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 wags its tail. 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.

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Modern Couples at the Barbican

I loved this show. It starts with the couple, then checks their sex life, then their biography, and finally the art. The viewer is primed, as it were, with the relevant details, in other words, before addressing the art.

Mercifully, this wacky approach works very well. Perhaps because, as Waldemar Januszczak points out in his Guardian review, this exhibition is non-judgmental, the viewer is left free to judge by the art (if they wish) and/or by their attitude to the couple.

It is an approach which is surprisingly fruitful. From the first room, there is a quotation by Rodin: “Desire! Desire! What a fruitful stimulant!”. In the crazy world of contemporary art, it’s perhaps valuable to remember that desire can indeed create some great art.

I was surprised, for example, to discover Gustave Klimt’s closeness to Emilie Flöge, co-founder of one of the most successful Viennese art-nouveau workshops, the Schwester Flöge. There is no question this group was responsible for exquisite textiles, dress designs, and objects, and no question either that many of Klimt’s rich designs must have originated in this atmosphere of detailed, colourful patterns – a very good example of a mutual benefit.

The exhibition tone is quite clever. There is no doubt that some couple relationships are praised as being beneficial and productive. Aalvo and Ainar Alto, or Robert and Sonia Delaunay, are presented as benefitting each other. Other relationships, such as Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann, are perceived as unequal for the woman, and she leaves.

The exhibition does not attempt to cover the vexed question of (typically) males gaining the credit for their partner’s creativity. Instead, it concentrates on examples where the relationship was beneficial and how it benefitted either or both of the partners. More than that, it makes clear that creativity is a far less individual phenomenon than we are brought up to believe.

Take Picasso and Dora Maar, for example. Normally we would see Picasso models, and even partners, as no more than incidental to his life story. Here we learn that she was a photographer, and that she claimed all his portraits of her except one were “lies”. There is one magnificent portrait of her (or based on her) in the exhibition, and to my mind that would make up for all the other lies, if indeed they are.

Mercifully also, the exhibition allows the viewer to judge the art. There is a lot of very inferior art in this show, such as Lorca’s doodles with his pen in his letters to Salvador Dali (although Lorca is not remembered for his art). Several items from the Omega Group, notably by Duncan Grant, are also very poor. And, as seems to happen nowadays, Virginia Woolf is included without having created anything visual (although she may have been indirectly responsible for some of the Hogarth Press book covers, but these are not of any great quality either).

What is magnificent about the show is the juxtaposition of works by artists who are grouped together as couples, and to see similarities. For example, there is a remarkable room devoted to two couples, Kandinsky (above) and Gabriele Munter (below), Alexej von Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefkin, containing works of very similar bright primary colours, and none of them out of place with the others – an impressive level of quality.

Similarly, the show is non-judgemental about artists who leave their partner, and even reappear in the show with another partner, for example Ben Nicholson, who appears both with Winifred Nicholson and then with Barbara Hepworth.

Here, as elsewhere in the show, there are touching personal reminiscences on display; in this case, a sweet and rather sad home video (or its 8mm equivalent) showing Winifred feeding one of her two children, and alongside it is a large painting of them. Without any further comment, Ben Nicholson then appears in the next bay with Barbara Hepworth. There may have been, there most likely was, a lot of personal tragedy here, that the exhibition leaves without comment.

The idea of such an exhibition is not entirely new. On sale in the shop is a book from 1993, Significant Others, a series of essays about artistic couples, including many of the same figures (and even some of the same images): Rodin and Camille Claudel, Sonia and Robert Delaunay, and Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. But who cares, if the art is often so good, and the partnership in so many cases was productive?

All in all, a show that reveals much more about love and creativity than the Louvre Lens Amour show, and a lot more genuine creative influence than the recent Fitzwilliam Virginia Woolf: an exhibition inspired by her Writings. Here, the evidence of creative partnership is visible in most of the pairings. 

Incidentally, the attendees of this exhibition were quite a design item themselves – many of them, as it happens, couples, and many of them dressed with great attention to detail. It seems like in London you dress up to go to an art exhibition, unlike in Cambridge. Very appropriate for this show.

