Sunday, October 31, 2010

Another World... 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 humanity, an interlinked chain of consequence, stretching forward and back in time/space, the snake an eternal reminder of a continuing choice.

It was also an opportunity for me to gain greater exposure to Max Ernst who exercised such a profound personal and artistic influence on Leonora Carrington (represented in the exhibition by only one, atypical, early painting of a death like mask, modeled, it is believed, on her attending psychiatrist during her breakdown in 1940). I liked his work very much - it has a bright surface with the darkest of undertows.

Like here in 'The Joy of Life' where a luxuriant jungle harbours a throbbing swarm of threatening insects from which a man and an ape, companions, shelter in the top right. The painterly romantic joy in showing forth nature is given a dark shadowing that captures Ernst own sense of the world's unraveling in the late 1930s. It is beautifully observed and the exhibition also showed Ernst's evocative studies of natural forms, drawing after drawing of close but imaginative observation.

The disappointment was only that you did not get a real sense of context - from what was Dada and then surrealism in revolt, what did this liberation imply? away from, towards what? One clear direction, not explicated here, but hinted at was a return to a more disciplined symbolism and a turn to the spiritual. It is there in Carrington, in Armstrong and in Paul Delvaux's wonderful 'Annunciation' with which the exhibition almost closes where Gabriel, depicted as female, comes to Mary in evocative, classical detail that yet phases into dream.

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 him to do this). Here I am in all my fallibility and in my pride, utterly human but ultimately gathered up in a compassion that is beyond me. 

I found myself thinking of it this way through an odd connection to which my wayward mind is subject to; namely, an analogy with Shin Buddhism (on which I had just re-read Taitetsu Unno's marvelous introduction 'River of Fire, River of Water: An Introduction to the Pure Land Tradition of Shin Buddhism'). 

At the heart of this tradition (as I understand it) is Amida's compassion that illuminates and holds all things and is vowed to the salvation of all beings. This is then juxtaposed with our own complete frailty to achieve liberation: we are karmic bound beings, trapped in our own self-enclosed egotism, utterly fallible. There is nothing we can do but there is something we must do, that is entrust ourselves to Amida's vow. This is said to be the 'easy' way to enlightenment but only because it does not require either great learning or complex meditation practices, simply calling on Amida: namu amida butsu (that might be translated as I am nothing, Amida is everything into which I am transformed). To sustain such calling, entrusting, deep listening to the response of compassion is, however, a demanding way, requiring great internal discipline and attention.

This is how I see Rembrandt - I sense he knows all his manifold frailties, a knowing that deepens with the years,  that the attention of his craft, and its honesty, elicits from him and is shown forth in his paintings, most especially his self-portraits. Yet they are held in a recognition that goes beyond merely seeing honestly. There is something deeper at work that is not the artist's but which he allows through - namely a compassion that holds this frailty, and despite it 'sinfulness' and 'pride' will work through it to turn 'rubble into gold' (to borrow a Shin phrase).

There is, of course, a deep resonance between Shin and Christianity (a resonance that was seen by Karl Barth - that great twentieth century champion of the helplessness of the human and the transformative grace of Christ) and between it and Rembrandt's own Calvinist background. 

It should be no wonder when pondering the self-portraits that one of Rembrandt's greatest paintings is the 'Return of the Prodigal Son' because the grace of that act of redeeming love is the light in which Rembrandt's self-portraits are painted. The more you glimpse that light the deeper the recognition of your own failure to live in it, the greater the recognition of your failure though, the more likely are you to be sprung from the trap of your own self-centring egotism.  Rembrandt's portraiture is a journey into recognizing self in the light of abiding grace - the realism of our appreciation of the former, the greater the likelihood of our transformation.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

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 that become the abiding analogy for the interior life (not the sacred space of the cathedral or church).

The complexity of allusion in these paintings - personal, historic and symbolic - and how they weave into a whole - the symbolic is as 'real' to this audience as the personal.

The myriad observations spill off the page...It is a wonderful text that lures me on.

I recall too a review programme hosted by George Melly that reviewed the programme and the reaction of the punk writer, Kathy Acker, that dripped with rejection and envy: these multiple spaces within the art she could not/did not see and thus they could not be present. It was an extraordinary performance that splinters in the mind.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

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 not Kashmir because it sensitivity throws patriotic sentiment into overdrive (a straw poll on the Times of India website has over 80% of people wanting her tried for sedition)!

