A collector and his collection

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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prong-woman standing on her hooks

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prong-woman from behind

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

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pig mirroring crocodile

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

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Prong-man’s chest-growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Artaud’s notes from the asylum

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

Orchids at Kew

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Every year in the early spring they mount a display of orchids in a greenhouse at Kew. This year it was Colombia’s turn, and around 6000 blooms of 150 South American species were crowded together in three different artificial climates under a single cascading structure resembling a landscape-form in steel and glass. The exhibition drew large numbers in search of beauty, oddity and natural diversity, who had to wait their turn at busy times of day, like bees clustering round a popular shrub.

What or who are orchids for?

In one sense they’re the commonest plant and at the same time among the rarest. They’ve spread everywhere and diversified into the largest number of distinct species (around 26,000) of any botanical tribe.

Yet they’re impossibly anomalous among plants, with some of the strangest life cycles of all, including parasitism and deceit, bizarre structures of great complexity seemingly designed simply to plant lumps of pollen on the head or tail of males of a chosen insect species. Many orchid species are not rooted in earth, but attach themselves to jungle trees and dangle their roots in air, ‘roots’ which do root-jobs of absorbing nutrients but violate the main meanings of the word, a kind of botanical outrage.

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Worst or most wonderful of all is what orchids do to their pollinators. Here exaggeration and deceit go together. Nectar or food or sexual gratification which doesn’t actually exist seems to require more grandiose sacs or pouches or replicas of the female insect in order to seduce the victim or dupe (what should we call him?). Even now moral disapproval creeps into descriptions of orchid ‘contrivances’, promising rewards but giving none. Charles Darwin, one of the most acute of early students of orchid pollination, couldn’t believe that orchids really had no nectar for their visitors, or that this was a system that would work.

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A suspicion lingers that orchids have fooled their human enthusiasts as well, luring them with complex forms that violate established norms of size and proportion and instil suggestions of resemblance to all sorts of non-botanical forms, so that, like the wasps, the orchid’s human fans are mistaking the blooms unconsciously for something else.

Popular names of orchids go on expressing the ancient folk-view that there are deep sympathies between the lives of human beings and those of plants. Modern names like ‘fried-egg orchid’ often stick out by their starkly comic intention; in Shakespeare even the most grotesque flower names, like ‘dead man’s beard’, feel like something more than a joke.

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‘Slipper’ orchids are not diminished by the name, which conjures up spaces of myth, into which victims fall in search of food and will only get out by doing the plant’s bidding, collaborating in the orchid’s plans for its own continuance. It feels absurd to talk as if we believed in the orchid’s agency, but it becomes more and more feasible to assume the intelligence of plants (see Colin Fudge on trees), insects (especially ants, bees and termites, including many pollinators) or birds (astonishing recent research on birds’ brains). And the stories people have told about plants couldn’t be more preposterous than the dramas acted out in the innermost chambers of certain orchid blooms.

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But to see, or even to imagine, these Piranesian spaces you probably need to blow up a photograph of an orchid interior to approximate the bee’s-eye view and then you tell yourself that you are approaching the true essential meaning of the orchid. At Kew I picked up The Book of Orchids, a life-size guide to 600 species from around the world illustrated with one photo of each, or sometimes with two copies of the same photo, one large and one small. I assumed that the small one was life-size and the big was a blow-up which let you see richness and complexity invisible to normal human sight. This is often but not always what the relation between the two photos is. Sometimes the little one shows the whole bloom for the first time, because this orchid is too big to fit onto the page-size chosen for this book.

Six hundred orchids has a magical sound, but the speed of the survey inevitably produces vertigo, and taking in so many almost requires isolating the blooms from their surroundings, and even from the stems and the leaves of their own plants. So you have cut-outs of the most compelling feature, a single flower, the orchid as logo, more or less. Some orchids, like the slippers, do occur singly in the wild or at least widely spaced on the stem, but these are likely to be the heavier blooms, which would drag the plant down in clusters.

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To understand orchid structure you probably need to isolate single blooms in this way, maybe even render them artfully through drawings. To see many actual examples on a single occasion you need to create something like a museum-situation, which if you’re lucky, as for example at Kew, will also feel like a habitat, a constructed jungle. Some orchids will sit in pots on the ground, but others will appear to have attached themselves to trees and spread their roots in air, far out of reach.

