Chinese poet-painters self-isolating

 

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I was sending three Chinese paintings I had been absorbed by to a friend but thought I needed to append some text to give any idea of why I found them so exciting, so was going to photograph the three catalogue entries that told the stories of these three scholar hermits, self-isolating among streams and mountains or drinking themselves into cheerfulness in their orchid pavilions, a cumbersome plan.   And then I thought of a wonderfully simple idea for a blog when I couldn’t write one. I could just post the three pictures with the artists’ names, and anyone who wanted to could look them up on the website of the Cleveland Museum of Art where they would find high res images of each to download and ponder.

Then the idea collapsed. We really need those texts which I could point you to in Eight Dynasties of Chinese Painting, the giant catalogue of 1981 which sits there in my scholar’s hut reminding me of my foolhardy ‘travels among streams and mountains’ in that distant year, with its images all in grey and white that I can wake up again through the ‘miracle of technology’ (not so miraculous any more), and the lengthy text attached to each of them that I didn’t stop to read in 1981, but which now bring before me the fanatical absorption of those long-ago devotees of the wild brush strokes of these three practitioners of Chinese Baroque (as we call it now), but my main link with those paintings has become something very obscure with the passage of the extra years and the closure of all the libraries in the last few days, and that makes my simple project unworkable.

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265 1954.263 hua yen conversation in autumn d 1732.jpg

268 1976.112 li shan five pine trees d 1747 copy.jpg

These three paintings are special in their deliberate clumsiness, in not joining up smoothly their different parts, in cultivating scratchiness to signal uncertainty but also haste which comes over as passion, a kind of excitement which is frustratingly careless about whether it conveys itself to the viewer.

The painter of the pines was asked to paint five different trees. I think they started with plenty of space between them but he decided to crowd them together until they became hard to distinguish. On top of that, he filled up the empty spaces with five poems. I don’t know what these poems say or even what their subjects are. At first I was annoyed with the catalogue for leaving out translations but came to feel that this incredibly irregular writing is more beautiful than if I could read the individual words.   The writing is poetry in itself, more intricate and sophisticated than the painting, of which it is a magical contrasting twin.

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The mynah birds are another work by the painter of the first landscape, birds I thought I had to include to help you believe that that landscape is a radical work that you will only appreciate by looking long and hard at the high-res form of.

Chu Ta (or Zhu Da as he is also spelled in roman) has lit up the time of my isolation and turned hours into instants.

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236 (its number in the catalogue of the exhibition)  Chu Ta, Landscape after Kuo Chung-shu

265  Hua Yen, Conversation in Autumn

268  Li Shan, Five Pine Trees     The detail from this painting is meant to fill the screen, but I don’t know how to achieve this effect in the blog.

237B  Chu Ta,  Mynah Birds and Rocks

 

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I need to make this larger by putting it on its side, with the bottom of the image on the left.

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Cy Twombly–‘white paint is my marble’

 

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Sometimes I wonder if these works of Twombly’s are really there at all. Maybe I am in similar doubt about some of my favourite poems.   One day I would like to give a kind of police report on Wallace Stevens’ ‘Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction’. At first, I could make almost nothing of it, then I thought it was the most marvellous thing, then I just didn’t get it all over again.

Twombly’s sculptures share something with this troublesome poem. At least Stevens’ poems all have titles. Twombly’s sculptures mostly don’t. All those missing titles are like unwritten poems, which have been allowed to escape unrecorded. And in some way, that is that, a condition there’s no cure for.  Ones that do have titles have inspired some of the most wonderful interpretations ever.  This artist’s so-called sculptures seem to attract philosophers as vinegar does fruit flies. You can’t see why they would, but there’s no denying that they do.

Giorgio Agamben, a formidable Italian thinker, who appeared in Pasolini’s Gospel film (as the disciple Philip) and whom I revere because he discovered two manuscripts of Walter Benjamin’s missing since 1940, produced one of the most beautiful and far-fetched pieces of interpretation that I know, inspired by a particularly messy Twombly which, in lieu of a title, has a few lines of Rilke attached, which are artlessly (ha!) scribbled on a little piece of cardboard at the base of a plaster mound that holds two sticks, one standing straight, the other leaning against it, the two crudely wired together after an earlier accident.

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Rilke speaks of happiness sought by laborious ascent or happiness falling unexpectedly.   Agamben makes the two sticks an acting-out of these two motions, and sees in the two of them a picture of the difference between poetry and prose, poetry which can (and even must) always turn back, and prose which carries on. He makes the two sticks carriers of momentous meanings, which you can never un-see after you’ve followed his thoroughly poetic exposition.

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My other example is the sculpture called Untitled (Funerary box for a lime-green python) which consists of two palm leaves raised on slender sticks which spring from a narrow wooden box not really big enough to hold a large snake. Like Joyce giving Homeric titles to the chapters of Ulysses and then taking them away, Twombly unwished his whimsical title for this work that momentarily connected it with Egypt and animal gods. The Harvard philosopher Arthur Danto made the most serpentine game out of applying and taking away the name to and from the object.

How could I have allowed the critics to usurp the space before the works themselves have spoken?   In a real sense the untitled sculptures are the essential core of Twombly’s work as a sculptor who takes cast-off flotsam from the ordinary world and works magical transformations on them, turning them into something else entirely, without losing any fraction of their embarrassing crudity and imperfection. ‘White paint is my marble’ doesn’t mean as you might suppose that Twombly really sees himself as a rival of the Greeks. As often as not, he doesn’t even hide the underlying textures of his scrap of wood, now accorded a new importance without being allowed to leave its dismal past behind.

11:3 untitled new york 1980:1989 bronze white oil based paint edition of 8.jpgIn a twist that surprises us, Twombly allows a few casts in bronze or resin of some of the most memorable sculptures. The best thing about this is that the bronzes often look more battered or ruined than the original.

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The contrast between the wooden pan-pipes and the bronze ones is a clear case of these confusions.   The nails and bits of string sticking out in this sculpture, which are so hard to account for and so unmanageably alive, completely destroy the decorum that is such an important element of this most classical subject, and constitute another subversion of every unambiguous meaning. One of my favourite features of these endlessly baffling works is this final lack of resolution. You could, if you had the energy, go on puzzling at them for ever.

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Why are the actors in the Batrachomycomachia (Battle between the frogs and mice)–an absurd parody of epic which possesses the patina of being taken as a work of Homer’s for so many centuries–why are these low creatures represented by a box of kindling, stacked in ramshackle fashion (like all the battlefields we have known), that rises from its container as if from the lake where it took place, now drenched in the colour of raspberry yoghurt?

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Why are their nearest relative in Twombly’s work, the Vulci Chronicle, so abject, sparse like the records of that distant time, only a few vertebrae which stand for (and are, now) whole beings, who formerly stalked the earth spreading terror?

I could never have dreamed up Danto’s wonderful interpretation of another palm-leaf sculpture, but having come across it, I can not now un-think it. Cycnus (whose name means swan) was a hero, sufficiently obscure, who attracted the attention of a great hero (his name forgotten) who failed to reckon with Cycnus’ mother’s powers, who could extract him from his armour like the butterfly from its brittle shell and let him fly away, so the hero finds only the empty husk.  Danto discovers perfect sense in the leaf as the bird and the block of wood as the earthbound prison of the armour.

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In some sense it makes all the difference that Twombly himself became the man who wasn’t there, who left America so early for Rome, the old, universal seat of memory.   All of the sculptures are as much about not being able to remember essential elements as about successful recovery.   There is a whole series of Thickets which show one twig-like tree instead of a tangle, sometimes hung with forlorn tags listing the names of eight Sumerian cities, which survive now in very little but their names.   These thickets are missing most of their elements but have nonetheless been linked with the ram in the thicket which saves Abraham from sacrificing Isaac. I don’t know who first connected this ram and this thicket with the ‘famous Billy Goat of Ur’ (as Panofsky calls him), a deity or a sacrifice (according to your taste) now in the British Museum.   Scholars tell each other these are not the same animal or the same function, but Twombly piles up meanings rather than keeping them apart.   His most austere version of the thicket theme looks like a scaffold and is only a thicket by virtue of two plastic flowers raised four feet in the air through a grotesque inflation, but the evocative title remains all-important.  In some sense it’s all we’ve got.

