Marianne North – Globetrotting Flower-painter

marianne

Nige pays tribute to the extraordinary Victorian spinster, globetrotter, botanist, artist and ‘very wild bird’, Marianne North…

Tomorrow marks the birthday of the brilliant flower painter and tireless traveller Marianne North (born 1830), who, even by the standards of intrepid, globetrotting Victorian spinsters, was pretty extraordinary. In an age before jet travel and motorways (or indeed motor transport), she travelled and lived in Jamaica, Canada, the United States, Brazil, Tenerife, Japan, Ceylon, India, Borneo, Java, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Seychelles and Chile – all in the space of a decade and a half.

And wherever she went, she painted her astonishing, botanically accurate, vividly coloured oil paintings of the exotic plant life she found. What’s more, she painted these plants not as specimens in isolation but as organisms in an ecosystem, creating pictures that are beautifully composed and richly detailed as well as precisely descriptive.

Born into a wealthy and well connected family, Marianne shared her father’s passion for travel and botany and, when she found herself alone and free following his death (in 1869), she decided to indulge them both, along with her new-found love of oil painting – which she described as ‘a vice like dram-drinking, almost impossible to leave off once it gets possession of one’.

She abhorred marriage – ‘a terrible experiment’, in her view, that turned women into ‘a sort of upper servant’ – and disliked company, so most of the time she lived, travelled and painted alone. ‘I am a very wild bird,’ she declared, ‘and like liberty.’

Marianne_North

She became a reluctant celebrity in her own lifetime and the crowds flocked to an exhibition of her work in London in 1879 – a success from which she shrank, but which gave her an idea:  to give all her paintings as a gift to the Royal Botanical Society at Kew, and to build a gallery at her own expense to display them to the public.

The gift was rather reluctantly accepted, and the gallery – a temple-like building in a corner of the Gardens – is still there. It was recently restored, and is quite unlike anything of its kind – indeed Kew claims it is the only gallery devoted to a single female artist, with full public access, anywhere in the UK.

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The effect of Miss North’s paintings en masse is somewhat concussing – those colours! Her palette was certainly well adapted to the tropics.

But then, if she hadn’t painted in vivid oils, but in the more usual delicate watercolours, little or nothing of her work would have survived.

Anima Mundi: The extraordinary art of Tim Lane

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The ‘concertina’ book form of Anima Mundi

Dabbler Editor Brit talks to graphic artist Tim Lane about his unique, disturbing, five foot-long artwork Anima Mundi

At the height of the rare scorching summer just gone, a lorry full of candles caught fire on a main artery road out of Bristol, clogging the entire city with fuming traffic. (Bristol’s traffic flow always operates right on the cusp of breaking point, so any mishap brings it to a halt.) I abandoned my car on Frogmore Street and made my way on foot between the sadly melting motorists towards the Floating Harbour. There my spirits rose. The water glittered beautifully blue in the six o’clock sunshine and a warm breeze teased the flags of the good old SS Great Britain. Away from the traffic noise there floated soft summer sounds, the clinks and murmurs of drinkers enjoying themselves after a day’s work. Yes it was lovely all right. Just the sort of day to go into a gallery to look at pictures of body horror, death and Hades.

For such are the preoccupations of Tim Lane, a Bristol-based graphic artist of whose work I am a keen admirer and nascent collector. His latest piece was being exhibited at Purifier House, a pop-up location for the ‘nomadic’ Antlers gallery, and it is really something else. Anima Mundi is a five-metre long graphite drawing, concertina-folded into a thick book, the fruit of two years’ labour. The viewer can turn the pages like a novel, or unfurl the work to its full length, or – and this is the really clever bit – fold the pages in dozens of different ways to form new pictures and stories, as the lines from different parts of the whole are designed to marry up when pushed together in new combinations.

The Antlers Anima Mundi exhibition at Purifier House, Bristol

The Antlers Anima Mundi exhibition at Purifier House, Bristol

A print run of the piece was crowdfunded on Kickstarter, smashing its target.  Most of the media publicity focused on the unusual (as far as I know, unique) form, because it required such skill and painstaking cleverness – and those things are always interesting. It’s fun to play with and a terrific conversation piece to have on your bookshelf. But Anima Mundi is also interesting for its content, the product of an exceedingly strange imagination.

Typically, Lane’s work will take some element of a mythological story and warp it, peppering it with Freudian symbols and anachronistic objects to create striking, often disturbing dreamscapes. Artistically, he sits somewhere between a figurative illustrator, a horror graphic novelist and a Surrealist.

Given that, one imagines him as a forbidding, vaguely vampiric character, scribbling through the night in some crumbling garret surrounded by skull-shaped wine goblets and macabre stuffed beasts. In real life Lane is tall and does loom somewhat, but he’s affable and slightly awkward. He talks self-deprecatingly about his art, but fluently, knowledgeably and sometimes even fervently about his interest in mythology and how it informs his stream-of-consciousness approach.

A gondolier is sucked into the underworld - detail from Anima Mundi

A gondolier is sucked into the underworld – detail from Anima Mundi

Anima Mundi is his most elaborate expression of this approach to date. There is, quite literally, a stream running through it, and at the centre – if you stretch the whole thing out – is a sort of Creator god, kneeling in the water while from his head burst all manner of terrible things: sinewy ribbons, skeletal harpies, twisted roots sprouting human organs, Death itself. It is a bewildering mash-up of myths and ideas: there are Aleister Crowley symbols, and beautiful flowers, and bursting pomegranates. The title is Greek and refers to the Platonic idea of the ‘world soul’ – the idea that the physical world is a single living entity of which all entities are related parts – but the Creator in the water comes from the Indian origin story of Prajapati and the piece is bookended by quotations from Robert Calasso’s classic study of Hindu mythology, Ka.

