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.

Anglo-Saxon at the British Library

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Paula Rego’s stories drawn & painted

0 pillowman2.jpegPaula Rego is another outlier in the territory of contemporary art. She is Portuguese but came to London to study and now lives there. In some way she is more like a nineteenth-century novelist than a twenty-first century painter. She seems drawn to other painters for their subject matter rather than their handling of paint. Hogarth, Goya and James Ensor turn up in her comments about her own work, which often takes a literary work as the starting point, The Sin of Father Amaro (a scandalous Portuguese novel of 1875), Jane Eyre, Portuguese folk tales, English nursery rhymes, or a dark play by the British-Irish writer Martin McDonagh.

Rego always distorts and updates the originals, infiltrating them with material from her Portuguese childhood deflected through Freud. The grotesque tendency already present in the older writer is raised to a higher pitch. She delights in elements which don’t fit and will never be comfortably assimilated, like suggestions of a Crucifixion in a child’s game on a beach, or a Pieta among the detritus of a box room. Like Bruegel she crams too much into her paintings: one story will rarely suffice and intriguing sub-stories fill up the edges.

There have been unexpected shifts in her career, as in the late 1980s when her husband Victor Willing, also a painter (they met as students at the Slade; the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester is the best place to see his work), was dying, she deserted the folk-material and turned to everyday domestic scenes rendered in flat acrylic of muted, gray-infused hues. The unnerving surreal element of the tales hadn’t disappeared, just retreated out of easy view. Ordinary encounters of family members breathed menace, and predators in frumpy dresses or business suits waited for the right moment to spring.

Two of the major shifts in Rego’s method and technique seem to have happened almost by chance: when she stopped smoking, the hand set free could hold the board and she took up drawing more enthusiastically. Finding it awkward to draw herself in complex positions (as The Dog Woman) she recruited her husband’s carer as a model, and observation entered the pictures with new urgency.

In 1994 pastel burst upon the scene as a primary medium for Rego, no longer just a convenience in underdrawing, and has been her preferred medium ever since. Pastel is closer to drawing and makes a violent intensity of colour much easier to achieve, something Rego evidently felt was missing before. Before long some of her pastels reached greater dimensions than her paintings ever had, exceeding 6 feet by 9 in triptychs of the early 2000s. In these gigantic expanses of paper, by far the biggest works in this medium I have ever seen, the monsters return, animal hybrids from fairy tales or primitive religion, and human forms like stuffed animals or vegetable growths.

1a folk tales.jpgBut all this lies far in the future. What got me started on Paula Rego was the current exhibition of 65 of her drawings at Marlborough London. It covers a relatively short span, 1980-2001, but gives plenty of scope to the fertility of her imagination. The earliest and most delightful examples show animal-headed human figures, more like illustrations in a children’s book than those ominous beings on the walls of Egyptian tombs. But the creatures threaten or crowd each other and collide with toy soldiers half their size. These drawings are forerunners of the apocalyptic opera series (Aida, Carmen, Rigoletto) in acrylic on paper, still looking drawn not painted, like nightmarish comic books 7 feet high where chaos reigns, with pharaohs, crocodiles, local children and bearded female wizards running across the page in uneven tiers. Disproportionate sizes feel relatively innocent here, but loom larger in later Rego compositions as intimidation and enslavement.

2b girl giraffe.jpgAnother drawing in staccato technique like the aftermath of a blast (a detail above) shows a ballerina surrounded by gesturing animals, especially a lobster with raised claws. It dares us to make sense of scattered marks all mastered by centrifugal urges. Even in one of the most composed or statuesque drawings, which shows a girl about to pluck the feathers of a great bird growing from her lap like a mythical hybrid from Ovid, she is both quelling a rival and becoming something unforeseen. Does the cadet in a nearby drawing dominate his sister who is cleaning his boot, or does she emasculate him by keeping him still?

4 soldiers daughter.jpgThe battered drawing of the Dog Woman was pivotal in Rego’s career.   She tried to draw herself in a mirror and found there were parts she just couldn’t see, and from that moment on, live models began to play a larger role in her work. The dog-woman is a compelling translation of the mythic hybrid to a degraded but still powerful creature, making character from humiliation energetically seized and proclaimed. Rego never lets go of the relation between human beings and animals, in its embarrassing nearness and its abysses of otherness.

