Imaginary Journeys

85 comprehensive archaeo map of angkor

There’s a famous Borges story about a map that’s exactly the same size as the territory it covers, which sounds perfect but results in all kinds of problems which he methodically describes, of users tripping over it trying to match it up with the countryside lying somewhere underneath, even punching holes in it to pin down the comparison between actuality and concept.

Anyway, I take this impossible situation as a metaphor for my current predicament, in which the topics I want to pursue are falling over each other and becoming so hopelessly tangled that I am losing track of both of them (at the moment) or all of them (in the longer term).  I have a terrible feeling that in trying to keep them all alive I’m going to lose the lot.

The most recent chapter in this struggle to hold onto things which are undergoing headlong expansion has me standing helpless on the sidelines as a five-day visit to Cambodia morphs into an encounter with hundreds of Indian temples spread over large tracts of the sub-continent, which could swallow up several lifetimes. The story begins with another attempt to go somewhere in the midst of the so-called pandemic which is currently engulfing the whole world and subtracting most of what went before.

Twenty years ago I spent five days at Angkor in the middle of the Cambodian jungle. They have expanded in memory ever since, until I can hardly believe my notebooks from that time that tell me how long I spent in each temple complex and how much time I took out for meals or quick swims.   Can it possibly be true that it all fit into five days, including flights to and from Bangkok?

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Over the years since, I have often wished I could fit in a return, a dream I never gave up until now. Yet now seems the time to take this trip, now that I have all the time in the world. It will not be as easy as re-visiting the old exhibition of Chinese paintings in Cleveland, but it will explode into a greater variety of forms.   I will start with images, projecting my slides wall-size and getting lost in carved detail lit by late evening sun.   I will track down all the subjects represented there that I didn’t bother with at the time, like the row of deities with horses’ heads sitting cross-legged on a pediment at Ta Prohm, the famous wild temple, where they sit right next to a parasitical kapok tree which has rooted itself in an open gallery it now towers over and to which it provides structural assistance, unless it is quietly taking the walls to pieces.

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Not so easy to find out who these horse-men are.   I’m not getting far beyond the old guidebooks. I am also amazed at how few pictures there are to look at. In those pre-digital days I came back with ten rolls of film from three weeks in India, four hundred images that seemed a lot at the time.

But from Cambodia, seven shots from Banteay Samre, five from Banteay Kdei, ditto for Bakong, and these were among my favourites.   Even so, I see fresh details in the heavily indented platforms at Banteay Samre which the best plans I have leave out. I need better ones and don’t know where to look.

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I have had the famous guide by Maurice Glaize on my computer for years, finally begin looking at it now, and discover that it’s better than the guides I used, at least for detail about archaeologists’ reconstructions of the sites.   He found Bakong a chaotic jumble and rebuilt it into the most satisfyingly rational temple of all.   I even wonder if it hasn’t become a peculiarly French dream of order.   After all, Glaize has misgivings about my favourite temple, Bayon, like two buildings inhabiting the same space, a circular plan imposed on a rectangular, which results in one strange, unenterable space after another, mysteries that intrigue me, which Glaize has to hypnotise himself to see the irrational beauty of.

The Lidar surveys of the last decade and a half at Angkor have multiplied the number of ancient features many times. The whole territory stretching sixty kilometres from end to end is freshly crowded with ancient roads, canals, village ponds, embankments, neighbourhood temples and house groups that constitute the largest pre-industrial settlement in the world, all revealed beneath the surface by something like radar. I have long looked forward to tracing whatever of this is visible on the ground, but I still haven’t got a better plan of the discoveries than the A4 image I found online ten years ago. The whole expansion remains discontinuous with aesthetic appreciation of the sites.   One real enhancement for me in the meantime has been the addition by Helen Jessup, an art historian, of the free-standing sculptures found in or near the temples over the years, including a great Harihara from Ashram Maha Rosei (now in Paris) and a large sleeping bronze Vishnu found near a well at West Mebon, a site still reachable only by boat (now locked up for its own safety).

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My recent ‘trip’ to Angkor has laboured under these various burdens. I imagine that I need digital images of the sites to study the remains properly, images I could pore over at home the way I did in the aftermath of my actual travels, including a memorable visit to Rome with students, after which I discovered Richardson’s New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome which multiplied archaeological sites in the city many times, including whole new sorts of survival like ancient gardens, and which extended that trip for several weeks after most of those who had been there thought it was finished.

Weirdly enough–the great perplexity of the moment–my current trip to Cambodia was extended and confused by the Encyclopaedia of Indian Temple Architecture, which I first met in a remainder bookshop, since closed, like many others.

In those days, just before our first trip to India, this encyclopaedia suggested lots of new places to visit, very convenient to our starting point in Goa. But was Goa the chicken or the egg? Did the book dictate the landing place, or did Goa make sense of the book as a purchase that might have a real point for the travellers?

Whichever came first in the first place, in the second (the imaginary revisit to Angkor) the role of the Indian Encylopaedia has been more tortuous. I had a craving for more detailed and systematic treatment of Khmer remains, more like what you got in that two-volume set I bought on March 7, 1988 which covered South India, Upper Dravidadesa, Early Phase, which sounded specific enough, threateningly so.   I had no idea where Dravidadesa was, which didn’t sound like a place, but more like a demon.   I still don’t have a clear one, except that I know there is also a ‘Lower’ and that between them they account for all of the southern half of India. It is one of the most baffling but oddly enticing features of these volumes that you are thrown into a sea of Sanskrit terms and expected to do your own swimming.  What good is a glossary at the back of the book (which he hasn’t even found yet) to the happy reader who falls into the swamp below?

Located to the south and east of the Saciyamata hill, this west-facing Vaisnava complex stands on a broad jagati consisting of khura-kumbha, kalasa, kapotapali ornamented with candrasalas and ardhapadmas, antarapatta animated by kirttimukhas emitting effulgent foliage, a second japotali ornamented with hamsas and candrasalas, and an upper vasantapattika with acanthus-pattern showing distinct buds.  Sub-shrines survive on the northeast, southwest and southeast corners, each set above a broad plain bhitta-slab and a simple manca consisting of kumbha, kalasa and patta with acanthus.

