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. 

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Pissarro retreats to Eragny

It is difficult to visit a show of Impressionist paintings without noticing the frantic consumption of all things Impressionist by visitors to the exhibition. Every scrap of the Impressionist story is consumed so enthusiastically by art amateurs that museums know perfectly well that any Impressionist exhibition will be a sure-fire commercial success. The Impressionists, in other words, are bankable. After all, the Impressionists celebrated pretty scenes of an unchanging rural countryside, right? That’s what much of the artgoing public wants. Not an art that engages, but an art that escapes from the modern world. 

Camille Pissarro is one of the premier league Impressionists, the only one, apparently, to exhibit at all eight of the Impressionist Exhibitions, and so a show of his paintings (at the Musee de Luxembourg in Paris) was always likely to be well attended. Question is, did the show present a new perspective about the artist that we did not already know? Did it challenge the standard view? Is Pissarro, in other words, a painter celebrating a fast disappearing rural ideal, or was there more to it than that? Audiences for art more than 50 years old are typically quite uncritical. Did the show challenge the viewer’s assumptions, or, better, did it reveal how the art itself could challenge those assumptions?

Of course, all the battles the Impressionists were fighting have now been won. We all believe that to capture a landscape we should really be painting out of doors. Our paintings should capture our fleeting impressions - and that these are more valuable than anything we dream up in a studio. And so on. But most viewers of Impressionist paintings are not seeking to change the world; instead, they seem perfectly happy to enter into a never-never world. I have to say that on looking at these Pissarro pictures for the first time - local landscapes, scenes of harvesting and work in the fields - they looked pretty comforting and unchallenging. 

Well, this show made a brave attempt to challenge assumptions from the very first room. This was almost entirely given over to photographs, reproduced very large – and without any paintings to detract from the message. These photos told the story behind this show. Pissarro moved to Eragny in 1884, and remained there for the rest of his life. The show doesn't mention that Monet paid for Pissarro's house there. Eragny was (and, it seems, still is) a tiny village then in remote Normandy, today almost a suburb of Paris. The decision to make your home in such a location does not suggest a great engagement with the social forces of the day, and the paintings, when viewed, would seem to suggest – at least on a first reading – an uncritical celebration of the kind of rural idyll that many viewers of Impressionist paintings would like to see; is that what Pissarro was setting out to depict?

Well, the photographs suggested something rather different. They told the story of a painter whose background was not quite what the audience might expect. He was born in the Danish West Indies, and only arrived in France at the age of 12. According to Wikipedia, he, like his siblings, “was forced to attend the local all-black primary school” because his father had been ostracised by the local Jewish community for marrying his deceased uncle’s widow. After studying in France, he spent two years in Venezuela. But none of this early life is mentioned in the exhibition. Instead, the exhibition concentrates on what Wikipedia describes in a wonderful phrase as “expressing on canvas the beauties of nature without adulteration” – as if such a thing were possible. The Wikipedia entry continues “He found the French countryside ...still mostly agricultural and sometimes called the “golden age of the peasantry”. Not, I suspect, a moniker the peasants themselves would have adopted.

You could perhaps question why an artist born outside metropolitan France would choose to spend the last 19 years of his life retreating in this way. But the exhibition does not choose to ask this question. Instead, the show focuses on Pissarro’s celebration of a rural life summed up in the painting Apple Picking, Eragny, 1887-88, a picture used on the cover of more than one of the several guides available at the exhibition bookshop. This picture depicts an apple harvest in an idyllic countryside, with peasants absorbed int their worklearly appearing to be happy in their work.

Yet there is more to the story than that. Interestingly, Pissarro took a great interest in anarchism, and there is one room dedicated to his drawings for a book entitled Turpitudes sociale  / Social Depravities, a set of remarkable drawings that almost look like caricatures of the filthy rich and the suffering poor – a completely different view to the big oil paintings in the other rooms. Here there is a perhaps simplistic but nonetheless very present social conscience. 

Pissarro, it seems, was a keen reader of Proudhon and found “his ideas are totally in sync with ours”. Well, it’s difficult to reconcile these ideas with the paintings in the other rooms of the exhibition. In fact, if anything, his painting moved more towards satisfying the requirements of wealthy bourgeois clients. The exhibition reveals that Pissarro's attempts to create pointillist works were very slow to execute, and, worse, failed to sell. It appears that he moved back to a more reliable type of art that sold readily. In 1894 he founded, with his son Lucien, the Eragny Press, which produced very short runs of expensive art books, destined then (and still now) to be acquired and held by private collectors. Not much sign of democracy in this art. Yet, as his letters reveal, Pissarro was certainly aware of events of the day – in 1894, during a period of anarchist bombings and consequent police clampdowns, he wrote “I am worried that as an outsider ... I might be investigated or expelled from France”, and considered selling the house in Eragny. Yet there are no signs in the paintings, apart from the Social Turpitudes set, of Pissarro feeling in any way an outsider. This exhibition could have been sponsored by the Council for the Preservation of Rural France (if such a body existed).

