Chinese poet-painters self-isolating

 

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I was sending three Chinese paintings I had been absorbed by to a friend but thought I needed to append some text to give any idea of why I found them so exciting, so was going to photograph the three catalogue entries that told the stories of these three scholar hermits, self-isolating among streams and mountains or drinking themselves into cheerfulness in their orchid pavilions, a cumbersome plan.   And then I thought of a wonderfully simple idea for a blog when I couldn’t write one. I could just post the three pictures with the artists’ names, and anyone who wanted to could look them up on the website of the Cleveland Museum of Art where they would find high res images of each to download and ponder.

Then the idea collapsed. We really need those texts which I could point you to in Eight Dynasties of Chinese Painting, the giant catalogue of 1981 which sits there in my scholar’s hut reminding me of my foolhardy ‘travels among streams and mountains’ in that distant year, with its images all in grey and white that I can wake up again through the ‘miracle of technology’ (not so miraculous any more), and the lengthy text attached to each of them that I didn’t stop to read in 1981, but which now bring before me the fanatical absorption of those long-ago devotees of the wild brush strokes of these three practitioners of Chinese Baroque (as we call it now), but my main link with those paintings has become something very obscure with the passage of the extra years and the closure of all the libraries in the last few days, and that makes my simple project unworkable.

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These three paintings are special in their deliberate clumsiness, in not joining up smoothly their different parts, in cultivating scratchiness to signal uncertainty but also haste which comes over as passion, a kind of excitement which is frustratingly careless about whether it conveys itself to the viewer.

The painter of the pines was asked to paint five different trees. I think they started with plenty of space between them but he decided to crowd them together until they became hard to distinguish. On top of that, he filled up the empty spaces with five poems. I don’t know what these poems say or even what their subjects are. At first I was annoyed with the catalogue for leaving out translations but came to feel that this incredibly irregular writing is more beautiful than if I could read the individual words.   The writing is poetry in itself, more intricate and sophisticated than the painting, of which it is a magical contrasting twin.

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The mynah birds are another work by the painter of the first landscape, birds I thought I had to include to help you believe that that landscape is a radical work that you will only appreciate by looking long and hard at the high-res form of.

Chu Ta (or Zhu Da as he is also spelled in roman) has lit up the time of my isolation and turned hours into instants.

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236 (its number in the catalogue of the exhibition)  Chu Ta, Landscape after Kuo Chung-shu

265  Hua Yen, Conversation in Autumn

268  Li Shan, Five Pine Trees     The detail from this painting is meant to fill the screen, but I don’t know how to achieve this effect in the blog.

237B  Chu Ta,  Mynah Birds and Rocks

237B 1953.247 chu ta fish and rocks

 

I need to make this larger by putting it on its side, with the bottom of the image on the left.

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Buddhist sculpture from Amaravati in the British Museum

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cy Twombly–‘white paint is my marble’

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boccioni’s Lost Sculptures Reborn

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Early Paolozzi: Hollow Gods

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Soutine’s People

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Soutine’s portraits are a different kettle of fish from all his other work—his ‘portraits’ of dead animals, often hung up as if in a butcher’s window, his still-lives which can also have the air of crucifixions, and his tortured landscapes.

The portraits are different because we are less forgiving of liberties taken in representing the ‘human form divine’ (Blake’s piercing phrase). It appears that we have studied the human face more intently than any other aspect of the visible world, as perhaps comes home to us most sharply in front of art.

That is where the limits of an artist’s powers of observation are exposed most cruelly.  That is where Soutine’s ‘distortions’ are likeliest to seem arbitrary. He was reputed not to like portraits as a type. Perhaps it is truer to say he didn’t like commissions. He had his own peculiar way of choosing sitters. His preferred subjects are the weak and powerless — children, mad women, the village idiot, a gypsy boy, and the most consistent and fascinating series of all — lowly, serving occupations like pastry cooks, bell-hops and maids — all subjects easily exploited, who weren’t likely to complain that they didn’t like the results, because he was paying them, not the other way around. So these pictures are very different sorts of document from what we usually mean by portraits, and lack the stiffness and falsity common in the form.

