Friday, December 30, 2011

The only demonstration...

As a year of political upheaval and uncertain prospect comes to its close, I find myself remembering the one and only time I have been involved in a demonstration.

This was in no way heroic of me, as it was by accident.

I was in Albania and an election was being held. The then miss-named Democratic Party, then in government (as now), was nakedly cheating. A friend, an election observer, then working for the US-based Democratic Institute, came to a rural polling station just outside Tirana, explained who she was, and was heartily greeted with, 'You Democratic Party, We Democratic Party' whilst the hospitable officials carried on stuffing the ballot box!

The Democratic Party celebrated their victory (one they could probably have won without cheating, Mr Putin take note) in the main square the following day whilst the O.S.C.E. observer mission thought it politic to withdraw to Vienna before releasing its damning report.

The day after victory, the Socialist Party announced a counter-demonstration in the self-same square, which the government hastily banned. People took no notice and massed in the square, chanting for a re-run of the election and denouncing 'the West' for supporting the Democratic Party regime (failing to notice that 'the West' had weighed the election in the balance and found it wanting).

All of this was unfolding and I was in blissful ignorance, going about my business negotiating with the Albanian-American Enterprise Fund, until I walked into the main square.

My unconcerned demeanor rapidly evaporated when I found myself being turned upon by angry men and women, seeing a perfidious 'Westerner', and being pulled and (lightly) shoved as people spat out, 'Pinochet, Pinochet' at me. This was surreal and puzzling until I realized he was then (and now) the archetypal 'Right-wing' dictator to whom people were comparing Sali Berisha (the Democratic Party leader, then as now) and presumably 'my' (the West's) presumed support for him.

It was a striking moment when a group of people begin coalescing into a mob and the person in front of them (over and against them) becomes a representative object of hatred. You could feel your humanity draining from you, and your endangerment rising.

I rapidly began to move towards the square's edge and an exit. Then the police arrived (with dogs) and the crowd was attacked, brutally. People began to disperse in fear, the only engaged intelligence being how to avoid the batons and the dogs.

I found myself suddenly confronted with a baton wielding policeman and without conscious thought drew myself up to my full height and barked out, 'Hey, you cannot do that to me! I am English'! He looked surprised, hesitated, shifted direction slightly and unfortunately struck someone else, as I legged it as quickly as I could, weaving through people, back to the safety of my hotel.

I recall where my subconscious had plucked this absurd (though successful) expression from. A vicar friend in Oxford, encountering an altercation turning violent between a cyclist and a car driver, had run up to them and without thought said, 'You cannot do that! I am the vicar'! They were so surprised that they looked sheepish, apologized to each other, and went on their way! Remembering this in an unconscious instant, I had found my own spontaneous version - and it had worked (for me)!

It is probably an instinctive (and introverted) dislike of crowds (even jovial ones) that has kept me away from demonstrations. The only other near entanglement was exiting the Moscow metro and seeing 3,000 Russian nationalists marching down the hill towards it, chanting 'Foreigners Go Home'. I retreated!

But they have proven their worth this year in registering dissent and levering change (though the jury remains out on whether the change thus wrought will be, in the balance, a beneficial one) and the courage shown in many has been humbling and admirable.

I expect the forthcoming year has many more in store...I will not be there!

P.S. Albania passed through considerable trauma the following year to this flawed election, when the collapse of 'pyramid saving schemes' led to the fall of the Democratic Party government. However, slowly this has played to the good - a reformed system, a more democratic polity, the prospect of EU entrance and Mr Berisha is still a political actor...

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Hunting the spiritual

"The Spiritual in Twentieth Century Art" by Roger Lipsey is a magnificent book that has done much to shift my understanding of, and appreciation for, 'abstraction' and has illuminated the spiritual exploration that, he admirably argues, underpinned the discoveries of many key twentieth century artists.

Beginning with Kandinsky's own manifesto, 'On the Spiritual in Art', Lipsey shows us time and again that artists have been seeking new languages for expressing the human in a landscape where traditional forms have been, and seen to be, worn thin. They have not only confronted the painter, David Jones' question: what is the language for our effective signs? A question grounded in Jones' commitment to a given tradition of sign making - Roman Catholicism.  They being, predominantly, spiritually alive but of no fixed address, with no tradition of sign-making to renew, have been asking a two-fold question: what is an authentic spirituality and if this is 'it' how do I share it through the language(s) of my material?