I am still learning about my love of obscurity, where it comes from, what purposes it serves, how far it extends. It continues to puzzle me that there should be such allure in difficulty, and in feeling that you don’t understand very much about a certain human production that must have been created to communicate, perhaps not straightforwardly, perhaps not without persistent dark spots that may never go away, perhaps believing that complete clarity isn’t interesting and can’t be true.

Anyway, in the present instance it took me a long time to notice that I liked the uncertainty created by this unnecessarily complete fog of unfamiliar terms. I looked up a few Sanskrit words, and got a partial sense of what we were talking about. I drew the line at looking up more than a few. Then I forgot the meanings of the ones I had got, which weren’t always clear anyway.   Sometimes the glossary gave you only another Sanskrit word, presumably a more common one that the one you were trying to unravel. But the longer I did it, the better I liked the Sanskrit. There was a kind of intelligibility or recognisability about some of these words, a deep resemblance between this language and ones I vaguely knew.

The Encyclopaedia was split into Text and Plates. I decided it worked better to look at the images for a temple or a few temples first, and then at the text. That gave you parts, like doorways or roof structures, that you wanted to see discussed, and you could focus on those.

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At Angkor I had particularly liked temples that looked like or were mountains, because they were so ruined they seemed to be reverting to a more primitive state, or because they incorporated actual living rock, like Bayon above all, so that there really was a symbiosis between natural and architectural form, which fit right in with Khmer myths that imagined all creation emerging in an eruption from a particular mountain at the centre of the world.   I hadn’t yet made the connection between two of the Indian temples I liked best and the idea of buildings as mountains or other large natural features.

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Somehow, without understanding what I was doing, I was letting my interest shift from Cambodia to India, from my inadequate sources for Angkor to the better ones I knew for India. I didn’t remember specifically at that point that Cambodian religions and architectural forms had come from India in the first place, so there was something natural and right about following the trail backward to India, like tracing the Ganges to its source in the Himalayas.

My interest in Cambodia had started in India.  Cambodia was only an offshoot, an interlude in a lecture about Indian architecture.  And that is why I ended up spending only five days in Cambodia. It represented a digression within something larger. And that also explains why I was bound at some point to retreat back to India. When it happened, the retreat irritated me no end, and I raged. ‘Why am I giving up the very trip I wanted to take most of all?’   As you will see, it was only one of a series of defeats, ceding one subject after another to my knack for forgetting what I had come for, losing sight of the initial goal and replacing it with a substitute.

 

Buddhist sculpture from Amaravati in the British Museum

 

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Like many of the most thrilling human products the Buddhist stupa at Amaravati is something of a puzzle. It is one of the greatest Indian architectural works, but it has been thoroughly dismembered and partially destroyed. Now it seems a building made almost entirely of sculpture, but this must always have been the case to a degree. It was one of the largest structures in India, half-again the size of the more famous Sanchi, and indescribably richer.

In its heyday it was a curious paradox, a circular construction 192 feet in diameter with lavish gates and high walls concealing the dome-like central mass, which appeared to be half sunk in the earth, and thus even huger than one could immediately perceive. But there was no way in, and no enterable interior space. It was a big container for a small body of precious material, physical relics of the Buddha or his saints, a tooth, a bone, a piece of clothing.

The stupa at Amaravati took centuries to build, from the first century BCE until the third after, and many centuries to forget its existence, including its whereabouts, so that it could be stumbled on by a local ruler in search of building materials in the late 18c. Within eighty years the site had become unrecognisable again, and the best carved remnants had been divided between the British Museum in London and the Government Museum in Chennai/Madras, with a scattering further afield.

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About 120 of the best fragments of the wrecked monument came to London c 1860 and languished for twenty years, suffering further in an unsympathetic climate in a polluted city, until they found a home in the British Museum. It wasn’t until 112 years after that that they were provided with the clean, dry air of their present large glass box.

I reckon that now we are seeing about half the pieces of limestone which the Museum has, which were known in the early days as the Elliot Marbles, after one of the officials who helped preserve them from the neglect and interference that dogged them after their un-burial, called that in hopes that some of the Elgin Marbles’ prestige would rub off on these non-Greek non-marbles.

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It’s well nigh impossible to calculate how much of the original wealth survives.   The outer railing just over 600 feet long was ten feet high and two feet thick, coated inside and out with carving from top to bottom.

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In the early stages both the uprights and the crossbars between them were filled with giant stylised lotus blooms carved with concentric rings of identical petals. Even these chaste designs underwent an evolution from incised flatness to richly shadowed depth. By the second century the inner and outer faces of the railings had begun to be treated differently, the outer to be embellished with grotesque dwarves in the triangular crevices between the circles of the lotus blooms and the straight sides of the posts, while on the inner faces the central circular forms were taken over by scenes teeming with carved figures.

There must be missing stages between the concentric lotus and the riot of activity in the scenes as we have them, whose carvers are full of ideas about what to do when fitting stories into circular spaces.   It is such an exciting development, filling all those round surfaces with dozens of figures packed in and busy at this or that.   At first it feels like an overload, hard to take in quickly as one passes.

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There’s a wonderful density in the British Museum display, a concentrated taste of an experience which went on for much longer in the inner passage at Amaravati, one crowded disc after another, for the cross-rails are just the right length to fit in a roundel, giving you roundels on the posts separated by roundels on the bridges between them, resulting in a continuous chain of roundels.   The crowded room at the British Museum starts with an extensive mock-up (seven units long) of the high exterior wall, the outer edge of the monument, behind which lay the narrow corridor via which you would circle the great dome in clockwise direction. But in London the corridor is hard to imagine, and for obvious reasons even the mock-up of its outer boundary isn’t curved.

