A collector and his collection

 

19 5440-282 basket woman mask.jpg

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.

5419-268 bird stick.jpg

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.

5383-236 vampire.jpg

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.

1 .jpg

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.

2 5220-34 beak dominant.jpg

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.

5fpsr.jpeg

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.

5 5427r-273det boat dish dish man.jpg

6 5430-273 boat dish dish man

10 5293-128 concentric rings

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.

14 5296-129 onion man.jpg

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.

16 5433-277 eviscerated peeled man.jpg

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.

32 5562-279 prong woman.jpg

prong-woman standing on her hooks

l1GZu.jpeg

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.

5I7zy.jpeg

29 5282-109 croc pig det.jpg

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.

VhnZZ.jpeg
Prong-man’s chest-growth

30 5435-278 prong man.jpg

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.

26 5425-271 helmet bird shield man.jpg

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.

18 5387-239 basket head.jpg

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

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

18a 5342-173 ruined mask.jpg

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.

22 5470-315det carving ruin.jpg

23a 5376-223det bone face ruin.jpg

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.

11 5315-146:7 heads as rings.jpg

Phyllida Barlow’s mock-architecture

2i 22 DSC09335.jpg

Normally, putting quotes around words to show they aren’t what they seem is an annoying habit that rarely stops at just one such suspect-word. But encountering Phyllida Barlow’s work in her recent Royal Academy exhibition, I found so many exhilarating send-ups of architectural and sculptural norms, so many witty violations of what the unsuspecting art lover expects that I felt I needed to write ‘truth’ to ‘materials’, ‘honest construction’; ‘gateway’, ‘column’, ‘monument’; ‘weight’, ‘stone’, ‘steel’.

Also, another violation—architecture seems a more appropriate label than sculpture for most of the eight large works in the exhibition, which fill these huge spaces so much fuller than the last occupant’s, the many tiny models in Renzo Piano’s exhibition.

1 barlow.jpgSome are cartoon-illustrations of the history of architecture, like the one called ‘lintel shadow’ which projects a monumental gateway like those three-part compositions at Stonehenge but taller and spindlier, in one sense more imposing, in another more precarious. It led to a ‘stone’ enclosure like an introduction to an underground tomb. It led ‘underground’ or nowhere, and fit the idea of a shadow of architecture by being out of true in every axis and every dimension. It was stony in its form–big lumps, scored with accidental grooves and gouges, which lent a kind of ‘authenticity’ to the ruined masses, yet also made you suspicious.  As you got nearer, a sliver of the air beyond appeared between adjacent ‘blocks’, which were coloured a convincing mottled gray but gave out a hollow sound if you tapped them.

1a barlow.jpgThey were a figment or a fiction, an insubstantial shadow. Doubtless the lintel too, far out of reach, was a partly convincing fake, hoisted up on rickety poles which had had to be extended by bolting smaller pieces to them with crude splints, our first encounter with the sculptor’s habit of flaunting a few ‘mistakes’–revisions or changes of direction she preferred not to smooth over or clean up. ‘Admitting your mistakes’ has here a wonderful feeling of being at ease with your materials (no quotes) and your project. It evolves, and your audience can watch that happening.

2 27 barlow.jpgSome of the solidest elements are the shadows, especially the sloping platform ‘cast’ by the massive ruined column called ‘barrel’ in Barlow’s title for it (all her titles follow directly after untitled:– ‘untitled: barrel’). This looks like a waffle-structure in metal, or a model of a curving three-storey block of modernist flats, except that unlike other shadows it is supported by unstable poles driven into swampy ground and poking through the surface of the swamp so crookedly you lose faith in them completely. I had enjoyed the messy punctures in the fibrous board that constitutes the horizontal (but sloping) surface, calling up a forlorn watery landscape.

2 32 barlow.jpgYet I still went on trying to establish that, unlike all the other materials which ended up able to defy gravity because they weighed next to nothing, this big slab was ‘actually’ steel, and went on inspecting its supports to see how they actually did it. Could it be that I wanted the sculptor to insert a major inconsistency among all her violations of truth-to-appearances?

