Thursday, 24 May 2018

Buildings to house art: The Fitzwilliam Museum

Pretty simple to design an art gallery, you might think. You need wall space, plenty of it; not too much direct sunlight. Perhaps something distinctive about the building to make it clear it is not just a big house or warehouse. Yet if designing a gallery is so simple, why does the actual building that surrounds the pictures we look at make such a difference to our experience? Or to put it another way, why is the Fitzwilliam such a failure as a structure, compared to, say, the Ashmolean in Oxford?

These thoughts are prompted by a reading of Lucilla Burn’s The Fitzwilliam Museum: a History (2016), an interesting if uninspired volume, which reveals more about the building than about the collection (perhaps inevitably, in a single volume).  

The Fitzwilliam Museum was built in three major stages. First, the original museum, designed by George Basevi from 1835 and opened (incomplete) in 1848. The entrance hall was  then revised by Edward Barry and completed 1875. This initial building scores very highly as a object to be admired, but as an art gallery it was (and is) useless. The main galleries are all situated on the first floor that can only be reached by a huge ostentatious staircase that turns back on itself. The hall is so opulent that no art could ever compete with its gaudiness. 
Even Michelangelo's Last Judgement would be overwhelmed by this entrance [Zhurakovskyi - Own work, CC0,]
Paradoxically, the entrance hall has a convoluted feel to it; it does not feel like a grand entrance, for all its splendour. There are many more impressive staircases than this, for example Juvarra's Palazzo Madama in Turin:

The Marlay and Courtauld Galleries were the first major extension. They add two storeys to the left of the main building. Designed in the 1920s, they fail (as most buildings would fail, alongside Basevi) to live up to the grandeur of the original building. 
The Marlay Corridor
The most noticeable thing about these galleries is their feebleness. These galleries give the impression that they considered for a moment about competing with the Basevi block but then decided not to compete with the main building, so they retire a discreet distance back from the original front. In doing so, they waste considerable space - they are essentially corridors on two floors with glass cases, and it looks as though the contents of those cases has varied little since the galleries were opened.
A view probably unchanged in the last 50 years
The Courtauld Galleries, an extension a few years later, tried to emulate the least art-focused part of the original Fitzwilliam – the staircase. Again, there is a grand staircase with exquisite detailing, but which is absolutely useless for displaying art.
Courtauld Galleries - great staircase, not much art
After the Courtauld and Marlay extensions, further additions to the Fitzwilliam have been almost apologetic. In the 1960s David Roberts built a further extension, to the left of the Courtauld Galleries. This building is now largely obscured by perhaps the only truly successful architecture in the whole gallery, the Museum Courtyard - most of which isn't a new building at all. This Courtyard is cleverly created by adding a roof between the Roberts Building and the Courtauld Galleries. At a stroke a dreary external courtyard became a lively meeting place and café, that provides an invitation to the galleries beside it (since you can see inside the Courtauld Galleries – a further problem with the original Fitzwilliam, which reveals absolutely nothing of its contents from the outside). At least you can say this Courtyard actually takes into account what is already there, rather than plonking another block alongside earlier buildings without any relationship. 
The Courtyard, successfully linking the cafe and the museum
However even the Museum Courtyard is not without its failings. The entrance  to the museum, the one used today by the majority of visitors, does not look or feel like an entrance. It has an apology of a canopy; there are doors that open automatically the wrong way (opening out to hit the visitors as they enter); and does not integrate with any other structure in the Gallery.
This is where most of the 750,000 visitors a year enter the Fitzwilliam - between the dustbins

All in all, the Fitzwilliam staff deserve sympathy for trying to make some sense of a very poor collection of original buildings.  When the inevitable Lottery Fund moneyarrives, I hope the opportunity is taken to rethink the entire museum and to create some sympathetic and inspiring surroundings for art. There is little sign of that in the existing infrastructure.  The first buildings I would remove are the Marlay and Courtauld Galleries.

Monday, 21 May 2018

Why Caesar crossed the Rubicon

Before I start, I should clarify I don't aim to give a full explanation just why Caesar crossed the Rubicon. But I hope to give one example that doesn't convince. So here we are looking at the method of justification rather than explaining the event itself.

I’ve always enjoyed reading T P Wiseman’s reviews in the TLS, as they always provide clear and well-substantiated argument either supporting or (as here) critiquing a book he is reviewing.

