Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Cardiff and Wales

Cardiff is the place in Wales most visitors see, so it makes sense for Cardiff to try to display some Welshness. That’s not so simple.

At the National Museum of Wales (the main Cardiff art gallery), you are confronted by a vast white-stone building, one of a suite, that looks like (and largely is) municipal offices. In France, they were building vast, exaggerated art galleries 20 years before this, and the Cardiff building is equally tasteless. Worse, it’s not even Welsh.

What makes a Welsh building, you may ask? I’m not sure I can answer that, but I can state confidently that this building is not Welsh. It looks like an attempt to impose an official culture on a principality, to be honest.

Once inside, the collection is stunning, largely because the two Davies sisters, who spent much of their grandfather’s wealth buying an astonishing collection of art, much of it French, at a time when these painters were not as established as they are today. The Davies sisters clearly had taste; few of the pictures on display were embarrassing, and some of them are simply breathtaking, including two marvellous works by Cezanne.  The sisters clearly had some kind of social conscience, because they also bought Millet and Daumier (including his wonderful Head of a Man and Lunch in the Country).  

Daumier, Lunch in the Country
Now, the Davies sisters didn’t buy Welsh art, for whatever reason, but their acquisitions were inspired. The museum bookshop had a book about them, and I was a little disappointed to learn that their art-buying ended shortly after the First World War. After that time, the sisters spent their money on music festivals and on a private press (as well as, to be fair, supporting many large-scale educational initiatives, such as the National Library of Wales). But in the arts, however noble the music and private press initiatives, they will have had much less impact on Wales than the paintings. That is, of course, if anyone from Wales can be persuaded to enter this vast white mausoleum of a building. The building suffers, like so many large art galleries, from being so monumental that as a result it is totally uninviting.
William Dyce, Welsh landscape with two women knitting, 1860
On the positive side, the Museum has a Welsh landscape gallery, with works arranged by location – a very good idea. It also dutifully includes some of the most dreadful Victorian images of Wales, by two of the usual culprits, William Dyce and W P Frith; the Dyce work is particularly offensive, featuring two Welsh women in traditional dress, knitting, in a mountainous landscape. It’s the sort of work that most provincial galleries would keep in their store, and yet this picture was bought as recently as 2010. If there is to be an attempt at a populist art for Wales, the statue of Nye Bevan in the main shopping street is far more successful. If nothing else, it is positioned where the people are, rather than hiding its face in an art gallery.
Vera Bassett, Welsh Hills

So what does Cardiff need? Perhaps to make more of its Welsh artists, such as Vera Bassett. Perhaps some distinctive Welsh buildings. Welsh towns and cities are often poor in distinctive, iconic buildings. Every city has dreary buildings, but Cardiff seemed not to have any breathtaking iconic building - except perhaps for the rugby stadium. If you look up Cardiff in the Michelin tourist guide, the recommended things to see – Cardiff Castle, Castell Coch – are monuments to fabulous wealth, but hardly very characteristically Welsh. Perhaps the truly Welsh buildings would pay homage to the magnificent scenery around them, rather than (like the National Museum of Wales) do everything possible to ignore their surroundings. 

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Hammershøi, the painter who gains by losing

Vilhelm Hammershøi is a rare painter for whom less is more. At the exhibition at the Jacquemart-Andre in Paris, we see his early paintings, depicting interiors which are hardly full of objects, become further reduced so that the late paintings may show just a human figure shown from the rear, or even no figure at all.  Yet his work includes some very impressive portraits, both of himself and of his family, and of nudes. Why abandon something for which you obviously have a talent?

One reason why Hammershøi appears here as a major artist is that the Jacquemart-Andre is a house full of clutter. The private apartments are ugly, and the Italian rooms are an object lesson in how to take away all the power of paintings by displaying them insensitively: pulled together by the same theme (three Virgins and Child shown side by side), and in the wrong place (a funeral sculpture intended to be seen at ground level but shown here around three metres higher). To pass from this 19th-century clutter to Hammershøi is like a bath in spring water: invigorating and cleansing.