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In Soutine’s hands even a child with a toy is an uncomfortable idea. Sitting can be a precarious activity in something which doesn’t look like a complete chair. Its top is glued to the child’s head, while its back seems to be trying to unseat him. His toy is another, smaller person falling backward or an angel pointing its wings downward. This is the part where Soutine’s famous abandonment of control in pursuit of the pure freedom of the brush breaks through.

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The next sitter is called Mad Woman but has been reduced to childhood by her madness, and wears another elf’s hat, another elf or gremlin not a citizen of the adult world. Soutine’s women are often marked by twisted shoulders, a form of wrenching, involuntary movement. This girl is more completely shrunken into herself through spider-like compression.

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The older woman protected by her hat carries a feature almost unheard of in Soutine, an emotive title–Desolation. Would we know she was heartbroken without the prompt? It takes us no time at all to figure that her lopsided shoulders and twisted arms do not mean a disease of the spine but an expressive lunge into an unstable mental state, the real question being whether the unexpected torque is a momentary or an essential condition. It would be a hard pose to hold—Soutine’s people twist from one uncomfortable position to another, but there’s unexpected freedom in the variety.

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While Desolation seems normative among Soutine portraits, the picture of his supporter and fellow painter Emile Lejeune stands apart for its light background and sprightly tonalities.   The sitter’s relaxed mood seems to have inspired confidence and made Soutine himself temporarily optimistic.   We read the dent in Lejeune’s face and his uneven ears as accident rather than meaning, a sign that the artist’s attention was focussed elsewhere, carelessness of a positive kind.

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By starkest contrast, darkness gathers round the gypsy boy like a portent. Maybe other observers wouldn’t have read extreme apprehension, vulnerability and the wish to disappear in the deep, dark eyes, but Soutine is alert to them, perhaps because susceptible himself.   This picture is usually dated to 1922-3, early for us already to be reading in it signs of what lies in wait for Europe in the following decade.

It isn’t just light and dark tonalities that make the mood in Soutine.   This picture of a very young pastry cook is the most tragic member of the most sustained series of Soutine portraits, devoted to a group with whom he has the most perfunctory relations, until he chooses to explore them, the service staff of the cheap hotels and restaurants he frequented in his summers in Cagnes on the south coast.

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Another triangular face which shrinks away to nothing, a stillness signifying exhaustion or a complete absence of hope, ears painfully exposed and defenceless features, and the wonderful blankness of all the white, concealing a being erased, with a body made of air, beautiful in its way, with especially delicate lines marking its divisions. The chair suggests the cage of a timid animal.

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A jauntier version of the same plight, striking a more assertive pose but paper-thin, and again the strange motif of the red handkerchief like a blood-stain semi-hidden.

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This outlying example in the pastry cook series from three or four years earlier cries to be included because it is the Soutine picture that the eccentric collector from Philadelphia, Dr Albert Barnes, saw in a dealer’s window, from which he found his way to Soutine’s studio and bought most of its contents (fifty-plus paintings) on the spot, bringing the painter to much wider attention.

It is the first of the group dressed all in one colour, or no-colour, which breaks out into a whole range of blue, purple, yellow, pink, registering light or recording creases, a crucial moment in Soutine’s attack on the coherence of objects, also seen in the ear that begins talking to its surroundings and finds itself resembling the chair back.

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At some time around 1924 or 5, Soutine began to frequent more expensive hotels but continued to enlist the most down-trodden elements of their populations, who sometimes pick up the pretensions of the posher premises, so that this ‘garcon d’honneur’ – a maitre d’ or a room-service waiter? it doesn’t seem clear – is able to sit with no visible means of support through a feat of belief, an acrobat-functionary.

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Another bellhop even turns his uniform into an identity, twisting it improbably into an imposing pattern.

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The third in this series of arms-akimbo poses – sitting in mid-air, sitting awkwardly, standing uncertainly – defensive and assertive, salvaging a self in unpromising circumstances – looks battered but cocky, and Soutine has again found human depth in unexpected places.

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The twists of these three poses say a great deal about the strains of these lives.   Even more complex and tortured flexions turn up in female subjects who twist this way and that, misshapen by the stresses of no job, but by the general facts of feminine existence, another, more unwitting mad-woman.

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The females among the hotel-staff portraits are the most abject of all, like this lady’s maid who melts, sliding downward, whose indecisive mouth is one of the saddest human features ever painted.

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This so-called English girl is one of the lucky ones, who makes a crooked pose into nonchalance.