Friday, 30 November 2018

The "Amour" Exhibition: in praise of love or celebrating misogyny?

Reviewing this exhibition again (see my first review a few days ago), I’m still perplexed. What was this exhibition about ? I looked at the guide, by the exhibition curator Zeev Gourarier, and his choice (presumably) of themes is reasonably clear : "to explore the history of love relations … in order to measure the supposed universality [of love], its cultural and social components."  Yet the image of women presented in this exhibition is very negative, and it would appear the exhibition guide even supports this interpretation : « Starting with original sin, whether it stems from Eve or from Pandora, the exhibition emphasises the female figure. Stigmatised then adored, at times prudish, at times libertine, she occupies the exhibition up to the beginning of free love [amour libre] in the 1960s." 

What free love ?  I didn’t see any. Does amour libre mean something different to free love ? Why does a study of love emphasise Adam and Eve, the expulsion from Paradise, and Pandora’s Box? What do they have to do with love?  The Wikipedia entry for Pandora’s Box, for example, is more than 3,000 words long, but there is no reference to love. There might be a discussion about whether Pandora’s Box contains evils or good things, but love is not one of them.  According to the exhibition guide, « Pandora was created by the Gods as an object of seduction to arouse male desire, while Eve was created as the companion of Man ». In neither case does this involve love, just an unmistakeably negative image of women. 

The scene is set in this exhibition; from the start of history, women are inferior, responsible for the evils of the world, and they never really recover, especially after being seduced throughout the 18th century (of which more later, although it's clear even here that love has little or nothing to do with it). 

The Hesiod myth describes Pandora opening a cask, which released all manner of evils: “But the woman took off the great lid of the jar with her hands and scattered, all these and her thought caused sorrow and mischief to men [Loeb,].” But love is nowhere mentioned in the original Greek source. 

Other images in the exhibition show the evil power of women (Samson and Delilah, Judith and Holofernes) and emphasises that classical art “condemns rape in principle but rarely condemns it in practice”, and by way of example, the exhibition includes a well-known mosaic image of the Rape of Europa, with Zeev Gourarier in the audio guide pointing out that Europa seems very cheerful to be abducted by Zeus. What are we to infer from this? Is this a model of love we should follow?

There is a horrific Allegory of Chastity  by Hans Memlinc that shows a woman surrounded by lions and sharp rocks to protect her reputation. Is that love? It's an attitude that will make many viewers scratch their heads to try to understand it. The handful of positive images of women are often unconnected with love, for example a Virgin and Child with saints. Where’s the connection?

We look in vain for positive images to correct these early misogynistic images. One image, from 1525, looks at first glance to be an expression of love, the exchange of rings, but the caption sternly reminds us that "the woman placing her hand on her partner's shoulder is doubtless not a gesture of tenderness but ... a seizing of power."

Apart from the very first room, which shows couples smiling, giving me the impression of a shared and equal love, there are no images of mutual, celebratory love in the whole exhibition. 

What is termed « free love » repeatedly by the guide is exemplified in Niki de saint Phalle’s rather self-centred and winsome expressions of love, without any partner in sight. They might be "expressing a power" but they are hardly positive images to be celebrated. Niki de saint Phalle is the only post-19th century artist in the show (ignoring the last corridor, which comprises hundreds of record sleeves from the 1960s, none of which are credited to any artist).  

Another way to see the limitations of this exhibition is to think about what could have been included. Without thinking for very long, I came up with several possible themes, to include :
  •  Art that depicts genuine loving couples: Rubens and his wife, Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride
  •  Different forms of Greek love – not just Eros, sexual love, but  also Philia (affection, friendship) and Agape (love for others); what about Montaigne's celebration of friendship in his essay de l’Amitie?
  •  Acceptance (or otherwise) of homosexual love: declarations of homosexual passion.  One or two images are included of classical figures who have been interpreted by later commentators as possibly homosexual, but what about modern unambiguous celebrations of homosexual love, for example by David Hockney ?
  • A bit more light-heartedly, perhaps the exhibition could have explored the myth of Paris as the capital of lovers ? Where did that come from? Or perhaps this might not be thought appropriate for a show in Lens.
If you removed the main title from this exhibition and just asked viewers to suggest their own heading for the exhibition after viewing it, the collective title would certainly not be love. That's about as damning a comment as you could make of an exhibition entitled "Amour".

