Thursday 30 November 2023

The Lady Eve (1941, Preston Sturges)


The Lady Eve: Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) and Jean (later Eve) (Barbara Stanwyck): “You’re certainly a funny girl for anybody to meet who’s just been up the Amazon for a year.” 

The first time I saw The Lady Eve (directed by Preston Sturges, 1941), I loved the basic premise, of the naïve explorer who is seduced by a confident trickster. After all, he has been up the Amazon for a year, and she is asking him to change her shoes. 

On watching it again, I still enjoyed that part. I watched it to try to remember what happened later, and, to be honest, it was a disappointment. This is a film that is magic for twenty minutes. Perhaps for once my memory actually did the right thing: I remembered the best bit, and forgot about the remainder. 

Yet this is the film that opens Stanley Cavell’s famous book about Hollywood comedies, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (1981). Cavell’s book makes a very good fundamental point, that several of the best Hollywood comedies of the forties and fifties are about married couples coming back together. But, my goodness, how he labours the point. His chapter about The Lady Eve is almost unreadable for its heavy-handed interpretation of what is designed to be a very light film. 

Let’s summarise the plot, which divides into two parts, or acts. The first act is on a liner. Charles Pick, known as Hopsy (Henry Fond), is a fabulously rich but innocent heir to a brewing fortune. He is accompanied by a minder, a kind of personal security guard, to prevent him being exploited. Hopsy is returning from a year “up the Amazon” (a phrase he repeats with an attempt to justify how he is being swept off his feet), collecting snakes (he has a snake in his cabin). He is expertly manipulated by a pair of card sharks, "Colonel" Harrington (Charles Coburn) and his ostensible daughter Jean (Barbara Stanwyck), and falls head over heels in love with her; in fact, he proposes marriage; but when he discovers their true identity, he recognizes he has been exploited, and rejects her totally. 

Actually, the plot is slightly more complex, a twist that is important for the remainder of the film. Stanwyck sets out to cheat Fonda at cards, but finds herself falling in love with him – and she tells him as much. When she shows him a photograph that reveals her to be a confidence trickster, he is upset (as you would be), but, crucially, fails to recognise that she is genuinely in love with him. 

In the second act of the film, on land, Stanwyck pretends to be an English aristocrat called (conveniently) Lady Eve. He fails to recognise her (and doesn’t seem to notice her unconvincing English accent). She ridicules Charles, and he repeatedly falls over in front of her. Charles accepts her unlikely story that this is the sister of Jean, who he met on the boat, and they get married. Jean/Eve has already stated she is only doing this out of a desire for revenge. 

Once married, on their honeymoon trip, on a sleeper train, she teases him with tales of her premarital affairs, and he jumps off the train, distraught. However, she refuses a money-making divorce offer. 

Finally, we see Charles back on the ocean liner again, where he rediscovers what he believes is Eve, the first woman he met, and they head off to bed, back in love again. He still doesn’t acknowledge, or perhaps even realise, that she and the English aristocrat were the same person. 

What kind of resolution is that? Sturges would like the knowing viewer to spot the references to Freud (the snake in the cabin), and Cavell would like the knowing viewer to spot the references to Shakespearean comedy (Connecticut as the Green World, the equivalent of the Forest of Arden, as outlined by Northrop Frye). 

So there’s the film. Charles/Hopsy is totally manipulated: even at the end he has no idea what is really going on. She marries him and so becomes fabulously wealthy, exactly what she and her “father” set out to do in the first act. Charles the simpleton has learned nothing. He didn’t realise when a woman was genuinely in love with him; he didn’t recognise her when she pretended to be someone else. 

What about the Shakespearean parallels so carefully and painstakingly brought out by Stanley Cavell? I’m afraid the film inhabits a rather different territory to a Shakespearean comedy. The reality of the film that Cavell doesn’t mention is:

  • We enjoy the con-artists doing their stuff in act one.
  • We find Stanwyck far more entertaining when she is playing a seductive card shark than when she appears to be sincere. As soon as she states she is genuinely in love, she loses the glorious wise-cracks.
  • In the first act, the eroticism combines with the manipulation. Quite simply, this is one of the great erotic moments in Hollywood film, Yet In the second act, the pratfalls take over, and there is no serious plot behind it: it’s just fall after fall. It’s as if the film-maker, having set up his elaborate plot, can’t think of any way of developing it except by repeating the slapstick. Entertaining, but hardly a great film.
  • The most important problem is that Fonda never becomes aware of his innocence. Even Jack Lemmon in Some Like it Hot realises the situation and accepts it, at the end of the film; but Fonda remains blind throughout. He is blind to her manipulation, just as he is blind to her sincerity. He is far more entertaining when overwhelmed by events than when he is trying to act sensibly.
  • In terms of funniness, the first act is many times funnier than the second, although the second act has more jokes. That can’t be right!
  • There is another post to write about Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which may be a great poem, and full of wonderful lines, but which doesn’t, in my opinion, make a great play in performance. It has none of the theatricality of Othello, or the set-pieces of Much Ado about Nothing. The young characters are simpletons, in love with the idea of love. The old characters are evil and manipulating (Prospero) or scheming and power-grabbing (Antonio, Sebastian, Trinculo). But that’s for another time.

So I will treasure my memory, of about twenty minutes into the film, with Fonda trying to put Stanwyck’s shoe back on, while she teases him. Not surprisingly, he is all fingers and thumbs. 

Saturday 25 November 2023

Learning about the Franciscans in Bury St Edmunds


A Franciscan Friar, illustration from Piers Plowman, a manuscript of 1427 in the Bodleian Library, (Douce 104, fol 046r)

A talk about a no-longer-existing Franciscan Church in Bury St Edmunds, on a cold winter’s night was, perhaps, not the most enticing of prospects. Yet Francis Young’s talk was fascinating from start to finish. 

The talk, at Moyses Hall Museum, was based around Young’s newly published translation and editing of documents relating to the Franciscans in Bury St Edmunds [The Franciscans in Medieval Bury St Edmunds: Suffolk Records Society, Charters XXII, 2023). For those not familiar with Bury St Edmunds, site of one of the most powerful Benedictine abbeys in England, the presence of the Franciscans will come as a surprise. There is virtually no trace of their presence to be seen today: just a street name (Friars Lane) and a few fragments in a modern hotel (the aptly named Best Western Priory Hotel). The speaker stated that written records of the Franciscans in England, and in Bury, are very scant compared to the wealth of documentation available for the Abbey, yet he was able to bring the Franciscans to life, to provide fascinating documentation around the charters, and to raise (for me) a whole host of questions. 

One moment from their history puts into perspective all my innocent ideas of medieval monasticism: in 1257, the Abbey monks descended on the Franciscan quarters in Friar Lane, and pulled the house down, beating the friars with cudgels, so determined were they that the Friars should not be allowed to create a base within the town. The speaker explained that the house was most likely wattle and daub, so not so difficult to demolish, but even so … Eventually, the Friars were granted an area outside the city, and outside the jurisdiction of the Abbey, according to Francis Young the largest Franciscan friary in England by area. 

Although unwelcome to the monks, the friars claimed they could manage the spiritual concerns of the town better than the monks. That’s just one of the startling claims or questions raised. Other fascinating angles of inquiry include:

  • If the Friars were mendicants, surviving from day to day on donations, how did they manage such a large estate, with around 30-35 friars? If the Friars were in English for over 300 years, they must presumably have set up some kind of infrastructure for managing their buildings and land.
  • The Friars were very keen to get involved with education, and so had a presence in Oxford and Cambridge. Does this mean they were more influential in the universities than the monastic  orders?
  • Friars could travel while monks (as a general rule) could not.
  • The Friary in Bury had links with Richard, Duke of York, while the Abbey was linked to the House of Lancaster.

It seems incredible that records of the early Franciscans can be so sparse, even if, as Young states, records of the English Franciscans were almost all lost, while abbey records tended to remain intact after the Dissolution. I imagine there must exist some records of friary life, just as the monks of Bury have the account of Jocelyn of Brakelonde, dating from the late C12.

I know so little about religious history, limited to visiting old and picturesque historical sites in the countryside, and I know even less about English medieval history, so I don’t have any immediate answer to these questions. But it is a tribute to Francis Young that a sparse set of records related to a demolished building in medieval Bury St Edmunds should have raised so many questions, and such a different view of medieval monasticism than the impression of austerity and devotion that peaceful ruins surrounded by trees would suggest.

Attacking your religious rivals, and tearing down their accommodation, is not quite what I expected of Benedictines. 

Sunday 12 November 2023

Real Families: More about the captions than the pictures


Alice Neel, Nancy and Olivia: "the fierce protectiveness of mothers, and an infant's feelings of security in being held". 