Anima Mundi’s book format prompts you into searching for a story. When I suggest this is misleading, Lane insists that there is a narrative, albeit a ‘very open one’. There is a sort of beginning and end. It opens with a homage to Gustave Dore’s image of Charon, the boatman of the Ancient Greek underworld, and, after the chaos of the central pages, ends with another image of still water: a skull gazes across over an infinity symbol swirling in the waves, ‘asking you’ as Lane puts it, ‘to see the piece as a cyclical, perpetual journey.’ It is, in essence, a vivid dream about creation, sex and death.

I ask Lane if he dwells much on his own mortality (stupid question…who doesn’t?). ‘I think to be reminded that you are going to die someday is a very grounding thought’ he says. ‘And rather than being morbid, I see it in the Memento Mori tradition: it should remind you to live while you’re here.’

Tim-Lane-Crepuscular-Arrows

Crepuscular Arrows by Tim Lane – Graphite, Coloured Pencil and Acrylic on Paper

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Lane’s work is the combination of the grotesque and the beautiful. A case in point is Crepuscular Arrows [above] a large drawing accompanying the Anima Mundi exhibition. It is fairly gruesome body horror, yet in its composition, with the skull, the flowers and the streaming light, it is strongly reminiscent of the ‘vanitas’ still life tradition (see for example, paintings by Cezanne or van Utrecht). I ask Lane if he aims to create beauty in his art, and he seems genuinely stumped by the question. Later, by email, he refers to a quote by Norman Lindsay, which he says encapsulates his method: I don’t work out my pictures on an intellectual formula. I let the picture evolve as an image in my mind and put it into pictorial form, and then find out afterwards what it means. Which is merely to say, that, as an artist, I think, in forms, which later I translate into words.

Lane explains that in Anima Mundi’s conceptual stages there was in fact a proper story about a modern day Venetian gondolier who is transported to the underworld to take Charon’s place on the river Styx. This was developed in conjunction with New York horror writer Nicholaus Patnaude, but later abandoned when Lane ‘went off on his own creative tangent’. His accomplishments as an illustrator mean that people do want to work with him, but Lane admits that he is not a ‘team player’ when it comes to his drawing. Like most of the best artists, he is driven purely by his own vision, with little interest in catering for an audience or, indeed, in collaboration. Ultimately, he draws what he wants to draw, for himself. What he cares about is, in his words, ‘being in your own world as an artist and expressing your own peculiar world view’.

This is heartening. There is a lot of negativity about the state of the creative arts at the moment, not without some justification. Will Self recently penned a fine polemic against the colonisation of culture by hollow hipsterism (the totalising capability of dickheads + web = an assumed equivalence between all remotely creative forms of endeavour. Nowadays someone who sticks old agricultural implements on the wall of a Los Angeles motel regards himself as on a par with Michelangelo; moreover, since all their friends are dickheads, too, no one is about to disabuse them.)

But pessimists overlook the great benefits the web has brought for art. Crowdfunding sites enable artists to do exactly what they want for their own art’s sake, and find their natural, niche audiences without worrying about being widely commercial. People like Jack Gibbon – the spindly, genial director of the Antlers gallery – help.  Gibbon has a keen eye for technically skilled, interesting artists who deserve a showcase, and I think his Antlers project is a tremendous good in the world. On my way out Gibbon handed over my copy of Anima Mundi in a shiny golden packet and I headed back into the blazing heat and the gigantic Bristol traffic jam, impatient to get home and start playing with the folding, interlocking, morbid contents of Tim Lane’s peculiar creative mind.

anima book

You can order a limited edition copy of Anima Mundi from the Antlers website, and see more of Tim Lane’s work here and on his own website here.

Achievement Gaps

shining

Ever tried to write a novel that wasn’t worthless? Douglas considers talent, mediocrity, the limits of creativity and the art of appreciation…

In A Mathematician’s Apology G.H. Hardy estimates that only five or ten people in a hundred can do something “rather well.” Considerably fewer are truly gifted. We do not each have a valuable talent waiting for discovery. We may dream of making names for ourselves, but most “talents” are talents only by inflation, and it may be that many true talents are never valued. The influence of the cult of achievement extends even beyond its membership. Those who renounce the pursuit of worldly accomplishment often do so with other more comfortably nebulous goals in mind: sainthood, perhaps, or self-realization. They’re chasing the same fox by another tail.

Hardy’s calculation is depressing. I suffered a fit of ambition myself in my mid-thirties. For more than five years I spent two nights each week working on a novel, and I took it through three drafts. Reading and re-reading it, writing and re-writing it, was a bruising, infuriating, ego-punishing business. What I ended with was perhaps better than some of what gets published today, but that’s saying awfully little when most of what gets published is an unjustifiable waste of both writer’s and reader’s time. Almost every book ever written more than deserves its inevitable oblivion.

My book surely will too, even if I were to find the will to push it through to a magical fourth draft. And then, even if I were to succeed in getting it published, I know well enough that it’s not something to be too ridiculously proud of. If working on it has taught me anything, it’s that I am no Herman Melville or Henry James. Tonic as it may be to fess up to that inadequacy, ambition rarely lets lack of genius to stand in its way.

It’s possible that I may have neglected avenues for achievement that were better fitted to me. Hardy writes that “poetry is more valuable than cricket, but Bradman would be a fool if he sacrificed his cricket in order to write second-rate minor poetry.” I know nothing about cricket or Bradman, but I’ll agree that you don’t give up on a first-rate talent merely because it happens to be for a second-rate activity. I manage to make a living in the business world without too much effort. What might I have achieved if I had focused my ambitions in that direction? Most days, however, it’s a struggle even to fake a tepid enthusiasm for work of the sort that actually pays the bills.

According to Hardy, first-rate minds care only for creation. If second-rate minds care for it too, so much the worse for them. They would do better, he says, to restrict themselves to the very second-rate tasks of criticism and appreciation.

