, one camouflaged as an X, and further obscured by forming only a part of the Roman numeral for eleven. Surely they aren’t that important in what this picture (without thinking I use this unsuitable word) means.

At this point maybe we should read what Tàpies has to say about the meaning of the cross in general and in his thinking—an emblem of suffering, a graph of the meeting and crossing of contrary forces, the world tree anchored in the centre of the earth, the linking of routes from the four quarters of the compass, the universal person formed of symmetrical binaries, and more. Turned a quarter-turn, the cross becomes an X, a sign used to delete something or multiply it.

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Even the letter T which appears often as an attenuated, parochial form of cross and one of the initials with which Tàpies signs his work can be etherialised in varnish like a spectre rising from a chest of drawers.

Tàpies feels a powerful urge to reduce symbols to the simplest graphs, but then to reload them with all the cultural baggage he seemed keen to escape or at least to strip of its parochial character.

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He was a passionate Catalan and reworked the Catalan flag (in Catalan Spirit, 1971), four red stripes on a gold ground, which at first seemed to me trivial and local, until I focused on how the red had become separate from the yellow and each stripe separate—different, individualised—from the others and written over and under with legible and illegible inscriptions that changed colour as the letters crossed the stripes. Tiny and indistinct replicas of the stripes skitter across the surface like the footprints of small animals or the sharp scratches of their fingers.

And the flag has been turned sideways from horizontal to vertical, or is it an earlier, archaic form taken from a coat of arms, itself a reminiscence of a moment after a battle when Louis the Pious dips four fingers in a Catalan count’s wound and writes them onto the dying man’s gold shield? So Tàpies’ rudimentary form materialises as a Wagnerian myth, and we’re back at art as magic, and now one of Tàpies’ favourite lines of Whitman flits through our heads ‘the priest leaves and the poet appears’.

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There are gruesomely literal Tàpies like Form of a Crucified Figure of 1959 or Material in the shape of an Armpit of 1968, and there are others just as poignant and in their own way as grisly, like Holes and Nails in White, also 1968, a dissected crucifixion which keeps the wounds and the nails apart, not the only time that Tàpies forces parts of the construction through from the back, a painful piercing of the flesh the whole way through. Here there’s another deformation of the surface, boiling up to become liquid after being solid, then congealing again and seeming bodily or visceral because of the imagery of pain.

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This is one of the most recessive instances of a recurrent Tàpies motif, elements of the composition fleeing the centre and ending up at the edge, even over the edge and out of our sight.

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Again the childishness of a magic trick which can make things disappear and persuade you they are gone for good, but these works are also fables of the transitory, in which the image is swept aside like marks in the sand by the tide, which doesn’t always bother to erase them completely.

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The most profound link in Writing on the Walls occurs between the walls of Brassai, pictures of hallucinatory vividness, of found objects located in particular Parisian streets at specific times of day, and Tàpies’ walls, which are not pictures of walls but objects which will hang on walls like paintings, yet are not paintings though he calls them that, but walls themselves, something more primary and immediate than canvas, a different order of reality, which incorporate earth in their substance and embody the Heraclitan magic of getting a spark of fire to erupt from a pile of rubbish composed of the humblest materials—sand, straw, string, rags, burnt and ruined things.  

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‘Writings on the Wall’ at Waddington Custot, 11 Cork Street, London W1 until 8 August 

A visit to a cathedral

 

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Move fast and break things

This is the supposed mantra of the founder of Facebook who stole the idea but not the name for this cobbled-together monstrosity of our era, a name which glues together two rough pieces which don’t match but make an easy-to-remember new creature.

The first thing that greets the visitor to the interior of Winchester cathedral is a window filling the entry wall made of thousands of senseless fragments.  This huge work has sometimes been mistaken for a recent design by an abstract artist, but instead of an intentional work, the window is a strange response to destruction. Puritan soldiers smashed all the old stained glass in 1642 and twenty years later the shards were collected and formed into this new whole.  These must be the remnants of a much bigger destruction, though, because they fill the old frame completely. Looking for survivals of order in the chaos is an almost hopeless task. A couple of heads are placed as if a long panel was planned for a single large figure, but that is about all the order I can find.

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As a child I broke things. I know this because my grandmother collected the bits and made them into an umbrella stand, a fairly useless object which fascinated me by its glitter and by how nothing fit. What is the thinking behind such projects? To make sure you never forget the destruction? Or a form of redemption, to extract beauty from its contrary? So it’s a twisted form of conservation, and a memorial—you don’t lose the broken treasures entirely. Is this primitive archaeology where the idea of the jigsaw puzzle came from? To create a shattered pot and then re-assemble it.   Maybe a love of fragments and a focus on the part not the whole sometimes starts in the idea of destruction, which will be followed by collecting the debris left behind by the cyclone of history.

Questions remain about the intentions of the reassemblers of the big West Window at Winchester: was it to make the neatest possible replica, or the most chaotic, even violent one, a memorial to destruction? Memory of the original organisation of the glass would have been fresh enough twenty years after, and it should have been possible to make a more orderly impression, instead of something like an explosion. So perhaps what we have instead is more like abstract art in intention after all, expressing complexity or conflict. The reassemblers were making a political point, not just filling space.

In the late poems of Geoffrey Hill (perhaps in Speech! Speech! most of all) the jostling of different vocabularies, tones and speakers makes The Waste Land look decorous, and if obscure, not scrambled. For Hill, a true rendering of our reality comes out looking something like the reassembled shards at Winchester, fragments of speech banging uncomfortably into each other, in which the final outcome or fullest understanding will not be a reassembly of shards into a recognisable image now continuous. The shattering is deeply part of the poem’s being that cannot be wished away or resolved by explanation.

The meaning of the great West Window has perhaps changed with time and become a picture of something its assemblers never saw or intended. It is not exactly like a window that any contemporary designer would call into existence; neither is it entirely remote from certain modern designs. Nor does it provide even an approximate key to Geoffrey Hill’s most shattered poems. But there’s a strange way in which it has unexpectedly come into its own. Hill finds himself in a fractured world and like Ruskin sets about putting it right, not by reconstructing the lost wholeness but by thriving on brokenness, summoning it forth to disgrace itself and lend him and his readers propulsive force in the process, making poetry of the newest, rawest, most appalling contradictions thrown up by the destructive forces that rule our public realm.

Only in retrospect do I realise that I hardly looked at the envelope or up at the vault in this visit to Winchester cathedral.  First, odd wall tombs at odds with their surroundings, settings which had been ignored, if known at all, by their designers, and next the famous font with scenes like children’s drawings in a stone so dark the scenes were hard to see.

