Soutine and suffering

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Soutine is a neglected outlier in 20th century art, for reasons all too obvious. He constantly disturbs the calm and balance of his subjects, and does this so relentlessly that at first he seems wilful and arbitrary. Even in still lives the furniture teeters and threatens to fall, and if the vegetables don’t slide off the table, one wonders what keeps them in place. In Soutine there are no apples or pears, reliable geometrical solids, but gnarled peppers and ageing tomatoes which are losing their shape. The plates that hold them wobble, their edges indescribably vagrant.

Much worse is to come. Soutine delights in the corpses of small animals, small enough to fit on a table. There is something unseemly about bringing them into domestic settings, food perhaps, but not quite ready for the table, like the eviscerated rabbit in the Barnes collection whose posture reminds us of a human infant warding off a blow.

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Another still life at the Barnes contains Soutine’s most involuted reference to animal suffering at the table. This is one of his most deliberately awkward pictures and includes several nearly indecipherable objects—a stiff smoked herring propped against the wall or hanging from a rope and held in place by a long-handled wooden spoon (participant in many Soutine still lives), a lumpy, twisted turquoise form that might be a kind of pitcher judging by its top, which has a lip for pouring.

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But to interpret this strange form you really need to know another Soutine of a goose with a broken neck. Then it dawns on you that the turquoise monstrosity is shown upside down, with its pedestal in the air and its top dangling below, a duck’s head with open beak held onto its body by a thread, like the doubled-over goose’s head still attached to its body by its windpipe. The Barnes still life is a picture that gets grislier the more recognisable it becomes. Its most unrecognisable bit (just to the left of the upside down duck) is the misshapen form standing up in what looks like a bread basket. Is it a primitive carving of a dwarf figure, or a twisted ginger root, or a broken fragment of bread? Is there another Soutine somewhere that shows the same object from another angle and clears up the mystery? It’s only the duck that makes us think this might be the case. Or is the contorted figure a traveler in the basket-boat which is moving out of the picture?

Soutine’s magic springs from his visceral involvement in paint, deeper than almost anyone’s but largely missing from the Barnes still life, which was only able to help us (if it did) understand something about his attitudes toward his subjects. That is a kind of instruction, but the Soutine who wins allegiance revels in paint, and the rapture that this produces silences our misgivings at the idea (for instance) of an animal brought to the table with its fur intact in order to be attacked with forks, which hold it firmly in place.

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Colours change or coruscate unpredictably, a ceaseless pulsation of life, a nature morte that is defiantly alive. The table-top comes near to matching the shape of the picture space, only slipping downward to show that there is motion after all in the motionless subject. To describe every sensation of motion in the tablecloth would take a long time. The most surprising is the wave motion of the scalloped and re-scalloped edge, which flirts with the lifeless horizontal of the bottom of the canvas.

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His involvement in paint sweeps all before it in a picture like Two Pheasants on a Table, the ultimate topsy-turvy of dead objects, where anguish and pathos are submerged or concealed in giddy sensations of motion, of the spinning and teetering table, of the flailing limbs and speaking facial expressions of the birds. As often, the colours are inappropriately and almost unbearably beautiful, blue on their backs, red on their mouths, cream on the shroud and green and ochre on the wall behind. Blurring in the forms and surroundings seems to describe our unwillingness to look straight at what lies in front of us. In this whole series of images of  animals prone and animals hanging, strung up by their necks or their heels, Soutine diminishes his subject, the death (often in conditions like torture) of creatures, by choosing animals smaller than us and canvases smaller than those favoured by most of his contemporaries. This has an untoward effect, of slipping profound material past us before we realise what is happening.

Soutine once made what seems a crucial confession. He recounted an occasion in childhood (was he 8? or 10?) when he watched a butcher wring the neck of a goose. At the moment of death he had a powerful desire to scream, and at that moment the butcher looked at him and smiled, and the cry was stifled in his throat. Soutine said that all his paintings of dead animals and cuts of meat were attempts to release that strangled cry.