Behind or inside it lies another mock-up, a replica of the other boundary of the crucial corridor, a second wall about as long as the first, of the base of the drum of the dome, made of big stone panels each of which has its own stupa in miniature carved in such deep relief that they seem to stand full-bodied forth. On top of this row of miniature stupas, four feet tall but still miniature in the larger context, lies another of the greatest treasures of the monument, a row of foot-high friezes full of carved life which would have run as far as you could see, until it curved out of sight around the corner.

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Mounted high on the wall above are pieces of the big decorative borders that ran along the curve of the dome as it climbed and disappeared toward the apex. Like the other elements, these borders are presented flat not curved, and so, some of the life has gone out of them. But you get the idea.

On the way to the reconstruction of the passageway you’ve already been distracted by compelling displays of marvelous reliefs from earlier periods which don’t fit into the diagram of the building’s parts in logical sequence.

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If you enter at the left-hand end, right in front of you is a patchwork of four of these pieces from an earlier phase, in a simpler mode than the intricate richness that prevails in most of the surviving carving.  The spirit of most of the other carving is so un-classical, so un-pared down, in some way so reckless. By contrast, the spirit of these early panels, in spite of voluptuous nudity and mysterious incident, is calm and collected, planted firmly on the earth and striving always for essential qualities.

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Some writers find Greek and Roman echoes in these panels, but these four reliefs are classical in a broader sense, in being big-boned and bare in parts, but keeping a few hints of intricacy in their subsidiary place, like the skirts and nets swirling round the legs of the Universal King and his company. Here is a convincing idea of kingship, expressed in attitude, not action, in a ruling symmetry that leaves room for deviations in detail. Every being and appliance has its space, free of interference, respecting the integrity of the parts. Symmetry can seem mechanical, but this is a world pervaded by an uncanny rightness.  Yet it is a place that leaves room for mystery or enigma.

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Versions are legion of the Great Departure, when the prince who will become the Buddha leaves home on a sudden impulse, setting off in the middle of the night to roam the world seeking the truth. The story comes equipped with many charming details: his servants – often represented as plump dwarfs – muffle the horse’s feet, one dwarf per hoof, so as not to wake the city’s sleepers. Sometimes he is accompanied by crowds of excited acolytes who would presumably cancel out the quiet of the muffling.

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Not in our version here, which leaves out all that, and the primary element as well. Here the horse is riderless and must stand in for the prince, for we are still in that time where a spiritual shyness prevents us from seeing the Buddha even in the phase before he has assumed his mature identity. Not just the riderless horse, but the umbrella with no one to shelter under it, expresses the Buddha’s way of not being there too. It is pure accident but appropriate that two flying attendants are now present only in a detached arm and a stranded hand.   We know what the missing figures would look like because more garrulous versions survive and fill in the gaps. So the flying hand, instead of a blemish, can become a mystic sign.

In the same vein, we know what lay above the Chakravartin or Universal King, who is another stand-in for the Buddha in the times when he couldn’t be seen. Above the King’s umbrella, which escapes the scene’s frame, are two tiny animals, one trying to sleep, the other sitting upright. They aren’t palace pets but deer, who are code for the forest in which Buddha gives his first sermon. We don’t need to know more. Buddha wouldn’t be there in the scene above, only his empty throne which fills the space between the deer like a big solid block. It’s a scene we have already imagined, stirred into thought by a discreet sign.

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There’s a kind of safety in focusing on these single scenes, especially those of the calm earlier periods. But the essence of Amaravati is the exuberant carving of later pillars which are alive to an almost alarming degree, on which the lotus blooms have been thoroughly eaten away by a filigree of figures and scenes, which are themselves surrounded by further scenes, which look as though they are clamouring to get in, spreading hungrily onto more of the remaining surface as time goes on.

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Trying to imagine the progression from those chaste lotus foci to the uproar of the later scenes with their surprising depths of carving, all at a scale heading toward miniature, you might hypothesise something like the example below (a crucial piece which isn’t displayed) that I came upon in Robert Knox’s invaluable catalogue of 1992, when I was far enough into the subject to recognise it instantly as the missing piece in the long progression from austerity to abundance. The scenes it shows are formulaic and repetitive – the Elevation of the Bodhisattva’s Headdress above and the Adoration of His Begging Bowl below.

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The revolution doesn’t come in these staid motifs but in the outrages against the very idea of a pillar, embodied in the gouging away of a considerable depth of stone to make little shadow-boxes or rooms for these events to take place in. The spaces are small but the energy is frenetic, and show every participant carried away by enthusiasm. The pillars are on the way to becoming scenes of passion instead of dumb, well-behaved posts.

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We could follow a gradual process of encroachment on the stone, leading to the final destination in the ruined pillar which confronts the Buddha with the wife and son he ran away from, who accost him on his triumphal return to his birthplace, a moment of contradiction in spite of the crowds of devotees, a moment which includes two delightful lapses into the everyday at the bottom of the circle, toy animals on wheels that belong to the child, who happen to be the very same noble animals that accompany kings in Buddhist legend, the elephant and the horse.

The most sophisticated developments in filling round forms with narrative come in the crosspieces between posts, a stage of embellishment which occurs later in the sequence.

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One of the boldest solutions to the conundrum of the unanchored space is fractured vertically, as if the building where it happens had split in two, leaving teetering fragments, leaning toward a gap, almost an abyss, and hanging overhead like a threat. The two main foci, a standing man and a lounging woman, are both oblivious, undressed and self-absorbed. The man looks like a Renaissance courtier, the woman like a classical goddess, stretching languorously on a chair-bed of wondrous complexity.

The circle is divided confidently into unequal halves, the larger half, crowded, the smaller one spaced out, with room for a fish pond, vertical like a miniature cliff-face, in the foreground. There is architecture galore at the back – where is all this space conjured from? — and there are unheard-of depths in the crevasse between man’s world and woman’s.

The long friezes on top of the walls of the inner corridor give us narratives in a very different mode from the roundels, as if unrolling events from a spool rather than impacting them in a tangle, a tangle which makes everything present at once, though often with multiple centres and their own ways of doubling back.

