A visit to a cathedral

 

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Move fast and break things

This is the supposed mantra of the founder of Facebook who stole the idea but not the name for this cobbled-together monstrosity of our era, a name which glues together two rough pieces which don’t match but make an easy-to-remember new creature.

The first thing that greets the visitor to the interior of Winchester cathedral is a window filling the entry wall made of thousands of senseless fragments.  This huge work has sometimes been mistaken for a recent design by an abstract artist, but instead of an intentional work, the window is a strange response to destruction. Puritan soldiers smashed all the old stained glass in 1642 and twenty years later the shards were collected and formed into this new whole.  These must be the remnants of a much bigger destruction, though, because they fill the old frame completely. Looking for survivals of order in the chaos is an almost hopeless task. A couple of heads are placed as if a long panel was planned for a single large figure, but that is about all the order I can find.

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As a child I broke things. I know this because my grandmother collected the bits and made them into an umbrella stand, a fairly useless object which fascinated me by its glitter and by how nothing fit. What is the thinking behind such projects? To make sure you never forget the destruction? Or a form of redemption, to extract beauty from its contrary? So it’s a twisted form of conservation, and a memorial—you don’t lose the broken treasures entirely. Is this primitive archaeology where the idea of the jigsaw puzzle came from? To create a shattered pot and then re-assemble it.   Maybe a love of fragments and a focus on the part not the whole sometimes starts in the idea of destruction, which will be followed by collecting the debris left behind by the cyclone of history.

Questions remain about the intentions of the reassemblers of the big West Window at Winchester: was it to make the neatest possible replica, or the most chaotic, even violent one, a memorial to destruction? Memory of the original organisation of the glass would have been fresh enough twenty years after, and it should have been possible to make a more orderly impression, instead of something like an explosion. So perhaps what we have instead is more like abstract art in intention after all, expressing complexity or conflict. The reassemblers were making a political point, not just filling space.

In the late poems of Geoffrey Hill (perhaps in Speech! Speech! most of all) the jostling of different vocabularies, tones and speakers makes The Waste Land look decorous, and if obscure, not scrambled. For Hill, a true rendering of our reality comes out looking something like the reassembled shards at Winchester, fragments of speech banging uncomfortably into each other, in which the final outcome or fullest understanding will not be a reassembly of shards into a recognisable image now continuous. The shattering is deeply part of the poem’s being that cannot be wished away or resolved by explanation.

The meaning of the great West Window has perhaps changed with time and become a picture of something its assemblers never saw or intended. It is not exactly like a window that any contemporary designer would call into existence; neither is it entirely remote from certain modern designs. Nor does it provide even an approximate key to Geoffrey Hill’s most shattered poems. But there’s a strange way in which it has unexpectedly come into its own. Hill finds himself in a fractured world and like Ruskin sets about putting it right, not by reconstructing the lost wholeness but by thriving on brokenness, summoning it forth to disgrace itself and lend him and his readers propulsive force in the process, making poetry of the newest, rawest, most appalling contradictions thrown up by the destructive forces that rule our public realm.

Only in retrospect do I realise that I hardly looked at the envelope or up at the vault in this visit to Winchester cathedral.  First, odd wall tombs at odds with their surroundings, settings which had been ignored, if known at all, by their designers, and next the famous font with scenes like children’s drawings in a stone so dark the scenes were hard to see.

DSC08721.jpgAnd then, something unexpected, which I mistook for a nineteenth century replica, a set of spindly wooden stalls covered in carving, a thicket of close-packed detail I mistook for recent because the wood looked new and yellowish, like fresh oak that hadn’t had time to mellow. Later I found an old description that complained about ‘the rich treacly brown the nineteenth century liked’, now (in 2019) banished by aggressive cleaning, which had removed every visible sign of the centuries’ passage.

In spite of the apparent newness, I am soon convinced that the carving is medieval by the randomness with which figures appear in the surrounding foliage. They don’t form a narrative, aren’t a uniform size and are almost swallowed by the insistent vegetation that sweeps across flat expanses, then stops suddenly, to be replaced by an entirely different species.