Appreciation. The term, as he utters it, drips condescension. But I want to say that Hardy gets it wrong here. He shows that his scheme of values is off-kilter. It may be that I’m only plotting myself an escape from Hardy’s sentence, but I hate the idea that the worthiest of human endeavors is beyond the reach of most humans. Surely it’s not only scarce things that can have ultimate value?

Appreciation, in the sense of pure enjoyment, seems to me a better candidate than creative accomplishment for the title of “man’s true work.” It may sound Jeffersonian (“pursuit of happiness”), or Epicurean, or bourgeois of me to say so. I don’t mean that people with leisure are morally superior to those without it. But though it’s not an idea that lends itself to proof by argument, I do believe that, other things being equal, there’s no nobler human aspiration than simply to enjoy and delight in things. To appreciate a particular face, a meal, a tree, a note, a book, a fact, an idea is something available to most of us. To enjoy something to the limit of one’s capacity may be better than to create it.

Douglas Dalrymple lives near San Francisco and blogs about books and life at The New Psalmanazar.

A Trip to Dieppe

Frits Thaulow - 'Dieppe'

Frits Thaulow – ‘Dieppe’

Nige visits the French town of Dieppe, once home to Oscar Wilde, Frits Thaulow and a society of Anglophile artists…

About this time last year I headed for Dieppe to spend a few days as a summer flaneur, a thoroughly restorative trip. Dieppe retains its unique, slightly faded charm, and its particular beauties of setting – the wide bay, the subtle, ever changing tones of sea and sky, and that extraordinary light, at once milky and sparkling.

There was sunshine too this time, plenty of it – and, on the last evening, one of the best meals I have ever had, anywhere. If you find yourself eating in Dieppe, waste no time – head straight for the Bistrot des Barrieres, right by the fish market, where the former chef at La Melie is now doing his own superb thing with the freshest and finest ingredients, simply and perfectly cooked…

 

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But enough of food. Our visit also coincided with an exhibition at the castle of paintings by Jacques Emile Blanche, the gifted Anglophile who dominated Dieppe’s artistic society for decades. The above piece of bravura portraiture – which is massive in scale and entirely uncharacteristic – was a highlight (of a kind) of the exhibition. A monumental work with the feel of a Baroque altarpiece, but drawing on the English tradition of open-air family portraiture, it depicts the Norwegian painter Frits Thaulow, his somewhat Amazonian wife, his son and his adoring daughter, in her turn adored by the family dog. In these unlikely circumstances, Thaulow, cigarette in mouth, attempts to paint a landscape.

Thaulow specialised in painting rivers and flowing water – one of his river scenes was in the exhibition (and caught Mrs N’s eye, who suggested I secrete it under my coat on the way out – but in fact the painting I most coveted was a quite beautifully accomplished late still life by Blanche, of white hellebores in a dark blue vase beside a yellow bowl. I could live with that…).

When they set up house in Dieppe, Thaulow and his wife were notably friendly, generous and hospitable to all, and were among the few in the cliquey and fissiparous world of ‘Dieppe society’ who were without enemies. Thaulow was also one of those who did not shun – as Sickert and, against his better instincts, Blanche did – Oscar Wilde when he arrived in Dieppe after serving his prison sentence. On one occasion when Wilde was being publicly humiliated in a cafe, Thaulow rose from his table, strode over and boomed at him, ‘Mr Wilde, my wife and I would feel honoured to have you dine with us en famille this evening.’ Wilde gratefully accepted and became a frequent visitor at the Thaulows’.

Sadly the Cafe Suisse, outside which Wilde would sit in his Dieppe days, holding court and being summarily ‘cut’, has had a recent garish makeover that has erased every last trace of its illustrious fin de siecle past. Such a shame it wasn’t, rather, restored to its red plush and gilt glory. On the other hand, one of the remaining traces of the great days of the English community in Dieppe – the fading remnant of an ‘English Grocers’ sign near the Cafe des Tribunaux – has been repainted and now looks as good as new, though of course the building it was painted on no longer houses an English grocer’s shop.

eng grocer

 

Stonehenge and British art

Stonehenge, Light painting. Second Trip.

Visiting Stonehenge this half-term? Here’s Alexandra Harris’ post on its influence on British culture, from Turner to Hepworth…

Stonehenge is a good example of how a particular landmark in the English countryside could inspire different kinds of appreciation. Its image was particularly potent because it signified strength and endurance while at the same time being vulnerable, and seeming to stand for a vulnerable England.

Like so many areas, Salisbury Plain faced the prospect of development. The stone circle itself was under government protection, but the area surrounding it was still in private hands by the late 1920s and liable to be built on at any moment. A Stonehenge Cafe had already sprung up to take advantage of the tourist trade (it is visible in photographs from 1927), and commentators anxiously surmised that other buildings would follow. A major appeal was launched, backed by both Stanley Baldwin and Ramsay McDonald, to buy the surrounding area and place it in the safe-keeping of the National Trust. The rhetoric of the appeal was stirring:

“The solitude of Stonehenge should be restored and precautions taken to ensure that our posterity will see it against the sky in the lonely majesty before which our ancestors have stood in awe throughout all our recorded history.”

Money came in fast; modernity in the form of cafes and carparks was (for the moment) fended off. But Stonehenge was nonetheless a modern icon. For centuries the ancient stones had been at the forefront of modern art. The structures and proportions favoured by the Neoliths had been borrowed by architects like John Wood in the eighteenth-century to give gravitas to his classical façades in Bath. The columns and pediments derived from Rome of course, but they derived from early England too. And then the stones became Romantic: for Turner they glistened like a golden city in shafts of sunlight; Constable saw them touched by a rainbow from a tumultuous sky, as if still making the covenant with the gods first established thousands of years before. Between the wars, Stonehenge continued its protean career.

