Ruskin in Sheffield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Mysteries of London 3: Bedrooms of London

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When he lay becalmed in port, the 18c sea-captain Thomas Coram rushed round London drumming up support for his foundlings’ charity from anyone who would listen, including his friends Hogarth and Handel. I imagine him in the long red coat he wears in the best of Hogarth’s formal portraits, its tails flapping like the wings of an angelic messenger. He was tireless and he must have been persuasive, judging solely by the collection of paintings he assembled from sympathetic donations, which became the first public art gallery in Britain.

His Foundation survives, as a charity and an adjacent museum, which remembers the seaman’s original mission to poor and abandoned children in innovative ways. The latest of these is an exhibition of photographs by Katie Wilson, one of the Foundation’s Artist Governors.

1 DSC07628.jpgHer photographs show a series of small and crowded rooms, without their inhabitants, some of whom have left behind discarded clothes tangled like sculptures on floors and beds. Maybe it’s pure accident that’s making me see sculptural possibility in these signs of departed life. I’ve just come from an exhibition of Phyllida Barlow’s constructions cobbled together from the roughest materials assembled in the roughest way.

To the inhabitants, or anyway their mothers, these left-behind clothes would not have teemed with sculptural possibility. They would just look like mess, which they didn’t have the energy to clear, more signs they weren’t in control of their lives or their futures. For these are all bedrooms, many of which were never meant for sleeping in, because they were already kitchens or cupboards or leftover spaces at the bottom of cellar stairs.

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When there’s room for it, the beds are stacked; when children are too small to climb ladders, beds are assembled in strings like goods trains. Sometimes mattresses are joined up into large bed-fields, for we can only guess how many sleepers. Maybe all the bulging sacks of possessions would seem signs of life to some observers; I imagine those who live there just see them as signs they can’t stay here long. There isn’t time to unpack and where could they hang or stow these things, anyway?

From the labels you learn that leaving things behind is a familiar feature of these lives. If the furniture belongs to them, they won’t be able to take it to the next place. All is more in-transit and in flux than it looks to us. Count the things which are out of place–how many fridges in these bedrooms, washing machines, counters for preparing food–and then work out the scenarios implied by that, all the actions that must happen or can’t happen here.

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I wish I could take more pleasure in the toys, many of them too big for the spaces, in harsh colours of plastic. Most wonderful are the efforts to make something beautiful–a big painted butterfly to join together wallpaper coming away over a radiator, a whole flock of butterflies where the stair-mass comes butting into the living space, a mask born of a paper plate, a mysterious scene of a cell splitting or a wall breaking open quickly taped up on the wall.

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I went on struggling with the absence of the children and kept thinking I saw a living form in the next photograph along. The Childhood Trust has made a book with all the photos and the life stories attached, but they didn’t print many, and none of them are for sale. They’ve sent a few to MPs and the like, but they fear exploitation, voyeurism and misuse if the children’s names and details get bandied about too widely. Are they overcautious, or is it the true Coram spirit that our sympathy should be kept somewhat at bay, so we are left imagining lives as best we can from the spaces and things they are lived among?

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‘Bedrooms of London’ at the Foundling Museum, Brunswick Square, WC1  in partnership with The Childhood Trust    8 February to 5 May 2019 

On not doing justice to Rembrandt

 

AN00163757_001_l.jpgRuskin’s strange boast ‘At least I did justice to the pine’ haunts me. He means ‘I may have failed, but at least I did justice to the pine’, ‘All the years I devoted to that enormous project, Modern Painters, were largely misspent, but at least….’

Reading over something I’d written and been happy with, I saw very starkly I hadn’t done justice to Rembrandt but missed the important things, like his radical conceptions of familiar subjects, and his abandonment of his earlier smoothness, trading it in works like the small Raising of Lazarus for a new harshness of line, quavering to express uncertainty, almost a confession of inadequacy in front of his high, difficult subjects.