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At the level of detail there doesn’t seem to be much of a plan –falconers or monkeys or soldiers or lions just pop up, like the whole assemblage did when it took over my attention in the first place. I think of Ruskin’s reconstruction of the mind of the Gothic workman in his most famous piece, published as a detached fragment by William Morris.  His depiction of this mind was really a breaking-to-pieces of conventional ideas of how art is made and of the special character of Gothic in particular.

Obstinacy, changefulness, inconsistency, wilfulness–Ruskin’s qualities of the medieval workman are all forms of unruliness and disobedience, lacking overall plan and any sort of predictability, which of course can’t possibly account for the design of any large structure as a whole. I’m tempted to look up the complete list in Ruskin’s chapter now. That day in the cathedral I was carrying a book in my backpack which gave a careful description of the building, starting with its bare bones and the logic of the structure, which I’d begun by pushing aside, a book (I didn’t know this then) I would never open in the whole course of my visit. There’s something strangely satisfying about having the authoritative unpacking of the subject but never actually using it, like an umbrella or extra set of clothes included in case the others get wet.

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There are those thickets of carving, but the Winchester stalls consist primarily of a lofty fictitious architecture towering overhead, decorated with perforated elements looking through to further spaces closed off by miniature vaults. First architect-masons devised novel methods of spanning odd-shaped spaces and then their successors made vaults into intricate terminations for spaces primarily conceptual.

The clearest sign that the designers and carvers of the Winchester stalls are just playing with ideas of building is the spindly quality of all the upper elements and also the contrived congestion at the four points where the stalls must turn a corner. Here the carvers make a spatial opportunity out of an awkwardness, flaunting the need to cut off forms in order to fit together two sections arriving from different directions.

 

 

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Even though I don’t remember Ruskin’s qualities of Gothic word for word, they are still my guide to the unsystematic system on which the biggest works of their era are based, with results of great richness that only ever fit together imperfectly, while never losing a sense of the life which inheres in departures from strict regularity.

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Still in the choir at Winchester, not far from the stalls in their new-found paleness, is an oversized 19 c bishop’s throne like an independent building, a chunky tower in wood so dark it approaches blackness. All its pinnacles, and there are many, exhibit vegetable growth so clogged it seems almost diseased. The most wonderful moment comes in down-pointing elements whose every strand ends in a tormented head, howling, grimacing, or sticking out its tongue, an idea of Gothic that reaches a last flowering in horror comics which, extrapolating from these congested heads, we can almost recognise as authentic descendants of medieval grotesque.

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Winchester has far more than any other place of a distinctive English form of late Gothic architecture, the so called ‘stone-cage’ chantry, a kind of construction even more like another building inserted within the larger building than the enclosure of stalls forming three sides of a rectangle and terminating in gables and spires as if they strove to become architecture.

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The stone-cage chantry inserts itself between two existing piers, which it claims as parts of itself and surrounds with an enclosure of tall screens. The chantry rarely swallows the piers completely, because it’s crucial to its self-idea that it is a parasite of a harmless kind, joined to the fabric which it enriches, though closing off other possibilities just by being there.

Although the stalls at Winchester have architectural elements and qualities, they’re not competing with the enveloping building in the same way as the chantries. Stalls are furniture, chantries are more preemptive: complete, bounded and self sufficient as stalls aren’t. Such constructs were to a significant degree the form into which architectural invention went at a certain point in the development of Gothic, but how seriously can you take a whole new architecture for just one person, and that person a corpse? The key feature of these implants is that they are intruders, which promulgate an alternative view of architecture from that of their surroundings. The chantry’s status thus becomes more problematic the more assertively individual the result, an alien body within a preexisting body, a tumour more threatening to the life around it the more lively it is in itself.

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conical intersect further into cones.jpgIn the 1970s Gordon Matta-Clark went round carving out new spaces in existing buildings, like chantries in reverse, or voids as independent structures, which it was only possible to discover lurking in nondescript industrial or commercial buildings because they were already corpses, that is to say, scheduled for demolition. A negative can’t ever be simply a positive, but Matta-Clark had remarkable successes in these figure-ground experiments that made absences feel stronger than presences. The effect could seem almost metaphysical, and the non-existent acquired inescapable reality. Perhaps the chantries too are always flying in the face of fundamental facts, and like fables or myths able to make you believe in something which isn’t entirely there.

