Hiding in plain sight: Paula Rego murals at the National Gallery

 

DSC03553 rego murals copy.jpgWhat a surprise to find these hiding on the back wall of the restaurant in the Sainsbury wing, a space that seems too low for them. Or does the feeling of spatial uncertainty spring from the intricate jokes buried in Rego’s teeming images, expressed in the alarming range of sizes she likes to play with, never more than here? There are two main populations, oversized figures from the artist’s childhood or 19th century Portugal—I can’t tell which—and another set who’ve shrunk to smaller than dwarves’ tininess under the influence of minute stories on blue Portuguese tiles which keep turning up, leftovers from an earlier stage when Rego thought she would paint the whole scene to look as if they were blue and white tiles.

DSC03555 copy.jpgIn the end the colour scheme is stranger and more complicated than that, something close to grisaille, mainly grey, bronze and white, bronze the odd one out, like a dark flesh tone applied to figures mimicking larger than life-size sculptures in metal. These choices are partly a kind of tactfulness, not intruding too aggressively on what goes on in the room—servers and diners occupy an intermediate position between the big and small people of the mural—and a way of making clear that they’re depictions that don’t want to compete with reality.

DSC03558 copy.jpgToward the final section on the far right, tile-coloured but not tile-seeming, comes a crowded set of reminiscences of various paintings in the gallery, centuries and national schools thrown together, medieval subjects not painted medievally but in Rego-language, not banging into each other, but neatly stacked like memories in an attic or storeroom of art-historical motifs. Who is the bricoleur who could make connected sense of all this flotsam? Is that precisely Rego’s gift?

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The range of colours gets richer the longer you study it, as in the grisailles of Rembrandt or Bruegel. And the animals that always carry some of the moral in Rego are not missing. They are given a large part but not a full-size one; we find them everywhere, lurking in corners and hanging around at the edges. A largish toad is my favourite, and momentarily I have lost him. Many cranes slide elusively round columns, and the smallest spaces of all are packed with Aesop or similar stories, a wealth of which you will not reach the bottom.

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Paula Rego was the first Associate Artist at the National Gallery in London, 1989-90.  The mural, completed in 1990, is called Crivelli’s Garden, said to be inspired by one painting in particular, The Madonna of the Swallow (it’s quite a puzzle to find the resemblances) and populated, according to the artist, by people who worked at the gallery and are shown playing the parts of saints.

African sculpture — art versus anthropology

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Horrors of War & Trauma inside the Mouth

Aftermath at Tate Britain, & Teeth at the Wellcome Collection, two exhibitions on disparate themes–artistic responses to the First World War and ways of coping with a troublesome part of the body.

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Much of the time Aftermath looks like another art exhibition. It leads off with paintings like Orpen’s Grave in a Trench, a bleached-out scene long after the battle, and Roberts’ Shell Dump, France, crowded with zombie figures underground.

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But then curiosities creep in, like paper knives with shrapnel handles or ‘nail art’– patriotic icons made mainly of nails, each banged in by a different member of the public, who thus gets the illusion of contributing to the war effort. Then there are documentary photos of damage to Reims cathedral and a fascinating film of a trip over the ruins of Ypres in a balloon. I didn’t question the pictures of Reims, especially the ruined stone angel bandaged with ropes and pads which both personalises and distances destruction.

I began to wonder though when presented with old photos of second-rate decorations in the centre of Paris or plans for humdrum war memorials, especially when Lutyens’ astonishing arch at Thiepval is left out. Charles Sargeant Jagger’s No Man’s Land follows the format of a memorial, a long horizontal slab, but disrupts the convention with a scene that is above all jagged, jammed with severe and heartrending detail scratched into bronze gone grey from grief. It shows six corpses strung up on barbed wire or stretched out in mud, and a lone sentry who is taking cover among the relics of death.

No Man's Land 1919-20 by Charles Sargeant Jagger 1885-1934

Among the most uncomfortable but thrilling exhibits are Henry Tonks’ pastels of soldiers’ badly damaged faces. Jagger gets too close to what death looks like for comfort, and Tonks gets even closer, with living subjects, who are walking, breathing memorials or ruins of war. These works are redeemed by Tonks’ skill, by an unexpected artistic flair, and by sympathy which penetrates the men’s carefully controlled anguish.