3e 10 barlow.jpgThe most entertaining conglomerate is saved for the last of the three rooms. It is called ‘blocks on stilts’, which doesn’t begin to do it justice. It consists of four towers (you will have to count them more than once before you believe there are only four, and you will think you have disentangled them only to find they have mixed themselves together again). In some sense it is a simple idea, a set of four-legged frames, each of them existing to raise one impossibly bulky rectangular-solid impossibly high.

The maze of wooden poles and braces looks too weak for the job and seems to be held together by cloth bandages wrapped around all the joints and then given a runny coat of plaster that penetrates the gauze of the bandage and stiffens the joint. On every tower one of the lowest struts has been removed after construction by chopping it off near the bandage-joint but leaving a short sample of the amputated strut at either end, undermining the perfection of the design and letting you savour the process of improvement—now you can walk more freely among the forest of poles, the nearest approach in these fresh works to ‘nature.’

3 29 barlow.jpgSome time after finishing this, I remembered my calculation that there are 12 legs in ‘blocks on stilts’, so there must be three towers, not four. But in another sense there are four—when you are there, the parts are magically multiplied and counting them doesn’t settle the question, strictly speaking.

3o barlow.jpg

Ruskin in Sheffield

1 DSC07329 wc charcoal bourges arches burgess 26.jpg

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.

ruskin abbeville.jpg

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.

4 DSC07339 cast prudence cent arcivolt s marco 62.jpg

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.

5 DSC07340 det cast prudence.jpg

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.

oVBxe

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.

16 DSC07370 ruskin spray dead oak leaves 1879 166.jpg

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.

15 DSC07369 ruskin fast sketch seaweed 1879 165.jpg

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.

12 DSC07364 s m novella 3 tombs 1887 t m rooke 89.jpg

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.

23 DSC07385 closeup d holdsworth acceleration structures 2018.jpg

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

 

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

Mysteries of London 3: Bedrooms of London

0 DSC07631.jpg

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

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

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

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

5 DSC07638.jpg

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.

7 DSC07623.jpg

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.

8 DSC07626.jpg

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?

6 DSC07639.jpg

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

Elisabeth Frink and British sculpture of the 50s

 

DSC00378 copy.jpg

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

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

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

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

DSC06274frink dying king.jpg

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

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

DSC06280.jpg

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

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

DSC06227frink torso 2.3.19.jpg

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

DSC06270.jpg

DSC06264moore falling.jpg

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Mantegna / Bellini

 

0 Mantegna crucifixion detail floor.jpg

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

1 Titian Flaying Marsyas.jpg

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

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

1a mantegna presentation.jpg

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

2 bellini presenta.jpg

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

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

4 Bellini Resurrection WGA01675 (2).jpg

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

6a or 5a? mantegna christ in limbo.jpg

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

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

5 bellini christ w 4 angels.jpg

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

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

6 donatello dead christ tended by angels.jpg

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

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

7c mantegna 3 prone brit mus.jpg

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

8 uffizi bellini lamentation.jpg

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

9 The Death of the Virgin.jpg

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

10 bellini madonna meadow.jpg

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

13 bellini peter martyr.jpg

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

14 mantegna minerva expelling.jpg

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

15 mantegna triumph w elephants.jpg

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

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

16 bellini noah.jpg

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

Mysteries of London 2: Petrie museum of Egyptian archaeology

 

DSC03472.jpg

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

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

DSC03494.jpg

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

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

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

DSC03495.jpg

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

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

DSC03538.jpg

 

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

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

Oceania—art of the Pacific islands

 

DSC04652 copy.jpg

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

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

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

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

DSC04883 copy.jpg

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

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

DSC04815 copy.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSC04935 copy.jpg

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

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

DSC04845 copy.jpg

 

Homage To The British Museum

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

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

 

William Empson

 

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

‘The Price of Everything’—money and the art world

condo 2 heads.jpg

The title of this mainly hilarious and occasionally disturbing film avoids getting into the deeper waters called up by its missing other half–‘Someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’. The film avoids them too, mostly, opting for an entertaining procession of outlandish characters–artists, collectors, dealers, auctioneers, historians, one critic, one novelist–outlandish in themselves or in juxtaposition to whoever comes next.

