Vivian Maier is a street photographer who died completely unknown in 2009. She left behind an astonishing body of work. Estimates of how many images it contains are still vague. There may be as many as 150,000, most of them undeveloped when they came to light.
She was a hoarder, who spent much of her adult life working as a nanny and living in single rooms in other people’s houses, which she insisted should have secure locking arrangements and were found, on the rare occasions when anyone else gained entry, to be full of chest-high piles of newspapers, leaving paths between them for reaching bed, wardrobe, windows.
There is a riveting 84-minute film Finding Vivian Maier made by John Maloof, who stumbled across a few boxes of the pictures in a Chicago auction house when working on a local history topic about his neighbourhood and bid on a large box of negatives. He thought the photos might be useful for illustrating his research. They turned out not to be.
Maier was still alive at this point, as Maloof didn’t know. He put the pictures aside and forgot them. His interest was awakened again in 2010 and he began collecting further images and other remains, including audio-tapes of interviews with subjects of the pictures. Maloof’s wonderful short film is available at the moment on MUBI and tells the story as a kind of whodunnit, looking for all the people who knew Maier – her employers, her relatives in France, one of her friends (not a numerous class) and a sociologist who met her, I forget how. The film shrewdly delays telling the most startling and disturbing things about its subject till towards the end.
So this isn’t a subject where I have any deep familiarity. I’ve only been looking at the photographs for about two weeks. Of the hundred and fifty thousand, I have seen at most 200. I haven’t had time to understand this category ‘street photographer’, a fascinating one but new to me. So at last I have the type of subject I have been dreaming of, where I am truly in the dark. I think my method will be to put together a larger set of images than usual and let them speak for themselves, except for a few comments about why I find them interesting. Inevitably I am drawn to certain images and certain themes, and not others.
Pictures of people asleep are among my favourite Maiers. The display of magazines and newspapers makes a cosy room or a dragon’s cave, an over-communicative construction, turned inside out, and balanced between neatness and disorder.
Another homemade construction concealing a building site. It’s a subversive architectural moment, in which buildings are forced to reveal their backsides. The single overbearing car, oblivious strider and lamp post are a typically queasy, surreal group.
More sleepers, more obverse and reverse of a repeated motif. I love the grittiness of this and the perversity of the geometrical consistency imposed by the bench and the fence (and its shadow). A highly structured space, yet anything but. The subject does not end at the side-edges.
This priest-like ten-year-old is surrounded by fragments of architectural pretension. Is it waste ground or a graveyard? A metal stairway to where? The first of many impenetrable enigmas.
A father and two children walking away from us. A low wall dividing us from a ravine. A puddle creating a double Rorschach – a black snowflake in the centre of the picture that counteracts their forward motion, or rather multiplies the directions in which things move.
First self-portrait, first instance where we see the image being produced right this minute by her hand, in the painting which she has made of the portrait, as if the part she is responsible for can be isolated in the centre. The doll on the counter a weird touch, the light from the side another ghost.
A complex trick. It looks as of these figures are hanging from a ceiling which is below the floor in a no-space.
Another nap, or an accident? The house peering into the car window an uncanny touch.
Another nap, another far-away element lined up with the sleeper, an Oldsmobile across the street. All these sleepers – are they pictures of the unconscious?
Another self-portrait with an attendant looking at something else. The shops behind her are behind us, though in front. Mirrors are baffling, however long you’ve had to get used to them. Strange that the brushed metal makes their lower parts look as if we’re seeing them through a gauze curtain.
Looking down into another room below the floor. Something wonderful about the head-on view.
More mirror tricks, though I still want to think I’m seeing him through a glass door, his legs chopped off by it, but there on the other side. The label on the ‘door’, around which you see the sky, has less force if it’s stuck on a mirror. The two flaps on either side of the central scene are like wings on an altarpiece. The tiny corridor running on forever on the left is an insoluble mystery. The building with fire escapes on the rights fits perfectly until you look closely, then it doesn’t: light and shadow are in the wrong places.
Someone else building his private cave.
Emerging from the subway, a group of escaping captives.
One of the most incomprehensible, presumably made more confusing by how it is cropped. Is there glass any more in this large opening? The man’s foot seems to puncture it. If not, how explain the reflections of two cars in the tarp? Is the man, consisting entirely of shoes and sagging cuffs, just rolling up the tarp to begin selling the peaches from a stall, not a more permanent shop? The surrealest of all.
She sprawls on her front step and deploys the torn-out page like goddesses did scraps of cloth in their modesty.
A ferry docking, uncharacteristically atmospheric.
Self-portrait on a crooked slice of mirror which chops up the building behind.
A self-portrait which creates a circular or angular pavilion out of reflections and projections of walls and canopies.
A composite creature created by a fire hydrant.
Another car interior as a magically complex space in another stationary vehicle.
Another seller’s hut as a dense, complex space or cave. Colour used sparingly.
Again red/orange accents, searing here. A scene of mythical import.
How many people? They multiply.
It looks as if they are materialising a woman’s leg from a piece of mosquito net or spun sugar at a carnival – magic.
Depths of a sideways look, solitude in crowds, both near and far.
This one came after a series of colour pics and landed with unexpected solemnity.
Maier isn’t usually a minimalist—this one comes nearest.
What are they saying?
The most inscrutable of all.
Full of contrasts, a great composition.
Where’s Hoffa? The violence of it, perpetrated against paper.
Apparently the piles of newspapers in Maier’s room often featured lurid crimes, a passion of hers.
Sleeping news vendor whose shoe has mysteriously migrated.
An expression that holds you. The spare colour is gripping.
A found object.
As a way to convey movement. A realm of ghosts. Maier’s world is one of strange accidents which occur in the midst of life but stand apart from it. The outsider finds outsiderdom reflected back at her wherever she looks. She discovers loneliness in city streets, confirming in myriad ways what Baudelaire noticed all those years ago.
Ruskin was one of the most amazing people of his century. His prose broke over his contemporaries like a great unstoppable wave, thirty-nine volumes of it in the great collected edition published soon after his death. So his art got left behind and undervalued. He put it to practical use, illustrating his lectures and books rather than giving it a free-standing existence. Still, his watercolours and drawings remain the quickest, most immediately startling means of accessing Ruskin’s visionary perceptions of architecture, sculpture and the natural world. His interpretations of old texts are always original and usually astonishing and his perceptions of the natural world are overwhelming in their force. Little studies he calls ‘fast sketches’ of seaweed, shown broken off and lying flat, still convey the movement of the sea, a sense of turbulence and change in the twists and struggle of their fronds and the surprising complexity of their colour. The ‘fast sketch’ of withered oak leaves suggests a tragic development, of decay tending toward death but filled with energy, of youth consumed in a bonfire of bright colour, Baroque exuberance in the vagaries of how these leaves live their lives. We have arrived at death, but the work is still all about life and the richness of interior spaces, such depths, such distances and shadows, discovered in a final burst of activity.
Ruskin is wonderful in his waywardness above all, pulled in contradictory directions that he must find ways to bridge. There are two main poles in his thinking and interests. He begins a defence of Turner, the great landscape painter of his era and, led by the subjects of the pictures, finds himself waylaid by the structure of the Alps and the meaning of clouds.
His next big project, after Turner and mountains, is to decipher the relevance of a great Gothic survival, Venice, a city and civilisation which Ruskin will approach through its stones, not just its buildings in the common sense of the word, but its spiritual sources in properly revered materials – marbles, brick, limestone, tufa — the relevance of these basic facts of traditional life to the estranged conditions of life in the new industrial cities of his homeland. Looking at or being in Venice or Abbeville, Ruskin never forgot Sheffield or, at least, turned more and more to writing and drawing the history of Venice and its art to heal the wounds of the nineteenth century he lived in, though as soon as he was free to move himself, he left the city for the Lake District.
At times Ruskin liked to claim that Abbeville or Verona meant more to him than Venice, but the idea of a Stones of Verona to equal that of Venice didn’t get very far. Abbeville, which had an even more circumscribed place in Ruskin’s map of significance, turns up in a fascinating episode that brings together his great themes of nature and art and time passing. This is a sequence that starts from Ruskin’s photograph of the courtyard of a late Gothic house in the northern French town of Abbeville. Leaving aside much surrounding picturesque detail, Ruskin singles out the convergence of leaves of living ivy and leaves of carved wood which form the structure which supports the ivy. His earliest gouache of the subject reduces the leafage to a set of grotesque shapes of almost Japanese abstraction, arriving at an outcome like a paper cut-out, which dismembers the plant’s continuities in favour of a thrilling blizzard of scraps.
Ruskin’s next drawing thinks better of this and reintegrates the fragments until the leaves become chunky cabbages and the woodwork retains the only traces of the splitting apart. Ruskin assigned these studies to his Elements of Drawing, where they became early stages in a student’s development, who learned to draw by taking familiar objects apart and putting them back together, after discovering their essential principles.
The cluster of oak leaves keeps turning up in different guises, most notably in the last volume of Modern Painters where it appears in a more dignified form, now known as the Dryad’s Crown, an appliance in a ritual that looks like a piece of Art Nouveau metalwork, uncannily symmetrical yet unfathomably quirky in its forms, irregularity which comes from its origins in actual, not stylised leaves, which twist and turn in multiple movements hard to keep up with. The entire figure, shown still growing round its supporting twig, also resembles a skull, as if it were the plant’s bony residue, missing its flesh but recognisable in eye-sockets and nose-hollow focussed on the spectator.
The text of Modern Painters doesn’t mention the dryad at all; only the names of the engraved illustrations carry this particular burden of meaning. In further, more elaborated moments the dryad lays claim to the qualities or character of the branching plant. ‘The Dryad’s Waywardness’ is the name of one of Ruskin’s most original drawings of the growth of oak twigs, which shows them exploding or growing, with us as their target, careening to the left as they lurch forward like a sailing boat cutting the water dramatically, a figure Ruskin actually uses to describe the evolving space we are pushed to imagine, arising from the plant’s desire.
Though a wood sprite, the dryad seems a sedate figure, tying the natural world to the classical past, to poetry in forgotten languages. The drawings are anything but sedate, even ‘The Dryad’s Toil’ which Ruskin says is the most uninteresting view, lateral or sideways-on movement, from which the spectator has stepped aside and views analytically rather than being caught up in, as he was in the head-on view.
Ruskin based a whole theory of perception on the contrast between frontal and lateral views. Only by facing growing things head on can you understand growth and represent it truly. Does the principle, or a version of it, apply to objects not capable of movement which we can actually perceive, like mountains or buildings?
As it happens Ruskin is often focussed on views of his subjects that suggest or intimate change. One of his favourite forms is that of a crevice or cleft which can be a gentle hollow like the land-form of a mossy cushion grown over by the soft hair of wild strawberry, toad flax and primroses, or whatever these more fleshy leaves are. This famous drawing is set apart by how lopsidedly it fills the space, leaving most of it bare. This was drawn on paper bluer than it is now, stronger colouring which would have spoiled its purity, of a virginal feminine sort, which makes it easier to imagine as part of a large, soft human body.
Mountain forms provide more powerful versions of the cleft or crevasse which also attracted Ruskin strongly. Two of his strangest, most magnetic drawings depict a rocky ravine at Maglans in the French Alps seen from above, which makes the opening in the earth look like surgery, a violence practised on or erupting from turbulent depths. Here not a single bit of the terrain is quiet and every inch heaves with forceful detail like scarring or splitting, writhing or shaking. I can’t help speculating about how Ruskin found the vantage from which to see this sight, not a concern when looking at Blake or John Martin, but Ruskin makes you expect that he must actually be looking, not idly making things up. And here again appears one of the signs of a fully equipped landscape, the little tufts of growth, in this case whole trees or copses, not the delicate tendrils crossing the mossy cushions. In ‘Moss and Wild Strawberries’ we felt ourselves voyeurs, here we are adventurers, looking into depths precariously, then plumbing them and feeling effective.
Ruskin finds such dynamic ensnarled forms in unlikely places, in the carved arches over the doorways of San Marco, where by feats of eyesight he singles out whirlpools in stone which represent plants catching up birds in their movement and forming them into bosses or beautiful filigreed bumps, which Ruskin also finds at larger scale scattered on the ground, again wound up, sweeping different substances into unified movement which scatters itself profusely and unevenly. What system can we see in it? Impaction? Construction? A kind of anti-construction? Richness, but why so satisfying? Lessons of geology made palatable?