Monday, 26 November 2018

The Louvre-Lens view of art history

The Louvre, we are told by Wikipedia, is the world’s largest art gallery, and the world’s most visited art collection. The opportunity to visit the Louvre-Lens, the new outpost of the Louvre, and only the second location in France, after Paris, creates a sense of anticipation before visiting. Will this be simply a place to display the second-rate stuff, while the really top-rank things remain in Paris? Or is this the opportunity to create a wholly new art-historical experience, freed from the need to display the permanent collection with all its baggage?  

Visually, the Galerie du Temps is splendid – by far the most effective use of space in the new Louvre-Lens building. The Galerie comprises one huge room, with no dividing piers or walls, showing objects in one long chronological progression, with years shown as a timeline on one wall. It is always clear where you are in art history.

Nor is there any question of the quality of many of the objects. Several of the works are in the top rank, culminating in the Delaroche painting of Napoleon crossing the Alps – you can’t get much closer to the French heart than that. A work of outrageous hagiography, it is pure hero worship. Not a great painting, but certainly one of the ten or so most famous works in the Louvre; undoubtedly a masterpiece of propaganda.

Better still, the juxtaposition of civilisations and cultures works very well. The lack of walls means that other objects are in view at all times, so you could be looking at, say, an Egyptian statue and see a medieval king a few yards away. The gallery is excellent for making comparisons.

But what is the logic behind the 200 or so objects? They begin with prehistory, predating Egyptian times. But it ends rather curiously around 1830, for no apparent reason.  In terms of subject matter it reflects the Louvre Paris, in that there is a strong proportion of French art. Some of the objects appear to be included (the Delaroche, for example) as much for their links to French history as for their intrinsic value as works of art. It is not surprising that everything revolves around the Delaroche painting of Napoleon, since this painting, both in its position at the end of the Galerie and its sheer scale, dwarfing most of the other objects in the exhibition, suggests that the Galerie is as much about the history of France as about art history.

Does the Galerie du Temps reflect the Louvre collections? That makes some sense. The strong collections of Greek and Roman art, Egyptian and near Eastern art in the Galerie all correspond with major Louvre collections; and the absence of American, Indian, Chinese and Japanese art can I suppose be explained by the lack of any major collections in the Louvre itself on which to draw.  In other words, the Galerie du Temps is perhaps a kind of taster of the Louvre collections, mirroring the strength (and gaps) of the parent collection. It makes no attempt to be a universal history of world (or even Western) art for the period it covers. Even so, that still does not explain why the Galerie du Temps ends so abruptly when the Louvre collection continues well beyond that date.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Louvre-Lens, and the Galerie du Temps, contain nothing of any relevance to Lens and Northern France. Given that the region has been awarded world heritage status by UNESCO, that perhaps suggests a rather top-down view of high art. Certainly the Louvre-Lens building makes no attempt to integrate with anything in Lens, apart from being built on the detritus from a former coal mine.

To point out just one example of the rather curious selection, the last bay contains, alongside the vast Napoleon picture mentioned above, there is a painting of the artist’s family, by the little-known Claude Dubufe. It’s a lovely painting but appears out of place alongside the very public and conscious striving for effect of portraits by David and Ingres nearby. Similarly, there is a Corot landscape. Why just this landscape, and almost no others? What was the impact of M. Dubufe and his family on world history? 

Other portraits are included, I think, because of the identity of the subject as much as for the quality of the work; an example is a portrait of Mansart, by Hyacinthe Rigaud. Mansart is certainly one of the best-known French architects, but I would not put his portrait in the 200 key works in art history. The question is why include this picture, and not any of 20 or 30 others?