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One of the most moving recent realisations of a Theatre of Memory in Rome, William Kentridge’s Triumphs and Laments, creates a whole series of historical ikons by blowing up small ink drawings to monumental scale while keeping their calligraphic nonchalance, a magical preservation which wouldn’t last, for they were painted on the Tiber walls with washable pigments designed to fade.

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Twombly’s largest painting, fifty-two feet long, now displayed in a barn in Houston made specially to contain it, is called Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the shores of Asia Minor (several previous titles, like memories that fail, were combusted on the bonfire of this one). I have come to wonder if Twombly’s sculpture isn’t an extended meditation on remembering and forgetting. He is said to have spent the nights reading and the days in the studio. The work brims over with references to Rilke, Seferis, Archilochus and Cavafy but no Stevens, Hopkins, Eliot.   Verses from more exotic languages are always transcribed in English. The biggest and most perplexing work in the exhibition at Gagosian, Grosvenor Hill, that got me looking at Twombly in the first place, was called A Time to Remain and a Time to Go Away, a bare-bones description of memory or of a relation to history.

DSC03484.jpgThe work consists of another steep ascent and precipitous fall. A slender frame contains an exuberantly molten platform-mound of plaster heaving with life, but the overall impression is something like a guillotine waiting to descend. The childish quality of Twombly’s inscribings makes me think of a-semic writing, writing that looks like words but isn’t, a mode with which Twombly filled whole canvases in certain phases of his career.

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Not in a literal sense, for he was immensely productive, he is the sculptor of figures missing, voyages cancelled, and settings abandoned by their inhabitants. Alongside the tombs, thickets, and scaffolds is a more mysterious subject to which I am drawn, the lump of plaster of geological character deposited on a cultural form like a brick or a box. What does it mean? Another memorial? Can it be thought, reason, art crushed dwarfed snuffed out by some mindless force?   Why would any viewer particularly like contemplating that? It is history as the energy that takes things away and hides them from view.

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‘White paint is my marble.’ At once dumb and magical. It is impossible to believe in this substitution, metamorphosis, overturning. Yet you want it to be true–the imagination lives in and for such fictions.

Soutine’s People

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Soutine’s portraits are a different kettle of fish from all his other work—his ‘portraits’ of dead animals, often hung up as if in a butcher’s window, his still-lives which can also have the air of crucifixions, and his tortured landscapes.

The portraits are different because we are less forgiving of liberties taken in representing the ‘human form divine’ (Blake’s piercing phrase). It appears that we have studied the human face more intently than any other aspect of the visible world, as perhaps comes home to us most sharply in front of art.

That is where the limits of an artist’s powers of observation are exposed most cruelly.  That is where Soutine’s ‘distortions’ are likeliest to seem arbitrary. He was reputed not to like portraits as a type. Perhaps it is truer to say he didn’t like commissions. He had his own peculiar way of choosing sitters. His preferred subjects are the weak and powerless — children, mad women, the village idiot, a gypsy boy, and the most consistent and fascinating series of all — lowly, serving occupations like pastry cooks, bell-hops and maids — all subjects easily exploited, who weren’t likely to complain that they didn’t like the results, because he was paying them, not the other way around. So these pictures are very different sorts of document from what we usually mean by portraits, and lack the stiffness and falsity common in the form.

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In Soutine’s hands even a child with a toy is an uncomfortable idea. Sitting can be a precarious activity in something which doesn’t look like a complete chair. Its top is glued to the child’s head, while its back seems to be trying to unseat him. His toy is another, smaller person falling backward or an angel pointing its wings downward. This is the part where Soutine’s famous abandonment of control in pursuit of the pure freedom of the brush breaks through.

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The next sitter is called Mad Woman but has been reduced to childhood by her madness, and wears another elf’s hat, another elf or gremlin not a citizen of the adult world. Soutine’s women are often marked by twisted shoulders, a form of wrenching, involuntary movement. This girl is more completely shrunken into herself through spider-like compression.

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The older woman protected by her hat carries a feature almost unheard of in Soutine, an emotive title–Desolation. Would we know she was heartbroken without the prompt? It takes us no time at all to figure that her lopsided shoulders and twisted arms do not mean a disease of the spine but an expressive lunge into an unstable mental state, the real question being whether the unexpected torque is a momentary or an essential condition. It would be a hard pose to hold—Soutine’s people twist from one uncomfortable position to another, but there’s unexpected freedom in the variety.

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While Desolation seems normative among Soutine portraits, the picture of his supporter and fellow painter Emile Lejeune stands apart for its light background and sprightly tonalities.   The sitter’s relaxed mood seems to have inspired confidence and made Soutine himself temporarily optimistic.   We read the dent in Lejeune’s face and his uneven ears as accident rather than meaning, a sign that the artist’s attention was focussed elsewhere, carelessness of a positive kind.

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By starkest contrast, darkness gathers round the gypsy boy like a portent. Maybe other observers wouldn’t have read extreme apprehension, vulnerability and the wish to disappear in the deep, dark eyes, but Soutine is alert to them, perhaps because susceptible himself.   This picture is usually dated to 1922-3, early for us already to be reading in it signs of what lies in wait for Europe in the following decade.

It isn’t just light and dark tonalities that make the mood in Soutine.   This picture of a very young pastry cook is the most tragic member of the most sustained series of Soutine portraits, devoted to a group with whom he has the most perfunctory relations, until he chooses to explore them, the service staff of the cheap hotels and restaurants he frequented in his summers in Cagnes on the south coast.

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Another triangular face which shrinks away to nothing, a stillness signifying exhaustion or a complete absence of hope, ears painfully exposed and defenceless features, and the wonderful blankness of all the white, concealing a being erased, with a body made of air, beautiful in its way, with especially delicate lines marking its divisions. The chair suggests the cage of a timid animal.

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A jauntier version of the same plight, striking a more assertive pose but paper-thin, and again the strange motif of the red handkerchief like a blood-stain semi-hidden.

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This outlying example in the pastry cook series from three or four years earlier cries to be included because it is the Soutine picture that the eccentric collector from Philadelphia, Dr Albert Barnes, saw in a dealer’s window, from which he found his way to Soutine’s studio and bought most of its contents (fifty-plus paintings) on the spot, bringing the painter to much wider attention.

It is the first of the group dressed all in one colour, or no-colour, which breaks out into a whole range of blue, purple, yellow, pink, registering light or recording creases, a crucial moment in Soutine’s attack on the coherence of objects, also seen in the ear that begins talking to its surroundings and finds itself resembling the chair back.

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At some time around 1924 or 5, Soutine began to frequent more expensive hotels but continued to enlist the most down-trodden elements of their populations, who sometimes pick up the pretensions of the posher premises, so that this ‘garcon d’honneur’ – a maitre d’ or a room-service waiter? it doesn’t seem clear – is able to sit with no visible means of support through a feat of belief, an acrobat-functionary.

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Another bellhop even turns his uniform into an identity, twisting it improbably into an imposing pattern.

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The third in this series of arms-akimbo poses – sitting in mid-air, sitting awkwardly, standing uncertainly – defensive and assertive, salvaging a self in unpromising circumstances – looks battered but cocky, and Soutine has again found human depth in unexpected places.

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The twists of these three poses say a great deal about the strains of these lives.   Even more complex and tortured flexions turn up in female subjects who twist this way and that, misshapen by the stresses of no job, but by the general facts of feminine existence, another, more unwitting mad-woman.

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The females among the hotel-staff portraits are the most abject of all, like this lady’s maid who melts, sliding downward, whose indecisive mouth is one of the saddest human features ever painted.

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This so-called English girl is one of the lucky ones, who makes a crooked pose into nonchalance.

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But best of all is the one most defaced by the painter’s wilful abandon, who drags strength from what should have been ugliness.   Like many of his unschooled subjects, she comes out of the battle an unlikely victor, where every error in the symmetry is a bit of hard-won depth.  Flesh of horrid orange-pink, clothes of stains and smears, like a surface given life by dirt, yet it’s the serpentine pose that tells us most persuasively that we are rushing somewhere significant, unheard-of till now.