Is it a lesson? It doesn’t feel like it, but perhaps it does get you thinking who is doing what to whom, trees resisting movements of stone, an invasion of stone. Ruskin remained an inveterate animator of dumb creation, as earlier, when voicing the thoughts of developing oak twigs, their concessions, their escapes.
This scene is animated by the contending wills of rocks and trees, rocks brought here by a force, moving water in the form of ice, which has now disappeared but survives in the light blue-green wash that sweeps over the ground left free by the contending forces on a scale we could almost call domestic, like the sub-Homeric battle of the frogs and mice.
Ruskin’s knack for grandiose names in many of his titles was matched by a corresponding openness to ludicrously humble ways of conceptualising his subject, on the one hand the Dryad of the oak sprig, and on the other, streaky bacon as the familiar deity of one of the most venerable Venetian palaces. Tantalising references in his notebooks and diaries point us to a mysterious Bacon Palace named, we discover, for its beautiful panels of rosso di Egitto alabaster. This façade is known from a murky daguerreotype like something dug up from the sea, and a Ruskin drawing based on it, in colours made more complex by fading. In reality the alabaster has faded entirely – it was removed in Ruskin’s lifetime. The bacon of the bacon palace was already only a memory for Ruskin, another sign that Venice was becoming a ruin and a shadow right before his eyes. Important and unimportant memories were hard to hang on to, a conviction just as visible in Ruskin’s renderings of rocks as in his records of buildings.
He was fascinated by glacial erratics that had been stuck for who knew how many hundreds of years but could still be rendered to suggest that they might again be washed away by forces we detect undermining them.
Even cliff-faces, the most imperturbable of natural surfaces, suggested fracture more strongly the longer we looked. I’ve read somewhere that gneiss (the oldest rock? another un-tethered memory) was Ruskin’s favourite kind of stone. Because it seems the most unchanging? or the most complex in variety of form and surface? This great face is the blankest and most expressionless of all, or pure and infinitely changeable expression, loaded with emotions, but not human ones, so that we can crack our heads against it forever wondering what it is saying. It is a face, with forehead, eyes, broken nose, laughing or yawning mouth, and beard, yet this is a travesty which one wants to un-see, what happens when one stares too long at a featureless subject.
This drawing is often reproduced in black and white, which levels it still further toward sameness. There are many touches of bluish Chinese white, and there is also the pale brown or cream of the paper.
Another big lump of Scottish stone of a few years later displays more surface variety but suggests an inexhaustible world in a grain of sand less successfully. Not that the close-up view in the Pass of Killiekrankie is trying for that effect, but the earlier Glenfinlas monochrome is more overwhelming, which must arise from its simplicity and unitary concentration, a preposterous claim for a subject which breaks into incalculably Many instead of the One you saw or thought you saw at the beginning.
There is an important class of Ruskin’s drawings that I would prefer to leave out, intense studies of single natural objects wrenched from their seating in a surrounding world. The Glenfinlas drawing fills every inch aggressively, every microscopic pore of the paper surface, almost crowding any element which isn’t rock, including the crucial contrasting element of water, out of the picture.
The drawings of single specimens which I am thinking of sit in the middle of emptiness which is a true blank and not a real space at all. The velvet crab on a vaguely velvety cloth is not an exception to this rule. Even this creature’s name is a compliment to its refinement, a quality we appreciate, of which it is unaware. All its mysterious colours and textures can’t overcome the subject’s lack of engagement with its surroundings. The limpness of its minor legs gives away that it is not alive and makes it hard to imagine the movements of life.
You might assume that the famous drawing of a single feather from a peacock’s breast would produce the same effect. What sense does an isolated feather make? And this marvel of complexity is too reduced to be visible to our sense, a problem exaggerated by reproduction, like a further shrinking of the subject. In a letter Ruskin gives a minute account of making the drawing, plugging on as long as he can without re-dipping his brush. To get the fullest sense of the drawings nothing equals the richness that comes from catching Ruskin at work on particular drawings in his diaries or letters home to his parents, a thrilling integration of the drawing and its own circumstances, so that it too has its place in a human narrative and becomes a character. Ruskin’s gift for dramatising his subjects is applied also to the works which embody his animating gift, an almost unimaginable doubling of our involvement, extending from the subject to the process of its capture.
The feather drawings are in one sense too stark for deep enjoyment. The drawing of single rays of the breast feather leaves us unsatisfied, more a concept than a sensation. We want instead the whole feather enlarged to this scale, which is more a comment on our voraciousness than on Ruskin’s failure to pursue his perceptions far enough.
When he turns to buildings we recognise the same perceiver who senses the developing processes of life and change in whatever he is looking at. Like plants and mountains, buildings are growing and decaying, moving slowly or quickly towards their death, sharing the joys and hazards of mortality with everything around them.
The wonderful view of St Wolfram Abbeville in its setting comes close to those views of rocky landscapes in how it chops off the view, which it approaches from behind and sideways. Though he fills the sheet entirely, he gives us the subject unevenly, leaving out its most prominent features, its towers, which we can catch up with in other Ruskin drawings.
Even the parts which are included receive unequal attention. The main focus is the triangular stretch of transept wall with its motley assemblage of rich tracery, partly broken, or never finished, or worst of all completely punched out. In fact, like many of the buildings Ruskin cared about most, this building is already a ruin though still in use. The whole scene has suffered since in ways he couldn’t anticipate, though they might not surprise him. The low domestic buildings to the right, which give us the scale of the church, disappeared in the brutal bombing of Abbeville in 1940. The river, like those streams which rush past Ruskin’s cliffs, no longer passes the church, reminding it of subtle forces and the dissolution of solid things. It has disappeared in post-war re-building.
Ruskin writing in 1850 called Venice a ruin and a shadow. This drawing is another witness to melodramatic warnings coming grimly to pass. And yet . . . it is also one of the most wonderful renderings of inconsistency as the ruling genius of architecture just as surely as it is of the natural world, in the ups and downs of that slice of tall traceried wall, in the variations of the boundary wall, in the precipitous shrinking of the whole view into the right-hand side of the picture, and of the life that Ruskin goes on finding in lop-sidedness.
His most finished works still manage to incorporate these pleasures, and there are also the many close-ups of architectural details which parallel the botanical or zoological specimens, and a fascinating in-between class, of architectural details presented in context and separated from context at once, like the portrait of two late-Gothic niches (or, strictly speaking, just their tops with gable forms and balustrades above them) from a building in Caen in Normandy. This drawing is a work by the same man who writes a guidebook to Florence, the cradle of the Renaissance, that treats only Gothic sculpture on the base of the cathedral tower and two sets of medieval frescoes in Gothic churches at opposite ends of the city, that is to say of a man who delights in overturning conventional ideas of what is important and redrawing the map in a violently skewed form.
So we have the drawing of parts of two traceried niches, the sheet chopped off long before we reach the ground, leaving big and inconsistent blanks even in the part of the building there is room for. But the intensity of attention to the parts that remain, there has never been anything else like it. And to fill in the gaps between the flashes of high focus would spoil the rhapsody of having seen just these patches of richness. The mind and eye can only focus this intently on a small stretch at any moment. And then, the rhythm of the drawing wants to tell us, it moves on, and lights again, like a nervous bird, at another spot not too far off and applies its attention again. The inconsistency of the drawing is a picture of the mind and eye’s progress across a surface, miles away from a strictly methodical progress. The drawing enacts this in more than one way, in sudden darkenings and shadows suggesting depths or sub-moments of concentrating more deeply. The message is, thrillingly and repeatedly, unevenness, variance continually, so at-odds with the supposed stability of architecture. Yet in looking at other people’s books about Venice, one often gets the sense from how they defer to Ruskin for detailed reports on minor Venetian palaces, that no one since Ruskin has examined these buildings as thoroughly as he did. Always inconsistently – the buildings he concentrated on are in the oddest corners and scattered all over the territory, a peppering of examples that seems to obey no pattern or rule.
Among all the minute details of Venetian buildings, I came across a drawing in coloured chalk purporting to be Ruskin’s but looking like an ideal illustration of a castle in a children’s story, a very un-Ruskinian kind of fantasy-building. The chalk has got smudged since, an effect not intended but suitable, vanishing before our eyes like a dream-building not in its upper reaches but towards the bottom.
The first drawing of Ruskin’s I ever saw, in the monochrome illustrations to Seven Lamps, showed San Michele in Lucca, covered in stories which charmed me by their wildness, various animals at odd angles mixed up with over-sized plants, like a child’s idea of all creation, much more random ungainly and full of life than anything Gothic, enhanced and clarified by its flatness so that it wasn’t sculpture, though made of stone, but picture, and true to his truthfulness, represented by Ruskin in all its wild strength and impulsiveness. Just last week I came across Ruskin’s description of these stories in a letter home to his father, a description full of life like these bold mosaics which read very easily from the ground in spite of the damage which drives Ruskin incandescent with rage when he finds pieces of green serpentine infill from around the pale figures lying disregarded on the ground beneath, so that he calls his drawing ‘part of the destroyed church of San Michele’.
In the drawing the glare of the sun is powerfully rendered, and maybe the way Ruskin’s drawing trails off to the right even renders further levels of glare at different times of day in the same drawing. The building’s mass is surprisingly caught at the outer edge, but even the way it breaks off marks it as a precious fragment, whose hallmark, the building’s not just the drawing’s, is inconsistency too, in types of pillar, of scenes and even of colours of the infill. Though maybe the orange is where the green has fallen out, rather than another colour of stone.
Other drawings of this same façade do it less savagely and more meticulously, showing the figured bulges under each arcade, left out in the folkish version and given a lovely glitter with white highlights that make it a different kind of building, drawn in a different mood by a different artist whose extremely variable moods are one of the strongest features of these letters. Someday someone will meticulously key these letters to these drawings, or they already have. Hundreds or thousands of pages of Ruskin’s diaries over a fifty-year period remain to be deciphered and published online, like the wonderful set of his Venice notebooks where one can switch back and forth at will between his handwriting and a transcription. But that too is only another example of a human record too rich and complete for our powers to keep up with it.
In his enthusiasm for the crude energies of the Romanesque and the naiveté of its stories Ruskin was ahead of his time. Likewise in his enthusiasm for the innocent narratives of Carpaccio, which snared him in ways we would like to head off before they really get hold of him. St George and Ursula peopled his imagination too successfully. His childishness and his seriousness, his love of saints and monsters and his susceptibility to reading himself into their stories is beautiful shading into treacherous from the beginning.
There are photographs probably commissioned by Ruskin of the Pisano pulpits, especially of the caryatid lions eviscerating their prey, a subject which appalled and fascinated him, that could be Ruskin drawings, and make one think art aged differently in those days.
In his views of Romanesque buildings Ruskin often leaves architecture behind for narrative, as in the drawing of the Gryphon caryatid at the Duomo, Verona, a ruined fragment of a mountain, whose rents are as powerful as its continuities, whose textures are a commentary on savagery as part of life, whose hybrid obscenities are the more shocking for the damage they have suffered with the years. The mouth composed of beak and jaw, the eye erased, feathers in several distinct guises joined uncomfortably, signs of much smaller prey inescapable, and finally stains of colour like a bath of blood with a result perhaps more demonic than intended.
Ruskin’s interest in mountains is an interest in structures grander than architecture, but continuous with it. Mountains are the largest structures on the earth. Ruskin saw architecture as obeying some of the same laws, and finally decaying in similar ways. His ideas about ruin in architecture, and in cities and societies, derived from his experience of the natural world. You don’t repair mountains, and Ruskin believed you shouldn’t replace original materials in old buildings with new ones, but let them fall down. He hated restoration, which set itself in opposition to the laws of the universe. Old builders knew better than present ones. Ruskin inspired William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement with ideas of repair unobtrusive and very lovely when done well. Carlo Scapa and Alvar Aalto are among the inheritors of this line of thought.
