June Links Post

Things my friends have done:

  • Textile print designer Fiona Hogarth put on her final graduation show this month, and I nipped down to Winchester to see it.  As well as being able to check out all the finished work I’d seen progress shots of (and loaned my boyfriend to be a model for), I also had the opportunity to see what the graduands of the college were presenting to the world. One artist I particularly liked the work of and whose business/post cards were readily available was one T. Radclyffe.

Things strangers have done:

  • Written an intriguing argument on the subject of why Strong Female Characters in fiction are actually harmful to perceptions of women.
  • Produced a very elegant infographic on different types of rhetorical fallacy.
  • Codified the 22 rules of storytelling, according to a storyboarder at Pixar.
  • Explained the concept of the Male Gaze for techie audiences.
  • Created a free program for writers that analyses how often you use particular turns of phrase. I can see this being quite useful for anyone who is trying to avoid over-reliance on clichés, but there are some forms of writing in which repetition is considered a part of the experience (writing for young children, for example).
  • Chronicled how the naming of colours has potentially alerted our ability to see/perceive them.
  • Ursula le Guin has put forward a hypothesis concerning what is and isn’t “literature”, which may also help to explain for any budding “genre fiction” writers why they may have been rejected from some MA Creative Writing courses: it really is a case of it’s not you, it’s them, so feel a little better about yourselves!
  • Written a witty and heartfelt guide to dealing with bad reviews.

Brief hiatus

I know I’m posting erratically at the moment: my excuses are that I seem to be inexplicably writing another novel (I … wasn’t expecting to and didn’t intend to), but I shall almost certainly be gone between the 27th of June and the 19th of July because I am firing myself in a metal tube full of loud people to the other side of the planet for “fun”.

In other words, I am going on holiday to Australia because every English person is apparently required to do something this stupid by law. If I don’t die of spiders, I will be back and start the 100 Works of Art blog posts up again, and hopefully do the last of the SIX gift shops at the London Natural History Museum so that I can post that review as well.

I also hope to return with photos of koalas, please be upstanding for what is undoubtedly the pinnacle of my life.

100 Works of Art: (Visual) Irises, Claude Monet

For an idea of why I’m talking about me as well as the paintings, please see the first post in this series.

14. Irises, Claude Monet (1914-17)

As mentioned elsewhere in this series of posts, as a child (and an autistic child at that) I was rather obsessed with Monet. Happily for me both my mother and absent father have pretensions toward artistry and encouraged this particular obsession with more generosity than anything else I’d shown an interest in, which lent itself to a) a visit to a Monet retrospective at the National Gallery which was I think in 1989 or 1990 and I am sure housed in the basement where the  coffee shop and so on now live and b) a grandparents-funded detour on a holiday in France to allow myself and my grandfather (a retired horticulturalist) to visit Monet’s legendary gardens at his house in Giverny.

Although my interest in Impressionism and Monet have waned significantly in the intervening 20 or so years, I have a certain fondness for one or two paintings of his, and this one most of all.

Irises, Claude Monet
Irises by Claude Monet

As much as Monet represents a leading light of the Impressionist movement to the world, to me his works – and this work in particular – represent the last vestiges of childhood innocence and precocious enjoyment of beauty untainted by the crippling self-awareness and self-loathing that descended on me in the early 90s and never left. Monet’s house in Giverny represents an indulgence of the sort I’d never had before and never would again: I was not harried and hurried around the gardens, I was not nagged and bossed about what I should be interested in, and I was given leave to take as many photos as I wanted. Sadly because I was 9 or so they were not the best photos anyone has ever taken and the light levels were too low in a lot of them, but what they represent, in hindsight, is what matters.

Likewise the exhibition was a circumstance under which instead of being irritated by my propensity for hurtling about pointing at things and talking very fast, people were charmed by it.

