Sunday, 21 January 2018

Scandinavian Paradox

The popular image of Scandinavians is full of contradictions. Denmark, Norway and Sweden must be by several measures the richest, happiest and most successful societies the world has ever known. [...] Scandinavia is also famous for hedonism and sexual freedom; yet the plots of Scandi noir stories often turn not on crimes but on old sins: adultery, incest, abuse.
Tom Shippey, TLS, December 2 2016

What makes a city utopian?

In Utopia Drive, Erik Reece [...] suggests that utopian settlements are constructed to accommodate escape and evasion, to provide safety and privacy in an alarming world. [...] Yet on the question of what constitutes utopia, Reece appears suitably baffled. [...] Reece's utopias are consistently constructed on the struggle to give something up, be it belongings, individuality, alcohol, religion, or sex.
Jacqueline Wilson, review of Utopia Drive by Eric Reece, TLS December 2 2016

Thursday, 2 November 2017

From multiculturalism to genocide



The Mayflower colonists, some of the earliest and certainly among the most famous of the early settlers from Europe in North America, displayed a fundamental change in their behaviour in the hundred or so years after their arrival. I didn't know that the national holiday of Thanksgiving was instituted by Abraham Lincoln to celebrate the way the settlers sat down together and ate with American Indians; yet within a few years the settlers’ attitudes to the American Indians had become increasingly hostile, ultimately becoming genocidal. From multiculturalism to genocide is quite a dramatic shift. What caused it? Why was it that “The Puritans began to define themselves through was against the Indians, as the US historian Jill Lepore regretfully concluded”? And why did this attitude change happen in Boston and around, a city that today would be described as one of the most civilized and liberal places in the United States? Yet this was a city that in the seventeenth century had “a deserved reputation for harshness to women” (Rebecca Fraser, TLS, September 29, 2017). 

How to do things with words

Clive Stafford Smith is an eminent attorney, writing here about ways of reducing the US prison population, which had reached 6.5 million by 2014.

According to the most recent analysis, 52 per cent of the federal prisoners in the US are locked up for drug offences.  Of those incarcerated for marijuana offences, 44 per cent had no prior criminal record. So legalising drugs would instantly cut the entire prison population by half. This is not an unreasonable proposition - the US Global Commission on Drugs recently called for the decriminalisation of use and possession of marijuana, and in 2016, three US states voted to decriminalise recreational marijuana.  (TLS, February 3 2017, “Prisoners of Conscience”)


This passage comprises four sentences. Sentences one and three belong together and are undoubtedly correct. They apply to all drugs, hard or soft. Sentences two and four apply to marijuana only. Somehow the two propositions have become joined, so that something many of us would be in favour of, or at least would review with sympathy – the decriminalisation of marijuana – has become part of a justification for decriminalising all drugs, which is a very different proposition. It is a fascinating example, by a lawyer, of  placing unrelated topics close together with the result that the reader unwittingly accepts the reasonableness of the whole.  Perhaps the trick works when used in court. Is there a name for such a rhetorical device?

Sunday, 27 August 2017

The three identities of Ipswich

I arrived in Ipswich on a Saturday lunchtime, alongside several football supporters. The Ipswich FC ground is right in the middle of town, and you walked past it on the way to the centre.  The stadium was quite impressive – it looked fairly recent, and the floodlights had been designed as part of the stands. You could probably hear each time a goal is scored, and in fact in the cafe we were told the score – the locals were losing. Few towns in Britain have such a close identity between the club and the town.

Ipswich itself appears to be at least three towns. Looking past the often quite lively locals out doing their shopping on a summer Saturday, at times in the centre of Ipswich you notice traces of the first town: half-timbered houses, and, as Pevsner points out, very few of them covered up with a Georgian front. It’s more hidden than Norwich, but there are one or two streets that have a medieval appearance, with football supporters sitting incongruously outside drinking their beer. Down an alley was the magnificent Unitarian Chapel, of 1699, quite unchanged from when it was first built, as far as could be seen. We were the only visitors, but the elderly couple who had opened the chapel to visitors pointed out that a couple of Fulham supporters had visited the church earlier in the day.


The most magnificent early building was the Ancient House. For once, you could see the lavish treatment on the outside, but also the rich decoration and construction inside, since the whole building is open as a shop – Lakeland, in fact, selling kitchen equipment. I suppose this makes sense, given that the original owner was a merchant.

The Ancient House was exuberant and confident, sharing its cheerfulness with the shoppers (the building is in the middle of one of the busiest shopping streets).


Ipswich did not have a great deal of 18th-century buildings, and they are dwarfed (literally and metaphorically) but the 19th-century ostentation around the main square. There is a town hall, a Post Office, and a bank, all of them vying for prominence and happy to grab the attention of passers-by using any means – garish colours, sculptures, a bit of gold, towers here and there, you name it. I thought it all wonderful. The exuberance of it all! The overwhelming confidence! On the stairs was one of those wonderful Victorian narrative paintings, of Lucrezia Borgia pouring a glass of no doubt poison wine.  


The 19th century also included some excellent attempts at rebuilding medieval architecture. The most ostentatious church in the centre (there are around 12, so plenty to compete with) is largely a 19th-century reconstruction, but it has a magnificent impression, with wonderful flush work and an attention-seeking tower that enjoys being admired in all its glory.



