Vivian Maier is a street photographer who died completely unknown in 2009. She left behind an astonishing body of work. Estimates of how many images it contains are still vague. There may be as many as 150,000, most of them undeveloped when they came to light.
She was a hoarder, who spent much of her adult life working as a nanny and living in single rooms in other people’s houses, which she insisted should have secure locking arrangements and were found, on the rare occasions when anyone else gained entry, to be full of chest-high piles of newspapers, leaving paths between them for reaching bed, wardrobe, windows.
There is a riveting 84-minute film Finding Vivian Maier made by John Maloof, who stumbled across a few boxes of the pictures in a Chicago auction house when working on a local history topic about his neighbourhood and bid on a large box of negatives. He thought the photos might be useful for illustrating his research. They turned out not to be.
Maier was still alive at this point, as Maloof didn’t know. He put the pictures aside and forgot them. His interest was awakened again in 2010 and he began collecting further images and other remains, including audio-tapes of interviews with subjects of the pictures. Maloof’s wonderful short film is available at the moment on MUBI and tells the story as a kind of whodunnit, looking for all the people who knew Maier – her employers, her relatives in France, one of her friends (not a numerous class) and a sociologist who met her, I forget how. The film shrewdly delays telling the most startling and disturbing things about its subject till towards the end.
So this isn’t a subject where I have any deep familiarity. I’ve only been looking at the photographs for about two weeks. Of the hundred and fifty thousand, I have seen at most 200. I haven’t had time to understand this category ‘street photographer’, a fascinating one but new to me. So at last I have the type of subject I have been dreaming of, where I am truly in the dark. I think my method will be to put together a larger set of images than usual and let them speak for themselves, except for a few comments about why I find them interesting. Inevitably I am drawn to certain images and certain themes, and not others.
Pictures of people asleep are among my favourite Maiers. The display of magazines and newspapers makes a cosy room or a dragon’s cave, an over-communicative construction, turned inside out, and balanced between neatness and disorder.
Another homemade construction concealing a building site. It’s a subversive architectural moment, in which buildings are forced to reveal their backsides. The single overbearing car, oblivious strider and lamp post are a typically queasy, surreal group.
More sleepers, more obverse and reverse of a repeated motif. I love the grittiness of this and the perversity of the geometrical consistency imposed by the bench and the fence (and its shadow). A highly structured space, yet anything but. The subject does not end at the side-edges.
This priest-like ten-year-old is surrounded by fragments of architectural pretension. Is it waste ground or a graveyard? A metal stairway to where? The first of many impenetrable enigmas.
A father and two children walking away from us. A low wall dividing us from a ravine. A puddle creating a double Rorschach – a black snowflake in the centre of the picture that counteracts their forward motion, or rather multiplies the directions in which things move.
First self-portrait, first instance where we see the image being produced right this minute by her hand, in the painting which she has made of the portrait, as if the part she is responsible for can be isolated in the centre. The doll on the counter a weird touch, the light from the side another ghost.
A complex trick. It looks as of these figures are hanging from a ceiling which is below the floor in a no-space.
Another nap, or an accident? The house peering into the car window an uncanny touch.
Another nap, another far-away element lined up with the sleeper, an Oldsmobile across the street. All these sleepers – are they pictures of the unconscious?
Another self-portrait with an attendant looking at something else. The shops behind her are behind us, though in front. Mirrors are baffling, however long you’ve had to get used to them. Strange that the brushed metal makes their lower parts look as if we’re seeing them through a gauze curtain.
Looking down into another room below the floor. Something wonderful about the head-on view.
More mirror tricks, though I still want to think I’m seeing him through a glass door, his legs chopped off by it, but there on the other side. The label on the ‘door’, around which you see the sky, has less force if it’s stuck on a mirror. The two flaps on either side of the central scene are like wings on an altarpiece. The tiny corridor running on forever on the left is an insoluble mystery. The building with fire escapes on the rights fits perfectly until you look closely, then it doesn’t: light and shadow are in the wrong places.
Someone else building his private cave.
Emerging from the subway, a group of escaping captives.
One of the most incomprehensible, presumably made more confusing by how it is cropped. Is there glass any more in this large opening? The man’s foot seems to puncture it. If not, how explain the reflections of two cars in the tarp? Is the man, consisting entirely of shoes and sagging cuffs, just rolling up the tarp to begin selling the peaches from a stall, not a more permanent shop? The surrealest of all.
She sprawls on her front step and deploys the torn-out page like goddesses did scraps of cloth in their modesty.
A ferry docking, uncharacteristically atmospheric.
Self-portrait on a crooked slice of mirror which chops up the building behind.
A self-portrait which creates a circular or angular pavilion out of reflections and projections of walls and canopies.
A composite creature created by a fire hydrant.
Another car interior as a magically complex space in another stationary vehicle.
Another seller’s hut as a dense, complex space or cave. Colour used sparingly.
Again red/orange accents, searing here. A scene of mythical import.
How many people? They multiply.
It looks as if they are materialising a woman’s leg from a piece of mosquito net or spun sugar at a carnival – magic.
Depths of a sideways look, solitude in crowds, both near and far.
This one came after a series of colour pics and landed with unexpected solemnity.
Maier isn’t usually a minimalist—this one comes nearest.
What are they saying?
The most inscrutable of all.
Full of contrasts, a great composition.
Where’s Hoffa? The violence of it, perpetrated against paper.
Apparently the piles of newspapers in Maier’s room often featured lurid crimes, a passion of hers.
Sleeping news vendor whose shoe has mysteriously migrated.
An expression that holds you. The spare colour is gripping.
A found object.
As a way to convey movement. A realm of ghosts. Maier’s world is one of strange accidents which occur in the midst of life but stand apart from it. The outsider finds outsiderdom reflected back at her wherever she looks. She discovers loneliness in city streets, confirming in myriad ways what Baudelaire noticed all those years ago.
Ruskin was one of the most amazing people of his century. His prose broke over his contemporaries like a great unstoppable wave, thirty-nine volumes of it in the great collected edition published soon after his death. So his art got left behind and undervalued. He put it to practical use, illustrating his lectures and books rather than giving it a free-standing existence. Still, his watercolours and drawings remain the quickest, most immediately startling means of accessing Ruskin’s visionary perceptions of architecture, sculpture and the natural world. His interpretations of old texts are always original and usually astonishing and his perceptions of the natural world are overwhelming in their force. Little studies he calls ‘fast sketches’ of seaweed, shown broken off and lying flat, still convey the movement of the sea, a sense of turbulence and change in the twists and struggle of their fronds and the surprising complexity of their colour. The ‘fast sketch’ of withered oak leaves suggests a tragic development, of decay tending toward death but filled with energy, of youth consumed in a bonfire of bright colour, Baroque exuberance in the vagaries of how these leaves live their lives. We have arrived at death, but the work is still all about life and the richness of interior spaces, such depths, such distances and shadows, discovered in a final burst of activity.
Ruskin is wonderful in his waywardness above all, pulled in contradictory directions that he must find ways to bridge. There are two main poles in his thinking and interests. He begins a defence of Turner, the great landscape painter of his era and, led by the subjects of the pictures, finds himself waylaid by the structure of the Alps and the meaning of clouds.
His next big project, after Turner and mountains, is to decipher the relevance of a great Gothic survival, Venice, a city and civilisation which Ruskin will approach through its stones, not just its buildings in the common sense of the word, but its spiritual sources in properly revered materials – marbles, brick, limestone, tufa — the relevance of these basic facts of traditional life to the estranged conditions of life in the new industrial cities of his homeland. Looking at or being in Venice or Abbeville, Ruskin never forgot Sheffield or, at least, turned more and more to writing and drawing the history of Venice and its art to heal the wounds of the nineteenth century he lived in, though as soon as he was free to move himself, he left the city for the Lake District.
At times Ruskin liked to claim that Abbeville or Verona meant more to him than Venice, but the idea of a Stones of Verona to equal that of Venice didn’t get very far. Abbeville, which had an even more circumscribed place in Ruskin’s map of significance, turns up in a fascinating episode that brings together his great themes of nature and art and time passing. This is a sequence that starts from Ruskin’s photograph of the courtyard of a late Gothic house in the northern French town of Abbeville. Leaving aside much surrounding picturesque detail, Ruskin singles out the convergence of leaves of living ivy and leaves of carved wood which form the structure which supports the ivy. His earliest gouache of the subject reduces the leafage to a set of grotesque shapes of almost Japanese abstraction, arriving at an outcome like a paper cut-out, which dismembers the plant’s continuities in favour of a thrilling blizzard of scraps.
Ruskin’s next drawing thinks better of this and reintegrates the fragments until the leaves become chunky cabbages and the woodwork retains the only traces of the splitting apart. Ruskin assigned these studies to his Elements of Drawing, where they became early stages in a student’s development, who learned to draw by taking familiar objects apart and putting them back together, after discovering their essential principles.
The cluster of oak leaves keeps turning up in different guises, most notably in the last volume of Modern Painters where it appears in a more dignified form, now known as the Dryad’s Crown, an appliance in a ritual that looks like a piece of Art Nouveau metalwork, uncannily symmetrical yet unfathomably quirky in its forms, irregularity which comes from its origins in actual, not stylised leaves, which twist and turn in multiple movements hard to keep up with. The entire figure, shown still growing round its supporting twig, also resembles a skull, as if it were the plant’s bony residue, missing its flesh but recognisable in eye-sockets and nose-hollow focussed on the spectator.