So in some sense many of the paintings are repetitions of a single experience. And of course much more than that, meditations on the universal facts of death and dissolution and the local experience of cruelty.

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b3 16a 20 DSC00717 copy 2.jpgMost harrowing of all the variations on these themes are a series of dangling victims strung up in the throes of death or its bedraggled aftermath. One of the chickens uncannily resembles a familiar form of ample female nude met in Hellenistic sculpture. This one also appears to crane eagerly upward via a grotesquely elongated neck, at odds with the tranquillity of the torso beneath.

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A whole series of grotesque possibilities are explored in this series. One loaded to excess with bitter ironies appears to dance, set off against a background in two shades of blue reminiscent of fabric patterns found in Cezanne and Matisse. Soutine delivers some of his sharpest shocks from within the world of painting. They are normally comforting colours but in this setting leave you with nowhere to turn, fooled by a background into letting down your guard in front of a horror, which combines an eighteenth-century minuet (in the crook of arm, wrist and ankle) with a bloody corpse (in the virulent colours of the body).

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Others are less grotesque and more surreal, like a scene from Frankenstein’s laboratory, where a stream of ghostly bubbles escapes from the tormented body caught perhaps in the final spasm of death. The feet are dematerialised, on the way to becoming fog or smoke, and eerily beautiful. Mysterious activity goes forward, the neck caught between a threatening and mesmeric piece of machinery and a black ruff of feathers left behind in  plucking the bird. It summons up Kafka’s Penal Colony, a world which writes obscure messages on its creatures. In other paintings victims are dangled head first–a rabbit stiff like the subject of a lynching, and another turkey spread eagled on an ornate chair until its head almost touches the floor. This unlikely moment gives rise to some of Soutine’s most exuberantly Baroque handling.

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Soutine first forced himself on my notice on a visit to one of the world’s great museums,  a day full of frustration.  I was turning away from Picasso’s Three Dancers which had disappointed me by its coldness and distance, by its excessive size for what it was trying to say, and I noticed a small picture facing the Picasso that wasn’t ashamed of its paint, letting it run wild across its modest surface. It was a landscape by Soutine, and I rushed toward it, captivated by its love of paint. Not that it was just a painting about paint, without any other discernable subject, but that its meaning couldn’t be separated from its material presence. It wasn’t mainly propounding an idea or proposition. It seemed nearer to living, breathing experience than the more conceptual work on every side and I was grateful to it for having appeared at just that moment.

‘Chaim Soutine: Flesh’, an exhibition of 30+ paintings at the Jewish Museum, 5th Avenue at 92nd Street, New York, until 16 September, including all but one of those illustrated here.

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

Jacob Lawrence’s Haitian Revolution

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I am prone to a milder form of a disorder Ruskin suffered from, in the throes of which he convinced himself that he detected a hidden order in the random happenings of, say, a certain winter afternoon in Venice. So, on a recent afternoon in the British Museum I made a set of non sequiturs into a meaningful narrative. The sequence began with an anti-climax, a return visit to Nebamun’s tomb, in an obscure corner at the back of the building. I had discovered this wonder two months earlier, thinking it a new installation. Here the vividest wall paintings that survive from ancient Egypt show hunting in a marsh and dancing at a feast, well stocked with reeds, birds, an unexpected cat (every hair of whose fur stands out), plates piled high with food and unclothed dancing girls.

This small room had been my main goal, but now had nothing like the powerful effect of the day when I was the tomb’s discoverer. From this point onward, I was thinking of the exit, gave the Assyrian reliefs a distracted glance and halted only at some scanty fragments from Crete, just because we might be going there.

Then at the end of the corridor leading to the main entrance, an oversized image jumped out. It could have been a brightly lit mural like the mock-ups from Knossos I had just left behind, but in fact it was a projection which kept changing. The technique was bold, assembling flat patches of strong colour, no shading or detail to speak of, to depict violence in strangely satisfying ways.