DSC08721.jpgAnd then, something unexpected, which I mistook for a nineteenth century replica, a set of spindly wooden stalls covered in carving, a thicket of close-packed detail I mistook for recent because the wood looked new and yellowish, like fresh oak that hadn’t had time to mellow. Later I found an old description that complained about ‘the rich treacly brown the nineteenth century liked’, now (in 2019) banished by aggressive cleaning, which had removed every visible sign of the centuries’ passage.

In spite of the apparent newness, I am soon convinced that the carving is medieval by the randomness with which figures appear in the surrounding foliage. They don’t form a narrative, aren’t a uniform size and are almost swallowed by the insistent vegetation that sweeps across flat expanses, then stops suddenly, to be replaced by an entirely different species.

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At the level of detail there doesn’t seem to be much of a plan –falconers or monkeys or soldiers or lions just pop up, like the whole assemblage did when it took over my attention in the first place. I think of Ruskin’s reconstruction of the mind of the Gothic workman in his most famous piece, published as a detached fragment by William Morris.  His depiction of this mind was really a breaking-to-pieces of conventional ideas of how art is made and of the special character of Gothic in particular.

Obstinacy, changefulness, inconsistency, wilfulness–Ruskin’s qualities of the medieval workman are all forms of unruliness and disobedience, lacking overall plan and any sort of predictability, which of course can’t possibly account for the design of any large structure as a whole. I’m tempted to look up the complete list in Ruskin’s chapter now. That day in the cathedral I was carrying a book in my backpack which gave a careful description of the building, starting with its bare bones and the logic of the structure, which I’d begun by pushing aside, a book (I didn’t know this then) I would never open in the whole course of my visit. There’s something strangely satisfying about having the authoritative unpacking of the subject but never actually using it, like an umbrella or extra set of clothes included in case the others get wet.

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There are those thickets of carving, but the Winchester stalls consist primarily of a lofty fictitious architecture towering overhead, decorated with perforated elements looking through to further spaces closed off by miniature vaults. First architect-masons devised novel methods of spanning odd-shaped spaces and then their successors made vaults into intricate terminations for spaces primarily conceptual.

The clearest sign that the designers and carvers of the Winchester stalls are just playing with ideas of building is the spindly quality of all the upper elements and also the contrived congestion at the four points where the stalls must turn a corner. Here the carvers make a spatial opportunity out of an awkwardness, flaunting the need to cut off forms in order to fit together two sections arriving from different directions.

 

 

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Even though I don’t remember Ruskin’s qualities of Gothic word for word, they are still my guide to the unsystematic system on which the biggest works of their era are based, with results of great richness that only ever fit together imperfectly, while never losing a sense of the life which inheres in departures from strict regularity.

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Still in the choir at Winchester, not far from the stalls in their new-found paleness, is an oversized 19 c bishop’s throne like an independent building, a chunky tower in wood so dark it approaches blackness. All its pinnacles, and there are many, exhibit vegetable growth so clogged it seems almost diseased. The most wonderful moment comes in down-pointing elements whose every strand ends in a tormented head, howling, grimacing, or sticking out its tongue, an idea of Gothic that reaches a last flowering in horror comics which, extrapolating from these congested heads, we can almost recognise as authentic descendants of medieval grotesque.

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Winchester has far more than any other place of a distinctive English form of late Gothic architecture, the so called ‘stone-cage’ chantry, a kind of construction even more like another building inserted within the larger building than the enclosure of stalls forming three sides of a rectangle and terminating in gables and spires as if they strove to become architecture.

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The stone-cage chantry inserts itself between two existing piers, which it claims as parts of itself and surrounds with an enclosure of tall screens. The chantry rarely swallows the piers completely, because it’s crucial to its self-idea that it is a parasite of a harmless kind, joined to the fabric which it enriches, though closing off other possibilities just by being there.

Although the stalls at Winchester have architectural elements and qualities, they’re not competing with the enveloping building in the same way as the chantries. Stalls are furniture, chantries are more preemptive: complete, bounded and self sufficient as stalls aren’t. Such constructs were to a significant degree the form into which architectural invention went at a certain point in the development of Gothic, but how seriously can you take a whole new architecture for just one person, and that person a corpse? The key feature of these implants is that they are intruders, which promulgate an alternative view of architecture from that of their surroundings. The chantry’s status thus becomes more problematic the more assertively individual the result, an alien body within a preexisting body, a tumour more threatening to the life around it the more lively it is in itself.

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conical intersect further into cones.jpgIn the 1970s Gordon Matta-Clark went round carving out new spaces in existing buildings, like chantries in reverse, or voids as independent structures, which it was only possible to discover lurking in nondescript industrial or commercial buildings because they were already corpses, that is to say, scheduled for demolition. A negative can’t ever be simply a positive, but Matta-Clark had remarkable successes in these figure-ground experiments that made absences feel stronger than presences. The effect could seem almost metaphysical, and the non-existent acquired inescapable reality. Perhaps the chantries too are always flying in the face of fundamental facts, and like fables or myths able to make you believe in something which isn’t entirely there.

The oldest chantry in the eastern-arm at Winchester spoils one of the most harmonious spaces in the building, the retrochoir between the chancel and the lady chapel, now interrupted by two matching structures, the first of which, Bishop Beaufort’s chantry, consists in its upper half of a crowd of pinnacles filling the space over the bishop’s tomb and reaching up until it seems about to bump against the vault. The forms are a quintessence of architecture, its slenderest, most ethereal parts, but effervescing so enthusiastically they threaten to form an indistinguishable mass. And the suggestion of energetic movement resembles organic growth, an overall effect that combines elegant brittleness and a hint of living tissues pulsing with life.

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In his lengthy piece about stone-cage chantries Julian Luxford compares these stone cages to monks’ cells, as if their seclusion were a form of turning one’s back on the world and worldliness, whereas the effect is usually more that of a privileged preserve which bars entry to ordinary worshippers. 

For the next chantry in the chronological sequence, Bishop Langton chooses a more defensible location in the southeast corner of the building, which is then engorged with a wooden successor to the choir stalls, topped off with a ring of fanciful towers whose most bewitching feature is a series of inverted cusps crawling with crockets, forms like noses or tongues which would be at home on African masks.

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The last two chantries built have no piers to hang onto. Instead they swallow sections of the screens running down the sides of the choir, which they intrude into at its top corners. Bishop Fox’s, accessible from the aisle that runs down its long side, is the richest trove of late Gothic detail in the cathedral.