Bartolomé Bermejo

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Bermejo remains a mysterious figure though widely regarded as the most important Spanish painter of the late Middle Ages. At a certain stage in planning a recent exhibition of his work in Madrid and Barcelona the organisers decided to make the accompanying publication a catalogue raisonné. It turns out that there are only sixteen surviving paintings, if you count multiple panels belonging to a single altarpiece as one. None of these composites survives complete or intact — dispersed, partly lost and in every case reliant on historians to reconstruct them.

The artist himself endured a similar fate. He was a person without a permanent address, probably a Jewish converso, sometimes keeping one step ahead of the Inquisition, which once convicted his wife of forgetting the words of the Creed. He worked in towns where he wasn’t a citizen and therefore needed a sponsor from the local painters’ guild in order to practice his trade at all. So his larger commissions are generally adulterated by the contributions of these less talented sponsors, and I have included here only the central panels of larger works where Bermejo’s own hand is probably responsible for all of it.

Bermejo may also have been restless and unreliable on his own account, so that an excommunication clause was added to the contract in case he tried to get out of doing all the scenes himself. He was excommunicated for leaving before he’d started the smaller scenes of the St Dominic of Silos altarpiece.  Bermejo means red in Spanish (vermilion: orange-red), and no one knows if that was the colour of his hair or his complexion, the sign of a choleric temperament.

Oddly enough the painter’s earliest dated work, a depiction of St Michael tangling with the devil, is dominated by an atmospheric disturbance in red, the archangel’s cloak like a violent thunderstorm in the heavens. But the angel doesn’t lose his cool as he dispatches a Satan who’s the manageable size of a pet, and seems to be laughing and waving as much as signaling distress or begging for mercy. He is a weird anatomical enigma whose nipples are a second set of red eyes over a breathing hole and a second mouth full of sharp teeth. The saint is covered in metal and the monster is mainly made of it. The armour of both of them is extraordinarily ingenious but doesn’t look quite serious — a shield made of a lump of crystal, a polished breast plate that reflects the skyline of the Heavenly Jerusalem (not Seville, as I used to think).

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But the really electrifying component is that red cloak more like a mountain range than a cloudscape, of folds magically lit with random bursts of light. And it is only the lining. Whenever the cape is at rest it shows as heavy gold brocade, a side of the garment now reduced to a twisted remnant like a broken pot. And finally there’s a drastic contradiction between the excitement of the cape and the angel’s trance-like languor.

The human-sized onlooker, like other similar Bermejo people, has barely looked up from his reading, or more likely he is somewhere else, not in the middle of the moment as we wrongly suppose. His composure is his distance.

He is a hangover from an earlier stage when donors could appear to witness the great highlights of Christian history because they weren’t taking place in ordinary time or recognisable landscapes. Bermejo’s most compelling pictures often occur in ritual space, a kind of no-place. One of the most powerful shows a local saint in ecclesiastical finery in a setting that is essentially a glorified niche, as if he were a statue decorating a Gothic building. The painting is finished off with a wooden canopy, a miniature taste of actual architecture which is permitted to cast real shadows onto the fantastic painted constructions below.

4 Saint Dominic of Silos enthroned as a Bishop.jpgHe is so shrouded in gilded paraphernalia that he ceases to seem much like a being of flesh and blood, if it weren’t for a few contrary traces. He is clean-shaven but there are signs that his beard is growing, silver stubble just beginning to show on his cheeks. And the six tiny statues (Virtues rather than the saints whom we expect) in little niches on ether side of his throne are fully coloured and demonstratively in motion. In the most extreme case, Temperance is pouring from a pitcher, and Bermejo has run together the dark colour of her cloak and a dark blot like a dragon’s tail on the saint’s cope, part of a pattern on the garment that is mostly hidden from us. So we are invited to imagine a spreading stain originating in an inadvertent spillage of Temperance’s remixed wine.

There is another sign of things getting out of hand at the highest point of the throne. The red jewel that crowns the saint’s mitre has started a fire at Charity’s feet which so far burns only her and hasn’t spread to the poor men sheltering under her.

The bishop’s throne becomes a niche, in this case a complicated diagonal and hierarchical form leading us in and at the same time creating a sense of the sacred as unapproachable, even as it shows the route to it, setting up a goal that’s straight in front of you, yet just beyond a boundary at which you must stop.

The image is neatly balanced between highly focal and impossibly complicated. The harder we look the less sure we are where the throne ends. Is the shrinking series of little figures, who are more lifelike (in the strange terms of the painting) than statues, just further extensions of this diagonal construction, impossibly rich emanations of the main body fighting hard against the idea that a painting is above all a flat surface?

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One of the most ingenious touches is the ornate shepherd’s crook that the saint has leant crookedly against the side wall of his throne, partly blotting out Hope holding another staff that is breaking into leaf. In some sense his staff dotted with gold leaf-forms has got the better of hers and introduced a taste of the randomness of life and of unpredictable movement into the fixity of art, all of it taking place in a hall of mirrors devised by one of the most complete anti-naturalists in the history of art. Yet Bermejo is called Hispano-Flemish in recognition of all the evidence that he had studied realists like van Eyck, a thread not just distracting but pulling us off in quite the wrong direction. He borrowed postures and whole compositions and put them to uses the Northerners would have thought perverse and retrograde, creating hypnotic images in which we might just as reasonably find the sprit of Tibetan mandalas.

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When Bermejo comes to depict the old subject of the Virgin of Mercy he inscribes it within a kind of pattern you might find embossed on a moth’s outspread wings: first the angels’ wings crisscrossing over the Virgin’s head and then the smaller Xs on their chests which wander off into the pile-up of cloth that seems to fill the spaces created by the swoops of the Virgin’s cape, swoops which form larger Xs with the down-tending diagonals of her arms. This mesmerising Rorschach-design with the Virgin’s mask-like face at its centre hovers over two diagonal wings of devotees, fused together by more of Bermejo’s trademark gold filigree, made of copes on the left and crowns on the right, the latter consisting of openwork which lets through the faces of the next row of devotees behind.

The most mysterious element of all is the Virgin’s undergarment, revealed by the angels’ lifting movement, an inner feature like the kernel of a shrine, another lining that steals the show from its covering. This undergarment is an amazing construction like antique patchwork, an assemblage of pieces of rich brocades in a variety of dusky tonalities, a ruin-collage of historical fabrics, like relics once owned and worn by various royal martyrs and spiritual heroes of past eras, a compost heap of much old virtue, and also wealth. It is one of the richest and most interesting passages in all of Bermejo, the Book of Kells and Arthur Rackham bundled up together. The patches often run diagonally against the orientation of the garment, creating the kind of multiple rhythm Bermejo favours, moving as so often against the grain of the natural world and the force of gravity.

Bermejo’s most powerful pictures are often not compositions at all, but patterns with a strong focus and ancillary detail radiating hieratically outward from that core or, if they are or initially appear as figure groups, they are shown at moments of utter immobility, emanating from a corpse whose attendants copy its stillness.

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Christ with two angels at the tomb seems an utterly simple, rock bottom sort of image, yet unaccountably mesmerising. There is a famous rendering of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Holbein which Dostoevsky couldn’t dislodge from his mind. It shows the prone corpse in a narrow horizontal frame, constricted like a coffin. Holbein has spared us no detail of the grimness of physical death. The mouth sags open showing clenched teeth. The body is covered with suppurating sores, the eyes stare upward, hands and feet are stiffened in the moment when movement ceased and blackened by blood drawn there by the mode of death. Dostoevsky uses the painting in The Idiot to shake the faith of a naturally devout character.

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In Bermejo’s painting Christ seems to have survived the crucifixion. No rigor mortis and just enough energy to point to the spear wound in his side. Critics even think he is squeezing the flesh to make the blood gush forth, but surely he is showing old blood, not producing more. Apparently there were active discussions going on when this was painted over whether bleeding in the three days between the Crucifixion and Resurrection was deserving of veneration or adoration (two distinct grades of devotion). Bermejo is thought to have come down on the side of veneration only, as shown by the inclusion of the gorgeous chalice (here his love of jeweled ecclesiastical metalwork breaks out unexpectedly) which is empty – that is to say, this blood isn’t suitable for the Sacrament.

