Mantegna / Bellini

 

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This exhibition at the National Gallery in London boasted an assembly of surprising loans from all over, paintings which you imagined could never leave their permanent roosting places, but there they were in front of you, collectively illuminating ten or twelve of the National Gallery’s own pictures in startling ways, spawning effects that would long outlive the exhibition.

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I still remember a single painting from a long-ago exhibition that marked an epoch in my life, after which my idea of what painting was for had changed. The present exhibition included one of those at its heart, about which, more later. The painting from years ago was Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas, one of his last works, visiting London from somewhere deep in Hungary, a painting of which I hadn’t any inkling previously, that seemed to consist entirely of clumsy scrapes and smudges, which came mysteriously together into a hallucination of the cruelest suffering that was at the same time the most persuasive urging of the richness of the physical world.

That was the experience that Mantegna/Bellini rivaled, in spite of the fact that its two painters are an impossible pair, confusable at the beginning of their careers, miles apart at the close, so that any notion of parallel courses is a recipe for frustration.

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When we first meet them, Mantegna is more assured, while Bellini is finding his way and leaning on the older artist, even so far as to trace Mantegna’s grouping for the Presentation in the Temple onto his own panel. The two paintings have never been in the same room before, and we expect a revelatory juxtaposition, but it is somehow disappointing, because Bellini is still struggling toward what will distinguish him as an artist, while Mantegna has already arrived, substituting a black background for the obsolete gold one familiar for so long with religious subjects, which has an immediate effect of secularising the scene by faintly classicising it with a new kind of artificiality. The half-figures form a frieze more like a shallow relief than a painting. Bellini’s group is already uncomfortable with sculpture as the model for painting, while Mantegna’s people look contented taking their places behind a stone frame within the frame, stone suggesting a kind of permanence to which painted figures can now aspire too. Mantegna’s muted tones, veil-like, institute a further distance, a further backing away from immediacy, which is not at all the way Bellini will move.

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Bellini’s figures are getting restive and beginning to break out of this planar order, which Mantegna’s are settling more comfortably into, as is most evident in a trivial sign: their halos are all in the same plane and collide with each other in unsettling ways. Bellini’s figures are springing into life, Mantegna’s are petrifying and turning to a more permanent material than flesh.

A fascinating if awkward further stage occurs in another pair, two Agonies in the Garden, both in the National Gallery, where Mantegna produces a pile of three sleeping bodies as a coagulate mass, which Bellini pulls apart, but doesn’t get the spacing right, and spreads them too far. This clumsy feature has always bothered me, until a painting in the exhibition fit it into a more inclusive sequence. The Resurrection from Berlin contains a brilliant breaking-open of the traditional soporific congestion of sleeping solders at Christ’s tomb. Bellini has split the three soldiers apart and spread them across the bottom of the picture, which hits the observer as a magical increase of light and air and makes them participants, not resistors, in Christ’s freeing from death. It felt as if I had stumbled upon a crucial clue to what Bellini is all about, and to the deeper significance of his opening up religious subjects into wider landscapes. Putting more space between the figures is following an unconscious urge toward a form of pantheism, a way of broadening Christian narratives into more inclusive unions with the external world.

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In this Resurrection the tiered landscape makes me wonder if Bellini has seen those Chinese landscapes on hanging scrolls where extensive horizontal vistas are turned into vertical ascents followed up the picture surface by tiny pilgrims. In this Bellini, Christ rises through the gauzy clouds of a sunrise that seem to offer him temporary footing along the way. The familiar figures, three Maries and John, are making their way across the spreading landscape to arrive too late at the tomb. Everything is comprehended at once in a transcendent instant.

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While Bellini is focusing on wider worlds, Mantegna looks with wonderful intensity at detail lying closer at hand, like the priest’s beard made of hundreds of separate curls and his brocaded cope, a whole universe of different shiny textures. As an instance of burrowing inward rather than expanding outward, we could set against the Bellini Resurrection Mantegna’s astonishing drawing of Christ breaking into Limbo (shown in Berlin but not in London). The foreground, a kind of landscape underfoot, shows a squared-off rocky shelf like architecture confused with or overlaid by ruined objects of human manufacture, wonderfully, even senselessly, complex, but also nothing more than the ineffectual door barring entry to this part of the underworld. In one compact display it sums up this artist’s fascination with the classical world and its survival into the present.

Bellini was captivated by this composition and copied it.  In Mantegna’s  Crucifixion now in the Louvre, we find the grandest example of paving underfoot raised to the level of landscape, even suggesting, through the magic of multiple vanishing points, infinite space (see opening image).

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When Bellini deals with death and the deathly we are likely to get something like Christ supported by four angels, where torment is drowned in a surfeit of sweetness, where the angels’ almost-grownup bodies are delightfully small, and the astonishing conceit of showing one of them in motion and about to disappear altogether behind Christ breaks up the immobility of death conclusively.

One of the most telling juxtapositions of all matched this painting with Donatello’s Christ supported by five putti or angels from the V & A, who are tripping over their more voluminous clothes and most of whom practically disappear at first because they are carved in miraculously shallow relief. Bellini’s equivalent for Donatello’s fade-effects is extreme delicacy of contour and faintness in his colours, which comes closest to grisaille in the right-hand angel, and in the prevalence of flesh tones that are like non-colours, even as, or partly because, they are so good at recording shadows. This will not be Bellini’s last brush with sculpture as the model for painting.

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Mantegna’s versions of a similar subject, the Lamentation over the dead Christ, are among his most radical, one could almost say his most alienated, experiments. A painting noticeably missing from the exhibition was the Dead Christ from Milan which shows him stretched out flat with his feet pointing straight at the viewer.

7 mantegna lamenta prone dr.jpgTwo fascinating drawings stood in for the absent painting, one with the three Maries bent over the prone figure in something like the Milan position, with feet pointing toward the viewer (actually at c 25 degrees angled left). Then, most surprisingly, another Christ is included, pointing the other way, at the same deflection to the right. The two dead bodies are parallel and would touch if the one further away were not raised a foot off the ground the nearer body lies on. It verges on two bodies trying to inhabit the same space, or slotting together like a puzzle.

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In the other drawing the figure is alone (with himself or selves) and identified as Christ by a halo on one of the three figures angled in a Z-sequence receding from the viewer and almost touching twice, when head meets feet and head meets head. It is a challenge trying to guess in which order they were put on the page. I would like to think the middle figure (the connecting one) was done last, but that would make the choice of location for the top figure unlikely, unless the sheet has been trimmed at the top. Certainly it all began with the lowest, largest figure. Why does this matter so much, and what does Mantegna’s fascination with this idea —as a corpse– mean?

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Bellini’s Lamentation, in black ink using a very fine pen or brush on a surface painted white, was one of the most unexpected exhibits. For this artist to deny himself colour has a very particular significance, a penitential one perhaps? Yet the result is luxurious, even sensuous.  He is surrounded by a varied group, three or four of whom are not even looking at him, not because their thoughts are elsewhere but to take the pressure off, to open up what is usually a painfully monotonous occasion. This distraction of view or looking in different directions with different intentions can be seen as another way of letting in air and widening space. The picture shows these people sharing the same experience though not all inhabiting the same part of it at any particular moment. Maybe the essential separateness of individuals is most undeniable in such intervals of closeness. The oddest thing of all is that Christ does not form a strong magnetic centre. In fact he seems uncannily to fade from view, and the responses of others become the subject.

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It is common for the Virgin to be overshadowed by the Disciples in depictions of the Death of the Virgin. Mantegna’s famous treatment of this subject goes further and overshadows both Virgin and Disciples by turning them into architecture, as if like a series of columns they existed only to demonstrate something about spatial recession. I thought I liked this painting, but in the context of this exhibition it gave out an alarming heartlessness, and all those halos, each teetering at a different angle, balanced on all those heads, what are we supposed to make of that?

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I had in mind a perverse comparison, between Mantegna’s indoor scene with the Virgin swamped by attendants, and Bellini’s Madonna of the Meadow, alone in a wide landscape of which she becomes a another feature, as if she were a hill herself, the spirit of the place. There cannot be many visitors to the exhibition who thought at this moment of Potosí in Bolivia, but I did. That is where I first saw the amazing Virgin of the Mine, a representation of the mountain on the outskirts of town which accounted for Potosí’s being there at all and for its incredible wealth. This painting showed the Virgin as a mountain, her dress forming a pyramidal mound brocaded with sloping paths and dotted with shepherds and their flocks, monks, pilgrims, and of course miners trudging back with sacks of silver. The magical gradations of size in Bellini’s painting between trees, a town, tiny figures, hills and the pair of huge human figures made the idea of the whole earth as a gigantic female body seem momentarily inescapable.

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That seems a special moment of balance in Bellini’s work, but there are others, like the wonderfully restored Attack on St Peter Martyr where grisly violence including murder and chopping down trees is played against a landscape background, and the violence becomes part of the rhythms of the natural world and even in an odd way musical.