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My heart sank when I came to a room called The Print Portfolio, a category which appears out of nowhere, as if we’ve run out of thematic subjects and turned to technical forms narrowly considered. It happened that two of the series were among the highlights of the exhibition, not because they fit the inappropriate category but because they were powerful. Otto Dix’s War prints gave the most nightmarish visions of all, far more interesting than his paintings, and Max Beckmann’s Hell created a kind of spatial anguish in everyday situations where all is splintered fragments.

Now comes a room that you should skip, the largest in the exhibition, full of big paintings. It is called Return to Order and constitutes a denial of the excitement generated by the preceding denser displays. It feels un-assimilated, included just because this too happened in this period, 1916-32, boundaries which look arbitrary when used to excuse the presence of forgettable work on a bigger scale than the little prints and drawings.

The limitation to France, Britain and Germany is here exposed as both too wide and too narrow. It has pushed curators to include such dire painters as Marcel Gromaire and dim Germans only present because they illustrate particular social-historical themes.   What a relief to get back to the authentic seriousness of Dada, in Grosz and Heartfield’s The Bourgeois Philistine Heartfield Goes Wild, a work of 1920 (reconstructed 1980) held over until the last room of the exhibition. It shows the human figure turned into a tailor’s dummy by modernity, with a light bulb for a head, as if it were the war-wounded in a perversely perfected form, pure prosthesis.

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Comparing Aftermath to Teeth at the Wellcome is unfair in one important way. Most of the exhibits in Teeth were never meant to be displayed to a curious public. They include models of teeth and mouths for dental students to practice on, and actual skulls containing outstanding decay or dental work in rare materials, of which photographs are politely discouraged. They also include lots of obsolete devices, some of which are mainly quaint, like drills operated by a foot pedal, while others now seem instruments of torture, like heavy metal ‘keys’ for yanking out teeth with a sudden twist.

The energy and fun of Teeth comes largely from abstracting these objects from their normal locations, a transposition which changes them utterly. There’s often a dose of  the surreal, even Dada, when they move from the world of work to the realm of play, where most of the Tate’s exhibits started out.

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The closest crossover came when we met another mechanical man with a smooth wooden skull implanted with obscure metal devices and genuinely carious teeth who, like the Heartfield mannequin, sat on a spindle or post, which brought him up to normal human height and tempted you to endow him with human traits.

Enormous model teeth with cave-like hollows for demonstrating different kinds of filling are here just creatures from nightmares, material for stories. Sometimes you wonder if the Gothic element in a howling face wasn’t relished by the original fabricator. Maybe there has always been an almost clinical enthusiasm for certain kinds of horrendous but unthreatening pain. This head, which calls up the mad researches of the 18c Austrian sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, seems prepared to drown analysis in feeling.

DSC02435 copy.jpgDeciphering the spirit in which the Wellcome’s objects were collected would be an absorbing study. A fantastic intent surfaces more than occasionally. Among my favourites were a poster showing the furthest nightmare of a user of the old kind of toothpaste tube that split or fractured easily, resulting in mock carnage that takes unspeakable humanoid form.

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Next to it came the unsettling magnification of a decayed tooth into a wonder of the ancient world. A dentist once explained to me why what goes on in the mouth feels so much bigger than it is, but it seems self centred to dwell as we do on the affairs of these little hidden universes, which, like the Colosseum, occur in storeys and arched shapes.

DSC02428 copy.jpgLike the Tate, the Wellcome tempts you to keep going when the exhibition is over, straying into other rooms wondering what you will find there, perhaps another instrument of torture, like the early X-ray machine that resembles a treadmill turned on its side

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or another Surrealist juxtaposition in a ball-gown decorated with a huge collection of contraceptive pills in their plastic bubbles, enough for 26 years of daily doses, someone’s calculation of how many fertility-suppressing tablets a woman would need to take in a lifetime, reduced or elevated here into a bewitching glitter.