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But best of all is the one most defaced by the painter’s wilful abandon, who drags strength from what should have been ugliness.   Like many of his unschooled subjects, she comes out of the battle an unlikely victor, where every error in the symmetry is a bit of hard-won depth.  Flesh of horrid orange-pink, clothes of stains and smears, like a surface given life by dirt, yet it’s the serpentine pose that tells us most persuasively that we are rushing somewhere significant, unheard-of till now.

Bartolomé Bermejo

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Bermejo remains a mysterious figure though widely regarded as the most important Spanish painter of the late Middle Ages. At a certain stage in planning a recent exhibition of his work in Madrid and Barcelona the organisers decided to make the accompanying publication a catalogue raisonné. It turns out that there are only sixteen surviving paintings, if you count multiple panels belonging to a single altarpiece as one. None of these composites survives complete or intact — dispersed, partly lost and in every case reliant on historians to reconstruct them.

The artist himself endured a similar fate. He was a person without a permanent address, probably a Jewish converso, sometimes keeping one step ahead of the Inquisition, which once convicted his wife of forgetting the words of the Creed. He worked in towns where he wasn’t a citizen and therefore needed a sponsor from the local painters’ guild in order to practice his trade at all. So his larger commissions are generally adulterated by the contributions of these less-talented sponsors, and I have included here only the central panels of larger works where Bermejo’s own hand is probably responsible for all of it.

Bermejo may also have been restless and unreliable on his own account, so that an excommunication clause was added to the contract in case he tried to get out of doing all the scenes himself. He was excommunicated for leaving before he’d started the smaller scenes of the St Dominic of Silos altarpiece.  Bermejo means red in Spanish (vermilion: orange-red), and no one knows if that was the colour of his hair or his complexion, the sign of a choleric temperament.

Oddly enough the painter’s earliest dated work, a depiction of St Michael tangling with the devil, is dominated by an atmospheric disturbance in red, the archangel’s cloak like a violent thunderstorm in the heavens. But the angel doesn’t lose his cool as he dispatches a Satan who’s the manageable size of a pet, and seems to be laughing and waving as much as signaling distress or begging for mercy. He is a weird anatomical enigma whose nipples are a second set of red eyes over a breathing hole and a second mouth full of sharp teeth. The saint is covered in metal and the monster is mainly made of it. The armour of both of them is extraordinarily ingenious but doesn’t look quite serious — a shield made of a lump of crystal, a polished breast plate that reflects the skyline of the Heavenly Jerusalem (not Seville, as I used to think).

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But the really electrifying component is that red cloak more like a mountain range than a cloudscape, of folds magically lit with random bursts of light. And it is only the lining. Whenever the cape is at rest it shows as heavy gold brocade, a side of the garment now reduced to a twisted remnant like a broken pot. And finally there’s a drastic contradiction between the excitement of the cape and the angel’s trance-like languor.

The human-sized onlooker, like other similar Bermejo people, has barely looked up from his reading, or more likely he is somewhere else, not in the middle of the moment as we wrongly suppose. His composure is his distance.

He is a hangover from an earlier stage when donors could appear to witness the great highlights of Christian history because they weren’t taking place in ordinary time or recognisable landscapes. Bermejo’s most compelling pictures often occur in ritual space, a kind of no-place. One of the most powerful shows a local saint in ecclesiastical finery in a setting that is essentially a glorified niche, as if he were a statue decorating a Gothic building. The painting is finished off with a wooden canopy, a miniature taste of actual architecture which is permitted to cast real shadows onto the fantastic painted constructions below.

4 Saint Dominic of Silos enthroned as a Bishop.jpgHe is so shrouded in gilded paraphernalia that he ceases to seem much like a being of flesh and blood, if it weren’t for a few contrary traces. He is clean-shaven but there are signs that his beard is growing, silver stubble just beginning to show on his cheeks. And the six tiny statues (Virtues rather than the saints whom we expect) in little niches on ether side of his throne are fully coloured and demonstratively in motion. In the most extreme case, Temperance is pouring from a pitcher, and Bermejo has run together the dark colour of her cloak and a dark blot like a dragon’s tail on the saint’s cope, part of a pattern on the garment that is mostly hidden from us. So we are invited to imagine a spreading stain originating in an inadvertent spillage of Temperance’s remixed wine.

