Monday, 31 December 2018

In defence of Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier, interior of Pavilion de L’Esprit Nouveau (1925)


Witold Rybczynski has two main ideas in his book Home: a short history of an idea (1986). The first suggested that “home” should be equated with “comfort”, and tracked interior design over the last 500 years or so to see how ideas of comfort have evolved.

The second idea is far more contentious. WR suggests that modernism, in the guise of Le Corbusier, is antithetical to comfort, and therefore fundamentally opposed to the idea of “home”. Only one example of modernism is given in his book: Le Corbusier’s pavilion for the Paris Exposition of the Decorative Arts of 1925. The background to this event is significant. Corbusier was making a statement about the whole exhibition:

Despite calls for revolutionary thinking, the Paris Decorative Arts Exposition ended up still valuing artisan production over industrialism in pavilions brimming with furniture and accessories that featured exquisite craftsmanship and expensive materials, including exotic wood imported from the French colonies. This style, named “art deco” for its exposition debut, clearly targeted the haute bourgeoisie, more than broadening the market. The modernist Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau, designed and built by the architect Le Corbusier, stood in stark contrast to the other pavilions on the fairgrounds. Built entirely of industrial materials (concrete, steel, and glass), Le Corbusier’s pavilion exposed the Exposition’s vision as complacent, even timid. His own vision extended far beyond questions of style to encompass everything from the design of chairs to the design of houses to the design of cities. Le Corbusier claimed that his work reflected universal modern values, from which emerged a new aesthetic. Spurning the exposition organizers’ invitation to design “an architect’s home” with the elitism it implied, he famously preferred to present a house for the new, modern “everyman” or “cultivated man” emerging in the age of machines.  [Lynn Palermo, “The 1925 Paris Exposition”]

Despite Corbusier’s deliberately provocative statements, there is some fundamental truth in his argument. He was not creating designs for an elite; his creations were scalable. He was reacting against a world of Art Deco artisan objects with an integrated statement. He was responding to a France that had lost hundreds of thousands of dwellings as a result of the First World War. And notice that Corbusier’s interior includes not one armchair, but two.

What is comfort?

Interior of Ralph Lauren's Office


“During the six years of my architectural education the subject of comfort was mentioned only once.” Witold Rybczynski, Foreword to Home: A short history of an idea (1986).

This is a fascinating notion, yet Rybczynski’s book is not entitled “comfort” but “home”. The author loosely equates home with comfort throughout the book, but unfortunately, he doesn’t give a definition of either term, so we readers have to hunt around to work out what he means. He admits his own study is untidy but states “there is comfort in this confusion”, and then adds “hominess is not neatness. Otherwise everyone would live in replicas of the kind of sterile and impersonal homes that appear in interior design and architectural magazines”. In other words, comfort is for the author contrasted with sterility.

Finally, right at the end of his book, he returns to the term “comfort”, which he states approximates to “a domestic atmosphere that is instantly recognisable for its ordinary, human qualities”.  He continues:

“Domestic comfort involves a range of attributes – convenience, efficiency, leisure, ease, pleasure, domesticity, intimacy and privacy – all of which contribute to the experience; common sense will do the rest. Most people – 'I may not know why I like it, but I know what I like' – recognize comfort when they experience it.”

This is sloppy thinking. My subjective comfort may not be your comfort; what if we judged books on the basis of how nice they make us feel? The utilitarians had enough difficulty trying to work out how much good an action did, quite apart from how good something makes us feel; it’s hardly the way to have an informed discussion. For example, the author ignores “efficiency” for most of the book, yet suddenly includes it in his list of attributes of comfort.  What is efficient about a Chippendale chair? When he describes images of contemporary comfort, he uses Ralph Lauren interiors as a model. These interiors, available in four themes, “Log Cabin”, “Thoroughbred”, “New England”, and “Jamaica”, sound as fake and kitsch as the titles suggest. The interiors (and Lauren's own office  suggests something similar) look like a commercial. If that is comfort, give me a prison cell any day.

The author admits that “comfort” has changed over time – although he never examines in detail what constituted “comfortable” for the inhabitants of the many domestic interiors he describes. When Odysseus returns home after many years, he is not recognized by anyone in his own house except for his dog, which recognizes him and growls. Perhaps that is what some people mean by “home” – nothing to do with interior design at all.