Perhaps it is the me generation finally reaching the hallowed territory of the Fitzwilliam Museum. The Fitz usually has exhibitions on standard art-history topics, such as, in recent years, plein-air landscape, and Degas; here, in contrast, is an exhibition, Real Families: Stories of Change, which comprises around 100 images related to families, and curated by an academic, not an art historian. The classical stuff is there, of course: the exhibition opens with an 18th-century family portrait, and includes a Durer woodcut, and a Poussin. But I as a viewer felt there was a very clear distinction between the traditional and the modern pieces. These are the focus of the exhibition; many of the works date from the 21st century, and they include photographs, audio and video clips. The difference between the two groups is very plain: the modern stuff is about me. The artist depicts their own situation as the subject. The older works are about classical or Biblical themes, or portraits: they make no claim to be self-referential. 

Admittedly, there are a few works that fall slightly between these two extremes: Winifred Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, for example, but we are invited in this exhibition to see these artists as honorary members of the self-exploration club. 

The focus on self is not the only distinction between the two groups of exhibits. For the modern works, the focus on the message and situation was, I felt, more important than the aesthetics. I walked past an exquisite Virgin and Child, where I admired the quality of execution, the pattern, the arrangement. It was a satisfying composition in its own right. For the newer content, in contrast, well, Jane’s comment sums it up: “it was more about the captions than the pictures”. The captions provided the interpretation, how you were supposed to respond to the work. In some cases, it would have been difficult to respond the work at all without the help of the caption. 

Perhaps this is not surprising, given the background to the show. It is curated by Susan Golombok, an Cambridge academic, whose subject is child psychology and family relations. She opens the catalogue by describing how overwhelmed she was to see in the Tate Gallery a mixed media sculptural assembly of a grieving father with two young children (a piece by Cathy Wilkes, not in this exhibition). It conveyed the feelings she encountered every day in her professional work. “To me, the desolate father and vulnerable children … summed up decades of psychological research on the effects of parents’ adversity on their children. But unlike academic research, it went straight to the heart” [catalogue, page 9] 

In other words, for Golombok, it’s the story that counts, not the quality of the execution. It’s more about the captions than about the objects. For Golombok, 

Artists are uniquely placed to translate their internal representations of family to the outside world.

This text (which I assume is by Golombok) is displayed as an introduction to one of the exhibition rooms; I didn’t find it in the catalogue. It’s a remarkable claim; why should artists have unique insight? Does that invalidate autobiography? What about fiction? Yet is it on the basis of this statement that the exhibition has been compiled. 

My traumas – but not those of others

As you might expect from someone who founded and is Director of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge, Golombok’s interest is in families. But the impression I got from the exhibition was of the artist and their trauma, without reference to the others involved. For her, personal and family traumas are to be, well, almost celebrated - and in this exhibition, to be interpreted in just one way. One of the two artists she singles out as being especially moving for her, Stuart Pearson Wright, describes how he discovered he was fathered by a sperm donor rather than the man he believed to be his father. He has since devoted his life to tracking down his father and indeed meeting the donor. Now, I’m sure this might be very meaningful for the artist, but what about the donor? If you as a donor donate sperm to help families who could otherwise not conceive have children, do you expect to be confronted by your offspring twenty years later? I don’t think that would be a pleasant experience, and indeed could cause great suffering for the donor: I am pretty sure the donor did not sign up to meet the children he fathered by this method. 

One photograph shows what appears to be a celebration, with adults and children. The caption reads: “Not too long ago, my father had another child. I should be happy for him, but watching him play with her, feels like a bruise someone keeps pressing”. 

Here is an example of a photograph that could be interpreted in many ways. The caption imposes one interpretation, and we know nothing of the others involved. Are we expected to judge this as a work of art? Are we supposed to take the artist’s view as the only interpretation? 

I won’t let this trauma define me

This exhibition focuses exclusively on the former group, and the art is the depiction of that trauma. In this case, many of the artists define themselves and their work by their experience in families: donor child, single parents, step-sibling, gay parent, and so on. What about those people who go through similar experiences, but don’t talk about it? Does that make them less valid? What about those in the same situation who didn’t create artworks? Do they not count? After all, as we are told, artists are "uniquely placed". 

Didactic captions

For many of the objects, the captions are very clear indeed about how you should interpret the situation. I am sorry to say that many of those captions struck me as very didactic and one-sided, ignoring the views of other characters in the scene. 