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Every element is multiplied and repeated. Every line is crimped and what starts as a simple quatrefoil becomes an indescribable cusped form, where every sub-form ends as two. Niches have canopies that perform this dividing and subdividing until the whole seems on the edge of toppling into misrule, but never quite falls.  At times it seems there won’t be room for all the sub-friezes and the multi-faceted fragmentation of simple posts supporting pedestals barely big enough to hold what sits on them.

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Coming late in a long history, the Fox chantry thrives on distortion and fragmentation of familiar forms, and especially on forms turned inside out, so a column with a series of sharply concave faces is a kind of negative of the norm, in which comfortably rounded bulges are turned to uncooperative vacated forms, as if advertising that they can’t support weight, drawing attentions to hollows not solids, which Ruskin thought an offence against nature and a threat to all integrity, but was helplessly drawn to study and understand. Such forms seem leftovers or cast-offs from which the usable core has been spirited away, leaving a sense of absence.

Something exciting and also disturbing and undermined about these forms, like Matta-Clark’s voids which render surrounding fabric useless, which was already a corpse when he arrived and found a second life in decay, which for most of his adherents was always going to be no more than a wonderful kind of hearsay that almost as soon as it was born had been smashed to pieces.

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There’s a drawing of one bay of the elevation of Fox’s chantry that has generally been taken as the work of the chantry’s designer, the royal mason William Vertue, famous for fan vaults at Westminster and Windsor.  This drawing has long been regarded as a precious survival, a working drawing from around 1510. But now along comes Christopher Wilson, one of the best current writers on Gothic, to wonder if it isn’t an artefact of a wholly different kind, a post-Reformation rendering of the chantry stripped of its finery. After which, Nicholas Riall tells us that the drawing differs in fifty different ways from what was built, so it cannot possibly be an attempt to show it after construction.   I set about looking for those fifty variations, and I find quite a few, but then wonder what Ruskin would say about such a dogged enterprise.  At least the search has increased my appreciation of Vertue’s endless ingenuity and set me thinking about how much (or how little) of the later stages of his exuberance he ever mentioned to the client.

A collector and his collection

 

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An interest in what used to be called primitive art is often dabbling in things it can’t admit to, like aggression and violence, living vicariously in a wilder and fiercer world than the safe one most of us inhabit, at least for now.

My latest encounter with real wildness came entirely through a couple of books, which catalogue 598 choice objects from a private collection of Oceanic art, two volumes so unwieldy that, like old people increasingly housebound, they haven’t moved for months from the room in which I finally parked them, which nowadays I don’t have much occasion to visit except to scan these records of John Friede’s amazing collection. The day I brought them here is stamped inside their front covers, November 28th of last year, the day of my second visit to the big exhibition of Pacific island art at the Royal Academy.

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They are a spin-off of this exhibition, or a substitute for it which would last long after it ended, both bigger and smaller than it was, more compact and more unmanageable, since no one had given this material a shape or picked out its themes, which remained for me to discover, if they were there at all.

The fact that certain things are owned by a certain person is interesting to him or her but not to anyone else, unless the collector happens to be John Ruskin or some other figure you are already interested in for a good solid reason outside his collection. Collecting seems the very opposite of public spirited, and yet collections themselves are almost always interesting, if you can get them away from their owners, which you often can if he/she wants the collection to survive him/her, because it has come to represent him and is a kind of self-portrait.

John Friede was obsessed with the art of New Guinea, but had never been there. He knew all the European collections and their keepers, but he wasn’t tempted by the South Seas themselves, or at least put off his visit (which he didn’t soon repeat) until late in his career.

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At first I wasn’t interested in the collector, only in his magical collection, or rather the beguiling presentation of it in well-lit photographs that lent all the pieces fantastic immediacy. Many of the objects are small, yet there are fragments of facades, roof posts and large slit-gongs mixed in. But in these books everything is the same size and they all fill the large pages in much the same way.

The Friede collection makes a strong impression because it’s ruled by strong imaginations, John Friede’s and those of the cultures he gravitated to when he knew them only by their artefacts. Early in collecting he decided to focus on one Pacific island, the largest, New Guinea, a small part of the whole Oceanic territory, but still vast. The island is the size of Spain and Italy combined and home to 1000 different languages.

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Despite such unencompassable variety, certain over-arching themes appear in these objects. Dancers follow a powerful cultural prompting to take on the character of birds, and mask after mask portrays a human face taken over by a beak, as if pursuing an urge to become all beak, and thus all bird, as if set on leaving human form and consciousness behind altogether.

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In a whole class of figures the beak turns into something else, a flute which the bird-man’s hands then play, or an elephant’s trunk which merges imperceptibly with a snake-like extension from the abdomen rising to meet it. Such grotesque distortions are seen by Friede as crucial goads in jolting the sleeping Western imagination awake.

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Human beings are constantly found subsumed in other forms, camouflaged as elements of communal food dishes which themselves resemble canoes, where each separate human face assumes dish-like form.

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There’s a powerful formal preference for concentric arrangements with the face at the centre. Sometimes it feels like the disappearance of all individuality, subsumed in irresistible general forms. Sometimes the human form is peeled like an onion to see if there’s a permanent core inside.

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It can feel like regression to earlier reptilian stages (above), or it can seem a painful evisceration as the outer layers are cut away looking for more or different life inside (below), like a medical experiment testing the limits of the organism.

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This piece is one of the suspension hooks so common in the artefacts of the East Sepik cultures. Perhaps it has its origins as a practical device, a way of hanging food out of the reach of marauding animals, but it plays a powerful spiritual role as well, in the group’s relations with higher powers, for whom offerings are left hanging from such hooks. Much of the local figure sculpture is associated with the hooks, so ubiquitous that they present themselves almost as body parts, fulfilling a function so essential they look as if they’ve been internalised or only need a suitable occasion to erupt from the body, as seems to happen with the prong-man and woman that produce hook-like projections, not actually usable for hanging things, on other parts of the body. In this culture we can understand the usefulness of a hook-deity who bristles with them, like a crocodile’s sharp bumps on the spine, more active and energetic than smooth flesh.

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prong-woman standing on her hooks

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prong-woman from behind

Ceaseless ingenuity is applied to turning one thing into another—a three-dimensional pig can mirror a two-dimensional crocodile, and a man and a bear can face off against one another, sharing the same set of legs. A smaller creature stuck to or exuded by the body of a larger one is one of the clearest signs that such a transformation is taking place.  The pig below isn’t easily recognisable but is clearly some kind of creature.