The author tries to distinguish “comfort” from “the idea of comfort” (p32), but this doesn’t really help. He claims that medieval humans had different priorities: “it is not so much that in the Middle Ages comfort was unknown … but rather that it was not needed” (p35). That is highly suggestive, but not followed up in this book. If ideas of comfort have changed over the centuries, then why do we judge the Durer engraving of St Jerome in his study by present-day standards of comfort?

Sunday, 30 December 2018

The idea of home

Durer, St Jerome in his study, 1514
What a lovely idea, that of home. We all instinctively recognise what is homely and comfortable, but, as Witold Rybczynski points out, “home” and “comfort” are not words often used in architecture courses. If we think of comfort, we often imagine it as the details that architecture leaves out: sofas, table lights, paintings on the wall. Witold Rybczynski, in his book Home: A short history of an idea (1986), begins by describing Ralph Lauren interiors as examples of comfort.

However, Mr Rybczynski also insists at the outset that his book is not a book about interior decoration.  I wondered why he should try to differentiate his text in this way, particularly because of the use of Ralph Lauren as the exemplar of home comfort. In the absence of any other examples, I would see this book as equating home with comfort and with interior design, or, if you want to be more sophisticated, with the idea of interior decoration.

Sadly, the author’s sweeping generalisations and lack of specifics are immediately apparent.  A quarter of the way through the book, I still haven’t found a definition of “home”. Instead, the book provides a whistlestop tour of major domestic improvements, such as the chimney, the water closet, and the layout of houses; but each of the topics is covered only in the briefest outline, none of them is illustrated, and all the topics seem to have been derived from secondary literature.  I don’t mind him providing a sense of anticipation, when he writes of Durer’s engraving of St Jerome in his study (1514) “bookcases had not yet been invented”, but he fails to tell us just when they were invented (and how he can show examples to justify that claim). Considering the same engraving, he tells us “upholstered seating, in which the cushion was an integral part of the seat, did not appear until a hundred years later”.  But here again he fails to complete the story; just when was the sofa invented? Isn’t that one of the fundamental aspects of “comfort”? Topics are introduced and then dropped with bewildering speed, leaving statements such as “The modern fascination with furniture begins in the 17th century”. If this is the case, can he demonstrate it? Can he explain it?

The Durer engraving used as a frontispiece to one of the chapter headings, is instructive – as the only illustration from before the 18th-century, it has to stand for all Rybczynski’s claims about medieval home life. The author uses the Durer engraving as an example, but curiously uses his reading rather than the evidence of his eyes. We see St Jerome seated by himself in a comfortable working space with a dog and a lion contentedly sleeping near his feet. However, the author tells us, this is not an image of comfort; instead, he states sternly “it was unusual for someone in the sixteenth century to have his own room”. It’s irrelevant for this artwork to know if it was unusual or not; we see a solitary man in pensive reflection, and we see comfort. The fact that a “study … was really a room with many uses, all of them public” is neither here nor there; we see solitary comfort. The author spends a page telling us how uncomfortable this room must have been, while we see the opposite.
Where is the author’s definition of “home”? We are told what home is not: “homeliness is not neatness” (p17). Instead, home is equated with “comfort”, although we spend two pages in a leisurely aside about earlier, irrelevant, meanings of comfort, before the current meaning, which Rybczynski states arose in the 18th century. Well, I disagree, because Durer’s 1514 engraving is for me an image of comfort and of homeliness. But not content with insisting that Durer’s image represents the opposite, Mr R continues by arguing that the lack of comfort in medieval lives was so widespread that people living at the time had no idea of “home” and hence no idea of comfort. This was reserved for the bourgeoisie in towns.

Strangely, Rybczynski himself subsequently appears to recognise the homeliness of the Durer image. He refers to (althoug he does not illustrate) a painting by Antonello da Messina of St Jerome in his study, and points out that the Antonello version has none of the intimacy and homeliness of Durer's version. Rybczynski's book raises topics galore on every page, but seems in too much of a hurry to consider what has already been said - in this case, pages 43-44 on Antonello contradict what was said about Durer on pages 18-19.
Antonello da Messina, St Jerome in his study (NG)

The author’s wide-ranging assertions would be justified only by the use of several visual (or textual) examples to illustrate each claim. For example, comfort is equated with the chair, which, we are told was invented by the Egyptians, used by the Greeks and Romans, then forgotten until the 15th century. Instead, the medievals had benches, and benches were not comfortable.  In fact, continues the author, “little importance was attached to … individual pieces of furniture; they were treated more as equipment than as prized personal possessions”.  Yet medieval art is full of objects, such as reliquaries, which clearly had great personal significance for the owner. Even in the Durer engraving, there are cushions visible on the bench. This is explained away: “the seat cushion does offer some padding against the hard, flat wood, but this is not a chair to relax in”.