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The Madonna in a Meadow was paired with Mantegna’s Minerva expelling the Vices, by comparison a harsh and hard-edged picture which takes place in a formal garden, which is also a swamp full of monstrous distortions of the human form representing various vices. It is packed full of grotesque invention in which I formerly delighted, but now found horrific. Then into my head came a line of Alexander Pope’s ‘Trees cut to statues, statues thick as trees’, meant as a critique of the artifice in formal gardens, which can be read instead as an ecstatic summation of the pleasures and confusions of artifice in gardens, where nature and culture are forever changing places. In its way this intended put-down summons up a vision of metamorphosis just as unleashed and phantasmagoric as anything a Romantic could think up. Mantegna is a magician too, and his drawings of vices and ancient squabbles (The Calumny of Apelles) were among the best things of all.

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The culmination of the exhibition included three of Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar, the final triumph of the individual detail, in compositions so dense and complex that trying to see everything they contain will keep you employed a long time. After all the stories of how ruined they are and what nightmares of misguided care they have survived, it was thrilling to see how fresh the paint remains for instance on the elephant’s ear and his embroidered cloak. Even on this scale (each canvas approximately 9 by 8 3/4 feet) Mantegna is still using egg tempera, an old fashioned choice by now.  Bellini had switched to oil decades earlier but Mantegna remained faithful to this medium which allowed a special sharpness and precision of detail and luminous transparency in the pigment visible even in the Triumphs. Incidentally, a recently discovered study for a Triumph on brown paper is an apotheosis of Mantegna’s insatiable thirst for ever finer, ever denser detail.

Matching these across the room were equivalent culminations of Bellini’s long quest, including a Feast of the Gods from Washington on which Titian is known to have collaborated. I tormented myself trying to see Titian’s changes or improvements in the figures and decided the fusion of the two hands was complete and I couldn’t see the joins. I resented Titian’s interference in Bellini’s harmonious clustering but the result was wonderful, more serene than any Titian, richer than any Bellini. Later I was relieved to learn I’d been barking up the wrong tree: Titian had only improved the wooded background, not the figures, making it darker and denser to match his contribution to the scheme it was meant for.

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Bellini’s other piece of lateness was another scene of carousing, or its pitiful aftermath, The Drunkenness of Noah, a work of which I had no previous inkling. It too has just been cleaned, releasing some wonderfully cool but lush tones from the mellowness of varnish. Here is a picture of malice converted to harmony in a garland of arms and hands strung out along the embarrassing (except not) spectacle of the nakedness of an old old man.

Strawberry Hill empty and full

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Like Sir John Soane’s Museum, Strawberry Hill is one of those places it seems a near-miracle to find arriving intact in the present. Except, of course, that Strawberry Hill isn’t really intact, most of the time, meaning that unlike the Soane it’s been stripped of its contents, encrustations that seem almost part of its flesh.

For a few months recently many of them re-appeared there, and the difference was profound. So, for a short while, you could get a real living sense of Walpole as a collector, and of how his collection turned his house into a physical analogue of his imagination.

Like Soane’s, Walpole’s house and collection first appear to us fully formed and grown to their maximum extent. We haven’t seen them develop organically, putting down layer after pearly layer, not according to longstanding plan but in a series of inspirations or profound gulps of imaginative air. There’s nothing very logical about how the process proceeds; it’s more like an accumulation of associations than simple numerical increase.

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One of the most revealing indications of the way things went forward is the story of the Holbein Room, which got its start from Walpole’s buying Vertue’s tracings of 33 of Holbein’s portrait drawings of Henry VIII’s courtiers, so the most famous room in the house arose from the purchase of certain special pieces of paper. And they weren’t even originals, but copies–wonderful copies, but still copies. On top of this, experts will tell you that they’ve browned horribly over time and their lines have all been crudely strengthened with graphite on top of the original red chalk.

This is no ordinary house, whose maker was inspired to create one of its most memorable spaces because he had just acquired the right things to put in it. Decoration came before structure, as Semper was later to theorise. The house took over the life, and then a rowdy crowd of strong objects took over the house. Walpole virtually admits that the house was haunted by its contents, and perhaps it was the case that the later spaces grew more exaggerated to keep up with the emotive charge of the collection.

Walpole is sometimes described as the last of the eighteenth century eccentrics, jumbling together discordant objects to create a big cabinet of curiosities, not confined to one or two rooms but spreading uncontrollably over more and more space, so Walpole’s building project only exists to keep up with his obsessive accumulation. Various remarks support this view, and his name for his most precious possessions is ‘Principal Curiosities’.

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Yet there are strong currents that lead away from the idea of the collection as diverting jumble. Above all, there’s The Castle of Otranto, the first of a dangerous new genre of fiction, generally regarded as a proto-Romantic bursting-forth of long-suppressed unconscious forces, for which Gothic provides a convenient historical cover. Walpole claimed the novel was provoked by a dream in which a monstrous mailed fist appeared at the top of a Gothic stair like the one he’d just been building, which passed on its climb an Armoury stocked with suits of empty armour, and a selection of weapons taken in the holy wars (in Palestine) by an ancestor recently discovered through his researches. Anyone the least bit suggestible passing these fragments of warriors today, topped off with the very same plumes of black feathers whose shuddering in gusts of air unmans Manfred in the Castle, probably trembles inwardly.

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Walpole didn’t actually build the incidents in The Castle of Otranto into the spaces of Strawberry Hill. He didn’t need to. He had seen an ancestor step down from an old portrait in a dream and he filled the place with portraits. Architectural collapse kills one person and frees another from prison in the novel; in the villa no actual deaths, unless we count his favourite cat who fell into a goldfish tub of Chinese porcelain that greeted visitors before they reached the house. The cat’s death (which actually happened in London) inspired a poem of Gray’s and a couple of very extreme illustrations by Bentley, who designed many details at Strawberry Hill. The frontispiece shows the cat perched on the rim looking in, surrounded by a riot of Baroque detail, swags of cloth about to fall, Chinese fountains gushing, Chinese sages leaving their perches, mice dipping in and out of borders, mouldings out of true and getting more so, in a word an active moment of collapse that promises worse to come. The other illustration is less violent and more sinister. It lets us look down into the tub in which the drowning cat is swirling, and somehow the squashed perspective makes us feel we won’t be able to keep from falling in too, an absurd but powerful sensation.

Horace Walpole was unusually conscious of his mortality. Collecting seems to have been for him a way of confronting it actively, not running from it. At some point in the catalogue of the big V & A exhibition of 2009-10, of which the present exhibition is occasionally an expansion, but more often, a reduction, a writer says Walpole was lucky because the great collectors he met in Rome were all older than he was, and so he could gobble up choice bits when their collections were sold. This is far from how he would have seen it. Someone conscious of long historical vistas does not imagine that they will end with him.

Unlike Soane, Walpole made no provision for his collection to survive him in any straightforward sense. There is something wonderful and also crazy about the current effort to put as much of Walpole’s collection as possible back in its original locations in his house. Of course this would have much less chance of coming to pass if he had not recorded it in such obsessive detail. What is that but the most urgent wish arising from the most paralysing fear, that the whole arrangement not be lost but maintained forever in exactly the layout we find it in now? A Description of the Villa of Mr Horace Walpole, what a misleading description of what lies in front of us—‘An Exhaustive Description?’ Not nearly strong enough, ‘A Recreation in paper form of the vanished house and collection of’ would bring us nearer. He talks of his house as his nutshell (like a crab, a nut lives in its shell), or as a house of paper, and thinks of packing up his new Gothic stair and sending it to Horace Mann like a letter. His Description was a form of the house that could be posted like a letter, and would be after his death, like seedlings from a nursery, sent to eighty chosen recipients.

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It is very wonderful to have seen even once the rooms at Strawberry Hill full or half-full instead of empty. It is wonderful that the organisers persisted in repeating something so costly in time and effort that some of them had already done once before.  Still, what is the point of reconstituting something as accidental as a collection, that is to say, of the treasures that a certain person living in a certain place at a certain time happened to own, temporarily, because he thought he wanted to? You have to be very sure that the collector himself is extraordinary in order to think such a project worthwhile. How do you convince yourself in the case of Walpole?

Those who know them seem to agree that the 48 volumes of Walpole’s letters are the liveliest, most mercurial, wittiest, most informative, and most learned in a special way of their own, human documents to survive from their own century or perhaps any other, and these enthusiasts see the house and collection as crucial physical embodiments of this remarkable individual, so no trouble is too great to bring this restoration closer to completeness.

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There’s always been some question about Walpole’s seriousness: how reliable was his devotion to Gothic, how much was it just a diverting form of play? He insists on historical accuracy but look what he does with it—the arched book-cases in the Library are taken from a doorway in Old St Paul’s, a building none of his friends could possibly have seen, the chimneypiece, another arched form, is an amalgam of two royal tombs; five years later, in the Holbein bedroom, an even more promiscuous mixture in closer proximity to each other, a screen from Rouen cathedral, scaled down presumably, a ceiling from a larger space at Windsor, and the fireplace from the tomb of Henry VIII’s last Catholic archbishop. How completely could you ever detach the patterns from their sources? The Catholic connection, for one, was apparently treasured.