Paul Nash found equivalents for the megaliths, replacing standing stones with geometric forms and thereby declaring that they could be read as abstract art. Measuring Salisbury Plain against a Miró painting, Piper suggested similar affinities. Advanced architectural thinkers admired the same formal properties in the stones that had appealed to the builders at Bath. Among the pictures of purist villas and abstract constructions in art journal Circle a series of Stonehenge photographs appeared. Two were by the German writer Carola Giedion-Welcker, a specialist on contemporary sculpture, and a third was by Walter Gropius, the leader of the Bauhaus. Both photographers went up close and stayed near to the ground, feeling the weight of the stones rising above them. Barbara Hepworth, designing the layout for Circle,placed these pictures after her own essay on sculpture which took the understanding of form and gravity to be the primary work of the sculptor. Neolithic man, it seemed, had been an unrivalled master of form, and his influence can be clearly felt in Hepworth’s work from this time. Though they were only a metre high, she saw her Two Forms in Echelon (1938) as monuments in the landscape: ‘the sculpture has an upward growth but the two monoliths make a closed composition,’ she said, which creates a space of ‘quietness’ out in the open.

Here were monoliths you could live with. Hepworth imagined the sculpture in a garden setting, domesticating the sarsens while preserving their power. Henry Moore, too, wanted the monoliths in his garden. When he bought an area of land large enough to position his sculptures out of doors he rejoiced that they looked ‘like a bit of Stonehenge’. He had first seen Stonehenge by night in 1921, in the days when you could wander alone through the stones and watch the moon. The experience stayed with him all his life (he recalled as an elderly man the ‘mysterious depths’ of those moonlit stones), and the magnetic equilibrium of his large sculptures in landscape were part of his life-long tribute to the ancient builders. Moore, Betjeman, Piper, Hepworth, Gropius: pre-history had an impressive list of modern advocates appropriating its monuments for their various visions of England.
Alexandra Harris is the author of Romantic Moderns – you can see her website here.

A Brief History of Teeth in Art

From the Dabbler’s rich archives, Toby Ferris examines the place of teeth in the art of fifteenth century Italy and Northern Europe…

I have come to realise that if I am to make any real progress on my much anticipated, much delayed History of Whistling, I will first have to address the associated history of teeth.

I can do no more here than break a little ground, and think for a moment about teeth in art – specifically, the art of fifteenth century Italy and Northern Europe; for this is a world, seemingly, without teeth. The fifteenth century did not paint teeth, and I am forced to document, and speculatively account for, an absence (with a handful of telling exceptions, which I will come to).

It should be noticed first of all that the absence of teeth is not merely determined by whether mouths are painted open or closed, although there is a statistically significant predominance of closed mouths both in quattrocento and also Flemish art. Open mouths are represented as empty caverns, as though painters had no paradigm on which to draw and teeth were simply not in their repertoire.

How to explain this? In part, of course, it is just a question of the pose and its associated history – who could grin through a sitting? But it is a also matter, clearly, of decorum. The mouth parts are one of the portals to the inside of the body, the warm, clammy and damp interior. When Mikhail Bakhtin, discussing Rabelais and the carnivalesque, locates comedy in the ‘material bodily lower stratum’ – the stomach and digestive tract, the genitalia – he might have added that the mouth, the teeth and tongue, are the outermost precincts of this system. The teeth are an emblem of carnality, and to display them a contravention of decorum.

Which brings me to the exceptions. The damned in last judgements, wedded in life to their mortal flesh, have teeth, and they gnash them. So do all manner of animals and devils. So, of course, do skulls, teeth bared in death. And so, not strangely in all these connections, does the dead Christ, in paintings for example by van der Weyden and by Giovanni Bellini.

A dead Christ is an emblem of the fully incarnate god. To look on the face of a dead god is to see him as a man. And if Christ is fully man, then he must have a full set of teeth.

By the sixteenth century the gawping peasants who are finding their way on to panels and canvases also have teeth, plenty of them, wonky and yellow and gapped and hilarious, a trope anticipated by a very few Netherlandish paintings of the fifteenth century, such as the Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes which so astonished Florence when it was displayed there in 1483.

And in fact, properly sensitised, if we look back at quattrocento art, we do find examples of painted teeth which do not fit the pattern of rule and exception, as though an arcane painterly language is being spoken which we are only now tuning in to, the subtleties of which we have not yet fully penetrated; as though our thoughts on carnality and death were in fact over-determined, and the concern of painters in fact lay elsewhere.

It comes as something of a shock, then, to switch to something from a more comfortably demotic age and culture, and see teeth painted with unabashed and uncryptic glee, as here by Frans Hals:

But this picture still falls, if my instinct is correct, fully within the accepted visual code of teeth. Bared teeth suggest carnality and death and this piece, like so much Dutch art of the seventeenth century, is about transience considered not as a boon of providence but as a mortal sadness.

And, to come full circle, it is no more shocking, I think, than this:

This is Masaccio, of course, the great progenitor of the Florentine Renaissance, and these are Adam and Eve expelled from Paradise. In spite of whatever I may have said about the inherited decorum, about the general absence of represented teeth, in this case the absence is almost the focus of the painting; not so much because these individuals are so clearly ill-fitted for the rigours of the world, which is going to demand among other things a strong set of teeth; but rather because the absence of teeth suggests that coming thus abruptly into the mortal state is not a dispossession, but more like the taking possession of a ransacked house; and the only form of protest available is a speechless, voiceless grief.

Atlas of Norbiton was a fortnightly bulletin from Norbiton: Ideal City of the Failed Life. Unlike its more comprehensive, detailed and discursive mother site, the Anatomy of Norbiton – the Atlas was intended as a pocket guide to the Failed Life for Failed or Failing Individuals on the move.