Perhaps the painting most admired by the visitors, judging from the number of people admiring and photographing it, is one by Pissarro depicting a woman washing her feet in a stream (Le Bain des Pieds, 1895). It is a large, unabashed piece of sentimentalism, a depiction of a female purity and innocence that did not exist then or now. It is a very poor painting – clearly not based around the Impressionist mantra of recording what the artist could see, more a picture of what the 19th-century artist would imagine in his studio about an unreal countryside populated by attractive women washing their feet in streams. The exhibition caption reads: “Inspired by ...Millet, Pissarro here reappropriates this classic subject, by his pictorial technique and the modern allure of the character represented in the natural environment”.  What “modern allure”? If this picture were exhibited without a label in any provincial gallery of European paintings from around 1900, it would not be noticed.

I'm afraid to say that this exhibition takes viewers on an escape, to a land where women wash their feet in streams, and the audience seemed to love it. What happened to the Impressionist ideals?

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

The Invisible Woman and the visible fiction

Claire Tomalin is one of the most prolific (and popular) biographers writing today, having written lives of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Samuel Pepys, and several others. Now, the story of Nelly Ternan, Dickens’ mistress, but never publicly acknowledged by him during his life, is a major discovery, and well worth writing about. So compelling was the story that the book was rapidly turned into a film.

However, there are difficulties in writing the life of Nelly Ternan. She left hardly any letters or account of herself, and Dickens made sure to keep details of her hidden. For a major part of her life, 1862-65, there appears to be no written record of her whatsoever. Hence this biography has to be based on tantalizingly little evidence of her life: the moments when she is recorded are often by mistake for example when she was in the Staplehurst train crash of 1865, when Dickens was travelling with her on the train that went off the rails. Even then, he managed to keep her anonymity, even though he was interviewed after the event.

What does a biographer do in the absence of firm evidence? I’m afraid to say Ms Tomalin starts writing fiction. In fact, with reference to that period 1862-65, Ms Tomalin is not afraid to state confidently what Nelly Ternan might have been doing: “This is to be a chapter of guesses and conjectures, and those who don’t like them are warned.”  So that’s all right, then. The truth is that Ms Tomalin has made things up. Of course, any biographer has a temptation to describe what might have happened; it’s common. Perhaps a more serious fault for a biographer is to make your story into something more melodramatic than it is. Ms Tomalin doesn’t hesitate, first to guess, then to conclude that the result is melodramatic. That three-year absence was while Nelly Ternan was having Dickens’ child (although there is no evidence for it). 

A sensational story

Sadly, if there is an opportunity in this biography to imply a sensational act or fact, Ms Tomalin grabs it. Worse, once a sensational inference has been made, more fiction is added: drawing further conclusions becomes very straightforward. For example, being an actress in Victorian England was, she claims, very close to prostitution. Perhaps that was true; but she then goes on to state that “the stage was virtually the only profession in which this sort of independence was possible for women at this time.” That seems rather sweeping; a woman could run a school (and the Ternans did, for a while). A woman could be a governess. But Ms Tomalin returns again and again to the situation of the actress, emphasising the social ostracism and dubious status: “Their position was seen to be especially anomalous. They were certainly not ladies, since ladies, by definition, did not work.”  There is almost an admiration of the sheer naughtiness of it all, an element that recurs throughout the book.


If you can write a good story, why diminish its impact by including unwarranted assumptions? It’s not much of a problem to read “Mrs Jordan, whose charm and beauty no other actress could equal” (although how is such as statement justified?). But what about over 70 uses of the phrase “must have”? When Nelly’s father died, the cause of his death, states Ms Tomalin with confidence, “we now know must have been syphilis” - yes, this is the accepted interpretation of the 19th-century diagnosis “general paralysis of the insane”. But, continues Ms Tomalin, “no doubt Ternan contracted the disease in his bachelor days and was unaware of the fact”. No doubt. 

Readings of Dickens

Tomalin’s view of Dickens is a mixture of insight and repetition of stereotypes, like her judgements of Ternan herself. For instance she describes Bleak House as “essentially a tragic story peopled by a cast of comic characters”, a judgement that forms a good description of Dombey and Son and other novels by him. Nonetheless, caricature can produce great art: A Christmas Carol is an example. But many of her claims about Dickens’ female characters are unwarranted and simply repeating stereotypes. Describing Dickens’ heroines, he writes, “she [Estella in Great Expectations] is made frigid by her upbringing as part of the plot. All the others are inoculated against sexuality by their creator before their stories begin; they are about as tempting as wax fruit.” All the others? What about Edith, pushed by her mother into a loveless marriage with Dombey, but not afraid to tell him what she thinks of him? She has no compunction in speaking her mind.

In all, a fascinating story, but fatally weakened by an over-imaginative biographer, with passages of pure conjecture, such as: "There is no reason to think she was not responsive to his charm, which dazzled so many young women, or grateful for his devotion. Indeed, it’s perfectly possible she was in love with him.” This biography, in other words, is not so much a presentation of the facts, more an excited and romantic reconstruction of a possible life by a very imaginative biographer.