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pig mirroring crocodile

The growth emerging from prong-man’s chest is a bony structure at the top and nurses a bird-embryo lower down, an altogether weirder mutation.  There’s a whole system of mythic creatures buried here, how comparable to the familiar Greek set we will never be able to say because it never appeared in print while it was alive.  Perhaps this obscure system is all the more alluring because permanently lost and indecipherable, because the chance to write it down came too late, after corruption by strong foreign ideas.

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Prong-man’s chest-growth

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Helmet-bird-shield-man can be all these things simultaneously, all the more successfully  because so much detail has been washed away by the weather.

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One of the most enigmatic recurring forms in the collection is masks or covering for the whole head made of basketry, which is nearer to a living, breathing material than wood or clay, yet seems more far-fetched, less life-like when woven into these body-forms. The results are not solid bodies, and probably have much shorter life expectancy than the more common wooden masks, and though they obviously required hours to make, are perishable like grass. In this fragility lies some of their appeal—how do you make them take on or keep their shape? Inevitably there’s something impromptu or lopsided about all basket-beings. They seem more like domestic appliances than art, and unsuitable for ceremony or ritual.

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Some of the most appealing objects in the collection are shown blurring their identities under the conditions in which they are photographed, like the ‘mask’ (not obviously wearable) whose features, smeared sideways by shadows, make it look as if his two mouths are crossing each other and will merge.  It’s a strangely effective graph for slurred speech, and the bemused expression or baffled grin on this face is partly down to the senile decay of its substance over time.

21 5445-286 blur ruin mask.jpgSomething similar operates with the so called ‘fragmentary mask’ below, like an animal’s skull abandoned in a field, that’s now brought indoors where every tremor of its surface becomes full of meaning.

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Among the most evocative and mysterious images are the close-ups of bone daggers usually made from the femurs of cassowaries (large flightless birds) and intended purely for display during initiation ceremonies, not serious equipment for killing your enemies. Maybe the upper ends of these bones, ruined by carving which turns them into works of human art, have partly sought and partly stumbled into the appearance of decay, that now makes them such suitable mementoes of death in forgotten battles. First below is a weeping face losing clear definition, while the next one is another bird-man that is particularly hard to believe in as a serious weapon.

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The two big books were published in 2005 when John Friede gave a significant part of his collection to a museum in San Francisco, who I imagine helped make them such lavish productions. An even more ambitious series of publications is announced in his essay in the initial volume.

Trying to find out more about this charming man who has named his collection Jolika after the first syllables of his children’s names, I stumble onto reports of long-standing lawsuits brought by his brothers disputing the inheritance that has funded all the purchases. John Friede isn’t the hard-headed businessman I projected, after all. The money was his mother’s, herself a collector and John her favourite, so some members of the family contend. The magnificent books are defensive weapons in this struggle and argue that the collection is a great cultural good to be preserved at all cost. They have convinced me.

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Phyllida Barlow’s mock-architecture

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Normally, putting quotes around words to show they aren’t what they seem is an annoying habit that rarely stops at just one such suspect-word. But encountering Phyllida Barlow’s work in her recent Royal Academy exhibition, I found so many exhilarating send-ups of architectural and sculptural norms, so many witty violations of what the unsuspecting art lover expects that I felt I needed to write ‘truth’ to ‘materials’, ‘honest construction’; ‘gateway’, ‘column’, ‘monument’; ‘weight’, ‘stone’, ‘steel’.

Also, another violation—architecture seems a more appropriate label than sculpture for most of the eight large works in the exhibition, which fill these huge spaces so much fuller than the last occupant’s, the many tiny models in Renzo Piano’s exhibition.

1 barlow.jpgSome are cartoon-illustrations of the history of architecture, like the one called ‘lintel shadow’ which projects a monumental gateway like those three-part compositions at Stonehenge but taller and spindlier, in one sense more imposing, in another more precarious. It led to a ‘stone’ enclosure like an introduction to an underground tomb. It led ‘underground’ or nowhere, and fit the idea of a shadow of architecture by being out of true in every axis and every dimension. It was stony in its form–big lumps, scored with accidental grooves and gouges, which lent a kind of ‘authenticity’ to the ruined masses, yet also made you suspicious.  As you got nearer, a sliver of the air beyond appeared between adjacent ‘blocks’, which were coloured a convincing mottled gray but gave out a hollow sound if you tapped them.

1a barlow.jpgThey were a figment or a fiction, an insubstantial shadow. Doubtless the lintel too, far out of reach, was a partly convincing fake, hoisted up on rickety poles which had had to be extended by bolting smaller pieces to them with crude splints, our first encounter with the sculptor’s habit of flaunting a few ‘mistakes’–revisions or changes of direction she preferred not to smooth over or clean up. ‘Admitting your mistakes’ has here a wonderful feeling of being at ease with your materials (no quotes) and your project. It evolves, and your audience can watch that happening.

2 27 barlow.jpgSome of the solidest elements are the shadows, especially the sloping platform ‘cast’ by the massive ruined column called ‘barrel’ in Barlow’s title for it (all her titles follow directly after untitled:– ‘untitled: barrel’). This looks like a waffle-structure in metal, or a model of a curving three-storey block of modernist flats, except that unlike other shadows it is supported by unstable poles driven into swampy ground and poking through the surface of the swamp so crookedly you lose faith in them completely. I had enjoyed the messy punctures in the fibrous board that constitutes the horizontal (but sloping) surface, calling up a forlorn watery landscape.

2 32 barlow.jpgYet I still went on trying to establish that, unlike all the other materials which ended up able to defy gravity because they weighed next to nothing, this big slab was ‘actually’ steel, and went on inspecting its supports to see how they actually did it. Could it be that I wanted the sculptor to insert a major inconsistency among all her violations of truth-to-appearances?

3e 10 barlow.jpgThe most entertaining conglomerate is saved for the last of the three rooms. It is called ‘blocks on stilts’, which doesn’t begin to do it justice. It consists of four towers (you will have to count them more than once before you believe there are only four, and you will think you have disentangled them only to find they have mixed themselves together again). In some sense it is a simple idea, a set of four-legged frames, each of them existing to raise one impossibly bulky rectangular-solid impossibly high.

The maze of wooden poles and braces looks too weak for the job and seems to be held together by cloth bandages wrapped around all the joints and then given a runny coat of plaster that penetrates the gauze of the bandage and stiffens the joint. On every tower one of the lowest struts has been removed after construction by chopping it off near the bandage-joint but leaving a short sample of the amputated strut at either end, undermining the perfection of the design and letting you savour the process of improvement—now you can walk more freely among the forest of poles, the nearest approach in these fresh works to ‘nature.’