The effect was very close to children’s cut-outs in colored paper, but a sophisticated feeling for design created exciting spaces in the flatness, as in one where a black man tied to a chair is threatened by white officers brandishing swords who form a web shrinking to a point in the distance. Or as in a troop of soldiers riding straight towards us and closing in on one of their number. It’s evident that these are not paper cut outs but paintings, so the primitive feel is deliberate, more like Picasso than a child. By now I’ve gathered that the traces of eighteenth century dress, and the uniforms with braid consisting of yellow squiggles belong to the story of the Haitian revolution of 1791-1804 and its exotic hero Toussaint l’Ouverture.

12208-842.jpgThe paintings date from 1938 and are late fruits of the Harlem Renaissance. The artist, Jacob Lawrence, had been trained in the art school in Harlem established by the movement, had seen W E B Dubois’ play about Toussaint in 1934 and then researched the subject in the New York Public Library. The series started out as 41 paintings in tempera on paper. It isn’t easy to come by reproductions of the whole set; Lawrence supervised silkscreen prints of 15 of them he considered the best. The painted versions, each only 19 by 11 inches, were used to make the ten huge projections in the British Museum display. They must be something like 9 feet by 5 on the big screen, the size of a large Jackson Pollock, and they support the enlargement brilliantly and become truly heroic images.

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In the years just before Lawrence painted them the United States had occupied Haiti for almost twenty years, from 1915 to 1934. Undoubtedly this dark history was in his mind as he meditated on the revolution and its miraculous success 130 years earlier. As another dark moment is in mine, encountering this small exhibition the day after it went up and six weeks after the current American president called Haiti a ‘shithole country’ in the course of an argument against allowing immigrants from such countries to remain.

Unpacking my library

I don’t know exactly when charity shops became a familiar sight on British high streets. Probably not long after the millennium—anyway I know where we had our first serious encounters with them, in Saltburn, a bleak seaside place in North Yorkshire, bleak in an appealing way. Streets near the cliff looking out on the sea are named after gems, Ruby, Emerald and so on. The little shopping street one block inland has a patchy little glazed arcade to protect its customers from rough weather. Here the first new businesses appeared, an Indian restaurant, an antique shop and eventually an eccentric delicatessen with novel cooked items we carried back to our outpost across the moors.

On the other side of the street was the Evangelical charity shop with Bibles religious books and a sprinkling of others like an Oxford Poems of Hardy and Mann’s Holy Sinners. In Yorkshire I had developed a weakness for jigsaws for the first time since childhood as a way of filling long winter evenings. The charity shop had plenty of jigsaws, most of them alpine scenes and the Mediterranean equivalent of the Saltburn seafront. But occasionally there was a good reproduction of a famous painting which I carted home.

I soon came to love dipping into charity shops in all the little towns round about, looking first at books and then at jigsaws. It was a long time before I brought this habit back to London, partly because we had mainly empty shelves in Yorkshire and crowded ones in London. And in Yorkshire you felt you might really need the books, buried by a blizzard on your moorland farm. So buying a few old books was like laying in supplies.

When we left Yorkshire for good, very few of those books made it back to London. They had been emergency rations and had served their purpose.

Unpacking My Library

I like Benjamin’s title and wanted to co-opt it, but I’ve never had a library, or thought of my books that way, as a real entity. They’re not arranged systematically, except by height in the hut and on the landing. They’re not dominated by my field because I don’t have one, and for years I’ve had an aversion to the one subject which should be mine, lit crit, which I only realised on noticing that I skipped those pages in the TLS.

So my ‘library’ grows randomly and unpredictably, fed by charity shops where you never know what you’ll find, or even if you’ll find anything at all. My last purchase was a mistake, expensive, heavy and horribly academic. The title got me—Relics of Old Decency. I still have no idea how it applies to these ‘Archaeological Studies in Later Prehistory’, which are mentioned in the subtitle of this ‘Festschrift for Barry Raftery’.

So many reasons not to want this gigantic book, but it was very fresh (a review copy, in fact, unwanted by the reviewer) and full of interesting diagrams of hillforts and ritual enclosures, and best of all the one I opened on first, a scrawly diagram of Scandinavian rock carvings with gawky figures of different sizes overlaid on each other haphazardly. I was very taken with the graphic style of the modern copyist who respected the ancient disregard for common axes or orientations, who reveled in the confusion of images plunked down on top of each other, and the complete absence of an overall composition.