It is no wonder, argues Lipsey, that in this context, artists have been thrown into manifold explorations around the quality and nature of their materials in themselves, freed of past formal languages that to them no longer appear to give accurate forming to a shared human, spiritual perspective or experience. The lure to abstraction and to materiality was inevitable accompanied by the oft repeated view that art was beginning ( for the first time or again).

But there is a curious flaw at the heart of the book, revealed in the book's original title: 'An Art for Our Time: The Spiritual in Twentieth Century Art'. For the art problem that Lipsey so effectively diagnoses, and for whose particular solutions he gives generous and appreciative space, are problematic only for a strand, no doubt highly significant, within contemporary art. If they resolve them satisfactorily then the art will be no longer 'for our time' but be a showing forth that can be meaningfully appropriated at 'any time' (however differently modulated that appreciation is by the fluxes of history).

This flaw is most compellingly revealed in a fleeting reference to Georges Rouault who is described as an "artist of considerable poetic power" but who has not been drawn into the book because, "his work relies on a painterly evocation of medieval stained glass and is, for all its warm beauty, retrospective in orientation - not a leap toward an art of our own but an extraordinarily comforting remembrance."

This would be news to Rouault (not least the notion that painters should be 'leaping' anywhere) whose penetrating paintings were, and are, profound meditations on the human condition. No one, for example, could look at his 'Judges' without recognizing the ways in which 'human justice' has and is often held sway to our baser emotions and predilection for corruption. An Arab activist bearing the brunt of an authoritarian regime is more likely to be comforted by this searing recognition of the evil that he or she faces than any of Lipsey's selected refined and complex works.

Lipsey falls into the strange belief that only an 'elite' western art world's figuring of what matters, is what actually matters, and that 'our' perceived problems are the most important of problems. And that critically we are beings without 'imagination' as Edwin Muir defined it - that faculty of ourselves that allows us to understand a T'ang dynasty poem or a Hans Memling Madonna and Child - that allows ourselves and the art we behold to step out of time and remember truths that are eternally present (however differently presented or presenced). He is, in short, sadly in the grip of that malady that is post-modernism that prioritizes theoretically views of how things should be seen over any quiet account of how they are actually seen. This is all the more surprising given he real spiritual intelligence and discerning criticism of actual, particular works.

To return to Rouault: I vividly remember watching people walk around an exhibition of his work at the Royal Academy, where one of the paintings turned out to be especially arresting. This was a life size portrait, entitled, 'Behold the Man' - the 'Man' - Christ - at the moment of his trail - looks out of the picture as if the person in a mirror. You see it as yourself, you are mirrored by the man who mirrored humanity. The number of people who paused at that moment, longer than usual, lost in thought, adjusting their body language into better carried versions of themselves, was astonishing. This was art that was timeless, because true, and carried itself in a language that people recognized because rooted in the reality of things not because they were consciously aware of its 'signs'.

What matters is always where is the spiritual, what may matter is how is that conveyed. Lipsey's book brilliantly explores the latter but at the risk of neglecting the former, deeper question. That said it is a remarkable fertile book and I have learnt much and will see much 'abstract art' with new and more sympathetic eyes.

Circus Manager with a Circus girl by Georges Rouault - a picture at once human, political and of spiritual sadness.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A year in reading

I thought I would behave like a newspaper and round up books of the year that I have read.

I would have to begin with Paul Scott's 'Raj Quartet'. The first time I read it was through a winter in Nizhny Novgorod, waiting upon Spring, and it struck me then as one of the great reading experiences. A novel series of great complexity both in its unfolding historical and personal events and in its psychological depth. Re-reading it, I was struck by the extraordinary portrait of evil that is Ronald Merrick and a portrait painted from 'outside'. We are never given his life and insights, except through the mirror of others: a study in character and its deformation. I had forgotten, also, how much God there is in the text - important to the lives of certain characters, and pondered on more generally.