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A little later still Walpole is wanting the Tribune to have the feeling of a Catholic chapel ‘in everything but being consecrated’, the Tribune modeled after a classical idea of the central kernel of a connoisseur’s collection in a circular space, which in this instance has a Gothic vault lined with tracery of rococo delicacy. So it seems the spaces got denser and in some way more licentious as he went on, crowding his architectural effects and multiplying the encrustation of surfaces. He calls Strawberry his diminutive castle, sometimes just a playful modesty, but he relishes small forms like portrait miniatures, which from the 17c onward are often based on full size paintings.

Walpole might even have enjoyed the fact that the Holbein Chamber is normally decorated with recent copies of Vertue’s (original, earlier) copies, in the strange chequered display he apparently contrived, that fills the walls full, in a quirky zig-zag way. I think that for the exhibition the actual Vertues were there again, but am not sure. In the Tribune was an even more confusing exhibit, the little portrait of the risqué poet Bembo’s mistress Costanza Fregosa, a Raphael (from a private collection) or a not-much-later copy (from a museum in Brescia). Which of the two were we looking at, and which had Walpole owned, a work he thought was by Leonardo because of the landscape background, painted by a different artist?

Walpole could cope with such uncertainties. He tended to believe attributions or to improve on the ones he was given to start with, notorious even in his own time for thinking that his treasures had been owned or worn by kings and princes. His collection is endlessly fascinating, not for its aesthetic excellence, though there are exceptions like the enamelled hunting horn or the Roman eagle, but for the stories Walpole told himself about the pieces, connecting himself in that way to people and events he already knew from various distances in the past. One of the most revealing is a letter from Madame de Sévigné, another famous letter-writer, addressed to him by his friend Madame du Deffand who was impersonating the 17c French writer, of whom Walpole collected relics.

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Many of Walpole’s objects shared this condition of relic because Walpole brought himself to believe, for instance, that a Flemish painting of the marriage of a saint showed the marriage of an English king. I don’t think that the fact that Walpole wished the personages in his paintings and objects into people of high rank is evidence of simple snobbery (if snobbery is ever simple), or isn’t only that, but the creation of a kind of poetry of relatedness or mystic union between Walpole and his collection.

Late in his career, he bought an illuminated Psalter, a medieval form painted by a Mannerist artist long after the form had expired in its original sense, which he imagined had been painted by the very best of such throwbacks, Giulio Clovio, a friend of Bruegel’s. He had a special box made to hold it, emblazoned with Walpole heraldry, real and imagined, and finished off with an illusionary grisaille on the lid, which showed a little angel introducing Painting, who held the manuscript ‘illustrated by Don Julio Clovio’ which lay inside the box, to Religion, to whom she wanted to give the book.

This painting by William Lock Junior is a tremendous success, which has fooled many who have seen it, as it had the guard with whom I discussed it. It is hard to see the picture in it at all because it looks like rumpled satin, or a picture of rumpled satin, which you might expect to find on the lid or the lining of such a box. The picture hides itself in the colourlessness of grisaille and the Baroque slipperiness of its forms. It is an archetypal Walpole commission which is passed over undescribed and unillustrated in all the publications I have seen of this object, publications which attend to every other part of this conglomerate except the most interesting and Walpole-like of all, this wispy deceitful joke which pretends a pious Catholic purpose.

In the same room (not where the manuscript was announced or supposed to be) was another object with one of Walpole’s riddling improvements, a gorgeous 16c clock of elaborate early Renaissance design, sitting on an 18c Gothic stand, through whose tracery it dangled its two heavy but at the same time beautifully inscribed (in a 16c hand) weights*, one century threaded through another, or from certain angles entangled in it. I am sure, or at least want to believe, that Walpole thought up this hybrid and had Bentley design it, or that Bentley did and Walpole agreed. The rightness of the match to his other ideas confirms the attribution. Incidentally, the clock is always illustrated without its stand. In other words, stripped of the means by which Walpole made the piece his own.

He was conscious of what he was doing with his historical sources. He joked in a letter that the bishop whose tomb contributed the pattern for the gate to Strawberry Hill, would rather, he was sure, be passed through, than passed over, i.e. ignored by the future. Recently someone has claimed that the house and the collection have a secret centre that would unlock the whole if we knew how to read it. This is the Glass Closet, a locked case like a small room, in the Great North Bed Chamber, the last big addition to the house of the 1770s. The Closet is filled with a strange collection of things, some precious in an obvious way like Queen Bertha’s comb (a Romanesque ivory with a forged inscription, now found to be German not English), others like his exercise books from school, too personal to interest all but a few. I like the idea of a single final secret, but Strawberry Hill is a place of multiple centres, of which there is a wonderful historical series leading from the Stair (1752-3) to the Library (in some ways best of all, 1754) to the Holbein Chamber (1759) and finally the Tribune (1761), all self-sufficient worlds and endless when you are in them, but, sadly, (once again) bare and deprived without their contents (after 24 Feb).

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Lost Treasures of Strawberry Hill, masterpieces from Horace Walpole’s collection    20 October 2018 to 24 February 2019

*The clock was believed by Walpole to be a gift from Henry VIII to Ann Boleyn. He detected a questionable joke of the King’s in the shape of one of the weights.

Apologies for the images: photographs were not permitted in the house during the exhibition, so the fuller version of Strawberry remains just that much more ephemeral.

Vuillard the radical

0 vuillard suitor copy.jpgTo appreciate Édouard Vuillard’s importance for early modernism, you need to be ruthless and discard most of what he produced after a short heyday in the 1890s.  By the  time he reached thirty Vuillard had done his best work.  D. H. Lawrence, my favourite writer as a teenager, said ‘Trust the tale not the teller,’ meaning look at the work not the writer’s ideas or professions about what he thought he was doing, and in Vuillard’s case concentrate on the tiny, inspired paintings and don’t spend your time worrying about the causes of the long aftermath of inferior production.

The huge Vuillard exhibition of 2003-04 in Washington, Montreal, Paris and London dragged along behind it one of the heaviest catalogues ever. Of all imaginable candidates for such megalo-treatment Vuillard is among the most improbable. Far better was one of the tiniest exhibitions in recent memory at the Barber Institute in Birmingham, and a selection of 4 or 5 pictures on view around the same time in the secluded basement of the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Vuillard at his most special and intense explores his love of visual mistakes, where different surfaces melt blotchily toward undifferentiated sameness, leading to a sense of being lost in a womb-like place, an enveloping tissue of universal feminine stuff. Here surface pattern is a soup or delirium, best of all when even human faces become indecipherable, the indecipherable itself a greatly to be desired state of bliss.

Not that all of the best Vuillards go as far as this. They may depict a world of blobs, not collapsed to oneness, yet in their own way drastically reduced. And this may partly explain why the smallest Vuillards are often the best, and why in larger spaces, marked by signs sometimes as literal as higher ceilings, among too many things and too much empty space, the tension goes out of the work.

The idea of the close-up is a big and ramifying one, and in Vuillard often crucial to his characteristic effects.  Its elements include the cropping of forms as if some force prevents you from seeing them all, or is it that the narrower focus stems from you, that your attention demands a small field if there’s to be any hope of doing justice to what reality has thrown at you? Reflecting on that immense and ramifying work Modern Painters Ruskin made the astonishing claim that ‘at least I did justice to the pine’, perhaps his way of acknowledging that this work in three volumes had finally focused more on landscape than on the art it had set out to treat. One can get lost in the tiny just as thoroughly as in the vast.

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The little painting above, called perversely ‘The Conversation’, finds so much to say about its confined subject that there isn’t room for all of it. The white blouse in particular contains a universe of suggestion that baffles discovery past a certain point. The two figures are of such strikingly different sizes that we want to pursue the matter, but how?  Distances are small, yet feel great, and small objects abandoned on a table can seem lost in immensity.  These various discoveries that less is more do not look that difficult, yet the extreme rarity of other artists’ getting this as right as Vuillard does, makes us wonder.  There’s the small population of elements and there’s the overall smallness, the dimensions of the picture, which brings the point home with special strength, as in Kafka.  Here smallness is no accident, but fervently meant.

The population of these pictures has inspired endless speculation. Vuillard never married and lived with his mother until she died when he was 61. She had a dressmaking business carried out in the home, supporting the two of them until he began to make a living from painting. His mother and sister and the seamstresses employed in the business are taken to be the figures in the paintings and prints of the 1890s featured here.

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Around ‘The Chat’ which shows an older woman in black and a younger one in white and appears to take place in a bedroom, a strange narrative has grown up, seemingly confirmed by friends of the artist. The young woman is Vuillard’s sister, the dress is her wedding dress and the mother is discussing sex with her daughter on the wedding day. A strange moment for such a conversation, not one which Vuillard would have sat in on.

There is undeniably an interesting tension between the figures, close together but formally opposed in several ways, in a world of browns and brownishness with two tiny accents at opposite ends, the blue cloth and the green plant.