The limitations of this approach are, I think, twofold. First, as stated above, some of the works raise questions because they are not of great art-historical importance in their own right – so you ask why they have been included. Second, the throwing together of so many cultures and ideas make it difficult to make any meaningful comparisons.

In fact, if I were being caustic, I could claim that this display presents a view of art history based around the Louvre collections, largely by French artists in France, supplemented by works that came into French hands as French colonial acquisitions, and culminating in the greatest moment of France’s historical glory, the Napoleonic era (even though in art-historical terms there was much more to come later). I would like to see a spirited defence of the whole exercise by the gallery staff, a justification of the selection, and a room, or at least a small number of works, related to the surroundings. After all, this is Louvre-Lens, not just Louvre no 2.

Friday, 23 November 2018

Looking for Love in Lens

I didn't really intend to look for love. I was visiting the Louvre-Lens museum on a drab day in winter, and it turned out that that largest part of the collection was unexpectedly closed. The Louvre-Lens gallery comprises two wings – the “permanent” collection and temporary shows, with a central entrance, café and shop. The permanent collection is not really permanaent, but changed every year; it comprises a rotating selection of some 200 pieces from the main Louvre collection. However, unknown to us, and not mentioned on the Louvre-Lens website, the permanent collection is closed for three days each year while they change the collection, and hence was closed the day we visited. No problem with that, but since it is an annual event, and the website lists daily activities, you would think it reasonable for the website to state that the galleries are closed. After all, this is the collection for which the Louvre-Lens is best known

Still, there was the temporary exhibition, entitled “Amour”. That’s a big subject, and I can’t say this exhibition exhausts the topic. Perhaps it’s a bit churlish to be negative about such a lovely subject, but this show was very selective, with a lot of gaps. The implied definition of “love” was certainly limited, and yet remarkably there were things on display that should not have been there.

The show was divided into seven “chapters”, and their titles gives you some idea of the problems raised by this selection. I have given the Louvre-Lens translations of each of the chapters together with the original French term:
  1. Seduction (French séduction) - a very disappointing room. It contained some images about abduction (a.k.a. rape), but I don’t think that theme was examined in any detail. There was one rather disturbing image of a naked woman in the foreground, while some violent abduction was taking place in the background; yet for the most part, abduction was seen almost as something to be accepted. The show curator, Zeev Gourarier, states cheerfully on the audio guide that the Roman mosaic with the rape of Europa shows Europa sitting on the bull very cheerfully, not in the least worried about being abducted – after all, it is Zeus doing the abducting, so why worry? After all, as the guide states, “For a long time … the consent of one partner was not necessarily required for the other to experience pleasure. It features a number of kidnappings and abductions”. Well, that’s alright, then; things were different in those days.
  2. Worship (French adoration)
  3. Passion (French passion)
  4. The Relationship (French relation): from the French Louvre-Lens website it would seem this refers to the progress of a love affair - not something I would call in English a relationship; hence a strange one, this, including the idea that in the Renaissance, people would exchange portraits as a prelude to love. Fascinating, but nothing to do with relationships). This section also included the “fete galante”, which is a fascinating topic, but not connected with relationships. It would appear from reading the French
  5. Pleasure (French plaisir)– which included the fascinating revelation of the invention of corridors as a way of enabling intimacy.
  6. Romanticism (French romantisme) which included the odd term "Fusion" – by which is meant kissing and cuddling, in other words an opportunity to show many sculptures of embracing couples.
  7. Freedom (French liberté), which was visualised by the work of just one artist, Niki de Saint Phalle, and some hundreds of record covers. This was the least satisfying room.  There was mention of “free love”, which was never questioned. Niki de Saint Phalle was described as being abused as a child; so perhaps freedom for her was being liberated from others? Her rather trite, sentimental, cartoon-like drawings did not tell us. She seemed to be nostalgically remembering love, not finding either free love or freedom. Why were there no other artists from the last 100 years represented? Did nobody have anything to say about love in that time?