Perhaps in his enthusiasm to contrast earlier ways of living with the present day, Mr Rybczynski excitedly tells us that, for example, there were over 300 commodes in the palace of Versailles. Unfortunately, this doesn’t really tell us much about comfort. People of the period clearly found it tolerable to use commodes, while we find it unacceptable; it doesn’t mean their lives were any less comfortable than ours, simply that they had different ideas of comfort.

The author equates “privacy” with home, claiming that the lack of privacy in medieval life was revealed by the public nature of the spaces medieval humans occupied. “Only exceptional people – hermits or scholars (like St Jerome) - could shut themselves up alone.” St Jerome might be exceptional, according to Rybczynski, but in Durer’s engraving, he looks to me a very comfortable hermit. I’d choose his solitude any day. 


Friday, 21 December 2018

The Enlightenment: progressive or reactionary?


Not only do scholars dispute details of the Enlightenment; nowadays there are those who claim that the Enlightenment didn’t really happen at all. For example:

As the intellectual historian John Robertson pointed out in The Enlightenment: a very short introduction (2015), two distinct conceptions of the European Enlightenment are currently in circulation. According to the first, commonly held by philosophers and public intellectuals, the Enlightenment was a coherent project of religious secularisation, philosophical and scientific modernisation, and political liberalisation … The second conception is typically held by historians, who have largely abandoned grand narratives of the Enlightenment … many of those we refer to as Enlightenment thinkers were not politically or religiously “progressive” in any way.

Dmitri Levitin, review of The Republic of Arabic Letters (LRB, 22 November 2018)

I assume Rousseau is intended as a member of that second group – Enlightenment thinkers displaying some remarkably anti-Enlightenment characteristics.  Rousseau is so different to Voltaire and Diderot that is is difficult to think of a definition of Enlightenment that encompasses all three. 

One area that reveals Enlightenment thinkers being anything but progressive is easily found by examining their statements on Islam. Levitin, in the same review, reveals some surprising bias about Islam by thinkers who should have known better, including Voltaire.

Voltaire perpetuated the myth of Ottoman backwardness; Gibbon … said it [Islamic civilization) lacked “the spirit of enquiry and toleration”. (LRB 22 November 2018)

Men writing for men, women writing for women


Alice Fishburn set herself the goal of reading only books by women for one year. 50 books later, she comments:
There’s a strange sense of relief that comes when you find a writer who understands a fundamental aspect of you. Parts of my own inner life were suddenly echoed or imagined by someone who really, truly, got it. This, I realised one day, must be what reading is like for men the majority of the time. The ability to hear the beauty of literature without a faint but persistent discordant note …

Alice Fishburn FT, 15 December 2018
This text betrays two myths: first, the myth that only women can write about women, and only men can write about men. Secondly, the equally fallacious myth that there is some kind of a gender-based commonality, by which literature by women for women means a kind of understanding. Why should a male writer - any male writer, just because he is male - understand me, or echo my inner life? I find I have very little in common with, say, Ernest Hemingway, and I find his idea of maleness very foreign. I watched a bullfight once and I could not comprehend how anyone could find such a horrific event in any way noble. Hemingway is a male writer, but much of his writing is persistently discordant to me. Should I admire Henry Miller? When reading him, is there no “faint but persistent discordant note”? That’s not my experience when he gloats about his latest sexual conquest in Paris.

Equally, there is no universal ideology behind women’s writing, just because it is written by a woman. Here, for example, is Kathryn Hughes writing about Deborah Levy:
To ground herself in her eyrie Levy rereads Simone de Beauvoir, that great explorer and explainer of what damage home making does to creative female minds.
Kathryn Hughes, Guardian, 1 Dec 2018

Is this a universal law, that creative females should not make a home? You may agree or disagree with de Beauvoir's view, but Alice Fishburn's implication is that only a woman can understand fundamental aspects of her. Perhaps she should immediately abandon any thoughts of setting up a home.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Why Woolf?

My problems began with the title of this show (Virginia Woolf: an exhibition inspired by her writings,). If this is an exhibition inspired by Woolf’s writings, then did all the artists shown read Woolf? I don’t think so. Were they all influenced directly by Woolf? I don’t think so either. So I questioned the justification; why choose these seemingly unrelated works? Some, but not all, of the works clearly had a family connection, or a geographical connection - Virginia Woolf had many childhood holidays in St Ives. But most of the works have no connection with St Ives. Why, then, this show?