Unrolling sounds simpler, but the friezes facing each other on opposite sides of the corridor are not always moving in the same direction, or even moving forward at all, as if this long thin thread of narrative didn’t hold these sculptors’ interest for long, or it may be that relentless forward movement doesn’t agree so well with contemplation? In any case, the best long reliefs seem prone to dropping the thread.

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It’s hard not to be influenced by the damage old carved stones have undergone. You may even find yourself brooding on the suffering of the old artifacts, which are not, of course, sensitive beings. But it matters greatly to me that one of these pieces has a different, more ruined colour and texture from all the others, which seemed to mark it as inferior but before long came to seem a badge of honour. Later I learned that this stone had got separated from the others after arriving in London, and ended in a barber’s yard in Great Montague Street near the museum, so that a curator heard of it while having his hair cut and then arranged its purchase.

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This bit of frieze seems the richest of all in its subject matter, which separates large and complicated scenes with exotic couples, one under an extraordinary palm tree, their faces now cruelly erased, but preserving the beguiling Robinson-Crusoe-flavour of something from an entirely different clime.

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Then there are the bulging lotus bosses, an extremely tactile form of punctuation marking parts, with the tiniest, most obscure scenes in the central bulges of the rows of three. These seem almost a taunt by the sculptor, who boils down the idea of the roundel so frequent at Amaravati, to indecipherable smallness. These figured bosses have driven one critic to claim that these little kernels contain the secret of the whole relief, even arguing that the knob which shows a flying horse is the Great Departure, and thereby trumps the most moving of the large scenes, Siddhartha sending back his horse and groom, who are both heartbroken at this new sacrifice (see first frieze segment).

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The crowning challenge of the piece is that it lacks its other half, now housed in the Government Museum at Chennai. Placing the two of them together, you find that the central scene is that old standby the Elevation of the Turban, now split between the two places, of which we have almost exactly half the gladness in London, expressed in rows of ecstatic figures swimming or flying through the ether in syncopated tiers.

I think we might be disappointed in the result if we were to link the two halves of this relief. The jagged edges match, yet the hard-bought ruin and mysterious depths of the London piece would have to put up with the dull smoothness of its mate in Chennai and with its bland emptiness instead of the jammed excitement of our figures standing on ground made wobbly by the creatures moving to a contrary current under their feet.

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Next to the London half of the Turban frieze is presently mounted an even more fragmentary and ruined subject, with unknown gods and rulers threatening each other, raising heavy weapons overhead or striking dance postures in the midst of conflict, their limbs reduced to spidery thinness which lets us peer even further into the depths that open beneath features that have become almost abstract since their decay made it impossible to be sure what they represent. The traveler down this corridor would always have got plenty of raking views. In that perspective the most timeworn relics of Amaravati sometimes seem the most satisfactory, all their complexity reduced to a final uncertainty.

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Cy Twombly–‘white paint is my marble’

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boccioni’s Lost Sculptures Reborn

 

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The Italian Futurists set themselves one of the most impossible goals in sculpture—to capture movement itself, not just a moving body but the idea of movement transcending any actual movement. In painting this sometimes came out in stuttering images like time-lapse photography, so the moving body appeared in multiple images minutely separate from each other, more a conception than a depiction of motion, not Boccioni’s way, whose cyclist or footballer interpenetrated his surroundings via atmospheric planes until the very idea of distinct entities was called in question.

Baroque sculptors like Bernini had approached the problem through the sculptural group—Apollo chasing Daphne, who turns into a laurel tree before our eyes, a half-completed process in the resulting sculpture, which showed a set of intermediate stages all at once, a feat which required detailed inspection to appreciate the full complexity of the ‘movement’.

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Or in Bernini’s astonishing later work, the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, a combination of a violent frozen motion (the angel’s), and the liquefaction of a human body expressed as a lengthy tremor in her clothes (the saint’s), a piece of virtuoso carving which represents a spiritual orgasm as a rippling motion that one can hardly believe the sculptor has been able to render in stone, which doesn’t actually move.

This famous ecstasy perhaps comes nearest in earlier centuries to what Boccioni was trying to do in the series of striding figures who culminated in Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, an unwieldy title expressing the high metaphysical ambitions of this exorbitant work.

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In its bronze form (actually coppered brass in the two earliest cases), varnished deep brown or polished to a golden sheen, this is Boccioni’s best-known work and probably the most powerful thing any Futurist ever did. As far as most of us knew, Unique Forms of Continuity stood there in lonely eminence, a single outrageous extravagance Boccioni never tried to repeat.

A recent exhibition at the Estorick collection in North London restored the missing context of this well-known work in the most vivid way. It has long been known to students of Boccioni that at his premature death the sculptor left behind a studio full of large plaster sculptures which led up to or grouped themselves around Unique Forms.

Soon after his death his family moved from Milan to Verona and entrusted Boccioni’s unwieldy sculptures to Piero da Verona, apparently a friend, but not an artist who appreciated Boccioni’s work (Marinetti calls him an ‘envious passéist’). He kept them for 12 years, but then consigned them to the local dump where they were immediately broken up.*

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After learning of this, Marinetti let out horrified laments, bought the surviving plaster of Unique Forms in 1928 and commissioned the first bronze casts in 1931. Until now, that was that. About ten years ago, so I was told, the digital artists Matt Smith and Anders Raden got the idea of using surviving photos of the vanished works to reconstruct them. The useful pamphlet which accompanied the exhibition leaves out the genesis of the project in detail—who thought of it, how they gathered support and how the work proceeded. There are a few glimpses—apparently, important photos were discovered late in the process, but we don’t know which, or why they were important.

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Four sculptures were reconstructed, three large striding figures and a fascinating ‘portrait’, smaller and more self contained, which looks as if it’s based on Boccioni’s drawings and prints with his mother as subject. There are three other important missing sculptures and we can only guess why further reconstructions weren’t undertaken, a lamentably ungrateful response to one of the most imaginative applications of new technology to understanding works of art.