The text of Modern Painters doesn’t mention the dryad at all; only the names of the engraved illustrations carry this particular burden of meaning. In further, more elaborated moments the dryad lays claim to the qualities or character of the branching plant. ‘The Dryad’s Waywardness’ is the name of one of Ruskin’s most original drawings of the growth of oak twigs, which shows them exploding or growing, with us as their target, careening to the left as they lurch forward like a sailing boat cutting the water dramatically, a figure Ruskin actually uses to describe the evolving space we are pushed to imagine, arising from the plant’s desire.
Though a wood sprite, the dryad seems a sedate figure, tying the natural world to the classical past, to poetry in forgotten languages. The drawings are anything but sedate, even ‘The Dryad’s Toil’ which Ruskin says is the most uninteresting view, lateral or sideways-on movement, from which the spectator has stepped aside and views analytically rather than being caught up in, as he was in the head-on view.
Ruskin based a whole theory of perception on the contrast between frontal and lateral views. Only by facing growing things head on can you understand growth and represent it truly. Does the principle, or a version of it, apply to objects not capable of movement which we can actually perceive, like mountains or buildings?
As it happens Ruskin is often focussed on views of his subjects that suggest or intimate change. One of his favourite forms is that of a crevice or cleft which can be a gentle hollow like the land-form of a mossy cushion grown over by the soft hair of wild strawberry, toad flax and primroses, or whatever these more fleshy leaves are. This famous drawing is set apart by how lopsidedly it fills the space, leaving most of it bare. This was drawn on paper bluer than it is now, stronger colouring which would have spoiled its purity, of a virginal feminine sort, which makes it easier to imagine as part of a large, soft human body.
Mountain forms provide more powerful versions of the cleft or crevasse which also attracted Ruskin strongly. Two of his strangest, most magnetic drawings depict a rocky ravine at Maglans in the French Alps seen from above, which makes the opening in the earth look like surgery, a violence practised on or erupting from turbulent depths. Here not a single bit of the terrain is quiet and every inch heaves with forceful detail like scarring or splitting, writhing or shaking. I can’t help speculating about how Ruskin found the vantage from which to see this sight, not a concern when looking at Blake or John Martin, but Ruskin makes you expect that he must actually be looking, not idly making things up. And here again appears one of the signs of a fully equipped landscape, the little tufts of growth, in this case whole trees or copses, not the delicate tendrils crossing the mossy cushions. In ‘Moss and Wild Strawberries’ we felt ourselves voyeurs, here we are adventurers, looking into depths precariously, then plumbing them and feeling effective.
Ruskin finds such dynamic ensnarled forms in unlikely places, in the carved arches over the doorways of San Marco, where by feats of eyesight he singles out whirlpools in stone which represent plants catching up birds in their movement and forming them into bosses or beautiful filigreed bumps, which Ruskin also finds at larger scale scattered on the ground, again wound up, sweeping different substances into unified movement which scatters itself profusely and unevenly. What system can we see in it? Impaction? Construction? A kind of anti-construction? Richness, but why so satisfying? Lessons of geology made palatable?
Is it a lesson? It doesn’t feel like it, but perhaps it does get you thinking who is doing what to whom, trees resisting movements of stone, an invasion of stone. Ruskin remained an inveterate animator of dumb creation, as earlier, when voicing the thoughts of developing oak twigs, their concessions, their escapes.
This scene is animated by the contending wills of rocks and trees, rocks brought here by a force, moving water in the form of ice, which has now disappeared but survives in the light blue-green wash that sweeps over the ground left free by the contending forces on a scale we could almost call domestic, like the sub-Homeric battle of the frogs and mice.
Ruskin’s knack for grandiose names in many of his titles was matched by a corresponding openness to ludicrously humble ways of conceptualising his subject, on the one hand the Dryad of the oak sprig, and on the other, streaky bacon as the familiar deity of one of the most venerable Venetian palaces. Tantalising references in his notebooks and diaries point us to a mysterious Bacon Palace named, we discover, for its beautiful panels of rosso di Egitto alabaster. This façade is known from a murky daguerreotype like something dug up from the sea, and a Ruskin drawing based on it, in colours made more complex by fading. In reality the alabaster has faded entirely – it was removed in Ruskin’s lifetime. The bacon of the bacon palace was already only a memory for Ruskin, another sign that Venice was becoming a ruin and a shadow right before his eyes. Important and unimportant memories were hard to hang on to, a conviction just as visible in Ruskin’s renderings of rocks as in his records of buildings.
He was fascinated by glacial erratics that had been stuck for who knew how many hundreds of years but could still be rendered to suggest that they might again be washed away by forces we detect undermining them.
Even cliff-faces, the most imperturbable of natural surfaces, suggested fracture more strongly the longer we looked. I’ve read somewhere that gneiss (the oldest rock? another un-tethered memory) was Ruskin’s favourite kind of stone. Because it seems the most unchanging? or the most complex in variety of form and surface? This great face is the blankest and most expressionless of all, or pure and infinitely changeable expression, loaded with emotions, but not human ones, so that we can crack our heads against it forever wondering what it is saying. It is a face, with forehead, eyes, broken nose, laughing or yawning mouth, and beard, yet this is a travesty which one wants to un-see, what happens when one stares too long at a featureless subject.
This drawing is often reproduced in black and white, which levels it still further toward sameness. There are many touches of bluish Chinese white, and there is also the pale brown or cream of the paper.
Another big lump of Scottish stone of a few years later displays more surface variety but suggests an inexhaustible world in a grain of sand less successfully. Not that the close-up view in the Pass of Killiekrankie is trying for that effect, but the earlier Glenfinlas monochrome is more overwhelming, which must arise from its simplicity and unitary concentration, a preposterous claim for a subject which breaks into incalculably Many instead of the One you saw or thought you saw at the beginning.
There is an important class of Ruskin’s drawings that I would prefer to leave out, intense studies of single natural objects wrenched from their seating in a surrounding world. The Glenfinlas drawing fills every inch aggressively, every microscopic pore of the paper surface, almost crowding any element which isn’t rock, including the crucial contrasting element of water, out of the picture.
The drawings of single specimens which I am thinking of sit in the middle of emptiness which is a true blank and not a real space at all. The velvet crab on a vaguely velvety cloth is not an exception to this rule. Even this creature’s name is a compliment to its refinement, a quality we appreciate, of which it is unaware. All its mysterious colours and textures can’t overcome the subject’s lack of engagement with its surroundings. The limpness of its minor legs gives away that it is not alive and makes it hard to imagine the movements of life.
You might assume that the famous drawing of a single feather from a peacock’s breast would produce the same effect. What sense does an isolated feather make? And this marvel of complexity is too reduced to be visible to our sense, a problem exaggerated by reproduction, like a further shrinking of the subject. In a letter Ruskin gives a minute account of making the drawing, plugging on as long as he can without re-dipping his brush. To get the fullest sense of the drawings nothing equals the richness that comes from catching Ruskin at work on particular drawings in his diaries or letters home to his parents, a thrilling integration of the drawing and its own circumstances, so that it too has its place in a human narrative and becomes a character. Ruskin’s gift for dramatising his subjects is applied also to the works which embody his animating gift, an almost unimaginable doubling of our involvement, extending from the subject to the process of its capture.
The feather drawings are in one sense too stark for deep enjoyment. The drawing of single rays of the breast feather leaves us unsatisfied, more a concept than a sensation. We want instead the whole feather enlarged to this scale, which is more a comment on our voraciousness than on Ruskin’s failure to pursue his perceptions far enough.
When he turns to buildings we recognise the same perceiver who senses the developing processes of life and change in whatever he is looking at. Like plants and mountains, buildings are growing and decaying, moving slowly or quickly towards their death, sharing the joys and hazards of mortality with everything around them.
The wonderful view of St Wolfram Abbeville in its setting comes close to those views of rocky landscapes in how it chops off the view, which it approaches from behind and sideways. Though he fills the sheet entirely, he gives us the subject unevenly, leaving out its most prominent features, its towers, which we can catch up with in other Ruskin drawings.
Even the parts which are included receive unequal attention. The main focus is the triangular stretch of transept wall with its motley assemblage of rich tracery, partly broken, or never finished, or worst of all completely punched out. In fact, like many of the buildings Ruskin cared about most, this building is already a ruin though still in use. The whole scene has suffered since in ways he couldn’t anticipate, though they might not surprise him. The low domestic buildings to the right, which give us the scale of the church, disappeared in the brutal bombing of Abbeville in 1940. The river, like those streams which rush past Ruskin’s cliffs, no longer passes the church, reminding it of subtle forces and the dissolution of solid things. It has disappeared in post-war re-building.
Ruskin writing in 1850 called Venice a ruin and a shadow. This drawing is another witness to melodramatic warnings coming grimly to pass. And yet . . . it is also one of the most wonderful renderings of inconsistency as the ruling genius of architecture just as surely as it is of the natural world, in the ups and downs of that slice of tall traceried wall, in the variations of the boundary wall, in the precipitous shrinking of the whole view into the right-hand side of the picture, and of the life that Ruskin goes on finding in lop-sidedness.