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Aftermath at Tate Britain, Millbank until 23 September 2018

Teeth at the Wellcome Collection, Euston Road until 16 September 2018 (admission free)

 

 

The Bhagwan

I met the Bhagwan first in London. Every night at midnight a small group dressed in red went down our street laughing maniacally. They seemed possessed, but conveyed at the same time that they knew what they were doing. They were followers of an Indian guru with their local headquarters in a nearby street. At the time I assumed they were just on their way home from a meeting; now I wonder if it wasn’t something more sinister.

Later I heard their leader, the Bhagwan Rajneesh, on the radio. He had a hypnotic voice and drew out the ends of words with a hiss like the snake in Disney’s Jungle Book. He was preaching freedom while casting a spell to which you might submit.

Now, thirty-three years after the Bhagwan’s most ambitious venture imploded in a remote American location, along come two complementary versions of the history of the cult and the debacle in Oregon. There’s a six part Netflix series called Wild Wild Country with a large cast of outlandish characters you might think it would take a novelist to invent. And there’s a soberer and more compact version from the Oregon Historical Society which talks to an almost entirely different set of locals and a more mainstream group of cultists.

The story begins in India with a successful ashram headed by an ex philosophy professor who attracts well heeled Westerners, who throw everything they have into the pot. We get a sanitised version of why they need to leave India. Later, large scale tax fraud is floated as the stimulus. Anyway, Oregon is selected as the destination, to which the Bhagwan absconds without telling his followers he is leaving. They have bought a huge ranch for which they have extensive plans and soon find themselves in conflict with the nearby town of Antelope, population 40. The Rajneeshis despise the locals, which they don’t trouble to conceal. They soon outnumber the natives and peace and love give way to oppression.

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The star of the Netflix series is not the Bhagwan but someone few viewers will have heard of, his deputy Ma Anand Sheela. She is physically attractive and alarmingly intelligent and energetic. As time goes on she reveals darker sides, more than one. The most wonderful feature of the series is the powerful suspense it creates about the characters and where their warring impulses will lead them next. Inevitably the most profound conundrums are posed by the cultists, but there are enigmas among townspeople and officials too.

Two of the most articulate cultists, a young Australian woman and an American lawyer, speaking in the present, keep us in perpetual doubt about whether or how much they ever got out from under the spell. However many explanations one comes up with for how so many intelligent people succumbed to the Bhagwan’s persuasions, it remains a puzzle without a solution, or at least without a remotely palatable one.

 

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How could the 1960s and the expansion of consciousness and greater openness to experience which they brought have spawned the essentially totalitarian attitudes of cults? ‘Extremes meet’ was Coleridge’s favourite proverb: freedom’s excesses are adjacent to slavery, it seems. The happy grins of the Bhagwanites call up in me a mixture of envy and mistrust, and share something with the calmer stares of lobotomised patients.

The Bhagwan himself remains an enigma to the last. His smile looks witless judged by the standards of the world. Even intelligent disciples find his enthusiasm for Rolls Royces a lovable trait, which they feel compelled to indulge. For me, it rules him out as a spiritual teacher. He was wise to keep quiet for most of the time in Oregon. When he unleashes his ire against the disloyal Sheela his unexpected coarseness is shocking. The morning after her departure he turns up fully informed of her crimes, hidden from him before. Now he judges her regime a fascist state and relaxes the main rules, like the red clothing and his own sanctity. Collapse is bound to follow: god has come out as an unbeliever.

 

Harry’s ‘Spider’ again

Just had the unlikely idea of mounting a new assault on Harry’s poem every morning, for a couple of reasons. Because I was defeated yesterday and fell into a patchwork of quotation and line by line description which if carried on would end up longer than the poem and make this very untedious work tedious.

Because, even more, I felt the poem would be spoiled if you said right out what it was about, like knowing the identity of the murderer too soon in a detective story. How to preserve the marvelous sensation of being at sea with a huge set of unfixed possibilities, without keeping too much uncertainty for most readers’ tastes? Maybe by the third or fourth assault you could say what you thought the poem was about – that The Spider was an account of a drug trip which lasted around four hours (as the poem told you near the end), though one of the strongest impressions it left you with was a rush of sensation with no gaps between. Above all else it was experience unrolling in front of you at natural speed, or as they say nowadays, ‘in real time’.