A second re-read, after a gap of many years, was Patrick White's 'The Vivisector', his fictional biography of an artist, that beautifully delineates in poetic, imagined prose, the life and work of an artist, and most especially his austere search for the truth of what is seen, that spares no one, including himself. The pictures sizzle in the mind even as you realize that they only live in prose.

A new book was Christopher Rowland's 'Blake and the Bible' that confirmed Blake in my affections and helped me recognize my own self in his approach to the Bible. The Bible is a sacred text always open to re-interpretation because fallible. It invites amendment because of the sincerity of its searching after God's purposes and the in-completion of of its modeling of those purposes. Blake, like George Fox and other Christian radicals, placed their faith in the living experience of transformed consciousness (that is Jesus the Imagination to quote Blake) not in any scripture. Scripture is an imperfect map, never complete and never the territory.

An author re-discovered was John Blofeld, the accomplished and charming Chinese scholar, whose books are a delightful blend of memoir and scholarship. His honouring of different 'levels' of tradition is exemplary. Thus, Kuan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, is explored from the perspectives of deepest, luminous wisdom and from the hoping lives of ordinary folk seeking consolation. Neither is prioritized, all levels are seen to be of value. Blofeld is, also, an incurable romantic and his descriptions of China in the 30s and 40s are deeply affecting and affectionate.

And finally the poet, Mary Oliver, whose poems are miraculous for their clarity and their depth. She honours our place in the natural world whose purposes may not be our own. The world is bigger than us, will continue beyond us, and is often mysterious to us. Yet it is our world, our dancing home, that enfolds us and teaches and corrects us by its necessity and by its grace. She is a wonderful being a poet both popular and profound.

Here a fragment of advice for living in the world:

“to live in this world 

you must be able 
to do three things 
to love what is mortal; 
to hold it 

against your bones knowing 
your own life depends on it; 
and, when the time comes to let it go, 
to let it go” 

From 'In Blackwater Woods'

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Awakening

There is a tradition for Christmas Eve that this is a time for ghost stories, like All Saints being proceeded by Halloween, and Lent by Carnival, the arrival of the light and restoration, must be proceeded by the dark and dissolution.

Yesterday I was in London, waiting for my new passport to be processed, and so the obvious thing to do on a late, damp Friday afternoon was to go to the cinema.

A quick tramp around Leicester Square revealed nothing that was available, starting at the right time, but at an Odeon, in a side street, there was 'The Awakening' just about to begin.

Having no idea what this was (there was not even a poster), I bought a ticket and went into Screen 3, where there was precisely no one else!

For the first time in my life, I found myself sitting in a cinema on my own!

'Ah well', I thought, 'it is warm...and I have paid'!

'The Awakening' was indeed a ghost story, bent around a story of trauma and loss: individual and collective. We discover that Miss Cathcart's trauma (the central character) is both individual, buried deep in childhood, and touched by the collective, she has lost her love in the First World War. This in a dual sense: she had surrendered it (for reasons that become clear as the film unfolds) before she physically lost it when the man is killed in the trenches.

Miss Cathcart is a professional skeptic, a ghostbuster, who has a written a book entitled, 'Seeing through Ghosts' and we first meet her on a 'sting' operation, exposing a hoaxed seance in the immediate aftermath of World War I.

The film beautifully captures the social and psychological impact of that conflict. In one of the film's most memorable moments, as the fake medium and their assistants are being hauled off by the police, the grieving woman (victim of the host) comes up to Cathcart and strikes her, saying that surely she has never had and lost a child! Even false hope is better than none in the traumatic space of grief.

The film, though a touch over-wrought, is like Henry James' 'Turn of the Screw' (to which it owes much) in managing to dance a fine line between the psychological (how much of what unfolds takes place in Miss Cathcart's head) and the metaphysical.

It, also, does a beautiful job of dismantling certainty - whether the dogmatism of skepticism that obscures a faith in a particular kind (of solidly material) world or of faith that solidifies a world it has not experienced.

The main drama (and there are moments of genuine taut shock) unfolds in a school in the north of England where a ghost of a child has been reported and a child at the school has died.

It is all beautifully produced (as you would expect from a BBC Film) and the central performances are moving and able, though the final conceit, on which the whole turns, that I will not reveal here, does strain at credulity.