This specific Monet has graced my life for decades in postcard form. My mother, who has always been very fond of irises, has or rather had before her madness a travelling collection of art postcards including this painting and Matisse’s Blue Nude II along with some quotes and some rather less intimidating Jacky Fleming postcards. While I grew to hate the Matisse, the beautiful contrast between the yellows and earth colours of the path and the strangely warm blues and purples that spill out from Monet’s irises and into their leaves has kept this painting dear to me.

Many of Monet’s works from this half of his garden, where the Japanese bridge and the water lilies can be found, revolve around this particular palette. Though the irises themselves are little more than purple splotches against the shadows, the sense of evening light pouring down over the top of the picture and turning the leaves to gold-kissed stripes.

Of course it is light which fascinated the Impressionists and of course Monet was a master in the suggestion of light falling elsewhere, outside of the frame of his painting (one only has to look at his water lily paintings to know this), but there is still something a little magical in how with such broad strokes and only the use of colour he manages to infer so strongly the position of the sun and therefore the time of day, the mood, and everything else you could associate with it.

100 Works of Art: (Visual) Christ Crowned with Thorns, Dirk Bouts

To see why I’m rabbiting about my feelings in relation to the works rather than talking exclusively about the works themselves, please see the first of these posts.

13. Christ Crowned with Thorns, Dirk Bouts (c. 1470-5)

This painting is another National Gallery find, like the Ortolano St Sebastian, Sandro Botticelli’s Portrait of a young man, and Seurat’s Le Bec du hoc, Grandchamps, so it is pertinent for me to repeat perhaps just how much I love the fact that this institution does not charge a mandatory entrance fee. It allows me to go in and wander about and make new discoveries or wallow in individual paintings, and when I worked on Shaftesbury Avenue in the summer of 2006 it was where I spent my lunch break, both sheltering from too much sun and filling my mind up with glorious culture after hours of making corrections to documents about railway franchises (the glamorous life of the temp typesetter, there).

I am fond both of the institution and of the collections, and it is a great pleasure to consistently discover new things to like about the place: as a child my mother took me to a Monet exhibition there (two reasons: as a child I was obsessed with Monet, and my mother was in London for a mature students’ conference of some kind); killing time before a ballet when at secondary school (I believe, but am not sure, it may have been a performance of Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella) I stumbled on a film and talk about Hogarth’s Marriage A-la-mode and have loved it ever since.

Christ Crowned With Thorns, Dirk Bouts
Christ Crowned With Thorns by Dirk Bouts

This painting has been a relatively recent find for me, and it as only on the most recent trip that I made a point of writing down the name of the painting rather than referring to it – as I have done in the past when trying to lead my friends to it – as “the miserable Christ”.

A small, devotional image intended for private contemplation and backed by more of the eye-catching gold leaf that this particular wing of the museum is packed with, what separated this painting from its fellows in a similar class was in part the simplicity: it is only Jesus, alone, to the waist, showing his wounds.

What interests is also in part the contradiction: he is wearing a robe of high office in glorious red – over his naked and somewhat abused body. The crown of thorns is cruel and and thick and looks like it might well be heavy as a thorned branch can be. Worst of all, Jesus’s lips and face are turning the haggard grey of death even as he stands and shows he is risen. This is why this painting is also referred to as “Zombie Jesus” when I’m trying to find it.

It is the suffering and resignation, the sadness of this picture – intended for the viewer to contemplate – which captivates. In late images of the risen Christ the focus is on the incredulity of the disciples (there is plentiful imagery of Thomas the Doubter achieving various degrees of what frankly looks like finger-fucking on Christ’s spear wound), and in much iconography the serenity of Jesus is the focus.

Here, however, stands a man exhausted by pain and by sacrifice, showing his wounds. They are not trivial, either: the nail wounds in his palms are gaping (if medically inconsistent with crucifixion as he would be hanging from his wrists and his hands were supposed to be horizontal to his shoulders at the beginning of the crucifixion and blah blah pedantry about torture) and oddly clear blood dribbles from them all despite the necrotic colouring above his wounds and on his face.