I realise the manifold complexities that attend Kashmir and how those complexities have poured disparate poisons into the body politics of both India and Pakistan (as well as more starkly affected the lives of the inhabitants of Kashmir). I am not an especial admirer of Roy - too glib as an activist, too dull as a novelist (though certainly endowed with a certain integrity and raw courage) - but here I find myself agreeing with her that the best option for extracting the poison is to venture the possibility of independence. The likelihood of this happening is nil (not least because India rightly fears other claims of sucession) but as a way of helping us think about what a just solution might look like, it ought to be an option considered and openly debated, not one simply closed down by either 'patriotic sentiment' or charges of sedition.

I suppose this is the counsel of the unaffected, distant liberal: can we not all be more reasonable? To which you are usually confounded with the loud answer, 'No'! Sadly most conflicts tend to resolve themselves either by defeat or mutual exhaustion and neither reality is yet in play in Kashmir, so the people continue to suffer and the leaders (in all three locations) locked in by patriotic settlement (far more effectively than Roy might be if convicted of sedition) stumble painfully on.

The world can truly be a depressing place.

Monday, October 25, 2010

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 part of something called ‘nature’, which we have now triumphantly subdued. The very fact that we have a word for ‘nature’ is evidence that we do not regard ourselves as part of it. Indeed, our separation from it is a myth integral to the triumph of our civilisation. We are, we tell ourselves, the only species ever to have attacked nature and won. In this, our unique glory is contained."

But it is a temporary fictitious glory, slowly fading, and one that may simply shatter at any time.

How do we prepare for such an eventuality? In many ways but the way focused on by 'Dark Mountain' is the creation of new stories about ourselves and our place in the world - a de-centring of ourselves - recognizing that we are one species amongst many, that our lives are significant to us but not central in the greater scheme of things, and that we can fashion humbler, more enduring, resilient spaces for ourselves if we imagine ourselves a part of a whole in a cycling movement of nature rather than in the ascending progress of history (that has proved and will prove again a fragile god).

They quote that great, neglected poet of nature as the measure of things, Robinson Jeffers to their account:

                                         The severed hand

Then what is the answer? Not to be deluded by dreams.
To know that great civilisations have broken down into violence,
and their tyrants come, many times before.
When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose
the least ugly faction; these evils are essential.
To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted
and not wish for evil; and not be duped
By dreams of universal justice or happiness. These dreams will
not be fulfilled.
To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear
the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand
Is an ugly thing and man dissevered from the earth and stars
and his history … for contemplation or in fact …
Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness,
the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty
of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions,
or drown in despair when his days darken.
          Robinson Jeffers, The Answer

They have been criticized by environmentalists, like George Monbiot, as counselors of despair, of having given up on 'solutions' and even condemning millions to death (if you 'welcome' collapse [or see and name its inevitability] you must be responsible for it: a curious logic to say the least)!

I find them at once bracing - calling time on this peculiar notion that merely by walking forward, we must ascend into the air, that civilization is an essential and programmed advance, rather than a fragile good, that is achieved temporarily and though resilient can collapse, often when it encounters limits imposed betwixt our knowledge and of the nature of the world. I find them questionable partly because they endow the complex uncertainties of science (about climate, resource constraint, technological change) with too great a certainty, nothing is wholly inevitable and our resilience or creativity or ability to change should not be so easily underestimated.

But mainly my doubt is about their fundamental premise: that our care within the world, our ability to forge a new relationship within our common nature is conditioned by our accepting our 'de-centring', as one species amongst others, with no universal significance. The testimony of history would appear to be that we live within limits of the natural ordering most deeply and effectively when we see ourselves, are ourselves participating in a sacred order. When our lives are shaped in a meaning from 'above' we, being secure in understanding, do not then seek to make status our counterfeit source of meaning, a source that drives us to consume the world.

The paradox being the more deeply our meaning is sourced 'beyond the world' the more free we are to be in the world.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

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.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

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' of his youth.

But perhaps the loosening of the former was a necessary component of discovering the latter - a stepping out of the conventionality of late nineteenth century materialism/utilitarianism, opened up a renewed discovery of the sacred beyond the 'projected primitive' of the romantic.

Roerich met the people and places that had held his fantasy face to face and they dissolved the fantasy into an imagined real. Stravinsky met the forms of a tradition that imagined the real and yet yearned for renewal: new forms that went beyond romantic yearning that he sought then to make and offer. Both moved on from the fanciful yet liberating Rite to a more disciplined encounter with the demands of a sacred art towards ritual, even as that 'ritual' was not confined to anyone particular tradition.

Friday, October 22, 2010

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 one (Nijinsky) perilously fragile (and passing) that is for me the central event of the Ballet Russes that defines and justifies it.

The show itself was surprisingly unilluminating about Diaghilev himself - his central motivations, ways of working and ability to identify and manipulate talent (Matisse vowed never to work with him again). You were presented with surface, alluring, fascinating, at times magical but strangely lacking in depth.