There’s a limit though, and some of the most precious, like most of the slippers, will appear behind glass to protect them from the attentions of the orchid-lovers. And if proof were needed, moving from cool and dry to hot and wet climates simply by opening and closing a door reminds you that you are crossing distances that would consume whole days outside the botanical museum.

So you continue your trip through this spectacle of the world’s diversity which is more like a visit to the National Gallery than an hour in an actual jungle. And the deepest involvement requires further manipulation of the images collected on the ‘journey’, carried out afterward at home, where you are continually noticing features that there was no way you could see on the spot, because you couldn’t isolate each bloom like a painting or take the time to walk round it like a sculpture. In certain respects the fullest plant museum exists only on a screen, best of all that of a small laptop, not a large television which cannot focus the subject or your attention nearly so tellingly.

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Surface patterns are among the most startling and mesmerising features of these blooms, endlessly attractive in a literal sense—the eye is helplessly drawn to them. Under magnification they become something different and then we can imagine the disorienting effect on the insect trying to keep its balance in the maelstrom of a centrifugal pattern which disperses itself more violently as you move in nearer. Petals and sepals that all look much the same to the human eye are strongly differentiated when magnified and depict radically different kinds of fragmentation, one alarming, the other reassuring. Seen close up, the overall effect is much more directional and thus coercive.

DSC06719 kew copy 2.jpgIn this species blooms often present themselves ‘upside down’ or cockeyed, meaning that to experience their symmetry or to recognise the typical orchid structure of three petals overlaid (in reverse) on three sepals, making a six-pointed figure, you need to reorient yourself bodily, and this leads us to imagine insects making aesthetic choices as they land on orchids.

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Other, blotchier patterns look to human eyes like stippling, a technique not a purely random occurrence, blobs trying to come together rather than simply spreading themselves, a focusing effect to which it would be hard to pay no attention at all. Is such visual complexity of no consequence to the insect, and the watercolour-like variations in intensity as you move from the centre to the edge of each blob? Human beings see faces everywhere, especially in whole classes of plant blooms. Is it fanciful to imagine insects having similar susceptibilities to certain combinations of dots, lines and concentrated forms? Not that we could easily guess what they remind the insect of, just that this sort of unconscious memory might be taking place.

Darwin was fascinated by insects’ responses to colour, a subject which goes on provoking research and remains almost as much of a mystery as ever, as is also the human response to colour in plants, though studied more thoroughly and for much longer.

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Human beings are also prone to see writing where there is none, in vegetable scribbling on leaves or tree bark. Some of the strangest surface pattern on orchids has evidently suggested lines of letters in a genus labeled ‘grammatophyllum’, which seems made to be puzzled over, trying to read something into the sequence of marks. Ruskin was always imagining that the world put a certain natural feature in front of him to say something meant specifically for him, perhaps a late, narcissistic rendition of the old belief that the Creator meant for us to find lessons in stones and instruction in storms. Watered down enough, something like this must be taking place in many people’s conversations with orchids, in spite of idealists like Kant who used flowers to preach purposiveness without a purpose.

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There is such diversity in orchids that we couldn’t possibly do justice to it here or anywhere else. There are the forms that for some personal reason disgust us, because they remind us of varicose veins or toothless mouths. There are orchids which don’t look like flowers at all, like the wonderful freaks called spider orchids, not because they actually look like spiders, but because they have long, ungainly features, and more than a few of them. Visually similar are around six species, two of whose sepals go on extending themselves from the main bloom until they hit a hard surface, thus producing streamers several feet long. I have captured only a junior version of this.

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There are furly copper-coloured species that perform the unnerving feat of turning themselves inside out, none of whose elements you can convince to stop shuddering, an insect-sized version of Baroque movement. And there is another orchid so magically translucent it is hard to believe it is alive and not something created just to show off certain properties of light, a task of too-refined focus to be entrusted to a creature. This species also exhibits one of the most high-handed divergences of sepals and petals, which now form two independent whorls, petals fused into one and sepals floating free, with nothing in common between them except that they are joined at the hip.

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Anglo-Saxon at the British Library

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Unpacking my library

I don’t know exactly when charity shops became a familiar sight on British high streets. Probably not long after the millennium—anyway I know where we had our first serious encounters with them, in Saltburn, a bleak seaside place in North Yorkshire, bleak in an appealing way. Streets near the cliff looking out on the sea are named after gems, Ruby, Emerald and so on. The little shopping street one block inland has a patchy little glazed arcade to protect its customers from rough weather. Here the first new businesses appeared, an Indian restaurant, an antique shop and eventually an eccentric delicatessen with novel cooked items we carried back to our outpost across the moors.