After reading several reviews, it seems the connection is a very broad one indeed. The Times described the exhibition as “not … about her life per se. Rather, spanning the period 1850 to the present day, it will use her work as a prism through which to look at her influences. About 250 works, by 80 or so female artists … will reflect her ideas about the depictions of landscape, about domesticity and ways of representing the feminine persona.” That explains the exhibition; or at least, it gets us started.

On that basis, the exhibition is a survey of art very loosely based around Woolf’s major themes, including landscapes, the role of women, and interiors and exteriors (Laura Smith, the curator, states Woolf “is always pointing out the dichotomies between interior and exterior”). So far so good.

Male and female spaces
It is only when looking at the specific works, and what commentators say about those works, that questions arise. Of course, given Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, it is to be expected some works will be about interior spaces; for example, the Vanessa Bell Interior with Table. But is this a specifically female space?

In what way is it feminine, without imposing stereotypes on what constitutes male or female spaces? Does this mean I, as a man, am restricted to the terraces of a football stadium? Can that interior not also be mine?

Similarly, Jackie Wullschlager, writing in the FT, attempts to characterise male and female visions of nature: “Many [of the artists here], as Woolf does in The Waves, subvert the heroic macho seascape — Courbet, Monet — into psychosexual landscape or image of interiority.” As soon as you start to provide gender labels to images of nature, you run the risk of falling into stereotypes rather than subverting or ignoring them.  For me, the sea is neither male nor female. But for this exhibition, it seems that every painting and every natural vision has to be one or the other. JW talks about “powerful feminised takes on landscape”, as if the natural world is a battlefield to be captured either by the male or the female gaze. Rachel Campbell-Johnston in The Times claims that female landscapes are simply not always from one view: “What emerges [from this exhibition] is a multifaceted patchwork of possibilities that challenges the clear divisions of the conventional — and perhaps typically masculine — viewpoint that tends to bisect the landscape with a horizon line right across the middle.” It is an unlikely claim, that there is a specifically masculine or feminine landscape.

Woolf as the inspiration for all C20 feminist art
Of course, this exhibition cannot be held responsible for some of the wilder statements by enthusiastic reviewers. For Vivienne Hopley-Jones in Varsity “Smith’s exhibition tore away any remaining misconceptions I had been fed about the historical contributions of women to the arts”. If that is the justification, that Woolf talked generally about women contributing to the arts, then any female involvement from that point on becomes fair game – fine, but I wonder why Woolf’s statement should be the key that drives all female contribution to 20th-century visual art? Is this not perhaps another example of British audiences having a rather inflated idea of the importance of British cultural figures in the history of art? To continue with Hopley-Jones, “[in this exhibition] Woolf is used as a point of access to the vast world of female art within which she is situated.” My question is, why Woolf? I have nothing against an exhibition or a gallery of women’s art, but why unite it through a wealthy aristocrat who dd not believe in equal opportunities for women and had a patronising attitude towards her own female servants? Or perhaps, quite simply, the word “Woolf” in the title brings the crowds in, even if she wasn’t even a painter?


Even Jackie Wullschlager in the FT, although her review was more balanced than any other I have read, makes claims for this exhibition that are I think unwarranted: “Unfolding like a stream-of-consciousness novel, the show explores across more than a century of women’s art Woolf’s key concerns: memories, Modernist form, sexual politics, and the relationship between them.” That’s fine. However, Wullschlager also states: “These connections [between Woolf’s writings and the paintings displayed] are vibrant, affecting and make sense biographically and art historically: here are artists like Woolf seeking in Modernism a new language for female experience”. Many of the paintings on display (as for example those by Laura Knight) are not Modernist, and in any case, I don’t think it makes sense to claim Modernism as a specific language for female experience.


Poor paintings

Jackie Wullschlager pointed out that "overall, quality is tepid". There are certainly some poor paintings, even by painters who are normally talented, such as Laura Knight's The Dark Pool. An unmemorable landscape, a solitary woman, not much of a pool, and not dark. 


As for Dora Carrington’s Spanish Landscape with Mountains, it’s just a bad painting. It belongs to that period of heavily male-dominated surrealism when artists felt encouraged to depict any non-representational shape in the hope that it might suggest some deep-seated unconscious idea. Surrealist landscapes fill the store rooms of many 20th-century collections except when dusted down, as here. The mountains may be breasts, but that hardly makes it a female vision – breasts, and breast-like shapes, are ubiquitous in Dali landscapes.