His most finished works still manage to incorporate these pleasures, and there are also the many close-ups of architectural details which parallel the botanical or zoological specimens, and a fascinating in-between class, of architectural details presented in context and separated from context at once, like the portrait of two late-Gothic niches (or, strictly speaking, just their tops with gable forms and balustrades above them) from a building in Caen in Normandy. This drawing is a work by the same man who writes a guidebook to Florence, the cradle of the Renaissance, that treats only Gothic sculpture on the base of the cathedral tower and two sets of medieval frescoes in Gothic churches at opposite ends of the city, that is to say of a man who delights in overturning conventional ideas of what is important and redrawing the map in a violently skewed form.
So we have the drawing of parts of two traceried niches, the sheet chopped off long before we reach the ground, leaving big and inconsistent blanks even in the part of the building there is room for. But the intensity of attention to the parts that remain, there has never been anything else like it. And to fill in the gaps between the flashes of high focus would spoil the rhapsody of having seen just these patches of richness. The mind and eye can only focus this intently on a small stretch at any moment. And then, the rhythm of the drawing wants to tell us, it moves on, and lights again, like a nervous bird, at another spot not too far off and applies its attention again. The inconsistency of the drawing is a picture of the mind and eye’s progress across a surface, miles away from a strictly methodical progress. The drawing enacts this in more than one way, in sudden darkenings and shadows suggesting depths or sub-moments of concentrating more deeply. The message is, thrillingly and repeatedly, unevenness, variance continually, so at-odds with the supposed stability of architecture. Yet in looking at other people’s books about Venice, one often gets the sense from how they defer to Ruskin for detailed reports on minor Venetian palaces, that no one since Ruskin has examined these buildings as thoroughly as he did. Always inconsistently – the buildings he concentrated on are in the oddest corners and scattered all over the territory, a peppering of examples that seems to obey no pattern or rule.
Among all the minute details of Venetian buildings, I came across a drawing in coloured chalk purporting to be Ruskin’s but looking like an ideal illustration of a castle in a children’s story, a very un-Ruskinian kind of fantasy-building. The chalk has got smudged since, an effect not intended but suitable, vanishing before our eyes like a dream-building not in its upper reaches but towards the bottom.
The first drawing of Ruskin’s I ever saw, in the monochrome illustrations to Seven Lamps, showed San Michele in Lucca, covered in stories which charmed me by their wildness, various animals at odd angles mixed up with over-sized plants, like a child’s idea of all creation, much more random ungainly and full of life than anything Gothic, enhanced and clarified by its flatness so that it wasn’t sculpture, though made of stone, but picture, and true to his truthfulness, represented by Ruskin in all its wild strength and impulsiveness. Just last week I came across Ruskin’s description of these stories in a letter home to his father, a description full of life like these bold mosaics which read very easily from the ground in spite of the damage which drives Ruskin incandescent with rage when he finds pieces of green serpentine infill from around the pale figures lying disregarded on the ground beneath, so that he calls his drawing ‘part of the destroyed church of San Michele’.
In the drawing the glare of the sun is powerfully rendered, and maybe the way Ruskin’s drawing trails off to the right even renders further levels of glare at different times of day in the same drawing. The building’s mass is surprisingly caught at the outer edge, but even the way it breaks off marks it as a precious fragment, whose hallmark, the building’s not just the drawing’s, is inconsistency too, in types of pillar, of scenes and even of colours of the infill. Though maybe the orange is where the green has fallen out, rather than another colour of stone.
Other drawings of this same façade do it less savagely and more meticulously, showing the figured bulges under each arcade, left out in the folkish version and given a lovely glitter with white highlights that make it a different kind of building, drawn in a different mood by a different artist whose extremely variable moods are one of the strongest features of these letters. Someday someone will meticulously key these letters to these drawings, or they already have. Hundreds or thousands of pages of Ruskin’s diaries over a fifty-year period remain to be deciphered and published online, like the wonderful set of his Venice notebooks where one can switch back and forth at will between his handwriting and a transcription. But that too is only another example of a human record too rich and complete for our powers to keep up with it.
In his enthusiasm for the crude energies of the Romanesque and the naiveté of its stories Ruskin was ahead of his time. Likewise in his enthusiasm for the innocent narratives of Carpaccio, which snared him in ways we would like to head off before they really get hold of him. St George and Ursula peopled his imagination too successfully. His childishness and his seriousness, his love of saints and monsters and his susceptibility to reading himself into their stories is beautiful shading into treacherous from the beginning.
There are photographs probably commissioned by Ruskin of the Pisano pulpits, especially of the caryatid lions eviscerating their prey, a subject which appalled and fascinated him, that could be Ruskin drawings, and make one think art aged differently in those days.
In his views of Romanesque buildings Ruskin often leaves architecture behind for narrative, as in the drawing of the Gryphon caryatid at the Duomo, Verona, a ruined fragment of a mountain, whose rents are as powerful as its continuities, whose textures are a commentary on savagery as part of life, whose hybrid obscenities are the more shocking for the damage they have suffered with the years. The mouth composed of beak and jaw, the eye erased, feathers in several distinct guises joined uncomfortably, signs of much smaller prey inescapable, and finally stains of colour like a bath of blood with a result perhaps more demonic than intended.
Ruskin’s interest in mountains is an interest in structures grander than architecture, but continuous with it. Mountains are the largest structures on the earth. Ruskin saw architecture as obeying some of the same laws, and finally decaying in similar ways. His ideas about ruin in architecture, and in cities and societies, derived from his experience of the natural world. You don’t repair mountains, and Ruskin believed you shouldn’t replace original materials in old buildings with new ones, but let them fall down. He hated restoration, which set itself in opposition to the laws of the universe. Old builders knew better than present ones. Ruskin inspired William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement with ideas of repair unobtrusive and very lovely when done well. Carlo Scapa and Alvar Aalto are among the inheritors of this line of thought.
In some of his most interesting close up views of mountains, which aren’t always the most satisfying aesthetically, we see Ruskin searching for the underlying form of the mountain. More than once the search yields an answer that looks as if it is taken from an extreme weather event, a whirlpool or a hurricane, an image of circular movement centripetal or centrifugal, one can’t always say which, because against all likelihood there is a suggestion that the mountain is flying apart.
One of the most interesting comes with a vague title and a teasing resemblance to more familiar mountain complexes, a close-up only in the sense that it feels crammed with detail, though clearly representing a patch of peaks stretching miles across. It seems to push at the edges of the sheet and to show barely contained movement, hammered into shape until the main curve is made to return on itself without losing its powerful tension.
I started out thinking that the next, more distant view is what the more uneasy one would be if it could, as if the second one’s grander, calmer bowl were the kind of crown or ideal that all mountains are unconsciously striving for, or that we are wishing they would. It is a wonderfully complex as well as tranquil form, perhaps holding together a little unnaturally the geometrical perfection of the low snow-covered curve and the miniature ruggedness of the peaks like teeth at the top. Ruskin discovers here a satisfying symbolic form among mountains, of all places, but only the ghost of a mountain, or a mountain floating away, a mountain ending its life as a metaphor.
This piece began as an online talk for Leila Davis’s students at Anglia Ruskin University
I am looking for a way to describe the last two months of activity which have sometimes felt like being lost in a maze, or like falling down a hole into another world to which there is no end, and no obvious structure, that has you wandering in a wilderness of moss, a wide expanse of the tiny, where an obsession with detail makes you lose sight of the larger themes from which you originally set off. The series of objects, in this case Indian temples, keeps unfurling and leading you on, unsure whether it’s a boon or a curse that the series has no end or obvious shape.
The model lurking here seems to be that of finding forms concealed in the ground itself, discovering buildings in the living rock like the figures Michelangelo senses waiting to get out of the stone block, buildings which combine the qualities of sculpture and architecture, which you release from captivity rather than invent or devise according to the rules of a human craft.
Bruegel’s Tower of Babel is not generally considered a mythological painting, but it taps into primitive ideas about the connectedness of different life forms, in particular of human societies and mountains, combining god-like scale and a multitude of petty human devices like cranes and hoists. It depicts a faltering technology and a huge and concentrated effort that will set human civilisation back a stage or two via burgeoning misunderstandings. But the fact remains that someone has imagined a symbiosis, though in ruined form, between geology and building, the one growing into and out of the other, like a weird actualisation in the 16th century of the creation myth in which the largest distinct natural form, a mountain, gives birth to the full later complexity of species and cultures, like a comprehensive explanation of what we are all doing here.
Tremors in consciousness provoked by that much later composition together with the Cambodian creation stories can help us understand what Indian architects might have been driving at in searching out solid masses of rock near the surface, signalled sometimes by the caves already tunnelled through them by slippage or erosion, in which with minimal removal they could discover buildings.
It was never a high proportion of Indian religious buildings which were made or half-found In this way, but they had an imaginative force out of all proportion to their numbers. Whenever you come across them, they take you back to the mythical origins of architecture, spaces found not made, and then brought up to the surface and into the light. That is the direction we imagine such spaces heading in, but for us the excavated temples usually speak strongly of a darkness we have mostly left behind, which it seems part of the task of the temple, whether rock-cut or not, to drag us part-way back into.