In some of his most interesting close up views of mountains, which aren’t always the most satisfying aesthetically, we see Ruskin searching for the underlying form of the mountain. More than once the search yields an answer that looks as if it is taken from an extreme weather event, a whirlpool or a hurricane, an image of circular movement centripetal or centrifugal, one can’t always say which, because against all likelihood there is a suggestion that the mountain is flying apart.
One of the most interesting comes with a vague title and a teasing resemblance to more familiar mountain complexes, a close-up only in the sense that it feels crammed with detail, though clearly representing a patch of peaks stretching miles across. It seems to push at the edges of the sheet and to show barely contained movement, hammered into shape until the main curve is made to return on itself without losing its powerful tension.
I started out thinking that the next, more distant view is what the more uneasy one would be if it could, as if the second one’s grander, calmer bowl were the kind of crown or ideal that all mountains are unconsciously striving for, or that we are wishing they would. It is a wonderfully complex as well as tranquil form, perhaps holding together a little unnaturally the geometrical perfection of the low snow-covered curve and the miniature ruggedness of the peaks like teeth at the top. Ruskin discovers here a satisfying symbolic form among mountains, of all places, but only the ghost of a mountain, or a mountain floating away, a mountain ending its life as a metaphor.
This piece began as an online talk for Leila Davis’s students at Anglia Ruskin University
Dhamnar, complex of shrines from NW with recent brickdust coating
Gyaraspur, Maladevi temple, plan with the cliff that hugs the building on its right flank entirely omitted, and the upper right corner, a part of the building which does not exist, because of the intrusion of the rock, filled in in ghostly form as if it had been there at some time in the past.
Dhamnar, Dharmanatha complex, plan of main shrine and seven sub-shrines, shown as if they existed in a wide empty space, though they are hemmed in on all four sides by the high walls of rock left by the excavation of the temples from the rock that formerly filled the space which now holds the buildings.
Below: We are standing on the rockface at the top of the plan, looking east over the complex in its pit seen from above. The tower of the main shrine is nearest to us. Four of the small shrines are visible, two at the top, two on either side of the tower. The three shrines across the top of the plan are not visible; to see them we would need to lean over the ledge in front.
Below: Masrur, plan of the unfinished monolithic temple
There have been studies of how this project would have been extended further, based on existing symmetrical temples.
Osian, Harihara temple 1, plan. At some time in the past the fourth sub-shrine, in the NW corner, has been leveled. leaving a poignant vacancy that the visitor fills in or just feels the ache of, and appreciates the plan all the more through its disruption. Only one of the sub-shrines keeps its porch semi-intact, and there are other anomalies (missing pediments and images etc) that are brought out more strongly by the dispersion of the plan, which draws attention to the isolated, widely separated parts.
Osian, Harihara 2, plan. Hard to appreciate the similarity of this building’s plan to the previous one. The scale of the colonnade that turns an empty court into a large draughty hall is so unexpected and out of keeping that everything is changed utterly. But this project too has to cope with incompleteness, and feels just as much a ruin as Harihara 1, but not a peaceful one this time.
Osian, Harihara 1, jagati (platform) base. This surrounds the whole site with carving of incredible richness and raises its little shrines to visionary heights.
Osian, Harihara 2, jagati base. Another powerful foundation something like a fort. Very near the preceding temple. The habit of Indian rulers of endowing whole cities of temples, very rich and sometimes almost indistinguishable, remains unfathomable to me. Pattadakal and Osian are prime examples and there are others. Is it the old idea of creating heaven on earth?
Kanchipuram, Kailasanatha temple, plan
The heavily indented wall at the top of the main mass creates some of the most powerful effects in Indian architecture, weaving in and out in continuous zig-zag movement to join a series of sub-shrines to the sanctum at the top. I don’t know how these apparently separate spaces work or how you get into them, but the sculptural effects as you circle the building and get temporarily lost in cavern-like narrowings guarded by nrsimha-beasts with monstrous eyes, claws and feet make a wonderful and fearful experience like one of Blake’s alarming epics brought to life.
I am looking for a way to describe the last two months of activity which have sometimes felt like being lost in a maze, or like falling down a hole into another world to which there is no end, and no obvious structure, that has you wandering in a wilderness of moss, a wide expanse of the tiny, where an obsession with detail makes you lose sight of the larger themes from which you originally set off. The series of objects, in this case Indian temples, keeps unfurling and leading you on, unsure whether it’s a boon or a curse that the series has no end or obvious shape.
The model lurking here seems to be that of finding forms concealed in the ground itself, discovering buildings in the living rock like the figures Michelangelo senses waiting to get out of the stone block, buildings which combine the qualities of sculpture and architecture, which you release from captivity rather than invent or devise according to the rules of a human craft.
Bruegel’s Tower of Babel is not generally considered a mythological painting, but it taps into primitive ideas about the connectedness of different life forms, in particular of human societies and mountains, combining god-like scale and a multitude of petty human devices like cranes and hoists. It depicts a faltering technology and a huge and concentrated effort that will set human civilisation back a stage or two via burgeoning misunderstandings. But the fact remains that someone has imagined a symbiosis, though in ruined form, between geology and building, the one growing into and out of the other, like a weird actualisation in the 16th century of the creation myth in which the largest distinct natural form, a mountain, gives birth to the full later complexity of species and cultures, like a comprehensive explanation of what we are all doing here.
Tremors in consciousness provoked by that much later composition together with the Cambodian creation stories can help us understand what Indian architects might have been driving at in searching out solid masses of rock near the surface, signalled sometimes by the caves already tunnelled through them by slippage or erosion, in which with minimal removal they could discover buildings.
It was never a high proportion of Indian religious buildings which were made or half-found In this way, but they had an imaginative force out of all proportion to their numbers. Whenever you come across them, they take you back to the mythical origins of architecture, spaces found not made, and then brought up to the surface and into the light. That is the direction we imagine such spaces heading in, but for us the excavated temples usually speak strongly of a darkness we have mostly left behind, which it seems part of the task of the temple, whether rock-cut or not, to drag us part-way back into.
The first time in India our only rock-cut temple was only partly discovered in the hill. Most of it was added onto the cave-bit, so the whole effect was like the tower of Babel, built bits merged with more primitive elements to make a patchwork whole, all of which resembled bricolage, a hybrid tumbled together like a rock fall, not entirely stable.
The temple lay at the foot of the hill as if partly hidden by scree which had slid downward as the hill eroded. The entry porch and the mound rising behind it didn’t look as if they were all in the right order, but scrambled, as in a half-collapsed structure.
Crawling round the interior was a powerful experience. I’m not sure you could follow the ambulatory passage the whole way round. At a certain point your way was entirely cut off after you had crouched or crept through the lowest bits. Certainly you were bothered by the bees. They had set up their hive in the furthest reaches and came and went continually, their buzzing amplified by the vault.
The plan in the Encyclopaedia of Indian Temple Architecture gives such a bland idea of this dangerously impeded interior and doesn’t attempt to show architecture turning abruptly into crags along the temple’s right flank or at its west end.
But the whole force and value of the Maladevi temple at Gyaraspur, which makes it a great beacon among all the buildings I have seen, is this uneasy truce between the violence of geology and the ingenuities of architecture.
If I had it to do all over again, I would go on to Gwalior (as we did) and make a stop at the little Caturbhuja shrine in the Fort (as we didn’t) to gauge how the raw power of rock makes itself felt in a rock-cut building the size of a plaything.
Next I would stop at Dhamnar (a substitute for the grandest of all rock-cut temples at Ellora), an instance of the fascinating type that finds an entire world below ground level, ground level which still exists on every side at Dhamnar, where eight temple buildings form a tight cluster, a main shrine and seven complete children of the parent, which each possesses all the parts of a temple on a reduced scale. Or I would have done this in 2001, but I am not sure I would now, because this complex has apparently been renovated by drastic cleaning and the addition of a protective coating that contains a lot of brick dust, which gives it an orange colour, most un-stone-like, like the healthy glow favoured by failing Presidents.
Even in the old days the buildings at Dhamnar were rough and raw in a wholly different way from Gyraspur. Sculptural detail had the smudged look of attempts in very hard stones like granite, but here it was the stone’s softness that had made it easy for time to erase all sharpness, until you felt the day looming near when it would all disappear. Hence the well-meaning renovator, who didn’t want to hear that he had replaced a beautiful ruin with a lifeless model born yesterday. Did he know how the building was made? Turning it to brick was such a cruel travesty.
My next stop (on my would-be journey) is safe from such destructive interference because it was left so incomplete that the effect is like camouflage. In this group of magical buildings it is perhaps the most magical of all.
It is like a sketch for a large temple complex more begun than completed, blocked-in lightly across the whole site, so it is all there and full size, but barely detectable. Perhaps uniquely in the whole history of architecture, this temple group at Masrur in the Himalayan foothills preserves the natural inspiration of the building and even the full value of its magical materials before they are spoiled by being squared up and smoothed, yet conveys the entire architectural concept in a shapely and complete form as well.
It is both a building and a vivid landscape, a mountain range bristling with crags and a symmetrical city of towers, an ideal vision like a Chinese landscape representing heaven, and a whole world of natural rock always entirely itself and (almost) nothing else, the most natural as well as the most perfect temple.
Some readers may think they’ve already seen something like this in their local zoo, artificial crags constructed for mountain goats to climb on in captivity. But the distance between constructed and actual crags is unbridgeable. Not that hybrids can’t contribute something to the discussion, like the miniature rock-cut pavilions at Mamallipuram lined up in a row as the outcroppings seem to have allowed, with the quaintest indication that these were carved from the top down and (in at least two of them) left deliberately incomplete so you couldn’t miss the point. Bhima ratha and Valayankuttai ratha turn back into wild rock for a last few moments before they reach the ground, which makes them at one and the same time, levitating architecture and a natural growth rooted in the earth, a botanical/geological marvel giving birth to a strange child, the phantasm of civilisation.
Instead of purely human constructions these are Eternal Forms like those which emerge on the walls of caves as a teeming population, buildings something like creatures with their own internal principles of life.
In a sense it’s wonderful there is no end to the territory and no single logic according to which it is laid out. At the other end of the field of possibilities from temples camouflaged as mountains are seemingly overplanned complexes leaving nothing to chance, which look in plan more like wiring diagrams than rich plastic compositions binding together their widely dispersed elements. Among examples of this type, both monotonous and scattered when seen first in plan, the so-called Harihara temple 1 at Osian in Rajastan stands out, ‘so-called’ because the interesting dedication to Harihara the bifurcated deity, who suits the site which can’t consolidate or make up its mind, this name has been retracted for something blander.
The bases of Indian temples are one of their most distinctive features, elements more central to the building’s way of being than any equivalent in Western buildings, elements which often attract careful diagrams in the Encyclopaedia. Bases come with many stages and bristle with Sanskrit terms in the Encyclopaedia entries.
The platform-bases of both Harihara 1 & 2 pile up seven distinct stages, like multi-storey structures in miniature. all of which is distinguishing the building from its setting in the world and asserting its essential complexity. The platform-base at Harihara 1, which is like an elephantine enlargement of the bases of its component shrines, has the unity and coherence of a whole symmetrical cosmos made of clearly marked layers and dotted with architectural miniatures, niches which contain their own versions of walls, roofs, thresholds, openings and inhabitants. The resident spirits of the Harihara temples are the figure sculptures which appear three to a side on the walls of the platform, and then at least five to a side on walls of each of the five shrines planted in the peculiar symmetrical system on the roof of the platform.
The Encyclopaedia includes neat little charts of the sculptures placed on the four cardinal aspects of the building, charts which take for granted that these layouts carry crucial meanings. So I found myself becoming obsessed with pinning down who was looking out from where, as I reconstructed a visitor’s journey around this multitudinous complex.
To begin with, this exercise required being sure of the compass points. Hindu temples normally face east, contrary to the usual orientation of Christian churches. Anyone who deals with the plans of western religious buildings gets used to finding the east end at the top and the west entrance at the bottom, north to the left, south to the right. With Hindu buildings these norms are reversed. Except that a few important Eastern buildings, Angkor Wat, for instance, Kailasa at Ellora, and Harihara 1 and 2 at Osian, face west.
This anomaly has caused confusion in the Indian Encyclopaedia, where the charts of sculptures on the Harihara shrines show the sequences of deities on all four sides of the platform and the five shrines reversed from their actual order.