Of course, Hammershøi is not a great artist. Like the Dutch 17th-century artists, he knew how to make the most of his limited talent. He could paint interiors and buildings and, it seems leafless trees (no trees with leaves, as far as I could see from this show). There is even a remarkable picture of a house in London, yet the house is almost obscured by a leafless tree in front of it. You ask yourself if this is a painting of the tree or the house.

Pretty much everything Hammershøi painted is in various shades of grey. And in another major variance from Dutch golden-age artists, he is not obsessed with including objects that may or may not have a meaning for the audience; in fact he does not seem to be telling a story at all. Instead, he shows the effect of light. The last room of the exhibition is the best, because he seems to concentrate all his works with lighting effects into this one room. It is the light that tells the story. What does it mean that the light from a window casts a strong, clear light on a wall or piece of furniture? What indeed?

You can see the scale of his achievement because the exhibition cleverly places paintings of similar subjects by contemporaries alongside Hammershøi, and the difference is clear. Hammershøi does not try for the picturesque. He tones down his use of colour. He avoids conventionally beautiful scenes. His interiors are typically shown off-centre; in fact in one early portrait of his mother, she appears rather unnervingly in front of two objects on the wall behind her, but she is not symmetrical between the two. If I had been taking a photograph, I would have moved the camera away so that the objects behind were not there at all or otherwise symmetrical.

Even more interesting, the removal of details may not have been all Hammershøi’s own work. One of the best paintings in the show is very simple to describe: just an interior, with a door and a window. It would appear that originally there was a human figure on the left, but the buyer of the painting, a friend, folded the human figure out of the painting – and improved it as a result.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

The Renaissance Nude

I found The Renaissance Nude exhibition at the Royal Academy a rather disjointed show. For a start, the show appears to have lost a large number of the pictures shown in Los Angeles, the other place where this exhibition was first shown (it appears to have been curated by Thomas Kren, senior curator emeritus of the Getty Museum, Los Angeles). I counted ten paintings that were exhibited in Los Angeles only, plus at least four works in the catalogue listed as exhibits but fascinatingly not shown in either location. Whatever the inconsistency about what is shown in each location, this rather small show (111 works in the catalogue, just four rooms at the Royal Academy), does not appear to explain itself very well. The claim of the catalogue is “this exhibition traces the beginnings of the naturalistic nude in European art. Although the nude continued to develop in novel and intriguing ways after 1530, it had also assumed an integral role within European art by then, offering a suitable end point for our narrative.”

Yet, as far as I can see, the exhibition doesn’t seem to be very interested in tracing the beginnings of the “naturalistic nude”, nor its end. If there are beginnings, what came before? There are representations of nudes in art going right back to post-Classical times. There are plenty of examples of nudity in medieval European art. How then was the Renaissance different? We are not told. Nor are we told what came after. There was the Counter-Reformation, and that changed attitudes to nudity in art. But none of this is visible in the exhibition itself.

Instead, the exhibition has some themes of its own, not always clearly explained but certainly present from the choice of objects displayed. Four themes are identified in the leaflet given to everyone visiting the exhibition:
The Nude and Christian Art – exemplified by Adam and Eve;
Humanism and the Expansion of Secular Themes – the use of Classical mythology and themes in Renaissance art;
Artistic Theory and Practice – how life drawing became standard practice during the Renaissance;
Personalising the Nude – which is exemplified by Isabella d’Este and the decoration of her studiolo.

The exhibition also raises some themes of its own, among which I noted:

  • Religious art used as an opportunity for sexual themes, including St Sebastian and representations of Bathsheba. There are no fewer than six representation of St Sebastian in this exhibition. Several representations of gruesome torture on naked bodies: St Barbara about to have her breast removed, and many naked males impaled on thorns. There are also two representations of Hercules and Antaeus, perhaps implying that males in naked combat is sexual in origin. 
  • The bathhouse as a place where heterosexual and homosexual physical passion was revealed.
All that leaves a lot of themes unsaid. Off the top of my head, I would suggest the following:

  •         The northern and southern tradition of representing the nude (described by Kenneth Clark in his The Nude).
  •         When and why did the Renaissance switch from condemnatory depictions of nudity to celebrations of it? 
  •         If Bathsheba, why not other Biblical episodes used as an excuse to depict the female nude, such as Susanna and the Elders?
  •        The changing attitudes to representing the genitals. In a few works here, the penis is displayed, but in many of them, the penis is masked. Similarly for the female genitalia. Different attitudes seem to co-exist at the same time, for example, Michelangelo’s nudes in the Sistine Chapel reveal their genitals, while Durer’s Adam and Eve have their genitals discreetly masked Why the fluctuation in attitudes to displaying the genitalia?  
  • Titian’s painting of sacred and profane love has the sacred woman naked and the profane woman clothed, while in this exhibition, Dirk Bouts’ The Way to Paradise and The Fall of the Damned has the righteous clothed, and the damned naked. Why the contrast?
  •         Why the Renaissance often depicted wildly over-muscular males, who look as if they have been fed on steroids since the age of 16, and yet these same males always have a miniscule penis? There is, remarkably, one remarkable self-portrait by Durer in the catalogue (not in the exhibition) that depicts him with a normal-sized penis. The Renaissance seems to have switched from a stylized vision of puny males and females to an idealized image of the male but remaining stylized in certain ways.

Hence, I would rename this show “some miscellaneous themes that interest the curators when studying images of the nude in the Renaissance”. It assumes, rather than presents, the major themes critics have discussed for many years over nudity in the Renaissance. Essentially, that theme is how and why Michelangelo’s David (Florence) is so different to Van Eyck’s Eve (Ghent).

Since the exhibition itself tells us so little, it makes sense (if you have the money) to turn to the catalogue. But the catalogue does not seem written to make things much clearer; it’s certainly not intended as an introduction to the Renaissance nude.  The catalogue is one of those sit-on-the-fence kind of works, that tries very hard to make sure it never says any one thing too firmly. The catalogue takes for granted, for example, that we all know “the familiar humanist notion of the triumphant, classicizing male nude”, but then really muddies the water by continuing to state, of this notion, that “it aligns with, but also troubles a larger fabric of western European Christian tradition”.  Who is this humanist notion familiar with, apart from the authors? It then points out, usefully, that the Renaissance tradition of the “idealized male form became an expression of inner virtue and even of cosmic order”. These words appear almost alongside the full-page photograph of Michelangelo’s David, so it’s difficult not to agree with this statement.  Yet Kenneth Clark is castigated for “normalizing the male nude in the early Renaissance, neglecting the rise of the female nude in fifteenth-century northern Europe”.  Is that Mr Clark’s limitation, or is it borne out by the art? This text appears alongside van Eyck’s depiction of Eve from the Ghent altarpiece, another locus classicus of the nude in Renaissance art. But it is clear from this image, compared with Michelangelo David, that the idealization of the female was towards fertility, as can be seen by the enlarged belly that is very common in northern depictions of the naked female. Certainly these depictions are very different to the Italian, classical male nude, which suggests, yes, inner virtue.

There is one picture in the show that shows the classical female nude: the amazing Titian Venus Anadyomene, of around 1520, which has no counterpart in northern Renaissance art. This painting dominates the whole exhibition,  and not surprisingly is used for the cover of the catalogue. The authors of the catalogue, however, nowhere state why this image be so overwhelming, compared with the rest of the show. Perhaps they don't want to admit that for many people, classical nudes are what comprises fine art, and this is one of the best. 

Incidentally, who is the catalogue written for? It appears as an academic work, with citations throughout – yet there is a reference to Kenneth Clark on page one, with his famous distinction of “naked” and “nude”, not explained, and without any citation. Unless you were already familiar with art history works on the subject, you would not know from this catalogue introduction that Kenneth Clark had written a book called The Nude.

It is indicative of this show that the big arguments take place around images and ideas that are not represented in the show. I have discussed this show by using two illustrations that appear only in the catalogue. That seems to sum up the exhibition overall: interesting, but somehow missing (and/or taking for granted) the big story.  