For this ingenious project, in some ways more like a geekish prank than solemn academic research, fills me with wonder, and I want to know more about it than the current publication allows. It’s no accident that none of the sculptures were cast in bronze or any other durable substance in Boccioni’s lifetime, and thus remained easy prey to destruction. In the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture Boccioni expresses strong aversion to both marble and bronze, which belong to the static sculpture of the past. In the Manifesto he lists his preferred materials (glass, wood, cardboard, iron. plaster, horsehair, leather, cloth, mirror, electric lights, etc) and mocks the idea that plastic works should consist of a single material.

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I think I can guess why Smith and Raden didn’t tangle with Head + House + Light or Fusion of a Head and a Window, both from 1911, which exhibit more unruly combinations of more diverse materials, like braided human hair to represent human hair and forests of wooden slats for the decomposing window frame.

The wilder assemblage of assorted materials seems a literalism Boccioni was leaving behind, but there are still inescapable paradoxes in reproducing his works in a single material. Old photos show that the jutting elements of Synthesis of Human Dynamism were carried out in painted wood with the nail-heads exposed not concealed.

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Synthesis is regarded by Smith and Raden as the earliest of the works they have reconstructed, furthest from Unique Forms, treated throughout as the goal to which the process of creation uniting the four striders always unconsciously strove, a teleology I tried to resist, wanting to find virtues in the ‘earlier’ ones which Unique Forms had to sacrifice in pursuit of its more philosophically pure notion of dynamism. In the end I relented, and admitted that the series made more sense as a single progress than as four paths to different goals.

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The results of the experiment, four three-dimensional digital models, are a modern equivalent of the plaster casts of the nineteenth century, which reproduce a work of art with uncanny accuracy in a different, preferably very different, place from its actual location. In the present case they replace not stone, but plaster, with… not plaster but a kind of ghostly, metaphysical plaster, ‘cast’ from the ‘originals’, which are photographs, taken from random angles and distances by a ragbag of photographers, whose own idiosyncrasies we (or the digital artists) must work out and try to take account of.

After dedicated efforts to get sizes and proportions right, all the data are converted by 3D printing into a kind of neoclassical perfection, or what Boccioni’s sculptures would have looked like if they were fabricated in the marble he despised. It turns out that the hardest things to reproduce in milled foam or neutral, anonymous laminate are the imperfections of the plaster, the scuffs and smudges left by the life of the studio, the gouges and tiny craters left by the sculptor’s tool or the space created by the falling-out of a minute pebble.

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Apparently Boccioni wasn’t above adding or deepening shadows on the plaster with grey paint. Once or twice in the old photos we catch him at it. In the Manifesto he explains how to make edges fade to infinity or forms pass through each other by such means, not major principles of his practice like centrifugal organisation, spiral rather than pyramidal form, or the abolition of the special value of the profile. Still, the grey paint played its part in the great Bergsonian drama and was sometimes the safest way to make sure a certain element appeared to move in two directions at once.

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The largest, earliest and gawkiest of the striding figures, Synthesis of Human Dynamism stands out among the four for lack of smooth synthesis, one of Boccioni’s watchwords, as opposed to the heartless analysis of traditional sculpture.   He is scathing about the conventional nude as a subject, the body stripped bare, which he intends to replace with atmospheric planes that connect and intersect, rendering the mysterious sympathies and affinities that create reciprocal influences between bodies. In this early stage there is a bulky muscular figure trapped in a geometric armature from which the bodily elements struggle to emerge. You keep recognising various components but don’t understand the logic that fuses them together or splits them apart.   The number of parts is overwhelming, and whatever Boccioni says, it feels just as disunified as analytical cubism at its most fractured.

12 DSC03074 copy.jpgFrom certain angles the ‘feet’ of the giant look covered in feathers, and the work’s whole effect seems one of the most disunified ever, diverse as only forms produced by a centrifuge could ever be in the real world.

The next figure, Speeding Muscles, seems less tormented or riven by conflict. The forms themselves and transitions between them are smoother and the motion is more like melting than breaking to pieces.

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Again there are surreal penetrations of one disparate form by another, in this case a skull and a multi-storey building, which can’t help looking comical in its slow collapse. Two of the striders are a stark plaster-white, while this one is the colour of pale brown sugar. We assume it has been coloured, while the other two have been left the natural colour of the material, milled foam or 3D printing.   It seems that the contrary is the case – the white is an added paint layer, and the pale sugar colour is ‘natural’.   The more granular texture of this one, which makes it look as if it were actually made of sugar, introduces the alien naturalism of a material never seen before.

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The idea of 3D printing will become more familiar, and then the laminate structure so easily visible in Synthesis–which makes me think it is the ultimate hypothetical object, more glue than primary substance, a truly metaphysical ‘thing’, ‘printed’ like a statement, whose nearest analogue in the real world is a living tissue made of words–then that self-division into a series of selves will seem the most normal thing in the world.

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The third strider, Spiral Expansion of Muscles in Movement, has trumped the more accessible lower-level transpositions and lost various resemblances to ordinary objects.   Yet Boccioni can’t escape entirely into his description of all his works as bridges between two infinities, inner and outer.   From the most comprehensive vantage Spiral Expansion still looks a lot like a muscular human body taking off its clothes, a more complex and articulated stage of existence than a nude just lying around, but another conglomerate that hasn’t really found a use for its complexity.

One of Anders Raden’s other projects gives back the Venus de Milo’s missing arms, while Boccioni removes the arms entirely from his figures, as largely extraneous to pure concepts of human dynamism. The number of copies of Unique Forms has crept up since the 1960s and is now hard to calculate, but Boccioni never pursued the idea of multiples, as Matt Smith has done for some time on his website, offering various sizes of one of the striding figures he has reconstructed. The display at the Estorick included a set of small models of all four striders, reproduced to a consistent scale and laid out in a diagonal line to make comparisons easier.  I wondered afterward how Boccioni would feel on seeing his difficult journey reduced to toy size.