The power of the painting comes in part from the diagonal composition which increases the surprising asymmetry of the two angels’ locations, their spacing and their roles – Christ leans on one and not the other. He has come part-way out of the tomb to tell us something, silently. He emerges fitfully from the gloom, a way of insisting on the incomplete state of our knowledge, an effect perhaps less powerful since the recent cleaning of this work, which has brought the flesh of the dead and the living into closer alignment. The angels’ flesh (ordinarily angels are not fleshly creatures) now looks so entirely that of bodies that will die, making the melancholy at-oneness of the three more complete.*

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Bermejo’s last surviving painting is known as the Desplà Pietà, after the learned humanist who commissioned it and appears on the right, just below another representation of the Heavenly Jerusalem. It includes another innovative treatment of Christ’s corpse, a severe challenge to any painter’s naturalism and his spirituality. Those who want to find progressive tendencies in this painter spend time on the rich but gloomy landscape, full of a great variety of species that would have exercised the humanist patron’s scientific curiosity.

Here Christ’s body has the uncanny air of a ruin, powerfully mottled, as if stained by age, not like a statue, but not like any flesh I ever saw, not like old cheese either, but that comparison catches something of the living-unliving quality of this body. The dark smudge of hair on Christ’s chest is crucial to the effect, like a discolouration rather than a natural event.

There’s a naïve oddity shared with Christ and Two Angels at the Tomb. On his right arm Christ’s blood runs markedly uphill. Formerly it dripped down; now it is fixed in an unnatural position. This seems to contradict the figure’s more than relaxed posture with all tension gone, just as rigor mortis begins to replace it.

We notice a few signs of the old Bermejo – in the green lining of the Virgin’s cloak whose crinkled furls are put in competition with exemplary plants in the landscape. The cape can stand up in leaf-like forms which Bermejo continues to find more absorbing than actual leaves. And one telling sign of the new Bermejo: how do you tell a living from a dead body? Desplà’s beard is still growing and producing stubble – here Bermejo verges near that fearless realist Holbein.

*The illustration above shows Christ with two angels at the tomb before cleaning

 

This post was suggested by a small but fascinating exhibition which brought six Bermejos (including the Desplà Pietà) from Spain to London after the big Spanish exhibition of 2018-19 was disbanded.  

 

 

 

Vuillard and uncertainty

 

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I didn’t intend to write about Vuillard again, but hadn’t anticipated how different the small (but much bigger) exhibition in Bath (appearing later in Edinburgh and Dublin) would be from the one last year in Birmingham. Birmingham was entirely caught up in the limited cast of characters of the household. Bath ranged outside and beyond the house, still keeping the view rigorously confined, Vuillard’s guiding feature being a voluntary confinement in which dislocations of vision can act with explosive force, freaks of perception which don’t necessarily lead to untethered or unfathomable emotions but into an emotional no-one’s land to which the right comparison might be Kafka.

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The exhibition began in the home, with an awkward family scene in the weird green light of evening. Three generations are gathered round the table, along with two looming bottles like extra guests.

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We recognise the mother, grandmother, and daughter from our last outing with Vuillard. We could mistake the lone orange-bearded male for the artist himself, but the label steers us toward his brother, an unknown quantity.   The sister dominates, in a grotesquely twisted pose which reveals depths already familiar to the others, less so to us. She is wearing a dress like one in a portrait nearby, in a pattern like a lot of lively worms. Maybe she will explode.

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Next to this dinner table is The Ear, one of the oddest little pictures Vuillard ever produced. It shows the head and shoulders of a young female bent over and concentrating on something on the floor. Is she tying her shoe or looking for something lost? We are already far ahead of ourselves, because she doesn’t really look like a person at all. Her ear we only recognise through the helping hand of the picture’s title: it looks more like a half-closed eye. Beneath it are two detached bits of brightly lit flesh which could be the tip of a nose and part of an upper lip. Otherwise, shadow, with traces of an eyebrow (doubtful) and cheek (obscured by strands of hair). Above the features, elements of a punk hairdo in black and orange stripes, plaited into a denser chequered pattern beyond. Over the invisible forehead dangles a big black spider of loose hair-strands.

Maybe this picture just goes to show how far Vuillard’s need to strangen the familiar features of the world could go. Here the supposed subject pretty well escapes, and solutions to the uncertainty leave plenty of uneasiness behind.

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Very soon after comes another conundrum-picture that has an easier resolution. Two men in top hats seen close-up from behind. The sheen on one of the hats completely bisects the black mass, making it into two separate hats. But the deeper weirdness of this picture occurs further to the left. Instead of a hat, a giant black hand with four black fingers extended upward. This turns out to be another hat (or hair-do) after all, though one like a finger puppet mounted on a woman’s head, whose fainter body appears beneath. Like the others, this picture comes close to a visual joke. How can such a tiny sliver of reality constitute a subject? Well, it seems to. You go on enjoying the odd leftover spaces between the hats, and the contrast between the ‘brims’, if you can count the most nearly horizontal ‘finger’ a brim. The overlapping of the three bodies makes a nice consistency against the wild variations overhead.

Except in a formal sense, to call these male-female divisions an antagonism would be going too far. More interesting confrontations tend to take place indoors. Of all the fresh Vuillards in Bath, one called The Manicure perplexed me most.

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The picture starts from another extreme lighting effect, with the source hidden between the two figures. It took me several tries to decipher the manicurist, whose face doesn’t really appear, though turned toward us.  Part of the explanation is that we are not on-axis with the couple, as we perhaps think, but skewed to their right. That is how the light can miss her face completely, leaving a dark mask more like a spinning top than a human head.

So the pleasure in this configuration comes from its inhuman weirdness. And then there’s the dark lump to the left of the central pair. In the end I see this lump as a balding father and his little girl, with a bright red ribbon in her hair. In the meantime I have thought her a pet monkey, or the two of them an African carving, or a piece of furniture with a cloth over it.

What is this love of occlusion, of hiding the subject in shadow, turning people into hulks or lumps, and blocking off the space between them? Wherever it springs from, it works. It invests humdrum activity with portent, in a space loaded throughout with inscrutable depths.

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Other Vuillards thrive on blankness, not density, for a sense of a lot going on beneath a sparse surface. At first I took one of the most uncanny to be an expanse of sand leading to the forest-edge, with a track skirting it. At some point it dawned on me that this sand was not a beach but a wall blocking us off from the forest. And the traces of erased figures in the sand must have been marks on the wall, not occupants of the flatland. The two contrasting realms remain, one featureless, the other impenetrable. We think of other artists who value walls for their lack of content, like the Welshman Thomas Jones and the Catalan Antoni Tàpies.

In the exhibition the still life below gave an exaggerated impression of horizontality and of emptiness toward both ends, which doesn’t survive when it is isolated. I still think it is an exercise in dispersion and weightlessness, in spite of its magical vacancy having partly evaporated when it is removed from the peculiar space of the exhibition.

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Publicity for the exhibition made a separate picture of the flowers in their  vase, a little composition which soon fell to pieces, set against the ‘flowers’ of the tablecloth — bigger, vaguer, more unstable. All the elements are spread wide, and won’t sit down or cohere. The satchel is the worst, levitating rashly in mid-air, deserting its rightful place.

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As in Birmingham, prints in Bath showed Vuillard dissolving reality’s there-ness even more radically than in paint. The cover of a set of lithographs has another strange confrontation between a hulking man (in pyjamas this time) and a younger woman. The girl by herself is a miracle of vagueness. In a couple of the prints in this series figures at tables merge magically into the setting and each other.

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One of the best discoveries of the exhibition was the reappearance of glue-based distemper, a medium first met in Vuillard’s work for the theatre and now, in its reappearance, freeing him back into the boldness of the 1890s with two paintings of 1910 and after, one of a Breton farmhouse above a garden like an embroidery, whose rich pattern dissolves into squiggles, separate segments, and finally into chaos.

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For Vuillard perception is always verging on disorientation. This flirtation with unreason is one of his deepest promptings, an escape down the rabbit hole of perception into a phantasmagoria of forms that have freed themselves from the restraints of sense.