Friday, 10 May 2019

Learning not to read

The paradox of higher education is that you read less, rather than more. I used to think this conclusion was obvious, but not a year goes past without reading an article in a magazine or newspaper with someone stating as a new year resolution that they will read more.

 I’m not suggesting that everyone with a PhD is a fraud, who spent several years flicking through books rather than reading them in full, but higher education deliberately imposes impossible tasks on learners, in order to teach them better reading skills. I have bachelor degrees in English and in French, and in both subjects – I would guess this is true of most university subjects – one component of higher study is learning not to read books in full. There isn’t time to read all the available books on any subject, so we have to be selective. One of my courses was the English novel, done in ten lectures. We studied one novelist a week, so Dickens was one week, and Eliot the next. That might be an extreme example, but the principle is clear. Whether or not it is good to approach literature in such a selective way, the principle was the same: it was essential to employ some selection. Few people, even academics in English literature, can have read all of Shakespeare’s plays. We take the opportunity to engage with a Shakespeare play when we get the chance, perhaps, but for most of Shakespeare, in fact for most of literature, we read about the plays, we hear about the plays, we hear quotes from the plays, rather than read the thing itself. And often we read just a scene or a speech. There is nothing wrong with that: the selectivity is a good idea. Rather than consuming a book, we should engage with it in a debate. Any author makes assertions and attempts to justify them with some evidence. Rather like the defence lawyer in a court of law, your job is to challenge all the assertions of the prosecution. More often than not, this process leads to you abandoning the book, simply because you have completed your engagement with it. Perhaps, as Pierre Bayard states, in How to talk about books you haven’t read (2007), the mark of the literate person is to be able to place a work in its context, rather than simply reading it, or even, heaven forbid, instead of reading it.

But my point is rather different to Bayard. For me, it is a bit pointless to be able to state that Dante is Italy’s most famous writer, when you haven’t read a word of Dante. I haven’t read all of Dante, by any means, but I read enough to look at with deep suspicion anyone who claims to have read all of Dante in fewer than, say, five years. Similarly, I don’t think there is any problem with walking out of a film after fifteen minutes or giving up a book after chapter three.

In fact, whether for fiction or for non-fiction books, I finish perhaps a tenth of the books I start. Mercifully, I have learned not to care about not finishing a book. Perhaps the true statistic that makes sense is to count not the number of books you finish, but the number of books you start.

Friday, 3 May 2019

Natalia Ginzburg’s distorted Lexicon

Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon (Lessico famigiliare) was a great disappointment. I thought I knew that period of Italian history quite well, having lived in Turin for a year, and had enthusiastically read Pavese, Gramsci, and other writers who had been based in or associated with Turin. But I found myself turning to the editorial notes for this book, like any reader unaware of 20th-century Italian history. Ginzburg mentions names from history and literature casually, indifferently, but makes no attempt to explain who these people are. The reader loses track of the various friends and family. The narration, such as it is, jumps forward and backward without explanation. Characters are always introduced by their first name and the reader struggles to remember who they are. There is no attempt at a clear chronology. It would be difficult indeed to reconstruct what any family member did at any specific date from this book.

That lack of context is I think a fundamental flaw in the book as a whole. It purports to be a study of her family members and close friends as she remembers them. However, this is not just any family: as a Jew in Italy, Ginzburg lived through some of the worst horrors of the first half of the 20th century. Her husband died in prison while being interrogated. As a Jew, she lived with the possibility of being shipped off to an extermination camp. Several members of her circle were regularly imprisoned or exiled. She was surrounded by people whose lives were robbed or deeply scarred by the Italian Fascist state. Yet Ginzburg explains none of this. There is nothing in the book about the rightness or wrongness of the Fascist state. All she writes about, and this is quite an achievement, is the lurid exaggerations of her father complaining about “negroes”, and her mother’s peculiar whims, such as not trusting the local tailor and mistreating her maids. Yet, quite incredibly, there is not a word of overt complaint about these horrific attitudes. The result is that we are left uncertain about Ms Ginzburg really felt, a little as if she were still a young girl who experiences the prejudices of her parents without being able to put them into any kind of adult context. If Ginzburg is to be believed, both her parents were wildly opinionated, on everything from attitudes to their own family to whether an investment might be sound or not. Ginzburg records it all faithfully and without comment, a bit like a tape recorder. That’s what happened, she seems to say, make your own mind up. Her own husband’s death is given just a passing mention. We don’t know what she thought of his death, or why she married again, or indeed anything at all about Natalia Ginzburg’s own life. She even cryptically refers to “a publisher” when that publisher was Einaudi, a central part of 20th-century Turin history.

