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.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Country and Eastern: the Kettle’s Yard of Norwich?

It might seem far-fetched, but in some ways Country and Eastern, a Norwich-based retailer of Indian objects, fabrics and clothes, as well as a museum of Indian applied art, plays a similar role to Kettle’s Yard. What? I hear you say. How can you compare a retailer to an art gallery? It’s very simple.

  • Both display in close proximity natural objects and created objects
  • Both show art created out of natural materials, that is as much about enjoying the material as the art created from it
  • Both have an arresting quality, teaching you to look at and to enjoy
  • Both create scenarios with arranged objects together, giving a satisfying and pleasurable sight
  • Both are happy to combine cheap, mass-produced objects with objects of considerable skill and rarity value.

  • Both are housed in an inspiring environment, reusing a space in an imaginative way. 

Country and Eastern is a model of how the art gallery shop should be. Instead of the art-going public buying feeble and inferior replicas of the art on display, at Country and Easter, you can buy the same vision – the same lovely colours, the same workmanship, the same art – and recreate it at home.

How could you fail to respond to such a rich array of lovely colours?  Just as Alfred Wallis can produce images as satisfying as those by an art-school trained painter, so can simple block prints of bright colours have as satisfying an effect as rich and elaborate (and highly skilled) metalwork.

And I can’t help feeling that buying things from Country and Eastern is far more likely to benefit local workers than anything on sale in the Fitzwilliam shop (or the Kettle’s Yard shop, for that matter).

Friday, 30 March 2018

Jim Ede: a twentieth-century Ruskin?

I don’t know if anyone has noticed the similarities between Jim Ede and John Ruskin. Both dedicated much of their wealth to disseminating a sense of beauty; both were crackpots, managing to inspire the reader and appal the reader, sometimes in equal doses. Both had an exquisite sense of the visual, combining both things created by humans and purely natural phenomena. For Ruskin, it was the Swiss mountain landscape; for Ede, it was natural substances such as a beach pebble or an old piece of wood.

Having just visited the expanded Kettle’s Yard, I find the challenge is to how to combine the inspiration and sense of wonder with muddle-headedness and overweening sense of rightness that often applies to people with the money to buy objects. It’s impossible to capture it in a single post, but here goes.

Incidentally, one thing I noticed is that apart from a café and a revised position for the shop, nothing at Kettle’s Yard appears to have changed. Lots of things were added, I understand in basements and overhead, but nothing that can be seen by the visitor. This is architecture attempting to be invisible, and in this case it is very successful. It reminds me of the invisible extension to the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich.
Where did Ede get the money to buy, and to totally transform, the cottages that became Kettle’s Yard? There are only two clues in his A way of life: first, his father gave him some money to enable him to buy a house in Hampstead – the sale of this house would have generated lots of money. Secondly, Christopher Neve in Country Life notes that Ede made money by selling Gaudier-Brzeska works. Perhaps many years after the artist’s death Ede was able to make a lot of money selling several of the original works and replacing them in Kettle’s Yard by casts.
So what did I like, and what did I dislike, in Kettle’s Yard?

Ede has a genius for creating spaces. Since the most memorable aspect of the original Kettle’s Yard building is the two bay windows, and it turns out that Ede added them during the work of knocking three or four cottages together, it can be said the resulting space is Ede’s creation. He manages to preserve an artisan-like feel to the space without prettifying it too much. Of course, Kettle’s Yard is wildly popular today because the interiors of the original building correspond with current style for interior design – bare floors, stripped wood, irregular shapes. But he can’t be blamed for that.
Similarly, Ede has a genius for placing objects in apparently simple ways that create a very satisfying effect. Some pebbles, together with a small sculpture or dish, just look right. Typically he gathers objects together on a round table or cupboard top.

He uses and creates wonder from very simple shapes: round tables, spiral stairs, round bay windows.
He makes use of light in the original building to cast magical shadows on these objects. In the afternoon, when the visitor walks around the building, the light through the west-facing windows can be powerful and very evocative. Of course, this breaks a cardinal rule for art galleries not to have any direct light, and therefore no shadow. This is a building the celebrates shadows.
He uses found objects to create magical effects. The long tables with iron legs were actually beams holding up a workshop on the original site, that he repurposed.
So where does it all go wrong? The effect starts to jar as the visitor walks down the steps to the first extension, by Leslie Martin, opened 1970.