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In ‘The Yellow Curtain’ the curtain (in fact a curtain in front of a curtain) is not yellow but ochre, and again a single tonality dominates the space, hiding richer detail behind, a trick like ‘I could show you more if I chose.’ It turns out that the sameness of the yellow curtain is more interesting than the secrets behind it, which we see more than enough of anyway. How mesmeric all the erratic detail in the curtain turns out to be. That is where the real activity is concentrated .

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Next a close-up with a vengeance, ‘Two women taking coffee’, another problematic title which reduces uncertainty to clarity. The corner of a room is seen from above, an angle at which the two figures are crushed and joined together until we can’t easily, perhaps can’t ever, tell exactly what it is we are looking at, forms as fundamentally broken down as the words sometimes are in Beckett, whose questioning of the medium he works in is equaled by Vuillard, in a similarly deadpan way.  A strange richness in the colouring, few colours but more than you think (as you find when you count them), strange to us initially because we are fooled by the throwaway nature of the subject.

The faces and the forms where they join seem a particular marvel.  We feel this most strongly with the second woman, whose features and the angle of her head can be read in more than one way. That such richness can come out of such smudges surprises us, but maybe much richness is a form of indistinctness. The other chair behind, in which the second woman sits, but leans far out of, joins itself unnervingly to the first woman’s head, a general amorphous blob like the mysterious and arbitrary forms one runs into constantly on maps.

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Another close-up, the smallest and most baffling of all, called ‘TheSeamstresses’ looked from across the room like a vast landscape on an opera or ballet stage, receding sharply to the right. Close-to, I could see that I had read the faces as clouds or cliffs, faces which overlapped and were both looking left at a folding object (its colour weirdly brightened by the camera), perhaps a dress pattern?

There’s no ground here; the brown I took for the stagefloor I now think a sewing machine, and the river of cloth to the left isn’t the other girl’s clothes but more stuff waiting to be fed into the machine. And the sense of wild motion? On one hand it isn’t there at all; on the other it’s all there is. Out of such simple materials Vuillard makes spatial magic that remains finally impenetrable.

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As time went on, Vuillard relied more and more on repeating patterns covering entire walls. They start as backgrounds and then change places with foregrounds or merge eerily with figures, who disappear into them. Occasionally the patterns squirm nervously with life, as in this seated figure with a face like a crescent moon, which is to say a rudimentary, non-human form, that picks up its glare from somewhere that doesn’t light up the black dress, which has nonetheless its deeper shadows. But the deeper black isn’t performing like normal shadows: it settles into the recesses of the clothes or of the character.  Here he begins to seem a philosophical painter, probing the murk in which his subject is immersed.

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There’s a print of a similar subject that goes even further in fading the figure into its background, until it is so faint it threatens to vanish but shimmers there, undeniably present.

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Prints with their smaller range of tones allowed Vuillard to pull off such spatial conundrums and ambiguities more easily, their faintness like a magician’s sleight of hand. At first I thought it was a joke to call this ‘Convalescent’ a coloured lithograph. Then I noticed the yellow tinge on the wicker (?) chair and the practically invisible blotches on the wall. How much energy springs from those little touches, propelling the almost occluded chair to the centre of the narrative. The old woman has left the chair far behind, though I wondered if we weren’t meant to see her still sitting in it. And the figure which looms behind it, but is actually halfway between the chair and its sitter–other images make us think this strange attendant is meant for the daughter, because we have seen this very same craning posture before. On second thought, such turning toward anecdote is too much like trusting the teller not the tale.  Going by the shapes alone, we detect something sinister in this solicitude: Vuillard’s interiors are not just a game of Happy Families.  Here the spatial compression, three points on a path, and the contradictory relative sizes make this an uneasy tangle of flatness.

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The stripes on the old woman’s robe convey an extraordinary sense of freedom. Seeing something so boringly regular violating its nature so completely, we participate in the artist’s thrilling escape from his constricted lot.

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The prints in the Birmingham exhibition showed Vuillard repeatedly finding new means of achieving reverse-images of visual conundrums he had produced in painting. In ‘The Dressmaker’ the subject is shown against the light which blots out large parts of her, her neck and much of her face. So, strong light appears in the work only through what it causes to disappear. Its power is felt negatively and dominates through emptiness, above all in the blank rectangle of the large window which looms over the work crowded together at the bottom of the frame. The spirit of this print seems notably Japanese, but it only looks positively Eastern in the collage of scraps along the right edge, flakes of coloured paper glued to a screen. The daring of this work and of Vuillard’s prints generally takes us far from the standard view of him stuck in his time-warp.

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It is a risky business to give hints now of what this painter’s later, looser work looks like, but maybe a single transitional work which tackles a new line of subject matter and makes connection with the earlier, smaller interiors can illuminate what happens in the best Vuillards. This is called ‘Repast in a Garden’, isn’t even especially late (1898) and turns the outdoor scene into a kind of interior because it is night, and the space is framed by walls. Colours are muted by darkness and detail is blurred; special conditions have kept us in something close to the old territory.

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The final painting here belongs to the Barber Institute where this exhibition took place. It is spatially more complex than those which have preceded it. The patterns in the dressing gown are extensive and endlessly ponderable, and the carpet is so irregular it defeats all efforts to bring it to heel. The play with the reflection is initially delightful, and the frame within the frame that creates a different picture entirely, and yet…  Perhaps I am dreaming to think that he has lost purchase on the primary reality of the place and become infatuated with a richness of things rather than a more intense richness of vision? Given my looming sense of what lies ahead, perhaps I am willing the tale to end badly.

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Around this time Vuillard bought a Kodak camera and began to take pictures, which his mother printed from his negatives. One of them from 1902-3 shows her doing her hair in front of the very piece of furniture shown in the previous painting. Like many of the other photographs it shows a more cluttered interior than the ones we see in the paintings of the 1890s. Had Vuillard regularly simplified the detail he found around him, or, as their fortunes improved, did the Vuillards trade simpler furniture for something grander? The first is probable, but later paintings do show fuller, more grandiose spaces. A darker space can take us back to a simulacrum of more innocent times.

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3 Hamlets, or splicing Shakespeare

We didn’t plan it—it somehow happened to us, that we ended up watching three versions of Shakespeare’s play spliced together in equal parts to make a whole.

First came the newest, Andrew Scott’s of 2018, a well-received theatre production reconceived for television. It began with a gimmick but a hypnotic one, a pretend-report on Danish television of the funeral of a king, big black cars driving away from a churchyard avoiding the photographers. Then the security guards’ windowless cave dominated by a chessboard of surveillance screens tuned on the castle ramparts, where the Ghost soon appeared, grey, indistinct, and uniformed like a bureaucrat. The scene was enlivened by electronic noises, especially a loud crack like a fuse blowing which signaled the Ghost’s disappearance.

This version easily beat the nearby competition, Kuznetsov’s Russian of 1964, recently taped from television, lugubrious, pompous, with endless stone corridors after promising footage of the sea washing against cliffs, and, worst of all, extreme faithlessness to the text*, of which it didn’t even attempt an approximation. In fairness, it’s a mood-piece, the furthest thing imaginable from a precise rendering.

So we rejoiced in how the Scott version left every word clearly distinct, and Hamlet, mainly silent, made a strong positive impression on me (though not on E) with an Irish accent and mobile face that reminded me of an Irish friend and seemed to exude intelligence.

We settled into this, intending to see it through, but before long Scott’s way of speaking the verse began to grate. He was breaking it into the smallest possible pieces, waiting between words as if to see how long a silence he could get away with, as if he was thinking out the sense of the line on the spot and discarding unused possibilities before settling on the one he liked best, as if the character’s famous hesitation and delay had infected every second of his existence and made him aware of choices a hundred different times in every utterance. He filled up the unexpected silences with moving his hands like birds fighting strong currents of air and with widening his eyes at one surprising thought after another. It was a convincing picture of mental liveliness but it pulverised the discourse and made you feel you’d had a series of memory lapses, a strong but painful experience.

Like many or even most people I come to Shakespeare with lots of baggage. As a student I had to learn some of these speeches as a way of getting inside the language, which my extremely charismatic teacher thought was what the plays were all about. I agreed with him then, and have only partly diverged even now. Without the language, what have you got? But I can only say this as someone who has been comprehensively defeated by Shakespeare’s language.

Reading Shakespeare in intense bouts which last a few months at roughly ten-year intervals has been one of the great experiences of my life, and the last time it happened I thought the time had come to write a book about the plays. The months stretched into a year or more, and bigger and bigger mountains of notes grew up. Intimidated, I decided I had to begin writing with one of the plays which interested me least. Except that, as often happens with this writer, when you look harder, his most awkward or mechanical product reveals new depths, and the despised Comedy of Errors, instead of a heartless manipulation of its creatures, conjures up an existential abyss in which human personality is dissolved by the simple device of taking away a couple of its customary props. In spite of this encouraging discovery, that lonely first chapter was all I ever wrote.

Unable to bear the destruction of all continuity in Hamlet’s soliloquies, we gave up on Andrew Scott’s version after an hour and 19 minutes (about a third of the way through) and resolved to carry on after a Spartan supper with Laurence Olivier’s film of 1948.

