Showing posts from October, 2010

Another World...

Image a fabulous exhibition at the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh that builds on their distinguished collection of surrealist paintings and related works (books, pamphlets, posters) to evoke the origins of surrealism (in Dada), its development and post-war fading and dispersion into influence on other movements.

This included an illuminating room of British artists both those who identified with and those influenced by surrealism. Here there were the known and familiar - a Paul Nash, a Cecil Collins, a Graham Sutherland - and (to me at least) the unfamiliar - John Armstrong and a haunting piece by Edith Rimmington called, 'Family Tree'.

What appears as a seascape in moonlight becomes hauntingly strange - both by the extension of the chain on the pier, extending as if into infinity and by the snake that weaves itself within the extended chain in the foreground. Connecting this with the title immediately brought sin to mind: the chain of consequence, passed through the tree of humani…

Rembrandt's Buddhism

Edinburgh was the first city I was allowed to roam free in as a teenage visitor and one of the places I came was the National Gallery of Scotland. It was my first gallery and, thus, retains an important place in my affections. I slipped into it again on Friday afternoon and the highlight this time was the Rembrandt self-portrait shown here. It was painted when he had fallen into social disgrace as a bankrupt and into personal grief as his long standing mistress had died. He looks shorn of status and regard but glimmering through his eyes is defiance and a fierce pride.
We have more than 50 self depictions of the artist, more than for any other comparable figure but they never strike me as evidence of self-obsession but as an act of great self-discipline. A determination to see himself as he now is - the modes of a changing self and he does so with increasing honesty and compassion as he proceeds through life (and his increasing powers as an artist allows, helps …

The Secret Life of Paintings

I remember watching this series many years ago, and am only now reading the book that accompanied it.

I remember Pamela Tudor-Craig, whom I subsequently met, as the epitome of English eccentricity: straight back hair, clipped voice, dressed in velvet knickerbockers, imparting diverse knowledge with alacrity! I loved the series - it was my introduction to art: how to look at paintings in depth not simply for their stylistic attributes but for their meaning and for the sense of how they were received by their audience and how they might be received now.

Having read only the first two chapters, several things strike the mind.

The simple observation about the different context in which the paintings were made for (and they are all from the Renaissance) namely private ownership, intimacy, being lived with and their current circumstance hung in a gallery and how that changes how and what we see.

The compelling observation that medieval cathedrals were modeled on castles; and, it is castles …

Imprisoned by Kashmir

"While not being forthcoming on what action the government proposed to take against the duo, Law Minister Veerappa Moily said their comments were "most unfortunate". While there is freedom of speech, "it can't violate the patriotic sentiments of the people," he said (from a report in The Times of India).

Thus spake the Indian government's Law Minister on the novelist Arundhati Roy's call for Kashmir's independence. I love the idea of 'freedom of speech' being acceptable unless it violates 'patriotic sentiments'. I cannot imagine what kind of freedom this would amount to and at what point patriotic sentiment tips the balance (and whose patriotic sentiments - presumably not that of Kashmiris). You can imagine a 'sentiment barometer' - yes you can freely criticise the failures of the Olympic Games organisation (because as it is not cricket, the vast majority of people in India are only vaguely patriotic in this instance) but…

The Dark Mountain

This project of 'uncivilization' is the conception of the writers Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine as a response to a world constrained by depleting resources and advancing shifts in climate. It is a response born of a felt realization that our attempts to 'fix' our complex crises of environment are failing.

As Bill McKibben shows in his latest book, 'Eaarth', all the careful scenarios of forthcoming climate change appear to be arriving ahead of 'schedule' (as if we could imagine that nature might obey our scheduling) and that the stable world we have enjoyed since the last Ice Age is unraveling.

They write:

"The myth of progress is founded on the myth of nature. The first tells us that we are destined for greatness; the second tells us that greatness is cost-free. Both are intimately bound up with each other. Both tell us that we are apart from the world; that we began grunting in the primeval swamps, as a humble …

Frances Horovitz

New Year Snow

For three days we waited,
a bowl of dull quartz for sky.
At night the valley dreamed of snow,
lost Christmas angels with dark-white wings
flailing the hills.
I dreamed a poem, perfect
as the first five-pointed flake,
that melted at dawn:
a Janus-time
to peer back at guttering dark days,
trajectories of the spent year.
And then snow fell.
Within an hour, a world immaculate
as January’s new-hung page.
We breathe the radiant air like men new-born.
The children rush before us.
As in a dream of snow
we track through crystal fields
to the green horizon
and the sun’s reflected rose.

Frances Horowitz was a poet of landscape transformed - by myth, by the envisioned accuracy of her seeing, by the incidents of her domesticity.  What I love about her is the ability to weave all three into luminous wholes. She died at the early age of 45 but her slim volume of collected poems live and breathe on.

From Rite to ritual

I was struck this morning with the recognition that both the conceiver of the Rite of Spring and its composer passed through it (and their attachment to Russian folk tradition) to a wider, deeper placing both of their art and their spirit.