3 29 barlow.jpgSome time after finishing this, I remembered my calculation that there are 12 legs in ‘blocks on stilts’, so there must be three towers, not four. But in another sense there are four—when you are there, the parts are magically multiplied and counting them doesn’t settle the question, strictly speaking.

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Nicholas Hilliard magnified

 

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English writers of Nicholas Hilliard’s time considered him the equal of Michelangelo and Raphael, a preposterous claim, you may think.  The greatest Italian miniaturist, Giulio Clovio, had set a precedent, though, of linking the extremely large and the decidedly small by mimicking the range and layout of the Sistine ceiling in the Farnese Book of Hours, in a series of illuminations on Biblical subjects at a scale not far from Hilliard’s, whose portraits of Elizabeth and her courtiers are tiny by whatever standards of the miniature you apply.

One justification for the comparison is that both scales stretch unmercifully the ability of human senses to take them in. Every observer can see at once that Michelangelo has exceeded human scale and challenged mind and eye to comprehend all that confronts them. It is less obvious that we can’t appreciate the wealth of Hilliard’s images trusting to normal sight. There is plenty to see without magnification, but once you have seen what enlargement brings, ‘life size’ doesn’t seem enough.

So in the recent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery magnifying glasses were supplied, and wielding one you could switch between normal and enhanced vision. There’s also a further layer of difficulty—to save the delicate watercolours from damaging amounts of light they can’t be strongly or evenly lit, even for a special exhibition like this, so some parts are inevitably cast in shadow.  It is even worse in permanent displays, at the V & A for example, where I experienced an epiphany the other day caused primarily by poor lighting. Among the most lyrical passages in Hilliard’s wonderful Treatise is a description of how rubies become burning fires by candlelight–it seems he was prepared to have his work seen under trying or unusual conditions.

1 4 hilliard leicester silver vam diam 4.4cm 1571-74.jpgThus, in at least two ways we can’t experience Hilliard’s work fully when standing directly in front of it. This sounds a drawback and so it seems at first, but I’ve come to feel it as a kind of richness—Hilliard dawns on you in stages, slowly. In one of his earliest surviving works, a circular bust-length image of Leicester, the Queen’s favourite, a painting less than two inches across, the background seems an anonymous grey to the naked eye, but is known to have had special attention lavished on it, to be founded on a base of silver which has been selectively burnished to bring it out in patches, probably with an instrument like a weasel’s tooth mounted on a stick, as described in Hilliard’s treatise The Arte of Limning.

This detail emerges first under magnification looking like Islamic script, before being recognised as a dusky brocade pattern, an effect so subtle and recessive one marvels at the attention required to produce it. If you want to appreciate fully the concentrated craft of this artist you need to read his short and wonderfully quirky treatise, with all its detail about washing colours, behaving suitably with aristocratic sitters and understanding the mystical properties of the five main types of precious stone, which Hilliard seems to believe are the ultimate sources of colour in its purest form.

The treatise wasn’t printed until the early 20c, though it had already had a considerable influence in manuscript. Hilliard himself has come into much clearer focus as recently as 2019 with the publication of Elizabeth Goldring’s biography, which is particularly strong on the formative role of two long stays on the Continent, first as an 8-12 year-old and then two further years around the age of 30.  Among Goldring’s riskiest, most charming speculations is the idea that Hilliard was introduced to Holbein and Dürer, later his idols, as a nine year old in Germany. My skepticism grows weaker when I remember the impression a year in California made on me at age 5 and as I hear of my ten year old grandchild’s response to a month in China.

2 11 hilliard self vam diam 41cm 1577.jpgHilliard’s self-portrait inscribed with a date of 1577 takes on a new meaning when placed in his French period when it was painted, where he saw artists accorded higher status, and was welcomed into learned circles around writers like Ronsard, newly identified as one of his sitters. Hilliard’s little self-portrait shows him as another gentleman, not a mere artisan, a claim picturesquely fleshed out in the treatise. The liveliness of expression in the features, especially the eyes, the hair and the set of the mouth, is extended by the flying bits of the clothes, as if rocked by a breeze, and the dematerialised edges of the ruff, which will become an even more outlandish feature of many later Hilliard portraits, where regular pattern and an opposing force are locked in endless struggle.

3 8 Henri III 50 x 37 1576-8.pngPerhaps the most astonishing fruit of Hilliard’s time in France is the recently discovered miniature of the young king Henri III which combines hieratic flatness with subtle traces of red around the eyes, of blue shadow in the temples, with odd life in hair, jewels and lace–lace a little universe in itself, melting away to nothing at the edges and tangling to thickets in its densest parts.

As in many later Hilliards, the jewels and especially the pearls have probably lost most over time. One of Hilliard’s cleverest devices was adding a silver highlight or underlay to give the sparkle or translucency of jewelry, sparkle which has dulled to dark grey as the metal pigment oxidised, an effect seen in several different forms on Henri’s chest.

 

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Eventually Hilliard became known best for his highly ritualised representations of the English queen. One of his earliest royal portraits is among the most informal. It shows her in motion, actually doing something, playing the lute with an expression of relaxed pleasure, after stepping down from the throne, now looming like a ghost of itself whose enigmatic crowned pomegranates split open at a slightly lower level than her central head, which seems to wear the throne as an accidental headdress like a piece of clothing she meant to take off.

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Hilliard’s own actual hand in large images of the queen generally associated with him is in doubt. These, like the Phoenix portrait in the National Portrait Gallery which you could compare to the miniatures during the exhibition, are undeniably powerful. They convert the living person into an intimidating piece of machinery, mostly stone and metal, with brief and isolated tracts of marbleised flesh peeking out from the jeweled defences. It is a kind of divinity, surpassing mortality by hardening and stiffening itself. Especially after more delicate and ethereal styles of transformation in the miniatures, this doesn’t seem very Hilliard-like, but by comparison crude and inflexible, and above all earthbound, entirely without lightness and freshness, a travesty of the brightness and liveliness recommended in the treatise when one is representing gold and silver in paint.

Hilliard didn’t do many full-length figures or miniatures which evoked a wider world. His one-time pupil Isaac Oliver was more interested in doing that, and probably better at it. Oliver’s portrait of Lord Herbert of Cherbury stretched out at full length like Shakespeare’s Jaques in the wood is the most appealing of several of these. Hilliard falls down badly trying to extend a sylvan scene into the distance, starting from a lounging nobleman. Hilliard is wonderful for rich flatness, not for miniaturised Italian renaissance scenes like Oliver’s. That is probably the source of Horace Walpole’s insensitive preference for Oliver over Hilliard.