It wasn’t easy to make an exact splice so I tried to find the arrival of the players at the castle, a subject undoubtedly dear to the author’s heart, but an easy place to make cuts. Hamlet even goads one of the old players to deliver an old speech he remembers, very histrionic and completely out of context, but the actor is so carried away by the grotesque rhetoric that he ends in tears. This preposterous speech about wandering around the burning ruin of Troy coated in layers of other warriors’ (I think) blood like a basted roast is a favourite of mine and one of the purest demonstrations of the irrational magic of language. It is cut completely from the Olivier version, so it was a waste of time looking for it.

Olivier’s troupe of players is a huge throng (as against Scott’s 3 or 4), with clowns and jugglers galore, and creates an enormous diversionary hubbub. To a degree that surprises us, Olivier’s is a thoroughly diversionary version of the play. You get the words clearly enunciated but you get a lot else, especially yards and yards of heavy and expensive fabric. Gertrude drags a large and bulky train. Important characters like Hamlet and Horatio are dressed like Roman generals, wide in the chest, plastered with metal arabesques and hung with garlands of braided cord that remind me of our Christmas tree. I am seriously distracted by Hamlet’s costume and wonder what an experienced actor like Olivier can be thinking of to allow people to be upstaged by their clothes.

The architecture of the castle suffers from a similar excess of detail, as if trying to include everything it knows about the Romanesque in an arcade glimpsed briefly, like a dish with too many ingredients. How perceptions change—formerly this must have conveyed a wonderful fullness; now it seems out of place and much too much.** Now we run to another recent version that I’m pleased to find I have a DVD of, with David Tennant as Hamlet from 2008-9. This suits us perfectly, pared down to an essence. How long will it take for this one to acquire its weird period flavour too? Ophelia’s grave is like an incision in a road leading to a sewer and the Gravedigger is a municipal employee. This seems a very apt analogue for Shakespeare’s salt-of-the-earth guy shut in the prison of his specialised trade. By the end, like the old actor playing Pyrrhus, I’m fighting off tears contemplating Hamlet’s fate.

 

 *based on a translation by Boris Pasternak, which is then translated back into English, and must have more value, at least in Russian, than I found in it.

 **in 2012 I loved the Olivier version.

A visit to an artist’s studio

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How many times we’ve ended becalmed among the roads across the fens, that all look the same, straight as parallel rifle shots on the map but rising and falling like sea-swells when you are on them. This time we arrive without getting lost but don’t recognise the car parked by the outbuilding that used to be our friend’s studio. I want to read something into the colours of these cars, the old mustard-coloured Mercedes, or now a sleeker one in grey-blue, as if they’d been chosen like the colours in her paintings.

I had been looking forward to seeing Bette Spektorov’s paintings in a big exhibition in Cambridge in 2017.  Then she called it off.  So the only way to see the work of this artist, now in her eighties and unwilling, or in some way unable to show, was to visit her studio, which is why on that weekend in October my wife and I were back again in the Lincolnshire fens where Spektorov has lived for forty years.

What I had not expected was that, though welcoming and ready to talk about the paintings on the walls of the rambling old vicarage, she was not willing or perhaps able to go into the studio where the rest of her paintings were collected.  It was as if an iron door had come down, she said: she couldn’t go with me, and I was on my own, without a guide.

There were paintings everywhere, frozen in place like the inhabitants of the castle where a spell has fallen, stacked on chairs and against the walls, obstructed by easels and little tables loaded with tubes of paint, while underfoot, sticks of pastel were being ground into the concrete. I could see a few paintings mounted on the walls, but I couldn’t get to them over the piles that blocked the way.

Through the most distressing circumstances I was prevented from finding out anything about the paintings except what I could see: their intentions, their sequence, even their names–all were now hidden.  Thrown off stride by what I didn’t know, I didn’t notice for the longest time what a wonderfully phantasmagoric way this would be of seeing the painter’s whole life as an artist unfolding before me at once.

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I started in the furthest corner of the space—was it a desire for at least a hint of method, or desperation in the face of confusion? The big picture I fixed on was like an explosion, a rich burst of colour that was at the same time shattered by strong vertical lines which broke the surface into five divisions, like a recall of the old idea of the triptych that made one thing out of three separate parts. Here motifs were repeated from one section to the next, like characters who reappear in successive scenes, but they bumped against each other and both of them were cropped. The divisions didn’t occur logically but interrupted what was taking place, as if parts of the intended scene had been swallowed up, as by a curtain hanging in folds that took no thought of what parts of the design might be lost.

This was a functional explanation of the feeling of compression you got from the picture, which seemed to show you only a fraction of what it had to say. Here I first wondered if Kandinsky weren’t just as strong an influence as the artist’s favourite painter Matisse. Kandinsky’s work of 1909-13 provided close parallels to all the swirling tale-material that had been set loose by the initial explosion which put this picture in motion.

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Next to it was one superficially similar—divided by vertical lines—but not actually much like it at all. Here the red lines traced through blue made weaker divisions and resembled plant-stems, which undercut the force of separation.

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This one is part of a series that teaches me what blue means to this artist. It is something you sink into and are enveloped by, a colour for submitting to, and I found that the longer I looked the more compelling this trellis of flower-forms became, full of slippages and elements being swallowed up.

4 DSC03725.jpgThe next blue picture is one it’s hard to get an unobstructed view of, one which looked much bluer to the eye than it did to the camera, one that has a bouquet at the centre like one of the onion-domed towers in Kandinsky’s canvases of 1910, architecture not flowers, from a Symbolist fairy tale. A duskiness in the blue, not visible to the camera, plays a big part in making this an unfathomable picture. As I stare, it turns from an orchard into a hierarchical grouping of three divinities in ascending form. There’s a ritualised order hiding here: pattern has become a spiritual fact, and an icon has materialised out of flower-shapes.

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I turn for relief from the sequence of powerful blue pictures to a small one on an ochre ground with bold forms like Japanese characters, or just as much the forms of plants as calligraphy. This one is drastically pared down, with bold shapes and only four colours. The yellow which seems a brightening in the ochre, and a subtlety in the overarching starkness, isn’t really there, but only a reflection on the glass.

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Among a jumble on the floor is one where Matisse’s parentage is most obvious, a picture made of pictures, a languorously sloping armchair in one, lemons in another. This is a canvas you would certainly include if you were doing a complete anatomy of all of this artist’s types and stages. It interests me now for another reason, because of what is peeking out from behind it, which I didn’t pay attention to then, but only later, like a clue in a detective story that no one sees the first time around. It’s a painting that will matter later but is only a sliver now.

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Instead, I’m diverted in another direction, toward a blizzard of dots, seen very slantwise.  It caught my eye by its raucousness, but when you looked harder, it wasn’t just a blizzard of dots but a tree in blossom radiating streamers of dots which formed an aura, while a fractured section to the right was like a picture of the pile-up in the studio. When this painting was fully extracted, the pile-up loomed less large. When it was seen head-on, the picture’s proportions changed. I was altogether disconcerted by how pictures changed with the time of day or what they happened to sit next to. Kenneth Clark said hanging pictures was his favourite activity, in which you are always finding things in them which weren’t visible before.

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My next discoveries were favourites of mine that Spektorov didn’t seem to have much time for. I saw them both standing on end, where it was easy to guess the right orientation with one of them, not so obvious with the other, one of the excitements of the visit, testing pictures in different orientations. I remembered that Kandinsky was given a crucial push toward abstraction by seeing a painting upside down in his studio.

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The first of the discoveries was a Biblical scene or a tense moment in an opera, in which a bearded man waves a sword over a baby dangling from his other hand. I had finally stumbled on a narrative, in rapid, careless, confident strokes, a kind of cartoon of a serious subject. I had to disentangle it from a hysterical princess in pastel who looked vaguely familiar (something by Vrubel?) for a reason I would later discover. When I mentioned the narrative subject to the artist (I still hadn’t worked out whether it was classical or Biblical) she said ‘it must be one of my Poussins’. So I looked it up and only then realised that one of the main characters was missing and would have filled the big purple void on the left, King Solomon and his throne. But perhaps he wouldn’t, for Spektorov has pared down and focused the story.

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The other discovery was a more like a wild Kandinsky when seen on its side than when it was right side up, with a mêlée of forms and a big patch of khaki-chartreuse. Both these paintings had introduced a new set of colours that I looked around for more of.

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I often circled back and paged through stacks I hadn’t got to the bottom of before. Now something made me pull out a big picture buried deep in a pile, where I’d caught a glimpse of unfamiliar colours and big blurry forms. In fact, it wasn’t until the next day that I got a really good look at it, an occasion when my wife and Bette broke the taboo and came too. I loved the rich and dusky colours that didn’t bear down or weigh on you, the combination of looseness and density, the way forms seemed about to solidify, hinting briefly at large figures or truncated cones in a monumental landscape, then dispersed again. Even the heaviest elements seem to float, full of possibility, and little is fixed. Here for once the title is scrawled on the back, and fits with the idea of loosening one’s hold—‘Come what may’.