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Looking closely at the work in distemper, you find such dissolutions as a children’s smock like icing on pastry, and its mother’s dress a snow flurry, in a familiar world become entirely strange.

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Refugee Artists: Jankel Adler

 

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Jankel Adler was a Polish Jew who had made a reputation as an artist in Germany and got included in an early exhibition of modernist art staged by the Nazis in 1933 with the aim of importing hatred into the cultural sphere. Adler moved to Paris pretty well at once, while his wife stayed behind with their child. At the beginning of the war Adler joined the Polish army, was evacuated to Britain and suffered a heart attack that got him invalided out.

This troubled history lies behind the recent exhibition of his British work from the 1940s at the Ben Uri Gallery in Boundary Road. At the start of his career, Jewish themes had loomed large. Later, references to his roots became more complicated.

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The most powerful painting included in this small but choice exhibition is called Beginning of the Revolt, a title that initially makes no sense. The first thing you notice is the strange abraded surface. The paint looks as if it has been cooked, causing it to pucker into small ridges which are then brought out by a wash of darker pigment that settles into the hollows. To begin with, you don’t know whether these are effects of nature or of art, a deliberate or accidental ruin, defacement that makes imagery already mysterious even harder to interpret.

The palette is almost monochrome but with all the variety that exists in the tones between black and white, enhanced by yellowing that may be simply patchy applications of varnish. Near the top, a single smear of rust, and a background of ochre, vagaries of tone which are intensely visceral and gripping.

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After plenty of explanation that I will come to in a minute, I still find the image unfathomable. Is it a huge kneeling figure with Minotaur head and large eyes or nipples in its chest, holding standards that end in a wolf’s head on the right, and—the only clear element in the whole heap of matter—a bird falling backward on the left? Is the group sailing from right to left in a small boat? The overall effect is also like a stumpy branching tree anchored in a patch of earth that doesn’t look stable.

The result is muscular, energetic, strong, yet we learn from the label that this painting is Adler’s response to the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto of 1943, which was brutally put down. It is linked with three Adlers of the same period now in the Tate, all powerful in different ways—The Mutilated (opening image), No Man’s Land and Two Orphans, the last of which Adler painted for his friend Josef Herman, who lost the entire family he’d left behind in the Warsaw Rising, suffered a breakdown on getting the news, and was nursed back to health and productivity by Adler. The orphans are Herman and Adler, and the painting hung over the Hermans’ mantelpiece.

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This terrible and inspiring story seems more inspiring than terrible because, among other things, both of them produced much of their best work during and just after the war.

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There are explicit references to suffering in Adler’s illustrations to Kafka for example, including one of the torture machine from In the Penal Colony, and more interesting and ambiguous, a group of enigmatic figures in the thick and scumbled paint that seems to signal tragedy for this painter.

 He also found symbols which let him treat oppression and threat in less melodramatic ways. Birds appear in many guises and mean many different things. Finding them concealed where you don’t expect is one of the pleasures of Adler. Another of the largest paintings in the exhibition at the Ben Uri is perhaps an optimistic obverse to Beginning of the Revolt and shows a woman releasing a dove from a cage, to go out and report on conditions outside as in Genesis? or to embark bravely on a life in exile?

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The other optimistic emblem that I see everywhere is a candle alight or a lamp raised up, again just as moving when you can’t be entirely sure it is there at all

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Some of his still-lives are among his most puzzling pictures. A particularly delightful one shows a table-top dotted with semi-recognisable, angular forms, while above them floats an object or two objects of more neutral hue. Is it the tablecloth which has managed to slip free of its oppressors? or birds or fish dancing above the prosaic equipment of the meal, or ghosts of events that happened here, or clouds in the sky? I favour grave-clothes of a corpse that has flown, which now do a Baroque pantomime à la Wallace Stevens.

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Adler’s friend, the avant garde writer Stefan Themerson, has the answer. In 1948 he published an eccentric pamphlet with 13 illustrations by Adler masquerading as a story for children and called Jankel Adler/ an artist seen from one of many possible angles. It tells the story of the boy Jankel Adler who in 1899 believed for a minute that one of his friends had been turned into a green lizard. Themerson takes off from this mythic event to mount a hilarious defence of human imagination, in which Shakespeare Lizard writes Hamlet in 1923 and Adler Lizard paints his pictures with objects no one’s ever seen before, that are nonetheless real and definitely exist, a wonderful argument for Adler’s way of dealing with painful realties in ambiguous symbols made from everyday materials.

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A Newly Discovered Bruegel

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A few years ago I stumbled across a reference to a new Bruegel which had been found in an obscure Spanish collection and, soon after its discovery, ended up in the Prado.

The first question was: could it be real? Could a very large painting by this painter go unnoticed for all those years?  Its subject was unheard-of and the composition inconceivably grotesque—it showed a tangled mountain of people glued together in an acrobatic mass. There were lots of them, of all different ages, trying to get their hands on wine squirting from a huge red barrel in a tiny stream, all the figures pushing forward a wide variety of containers, pitchers, bowls, hats, broken and intact, some just potsherds, the vessels a digest of the extreme human variety that jostled for space.

I was convinced almost at once of its authenticity and its large contribution to our knowledge of the artist. The painting is full of memorable poses, which fix themselves in the mind as weird but true snapshots of human types caught in extremis, stretched to the limit in pursuit of a clear goal near at hand. Typically, some of the best are seen from behind, a condition often treasured by Bruegel because it guarantees unselfconsciousness and thus a kind of authenticity. Maybe that is the main secret of the strange subject, that it combines people revealing themselves exuberantly while packed into unheard-of nearness, more like a nest of writhing snakes than any previously-known depiction of a human gathering.

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Bruegel has set himself an impossible, and, we might have thought before seeing how he would set about it, absurd, challenge—to build a multi-storey building consisting of human forms with no superstructure for them to cling to except the cradle on which the barrel is raised.

Bruegel uses a shifting perspective as he did in the Vienna Tower of Babel in order to show densely crowded figures viewed from above extending laterally and viewed head-on extending vertically. As in the Suicide of Saul it seems the most natural thing in the world for whole ranks of figures to be making the same gesture in series, reaching frantically upward to hold out their bowls toward the source of oblivion.

This is furthest from a still or quiet crowd–most of them are frantic–but there is also a complete spectrum of those turning away from the scramble because they are busy drinking, have already passed out or have noticed another goal, the knightly figure in the lower right corner, who is distributing something more valuable than cups of wine. St Martin on horseback has attracted a small crowd of cripples and the destitute anxious to get a piece of the voluminous cape he is slicing up with his sword.

In the distance are magical glimpses, caught as if through keyholes, of a rider at a gate and a scattering of tiny figures in the open space at the foot of the castle on the horizon. The most convincing and precious features of these sketched-in elements are the delicacy of the drawing and the transparent thinness of the paint.

One of the best discoveries of the magical enlargements on the Inside Bruegel website is seeing how often Bruegel puts the paint on so thinly it is like drawing itself and lets his underdrawing show through, invariably carried out with great confidence, without slips or mistakes.

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The Wine of St Martin’s Day is painted on linen with something like tempera instead of oil, a technique known from both the beginning and the end of his career in the Brussels Adoration and the Naples Blind Leading the Blind. It looks (and is) fragile and evanescent, the colour more transparent and fleeting than usual. Why he used this frail medium in his largest painting by far – 2½ times the size of the otherwise largest Procession to Calvary — seems impossible to know.

The subject is the least substantial:  an experience of passing intoxication, another instance of religion subverted by folk indulgence, human beings behaving with the carelessness of may-flies, aptly captured in the dodgiest, most ravishing form, a work that is at once the painter’s most daring and most throwaway.

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Lee Krasner at the Barbican

 

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Lee Krasner spent a lot of time and energy interpreting and promoting the work of her husband. In a real sense Jackson Pollock was worth it, but it was thrilling to see in the recent exhibition at the Barbican that Krasner was producing at the same time a rich variety of work not in the least cowed by or under the spell of the Dionysian Pollock.

It is work of great intellectual depth and force, of ceaseless searching and renewal, so demanding and various that one visit wasn’t enough to take it all in.