Now we are dealing with a completely new space. Unfortunately Martin has failed to appreciate the unplanned and lived-in feel of the original building; the new building has windows, rails, walls that are all too regular. It feels like a new building. It has lost, in a word, the intimacy of the original (even if the “original” was largely Ede’s creation). It does not feel domestic. Like most galleries, the space works in parts but not as a whole.
It’s at this point that the visitor starts to notice Ede’s fondness for art with words. There is a glass panel in one window with a quote from the Book of Job in the Old Testament. For Ede, all art is religious, and while I am happy for that to be a background theme of his, I notice that his descriptions of the art he chooses focuses on a religious interpretation, and a very single-minded interpretation at that.  He quotes Simone Weil approvingly: ““the beauty of the world is almost the only way by which we can allow God to penetrate us”, and for Ede, the beauty of the world is expressed by Kettle’s Yard, which he sees as a manifestation of God. For example, “If I had to find another name for God, I think it would be balance.”
It is questionable to discover that powerful and moving objects such as the wood sculpture “Gate” are described by Ede as “the Eternal Gate through which we must all pass”.  This was written by a man in his eighties, perhaps, but Ede is a man seeing religious symbolism in everything he looks at.
And even judged just by “rightness” of display, much of Kettle’s Yard is just wrong. 

The paintings in the attic, for example, are almost all hung on walls following the line of the roof, which makes them difficult if not impossible to see. Yet Ede claims one corner of this attic “becomes a piece of stillness … Be Still and know that I am God … I search always for this stillness”.  I see a cramped distorted space in the attic, and I don’t see stillness.
Similarly many of the objects in the Martin extension are beautiful, but I don’t think they gain from the space; they are beautiful despite the space. The Martin extension shows the Ede approach reduced to a formula: add a few non-matching chairs, add some corner cupboards, a small carpet or two, and some pebbles … but the objects are in the end defeated by the space, just as the Kettle’s Yard objects when displayed temporarily in the Fitzwilliam had lost so much of their magic. They felt out of place.
Finally, the exhibition space at Kettle’s Yard bears no resemblance whatever to the original building or even to the values that Ede promoted. He praised beauty above all, and the contemporary galleries are only very infrequently about beauty. They lack the serendipitous, the domestic scale, the juxtaposition of old and new, of created and found. So whatever magic Ede created is lost before the visitor has even left the gallery.
As for the latest (2018) extension, I didn’t even notice it! The gallery has been expanded, but the original house has been put back precisely as it was before, with not a pebble (or a lemon) out of place.  
Which leads to another, final question: should the house exist as a complete fossil?  One reason why the recent exhibition of Kettle’s Yard objects at the Hepworth in Wakefield exhibition was that it both was, yet was not, Kettle’s Yard. It took some aspects (such as a spiral staircase, and rush circular mats) and combined them with totally new objects to create something new but inspired by Ede. There’s a thought for the Kettle’s Yard curators.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Can a book depict an art gallery?

I’ve been in a fair few art galleries in my time, and Kettle’s Yard is one of the most individual. What makes it so different? And can that difference be communicated in a book? Since the art gallery has just reopened after a lengthy closure and enlargement, this is a good time to try to assess what makes it distinctive. Is it just an arrangement of objects, or is it something more mysterious, associated with  Kettle’s Yard itself, the building once lived in by Jim Ede? All these questions became more apparent when, during the gallery closure, some of the Kettle’s Yard collection went on tour around British galleries and could be seen in very different surroundings. A few pieces from the collection were on show in the Fitzwilliam. Parts of that building are very dour and soulless, and the few sad pieces on forlorn display, surrounded by dreary glass cabinets of porcelain, looked very sad indeed. You would have said there was something about the place, since the same works of art that had earlier inspired you now looked dusty and unimpressive.