The oldest chantry in the eastern-arm at Winchester spoils one of the most harmonious spaces in the building, the retrochoir between the chancel and the lady chapel, now interrupted by two matching structures, the first of which, Bishop Beaufort’s chantry, consists in its upper half of a crowd of pinnacles filling the space over the bishop’s tomb and reaching up until it seems about to bump against the vault. The forms are a quintessence of architecture, its slenderest, most ethereal parts, but effervescing so enthusiastically they threaten to form an indistinguishable mass. And the suggestion of energetic movement resembles organic growth, an overall effect that combines elegant brittleness and a hint of living tissues pulsing with life.

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In his lengthy piece about stone-cage chantries Julian Luxford compares these stone cages to monks’ cells, as if their seclusion were a form of turning one’s back on the world and worldliness, whereas the effect is usually more that of a privileged preserve which bars entry to ordinary worshippers. 

For the next chantry in the chronological sequence, Bishop Langton chooses a more defensible location in the southeast corner of the building, which is then engorged with a wooden successor to the choir stalls, topped off with a ring of fanciful towers whose most bewitching feature is a series of inverted cusps crawling with crockets, forms like noses or tongues which would be at home on African masks.

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The last two chantries built have no piers to hang onto. Instead they swallow sections of the screens running down the sides of the choir, which they intrude into at its top corners. Bishop Fox’s, accessible from the aisle that runs down its long side, is the richest trove of late Gothic detail in the cathedral.

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Every element is multiplied and repeated. Every line is crimped and what starts as a simple quatrefoil becomes an indescribable cusped form, where every sub-form ends as two. Niches have canopies that perform this dividing and subdividing until the whole seems on the edge of toppling into misrule, but never quite falls.  At times it seems there won’t be room for all the sub-friezes and the multi-faceted fragmentation of simple posts supporting pedestals barely big enough to hold what sits on them.

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Coming late in a long history, the Fox chantry thrives on distortion and fragmentation of familiar forms, and especially on forms turned inside out, so a column with a series of sharply concave faces is a kind of negative of the norm, in which comfortably rounded bulges are turned to uncooperative vacated forms, as if advertising that they can’t support weight, drawing attentions to hollows not solids, which Ruskin thought an offence against nature and a threat to all integrity, but was helplessly drawn to study and understand. Such forms seem leftovers or cast-offs from which the usable core has been spirited away, leaving a sense of absence.

Something exciting and also disturbing and undermined about these forms, like Matta-Clark’s voids which render surrounding fabric useless, which was already a corpse when he arrived and found a second life in decay, which for most of his adherents was always going to be no more than a wonderful kind of hearsay that almost as soon as it was born had been smashed to pieces.

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There’s a drawing of one bay of the elevation of Fox’s chantry that has generally been taken as the work of the chantry’s designer, the royal mason William Vertue, famous for fan vaults at Westminster and Windsor.  This drawing has long been regarded as a precious survival, a working drawing from around 1510. But now along comes Christopher Wilson, one of the best current writers on Gothic, to wonder if it isn’t an artefact of a wholly different kind, a post-Reformation rendering of the chantry stripped of its finery. After which, Nicholas Riall tells us that the drawing differs in fifty different ways from what was built, so it cannot possibly be an attempt to show it after construction.   I set about looking for those fifty variations, and I find quite a few, but then wonder what Ruskin would say about such a dogged enterprise.  At least the search has increased my appreciation of Vertue’s endless ingenuity and set me thinking about how much (or how little) of the later stages of his exuberance he ever mentioned to the client.

A collector and his collection

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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prong-woman standing on her hooks

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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.

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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.

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Prong-man’s chest-growth

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Phyllida Barlow’s mock-architecture

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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.

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Ruskin in Sheffield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Mysteries of London 3: Bedrooms of London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elisabeth Frink and British sculpture of the 50s

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Mantegna / Bellini

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mysteries of London 2: Petrie museum of Egyptian archaeology

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oceania—art of the Pacific islands

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Homage To The British Museum

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

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

 

William Empson

 

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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