Still Life: Objects and Initimacy

still life oysters

Nige reflects on the power and meaning of still life painting, in the light of a book by American poet Mark Doty…

Still Life with Oysters and Lemon is the title of a painting by Jan Davidsz de Heem (above)  that hangs in the Metropolitan Museum in New  York – or rather it was the title; it was recently changed to Still Life with a Glass and Oysters, ignoring that glorious curl of lemon. But it is still the title of a rather wonderful slim volume - a long essay really –  by the American poet Mark Doty.

Doty’s small book begins with an encounter with De Heem’s painting  and takes off into a heartfelt meditation on our attachment to things,  their place in our lives. His brilliant analysis of the power of the Dutch still life interweaves with scenes – and objects – from his own  life, from the red-and-white-spiral mints that his grandmother always carried, to memories of his wife’s mother and her house (it was an  early, doomed marriage), rummaging and collecting with his late partner (death is ever present here), things seen and picked up, things that  stayed in his life, others that were lost…He finds in the Dutch still life a celebration of abundance, of the pleasures of the senses, the  fall of light on objects, their Presence, their Thisness. The most  commonplace things are intensely seen and celebrated for their own sake, as in Adriean Coorte’s Still Life with Asparagus (below), which is simply a  bunch of asparagus painted with meticulous attention, against a brown darkness, the bundled stalks brought (or restored) to the fullness of  their being by the act of concentrated attention.

Adriaen_Coorte_-_Still_Life_with_Asparagus

Towards the end of his essay, Doty ponders the relationship between painting and poetry, seeing both as essentially unparaphrasable; they  can only exist as they are, in the form they are in. Whatever he says  about a painting will always fall short, will always miss an element of  mystery – its ‘poetry’. Part of that poetry, Doty concludes in his beautiful closing sentences, is

the inner life of the dead, held in suspension. It is still visible to us; you can look at the paintings and you can feel it. This is evidence that a long act of seeing might  translate into something permanent, both of ourselves and curiously  impersonal, sturdy, useful.
Of what use, exactly? As advocates of intimacy, as embodiments of paradox, as witnesses to earth, here, this moment, now. Evidence, thus, that tenderness and style are still the best gestures we can make in  the face of death.

Dabbler Diary – Flying Low

‘One adult for The Hobbit in 3D, please,” I said, thus setting the bar pretty high for the Saddest Thing Uttered in 2014 contest. It can’t be helped: a residue of youthful Tolkein geekdom means that a part of me will always yearn for the world of dragons and pointy-eared arrow flingers.

What a weird piece of work Peter Jackson’s Hobbit is turning out to be. He has Tolkein’s mix of the cosy (inns, pipes, sing-songs by the fire) and the horrific, but, just occasionally, while gaping slack-jawed at the unfolding panoramic orc holocaust, one wonders why the horrific has to be quite so horrific. Especially in 3D: slobbering, snarling goblin-heads bulge forth, only to be swiftly lopped from their shoulders by a dwarvish axe. Split splat splot go the orcs as the goodies lay into them, severed arms and legs flying in all directions as we hurtle down a river in one stupendously daft sequence in the middle of the film. The slaughter is more or less continual, and quite why such fare qualifies as a ‘family’ film rather than an X-rated horror I’m not entirely sure (although the same could be said of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, one of the most revoltingly violent movies ever made).

The concluding scenes with Bilbo nattering away to the dragon (much as the same two actors converse as Holmes and Watson) were very pleasing, but it occurred to me as I left the Vue that The Hobbit was the movie equivalent of Nando’s: enjoyable upmarket junk with a lovingly detailed but contrived ‘authenticity’. Mind you, that analogy probably occurred to me because Nando’s is exactly where I went next, for an early tea. And like the cinema, you can just about get away with going there by yourself. ‘Table for one, please!’

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With a bop and a bip and a bip and a bop, a wardrobe with three little owls on the top.

So begins Three Little Owls by Emanuele Luzatti, a current favourite book of E, and I’m sure you’ll agree that as an opening line it knocks ‘Call me Ishmael’ into a cocked hat.

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My fellow editor Gaw sends me this article about Schopenhauer’s views on writing for money. The commentary rightly critiques the Buzzfeed traffic-grabbing style of so much web guff, but it is also interesting to read Schopenhauer’s thoughts in the light of the Nick ‘I only write for money’ Cohen ding-dong of the last Dabbler Diary:

There are, first of all, two kinds of authors: those who write for the subject’s sake, and those who write for writing’s sake. The first kind have had thoughts or experiences which seem to them worth communicating, while the second kind need money and consequently write for money. They think in order to write, and they may be recognized by their spinning out their thoughts to the greatest possible length, and also by the way they work out their thoughts, which are half-true, perverse, forced, and vacillating…

The author is cheating the reader as soon as he writes for the sake of filling up paper; because his pretext for writing is that he has something to impart. Writing for money [is], at bottom, the ruin of literature. It is only the man who writes absolutely for the sake of the subject that writes anything worth writing…. It seems as if money lay under a curse, for every author deteriorates directly [whenever] he writes in any way for the sake of money. The best works of great men all come from the time when they had to write either for nothing or for very little pay.

Talking of which, if you like The Dabbler and value its continued existence, please donate here!

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‘I’m bringing sexy back, yeah!’ boasted Justin Timberlake in his hit song Sexyback, this inevitably popping into my head when into The Dabbler’s Twitter timeline popped a picture of 1950s pin-up Vikki ‘The Back’ Dougan, famed for… well, her sexy back. Google yields a host of shots of her showing it off. Such saucy people, those mid-twentieth century Americans, yet so discerning. Not for them the limited bodypart preoccupations of today: in those days a man could feast his eyes on such a person as Ms Dougan – apparently the model for Jessica Rabbit –  and pick out the specific erotic appeal of her back. ‘I’ve always been a spine man,’ one lounge lizard might drawl to his buddy, as Vicky makes her showstopping entrance into the nightclub, backwards. ‘Guess I’m more of a kneecap kinda guy,’ comes the cool reply. These are real men, Everything Men, know how to appreciate the female form in all its aspects. ‘Show us yer shoulderblades!’ some rube might yell from near the cloakroom, before being rightly given the bum’s rush by Italianate bouncers.