5b dog woman.jpgThere are revealing photos of Rego’s studio set up for one of her large compositions, which show a cascade of actual models, but not live ones, in the very layout familiar to us from the painting. These are the stuffed grotesques that Rego began to use to represent the more monstrous participants in the story. It is disconcerting to learn that her supremely fertile imagination leans on such props. But should it be? Isn’t there something wonderful in replicating the unpredictable creases in the dummy-octopus or the sagging of canvas ticking in the scarecrow’s face? In the later Rego the most fantastic elements are fanatically accurate. This kind of crazy faithfulness would make sense to Bruegel or Bosch. The two versions of the artist’s studio in the Marlborough exhibition are more prosaic than the photos, but show a place similarly full, like the paintings, of discordant life, a place in which the subjects have wills of their own and sometimes push each other out of the way.

6b artist in studio.jpgAmong the most powerful drawings are the series on the touchy (especially in Portugal) subject of Abortion. Even these are not unambiguous. The postures of sexual pleasure and of torment are almost mistakable for each other, momentarily. Here is a subject which does not need to be eked out or amplified by a wealth of surrounding detail.

7a abortion.jpgThe exhibition verges nearest to the heroic pastels in the largest drawing on view, The Recruit, a neat and self-contained anecdote employing some of the reversals of psychological and sexual valency that Rego enjoys. The woman is shorter and stronger than the man, reveals more of her flesh (a vulnerability) but wears a uniform and carries a stick. The man is larger, but his bigness is pitiful and his gesture unwittingly defensive. How is it that something so absurdly exaggerated seems so evidently true?

8 recruit.jpgNaturally, some viewers trace all these revenges and rivalries to the artist’s early experience. But there is a complete disconnect between her recounting of relations in her own family and families as she portrays them. One of the most poignant of all is the Pillowman—Fisherman series (not in the exhibition) where Rego came to think halfway through that the Pillowman represented her much loved father, whom she had never portrayed until then in her work. In the left-hand wing of the Fisherman triptych below, the Pillowman, from Martin McDonagh’s horrific play by that name, is showing a small girl an illustrated book. Paula Rego recognises here the treasured experience of her father reading Dante to her, as he did, setting her on the course her life would follow thereafter. This panel of the triptych incorporates the three parts of the Divine Comedy in an S-curve from top left to bottom right, an order reversed from the way Dante tells it. It is one of Rego’s strangest and boldest transpositions, to represent her father as the hideous Pillowman, a floppy and malleable dummy who kills his numerous child-victims with kindness.

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Paula Rego drawings at Marlborough London, Albemarle Street W1 until 27 October

Mysteries of London

First in a series about odd destinations, often but not only in London.  

 I’ve been looking at a list of the 250 museums in London, to which is appended a further list of 30 or 40 defunct ones with the dates of their closing. The main list includes the house in which one of the greatest Japanese novelists lived in 1900-02, two collections of outsider art (mental patients and other eccentrics), an old operating theatre, and a house in Wandsworth Road where almost every space is filled with carved fretwork.

I was on the trail of undiscovered marvels in London because I’d just emerged from one, the Fan museum in Greenwich, a visit like falling down a rabbit hole into another, smaller world with its own rules, which left you disoriented trying to return to your before-world.

The main event at the Fan museum was an exhibition of 65 fans made from the feathers of various, mainly exotic, birds. Fans are a strange, mainly exhausted form, and this seemed a way to introduce a little wildness into the territory, or so I thought.

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It began with a fan of white peacock feathers, much more air than substance and so, not much use for creating a breeze, but like a natural display, a complete tail outspread. The tail itself was a fan, or was it instead that fans were originally tails in inspiration, a bodily organ spreading itself to make an effect?

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The loose gathering of large untrammeled feathers turned out to be a recurring type, seen also in a spray of silver pheasant plumes with staccato markings of black on white, to be pondered like calligraphy. A nearby fan had more mysterious markings which also asked to be interpreted or ‘read’. I found out from the catalogue that this bewitching

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pattern consisted entirely of the breast feathers of the common pheasant, fanned out un-naturally to put extra space between the markings. So the intriguing script of dark on light had not occurred until the fan maker got to work.