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*This appears to be only the latest version of the sculptures’ fate. They’ve also been destroyed by a violent storm after the open-air exhibition of 1916, or turned over to the sculptor Virgilio Brocchi, whom Boccioni had portrayed in an important transitional work, who negligently let workmen clear them (Boccioni’s sister’s account). Further inconsistencies, like the various dates assigned to the destruction, remain to be sorted out by further research.

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Fourth reconstruction: Empty and full Abstracts of a Head, 1912/ 2019

 

Early Paolozzi: Hollow Gods

 

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For a few years in the mid 1950s Eduardo Paolozzi stumbled into a magical zone where he got closer to the roots of sculpture (and of poetry) than any of his contemporaries.

He was a self conscious, but not a particularly intellectual artist. In his collages of the late 1940s he played with references to Hellenistic sculpture in violent activity or tangled groupings. Apparently he wasn’t too interested in archaeology, but he was profoundly drawn to ideas of physical ruin and dreamed of contemporary objects that had been mysteriously buried and then unearthed.

The paper collages can be a lot of fun, but in this thrilling little exhibition at Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert in Bury Street they seemed a trivial backdrop to the depths of his sculptures, sculptures whose relations to surrealism were deeper and harder to fathom than the obvious ones of the paper work.

untitled 54 collage w screenprint 1951? DSC02843 copy.jpgPaolozzi himself drew attention to the diversity of his sources, even reading a list during a lecture at the ICA to show the whimsical range of all the various objects which had caught his eye. It’s amusing and deliberately alarming, but it sets us barking up a lot of wrong and non-existent trees.

Here is his full list, of which we can feel Paolozzi getting tired before he has finished:

Dismembered lock/ toy frog/ rubber dragon/ toy camera/ assorted wheels and electrical parts/ clock parts/ broken comb/ bent fork/ various unidentified found objects/ parts of a radio/ old RAF bomb sight/ shaped pieces of wood/ natural objects such as pieces of bark/ gramophone parts/ model automobiles/ reject die castings from factory tip sites/ CAR WRECKING YARDS AS HUNTING GROUNDS.

12 paolozzi figure 57 DSC02830 copy.jpgThe trouble is that none of these things are there any more in the sculpture, only impressions such as you might capture in hot wax or castings in a single material that levels out the variety, as if you had buried them all in the same earth (or metal, for they are now all uniformly a messy, unbeautiful bronze). So they are like the things in Wallace Stevens’ poems, tantalising ghosts of their sisters in ordinary reality or even worse, barely recognisable, partly overlaid by something else, no longer nameless because turned to liquid and run out across the flat background sheet. And many of Paolozzi’s ‘things’ are only parts of things—handles, tubes, eyes (as in hooks and eyes), washers, circuit boards, many of them only vaguely familiar to un-mechanical man.

12 paolozzi figure 57 DSC02837 copy.jpgIn some sense it is a true entry into this hidden realm of Paolozzi’s activity to plunge right into the phantasmagoric textures without allowing an overall orientation to start with, but it is also a misrepresentation because you do recognise the figure before you get swamped by the detail, which may be the essential experience of these works, but isn’t the starting place.

There have been times when I wished all the pieces had nice clear names like the first two do—Bird or Table–only bird in a travesty-sense, or table like a children’s toy, but starting out comfortably at home and not adrift.

2 paolozzi table 49 DSC02823 copy.jpgSo I set about naming the strange beings: limping man, hideous puckered man, triangulated man (or lopsided man, semaphore man, glued-together man, splat-man—all names for one of my favourites, so a good place to start). He is off-centre, deliberately so, and seems to be sliding sideways. I can’t explain why this unworkable geometry is so compelling, or why I love the idea of an uncountable number of pieces so unreliably bound together.

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When you step to one side and get an end-on view it’s almost incomprehensibly different, an unexpectedness which happens so reliably in walking round these works that it comes to define them.

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8 Robot 56 DSC03300 copy.jpgThere’s Robot, whom I know as toga-man or Roman senator, who unfurls a scroll in front view but shocks us from the side and behind where he looks uncannily like Snoopy the cartoon-dog, but then you notice punctures in the dog’s head which allow you to thread the object like a Chinese landscape on a scroll, where you get lost in a series of miniature interiors.

9 paolozzi shattered head 56 DSC02908 copy.jpgThere are sculptures to which accidents seem to have happened, like Shattered Head, for whom I’ve invented a narrative, in which he was intact and harmonious to start with, but was dropped on a hard surface and smashed, after which he was carelessly reassembled, so that the openings in his face are no longer in the right places, but we read them as eyes and nostrils anyway, now grotesquely misplaced as we have sometimes seen with badly wounded veterans.

9a damaged warrior 56 DSC02912 copy.jpgThere’s even one called Damaged Warrior, ambiguous name—is it the sculpture or the man who has suffered? He is Truncated Man, sliced in two by a bomb or by the artist’s decision, but how could you choose to cut this torso in just this way?

Moving around him, you come to a view in which he is a cabbage unfurling at the top, most beautifully and unexpectedly, yet completely shattering the figure’s integrity. One of the greatest joys of sculpture is finding unexpected views, and with the alertest workers it often seems there is almost no end to the metamorphic, kaleidoscopic shiftiness of the unfolding reality.

9a damaged warrior 56 DSC03289 copy.jpgI can’t remember any work by other sculptors which goes further or gets separated more radically from likelihood. Yet Paolozzi soon grew tired of the endless transformations. Perhaps the various discontinuities are too great to go on thinking up new ones forever, and there’s an almost inevitable urge to return to the world of everyday possibility, but while it lasts, Paolozzi’s 5-year excursion into fully three-dimensional surrealism is without equal.

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Go on to 10, 12, 13, 14, 16–more to come, I hope

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Giovanni Pisano’s pulpit in the Cast Court at the V & A

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Something catches your eye that you’ve passed many times without seeing. Why now, suddenly?