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When Hilliard does melancholy in a woodland setting on his own terms the result is magic of a sort outside Oliver’s ken. It shows a spindly youth leaning cross-legged on a tree all in black and white. He’s been standing there so long and so quietly that wild roses have grown over him and he has become a figure of myth, decorated by entirely natural embroidery, most beautiful on his white stockings but almost as effective on his black cape, so nonchalantly draped, where thorns show more plainly but still un-fiercely, setting the idea of pain gently in motion. More reserved than other treatments of such subjects, it reaches further contemplative depths than they do, the narcosis of a person willing himself to become a plant. It stands out among all Hilliard’s subjects for transcending the social limitations of most portraits. Like other Hilliard subjects, this person remains unidentified (not for want to trying), for different reasons and with different result from all the others, a kind of nirvana.

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George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland, in jousting armour after a successful day of mock-war of a pseudo-historical kind, is an entirely different image of the transcendence of individual identity. He is eaten up in emblems which compare the queen and his role at court to the motion of heavenly spheres. Hilliard’s best contribution to this enlargement is the juxtaposition of two closely allied blues, that of the sky and that of the coat he has put on over his armour.

So he resembles the weather, but keeps his own distinctness. He is outdoors where he can see heavenly bodies and they can see him, but clings to his pasteboard shield with its powerful pictures of them. It is a convincing portrayal of the magic of heraldry, at bottom a kind of faith in imagery.

Most miniatures were meant to be worn around the neck or pinned to the clothes, as the secret concealed inside a locket or as an image hidden beneath a neckline or flaunted on a sleeve. There’s the famous story of Cecil’s portrait, which the queen borrowed, then pinned to her shoe and walked around displaying. Tiring of that, she moved it to her elbow.

8 18 hilliard unkn wo in room tiny 57 x 46 c1589 Q.jpgThe youth in the woods and the queen’s champion in jousting gear were too big to wear, but still intended for intimate settings, hence their name, cabinet miniatures. Occasionally Hilliard produced full-length figures of a wearable smallness, a whole new order of impossibility. This one of an unknown lady is less than two inches across and just over two inches high. It is impossible to show her life-size, when her most teasing intricacies disappear, like the 5-pointed star-jewel in her hair, which some have used to identify her as the woman in Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, or the subtly shaded folds in her skirt or the criss-cross details at the edges of the black over-skirt. I never noticed the red ostrich feathers on her sleeves (if they are feathers) until I enlarged her many times.

Now comes the pinnacle of Hilliard’s art, his way of concealing a whole world of variety in a feature of dress that is both monochromatic and repetitive, the lace ruff that reaches its apogee in female portraits where the ruff is engaged in a contest with the outer limit of the whole image, the edge of the blue background, the uniform tone which we take for granted, which Hilliard’s treatise together with the astonishingly detailed chapter on his technique in the exhibition catalogue alert us to the extreme difficulty of achieving. This feature must have meant far more to alert contemporaries than it ever can to us, who see it as an artificial, indoor kind of sky, magically intense perhaps, but intense like an allegory, not reality—until, that is, it runs against the diffuse outer reaches of one of these ruffs like a planet’s orbit. At the edge the ruff turns green like the sea or the sky as it ends.

9 15 hilliard pembroke npg diam 54cm 1585-90.jpgThe miniature above goes about as far as you can go in stretching the image to the frame, engorging the space completely, except where the hair takes over at the top, and on the right where the same ruff that lies flat against the background tilts upward, as if it has brushed against and been deflected by the wooden frame. This asymmetry, actually slight, is subtly disorienting, as if something within the image is moving, as the right-hand half of the picture becomes restive.

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There’s a heraldry of ruffs which I won‘t venture into, of crosses, circles, x’s and more complex patterns. Hilliard took tremendous pains over the extra layers he applied to the lace after it appeared complete, adding highlights and also perhaps smoky interiors. Recently these have been explored microscopically, leading to fuller accounts of how these complex structures were arrived at. I’m particularly taken with the honeysuckle that mixes itself with the roses in this one, and with the connection between the sitter Mary Sidney, the dedicatee of the Arcadia and its completer, perfecter and publisher after the death of her brother Philip, and Hilliard’s ideas about the possibilities of emblems as narrative and anti-narrational instruments.

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My other instance of a ruff as a geometrical riddle is an oval miniature in a circular frame, which plays with curved forms inscribed within one another and alternating schematically between dark and light, between black, near-black, white and near-white. When I saw this one at the V & A its top and bottom were in shadow, so the part below the ruff was pure black, as was all above the hair, making the whole a much purer version of simple forms enclosing and repeating one another. The image is bilaterally symmetrical but extremely eccentric divided horizontally. If you blur your vision you get three crescents enclosing the oval of the face, which has a disturbingly unstable location in the larger oval, again suggesting movement. Goldring finds the sitter’s gaze coquettish, and she or her publisher uses it above her own biographical details as if she meant to borrow its expression. This image in chaste black and white seems just as enigmatic as the famous young men seen against a whole universe of flames or reaching up to twine fingers with a hand sent down from heaven. The meaning of all three is safely locked inside.

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Coda on the Queen:

In an obvious way the summit of Hilliard’s efforts is his many representations of the queen, which triumph by leaving reality far behind and convert her into a field of jewels, often in a star-burst pattern (see opening image).  Her ruff sometimes verges toward immaterial froth or quintessence, shadowed here by a flimsy veil like an aura which floats beyond the reach of her clothes. Again you should try to imagine all the grey as glitter and the pins ending in crescent moons as pearls or diamonds jumping out of her hair like sparks of her vitality. This larger oval from Ham House was a highlight of the exhibition.

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The smaller one with a grey (originally silver) curtain behind from the V & A is purer and more concentrated, though another of Hilliard’s inventions, coloured resin mounded up to represent jewels, has worn less well. The aura created by the ribbed veil is outstanding, but Hilliard has stopped believing in the queen’s youth.

 

Hilliard’s Arte of Limning can be hard to get hold of.  In the London Library catalogue a complete online copy is hiding under this heading:  Introductory Note on Nicholas Hilliard’s ‘The Art of Limning’, Walpole Society, 1911

Artaud’s notes from the asylum

 

0 DSC06952 nb171 tr6954 copy.jpgthe intelligible never existed                                                                                                                                              one does not understand anything or learn anything

the intelligible never existed                                                                                                                one does not understand anything or learn anything

 

Antonin Artaud, a French writer whose parents were Greeks from Smyrna, is best known for his theories about a Theatre of Cruelty, which would be an assault on its audience, occurring ideally in a rough barn of a space, in which the audience would occupy the centre and the actors the edge, whose words would have the visceral force of mucus or blood. Artaud has a vision of the actor projecting a vein of air into theatrical space which makes it sound like a spout or eruption. Language, theatre, thought as commonly known do not go far enough; when art is authentic it springs from pain and inflicts pain, not arbitrarily but in pursuit of the real.