However, the wider parable of how living with trauma, carrying it fully seen, and vulnerable to it, is both more difficult and painful than any evasion and yet the only path through to a potentially fulfilling life is beautifully and well-made.

Random cinema going does throw up gems...

Monday, December 19, 2011

Happy Christmas, with help from Mr Blake...

One of my favourite books of the year was Christopher Rowland's 'Blake and the Bible'. It is a wonderful exploration of how this most eccentric of geniuses interpreted the Bible and in so doing was inspired in the matter of his art. One of his central convictions was that we are all participators in God's image and that this participation extends to all things for 'everything that lives is holy'. If I had one sentence to encapsulate my own credo that would be it!

In the course of the book, Rowland explores Blake's strange painting of the Nativity (attached here).

William Blake imagined that the Holy Family were both Mary & Joseph and Elizabeth & Zacharias and their off-spring: Jesus and his cousin, John.

In this, Blake's unique depiction of the Nativity, the sceptical Zacharias is absent, but all the others are present. Zacharias is probably outside, smoking a fag, and wondering what all the fuss is supposed to be about (or wondering in disbelief, not again, not again)!

Mary lays in a swoon, in the arms of Joseph, Elizabeth holds out her hands to greet a luminous, fully conscious Christ child, as her son, Jesus' prophetic forerunner, John sits robustly watching, attending in her lap.

Through the window, shines a star/cross like light, heralding his presence and symbolising that eternity breaks into time; and, on that symbol, Christ is crucified into resurrection.

It is a deeply mysterious painting that has taxed the ingenuity of interpreters but one thing for me is resolutely clear: for Blake, Mary has given birth to the cosmic Christ, that indwells in her, indwells in all of us, and is a bond of peace. He steps between two women, cousins, and is part of and welcomed by both. But giving birth to Christ and welcoming him are both deeply natural and yet something that must be strived for. Mary swoons, Elizabeth stretches, Christ dances in between.

All is grace and yet, paradoxically, something must be worked for - Jerusalem is built from mental fight.

It is undoubtedly curious to think of Christmas as a time of struggle, except possibly against that additional mince pie and the second turkey sandwich, but it is vividly there in the narrative.

Mary is cast into suspicion of pre-marital sex. Joseph has to wrestle between love and propriety, his own and his community's. The whole country is thrown into change in order that an oppressive imperial power assess tax. Joseph and Mary, in the last depths of pregnancy, have to find somewhere to rest, when everything is taken, and end up in a stable (or cave). The three wise men have to journey far into uncertainty. It is a birth that triggers a massacre and precipitates the Holy family's flight into refugee status!

You can read these as a parable on the costliness of discipleship, of bearing truth into the world and its unwillingness to pay heed (and how many examples of this have we seen this year as security forces beat and kill unarmed protesters seeking after truth and a decent political order).

You can read these esoterically, as Blake would, as exterior signs of the internal struggle each individual must partake in to be able and ready to receive truth - as a wise person once said as well as understanding truth, we must be ready and able to withstand it.

Either way Blake's haunting painting both testifies to the difficulty of receiving truth and affirms yet more insistently its ever-present offer.

In spite of every obstacle a world can cast up, Christ still dances, born of each of us and received by each of us. I find it a deeply hopeful and realistic picture.

But back to turkey sandwiches (or alternative celebratory happenings), may I wish you a very happy Christmas and a blessed New Year - and may all our strivings be towards the building up of Jerusalem (and as Mr Blake would say what that looks like will differ depending on each individual's sight - I expect God can accommodate a multitude of visions, religious people and dictators not withstanding)!!!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Narziss and Goldmund

Having read one novel, burnt into consciousness by being read young and loved, I thought I would read a second whose central protagonist is an artist. This one is even closer to my heart, having being read first when seventeen, when reading was all innocent absorption and assent (or rejection).

It is Hermann Hesse's 'Narziss and Goldmund' (and unlike White's 'The Vivisector', I have read it several times, at intervals).