There is another sign of things getting out of hand at the highest point of the throne. The red jewel that crowns the saint’s mitre has started a fire at Charity’s feet which so far burns only her and hasn’t spread to the poor men sheltering under her.

The bishop’s throne becomes a niche, in this case a complicated diagonal and hierarchical form leading us in and at the same time creating a sense of the sacred as unapproachable, even as it shows the route to it, setting up a goal that’s straight in front of you, yet just beyond a boundary at which you must stop.

The image is neatly balanced between highly focal and impossibly complicated. The harder we look the less sure we are where the throne ends. Is the shrinking series of little figures, who are more lifelike (in the strange terms of the painting) than statues, just further extensions of this diagonal construction, impossibly rich emanations of the main body fighting hard against the idea that a painting is above all a flat surface?

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One of the most ingenious touches is the ornate shepherd’s crook that the saint has leant crookedly against the side wall of his throne, partly blotting out Hope holding another staff that is breaking into leaf. In some sense his staff dotted with gold leaf-forms has got the better of hers and introduced a taste of the randomness of life and of unpredictable movement into the fixity of art, all of it taking place in a hall of mirrors devised by one of the most complete anti-naturalists in the history of art. Yet Bermejo is called Hispano-Flemish in recognition of all the evidence that he had studied realists like van Eyck, a thread not just distracting but pulling us off in quite the wrong direction. He borrowed postures and whole compositions and put them to uses the Northerners would have thought perverse and retrograde, creating hypnotic images in which we might just as reasonably find the sprit of Tibetan mandalas.

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When Bermejo comes to depict the old subject of the Virgin of Mercy he inscribes it within a kind of pattern you might find embossed on a moth’s outspread wings: first the angels’ wings crisscrossing over the Virgin’s head and then the smaller Xs on their chests which wander off into the pile-up of cloth that seems to fill the spaces created by the swoops of the Virgin’s cape, swoops which form larger Xs with the down-tending diagonals of her arms. This mesmerising Rorschach-design with the Virgin’s mask-like face at its centre hovers over two diagonal wings of devotees, fused together by more of Bermejo’s trademark gold filigree, made of copes on the left and crowns on the right, the latter consisting of openwork which lets through the faces of the next row of devotees behind.

The most mysterious element of all is the Virgin’s undergarment, revealed by the angels’ lifting movement, an inner feature like the kernel of a shrine, another lining that steals the show from its covering. This undergarment is an amazing construction like antique patchwork, an assemblage of pieces of rich brocades in a variety of dusky tonalities, a ruin-collage of historical fabrics, like relics once owned and worn by various royal martyrs and spiritual heroes of past eras, a compost heap of much old virtue, and also wealth. It is one of the richest and most interesting passages in all of Bermejo, the Book of Kells and Arthur Rackham bundled up together. The patches often run diagonally against the orientation of the garment, creating the kind of multiple rhythm Bermejo favours, moving as so often against the grain of the natural world and the force of gravity.

Bermejo’s most powerful pictures are often not compositions at all, but patterns with a strong focus and ancillary detail radiating hieratically outward from that core or, if they are or initially appear as figure groups, they are shown at moments of utter immobility, emanating from a corpse whose attendants copy its stillness.

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Christ with two angels at the tomb seems an utterly simple, rock bottom sort of image, yet unaccountably mesmerising. There is a famous rendering of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Holbein which Dostoevsky couldn’t dislodge from his mind. It shows the prone corpse in a narrow horizontal frame, constricted like a coffin. Holbein has spared us no detail of the grimness of physical death. The mouth sags open showing clenched teeth. The body is covered with suppurating sores, the eyes stare upward, hands and feet are stiffened in the moment when movement ceased and blackened by blood drawn there by the mode of death. Dostoevsky uses the painting in The Idiot to shake the faith of a naturally devout character.

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In Bermejo’s painting Christ seems to have survived the crucifixion. No rigor mortis and just enough energy to point to the spear wound in his side. Critics even think he is squeezing the flesh to make the blood gush forth, but surely he is showing old blood, not producing more. Apparently there were active discussions going on when this was painted over whether bleeding in the three days between the Crucifixion and Resurrection was deserving of veneration or adoration (two distinct grades of devotion). Bermejo is thought to have come down on the side of veneration only, as shown by the inclusion of the gorgeous chalice (here his love of jeweled ecclesiastical metalwork breaks out unexpectedly) which is empty – that is to say, this blood isn’t suitable for the Sacrament.