And he weeps. His eyes are downcast. As an image of suffering for the contemplation of the devoted Christian soul, it fulfils a purpose. Central to the idea of the faith is the sacrificial king and the new convent between Yahweh and his people: I have wiped the slate clean, you must now give thanks.

However as I think I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I’m an atheist. As far as I’m concerned this diminishes the spiritual impact of the painting for me, as I don’t have a spirit for it to have any impact on; on the other hand, the depiction of human frailty and suffering and the notion of Christ the Man undergoing torment for reasons of faith continues to have the same emotional impact as before.

A memory:

The sun has set. It is 1988. I know the year because of the scenery. It is the most vivid year I will ever live in, because the scenery is never revisited, but it is constant for six or seven months.
The air is thick because the air is always thick, as it is always alive with the song of mosquitoes. The walls are blank, and voices follow their speakers down corridors. Every memory is a photograph and a set of lyrics, brought to life by someone singing. The lyrics don’t matter: it just matters that I heard them here, over and over, my three cassette tapes and my pink, battery-operated, AM/FM radio and tape recorder.
I have a memory of the hour being later than I was supposed to be awake, but the nuns liked my curiosity. They liked to talk to me. I was listening to the sound of music that wasn’t mine, and watching the light that came up through thick glass set into the floor. I was watching through empty stone windows. The building was a maze for the wind, to keep out the heat outside. All of the wildlife wandered in and left my skin red and white in lumps. The rest crawled about all day on the floor, and for every pill I wouldn’t take my mother put me face-down on the cool tiles where the disinfectant came each morning, where the bugs crawled. I had to stay until I took the pills: the nuns bribed me to take them instead. This is why when all my friends are afraid of their convent-school captors I am not.
It is an undetermined month. The girls at the convent school are learning a traditional dance. I have no memory of the dance, only of the feeling of the music and the light from the floor and watching where I shouldn’t be standing, and my mother coming to take me back to bed. I remember bangles, when I am given them. They accompany me for years, until I outgrow them: the anklets I have still, wear still, twenty-year-old, twenty-five-year-old Indian silver with long-lost bells replaced over and over. My mother hates them: I only want to dance the dances I cannot remember.

100 Works of Art: (Visual) Kissing Policemen, Banksy

For an overview of why these posts are full of personal anecdotes rather than academic analysis, please see the first post in the series.

12. Kissing Policemen, Banksy (c. 2004-2005)

Banksy passed his hipster credibility peak at least six years ago, and it is now frowned upon and considered lame to like his work: this is excellent, as it means I can enjoy stencil graffiti by Banksy and various other artists without wankers from Hoxton getting in my way and talking about how “innovative” or “ironic” it is and generally making everything worth looking at into a nightmarish experience being elbowed by the cultural dregs of humanity.

I was introduced to his work by a flatmate of mine in the (extremely eventful, for me) summer of 2003: poisoned with ennui, broke, and subsisting on a diet almost entirely comprising of banned substances, I was not in the most fabulous of mental states and unwanted medical issues and upcoming surgery only compounded it. My dear, lovely flatmate, an unwaveringly sweet and very tall young man from Washington State, decided that the solution to this was to take me on a Banksy tour of the city, and find every single rat stencil he could.

For that day at least, it was an effective anti-depressant.

Kissing Policemen, Banksy
Kissing Policemen by Banksy

Continuing the theme from Matthew Woodson’s X-ray, if I own a print of a piece it merits automatic inclusion in this series. I have one small block print of this piece, which until I moved house hung directly opposite the entrance to my flat; it also features in the book Wall and Piece, which I also own. Wikipedia informs me it’s visible in the to my mind sadly underrated dystopian film Children of Men.

I love graffiti in general, and not just “artistic” graffiti, nor only fêted artistic graffiti. While I like a good municipal mural as much as the next person who got Stockholm Syndrome in the underpasses of central Plymouth as a child, it’s not the artistic intent or social commentary (both of which feel rather forced in commissioned community art anyway) that appeals in graffiti but the illegality and individuality of the act.