A culturo-historical study of sexy backs, encompassing The Rokeby Venus, Ary Scheffer’s Francesca da Rimini, Degas’ After the Bath, and of course Vikki Dougan, surely waits to be written. The Erotic Review would lap it up.

***

San Miguel de Gove has been lately vindicated on academies (you probably missed that, the BBC whispered it here), but now finds himself roundly traduced for criticizing the ‘Blackadder’ version of World War I as universally taught in British schools. They even wheeled out Baldrick to have a pop. Gove is hated for being the boy who points out that the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. Also for his specs and for his weird mouth which when he’s talking or even listening seems to alternate between S- and O-shapes, as if he is send coded distress signals. Yet I examine my own education and find that Gove’s aim is once again alarmingly accurate. Everything I was taught at school about the Great War came from the War Poets and, yes, we were indeed shown episodes of Blackadder Goes Forth in class. First rate poets, excellent sitcom, of course, but it was never hinted that there was more to the story than a bunch of upper class General Melchett-types callously sending ignorant men to their slaughter for no good cause. It would be tempting to conclude that we live in a sort of reverse North Korea, where British history is rewritten to show how beastly we are, but World War II education is much more positive (one came out of school with the general impression that we decided to fight Hitler in order to liberate Auschwitz, which, of course, we didn’t).

***

On Thursdays C has started an after-school club called ‘Fun and Famous Art’. I gather the general idea is that as well as painting their own pictures they will learn about famous artworks. So when C came home with her drawing of Mickey Mouse I was a little underwhelmed but thought, oh well, they’re breaking them in gently. ‘So did you learn who it was that drew Mickey Mouse?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ said C. ‘Was he called Walt Disney?’ ‘No.’ ‘Yes, yes he was. Walt Disney…’

‘No, Daddy,’ said C kindly, ‘he was called Andy Warhol.’

***

For virtually the whole of my life I have played football at least once a week, with the consequence that most of my muscle mass is in my calves. And the consequence of that is that the current trend for skinny-legged trousers is a personal disaster. It’s not just that the shops are full of skinny-legged trousers, it’s that they only stock skinny-legged trousers. When trying on a pair in the changing rooms I literally cannot pull them over my legs, even when the waist is plentiful. In fact, since waistlines are not generally shrinking but growing, I can only conclude that the sedentary 2014 lifestyle means that even as the British male’s stomach grows rounder his leg muscles are wasting away, and the country must be full of fatties tottering around on absurd narrow pins like so many Foghorn Leghorns.

Needing some new jeans, therefore, I decided to skip the tedium of trying new brands and go straight for something reliable and timeless, so I made a beeline for House of Fraser, grabbed a pair of Levi 501s and marched confidently to the changing room, where, a few minutes later, I could be found almost weeping with rage and frustration as the denim resolutely refused to squeeze past my shins. ‘Et tu, Levi?’ I cried, and, dressing furiously, did what I should have done in the first place, which was go to TK Maxx. Amongst the crowded rails of that glorified jumble sale I found some candidates, including, funnily enough, a pair of Levi 501s. And do you know, of all the ones I tried they were the only perfect fit? Not just that, but at £35 they were a full forty quid cheaper than House of Fraser’s skin-hugging imposters. Imagine my smugness as I queued to pay.

I wore the new jeans on Friday, and at lunchtime took a walk up the hill in them. It was a cold afternoon with a glum slate sky, although far across the fields a curtain of sunlight was draped over distant Somerset. Very comfy these jeans, I thought, right pleased, but at the top of the hill the wind picked up, and all of a sudden I felt an ominous chill down where it was least wanted. Reaching below, I felt the awful truth: the discount Levis were afflicted with a dodgy  descending zipper. The wind sighed in the trees. Nasty, twisted trees with trunks like tortured spines. All broken, deformed backs. Vikki Dougan is long dead and the worms have eaten their fill. One winter on this lane I came across a dead wolf, splayed and rotting in the sludge. Closer inspection revealed it to be in fact the greyed corpse of a deer, struck by some vehicle, churned up by scavengers, innards splattered about like orcflesh. Ashes and dust. Bloody TK Maxx. As I turned to go back down the hill the air was ripped open by the unspeakable howl of a warplane on exercises, which came straight over my head and down into the valley, heading for Somerset like Smaug bringing death to Laketown. Down, down, heading to blot out the last of the light, beating its wings, flying low.

 

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Three Paintings… in Sound

Piero_della_Francesca_-_7__Finding_and_Recognition_of_the_True_Cross_-_WGA17533

An audio-visual treat for you this Sunday, as Mahlerman brings you three pieces of music inspired by great paintings…

Musical inspiration is, like mercury, almost impossible to grasp.  It can arrive, as many believe it did to a certain WA Mozart, in a ‘lightbulb moment’ as if from God, and the fortunate recipient just has to inscribe it.  But more often the muse is stirred by emotion or perhaps another work of art, and in these posts over the years we have enjoyed (I hope!) many of them: the ‘music’ of Shakespeare’s words; the wrath or love of God – or a God; Nature, Birdsong and The Sea or, more simply, Love and Death.  Today we look at some painted works of art that either inspired composers or, at the very least, got them started.

