Showing posts from October, 2011

Renewed vision

One sadness of Palmer's life was the fading of his vision after his time at Shoreham. His art dimmed in assurance and in its capacity to shimmer in transcendence as his confidence was challenged by feeling the need, and failing, to connect with contemporary taste. Like his beloved Blake, Palmer never achieved meaningful recognition in his lifetime. Unlike Blake, his vision did falter in response.

Yet only faltered, rather than disappeared, and was recovered in his final years in two projects, both illustrative and in dialogue with poetic masters: Milton and Virgil.

Of which 'The Lonely Tower' is one example (of the Milton series): a dialogue not with his contemporaries but with master practitioners of a traditional past to which Palmer was heir. It reminds me that any artistic practice is embedded in an ongoing conversation - fortunate is the artist who finds that amongst his contemporaries but there are other sources against which to test your truths (and your talents). …

Salmer Palmer: Mysterious Wisdom

Rachel Campbell-Johnston's biographical study of the painter, Samuel Palmer, is excellent: a vivid account of a person and their period and their artistic development and offering.

It paints a compelling picture of an art world coming to professionalism and to a market, inclusive of but beyond patronage. There is a wonderful story of Turner upstaging Constable by adding, in situ, last moment colour to his painting at the Royal Academy exhibition. The artists may be in pursuit of beauty but the all too human often intrudes, as does the necessary: the earning of one's keep in diverse ways, deploying myriad stratagems.

The book too paints a vivid picture of the impact of the elderly, impoverished William Blake on the group of young artists that called themselves the 'Shoreham Ancients' of whom Palmer and Edward Calvert were two of the key members and subsequent luminaries. It is incredibly moving to see in his twilight moments of life, racked by several physical afflicti…

Abandoning development (and religion)

Three fascinating days at Wilton Park discussing religion, change and development with a diverse, engaging, and thoughtful group (and Wilton Park is a truly hospitable place).

Much of the discussion was highly valuable in thinking through how 'secular' development agencies can effectively engage with faith based organizations and religious groups to promote meaningful change.

However, it occurred to me that both the framing words: religion and development are problematic.

First, development and as I pointed out when was the last time you asked a person, a community or a country whether they had developed recently? The focus ought to be on realities that people can recognise: their own flourishing, well-being and their living in a state and place where justice obtains.

Second, religion and as Martin Buber celebrated it was not a word that existed in his own Jewish tradition. Religion is not itself a reality to which we should tend. It can only describe a matrix that enables (o…

I go among trees

Today I went to an exhibition of Joan Baker ( and bought the painting shown here: 'Tree Wisdom'. It is of a place in Pembrokeshire, at the foot of a hill whose name is the 'Hill of Angels'.

I had found a new way to Ludlow (and the Silk Top Hat gallery), along the road from Droitwich, past Tenbury Wells where Shropshire, Hereford and Worcestershire meet. It is a beautiful road, winding, amongst diverse shaped hills, topped now with trees in autumnal glory and the villages you pass through have a wonderful cross-section of architectural styles in this place occupied for centuries.

I was listening to Delius - those quiet winding pieces of mood shifting, contemplated nature - as I drove along, these conspired with the shifting view to place my mind in the right place to view Joan's art.

It is an art of nature meditated upon and seen, and seen through. It is art that says that there is another world and it is both enfolded in and en…

No 1 in Nairobi

I cannot say I saw a great deal of Nairobi on a short trip this week to seduce 'Development Finance Institutions' into the embrace of our new social investment fund but I did achieve a first: being granted room number one in the Nairobi Hilton (not a traditional Oxfam watering hole but the location of the conference and one I was attending for free as a speaker).

The room was pool side and I was upgraded as there were no non-smoking rooms left in my grade.

The Hilton in the middle of downtown Nairobi had seen better days - its utilitarian 70s lustre was showing its age - and its haphazard security arrangements were a wonder.

Every car is searched for bombs as it approaches the barrier but only if they have been implanted underneath and, in any case, you can drive around the barrier without imposing difficulty! Meanwhile, I wandered in with unsearched suitcase one day, and was scrutinised with great care the next. It was all rather endearingly haphazard as was the hospitality…

Unmixed attention

"Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer," wrote Simone Weil.

If so the whole function of the Work with Gurdjieff was to bring the student into a state of prayer.

Prayer not as an activity but a state of being, being present to the world, to another, through genuinely remembering our 'selves', being present in what we do, being watchful of that presence.

De Hartmanns' book is a testimony to how difficult this is: our minds wander, our bodies act without us, we do not inhabit ourselves.

Gurdjieff's work was to shock and train the self into attentiveness, indeed bring the self into genuine existence through attentiveness, and through that attentiveness bring a quality of our consciousness that can change and sustain genuine feeling.

The book itself carries a charge of genuine feeling in which the distinction between 'emotion' and 'feeling' is critical in this work. An 'emotion' is a state that has us: it shapes an ego that dances to its …

The necessary simplicity

Following Jacob Needleman's recommendation, I bought a copy of Thomas and Olga de Hartmann's 'Our Life with Mr Gurdjieff'.

It reminded me of another encounter between a sophisticated author and a holy man - St. Pavel Florensky's 'Salt of the Earth' - Florensky's bare, simple, moving account of his staretz: Father Isidore.