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The exhibition began with the so-called tiny paintings, small in themselves and full of further levels of tinyness, little knots of activity scattered over the canvas. Labels spelled out the theory of this organisation, that small things can become monumental depending on context and your own focus. So you grasped from the start that Krasner was a visionary who saw metamorphically, which set you up to expect transformations in which all is not what it seems.

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Soon after, we came to her student work, charcoal nudes called life studies, that started looking like Michelangelo and moved on to Picasso-like fractures, a radically disruptive idea of taking dictation from nature. At this point did any of us dream that the end of it all would be the beginning?

After the impinging nearness of the nudes came unlikely wartime collages meant for window displays and populated by bombs, bombers, scientific instruments and scientists’ laboratories, full of fractious life. This was the period in which she met Pollock, as she oversaw a group of mainly male artists in a bold, practical project.

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Soon after the war she is doing something even more imaginative with collage, slicing up compositions she is dissatisfied with and forming them into powerful explosions which still carry narrative force, bursts of light, tangles of undergrowth, tumult in the heavens. Unlike most of her contemporaries, she went on giving descriptive or allusive titles to her pictures, which told viewers to look for rich imagery in seeming abstraction. Not just ‘seeming’ perhaps, for Krasner shows that these canvases can be both pure construction and individualised narrative at once.

One of the best surprises was to move from one side to the other of the square donut of the upper storey at the Barbican, from the small, dense collages of 1954 to large, free Pollock-sized ones of the very next year.

Both sets, the small and the large, are among her best works, and those viewers who thought they saw suspiciously Pollock-like scribbles in one of the larger set called Bald Eagle were right. Here Krasner cannibalised her own rejected canvases and one of Pollock’s too, which plays the part of the bird.

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In these pictures it’s more evident that new work is made from the ruins of the old, that new energy springs from the destruction of what went before, through ripping, shredding or cutting without much respect for earlier effort.

So certain colours have special meanings, and red is a kind of bloodshed in Bird Talk for instance (opening image). In this room Milkweed provided a measure of this—its cool colours seemed out of place.

Krasner’s best years in paint were difficult years with Pollock. One of the most exciting and disturbing rooms contained four violent paintings on bodily themes from just before and just after Pollock’s death, which occurred when Krasner had escaped briefly to Paris. You could fill a much larger room with the anguished work of that year and the next, among the most wonderful things Krasner ever did.

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This is where my attention finally wore out, after these pictures in flesh tones and grey, which might be evenly divided between anger and grief, but there’s nothing balanced about them. They are barely controlled, which makes them so uncomfortably exciting. They keep calling themselves back to order, and the canvas gets more and more crowded with colliding forms. They are sometimes said to derive from Picasso’s Demoiselles, to which they seem worthy rivals.

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Perhaps Krasner had already been shifting to soberer palettes in works like Cauldron (not in exhibition), but when we moved to the lower floor at the Barbican we were in a surprising new monochrome-world which might at first seem a diminishment, but resulted in a pair of masterpieces on a grand scale, a calm cloudscape or vast Northern expanse called Polar Stampede, and the wildest depiction of movement, The Eye is the First Circle, which incorporates whirlwind vortexes and heroic striding figures, a range of diffuse and focused motion which accompanies you as you walk past it. Did Krasner have in mind Pollock’s largest canvas, the regular/irregular Mural, meant for Peggy Guggenheim’s New York flat, Krasner’s seething crowd played against Pollock’s orderly procession?

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The almost-grisaille effect of Krasner’s umber paintings lets the formal power of the composition come out more clearly, but there’s also a more prosaic explanation of the source of this unexpected swerve in her work. The larger canvases are possible because she has moved into Pollock’s much bigger studio at their Long Island house. And the absence of colour has its source in her insomnia—she takes to painting at night by artificial light, doesn’t like what happens to colour in these conditions and hits on brown as a tone unspoiled by them.

There are more new departures in the 1960s and 70s, ‘flower’ paintings like Through Blue of 1963, made with a broken right arm which left her manipulating paint with her fingers, leading to great density of surface, and a spate of cartoon-like canvases including Courtship and Mister Blue of 1966.

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The exhibition ended with a startling return. Rooting around in the studio, a British friend found a large cache of charcoal nudes from student days. Krasner meant to destroy them, but looking more closely, felt she was being directed to turn them into something new. Instead of tearing, this time she cut them up with scissors. Out of this destruction came remarkable and unnerving works, in part her revenge on a teacher she had both revered and resented. He had once torn up one of her drawings.

The results of the butchering are tantalysing and confusing, like a Baroque ceiling with figures tumbling out of the corners, like Michelangelo’s lounging or sprawling figures anchoring an indistinct turmoil of other figures, like a series of movements only beginning to clarify themselves, and suggesting as so often in Krasner’s canvases that much bodily business remains to unfold.

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Antoni Tàpies: writings on the wall

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How to explain never noticing Antoni Tàpies until now? Is it because of insoluble problems with the reproducibility of the work, whose material presence is essential and doesn’t come through in photographs? Tàpies goes on calling his works paintings long after this word ceases to fit. Instead of pictures of suffering, Tàpies presents the martyred body itself, a canvas defaced by gouging, tearing and brutal insertions, obscured by coverings that largely obliterate it or disguise its existence. He calls the surface he works on a battleground, and all the marks or adjustments he makes, wounds, but his paradoxical goal is tranquility. He quotes Heraclitus, ‘all arises from discord,’ and ‘harmony comes from its contrary.’

Besides the Pre-Socratics one of his main inspirations appears to be Zen Buddhism with its appetite for sweeping away complexity of content in order to contemplate the void, in the shape of a blank wall or an expanse of raked sand.

It isn’t immediately evident from the work that Tàpies is a learned artist, whose grandfather owned a well-known bookshop in Barcelona, destroyed by bombing in the Civil War, and whose father had a large library. Wandering in the war-ravaged city Tàpies had the sense of a heritage taken away, a feeling exacerbated by two years recovering from tuberculosis (from age 17 to 19), confined first in his bedroom at home and then in a sanatorium.

Later he attributes key features of his work to all that time passed within the same narrow walls, in a space furnished only with a bed and a wardrobe with large mirrors on its doors; features—wall, door, mirror—which dominate much of his work. He calls this period his forty days in the wilderness, a painful experience of deprivation ‘that may not have ended even now’. When you first meet the phrase, it is a shock to find him pointing to a Scriptural model in trying to describe his own progress as an artist. Is there really a religious painter hidden in the work of Antoni Tàpies and trying to get out?

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I first encountered this work in a little display called Writings on the Wall at Waddington Custot in Cork Street, which included six artists, half of them completely or nearly unknown to me (Tàpies one of these), only Brassai. Dubuffet and Twombly previously familiar. Brassai was represented by photographs of defaced walls in Parisian streets, defaced by punctures that someone chanced upon later and turned into the eyes of faces made with a few gouged lines, which were under- and over-written by other rough attempts at writing or drawing.

Brassai called these eyes ‘the eyes of the street’ and felt a demonic force in the rudimentary scratchings.  Dubuffet had photographed graffiti in similar places and drew graffiti-like pictures of his own, which became austere and illegible lithographs and etchings in black and white.

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Tàpies was present here in the largest work by far, called DUAT, consisting of a long horizontal expanse of sand like a beach, a surface of sufficient depth to write and draw in it with no finer instrument than a stick.  The main word duat (if it is a complete word) which I still don’t know the meaning or even the language of, is written in two different mediums—as dug out of sand, and as scrawled with an oversized pencil (the right half of A, and the whole of T). I can’t tell you how pleasing it was that someone had given up gouging and reverted to writing this word halfway through. It’s not the only sign of randomness in the work, just the most unapologetic.

I didn’t notice one of the main consistencies in Duat in the course of lots of looking (on more than one occasion). I’ve noticed only now that there are three ‘doors’ drawn in sand, evenly spaced across the top two-thirds of the canvas. All three are drawn in sand; only one is ‘open,’ having had the sand excavated from the rectangle and the missing door drawn in perspective (‘hanging open’) to the left of the empty opening.