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The picture with a name formed a satisfying conclusion to a memorable visit to the studio, but the paintings seem doomed to remain lost in the fens. What will become of them? In her frustration the artist even talks of throwing them onto a bonfire.  A friend who is an unusually sensitive photographer has offered to help archive them, which would be a first step toward getting them shown in the kind of sympathetic setting that they richly deserve.

Bette Spektorov’s work is important for its instinctive rapport with colour as a way of being in the world, and for setting an example of throwing oneself fearlessly into the visible world in its fullest, most saturated intensity.  Her exuberant mêlée of forms depicts a world constantly breaking down and re-forming in fresh shapes, drawing impartially on plant structures, fabric patterns or key moments in the history of art, and blurring old boundaries between the world and the self.

 

Mysteries of London 2: Petrie museum of Egyptian archaeology

 

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The Petrie is a museum with no presentation in the modern sense, no attempt at atmospheres or effects. Objects are packed as tightly as possible, bumping into each other, often slightly obscured by labels which never try to make a case for their items’ importance, or even to situate them, except for vague references like ‘Dynasty XVIII’.

The only criterion is visibility. Objects are arranged by size, so you come to the biggest first, or by type or subject in patches, so small models of animals are together, but only some of them, and combs made of bone. This arrangement (or lack of one) is now a historical curiosity. Formerly many museums were like this—the museum in Whitby in Yorkshire comes nearest of those I can remember.

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My method for dealing with the overwhelming profusion of mostly small things was to pick out what was strangest–drastic truncations (‘senseless fragments’), faint reliefs so shallow it was hard to see them at all, half-erased scenes, damaged inscriptions reverting to rough lumps of pure geology, drawings which might become reliefs or were cheaper substitutes.

I wasn’t looking for important objects or even for the best ones, liking the feeling that these weren’t great to start with and that I had been turned more than usually loose among them, without guidelines or commentary. The extreme fragmentation of the remains made them more like disconnected flashes or hallucinations. Why did I like some of the most damaged best? Because this was where you felt the effect of all that past time most powerfully, time that wasn’t helping you but trying to defeat you.

DSC03514.jpgMuseums are usually more accommodating, making you think you are getting somewhere, but here there’s no overarching narrative, only a tremendous crowd of separate things. I got the idea I should write about the Petrie in the first flush of my enthusiasm, preserving the exact state of my current ignorance, before I’d read any further in the two books I got there and found out more. This would give me a chance to test a favourite theory, according to which I’ll do damage by burdening myself with learning, like a burrowing animal going further into darkness.

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I could still pick out my favourites–the fat porphyry frog, the sacred lettuces, the dog under his master’s chair, the scene of trading sandals for grain, the ruined ivory like flesh, various reused stones defaced from their former shapes, the misshapen leather bag still carrying its quota of congealed fat, and half a dozen partial depictions of Akhenaten and his family, instantly recognisable.

The final stage of the experiment (if it worked) would be a separate piece, approaching this little museum newly stuffed up with knowledge and guided by the disheartening floor plan passed out free to visitors (mainly students the day I was there, instructing the girl- or boy-friend they had brought along, or sketching objects in the cabinets, who didn’t need such diagrams), a plan which showed every single display case, but generically and not especially accurately. Wasn’t actually writing the second piece, in order to complete the before-and-after scheme, innocence and experience, doomed in advance, before it even happened?

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The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. University College London Malet Place London WC1E 6BT. Free entry. Open Tue – Sat 13:00–17:00. Closed 22 December to 1 January 2019

Malet Place is a small turning off Malet Street lined with UCL buildings.  The museum is upstairs in a building on the left near the far end of this mainly pedestrian street.

Oceania—art of the Pacific islands

 

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A moment of vertigo as you realise that by allotting a whole wall to a map of these scattered islands, you’ve drawn attention to the vast expanses of empty space between them.  Once you’ve left the land masses at either end of 6000 miles of ocean behind, there’s almost nothing there. It is the most dispersed series of human habitations on earth, given a flimsy coherence by the comforting (comforting and embarrassing) 18c names, reminders of European monarchs, like Caroline or Mariana, or far away and inappropriate places, like the Hebrides (now Vanuatu), Britain or Ireland (with New tacked on in front) and quaintest of all, Easter Island (now Rapa Nui) after the purely accidental day of European landfall.

The adventure properly begins with the ocean, represented in the recent exhibition at the Royal Academy by a huge, nearly featureless blue hanging, crinkled like a calm sea and cascading toward the viewer. This was followed by a vast space where three slender canoes were suspended in the dimness. The largest was never meant to touch the water, a soul-canoe, already full of crouching wooden passengers–fierce birds, quiet turtles and human figures knotted together at both ends, where they hung out over imaginary sea-water.

DSC04791 copy.jpgAround them were grouped embellishments of canoes: splashboards inscribed with wave patterns that turn into birds biting each other, or a menacing crocodile prow with a demonic face on a canvas shield looming over it (see opening image). There were also three navigation charts like a cross between maps and abstract art, made of sticks (the main stems of coconut-palm fronds) lashed together into lattices dotted with tiny shells tied on in asymmetrical sequences. It’s the asymmetry and minimal means that make them feel like abstract art, and the diagrammatic arrangements of lines and dots that recall maps.

Western observers cannot help trying to match up the pattern of shells with islands on a map (a German attempt illustrated in the catalogue), an effort that can only ever succeed in part, because ‘lines’ on these ‘charts’ represent ocean-swells not distances, a subject long studied by island navigators, and classified into four types according to various resistances like undersea ridges, island shapes and prevailing winds. The charts aren’t taken along on voyages (hence their picture-like scale) but studied ahead of time and used in teaching. They are only the tips of icebergs of esoteric knowledge which have drawn occasional Western sailors to devote years to fathoming them.

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The precarious situation of islands which barely stick out above the sea often finds an echo in the islanders’ art, in headdresses formed of thousands of tiny feathers loosely mounted on flimsy cane frames, forming gigantic quivering auras 7 feet across over the dancer’s head. These rarely survive and are meant to be thrown away after a single performance, like those much solider island products, the malangan carvings made for funerals, depicting big fish entangled in little fish and threading their un-fishlike tusks among the fins. Their painted gaudiness seems almost another sign of a short life, of going out ablaze. Malangans turn up surprisingly often in museum collections, apparently because their makers think that selling them to the anthropologists is just another kind of destruction.

DSC04682 copy.jpgFlimsiness, undependable materials and the prospect of a short life can also lead to delightfully casual effects, as they do in barkcloth masks stretched on light bamboo frames which are hard to control precisely. The resulting wobbliness of forms can look like beings who are changing shape before your eyes, as in the lopsided duck or bird above, who seems to make space for a large spider living on his forehead at the centre of a web that covers the bird’s face. Its enormous eyes are not used for looking at the everyday world but at something further off. The wearer can see only through the bird’s beak, which must give everyone, dancer and spectator alike, a dislocated idea of where reality will be found.

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Under the sea’s influence Oceanic art, like Shakespeare’s late plays, is possessed by the idea of transformation, of things turning into other things, as in a carved board of uncertain purpose that starts with a large moon-like face at the top and then becomes a trellis of small faces melting into others, and then larger, more indistinct ones like Rorschach blots, with mirror-selves upside-down below. The overall effect is not unlike the mazes of Northern interlace, and all the piercing makes every perception insubstantial.

Next to this screen happened to be another mythical transformation, in which a long-tailed bird dug its talons into the scalp of a man it intended to carry aloft or devour and subsume on the spot. Already its claws were turning into human hair combed into parallel ridges. The leaning form of this roof finial foreshadowed the gentle motion of the bird’s flight and its acceptance of the composite creature it had become.

DSC04670 copy.jpgTattoos, and especially Maori face-tattoos, are indisputably an art-form, but difficult to include in an exhibition consisting of objects anchored in one place. There’s a remarkable drawing made in England in 1818 by a Maori artist suffering climate and culture shock. He depicts his brother’s face-tattoo as a single exploded view which flattens out the parts of the design that would disappear around the corners on the cheeks or over the top of the forehead. He makes it easier to grasp how this process consumes a part of the body and transforms it into a work of art, or rather how the body and the design are fused into a new being and a new work, a deeper idea of what writing lines on the body might achieve than most tattooists dream of.

DSC04985 copy.jpgIn 1896 a museum director in New Zealand solved the problem of how to display tattoos in a gallery that conveyed their vividness and power. He commissioned a sculpture from a noted Maori artist that would give him a three-dimensional rendering of tattoos. The resulting work looks as if it is carved from a single piece of dark wood left largely uncoloured to represent with defiant strength the darkness of native New Zealand skin. It shows three fully rounded heads emerging from a flat background deeply carved with traditional patterns, stained red and including two fierce birds with mother of pearl eyes. The heads are arranged in rows, two men at the top, a woman at the bottom. The men stare straight ahead, sightlessly; the woman looks down but her eyes are closed. You can study the tattoos as the director intended, but the expressions of the three and their asymmetries are unnerving.