The power of the painting comes in part from the diagonal composition which increases the surprising asymmetry of the two angels’ locations, their spacing and their roles – Christ leans on one and not the other. He has come part-way out of the tomb to tell us something, silently. He emerges fitfully from the gloom, a way of insisting on the incomplete state of our knowledge, an effect perhaps less powerful since the recent cleaning of this work, which has brought the flesh of the dead and the living into closer alignment. The angels’ flesh (ordinarily angels are not fleshly creatures) now looks so entirely that of bodies that will die, making the melancholy at-oneness of the three more complete.*

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Bermejo’s last surviving painting is known as the Desplà Pietà, after the learned humanist who commissioned it and appears on the right, just below another representation of the Heavenly Jerusalem. It includes another innovative treatment of Christ’s corpse, a severe challenge to any painter’s naturalism and his spirituality. Those who want to find progressive tendencies in this painter spend time on the rich but gloomy landscape, full of a great variety of species that would have exercised the humanist patron’s scientific curiosity.

Here Christ’s body has the uncanny air of a ruin, powerfully mottled, as if stained by age, not like a statue, but not like any flesh I ever saw, not like old cheese either, but that comparison catches something of the living-unliving quality of this body. The dark smudge of hair on Christ’s chest is crucial to the effect, like a discolouration rather than a natural event.

There’s a naïve oddity shared with Christ and Two Angels at the Tomb. On his right arm Christ’s blood runs markedly uphill. Formerly it dripped down; now it is fixed in an unnatural position. This seems to contradict the figure’s more than relaxed posture with all tension gone, just as rigor mortis begins to replace it.

We notice a few signs of the old Bermejo – in the green lining of the Virgin’s cloak whose crinkled furls are put in competition with exemplary plants in the landscape. The cape can stand up in leaf-like forms which Bermejo continues to find more absorbing than actual leaves. And one telling sign of the new Bermejo: how do you tell a living from a dead body? Desplà’s beard is still growing and producing stubble – here Bermejo verges near that fearless realist Holbein.

*The illustration above shows Christ with two angels at the tomb before cleaning

 

This post was suggested by a small but fascinating exhibition which brought six Bermejos (including the Desplà Pietà) from Spain to London after the big Spanish exhibition of 2018-19 was disbanded.  

 

 

 

Vuillard and uncertainty

 

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I didn’t intend to write about Vuillard again, but hadn’t anticipated how different the small (but much bigger) exhibition in Bath (appearing later in Edinburgh and Dublin) would be from the one last year in Birmingham. Birmingham was entirely caught up in the limited cast of characters of the household. Bath ranged outside and beyond the house, still keeping the view rigorously confined, Vuillard’s guiding feature being a voluntary confinement in which dislocations of vision can act with explosive force, freaks of perception which don’t necessarily lead to untethered or unfathomable emotions but into an emotional no-one’s land to which the right comparison might be Kafka.

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The exhibition began in the home, with an awkward family scene in the weird green light of evening. Three generations are gathered round the table, along with two looming bottles like extra guests.

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We recognise the mother, grandmother, and daughter from our last outing with Vuillard. We could mistake the lone orange-bearded male for the artist himself, but the label steers us toward his brother, an unknown quantity.   The sister dominates, in a grotesquely twisted pose which reveals depths already familiar to the others, less so to us. She is wearing a dress like one in a portrait nearby, in a pattern like a lot of lively worms. Maybe she will explode.

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Next to this dinner table is The Ear, one of the oddest little pictures Vuillard ever produced. It shows the head and shoulders of a young female bent over and concentrating on something on the floor. Is she tying her shoe or looking for something lost? We are already far ahead of ourselves, because she doesn’t really look like a person at all. Her ear we only recognise through the helping hand of the picture’s title: it looks more like a half-closed eye. Beneath it are two detached bits of brightly lit flesh which could be the tip of a nose and part of an upper lip. Otherwise, shadow, with traces of an eyebrow (doubtful) and cheek (obscured by strands of hair). Above the features, elements of a punk hairdo in black and orange stripes, plaited into a denser chequered pattern beyond. Over the invisible forehead dangles a big black spider of loose hair-strands.