Arezzo is a small city in the centre of Italy near Florence and was, most recently, the backdrop for Roberto Benigni’s touching film Life is Beautiful.  The city is blessed with more than a dozen Gothic and Romanesque churches, and behind the austere (unfinished) frontage of one of them, the Basilica of San Francesco, resides one of the glories of the early Renaissance, the sequence of frescoes The Legend of the True Cross by the Tuscan mathematician and painter Piero della Francesca [detail above].  Dates are uncertain, but work on the series probably began around 1448, the final depiction of the Annunciation being completed about 20 years later.

Regular Dabblers will know that I have a pronounced weakness for the vastly underrated Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu, for which I offer no apology – and it was on a trip to Italy in 1955 that this Bohemian-Moravian master happened upon the small town of della Francesca’s birth (and death) Sansepulcro, travelling on to see the frescoes in nearby Arezzo.  The effect upon the composer was immediate and profound, and I can do no better here, than quote the words of Brian Large, the composer’s biographer: ‘Martinu found the substance of all he wanted to put into music, the peace and colours of nature, the simplicity of form, the philosophy of acceptance and resignation’.   Martinu did not attempt to ‘describe’ the sequence in sound, rather, through a process of distillation, he sought to express the extraordinary serenity the artist communicates through his geometry of form and use of colour, describing thus ‘a solemn, frozen silence and opaque coloured atmosphere, which contains strange, peaceful, yet moving poetry’.

Dream of Constantine

The 20 minute suite Les Fresques de Piero della Francesca is cast in three movements,  and the second movement Adagio is nominally Constantine’s Dream [see detail above], in which an angel assures the future emperor he will conquer the rival Roman leader Maxentius by following the sign of the cross.  It is played to the manner born in this short video by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by the great Jewish Bohemian Karel Ancerl, whose image appears in the second half.

 

Details of the lives of artists working in the 15th Century are usually exiguous and often unreliable, and at around the same time as Piero was completing the True Cross in Italy, a child was born to unknown parents, probably near Frankfurt in Germany.  This was Matthias Grunewald who would, in his late thirties, paint and sculpt one of the great masterpieces of religious art, the Isenheim Altarpiece [below], now residing in Colmar, Alsace – a German ‘Sistine Chapel’ sitting in France.  The altarpiece was made for an Antonite monastery near Colmar that treated the gangrenous disease ergotism, then known as ‘St Anthony’s Fire’, a condition brought on by eating rye bread infected by a parasitic fungus…and this goes some way to explaining the frightening appearance of Christ’s flesh on the altarpiece.  We have become used to the sanitization of religious imagery through the pressing desire for the artist to show us what he thinks, even what he believes.  No such ‘expression’ was required in the middle ages; most of the flock were poor and illiterate, and art of this kind simply told the story, in graphic terms, of Christ’s torture, and foul death, the greenish corpse even oozing bodily fluids.

grunewald

 

In 1932, the publisher to the great German iconoclast composer Paul Hindemith suggested that he might like to consider an opera based upon the life of Grunewald, and although the composer was at first lukewarm on the subject, his enthusiasm was ignited a year later at the very moment the Nazis came to power – ‘His exploits shattered my very soul’  he was to say much later.  Hindemith’s wife was Jewish and he had always been treated with suspicion, at best, by the Party, along with other politically liberal Germans.  As the work took shape in his mind (and on the page), this tense relationship deteriorated to the point where his music was branded as ‘decadent’, and performances were banned – but before he could complete the opera, he drew from the material already composed a marvellous three-movement ‘symphony’ Mathis der Maler (Mathis the Painter), which received a triumphant premiere in 1934, with Wilhelm Furtwangler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.  We hear the second movement Grablegung (Entombment) on this recording of the same orchestra, conducted by the composer.

 

The life of the Neo-Expressionist painter Georges-Pierre Seurat is also cloaked in mystery but for a particular reason; he preferred it that way.  In his brief life (he lived, like Franz Schubert, for just 31 years), mostly in Paris, he was able to live in quietude, on his own terms because, unusually for an artist, he came from a background of wealth and comfort.  His famously withdrawn manner was either inherited from his father or, more likely, was learned behaviour, as Antoine-Christophe would spend just one day a week with his family, a Tuesday; for the other six-sevenths of his life he would retire to a family villa outside Paris to tend his garden.  As a teenager Georges attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts but took issue with the techniques of impressionism that dominated at that time (1878), and began to develop a method of applying oil paint to a white canvas that would, eventually, make his name.  He called it chromoluminarism, a bit of a mouthful in any language; we know it today as pointillism – the application of small, tightly-packed ‘dots’ of pure colour (unmixed) that, viewed from a distance, meld together by an optical ‘trick’ to give a magical ‘illuminated’ effect.  His first major painting in this style Bathers at Asnieres can be seen at our own National Gallery – and a five minute stroll from the National to the Courtauld on Waterloo Bridge will gift you the opportunity to see the only known image of perhaps Seurat’s biggest secret – the working class woman Madeleine Knobloch in Young Woman Powdering Herself.   Madeleine bore him two children, but was unknown to any of his friends, or to his mother, until just two days before the painter’s death.

seurat

To see Seurat’s greatest masterpiece you will need to visit the Art Institute of Chicago, for there hangs the 2 x 3 metre maze of dots A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte [above], the picture that defined him – and has inspired countless artists and writers since, among them the librettist James Elliot Lapine and composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim who, in 1982, began work on the musical drama that became Sunday in the Park with George.  Not so much a ‘musical’ as a complex meditation on the creative process and, I suppose, life in general.  After all, a brief examination of Seurat’s short life would surely lead you to the conclusion that ‘They’ll never make a musical out of that’  –  but out of the slim strands of fact Sondheim, no stranger to magical realism, wove a wonderful score, adding his own wry lyrics to the pointillistic, almost oriental music.  Subtle clues are everywhere – his girlfriend is called Dot, and note the trumpet player at left-centre of the picture, and hear him anew in the mavellous anthemic number ‘Sunday’ that ends both the first and second act of this great musical drama – in this recording the trumpet part, the very last note, is taken by a french horn.  The parts of George and Dot were indelibly etched in this New York performance by two singing-actors often linked to Sondheim, the high tenor Mandy Patinkin and the unforgettable Bernadette Peters.