I started out not knowing what some of these deities should look like and only began to notice that they weren’t in the right places when the elephant’s trunk appeared on Kubera not Ganesa, and the boar’s snout on Buddha not Varaha. At this stage it felt exactly like solving a puzzle, and no one would believe the satisfaction I got from putting Buddha in the right place. But Buddha on a Hindu temple? Was it tolerance or co-opting?
How pleasing to learn that the very same order is repeated on Harihara 2, not the attitudes and emotional tonalities or relations between other creatures in the scenes, but the basic sequence of deities was the same, so the content must be at some level deeply valid, and therefore it was probably a structure worth pondering. It took a long time to dawn on me that Harihara 2 also has the same floor plan as Harihara 1, but with a large intruder plunked down in the middle of it, an overscaled colonnade made of diverse column-forms which allows the roofing-in of the open space between the shrines. I felt let down by Michael Meister, my favourite among the different Encyclopaedia authors, above all for his responsiveness to natural settings and his appreciation of all kinds of architectural novelty. Why didn’t he announce the startling alteration in Harihara 2 more emphatically?
Why didn’t he make plain how radical it was to stick this heavy awning on an essentially outdoor space? And why weren’t there any photos showing how the new elements collided with or related to the existing shrines, which they treated as buildings within a much larger building, where they were now lost or marooned or holding court in a sort of surreal parody? Which was it? Were contradictions exaggerated or suppressed, enjoyed or disguised out of existence? One of the really explosive moments in Hindu architecture had been slipped past us unawares, a missed opportunity which made me wonder if my hero hadn’t been paying attention. But there was proof that he admired these buildings tremendously, so he had certainly noticed.
One of the pleasures of Harihara 1 is the assembly of five (four surviving) exquisite separate works into a new whole. Harihara 2 gives up those pleasures to make a more imposing singularity, or is it a more ungainly diversity? You would need to go there to decide which. In any case architect no. 2 wasn’t content to repeat. I still miss the photos capturing the bold new spatial effects where the canopy meets the shrines.
Your analogy or model for the process, that it is like solving or putting together a jigsaw puzzle of separate pieces, is faulty and much too confined for what is taking place, because a jigsaw has one answer and follows a narrowing process to a goal that is almost meaninglessly clear and definite. This other process is a loosening and tightening as you go, sometimes a limited task like identifying all the figures which swarm on the outsides of buildings, then finding that the sculptures on two related buildings follow the same sequence and can help solve each other, because different ones are recognisable in each, and others are obscure, and some are missing entirely, or not in their proper places but lying some distance away, like the semi-human creature planted temporarily in a blank space on the back wall of Harihari 1 at Osian (Harihara, who isn’t the single deity linking all three of these buildings–Harihara temples 1, 2 and 3–after all).
Chasing the Hindu stories round the outsides of these buildings can seem a childish activity. In truth we are now reduced to chasing them mainly through photographic archives of disconnected views, shattered but in some odd way a more continuously sensuous activity than many visits to actual buildings can consistently be. The photographer is making choices, continually selecting. And leaving out the wider context can result in more intense experience.
I find myself thinking of a remarkable French series that concentrates on obscure Romanesque buildings in obscure or at least very particular corners of (mostly) rural France. In some sense it is literally true that I have never been closer to the textures of carved limestone than when transfixed by the black and white photos in these modest-sized books.
‘Black and white’ isn’t good enough. These were images printed in heliogravure and bled off the edges of the page, leaving no room for captions or other distracting words diluting the confrontation with all the tones between light and darkness, glare and shadow in all their heights and depths, in a total concentration on the grain of the stone, the scuffs and breakages that describe its life over time, the contest between tools and the rock’s varying resistance, between the slow taming of mineral surface by wind and water, and the bursting forth of rude ideas about animal energy, and emotion crossing or breaking out on human features, all this filtered through a photographer’s eye, who’d been brought up on early modernism which had played havoc with religious belief.
For the Zodiaque series of Puritanical (in the best sense) treatments of Romanesque buildings were the brain child in the first place of a single Jesuit monk, trained as an artist and a priest, who combined these two strands in strong forms to produce (with committed collaborators) one of the most compelling visions of a phase in the story of art, especially vivid and alert to forces beyond a narrowly rational view of human culture and especially of animal life, a spirit it would be apt and inspiring to bring to bear on Indian architecture and sculpture of an equivalent period to the French Romanesque.
Perhaps our best hope of such an encounter lies in the photographic archive of around 120,000 images of Hindu temples assembled by the American Institute of Indian Studies, mostly in the late 1960s and early 70s. I haven’t tried to pin down images to particular photographers but have picked out a few that come closest to those in the Zodiaque series, especially the volumes in which Dom Angelico Surcamp took a sizable part.
To try and distinguish different photographers’ contributions in the Indian pictures is a project beyond me at the moment. So far I’ve barely thought of these Indian photos as works in themselves, but used them to understand the buildings.
But the Hindu stories—there I am still at an early stage. I come across ‘Natesa’, and after 4 or 5 occurrences I realise it’s a name for Siva, meaning ‘Dancer’, which is attached to him when he’s quelling demons by dancing on their heads.
I keep seeing Nrsimha, a god in the form of a man-lion, with a much smaller creature– human with an animal head?– the images too ruined and me too inexpert to make out these figures clearly. Lion-man seems to be tearing the little person open and letting his innards spill out. The lion-man must be an aspect of one of the main gods, given the prime positions he is awarded. I am putting off looking him up.
I get a kick out of Siva dancing on the heads of demons. I am fascinated but appalled at Nrsimha sitting there calmly eviscerating a child-victim. A few days ago I watched a film which E soon realised she didn’t want to see called Map to the Stars that was loaded with the exhilarating crudity of Greek myth. Children were doing awful things, setting fires in which they accidentally burned up themselves as well, strangling smaller children across their knees (cf Nrsimha) in Portacabins. Therapists acted out their clients’ fantasies, crouching over them like predators. These events took place mainly in Hollywood, and star maps showed you where the huge egos of film had their castles. Stardom was obscene and mysterious, yet had some connection to the heavens. All the grisly violence wasn’t just senseless. Hindu gods can also seem quite un-benign, but you need to know about them, and feel as you learn that you’re in touch with something that matters.
I am late realising that E and I are embarked on similar quests. She is working her way through a limited number (a quarantine, as it happens), 40 holy men (including only a token scattering of holy women) from all over the world, a number to which there is an end, which she can break down into a compassable number of distinct tasks and can even take a week off to do more pressing work, an inventory of an existing population, the furniture and ornaments of the house, or something which has a fixed terminus, like a gigantic shopping list, a survey in its way of all creation, but one which has a submission date by which it will be done, whereas mine keeps expanding from the dimensions of a single blog post to that of a book, or a couple of them, as if in cataloguing certain contents you went on discovering further series of rooms in a ramifying structure which kept on growing like Topsy, like a god who developed new limbs to accommodate new functions or new tasks, which were or became new identities, so the total number of gods might range anywhere from three to three hundred million.
[Excursus on Kanchipuran and Pattadakal] Here was meant to come a brief treatment of the Kailasa temple at Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu, a fascinating instance of a building as a mountain that I was put onto by a witty drawing of my friend Adam Hardy’s, which clarifies the organisation of this super-intricate, angular ‘mountain’, built of an impossible number of sub-units each complete in itself with a final result like an enormous, many-faceted lump of quartz. The drawing brings out the cartoon-like quality in the battery of horrific and comical lions who follow the twists of walls intensely indented, like an abstract rendering of rocky crags.
I intended to follow Kanchipuram with a treatment of the Virupaksha temple at Pattadakal, so the imaginary journey would begin and end with buildings I had actually visited, and Pattadakal would allow a final summation of the plenitude of Indian architecture, the whole human and natural worlds collected and summarised on the outer surfaces of a single building.
This plan came a-cropper through a discovery that seemed at first a miraculous validation. Somehow I came across a description of Ellora, the biggest and best of all rock cut temples, which derived it from the very buildings at Kanchipuram and Pattadakal I had chosen for purposes of my own. The account was even embellished with a sick king and his fasting queen, like inhabitants of a fairy tale, and I was off on a lengthy burrowing in the complexities of Ellora, plentiful sculptures, decorative innovations (the Rococo many centuries before its time), undreamt-of forms. Would I never be done? Every ending sprouted a further beginning. Except that this time the link between Ellora and the other temples was a fantasy, and the story of the building finished before its initial courses were laid, saving the queen from wasting away, was an opportunistic appropriation of an architectural paradox.
The number of interesting old temples in India kept growing and was the most numerous population anywhere in the world, which would only be manageable if I were 20 or 30 or 40 years younger and could fit in 5 or 10 or 20 annual trips to keep up with the expanding and deepening field. The Shell Guide to English Parish Churches might be the template – surprising it took me so long to notice the parallel, or Pevsner’s twenty-four years covering England which began at least ten years before it surfaced in a form visible to anyone else. In some sense this was the ideal ancestor, which kept popping up or beckoning, seeming to stand for any sustained human effort, a plan so ambitious it encompassed an entire place, a large island that resembled a continent, a task so huge it was probably not do-able. I set forth on my truncated version of such a task, consuming two years, not twenty-five, which still became a trap I was dying to get free of, as now I regretted being still a prisoner of Indian temples after almost two months.
The beginning of this obsession was lost in the mists of one of the intensest and at the same time blankest periods, when I could hardly leave the house or escape an isolation that would perhaps never end, except that here ‘never’ meant only a short span, a year or two until you inadvertently caught the disease you wouldn’t survive. Life had become both a nothing and a gigantic cosmic allegory, like the ones medieval folk went around thinking they had always been engaged in.
So that was a kind of template and its content was a series of temples, dictated by an unfathomably complex series of examples in a couple of books organised according to a series of local rulers who were locked into an extremely foreign geography or a history of exotic styles and the shifting stimulus of a big collection of images which all sat in four over-lapping volumes you kept picking up in no fixed sequence. Four was just enough to feel unencompassable like India, though it covered only two arbitrary blobs of territory over a not easily identifiable set of years Far Away and Long Ago. (The title of a book which bewitched me when I was just beginning to read on my own.)
There’s a famous Borges story about a map that’s exactly the same size as the territory it covers, which sounds perfect but results in all kinds of problems which he methodically describes, of users tripping over it trying to match it up with the countryside lying somewhere underneath, even punching holes in it to pin down the comparison between actuality and concept.
Anyway, I take this impossible situation as a metaphor for my current predicament, in which the topics I want to pursue are falling over each other and becoming so hopelessly tangled that I am losing track of both of them (at the moment) or all of them (in the longer term). I have a terrible feeling that in trying to keep them all alive I’m going to lose the lot.
The most recent chapter in this struggle to hold onto things which are undergoing headlong expansion has me standing helpless on the sidelines as a five-day visit to Cambodia morphs into an encounter with hundreds of Indian temples spread over large tracts of the sub-continent, which could swallow up several lifetimes. The story begins with another attempt to go somewhere in the midst of the so-called pandemic which is currently engulfing the whole world and subtracting most of what went before.
Twenty years ago I spent five days at Angkor in the middle of the Cambodian jungle. They have expanded in memory ever since, until I can hardly believe my notebooks from that time that tell me how long I spent in each temple complex and how much time I took out for meals or quick swims. Can it possibly be true that it all fit into five days, including flights to and from Bangkok?
Over the years since, I have often wished I could fit in a return, a dream I never gave up until now. Yet now seems the time to take this trip, now that I have all the time in the world. It will not be as easy as re-visiting the old exhibition of Chinese paintings in Cleveland, but it will explode into a greater variety of forms. I will start with images, projecting my slides wall-size and getting lost in carved detail lit by late evening sun. I will track down all the subjects represented there that I didn’t bother with at the time, like the row of deities with horses’ heads sitting cross-legged on a pediment at Ta Prohm, the famous wild temple, where they sit right next to a parasitical kapok tree which has rooted itself in an open gallery it now towers over and to which it provides structural assistance, unless it is quietly taking the walls to pieces.
Not so easy to find out who these horse-men are. I’m not getting far beyond the old guidebooks. I am also amazed at how few pictures there are to look at. In those pre-digital days I came back with ten rolls of film from three weeks in India, four hundred images that seemed a lot at the time.