The first time in India our only rock-cut temple was only partly discovered in the hill. Most of it was added onto the cave-bit, so the whole effect was like the tower of Babel, built bits merged with more primitive elements to make a patchwork whole, all of which resembled bricolage, a hybrid tumbled together like a rock fall, not entirely stable.
The temple lay at the foot of the hill as if partly hidden by scree which had slid downward as the hill eroded. The entry porch and the mound rising behind it didn’t look as if they were all in the right order, but scrambled, as in a half-collapsed structure.
Crawling round the interior was a powerful experience. I’m not sure you could follow the ambulatory passage the whole way round. At a certain point your way was entirely cut off after you had crouched or crept through the lowest bits. Certainly you were bothered by the bees. They had set up their hive in the furthest reaches and came and went continually, their buzzing amplified by the vault.
The plan in the Encyclopaedia of Indian Temple Architecture gives such a bland idea of this dangerously impeded interior and doesn’t attempt to show architecture turning abruptly into crags along the temple’s right flank or at its west end.
But the whole force and value of the Maladevi temple at Gyaraspur, which makes it a great beacon among all the buildings I have seen, is this uneasy truce between the violence of geology and the ingenuities of architecture.
If I had it to do all over again, I would go on to Gwalior (as we did) and make a stop at the little Caturbhuja shrine in the Fort (as we didn’t) to gauge how the raw power of rock makes itself felt in a rock-cut building the size of a plaything.
Next I would stop at Dhamnar (a substitute for the grandest of all rock-cut temples at Ellora), an instance of the fascinating type that finds an entire world below ground level, ground level which still exists on every side at Dhamnar, where eight temple buildings form a tight cluster, a main shrine and seven complete children of the parent, which each possesses all the parts of a temple on a reduced scale. Or I would have done this in 2001, but I am not sure I would now, because this complex has apparently been renovated by drastic cleaning and the addition of a protective coating that contains a lot of brick dust, which gives it an orange colour, most un-stone-like, like the healthy glow favoured by failing Presidents.
Even in the old days the buildings at Dhamnar were rough and raw in a wholly different way from Gyraspur. Sculptural detail had the smudged look of attempts in very hard stones like granite, but here it was the stone’s softness that had made it easy for time to erase all sharpness, until you felt the day looming near when it would all disappear. Hence the well-meaning renovator, who didn’t want to hear that he had replaced a beautiful ruin with a lifeless model born yesterday. Did he know how the building was made? Turning it to brick was such a cruel travesty.
My next stop (on my would-be journey) is safe from such destructive interference because it was left so incomplete that the effect is like camouflage. In this group of magical buildings it is perhaps the most magical of all.
It is like a sketch for a large temple complex more begun than completed, blocked-in lightly across the whole site, so it is all there and full size, but barely detectable. Perhaps uniquely in the whole history of architecture, this temple group at Masrur in the Himalayan foothills preserves the natural inspiration of the building and even the full value of its magical materials before they are spoiled by being squared up and smoothed, yet conveys the entire architectural concept in a shapely and complete form as well.
It is both a building and a vivid landscape, a mountain range bristling with crags and a symmetrical city of towers, an ideal vision like a Chinese landscape representing heaven, and a whole world of natural rock always entirely itself and (almost) nothing else, the most natural as well as the most perfect temple.
Some readers may think they’ve already seen something like this in their local zoo, artificial crags constructed for mountain goats to climb on in captivity. But the distance between constructed and actual crags is unbridgeable. Not that hybrids can’t contribute something to the discussion, like the miniature rock-cut pavilions at Mamallipuram lined up in a row as the outcroppings seem to have allowed, with the quaintest indication that these were carved from the top down and (in at least two of them) left deliberately incomplete so you couldn’t miss the point. Bhima ratha and Valayankuttai ratha turn back into wild rock for a last few moments before they reach the ground, which makes them at one and the same time, levitating architecture and a natural growth rooted in the earth, a botanical/geological marvel giving birth to a strange child, the phantasm of civilisation.
Instead of purely human constructions these are Eternal Forms like those which emerge on the walls of caves as a teeming population, buildings something like creatures with their own internal principles of life.
In a sense it’s wonderful there is no end to the territory and no single logic according to which it is laid out. At the other end of the field of possibilities from temples camouflaged as mountains are seemingly overplanned complexes leaving nothing to chance, which look in plan more like wiring diagrams than rich plastic compositions binding together their widely dispersed elements. Among examples of this type, both monotonous and scattered when seen first in plan, the so-called Harihara temple 1 at Osian in Rajastan stands out, ‘so-called’ because the interesting dedication to Harihara the bifurcated deity, who suits the site which can’t consolidate or make up its mind, this name has been retracted for something blander.
The bases of Indian temples are one of their most distinctive features, elements more central to the building’s way of being than any equivalent in Western buildings, elements which often attract careful diagrams in the Encyclopaedia. Bases come with many stages and bristle with Sanskrit terms in the Encyclopaedia entries.
The platform-bases of both Harihara 1 & 2 pile up seven distinct stages, like multi-storey structures in miniature. all of which is distinguishing the building from its setting in the world and asserting its essential complexity. The platform-base at Harihara 1, which is like an elephantine enlargement of the bases of its component shrines, has the unity and coherence of a whole symmetrical cosmos made of clearly marked layers and dotted with architectural miniatures, niches which contain their own versions of walls, roofs, thresholds, openings and inhabitants. The resident spirits of the Harihara temples are the figure sculptures which appear three to a side on the walls of the platform, and then at least five to a side on walls of each of the five shrines planted in the peculiar symmetrical system on the roof of the platform.
The Encyclopaedia includes neat little charts of the sculptures placed on the four cardinal aspects of the building, charts which take for granted that these layouts carry crucial meanings. So I found myself becoming obsessed with pinning down who was looking out from where, as I reconstructed a visitor’s journey around this multitudinous complex.
To begin with, this exercise required being sure of the compass points. Hindu temples normally face east, contrary to the usual orientation of Christian churches. Anyone who deals with the plans of western religious buildings gets used to finding the east end at the top and the west entrance at the bottom, north to the left, south to the right. With Hindu buildings these norms are reversed. Except that a few important Eastern buildings, Angkor Wat, for instance, Kailasa at Ellora, and Harihara 1 and 2 at Osian, face west.
This anomaly has caused confusion in the Indian Encyclopaedia, where the charts of sculptures on the Harihara shrines show the sequences of deities on all four sides of the platform and the five shrines reversed from their actual order.
I started out not knowing what some of these deities should look like and only began to notice that they weren’t in the right places when the elephant’s trunk appeared on Kubera not Ganesa, and the boar’s snout on Buddha not Varaha. At this stage it felt exactly like solving a puzzle, and no one would believe the satisfaction I got from putting Buddha in the right place. But Buddha on a Hindu temple? Was it tolerance or co-opting?
How pleasing to learn that the very same order is repeated on Harihara 2, not the attitudes and emotional tonalities or relations between other creatures in the scenes, but the basic sequence of deities was the same, so the content must be at some level deeply valid, and therefore it was probably a structure worth pondering. It took a long time to dawn on me that Harihara 2 also has the same floor plan as Harihara 1, but with a large intruder plunked down in the middle of it, an overscaled colonnade made of diverse column-forms which allows the roofing-in of the open space between the shrines. I felt let down by Michael Meister, my favourite among the different Encyclopaedia authors, above all for his responsiveness to natural settings and his appreciation of all kinds of architectural novelty. Why didn’t he announce the startling alteration in Harihara 2 more emphatically?
Why didn’t he make plain how radical it was to stick this heavy awning on an essentially outdoor space? And why weren’t there any photos showing how the new elements collided with or related to the existing shrines, which they treated as buildings within a much larger building, where they were now lost or marooned or holding court in a sort of surreal parody? Which was it? Were contradictions exaggerated or suppressed, enjoyed or disguised out of existence? One of the really explosive moments in Hindu architecture had been slipped past us unawares, a missed opportunity which made me wonder if my hero hadn’t been paying attention. But there was proof that he admired these buildings tremendously, so he had certainly noticed.
One of the pleasures of Harihara 1 is the assembly of five (four surviving) exquisite separate works into a new whole. Harihara 2 gives up those pleasures to make a more imposing singularity, or is it a more ungainly diversity? You would need to go there to decide which. In any case architect no. 2 wasn’t content to repeat. I still miss the photos capturing the bold new spatial effects where the canopy meets the shrines.
Your analogy or model for the process, that it is like solving or putting together a jigsaw puzzle of separate pieces, is faulty and much too confined for what is taking place, because a jigsaw has one answer and follows a narrowing process to a goal that is almost meaninglessly clear and definite. This other process is a loosening and tightening as you go, sometimes a limited task like identifying all the figures which swarm on the outsides of buildings, then finding that the sculptures on two related buildings follow the same sequence and can help solve each other, because different ones are recognisable in each, and others are obscure, and some are missing entirely, or not in their proper places but lying some distance away, like the semi-human creature planted temporarily in a blank space on the back wall of Harihari 1 at Osian (Harihara, who isn’t the single deity linking all three of these buildings–Harihara temples 1, 2 and 3–after all).
Chasing the Hindu stories round the outsides of these buildings can seem a childish activity. In truth we are now reduced to chasing them mainly through photographic archives of disconnected views, shattered but in some odd way a more continuously sensuous activity than many visits to actual buildings can consistently be. The photographer is making choices, continually selecting. And leaving out the wider context can result in more intense experience.