Most people’s first encounter with Artaud probably comes in an early silent film, Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc of 1928, where he makes a striking appearance as a monk with an intense stare, whose silence suggests something more alarming than a technical shortcoming of the new medium of film. He had already been introduced to opium by a doctor who used it to deal with his patient’s longstanding mental instability, a combination of forces that led to his confinement in a series of asylums, after disastrous trips to Mexico and Ireland in pursuit of cosmic visions that would give meaning to his addiction.

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Under the tolerant regime of an asylum found for him by friends in Rodez, Artaud was given shock treatments which got him writing again after a long silence. Over the next four years until his death in 1948 he filled over 400 school exercise books with a torrent of poetry, curses, spells, boasts, complaints and addresses wrapped round or erupting in mysterious drawings in heavy black pencil on almost every page.

Through an initiative of the Cabinet Gallery in Vauxhall, a selection of around 80 of these notebooks (now kept in the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris) were brought to London and beautifully and confusingly laid out in the main space at the gallery.

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Visitors were supplied with an elegant plan of this trapezoidal space showing seven large glass cases ranged irregularly in the middle of the room and 13 smaller ones lining the edges. The large cases (all but one of them) contained 6 notebooks each, the smaller ones three, each open on a pair of pages. The cases were numbered, but only on the handout. The notebooks are already numbered in chronological sequence, though Artaud didn’t always write in just one notebook at a time. These numbers were also found on the handout, but nowhere near the notebooks.

During most of the run, there was a parallel exhibition on the floor below of works inspired by Artaud, and for this another handout was supplied, with another clear plan of the space, but for some reason this plan was inverted, and its top corresponded to the bottom of the other plan, a puzzle it took me a while to work out, as it did to link the translations mounted on the walls to the notebooks far away in the centre of the room.

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The link between madness and poetry was noticed by the Greeks, by Shakespeare and by the Romantics in the 19th century. Lear’s ravings on the heath are widely regarded as among the most profound utterances in all of literature, exposing the limits of ordinary logic and consecutive reasoning. But they are only an approximation, Shakespeare’s brilliant representation of what the speech of genuine madness might sound like. Artaud’s outpourings promise to be the real thing, their very voluminousness a warrant of their unstoppable, uncontrollable authenticity, compelled out of their transcriber like the endless stream of word-like sounds coming from a fundamentalist Christian speaking in tongues.

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It can’t be quite as simple as that. There’s something wonderfully unpredictable about where Artaud’s words will take him next, but they are usually words not gibberish, though it is true they often leave out accents, apostrophes and the like, and give signs of being put down in a frenzy of excitement. You soon come to feel that you need to see the original form of the page with all its illegibility, its crowding and bumping into a drawing, or sloping up to avoid it, the changes in size, the lines at right angles to others, but almost always it still looks like text, not random scattered marks. And there are nonsense syllables, generally spaced more generously, suggesting a conscious striving for effect, so you wouldn’t say the words break down into nonsense, but that they divert or erupt into it. You would like to hear how Artaud might read those parts—would he scream them, or roar them? He was famous for the bloodcurdling screams that punctuated his last public performances. Probably the nonsense syllables didn’t or weren’t meant to punctuate, but rather to disrupt and destroy sense for that moment at least.

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For Artaud the idea of speech as bodily isn’t just a metaphor. He goes on talking about needing to re-construct his own body himself, without help, or imagines that certain unnamed beings are stealing his organs or his food or gaining entry to him because the effect of heroin has worn off and left him open to being penetrated. The idea that bodies are not as separate or bounded as most people think is perhaps easier for the regular drug user to imagine, when he has just been introducing substances into his body which have noticeably violent effects, effects it does not feel that he is willing or controlling.

My encounter with Artaud has lasted much longer than I intended, but hasn’t been a descent into a dark night of the soul, but more like trying to solve a tantalising jigsaw puzzle, or chasing without ever actually laying hands on it, an unencompassable work of art, unfinished and unfinishable.

Part of the appeal of this work is how hard it is to get hold of, physically as well as imaginatively.  Matching the text and the images is the essential pursuit with Artaud, as it is with Blake, but so far it is only do-able up to a point. Only the notebooks from Artaud’s last year have been transcribed in the order of the books themselves, and published in a beautiful Gallimard edition in 2 volumes of 2342 pages, which omit anything that has already appeared elsewhere–including drafts of letters, the van Gogh text and much else, listed in an elaborate appendix to vol 2. Most disappointing of all, these volumes leave out the drawings, except for poor postage-stamp reproductions of a few pages from each notebook tacked on the end of each text (which is to say, in 173 separate locations). Even that much is welcome, but gives only a dim idea of the entanglement of text and drawings throughout the work.

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The parallel with Blake seems obvious and essential, a parallel including the attempt to erect a private, homemade cosmology, more sustained and worked out in Blake, more fluid and intermittent in Artaud. Both of them end up sounding like the Bible or an archaic Gilgamesh-style epic when describing the hostilities that fill their entire mental space from time to time, much more obviously derived from passing subjective pressures in Artaud. Seeing the two of them together one can imagine filling in the missing stages between private obsession and old mythic material distorted into more personalised forms. Artaud externalises visceral agonies to combat them in what feels like an emergency. Blake has had the mental space or freedom to work his alarms up into characters with names and personal histories different from his. Nothing in Artaud ever strays far from parts of the self, and in his greatest leaps he seems to be personifying his own organs or internal sensations. Strangest and most modern of all, he reads or re-forms himself as various machines, not always whole machines but parts, as if staking out a kind of freedom in such alienated transformations.

This vision of the self as disarticulated parts or fragments bears a strange resemblance to the reader’s experience of Artaud’s enormous production, which can only reach us in bits, loaded with rebarbative apparatus. It seems that it is a book (though not really a book) which will always subsist as 406 sub-books, a disarticulation it will never shake off, which is in fact its proudest boast, that it has miraculously kept all its parts, but can never be detached from them and become a single entity. Someone could make a facsimile of all 406, not bound as one, but numbered and kept in a box. Next to it would sit the big volumes of a complete transcription, for no one would get far with Artaud’s intermittently legible words without that.