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Likewise in one of my favourites, the jay-feather fan, natural materials are grouped unnaturally.  The big field of iridescent blue stripes is made from small feathers that occur only under the jay’s wings, and 200 birds are consumed to make one fan. The oldest fan in the museum’s collection, from tenth or eleventh century Peru, brings home the point by contraries: it is trimmed with yellow macaw feathers, for which birds are not killed but their moulted leftovers collected. This label came as a shock. Until that moment I had avoided noticing that these fragile constructions might occasionally be the results of campaigns of carnage.

But if you are going to accept that such pattern-making in natural materials is often beautiful, you have to put up with the sacrifice of a certain number of birds. It seems odd to remember only part-way through an exhibition that making objects for human use from other animals entails this. So it is a redeeming feature, not a regret, that these artifacts have become obsolete.   We examine them as the weird fruit of other times, and enjoy a saving distance from actually using fans.

There’s a kind of integrity in keeping together in their original order all the feathers of a single bird of paradise, including the head, stuffed and tucked under the wing along one edge of the fan. And there’s an almost intolerable artifice in making life-like roses of white feathers, their leaves of feathers tinted green, and then finally mounting a stuffed hummingbird on this bouquet.

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Nor can we easily imagine anyone carrying a fan which resembles a bird plunging downward, made of feathers from four other species of bird. Or even worse (is it worse?) a big butterfly made of bird-feathers also plunging downward and constituting a fan, except for a few bits of abnormally blue sky composed of blue feathers.

Nor are we comfortable with pictures of parrots on cherry boughs made entirely of the startling blue feathers of kingfishers, on the same principle that we don’t want horses to study arithmetic or monkeys to drink cups of tea. The kingfishers don’t know what they are taking part in.

Downstairs in displays from the permanent collection, none of these quandaries and excitements over other species crop up, just the crazy extravagance of Elizabethan embroidery, all for a fan.

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Or the paradoxical boldness of getting street artists to design fans—what could be further from the world of fans than the squalor of the streets where graffiti and street art can survive undisturbed? Yet these were an inspired initiative, all the more because so unlikely.

The museum makes a separate space for serious artists confining themselves to the dimensions of a fan to see what extra stimulus might come from that, like Sickert doing one of his theatrical subjects and using it to exaggerate the emptiness in the middle, which exists both in the shape of the fan and the space of the theatre,

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and more exceptions for the Chinese artists who treated the fan-shape as, like the haiku, a form that hems you in in a maddening but potentially productive way. And finally 17c French paintings of gangs of putti engaged in grown-up tasks which are only fans to me because the labels say so, yet may be developed with special exquisiteness and unusual crowding because the artist is also thinking ‘fan’.

At Greenwich the idea of the fan has expanded beyond the building into the garden, where the box hedges take on the spreading shape of a fan being unfolded, and the plants declare a fan-like leaning toward Japanese species.  This small museum is just the right size to cast an absorbing spell, which works as long as you are shut up inside it, and for a few minutes after.

 

Picasso 1932

 

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I can’t be the first to think that Picasso is too profuse, that he painted too much. One way of coping with an overpowering surfeit of work is to limit your focus in an almost arbitrary way, and to concentrate on everything produced in a certain year, for instance.  Picasso is one of the few if not the only artist with whom such a bizarre tactic makes sense. We are helped a lot by the fact that in the early 30s he is dating his paintings by the day. So the works in the Tate exhibition were usually labeled with a day’s date, and only after that, a title.

Luckily the curators were not strict about the boundaries: a few works from 1931 crept in, and a couple from 1933-34. There’s no great consistency or sublimity about 1932. It was the year of his first big exhibition: that might have stirred him to produce more, but there’s still a pleasing arbitrariness in the choice.

Picasso is notoriously restless, but repeats subjects he likes, repetitions that are always variations not copies. Some of the most enjoyable moments came in following transmogrifications of simple themes, like the 26 small pages of Sketchbook no. 17 in ultra thin pen-lines that summoned up beings like one-celled creatures seen under the microscope, who seemed to be floating or swimming when viewed sideways. In fact you could only have this experience in the catalogue, with a magnifying glass, but it was magical, and gave a more intimate sense of Picasso’s inventiveness than almost anything else in the exhibition.