I find myself thinking of a remarkable French series that concentrates on obscure Romanesque buildings in obscure or at least very particular corners of (mostly) rural France. In some sense it is literally true that I have never been closer to the textures of carved limestone than when transfixed by the black and white photos in these modest-sized books.
‘Black and white’ isn’t good enough. These were images printed in heliogravure and bled off the edges of the page, leaving no room for captions or other distracting words diluting the confrontation with all the tones between light and darkness, glare and shadow in all their heights and depths, in a total concentration on the grain of the stone, the scuffs and breakages that describe its life over time, the contest between tools and the rock’s varying resistance, between the slow taming of mineral surface by wind and water, and the bursting forth of rude ideas about animal energy, and emotion crossing or breaking out on human features, all this filtered through a photographer’s eye, who’d been brought up on early modernism which had played havoc with religious belief.
For the Zodiaque series of Puritanical (in the best sense) treatments of Romanesque buildings were the brain child in the first place of a single Jesuit monk, trained as an artist and a priest, who combined these two strands in strong forms to produce (with committed collaborators) one of the most compelling visions of a phase in the story of art, especially vivid and alert to forces beyond a narrowly rational view of human culture and especially of animal life, a spirit it would be apt and inspiring to bring to bear on Indian architecture and sculpture of an equivalent period to the French Romanesque.
Perhaps our best hope of such an encounter lies in the photographic archive of around 120,000 images of Hindu temples assembled by the American Institute of Indian Studies, mostly in the late 1960s and early 70s. I haven’t tried to pin down images to particular photographers but have picked out a few that come closest to those in the Zodiaque series, especially the volumes in which Dom Angelico Surcamp took a sizable part.
To try and distinguish different photographers’ contributions in the Indian pictures is a project beyond me at the moment. So far I’ve barely thought of these Indian photos as works in themselves, but used them to understand the buildings.
But the Hindu stories—there I am still at an early stage. I come across ‘Natesa’, and after 4 or 5 occurrences I realise it’s a name for Siva, meaning ‘Dancer’, which is attached to him when he’s quelling demons by dancing on their heads.
I keep seeing Nrsimha, a god in the form of a man-lion, with a much smaller creature– human with an animal head?– the images too ruined and me too inexpert to make out these figures clearly. Lion-man seems to be tearing the little person open and letting his innards spill out. The lion-man must be an aspect of one of the main gods, given the prime positions he is awarded. I am putting off looking him up.
I get a kick out of Siva dancing on the heads of demons. I am fascinated but appalled at Nrsimha sitting there calmly eviscerating a child-victim. A few days ago I watched a film which E soon realised she didn’t want to see called Map to the Stars that was loaded with the exhilarating crudity of Greek myth. Children were doing awful things, setting fires in which they accidentally burned up themselves as well, strangling smaller children across their knees (cf Nrsimha) in Portacabins. Therapists acted out their clients’ fantasies, crouching over them like predators. These events took place mainly in Hollywood, and star maps showed you where the huge egos of film had their castles. Stardom was obscene and mysterious, yet had some connection to the heavens. All the grisly violence wasn’t just senseless. Hindu gods can also seem quite un-benign, but you need to know about them, and feel as you learn that you’re in touch with something that matters.
I am late realising that E and I are embarked on similar quests. She is working her way through a limited number (a quarantine, as it happens), 40 holy men (including only a token scattering of holy women) from all over the world, a number to which there is an end, which she can break down into a compassable number of distinct tasks and can even take a week off to do more pressing work, an inventory of an existing population, the furniture and ornaments of the house, or something which has a fixed terminus, like a gigantic shopping list, a survey in its way of all creation, but one which has a submission date by which it will be done, whereas mine keeps expanding from the dimensions of a single blog post to that of a book, or a couple of them, as if in cataloguing certain contents you went on discovering further series of rooms in a ramifying structure which kept on growing like Topsy, like a god who developed new limbs to accommodate new functions or new tasks, which were or became new identities, so the total number of gods might range anywhere from three to three hundred million.
[Excursus on Kanchipuran and Pattadakal] Here was meant to come a brief treatment of the Kailasa temple at Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu, a fascinating instance of a building as a mountain that I was put onto by a witty drawing of my friend Adam Hardy’s, which clarifies the organisation of this super-intricate, angular ‘mountain’, built of an impossible number of sub-units each complete in itself with a final result like an enormous, many-faceted lump of quartz. The drawing brings out the cartoon-like quality in the battery of horrific and comical lions who follow the twists of walls intensely indented, like an abstract rendering of rocky crags.
I intended to follow Kanchipuram with a treatment of the Virupaksha temple at Pattadakal, so the imaginary journey would begin and end with buildings I had actually visited, and Pattadakal would allow a final summation of the plenitude of Indian architecture, the whole human and natural worlds collected and summarised on the outer surfaces of a single building.
This plan came a-cropper through a discovery that seemed at first a miraculous validation. Somehow I came across a description of Ellora, the biggest and best of all rock cut temples, which derived it from the very buildings at Kanchipuram and Pattadakal I had chosen for purposes of my own. The account was even embellished with a sick king and his fasting queen, like inhabitants of a fairy tale, and I was off on a lengthy burrowing in the complexities of Ellora, plentiful sculptures, decorative innovations (the Rococo many centuries before its time), undreamt-of forms. Would I never be done? Every ending sprouted a further beginning. Except that this time the link between Ellora and the other temples was a fantasy, and the story of the building finished before its initial courses were laid, saving the queen from wasting away, was an opportunistic appropriation of an architectural paradox.
The number of interesting old temples in India kept growing and was the most numerous population anywhere in the world, which would only be manageable if I were 20 or 30 or 40 years younger and could fit in 5 or 10 or 20 annual trips to keep up with the expanding and deepening field. The Shell Guide to English Parish Churches might be the template – surprising it took me so long to notice the parallel, or Pevsner’s twenty-four years covering England which began at least ten years before it surfaced in a form visible to anyone else. In some sense this was the ideal ancestor, which kept popping up or beckoning, seeming to stand for any sustained human effort, a plan so ambitious it encompassed an entire place, a large island that resembled a continent, a task so huge it was probably not do-able. I set forth on my truncated version of such a task, consuming two years, not twenty-five, which still became a trap I was dying to get free of, as now I regretted being still a prisoner of Indian temples after almost two months.
The beginning of this obsession was lost in the mists of one of the intensest and at the same time blankest periods, when I could hardly leave the house or escape an isolation that would perhaps never end, except that here ‘never’ meant only a short span, a year or two until you inadvertently caught the disease you wouldn’t survive. Life had become both a nothing and a gigantic cosmic allegory, like the ones medieval folk went around thinking they had always been engaged in.
So that was a kind of template and its content was a series of temples, dictated by an unfathomably complex series of examples in a couple of books organised according to a series of local rulers who were locked into an extremely foreign geography or a history of exotic styles and the shifting stimulus of a big collection of images which all sat in four over-lapping volumes you kept picking up in no fixed sequence. Four was just enough to feel unencompassable like India, though it covered only two arbitrary blobs of territory over a not easily identifiable set of years Far Away and Long Ago. (The title of a book which bewitched me when I was just beginning to read on my own.)
Vishniac was a refugee, who had moved (or fled?) from Russia to Berlin in 1920. He got married at the border, and his daughter Mara, who appears in his photos of Berlin in the 30s, must have been born there. She functions in them as a kind of decoy. Photography wasn’t an entirely safe activity for a Jew there and then, certainly not when snapping the Nazi posters and symbols that Vishniac wanted to record, so Mara posed in front or to the side of the real subject and tried to look like the reason for getting out the camera.
I am fighting off various superstitions about this subject. I first saw Vishniac’s pictures of the Jews of Eastern Europe in a small exhibition in Camden Town which I caught on the last day. I soon found out that he set off on three years of exploring the lives of poor Jews in Poland, Ruthenia and Ukraine in the very same year that American photographers were sent into the Deep South to record the lives of sharecroppers driven into destitution by the Wall Street crash and years of drought. I am thinking especially of James Agee and Walker Evans who spent three months in the fall of 1936 living with three families in rural Alabama.
In that case there’s a wonderful convergence between Agee’s words and Evans’ images. With Vishniac there are images and few words, at least for me, so far. I need to wait and find out more, about Vishniac’s routes and the length of his stays—did he keep returning to Berlin? And how deeply connected with his subjects did he become?
But I feel a superstitious urgency to write about Vishniac and his pictures now, in the heightened moment of first meeting, and I have found an Agee of that moment in Europe whom I can work into my account of Vishniac, or whom I can at least feel hovering overhead. My European Agee is Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jew who kept a remarkable diary and was deported with her family from the camp at Westerbork in the Netherlands to Poland, where she died on 30 November 1943. So the dates and places don’t quite match, but she stands as a strong arguer for catastrophe transfigured by imagination, the imagination of a 27-year-old.
I can’t stop even now to read Etty’s diaries, but have learned from first glimpses that she had the most powerful sense that the acts of the oppressor were not ultimately real, lacking the force and presence of an inner truth she felt most fervently. Maybe something like this conviction, though unconscious, contributes to the inordinate power I feel in Vishniac’s images from the East, though I want to resist the urge to read the Holocaust into every one of these pictures that so often seem directly comparable with Evans’ from the American South.