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A frame is drawn in the sand around the middle door. There’s a mysterious build-up of sand like braided hair down one edge of the third door, evidence of raking or clearing the sand with some kind of scraper. These are not the most interesting details in the whole work, but sand is the most arresting of the various materials, and the one with the most life in it. The effect of the sand standing up on the wall, and not falling off, is like a magic trick that goes on delighting the spectator for a long time, like the drips and spirals of paint in a Pollock that you know came down onto the canvas from a height, but are now standing up and cancelling gravity.

Maybe the doors are windows, and the indoor shutters lying or falling at the bottom of the picture belong to them and have been exploded off, like a rock blocking a tomb, and the white (beach) towel is what’s left of the grave-clothes.

One of the first things someone coming to Tàpies notices is all the crosses. There are two of them here, in insignificant locations, one camouflaged as an X, and further obscured by forming only a part of the Roman numeral for eleven. Surely they aren’t that important in what this picture (without thinking I use this unsuitable word) means.

At this point maybe we should read what Tàpies has to say about the meaning of the cross in general and in his thinking—an emblem of suffering, a graph of the meeting and crossing of contrary forces, the world tree anchored in the centre of the earth, the linking of routes from the four quarters of the compass, the universal person formed of symmetrical binaries, and more. Turned a quarter-turn, the cross becomes an X, a sign used to delete something or multiply it.

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Even the letter T which appears often as an attenuated, parochial form of cross and one of the initials with which Tàpies signs his work can be etherialised in varnish like a spectre rising from a chest of drawers.

Tàpies feels a powerful urge to reduce symbols to the simplest graphs, but then to reload them with all the cultural baggage he seemed keen to escape or at least to strip of its parochial character.

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He was a passionate Catalan and reworked the Catalan flag (in Catalan Spirit, 1971), four red stripes on a gold ground, which at first seemed to me trivial and local, until I focused on how the red had become separate from the yellow and each stripe separate—different, individualised—from the others and written over and under with legible and illegible inscriptions that changed colour as the letters crossed the stripes. Tiny and indistinct replicas of the stripes skitter across the surface like the footprints of small animals or the sharp scratches of their fingers.

And the flag has been turned sideways from horizontal to vertical, or is it an earlier, archaic form taken from a coat of arms, itself a reminiscence of a moment after a battle when Louis the Pious dips four fingers in a Catalan count’s wound and writes them onto the dying man’s gold shield? So Tàpies’ rudimentary form materialises as a Wagnerian myth, and we’re back at art as magic, and now one of Tàpies’ favourite lines of Whitman flits through our heads ‘the priest leaves and the poet appears’.

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There are gruesomely literal Tàpies like Form of a Crucified Figure of 1959 or Material in the shape of an Armpit of 1968, and there are others just as poignant and in their own way as grisly, like Holes and Nails in White, also 1968, a dissected crucifixion which keeps the wounds and the nails apart, not the only time that Tàpies forces parts of the construction through from the back, a painful piercing of the flesh the whole way through. Here there’s another deformation of the surface, boiling up to become liquid after being solid, then congealing again and seeming bodily or visceral because of the imagery of pain.

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This is one of the most recessive instances of a recurrent Tàpies motif, elements of the composition fleeing the centre and ending up at the edge, even over the edge and out of our sight.

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Again the childishness of a magic trick which can make things disappear and persuade you they are gone for good, but these works are also fables of the transitory, in which the image is swept aside like marks in the sand by the tide, which doesn’t always bother to erase them completely.

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The most profound link in Writing on the Walls occurs between the walls of Brassai, pictures of hallucinatory vividness, of found objects located in particular Parisian streets at specific times of day, and Tàpies’ walls, which are not pictures of walls but objects which will hang on walls like paintings, yet are not paintings though he calls them that, but walls themselves, something more primary and immediate than canvas, a different order of reality, which incorporate earth in their substance and embody the Heraclitan magic of getting a spark of fire to erupt from a pile of rubbish composed of the humblest materials—sand, straw, string, rags, burnt and ruined things.  

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‘Writings on the Wall’ at Waddington Custot, 11 Cork Street, London W1 until 8 August 

Nicholas Hilliard magnified

 

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English writers of Nicholas Hilliard’s time considered him the equal of Michelangelo and Raphael, a preposterous claim, you may think.  The greatest Italian miniaturist, Giulio Clovio, had set a precedent, though, of linking the extremely large and the decidedly small by mimicking the range and layout of the Sistine ceiling in the Farnese Book of Hours, in a series of illuminations on Biblical subjects at a scale not far from Hilliard’s, whose portraits of Elizabeth and her courtiers are tiny by whatever standards of the miniature you apply.

One justification for the comparison is that both scales stretch unmercifully the ability of human senses to take them in. Every observer can see at once that Michelangelo has exceeded human scale and challenged mind and eye to comprehend all that confronts them. It is less obvious that we can’t appreciate the wealth of Hilliard’s images trusting to normal sight. There is plenty to see without magnification, but once you have seen what enlargement brings, ‘life size’ doesn’t seem enough.

So in the recent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery magnifying glasses were supplied, and wielding one you could switch between normal and enhanced vision. There’s also a further layer of difficulty—to save the delicate watercolours from damaging amounts of light they can’t be strongly or evenly lit, even for a special exhibition like this, so some parts are inevitably cast in shadow.  It is even worse in permanent displays, at the V & A for example, where I experienced an epiphany the other day caused primarily by poor lighting. Among the most lyrical passages in Hilliard’s wonderful Treatise is a description of how rubies become burning fires by candlelight–it seems he was prepared to have his work seen under trying or unusual conditions.

1 4 hilliard leicester silver vam diam 4.4cm 1571-74.jpgThus, in at least two ways we can’t experience Hilliard’s work fully when standing directly in front of it. This sounds a drawback and so it seems at first, but I’ve come to feel it as a kind of richness—Hilliard dawns on you in stages, slowly. In one of his earliest surviving works, a circular bust-length image of Leicester, the Queen’s favourite, a painting less than two inches across, the background seems an anonymous grey to the naked eye, but is known to have had special attention lavished on it, to be founded on a base of silver which has been selectively burnished to bring it out in patches, probably with an instrument like a weasel’s tooth mounted on a stick, as described in Hilliard’s treatise The Arte of Limning.

This detail emerges first under magnification looking like Islamic script, before being recognised as a dusky brocade pattern, an effect so subtle and recessive one marvels at the attention required to produce it. If you want to appreciate fully the concentrated craft of this artist you need to read his short and wonderfully quirky treatise, with all its detail about washing colours, behaving suitably with aristocratic sitters and understanding the mystical properties of the five main types of precious stone, which Hilliard seems to believe are the ultimate sources of colour in its purest form.

The treatise wasn’t printed until the early 20c, though it had already had a considerable influence in manuscript. Hilliard himself has come into much clearer focus as recently as 2019 with the publication of Elizabeth Goldring’s biography, which is particularly strong on the formative role of two long stays on the Continent, first as an 8-12 year-old and then two further years around the age of 30.  Among Goldring’s riskiest, most charming speculations is the idea that Hilliard was introduced to Holbein and Dürer, later his idols, as a nine year old in Germany. My skepticism grows weaker when I remember the impression a year in California made on me at age 5 and as I hear of my ten year old grandson’s response to a month in China.

2 11 hilliard self vam diam 41cm 1577.jpgHilliard’s self-portrait inscribed with a date of 1577 takes on a new meaning when placed in his French period when it was painted, where he saw artists accorded higher status, and was welcomed into learned circles around writers like Ronsard, newly identified as one of his sitters. Hilliard’s little self-portrait shows him as another gentleman, not a mere artisan, a claim picturesquely fleshed out in the treatise. The liveliness of expression in the features, especially the eyes, the hair and the set of the mouth, is extended by the flying bits of the clothes, as if rocked by a breeze, and the dematerialised edges of the ruff, which will become an even more outlandish feature of many later Hilliard portraits, where regular pattern and an opposing force are locked in endless struggle.

3 8 Henri III 50 x 37 1576-8.pngPerhaps the most astonishing fruit of Hilliard’s time in France is the recently discovered miniature of the young king Henri III which combines hieratic flatness with subtle traces of red around the eyes, of blue shadow in the temples, with odd life in hair, jewels and lace–lace a little universe in itself, melting away to nothing at the edges and tangling to thickets in its densest parts.