But from Cambodia, seven shots from Banteay Samre, five from Banteay Kdei, ditto for Bakong, and these were among my favourites. Even so, I see fresh details in the heavily indented platforms at Banteay Samre which the best plans I have leave out. I need better ones and don’t know where to look.
I have had the famous guide by Maurice Glaize on my computer for years, finally begin looking at it now, and discover that it’s better than the guides I used, at least for detail about archaeologists’ reconstructions of the sites. He found Bakong a chaotic jumble and rebuilt it into the most satisfyingly rational temple of all. I even wonder if it hasn’t become a peculiarly French dream of order. After all, Glaize has misgivings about my favourite temple, Bayon, like two buildings inhabiting the same space, a circular plan imposed on a rectangular, which results in one strange, unenterable space after another, mysteries that intrigue me, which Glaize has to hypnotise himself to see the irrational beauty of.
The Lidar surveys of the last decade and a half at Angkor have multiplied the number of ancient features many times. The whole territory stretching sixty kilometres from end to end is freshly crowded with ancient roads, canals, village ponds, embankments, neighbourhood temples and house groups that constitute the largest pre-industrial settlement in the world, all revealed beneath the surface by something like radar. I have long looked forward to tracing whatever of this is visible on the ground, but I still haven’t got a better plan of the discoveries than the A4 image I found online ten years ago. The whole expansion remains discontinuous from aesthetic appreciation of the sites. One real enhancement for me in the meantime has been the addition by Helen Jessup, an art historian, of the free-standing sculptures found in or near the temples over the years, including a great Harihara from Ashram Maha Rosei (now in Paris) and a large sleeping bronze Vishnu found near a well at West Mebon, a site still reachable only by boat (now locked up for its own safety).
My recent ‘trip’ to Angkor has laboured under these various burdens. I imagine that I need digital images of the sites to study the remains properly, images I could pore over at home the way I did in the aftermath of my actual travels, including a memorable visit to Rome with students, after which I discovered Richardson’s New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome which multiplied archaeological sites in the city many times, including whole new sorts of survival like ancient gardens, and which extended that trip for several weeks after most of those who had been there thought it was finished.
Weirdly enough–the great perplexity of the moment–my current trip to Cambodia was extended and confused by the Encyclopaedia of Indian Temple Architecture, which I first met in a remainder bookshop, since closed, like many others.
In those days, just before our first trip to India, this encyclopaedia suggested lots of new places to visit, very convenient to our starting point in Goa. But was Goa the chicken or the egg? Did the book dictate the landing place, or did Goa make sense of the book as a purchase that might have a real point for the travellers?
Whichever came first in the first place, in the second (the imaginary revisit to Angkor) the role of the Indian Encylopaedia has been more tortuous. I had a craving for more detailed and systematic treatment of Khmer remains, more like what you got in that two-volume set I bought on March 7, 1998 which covered South India, Upper Dravidadesa, Early Phase, which sounded specific enough, threateningly so. I had no idea where Dravidadesa was, which didn’t sound like a place, but more like a demon. I still don’t have a clear one, except that I know there is also a ‘Lower’ and that between them they account for all of the southern half of India. It is one of the most baffling but oddly enticing features of these volumes that you are thrown into a sea of Sanskrit terms and expected to do your own swimming. What good is a glossary at the back of the book (which he hasn’t even found yet) to the happy reader who falls into the swamp below?
Located to the south and east of the Saciyamata hill, this west-facing Vaisnava complex stands on a broad jagati consisting of khura-kumbha, kalasa, kapotapali ornamented with candrasalas and ardhapadmas, antarapatta animated by kirttimukhas emitting effulgent foliage, a second japotali ornamented with hamsas and candrasalas, and an upper vasantapattika with acanthus-pattern showing distinct buds. Sub-shrines survive on the northeast, southwest and southeast corners, each set above a broad plain bhitta-slab and a simple manca consisting of kumbha, kalasa and patta with acanthus.
I am still learning about my love of obscurity, where it comes from, what purposes it serves, how far it extends. It continues to puzzle me that there should be such allure in difficulty, and in feeling that you don’t understand very much about a certain human production that must have been created to communicate, perhaps not straightforwardly, perhaps not without persistent dark spots that may never go away, perhaps believing that complete clarity isn’t interesting and can’t be true.
Anyway, in the present instance it took me a long time to notice that I liked the uncertainty created by this unnecessarily complete fog of unfamiliar terms. I looked up a few Sanskrit words, and got a partial sense of what we were talking about. I drew the line at looking up more than a few. Then I forgot the meanings of the ones I had got, which weren’t always clear anyway. Sometimes the glossary gave you only another Sanskrit word, presumably a more common one that the one you were trying to unravel. But the longer I did it, the better I liked the Sanskrit. There was a kind of intelligibility or recognisability about some of these words, a deep resemblance between this language and ones I vaguely knew.
The Encyclopaedia was split into Text and Plates. I decided it worked better to look at the images for a temple or a few temples first, and then at the text. That gave you parts, like doorways or roof structures, that you wanted to see discussed, and you could focus on those.
At Angkor I had particularly liked temples that looked like or were mountains, because they were so ruined they seemed to be reverting to a more primitive state, or because they incorporated actual living rock, like Bayon above all, so that there really was a symbiosis between natural and architectural form, which fit right in with Khmer myths that imagined all creation emerging in an eruption from a particular mountain at the centre of the world. I hadn’t yet made the connection between two of the Indian temples I liked best and the idea of buildings as mountains or other large natural features.
Somehow, without understanding what I was doing, I was letting my interest shift from Cambodia to India, from my inadequate sources for Angkor to the better ones I knew for India. I didn’t remember specifically at that point that Cambodian religions and architectural forms had come from India in the first place, so there was something natural and right about following the trail backward to India, like tracing the Ganges to its source in the Himalayas.
My interest in Cambodia had started in India. Cambodia was only an offshoot, an interlude in a lecture about Indian architecture. And that is why I ended up spending only five days in Cambodia. It represented a digression within something larger. And that also explains why I was bound at some point to retreat back to India. When it happened, the retreat irritated me no end, and I raged. ‘Why am I giving up the very trip I wanted to take most of all?’ As you will see, it was only one of a series of defeats, ceding one subject after another to my knack for forgetting what I had come for, losing sight of the initial goal and replacing it with a substitute.
I think there is a book called The Year of Magical Thinking. That title catches something about the present moment. Without realising it and incapable of facing it, I am being driven crazy by two things, one old and one new, which I conflate or confuse, ‘magically’. Neither of them will ever go away. In one case this is the best guess of the best-informed people. In the other it’s the demonised, despairing fear of those who can’t imagine a way out.
Trump and the virus are the two components of the looming apocalypse, two diseases that have so far induced mainly paralysis in those whom we would like to count on in fending them off. I wish I could write usefully about what it’s like to live with all (or most) of your usual routes blocked. The sudden prohibition of physical movement is easier to manage than the limits on thinking imposed by nascent authoritarian governments in Britain and America. But at least we probably understand better than we used to the plights of the German and Russian populations of the 1930s.
My own answer is a kind of surrender, or, more palatably, an escape inward. Normally I would turn to art. Now this must be carried on at at least one remove (I don’t think I have seen ‘at at’ in a sentence before). So I have shut myself off in the hut we built a couple of years ago at the bottom of the garden to take the overflow of books from the house. We had long needed to get rid of these books that I couldn’t make up my mind to do without. The opportunity was finally provided by a gigantic ceonothus which, like all its tribe, threw out branches with the thickness of trunks, that it couldn’t support and allowed to sag to the ground. So it took up more and more space, a whole sub-region of its own. Its displays of bloom became more astonishing as it ate up more of the garden; then, after a last outpouring, it died.
That cleared the way for the hut, a wooden building of exotic cedar, not ceonothus-wood, but nonetheless a reincarnation of that awkward and insidious plant. Esther imagined the hut as a windowless cupboard without enough room to sit comfortably among the stacks. She didn’t see the need for yet another study. Colin, who helped us plan it, came up with the useful principle that to make sense of the expense, the building should be as big as the space allowed, not inconspicuous. On the drawings he called it ‘garden library’, which probably eased its passage. So here we are, three years later, and the hut has assumed a new role as another world, the only foreign destination I’m allowed since I got the letter from the hospital advising me not to leave the house for any reason.
The garden is small, sixty feet long, not counting the jungle of camellias E has made of the yard beside the extension. The hut eats into the sixty feet, but this distance has expanded since the virus and now takes longer to traverse, looking at clouds through the branches or a plant never noticed before or a bloom that wasn’t there yesterday.
The hut is ‘another place’. I guess you could do this with different rooms too. In my first flat in my first job I had a study that I seldom went into. When I wrote my dissertation in a huge rush, I did it at the kitchen table staring at a blank wall. I thought I needed something like a prison cell and never considered working at the beautiful old desk my parents had given me at thirteen to make me take study more seriously.
For its first year the hut had been an embarrassment. Now that I had this beautiful work space, I wasn’t writing anything worthwhile. I had struggled with a book project for two years, amassing more and more material which remained stubbornly in the form of a featureless pile. Esther pushed the idea of writing smaller pieces, but I was stuck on the grandeur of big designs, a book which synthesised a great deal and emerged as one thing.
Dreadful to say, my subject was Scale, scale in buildings, in plants, in books, in everything under the sun from microscopic to galactic. I could get the size of nothing right – the first chapter wandered on for sixty-five pages and incorporated models of the solar system, Bruegel’s paintings of the Tower of Babel and Lutyens’ Liverpool Cathedral, bigger than St Peter’s but stuck at the stage of a giant model.
It took me a year to accept that Esther had found the solution – a building the size of a hut rather than a cathedral, a blog rather than a book. I think she had been leading by example with her own blog (at esthermenell.com) for a whole year before I recognised the writing on the wall and began to copy her.
So the virus should have crowned the new mode with an extra validation. The world had shrunk and miniatures were more the thing than ever. But no, from believing in the blog with a foolish faith, I had slumped back into complete disbelief. How could such tiny things matter in a global cataclysm that was sweeping all before it? I had been defeated by questions of Scale yet again.
Like many of the most thrilling human products the Buddhist stupa at Amaravati is something of a puzzle. It is one of the greatest Indian architectural works, but it has been thoroughly dismembered and partially destroyed. Now it seems a building made almost entirely of sculpture, but this must always have been the case to a degree. It was one of the largest structures in India, half-again the size of the more famous Sanchi, and indescribably richer.
In its heyday it was a curious paradox, a circular construction 192 feet in diameter with lavish gates and high walls concealing the dome-like central mass, which appeared to be half sunk in the earth, and thus even huger than one could immediately perceive. But there was no way in, and no enterable interior space. It was a big container for a small body of precious material, physical relics of the Buddha or his saints, a tooth, a bone, a piece of clothing.
The stupa at Amaravati took centuries to build, from the first century BCE until the third after, and many centuries to forget its existence, including its whereabouts, so that it could be stumbled on by a local ruler in search of building materials in the late 18c. Within eighty years the site had become unrecognisable again, and the best carved remnants had been divided between the British Museum in London and the Government Museum in Chennai/Madras, with a scattering further afield.
About 120 of the best fragments of the wrecked monument came to London c 1860 and languished for twenty years, suffering further in an unsympathetic climate in a polluted city, until they found a home in the British Museum. It wasn’t until 112 years after that that they were provided with the clean, dry air of their present large glass box.
I reckon that now we are seeing about half the pieces of limestone which the Museum has, which were known in the early days as the Elliot Marbles, after one of the officials who helped preserve them from the neglect and interference that dogged them after their un-burial, called that in hopes that some of the Elgin Marbles’ prestige would rub off on these non-Greek non-marbles.
It’s well nigh impossible to calculate how much of the original wealth survives. The outer railing just over 600 feet long was ten feet high and two feet thick, coated inside and out with carving from top to bottom.
In the early stages both the uprights and the crossbars between them were filled with giant stylised lotus blooms carved with concentric rings of identical petals. Even these chaste designs underwent an evolution from incised flatness to richly shadowed depth. By the second century the inner and outer faces of the railings had begun to be treated differently, the outer to be embellished with grotesque dwarves in the triangular crevices between the circles of the lotus blooms and the straight sides of the posts, while on the inner faces the central circular forms were taken over by scenes teeming with carved figures.