In one of his most famous lectures Heidegger says something about nearness and farness that hit me, when I came across it, with revelatory force, and went like this: that we have lost track of what is truly near and essential to us, forsaking it for that which is far away, with which we have nothing important to do.
Vishniac’s pictures of the furthest fringes of Europe seem at first to have the appeal of the exotic and primitive, of lives unimaginably far from ours. The exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Camden Town tried to represent all parts of his career equally, or at least not to neglect long stretches, such as the fifty-year aftermath he spent in the USA. I found I had almost no time for the American pictures, except the ones which showed the deprivations of wartime, like the image above of women waiting to buy rationed meat.
The pictures from the East seem to get closer to the essence of things, as do the interiors of sharecroppers’ houses in the Alabama book, or the careworn faces of farmers and their underfed children who have imbibed anxiety with their mothers’ milk. We find such emotions in children from both these places so far apart.
How does the child in the Warsaw basement flat learn his alert caution? I don’t know anywhere else except the Alabama images where you see the rudest elements of the barest lives brought so near, with such devoted attention, as here in this basement, in the infinite variety of the ragged kindling or the coarse richness of the curtain or the bleakness of the cupboard. Evans’ pictures generally look more posed, or is it composed? Vishniac’s daring in pushing the boy to the edge of the frame seems extreme, but it was probably also the way of getting him to feel that the camera wasn’t pointed at him, and thus of catching him starting to relax.
So you have in some way lived these objects, if not these lives. If you feel you have lived the lives, they have often come to you through the faces, and it can almost be the number of lines in a not so old face that keeps you focused, deciphering it. The Ruthenian farmer above was also a tanner, the caption tells us, an economic complexity which makes a doubling in the character.
One of my own uncanny overlaps with Etty Hillesum is that someone gives her a copy of Crime and Punishment in two volumes, thinking it the right reading for such desperate times. This has just happened to me too, and I am looking everywhere for the lopsided proportions I love in Dostoevsky and finding them in Vishniac’s portraits. In the image above, as with Marmeladov, one of the writer’s most memorable creations, who disappears when you’ve barely met him, a strongly characterised figure appears round the corner of a larger, less characterised one, and their enigmatic exchange is never explained.
Some images have eluded me almost entirely. Rabbis in ill-fitting, food- or mud-stained robes with three books under one arm, a bookcase with three shelves of battered books, the library of one of many rabbis in the remote, semi-mythical town of Mukachevo. The only image I can find of this collection of books adds its own faintness to this precarious sight, on which much ink has been spilt by later writers.
My nearness to these places and these people, both like and unlike the ones Agee and Evans discovered, mostly urban not rural, and thus not conforming to the usual American idea of the most rooted kind of life, my nearness comes over me in those dirty crowded rooms devoted to reading, the yeshivas and perhaps even more the cheders, where one boy looking up in a visionary way is, we learn, one of the survivors, now living in Woodstock, New York, and a Buddhist.
I have learned since writing this that Vishniac’s explorations were much riskier than I realised, so the parallel with Agee and Evans could seem frivolous to those who know the situation better. The Jews of Warsaw were already subject to crippling regulation, like a government-sponsored boycott of Jewish shops that forced many out of business. Jews were eventually prohibited from practising most trades except those considered low, like portering, a group Vishniac joined and lived among, loading and pulling wagons himself, which led to some of the best, most intimate pictures (and brought him nearer to Agee and Evans’ kind of immersion than I knew). There were streets in which Jewish bagel-sellers were not allowed. Such restrictions and indignities are all too familiar from Victor Klemperer’s diaries recording life in Dresden in the 1930s, and Polish techniques of oppression may sometimes be copied from German precedents.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘Writings on the Wall’ at Waddington Custot, 11 Cork Street, London W1 until 8 August
An interest in what used to be called primitive art is often dabbling in things it can’t admit to, like aggression and violence, living vicariously in a wilder and fiercer world than the safe one most of us inhabit, at least for now.
My latest encounter with real wildness came entirely through a couple of books, which catalogue 598 choice objects from a private collection of Oceanic art, two volumes so unwieldy that, like old people increasingly housebound, they haven’t moved for months from the room in which I finally parked them, which nowadays I don’t have much occasion to visit except to scan these records of John Friede’s amazing collection. The day I brought them here is stamped inside their front covers, November 28th of last year, the day of my second visit to the big exhibition of Pacific island art at the Royal Academy.
They are a spin-off of this exhibition, or a substitute for it which would last long after it ended, both bigger and smaller than it was, more compact and more unmanageable, since no one had given this material a shape or picked out its themes, which remained for me to discover, if they were there at all.
The fact that certain things are owned by a certain person is interesting to him or her but not to anyone else, unless the collector happens to be John Ruskin or some other figure you are already interested in for a good solid reason outside his collection. Collecting seems the very opposite of public spirited, and yet collections themselves are almost always interesting, if you can get them away from their owners, which you often can if he/she wants the collection to survive him/her, because it has come to represent him and is a kind of self-portrait.
John Friede was obsessed with the art of New Guinea, but had never been there. He knew all the European collections and their keepers, but he wasn’t tempted by the South Seas themselves, or at least put off his visit (which he didn’t soon repeat) until late in his career.
At first I wasn’t interested in the collector, only in his magical collection, or rather the beguiling presentation of it in well-lit photographs that lent all the pieces fantastic immediacy. Many of the objects are small, yet there are fragments of facades, roof posts and large slit-gongs mixed in. But in these books everything is the same size and they all fill the large pages in much the same way.
The Friede collection makes a strong impression because it’s ruled by strong imaginations, John Friede’s and those of the cultures he gravitated to when he knew them only by their artefacts. Early in collecting he decided to focus on one Pacific island, the largest, New Guinea, a small part of the whole Oceanic territory, but still vast. The island is the size of Spain and Italy combined and home to 1000 different languages.
Despite such unencompassable variety, certain over-arching themes appear in these objects. Dancers follow a powerful cultural prompting to take on the character of birds, and mask after mask portrays a human face taken over by a beak, as if pursuing an urge to become all beak, and thus all bird, as if set on leaving human form and consciousness behind altogether.
In a whole class of figures the beak turns into something else, a flute which the bird-man’s hands then play, or an elephant’s trunk which merges imperceptibly with a snake-like extension from the abdomen rising to meet it. Such grotesque distortions are seen by Friede as crucial goads in jolting the sleeping Western imagination awake.
Human beings are constantly found subsumed in other forms, camouflaged as elements of communal food dishes which themselves resemble canoes, where each separate human face assumes dish-like form.
There’s a powerful formal preference for concentric arrangements with the face at the centre. Sometimes it feels like the disappearance of all individuality, subsumed in irresistible general forms. Sometimes the human form is peeled like an onion to see if there’s a permanent core inside.
It can feel like regression to earlier reptilian stages (above), or it can seem a painful evisceration as the outer layers are cut away looking for more or different life inside (below), like a medical experiment testing the limits of the organism.
This piece is one of the suspension hooks so common in the artefacts of the East Sepik cultures. Perhaps it has its origins as a practical device, a way of hanging food out of the reach of marauding animals, but it plays a powerful spiritual role as well, in the group’s relations with higher powers, for whom offerings are left hanging from such hooks. Much of the local figure sculpture is associated with the hooks, so ubiquitous that they present themselves almost as body parts, fulfilling a function so essential they look as if they’ve been internalised or only need a suitable occasion to erupt from the body, as seems to happen with the prong-man and woman that produce hook-like projections, not actually usable for hanging things, on other parts of the body. In this culture we can understand the usefulness of a hook-deity who bristles with them, like a crocodile’s sharp bumps on the spine, more active and energetic than smooth flesh.
prong-woman standing on her hooks
prong-woman from behind
Ceaseless ingenuity is applied to turning one thing into another—a three-dimensional pig can mirror a two-dimensional crocodile, and a man and a bear can face off against one another, sharing the same set of legs. A smaller creature stuck to or exuded by the body of a larger one is one of the clearest signs that such a transformation is taking place. The pig below isn’t easily recognisable but is clearly some kind of creature.
pig mirroring crocodile
The growth emerging from prong-man’s chest is a bony structure at the top and nurses a bird-embryo lower down, an altogether weirder mutation. There’s a whole system of mythic creatures buried here, how comparable to the familiar Greek set we will never be able to say because it never appeared in print while it was alive. Perhaps this obscure system is all the more alluring because permanently lost and indecipherable, because the chance to write it down came too late, after corruption by strong foreign ideas.
Helmet-bird-shield-man can be all these things simultaneously, all the more successfully because so much detail has been washed away by the weather.
One of the most enigmatic recurring forms in the collection is masks or covering for the whole head made of basketry, which is nearer to a living, breathing material than wood or clay, yet seems more far-fetched, less life-like when woven into these body-forms. The results are not solid bodies, and probably have much shorter life expectancy than the more common wooden masks, and though they obviously required hours to make, are perishable like grass. In this fragility lies some of their appeal—how do you make them take on or keep their shape? Inevitably there’s something impromptu or lopsided about all basket-beings. They seem more like domestic appliances than art, and unsuitable for ceremony or ritual.