The suddenness is wonderful and the work completely absorbing. In order to see it at all you have to block out a lot else, a diverting cacophony of other works, a jumble of forms and sizes never meant to be seen together, apparently assembled to no coordinate plan. That’s the beauty of the V & A Cast Court, of course, a host of juxtapositions only permissible because nothing here is real.

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But once you’ve singled one out, the unreality doesn’t count. The plaster isn’t dirty, but it isn’t clean—it does a reasonable job of imitating the worn and mottled look of marble. Sometimes there are signs of its having been coloured—mostly with stone colours, grey and brown. By a fortuitous twist, the roughness of plaster and traces of varnish suit this particular sculptor uncannily well, who was one of the first carvers to make something positive and expressive of irregularity and even of flaws in execution.  

Above all, my new favourite is a conglomerate and the separate parts aren’t precious individually. Not that there aren’t wonderful strokes of invention and plenty of arresting details. On that day it seemed the most gripping large work of sculpture in the world, challenging one of the most powerful plastic statements ever, the great altar at Pergamon, which it couldn’t match for scale and violence, but in narrative variety maybe it came out ahead and had the giddy spectator reaching for parallels like the dramatic profusion of all the novels of Balzac.

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The work I am looking at is Giovanni Pisano’s pulpit for Pisa cathedral executed in 1302-10 with a fair amount of studio help, a fact which makes some critics compare it unfavourably with an earlier, overlapping project by the same sculptor, a pulpit for the parish church of S Andrea in Pistoia, much smaller than this later work, with more of Giovanni’s own carving in the intimate reliefs, which are placed, as they are in Pisa, furthest from the observer.

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It seems that Pisano may have learned from the earlier experiment that the small scale work was somewhat thrown away when mounted well above head-height. So in Pisa he painted with a broader brush and put his energy into a greater proliferation of larger figures at ground level. That is where the best invention occurs in the Pisa pulpit.

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Pulpit is a seriously demeaning name for this marvelous crowd of carved figures who form a cross between a forest and a pavilion full of sculptural movement.

The whole is cylindrical in form, with a richly carved roof (the wide band that contains the reliefs) supported on 8 peripheral columns which converge on a single central support. There is a curving stair for reaching the roof attached to one end, the route which priests and deacons would use to turn the large construction into a humble pulpit, as if its whole purpose was to give them an elevated perch from which to teach and preach.

The phenomenal sculptural energy of the assemblage devotes itself to disguising the supporting columns with an ingenious set of caryatid-like beings. In two cases these are single human figures on pedestals who allow capitals to be planted on their heads.

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In the most thrilling instances – two of them, adjacent – a larger figure appears to bear the brunt but is surrounded by a crowd of four figures approaching life size. These two clusters are the most gripping or enigmatic elements of the whole, one composed of women, the other of men, many of them carrying emblematic objects, like a set of scales or a dead lion suspended upside down. The men are all accompanied by their daemons, three winged animals and an angel.

The moments before you figure out or are told what any of this means are precious, and something to hold onto, even after you have identified the four medium-sized women as Virtues and the four men as Evangelists, the larger female figure dominating the others not Charity – she suckles two infants – but Ecclesia, the Church, and the larger man, Christ.

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At the V & A Ecclesia has lost one of her main accoutrements, a big dove that whispers aggressively in her ear. This idea of inspiration from above occurs repeatedly in the smaller series of sibyls at the level of spandrels supporting the reliefs, one of which (in Pistoia) looks like the inspiration in turn of a memorable sibyl by Michelangelo on the Sistine ceiling.  Ecclesia may have got separated from her dove after the fire of 1595 when the pulpit was taken to pieces and radically deconstructed, when the parts got scrambled and relations between them were lost, at a time when other sculptural elements probably disappeared.  Interest in returning the pulpit to its original state grew in the 1860s, around the time this cast was made.  The current presentation of the work in Pisa (seen further below) dates from Bacci’s reconstruction of 1926.

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There are many satisfying symmetries buried in the scheme, one female nude and one male, the one based on a famous classical type of modest Venus, now representing Temperance (work out how), the other an unclassical, anxious Hercules, wiry not beefy, a striking antithesis to the familiar Neapolitan giant leaning on his club, worn out by carrying his huge muscles, set against our slender Hercules who contains a nervous soul.

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He is paired with St Michael, a Christian knight. They represent spiritual and worldly heroism respectively, we are told. The two are placed symmetrically in most reconstructions, but they make an odd pair. The saint is sleek and elegant. His wings take some working out and look unnervingly like living tissue. Common opinion holds that this figure cannot be Giovanni’s, and the  choice usually lands on Tino di Camaino, one of Pisano’s ablest pupils who went on to a successful career in which the smoothness of St Michael is frequently repeated.

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The earliest secure attribution to Giovanni Pisano consists of two eagles on the Fontana Maggiore in Perugia (see below) where he worked under his father Nicola. They are extraordinarily lively, engaged in harsh dialogue with each other. A similarly intense interest in the life of beasts keeps turning up throughout Giovanni’s career. In the Pisa pulpit we have the little winged sprites trapped between the Evangelists, the oversized eagles squeezed in between female Virtues and, most alarming of all, the two lions, caryatids, looking up from the prey they are in the middle of tearing to pieces. This ferocity extends the range of emotion captured in the monument to include vivid and convincing rage. Giovanni’s animals usually convey a serious interest in the place of primitive urges in the whole territory of consciousness, not just playing around the edges of the page as in medieval manuscripts.*

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Besides the wonderful replica of one of Giovanni Pisano’s crowning works in the cast court, the V & A possesses two precious fragments securely attributed to this sculptor whom Henry Moore ranked with Michelangelo as the greatest of Italian artists. The rarest is an ivory Christ from a crucifix, in which we find both the energetic movement familiar in his work in the writhing hair played against the crown of thorns, and his characteristic focus on the expressive power of the rib cage.