For example, Ishbel Myerscough painted a life-size collective portrait of her family, including her partner and children, All, 2016. The caption to the painting states: 

Ishbel Myerscough’s portrait of her family shows a time when they were particularly close-knit. She reflected: “I see my daughter growing into an uncanny reflection of my younger self, same hair, wearing my old clothes. Life is full of echoes.” Family ties remain important for adolescents, providing them with a foundation for entry into the adult world.

Whose interpretation is this? There are five people in the painting, but only one view in the caption. I feel sorry for children when they get little opportunity to speak, and certainly not here. Did the children agree to this wording? Did they agree to be represented? I assume the caption is authored by the artist, but why does she have the right to present her interpretation exclusively? 

It made me very uncomfortable to see several photographs with tendentious captions like the above: this is a happy child. These are people suffering. Without the caption, we might not have known; and these are images selected and interpreted by the photographer. Family photos, of the kind the are seen on office desks, are often of children in moments of happiness. Or what purports to be happiness: we don't know. In my opinion, family photos of the children having fun may well be intrusions into the private world of the child, and should not be commandeered by parents as a statement of a relationship that tells you more about the parent than the child. 

Quality vs message

Unfortunately, the quality of much of the contemporary work is lacking. These works, if they appeal, have an interest by their situation, and frankly I don’t go to an art exhibition only to find out about people’s family situation. I want the artist to convince me that their situation is moving, is relevant, and that requires some artistic skill. 

Of course, this interpretation of the exhibition is somewhat simplistic. There are some modern works where the quality of execution is stunning. Lucien Freud’s depiction of his mother, for example, has some remarkably detailed clothing. The caption ignores the textiles, and simply states that the artist couldn’t bear to see his mother looking at him. But we don’t learn much detail about Freud; in fact, the artists themselves get a surprisingly good press. The revelations about Freud since his death reveal him to be one of the most heartless and, frankly, abusive in his relationship with women – but none of that is mentioned here. There is a picture of Ben Nicholson with his eldest child. The caption states that he soon afterwards left Winifred for Barbara Hepworth – but he still visited the children regularly, so that’s alright, I suppose. No mention of how Winifred brought up the children by herself. There is no text by Winifred Nicholson about her situation in the exhibition; just the pictures. Perhaps she felt the pictures themselves were justification enough to be looked at. We simply don’t know. The information here seems remarkably selective. 

Another exception to the outline above is Paula Rego. My simple artistic quality versus obsession with self breaks down a little here. For Rego drew and painted fairy tales, fictional stories, but also depicted figures from her surroundings. Crucially, however, her work is stunning, and her quality of execution draws us into the stories she depicts.  


Grayson Perry is represented by a beautiful vase. On looking closely at the vase, you can see it is full of references to his own childhood, including his teddy bear, Alan Measles. The vase is well executed, and is satisfying in its own right, before you notice the teddy bear and the other subject matter from Perry's childhood.

While I was at the exhibition, a father taking his child around pointed out the teddy bear –“Look!  It’s a teddy!”. The presence of a teddy bear injected a note of humour into the show, which was noticeably absent elsewhere.  I don’t think there would have been much else for children in this show. This show is intended very much for adults being told how to interpret and to come to terms with their own experiences – and traumas, if they have them. The caption leaves no room for doubt about what this vase means: “ 'Vase Using My Family' presents Perry’s strong family unit. He found that being a father raised questions about his own childhood”.

To conclude: the subject matter of art is of course important, but when the subject matter replaces the art, or, in the words of Jackie Wullschläger, when an exhibition attempts to “erode differences between activism and art”, the results are rarely successful. The exhibition could have been far more impressive with better art. 

Wednesday 1 November 2023

Looking at architecture in Antwerp


S Carlo Borromeo piazza

One of the things I most enjoy doing in a new city is exploring its architecture. Not just the old buildings, but the new stuff; and, specifically, to see the interaction of the buildings with the environment, to see how architects respond (or fail to respond) to the opportunities of the surroundings. 

Architecture, for me, is very simple. You can build something that has no relationship to the buildings and the space around it (an example is Queen’s Building, Emmanuel College, Cambridge, by Hopkins Architects). Or you can create something that works with the space, even perhaps improves the space. I shared a flat with an architecture student when I was at university and he pointed out the difference between park benches. Some benches are occupied; others, never. Quite simply, some spaces are appealing, and others are not. 

So here in Antwerp, where were the appealing spaces to sit, and who was responsible for the buildings around? 