A few other points:
  • Where was their definition of love? There was one painting with Socrates depicted, but no definition of the different types of love common in Ancient Greece, for example.
  • Many of the items on display had no descriptive text, so it was anyone’s guess why they had been selected.
  • By far the bulk of the coverage was heterosexual love between white adults.
  • For such a grand topic, there was very little to challenge the viewer.
  • It wasn’t all bad. Many of the images were wonderful, and some of the captions provided some fascinating insights, for example A tapestry from around 1500 of men and women dancing together pointed out that such an image was highly radical and unprecedented.

What should not have been there? Well, there was a room with some porcelain "entremets", which were described as object to be placed on a table during a meal. Such objects are about as connected with love as my toenails.  Equally, I think it is stretching things to imagine Bernini’s Blessed Ludovico Albertoni is an expression of love. Passion, yes, but not love. In fact, the show seemed more a hotchpotch of images and films about several unconnected topics rather than having any clear central theme of love. By way of example, in every room you could hear Marlene Dietrich singing “Falling in Love Again” from the film The Blue Angel. I feel very sorry for Emil Jannings, but what happened to him had no connection with love. I’m afraid to say this was an exhibition where the title was guaranteed to get the crowds in, but the thinking behind it was simply not apparent – there was less exploration of what love might involve than the history of Eroticism I reviewed some time ago. So, some lovely things to look at, but I’m no wiser about what love is.  

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Wacky periods in human history

Forget arguments about the validity of the Renaissance or the Enlightenment. Here is a book (Soul, Self and Society: The New Morality and the Modern State, by Edward Rubin) that claims there are just three periods in “Western ethical life” (whatever that is): the morality of honour, the morality of higher purposes and the morality of self-fulfilment. The morality of honour is from the end of the Roman Empire to 1000; the morality of higher purposes from 1000 until 1800; and finally, the morality of self-fulfilment happened around 1800.

Terms associated with these three moralities are heroism, physical courage, and reputation (for the morality of honour); concern to save one’s soul (for the morality of higher purposes); and concern with present pleasure rather than saving one’s soul (for the modern era). A moment’s thought reveals the idiocy of these categories. If saving one’s soul was the predominant morality to 1800, then what was the Enlightenment doing? Heroism and physical courage may have been a feature of the very few literary works dated before 1000, but they are vastly outweighed by religious works. In terms of output, religion wins by a mile. The reviewer Albert Weale in the TLS spends two columns pointing out shortcomings in the periodization; he could have taken twenty pages. Yet instead of condemning the lunacy of such vast categories, Weale suggests a further periodization of his own: one taken from Henry Sidgwick, suggesting that only in the 17th century in England did there emerge a distinction between thinking what is good for a person and thinking what is good for the world. At least such a distinction could perhaps be validated with a little more precision than Rubin’s three moralities.

Rubin’s argument does not stop there. His book attempts to link morals with the three periods. Self-fulfilment, in Rubin’s terms, is a good, meaning that people living under the ideal of "self-fulfilment" choose the most meaningful life path. However, that doesn’t sound like self-fulfilment to me; I look around and see plenty of examples of self-fulfilment in the modern world that strike me as case studies of excessive egotism. The real problem is that 464 pages can only really be trite, if you try to sum up 2000 years of (Western) human history. By the way, why “Western ethical life”? Was there no ethical life elsewhere? And does he mean what people believed, or what they said they believed, or how they lived? There is enough here for several books, in fact a whole library.   

This broad-brush view of history seems to me to be so much the product of an academic study that it is hardly worth discussing. You can’t help feeling that a few minutes’ discussion with a few other academics before committing any words on paper might have saved a lot of time. As a sixth-form essay it might have been received politely, but as a 464-page monograph you wonder what the point in writing it was. In the TLS it was reviewed under “religion”, a heading that seems as misguided as the book itself. Perhaps anyone who includes the word “soul” in the title of their book suggests a particular world-view that puts into question any dispassionate, neutral analysis of the history of human ethics. Who knows? Rubin himself is a law professor.  