13 25 b177 lazarus small AN00037930_001_l copy.jpgNot long ago they staged a competition between Rembrandt and Rubens—or was it just a comparison?—in the basement of the National Gallery. I remembered the time when I preferred Rubens, for his amazing fluency–he could show a lot of figures flying or falling through the air, each one perfectly turned, every limb twisted in a believably liquid way, such alertness, such energy in every bit of the scene that jumped with activity.

Now Rembrandt seemed the only serious one, really studying his subjects, burrowing into them, while Rubens skated over the surface, producing generic beings, and too many of them, like someone who can run back-to-back marathons without any sign of normal human tiredness. How long has it been since Rubens really looked closely at any particular feature of the world around him? His mind and hand are stocked with a thousand formulas that spring forth on demand.

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Rubens reeks of success and ease; nothing has ever been hard for him. Rembrandt drags richness and beauty out of awkwardness and failure, haunted by a deeply Protestant sense of being locked in a struggle that he may not win. To do justice to Rembrandt you would have to show him wringing defeat from the jaws of victory, pushing on in his revisions to find new difficulty in his subject, like a darkness so profound it takes an intrepid viewer to see the few traces left after most of what was there before has been subtracted.

AN00058994_001_l.jpgThe darker Entombment in the British Museum exhibition has swallowed up its subject so completely you have to hallucinate it. There is a whole case of little prints like photos taken in a dark room. I felt I was being sent to a demanding school, but the rewards could be wonderful when they came. The best of them was a black nude with her back to you, lying on a white sheet with lace edges. The richness of these contrasts, the subtlety of all the shades of black seen in darkness, the startling whiteness with its delicate inscriptions jumping out from under blackness—to find something so luxurious just exactly here, such paradoxes, such depths.

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Sadly, no reproduction can show these things, though of course the etchings are all reproductions in the first place. But we don’t know and often can’t fathom when we do, the lengths Rembrandt has gone to for his effects. He has printed the earlier Three Crosses in the British Museum on vellum, the skin of an animal; Christ in the re-worked Three Crosses jumps toward the viewer as if someone has pressed a zoom button, and the whole scene has miraculously shrunk up round him, sucked in by diagonal scoring of the reins of the main rider for instance that I didn’t notice last time, and which don’t show in the photo taken from the website. The tree behind St Jerome in the big print in an Italian landscape is of such richness you feel you could never see it twice, far less will it ever reach you via its shrunken replica.

I guess these are laments that could be applied more widely. Many things never look as magical again as they did the first time, as unforeseen, as electrifying, but on good days you will see features that you didn’t have time to notice the first time. Rembrandt is a painter for those who are willing to discard their old impressions and start again.

Rembrandt’s prints

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Rembrandt is one of those rare artists like Michelangelo, Picasso and very few others who breaks the bounds and goes beyond all rivals in three different mediums. His achievements in the cold, dull realm of printmaking are perhaps the most astonishing of all.  He found there ranges of tone so varied and extensive it is like colour, a world so full of shades you can’t feel there’s anything missing, and so to talk of black-and-white seems almost obtuse.

6a b85 lazarus AN00022150_001_l.jpgOne of the earliest etchings in the little exhibition of his prints and drawings now at the British Museum, a large, showy Raising of Lazarus, made me wonder how he (or anyone else) could ever go beyond it. The lighting effects are so startling, the gestures though exaggerated so confident and so clearly set off from one another. A single action becomes a whole series of them. The later Rembrandt might cringe at the idea of making the main figure three times the size of the others, but we’re not having such thoughts now, caught up in marveling at the richness of light and dark tones jostling each other so energetically.

g 13 25 b177 lazarus small AN00037930_001_l copy 2.jpgTen years later he does the raising of Lazarus more quietly but with greater intensity, on a smaller plate with a reduced tonal range. Gestures are less dramatic, if they show up at all. Facial features are almost too small to pick out, but the tilts of the little figures’ heads are powerfully expressive instead, thrust forward, drawn back, lowered, turning aside—all these and more are employed in this small print. Christ isn’t even looking directly at Lazarus but slightly downward, pondering.*  Has anyone ever done a human group with such attention to the varied states of everyone in it?