Someone must already have written that book On Difficulty which I have long wanted to write*, which would explain and justify the fascination with works of art like puzzles that hid themselves and needed disentangling, disentangling that you might or might not actually buckle down to. Sometimes, as with late Geoffrey Hill, you could almost count the number of specific allusions you weren’t penetrating, but still insisted on rushing past, not wanting to lose momentum and buoyed up by the amount you were not getting, because there wasn’t time or because the writer hadn’t bothered to name the subject of a whole section, because he knew there was a special pleasure in grasping a structure without knowing what it was the structure of.

The Spider isn’t obscure in the way The Waste Land is, an elaborate structure worked out, then deliberately buried, and waiting there for the reader to disinter. Harry’s poem isn’t premeditated to nearly that degree, isn’t nearly so gnomic. The Spider feels more accidental, at the mercy of chance thoughts and especially of associations stirred by the last thought that lead on to the next one.

Images follow each other in an unforeseen order, yet are at the same time the record of an experience, narrating an afternoon, in a place teeming with other presences, yet we’re sure there’s no one else there—it’s the teeming brain of the poet.

harry fainlight 2.jpgA future assault might tackle the relation of Harry’s sad life to the poem. Is it, as I sometimes think, not just the record of a freak episode located in a moment far back in time, but an accurate picture of his mental life in the present? Or, more exactly, a sketch of what his life had become under the spell of the ruinous drugs he had needed to travel to New York to subject himself to?

I hadn’t known Harry before the drugs, in those Sussex days when he was an outstanding cricketer, unimaginable by the time I knew him (only slightly, just barely). By then he made such a strong impression of a delicate mechanism which, though ruined now beyond a doubt, was still capable of striking insights. One day he looked at our cat-flap with its rounded corners and decided it was where the TV had gained entry to the house.

I take this observation as a loose fragment of an unwritten poem, the kind of thing that The Spider strings together in almost unmanageable density. Maybe the trouble with the poem is that it is too pure, too undigested, and that its transformations happen with a speed impossible for ordinary consciousness to keep up with. It sounds wonderful that sentences should change their subjects and objects their shapes from one word to the next, continually. But maybe there is just too much going on in this poem. And maybe this is part of what went wrong for Harry, that his idea of poetry and of himself as a poet demanded that every moment take place at peak intensity, leading to an exhaustion that was truly permanent.

 

*George Steiner published an essay On Difficulty in 1978, which traces a line of modernist obscurity through Michelangelo, Góngora and Wallace Stevens (Mallarmé a constant presence throughout), to end in Heidegger and Paul Celan.

‘The Spider’, or the case for incoherence

Harry Fainlight’s The Spider is a poem in the way that Willem de Kooning’s paintings of the late 1940s are pictures. It starts in a room, with a speaker looking at the thread of a spider’s web hanging from the ceiling. But then all hell breaks loose, and the dangling thread (without an actual spider anywhere to be seen) spawns a whole host of monsters, beginning with an ominous quotation about what happens when spiders are fed a certain drug–is it the one the speaker has just taken? This sentence doesn’t hold still but rewrites itself twice as nonsense, nonsense full of smirking lewdness (Monsters 2 & 3).

Then the radiator throbs as if with a huge entrapped insect trying to get out, which reminds the speaker of the giant spider which his tape recorder became ‘last time’ when his voice shook a shadow on the ceiling like a fly caught in its web. His stomach throbs now and he longs in capital letters to vomit up a spider. He would feel better afterward and stagger weakly back up onto his legs and walk away, and so would the spider, in the very same phrases.

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The poem is like one of de Kooning’s paintings in the way it is fragmentary, suggesting much and completing little. References tumble over each other and collide. Something like frenzy is the dominant mode. Certain forms in the painting are almost recognisable, borrowings from cartoons or other low sources, like the spotted dog sitting bolt upright in the lower left corner. The poem’s equivalent is elusive traces of familiar clichés. Which of the two is harder to pin down or be sure that one has comprehended? Could it be that the greatest feat of both poem and painting is to resist analysis and elude the reader or the looker in some deep and final way? De Kooning has an advantage here. His forms are inevitably more incomplete and more obscured by smudges and interference from nearby bodies than anything made of recognisable words can ever be. On the other side, the painting has the comprehensibility of being there all at once and thus not reliant on our keeping hold of parts which have already disappeared.