A good starting point is Jim Ede’s own book, A Way of Life (or, as he presumably decided it was to appear on the cover of his book, A way of life).  Published in 1984, it is one of the worst designed books I have ever read. The text looks horrifically over-sized for the page. There are no page numbers. None of the pictures has a caption. There is an index of quotations, but no index to the book contents, or index to the photos. The book, perhaps like the collection itself, does not appear to have any organizing principle. The book ends with 12 pages of full-page photographs, that are announced at “an unexpected extra!”. They are interesting, but look to be just that: pictures that arrived after the book had been created. They are followed by a quotation from Antony and Cleopatra that appears to have zero relevance to anything that has come before in the book. In other words, the book is a hotchpotch - and unlike the gallery, a failed hotchpotch. 

What are the organizing principles behind Mr Ede? An attachment to 1920s art, a strong but rather vague religious sense  throughout, together with the oddest mixture of the profound with the trivial.  Captions written by Ede range from “I had forgotten about this unfortunate stain” to art criticism that leaves a lot to be desired: “This painting by Christopher Wood … even when almost black still has a magical quality. He gave it to me more than 50 years ago.” This text fails as a concerted discourse – I’m sure it was deliberate, but it is a maddening effect. It is the combination of mundane and formal that most people separate into different worlds before going public.

Perhaps that is the achievement of Kettle’s Yard – it manages to be a personal statement at the same time as being a collection of artefacts. Or is it simply a bag of tricks, that could be replicated anywhere? Let’s look at how Kettle’s Yard creates its effect (and how the Wakefield Hepworth gallery exhibition of Kettle's Yard content was able to replicate it):

  • Armchairs everywhere, very rarely matching. Armchairs, like sofas, invite you to sit down and relax. You don’t find armchairs in a standard art gallery. Armchairs suggest home – as furniture companies realised many years ago.
  • Everywhere there is a mixture of artworks and incidental, homely details. Fresh flowers appear next to carefully arranged groups of pebbles, next to formal works of art. 
  • Nothing appears to be hidden behind glass (although many of the paintings are behind glass)
  • The art is all on a scale that fits a private residence.
  • There are many spiral rush floor rugs. These suggest a domesticity, a rustic quality so powerfully that they even worked when Kettle’s Yard objects were shown in the brutalist reinforced concrete of the Wakefield Hepburn Gallery – what should have been the most unsympathetic environment for Kettle’s Yard objects.
  • The collection has the name of an owner, and the location is the owner's house. The owner has not just a first name but a colloquial, friendly name - not "Kenneth Clark" but "Jim Ede". I don't think Kenneth Clark's house would have looked like Kettle's Yard at all. 
  • The book shows many lighting effects – of course, these would only be visible at certain times of day, and perhaps not noticeable to the public visiting when the sun is high in the sky. Are the photos, in other words, suggesting an atmosphere not found in the house itself? 

So here’s the question: could you follow this formula in any art gallery, and transform the environment?  Given the frigidity of the Fitzwilliam Museum, it might be worth a try there, for a start. 

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Inventing the Individual: a perverse view of the last 2,000 years

You could say that Larry Siedentop is swimming against the tide. You notice it first of all in the jacket image for the UK hardback edition. He uses Van Eyck's The Goldsmith,  a portrait from 1436, which you or I might see as a perfect example of the newly invented "individual", a modern staring at us through the picture frame. But that's not how the book sees it. According to the author, individualism started with St Paul.

Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual gives the impression that it could have been written at any time in the last 50 years. His intellectual heroes are the little-known Fustel de Coulanges  (“religion was the sole factor in the evolution of ancient Greece and Rome, the bonding of family and state was the work of religion … ancient religion thus consisted of worship of divine ancestors through the paterfamilias”) and the unread Francois Guizot (only remembered as prime minister of France, not for his vast quantity of historical writing).  You could even interpret in the acknowledgements to Siedentop’s book a thanks the woman who typed the manuscript (he doesn’t actually say this, but she is thanked for ‘patience in the face of the successive revisions of the manuscript’).  Looks to me like the author has himself something of the paterfamilias.