Agnes Martin

Agnes Martin seems to be a touchstone. I question how her Morning (1965) can be seen as part of Woolf’s vision, without any evidence from the painting that links it to Woolf or even to the female experience. Wullschlager links this painting to the show in the following way: “Agnes Martin’s softening of austere minimalism in “Morning” (1965), whose quivering lines and atmospheric veils evoke grey dawn by the Atlantic.” Perhaps they do, for her, but I see the achievement of Martin as what she has left out, so that the result is not male, or female, or even representational, but a kind of satisfying symmetry; Martin herself described it as “I was painting about happiness and bliss and they are simple states of mind I guess”. Not, in other words, specifically feminine (I hope). Next time I visit St Ives, and look at the sea out of the Tate St Ives window, perhaps I should remind myself that this is Virginia Woolf’s vision, not mine.



Friday, 7 December 2018

Lorenzo Lotto's moment of sublimity

This remarkable show  (Lorenzo Lotto, Portraits, at the London National Gallery) examines just one painter, and just one aspect of that painter: his portraits. But what portraits! These are some of the most incisive depictions of both young and old subjects ever seen. It is clear from the one drawing and the landscape areas of the portraits that Lotto could both draw and depict landscape, but it is the portraits that stun.

Strangely, the life history alongside these portraits is rather sad: Lotto never achieved a status as high as his Venetian contemporaries and seems not to have been highly successful financially. Several of the paintings are either of his landlord, in lieu of rent, or include the landlord – not an indication of wealth. According to the curators, he was happiest in Bergamo, a sweet little town today that looks as though it would not have been big enough to hold one portrait painter, let alone two. Yet, just a floor above the Lotto portraits there are five portraits of Bergamo inhabitants by Moroni. Moroni is good; pictures of people in their daily roles, such as a tailor. But Lotto’s work is simply haunting; these works are so memorable. The catalogue suggests something vague about Lotto being forgotten for three hundred years after his death, and then rediscovered in the age of Freud. To my mind, that cheapens these images. As a viewer, you feel the raw force of a human in these paintings, nothing less. That’s not Freudian, it is, shall we say, empathy, and the choice of a great subject; and something magical, a moment of great insight that seems to capture the very epicentre of the Renaissance.

It’s an impressively curated show, small but choice. Two of the paintings in particular stand out in this amazing collection:


This is a portrait of an unknown woman inspired by Lucretia, the classical tale of rape and suicide. This must be one of the most powerful female portraits in the entire Italian Renaissance, and yet the catalogue tells us so little about it. Why the reference to Lucretia? Her story was used in art as a  model of virtuous sanctity. Who is this woman? Positioned, like so many of Lotto’s portraits, in a rectangular landscape rather than portrait frame, she fills the canvas in a confident, dominant and assertive way. Her magnificent green and orange dress emphasises her high status and her self-valuation. She is holding an engraving of Lucretia, in what appears to be a pose of sublime self-reliance. Anything Lucretia could do, she is saying, I could do. Her attitude is anything but renunciation.




In a similarly landscape-format canvas, the portrait of Andrea Odoni (1527) is gripping, although certainly less disturbing. Odoni is depicted as a upper-class humanist surrounded by the objects of his collection: ancient statuary. His portrait oozes with gravitas, and perhaps shares some of the defiance of the Lucretia painting; yet in the background it looks like the little putto is peeing into the vessel used by Venus to wash herself – a very strange touch.

One type of portrait I was not aware of is crypto-portraiture: including the face of a known donor or model in a religious painting. Remarkably, a portrait of a married couple is placed alongside a religious painting, where the Virgin has an identical face. Even stranger, there is an altarpiece in the last room that includes a surprisingly elderly Virgin – it turns out to be a portrait. The suggestion in the captions is that it was common to include named individuals in a religious painting – a way of reminding yourself of relatives.
In marked contrast to these portraits, the late works of Lotto have lost all classical grandeur. These are elderly, bearded men, expressing resignation, perhaps defeat. They are very respectful; but perhaps they express Lotto’s own retreat from matters of this world. These late paintings have none of the impact, the grandeur, of those to magnificent portraits. It is those magnificent portraits I keep coming back to; I don’t think anything else expresses the sublime confidence of the Renaissance at its peak, in those early years of the 16th century. Such a moment of classical grandeur, and superhuman insight, could not last very long, and it certainly didn’t last for Lotto.