It’s a very strange technique, and deeply unsettling. Most people, as Sartre points out, write their autobiography to try to justify what they did and how they currently think. Ginzburg has none of this. She simply reports – and yet what she reports is so coloured, so begging for commentary, that her lack of any judgement becomes suspect. Does she endorse her father’s horrific attitude towards his own family? Does she endorse her mother’s mistreatment of her maids? We do not learn, and the silence becomes quite alarming. Ginzburg’s world is a family lost in self-obsession, without awareness of what is happening, repeating social and racist stereotypes, incapable of seeing the world around them clearly. Ginzburg spends a lot of time recording the family slang terms that had no meaning outside the family unit (such as the term “negro”, which was used by her father to refer to anyone, black or white, that he disapproved of). She patiently explains how these phrases originate, and then presents them as if we will laugh too. We don’t laugh – at least, I don’t. What is she trying to tell us? The book is written in a very colloquial Italian, writes Tim Parks in his introduction. Although I read it in English, I can believe the strange, disconnected universe of the book depicted in non-standard terms, just like the weird personal slang terms her father used.

Perhaps this book is a triumph of insight into human nature; I would rather write it off as an adult incapable of moving beyond the horrific echoing of family life, of being locked in a small space with two, three or more bigots who corrupt other members of the household with their endlessly restated prejudices. We all grew up in families, but we don’t have to celebrate them uncritically like this.

Saturday, 20 April 2019

Distinctive Cologne

I liked Cologne. It is compact, yet it has one of the largest cathedrals in the world, and the city makes the most of that contrast. Since the central square outside the Cathedral is so small, and the main station just a few yards from the Cathedral, there is a sense of crowding that is very distinctive, and which makes the vast height of the Cathedral all the more imposing. The Cathedral is the centre, even more so than, say, Amiens, or Rouen (or Canterbury, which as a result of the Cathedral Close is quite separate to the town). The main buildings of the historic centre are all within walking distance, even if, as with many northern German cities, the buildings display that kind of 1950s and 60s anonymity, immediately forgettable replacements for whatever was there before World War II.  

What else makes Cologne distinctive?

Cologne Station has a very distinctive roof, which, surprisingly, does not seem to feature in the architectural top-ten lists for Cologne. It was constructed as recently as 1957, and has a shape unlike any other railway arch I know, with very flattened arch shapes repeated everywhere, and yet it appears satisfyingly like a railway arch.

There are two major museums right next to the Cathedral, both of them impressive buildings. Unfortunately the Roman museum was closed when I visited, but the Museum Ludwig (by Busmann & Haberer), more than compensates with its stunning foyer and large spaces for the display of contemporary art. Unusually, it has a few rooms with glass covering floor to ceiling to take advantage of its proximity to the train station and the Hohenzollern Bridge. You can see from outside the museum the jagged roof pattern, providing indirect light in the galleries.