Harry and the spider are indistinguishable or not easily disentangled. He has an ulcer which is the centre of a web and wants to speak, vomit, be unraveled. The ulcer has twists like ‘this writing–the sick clutches of my signature… all its wrinkles of old age and tiredness that make a kind of brain—for what is a brain but certain muscles contorted into the stratagems of their tiredness. AN ULCER IS THE BRAIN OF COMMERCE.’

I have now got myself completely tangled in the web of the poem. I thought I could pick out a few of the threads and give a sharper sense of its movement than by external commentary. One of its most wonderful features is its lack of continuity, which also makes it hard to keep up with or describe. Its own phrases or its most insubstantial events seem to influence or determine what will happen next.

The ulcer has layers or ‘twists’, like the writing so far. Writing calls up handwriting, and your signature which is a form of you, which looks old because it is twisted or ‘wrinkled’ and not unlike the brain in layout, the brain now seen as the most contorted and inflexible of bodily tissue. This line of thought ends in a dreary capitalized aphorism, which almost swallows the speaker, who is saved by a series of lips breaking out on his hands, which might be able among them (as pronouncers of words) to think up a name for what is happening, which would help the speaker keep the first stab of pain to the scale of ‘a tiepin or the chirp of a bird outside, and not, or not yet the birth pang of this monster inside me kicking to get out’.

Giving birth is an overarching figure in the poem, seen most often as a hideous eruption, but the speaker can also imagine being born as an adorable young female spider or returning home as ‘a fat successful old spider.’ Contented visions are liable to turn sour, though, and sinking back into the ‘concentric pleasure of being a spider’ doesn’t last.

The Spider ends where it began, with the light bulb on the ceiling, which looks at him ‘like some Deva’s asshole—its rays just aching to be spread—to be opened out into some huge, gruesome Vision of the Universe, which common decency rightly forbids.’ It is typical of the piece that the most comprehensively gloomy statement picks itself up and relishes a final flippant flash of wit.

Now when it is too late I wish that instead of falling in too easily with the ragged style of the poem (much more exhilarating in the poem, which is in reality not anything so orderly as a poem), I had got serious about showing how thoroughly The Spider breaks down the continuity of the web and keeps the reader continually off balance with a series of devices I have left uncharted.

 

I’ve read this poem in a samizdat copy, so I am unsure about line divisions. I would like to include the entire text in the blog but have no permission to do this. I will try again tomorrow…

 Willem de Kooning. Asheville, 1948, Phillips Collection, Washington

Modern works from the Brera, Milan at the Estorick

 

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This was the most enjoyable small exhibition I can remember. It’s partly the domestic scale of the spaces at the Estorick Gallery in Islington, partly too the modest scale of the paintings, and maybe something un-doctrinaire and playful in the way most of them approach the task.

It’s just luck which painting you start with, but it can make a difference. Sironi’s The Lamp shows a plump tailor’s dummy in high heels adjusting a lamp hanging over a table. It hovers somewhere between Cubist rigour and a homely interior. The next Sironi tries something else entirely, a telescoped fragment from a city street dominated by a big motor car jammed against impressions of architecture, a more typical Futurist subject but not quite rigorous enough to qualify. This is what I’ve always liked about Sironi, that he doesn’t entirely believe in whatever mode he has adopted, like the almost-Fascist classicism that comes later, for which he is mainly remembered now.

Next came Filippo de Pisis (a pseudonym) entirely new to me and a favourite, who does Surrealist subjects in an exuberant sensuous style that is a send-up of Surrealist dread. Marine Still Life with Shrimps does take place on a beach, just about. Wonderfully impressionistic open clam shells and shrimps are displayed on tilted sand-coloured rectangles and also on the bits of ordinary beach that are allowed to remain around the edges. De Pisis is also present in an almost cartoon version of the façade of St Moise in Venice (already a cartoon in reality), where frenzied (the catalogue’s word) Baroque brushwork practically dissolves the subject.