In this case the book isn’t so important, but the method of argument is revealing. The review is of a book about Caesar (TLS June 10 2016), looking at one of the moments in Roman history moment we all know about. Wiseman quotes Edward Freeman, writing in 1859: “Men look to this period of Roman history for arguments for or against monarch, aristocracy, or democracy”. It is, of course, Caesar crossing the Rubicon, taking his army into Italy, leading to civil war and the end of the Roman republic.

Wiseman explains this moment with reference to a passage by Cicero: his contrast of “optimates” and “populares”.

There have always been two groups of men in this state who have been eager to be involved in the affairs of state and to play a pre-eminent part in them; of these groups one wanted themselves to be considered populares, the other optimates. Those who wanted what they did and what they said to be pleasing to the crowd (populus) were considered populares, while those who acted in such a way that their policies found favour with the best people (optimi) were considered optimates. Who, then, are all these best people? Optimates are all those who are not guilty of crime, who are not evil by nature, who are not raving mad, who are not encumbered in their domestic affairs.

Cicero, pro Sestio 96-97

A reasonable interpretation of this is that it is sensible people (like you and me) are optimates, while simply pleasing the crowd is wrong. But on the basis of this passage alone it’s difficult to know if Cicero is siding with one party or the other – or even if such groups exist.

Wiseman then quotes Sallust  to gloss who these optimates are. How about this for an argument?

Sallust did not use the term optimates. For him, Cicero’s “best people” were “the powerful few”  or “the arrogant aristocracy”, and blamed the troubles of the time on their greed and ruthlessness … Sallust saw … the interests of the few in conflict with those of the many as far back as the beginning of the republic”.

Now, if you interpret Rome around the period of Caesar as being the interests of the many v the interests of the few, with Caesar siding with the people to curb the excesses of the elite, then the argument is clear; we know where we are. Caesar, as Wiseman states, “was the greatest popularis of the time. When Cicero refers to “those who want their words and deeds to be welcome to the multitude”, he must have had in mind Caesar’s consulship three years earlier”.

There’s just one problem with Wiseman’s argument – the quote Wiseman uses to explain the term misses one key word. Surely if Sallust didn’t use the term “optimates”, how can this quote be used to back up Cicero’s presumed distinction? In our understandable wish to follow the author’s thread, we take Wiseman’s word for it, until in retrospect we realise the quotes as they stand don’t in themselves cohere. The crossing of the Rubicon, on this evidence, will remain a mystery to me.


America’s Cool Modernism: O’Keefe to Hopper

There is a certain satisfaction on viewing an exhibition devoted to a single theme; in this case, the early 20th-century vision of the United States, an America of tall buildings, huge bridges, grain towers, trains, and silos; an idea that may well be more powerful than the reality.

This Ashmolean show doesn’t fit that vision precisely. Despite the title, the exhibition neither starts chronologically with O’Keefe, nor ends with Hopper, and neither of those artists is typical of the exhibition. I suspect these two names have been inserted to the exhibition title as the most recognised artists in the exhibition. The public likes a recognisable name. 

It’s worth considering why they are not typical, why O’Keefe and Hopper are both somewhat at variance with the main theme of the exhibition. While the show as a whole has quite remarkably almost no recognisable humans in any of the works, both O’Keefe and Hopper move towards the human: O’Keefe because her art, even when abstract,  always appears to be based around the forms of the human body. Her patterns remind the viewer of human forms. Alternatively, she paints a recognisable view, such as the East River from her hotel. 

With Hopper, it’s rather different. Hopper is always trying to tell a story. Hopper’s paintings are never just a landscape, or a building captured; no, there is a story here. Even when humans are absent, Hopper is still telling a story. For example, Dawn in Pennsylvania has a deserted railway station platform and a train just disappearing. So where is this train going? Have we missed it? There is a drama here.

In contrast, where this exhibition excels is in a kind of inhuman purity. Objects and patterns are displayed, whether representational or abstract, as shapes that are satisfying in their own right. Perhaps the best example of this is the famous Paul Strand photograph entitled White Fence. Although the title states New York, the fence could be anywhere. This is just a fence, forming a satisfying pattern.

