Showing posts from January, 2011

Kuznetzov's Central Asian idyll

I have been reading Peter Stupples informative biographical study of Pavel Kuznetsov (published in the Cambridge Studies in the History of Art). 

Like many modern biographies it tends towards the accumulation of detail over the art of interpretation and many of the details are Kuznetsov seen from the outside - in memoir or criticism - as Kuznetsov himself destroyed most of the material that would allow us to trace his interior spaces (if he indeed committed his thoughts to paper). It, also, fights shy (in the contemporary way) of exploring questions of the meanings of the work as opposed to the surfaces of its style and the techniques of its development.

His early works are beautifully suggestive, he characterized them as 'intuitive symbolism', as here in 'Blue Fountain'. Where a fountain nourishes gathered forms at its base, female forms attending a child, baptized in watery light, lighted water. Even with a limited, muted palette, he demonstrates a mastery of colour …

Coming out of the closet...

Like Wittgenstein I have a confession - not that I once struck the pupil at a village school for being incurably stupid at mathematics nor that in a moment of Tolstoyan inspiration did I give my wealth away not to the poor but to my equally wealthy family members - but that I have a fondness for Westerns.
In Wittgenstein's case, he enjoyed the simple morality of good vanquishing evil without shade of moral ambiguity or ersatz sophistication. The man in the white hat defeated (after suitable trial) the man in the black hat and the world was restored (temporarily) to harmony (and got his gal in the process but I expect he found that altogether less interesting).
There are various reasons why the simplicity of this picture is false. It is a harmony restored by 'redemptive violence' of which I, if not Wittgenstein, disapproves. When native Americans, better known as 'injuns', appear it is usually as the dangerous other, whose primitiveness must be corralled at best, e…

Painterly approaches to truth

Evening Primrose

Bird singing in the Moonlight

The paintings are in inverse order, chronologically and spiritually. Morris Grave, the painter,  is an exemplar of a pilgrimage we might all hope to take from a reality that is symbolized to one that is actual.

The bird that sings in the moonlight is a beautiful expression both of itself but primarily as a symbol (or interlocking set of symbols) that with diligence and awareness can be read out of the picture - song, bird, moonlight.

The Evening Primrose is simply utterly itself: imaging reality in its own uniqueness - transcendence is immanent in the particularities of a flower seen its its 'suchness'.

Graves is quoted as saying that he had surrendered 'religion' as so much 'blah' - not because, I think, it is inauthentic but because it is inadequate: a set of signs pointing to the way that is not the moon. The primrose is simply a primrose at evening itself yet transparent to all things. Seeing a primrose as it is…

The strange disappointment of restaurants

I went today to a well-regarded (and notable) restaurant in Mayfair where a charming, highly intelligent and interesting asset manager gave me lunch (thank you) as we talked renewable energy and our own project in South Africa (as well why China may go 'phut' - which is a highly technical geo-political term)!

The ambiance of the restaurant was exceptional (with very colourful David Hockneys decorating the walls) and the staff utterly charming and professional.

But the food...

There was absolutely nothing wrong with it and yet nothing about it (apart from the quality of the ingredients) stood out (except the coffee which was smooth, silky and positively seductive).

I mean I know several friends whose cooking meets these standards (even my own occasionally meets these standards) and though none of us, I expect, could feed more than a reasonably sized dinner party comfortably (though I did once cook vegetarian lasagna for fifty practitioners of Tai Chi), we can 'do it'!

The sanity in madness

When originally researching in South India for what was to become Basic Needs  which celebrated its tenth anniversary last year, it became very apparent how many people labelled 'mentally ill' had very realistic, very rational abilities to assess their own condition.
Time and again you would meet people in the community centres/care homes we visited (primarily aimed at supporting 'middle class' Indians) who could give you very reasonable assessments of their condition and what, as a result, they could and could not entertain doing. One man, I remember vividly, who happily introduced himself by saying, 'I am mad, you know' gave a very accurate and moving account of what he perceived as his limitations and opportunities for work within those limitations.
What equally struck home was the deep and necessary desire many people had for 'making a contribution'; that the ability to do work (paid or unpaid), to the limits of their…

The Swan

The Swan
by Mary Oliver

Across the wide waters
something comes
floating—a slim
and delicate

ship, filled
with white flowers—
and it moves
on its miraculous muscles

as though time didn’t exist,
as though bringing such gifts
to the dry shore
was a happiness

almost beyond bearing.
And now it turns its dark eyes,
it rearranges
the clouds of its wings,

it trails
an elaborate webbed foot,
the color of charcoal.
Soon it will be here.

Oh, what shall I do
when the poppy-colored beak
rests in my hand?
Said Mrs. Blake of the poet:

I miss my husband’s company—
he is so often
In paradise.
Of course! the path to heaven

doesn’t lie down in flat miles.
It’s in the imagination
with which you perceive
this world,

and the gestures
with which you honor it.
Oh, what will I do, what will I say when those
white wings
touch the shore?