Some of the most appealing objects in the collection are shown blurring their identities under the conditions in which they are photographed, like the ‘mask’ (not obviously wearable) whose features, smeared sideways by shadows, make it look as if his two mouths are crossing each other and will merge. It’s a strangely effective graph for slurred speech, and the bemused expression or baffled grin on this face is partly down to the senile decay of its substance over time.
Something similar operates with the so called ‘fragmentary mask’ below, like an animal’s skull abandoned in a field, that’s now brought indoors where every tremor of its surface becomes full of meaning.
Among the most evocative and mysterious images are the close-ups of bone daggers usually made from the femurs of cassowaries (large flightless birds) and intended purely for display during initiation ceremonies, not serious equipment for killing your enemies. Maybe the upper ends of these bones, ruined by carving which turns them into works of human art, have partly sought and partly stumbled into the appearance of decay, that now makes them such suitable mementoes of death in forgotten battles. First below is a weeping face losing clear definition, while the next one is another bird-man that is particularly hard to believe in as a serious weapon.
The two big books were published in 2005 when John Friede gave a significant part of his collection to a museum in San Francisco, who I imagine helped make them such lavish productions. An even more ambitious series of publications is announced in his essay in the initial volume.
Trying to find out more about this charming man who has named his collection Jolika after the first syllables of his children’s names, I stumble onto reports of long-standing lawsuits brought by his brothers disputing the inheritance that has funded all the purchases. John Friede isn’t the hard-headed businessman I projected, after all. The money was his mother’s, herself a collector and John her favourite, so some members of the family contend. The magnificent books are defensive weapons in this struggle and argue that the collection is a great cultural good to be preserved at all cost. They have convinced me.
Ruskin is the most sublime and in his visionary way the most practical of the great Victorian thinkers. To call him just a thinker or a writer is a drastic truncation of his scope. He is the greatest writer on art in English, and he is also a great artist who left behind many hundreds of electrifying drawings of architecture, townscape, landscape and all aspects of the natural world, which have the potential to wake up human vision in a life-changing way, but remain to this day virtually unknown and seriously undervalued.
He was a mass of fertile contradictions whose life took a strange turn from the 1860s onward—the ‘violent Tory of the old school’ (a self-description) became a radical socialist (or should one more cautiously say, the inspirer of socialists?) whose greatest work (so Tim Hilton his most serious biographer believes) is an unruly series of ‘Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain’—that is the subtitle. In its title proper, this book communicates Ruskin-fashion via a kind of incantation—it’s called Fors Clavigera.
A recent exhibition, which began in London in February and continues in Sheffield from 29 May, focuses on a single visionary scheme for changing all that Ruskin thought was unhealthy about the rapidly industrialising country in which he found himself. This was a plan to bring beauty to one of the most benighted of the mushroom industrial towns of England by forming a quasi-medieval Guild of St George, consisting of Companions (workers) under a Master (himself), and endowing it with a collection of paintings, drawings, casts of sculpture, natural specimens (gems, shells, minerals, birds’ feathers), illuminated manuscripts and books, which would be the means by which impoverished toilers would educate themselves, becoming an example which could spread to other deprived areas and eventually regenerate the entire country.
Ruskin’s own method in his books and drawings was intensely particular, maniacally focused on the physical presence of the Gothic cathedral or Alpine peak, pursued with a fierce and sustained attention never equalled by anyone else before or since.
To make such absorption in the greatest architecture, painting, sculpture and geological and botanical marvels possible in Sheffield, Ruskin had to bring Venice and the Alps, and Dürer and Carpaccio into the little rooms he’d acquired for the purpose in a nondescript street in Walkley, then on the edge of the city.
As anyone who knows his writing might have predicted, his means of achieving this was emphatically literal. The exhibition is most interesting for showing how Ruskin’s various methods collided with and reinforced each other. The goals remained the same; the routes for getting there were diverse and overlapping. One of Ruskin’s favourite methods, taking plaster casts of architectural details, seems quaint and old-fashioned now, but had been important to him from long before he ever thought of using it to instruct the workers of Sheffield. It was a way of hanging onto buildings he had to leave behind in Italy, a way of bringing back some of the most powerful bits of carving to be studied and absorbed at home. He had always singled out details in a way of his own, had turned figures inhabiting the arcades of the Doge’s Palace into his familiar companions, for whom he elaborated characters, traits and lives. It was a gift that could get out of hand. He had always been haunted by figures he met in art: eventually they populated his deliriums.
Some of the most moving inclusions in the exhibition are the plaster fragments of St Mark’s in Venice, little bosses with birds and berries, and a large figure of Prudence from the central portal’s arch which would normally sit high over your head. Now it has its own case with a glass door, in which it is mounted crookedly, because it is a curving piece extracted from a larger whole, so its truncation is significant, the clearest sign that it has been singled out by Ruskin’s vision. But it remains ungainly, really too large to be turned into this kind of ornament, and obscured by the mechanism needed to mount it as a display. Yet when you get closer you see the point, the intensely three-dimensional presence of carving that has its own interior spaces, which constitute momentarily its own vineyard or forest whose thrust-out elements modulate the light in places further within.
Ruskin’s drawings of architectural details are among his most magical; these are under-represented in the exhibition, but there is a compensation, a selection of photographs commissioned or taken by him, including a wonderful close-up of carved foliage on a doorframe at Rouen cathedral. Ruskin’s own vision does somehow miraculously inhabit the images of things he wanted recorded. In this case a wonderful drawing by him of the top furl in this image survives, which must have been taken from this photograph; it’s unlikely he would have singled out just that, standing on the ground.
This doorframe isn’t one of the most naturalistic bits of medieval vegetation, and we need to turn elsewhere to show how the connectedness of art and the natural world made itself felt to Ruskin. Art led him to study the growth of plants and the structure of mountains, but in the end which was the primary study, which a means to something else? Both the works of nature and of man occupied him wholly, and each continually illuminated the other. Ruskin’s famous drawing of withered oak leaves is one of the most striking in the exhibition, as is also the less familiar sketch of a spray of seaweed. Both of them are studies of rhythm and movement, strongly hinting at processes of decay and growth, and thus of life. His other botanical sketches also convey the tension in the bend of a stem or the torque implied by the disposition of separate thorns climbing the branch of the shrub. The thorn drawing looks boring at first, until one notices continual variation in what looked like sameness. This drawing isn’t Ruskin’s, but a task set by him to sharpen a student’s sight.
He trained a group of younger artists to help him record monuments and townscapes which he feared were disappearing through neglect and, even worse, so-called restoration. The most poignant of these rescue-drawings shows an unremarkable set of tombs built into a wall in a Florentine square. It’s a place many visitors will know well, now a heartless and dreary expanse of smooth stone, but in the drawing of 1887 a vibrant stretch of carving full of life, before more recent mechanical replacement.
Mountains, coins and birds’ feathers also appear in Ruskin’s drawings in the exhibition and include the ten-foot long horizontal profile of an Alpine range done when he was 24, and an analysis of a feather from a peacock’s back enlarged many times, entirely out of everyday recognition. Which brings me to the image at the top of the blog, an architectural detail enlarged so it could be seen from the back of the lecture hall, a close-up which looks blurred when you are too close to it.
The last word on mountains can be left to Dan Holdsworth, whose Acceleration of 2018 was an inspired commission by the organisers of the exhibition, combining many detailed records of three glaciers to make a video that lets you see them coming into existence and disappearing again, a new use for a new-old visual medium which would have delighted Ruskin.
John Ruskin: Art & Wonder 29 May to 15 September 2019 at Millennium Gallery, Museums Sheffield
When he lay becalmed in port, the 18c sea-captain Thomas Coram rushed round London drumming up support for his foundlings’ charity from anyone who would listen, including his friends Hogarth and Handel. I imagine him in the long red coat he wears in the best of Hogarth’s formal portraits, its tails flapping like the wings of an angelic messenger. He was tireless and he must have been persuasive, judging solely by the collection of paintings he assembled from sympathetic donations, which became the first public art gallery in Britain.
His Foundation survives, as a charity and an adjacent museum, which remembers the seaman’s original mission to poor and abandoned children in innovative ways. The latest of these is an exhibition of photographs by Katie Wilson, one of the Foundation’s Artist Governors.
Her photographs show a series of small and crowded rooms, without their inhabitants, some of whom have left behind discarded clothes tangled like sculptures on floors and beds. Maybe it’s pure accident that’s making me see sculptural possibility in these signs of departed life. I’ve just come from an exhibition of Phyllida Barlow’s constructions cobbled together from the roughest materials assembled in the roughest way.
To the inhabitants, or anyway their mothers, these left-behind clothes would not have teemed with sculptural possibility. They would just look like mess, which they didn’t have the energy to clear, more signs they weren’t in control of their lives or their futures. For these are all bedrooms, many of which were never meant for sleeping in, because they were already kitchens or cupboards or leftover spaces at the bottom of cellar stairs.
When there’s room for it, the beds are stacked; when children are too small to climb ladders, beds are assembled in strings like goods trains. Sometimes mattresses are joined up into large bed-fields, for we can only guess how many sleepers. Maybe all the bulging sacks of possessions would seem signs of life to some observers; I imagine those who live there just see them as signs they can’t stay here long. There isn’t time to unpack and where could they hang or stow these things, anyway?