Trying to find out what to look at proved more difficult than I expected. Standard guide books are not much use, because they tend to look at buildings in isolation, and ignore much modern work. I needed something more detailed, and by someone with some taste. I failed completely to find books with architectural walks around Antwerp on Amazon. I could download various walking guides, but they had the same problem as the guide books – not enough coverage of modern designs. 

In the end, I tracked down a book. It sounded promising: “Antwerp Architecture”, by Natasha Van de Peer. It was available in Dutch and English, and I thought it would be easy to find a copy in a local bookshop. That was not the case. Copyright, the very stylish art and architecture bookshop attached to the Museum of Fashion, claimed that it was out of print. ‘t Stadt Leest was a very impressive-looking independent bookshop with a wine bar upstairs. I managed to resist trying out the wine bar and asked them for a copy. However, they had never heard of this book. By now, I had developed such a craze for this book that I emailed the author, who stated on her website that she did guided tours of Antwerp. I did meet her, and she sold me a copy for €14. She explained that she gave most of her attention to guided walks of the city, although at €200 for two hours, this would have been a very expensive option.  

Armed with the new guide, we set off to explore Antwerp. It looked home printed, and I was slightly surprised by its size – just 150 x 105 cm. Still, it would fit in my pocket, which is certainly not true of Pevsner, and if it inspired me, the compact format wouldn’t be a problem. The contents page showed six main areas in and around Antwerp, and we started with the “Big Five” walk. As the title suggested, this walk comprised five buildings – an estimated 20 minutes. There was one other guided walk in the book, around the docks. Apart from that, many buildings were listed on maps, but with no text at all. In total, just 24 buildings have are described and have a photo, although two or three times that number are indicated on the maps. The average description, for buildings lucky enough to be described, is around 105 words, This was disappointing. If you publish the only architectural guide to Antwerp, you have the chance to be a bit more expansive than that. 

Ten buildingsshown on the map, but only three described in the text

What of the text? As far as it goes, it is fine. The English is just about acceptable, and certainly better than my Dutch, but there should be more of it. I wanted to know much more about the urban redevelopment, about the old docks and how they were being transformed (a good comparison with Glasgow and Manchester here), and to learn more about the author’s taste. But that was all I had, so I had to make the most of it. 

For what it’s worth, I did find some exquisite spaces in Antwerp where you could sit down. One was the piazza outside S Carlo Borromeo Church, a lovely space with trees and a library, and a café. I wanted to go and ask all the people sitting outside the café in the square if they realised how exquisite it was. 

The MAS Museum (2006-2011)

As for buildings, there was MAS, the amazing ten-storey construction that looked like it was built out of monster Lego bricks placed together in the most unstable and vertiginous way. It’s a great place to see all of Antwerp (although it doesn’t do much for the immediate surroundings). It also has museum collections, but we were between exhibitions, and so didn’t go in.

All in all, we found great spaces in Antwerp, but more or less independently of the guide. I recommend Antwerp as a place where there is a huge amount of redevelopment going on, but also lots of refurbishment of existing buildings. There is a buzz about the place. Well worth exploring. 

Sunday 22 October 2023

Which were the glory years for Antwerp?


Rubens, portrait of Anna Anthonis, c1615-18. Pious, yes, but what a face Rubens has captured!

Antwerp certainly meets the criteria for a very visitable city: great restaurants, great museums, great buildings, very walkable – and one of the world’s most astonishing station designs. But when I visit any city, I like to create a kind of coherent story to the city. It is somehow satisfying to explain a city by looking at major forces affecting it, and to see the results in the built environment, and in the artistic works that were produced in it. So, for example, you can explain the sudden reversal of fortune that affected Bruges, or Rye, or equally, the proximity of strong flows of water and nearby mineral deposits that enabled regions such as Coalbrookdale to flourish in the Industrial Revolution. 

What can we say about Antwerp? Its history is tightly linked to the Scheldt. Antwerp is a great natural port, since it provides safe anchorage, being a long way inland from the sea. Although the Scheldt is still tidal at Antwerp, which means locks are required, Antwerp also has container terminals with direct access to the sea without locks (which must be similar to the situation at Felixstowe in the UK). But the Scheldt hasn’t always been accessible to ships. Is this the cause of Antwerp’s rise and fall? 

Michael Pye’s recent book, Antwerp: The Glory Years covers the 16th century , when Antwerp flourished as never before. This weekend I am visiting Antwerp, but I don’t get the impression of a 16th-century city. In many respects, the visible golden age appears to be the 17th century: a hundred years later. Is this  simply my misreading? 