What you did see was that genius is rarely solitary - Diaghilev shaped Stravinsky by providing him the opportunities to create a series of pieces that defined him both in his creating of them and in his subsequent argument with, moving away from them into his late neo-classical style. Stravinsky did not create alone and the hidden power of impresario and editor in Diaghilev was essential to the process of making. We are made in and out of conversation.

To return to the 'Rite', why did it appeal so? I can only imagine that it gave permission to unfold into a rhythm of music (and of life) that was wholly 'other' and deeply attractive. It played to my childhood 'myth' of Russian origins (the name, the fascination with Russia's history). It played to my sense of the 'primitive' being fed by my reading on indigenous people, of shamanism, of the lure of the 'collective unconscious' (I was precociously reading Jung). It is savage yet strangely controlled (Stravinsky was nothing if not contained, containing).

Here is the Joffrey Ballet's re-creation of the original production.

The second record was Holst's 'The Planets' - the mythological and magical theme continued...

The third was the Deller Consort singing plain song...the pattern was set!!!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

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 world in a way that conserves its normality, even when the events themselves appear/are of the order of ritual, as if the world when heightened into meaning takes on the character of sacred drama.

But there are here more personal themes - Martin's relationship with his father - awkward, distanced by Martin's aspirations and education and yet suffused on the father's side by a fierce unexpressed pride - reminds me of my own. His abandonment of an idealized world, suffused with a naive yet seeing joy, for the path of practical action (and a resolute if unthinking agnosticism) reminds me of a temptation I have suffered.

In reading it I am poised with wanting to finish it and not wanting it to end which seems to me the perfect praise for any book.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

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, captures the central claim and unsettling difficulty of Christianity perfectly.

We are seen, straight through, and that is enough for in that seeing is our gifted creation and our fulfilment. It is so simple - there is nothing to do but surrender into it and the light comes and we are sure. A simplicity so simple that it continually eludes us. All that expenditure of energy that we make to 'present' ourselves to one another: the editing and positioning. All ultimately for nothing for we will be seen as we are. What a relief it would be if we could make a start dismantling our 'selves' into that freeing look?

Friday, October 15, 2010

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 incestuous gossip in a community and of imagined or real slights and minor injustices.

I was reminded of Macedonia. On arrival marveling at the fear free streets of a sizeable capital, of the young woman in the exchange office with no screen between her and her customers and once an open safe; and, of people's unflagging willingness to be kind to strangers. But this went side by side with darker currents: a fundamental lack of trust, a suspicious probing of motive, of a continuous torrent of gossip and the peculiar practice of envy.

This last quality was much in evidence in my first apartment. It was the only privately owned apartment in the block. Its owner a moderately successful businessman, making furniture, employing 12-15 people. The apartment (though not me) was held responsible for all that went wrong in the building in a way that was both irrational and magical. One day I opened my door to a man yelling 'voda, voda' (water) at me. He had a leak in his apartment and mine was its source. I patiently showed him round so he could see that there were no leaks. It was only when he was entering the lift, shaking his head unconvinced that I realized that he lived above me!

Envy is a powerfully distorting green eyed monster.

For every moment in Macedonia you imagined the benefits of close knit communities - of familial ties and shared lives - you would stumble upon the reality of some painful human frailty.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

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 discipline of actually loving and knowing this place. That he is a great painter in spite of this is because he both paints more than he knows and because of his experiments in colour - bringing a world into being through force of intuition: a world that is luxurious and mysterious (even if a mystery that does not warrant too close inspection).

However, the paintings I most deeply love are those grounded in Brittany. Here I think Gauguin does succeed in entering a place and a culture and submit to the discipline of trying to convey more than a fantasy of it. His Breton peasants are more earthed and real than his Tahitian women and they inhabit
a culture that was closer to Gauguin's own. They refuse to be exotic even when the paintings take a supernatural direction. Their God is theirs (not Gauguin's re imagining) and His suffering and dying is a reflection of their hard lives, lived without much consideration of resurrection.

As here in his 'Green Christ', the foreground is a realistic peasant woman, bent at her labour, and behind her three abstracted figures bear Christ down from the Cross. Gauguin seems to imply both that the vision of Christ emerges from the life of the foregrounded peasant's own imagined culture, it is in some essential way real, and that yet for the painter it remains symbolic.

Yet here, in what I think is Gauguin's greatest painting, 'Jacob wrestles with the Angel' the two worlds seamlessly cohere - the peasants look on at a wrestling match where one of the figures may be winged - the struggle of two lives evokes the struggle of a community's life that evokes the struggle of Jacob to wrestle God's blessing.