This is a modest example, yet yields so much, modest but radical in the allotment of space, bolder than the early Lazarus in its use of blank spaces—all the active figures are confined in the lower left-hand quadrant; Lazarus is almost pushed out of the picture. Two blank spaces run almost the whole length of the scene; it is one big grave.

We want to claim that Rembrandt outgrew his obtrusive early virtuosity, and he did leave behind the showy Baroque kind, but he never ceased some form of virtuoistic display, though, as Artaud said of van Gogh, he was by the end in a different region from normal human perception, a place where he didn’t perhaps expect anyone to follow, doubtless a strange way to talk about two of the most popular artists in the whole history of art.

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Even in the more thoughtless Baroque phase Rembrandt is capable of great delicacy and quiet richness, as in this sensuous nude, given a mythological twist by the shadowy rapist lurching out of the shadow, Jupiter and Antiope. Rembrandt was prone to make jokes of classical subjects—who could ever guess that the embarrassed middle-aged nude dipping her feet in a pond was Diana at the bath? But Jupiter is hardly there in the present picture, an afterthought, Rembrandt’s way of acknowledging a vestigial embarrassment at catching his model asleep, after what activity, not before? Yet the figure is raised by the classical reference and her languor could not be bettered. In a way hard to explain, the idea of Jupiter gives us permission to savour a wonderfully lengthened moment.

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Certain subjects recur in Rembrandt, one of them an encounter between a young man and an old one, like this father and his prodigal son no longer young. Why is this awkward meeting so beautiful, framed on one side by emptiness and on the other by unwanted bystanders kept at bay by narrow stairs which effectively confine them? There is no shortage of feeling, rather an excess, and the complex platform sets them off as on an altar. The space is like an allegory of their situation, which they have surmounted, at least for the present.

I have just realised that the lead figure on the right is carrying shoes and a coat, bringing them for the semi-naked prodigal, a dose of everyday reality, just what this artist revels in: in every twist of the father’s sleeve, in the creases in the stone steps, in three different arched openings, in headgear and shoes and every one of the endlessly varied lines cut by the graving tool.

e 9 18 b139 joseph telling dreams AN00022531_001_l copy 2.jpgAnother young man holding a whole cohort of old ones entranced with his tales, like Christ among the doctors, but this time Joseph recounting his dreams to the other prisoners, a subject easier to give a comic twist, in part by clothing them all in Egyptian finery. It is an exercise in filling up space, and he does it most ingeniously, including a bedroom setting as in Genesis, a kitchen visible in a slit at the edge and a dog obliviously licking itself. Joseph is the brilliant invention of a novelist, a little businessman who is believable as the soon-to-be administrator of the whole Egyptian harvest.

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I suppose this counts as a comic scene too, though making light of the fate of humanity in this present world seems shallow in the extreme, yet what result do you expect to follow from leaving the spiritual destination of the world to the sagacity of inexperienced newlyweds?  Rembrandt is an unstoppable storyteller and Eve is one of his best inventions, her frailty signaled by letting the snake-dragon loom over her, by her bowed shoulders and a head drawn in like a tortoise, by her wonderfully trustful and mistrustful expression: she is used to listening to Adam yet she can’t accept what she is hearing. But it’s the vulnerability of those hips and knees, something that makes this an extremely lovable creature who can’t be blamed for what she has done. The couple are wonderfully lit in a big keyhole of light which is about to close in on them, and on the frolicking elephant, tiny in the distance.

h 17 34 b210 jerome w stump AN00038466_001_l copy 2.jpgRembrandt did old men repeatedly, St Jerome most often. He also had a strange fondness for old stumps which he saw (or anyway showed) as sheltering diverse forms of life and as in that way sponsors of youth. The outlandish disproportion between the saint and his tree expresses a truth but also functions as a kind of camouflage: the wise man disappears in the undergrowth and his lion knows to do the same.

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The best of all his renderings of his favourite saint puts Jerome in a wide landscape, not in flat Holland but precipitous Italy. It’s the gentlest, richest vision, of a long serpentine ridge with the lion standing, curved, on the turning point where it swoops downward, man and beast, stillness and movement, action and contemplation, yet of course the lion doesn’t move either, just expresses movement with the swerve of his body. The saint vanishes or hovers like a mirage, conveying that there aren’t any saints or lions in Italy, except if you think there are, or while you think there are.