This book is about how the individual became the organising social role in the West – no arguments about that. What is novel, at least novel for the 21st century, is that Siedentop claims this individualism started with St Paul. The author’s argument is that ancient religion was all about the family (“the religion of the Greek and Roman pre-history did not speak to the individual conscience. Rather, it spoke to and through the family.” In contrast, St Paul emphasised a  personal relationship with God: “the atmosphere of the New Testament is one of exhilarating detachment from the unthinking constraints of inherited social roles”.

In some way, which I chose not to examine in detail, this individual relationship became the dominant mode of the Church through successive medieval popes creating a centralized administrative system in the C12 and C13. This I fail to see. As a result, in Siedentop’s view, the Renaissance loses much of its importance (even though the one thing about the Renaissance that everyone will tell you is that it was the age that invented the individual). In fact, he argues perversely that “secularization depended on the idea of personal freedom”, which itself was a product of Christianity.

I can believe in “liberal secularism” as the dominant mode of thought in the West today, but it seems to me stretching things a bit to identify the origin of liberal secularism with St Paul. Not surprisingly, there is next to no mention of the Enlightenment in Siedentop’s book.  The idea of individual freedom and equality owing their origin to the despised and ridiculed Christianity would make Voltaire and Diderot turn in their grave (not of course that they would have complied with such a Christian tradition as burial).

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

History: from darkness to light?

From Darkness to Light (image by Imen Bouhajja, CC BY-SA 4.0)

One view of history, perhaps perverse, is to see much, if not most of human history as a picture of prejudice, myth and irrationality, which has only very recently, and even today only partially, been eradicated. The latest issue of the TLS is an example. The lead article is devoted to a book about the religious writings of Isaac Newton. It is well known that Newton was a religious fanatic, yet I was surprised at the Newton revealed here.

Equal parts litigator, millenarian, numerologist, moralist and paranoid conspiracy theorist … his clandestine, lifelong and almost entirely fruitless obsession with the subordinate status of Christ
(Oliver Moody, review of Priest of Nature: The religious worlds of Isaac Newton, TLS Feb 23 2018)

We are talking here about the man who is revered as one of the founders of modern mathematics, claimed by some to be the greatest scientist who ever lived. A few pages later, there is a study of several medieval historians. These writers, dating back some six or seven hundreds of years, display a vast array of blatant prejudice.

Clerical misogyny drove both Gervase of Canterbury and William of Newburgh to attribute the failure of the Second Crusade to a lack of chastity in the camps (Leon Craig, TLS Feb 23 2018, p10)

What nonsense is this? Are we supposed to take these historians seriously? And of course the medieval historians reveal rampant anti-Semitism, with references to the so-called blood libel. Perhaps we should be more surprised at any evidence at all of reasonable thought before the Enlightenment. The sheer otherness of earlier cultures is at times overwhelming. Did anyone ever think rationally?

Friday, 9 February 2018

Contradictions: Bacon, Freud and the London Painters

 I was mystified by this exhibition, at AROS in Aarhus, Denmark (November 2017). I can’t deny it included Bacon and Freud, as the title states, and many, if not all the painters were based in London at some point. Some exhibitions have a theme, something running throughout the show that enables you to see this or that work in a new light, alongside another. Despite the undoubted quality of many of the 90 or so paintings shown here in their own right, seemed to gain little from being placed alongside each other. I tried several criteria before admitting failure, but in the end, all I could say about this group of painters was that they were to be found in London at various times from the 1950s to the 1990s – and that doesn’t tell you much. Perhaps the other uniting factor is that the Tate owns all of them, which at least explains one rationale for the show.