Similarly, some of the representational images are moving towards the abstract by simply taking a shape – in the case of the picture above, Le Tournesol [Sunflower], by Edward Steichen – and moving it towards pure pattern. The result is one of those rare occasions when the pictures truly interact with each other. Each new image, representational or abstract, is a study in creating satisfying shapes out of something seen. So a lithograph such as American Pattern – Barn, by Benton Spruance, is as the title suggests, a barn that is everywhere yet nowhere; a pattern of America.

In that sense, Hopper and O’Keefe are the odd men out. For me, the show is perfectly summarised in Charles Sheeler’s Bucks County Barn.  It could well be a specific building in a specific place, but the treatment is so reduced the formal shapes – two solid blocks at ninety degrees to each other -  that we observe the pattern, not the specific building. It’s only on closer observation that you notice just a few inconspicuous details that introduce a jarring note that that formal perfection: a broken fence, repairs in the roof. This, you feel, is a vision of America. 

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Quote of the week: Stefan Collini on assessing universities

Image by Luke Jones, CC BY 2.0

Writing in the London Review of Books (Diary, 10 May 2018), Stefan Collini complains about new ways of measuring universities, including his (Cambridge):
Last year the government introduced a new wheeze. Universities are now awarded Olympic-style gold, silver and bronze medals for, notionally, teaching quality. But the metrics by which teaching quality is [sic] measured are - I am not making this up - the employment record of graduates, scores on the widely derided National Student Survey, and 'retention rates' (i.e. how few students drop out). These are obviously not measures of teaching quality; neither are they things universities can do much to control, whatever the quality of their teaching.
Whatever the relationship of university teaching to the first two metrics, the third is another matter. Mr Collini states that teaching quality is not in any way linked to students dropping out, and that universities have no control over it. Perhaps at Cambridge the undergraduates are so grateful to be admitted that they put up with whatever teaching they are offered, and will remain there regardless, but it would be reasonable to assume in lesser institutions some causality between quality of teaching and retention rate.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Manchester: How buildings think about, or ignore, the space around them

Each time I return to Manchester, I am astonished by its endless rebuilding, in the central areas, without it ever managing to acquire a coherent feel. Every building looks good or bad, in its own right, but no two buildings seem to look as though they belong next to each other.  

For me, the quintessential street is Oxford Road. It contains not one but two universities, a major music school, and who knows what other institutions, and yet it fails in the simple aim of creating a unified aspect. They have had at least 150 years to achieve some kind of townscape, but whereas in the centre there are whole streets of Victorian splendour that fit together, Oxford Road never does. Paradoxically, it is some of the more recent buildings that contribute most to its incoherence (if it is possible to contribute to incoherence – I should perhaps say reduce its coherence).

The purpose of my trip was to see the Whitworth Art Gallery, which is that rare thing, an art gallery open late one evening – the very evening I was in Manchester. The Whitworth is now displaying proudly its latest enlargement, and proud it should certainly be, because from the brief tour I made of it, the new extension has benefitted not so much the art  - I didn’t see too many large-scale opportunities for additional art display, based on the rooms that were open when I visited – but the extension has achieved an integration with the locality, and specifically with the park outside. I hadn’t realised before today that Whitworth’s legacy had provided the funds to create a park as well as an art gallery. In some way, the two belong together, and today, a gloriously hot day, the residents of Manchester were in the park in large numbers. Thanks to the new extension, there is now an art gallery “back garden”, created out of two new wings extending at the back, and there were signs of life in that area, with several people chatting at the back entrance. There is a vast new café extending down the whole of the park side of the extension, and the café looks welcoming; it doesn’t look like you have to enter the art gallery to get to the café, particularly since you can enter through the very informal-looking back entrance. Through those windows, the gallery and the park join together. 

This idea is not entirely original at the Whitworth, although spectacular. It extends the very distinctive glass wall of Bickerdike, extension, dating from 1966 to 1968. 

I thought it was a commonplace that art galleries should not have any large areas of glass providing a visible view outside, perhaps because it detracts from the appreciation of the art, or perhaps because it is not good for conservation. Yet some of the best galleries make use of the surrounding environment and make it visible – Boston, Paris (the Pompidou Centre manages to provide you with views of Parisian landmarks at various intervals as you walk around the gallery), and Downing College, where the deceptive space of the Heong Gallery, just a rectangle, includes one large window from floor to ceiling of the end of the west wall.