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Strangely enough, the supreme display of invention in the show began with a kind of copy, a copy of Grunewald’s famous Crucifixion in Colmar. Apparently it is doubtful that Picasso ever saw the work itself. In any case, he must have depended more immediately on a photograph, probably in black and white. Almost at once the painting got away and became something else, a meditation on cruelty or alienation and the dispersion of the self. Images of these dark drawings below follow the sequence Picasso followed, moving further, then nearer, then further again from recognisability, an oscillating approach to something that keeps threatening to disappear.

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At almost the same moment he was doing a series of little sketches of women playing ball on the beach, sometimes crowding and even stepping on each other. Some observers have detected conflict or ambivalence in Picasso’s ability to entertain these two subjects almost simultaneously, violent cruelty and Dionysiac release, and they have also read both extremes into one another.

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It remains a question to what extent simple themes like women playing or sleeping are carrying heavy metaphysical burdens in the work of 1932. Two famous nudes, Nude, green leaves and bust and Nude in a black armchair, provoked enthusiastic response in the art-dealer Kahnweiler, who thought them the best things Picasso had done, ‘as if painted by a satyr just after he had murdered a woman’, his way of expressing their frightening intensity.

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T J Clark connects the two paintings to Rimbaud’s ‘Je est un autre’ and Picasso’s ‘I am a woman’, by which he evidently meant more than just ‘the artist enters his subject’. Clark finds them a searching examination of desire and of the experience of sexual differentiation. The ideas are fascinating but the paintings do not support them. I am reminded of Leo Steinberg grappling with Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, imparting a powerful sense of struggle as he erects an intellectual structure that doesn’t match my experience of the painting. I have enjoyed the chase much more than most disquisitions I agree with, but I back off from the conclusions. Likewise with Clark—all this firepower is trained on bland and nerveless work. Picasso is not a colourist, a failing he can often conceal. In many of the larger pictures of this period, including these nudes, either horrid pastel shades predominate, or dull thickness of paint.

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So I found more enjoyment in the sculpture, which was perhaps a fresher medium to him at that moment, which in plaster or clay versions has a visceral immediacy that the larger paintings mostly lack. An interesting sub-genre crops up repeatedly, paintings that depict sculpture-like forms, another instance of Picasso’s grabbing onto sources in the world of art. In one of the most interesting of these, the paint itself was more lively, as if the idea of fresh clay had stirred him to a vivid rendering of its wetness and the variety of sheens on the surface, aspects of reality that he usually ignores.

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Sculpture also seems to be a realm where wit is licensed. The Woman in the Garden of 1925 is full of hilarious analogues in the world of construction to organic shapes and details. Here Picasso can play, an impulse which appears in his painting both before and after 1932, but in the exhibition it is usually sculpture or small and sketchy works which provoke a smile or introduce narrative complexity. At the end of the year a theme emerges, Rescue, which has its mythic reverberations, and which at least once reverses direction and becomes Rape. Here that alarmingly divided character surfaces again, who is unsure whether he is saviour or destroyer.

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Picasso 1932 at Tate Modern from 8 March to 9 September 2018

Kahnweiler doesn’t identify precisely the paintings that have impressed him.  Clark thinks it likely that the two mentioned above are the ones that provoked the ‘satyr’ comment (repeated in a letter to Michel Leiris dating from the time in March 1932 when the two nudes were painted).

The Horrors of War & Trauma inside the Mouth

Aftermath at Tate Britain, & Teeth at the Wellcome Collection, two exhibitions on disparate themes–artistic responses to the First World War and ways of coping with a troublesome part of the body.

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Much of the time Aftermath looks like another art exhibition. It leads off with paintings like Orpen’s Grave in a Trench, a bleached-out scene long after the battle, and Roberts’ Shell Dump, France, crowded with zombie figures underground.

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But then curiosities creep in, like paper knives with shrapnel handles or ‘nail art’– patriotic icons made mainly of nails, each banged in by a different member of the public, who thus gets the illusion of contributing to the war effort. Then there are documentary photos of damage to Reims cathedral and a fascinating film of a trip over the ruins of Ypres in a balloon. I didn’t question the pictures of Reims, especially the ruined stone angel bandaged with ropes and pads which both personalises and distances destruction.

I began to wonder though when presented with old photos of second-rate decorations in the centre of Paris or plans for humdrum war memorials, especially when Lutyens’ astonishing arch at Thiepval is left out. Charles Sargeant Jagger’s No Man’s Land follows the format of a memorial, a long horizontal slab, but disrupts the convention with a scene that is above all jagged, jammed with severe and heartrending detail scratched into bronze gone grey from grief. It shows six corpses strung up on barbed wire or stretched out in mud, and a lone sentry who is taking cover among the relics of death.