Roerich's journey was an expansive one both literally in its geography (and as an explorer) and metaphysically as his orientation deepened towards the inner harmony betwixt religious expressions.

Stravinsky's journey was to strike deep and be more contained: an exploration of traditional, classical forms that refreshed them, renewed them. I was struck by something the composer, John Taverner said of Stravinsky that much of his music, the latter in particular, was rooted in a thorough and respectful understanding of traditional chant (both in Western, Catholic and Orthodox forms). In that sense, Taverner saw him as a 'traditionalist' upholding a sacred view of the human: one that sat uncomfortably with the 'romantic primativism&#…

The Rite

This morning on the way to work I listened to the Rite of Spring and heard it again as I heard it that first time in a music appreciation class when I was seventeen.

Up until then music had passed me by neither my father's jazz nor my brother's pop (though I expect he would wish for a more sophisticated labeling) had made any impression on me. This was different from the haunting lyrical opening to the harsh rhythms of dancing into death, I was captured.  I bought the record and, when my brother was absent, sat in his room playing it over and over (and if truth be told being lured into dancing it out too). After a week of this obsessional engagement, my father came upstairs handed me a £5 note and told me to buy another record!

Last week at the Diaghilev show at the V&A, it was this association that drew me in and held my attention; and, it is for this extraordinary production of three complementary talents - two lasting (Roerich whose scenario it was and Stravinsky) and o…

The Water Theatre

How is the world changed? The age old tension between outwardly directed social action and internally directed spiritual transformation is the underlying patterning of Lindsay Clarke's new novel.

Its central character, Martin, has purposefully become a successful television journalist in order to share with the world it most wounded, conflicted points. In doing so, however, he has become both addicted to the adrenalin of conflict and put aside his youthful sense of the meaning of things, shaped, in long abandoned, poetry.  His life has been shaped and merged with the life of a dysfunctional family whose four members have all paid a significant part in his making and unmaking; and, now in midlife, he confronts its three surviving members in search of both their reconciliation and a new strand of life.

What is always so beautifully captured by Clarke is how a realist novel of classic narrative form carries subtle metaphysical currents - dream and myth intertwine with this ordinary w…

The servant girl at Emmaus

She listens, listens, holding
her breath. Surely that voice
is his - the one
who had looked at her, once, across the crowd,
as no one ever had looked?
Had seen her? Had spoken as if to her?

Surely those hands were his,
taking the platter of bread from hers just now?
Hands he'd laid on the dying and made them well?

Surely that face-?

The man they'd crucified for sedition and blasphemy,
The man whose body disappeared from its tomb,
The man it was rumored now some women had seen tghis morning alive?

Those who had brought this stranger home to their table
don't recognize yet with whom they sit.
But she in the kitchen, absently touching
                                                        the wine jug she's to take in,
a young Black servant intently listening,

swings round and sees
the light around him
and is sure.

The Servant-Girl at Emmaus (A Painting by Velazquez) by Denise Levertov.

This poem, a rediscovered gem as the books are slowly repatriated and unpacked, capt…

Jersey: Light and shadow

Yesterday I went to Jersey to visit donors (including the Jersey government) both to thank them for their generous support and sketch out our future lines of work.

It was a cool grey day that did not exhibit Jersey's charms to greatest effect but one of its features was delightful: people's helpfulness. No sooner had you paused, map in hand, looking lost than a 'local' appeared to show you the way, with unflagging courtesy (and 'local' meant here anyone who lived there, often, clearly by accent, not always an indigenous islander).

It exhibited one of the looked for features in a contained community - the sense of knowing one another leading to certain courtesies and disciplines of living together - that 'oil the wheels'. The good side of parochial. The bad side was presented by our talkative taxi driver (from the airport) with his insinuations of 'dodgy real estate deals' 'brown paper envelopes' and 'who you know'. That sense of …

Gauguin's flawed vision

Today, on holiday, I went to see the Gauguin exhibition at the Tate Modern (a gallery, I confess, to cordially loathing) and, amongst the milling crowds, there he was arraigned in a developing glory of colour.

It is the Tahitian paintings that hold the popular imagination - voluptuous women, sometimes tinged with androgyny, languidly rest or languidly live or languidly labour! Often in these paintings there is an element to disconcert - death watches over a sleeping woman a raven inspects a lying body and an idol (from Gauguin's reinvention of Tahitian myth) obtrudes into a domestic scene. You are asked to imagine (by the painter) that a complex symbolism is at work but Gauguin's fails to convince as an intellectual painter. There is something forced, partial and radically incomplete in his vision.

This is, I think, primarily because he never actually understood 'his' place: Tahiti. It remained closed to him and his imagination has not submitted itself to the disciplin…

Re-reading I and Thou

In the preface to Kaufmann's translation of Buber's classic, he remarks that "Our first loves leave their marks upon us...Buber taught me that mysticism need not lead us outside the world. Or if mysticism does, by definition, so much the worse for it"

Both resonated: I vividly remember reading I and Thou for the first time sitting in the library at Heythrop, half entranced, half understanding what was being said and the recognition. Here was a description of how to approach the world that made deep sense, that challenged and chastened. It still does.