There must be missing stages between the concentric lotus and the riot of activity in the scenes as we have them, whose carvers are full of ideas about what to do when fitting stories into circular spaces. It is such an exciting development, filling all those round surfaces with dozens of figures packed in and busy at this or that. At first it feels like an overload, hard to take in quickly as one passes.
There’s a wonderful density in the British Museum display, a concentrated taste of an experience which went on for much longer in the inner passage at Amaravati, one crowded disc after another, for the cross-rails are just the right length to fit in a roundel, giving you roundels on the posts separated by roundels on the bridges between them, resulting in a continuous chain of roundels. The crowded room at the British Museum starts with an extensive mock-up (seven units long) of the high exterior wall, the outer edge of the monument, behind which lay the narrow corridor via which you would circle the great dome in clockwise direction. But in London the corridor is hard to imagine, and for obvious reasons even the mock-up of its outer boundary isn’t curved.
Behind or inside it lies another mock-up, a replica of the other boundary of the crucial corridor, a second wall about as long as the first, of the base of the drum of the dome, made of big stone panels each of which has its own stupa in miniature carved in such deep relief that they seem to stand full-bodied forth. On top of this row of miniature stupas, four feet tall but still miniature in the larger context, lies another of the greatest treasures of the monument, a row of foot-high friezes full of carved life which would have run as far as you could see, until it curved out of sight around the corner.
Mounted high on the wall above are pieces of the big decorative borders that ran along the curve of the dome as it climbed and disappeared toward the apex. Like the other elements, these borders are presented flat not curved, and so, some of the life has gone out of them. But you get the idea.
On the way to the reconstruction of the passageway you’ve already been distracted by compelling displays of marvelous reliefs from earlier periods which don’t fit into the diagram of the building’s parts in logical sequence.
If you enter at the left-hand end, right in front of you is a patchwork of four of these pieces from an earlier phase, in a simpler mode than the intricate richness that prevails in most of the surviving carving. The spirit of most of the other carving is so un-classical, so un-pared down, in some way so reckless. By contrast, the spirit of these early panels, in spite of voluptuous nudity and mysterious incident, is calm and collected, planted firmly on the earth and striving always for essential qualities.
Some writers find Greek and Roman echoes in these panels, but these four reliefs are classical in a broader sense, in being big-boned and bare in parts, but keeping a few hints of intricacy in their subsidiary place, like the skirts and nets swirling round the legs of the Universal King and his company. Here is a convincing idea of kingship, expressed in attitude, not action, in a ruling symmetry that leaves room for deviations in detail. Every being and appliance has its space, free of interference, respecting the integrity of the parts. Symmetry can seem mechanical, but this is a world pervaded by an uncanny rightness. Yet it is a place that leaves room for mystery or enigma.
Versions are legion of the Great Departure, when the prince who will become the Buddha leaves home on a sudden impulse, setting off in the middle of the night to roam the world seeking the truth. The story comes equipped with many charming details: his servants – often represented as plump dwarfs – muffle the horse’s feet, one dwarf per hoof, so as not to wake the city’s sleepers. Sometimes he is accompanied by crowds of excited acolytes who would presumably cancel out the quiet of the muffling.
Not in our version here, which leaves out all that, and the primary element as well. Here the horse is riderless and must stand in for the prince, for we are still in that time where a spiritual shyness prevents us from seeing the Buddha even in the phase before he has assumed his mature identity. Not just the riderless horse, but the umbrella with no one to shelter under it, expresses the Buddha’s way of not being there too. It is pure accident but appropriate that two flying attendants are now present only in a detached arm and a stranded hand. We know what the missing figures would look like because more garrulous versions survive and fill in the gaps. So the flying hand, instead of a blemish, can become a mystic sign.
In the same vein, we know what lay above the Chakravartin or Universal King, who is another stand-in for the Buddha in the times when he couldn’t be seen. Above the King’s umbrella, which escapes the scene’s frame, are two tiny animals, one trying to sleep, the other sitting upright. They aren’t palace pets but deer, who are code for the forest in which Buddha gives his first sermon. We don’t need to know more. Buddha wouldn’t be there in the scene above, only his empty throne which fills the space between the deer like a big solid block. It’s a scene we have already imagined, stirred into thought by a discreet sign.
There’s a kind of safety in focusing on these single scenes, especially those of the calm earlier periods. But the essence of Amaravati is the exuberant carving of later pillars which are alive to an almost alarming degree, on which the lotus blooms have been thoroughly eaten away by a filigree of figures and scenes, which are themselves surrounded by further scenes, which look as though they are clamouring to get in, spreading hungrily onto more of the remaining surface as time goes on.
Trying to imagine the progression from those chaste lotus foci to the uproar of the later scenes with their surprising depths of carving, all at a scale heading toward miniature, you might hypothesise something like the example below (a crucial piece which isn’t displayed) that I came upon in Robert Knox’s invaluable catalogue of 1992, when I was far enough into the subject to recognise it instantly as the missing piece in the long progression from austerity to abundance. The scenes it shows are formulaic and repetitive – the Elevation of the Bodhisattva’s Headdress above and the Adoration of His Begging Bowl below.
The revolution doesn’t come in these staid motifs but in the outrages against the very idea of a pillar, embodied in the gouging away of a considerable depth of stone to make little shadow-boxes or rooms for these events to take place in. The spaces are small but the energy is frenetic, and show every participant carried away by enthusiasm. The pillars are on the way to becoming scenes of passion instead of dumb, well-behaved posts.
We could follow a gradual process of encroachment on the stone, leading to the final destination in the ruined pillar which confronts the Buddha with the wife and son he ran away from, who accost him on his triumphal return to his birthplace, a moment of contradiction in spite of the crowds of devotees, a moment which includes two delightful lapses into the everyday at the bottom of the circle, toy animals on wheels that belong to the child, who happen to be the very same noble animals that accompany kings in Buddhist legend, the elephant and the horse.
The most sophisticated developments in filling round forms with narrative come in the crosspieces between posts, a stage of embellishment which occurs later in the sequence.
One of the boldest solutions to the conundrum of the unanchored space is fractured vertically, as if the building where it happens had split in two, leaving teetering fragments, leaning toward a gap, almost an abyss, and hanging overhead like a threat. The two main foci, a standing man and a lounging woman, are both oblivious, undressed and self-absorbed. The man looks like a Renaissance courtier, the woman like a classical goddess, stretching languorously on a chair-bed of wondrous complexity.
The circle is divided confidently into unequal halves, the larger half, crowded, the smaller one spaced out, with room for a fish pond, vertical like a miniature cliff-face, in the foreground. There is architecture galore at the back – where is all this space conjured from? — and there are unheard-of depths in the crevasse between man’s world and woman’s.
The long friezes on top of the walls of the inner corridor give us narratives in a very different mode from the roundels, as if unrolling events from a spool rather than impacting them in a tangle, a tangle which makes everything present at once, though often with multiple centres and their own ways of doubling back.
Unrolling sounds simpler, but the friezes facing each other on opposite sides of the corridor are not always moving in the same direction, or even moving forward at all, as if this long thin thread of narrative didn’t hold these sculptors’ interest for long, or it may be that relentless forward movement doesn’t agree so well with contemplation? In any case, the best long reliefs seem prone to dropping the thread.
It’s hard not to be influenced by the damage old carved stones have undergone. You may even find yourself brooding on the suffering of the old artifacts, which are not, of course, sensitive beings. But it matters greatly to me that one of these pieces has a different, more ruined colour and texture from all the others, which seemed to mark it as inferior but before long came to seem a badge of honour. Later I learned that this stone had got separated from the others after arriving in London, and ended in a barber’s yard in Great Montague Street near the museum, so that a curator heard of it while having his hair cut and then arranged its purchase.
This bit of frieze seems the richest of all in its subject matter, which separates large and complicated scenes with exotic couples, one under an extraordinary palm tree, their faces now cruelly erased, but preserving the beguiling Robinson-Crusoe-flavour of something from an entirely different clime.
Then there are the bulging lotus bosses, an extremely tactile form of punctuation marking parts, with the tiniest, most obscure scenes in the central bulges of the rows of three. These seem almost a taunt by the sculptor, who boils down the idea of the roundel so frequent at Amaravati, to indecipherable smallness. These figured bosses have driven one critic to claim that these little kernels contain the secret of the whole relief, even arguing that the knob which shows a flying horse is the Great Departure, and thereby trumps the most moving of the large scenes, Siddhartha sending back his horse and groom, who are both heartbroken at this new sacrifice (see first frieze segment).
The crowning challenge of the piece is that it lacks its other half, now housed in the Government Museum at Chennai. Placing the two of them together, you find that the central scene is that old standby the Elevation of the Turban, now split between the two places, of which we have almost exactly half the gladness in London, expressed in rows of ecstatic figures swimming or flying through the ether in syncopated tiers.
I think we might be disappointed in the result if we were to link the two halves of this relief. The jagged edges match, yet the hard-bought ruin and mysterious depths of the London piece would have to put up with the dull smoothness of its mate in Chennai and with its bland emptiness instead of the jammed excitement of our figures standing on ground made wobbly by the creatures moving to a contrary current under their feet.
Next to the London half of the Turban frieze is presently mounted an even more fragmentary and ruined subject, with unknown gods and rulers threatening each other, raising heavy weapons overhead or striking dance postures in the midst of conflict, their limbs reduced to spidery thinness which lets us peer even further into the depths that open beneath features that have become almost abstract since their decay made it impossible to be sure what they represent. The traveler down this corridor would always have got plenty of raking views. In that perspective the most timeworn relics of Amaravati sometimes seem the most satisfactory, all their complexity reduced to a final uncertainty.
Something catches your eye that you’ve passed many times without seeing. Why now, suddenly?
The suddenness is wonderful and the work completely absorbing. In order to see it at all you have to block out a lot else, a diverting cacophony of other works, a jumble of forms and sizes never meant to be seen together, apparently assembled to no coordinate plan. That’s the beauty of the V & A Cast Court, of course, a host of juxtapositions only permissible because nothing here is real.
But once you’ve singled one out, the unreality doesn’t count. The plaster isn’t dirty, but it isn’t clean—it does a reasonable job of imitating the worn and mottled look of marble. Sometimes there are signs of its having been coloured—mostly with stone colours, grey and brown. By a fortuitous twist, the roughness of plaster and traces of varnish suit this particular sculptor uncannily well, who was one of the first carvers to make something positive and expressive of irregularity and even of flaws in execution.
Above all, my new favourite is a conglomerate and the separate parts aren’t precious individually. Not that there aren’t wonderful strokes of invention and plenty of arresting details. On that day it seemed the most gripping large work of sculpture in the world, challenging one of the most powerful plastic statements ever, the great altar at Pergamon, which it couldn’t match for scale and violence, but in narrative variety maybe it came out ahead and had the giddy spectator reaching for parallels like the dramatic profusion of all the novels of Balzac.
The work I am looking at is Giovanni Pisano’s pulpit for Pisa cathedral executed in 1302-10 with a fair amount of studio help, a fact which makes some critics compare it unfavourably with an earlier, overlapping project by the same sculptor, a pulpit for the parish church of S Andrea in Pistoia, much smaller than this later work, with more of Giovanni’s own carving in the intimate reliefs, which are placed, as they are in Pisa, furthest from the observer.
It seems that Pisano may have learned from the earlier experiment that the small scale work was somewhat thrown away when mounted well above head-height. So in Pisa he painted with a broader brush and put his energy into a greater proliferation of larger figures at ground level. That is where the best invention occurs in the Pisa pulpit.
Pulpit is a seriously demeaning name for this marvelous crowd of carved figures who form a cross between a forest and a pavilion full of sculptural movement.
The whole is cylindrical in form, with a richly carved roof (the wide band that contains the reliefs) supported on 8 peripheral columns which converge on a single central support. There is a curving stair for reaching the roof attached to one end, the route which priests and deacons would use to turn the large construction into a humble pulpit, as if its whole purpose was to give them an elevated perch from which to teach and preach.
The phenomenal sculptural energy of the assemblage devotes itself to disguising the supporting columns with an ingenious set of caryatid-like beings. In two cases these are single human figures on pedestals who allow capitals to be planted on their heads.