Tattooing is not universal across the islands. One of the most rewarding aspects of studying all these tiny self-contained cultures is finding out how un-homogenous they are. New Guinea alone, the largest land mass in Oceania, contains or contained over a thousand languages and a dizzying variety of forms. In the middle Sepik region on the north coast appeared one of the most surprising simulacra of a tattooed face, sitting atop a special stool which commemorated a famous orator. It wasn’t a stool for sitting on, but a kind of effigy for contemplating the departed, which envisages him expressing his power with circular designs that start from the eyes and spread hypnotically over the whole face, which takes on a new concave form to accommodate them. Are these lines the spreading ripples of the orator’s voice, a visual analogue for sound waves?

DSC04701 copy.jpgThere is often a strong impulse in Oceanic art to dissolve solid bodies and obliterate the distinctness of forms. One of the most perplexing works shows a human body become almost two dimensional, a graphic squiggle of concentric curvelets enclosing an essence receding toward the status of a dot. In a world without writing there is no letter C, but in a world with drawing there is certainly this empty but enclosing form of a shallow curve with more copies of itself within.

DSC04849 copy.jpgIn the same company belongs the astonishingly featureless figure from Nukuoro in the Carolines whose head is a spinning top like one of Oscar Schlemmer’s, spherical at the back, narrowed to the point of a cone at the front, its chin. I imagine that I see on this ‘face’ the most delicate concentric tattoos and even almond-shaped openings in the pattern for the eyes. From Tahiti comes another way of blanking out the person with strong shapes and textures, ones which do not belong to personhood, large flat pearly shells instead of face, hands and breasts; stiff rectangles of alien substances covering the rest of the body. Appropriately this is a costume for the chief mourner at a funeral, someone who cuts off from all connection while the ordeal lasts.

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How is the deity A’a from remote Rurutu recognisable as a person at all? He has a head, sort of, and a body, but has been so colonised by parasites which he exudes like beads of sweat that he himself is obliterated. I had known him a long time before I’d been anywhere near the British Museum or had any idea what he looked like, except what I could glean from William Empson’s poem. Apparently he has functioned as a totem for many unbelievers who have little or no other contact with Oceanic art. He exercised his sway on the missionaries who brought him back to England instead of incinerating him, as had been their custom with the other idols which local people submitted to them to confirm their trust in the new creed, Christianity. The anthropologist Edmund Leach thought A’a’s visual power lay in his resemblance to an erect penis, an emblem of fertility, sweating lots of copies of himself which don’t resemble him exactly, but suggest increase, rather alarmingly.

He appeared in Roland Penrose’s exhibition of 1948-9, 40,000 years of modern art, after which the curator had a cast made. Seeing him in the Penrose studio, Picasso wanted one too, as did Henry Moore. Occasional visitors from Rurutu have come to see A’a in the British Museum, and a copy of him finally made it back to his birthplace and sits beside sports trophies in the mayor’s office. Recent scientific conclusions that he is made of sandalwood were debated by the island elders, who reaffirmed their adherence to the traditional belief that the material is pua wood, a species of tree noted for its sweet-smelling flowers.

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Homage To The British Museum

 There is a supreme God in the ethnological section;
A hollow toad shape, faced with a blank shield.
He needs his belly to include the Pantheon,
Which is inserted through a hole behind.
At the navel, at the points formally stressed, at the organs of sense,
Lice glue themselves, dolls, local deities,
His smooth wood creeps with all the creeds of the world.

Attending there let us absorb the cultures of nations
And dissolve into our judgement all their codes.
Then, being clogged with a natural hesitation
(People are continually asking one the way out),
Let us stand here and admit that we have no road.
Being everything, let us admit that is to be something,
Or give ourselves the benefit of the doubt;
Let us offer our pinch of dust all to this God,
And grant his reign over the entire building.

 

William Empson

 

In the exhibition A’a was shown with his back removed and his internal cavity exposed. I came at him from behind and received a tremendous shock. I did not know that he was hollow.

‘The Price of Everything’—money and the art world

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The title of this mainly hilarious and occasionally disturbing film avoids getting into the deeper waters called up by its missing other half–‘Someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’. The film avoids them too, mostly, opting for an entertaining procession of outlandish characters–artists, collectors, dealers, auctioneers, historians, one critic, one novelist–outlandish in themselves or in juxtaposition to whoever comes next.

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The story begins with the true mascot of an art world ruled by money, the richest artist of all, Jeff Koons, a ridiculous prankster whom no serious person could take seriously, except that they do. His fans include Marilyn Minter, an artist of some integrity who specialises in depictions of pubic hair, and the collector Stefan Edlis, the wittiest presence in the film, proud owner of a couple of Koons. Koons himself surfaces in a large studio where fifteen assistants are working simultaneously on fifteen famous Old Master paintings, of which they are making laborious copies. Koons gives an involuted explanation of how he is actually making every stroke of all the brushes, though he never touches any of them. A second high-flown explanation covers how these copies, each of them with a ‘gazing ball’ of blue mirror-glass inserted into the middle of it, will thereby become a profound representation of the five spheres of existence.

Later on, Edlis gives a more believable argument for gazing, in front of his own gazing-ball Koons. Edlis is a conundrum throughout, lively, seriously intelligent, not fooled by a lot of art-world silliness, yet captivated by much work that seems almost pure spoof to me, like Koons, Roy Lichtenstein and Maurizio Cattelan, whose ‘Him’, a child-sized Hitler saying his prayers or begging forgiveness, kneels between the bookshelves in Edlis’ flat looking at a wall.

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Koons is set off against another artist, Larry Poons, who was famous long ago for his dot-paintings, which he declined to keep turning out, dropped off the map, moved to a dilapidated house in the woods and went on painting furiously while the art world assumed he had died. Poons’ paintings are visceral (Koons’ always look machine-finished), painted entirely by him, and lack any handle or joke by which you could instantly grasp or describe them. We follow him trudging through the snow in old clothes like a trapper inspecting his catches. He even mentions Cooper’s Deerslayer, set nearby. A dealer has tracked him down and pushed him into showing his recent work in New York. Larry Poons seems very sane, but we tremble for him.

The dealers are a different race, exhibited in another pair–a shiny gesticulating man near the beginning who admits it’s all a bubble, the recent steep inflation in prices for contemporary art, ‘but it is doing so much good—please don’t pop the bubble!’. And on the other side, a scruffy English dealer who senses a crash on the way. He thinks he can already smell the smoke—of a bonfire or an apocalypse? And I think of climate change and the biosphere, something even bigger than the art world.

‘The Price of Everything’ sketches in–late in the day—how we got here. The supply of Old Masters was visibly drying up, and it seemed the whole game might be nearing its end. Then out of nowhere young collectors, fabulously rich on the boom in the financial sector, got interested in contemporary art, which not many years ago the bosses at Phillips wouldn’t even allow into the building, so off we went on the heedless spiral so amusingly surveyed by this film.

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The Price of Everything, a film by Nathaniel Kahn, 2018, 1 hr 36 min

George Condo is this how the painting he works on in the film ends up?, Jeff Koons Monet waterlilies with Gazing Ball implant, Larry Poons Trichordal 2016, Gael Neeson with Cattelan’s Him

Anglo-Saxon at the British Library

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How to explain the extreme fascination of an exhibition which consists primarily of pages of writing, often illegible, in languages—Latin, Old English—no longer familiar. You don’t read the pages, but admire them, as feats of learning or curiosity, or industry, or survival.

It is an exhibition which replaces the idea of the Anglo-Saxons as mindless warriors, drunk in a mead-hall, with the idea of a rich intellectual and political culture connected in manifold ways to a wider European world and to places even further afield. Two scholars from Asia minor and north Africa were instrumental in breathing life into the monastery school of St Augustine at Canterbury. The image of the prophet Ezra above was left behind in Italy in the 8th century by an expiring English traveler on his way to donate the gigantic Northumbrian Bible in which it forms an illustration to the shrine of St Peter in Rome. Until modern times it languished under misidentification as Italian not Anglo-Saxon. Now it makes its first trip back to its place of origin, and the scholar surrounded by a proud display of his books can again stand for the sophistication of English culture in the 8th century.

The exhibition relishes the webs of connectedness to a wider than British world, webs partly lost and recovered by recent research, like the story of the complicated travels in France of the 8th c copy of Bede which spent a long interval in the cathedral at Le Mans before it made it back to England in the 18th century.

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Earlier Anglo-Saxon exhibitions at the British Museum (in 1984 and 1991) concentrated on art; this one casts its net wider to include many humbler sorts of literate culture like letters, wills, charters and notes on the management of a farm, arriving in the end at an overwhelming sense of how much has survived from these centuries of supposed darkness. It makes all the difference that the evidence is so tangible and all there in front of you. The earliest letter to survive from the Christian West, from Bishop Wealdhere, is there, and the label involves you, with a wonderfully clear diagram, in the process of folding it four times so that it can be sent on its way to the Archbishop. Likewise the binding of the St Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest surviving binding of a European book still attached to its original contents, is dissected and explained in CT scans and diagrams that show how the delightful three dimensional relief of the cover is built up, using rope and cotton wadding. After all, it is this book’s book-ness, not its contents, which makes it one of the Library’s most important recent acquisitions. And so the symbolism of the apparently routine decoration of its cover seems important to penetrate, a tiny chalice whose presence might easily be missed, from which all the tendrils and bulging grapes of the sacrament grow.