Tao in art

I have been reading Jean C. Cooper's admirable, 'An Illustrated Introduction to Taoism'. The text is lucid and clear and the illustrations are beautiful and illuminating.

The chapter on Taoist art is especially good, speaking of the way in which the arts were integral: painters were poets and musicians. There was a harmonious weaving of disciplines together to form a whole. "The Sages of old used to say that a poem is a picture without visible forms and that a painting is a poem which has put on form."

Integral to all the arts was an absence of concern for ownership. Paintings were not signed nor sold as any genuine work was created out of the spirit of the Tao that informs all things, not the individual drives of any particular person. The aim of the artist was not 'self-expression' but (as Simone Weil put it) 'de-creation', a stepping aside of the 'self' so that the work could unfold unhindered. "Art, as soon as it is no longer dete…

Evading truncheons in Tirana

The sad rioting yesterday in Tirana ( reminded me of a previous episode in the 90s where the same forces were locked in contesting a disputed election.

That election was undoubtedly fraudulent: a friend was an election observer working for the National Democratic Institute and announcing herself as such in a polling station just outside Tirana was greeted by 'election officials' saying, 'You Democratic party, we Democratic party' as they continued to fill in ballot papers and gleefully stuff them into the awaiting boxes.

The election duly 'won' and the victory rally held, the next day I was innocently walking back to my hotel through the main square only to find myself in the midst of an opposition rally where the Socialist party was contesting the 'result'.

The people were legitimately angry, and some of that anger was directed at 'the West' who were perceived to be …

Moral bankruptcy at the Economist

"A company’s job is to make money for its shareholders legally. Morality is the province of private individuals and of governments."

This is a quotation from an article in this week's Economist about the recent deal between BP and Rosneft. (

It strikes me as an exemplar of moral bankruptcy.

The idea that a company is an entity separable from the individuals in community that compose it is indefensible as if we have dual selves; a private one bound to morality and a public one whose only measure is the present state of what is deemed legal.

The incoherence of this position ought to be recognizable even by the supercharged clever people who write for the Economist but obviously not.

So, for example, let us back track in history and examine an enterprise in Jamaica circa 1740.  It is profitable. The profits are generated legally. This legality is anchored in a broad social consensus and has the full sanction of a leg…

Three paintings in a gallery

Between meetings yesterday in Manchester,  I dropped into the Manchester Art Gallery.

A collection representative of its solid, commercial nineteenth century roots with a commendable collection of Pre-Raphaelites including versions of both the iconic 'Scapegoat' and 'The Light of the World'.

For me there were three finds. The first was a Gwen John: The Convalescent:

In her trademark still interior a pallid girl reads with an abiding sense of effort underlying her quietness. The colours are drained and muted but the girl is now sitting upright, able to read at least. It was an image painted and re-painted so both had value for John, as image and materially. It has been suggested that it is symbolic of France (as John began to consider this image in the immediate post First World War world when France itself was convalescent).

I love her work for its still, contemplative quality but shot through with a robust, encompassing realism (especially around and in the portraits)…

A Month in the Country

Not the Turgenev but the novel by J.L. Carr: a mere 81 pages (of close text) and a gem.

Tom Birkin is a restorer of wall paintings and in the summer of 1920 arrives in Oxgodby, a small village in the north of England, to uncover a long hidden painting from the Middle Ages that is revealed as a masterpiece. Birkin is a survivor of the Western Front and carries with him the scars, made visible in a violent nervous tic that ripples across his face and a stammer. He is disappointed in love, a wife who has come and gone, come and gone again. Hard up, he lives in the church's belfry, much to the disapproval of the vicar,  who like Birkin is a southerner and who has not been taken into the hearts of his parishioners, unlike Birkin himself.

The novel traces Birkin's slow restoration to the possibility of life, and a moment in time which seized will be an oasis of fine memory, even if future life disappoints (as the narrative suggests it will). It tells of the relationships he slowly f…

Oh to be an anarchist...

One of the challenges of working in Zimbabwe presently is how to talk about policy change/reform/improvement without talking about party politics and how to position your work so that it is seen (as it is in fact) not to have any bias towards the competing parties.

It is like walking on the proverbial egg shells. So, for example, the 'joint government' has numerous policy documents, like the one on small and medium sized enterprises, that, broadly, both 'sides' of the joint government are agreed on yet the policies remain in limbo, sitting in draft form, unimplemented because implementing them may be 'seen' to give advantage to one side or another. Better to do nothing it seems than give advantage to the other side.

It reminds me of the old Serbian joke about the two one-eyed twins. An angel appears before one of them and grants him a wish. The twin considers all the possibilities of advancement before requesting the angel put out his twin's remaining eye!!…

The Peacock Spring

Sandwiched on the plane back from Zimbabwe, I finished Rumer Godden's 'The Peacock Spring'.