Let’s glance at the history books. Few cities can have had experienced such about-turns as Antwerp. It reached a peak of success during the first half of the 16th century; it was responsible for 75% of all Low Countries trade in 1549. Yet in 1576, Spanish troops mutinied and killed some 8,000 citizens. Then in 1585 the Spanish recaptured Antwerp and incorporated it into the Spanish Netherlands. Protestants were given four years to convert or leave, and around half the population left. Hence a population decline from a peak of around 100,000 down to 49,000 at the end of the century. 

As if this wasn’t enough, in 1648, under the Treaty of Westphalia, the Scheldt, the river by which Antwerp traded with the world, was closed to all non-Dutch ships. This catastrophe ruined the port, until under Napoleon, 150 years later, the port was reopened, and by the mid-19th century Antwerp was the world’s third largest port. Even today is it second only to Rotterdam in Europe.


How does this compare with artistic achievement? Antwerp is exceptionally good for museums relating the city with its inhabitants; the Rubens House is a great example. One of the best museums is the Plantin Museum. Christophe Plantin created one of the biggest printers and publishers in Europe. He founded the company in Antwerp in 1548, and within a year (if you believe Wikipedia) “he headed one of the most well-respected publishing houses in Europe” (whatever that means). His greatest achievement was a multi-volume Bible, the Biblia Sacra or Biblia Regia, published 1568-73. However, the publishing company appears to have continued to grow thrive for over a hundred years after that. 

Rubens, 1577-1640, the greatest Antwerp painter and one of the most famous painters of all time, lived in Antwerp for most of his life, and (together with his vast studio team) produced some 1,400 works, excluding copies! This sounds like success, by any measure. 

While the Rubens House was closed for this visit, we visited another stunning collection of 17th-century work, the Snijders and Rockox House, actually two houses next to each other, celebrating an artist and a politician who both flourished in the first half of the 17th century. Incidentally, this museum was a model of how to display a small collection effectively.

 It certainly seems, by this very simplistic assessment, that the evidence of the artefacts around the city suggest that, that despite losing half its population in the years to 1600, the remaining citizens of Antwerp created some astonishing achievements, both cultural (Rubens, van Dyck, Jordaens) and intellectual (the Plantin firm of publishers continuing and growing during the 17th century). All this raises, of course, many questions. Can you make such sweeping judgements about a city on the evidence of one or two buildings? I haven’t even considered what effect these glory years, whether 16th or 17th centuries have on the present-day city – a subject for another post. Today was the Antwerp marathon, which meant that 12,500 runners passed the front door of the Rockox Museum, probably without noticing it was there. 

But the evidence above leaves me wanting to know more. For example: much of the success of the Netherlands following independence has been attributed to its religious tolerance. But is it as simple as that? Has the link between Protestantism and economic growth, as formulated by Weber a hundred or more years ago, been overstated? Was it possible for a city to be Catholic yet progressive? Antwerp has vast, bloated, Baroque churches, and Catholicism is still very noticeable in the historic centre: there is a statue of the Virgin or a saint looking down at you from most street corners. How was it possible, or was it indeed possible, for great art to flourish in a Counter-Reformation climate? 

All this requires more investigation, but, sadly, I don’t think Michael Pye’s Antwerp: The Glory Years is likely to give me the answer I am looking for. I haven’t got the patience to extricate a coherent story from Pye’s account. After 20 pages I had to look to other sources to find out what was going on. The journalistic style meant that every major event was introduced by looking at an individual, and only slowly revealing the event being described. It’s a time-honoured journalistic trick, which becomes annoying when you are trying to find out what happened. My response is to skip a paragraph or two to see if the author reveals what the subject really is, later on – a risky technique. So answers to the question of Antwerp’s rise and fall will take a few days longer. 

Friday 13 October 2023

Black Atlantic: good for you, or simply good?


This is a review of the Fitzwilliam Museum exhibition “Black Atlantic: Power People Resistance”, viewed in October 2023.  

First, it’s absolutely essential that museums explore the origins of their funding. Much of the Fitzwilliam collection was acquired by money from the profits of slavery, clearly. This exhibition, Black Atlantic, starts from that point and, I assume, sets out to display what it has discovered, visually. 

As you might imagine, there are some real triumphs of detection. These include a bell, displayed in St Catherine’s College until recently, when it was discovered that the bell, dating from 1772, had been used in a slave plantation in what is today Guyana. 