I came away from it convinced that the only God who could be responded to was the God who directed you to finding truth in how you related to the world, not what you believed was critical but who you were and, most especially, how you were. That I fail over and again that challenge of relatedness is clear, that it remains the central challenge is equally clear.

Yesterday I was the Levite on the road from Jericho to Jerus…

Norman Wisdom and an Albanian summer

One of the stranger aspects of traveling in Albania, making my way down the coast, in the mid-90s, was encountering people who wanted to talk about Norman Wisdom, who died today. This was not immediately explicable: how an English comic actor whose career peaked in the 1960s came to be a talking point amongst Albanians - young and old - in the 90s.

It transpired that his films were the only foreign films allowed to be shown in the isolated 'Communist paradise' that was Albania under Enver Hoxha. He was known as 'Pitkin' his principal character, a put upon worker, victimized by his boss, presumably making him a working class hero (though I would have thought that a worker being victimized by his boss would be a good image of Albania under Hoxha). As the Albanian ambassador said today: he gave us something to laugh about when opportunities to do so were severely limited.

I, however, was greatly challenged to remember his films and this was seen as a terrible derelictio…

A friend's work

It has been delightful to watch Phoebe's work grow (as illustrated here) from a 'marginalized' occupational therapist in Bristol designing creative games and tools to enable people with learning disabilities to have greater possibilities to explore the world around them, developing new skills on the way to an acknowledged expert in non-verbal communication, often working with highly disturbed people, whose frustration at not being seen, engaged, boils over in various ways of 'acting out'.

It has been a sustained life of attention, creativity, discipline and love.


What is it about the sheer accumulation of detail in modern biography, tending to overwhelm interpretation, as it piles up, page on page? It feels like an endurance dance: do you get a prize if you reach the end without skipping?

Jonathan Bate is an excellent scholar and lucid writer with excellent critical judgement and his biography of John Clare is many ways wonderful but it left me dissatisfied. Partly this was the wave after wave of detail that never seems to cohere as more than the sum of its parts but mostly because of the lack of exploratory criticism of the work itself either in itself or in its context.

Nor was there a sense of speculative entrance into the mind and heart of his subject - this can be risky but is, I feel, ultimately necessary. It is as if a 'necessary' objectivity must stand outside with the details, not crossing into the intimacy of a ventured subjectivity.

But Clare does shine through - the extraordinary particular observation of nature that takes …

Dream correction

I dreamt of my father last night. It was one of those dreams that beautifully laid bear one of my many faults for inspection without belabouring or preaching, as dreams do. We were looking together at a map of the Baltic and he was expressing a desire to go there and was naming places on the coast as possibilities. When I expressed obstacles, rather than share in his aspiration, he gently reproved me for this, rightly. I woke aware of how often I default to the barriers in the way (in spite of a usually optimistic nature): a niggling after the negative!

I also pondered the significance of the 'Baltic' realizing that it is where the family name has its origins: in Germany subsequently traveling East (as indeed did our studying of the shared map, eyes passing from left to right). The best argument for the name's origins is for a 'beginning' on Rugen island in the Baltic.

Treasures from Budapest

You could easily use this delightful exhibition at the Royal Academy as an introduction to Western art (until the First World War). There are notable absences - the Dutch from the sixteenth & seventeenth centuries being the most prominent which given they were struggling for and then affirming their independence from the Hapsburgs (at the core of these Hungarian collectors) this is understandable. There is, also, the absence of the geographical periphery - England, Russia and Scandinavia - but we will forgive them!

It is a selection of a consistently high quality which though (as always) I was drawn to 'my' period (1890-1940) contained much else besides to admire; not least those artists 'under represented' in galleries to which I have usual access. So the two Goya's were marvellous to see:

This 'The Knife Grinder' was one of the two. He is a painter of fabulous realism - each figure has a solid integrity, a humanity that is uniquely theirs, and it is u…

St Veronica

Oskar Kokoschka's 'Veronica with veil' is in London presently (from its home in Budapest) at the Royal Academy. It is hauntingly beautiful - the natural woman, earthed and present, holding the supernatural image of Christ, made as she wiped his stained face as he climbs, with the cross, to Calvary. It is a juxtaposition captured in the painting, the more naturalistic woman, the more symbolic face: the first icon of Christ.

Kokoschka called it his favourite religious painting, so the exhibit's title informs us, but that same title suggests there is a more secular explanation. Veronica was an actual woman who was cleaning Kokoschka's apartment at the time of conception. It is a curious use of the term 'secular' - that an actual woman, Veronica, might inspire an association with a known religious story (central to the mythology of Christian art's evolution) is not a 'secular' act! That the cleaner Veronica should be seen in the light of her saintly…