DSC01870.jpgFor the sake of these three pages of weird drawings I was prepared to put up with endless axblades and broken pots with hardly a figure or decorative pattern to be seen anywhere. But if I comb the book more thoroughly I will doubtless find more amusing drawings, of rudimentary creatures without heads but sporting prominent tails and penises and hands with five fingers of equal length, and of fanciful temples of classical type from long before the Romans drawn by Italian scholars.

My next to last purchase shares next to nothing with Decency but may prove just as ill judged. It is wonderfully well written and imaginatively thought out, but it is 1050 pages long. It belongs to a genre for which my track record is decidedly poor, biography. Faced with a solid biography of someone in whom I am particularly interested I forget that I have only read one biography from start to finish since Ellman’s Joyce in 1970, which was Susie Harries’ life of Nikolaus Pevsner, riveting throughout. Incidentally, my architectural historian friends to whom I have raved about this book have not been moved to read it. So last week I bought Michael Scammell’s Solzhenitsyn and still hope to defeat my intolerance of long biographies. Not long ago I picked up the long biography to end them all, Reiner Stach’s three volume Kafka in such a beautifully fresh copy I could not resist, though I already have the first volume to appear, with my marker stuck at page 100.

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In all this tediousness about length I have lost sight of what is so magical about the charity shop as a source for books. Before last week I did not know that I would soon be reading about Solzhenitsyn’s experience of the war and his attempts to go on studying (while leading a brigade at the front) the philosophical and political subjects that obsessed him, which against the odds he was determined to incorporate in large ambitious novels. From somewhere along the way he commandeered a library of books on these subjects left behind by the Germans (or was it stolen from a Ukrainian country house)? The path of your own intellectual or imaginative pursuits which seems so inevitable in retrospect is seen in prospect as swayed by all sorts of random breezes and chance intrusions. Seeing this gives one, gives me at least, the most tremendous sense of freedom.

Relics of Old Decency, £4 in South End Green, in the same shop a real Panama hat, one or two sizes too large, £15; Solzhenitsyn, £1.50 in Muswell Hill.  To be continued…

McQueen

This wonderful film is billed as a documentary but doesn’t exactly feel like one. True, it is stuffed full of interviews with the amazing crew of youngsters (now older) that Alexander McQueen assembled round him, or drew toward himself by the strange attraction that his early designs exercised on those susceptible. It must also include, when you think about it, much archive footage, especially the reruns of old fashion shows, dating back to the 1990s. I can’t tell how much of their own magic the directors have worked on these materials, which are electrifying.

I have a problem with high fashion, which is just the extreme tip of humankind’s insane interest in clothes. McQueen is wonderful because he understands instinctively what is so awful about the catwalk as conventionally practiced. He doesn’t abandon it though, but turns it into a scene of deep conflict and confrontation, a form of torture for everyone involved, the models or actors and the audience or spectators, who are faced with ugliness so unexpected and elaborate that it comes to seem a weird kind of beauty.

In McQueen’s shows this is wrapped up with feelings about the body, with things done or threatened to young bodies, suggested not by actual abuse of persons, but by violence practiced on the clothes, on the cloth they are constructed of, and by the shapes they are made to assume or prevented from assuming. From the beginning McQueen inspired terror with a pair of scissors, feeling a destructive urge to upset harmonies and continuities by simply ripping large complacent expanses of cloth, or cutting roughly apart elements that had been too neatly joined together.

There is occasional talk about where his urge to deface settled orders comes from, from ‘my dark side’ or from abuse suffered as a child. Family plays an inordinate role in McQueen’s life, not just in the early scenes where he is noticeable for an excitement always on the point of exploding. There’s something in there waiting to get out, ungovernable, and at this point more mischievous than alarming, but never quite comfortable.