It is the first painting I ever 'saw' as a fifteen year old visiting a gallery for the first time and it has lost none of the power of my first love. It is, I think, a great work of 'religious' art precisely because it grows out of an authentic culture of religiosity that the artist genuinely submits to. He neither imposes his own view or juxtaposes it (as so often elsewhere), he allows it to speak and in speaking is transformed through his vision into a genuine whole.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

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 Jerusalem. Walking to the station, I caught glancing a young person, male I think, crouched down on the kerb of a side street, positioned in front of a parked car, rocking to and fro - in sorrow or pain or withdrawal I cannot say - I paused, trying to assess whether to attend or not. I decided not - manifold were the rationalizations of that decision - not least I often want to be left alone in my own pain. Right or wrong the decision haunts me still - and I should have tried to find out whether they wanted solitude or company but I did not. I passed by (even if offering up a feeble prayer as I did so).

I do know at least that the sharp prick of conscience that splinters in mind still was, at least in part, Buber's testimony.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

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 dereliction of cultural homage. His version of intensely physical humour, coupled with a very sentimental pathos, failed to connect. I did see later, rarer performances when, like many fine comic actors, he demonstrated a great ability at understated drama.

Strange are the pathways of memory - the death of an English comic recalling to mind a wonderful summer, weaving down the Albanian coast, virtually unspoilt (except by Hoxha's obsessive building of bunkers, now abandoned or put to alternate use): an adventure. Turning up each evening in a village square, looking foreign and homeless, gathering offers of hospitality, finding a common language of smattered English, garbled Italian and gesture. Enjoying an evening of food and raki, sleeping well, setting off each morning on foot, by bus, once by donkey and cart. Going from the border with Montenegro in the north to the Greek in the south only once staying in a hotel (with a morose owner determined to repeatedly claim the absence of lunch)! It was here I encountered dynamite fishing, woken to the sound of booming whooshing water, I looked out from my balcony to see a fisherman hurling sticks into the water and gleaning the stunned fish into his loaded boat!

Monday, October 4, 2010

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.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


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 you with him entering the country of his heart (and his labour); and, the tragedy of his sad decline: captured in the asylum, alternating between lucidity and delusion (though, by all account, kindly treated for the age).

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.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

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 utterly affirmed. Its violation, as in Goya's extraordinary paintings of suffering and war, is a wrenching, breakdown of order, precisely because that ordering is rooted in a universe that is a woven weft of unique particulars. In that affirmation, he is both very evocative of a modern man (the individual's rights) and a very traditional one as it a vision rooted in Goya's Christian humanism.

After the joy of being 'carded' in the US, I was sold by 'accident' a senior citizens ticket for this rapidly we move from youth to age!

Friday, October 1, 2010

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 predecessor is not a 'secular' act either. The titling almost wants us to concede that the subject of the painting is the actual Veronica to which the saintly trappings are incidental - though given that Kokoschka explicitly refers to the painting as religious, grounded in an associative process with an actual Veronica, it is hard to see what this explanation is about, except perhaps a 'knee jerk' refusal of the religious!

It reminds me of a friend, the Irish artist, Patrick Pye, whose own 'arrival' as a recognised artist of distinction was arrested by his insistence on painting sacred themes which the secularised art world of Ireland refused to 'see' until finally the qualities of his art as art (irrespective of theme) wore them down to capitulation!

It caught my attention precisely because the RA's exhibit labelling is usually exceptionally good: the right kind of information, pitched at the right spot, never a false note.

This painting 'The Centaur in the Village Blacksmith's Shop' by Arnold Bocklin was the painting at the RA exhibition ( that I most enjoyed. It captures (in imagination) a moment of passage, of transition from the mythological to realistic. The onlookers look on surprised at an example of a dying race come into the human realm for the practicalities of help.

It reminded me of Kathleen Rane's lament in her poem 'Wilderness' of the draining away of traditional meanings:

"I came too late to the hills: they were swept bare
Winters before I was born of song and story,
Of spell or speech with power of oracle or invocation,

The great ash long dead by a roofless house, its branches rotten,
The voice of the crows an inarticulate cry,
And from the wells and springs the holy water ebbed away."

and of the end of the Lord of the Rings when the world of men is fully established and other realms, other possibilities have passed to the west. It is a painting evocative of how a sense of displacement (the disenchantment of the world to quote Weber) was ever-present to that transitional world at the turn of the nineteenth, birth of the twentieth century.

It is my lament too - recognising another world (enfolded in this) that is not the perceived orderer of shared meaning.

Everyone is interesting, even if to requires a few sherries to find out how

V.S. Naipaul, who died recently, once asked one of his interviewers, before he would permit them to start, "What have you read? And do...