Monday, 19 November 2018

Basildon: impoverished utopia

This documentary about Basildon (New Town Utopia, produced and directed by Christopher Ian Smith) was remarkable for encapsulating a few key years in British social history, with the following key dates:

1948      Foundation of new town of Basildon
1980      The Housing Act under Margaret Thatcher provides council tenants with the “right to buy”.
1974      arrival of the railway (Basildon) – the line was already there when Basildon was founded, but it took more than 25 years for a station to be built. 

The documentary is punctuated by rather patronising comments from Lewis Silkin, planning minister under Atlee, on the vision of Basildon – a very top-down view, guaranteed to alienate the residents. That attitude is mercifully no longer with us. Other indicators of Basildon’s development would be the politics of the town. In 1974 Basildon was a safe Labour seat, then switched to the Tories in 1979, and remained Tory to 1997. Since 2010 it has been Conservative again.

The contrasts highlighted by this documentary include
-          From a town with its own industry, a town where there was no need to travel anywhere else, to a commuter town for London. The railway must have changed the whole composition of the town.
-          From a town based around social provision of amenities, at little or no cost, to a town where you ignored what was already there and bought your own version of theatre, gym, whatever; from a social community to a consumer society (at least, that’s the claim of this film).

In passing, you couldn’t help noticing:
-          An almost complete lack of ethnic minorities in the documentary. Most of the people interviewed were old and white, and most of them male.
-          The documentary is almost entirely based around musicians and painters. Although their view is interesting, it’s only one view; there is no attempt to create a rounded view of Basildon.

So, what are we to make of Basildon from this documentary?The Guardian called it “unapologetically upbeat”; I wouldn’t go so far as that.  Is it a tragic memorial to top-down planning? Is is a memorial to the generation who successfully moved out of London to live in what must have seemed a green paradise? A time capsule of 1960s urban design, most likely, with its one “significant” building, Brooke House, Grade II listed, trying to be vaguely Corbusian but lacking the courage of its convictions.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

How to spend a lot of money renting a bicycle

These days, it is typical to find two or three competing bicycle rental systems in major cities. Frankfurt was no exception, and I chose one called, fashionably and all lower-case, "nextbike" since there were some of their bikes outside the hotel where I was staying. I found myself caught up in a nightmare.

The system for using nextbike is complicated. First you download an app - this is fine, and collects your details. Then you enter the number of the bicycle into the app. The system gives you a four-digit pin number, which you enter on the bike to unlock it. Off you go, to your destination. What could go wrong? Well, in around five bike hires, I made at least three errors, and I was charged over 60 Euros. First, I rented a bike but I didn't understand that the bike was now available. Because of a flaky wifi connection in the street, I wasn't sure that I had successfully rented a bike. I tried repeating the process but I was told the bike was no longer available. I didn't realise it was because I had already hired it. I used another bike, only to discover two days later I was still paying for the first bike I had never taken.

Next, I discovered that bikes could only be left in a designated docking station. These are not like those in London or other cities; there is no physical mechanism to dock the bike. The only indication of an official docking station seems to be the presence of other nextbike bicycles. However, it seems that users leave their bikes all over the city, and I inadvertently returned a bike at a place that was not an official docking station - this costs an additional 20 Euros "handling charge".

More confusing still, if a bicycle is left outside a docking station, it is shown on the official online map of bike locations. This map is not very detailed and so it is easy to spend several minutes trying to find exactly where a bike has been left (or where there is an official docking station). The photo above shows where one bike had been left. I walked past it three times without noticing.

Another problem is that the bikes have both a "return" and a "park" capability. I thought, wrongly, that the latter meant you could park the bicycle temporarily while you are using it. So when one night I cycled to a restaurant by the river. It was dark and I didn't fancy trying to find a docking station along the riverside where there were no streetlights. So I used the "park" function of the bicycle, to park it while you are renting. When I returned to the bicycle, I had been charged a further 20 Euros for returning the bike in the wrong location (although I had not returned the bicycle).