The exhibition noted the change in depiction of black faces from before and after around 1700, when slavery became widespread. Before, black people were often recognisable, with an identity; later, under slavery, they became anonymous. But is this entirely true? It’s a thesis that cries out to be examined visually - perhaps in an exhibition dedicated to that one topic. There isn’t enough in this exhibition to prove (or disprove) this claim. 

Here was the problem. The exhibition was like a scattergun, covering far too many areas to look at any one of them in satisfying detail. There is no question of the validity of the topic of Black Atlantic, but was that exactly the subject? As I walked around the exhibition, I became increasingly confused: there is no way to cover all the potential exhibition themes in one show. In just three rooms, the range included:

  • Studies by Keith Piper of black masculinity and relating to his father in the 1980s. The link seems to have been that Piper used the iconic depiction of slaves in a ship in one of the 14 images – very tenuous.
  • A brief attempt to show objects created by the indigenous peoples (referred to in the catalogue with a capital “I”) of the Caribbean. There was one map and a few items, but this theme abruptly disappeared.
  • Historic scientific instruments, including a sextant and a chronometer. The link is that such instruments enabled slavery to take place – which means you could include (by the same argument) ships, the navy, the history of navigation – the list is endless. It’s a similar situation with trying to define ESG  companies: do we discount companies that, say, extract oil, or do we discount companies that provide tools that can be used for extracting oil? Where do we stop?
  • Two classical sculptures revealing implied depictions of slavery, one Greek, one Roman.
  • Seven large-scale reproductions of rare plants and birds. The link was that these specimens had been gathered by black slaves for the white artist to draw from. The point is taken, but you can’t help looking at the exquisitely drawn plants and animals, not how they were collected. There is a tension between the quality of the artwork and the caption.
  • A few objects from the Caribbean, because that is where Fitzwilliam made his money, but not a very thorough or detailed history of the region or survey of its indigenous art.
  • One picture, by Gerrit Dou, is included simply because it was owned in the past by people involved with slavery, including Fitzwilliam himself. The picture, The Schoolmaster, has no connection with slavery. One picture by Rembrandt (or his studio) is included because it is painted on wood from South America.
  • There are pictures of sea battles in the 17th century between the Dutch Republic and England.
  • The exhibition include gold weights from the Akan culture of sub-Saharan West Africa. 

You can see this is enough for several exhibitions, and putting them all together simply creates indigestion. But there were more fundamental problems with the exhibition.

Limitations of the exhibition

  • Interpretation replaces assessment. Instead of being told to look at the objects, we are being told what the interpretation of the work is. Proselyting, pedagogical captions take the place of appraisal. Imagination replaces interpretation – the black servant in a portrait by William Dobson is described as suggesting “a deference he may well not have felt” – but it’s not visible in the painting itself.
  • Several pictures by Barbara Walker, based on her reimagination of existing works including a black person – she shows the black character in full, with the other people only in outline. Unfortunately, in the exhibition we are not shown the original, so we have no way of comparing. In the catalogue, we see the originals, reproduced at tiny scale. Is this helpful?
  • Similarly, Alberta Whittle’s work in response to 16th-century engravings does not include the original engravings, not even in the catalogue. No doubt the originals could be found via the Internet, but what is the point of an exhibition that leaves you to work everything out for yourself?
  • Difficult to know where to stop when you identify not just human slavery, but evidence of white domination in, for example, searching for specimens for natural historians, or the wood used to make furniture, or the navigation instruments to enable slave ships to sail. It becomes difficult to draw the line.
  • One orthodoxy simply replaces another. The history of the peoples of the Caribbean now doesn’t mention the Spanish conquest, which is a bit silly. The artworks by Barbara Walker cleverly show Western paintings that include a black figure, but with only the black figure displayed. This is fine – and Walker’s drawing is tremendously accomplished – but we are not shown the original! The captions refer to the original, so why can’t we those originals, even just as reproductions? 

It felt like this exhibition was the first time the Fitzwilliam had addressed the issue of where its wealth came from, and in an attempt to include all possible themes, the resulting show looked very provisional. It was like a simple search through the entire University collections to see anything with a link to slavery. Or representation of black people. Or indigenous art in Africa and the Caribbean. Or the history of navigation. And so on. 

Is it good for you or is it good?

One challenge faced by exhibitions of this kind Is fundamental. The criterion for display in the Fitzwilliam is quality. Of course, what constitutes quality will vary from one period to another, but you feel the curators strive to show  that every object in the collection is satisfying to look at. Of course, some works are shown because of extraneous circumstances – the subject is of great historical interest, like portraits of Martin Luther, or there is some association with a major event. Some years ago, the British Museum opened a gallery dedicated to the Enlightenment. Having just spent a lot of time reading Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu, I went to the new exhibition with great enthusiasm, only to be disappointed because the objects illustrated did not correspond to my vision. Nor could they, because they were based on what was visually appealing, rather than corresponding with the ideas of Diderot et al.