Not everything people choose to express when they have two seconds and a marker pen or an entire night and several cans of motor spray paint is an opinion I can get behind: I think it doesn’t really need stating that my opinion on people who spray-paint “PAKI” on someone’s house or daub swastikas anywhere is that they need to be re-educated, preferably with a Doc Marten applied with some force. In graffiti, as in most art, I think it is important to my enjoyment of it that the content, if not the action, is without malice.

The quality of the graffiti itself does not need to be up to an arbitrary artistic standard, as an acquaintance of mine argued, for it to cease to be “ugly vandalism” and become “a work of art”. It is both ugly vandalism and a work of art: the typical purpose of graffiti is for the artist to make their mark on the world. TOX, whose tag populates the railway cuttings out of London in several directions, does nothing more than tag and date; they are making their mark.

Banksy, whose work is varied and lengthy and popular, makes his mark and leaves his opinion, but the point is the same: I am here. I have been here. 

Graffiti, especially tagging, is a paradoxical statement. The intention of marking the universe is to draw attention to the presence of the transient self and, as with other forms of non-performance art, to establish in the mind of the artist/tagger some sense of external permanence. I am here, I have been here. The identity of the tag may be individual or communal but the statement is always individual: I have been here. Nowhere is this more evident than in the archetypal “BAZ WOZ ERE”, the toilet-door message boards.

What makes these statements paradoxical is that the majority of graffiti, more so than other forms of art, is by its illegal nature more transient than the artist and by its illegal nature necessarily also anonymous. The audience and the artist remain forever parted, unable to acknowledge each other directly. The futile cry of I am here is washed away in minutes or days, and the artist’s “I” can never be fully-realised. (This is not always the case!)

Graffiti is used to spell out strongly-held sentiment on the face of the earth and on the sides of buildings, be those sentiments “No Nazis in Bradford” or “M Khan is bent”, or a more naked admission of the original cause: I was here.

This specific piece of graffiti appeals to me for very childish reasons: I grew up with a healthy distrust of authority figures and uniformed ones the most, but I also respect the notion that law enforcement officials are human beings and as such have lives and loves. As such, this work both tickles me because people find it “disrespectful” to suggest that statistically there are going to be some gay serving police officers who are attracted to each other, and also soothes my sense of unease with the profession by depicting law enforcement in entirely non-threatening, humanising activity – specifically one which almost inevitably improves my view on the individuals involved.

I choose to have it on my wall because it is playful, upbeat, political only in a very vague and non-specific sense, and far kinder than it might be. It demonstrates a faint undercurrent of “love is important”, and in its original form – as graffiti – it adheres to the theme I follow in a lot of my favourite art: individual humanity struggling with the notion that one day we will not longer exist.

100 Works of Art: (Visual) Le Bec du Hoc, Grandchamp, Georges Seurat

For an idea of what the point of this series of posts is, please see the first post in the series.

11. Le Bec du Hoc, Grandchamp, Georges Seurat (1885)

So far I have written a great deal about paintings and photographs with which I already have a relationship, but I thought now I might say something about a work of art which I came to only recently. Being engaged in a leisurely stroll through the vast wonderland of the National Gallery once more (isn’t it lovely that it’s free? Let’s keep it that way), I passed through to the more modern rooms by accident more than by design. My habit at that gallery is usually to visit L’Ortolano, to gush over some Caravaggios, snigger at Marriage A-la-Mode by William Hogarth, and then mill around the more bonkers bits of medieval iconography before exiting as all good museum-goes do: through the gift shop. I have, for example, a positive allergy to entering the Flemish rooms.

However, the Degas and the Monets and the Seurats are gathered about not far from the main entrance/exit, and I was happily cataloguing paintings for my vast imaginary gallery of stolen art that I will have when I am a criminal mastermind, so I popped in and stumbled all the people looking at whichever version of Van Gogh’s bloody Sunflowers the National has got.