The best way to approach Hesse, I now believe, is as fable. Extended and sophisticated as his novels are, they depend on a simplicity of symbolic form that gives them great resonance that removes them from realism. They are, like fairy tales, a genre in which he, also, excelled, archetypal, the characters carry fable before they flesh out in their histories, and it is the fable for which they are charged and memorable.

This is especially so of their female characters, always seen through masculine eyes. They come as ciphers of transformation, as anima figures, to chose a Jungian typology, that never step out of a framing by males. They are often loved, honoured, worshipped but never allowed to stand forth as individual woman, with their own internal lives, freed from a male seeing.

Like myth, the books speak of the typologies of being human. Like myth, they aim at the essentials. Like myth, they lack something of the homely particularities of story, the embodied textures of the real.

I love this book - the contrast between the two friends - the monk, Narziss, full of intellect, the distinctions of thought, the dominance of word as words, ciphers of meaning within their own space. Goldmund, the poet, who sees in images, who imagines his way to conclusions that are, for him, embodied in the forms he carves, the sculptures in wood he offers to the world.

The play and seriousness of their friendship is a prolonged meditation on creativity, the need for both and the superiority of the concrete senses that allow images to rise and unite, what in thought is split asunder. That pain and pleasure, to take two, can co-exist in a moment, be caught in a face as it gives birth, can live and breathe and are always different, transient, in movement in image (and caught and tied in the words of thought).

I had forgotten or perhaps see in a new way how haunted the book is by death - death as necessary and as that whose continuing embrace sharpens, shapes life. Death has a different face to me now than when I was seventeen - an arbitrary and distance stalker is closer and both more friendly and more terrible.

The passages describing the coming and sweep of plague - and how Goldmund, the artist, absorbs the manifold images of death that it gives rise to are extraordinary in their power and poetry, and settle under the skin, un-easing of complacency, as all art should, bringing a renewed vulnerability to see and be seen. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Visiting Russia

When I first visited Russia, I was taken one afternoon to one of the new markets that had sprung up in Moscow, full of traders, selling everything from cheap Turkish knickers to slabs of dark red-brown meat that slid from plastic bags, that had been stored in battered suitcases, onto makeshift tables. These were the people who were 'making it' hustling through disturbed times with grit and determination and guile.

On the edge of the market was a woman in a well-kept fur coat holding a single crystal glass, hoping to sell it, needing to sell it, to supplement the shrunken pension that might not even come. She had been a public, municipal official, we discovered, and her comfortable, pre-fall life, had disintegrated and she was now surviving on meagre help from her equally pressed, public servant children, and selling items accumulated in the 'good times' (of late Brezhnev to which Mr Putin recently referred in nostalgic terms).

You can imagine that if your life was framed by the latter experience, Mr Putin's arrival (though the economic revival began before he did) was a godsend. With the tax reform, and then the oil price, swelling the state coffers and pensions (and wages) rising (and being paid), it was easy to see him through salvation tinted spectacles (and genuinely so).

But after a first reformist burst (and the brutality of the suppression of the North Caucasus, only partially successful, and only for the time being), Mr Putin proceeded to do precisely nothing except push money through a sclerotic system and tinker with it at the edges - rather like pumping air into a burst tyre, keeping it inflated and moving along, but offering no meaningful fixes.

And with each passing year of stagnation the air needed grows - in 2008 the Russian budget would balance if oil stood at $80, now it needs to be $110.  With a crippling lack of investment (either in technological or financial terms), the world's second largest oil/gas producer struggles to meet its forward contracts without buying supplies from Central Asia.

And so it goes, even without touching on the triggers of corruption or electoral fraud, Mr Putin's vaunted 'stability' is a house built upon if not sand, sandstone. It is not an economic structure that is going to collapse overnight but rather like the nostalgic Brezhnev era wither away over time until it crumbles.

It is very sad. A few weeks ago, I was at an 'innovation event' and was surprised to see that many of the presenters, setting up new technological businesses in the UK, were young Russians. Surprised partly because I carry about with me (in spite of myself) a forlorn English sense of why here? I asked one why? The first response was a business one - London is an exciting place to develop such ventures, a critical hub does appear to be emerging, enabling cross-fertilization and angel financing. The second one (after more wine and establishing that I had lived in Moscow) was more personal - if I am successful, said one, I can be sure I can keep my wealth and my company will be legally secure (and, after more wine, in fact, I myself will be safe)!