1 a koons monet gaxing copy.jpg

The story begins with the true mascot of an art world ruled by money, the richest artist of all, Jeff Koons, a ridiculous prankster whom no serious person could take seriously, except that they do. His fans include Marilyn Minter, an artist of some integrity who specialises in depictions of pubic hair, and the collector Stefan Edlis, the wittiest presence in the film, proud owner of a couple of Koons. Koons himself surfaces in a large studio where fifteen assistants are working simultaneously on fifteen famous Old Master paintings, of which they are making laborious copies. Koons gives an involuted explanation of how he is actually making every stroke of all the brushes, though he never touches any of them. A second high-flown explanation covers how these copies, each of them with a ‘gazing ball’ of blue mirror-glass inserted into the middle of it, will thereby become a profound representation of the five spheres of existence.

Later on, Edlis gives a more believable argument for gazing, in front of his own gazing-ball Koons. Edlis is a conundrum throughout, lively, seriously intelligent, not fooled by a lot of art-world silliness, yet captivated by much work that seems almost pure spoof to me, like Koons, Roy Lichtenstein and Maurizio Cattelan, whose ‘Him’, a child-sized Hitler saying his prayers or begging forgiveness, kneels between the bookshelves in Edlis’ flat looking at a wall.

2 triChordal 2016.jpg

Koons is set off against another artist, Larry Poons, who was famous long ago for his dot-paintings, which he declined to keep turning out, dropped off the map, moved to a dilapidated house in the woods and went on painting furiously while the art world assumed he had died. Poons’ paintings are visceral (Koons’ always look machine-finished), painted entirely by him, and lack any handle or joke by which you could instantly grasp or describe them. We follow him trudging through the snow in old clothes like a trapper inspecting his catches. He even mentions Cooper’s Deerslayer, set nearby. A dealer has tracked him down and pushed him into showing his recent work in New York. Larry Poons seems very sane, but we tremble for him.

The dealers are a different race, exhibited in another pair–a shiny gesticulating man near the beginning who admits it’s all a bubble, the recent steep inflation in prices for contemporary art, ‘but it is doing so much good—please don’t pop the bubble!’. And on the other side, a scruffy English dealer who senses a crash on the way. He thinks he can already smell the smoke—of a bonfire or an apocalypse? And I think of climate change and the biosphere, something even bigger than the art world.

‘The Price of Everything’ sketches in–late in the day—how we got here. The supply of Old Masters was visibly drying up, and it seemed the whole game might be nearing its end. Then out of nowhere young collectors, fabulously rich on the boom in the financial sector, got interested in contemporary art, which not many years ago the bosses at Phillips wouldn’t even allow into the building, so off we went on the heedless spiral so amusingly surveyed by this film.

0 him in edlis flat.jpg

 

The Price of Everything, a film by Nathaniel Kahn, 2018, 1 hr 36 min

George Condo is this how the painting he works on in the film ends up?, Jeff Koons Monet waterlilies with Gazing Ball implant, Larry Poons Trichordal 2016, Gael Neeson with Cattelan’s Him

African sculpture — art versus anthropology

 

DSC03446

I used to think that Picasso and the other early modernists who raved over the African masks and carved figures they found in Parisian museums saw only formal designs and discarded the cultural baggage that came with them. They weren’t superstitious natives but aesthetes, who appropriated the geometrical discoveries they needed and ignored the rest. Now I think that this describes my attitude to African objects in the primitive days of the 1960s, not Picasso’s, who thought he recognised in African carvers fellow artists practising a kind of magic, standing between the spirit-world and their audiences like shamans and interpreting that dangerous reality to them. He credited the African objects with waking him to the true seriousness of art.

The divide between the artist’s vision and the anthropologist’s isn’t quite what I thought it was then, but it is still there. I even begin to think this painful split is not resolvable and bound to haunt anyone who becomes deeply interested in African sculpture. For it is sculpture that carries the serious weight of African art and above all sculpture in wood. Sculpture includes all sorts of useful objects–backrests, stools, musical instruments, containers for food—a full list would go on much longer and show that the concept enclosed in our word sculpture doesn’t really fit in Africa.

