A visit to an artist’s studio

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How many times we’ve ended becalmed among the roads across the fens, that all look the same, straight as parallel rifle shots on the map but rising and falling like sea-swells when you are on them. This time we arrive without getting lost but don’t recognise the car parked by the outbuilding that used to be our friend’s studio. I want to read something into the colours of these cars, the old mustard-coloured Mercedes, or now a sleeker one in grey-blue, as if they’d been chosen like the colours in her paintings.

I had been looking forward to seeing Bette Spektorov’s paintings in a big exhibition in Cambridge in 2017.  Then she called it off.  So the only way to see the work of this artist, now in her eighties and unwilling, or in some way unable to show, was to visit her studio, which is why on that weekend in October my wife and I were back again in the Lincolnshire fens where Spektorov has lived for forty years.

What I had not expected was that, though welcoming and ready to talk about the paintings on the walls of the rambling old vicarage, she was not willing or perhaps able to go into the studio where the rest of her paintings were collected.  It was as if an iron door had come down, she said: she couldn’t go with me, and I was on my own, without a guide.

There were paintings everywhere, frozen in place like the inhabitants of the castle where a spell has fallen, stacked on chairs and against the walls, obstructed by easels and little tables loaded with tubes of paint, while underfoot, sticks of pastel were being ground into the concrete. I could see a few paintings mounted on the walls, but I couldn’t get to them over the piles that blocked the way.

Through the most distressing circumstances I was prevented from finding out anything about the paintings except what I could see: their intentions, their sequence, even their names–all were now hidden.  Thrown off stride by what I didn’t know, I didn’t notice for the longest time what a wonderfully phantasmagoric way this would be of seeing the painter’s whole life as an artist unfolding before me at once.

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I started in the furthest corner of the space—was it a desire for at least a hint of method, or desperation in the face of confusion? The big picture I fixed on was like an explosion, a rich burst of colour that was at the same time shattered by strong vertical lines which broke the surface into five divisions, like a recall of the old idea of the triptych that made one thing out of three separate parts. Here motifs were repeated from one section to the next, like characters who reappear in successive scenes, but they bumped against each other and both of them were cropped. The divisions didn’t occur logically but interrupted what was taking place, as if parts of the intended scene had been swallowed up, as by a curtain hanging in folds that took no thought of what parts of the design might be lost.

This was a functional explanation of the feeling of compression you got from the picture, which seemed to show you only a fraction of what it had to say. Here I first wondered if Kandinsky weren’t just as strong an influence as the artist’s favourite painter Matisse. Kandinsky’s work of 1909-13 provided close parallels to all the swirling tale-material that had been set loose by the initial explosion which put this picture in motion.

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Next to it was one superficially similar—divided by vertical lines—but not actually much like it at all. Here the red lines traced through blue made weaker divisions and resembled plant-stems, which undercut the force of separation.

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This one is part of a series that teaches me what blue means to this artist. It is something you sink into and are enveloped by, a colour for submitting to, and I found that the longer I looked the more compelling this trellis of flower-forms became, full of slippages and elements being swallowed up.

4 DSC03725.jpgThe next blue picture is one it’s hard to get an unobstructed view of, one which looked much bluer to the eye than it did to the camera, one that has a bouquet at the centre like one of the onion-domed towers in Kandinsky’s canvases of 1910, architecture not flowers, from a Symbolist fairy tale. A duskiness in the blue, not visible to the camera, plays a big part in making this an unfathomable picture. As I stare, it turns from an orchard into a hierarchical grouping of three divinities in ascending form. There’s a ritualised order hiding here: pattern has become a spiritual fact, and an icon has materialised out of flower-shapes.

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I turn for relief from the sequence of powerful blue pictures to a small one on an ochre ground with bold forms like Japanese characters, or just as much the forms of plants as calligraphy. This one is drastically pared down, with bold shapes and only four colours. The yellow which seems a brightening in the ochre, and a subtlety in the overarching starkness, isn’t really there, but only a reflection on the glass.

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Among a jumble on the floor is one where Matisse’s parentage is most obvious, a picture made of pictures, a languorously sloping armchair in one, lemons in another. This is a canvas you would certainly include if you were doing a complete anatomy of all of this artist’s types and stages. It interests me now for another reason, because of what is peeking out from behind it, which I didn’t pay attention to then, but only later, like a clue in a detective story that no one sees the first time around. It’s a painting that will matter later but is only a sliver now.