It is difficult to imagine that a man whose first became President promising the oxymoron of the 'dictatorship of law' can, in fact, be such a failure against his own declared intentions but, sadly, he is; and, you can only hope that if this is not the end (as it almost certainly is not), it is the first signs of the beginning of the end.

Back to the 90s, it was an extraordinarily difficult period for Russia (no one can doubt that) though I doubt whether anyone faced with the calamity of Brezhnev stagnation could have untangled the situation without considerable pain but it was too genuinely exciting, alive not stagnating, with real debate and real options to build a more flourishing, open society.

Another person I met on that first visit was the Director of the State Geological Institute in Nizhny Novgorod. I met him, not in his office, but in a basement, cramped and chilly but a hive of industry. He had started a business making pelmeni as his salary (of $20 a month) was inadequate, and often failed to arrive. I asked him, "Did he not want to go back to the old system?" He thought quietly for a moment, smiled and said, "No, never. I am for the first time making my own life. It is very hard but it is working. I am free."

It is to be hoped that more people can find that there is a balance to be struck between the real challenge and real fruit of being free (something it is easy for us 'here' to complacently forget) and that the most successful societies continue to be one's that enable their citizens (however imperfectly) to craft decisions together, and where power is exercising legitimate authority within the checks and balances of individual's rights. But it may require (sadly) a greater sense of economic and social crisis to push them over that particular edge.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Fool sees

There are moments looking at the reproductions of Cecil Collins' work in William Anderson's exemplary monograph where you glimpse the harmony of the "Great Happiness" that he sought as an artist to convey: its rhythm, its colour, its form.

He is a painter of 'paradise' that state of consciousness that is our originator and our end, where all is in its place, and where the light casts no shadow.

He is, also, a painter of how messengers of that reality fare in our more conflicted, narrower, less generous world - reminding us that it is the same world, seen differently - seeing that is, at once, fragile, easily lost, and yet when given, paradoxically, is so resonant and strong, such that we wonder how we could ever and again lose its freedom.

The archetypal figures that are the messengers - the angel (here above wounded), the compassionate woman, and the Fool - strike me as deeply familiar. I have dreamt them. I have met them in the behaviours of people when most deeply generous to their own, our shared humanity. I may have occassionally myself been inhabited, touched by them.

I was struck by Anderson quoting periodically negative reviews (especially from the 40s and 50s) accusing him of neuroticism and (usually modest) forms of psychopathology. This is akin to Blake's non-reception by people fantasising his madness. It is as if to the ill, all wholeness, stands condemned as its opposite. Many of his paintings do reflect deep conflicts but these are personal precisely because to any sensitive soul, the world must be a trial. It is fallen, broken, in need of healing. Christ is crucified before resurrection. To translate this merely into an individual's psychological complaint is to diminish the viewer's hope of seeing anew.

It is to Collin's image of the Fool I am most deeply drawn - the vulnerability of an innocent consciousness that sees aright. It is an image he returns to repeatedly and it is an image of reproof: when did one last see with such generosity that the world fell into its place and was loved in your seeing, without judgement?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Springs eternal

This strange picture was a highlight for me from an exhibition in the Norwegian National Gallery (from the Art Museum in Berne).

Arnold Bocklin was a Romantic painter deeply influenced by the use of symbols (and, as a result, influential on surrealism).

It is striking because caught in a moment of Spring, it implies eternity. The two central figures, often described as meeting lovers, come from different historical periods - the woman from that contemporaneous with the artist, the musician from the Renaissance. The two central figures are framed by out-liers: the man (contemporary with the artist) looks out, with his back to us, out into the still lake, standing to the right of the painting. He is painted as if transparent - you see the distant landscape through him. The woman, to the left, with children gathering flowers, is dressed in a long gown, another Renaissance figure, befitting the classical, Italianate villa behind her but plays with children in Victorian dress.

In classical Islam, paradise is an eternal spring and it is a symbolism that penetrates even the most secular of authors. William Morris, whose professed atheism is often undermined by his love of the medieval, paints his paradise of socialist harmony in the 'News of Nowhere' as a continual Spring.