Le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp, Georges Seurat
Le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp by Georges Seurat

After a certain amount of thought I have in my head what it is about this painting which caught my eye. Pointilism is a strange and alienating technique which, to me at least, renders an image a lot like a grainy photograph of a memory. A sort of Instagram for an image which already exists only inside your mind, if you will. And something about the colours and the quality of like in this unassuming piece of French landscape as preserved by Seurat puts me very strongly in mind of “The Island” at St Ives (it is actually a promontory).

Sadly for anyone who is looking for analysis of this painting beyond my enjoyment of the colours and the bright summer coastal feeling it inevitably evokes, this means the rest of this entry will be not even an anecdote, but a smear of memories from a decade ago.

I am very fond of The Island, and when I was a teenager I was adamant that I was going to live on Teetotal Street, for  reasons that time and, ironically, alcohol have hidden from me. One exceptionally fine summer’s day about ten or eleven years ago, my darling mother dumped me in St Ives for the day with some money for food so that she could go to a dance workshop somewhere and I wouldn’t annihilate the house with boredom remaining at home for yet another day.

It was one of the most delightful days I’ve ever spent in my own company. I had a library book (I Sing The Body Electric, relevant perhaps in light of the recent death of Ray Bradbury: it inspired me to write a short story about a man who was in love with the sea as if the sea was a person, and I believe I still have that somewhere), a sketchbook, and took a proper breakfast at a harbour cafe for over an hour. At that point in my life, the idea that I could just eat whatever I wanted and damn the cost, that I could sit in a cafe by myself and read and perhaps have a second drink if I felt like it, was new and exhilarating and, I dare say, it still is a little.

Over the course of my day I was assaulted by a seagull which nicked my Battenberg cake while I was reading on the habour wall (not so good), visited the Tate St Ives and was intrigued by the single-line drawings of an artist whose name I have since forgotten (else he’d be included too: Richard someone…), which led me to the cafe at the top of the gallery. Here I drank a pot of tea and attempted some line drawings of my own of the view from the window, which included a tiny, tiny church.

I made up my mind to visit the tiny, tiny church, and somewhere between the gallery and making my presence felt upon The Island, this turned into me scaling a semi-sheer cliff face in platform boots, a tattered black ballgown, and a corset while carrying a parasol and a bag with some books in. The sea was the same colour as this Seurat painting, the grass the same grass, and the sense of the world going on forever beyond the edge of the land was the same, too.

It’s not my belief that all works of art should trigger some personal connection in their audience: some should be meaninglessly beautiful, some should start riots, some should remind you of things, some should make you fall in love, some should make you want to destroy them. My feeling is mostly that good art results in a reaction of some sort. I never like to be indifferent to these things. And therefore, it’s reassuring that even an alien, quiet Pointilist painting of a rock outcropping on the coast can conjure up a whole happy, entirely personal and private memory. Not least because that was a day that made pleasant, without needing anyone else at all. Similarly, the communion between artist and viewer, the art, is something that is experienced on a private level.

100 Works of Art: (Visual) A man walks towards the chimneys of the steel foundry in West Hartlepool, Don McCullin

For an overview of why this series of posts is all personal and not very intelligent, please see the first post in the series.

10. A man walks towards the chimneys of the steel foundry in West Hartlepool, Don McCullin (1963)

Alongside Robert Mapplethorpe (whose work I will be talking about later), Don McCullin is one of the photographers I was introduced to by my secondary school art teacher, Ros Wilson. While the majority of the teachers at my school were … sub-optimal … Ros was keen to introduce us to new art which we might enjoy, and some of the photography books she kept around were compilations of the work of Don McCullin. I would say then that I’ve been a fan of his work since I was 15/16, and when I went to the Imperial War Museum for my last birthday it was to see Shaped By War, their exhibition on the war photography and later works of that renowned photographer. It was extremely moving, and in some parts too much to bear.