No Man's Land 1919-20 by Charles Sargeant Jagger 1885-1934

Among the most uncomfortable but thrilling exhibits are Henry Tonks’ pastels of soldiers’ badly damaged faces. Jagger gets too close to what death looks like for comfort, and Tonks gets even closer, with living subjects, who are walking, breathing memorials or ruins of war. These works are redeemed by Tonks’ skill, by an unexpected artistic flair, and by sympathy which penetrates the men’s carefully controlled anguish.

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My heart sank when I came to a room called The Print Portfolio, a category which appears out of nowhere, as if we’ve run out of thematic subjects and turned to technical forms narrowly considered. It happened that two of the series were among the highlights of the exhibition, not because they fit the inappropriate category but because they were powerful. Otto Dix’s War prints gave the most nightmarish visions of all, far more interesting than his paintings, and Max Beckmann’s Hell created a kind of spatial anguish in everyday situations where all is splintered fragments.

Now comes a room that you should skip, the largest in the exhibition, full of big paintings. It is called Return to Order and constitutes a denial of the excitement generated by the preceding denser displays. It feels un-assimilated, included just because this too happened in this period, 1916-32, boundaries which look arbitrary when used to excuse the presence of forgettable work on a bigger scale than the little prints and drawings.

The limitation to France, Britain and Germany is here exposed as both too wide and too narrow. It has pushed curators to include such dire painters as Marcel Gromaire and dim Germans only present because they illustrate particular social-historical themes.   What a relief to get back to the authentic seriousness of Dada, in Grosz and Heartfield’s The Bourgeois Philistine Heartfield Goes Wild, a work of 1920 (reconstructed 1980) held over until the last room of the exhibition. It shows the human figure turned into a tailor’s dummy by modernity, with a light bulb for a head, as if it were the war-wounded in a perversely perfected form, pure prosthesis.

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Comparing Aftermath to Teeth at the Wellcome is unfair in one important way. Most of the exhibits in Teeth were never meant to be displayed to a curious public. They include models of teeth and mouths for dental students to practice on, and actual skulls containing outstanding decay or dental work in rare materials, of which photographs are politely discouraged. They also include lots of obsolete devices, some of which are mainly quaint, like drills operated by a foot pedal, while others now seem instruments of torture, like heavy metal ‘keys’ for yanking out teeth with a sudden twist.

The energy and fun of Teeth comes largely from abstracting these objects from their normal locations, a transposition which changes them utterly. There’s often a dose of  the surreal, even Dada, when they move from the world of work to the realm of play, where most of the Tate’s exhibits started out.

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The closest crossover came when we met another mechanical man with a smooth wooden skull implanted with obscure metal devices and genuinely carious teeth who, like the Heartfield mannequin, sat on a spindle or post, which brought him up to normal human height and tempted you to endow him with human traits.

Enormous model teeth with cave-like hollows for demonstrating different kinds of filling are here just creatures from nightmares, material for stories. Sometimes you wonder if the Gothic element in a howling face wasn’t relished by the original fabricator. Maybe there has always been an almost clinical enthusiasm for certain kinds of horrendous but unthreatening pain. This head, which calls up the mad researches of the 18c Austrian sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, seems prepared to drown analysis in feeling.

DSC02435 copy.jpgDeciphering the spirit in which the Wellcome’s objects were collected would be an absorbing study. A fantastic intent surfaces more than occasionally. Among my favourites were a poster showing the furthest nightmare of a user of the old kind of toothpaste tube that split or fractured easily, resulting in mock carnage that takes unspeakable humanoid form.

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Next to it came the unsettling magnification of a decayed tooth into a wonder of the ancient world. A dentist once explained to me why what goes on in the mouth feels so much bigger than it is, but it seems self centred to dwell as we do on the affairs of these little hidden universes, which, like the Colosseum, occur in storeys and arched shapes.

DSC02428 copy.jpgLike the Tate, the Wellcome tempts you to keep going when the exhibition is over, straying into other rooms wondering what you will find there, perhaps another instrument of torture, like the early X-ray machine that resembles a treadmill turned on its side

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or another Surrealist juxtaposition in a ball-gown decorated with a huge collection of contraceptive pills in their plastic bubbles, enough for 26 years of daily doses, someone’s calculation of how many fertility-suppressing tablets a woman would need to take in a lifetime, reduced or elevated here into a bewitching glitter.

