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.

Guesswork

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.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Hillbilly Elegy - gripping, yet facile

Bowling Alone was a famous study of changes in American (and hence Western) society – why would anyone bowl by themselves? I approached Hillbilly Elegy with high hopes, since it had been bracketed with Bowling Alone as a key text to understand the American white underclass. Said the Wall Street Journal: “A beautiful memoir but equally a work of cultural criticism about white working-class America”.  That’s quite an achievement! Did it live up to expectations?

Friday, 14 April 2017

Sussex Modernism or townies on holiday?

Review of the Sussex Modernism show at Two Temple Place, April 2017

Two Temple Place is a remarkable hotchpotch, an overwhelming ragbag of decoration in what produces an incoherent muddle for the viewer. Created at the end of the 19th century for a fabulously wealthy but tasteless American, it suffers from that period’s strange belief that covering every surface with decoration was somehow better than simplicity. You feel it was buildings like this that led to the severe, stark modernism of concrete buildings. This is a building that cost a vast amount to put together. 

The building is worth mentioning, because it seemed to clash with the paintings and sculpture displayed within. The art displayed (perhaps any art exhibited in this space would be the same) appeared to be overwhelmed by the cacophony of impressions being sent by the building and its decor.

What was this show about? The charity behind the exhibition, the Bulldog Trust, sets out to “support the development of regional museums and galleries”. This show reflects that aim, but notice that the aim is to support galleries, not to present anything about the region in which those galleries are situated. To a large extent, this show ignores the landscape of Sussex. Here, then, is the first of the exhibition’s paradoxes:  it claims to be about a place, but celebrates the work of a group of artists who largely ignored that place.  Eric Gill moved away from Ditchling because of comments from the locals, the exhibition tells us.  Mendelssohn and Chermayeff were widely criticised by xenophobic locals complaining that British architects should have been given the commission to build the De La Warr Pavilion.  To comprehend the show, you should rename it ”various early 20th-century artists who were based in Sussex at some point”. Even that description doesn’t account for a photo of Picasso, shown visiting Sussex – we aren’t told for how long.  The closest this show comes to depicting the Sussex landscape is a few humorous photographs by Lee Miller, such as one where US cartoonist Saul Steinberg is photographed in such a way that he appears to be drawing the Long Man of Wilmington. It is a response to the landscape, but hardly one worth celebrating. This is a show about townies having a laugh at the strange primitivism they encounter outside London.

So was the show “modernist”? The subtitle of the show, “retreat as rebellion”, seems a somewhat defensive qualification of the term “modernist”.  The captions do their best to suggest this art as challenging, but in reality, there was a great deal of far more challenging art taking place at the same time outside of Sussex.

To call the show “Sussex modernists” suggests some kind of group, and the artists in this group were widely disparate. There was very little connecting Duncan Grant, the surrealists, John Piper, Eric Gill, and Serge Chermayeff, except that they all spent some time in Sussex. That is hardly a theme.  The show tries to make a case for the participants being unconventional and challenging in their attitudes. For example, Duncan Grant painted a crucifixion for Berwick Church that showed a naked Christ with a visible penis. Yet somehow this radicalism begins to dissolve when you read how Virginia Woolf used to enjoy dressing up in rustic clothes as a model for an Annunciation. It seems very close to Marie Antoinette pretending to be a milkmaid in her pretend farm at Versailles.

All in all, the show strikes me as a pleasant wander through nine regional collections, pulling out interesting things, many of which have not been shown before (there were some interesting photographs of natural objects on beaches). But that’s not “Sussex modernism”; it’s “Some interesting works of art I found in galleries in and around Brighton”.  This is not to detract from the works themselves; it’s just that there is nothing to pull them together. Just as Two Temple Place, the building that houses them, has no connection with the pictures either. It’s a muddle.




Monday, 6 February 2017

Why Paul Nash is popular



If you had to summarise the career of Paul Nash in one sentence, it would be: It all started and ended with landscapes,. His best work always involves landscapes, especially trees, in the Home counties, and although he flirted with surrealism, he almost never abandoned landscape and natural objects, and ended back with landscapes, albeit less naturalistic, stylised, mystical landscapes (like the one above).  
A second sentence might add: Some of his best-known images are of the two world wars. In these pictures he portrays stark, graphic representations of the chaos and destruction wrought by war. He also demonstrated, certainly in the images from World War Two, a fondness for destruction: scenes of bombing, and scenes of junk from crashed planes and military hardware.
So why was the exhibition packed with visitors? At times, there were three or four people grouped around most of the paintings. The answer to this question is linked to the above. Nash is an artist of the English landscape: to be specific, he celebrates the magic of the rare wild scenes in the southern counties.  His images of Wittenham Clumps, for example, convey something other-worldly about that memorable group of trees. What captured Nash's imagination, clearly, is the stylization of the original; it is a hill with some trees on it. Almost nothing else, and that simplicity is memorable. Once you have seen a Nash depiction of Wittenham Clumps, you never look at the originals in quite the same way.
From his earliest works displayed here he uses a characteristic, soft-shade palette and a tendency to reduce detail to line and simpler forms. An early depiction of Wittenham Clumps (1913, when he was only 24) already shows this tendency to simplification. This tendency stays with him throughout his life, so even when he includes St Pancras Station in his paintings, as part of the view from his window, it is a drastically simplified St Pancras, only recognisable from the shade of the brick rather than the rich detail of the actual facade.
Popular: this is popular art, in the sense that people find the images somehow reassuring. This is not challenging art. For some strange reason, everything Nash draws or paints has a tendency to look beautiful. Even in his most stylized surrealist works, there is usually some satisfying line or relationship to enjoy; this is not stark, like the painters he claimed to be following, such as de Chirico, whose work lacks any of Nash’s lyricism. To demonstrate that Nash paints lyrically, look at the war paintings. Even the First World War images, such as We are Making a New World, despite depicting horror, look attractive – so attractive, that, we read, the image was featured on an official publication about the British War Artists (although they didn’t mention the title). Similarly, in the Second World War images, his depictions of military junk (Totes Meer) and even bombing missions over Germany (Battle of Germany, 1944) are entertaining to the eye. You get the feeling that everything he depicts will become attractive.
The same is true for the surrealist works. Although he tries his best to represent disconnected objects out of context and intrusively, he cannot resist starting with a landscape background, or even, as with the lovely Equivalents for the Megaliths, manages to convey a sense of the Avebury stones at the same time as trying to show abstract volumes. One of the best examples of an object becoming beautiful is a concrete trough he discovered in a field during a walk. This concrete trough appealed because of its rhythmic repetitious shape, and in fact he used the shape as part of a collage, removed from its environment that would make it intelligible. But then he uses the shape again, in Objects in a Field, 1936, and magnificently captures both the object in a recognisable environment and at the same time highlights the strangeness, the unnaturalness of the shape – and puts it all into a satisfying whole, so that the viewer gazes on the image with pleasure.
Finally, if I had to select a favourite image, or at least a period of Nash images, I would choose the very last room, which contains his characteristic landscapes, but now becoming mystical in the same way that Samuel Palmer or Ivon Hitchens takes a view and renders it mysterious. Landscape of the Vernal Equinox contains Wittenham Clumps yet again; but this time not only the trees, but all the landscape around, has become reduced to areas of bare colour with simple outlines, all lit from the sun and moon in the rear of the painting. If you ever wanted to feel that the landscapes of Sussex, Dorset, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire could be magical, here is a demonstration. That’s what brings the crowds in.