 On further examination it turns out that R B Kitaj coined the phrase “school of London” (rather than "London Painters" – when I googled this, all I got was painters and decorators). From the Tate glossary of art terms:
School of London was a term invented by artist R.B. Kitaj to describe a group of London-based artists who were pursuing forms of figurative painting in the face of avant-garde approaches in the 1970s 
Well, many of these paintings date from well before the 1970s, but perhaps you could try to define them by opposition to something else – hardly much of a criterion. Let’s not worry too much about this definition, and see if there are any possible criteria for looking at these paintings together. But all I found was a lack of commonality:
  • Oppression v sensitivity: there were large-scale images of oppression and dread by Bacon. Nearby were highly sensitive depictions of nudes by Coldstream, Uglow and Freud. They bore little relation to each other. Freud, Coldstream, Uglow have an emphasis on the human form, in the case of Coldstream and Uglow almost as a still-life, a powerful, respectful nudity, whereas most figures in a Bacon painting would I am sure prefer not to be there at all. Freud can paint like this, but can also stray in the direction of suggesting vulnerability and unease. In Freud, the individual is typically overwhelmed, either by their surroundings, or by some other figure dominating (or penetrating) them. 
  • Caricature v portrait study: there was nothing in common between Kitaj or Bomberg and Uglow and Coldstream. Kitaj and Andrews create highly stylized, caricature-like figures, as does Rego. Uglow and Coldstream depict the painstaking measuring they carried out to capture the human form in proportion. Rego would say that proportion is not the point. 
  • Narrative v portrait: Rego, Andrews, Kitaj are painters of stories, while Uglow and Coldstream attempt to capture the essence of a human through portraiture. Even when the subject is naked, the figure remains a recognisable individual, with almost tangible corporality. By contrast, Paula Rego and R B Kitaj are both telling stories through their paintings, albeit in very different ways. Rego tells a narrative, even creating a triptych in Hogarth-like fashion to show the progression of a marriage. Kitaj uses a kind of collage, assembly of components that together create a kind of story or argument around a topic 
  • Identifiable location v never-never land: David Bomberg paints the swimming pool where his child used to swim. David Kossoff paints Christ Church in Spitalfields. In contrast, Uglow’s nudes are in an unidentified interior, and have no sense of a specific location. Michael Andrews paints specific locations (Study for a man in a landscape, where the man is identified) as well as images set in no specific place (Man who suddenly fell over). 

What are we to make of it all? It’s a fascinating show, with some memorable images not often displayed, such as the early Coldstream portraits, and Freud’s 1947 Girl with a Kitten, as well as the magnificent Rego The Betrothal. Trying to pull all these pictures together is beyond me. But never mind, if the pictures themselves are good enough. Just enjoy the view, and don't try to lump them together.

Monday, 5 February 2018

How far do you justify your subject in a biography?

I know next nothing about St Augustine, but I’m quite prepared to believe that his autobiography is “one of the great books of the world” (Lucy Beckett, TLS,  May 18 2016). But does writing a great autobiography mean that subsequent readers and biographers justify his every action? Here is Ms Beckett describing Augustine’s relations with women:
It’s sadder, and seriously unjust, that down the ages Augustine has taken much of the blame for the Church’s negative attitude to women and to sex. He lived faithfully with a poor Carthaginian woman for thirteen years, from when he was a seventeen-year-old student, and was devoted to their son. He was heart-broken when he had to send her back to Carthage from Italy because she couldn’t be fitted into the project (largely his mother’s) of a socially and financially beneficial marriage to underpin what was becoming his successful career. He replaced her briefly with another concubine before his final commitment to celibacy.
It's quite common for biographies to depict their subject in the best possible light; but on the basis of the above statement, it looks to me like Augustine has quite a lot to answer for the Church’s negative attitude to women. Heartbroken he may have been, and I’m sure I would be too, but he still left his wife and child for a career-enhancing marriage. Not quite the role model Ms Beckett would like Augustine to be. 

The idea of Republicanism in early modern Europe

Much of history is a bit of a puzzle to me. I read about short moments in human history, and get excited (as no doubt do many other readers) by some of it making sense; but then later I start to ask what came before, and what happened afterwards, and it’s all a bit of a fog. It’s a bit like piecing  a jigsaw together; but occasionally, a book or a thinker comes along who seems to provide another piece of the jigsaw.

Years ago I was fascinated by the idea that the Italian Renaissance was to some extent inspired by ideas of republicanism. Some early republican histories glorified the city’s independence and, well, republicanism. It made sense, that a movement that was modern in many ways drew inspiration from what we today would think of as the more modern political system. Of course, it wasn’t quite as simple as that – the republican moment in Rome was ended for all time with the assassination of Caesar and the end of the Roman Republic. But it was possible to draw a convincing picture, and Hans Baron drew it, of a republican Italian city state of Florence displaying Renaissance ideas and political republicanism, up to the seizure of power by the Medici in the early 15th century. But what happened to republicanism after that? Did it die with the end of republican Florence? 