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Aftermath at Tate Britain, Millbank until 23 September 2018

Teeth at the Wellcome Collection, Euston Road until 16 September 2018 (admission free)

 

 

Rodin and Ancient Greece, or Rodin and the Fragment

Rodin never went to Greece. He was the most anti-academic artist imaginable, who defied every classical rule. Yet the recent exhibition at the British Museum on this unlikely theme was a revelation. From his first sight of them, Rodin was besotted with the Parthenon sculptures, but he took an unorthodox view of the stones, prizing them for their fragmentary and ruined state.

There had been an earlier Rodin who invented immense epic schemes, like the Gates of Hell, six metres high, and seething with hundreds of figures. This project combines the medieval material of Dante’s Inferno with the modern spirit of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal. The static form of this set of monumental doors becomes a great field of movement and upheaval, a gate which shudders convulsively, rather than a stiff and stable barrier.

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Rodin’s responsiveness to the art of the past is full of surprises. He writes imaginatively about Gothic cathedrals as vast poems, not all of which can be taken in at once. He focuses on their porches, which he likens to grottos or caverns lit unevenly by the sun, which brings certain figures into view while it hides others, shifting throughout the day. His Gates are a kind of condensed porch, and reading him on the subject one inevitably applies these ideas to his own project, too vast and various to be comprehended all at once, so that the sun’s movement becomes a metaphor for our attention, shifting over the surface, continually leaving parts of it behind.

Thence perhaps arises Rodin’s strange conviction that every part of the Gates allows us to intuit the whole. And so he detached small and incomplete elements from high on the cliffside of the work and brought them down to eye level,

DSC02075.jpgattaching them to notional cornices with new flourishes of plant matter or fabric. They are complex little knots of movement composed of flying and falling figures, but they are at the same time defiantly fragmentary, parts not wholes, more suggestive than complete and perfect entities, like shorn-off pieces of the Parthenon that have long evoked for some observers earlier, fresher stages of the work, as if you had stumbled into Phidias’s studio.

One of the achievements of the exhibition was to create a continuity between Rodin’s appreciation of the antique fragment and his understanding of his own work as metamorphic, continually re-forming itself in new combinations, seen from fresh angles. At the entrance to the exhibition a strange hybrid appears, a woman’s head with a small Greek temple planted on it as if growing from it. The carving of the marble face is soft and subtle as if it fades before our eyes, but her hair and shoulders are rough-hewn. The temple doesn’t fit, in more than one way. It is plaster and crudely fashioned; the stone has been abruptly sawn off to accommodate it.

DSC02056.jpgIt makes some observers think of Athena born violently from the head of Zeus; others are reminded of those allegorical busts with castellated headdresses who represent classical cities. The face is recognisable as the wife of an Australian painter, a favourite model of the sculptor’s: perhaps it is his awkward way of representing antiquity inspiring the present.

Another work (called Thought at some point in its life) shows a woman’s head emerging from an uncarved block, recognisable as one of the most interesting women in Rodin’s life, the sculptor Claudine Claudel, whose work, which resembles his, he tried generously to promote. Other small elements detached from the Gates are shown attaching themselves to, as if growing back into, the blocks they came out of. A couple of these in the exhibition acquire cosmic titles like Earth and Moon and Constellation but seem to have shrunk from their original dimensions.

DSC02095.jpgMore often Rodin enlarged small figures from the Gates to greater than life size and lopped off their heads and one or two of their arms, with the effect of making them more powerful and less specific, more like survivors from ancient civilisations or pioneers in the modern drive toward abstraction.

DSC02152.jpgIn the 1890s Rodin got more interested in and more able to afford antique fragments. Twenty examples from his much larger collection were included in the exhibition. Some of them would hardly get a second glance, except that we read his rapturous comments and try to see them with his eyes, as precious visitors from Phidias’ time, remembering also his endorsement of the child’s fresh vision.

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The exhibition also made one see the British Museum’s Parthenon fragments differently, first by mounting fully rounded figures below eye level and allowing nearer views and freer passage round them than we are used to. Strange to find or to remember that Ilissos the river god and two lounging deities are fully carved all the way round though they were originally mounted high overhead at the narrow ends of pediments.