On the other side of the street was the Evangelical charity shop with Bibles religious books and a sprinkling of others like an Oxford Poems of Hardy and Mann’s Holy Sinners. In Yorkshire I had developed a weakness for jigsaws for the first time since childhood as a way of filling long winter evenings. The charity shop had plenty of jigsaws, most of them alpine scenes and the Mediterranean equivalent of the Saltburn seafront. But occasionally there was a good reproduction of a famous painting which I carted home.

I soon came to love dipping into charity shops in all the little towns round about, looking first at books and then at jigsaws. It was a long time before I brought this habit back to London, partly because we had mainly empty shelves in Yorkshire and crowded ones in London. And in Yorkshire you felt you might really need the books, buried by a blizzard on your moorland farm. So buying a few old books was like laying in supplies.

When we left Yorkshire for good, very few of those books made it back to London. They had been emergency rations and had served their purpose.

Unpacking My Library

I like Benjamin’s title and wanted to co-opt it, but I’ve never had a library, or thought of my books that way, as a real entity. They’re not arranged systematically, except by height in the hut and on the landing. They’re not dominated by my field because I don’t have one, and for years I’ve had an aversion to the one subject which should be mine, lit crit, which I only realised on noticing that I skipped those pages in the TLS.

So my ‘library’ grows randomly and unpredictably, fed by charity shops where you never know what you’ll find, or even if you’ll find anything at all. My last purchase was a mistake, expensive, heavy and horribly academic. The title got me—Relics of Old Decency. I still have no idea how it applies to these ‘Archaeological Studies in Later Prehistory’, which are mentioned in the subtitle of this ‘Festschrift for Barry Raftery’.

So many reasons not to want this gigantic book, but it was very fresh (a review copy, in fact, unwanted by the reviewer) and full of interesting diagrams of hillforts and ritual enclosures, and best of all the one I opened on first, a scrawly diagram of Scandinavian rock carvings with gawky figures of different sizes overlaid on each other haphazardly. I was very taken with the graphic style of the modern copyist who respected the ancient disregard for common axes or orientations, who reveled in the confusion of images plunked down on top of each other, and the complete absence of an overall composition.

DSC01870.jpgFor the sake of these three pages of weird drawings I was prepared to put up with endless axblades and broken pots with hardly a figure or decorative pattern to be seen anywhere. But if I comb the book more thoroughly I will doubtless find more amusing drawings, of rudimentary creatures without heads but sporting prominent tails and penises and hands with five fingers of equal length, and of fanciful temples of classical type from long before the Romans drawn by Italian scholars.

My next to last purchase shares next to nothing with Decency but may prove just as ill judged. It is wonderfully well written and imaginatively thought out, but it is 1050 pages long. It belongs to a genre for which my track record is decidedly poor, biography. Faced with a solid biography of someone in whom I am particularly interested I forget that I have only read one biography from start to finish since Ellman’s Joyce in 1970, which was Susie Harries’ life of Nikolaus Pevsner, riveting throughout. Incidentally, my architectural historian friends to whom I have raved about this book have not been moved to read it. So last week I bought Michael Scammell’s Solzhenitsyn and still hope to defeat my intolerance of long biographies. Not long ago I picked up the long biography to end them all, Reiner Stach’s three volume Kafka in such a beautifully fresh copy I could not resist, though I already have the first volume to appear, with my marker stuck at page 100.

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In all this tediousness about length I have lost sight of what is so magical about the charity shop as a source for books. Before last week I did not know that I would soon be reading about Solzhenitsyn’s experience of the war and his attempts to go on studying (while leading a brigade at the front) the philosophical and political subjects that obsessed him, which against the odds he was determined to incorporate in large ambitious novels. From somewhere along the way he commandeered a library of books on these subjects left behind by the Germans (or was it stolen from a Ukrainian country house)? The path of your own intellectual or imaginative pursuits which seems so inevitable in retrospect is seen in prospect as swayed by all sorts of random breezes and chance intrusions. Seeing this gives one, gives me at least, the most tremendous sense of freedom.

Relics of Old Decency, £4 in South End Green, in the same shop a real Panama hat, one or two sizes too large, £15; Solzhenitsyn, £1.50 in Muswell Hill.  To be continued…