Is Bocklin (whose most famous painting is The Isle of the Dead) once again presenting an image of death - an Elysium where people meet across ages of time in a new world of perpetual becoming and celebration, where histories dissolve into one another?

It is a beautiful thought - all space in a new world of continuous discovery.

The older figure looking out over the lake, towards distant towers, in his transparency, reminded me of the painter Edward Burra asking a lifelong friend whether he had noticed that people had grown more transparent with age - you see through people in paradise, they stand as themselves, without sides or secrets yet with mystery, the unfathomable nature of the divine image we all bear.

Bocklin does not proceed perhaps that far - like many late nineteenth century Symbolists you sense his search for symbolic life is the reanimation of a world that has lost transcendence. It is magical and imprecise because there is no clear underlying metaphysics - a world hoped for in the face of corroding materialist doubt rather than a quiet affirmation of vision. It haunts nonetheless because is this not our continuing quandary - breathing life in a world stripped of the animating breath of meanings revealed.

Divergent countries

In my dimming mind, the Nordic countries share a common history and their cultures resonate with one another and yet like siblings, they emerge with manifold differences - that you can see and feel even in a brief trip through three of them - Denmark, Sweden and Norway.

Like siblings, you glimpse the tensions between them. "Perhaps we should do more together," admitted one official in Norway in response to our innocent query, before his body relaxed into the transparent thought that he was glad that they did not!

My colleagues plump for Stockholm. It is manifestly 'cool' - the way people dress, the greater racial mix, the range of shops especially those unique to Sweden; and, the balance of old and new: a carefully preserved old city blending into a more modern whole.

I would plump for Copenhagen partly because it carries important, shared memories but I like its openness, a greater sense of spaciousness, of parks, squares and wide streets and (as with Stockholm), once off the main shopping street, a preserved identity, still commercial but with its own commerce. Shops that feel of their particular place, rather than any place.

Oslo is a paradoxical mix - it feels (and looks) more parochial. People dress ruggedly rather than suavely - there are fewer examples of individual look, difference. Yet here they were proudly celebrating the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, opening out, internationalist, and as a country always punching above its weight, usually in the most peaceful of manners.

It is, also, the city with the greatest density of bookshops (occupied with happy buyers), I have seen - and the way that texts in Norwegian and English stand together with the expectation that for most people they are interchangeable. 

I stayed in Oslo for the weekend - and on a Sunday morning walk around the harbour came, by chance, to the Museum of Norwegian Resistance (to German occupation). The museum probably needs a refit - and oddly for this, the richest of the three, Norway was the one with the least well-managed stock of public goods - but it was very moving and illuminating.

Moving because it was a warts and all account of occupation - though it downplayed collaboration, the infamous Quisling, it was there, repeatedly and though it accounted for the heroism of resistance, it marked and told its many failures and setbacks.

It, also, without saying so, pointed to the curious failure of dictators, that sooner or later, because insulated from reality, they lose their grip on it. Hitler was convinced that the Allies were preparing a second front in Norway (a delusion that the Allies happily fed) and so no less than 400,000 German troops (one for every ten Norwegians) was stationed there: sheer folly that sapped the German effort (at Norwegian cost) to the benefit of the Allies elsewhere.

They do share one obvious feature - their expense - this mounted as we proceeded - to dizzy heights in the world's most expensive city: Oslo. It did have one happy outcome - after your one glass of wine or beer with your meal - I was wholly disinclined to buy a second!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Paintings at an exhibition, seen briefly!

A fleeting visit yesterday, between meetings, to the National Museum in Stockholm and what do I find but an exhibition of paintings from Russia - from the Tretyakov and St. Petersburg - of those now deeply familiar artists from the late nineteenth century including my favourite Russian painting: The Little Fox by Mikhail Nesterov of a fox tamely emerging from the woods of northern Russia to greet three elderly monks, benignly enjoying each other's company sitting on a log. It is a beautiful painting of contemplative ease in which a glimmer of paradise is restored, now and here, in the renewed compact between nature and human.