In the most thrilling instances – two of them, adjacent – a larger figure appears to bear the brunt but is surrounded by a crowd of four figures approaching life size. These two clusters are the most gripping or enigmatic elements of the whole, one composed of women, the other of men, many of them carrying emblematic objects, like a set of scales or a dead lion suspended upside down. The men are all accompanied by their daemons, three winged animals and an angel.
The moments before you figure out or are told what any of this means are precious, and something to hold onto, even after you have identified the four medium-sized women as Virtues and the four men as Evangelists, the larger female figure dominating the others not Charity – she suckles two infants – but Ecclesia, the Church, and the larger man, Christ.
At the V & A Ecclesia has lost one of her main accoutrements, a big dove that whispers aggressively in her ear. This idea of inspiration from above occurs repeatedly in the smaller series of sibyls at the level of spandrels supporting the reliefs, one of which (in Pistoia) looks like the inspiration in turn of a memorable sibyl by Michelangelo on the Sistine ceiling. Ecclesia may have got separated from her dove after the fire of 1595 when the pulpit was taken to pieces and radically deconstructed, when the parts got scrambled and relations between them were lost, at a time when other sculptural elements probably disappeared. Interest in returning the pulpit to its original state grew in the 1860s, around the time this cast was made. The current presentation of the work in Pisa (seen further below) dates from Bacci’s reconstruction of 1926.
There are many satisfying symmetries buried in the scheme, one female nude and one male, the one based on a famous classical type of modest Venus, now representing Temperance (work out how), the other an unclassical, anxious Hercules, wiry not beefy, a striking antithesis to the familiar Neapolitan giant leaning on his club, worn out by carrying his huge muscles, set against our slender Hercules who contains a nervous soul.
He is paired with St Michael, a Christian knight. They represent spiritual and worldly heroism respectively, we are told. The two are placed symmetrically in most reconstructions, but they make an odd pair. The saint is sleek and elegant. His wings take some working out and look unnervingly like living tissue. Common opinion holds that this figure cannot be Giovanni’s, and the choice usually lands on Tino di Camaino, one of Pisano’s ablest pupils who went on to a successful career in which the smoothness of St Michael is frequently repeated.
The earliest secure attribution to Giovanni Pisano consists of two eagles on the Fontana Maggiore in Perugia (see below) where he worked under his father Nicola. They are extraordinarily lively, engaged in harsh dialogue with each other. A similarly intense interest in the life of beasts keeps turning up throughout Giovanni’s career. In the Pisa pulpit we have the little winged sprites trapped between the Evangelists, the oversized eagles squeezed in between female Virtues and, most alarming of all, the two lions, caryatids, looking up from the prey they are in the middle of tearing to pieces. This ferocity extends the range of emotion captured in the monument to include vivid and convincing rage. Giovanni’s animals usually convey a serious interest in the place of primitive urges in the whole territory of consciousness, not just playing around the edges of the page as in medieval manuscripts.*
Besides the wonderful replica of one of Giovanni Pisano’s crowning works in the cast court, the V & A possesses two precious fragments securely attributed to this sculptor whom Henry Moore ranked with Michelangelo as the greatest of Italian artists. The rarest is an ivory Christ from a crucifix, in which we find both the energetic movement familiar in his work in the writhing hair played against the crown of thorns, and his characteristic focus on the expressive power of the rib cage.
The other fragment is a bust-length piece from the projects Moore regarded as the summit of Giovanni’s achievement. These were the figures, half-figures and sculptural groups which had been exposed to the weather on the Pisa baptistry and the façade of Siena cathedral. The effects of weathering and the modern preference for Giovanni over his father Nicola are strongly connected. Henry Moore almost admits to reading the wear and tear visible on the outdoor pieces as a kind of fortuitous boldness, as if Giovanni’s characteristic expressionist urgings are pushed further by the weather, as if its ferocity could be attributed to the sculptor, or was, without conscious agency or intention, causing the sculptor to become more himself than ever, or calling into existence the sculptor Pisano would have been if he were Moore’s contemporary. Something similar is at work in my fierce resistance to the idea that Giovanni Pisano is a Gothic sculptor. He is so much fresher than that, and there is something sound and true in the magic that weather has worked on the outdoor sculpture, which shows us the direction in which to push or read the indoor work to see the depths that lie there waiting to be coaxed forth by sympathetic, anachronistic eyes.
Michael Ayrton thought the Siena figures the most philosophically ambitious and monumental in scale of all his work, a group of fourteen prophets and sibyls in dialogue and contention with one another, passionate, visionary drama of immense historical and psychological scope. The V & A’s chunk of the Hebrew prophet Haggai from that facade is a powerfully expressive piece in which discoveries made earlier in the project about how to convey intense meaning and precise impressions over distance were developed further, involving bold use of the drill to show agitation of the features, and especially the beard, which revealed the movements of the soul.
Along with these bold textural effects went the famous tensed and craning neck, which Moore was perhaps first to intuit was more than a means of projecting the head beyond the parapet on a façade, but a novel expression of a figure’s intellectual fire as well. Pisano brought this discovery down from the higher reaches of buildings and we find it again in Ecclesia and a couple of her Virtues.
And we even come upon a miniature equivalent of bold and sketchy textures for conveying expression from afar on the smaller scale of the relief, admittedly more tellingly present on the pulpit in Pistoia than in Pisa.
Giovanni Pisano was a complex and fascinating character, revealed most nakedly in two features which were completely omitted when the V & A cast of his Pisa pulpit was made, long inscriptions which remain ambiguous and difficult to interpret to this day. The upper one, which appears just below the reliefs, is generally regarded as boastful. The second, longer and running at floor level, is seen by Pope-Hennessy as a complaint lodged against an envious world. Ayrton reads it very differently, as a despairing confession of failure by an artist who has fallen short of an unattainable goal. Did he end frustrated and defeated by the world, or tragically uncertain of his own genius?
The two inscriptions are printed in full, in Latin and English translation, in Pope-Hennessy’s Italian Gothic Sculpture. The translation of the second inscription in Ayrton’s Giovanni Pisano Sculptor, a rewarding collaboration with Henry Moore and an Italian photographer, does not come out in the same place and isn’t even spoken by the same imagined speaker.
*One of the most surprising items in the Pisani literature is a 9-page analysis of the extra lion footprints on the lion’s pedestal, signs of a struggle, according to the authors. Palozzi, L & Bergkvist, G, 2018, ‘A brief cross-disciplinary study of lion paw prints in Giovanni Pisano’s Pisa Pulpit (1302–10): On the seventh centenary of Giovanni Pisano’s death’, Source (notes on the History of Art), vol. 37, no. 4, pp. 215- 224. https://doi.org/10.1086/699963
Trying for the most ferocious illustration, I inadvertently chose the lioness. My own inspection of these wonderful animals had not extended as far as the ground they stand on. With understandable satisfaction, the authors of this article observe that they seem to be the first in its 700 years of existence to notice these features of the lion’s marble pedestal: two complete footprints, one facing in the lion’s direction of travel, the other backward, and various signs of the scuffle with the prey impressed in the soft soil, apt at recording such marks. They analyse both the accuracy and the purposeful inaccuracy of this lion’s anatomy, and make a fascinating case for the significance of the two paw-prints in the history of art. They see them as Giovanni’s way of releasing his lion from its limited role as a support for a pulpit by suggesting an existence for him outside the frozen posture over his victim. The prints encourage us to imagine him moving as we do freely through the grove. These easily overlooked traces of the activity of the lion, perhaps an afterthought of the sculptor’s, can be seen as one of his boldest subversions of the conventions of liturgical equipment, and a source of guilty enjoyment to those who happen to notice them. Once again, Giovanni Pisano is moving toward freeing the artist and his work from subservience to a patron, the Church.
Neither the makers nor the later keepers of the plaster cast seem to have noticed or taken care to preserve these paw-prints, which have evidently got further scuffed and filled in over time. Recent photographs of the indentations in the marble original in Pisa show another kind of defacement, which has smoothed whatever Pisano carved into a series of blob-shaped hollows, in which it is remarkable that Palozzi and Bergkvist could recognise the lion’s prints.
Fig. 3. Giovanni Pisano, lion hunting his prey, 1302–10 (top view with detail of paw prints below). Carrara marble; print A: 5 ⅛ in. (13 cm); print B: 4 . in. (12 cm). Pisa Cathedral. Photographs: Ivan Bianchini. The detail shows the metacarpal pad (MC) and the pads of digits II–V of paw print A, and the metatarsal pad (MT) and the pads of digits III–V of paw print B.
Translation/ explanation of caption: Metacarpal = front paw, metatarsal = back paw. The two prints almost touch at their back edges. The left-hand, front-paw print faces inward toward the lion’s body, pointing upward toward 10 o’clock; the right-hand, rear paw points downward toward 4 o’clock. The front paw is 5 inches wide; the rear paw 4 inches. Unless the whole thing was a private joke, when new the prints must have been more detailed, and more recognisable.
It is a detail, and a small piece of the puzzle, but one more sign of Giovanni Pisano’s study of his subjects from life, centuries before this became commonplace.
This is the supposed mantra of the founder of Facebook who stole the idea but not the name for this cobbled-together monstrosity of our era, a name which glues together two rough pieces which don’t match but make an easy-to-remember new creature.
The first thing that greets the visitor to the interior of Winchester cathedral is a window filling the entry wall made of thousands of senseless fragments. This huge work has sometimes been mistaken for a recent design by an abstract artist, but instead of an intentional work, the window is a strange response to destruction. Puritan soldiers smashed all the old stained glass in 1642 and twenty years later the shards were collected and formed into this new whole. These must be the remnants of a much bigger destruction, though, because they fill the old frame completely. Looking for survivals of order in the chaos is an almost hopeless task. A couple of heads are placed as if a long panel was planned for a single large figure, but that is about all the order I can find.
As a child I broke things. I know this because my grandmother collected the bits and made them into an umbrella stand, a fairly useless object which fascinated me by its glitter and by how nothing fit. What is the thinking behind such projects? To make sure you never forget the destruction? Or a form of redemption, to extract beauty from its contrary? So it’s a twisted form of conservation, and a memorial—you don’t lose the broken treasures entirely. Is this primitive archaeology where the idea of the jigsaw puzzle came from? To create a shattered pot and then re-assemble it. Maybe a love of fragments and a focus on the part not the whole sometimes starts in the idea of destruction, which will be followed by collecting the debris left behind by the cyclone of history.
Questions remain about the intentions of the reassemblers of the big West Window at Winchester: was it to make the neatest possible replica, or the most chaotic, even violent one, a memorial to destruction? Memory of the original organisation of the glass would have been fresh enough twenty years after, and it should have been possible to make a more orderly impression, instead of something like an explosion. So perhaps what we have instead is more like abstract art in intention after all, expressing complexity or conflict. The reassemblers were making a political point, not just filling space.
In the late poems of Geoffrey Hill (perhaps in Speech! Speech! most of all) the jostling of different vocabularies, tones and speakers makes The Waste Land look decorous, and if obscure, not scrambled. For Hill, a true rendering of our reality comes out looking something like the reassembled shards at Winchester, fragments of speech banging uncomfortably into each other, in which the final outcome or fullest understanding will not be a reassembly of shards into a recognisable image now continuous. The shattering is deeply part of the poem’s being that cannot be wished away or resolved by explanation.
The meaning of the great West Window has perhaps changed with time and become a picture of something its assemblers never saw or intended. It is not exactly like a window that any contemporary designer would call into existence; neither is it entirely remote from certain modern designs. Nor does it provide even an approximate key to Geoffrey Hill’s most shattered poems. But there’s a strange way in which it has unexpectedly come into its own. Hill finds himself in a fractured world and like Ruskin sets about putting it right, not by reconstructing the lost wholeness but by thriving on brokenness, summoning it forth to disgrace itself and lend him and his readers propulsive force in the process, making poetry of the newest, rawest, most appalling contradictions thrown up by the destructive forces that rule our public realm.
Only in retrospect do I realise that I hardly looked at the envelope or up at the vault in this visit to Winchester cathedral. First, odd wall tombs at odds with their surroundings, settings which had been ignored, if known at all, by their designers, and next the famous font with scenes like children’s drawings in a stone so dark the scenes were hard to see.