DSC03440.jpg

Take masks, one of the most numinous of African cultural forms, to which we bring associations from ancient Greek drama, tied to venerable texts, not appropriate to African cultures which were not literate in the time of the earliest surviving masks and so have left no contemporary interpretations. For the aesthete (perhaps for any museum-goer) it is convenient to think of African art existing outside history, like ghosts in a dream, or a continuous unchanging present. This is a cultural appropriation uncomfortably like looting in its own high-handed way. Sometimes it’s obvious that a mask has been shorn of its history—it had one, but the evidence was too bulky for the collector to bring that back as well as the mask proper, or the material was perishable (grass, feathers) and has decayed and disappeared. More often than not, the masks have functioned as part of a kind of theatrical performance, a masquerade that took place in the street or the field and played its part in agricultural or social cycles.

I have two books that represent the two poles clearly, one is Africa, the art of a continent, the catalogue of an enormous exhibition of 1995-6, the other is A History of Art in Africa, which in spite of its title is full of photos showing the art in use, smothered by and barely visible under the social hubbub, art sharing the space with anthropology. This reflects current discomfort with treating African masks and figures simply as museum pieces, which have left their lives in the villages behind.

Bits of Greek or Egyptian temples in the British Museum, Italian altarpieces in the National Gallery—these are also instances of dismembering culture to turn it into art. Photos in the great Africa catalogue isolate the works and make every detail visible, elevating them into a place of special clarity, transfiguring them. The current style of museum display, however, (in the British Museum in London or the National Museum of African Art in Washington) sinks them in a surrounding darkness from which they emerge eerily, uncertainly. Photos taken under those conditions convey the murk of clouded consciousness.

1f butterfly mask copy.jpgIts subjects exist outside history in a world ruled by metaphor, like a huge butterfly mask in Washington with four birds and three chameleons perched on it, stretching sideways for almost six feet in a shape unlike any face that ever was. Labels for such objects too often simply show the limits of knowledge—dates are the date it was collected, or a guess–‘late 19th/ early 20th century (?)’—how often have we met that? Then comes an interesting debate about which of two nearby groups is more likely as the source of the work. In the meantime more intriguing questions have slipped away—why a butterfly? why such an abstract, bird-like form of butterfly? why such strident tattooing over the whole wing-surface of the flimsy creature? and the inversions of size, small birds & large butterfly—is that just a picture of thought roaming free, or a more specific puzzle to be solved? No answers, only questions.

DSC03299 copy.jpgOrdinary objects are turning into animals, like a stool ingeniously composed of a long nosed beast which can fold its limbs into a stool with none left over or sticking out, an improbable completeness in disparate realities aligned. Less immediately perplexing are appliances embellished with a single or a couple of animal features, a big container with a head and a tail, or a backrest with a ram’s head at the top and two supports turning into his front legs, the rest of him nowhere to be seen or thought of as continuing underground.

1w ram backrest copy.jpgIt is wrong to view the animal features as embellishments or decoration of a useful object. They are all we need to turn a thing into a being. Even a modern Westerner, susceptible enough to the literal mindedness that runs deep in all art, will seize on the slightest signs that the inanimate is becoming animate to take the hint, carry it further and complete the conversion, even in the case where what I took for a large storage container made from a log is actually a slit-drum for sending long-distance messages by banging on its sides with wooden hammers. I reckoned it a giant ant-eater, so stretched-out was its body, nine feet long, but everyone agrees that the head is another ram’s head, and the tail a ram’s tail, so these proportions call for difficult digesting by the viewer. Or perhaps its mass is so powerful that it overcomes all objections by that fact alone.

DSC03438.jpg

There is a whole category of African mask which looks nothing much like any existing man or beast, such as an example in the British Museum which I mistook for a wolf (a non-African species), then decided must be a crocodile. These masks are even called Cubist in catalogues, on the theory that like Braque and his contemporaries the African artist has analysed the form of the animal’s head into purer geometrical solids, as a kind of intellectual feat or, more likely, in hope of striking terror in the viewer. A being of such heartlessly perfect forms, encountered in a masquerade, would be the last opponent to pay any attention to a plea.

DSC03376 copy.jpg

The same goes for the ridged human face with its features alarmingly protruded and separated from each other. Here again analysis immediately reveals itself as ruthlessness, all thinking finished, all results final. To the early twentieth century artist this work seemed to go further and more fearlessly than the West had ever dared.