A fascinating TLS review from 2009 (Richard Bourke, review of J G A Pocock, Political Thought and History, Sept 25 2009) suggests what happened.

Pocock shared with [Quentin] Skinner a particular interest in the resurgence of “republican” political thought in Western European history … they also share an ambition to track the fate of the ideal of citizenship associated with republican politics after the decline of the Italian city-states … from the sixteenth century. However, both scholars … vary in their understanding of the crisis of republican politics.
 While Skinner’s work has focused on the devastating impact of Thomas Hobbes on the fortunes of the republican ideal of liberty, Pocock … has been concerned … with rival visions of politics … an antithesis between civilized corruption and natural purity, radical philosophes like Diderot pitted the image of innocent nature against the accumulated degeneracy of civilization, and in the process helped to inaugurate the anti-historial mentality of subsequent revolutionary politics.

Quite how the idea of republicanism became a pitched battle between Diderot’s North American Indian and the over-sophisticated Europeans is a something I cannot explain. But at least there is a suggestion in the work of Pocock that there might be some kind of link – and that the dream of republicanism did not die in Florence the day the Medici took power. Of course, if the grand idea of republican civic values just petered out when confronted by Diderot fashionable attachment to primitive innocence, then I do start to have doubts about the Enlightenment - did they really know what they were talking about?

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Attitudes to William Morris

Today was the last day of an exhibition at the William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow, dedicated to May Morris, Morris's younger daughter. This was the first time I had been to Walthamstow for over 20 years, and it was a welcome opportunity to see the gallery again – and to discover that admission is still free.

The exhibition, not surprisingly, is rather autobiographical, blending works by May Morris with her politics and her life. The exhibition was quite small and there was the chance to see the main display about William Morris himself. In the bookshop there was a very small collection of books for sale, including the biography of William Morris by Fiona McCarthy (1994). For someone of my generation, it is impossible to think of William Morris without the E P Thompson biography, first published in 1955 but extensively revised in 1976.  Which is the one to read? Each of them is vast (McCarthy, the shorter, is 780 pages).

I discovered reviews of both titles. Broadly speaking, and simplifying somewhat, McCarthy provides the creative artist without the politics, and Thompson provides the politics without the creative artist. Does this matter? Well, according to Terry Eagleton, it does.

There is a TLS review (by James Pope-Hennessy) of the first edition of E P Thompson’s book that, unsurprisingly for its period, dismisses it. “In spite of its inordinate length, this is not even a complete study of Morris, for it largely confines itself to his socialist theories.” This review complains about Thompson’s lack of impartiality and complains “how fluffy were Morris’s socialist views” – and claims the prose romances are largely unreadable. For Pope-Hennessy, “Mr Thompson is too shrill to be persuasive”. This review betrays its age. For this reviewer, the best approach to Morris is “to deny his socialism, to forget the prose romances, and remember only the poems, the textiles, the tapestries, and the typography”.

In contrast, Terry Eagleton’s review engaged more with its subject. Eagleton claims that Morris is “one of the greatest Marxist cultural theorists Britain has ever produced, which is not perhaps saying a great deal for British Marxist cultural theory.” “His achievement was to take the Romantic critique of industrial capitalism and harness it for the first time to a progressive political force, the British labour movement. He was thus medievalist and materialist together”. That sounds more interesting. Eagleton complains that McCarthy fails “to reflect on his elusive inner being” – whatever that was. Perhaps Morris was summed up by his external activities.

Perhaps the most balanced judgement is Ruth Levitas, of the University of Bristol, in a 1996 review. She points to Thompson’s revision of his biography in 1976.  In this revision, “Thompson insists that Morris is both a utopian and a Marxist, with neither a hyphen or a sense of contradiction … between the two terms” …. “Morris’s particular contribution was to sustain this synthesis”. Perhaps there might be a view of Morris that doesn't just see him as the last champion of Ruskinian craftsmanship, before the modern world was overwhelmed by machine manufacture. 

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