DSC04051 copy.jpg Recentness might also seem to count for too much in some of the most venerable exhibits, like the Binham Hoard or the Harford Farm Brooch, both named for the spots in Norfolk where they were dug up. In the series of recent finds we see the soil of England continually yielding up signs of the Anglo Saxons, and making us feel that they are in some sense still there.

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The Cuthbert Gospel was buried with St Cuthbert in the 7c, rediscovered when he was exhumed in the 11th century, but only entered wider public consciousness in 2012 when purchased by the British Library. So in its way it is newly re-exhumed, because newly connected to the present. Likewise the Harford Farm Brooch, not so unlike other brooches found elsewhere, is unlike them in touching us more closely, because no one before now could have known it. The catalogue tells me things about it that I didn’t notice in front of it, that it was clumsily repaired, with what had seemed a pretty good imitation of interlace in gold wire until it was pointed out that it doesn’t quite fit. Nor could I detect that the repairer (or botcher) had the temerity to sign the back of the brooch. I particularly liked the crushing or crinkling of the Binham bracteates and only learned from the catalogue that these were not the ravages of time, but deliberate defacements by the burier.

Both the brooch and the bracteates seem special as works of art, the brooch for the second subliminal cross at 45 degrees to the main one, which sets the design spinning; the bracteate for the faint and distorted embossing which is not, as I thought, the crucified Christ slipping downward from the grasp of God who supports him, but a skinny figure who fights a creature with a big beak.

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Among the most moving survivors of the centuries are manuscripts which suffered in the fire in Sir Robert Cotton’s library in 1731, including the only known text of Beowulf, the magical Old English epic which combines pagan monster tales from a dim Germanic past with an overlay of Christian introspection. The most wonderful survivor, visually, of that fire is a fragment of a rampant lion, avatar of St Mark from a Northumbrian Gospel* of c 700. To appreciate how precious this remnant is, you really need to start with the intact eagle representing St John from the same manuscript, displayed next to the lion in the exhibition, but luckily separated from Cotton’s fragment before the 18c.

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These animals are sometimes shown as diminutive mascots of their Evangelists, as in the Lindisfarne Gospel’s four portraits, or in the little ox perched insecurely on St Luke’s halo in St Chad’s Gospel from Lichfield, one of the most delicate and whimsical in the exhibition. The animals by themselves represent a more primitive and forbidding style of author-portrait, at their most savage over the doors of French Romanesque churches like the abbey at Moissac. The eagle in the manuscript is threatened (or protected, the common view), hemmed in and temporarily tamed by crosses coming at him from every direction, a vibrant image of a stand-off that combines the love of hypnotically repetitive pattern with the clarity of carefully deployed emptiness.

We can only guess how the lion was bounded. It looks as if the arm of a cross may survive to the left of him, so he may be set against an abstract but symbolic pattern of lines like the Echternach lion in a case nearby. The catalogue, one of the best in recent memory, interprets both images brilliantly. Bernard Meehan, the writer of this entry, detects a distorted cross in the maze-like set of lines from which the Echternach lion tries to jump free, and in the Cotton lion’s coat he recognises a pattern like flames, a fire that still smoulders in the fragment, scarlet emerging from deep brown.

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Through a wonderful initiative of the British Library, these manuscripts have become much more visible, digitised at high resolution on the Library’s website, so that now you can examine every page of them, not just the ones the books happen to be left open on for the exhibition. This includes all five carpet pages of the Lindisfarne Gospel (a detail from one of them above), five incipits, four full-page Evangelist portraits and all the pages in between. It is wonderful to see how transparent the colour is in all the tangled beasts on these pages and how feasible it has become to trace your way among the tangles as if the books were your own.

3 DSC04043 copy.jpgThe best or the worst tangle in the exhibition occurs on the famous gold belt- buckle from Sutton Hoo, appropriately because a buckle makes knots in a belt unnecessary, so the buckle is free to illustrate knots of insoluble complexity. The catalogue likens the Anglo Saxon taste for linear intricacy to the love of riddles, and praises the goldsmith for his clever devices for sorting out the puzzle. The buckle apparently depicts 13 bird-headed, snake-bodied beasts at three different scales, four of which are used up in the hook and clasp, leaving 9 for the main plate, where the writhing bodies are distinguished by different types of beading (only two of these, not nine, as far as I can see). I am left wondering whether this buckle is a riddle with or without a solution. I see the animals’ bodies and once in a while their paws, but not their heads, which have become so minimal they’re more like paper clips than animal parts, so that identifying them gives no pleasure. Perhaps this is the final test of a taste for puzzles: you need to like the ones which can’t be solved.

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In 1984 the Aedwen brooch, now named for its owner rather than its find-place, was scorned as an example of degenerate interlace, a tangle which couldn’t tie up its ends. Now its late, loose character seems its main appeal. It no longer ‘degenerates toward virtual abstraction’ but frees itself from restriction and produces a novel, shredded rendition of interlace, drawing further attention to itself for including a curse on anyone who steals it.

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Finally, there’s an example of falling out of love with the interwoven style of the eighth century where so many of the best works in the exhibition are at home,  played out within the pages of a single manuscript. It’s an Irish ‘pocket’ gospel, one of those convenient little books meant for one person. It now contains two versions of the author-portrait of St Luke, the first (8th c) hieratic and staring straight ahead but in mellow colours–wine, ochre and pale green, the second (10th c) more turbulent, whose saint is seen busily writing while sitting on the roof of a small building, overshadowed by his ox-avatar looming up from a novel cloud-substitute, a tangle of draperies like a thunderstorm. The artist is carried away by his enthusiasm for the rampant linen foliage that threatens to squeeze out the saint. It’s like a miniature reprise of the lush manuscripts of the school of Winchester like the Benedictional of Aethelwold, which formerly charmed by their exuberance but now seem to promise only a plague of acanthus filling every empty space.

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You don’t need to share my preference for the earlier phases to appreciate the depth and connectedness of the thinking embodied in this exhibition. It sets off from the Spong Man, a little clay figure or miniature Thinker with his head in his hands, now separated from the funeral urn he formed the lid of. It ends five centuries later with survivors which are even more unlikely, notes on farm management in the Isle of Ely that needed to be dismembered in order to be saved, by being concealed as stiffening in the bindings of later books. The miracle of the exhibition is to weave the odds and ends that survive into a compelling narrative, where famous treasures like the Fuller Brooch and the Alfred Jewel come to fuller life by casting light on each other. They were already beautiful; now they are alive.

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*The Otho-Corpus Gospel, code for the two owners: Otho from Cotton’s classifications for his books by classical busts, mainly Roman emperors, who sat atop his bookshelves, Corpus from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (via Archbishop Matthew Parker, a great 16c collector)

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms at the British Library, Euston Road, London NW1 until 19 February 2019

 

 

Hiding in plain sight: Paula Rego murals at the National Gallery

 

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What a surprise to find these hiding on the back wall of the restaurant in the Sainsbury wing, a space that seems too low for them. Or does the feeling of spatial uncertainty spring from the intricate jokes buried in Rego’s teeming images, expressed in the alarming range of sizes she likes to play with, never more than here? There are two main populations, oversized figures from the artist’s childhood or 19th century Portugal—I can’t tell which—and another set who’ve shrunk to smaller than dwarves’ tininess under the influence of minute stories on blue Portuguese tiles which keep turning up, leftovers from an earlier stage when Rego thought she would paint the whole scene to look as if they were blue and white tiles.

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In the end the colour scheme is stranger and more complicated than that, something close to grisaille, mainly grey, bronze and white, bronze the odd one out, like a dark flesh tone applied to figures mimicking larger than life-size sculptures in metal. These choices are partly a kind of tactfulness, not intruding too aggressively on what goes on in the room—servers and diners occupy an intermediate position between the big and small people of the mural—and a way of making clear that they’re depictions that don’t want to compete with reality.

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Toward the final section on the far right, tile-coloured but not tile-seeming, comes a crowded set of reminiscences of various paintings in the gallery, centuries and national schools thrown together, medieval subjects not painted medievally but in Rego-language, not banging into each other, but neatly stacked like memories in an attic or storeroom of art-historical motifs. Who is the bricoleur who could make connected sense of all this flotsam? Is that precisely Rego’s gift?

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The range of colours gets richer the longer you study it, as in the grisailles of Rembrandt or Bruegel. And the animals that always carry some of the moral in Rego are not missing. They are given a large part but not a full-size one; we find them everywhere, lurking in corners and hanging around at the edges. A largish toad is my favourite, and momentarily I have lost him. Many cranes slide elusively round columns, and the smallest spaces of all are packed with Aesop or similar stories, a wealth of which you will not reach the bottom.

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Paula Rego was the first Associate Artist at the National Gallery in London, 1989-90.  The mural, completed in 1990, is called Crivelli’s Garden, said to be inspired by one painting in particular, The Madonna of the Swallow (it’s quite a puzzle to find the resemblances) and populated, according to the artist, by people who worked at the gallery and are shown playing the parts of saints.