Yet the same extension manages to show how not do use windows at the same time as showing how to do it well.  On the north side of the new extension, the Whitworth shows how a window can remove most if not all of the impact of a work of art. 

Epstein’s Genesis is positioned in a tiny alcove with a wall behind it entirely of glass. The view is of an unprepossessing car park and road – even Genesis loses a bit of impact against a stream of traffic. There is enough traffic outside in Oxford Road for the Whitworth to be a pleasant haven, and you don’t want to be reminded of the north and east sides of the building.

Much of the museum was closed (between exhibitions) but there was enough to give an idea of the new space in operation. For me, the loveliest space was the lower ground floor at the back – the back entrance is one floor lower than the front. This means that the space facing the back entrance is almost a cellar, and is treated like one - there are low arches connecting the various “rooms”. This space is very interesting. It has easy chairs, some PCs, and textile art around the walls. At all times the outside is visible. It has a most un-museum-like feel to it, and is all the better for it. 

The items on display (hardly an exhibition) I saw there were Indian textile art both from India and from a local group, ARPA. The mix of exhibits, old and new, was fascinating and the space welcoming. It didn’t feel like a gallery. It felt small-scale and welcoming – quite a contrast to the main entrance, with pairs of classical columns announcing very clearly what the building is supposed to be.

After that exquisite experience, it was back through Oxford Road again, this time noticing some buildings that are just plain bad. 

Despite that, I'll remember the Whitworth for a long time. 

Sunday, 15 April 2018

The Truth about Moll Flanders

What is the truth about Moll Flanders? Was Defoe writing a crowd-pleaser, full of titillating details and salacious incidents, providing excitement for his readers? Is it simply that Defoe was writing for “a petty-bourgeois audience, prizing respectability yet craving adventure” (as G A Starr writes in the introduction to the World’s Classics edition)? If that were the case, Hogarth’s image on the front cover, The Orgy, from The Rake’s Progress (shown above), would be entirely appropriate.

But the truth is somewhat different. My impression, after reading the book, was that it had plenty of crime, but very little in the way of orgies - in fact none at all. The novel never descended into fantasy, but remained throughout a credible and indeed sympathetic study of a woman without connections making her way in the world as best she could. Moll is never a prostitute in the accepted sense of the word, selling her body for money. But as she progresses through life, she becomes more hard-headed about dealing with other people, justifying to us, the readers, her actions in a comprehensible way, even if we would not act in the way that she does. But at no point do we decide this character is beyond redemption. We remain on her side throughout the novel. That is quite an achievement, when you list some of her crimes.
This is not a fantasy novel; anyone expecting a libertarian, anarchist paradise will be sorely disappointed.

Here are some attempts to capture what is significant about this fascinating novel:

Moll Flanders has a different version of the truth, or a different selection of facts, with pretty much everyone she encounters, including her husbands. The only person she tells everything to is the priest in Newgate, and even there, she covers her tracks by not confessing to the ordinary (whose job it is to implicate others involved in criminal activity) but a priest found for her by her “governess”
Moll’s views on penitence vary with how much money she has. At the very end of the book, when she has plenty of material wealth, she can afford to be penitent, and is penitent. At other places in the book she shows no remorse whatever. In Newgate she states explicitly she is not unhappy out of any sense of sin for what she has done.
It is a tribute to the novel’s achievement that we are rooting for Moll throughout the book. In the end, although caught in flagrante with the stolen goods on her and the act of committing a crime, we still hope she can escape in some way, almost in any way.
There is a constant theme throughout the book of how much money she has. I know of no other novel that has such a precise statement of income and assets pretty much at every point in her career. And yet, in the chronology of Defoe’s life, it states he was declared bankrupt in 1692. Perhaps, like Balzac, his keen sense of money was cause by his being so overwhelmed by it.  
Why does Moll always reject what for most of us is the only choice – an honest job? Why does she seek out the criminal life, even when it involves more energy and application than a standard job?
Moll is economical with the truth throughout, even to herself. At the end she provides for her son and tells him he is the only child she has, which is flagrantly untrue. This is just one example of how Moll adjusts reality to suit herself, and adjusts her statements likewise. She is constantly transforming her name, her appearance, even, for a while, masquerading as a man.
Moll not hardened by her experiences. She does not appear to be callous. We are in her confidence throughout the book. We admire her cleverness and how prepared she is. She justifies her stealing as the inevitable result of her financial situation, as if to say, anyone in her situation would do the same thing.
G A Starr does not consider any of this. Instead, he claims that Moll is influenced by a mixture of “ roles of psychological, economic, social, and religious motivation” and it is for the reader to choose which has the greatest relative weight.  That sounds to me like passing the buck. Just as academics revel in ambiguity, as if to discover ambiguity  is in itself to establish the high literary calibre of the work studies, so Starr  satisfies himself by stating it is possible to assess Moll in a number of ways. That is hardly startling.
Her thieving is often justified along the lines of “why did they leave such a tempting object in full view of passers-by – they deserve all they get!”. Interestingly, Moll’s self-justification  seems to crowd out any other moral considerations by the reader – these moral misgivings only creep in some days after reading her account
You could even describe Moll Flanders as a living example of Macpherson’s Possessive Individualism – the only thing that matters to Moll is herself and her self-protection. Husbands, children, friends are all abandoned wherever necessary to maintain her economic independence.
Starr claims that Moll is not a hedonist, since she is more interested in acquiring than enjoying. That is true, but the question is, why? Why accumulate riches if you don’t make use of them? It suggests to me almost a class warfare point of view: I will show you, says Moll, how you can survive without the advantages of birth or learning. The point is the accumulation of wealth, not its enjoyment (and of course the accumulation is much more interesting to read about than the enjoyment of wealth).

Sunday, 1 April 2018

How religion affects the way you discuss things

A full-page review of books on religion and atheism in today’s Financial Times  (31 March 2018) is headed “A return to faith”. This is fascinating, because of the three books reviewed, one is by an atheist, one by a Christian and one by an academic whose position on faith is not stated. Hardly grounds for indicating a return to faith. And for me, the interest of the review was less about whether there is a return to faith in the modern world and much more about how the reviewer, Christopher de Bellaigue, uses, and in my opinion misuses, tools of language and argument to make his case.

Example one: using examples extraneous to the subject to criticize the author
Mary Beard has written a book about the relationship of art and religion (according to the publisher’s blurb) or about the origins of art and religious masterpieces (according to de Bellaigue) – not quite the same thing. The difference becomes clearer when de Bellaigue mentions Leonardo’s St Anne Cartoon as an example of “how extraordinarily giving the human mind has been when fertilised by faith”.  
This is a fallacious argument, firstly because Beard does not include it as one of her examples, and secondly because there is no agreement whether Leonardo was religious or not. In fact Vasari states in his life of Leonardo ‘Leonardo formed in his mind a conception so heretical as not to approach any religion whatsoever’. Since the jury is out over Leonardo’s Christian belief or otherwise, it strikes me as unhelpful to use his paintings as a proof of what can be achieved by faith-based art. Thousands of Renaissance painters created images of Christian scenes, but that does not imply they were all motivated by faith.

Example two: using a minor truth as evidence of a major truth
De Bellaigue praises Marilynne Robins, an American Christian, as an exemplar of liberal Christianity. “The Congregationalist church she attends in her hometown of Iowa City blessed gay unions even before the state of Iowa legalised same-sex marriage in 2009.” Well, that sounds good – until you realise that the Christian church has been responsible for much of the prejudice against homosexuality that exists today and that even today it remains deeply compromised over gay sex. To claim, as de Bellaigue does, that her church is in the vanguard because it predated approval by the state of Iowa is, to be frank, meaningless.

Example three: misuse of clauses
De Bellaigue, by skilful and manipulative use of language, draws thinkers from the opposition to his own side.  In discussing John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism,  he states “Gray is a non-believer but his historical view of atheism … suggest the crimes carried out in [atheism’s] name are as shameful as any done for God”.
That word “but”! De Bellaigue in this sentence links the so-called crimes of atheism with an argument for belief.  What’s more, he assumes a “God” we all know and are familiar with  - why should we be, unless we are a believer?

Why do writers employ such tactics? Unfortunately, they often do so in the mane of their belief in a religion, which others do not share and which they cannot accept. Belief in a religion, even for individuals as clever and educated as de Bellaigue, appears to lead them to elementary errors in arguments such as these.