With de Pisis goes Ottone Rosai who enjoys the paint in which he renders his Cubist glasses and bottles too much to stick to his agenda of deconstructing reality, which is thwarted too by his full blooded palette. The serious backup in this first room was provided by Carlo Carrà whose de Chirico-like interiors come with their own brand of wit: mannequins are connected by lead pipes into a general system of heating or circulation. An earlier Carrà, Rhythms of Objects, perhaps the most demanding picture in the show, outdoes the Cubists in its impossible density of ordinary objects multiplying themselves for unfocused eyes. Are they crockery on a table, or fragmentary human figures, or a combination of the two?

Equally enigmatic is Gino Severini’s Le Nord-Sud which mixes the indoors and the outdoors, as a ride across the city on an elevated train usually does. Here sudden incisions in reality let you see through to fluffy seascapes sliced through by orderly ranks of sharks, or dark interiors mistaken for tunnel entrances. Somewhat difficult to pick out and superimposed on all the hints of journeys are two sedate matrons with effusions of broken lace at their throats.

Marino Marini’s bronze head of Emilio Jesi, collector of all these paintings, presides over the second room. It is mounted at a pronounced tilt and exudes a genial calm. This is a less serious room, or is it just the children’s tables for sketching and colouring-in which make it feel this way? For here we meet a powerfully spiritual or at least ectoplasmic Giorgio Morandi, whose bottles are transparent or luminous and coated with a mysterious dust at the same time. One little pitcher emits a strange pink glow, at least around its neck, which makes it look something like flesh.

DSC04004.jpgThere are other Morandis, as well as the whole room of Morandi etchings and drawings from the permanent collection on the top floor. There’s another Sironi landscape of a desolate urban scene crossed by railway tracks with three promising industrial portals in the second Jesi room. This is matched by one upstairs, smaller and even bleaker. Two artists not included in the Brera selection, Medardo Rossi and Renato Guttuso, are also up there, permanently, the first in a richly grimed wax sculpture of a moment glimpsed in a city street, the second in a characteristically crude but gripping work, a dead proletarian hero in a hospital bed. Is it just my imagination or is Guttuso thinking of Mantegna’s similarly foreshortened dead Christ? Guttuso’s shroud is a riot of angular folds and colours—green, purple and ochre all lurking in the monotonous white of the sheets.

DSC04002 guttuso.jpgThe biggest painting in the second Brera room is Mario Mafai‘s Butchered Ox which shows two oxen rendered in what the label calls an ‘intensely expressive and emotionally painterly style.’ But I had to put Soutine’s much wilder versions of the same subject out of my mind to enjoy the abandon of this one. The catalogue prints Butchered Ox upside down. The tradition of inverting modern paintings, deliberately or inadvertently, is a venerable one.

This instance made me turn the catalogue upside down to look at Mafai the right way up and I couldn’t help carrying on, like a thwarted Baselitz, with the rest of the collection. It’s a better joke with some than with others. Almost all the paintings I have singled out survive the experiment well, especially the Carràs and the still lives generally. A zaniness which is always there in Morandi, not far beneath the surface of these quiet, obsessive pictures, is revealed even more clearly when you invert them.

Simon Schama Civilisations, episode 1

A disconcerting start, Schama talking about civilisation as collective memory while aerial images flash by of ancient public spaces in desert landscapes. Is it a version of that trick of modern cinema, a bit of the action before the film remembers to introduce itself? There’s a noticeable urgency in Schama’s voice and in a few seconds we see why.

Now come shocking images of a temple blown up with explosives and men taking sledgehammers to statues in a museum. Then the story of the guardian of the site at Palmyra who wouldn’t tell where the antiquities were hidden and details of his gruesome death. In rushed hindsight the disorienting plunge into the material at the beginning seems a brilliant stroke, and Palmyra will cast its shadow over all that follows: civilisation’s survival is precarious, and all civilisations come to an end. The episode at Palmyra can stand as an allegory or emblem of that.

Then we’re off looking for beginnings at the tip of Africa where our species first appeared, finding them in a small lump of iron-rich red ochre, on which is inscribed a repeating pattern from 70 thousand years ago, which Schama insists, against the archaeologists, is the first stirring of the impulse to make new forms that drives all art.