What a horrific vision. One does not want them accessible so cumbersomely. Better that the little notebooks should be scattered strategically across a big white space and that their sequence should be as hard to fathom as it was in Vauxhall.  One can only dream of working through those thousands of scribbled pages, glimpsed behind plexiglas. Artaud is one of the great exemplars of the beauty and freshness of the non sequitur, of the fertility of the fragment, and in Vauxhall, even with repeated sightings, one understood or rather glimpsed something, but nothing like the whole of it.

 

Plans of the two spaces in Vauxhall: Artaud notebooks, Works inspired by Artaud

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Previous images: Notebook 171, nb 351, Vauxhall display overview, nb 299, nb 393 single page w nonsense words, nb 313, nb 296

 

I was helped with some difficult pages of French by Irénée Scalbert.

Ruskin in Sheffield

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Ruskin is the most sublime and in his visionary way the most practical of the great Victorian thinkers. To call him just a thinker or a writer is a drastic truncation of his scope. He is the greatest writer on art in English, and he is also a great artist who left behind many hundreds of electrifying drawings of architecture, townscape, landscape and all aspects of the natural world, which have the potential to wake up human vision in a life-changing way, but remain to this day virtually unknown and seriously undervalued.

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He was a mass of fertile contradictions whose life took a strange turn from the 1860s onward—the ‘violent Tory of the old school’ (a self-description) became a radical socialist (or should one more cautiously say, the inspirer of socialists?) whose greatest work (so Tim Hilton his most serious biographer believes) is an unruly series of ‘Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain’—that is the subtitle.  In its title proper, this book communicates Ruskin-fashion via a kind of incantation—it’s called Fors Clavigera.

A recent exhibition, which began in London in February and continues in Sheffield from 29 May, focuses on a single visionary scheme for changing all that Ruskin thought was unhealthy about the rapidly industrialising country in which he found himself. This was a plan to bring beauty to one of the most benighted of the mushroom industrial towns of England by forming a quasi-medieval Guild of St George, consisting of Companions (workers) under a Master (himself), and endowing it with a collection of paintings, drawings, casts of sculpture, natural specimens (gems, shells, minerals, birds’ feathers), illuminated manuscripts and books, which would be the means by which impoverished toilers would educate themselves, becoming an example which could spread to other deprived areas and eventually regenerate the entire country.

Ruskin’s own method in his books and drawings was intensely particular, maniacally focused on the physical presence of the Gothic cathedral or Alpine peak, pursued with a fierce and sustained attention never equalled by anyone else before or since.

To make such absorption in the greatest architecture, painting, sculpture and geological and botanical marvels possible in Sheffield, Ruskin had to bring Venice and the Alps, and Dürer and Carpaccio into the little rooms he’d acquired for the purpose in a nondescript street in Walkley, then on the edge of the city.

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As anyone who knows his writing might have predicted, his means of achieving this was emphatically literal. The exhibition is most interesting for showing how Ruskin’s various methods collided with and reinforced each other. The goals remained the same; the routes for getting there were diverse and overlapping. One of Ruskin’s favourite methods, taking plaster casts of architectural details, seems quaint and old-fashioned now, but had been important to him from long before he ever thought of using it to instruct the workers of Sheffield. It was a way of hanging onto buildings he had to leave behind in Italy, a way of bringing back some of the most powerful bits of carving to be studied and absorbed at home. He had always singled out details in a way of his own, had turned figures inhabiting the arcades of the Doge’s Palace into his familiar companions, for whom he elaborated characters, traits and lives. It was a gift that could get out of hand. He had always been haunted by figures he met in art: eventually they populated his deliriums.

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Some of the most moving inclusions in the exhibition are the plaster fragments of St Mark’s in Venice, little bosses with birds and berries, and a large figure of Prudence from the central portal’s arch which would normally sit high over your head. Now it has its own case with a glass door, in which it is mounted crookedly, because it is a curving piece extracted from a larger whole, so its truncation is significant, the clearest sign that it has been singled out by Ruskin’s vision. But it remains ungainly, really too large to be turned into this kind of ornament, and obscured by the mechanism needed to mount it as a display. Yet when you get closer you see the point, the intensely three-dimensional presence of carving that has its own interior spaces, which constitute momentarily its own vineyard or forest whose thrust-out elements modulate the light in places further within.

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Ruskin’s drawings of architectural details are among his most magical; these are under-represented in the exhibition, but there is a compensation, a selection of photographs commissioned or taken by him, including a wonderful close-up of carved foliage on a doorframe at Rouen cathedral. Ruskin’s own vision does somehow miraculously inhabit the images of things he wanted recorded. In this case a wonderful drawing by him of the top furl in this image survives, which must have been taken from this photograph; it’s unlikely he would have singled out just that, standing on the ground.

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This doorframe isn’t one of the most naturalistic bits of medieval vegetation, and we need to turn elsewhere to show how the connectedness of art and the natural world made itself felt to Ruskin. Art led him to study the growth of plants and the structure of mountains, but in the end which was the primary study, which a means to something else? Both the works of nature and of man occupied him wholly, and each continually illuminated the other. Ruskin’s famous drawing of withered oak leaves is one of the most striking in the exhibition, as is also the less familiar sketch of a spray of seaweed. Both of them are studies of rhythm and movement, strongly hinting at processes of decay and growth, and thus of life. His other botanical sketches also convey the tension in the bend of a stem or the torque implied by the disposition of separate thorns climbing the branch of the shrub. The thorn drawing looks boring at first, until one notices continual variation in what looked like sameness. This drawing isn’t Ruskin’s, but a task set by him to sharpen a student’s sight.

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He trained a group of younger artists to help him record monuments and townscapes which he feared were disappearing through neglect and, even worse, so-called restoration. The most poignant of these rescue-drawings shows an unremarkable set of tombs built into a wall in a Florentine square. It’s a place many visitors will know well, now a heartless and dreary expanse of smooth stone, but in the drawing of 1887 a vibrant stretch of carving full of life, before more recent mechanical replacement.

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Mountains, coins and birds’ feathers also appear in Ruskin’s drawings in the exhibition and include the ten-foot long horizontal profile of an Alpine range done when he was 24, and an analysis of a feather from a peacock’s back enlarged many times, entirely out of everyday recognition. Which brings me to the image at the top of the blog, an architectural detail enlarged so it could be seen from the back of the lecture hall, a close-up which looks blurred when you are too close to it.

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The last word on mountains can be left to Dan Holdsworth, whose Acceleration of 2018 was an inspired commission by the organisers of the exhibition, combining many detailed records of three glaciers to make a video that lets you see them coming into existence and disappearing again, a new use for a new-old visual medium which would have delighted Ruskin.

 

John Ruskin: Art & Wonder  29 May to 15 September 2019 at Millennium Gallery, Museums Sheffield