In this exhibition, there is a constant tension between what is good for you, and what is simply good to look at. The exhibition, in its excitement to communicate a new theme by which to interpret art history, frequently forgets to check what is good to look at, and instead relies on work that they believe is good for you. Keith Piper’s work is an example: I’m sure it’s good for you, but it simply isn’t very good to look at, and it has only marginal relevance to this exhibition. An example of a works that is both good for you and good to look at is the range of exquisitely decorated plates by Jaqueline Bishop (above). 

After the exhibition

Visitors emerge from the exhibition straight into the Fitzwilliam permanent collection, in this case a room of 20th-century works, but only a few of which are of black subjects, a missed opportunity. Nonetheless, there is a recent (loan) portrait of William Gates a stunning example, and hopefully an addition to the Fitzwilliam collection.

What to make of Black Atlantic?

In summary, there is a great theme here, but the execution was insufficiently thought through. Let’s hope the next related exhibition (they promise several more) is more focused, and less wide-ranging. 

Sunday 1 October 2023

Rubens and Women


This marvellous exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery has one theme, and succeeds brilliantly in conveying that them. Rubens, although classically trained in the classical idiom (from several years in Rome), created his best works from life studies of the female nude, specifically, of his second wife, Helene Fourment. 

The evidence for this is carefully marshalled, but is most visible in some of the  small-scale drawings in the show, which are compared to a life-size classical sculpture, a Crouching Venus, from the second century CE.

The Crouching Venus clearly served as a reference for many works by the painter – you can see more than one example in the exhibition of the same pose. For example, here is a drawing of Venus nursing Cupids, from 1616:

Yet there is one major difference between the two female bodies. It is clear by comparing these two works that, while Rubens used classical poses as a model, he tempered his classical style by reference to the human body. The key difference is that the Crouching Venus has no folds of flesh; this is an idealised nude, with a kind of abstracted body and face. Helpfully, if perhaps a little voyeuristically, the exhibition provides two mirrors so you can observe the Crouching Venus from more than one angle. In contrast, what brings the Rubens drawing to life is the sense of immediacy, of actuality, despite the pose being classical and the woman’s body conforming more to the classical shape than the present-day ideal. 

There are several examples in the exhibition of this unique synthesis of classical and observation. So vivid is the observation that at times the ostensible subject is entirely lost in the figure being painted, as in the Hagar in the Desert, featuring what appears to be a portrait of Helene Fourment in a stunning blue dress. There is not the slightest sign of her being uncomfortable in her desert surroundings: she looks to be on an outing in her Sunday best:

An even more extreme example of the conflict between subject and model is a crazy depiction of Judith with the head of Holofernes, from 1616 (not in the exhibition, but in the catalogue). Judith looks so fetching, and so pleased with herself, you have to look twice to notice she is holding the head she has just chopped off.

Of course, it is well known that Rubens was a sensual painter – you half expected the famous portrait of Helene Fourment wearing nothing but a fur coat, but the exhibition theme was clearly established without this painting. What is conveyed here is that even in the religious works, there is a sense of life, of the characters jumping out from the picture, to engage with you. 

To conclude, there are two examples of just how skilled Rubens was as a painter. One is a copy by Rubens of the figure of Night by Michelangelo. 

Of course, in the classical tradition of art, painters learned by copying, but it seems very unlikely this Michelangelo was modelled from life. If Michelangelo used a model at all, it looks like he used a male model, and added token breasts to it. Rubens could paint women, but clearly Michelangelo could not (at least, not without looking at them). 

The final indicator of Rubens’ talent came unexpectedly after leaving the exhibition. In the permanent collection at Dulwich, there is a full-size Gainsborough portrait of two young women, that will be a shock for any visitor walking out of the Rubens exhibition: 

Don’t believe that it was the French 19th-century that put an end to the classical depiction of the human form. Here, with Gainsborough, you can see how we have lost the classical tradition. Here is the full horror of the insipid modern body: bodies with no limbs, no curves. So lacking in any substance are the women that it looks like the sheet music one of the women is holding is likely to slip off at any moment; there is nothing to hold it up. Give me the classical yet living world of Rubens any day.