Maybe this picture just goes to show how far Vuillard’s need to strangen the familiar features of the world could go. Here the supposed subject pretty well escapes, and solutions to the uncertainty leave plenty of uneasiness behind.

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Very soon after comes another conundrum-picture that has an easier resolution. Two men in top hats seen close-up from behind. The sheen on one of the hats completely bisects the black mass, making it into two separate hats. But the deeper weirdness of this picture occurs further to the left. Instead of a hat, a giant black hand with four black fingers extended upward. This turns out to be another hat (or hair-do) after all, though one like a finger puppet mounted on a woman’s head, whose fainter body appears beneath. Like the others, this picture comes close to a visual joke. How can such a tiny sliver of reality constitute a subject? Well, it seems to. You go on enjoying the odd leftover spaces between the hats, and the contrast between the ‘brims’, if you can count the most nearly horizontal ‘finger’ a brim. The overlapping of the three bodies makes a nice consistency against the wild variations overhead.

Except in a formal sense, to call these male-female divisions an antagonism would be going too far. More interesting confrontations tend to take place indoors. Of all the fresh Vuillards in Bath, one called The Manicure perplexed me most.

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The picture starts from another extreme lighting effect, with the source hidden between the two figures. It took me several tries to decipher the manicurist, whose face doesn’t really appear, though turned toward us.  Part of the explanation is that we are not on-axis with the couple, as we perhaps think, but skewed to their right. That is how the light can miss her face completely, leaving a dark mask more like a spinning top than a human head.

So the pleasure in this configuration comes from its inhuman weirdness. And then there’s the dark lump to the left of the central pair. In the end I see this lump as a balding father and his little girl, with a bright red ribbon in her hair. In the meantime I have thought her a pet monkey, or the two of them an African carving, or a piece of furniture with a cloth over it.

What is this love of occlusion, of hiding the subject in shadow, turning people into hulks or lumps, and blocking off the space between them? Wherever it springs from, it works. It invests humdrum activity with portent, in a space loaded throughout with inscrutable depths.

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Other Vuillards thrive on blankness, not density, for a sense of a lot going on beneath a sparse surface. At first I took one of the most uncanny to be an expanse of sand leading to the forest-edge, with a track skirting it. At some point it dawned on me that this sand was not a beach but a wall blocking us off from the forest. And the traces of erased figures in the sand must have been marks on the wall, not occupants of the flatland. The two contrasting realms remain, one featureless, the other impenetrable. We think of other artists who value walls for their lack of content, like the Welshman Thomas Jones and the Catalan Antoni Tàpies.

In the exhibition the still life below gave an exaggerated impression of horizontality and of emptiness toward both ends, which doesn’t survive when it is isolated. I still think it is an exercise in dispersion and weightlessness, in spite of its magical vacancy having partly evaporated when it is removed from the peculiar space of the exhibition.

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Publicity for the exhibition made a separate picture of the flowers in their  vase, a little composition which soon fell to pieces, set against the ‘flowers’ of the tablecloth — bigger, vaguer, more unstable. All the elements are spread wide, and won’t sit down or cohere. The satchel is the worst, levitating rashly in mid-air, deserting its rightful place.

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As in Birmingham, prints in Bath showed Vuillard dissolving reality’s there-ness even more radically than in paint. The cover of a set of lithographs has another strange confrontation between a hulking man (in pyjamas this time) and a younger woman. The girl by herself is a miracle of vagueness. In a couple of the prints in this series figures at tables merge magically into the setting and each other.

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One of the best discoveries of the exhibition was the reappearance of glue-based distemper, a medium first met in Vuillard’s work for the theatre and now, in its reappearance, freeing him back into the boldness of the 1890s with two paintings of 1910 and after, one of a Breton farmhouse above a garden like an embroidery, whose rich pattern dissolves into squiggles, separate segments, and finally into chaos.

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For Vuillard perception is always verging on disorientation. This flirtation with unreason is one of his deepest promptings, an escape down the rabbit hole of perception into a phantasmagoria of forms that have freed themselves from the restraints of sense.

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Looking closely at the work in distemper, you find such dissolutions as a children’s smock like icing on pastry, and its mother’s dress a snow flurry, in a familiar world become entirely strange.