Later this will seem an innocent time, when Lee (his name in the family, only changed to Alexander, his original middle name, by Isabella Blow to give him gravitas) applied himself with maniacal intensity to learning the tailoring trade from a fascinating series of employers, conventional and unconventional, who supply some of the most perceptive comment on his character. He impressed them all, but none of them could really contain him. Then, how he got to St Martin’s School of Art, definitely the place to be, but what made him want it or think he could do it?

His first designs and shows are my favourites, made of materials found on the floor (cling wrap) or in Borough Market (thin wire mesh) and paid for with his dole money. Although he had a powerful drive to be noticed, at this point he had to keep himself out of public view in case the job centre caught sight of him. It’s a wonderful moment when he and the art school crew come crashing into Paris, where Lee has been hired by Givenchy, who’ve just lost a key designer.

But it is also the first breath of the frightening worldly success that will destroy him. It’s easy to detect this pattern in his life, too easy, because Alexander McQueen is not just another casualty of the Romantic cult of genius, corrupted by fame, money, stardom. The destruction which is a powerful element in so many of his designs was not just a personal aesthetic but something desperately seeking expression. With success, a nasty side of this seemingly benign character began to appear. He cut old friends off from his later triumphs and abandoned others for supposed betrayals. Fashion’s obsession with the body eventually swallowed up Lee too. He lost weight—we aren’t told how—and stopped being the pudgy mess who was such a paradoxical container for that wild imagination. He succumbed to the frightening treadmill of production, 14 shows a year at his peak, and we get quite a good idea of what these cost in every part of life that isn’t work. How strange that the most ephemeral of trades should make such unending demands on its practitioners.

The film involves us to a daring degree in the rat race of these shows, each outdoing the last in lavishness, weirdness and narrative power. McQueen had always tried to make all the designs, impossible to call them ‘dresses’ or ‘outfits’, take parts in the overall story of the show, but it is also important to let individual designs have their own space. Not in the way they would have it in the big museum exhibitions where they’d be standing there motionless as if on pedestals, but filmically, as they are in the brilliant credits at the end of this film, one dress after another that progresses into kaleidoscopic distortions of itself before the next name and next ‘dress’ replace it. So we end with a fluid sense of how far beyond our ideas of something to wear McQueen took what he constructed. These were as remote from everyday life as modernist art and music have regularly been from what people ordinarily see or hear.

McQueen prided himself on bringing gritty reality to the catwalk, but his work twists clothes beyond recognition to create profound experiences that speak of suffering and death, instead of a dogged concentration on what is wearable. These experiences are often not just costumes, but intensely engaging actions, like large robots spraying a rotating model with paint that begins with bold curves on her skirt and ends with a random spatter of dots on her face and her surroundings.

McQueen, 2018, 1 hr 51 min, directed by Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui

 

In Darkest Southwark

Every unfamiliar part of London is infinitely strange to begin with. This bit of Southwark had no distinctive features. After you left the main road the place consisted entirely of big rectangular solids, presumably council housing, but such pure, unpenetrated masses as you had never seen before. These hulks seemed to push against the pavements that ran along them until there was barely room to pass comfortably. Opposite, a low building spread itself behind a high metal fence, to which were tied rubberised banners with enthusiastic comments by parents selling the building within. So this unfriendly sprawl with windows in mirror glass was nothing but a harmless school.

How could an art gallery have landed in such barren soil, we wondered, as we turned into its street? Here was a little row of slightly older buildings, with a couple of former shop fronts painted an incongruous oxblood colour. You had to get extremely close to read the words ‘Matt’s Gallery’ and only then did you notice a row of artists’ names, half of them scored through in white paint which only half obliterated them. Were these artists formerly represented by the gallery, who’d left, and were now like deposed emperors remembered only in scratched out inscriptions?

The doorbell was answered quickly by a man looking surprised but not unfriendly, like one of those characters in Alice who has just waked up for no other reason than the story’s needing him in order to continue.