The picture I would have liked to include here is virtually impossible to find online, and I do not have the requisite book to scan it from: India. The picture in question is of a woman with cholera, slowly dying or perhaps already dead, on a mattressless bedstead in a flooded and inadequate hospital. The image has haunted me for well over a decade, and has inspired at least one short story and countless poems.

A man walks towards the   chimneys of the steel foundry in West Hartlepool, Don McCullin
A man walks towards the chimneys of the steel foundry in West Hartlepool by Don McCullin

This image also haunts me. It is the same as a photograph of a dead relative, peered at through the shroud of years; this is the England that was in its final death throes when I was very young. My earliest years were sound-tracked by news reports of nuclear weapons and the death of British Industry, and images like this one came to my ears in the doleful modern folk music my mother taped covertly from Radio 2 specials.

It is more evocative of the death of an era than older paintings of the green and pleasant land have ever been, because it’s the death of a corpse; England the industrial nation devoured England the agricultural nation, and the spat-out remains of industry: the black-lunged miners, the steel-workers trudging through smoky skies in a perfect vision of what 19th and 20th century writers thought was a perfect vision of hell, the darkened hive.

This bleak landscape, oft complained-of, was giving way to a different bleakness when I was young. But it was still ingrained in our national consciousness, and the ghost it represents is almost solid. This is the landscape of the youth of my generations’ parents, this underpinning the righteous march of progress and liberty that the hippies were so sure of: a sky turned to night by smoke.

It is the lonely figure that makes the image special. He is in silhouette, his head down, as much as stack as the chimneys, lying vertical while smoke, land, and fencing lies horizontally. He becomes a part of the brutal scenery while standing out from it as the focus. He is walking away from us, into the belching chimneys, into the grind. His shoulders are up: he is probably cold. The walk may be long.

In this image the steel worker may be a thousand mythic heroes, each one of them trudging resolutely into Hell or Hades for a showdown, and he has the impact of pathos that your Orpheuses lack.

100 Works of Art: (Visual) The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymous Bosch

For an explanation of what I am attempting with this series of posts, please see the first post in the series.

9. The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymous Bosch (c. 1490-1510)

Of the works of art I have blogged about so far, this is probably the one which is most familiar to me, and certainly the one I have known for the longest. I cannot remember when I first came across it but I know that I was already well-acquainted with the right-hand panel of the painting by the time I left secondary school.

The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymous Bosch
The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymous Bosch

The complexity and scale of this piece have always been what’s drawn me to it. There is so much happening here, even in the relatively deserted Creation within Eden.

The other draw to this painting is that everything that is happening, all of that complexity and liveliness, is also batshit crazy. The more famous right-hand panel features giant instruments and strange, bird-headed people and a hollowed-out pigs’ arse below a burning city which looks oddly reminiscent of renderings of the Blitz of London … some 500 or so years later.

The less well-known central panel is, if anything, even more demented. There are people doing arbitrary headstands underwater and vast spiked globes and God only knows what people are doing but it all looks ever so slightly unwholesome and a little bit like Soho Square in the middle of summer. During the five minutes when it’s sunny.

It has strange associations – a children’s book of winter landscapes, equally heavily-peopled and with similar disregard for natural perspective, whose title and artist have eluded me for 20 years – and later, when I was introduced to the Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini, it set off echoes of the great Garden.

Garden of Earthly Delights is a nightmare, somehow a more convincing one than Dali’s Catalonian landscapes. It teems with the horror and the glory of humanity, crammed together in a weight of existence. The true garden in the image, the second garden that follows Eden, is as much a nightmare of strange purity as the depiction of darkness that lies to the right. The vast, weird collection of recognisable European garden birds, the otherworldly spires, the turbulent imaginings of glory as confounding as the fevered visions of punishment.

Hieronymous Bosch’s ambitious scenes of excess for me, at least, succeed. They represent an uncomfortable and otherworldly reality that swamps the sense of the individual.