1g ridged mask copy.jpgIt isn’t really in the same class-–creating fear or disturbance—but the famous mask with twelve eyes might be in its way just as intimidating. The rules of ordinary reality give way all at once without a chance to discuss them. Of all the objects in this series, this is the one which most needs to be seen in isolation for full effect, surrounded by a void, a true minimalist reduction.

DSC03461.jpg

The forms are superficially similar but the intention is as far away as possible in the chaos of cylindrical forms that dominates the mask now in Washington which uses discarded found objects to make the approximation of a straggly beard.  Spent cartridges may still carry the original threat of unassailable power, or the whole thing may be a joke on the bluster of the white man. Interpreting the humour of other cultures is a notorious trap for the unwary—is this dangerous aggression or hollow thunder? I lean to the first.

1m cartridge mask.jpgIt is rare to find reliable reports connected with a specific piece. The History of Art in Africa illustrates a mask that resembles an actual decapitated head with gaping nostrils and sagging mouth, whose teeth are apparently taken from executed criminals condemned by the mask, which functioned as judge and lawgiver until the late 1930s, when forced into retirement by a bureaucrat. Apparently this mask was regarded as so dangerous that it was brought to meetings wrapped in a black cloth. Its bangles each represent particular victims for whose deaths it was responsible.

There’s a familiar sort of fetish which carries even more ominous evidence of a long and violent history. These are the figures of dogs or men stuck full of blades until they bristle so thickly, like a gruesome distortion of the animal’s fur, that we wonder if there is room for any more exercises of the fetish’s power. Apparently the painful profusion is the sign of a figure that works, whose power has brought about all those desired outcomes. As in Kafka, excruciating pain is the precondition of enlightenment. In The Penal Colony the cult of pain ends badly, but ambiguously. The fetish stuck full of all-too-vivid jabs is one of the severest tests of Western understanding of African intentions. Who is the victim? Is there one or hundreds of them? I make the most twisted sense of these alarming objects, which give me a kind of kick, but which I doubt if I understand in their original sense at all.

DSC03313.jpg

Wonderful masks of tiered figures, much too heavy for one person to wear, again test our ability to enter the moods or states for which they were made. In this one a rider carrying among other gear the decapitated head of an enemy, sits on an overscaled head which is part of the same tree but now seems made of an entirely different material, lighter in colour and rough and granular like bread. Apparently this texture comes from many applications of sacrificial blood and palm wine, not the friendly feeding of the image that one finds in Indian temples, not intimate and domestic, but administered in fear and awe of the image’s power, proven over years of testing its ability to fulfil requests. In truth I can go only so far in enjoying this feature—I like the texture and the idea that one part of a work of art receives such destructive attention while the rest does not. To an African villager this outsider’s approach, stopping short of the most important element, the change that the image can bring about, must seem nonsensical.

DSC03457.jpg

Another impressive composite figure in the British Museum looks like a mask on legs, turned into a piece of furniture or stabilised into a permanent shrine which doesn’t move about. Looking more closely, we detect a strange deconstruction of the central figure. The large cavity where the dancer’s head would go, if it were actually a mask, is found in place of the main figure’s stomach, which is also a monstrous maw ringed with teeth. Just as incongruously, this man has four legs not two.

DSC03451.jpgOne of the group’s most intriguing features is the mixed character of the beings brought together and organised symmetrically. There’s a small elephant mounted on the large figure’s head, and two children or deputies whom he holds at arm’s length. It is a mysterious and powerful group which only runs into trouble when we attempt detailed interpretation. Is it a portrait of a particular family which would have been kept in their house, or a cosmological diagram commissioned by the tribe and taking part in its ceremonies, even briefly worn on someone’s shoulders as if it really were a mask? It’s the old problem of wanting to give an African object a history, and feeling that the more one insists, the more one is making it up.

Very few African objects look truly old, and often it seems to go with having been neglected. Some of the most venerable are grave figures raised to commemorate individuals. These are unusually tall and thin, because they are made from trees, because they are markers which need to stand out in a field of others like them, and because they haven’t eaten anything and are already part of the spirit-world. The main reason they look so venerable and carry their history so visibly is that no one is taking care of them, and they are left to decay like the other bodies buried at their feet.

DSC03320.jpg