I didn’t notice then how ingenious the room he ushered us into was, only that it was incredibly small. It was also bright, and empty. We had come to see a friend’s exhibition, and we soon knew that we were in it, because the two small paintings on the entry wall contained small, nearly identical butterflies, and our friend is fascinated by moths and butterflies, about which she has some interesting ideas that I haven’t got to grips with yet. On the wall opposite was a larger painting consisting of patterns and marks in colours so subtle you even wondered if they were there at all.

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The house we were in, for it felt like a house, was very small. We had already sensed that, having caught a glimpse as we entered of packed-in slivers of space beyond, in which someone was working. So we hardly needed to ask, is this all? is this room it? The man came back and said yes, I always pare down the work: leaving things out is the main task in a gallery. He put it better than that, and I believed that he meant it. He thought the small butterfly paintings were enough, and our friend had added the larger painting from an understandable fear of the void even in the confines of this little cube. For it was a cube, inserted into the fabric of the house on a pronounced diagonal, with its one way in, diagonally, at the corner.

This minimal insertion was the brainchild of the gallery man’s son, an architect who had studied and taught at places I knew and had taught in. So had the gallery man, who had spent longest at a place where I had given one of my worst lectures ever. I began to see the gallery man as quite an art work in himself. His shirt, half concealed by a purple fleece, was a hilarious display of summertime drinks. But it was the way the conversation jumped around that was particularly delightful, and before long I heard my wife inviting him to Kentish Town to carry on with this.

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He explained the scoring-out of the artists’ names: it only meant that their exhibitions were over. They were minimal too and always lasted exactly eleven days. It seemed the same anarchic and even half-destructive impulse was surfacing in all these forms. It was an impulse that didn’t continue for that long in the same course but shifted its orientation continually. He told us he’d just bought a new batch of ISBNs, having used up his initial supply of 100. So we wanted to see all the past books, which turned out to be stylish fold-outs, not books, most of them.

Coming away, we saw the desolate scene with different eyes. In the large industrial hulks, like council blocks without the windows, we now knew that 100+ artists’ studios had formerly lodged. The runaway property boom that is destroying much of what anyone has ever loved about London has also sent these artists packing to create high class rentable space with the soulless anonymity of money itself.

At least one large drafty leftover of the big studio spaces survives as a funky café-gallery inhabited by a riff-raff of second hand furniture and assorted survivors of the art schools, one of the last jewels in the crown of British culture.

 

photos by Esther Menell     for more see esthermenell.com

 

 

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.

All too human at Tate Britain

Francis Bacon, one of the key painters in this exhibition, took the critic David Sylvester to see the Soutine landscapes at the Redfern Gallery because they had shown him how he wanted to paint at that moment. Some of the links that matter most in this exhibition are intuitional and will burst upon you, not argue their way into your head. So the connection between Bacon and Soutine, who inhabit adjacent rooms in the layout, is there in a visceral love of paint, though Soutine’s is thick and Bacon’s is wonderfully thin at this point; is there also in the abruptness with which they broach emotions, Bacon with a howling maw that is also a cultural reference (to Eisenstein), Soutine with faceless animal carcasses (flesh of a terrible directness). Flesh is the subject, encountered in a treed baboon (another awful view of teeth inside the head) and a cornered dog.

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Flesh appears too in the strongest F. N. Souzas, like the Crucifixion where Christ’s body is also the tree and the cross, sprouting thorns from legs and arms as well as its head. Two attackers, or more likely supporters, are also liberally thorned. In fact very little space is left on the surface for anything that is not thorn. Even Souza’s signature is prickly, something to steer clear of. The catalogue makes much of Souza’s outcast status as an immigrant, and he did eventually flee Britain for New York, but contextualisation can go too far, and coming after Bacon, we don’t find Souza’s an outlandishly alienated vision. There’s also an eerie link in their gravitation to Catholic themes (Souza’s family Goan and devout), only to distort them, of course.

Coldstream comes next, like an icy bath. I seem to remember that Souza sampled the Slade but it didn’t agree with him. If different ways of paying attention to the flesh are a thread running through the whole, Coldstream and his students represent an incredibly strange strand. For me his endless measurements trying to get sizes and relations exactly right, and marking each estimate with a little cross, produce some unusually dead results. A big nude in the exhibition is awkward overall, but full of interest when you focus on details. It is hardly credible that Coldstream thought he was serving truth by not moving pieces of furniture out of his compositions when they got in the way. He must surely have followed this principle selectively, and even then can you really call it a composition if it must obey prior placements as if they were divine laws?