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Instead, I’m diverted in another direction, toward a blizzard of dots, seen very slantwise.  It caught my eye by its raucousness, but when you looked harder, it wasn’t just a blizzard of dots but a tree in blossom radiating streamers of dots which formed an aura, while a fractured section to the right was like a picture of the pile-up in the studio. When this painting was fully extracted, the pile-up loomed less large. When it was seen head-on, the picture’s proportions changed. I was altogether disconcerted by how pictures changed with the time of day or what they happened to sit next to. Kenneth Clark said hanging pictures was his favourite activity, in which you are always finding things in them which weren’t visible before.

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My next discoveries were favourites of mine that Spektorov didn’t seem to have much time for. I saw them both standing on end, where it was easy to guess the right orientation with one of them, not so obvious with the other, one of the excitements of the visit, testing pictures in different orientations. I remembered that Kandinsky was given a crucial push toward abstraction by seeing a painting upside down in his studio.

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The first of the discoveries was a Biblical scene or a tense moment in an opera, in which a bearded man waves a sword over a baby dangling from his other hand. I had finally stumbled on a narrative, in rapid, careless, confident strokes, a kind of cartoon of a serious subject. I had to disentangle it from a hysterical princess in pastel who looked vaguely familiar (something by Vrubel?) for a reason I would later discover. When I mentioned the narrative subject to the artist (I still hadn’t worked out whether it was classical or Biblical) she said ‘it must be one of my Poussins’. So I looked it up and only then realised that one of the main characters was missing and would have filled the big purple void on the left, King Solomon and his throne. But perhaps he wouldn’t, for Spektorov has pared down and focused the story.

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The other discovery was a more like a wild Kandinsky when seen on its side than when it was right side up, with a mêlée of forms and a big patch of khaki-chartreuse. Both these paintings had introduced a new set of colours that I looked around for more of.

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I often circled back and paged through stacks I hadn’t got to the bottom of before. Now something made me pull out a big picture buried deep in a pile, where I’d caught a glimpse of unfamiliar colours and big blurry forms. In fact, it wasn’t until the next day that I got a really good look at it, an occasion when my wife and Bette broke the taboo and came too. I loved the rich and dusky colours that didn’t bear down or weigh on you, the combination of looseness and density, the way forms seemed about to solidify, hinting briefly at large figures or truncated cones in a monumental landscape, then dispersed again. Even the heaviest elements seem to float, full of possibility, and little is fixed. Here for once the title is scrawled on the back, and fits with the idea of loosening one’s hold—‘Come what may’.

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The picture with a name formed a satisfying conclusion to a memorable visit to the studio, but the paintings seem doomed to remain lost in the fens. What will become of them? In her frustration the artist even talks of throwing them onto a bonfire.  A friend who is an unusually sensitive photographer has offered to help archive them, which would be a first step toward getting them shown in the kind of sympathetic setting that they richly deserve.

Bette Spektorov’s work is important for its instinctive rapport with colour as a way of being in the world, and for setting an example of throwing oneself fearlessly into the visible world in its fullest, most saturated intensity.  Her exuberant mêlée of forms depicts a world constantly breaking down and re-forming in fresh shapes, drawing impartially on plant structures, fabric patterns or key moments in the history of art, and blurring old boundaries between the world and the self.

 

Mysteries of London 2: Petrie museum of Egyptian archaeology

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oceania—art of the Pacific islands

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Homage To The British Museum

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

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

 

William Empson

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anglo-Saxon at the British Library

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How to explain the extreme fascination of an exhibition which consists primarily of pages of writing, often illegible, in languages—Latin, Old English—no longer familiar. You don’t read the pages, but admire them, as feats of learning or curiosity, or industry, or survival.

It is an exhibition which replaces the idea of the Anglo-Saxons as mindless warriors, drunk in a mead-hall, with the idea of a rich intellectual and political culture connected in manifold ways to a wider European world and to places even further afield. Two scholars from Asia minor and north Africa were instrumental in breathing life into the monastery school of St Augustine at Canterbury. The image of the prophet Ezra above was left behind in Italy in the 8th century by an expiring English traveler on his way to donate the gigantic Northumbrian Bible in which it forms an illustration to the shrine of St Peter in Rome. Until modern times it languished under misidentification as Italian not Anglo-Saxon. Now it makes its first trip back to its place of origin, and the scholar surrounded by a proud display of his books can again stand for the sophistication of English culture in the 8th century.