And then, something unexpected, which I mistook for a nineteenth century replica, a set of spindly wooden stalls covered in carving, a thicket of close-packed detail I mistook for recent because the wood looked new and yellowish, like fresh oak that hadn’t had time to mellow. Later I found an old description that complained about ‘the rich treacly brown the nineteenth century liked’, now (in 2019) banished by aggressive cleaning, which had removed every visible sign of the centuries’ passage.
In spite of the apparent newness, I am soon convinced that the carving is medieval by the randomness with which figures appear in the surrounding foliage. They don’t form a narrative, aren’t a uniform size and are almost swallowed by the insistent vegetation that sweeps across flat expanses, then stops suddenly, to be replaced by an entirely different species.
At the level of detail there doesn’t seem to be much of a plan –falconers or monkeys or soldiers or lions just pop up, like the whole assemblage did when it took over my attention in the first place. I think of Ruskin’s reconstruction of the mind of the Gothic workman in his most famous piece, published as a detached fragment by William Morris. His depiction of this mind was really a breaking-to-pieces of conventional ideas of how art is made and of the special character of Gothic in particular.
Obstinacy, changefulness, inconsistency, wilfulness–Ruskin’s qualities of the medieval workman are all forms of unruliness and disobedience, lacking overall plan and any sort of predictability, which of course can’t possibly account for the design of any large structure as a whole. I’m tempted to look up the complete list in Ruskin’s chapter now. That day in the cathedral I was carrying a book in my backpack which gave a careful description of the building, starting with its bare bones and the logic of the structure, which I’d begun by pushing aside, a book (I didn’t know this then) I would never open in the whole course of my visit. There’s something strangely satisfying about having the authoritative unpacking of the subject but never actually using it, like an umbrella or extra set of clothes included in case the others get wet.
There are those thickets of carving, but the Winchester stalls consist primarily of a lofty fictitious architecture towering overhead, decorated with perforated elements looking through to further spaces closed off by miniature vaults. First architect-masons devised novel methods of spanning odd-shaped spaces and then their successors made vaults into intricate terminations for spaces primarily conceptual.
The clearest sign that the designers and carvers of the Winchester stalls are just playing with ideas of building is the spindly quality of all the upper elements and also the contrived congestion at the four points where the stalls must turn a corner. Here the carvers make a spatial opportunity out of an awkwardness, flaunting the need to cut off forms in order to fit together two sections arriving from different directions.
Even though I don’t remember Ruskin’s qualities of Gothic word for word, they are still my guide to the unsystematic system on which the biggest works of their era are based, with results of great richness that only ever fit together imperfectly, while never losing a sense of the life which inheres in departures from strict regularity.
Still in the choir at Winchester, not far from the stalls in their new-found paleness, is an oversized 19 c bishop’s throne like an independent building, a chunky tower in wood so dark it approaches blackness. All its pinnacles, and there are many, exhibit vegetable growth so clogged it seems almost diseased. The most wonderful moment comes in down-pointing elements whose every strand ends in a tormented head, howling, grimacing, or sticking out its tongue, an idea of Gothic that reaches a last flowering in horror comics which, extrapolating from these congested heads, we can almost recognise as authentic descendants of medieval grotesque.
Winchester has far more than any other place of a distinctive English form of late Gothic architecture, the so called ‘stone-cage’ chantry, a kind of construction even more like another building inserted within the larger building than the enclosure of stalls forming three sides of a rectangle and terminating in gables and spires as if they strove to become architecture.
The stone-cage chantry inserts itself between two existing piers, which it claims as parts of itself and surrounds with an enclosure of tall screens. The chantry rarely swallows the piers completely, because it’s crucial to its self-idea that it is a parasite of a harmless kind, joined to the fabric which it enriches, though closing off other possibilities just by being there.
Although the stalls at Winchester have architectural elements and qualities, they’re not competing with the enveloping building in the same way as the chantries. Stalls are furniture, chantries are more preemptive: complete, bounded and self sufficient as stalls aren’t. Such constructs were to a significant degree the form into which architectural invention went at a certain point in the development of Gothic, but how seriously can you take a whole new architecture for just one person, and that person a corpse? The key feature of these implants is that they are intruders, which promulgate an alternative view of architecture from that of their surroundings. The chantry’s status thus becomes more problematic the more assertively individual the result, an alien body within a preexisting body, a tumour more threatening to the life around it the more lively it is in itself.
In the 1970s Gordon Matta-Clark went round carving out new spaces in existing buildings, like chantries in reverse, or voids as independent structures, which it was only possible to discover lurking in nondescript industrial or commercial buildings because they were already corpses, that is to say, scheduled for demolition. A negative can’t ever be simply a positive, but Matta-Clark had remarkable successes in these figure-ground experiments that made absences feel stronger than presences. The effect could seem almost metaphysical, and the non-existent acquired inescapable reality. Perhaps the chantries too are always flying in the face of fundamental facts, and like fables or myths able to make you believe in something which isn’t entirely there.
The oldest chantry in the eastern-arm at Winchester spoils one of the most harmonious spaces in the building, the retrochoir between the chancel and the lady chapel, now interrupted by two matching structures, the first of which, Bishop Beaufort’s chantry, consists in its upper half of a crowd of pinnacles filling the space over the bishop’s tomb and reaching up until it seems about to bump against the vault. The forms are a quintessence of architecture, its slenderest, most ethereal parts, but effervescing so enthusiastically they threaten to form an indistinguishable mass. And the suggestion of energetic movement resembles organic growth, an overall effect that combines elegant brittleness and a hint of living tissues pulsing with life.
In his lengthy piece about stone-cage chantries Julian Luxford compares these stone cages to monks’ cells, as if their seclusion were a form of turning one’s back on the world and worldliness, whereas the effect is usually more that of a privileged preserve which bars entry to ordinary worshippers.
For the next chantry in the chronological sequence, Bishop Langton chooses a more defensible location in the southeast corner of the building, which is then engorged with a wooden successor to the choir stalls, topped off with a ring of fanciful towers whose most bewitching feature is a series of inverted cusps crawling with crockets, forms like noses or tongues which would be at home on African masks.
The last two chantries built have no piers to hang onto. Instead they swallow sections of the screens running down the sides of the choir, which they intrude into at its top corners. Bishop Fox’s, accessible from the aisle that runs down its long side, is the richest trove of late Gothic detail in the cathedral.
Every element is multiplied and repeated. Every line is crimped and what starts as a simple quatrefoil becomes an indescribable cusped form, where every sub-form ends as two. Niches have canopies that perform this dividing and subdividing until the whole seems on the edge of toppling into misrule, but never quite falls. At times it seems there won’t be room for all the sub-friezes and the multi-faceted fragmentation of simple posts supporting pedestals barely big enough to hold what sits on them.
Coming late in a long history, the Fox chantry thrives on distortion and fragmentation of familiar forms, and especially on forms turned inside out, so a column with a series of sharply concave faces is a kind of negative of the norm, in which comfortably rounded bulges are turned to uncooperative vacated forms, as if advertising that they can’t support weight, drawing attentions to hollows not solids, which Ruskin thought an offence against nature and a threat to all integrity, but was helplessly drawn to study and understand. Such forms seem leftovers or cast-offs from which the usable core has been spirited away, leaving a sense of absence.
Something exciting and also disturbing and undermined about these forms, like Matta-Clark’s voids which render surrounding fabric useless, which was already a corpse when he arrived and found a second life in decay, which for most of his adherents was always going to be no more than a wonderful kind of hearsay that almost as soon as it was born had been smashed to pieces.
There’s a drawing of one bay of the elevation of Fox’s chantry that has generally been taken as the work of the chantry’s designer, the royal mason William Vertue, famous for fan vaults at Westminster and Windsor. This drawing has long been regarded as a precious survival, a working drawing from around 1510. But now along comes Christopher Wilson, one of the best current writers on Gothic, to wonder if it isn’t an artefact of a wholly different kind, a post-Reformation rendering of the chantry stripped of its finery. After which, Nicholas Riall tells us that the drawing differs in fifty different ways from what was built, so it cannot possibly be an attempt to show it after construction. I set about looking for those fifty variations, and I find quite a few, but then wonder what Ruskin would say about such a dogged enterprise. At least the search has increased my appreciation of Vertue’s endless ingenuity and set me thinking about how much (or how little) of the later stages of his exuberance he ever mentioned to the client.
Normally, putting quotes around words to show they aren’t what they seem is an annoying habit that rarely stops at just one such suspect-word. But encountering Phyllida Barlow’s work in her recent Royal Academy exhibition, I found so many exhilarating send-ups of architectural and sculptural norms, so many witty violations of what the unsuspecting art lover expects that I felt I needed to write ‘truth’ to ‘materials’, ‘honest construction’; ‘gateway’, ‘column’, ‘monument’; ‘weight’, ‘stone’, ‘steel’.
Also, another violation—architecture seems a more appropriate label than sculpture for most of the eight large works in the exhibition, which fill these huge spaces so much fuller than the last occupant’s, the many tiny models in Renzo Piano’s exhibition.
Some are cartoon-illustrations of the history of architecture, like the one called ‘lintel shadow’ which projects a monumental gateway like those three-part compositions at Stonehenge but taller and spindlier, in one sense more imposing, in another more precarious. It led to a ‘stone’ enclosure like an introduction to an underground tomb. It led ‘underground’ or nowhere, and fit the idea of a shadow of architecture by being out of true in every axis and every dimension. It was stony in its form–big lumps, scored with accidental grooves and gouges, which lent a kind of ‘authenticity’ to the ruined masses, yet also made you suspicious. As you got nearer, a sliver of the air beyond appeared between adjacent ‘blocks’, which were coloured a convincing mottled gray but gave out a hollow sound if you tapped them.
They were a figment or a fiction, an insubstantial shadow. Doubtless the lintel too, far out of reach, was a partly convincing fake, hoisted up on rickety poles which had had to be extended by bolting smaller pieces to them with crude splints, our first encounter with the sculptor’s habit of flaunting a few ‘mistakes’–revisions or changes of direction she preferred not to smooth over or clean up. ‘Admitting your mistakes’ has here a wonderful feeling of being at ease with your materials (no quotes) and your project. It evolves, and your audience can watch that happening.
Some of the solidest elements are the shadows, especially the sloping platform ‘cast’ by the massive ruined column called ‘barrel’ in Barlow’s title for it (all her titles follow directly after untitled:– ‘untitled: barrel’). This looks like a waffle-structure in metal, or a model of a curving three-storey block of modernist flats, except that unlike other shadows it is supported by unstable poles driven into swampy ground and poking through the surface of the swamp so crookedly you lose faith in them completely. I had enjoyed the messy punctures in the fibrous board that constitutes the horizontal (but sloping) surface, calling up a forlorn watery landscape.
Yet I still went on trying to establish that, unlike all the other materials which ended up able to defy gravity because they weighed next to nothing, this big slab was ‘actually’ steel, and went on inspecting its supports to see how they actually did it. Could it be that I wanted the sculptor to insert a major inconsistency among all her violations of truth-to-appearances?
The most entertaining conglomerate is saved for the last of the three rooms. It is called ‘blocks on stilts’, which doesn’t begin to do it justice. It consists of four towers (you will have to count them more than once before you believe there are only four, and you will think you have disentangled them only to find they have mixed themselves together again). In some sense it is a simple idea, a set of four-legged frames, each of them existing to raise one impossibly bulky rectangular-solid impossibly high.
The maze of wooden poles and braces looks too weak for the job and seems to be held together by cloth bandages wrapped around all the joints and then given a runny coat of plaster that penetrates the gauze of the bandage and stiffens the joint. On every tower one of the lowest struts has been removed after construction by chopping it off near the bandage-joint but leaving a short sample of the amputated strut at either end, undermining the perfection of the design and letting you savour the process of improvement—now you can walk more freely among the forest of poles, the nearest approach in these fresh works to ‘nature.’
Some time after finishing this, I remembered my calculation that there are 12 legs in ‘blocks on stilts’, so there must be three towers, not four. But in another sense there are four—when you are there, the parts are magically multiplied and counting them doesn’t settle the question, strictly speaking.