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Refugee Artists: Jankel Adler

 

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Jankel Adler was a Polish Jew who had made a reputation as an artist in Germany and got included in an early exhibition of modernist art staged by the Nazis in 1933 with the aim of importing hatred into the cultural sphere. Adler moved to Paris pretty well at once, while his wife stayed behind with their child. At the beginning of the war Adler joined the Polish army, was evacuated to Britain and suffered a heart attack that got him invalided out.

This troubled history lies behind the recent exhibition of his British work from the 1940s at the Ben Uri Gallery in Boundary Road. At the start of his career, Jewish themes had loomed large. Later, references to his roots became more complicated.

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The most powerful painting included in this small but choice exhibition is called Beginning of the Revolt, a title that initially makes no sense. The first thing you notice is the strange abraded surface. The paint looks as if it has been cooked, causing it to pucker into small ridges which are then brought out by a wash of darker pigment that settles into the hollows. To begin with, you don’t know whether these are effects of nature or of art, a deliberate or accidental ruin, defacement that makes imagery already mysterious even harder to interpret.

The palette is almost monochrome but with all the variety that exists in the tones between black and white, enhanced by yellowing that may be simply patchy applications of varnish. Near the top, a single smear of rust, and a background of ochre, vagaries of tone which are intensely visceral and gripping.

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After plenty of explanation that I will come to in a minute, I still find the image unfathomable. Is it a huge kneeling figure with Minotaur head and large eyes or nipples in its chest, holding standards that end in a wolf’s head on the right, and—the only clear element in the whole heap of matter—a bird falling backward on the left? Is the group sailing from right to left in a small boat? The overall effect is also like a stumpy branching tree anchored in a patch of earth that doesn’t look stable.

The result is muscular, energetic, strong, yet we learn from the label that this painting is Adler’s response to the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto of 1943, which was brutally put down. It is linked with three Adlers of the same period now in the Tate, all powerful in different ways—The Mutilated (opening image), No Man’s Land and Two Orphans, the last of which Adler painted for his friend Josef Herman, who lost the entire family he’d left behind in the Warsaw Rising, suffered a breakdown on getting the news, and was nursed back to health and productivity by Adler. The orphans are Herman and Adler, and the painting hung over the Hermans’ mantelpiece.

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This terrible and inspiring story seems more inspiring than terrible because, among other things, both of them produced much of their best work during and just after the war.

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There are explicit references to suffering in Adler’s illustrations to Kafka for example, including one of the torture machine from In the Penal Colony, and more interesting and ambiguous, a group of enigmatic figures in the thick and scumbled paint that seems to signal tragedy for this painter.

 He also found symbols which let him treat oppression and threat in less melodramatic ways. Birds appear in many guises and mean many different things. Finding them concealed where you don’t expect is one of the pleasures of Adler. Another of the largest paintings in the exhibition at the Ben Uri is perhaps an optimistic obverse to Beginning of the Revolt and shows a woman releasing a dove from a cage, to go out and report on conditions outside as in Genesis? or to embark bravely on a life in exile?

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The other optimistic emblem that I see everywhere is a candle alight or a lamp raised up, again just as moving when you can’t be entirely sure it is there at all

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Some of his still-lives are among his most puzzling pictures. A particularly delightful one shows a table-top dotted with semi-recognisable, angular forms, while above them floats an object or two objects of more neutral hue. Is it the tablecloth which has managed to slip free of its oppressors? or birds or fish dancing above the prosaic equipment of the meal, or ghosts of events that happened here, or clouds in the sky? I favour grave-clothes of a corpse that has flown, which now do a Baroque pantomime à la Wallace Stevens.

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Adler’s friend, the avant garde writer Stefan Themerson, has the answer. In 1948 he published an eccentric pamphlet with 13 illustrations by Adler masquerading as a story for children and called Jankel Adler/ an artist seen from one of many possible angles. It tells the story of the boy Jankel Adler who in 1899 believed for a minute that one of his friends had been turned into a green lizard. Themerson takes off from this mythic event to mount a hilarious defence of human imagination, in which Shakespeare Lizard writes Hamlet in 1923 and Adler Lizard paints his pictures with objects no one’s ever seen before, that are nonetheless real and definitely exist, a wonderful argument for Adler’s way of dealing with painful realties in ambiguous symbols made from everyday materials.

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