His student Euan Uglow carried this idea of truth even further, and spent seven years on a painting of one of his students–in a sports jersey and pink tights–lying on and half-obscuring a bold pattern designed by Uglow. The result (finally finished?) is so bland we are fascinated by where all the careful thinking can have gone.

Next comes Bomberg, a rambunctious corrective. He is the first of three reprises that punctuate the exhibition, a brilliant way of startling us with a new role or a new approach to painting which would have less effect if Bomberg, Bacon and Freud had each been presented just once in the sequence. This is Bomberg the teacher, seen too in his students. There’s a violent landscape by Dennis Creffield, with an absurdly exact note of its location (The Isle of Dogs seen from Greenwich Observatory) which sets us scrambling to find all its parts. And a blotchy nude by Dorothy Mead, the nearest approach to Cubism in the show.

The most serious consequence of David Bomberg’s teaching, many would agree, is seen in the work of Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, who in the immediate aftermath of the teaching took his idea of the spirit in the mass to extreme lengths in canvases where the paint lies so thick that it seems to thrust itself into the room and defies you to find distinct forms in it. Paint is the subject and content of these paintings, sensuous enough to feel something like flesh.

Paradoxically, when Auerbach gets further from Bomberg, the teacher’s influence becomes more visible, in urban landscapes centred around Mornington Crescent station.

In the largest room of all, Freud reappears, moving away from the smoothness of finish we saw around the time he taught with Coldstream, toward an equally exaggerated intensity of attention, now expressed in thicker paint and ultra-visible brushstrokes. Here are the famous nudes whose flesh goes on and on, changing colour monotonously, following what imperative–just to demonstrate fierce mental concentration, which will exhaust sitter or lie-er and viewer alike? The great example of the new, larger minuteness in this enormous room devoted to Freud’s production from the late 1970s to the 1990s is a maniacal portrait of two species of house plant which fills twenty square feet of canvas from top to bottom, and makes us perceive Freud in that moment as a close inheritor of the Pre-Raphaelites.

We’ve been set up to forget the fact that Bacon too suffered a great transversal of values in which his subjects became sensuous male nudes, or amputated sections of them, like sausages that have split their skins and begun spilling out. Paint is thicker, silkier, and runs on for longer uninterrupted.

Of all the painters in the exhibition Michael Andrews and R. B. Kitaj are least well served, partly by being forced into the same room. But Kitaj leads well into Paula Rego, present in five giant pastels, a big watercolour drawing and an older oil of great human interest.

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The three Rego pastels ‘based’ on Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode have pride of place and fill a whole wall. Hogarth is exploded to many times his original size and introverted to domestic privacies where someone has turned over a stone and let the pullulating life spill out. Commentators have said that Hogarth’s humour is missing: instead, pure black comedy with monstrous men like babies, grandmothers full of venom and furniture that has the power to thwart, the only salvation lying in the brio (especially the bursts of colour) with which it is recorded.

In the last room of all, four impressive women, two of whom stand out: Jenny Saville with the sideways head of a gigantic baby, not really a baby but bald and pink like one and nightmarish to inspect close up; and Cecily Brown, new to me, the actual daughter of David Sylvester and the spiritual daughter of Willem de Kooning. Boy with a Cat does have a naked human figure of a kind and a whole background of cats, but it is really just an exuberant explosion of paint that leaves patient observation gaping helplessly.

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The way to visit this exhibition is to let it unfold in front of you, even wash over you, not that it is a mindless journey or an assorted jumble, but that the paintings have more to say to each other than such collections usually do, and that some of the oddest conjunctions could turn out to bear the best fruit, not perhaps immediately. Both the sequence and the hubbub of the whole make it clear that British figurative painting of this period has not become old hat or lost its power to engage viewers deeply.