The exhibition relishes the webs of connectedness to a wider than British world, webs partly lost and recovered by recent research, like the story of the complicated travels in France of the 8th c copy of Bede which spent a long interval in the cathedral at Le Mans before it made it back to England in the 18th century.

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Earlier Anglo-Saxon exhibitions at the British Museum (in 1984 and 1991) concentrated on art; this one casts its net wider to include many humbler sorts of literate culture like letters, wills, charters and notes on the management of a farm, arriving in the end at an overwhelming sense of how much has survived from these centuries of supposed darkness. It makes all the difference that the evidence is so tangible and all there in front of you. The earliest letter to survive from the Christian West, from Bishop Wealdhere, is there, and the label involves you, with a wonderfully clear diagram, in the process of folding it four times so that it can be sent on its way to the Archbishop. Likewise the binding of the St Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest surviving binding of a European book still attached to its original contents, is dissected and explained in CT scans and diagrams that show how the delightful three dimensional relief of the cover is built up, using rope and cotton wadding. After all, it is this book’s book-ness, not its contents, which makes it one of the Library’s most important recent acquisitions. And so the symbolism of the apparently routine decoration of its cover seems important to penetrate, a tiny chalice whose presence might easily be missed, from which all the tendrils and bulging grapes of the sacrament grow.

DSC04051 copy.jpg Recentness might also seem to count for too much in some of the most venerable exhibits, like the Binham Hoard or the Harford Farm Brooch, both named for the spots in Norfolk where they were dug up. In the series of recent finds we see the soil of England continually yielding up signs of the Anglo Saxons, and making us feel that they are in some sense still there.

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The Cuthbert Gospel was buried with St Cuthbert in the 7c, rediscovered when he was exhumed in the 11th century, but only entered wider public consciousness in 2012 when purchased by the British Library. So in its way it is newly re-exhumed, because newly connected to the present. Likewise the Harford Farm Brooch, not so unlike other brooches found elsewhere, is unlike them in touching us more closely, because no one before now could have known it. The catalogue tells me things about it that I didn’t notice in front of it, that it was clumsily repaired, with what had seemed a pretty good imitation of interlace in gold wire until it was pointed out that it doesn’t quite fit. Nor could I detect that the repairer (or botcher) had the temerity to sign the back of the brooch. I particularly liked the crushing or crinkling of the Binham bracteates and only learned from the catalogue that these were not the ravages of time, but deliberate defacements by the burier.

Both the brooch and the bracteates seem special as works of art, the brooch for the second subliminal cross at 45 degrees to the main one, which sets the design spinning; the bracteate for the faint and distorted embossing which is not, as I thought, the crucified Christ slipping downward from the grasp of God who supports him, but a skinny figure who fights a creature with a big beak.

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Among the most moving survivors of the centuries are manuscripts which suffered in the fire in Sir Robert Cotton’s library in 1731, including the only known text of Beowulf, the magical Old English epic which combines pagan monster tales from a dim Germanic past with an overlay of Christian introspection. The most wonderful survivor, visually, of that fire is a fragment of a rampant lion, avatar of St Mark from a Northumbrian Gospel* of c 700. To appreciate how precious this remnant is, you really need to start with the intact eagle representing St John from the same manuscript, displayed next to the lion in the exhibition, but luckily separated from Cotton’s fragment before the 18c.

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These animals are sometimes shown as diminutive mascots of their Evangelists, as in the Lindisfarne Gospel’s four portraits, or in the little ox perched insecurely on St Luke’s halo in St Chad’s Gospel from Lichfield, one of the most delicate and whimsical in the exhibition. The animals by themselves represent a more primitive and forbidding style of author-portrait, at their most savage over the doors of French Romanesque churches like the abbey at Moissac. The eagle in the manuscript is threatened (or protected, the common view), hemmed in and temporarily tamed by crosses coming at him from every direction, a vibrant image of a stand-off that combines the love of hypnotically repetitive pattern with the clarity of carefully deployed emptiness.