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And curators have singled out especially fragmentary sections of frieze where it is exciting to imagine plunging or rearing movements continuing beyond the edges of the slice we are left with. Rodin had radical ideas about restoration and argued publicly that restoring the Parthenon would change something natural into an unnatural pastiche. His famous Walking Man was originally found in a garbled state in his studio and was further ruined when enlarged, by removing his head and arms. Now critics like Rilke find the deepest profundity in those absences. It is in any case a direction in which the sculptor increasingly moved. Hard to believe therefore in a last grandiose project of which Rilke gives the only report known to me, a great Tower of Labour (or Work?) with a spiraling relief representing human occupations, starting with miners at basement level.

One of the highlights of the exhibition was the treatment of the Burghers of Calais, brought indoors from their normal location on the Embankment. Apparently at Meudon Rodin always moved much of his work outdoors every spring, because that is where, following Greek practice, he thought sculpture belongs. The hill at Meudon was or became his Acropolis where he emulated his hero Phidias, surrounded by his own work mixed with his antiques.

Though brought indoors, the Burghers had the next best thing to changing daylight and natural air, standing next to a tall glass wall, conveniently lower than Rodin ended up displaying them, with ample room for circling round them. The grouping of the six over-life-size figures is one of the great triumphs of his career. They walk as you walk round them, changing their relations with the others, arriving and departing in endless combinations, all within a basically frieze-like format, like planets following their different trajectories, but pulled finally back into place by the gravitational force of the others.

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The result is more unruly and more dynamic than the processions in the Parthenon frieze, but the one has probably inspired the other, vertical elements in horizontal movement, each strongly characterised but all moving to the same tragic end in spite of the reprieve awaiting them, which we know about and they don’t.

 

 Rodin and the art of ancient Greece, by Celeste Farge, Bénédicte Garnier and Ian Jenkins, book of exhibition at the British Museum from 26 April to 29 July 2018, with exceptional photographs and stimulating text.

Soutine and suffering

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Soutine is a neglected outlier in 20th century art, for reasons all too obvious. He constantly disturbs the calm and balance of his subjects, and does this so relentlessly that at first he seems wilful and arbitrary. Even in still lives the furniture teeters and threatens to fall, and if the vegetables don’t slide off the table, one wonders what keeps them in place. In Soutine there are no apples or pears, reliable geometrical solids, but gnarled peppers and ageing tomatoes which are losing their shape. The plates that hold them wobble, their edges indescribably vagrant.

Much worse is to come. Soutine delights in the corpses of small animals, small enough to fit on a table. There is something unseemly about bringing them into domestic settings, food perhaps, but not quite ready for the table, like the eviscerated rabbit in the Barnes collection whose posture reminds us of a human infant warding off a blow.

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Another still life at the Barnes contains Soutine’s most involuted reference to animal suffering at the table. This is one of his most deliberately awkward pictures and includes several nearly indecipherable objects—a stiff smoked herring propped against the wall or hanging from a rope and held in place by a long-handled wooden spoon (participant in many Soutine still lives), a lumpy, twisted turquoise form that might be a kind of pitcher judging by its top, which has a lip for pouring.

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But to interpret this strange form you really need to know another Soutine of a goose with a broken neck. Then it dawns on you that the turquoise monstrosity is shown upside down, with its pedestal in the air and its top dangling below, a duck’s head with open beak held onto its body by a thread, like the doubled-over goose’s head still attached to its body by its windpipe. The Barnes still life is a picture that gets grislier the more recognisable it becomes. Its most unrecognisable bit (just to the left of the upside down duck) is the misshapen form standing up in what looks like a bread basket. Is it a primitive carving of a dwarf figure, or a twisted ginger root, or a broken fragment of bread? Is there another Soutine somewhere that shows the same object from another angle and clears up the mystery? It’s only the duck that makes us think this might be the case. Or is the contorted figure a traveler in the basket-boat which is moving out of the picture?

Soutine’s magic springs from his visceral involvement in paint, deeper than almost anyone’s but largely missing from the Barnes still life, which was only able to help us (if it did) understand something about his attitudes toward his subjects. That is a kind of instruction, but the Soutine who wins allegiance revels in paint, and the rapture that this produces silences our misgivings at the idea (for instance) of an animal brought to the table with its fur intact in order to be attacked with forks, which hold it firmly in place.