Then a brilliant link via red ochre to the cave at Altamira 7000 miles away in Spain where the same pigment is blown and painted onto walls to represent animals mythical to us but familiar to the first visitors to this place. We’ve been in the cave for a while marveling at more animals and imprints of human hands when we stumble on someone like one of the hired hermits in 18th century English gardens. He’s a scientist from the University of Huddersfield, weirdly illuminated by his computer screen and studying the cave’s echoes because he believes the paintings were originally accompanied by music. Now a brief concert of prehistoric music played on bull-roarers and hollow bird-bones.

Picasso is one of the modern artists who have praised their earliest predecessors, and Schama draws a thrilling parallel between Picasso’s bulls, almost a primitive obsession of his, and the drawings in the caves. This outlandish comparison is sprung on us through the evidence of our eyes—the resemblance between the two bulls is uncanny, and this sudden glimpse of the continuity of art creates something like religious awe.

Now we move to little objects, a lion man from Germany, a tiny woman’s head in bone (birth of the idea of beauty, Schama says, but that was already there among the animals), a scene of combat on almost microscopic scale on a gemstone found recently at a new excavation somewhere in Greece. This object is hard to see, hard to grasp the whole of, and all the more magical for this trick of slipping away.

I think it was at about this point that we begin to jump more promiscuously from culture to culture. The photography at Petra does a marvelous job of putting you there, showing crevasses from just above and deep inside, perfectly keyed to Schama’s words about the improbability of such elaborate culture in this place. He has great fun conjuring up the luxury resort built on the trade in expensive perfumes and attracting the different races of the region.

We also make a stop in China at a recently uncovered site which yields a forest of bronze heads of various sizes, grotesque and strangely compelling with their huge, wedge-shaped eyes. All in all, there is such a flood of impressions, such a trove of marvelous objects never seen before, that it would be impossible to give a coherent account without watching the whole pageant again. The effect is magical, magical and unencompassable, and ought to waken the most jaded palate and worn out eyes.

I was thrilled by my first viewing of this and hesitate to mention what didn’t seem exactly right to me. I was brought up on Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, which I am watching alongside the new Civilisations, a name I thought trendy until I got a taste of how gigantically wide the new vision is; that exhilarating scope justifies the ‘s’, also necessary in a practical way to keep the two series straight. In anticipation I imagined Schama following the new normal for presenters, crowding the objects they talk about, walking breathlessly along while reciting carefully crafted text, whispering when pretending to respect some creature nearby, waving their arms, talking about their excitement or how lucky we are to have gotten into this exclusive location. Worst of all, standing in front of the work we came to see.

It was a great relief to find Simon Schama behaving more like Kenneth Clark than current presenters, as someone in awe of what he is talking about, not in chummy familiarity with it. His gestures weren’t the exaggerated dumb-show you sometimes get and are probably just what he would do if he were lecturing. But in the presence of the things themselves, I don’t need for presenters to supply animated movement, distracting me from the painting or building. Mostly Schama was not getting in the way, except when he stood behind the glass case the lion-man was in, so that you saw the sculpture and the much larger man behind, like a reflection in a mirror. This work is not humanised by measuring it against a visitor; it is momentarily degraded.

The choice of unfamiliar sites instead of old standbys, Altamira instead of Lascaux, Calakmul instead of Palenque, is invigorating and wakes one up. The sense of cultural production as part the rest of life, workers in Chinese fields, old Mayans and present Mayans in the same territory, both anchors and widens our view. Is it fanciful to think that Civilisations has learned from BBC nature programmes?

The first programme bodes extremely well for the series, which can be as inspiring in its different way as its predecessor. And yet… will there continue to be such studied avoidance of the most wonderful sites of all? Lascaux is far richer than the others and one of its marvels, the ‘Chinese pony’ did seem to flit quickly across the screen. In the course of writing that sentence it occurred to me that Lascaux has been so ravaged by visitors’ breath that only a replica is now shown, and that Palenque or Tikal which I would put in place of Chalakmul, are over-visited already. Still, the very best that these cultures have done is what got us interested in them in the first place. Leaving that out runs the risk of removing the soul from the body.

Since then I’ve seen Schama’s second programme, where the sequence of examples is even more eccentric and reaches a nadir of dull Dutch ordinariness with Jan van Goyen, whom Schama apologises for and then dwells on. The episode is redeemed in the end by Ansel Adams, whose luminous photos of Yosemite can support the unexpected weight Schama loads them with, leaving us in his debt again.