All in all, the Frankfurt bicycles cost me more than using taxis. The maps are poor, it is difficult to find the docking stations, and the rules are confusing. It's  pretty much the worst bicycle system I have ever used (and I've used bike hire in many cities). My recommendations to nextbike are:

  1. Review the signage and the UI. For example, keying the pin number you are given doesn't work. It wasn't clear that you first press any key on the keypad to wake it up, and the system only starts recording your pin number with the next key you press. I had to phone customer support for three of the eight rentals, and each time I don't think it was my mistake. 
  2. Make the maps clearer. If you can't find the docking station, it's not surprising you will leave the bike in the wrong place.Don't show bike locations that are not official on the map. Users cannot easily find the bikes at these locations. 
  3. Maintain the bikes. Of the eight bikes I rented, three of them had tyres that were almost flat. 
  4. Answer your emails. When I phoned customer service about fees after emailing them, they stated "we get a lot of emails and it takes us days to get through them. Why not just phone us?" Well, if the company gives an email address, you kind of expect them to read the emails ...

Sunday, 23 September 2018

The Tranquility of Copenhagen

Copenhagen is a city of myths – and  I don’t mean the Little Mermaid. No, the myth of Copenhagen is what is repeated in guidebooks everywhere. What do they tell you? Copenhagen is
  •  Hygge
  • Tranquil
  • Calm
  • A city of bicycles

The only statement of those above with any truth is the bicycles. There are indeed a lot of bicycles in Copenhagen. But the rest is a flagrant myth. There is a frantic feel about Copenhagen that is exacerbated by, perhaps primarily caused by, the endless traffic.

Here is a article by someone who should know better, Colin Amery, from the book Great Cities in History:

Despite the cliched song there is indeed something wonderful about Denmark’s model capital. It is the human scale, the presence of the sea, the Nordic light and the civilized way that the traffic is kept in its place, that all make Copenhagen such an agreeable city.
“Copenhagen and Nordic Neoclassicism”, in Great Cities in History

Nothing could be further from the truth. The centre of Copenhagen is bisected by the unfortunately named Hans Christian Andersen Boulevard, a six-lane highway right alongside the Tivoli Gardens. The walk from the Central Station to the SMK Art Gallery is alongside four or six lanes of traffic for its entire length.

Tranquility and calmness are nowhere to be seen. Rather strangely, the frantic aspect of the traffic seems to affect other aspects of the city as well. Although the food in Copenhagen can be wonderul, there is a frantic feel to some of the stylish restaurants that is rather uncomfortable. One restaurant where we ate had 12 serving staff for 70 diners. At one point in the meal I dropped my napkin, and before I had time to pick it up, it was replaced for me by an earnest waiter. That was the restaurant where we finally started eating at 9:30 in the evening, a Sunday evening, the first time that evening there was a table free.

My complaint is not that the city was frantic – most large cities are frantic – but at the pervasiveness of the myth of tranquility. Perhaps travel writers simply repeat the phrases of earlier writers; otherwise, why would they call a city tranquil when it is not? Why call a city good for walking when it is not? In some of the major public spaces, Copenhagen rivals Washington and Paris for having monumental buildings and roads that condemn the poor pedestrian to insignificance.

You would hope the architects would be on the side of the pedestrians. Yet even the Danish Architectural Centre (DAC) which has just moved into a new and very stylish building is in thrall to the car. A dual carriageway runs through the middle of the building, which is built on stilts over the road, and someone in the design team had the foolish idea of making the traffic visible from inside the building.

The bicycles in Copenhagen are widespread I believe since they are the only realistic way of getting from A to B in a reasonable time. It’s too far to walk to many places in Copenhagen, and buses get stuck in the traffic. I consider myself a hardy cyclist – I cycle regularly in London, and I’ve cycled in Boston and Washington. But I didn’t dare get on a bike in Copenhagen – it looked too alarming to me. Not only the traffic, but the bikes came at me from all directions.