There was, also, a parallel exhibition of Swedish painters of the same period and their exploration of the four seasons. Here they explore the natural landscape through a romantic and nationalist lens. The world of emigration and urbanization is abolished, and a simpler life extolled in a purifying nature. In contrast to Nesterov, it is a vision that is fundamentally secular. The dislocation, that is the modern world, is not healed through man's transformation within a created order that is transcendentally graced; but, our wounds are healed by a nature cleansed of our obscuring, problematic presence.

However, in my hurried progress, the painting that most deeply arrested me was a Rembrandt portrait of an old woman, displaying all the weathering of age, gnarled hands to the fore, signalling a life of toil well met, struggled with, surrendered to. It is a painting luminous with reality, illumined with compassion.

There is a moment in Patrick White's The Vivisector where his central artist character, Hurtle Duffield, realises that his life as an artist has been about offering people confrontations with the truth that, frankly, they would rather not accept! You get that feel with Rembrandt, his truthfulness is uncomfortable, and necessary, but you can imagine that the good burghers of the Netherlands found him a deeply ambivalent good.

It is no doubt a futile exercise to grade painters (except by subjective favouritism) yet it is irresistable - like discussing who was the greatest footballer while propped up against a bar - but I would wager my money on Rembrandt. Looking closely, if briefly, at this remarkable portrait, it relativised the gallery in its light. He is extraordinarily compelling.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The God like status of Jeremy Clarkson

The recent controversy about Mr Clarkson's remarks about shooting public sector workers in front of their families reminds me of one of the more surreal moments of my life.

I was being driven down a very, very steep slope in Tuva in Siberia in a 'rugged' Russian 4x4 as the first snow of winter sprinkled fitfully down. The driver was talking about 'Top Gear' which, apart from the smoggy streets of London staple of Russian 'English' text books and Princess Diana, was the only piece of England to have made any impression. Indeed the only time I have ever watched 'Top Gear' (the BBC's most successful export) is in a Tuvan mayor's house - the house itself dwarfed by its giant satellite dish!

I told the driver that I had met Jeremy Clarkson (though I did not reveal this at the time, on a train). I thought in the driver's excitement we would crash into a tree. "What kind of car does he own?" he eagerly asked. I thought it was too dispiriting to the driver's 'Clarkson image' to respond that I had seen him only on a train! "Too many to count," I replied. "Wealthy man," I proposed.

At this juncture, my companion decided to risk all our lives by adding to the driver, "Nicholas has met His Holiness the Dalai Lama too!" (whose photograph adorns every Tuvans' house, their being Buddhists, and indeed the Dalai Lama had visited Tuva).

Shock and awe passed over the driver's face as he dangerously gawped at me, oblivious to the descending track weaving between the trees, any one of which offered itself as wrapping.

"Clarkson, Dalai Lama' the driver happily chanted periodically, shaking his head in disbelief.

Thus was I introduced on arrival at our destination - a collection of family yurts being disassembled for the winter as the family moved to their winter quarters - the man from England who encounters divine beings - Clarkson and the Dalai Lama.

I can barely imagine a more unlikely combination (though his Holiness is, I believe, fond of all things mechanical)!

Friday, December 2, 2011

A flowering world

This is Iris, Tindle Tarn by Winifred Nicholson - a painting of her native Cumbria.

It exhibits her essential qualities - an extraordinary feel for colour, here in shading delicacy, for flowers, especially domestically disporting on a window sill; and, an opening out into encompassing nature and light.

The world is both domestic and wild and both are held in a transcending yet immanent order. The world is looked upon, and it is found to be good, an expression of a divine creativity.

It is a creativity in which we participate when we 'decreate' ourselves (to quote Simone Weil), stand ourselves down, and allow the empty space we make way for to be suffused with a seeing that is, paradoxically, most deeply ours and utterly 'objective' - a radiance of things in themselves.

I have always treasured her work - both seen domestically, hanging on the walls of friends who knew her and were her friend, and in art galleries.

I remember her retrospective at the Tate (and another is long overdue) vividly. It is one of my most memorable artistic encounters. I went back over and over, singling out particular paintings for the closest attention, and remembering specific works with a lucidity that astonishes.

It is the simplicity and grace communicated that I love.

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...