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The highlight of the exhibition was the pairing of different stages of the same print which showed how flexible or molten Rembrandt’s idea of his subjects became, increasingly as he got older. The most startling transformation was performed on one of his largest prints, a rendering of the Crucifixion known as The Three Crosses which began as Rembrandt’s most complex crowd scene, with the turmoil of two dozen figures forming a hollow circle around the three crosses, something like Bruegel’s in Vienna, but seen from much nearer. At first it was done in drypoint, a technique Rembrandt increasingly favoured, which creates powerful but blurry effects because the this tool works more like a gouger than a sharp pen. So there’s something rich but impressionistic about the rendering of figures, and he concentrates on the architecture of the scene, controlled by strong lighting which makes an apse-like structure that incorporates all the figures into a single vertical space, with an effect murky and tumultuous at once.

j 21 47 245 three crosses later 2.jpgThen Rembrandt went to work on it, erasing some elements, like one of the two prominent figures in the foreground running away, and adding others, like the tall figure on horseback wearing a strange three tier-headdress like something out of Uccello. The right-hand thief has become a black smudge and the dense right-hand group a blur.  Strangest of all he has added strong diagonal scorings leading out of the picture toward both lower corners, matching the rays coming down from above in the top half of the picture, so that now you have a single explosion caused by the crucifixion, as if there’s been a great discharge of energy, an electrical phenomenon we would say if that were not pure anachronism in the age of Rembrandt.

Now a universal darkness has fallen on the whole scene except for a couple of weird flickers to the left of Christ. The air has been sucked out of the world along with the light, leaving it flattened and shrunken by the diagonal forces pulling downward, a space unreal, visionary, as if we’ve retreated into a mental realm, hugging the suffering depicted to ourselves more intimately.

Darkness had always had a strong aesthetic appeal for Rembrandt, particularly in prints. Colour disappears as darkness falls, and he liked pushing to the moments when less and less is visible, sometimes almost as a prank, to see how little he could get away with showing and still have a picture, but more often with serious purpose, to find out how much you could take away or occlude and still keep the whole surface tense with the expectation of meaning, which might need to be searched for, but was there to be found. Earlier, darkness might just signal experiment; later, solemnity appears more often. In the year after The Three Crosses a smaller Descent from the Cross by torchlight appears, in which the body of Christ occurs twice, once as a crumpled corpse, and again as a blank sheet. His shroud waiting for him on a stretcher at the bottom of the picture has such a strong presence it’s as if there are two of him, or two moments both present in the single image, which there’s an old instinct (familiar in many medieval narratives) to include within one frame.

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The sheet is so characterful, contains such subtlety of outline and feature, that it seems a depiction of a collected, resolved and tranquil state of mind, like a washing away of all the kinks and twists of everyday human character—to become a blank sheet again, a certain ideal conception of what happens to the individual at death. The prominence given to this empty container is preternaturally strong and purposeful–at the front and bottom of the space, yet canted away from strict horizontal, a relaxed, not a rigid disposition, one of the most beautiful details in all of Rembrandt. After all the toil and trouble, peace; after hideous cruelty, a slate wiped clean.m 25 56 b260 entombment w surface tint AN00059590_001_l copy 2.jpgThere’s a further, more resolved stage of the same process in the revised plate of the Entombment from the same year. Revision here has consisted of removing much detail by darkening it, while allowing faint suggestions of the main spatial divisions to remain, not quite consistently, to give a grand general sense of the entire space while narrowing the focus to a few of the figures formerly visible (in earlier stages of this print) and only to selected fragments of those who remain. The details that are left have become more precious: they are all that there is: expressions simplified are more solemn, surrounded by gloom they sink deeper into the viewer’s consciousness. Christ is the least evident of all of them—can that be right? Earlier it was even possible to overlook him, not now. In some technical sense the scene is lit by a candle which we cannot see, but that is an explanation we think of afterwards. Our first impression is that Christ’s limp body emits a strange glow, unnaturally intense like a firefly, the only point of light in the night sky, which is to say that in death he compels us more than ever. You can describe this effect to make it sound simple, and so it appears, but what it is still more, is focused, and wonderfully so, and it arises from Rembrandt’s understanding of human responses, and of the play of light and its absence, which is all brought to bear on a small stretch of inked paper, most overwhelming in those parts where nothing is there, no ink, just paper, the very instant when the artist’s absent hand is felt most of all. 