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Colours change or coruscate unpredictably, a ceaseless pulsation of life, a nature morte that is defiantly alive. The table-top comes near to matching the shape of the picture space, only slipping downward to show that there is motion after all in the motionless subject. To describe every sensation of motion in the tablecloth would take a long time. The most surprising is the wave motion of the scalloped and re-scalloped edge, which flirts with the lifeless horizontal of the bottom of the canvas.

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His involvement in paint sweeps all before it in a picture like Two Pheasants on a Table, the ultimate topsy-turvy of dead objects, where anguish and pathos are submerged or concealed in giddy sensations of motion, of the spinning and teetering table, of the flailing limbs and speaking facial expressions of the birds. As often, the colours are inappropriately and almost unbearably beautiful, blue on their backs, red on their mouths, cream on the shroud and green and ochre on the wall behind. Blurring in the forms and surroundings seems to describe our unwillingness to look straight at what lies in front of us. In this whole series of images of animals prone and animals hanging, strung up by their necks or their heels, Soutine diminishes his subject, the death (often in conditions like torture) of creatures, by choosing animals smaller than us and canvases smaller than those favoured by most of his contemporaries. This has an untoward effect, of slipping profound material past us before we realise what is happening.

Soutine once made what seems a crucial confession. He recounted an occasion in childhood (was he 8? or 10?) when he watched a butcher wring the neck of a goose. At the moment of death he had a powerful desire to scream, and at that moment the butcher looked at him and smiled, and the cry was stifled in his throat. Soutine said that all his paintings of dead animals and cuts of meat were attempts to release that strangled cry.

So in some sense many of the paintings are repetitions of a single experience. And of course much more than that, meditations on the universal facts of death and dissolution and the local experience of cruelty.

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b3 16a 20 DSC00717 copy 2.jpgMost harrowing of all the variations on these themes are a series of dangling victims strung up in the throes of death or its bedraggled aftermath. One of the chickens uncannily resembles a familiar form of ample female nude met in Hellenistic sculpture. This one also appears to crane eagerly upward via a grotesquely elongated neck, at odds with the tranquillity of the torso beneath.

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A whole series of grotesque possibilities are explored in this series. One loaded to excess with bitter ironies appears to dance, set off against a background in two shades of blue reminiscent of fabric patterns found in Cezanne and Matisse. Soutine delivers some of his sharpest shocks from within the world of painting. They are normally comforting colours but in this setting leave you with nowhere to turn, fooled by a background into letting down your guard in front of a horror, which combines an eighteenth-century minuet (in the crook of arm, wrist and ankle) with a bloody corpse (in the virulent colours of the body).

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Others are less grotesque and more surreal, like a scene from Frankenstein’s laboratory, where a stream of ghostly bubbles escapes from the tormented body caught perhaps in the final spasm of death. The feet are dematerialised, on the way to becoming fog or smoke, and eerily beautiful. Mysterious activity goes forward, the neck caught between a threatening and mesmeric piece of machinery and a black ruff of feathers left behind in  plucking the bird. It summons up Kafka’s Penal Colony, a world which writes obscure messages on its creatures. In other paintings victims are dangled head first–a rabbit stiff like the subject of a lynching, and another turkey spread eagled on an ornate chair until its head almost touches the floor. This unlikely moment gives rise to some of Soutine’s most exuberantly Baroque handling.

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Soutine first forced himself on my notice on a visit to one of the world’s great museums,  a day full of frustration.  I was turning away from Picasso’s Three Dancers which had disappointed me by its coldness and distance, by its excessive size for what it was trying to say, and I noticed a small picture facing the Picasso that wasn’t ashamed of its paint, letting it run wild across its modest surface. It was a landscape by Soutine, and I rushed toward it, captivated by its love of paint. Not that it was just a painting about paint, without any other discernable subject, but that its meaning couldn’t be separated from its material presence. It wasn’t mainly propounding an idea or proposition. It seemed nearer to living, breathing experience than the more conceptual work on every side and I was grateful to it for having appeared at just that moment.

‘Chaim Soutine: Flesh’, an exhibition of 30+ paintings at the Jewish Museum, 5th Avenue at 92nd Street, New York, until 16 September, including all but one of those illustrated here.