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The other fragment is a bust-length piece from the projects Moore regarded as the summit of Giovanni’s achievement. These were the figures, half-figures and sculptural groups which had been exposed to the weather on the Pisa baptistry and the façade of Siena cathedral.  The effects of weathering and the modern preference for Giovanni over his father Nicola are strongly connected.  Henry Moore almost admits to reading the wear and tear visible on the outdoor pieces as a kind of fortuitous boldness, as if Giovanni’s characteristic expressionist urgings are pushed further by the weather, as if its ferocity could be attributed to the sculptor, or was, without conscious agency or intention, causing the sculptor to become more himself than ever, or calling into existence the sculptor Pisano would have been if he were Moore’s contemporary. Something similar is at work in my fierce resistance to the idea that Giovanni Pisano is a Gothic sculptor.  He is so much fresher than that, and there is something sound and true in the magic that weather has worked on the outdoor sculpture, which shows us the direction in which to push or read the indoor work to see the depths that lie there waiting to be coaxed forth by sympathetic, anachronistic eyes.

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Michael Ayrton thought the Siena figures the most philosophically ambitious and monumental in scale of all his work, a group of fourteen prophets and sibyls in dialogue and contention with one another, passionate, visionary drama of immense historical and psychological scope. The V & A’s chunk of the Hebrew prophet Haggai from that facade is a powerfully expressive piece in which discoveries made earlier in the project about how to convey intense meaning and precise impressions over distance were developed further, involving bold use of the drill to show agitation of the features, and especially the beard, which revealed the movements of the soul.

Along with these bold textural effects went the famous tensed and craning neck, which Moore was perhaps first to intuit was more than a means of projecting the head beyond the parapet on a façade, but a novel expression of a figure’s intellectual fire as well.  Pisano brought this discovery down from the higher reaches of buildings and we find it again in Ecclesia and a couple of her Virtues.

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And we even come upon a miniature equivalent of bold and sketchy textures for conveying expression from afar on the smaller scale of the relief, admittedly more tellingly present on the pulpit in Pistoia than in Pisa.

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Giovanni Pisano was a complex and fascinating character, revealed most nakedly in two features which were completely omitted when the V & A cast of his Pisa pulpit was made, long inscriptions which remain ambiguous and difficult to interpret to this day. The upper one, which appears just below the reliefs, is generally regarded as boastful. The second, longer and running at floor level, is seen by Pope-Hennessy as a complaint lodged against an envious world. Ayrton reads it very differently, as a despairing confession of failure by an artist who has fallen short of an unattainable goal. Did he end frustrated and defeated by the world, or tragically uncertain of his own genius?

 

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The two inscriptions are printed in full, in Latin and English translation, in Pope-Hennessy’s Italian Gothic Sculpture.  The translation of the second inscription in Ayrton’s Giovanni Pisano Sculptor, a rewarding collaboration with Henry Moore and an Italian photographer, does not come out in the same place and isn’t even spoken by the same imagined speaker. 

*One of the most surprising items in the Pisani literature is a 9-page analysis of the extra lion footprints on the lion’s pedestal, signs of a struggle, according to the authors.  Palozzi, L & Bergkvist, G, 2018, ‘A brief cross-disciplinary study of lion paw prints in Giovanni Pisano’s Pisa Pulpit (1302–10): On the seventh centenary of Giovanni Pisano’s death’, Source (notes on the History of Art), vol. 37, no. 4, pp. 215- 224. https://doi.org/10.1086/699963

Trying for the most ferocious illustration, I inadvertently chose the lioness.  My own inspection of these wonderful animals had not extended as far as the ground they stand on.  With understandable satisfaction, the authors of this article observe that they seem to be the first in its 700 years of existence to notice these features of the lion’s marble pedestal: two complete footprints, one facing in the lion’s direction of travel, the other backward, and various signs of the scuffle with the prey impressed in the soft soil, apt at recording such marks.  They analyse both the accuracy and the purposeful inaccuracy of this lion’s anatomy, and make a fascinating case for the significance of the two paw-prints in the history of art.  They see them as Giovanni’s way of releasing his lion from its limited role as a support for a pulpit by suggesting an existence for him outside the frozen posture over his victim.  The prints encourage us to imagine him moving as we do freely through the grove.  These easily overlooked traces of the activity of the lion, perhaps an afterthought of the sculptor’s, can be seen as one of his boldest subversions of the conventions of liturgical equipment, and a source of guilty enjoyment to those who happen to notice them.  Once again, Giovanni Pisano is moving toward freeing the artist and his work from subservience to a patron, the Church.

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Neither the makers nor the later keepers of the plaster cast seem to have noticed or taken care to preserve these paw-prints, which have evidently got further scuffed and filled in over time. Recent photographs of the indentations in the marble original in Pisa show another kind of defacement, which has smoothed whatever Pisano carved into a series of  blob-shaped hollows, in which it is remarkable that Palozzi and Bergkvist could recognise the lion’s prints.

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Fig. 3. Giovanni Pisano, lion hunting his prey, 1302–10 (top view with detail of paw prints below). Carrara marble; print A: 5 ⅛ in. (13 cm); print B: 4 . in. (12 cm). Pisa Cathedral. Photographs: Ivan Bianchini.  The detail shows the metacarpal pad (MC) and the pads of digits II–V of paw print A, and the metatarsal pad (MT) and the pads of digits III–V of paw print B.

Translation/ explanation of caption: Metacarpal = front paw, metatarsal = back paw.  The two prints almost touch at their back edges.  The left-hand, front-paw print faces inward toward the lion’s body, pointing upward toward 10 o’clock; the right-hand, rear paw points downward toward 4 o’clock.  The front paw is 5 inches wide; the rear paw 4 inches.  Unless the whole thing was a private joke, when new the prints must have been more detailed, and more recognisable.

It is a detail, and a small piece of the puzzle, but one more sign of Giovanni Pisano’s study of his subjects from life, centuries before this became commonplace.

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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.

DSC08733.jpgThere 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