Then you have the 20th-century developments, and Ipswich has been hit quite hard by them. Right in the middle is Foster’s Willis Faber Building, an iconic development, but perhaps only saved from the mediocrity of the other 20th-century buildings in that it is only about three storeys tall, and because its black glass cladding means that it reflects surrounding buildings rather than imposing itself on them.  For the most part, the 20th-century buildings dwarf the medieval city, and leave the poor church towers forlorn and lost.  And apart from Foster, the 20th-century buildings are pretty dire.




Finally, there is the remarkable dock area – nothing like it in Norwich. After a city centre that has been in visible decline for much of the 20th century (“can’t get the big shops to open here”, commented one local) the docks are a shock. You expect a very run-down neighbourhood, since the docks don’t appear to have been used commercially for many years. Instead, there is a lively collection of cafes, bars, apartments and even dance studios, facing some enormous yachts, right alongside the remaining derelict harbour buildings. In a few years’ time, this part of Ipswich will be the best-known of all.



So, Ipswich, three towns in one. It looked a bit down on its luck – the day we were there, the football team lost 0-1, and in fact they haven’t been successful for years – but Ipswich still retains such amazing evidence of its earlier lives, and such an opportunity in the docks, to become neither a tourist museum attraction nor a deal industrial town but something new, reinvented out of both early identities. 

Thursday, 24 August 2017

What happened to art history?


Perhaps it's a bit unfair to complain about the collection of essays, The Books that Shaped Art History (2013), since a collection describing just 16 books is very unlikely to comprise a summary of what art history (or at least, art history in the 20th century) is all about. For my own take on the books that shaped art history, see my post here

Nonetheless, there is a strong temptation to see this book as just that: what if these 16 books constituted the essential themes that art historians have been concerned with over the last 125 years or so? Before going any further, I should list the title (given here in English, for simplicity):

1.       Emile Male, The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the 13th century, 1898
2.       Bernard Berenson, The Drawings of the Florentine Painters, 1903
3.       Heinrich Wölfflin, Principles of Art History, 1915
4.       Roger Fry, Cézanne: A Study of His Development, 1927
5.       Nikolaus Pevsner, Pioneers of the Modern Movement from William Morris to Walter Gropius, 1936
6.       Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Matisse: His Art and His Public, 1951
7.       Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting: lts Origins and Character, 1953
8.       Kenneth Clark, The Nude: A Study of ldeal Art, 1956
9.       E.H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, 1960
10.   Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture: Critical Essays, 1961
11.   Francis Haskell Patrons and Painters: A Study in the Relations Between Italian Art and Society in the Age of the Baroque, 1963
12.   Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style, 1972
13.   T.J. Clark, Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution, 1973
14.   Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century, 1983
15.   Rosalind Krauss, The Originality of the Avant Garde and Other Modernist Myths, 1985
16.   Hans Belting, Likeness and Presence: a History of the Image before the era of Art, 1990


There are many ways in which you could respond to this book. Let’s start simply by some general observations simply by looking at the list above:

·        The list comprises two monographs on individual painters, nine books that cover a specific period, two collections of essays, and three studies that follow a theme throughout art history.  None of these books covers the entirety of art history. Several of the titles do not go much beyond 1914. In other words, this is in no way a coverage of the entirety of art history.
·        Most of the content of these books is about Western art history: the classical canon, although it forms a very selective subset of it: two on medieval art, three on Renaissance art, one each on the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
·       There appears to be little or no discussion of contemporary art. Rosalind Kraus is the only writer of the above to engage on postmodern art; she wrote a monograph on the sculptor David Smith, for example, but this book is very concerned with methodology, rather than engaging in an assessment of the art itself.  If any of these writers discuss performance art or other non-representational art, it isn’t mentioned in this book. In other words, much what constitutes art in the 21st century is not covered in these books. Has the art outstripped the theory, or is the theory asking the wrong questions?
·       Perhaps one of the best summaries of this book is in the introduction:

The variety of objects and approaches to art history may lead us to the conclusion that there is no golden thread neatly drawing the subject together as a ‘discipline’. Perhaps, to adapt the phrase of one great practitioner, there is really no such thing as art history, there are only art historians.


If this really was a “core library of art history”, the studious reader would hardly be equipped for a visit to, say, HEART, the Herning Museum of Contemporary Art in Denmark. On a tour there last week, there was not a single representational work of art to be seen. Nonetheless, it was a rewarding gallery, providing lots to enjoy and to respond to (and it had a great cafe); but none of the books listed here would provide an introduction to what is after all a typical contemporary art collection. So what is art history for? 

Monday, 21 August 2017

My Books that Shaped Art History


Selecting the top ten books in any topic is usually something of a parlour game, but I was inspired to think about a top ten list on reading The Books that Shaped Art History (Thames and Hudson, 2013).  
This fascinating collection of essays, published 2013, brings together 16 articles about seminal books on art history published, for the most part, in the 20th century (although the earliest was published in 1898). The choice of titles, and the choice of authors to write about these titles, creates a fascinating overview of 20th-century art history. It is a rare volume that is for the most part more than the sum of its parts. 

Before reviewing the book, I created a list of the ten books on art history that had the most effect on me - by which I mean, the most effect on the way I look at images and at the built environment. As soon as you see the list, you will realise that several of them are about the Renaissance, and some of them are not strictly about art history at all. Nonetheless, they all affected the way I look at works of art. Interestingly, only two of these titles overlap with the books on the official list. Whether I am right or they are wrong I would not try to state. More likely, a list of the top 50 books might have more of an overlap.