It is a beautiful novel with many of her signatures: the complex interactions between cultures: English and Indian: and, critically here Eurasian - that displaced category, existing betwixt worlds, accepted by few. The growth into adolescence and then adulthood and the way we oscillate between worlds: one moment full of adult moment and insight, the next a child again with its own particular way of seeing. The conflict between those ways of seeing - the searing innocence of childhood that imagines that all questions have answers (even if they are withheld by adults) and the more complex ambiguities of adulthood with all its uncertainties and compromises.

The two central characters evoke these differences: Una the fifteen year old daughter of a UN diplomat, posted to Delhi,  serious, full of an honesty that has never been truly tested and her 'governess' soon to be the diplom…

Through Zimbabwe

Harare is a beautiful city, as attrractive as I remembered it... on the surface - wide streets bordered by trees, flowering bushes lolling over garden walls and open green spaces in the centre, parks tended with care. Yet it hides much. You notice how, for example, many common green spaces, away from the centre are given over to growing the vegetables and fruits of survival. Such 'urban agriculture' (as I learned later has become widespread - and a challenge to policy makers: to be encouraged as an appropriate step towards resilience or to be discouraged (as often practiced) it undermines many other environmental goods.

It was interesting to see the roadside advertising metamorphose from banks and cellphones (as you come away from the airport) to cigarettes as you enter the poorer parts of town: different patterns of aspiration and desire.

Meanwhile, the houses of the middle classes, beleaguered as they have been, fragile as they are, are surrounded by high fences topped by as…

The last time in Zimbabwe

It was at the beginnings of the country's current troubles. The economy was showing the first signs of unraveling. The political situation was deteriorating into the pattern of confrontation and manipulation with which we are now all too familiar.

But my principal observation was how unaddressed the past was; and, how the confrontation between white and black remained a hidden wound. One that was soon to burst forth in land occupation and the terrorizing and killing of farmers.

I stayed at the Hotel Bronte and vividly recall: Sunday lunch. First in its culinary offering, it was a perfect replica of England in the 1950s (including the Yorkshire pudding as tough chewy object of dubious origin). Second how all the customers were white (and Zimbabwean, except for me) and all the waiters black and how one very robust strand in the overheard conversation was that of complaint about the current state of the country, expressed in terms that took no account of the sensibilities of the wait…

Subsiding buildings and buckled pipelines

I was tidying my computer and found this piece I wrote for someone, published somewhere...and quite like it so thought I would post it here!

"Subsiding apartment buildings and buckled pipelines; rampant encephalitis bearing tics; and, Central Asian migrants making their way in ever greater numbers to the heartlands are just some of the social and economic impacts of climate change emerging in Russia as the average mean temperature steadily rises; and, rises at a quicker rate than elsewhere, reflecting its more northerly latitude.

The most visible impacts – damaged infrastructure – are already a reality. In June 2002 a block of flats was ruined owing to the permafrost melting beneath it. In the summer of 2006, a car park in Yakutsk similarly disappeared, swallowing several cars in a giant crater.

But there are more insidious threats: in Tuva cases of encephalitis, a debilitating disease, sometimes fatal, is on the rise as the tics that carry it survive the steadily warming winters.


The Fiddler of Dooney by W.B. Yeats

The Fiddler of Dooney

"WHEN I play on my fiddle in Dooney,
Folk dance like a wave of the sea;
My cousin is priest in Kilvarnet,
My brother in Moharabuiee.

I passed my brother and cousin:
They read in their books of prayer;
I read in my book of songs
I bought at the Sligo fair.

When we come at the end of time,
To Peter sitting in state,
He will smile on the three old spirits,
But call me first through the gate;

For the good are always the merry,
Save by an evil chance,
And the merry love the fiddle
And the merry love to dance:

And when the folk there spy me,
They will all come up to me,
With ‘Here is the fiddler of Dooney!’
And dance like a wave of the sea."

This is a beautifully, and deceptively, simple poem.

But as any good Platonist would know (and Yeats was most surely that) ‘dancing like the wave of the sea’ is precisely an image of matter informed spirit: a harmonious alignment of worlds, a fullness of truth’s embodiment. And too that the good is analogous with joy (unle…

Where on Earth is Heaven?

A child's question to his father becomes the title of this engaging memoir of exploratory questioning, illuminating quotation and arresting story-telling.

Jonathan Stedall is a gifted documentary film maker whose subject matter has ranged from biographical studies of Gandhi and Tolstoy, imaginative explorations of place, especially with the late poet laureate, John Betjeman; and, award-winning depictions of the lives of communities - schools, the Camphill communities for people with disabilities.

For me the high point of his career was 'The Long Search': a thirteen part documentary series (if one can remember those) with the theatre director, Ronald Eyre, exploring 'comparative religion' and the modes of human spirituality with wit, intelligence, a continuously open, questing mind and, often, deeply arresting images. My favourite of which was a Buddhist monk's feet walking with extraordinary poise, grace and mindfulness across a beach.

But the book is more than…