We can only guess how the lion was bounded. It looks as if the arm of a cross may survive to the left of him, so he may be set against an abstract but symbolic pattern of lines like the Echternach lion in a case nearby. The catalogue, one of the best in recent memory, interprets both images brilliantly. Bernard Meehan, the writer of this entry, detects a distorted cross in the maze-like set of lines from which the Echternach lion tries to jump free, and in the Cotton lion’s coat he recognises a pattern like flames, a fire that still smoulders in the fragment, scarlet emerging from deep brown.

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Through a wonderful initiative of the British Library, these manuscripts have become much more visible, digitised at high resolution on the Library’s website, so that now you can examine every page of them, not just the ones the books happen to be left open on for the exhibition. This includes all five carpet pages of the Lindisfarne Gospel (a detail from one of them above), five incipits, four full-page Evangelist portraits and all the pages in between. It is wonderful to see how transparent the colour is in all the tangled beasts on these pages and how feasible it has become to trace your way among the tangles as if the books were your own.

3 DSC04043 copy.jpgThe best or the worst tangle in the exhibition occurs on the famous gold belt- buckle from Sutton Hoo, appropriately because a buckle makes knots in a belt unnecessary, so the buckle is free to illustrate knots of insoluble complexity. The catalogue likens the Anglo Saxon taste for linear intricacy to the love of riddles, and praises the goldsmith for his clever devices for sorting out the puzzle. The buckle apparently depicts 13 bird-headed, snake-bodied beasts at three different scales, four of which are used up in the hook and clasp, leaving 9 for the main plate, where the writhing bodies are distinguished by different types of beading (only two of these, not nine, as far as I can see). I am left wondering whether this buckle is a riddle with or without a solution. I see the animals’ bodies and once in a while their paws, but not their heads, which have become so minimal they’re more like paper clips than animal parts, so that identifying them gives no pleasure. Perhaps this is the final test of a taste for puzzles: you need to like the ones which can’t be solved.

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In 1984 the Aedwen brooch, now named for its owner rather than its find-place, was scorned as an example of degenerate interlace, a tangle which couldn’t tie up its ends. Now its late, loose character seems its main appeal. It no longer ‘degenerates toward virtual abstraction’ but frees itself from restriction and produces a novel, shredded rendition of interlace, drawing further attention to itself for including a curse on anyone who steals it.

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Finally, there’s an example of falling out of love with the interwoven style of the eighth century where so many of the best works in the exhibition are at home,  played out within the pages of a single manuscript. It’s an Irish ‘pocket’ gospel, one of those convenient little books meant for one person. It now contains two versions of the author-portrait of St Luke, the first (8th c) hieratic and staring straight ahead but in mellow colours–wine, ochre and pale green, the second (10th c) more turbulent, whose saint is seen busily writing while sitting on the roof of a small building, overshadowed by his ox-avatar looming up from a novel cloud-substitute, a tangle of draperies like a thunderstorm. The artist is carried away by his enthusiasm for the rampant linen foliage that threatens to squeeze out the saint. It’s like a miniature reprise of the lush manuscripts of the school of Winchester like the Benedictional of Aethelwold, which formerly charmed by their exuberance but now seem to promise only a plague of acanthus filling every empty space.

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You don’t need to share my preference for the earlier phases to appreciate the depth and connectedness of the thinking embodied in this exhibition. It sets off from the Spong Man, a little clay figure or miniature Thinker with his head in his hands, now separated from the funeral urn he formed the lid of. It ends five centuries later with survivors which are even more unlikely, notes on farm management in the Isle of Ely that needed to be dismembered in order to be saved, by being concealed as stiffening in the bindings of later books. The miracle of the exhibition is to weave the odds and ends that survive into a compelling narrative, where famous treasures like the Fuller Brooch and the Alfred Jewel come to fuller life by casting light on each other. They were already beautiful; now they are alive.

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*The Otho-Corpus Gospel, code for the two owners: Otho from Cotton’s classifications for his books by classical busts, mainly Roman emperors, who sat atop his bookshelves, Corpus from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (via Archbishop Matthew Parker, a great 16c collector)

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms at the British Library, Euston Road, London NW1 until 19 February 2019

 

 

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

 

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What 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.

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In 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.

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Toward 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.