From the labels you learn that leaving things behind is a familiar feature of these lives. If the furniture belongs to them, they won’t be able to take it to the next place. All is more in-transit and in flux than it looks to us. Count the things which are out of place–how many fridges in these bedrooms, washing machines, counters for preparing food–and then work out the scenarios implied by that, all the actions that must happen or can’t happen here.
I wish I could take more pleasure in the toys, many of them too big for the spaces, in harsh colours of plastic. Most wonderful are the efforts to make something beautiful–a big painted butterfly to join together wallpaper coming away over a radiator, a whole flock of butterflies where the stair-mass comes butting into the living space, a mask born of a paper plate, a mysterious scene of a cell splitting or a wall breaking open quickly taped up on the wall.
I went on struggling with the absence of the children and kept thinking I saw a living form in the next photograph along. The Childhood Trust has made a book with all the photos and the life stories attached, but they didn’t print many, and none of them are for sale. They’ve sent a few to MPs and the like, but they fear exploitation, voyeurism and misuse if the children’s names and details get bandied about too widely. Are they overcautious, or is it the true Coram spirit that our sympathy should be kept somewhat at bay, so we are left imagining lives as best we can from the spaces and things they are lived among?
‘Bedrooms of London’ at the Foundling Museum, Brunswick Square, WC1 in partnership with The Childhood Trust 8 February to 5 May 2019
Every year in the early spring they mount a display of orchids in a greenhouse at Kew. This year it was Colombia’s turn, and around 6000 blooms of 150 South American species were crowded together in three different artificial climates under a single cascading structure resembling a landscape-form in steel and glass. The exhibition drew large numbers in search of beauty, oddity and natural diversity, who had to wait their turn at busy times of day, like bees clustering round a popular shrub.
What or who are orchids for?
In one sense they’re the commonest plant and at the same time among the rarest. They’ve spread everywhere and diversified into the largest number of distinct species (around 26,000) of any botanical tribe.
Yet they’re impossibly anomalous among plants, with some of the strangest life cycles of all, including parasitism and deceit, bizarre structures of great complexity seemingly designed simply to plant lumps of pollen on the head or tail of males of a chosen insect species. Many orchid species are not rooted in earth, but attach themselves to jungle trees and dangle their roots in air, ‘roots’ which do root-jobs of absorbing nutrients but violate the main meanings of the word, a kind of botanical outrage.
Worst or most wonderful of all is what orchids do to their pollinators. Here exaggeration and deceit go together. Nectar or food or sexual gratification which doesn’t actually exist seems to require more grandiose sacs or pouches or replicas of the female insect in order to seduce the victim or dupe (what should we call him?). Even now moral disapproval creeps into descriptions of orchid ‘contrivances’, promising rewards but giving none. Charles Darwin, one of the most acute of early students of orchid pollination, couldn’t believe that orchids really had no nectar for their visitors, or that this was a system that would work.
A suspicion lingers that orchids have fooled their human enthusiasts as well, luring them with complex forms that violate established norms of size and proportion and instil suggestions of resemblance to all sorts of non-botanical forms, so that, like the wasps, the orchid’s human fans are mistaking the blooms unconsciously for something else.
Popular names of orchids go on expressing the ancient folk-view that there are deep sympathies between the lives of human beings and those of plants. Modern names like ‘fried-egg orchid’ often stick out by their starkly comic intention; in Shakespeare even the most grotesque flower names, like ‘dead man’s beard’, feel like something more than a joke.
‘Slipper’ orchids are not diminished by the name, which conjures up spaces of myth, into which victims fall in search of food and will only get out by doing the plant’s bidding, collaborating in the orchid’s plans for its own continuance. It feels absurd to talk as if we believed in the orchid’s agency, but it becomes more and more feasible to assume the intelligence of plants (see Colin Fudge on trees), insects (especially ants, bees and termites, including many pollinators) or birds (astonishing recent research on birds’ brains). And the stories people have told about plants couldn’t be more preposterous than the dramas acted out in the innermost chambers of certain orchid blooms.
But to see, or even to imagine, these Piranesian spaces you probably need to blow up a photograph of an orchid interior to approximate the bee’s-eye view and then you tell yourself that you are approaching the true essential meaning of the orchid. At Kew I picked up The Book of Orchids, a life-size guide to 600 species from around the world illustrated with one photo of each, or sometimes with two copies of the same photo, one large and one small. I assumed that the small one was life-size and the big was a blow-up which let you see richness and complexity invisible to normal human sight. This is often but not always what the relation between the two photos is. Sometimes the little one shows the whole bloom for the first time, because this orchid is too big to fit onto the page-size chosen for this book.
Six hundred orchids has a magical sound, but the speed of the survey inevitably produces vertigo, and taking in so many almost requires isolating the blooms from their surroundings, and even from the stems and the leaves of their own plants. So you have cut-outs of the most compelling feature, a single flower, the orchid as logo, more or less. Some orchids, like the slippers, do occur singly in the wild or at least widely spaced on the stem, but these are likely to be the heavier blooms, which would drag the plant down in clusters.
To understand orchid structure you probably need to isolate single blooms in this way, maybe even render them artfully through drawings. To see many actual examples on a single occasion you need to create something like a museum-situation, which if you’re lucky, as for example at Kew, will also feel like a habitat, a constructed jungle. Some orchids will sit in pots on the ground, but others will appear to have attached themselves to trees and spread their roots in air, far out of reach.
There’s a limit though, and some of the most precious, like most of the slippers, will appear behind glass to protect them from the attentions of the orchid-lovers. And if proof were needed, moving from cool and dry to hot and wet climates simply by opening and closing a door reminds you that you are crossing distances that would consume whole days outside the botanical museum.
So you continue your trip through this spectacle of the world’s diversity which is more like a visit to the National Gallery than an hour in an actual jungle. And the deepest involvement requires further manipulation of the images collected on the ‘journey’, carried out afterward at home, where you are continually noticing features that there was no way you could see on the spot, because you couldn’t isolate each bloom like a painting or take the time to walk round it like a sculpture. In certain respects the fullest plant museum exists only on a screen, best of all that of a small laptop, not a large television which cannot focus the subject or your attention nearly so tellingly.
Surface patterns are among the most startling and mesmerising features of these blooms, endlessly attractive in a literal sense—the eye is helplessly drawn to them. Under magnification they become something different and then we can imagine the disorienting effect on the insect trying to keep its balance in the maelstrom of a centrifugal pattern which disperses itself more violently as you move in nearer. Petals and sepals that all look much the same to the human eye are strongly differentiated when magnified and depict radically different kinds of fragmentation, one alarming, the other reassuring. Seen close up, the overall effect is much more directional and thus coercive.
In this species blooms often present themselves ‘upside down’ or cockeyed, meaning that to experience their symmetry or to recognise the typical orchid structure of three petals overlaid (in reverse) on three sepals, making a six-pointed figure, you need to reorient yourself bodily, and this leads us to imagine insects making aesthetic choices as they land on orchids.
Other, blotchier patterns look to human eyes like stippling, a technique not a purely random occurrence, blobs trying to come together rather than simply spreading themselves, a focusing effect to which it would be hard to pay no attention at all. Is such visual complexity of no consequence to the insect, and the watercolour-like variations in intensity as you move from the centre to the edge of each blob? Human beings see faces everywhere, especially in whole classes of plant blooms. Is it fanciful to imagine insects having similar susceptibilities to certain combinations of dots, lines and concentrated forms? Not that we could easily guess what they remind the insect of, just that this sort of unconscious memory might be taking place.
Darwin was fascinated by insects’ responses to colour, a subject which goes on provoking research and remains almost as much of a mystery as ever, as is also the human response to colour in plants, though studied more thoroughly and for much longer.
Human beings are also prone to see writing where there is none, in vegetable scribbling on leaves or tree bark. Some of the strangest surface pattern on orchids has evidently suggested lines of letters in a genus labeled ‘grammatophyllum’, which seems made to be puzzled over, trying to read something into the sequence of marks. Ruskin was always imagining that the world put a certain natural feature in front of him to say something meant specifically for him, perhaps a late, narcissistic rendition of the old belief that the Creator meant for us to find lessons in stones and instruction in storms. Watered down enough, something like this must be taking place in many people’s conversations with orchids, in spite of idealists like Kant who used flowers to preach purposiveness without a purpose.
There is such diversity in orchids that we couldn’t possibly do justice to it here or anywhere else. There are the forms that for some personal reason disgust us, because they remind us of varicose veins or toothless mouths. There are orchids which don’t look like flowers at all, like the wonderful freaks called spider orchids, not because they actually look like spiders, but because they have long, ungainly features, and more than a few of them. Visually similar are around six species, two of whose sepals go on extending themselves from the main bloom until they hit a hard surface, thus producing streamers several feet long. I have captured only a junior version of this.
There are furly copper-coloured species that perform the unnerving feat of turning themselves inside out, none of whose elements you can convince to stop shuddering, an insect-sized version of Baroque movement. And there is another orchid so magically translucent it is hard to believe it is alive and not something created just to show off certain properties of light, a task of too-refined focus to be entrusted to a creature. This species also exhibits one of the most high-handed divergences of sepals and petals, which now form two independent whorls, petals fused into one and sepals floating free, with nothing in common between them except that they are joined at the hip.