There are many, no doubt, who would think the comparison invidious - Father Isidore is secure within a recognisable tradition, that of Orthodoxy whereas Gurdjieff: who was Gurdjieff?

It is a mystery - from whence he came, with what traditional understanding - a mystery that the book deepens rather than dispels but what comes through both texts is that a genuine spirituality imposes a simplicity that ultimately costs not less than everything. It asks us to follow it with an unerring attention and conscience - and it eludes us precisely because of that simplicity.

You cannot think your way to salvation, though thinking may help, you mus…

Kandinsky in Govan

Blue Rider by Wassily Kandinsky

Alastair McIntosh is organizing a conference on art, spirituality and the future inspired by reading Kandinsky's "Concerning the spiritual in art". It wants to look, in the context of Govan: a hardy but deprived community in Scotland, at what art can mean as a way of healing and future hope.

Kandinsky offered a vision of art as service, as mirroring and nurturing human spiritual possibility. In order for it to do this, he argued that one needed to separate the spiritual from the material. In focusing on the transcendent in art (and that came to mean abstraction), he reminded us of art's highest function as a bearer, within beauty, of sacred meaning and yet opened up a fracture between art and a genuinely incarnated, embodied spirituality.

Kandinsky was both clarion call to art's true purpose and a sundering of that purpose. Therefore, he presents a fascinating opportunity to explore wh…

Post-modern teapots

I came away from 'Post-modernism: Style and Subversion: 1970-1990 at the V&A with the distinct feeling that post-modern designers had an inordinate fondness for tea pots (even when they were Italian designers)...

Perhaps it was because they sold well suggested Andrei but that would not make them very subversive I thought! There were an awful lot of them - in alluring colourful shapes - witty and superficial.

It was disconcerting to be walking through an exhibition that was and was not your history.

It was because it was often recognisable - the colours, designs, shapes, music and magazines.

It was not because at no time did I feel 'post-modern' (in so far as that could be defined). Neither the ideological utopia of modernism nor the collapse of grand narratives in post-modernism has had much traction.

That there is a 'Fable' to use Edwin Muir's definition: an archetypal pattern to human life has always been for me a given, that it unfolds in myr…

Jerry confesses...

...and I misjudged him because 'What is God?' does indeed contain a new departure, hinted at in previous books, but now made explicit; namely, Needleman's indebtedness to Gurdjieff and 'the Work'. An indebtedness that is both intellectual and practiced with a group led by one of Gurdjieff's own closest associates.

This is fascinating because Gurdjieff is one of those people who have been loitering around my own intellectual space without ever coming under close scrutiny.

At one time, I read Maurice Nicoll, one of his circle, with great interest because he had been lent to me by a very close friend and because he was my beloved Edwin Muir's short-lived psychoanalyst. I read A.R.Orage for similar reasons - he was Muir's friend and first literary supporter - though both met Muir before they went to study with Gurdjieff.

But neither 'took' as it were - I did not find myself wanting to go deeper (at that time) and if I were honest it was because bot…

I love Jerry

... even though he writes the same book over and over: a continuing theme in multiple variations.

This time it is 'God' and episodes from his, Jerry's not God's, biography that illuminate his grappling with, 'What is God?'

First, out with the gripe, you do sense that you could lift whole paragraphs, indeed chapters, from this particular book and land them with minimum editorial effort into any of his previous books, without anyone, least of all me, noticing!

That aside - the feeling of intellectual deja vu - each of his books though they deal with the same fundamental theme, clothe it in a different context, and illustrate it anew whether this be 'the real nature of Christianity' or 'the meaning of money' or, as in this case, 'the status of God'!

And the fundamental theme is that we come to genuine knowledge of the truth only by a transformation of that which beholds the truth; namely, our consciousness; and, that beholding is a wisdom …

Still on a mountain in Tibet

When Thubron was nineteen, we discover, his elder sister, though only herself twenty-one, was killed by an avalanche in the Alps: she was skiing.

This mourned reality gives an edge to the final miles of the pilgrimage trail - grief never passes into history however time modifies it, it lives with us, shape shifting but always present.

Here on the mountain death is always present.

We discover the ill-prepared Indian pilgrims, especially from the South, where Shiva is especially venerated, who are turned back by the altitude and cold, and that has proved fatal to members of their party. We encounter the place where the dead are left - their clothes lie about, piled against each other in the wind, and where people pause to remember the dead or contemplate their own transience.

It is all seen with abiding compassion evoked in Thubron's lean, spare prose. He shows a remarkable ability to let a people's multiple beliefs stand, stark, even elegant, against a background of suspended …

To a Mountain in Tibet

Colin Thubron is an exceptionally gifted writer - esteemed as a travel writer, under-acknowledged as a novelist - 'To a Mountain in Tibet' provides an interesting departure in that his usual self-effacing presence. questioning but rarely questioned, is here set aside.

As he travels to the sacred mountain of Kailas on a path trodden for centuries by pilgrims - Buddhist and Hindu, he finds himself prompted to his own secular scrutiny for discovering himself the last of his line.

However, his secularism remains intact - though he is as erudite as ever on what he sees and its background in geography and history - and is skilful and sympathetic at eliciting the stories of others -he remains fundamentally unpersuaded by the traditions that he encounters.

This is maybe of no surprise given that many of the people he encounters are so poor, and culturally impoverished, that they have no appreciable access to those traditions - both temples and the gods who inhabit them are often unkn…