The Herefordshire Carol

An eerily perfect etching casts a chilly spell over Jonathan Law.

Winter in the cathedral city – somewhere in the north of England, some time (we might guess) in the earlier 1500s. Gothic structures rise from the earth, rear ponderously skyward, and lose themselves in the glistening, frosty light. Snow on the ground, on the dark stonework, and ranged precisely along the thin branches of trees. Little sign of Christmas cheer, you’d say – but wait, though you can’t hear them, the small human figures at the centre of this wintry world are playing and singing a carol. In the left foreground, a man and a woman press on through the cold having received alms; almost, it might be, Mary and Joseph.

I first came across The Almonry – an eerily perfect etching by the English illustrator F. L. Griggs – in the pages of Peter Davidson’s book The Idea of North; it has cast a chilly spell on one small corner of my mind ever since. Davidson’s book is splendidly hard to categorize but perhaps best described as an exploration of the idea of ‘the North’ as reflected in the work of artists, mythographers, writers, and film-makers from antiquity to the present (with a particular emphasis on the 1920s and 30s). For Davidson, “North” is less a real place than an idea or state of mind, a mood compounded equally of “the milky air of Dutch snow paintings” and “the smoke-pale sky of 1930s photographs of northern [English] towns”, of little red-roofed ports with “wooden houses clustering to the harbour under treeless slopes” and bleak, Audenesque frontiers where “the man who knows too many secrets can make his escape over the moors”; it is a region of “austere marvels” and “complex nostalgias”, all the more seductive for its severity.

Griggs’s etching is haunting in the first place because it seems to capture a quintessence of this kind of northness or wintriness; the stark light, the massy but strangely delicate architecture, the wonders of the snow. To account for its power in more formal terms you’d need to say something about the opposites it seems to hold in tension – movement and stillness, music and silence, immense weight and a certain airy upwardness. On the one hand, the picture seems replete with wintry stillness and a hushed calm; on the other, its composition has the relentless upward thrust of a Saturn V. It all begins with the humble ladder in the bottom of the frame, with its suggestion of a deep precipice below, then continues through the ascending tiers of architecture, which seem to become as flimsy as the frost before they pass into the sky itself. The effect is dizzying, disquieting. By a similar paradox, and one that is perhaps true of any picture that shows scenes of music-making, Griggs’s snow-bound carollers cast a strong spell of silence – outside the cold citadel of art, we will never hear what they are singing.

Of Griggs himself (1876-1938) I have discovered rather little. Although entirely self-taught, he served an apprenticeship in the Arts and Crafts movement and by the 1910s was widely considered the finest architectural draughtsman of his day. His best-known work was almost certainly his meticulous pen-and-ink drawings for the Macmillan Highways and Byways series, popular guidebooks that introduced a generation of Edwardian travellers to England’s built heritage. Later, in the 1920s, he moved away from the delineation of real buildings into the romantic, medievalist fantasy that reaches a peak in The Almonry – a masterpiece at once sumptuous and severe. I know little enough about the practical side of etching, but in terms of technique alone this is surely a prodigious work – what Davidson would term an “austere marvel”. The effects of light and texture here – snow on stone and wood and the air fizzing with frost – have a delicacy that you would associate with the more impressionistic kinds of brushwork, rather than with the bite of acid on metal. It’s not altogether strange that some recent critics have claimed for Griggs, obscure as he now is, a key position in English romantic art:  this late work seems to look back through Pugin and Pre-Raphaelitism to the example of Samuel Palmer (whom Griggs idolized) and forward to the neo-romantics of the 1940s, most notably perhaps John Piper.

Mention of Pugin points to another salient fact about Griggs: he was a Catholic convert of a particular stripe, one whose love of the medieval took strength from a fierce sense of the ravages of secularism, materialism, and industrialism in his own time. It is almost as if, having painstakingly captured a vanishing England in his drawings for Highways and Byways, Griggs set out to preserve a richly idealized fantasy version –  what Geoffrey Hill calls a “Platonic England” –  in these late etchings. And looking again at The Almonry – is it fanciful to discern a sense of threat, of looming catastrophe? Judging by the costumes, we are somewhere in the early Tudor period and this cliff-top citadel of art, music, charity and true religion, will soon fall to the fury of the iconoclasts. Back to that ladder in the foreground, with that breach in the wall above it – doesn’t it look ominously like a siege ladder? Are we about to see the orcs of Mordor, or Modernity, come swarming up from the depths to overwhelm everything?

I never know what to think about this sort of romanticism, this invocation of a deep England beyond the profit and loss, beyond all sense and reason: it seems at once perilous and laughable and irresistible – “complex nostalgias”, indeed. It’s probably for these reasons that I’ve come to associate Griggs’s perfect little etching with a poem by Geoffrey Hill, our foremost analyst of these things – appropriately, it’s a section from his An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England (itself a title cribbed from Pugin):

THE HEREFORDSHIRE CAROL

So to celebrate that kingdom: it grows
greener in winter, essence of the year;
the apple-branches musty with green fur.
In the viridian darkness of its yews

it is an enclave of perpetual vows
broken in time. Its truth shows disrepair,
disfigured shrines, their stones of gossamer,
Old Moore’s astrology, all hallows,

the squire’s effigy bewigged with frost,
and hobnails cracking puddles before dawn.
In grange and cottage girls rise from their beds

by candlelight and mend their ruined braids.
Touched by the cry of the iconoclast,
how the rose-window blossoms with the sun!