As in many later Hilliards, the jewels and especially the pearls have probably lost most over time. One of Hilliard’s cleverest devices was adding a silver highlight or underlay to give the sparkle or translucency of jewelry, sparkle which has dulled to dark grey as the metal pigment oxidised, an effect seen in several different forms on Henri’s chest.

 

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Eventually Hilliard became known best for his highly ritualised representations of the English queen. One of his earliest royal portraits is among the most informal. It shows her in motion, actually doing something, playing the lute with an expression of relaxed pleasure, after stepping down from the throne, now looming like a ghost of itself whose enigmatic crowned pomegranates split open at a slightly lower level than her central head, which seems to wear the throne as an accidental headdress like a piece of clothing she meant to take off.

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Hilliard’s own actual hand in large images of the queen generally associated with him is in doubt. These, like the Phoenix portrait in the National Portrait Gallery which you could compare to the miniatures during the exhibition, are undeniably powerful. They convert the living person into an intimidating piece of machinery, mostly stone and metal, with brief and isolated tracts of marbleised flesh peeking out from the jeweled defences. It is a kind of divinity, surpassing mortality by hardening and stiffening itself. Especially after more delicate and ethereal styles of transformation in the miniatures, this doesn’t seem very Hilliard-like, but by comparison crude and inflexible, and above all earthbound, entirely without lightness and freshness, a travesty of the brightness and liveliness recommended in the treatise when one is representing gold and silver in paint.

Hilliard didn’t do many full-length figures or miniatures which evoked a wider world. His one-time pupil Isaac Oliver was more interested in doing that, and probably better at it. Oliver’s portrait of Lord Herbert of Cherbury stretched out at full length like Shakespeare’s Jaques in the wood is the most appealing of several of these. Hilliard falls down badly trying to extend a sylvan scene into the distance, starting from a lounging nobleman. Hilliard is wonderful for rich flatness, not for miniaturised Italian renaissance scenes like Oliver’s. That is probably the source of Horace Walpole’s insensitive preference for Oliver over Hilliard.

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When Hilliard does melancholy in a woodland setting on his own terms the result is magic of a sort outside Oliver’s ken. It shows a spindly youth leaning cross-legged on a tree all in black and white. He’s been standing there so long and so quietly that wild roses have grown over him and he has become a figure of myth, decorated by entirely natural embroidery, most beautiful on his white stockings but almost as effective on his black cape, so nonchalantly draped, where thorns show more plainly but still un-fiercely, setting the idea of pain gently in motion. More reserved than other treatments of such subjects, it reaches further contemplative depths than they do, the narcosis of a person willing himself to become a plant. It stands out among all Hilliard’s subjects for transcending the social limitations of most portraits. Like other Hilliard subjects, this person remains unidentified (not for want to trying), for different reasons and with different result from all the others, a kind of nirvana.

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George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland, in jousting armour after a successful day of mock-war of a pseudo-historical kind, is an entirely different image of the transcendence of individual identity. He is eaten up in emblems which compare the queen and his role at court to the motion of heavenly spheres. Hilliard’s best contribution to this enlargement is the juxtaposition of two closely allied blues, that of the sky and that of the coat he has put on over his armour.

So he resembles the weather, but keeps his own distinctness. He is outdoors where he can see heavenly bodies and they can see him, but clings to his pasteboard shield with its powerful pictures of them. It is a convincing portrayal of the magic of heraldry, at bottom a kind of faith in imagery.

Most miniatures were meant to be worn around the neck or pinned to the clothes, as the secret concealed inside a locket or as an image hidden beneath a neckline or flaunted on a sleeve. There’s the famous story of Cecil’s portrait, which the queen borrowed, then pinned to her shoe and walked around displaying. Tiring of that, she moved it to her elbow.

8 18 hilliard unkn wo in room tiny 57 x 46 c1589 Q.jpgThe youth in the woods and the queen’s champion in jousting gear were too big to wear, but still intended for intimate settings, hence their name, cabinet miniatures. Occasionally Hilliard produced full-length figures of a wearable smallness, a whole new order of impossibility. This one of an unknown lady is less than two inches across and just over two inches high. It is impossible to show her life-size, when her most teasing intricacies disappear, like the 5-pointed star-jewel in her hair, which some have used to identify her as the woman in Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, or the subtly shaded folds in her skirt or the criss-cross details at the edges of the black over-skirt. I never noticed the red ostrich feathers on her sleeves (if they are feathers) until I enlarged her many times.

Now comes the pinnacle of Hilliard’s art, his way of concealing a whole world of variety in a feature of dress that is both monochromatic and repetitive, the lace ruff that reaches its apogee in female portraits where the ruff is engaged in a contest with the outer limit of the whole image, the edge of the blue background, the uniform tone which we take for granted, which Hilliard’s treatise together with the astonishingly detailed chapter on his technique in the exhibition catalogue alert us to the extreme difficulty of achieving. This feature must have meant far more to alert contemporaries than it ever can to us, who see it as an artificial, indoor kind of sky, magically intense perhaps, but intense like an allegory, not reality—until, that is, it runs against the diffuse outer reaches of one of these ruffs like a planet’s orbit. At the edge the ruff turns green like the sea or the sky as it ends.

9 15 hilliard pembroke npg diam 54cm 1585-90.jpgThe miniature above goes about as far as you can go in stretching the image to the frame, engorging the space completely, except where the hair takes over at the top, and on the right where the same ruff that lies flat against the background tilts upward, as if it has brushed against and been deflected by the wooden frame. This asymmetry, actually slight, is subtly disorienting, as if something within the image is moving, as the right-hand half of the picture becomes restive.

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There’s a heraldry of ruffs which I won‘t venture into, of crosses, circles, x’s and more complex patterns. Hilliard took tremendous pains over the extra layers he applied to the lace after it appeared complete, adding highlights and also perhaps smoky interiors. Recently these have been explored microscopically, leading to fuller accounts of how these complex structures were arrived at. I’m particularly taken with the honeysuckle that mixes itself with the roses in this one, and with the connection between the sitter Mary Sidney, the dedicatee of the Arcadia and its completer, perfecter and publisher after the death of her brother Philip, and Hilliard’s ideas about the possibilities of emblems as narrative and anti-narrational instruments.

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My other instance of a ruff as a geometrical riddle is an oval miniature in a circular frame, which plays with curved forms inscribed within one another and alternating schematically between dark and light, between black, near-black, white and near-white. When I saw this one at the V & A its top and bottom were in shadow, so the part below the ruff was pure black, as was all above the hair, making the whole a much purer version of simple forms enclosing and repeating one another. The image is bilaterally symmetrical but extremely eccentric divided horizontally. If you blur your vision you get three crescents enclosing the oval of the face, which has a disturbingly unstable location in the larger oval, again suggesting movement. Goldring finds the sitter’s gaze coquettish, and she or her publisher uses it above her own biographical details as if she meant to borrow its expression. This image in chaste black and white seems just as enigmatic as the famous young men seen against a whole universe of flames or reaching up to twine fingers with a hand sent down from heaven. The meaning of all three is safely locked inside.

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Coda on the Queen:

In an obvious way the summit of Hilliard’s efforts is his many representations of the queen, which triumph by leaving reality far behind and convert her into a field of jewels, often in a star-burst pattern (see opening image).  Her ruff sometimes verges toward immaterial froth or quintessence, shadowed here by a flimsy veil like an aura which floats beyond the reach of her clothes. Again you should try to imagine all the grey as glitter and the pins ending in crescent moons as pearls or diamonds jumping out of her hair like sparks of her vitality. This larger oval from Ham House was a highlight of the exhibition.

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The smaller one with a grey (originally silver) curtain behind from the V & A is purer and more concentrated, though another of Hilliard’s inventions, coloured resin mounded up to represent jewels, has worn less well. The aura created by the ribbed veil is outstanding, but Hilliard has stopped believing in the queen’s youth.

 

Hilliard’s Arte of Limning can be hard to get hold of.  In the London Library catalogue a complete online copy is hiding under this heading:  Introductory Note on Nicholas Hilliard’s ‘The Art of Limning’, Walpole Society, 1911