 

 

*Other impressions of the small Lazarus change Christ’s expression, which becomes less meditative.

The print of the late Descent from the Cross by torchlight shown here is a counterproof, in which the blank of the shroud is paler but stronger.

Rembrandt: thinking on paper at the British Museum until 4 August 2019

 

 

 

 

 

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 only captured 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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Elisabeth Frink and British sculpture of the 50s

 

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I’ve broken off reading Thomas McEvilley’s Sculpture in the Age of Doubt to write about British sculpture of the 1950s, acutely conscious how timebound those works look now. McEvilley’s book is twenty years old but seems timely to someone freshly drawn to figurative sculpture by Elisabeth Frink, Henry Moore and their contemporaries, who still seem haunted by the experience of war, whose work is perhaps rawer and more deeply undermined than that of McEvilley’s doubters of the 1970s and 80s. He writes about work by Iannis Kounellis, Marina Abramovic, Michael Tracy and two dozen others, which is sometimes only sculpture because it isn’t painting, or just because McEvilley wants to see Happenings and Performance Art as sculpture, which seems an unnerving extension of the territory to me, but might be a commonplace to more up-to-date observers of the current scene.

Has he thought out all that this extension implies? Probably, for he’s a philosopher, which is to say always looking to wider ramifications and perhaps losing sight of the visceral presence of the piece, this in spite of being extremely good at explaining complex works of art. So his preferred instances often involve the participation of the artist, who is cutting herself methodically and bleeding on her immediate surroundings, or incinerating a huge painting which has been carried to a watery location according to a special liturgy. These are works that leave little behind after the scene is washed clean by attendants or the weather, except photos, videos and written descriptions.

How dispiriting after such disruptions to turn to lumps of bronze which raise no doubts about whether they are sculpture or not, just questions about why they aren’t more carefully finished or more complete, which often show plainly that they started life as plaster, and which bear an obvious though mildly obscure relation to the human form. It worries me slightly that I am becoming newly interested in these works of art produced when I was a teenager, worries which really take off when I think of trying to interest anyone else.

The first Frink sculpture I ever saw, knowing it was hers, was an incongruous green Christ mounted high on the front of Liverpool cathedral. It didn’t fit and was too far away, much too high for its welcoming gesture to make any sense. My next Frink was also green but in a gallery, so it wasn’t the weather that had coloured the bronze this time. It showed an oldish man falling backwards, shielding his face with one arm, leaving both his feet sticking awkwardly up. He was on the floor, below eye level. I am not even sure whether he had landed already or was about to. I have seen him many times since, but am still not sure if he has landed. The effect of the figure depends on the feeling of something in the course of happening, and on the extreme vulnerability of the raised arm and flailing feet. He is still in the middle of the violence of his fall.

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It didn’t take me long to learn from a label a few feet away that he was the work of Elisabeth Frink, a name I associated with dull public sculpture, and that he was called Dying King, apparently inspired by a scene in Shakespeare’s Richard III, where the great villain dies in the midst of battle, surrounded by his enemies. A bad man at his moment of greatest weakness—but it isn’t certain that this notion enters into our feelings about this sculpture.

What matters more is the rough hewn finish of the work. His shielding arm is a flat slab, like the outline of a form. His torso is eaten away by a natural process like decay, which isn’t decay of course, but a roughness and perforation that the sculptor has allowed to remain, rather than directly causing by a purposeful movement of her hand. The double nature of the material—so we need constantly to remind ourselves that these forms weren’t always metal, but something more malleable, even a runny almost-liquid for brief periods at least—is an endlessly involving feature of any bronze that lets its past as clay or plaster or even wood–Frink sticks on wooden slats to stiffen figures’ legs and doesn’t bother to hide them–show.