Cologne is a city with local associations. By this I mean the local art gallery, the Wallraf-Richartz, has rooms full of medieval paintings, created just a few yards away from the museum in the aptly named Schildergasse (Painter Street). Over 290 medieval paintings from Cologne survive. These paintings are often narrative, strip-cartoon style, with multiple scenes of a saint’s life.  You would be hard pressed to find any work by painters born in Cambridge in the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Being Cologne, it has a local saint, and not just any saint, but one of the best-known medieval figures. Saint Ursula was murdered in Cologne together with the 10,000 virgins that had accompanied her to Rome to meet the Pope. Apparently there was a healthy trade in relics from the supposed burial ground of the virgins, just outside the city. Most other cities would have one or two relics; looks like Cologne wins in terms of sheer numbers of relics. From the number of depictions of St Ursula’s life, it must have been one of the most popular religious themes of the day.

by Rolf Heinrich, Köln, CC BY 3.0

In the short time I had available, I wasn't able to see any of the several modern buildings around the city. Unmissable were some impressive cantilever-based office blocks on the banks of the Rhine, which I just managed to see from the train. I reckon, though, the users of the building must always be looking nervously around to make sure everyone wasn't standing on the wrong side of the building, in case it toppled over.

Monday, 8 April 2019

Why be a book reviewer if you don’t enjoy it

Anthony Burgess seems a man with a permanent chip on his shoulder. Despite being a successful novelist, he survived for many years by working as a freelance writer, supplementing his royalty income with book reviews.

In a fascinating article published in 1972 in the TLS (and reprinted on December 232016), he discusses his attitude to writing reviews. According to Burgess,

“people never set out to be reviewers. They have to be writers first … Having published a novel or so, they are invited to review novels … A deadline is a fine substitute for a genuine literary urge. But sooner or later the self-disgust sets in. It has to do … with the whipping up a factitious emotion about the book or books reviewed.”

My first problem with this view of reviewing is that it is based entirely around the view of the reviewer. Burgess saw himself as a novelist, of course, and for him, reviews were sidelines; if you just wrote reviews, self-disgust sets in. Not all reviewers are novelists, however, and not al reviewers are afflicted by self-disgust by every review they write. Burgess misses here the reader’s point of view. The reader is expecting to learn something about the book, in an entertaining yet informative way. They don’t have time to have read the book, but the reviewer has. You could say this is the application of capitalism to reading books. I cannot read all the books I would like to read, so I pay someone, in the form of a periodical or a newspaper, to read them for me, assuming that I respect the opinions of the reviewer. Had I known when I read all those reviews by Burgess how much he dislike the task of reviewing, I would never have read him.  

Come to think of it, I abandoned Burgess’ autobiography, Little Wilson and Big God (1986) after the first several pages, occupied entirely by Burgess explaining how he, rather than any other biographer, was the best person to write an account of his life. Most autobiographers do not start with an elaborate justification of their suitability for the task over anyone else.  

It’s a shame, because Burgess, in the same article, makes some genuine points. Short reviews are a waste of time: “Ask for five hundred words on any new book, and you at once absolve the reviewer from reading it … When the wordage of a review gets into the thousands … one trusts such a review – because the reviewer dare not be too careless.”. “Not even the most saintly reviewer can avoid showing off (“As a mere amateur of Dutch painting I must wonder why Professor Bullshop could not … find room for a brief reference to that lovely painter Piet Voedstoppung).” If authors reviewed their own books, Burgess claims, “the personality of the writer would not come in for a trouncing.” One wonders what Jean Rhys would have said of her own novels.

But then Burgess, as usual, in his desire to be both clever and provocative, goes too far in his egocentric freelancer attitude:

The fairest review that any novel of mine ever received was one I wrote myself.

Now we have shifted to reviews of novels – always a rather subjective process, and Burgess, outrageously, thinks himself the best judge of his own work.

Nowhere in all this is the position of the reader justified, or even considered. All we hear is Burgess’ own sense of outrage at the reviews his own novels received, and the falsity of his position at having to write reviews of other people’s work. The reading public is not considered, as if they were entirely passive consumers of whatever the reviewer might deign to write. However entertaining Burgess might be as a writer, you feel he means with a vengeance not to miss the opportunity to earn a reviewer’s fee – or the royalties from an autobiography.  

There is a piece to be written on the benefit of the book review, but this is not it. Many book reviews are undoubtedly poor, but Burgess, the man with a chip on his shoulder, brings us no closer to why some reviews illuminate, inspire, and enthuse. I am left simply with a feeling that Burgess, in his self-centredness, is unlikely to appeal to me as an author.