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So the shrunken Richard is a tragic figure, participating in the instability of the world and of its various physical components, instability that cooperates with whatever it is in him that brings him down. He is part of a larger natural process and encapsulates more than one moment in the history of matter.

At this point along comes a little display of British sculpture of the 1950s in the big hall at the centre of the old Tate, spaces designed by the most retardaire of American classicists, John Russell Pope, an embarrassing favourite of mine. The first piece I notice is a fragment, a figure without head, arms or feet lying on its side. Its back is the most eaten away part, which is what I come to first. Again, as before, I am enraptured by the way the form is both there and not there, threatening to lose its shape from all the gouging, and intrigued also by the way the legs are broken off, as by a violent rending. The genitals telling you the figure’s sex are indistinct but big enough that you won’t miss them: Frink usually makes sure of that, for this is Frink of course, and called simply Torso.

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DSC06230torso.jpgNext to it is another fallen figure who raises a little shield as he falls. His legs are pitifully shrunken, his torso misshapen like a rock which won’t bend itself completely to the human form. His head is more rudimentary than other Frinks, a stalk, an eye, a flat disk. I’m trying to take in the unmanageable variety of aspects I find in these forms, the great advantage of sculpture, that it can be a dozen different works in succession, depending on where you’re standing, or not standing but circling.

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It’s a long time after, when reading about another piece by a sculptor new to me, that I find the label for the Falling Warrior, for that is his name, and it is important to the sculptor that this is not a corpse stretched on the ground but someone who is still alive.

The sculptor is not Elisabeth Frink, though, but Henry Moore. How could I have made that mistake? in which there’s a lesson, that you tend to see what you’ve come to see. I look at this warrior again and see something different, cooler and more composed, a less immediate rendering of violence. Now I view the two figures, Dying King and Falling Warrior as opposites, several rooms apart, but wonderfully comparable, versions of the same idea seen so differently by two sculptors who enter deeply into their subject and make something unforeseen that grips you too. And I don’t know which to prefer, ‘inflections or innuendoes, the blackbird whistling, or just after.’*

 

Opening image:  In The Infield Was Patty Peccavi by Edward and Nancy Kienholz; metal, resin, cloth, wood, glass, paper, photomechanical reproduction, electric lights, stuffed bird and paint, 1981, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington

 

*Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
i
Among twenty snowy mountains,   
The only moving thing   
Was the eye of the blackbird.   
ii
I was of three minds,   
Like a tree   
In which there are three blackbirds.   
iii
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.   
It was a small part of the pantomime.   
iv
A man and a woman   
Are one.   
A man and a woman and a blackbird   
Are one.   
v
I do not know which to prefer,   
The beauty of inflections   
Or the beauty of innuendoes,   
The blackbird whistling   
Or just after.   
vi
Icicles filled the long window   
With barbaric glass.   
The shadow of the blackbird   
Crossed it, to and fro.   
The mood   
Traced in the shadow   
An indecipherable cause.   
vii
O thin men of Haddam,   
Why do you imagine golden birds?   
Do you not see how the blackbird   
Walks around the feet   
Of the women about you?   
viii
I know noble accents   
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;   
But I know, too,   
That the blackbird is involved   
In what I know.   
ix
When the blackbird flew out of sight,   
It marked the edge   
Of one of many circles.   
x
At the sight of blackbirds   
Flying in a green light,   
Even the bawds of euphony   
Would cry out sharply.   
xi
He rode over Connecticut   
In a glass coach.   
Once, a fear pierced him,   
In that he mistook   
The shadow of his equipage   
For blackbirds.   
xii
The river is moving.   
The blackbird must be flying.   
xiii
It was evening all afternoon.   
It was snowing   
And it was going to snow.   
The blackbird sat   
In the cedar-limbs.
                                                              Wallace Stevens

 

Mantegna / Bellini

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strawberry Hill empty and full

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mysteries of London 2: Petrie museum of Egyptian archaeology

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oceania—art of the Pacific islands

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Homage To The British Museum

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

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

 

William Empson

 

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