Moominsummer Madness by Tove Jansson (1954)

The plot is a little easier to summarise than the previous books. It is an unusually hot June, there are grumblings in the ground, the phlegmatic Moomins say it’s the volcano, drat all this soot. Cracks appear in the ground and frighten Moomintroll and the Snork maiden as they walk in the woods.

Then there is a particularly big crash and far out at sea an enormous tsunami is formed which comes rushing in over the beach and floods Moomin Valley.

The water level in Moominhouse slowly rises and the family enjoys drilling a hole in the drawing room floor to look down into the flooded kitchen.

They become friends with Misabel and the Whomper, refugees from the flood who are floating past on a tree. Misabel turns out to be a young person who cries almost all the time. The water continues rising till they are all forced to retreat right up to the roof of the Moominhouse. From here they watch a large object they’ve been observing for a while, coming closer and closer. It is a theatre, cut loose from its foundations (though none of the Moomin family has ever seen one before).

As the theatre floats past they all step aboard and it floats merrily on, past the Moominhouse and beyond. They set about exploring. They discover how the curtains and the backdrops work, the prompter’s box (which becomes the larder) and secret corridors leading to changing rooms, costume rooms and a room full of wigs.

There’s a strong female element about this story: we have the trio of the Snork maiden, the Mymble’s daughter and Misabel, who all comb their hair, fuss about their looks and are quick to be a bit hurt, wandering off among the strange building to discover treasure (wigs and gowns!)

For the first few days they’re aware of strange snickerings from the darkness and practical jokes – for example, all the stage lights suddenly flaring on at once. After a few days Emma the old stage rat appears, a downtrodden cleaner who complains that they only ever leave her porridge in a bowl, and she hates porridge!

The theatre floats into a forest and Moomintroll says he’d love to sleep up a tree, so they moor the theatre and Moomintroll and the Snork maiden climb into a high tree and make themselves comfortable. Everyone goes to sleep. In the middle of the night Emma the old theatre rat, poking about, finds the makeshift hawser Moominpappa has made – the rope to the tree tied round his stick which is poked into the prompter’s box  – and throws it away. Slowly the theatre drifts onwards, leaving Moomintroll and the Snork maiden – asleep and all unknowing – abandoned.

Next morning Moomintroll and the Snork maiden awaken desolated to discover the theatre and their whole family has floated away. The Snork maiden asks Moomintroll to protect her; maybe they can play a game that he’s kidnapped her. He feels all manly. They go exploring through the connected treetops and eventually come – oh bliss! – to dry land.

They discover little forest creatures lighting fires and dancing, for it is Midsummer Eve, an important festival in Scandinavian countries. They remember the loving preparations of his family for this festival. The Snork maiden says girls had to pick nine types of flower and place them under their pillows to make their dreams come true.

Meanwhile, the Moomin family wake up to the calamity that they have sailed far away from Moomintroll and the Snork maiden. Moominmamma is, for once, inconsolable and Misabel is in floods of tears. Little My is exploring the trap door which looks down into the black waves when the theatre runs aground on dry land with a bump and she is tipped into the sea. She is so tiny that she floats and soon sees a biscuit tin and a work basket floating by. She picks the work basket, climbs in and curls up among the rolls of wool and knitting needles and falls fast asleep.

The work basket drifts slowly ashore and comes to rest in a bed of reeds. Now it just so happens that Snufkin – Moomintroll’s oldest bestest friend, who he met in Comet in Moominland and who then left to travel the world in Finn Family Moomintroll – is quietly fishing nearby. He sees ther basket come to rest, discovers Little My, wakens her, pops her in his pocket and carries her away. She knows the words to his favourite tune on the mouth organ, ‘All small beasts should have bows in their tails’.

It turns out that Snufkin has a plan to discomfit his perennial enemy – the Park Keeper! The Park Keeper and the Park Wardress are responsible for banning Fun, for putting up signs in the park which read ‘No Smoking’, ‘Do not sit on the grass’, ‘Laughing and whistling strictly prohibited’ etc and generally intimidating all the little children who go there into sitting motionless and silent.

Snufkin has a cunning plan. He tells Little My that the Hattifatteners actually grow from seeds!! but only if they’re sown on Midsummer Eve.

Little My is filled with her usual naughty glee! She asks to come and watch and so, as the sun sets, Snufkin carefully moves round the perimeter of the park scattering handfuls of Hattifattener seeds. And they start to sprout and tingle with electricity. And before you know it they are chasing the Park Keeper and Lady Wardess away, the latter yelping from little electric shocks.

Then Snufkin tears down all the signs which ban things, makes a bonfire out of them and burns them to ashes. All the time the little ones from the woods, the ‘woodies’, are looking at with him with big eyes. ‘Well, go and play,’ he shouts at them – but instead they follow him, and as he leaves the park and heads home he is trailed by a posse of twenty-four little ones. Oh dear. He hadn’t counted on this at all.

Meanwhile Moomintroll and the Snork maiden come across the lonely Fillyjonk, crying and wailing in her house where she’s laid the table for a Midsummer Feast but, as usual, she knows her uncle and his wife won’t come, as they always don’t.

‘Well, you don’t have to invite people who refuse invitations, you know,’ says Moomintroll confidently. ‘Really?’ says the Fillyjonk, and suddenly feels free and liberated 🙂 At which, she promptly invites Moomintroll and the Snork maiden to join her for the meal.

After dining and drinking well they set out to look for the Midsummer Eve fire and stumble across a load of old park signs which have been torn down (aha – so they are not far at all from Snufkin and Little My). The Snork maiden tells the fillyjonk about more folk traditions – like you must turn round seven times and walk backwards up to a well and the face you see in it will be the face of the person you’re going to marry!

Alas, when they daintily and gaily carry out this ritual, first picking sweet summer flowers, then turning then walking backwards to the well, the face they see in it – is the face of a very angry Park Keeper who promptly arrests them for burning all his signs!

In chapter eight, the distraught Moomin family settle down to make the most of it without Moomintroll and the Snork maiden. They have run aground in Spruce Creek and the theatre is sloping at an alarming angle. Emma reveals she was once married to a Mr Fillyjonk but he passed away (aha, that links to the sad Fillyjonk in the clearing who invites her uncle and wife to Midsummer supper but they never come – same people).

Emma comes out of her shell and explains to everyone what a THEATRE is along with diagrams. Moominpappa gets fired up to write a play.

THE LION’S BRIDES or BLOOD WILL OUT

Then it is the afternoon of the first dress rehearsal. Everyone is fussing and panicking and wants their lines rewritten. Emma the old stage rat has stopped being grumpy and turns out to be amazingly calm and reassuring and supportive. She is in her element.

This chapter, complete with all the characters speaking Moominpappa’s heroic blank verse, and missing every cue, dropping the props and bumping into each other, is really funny.

Meanwhile the Hemulen policeman is tremendously enjoying having three prisoners in his gaol (Moomintroll, the Snork maiden, the Fillyjonk). But when passing birds drop playbills advertising the forthcoming play at the floating theatre he remembers the gay days of his youth and realises he has to go. He deputes guarding the prisoners to a very timid Hemulen relation and goes to get dressed. Quite quickly Moomintroll and the Snork maiden persuade the little hemulen to take them to her place for tea and cakes and they offer practical advice on her crocheting. then after tea they simply announce that they are not going back to prison but to the play. Oh dear. She says she’d better go along, too.

Meanwhile the playbills have fallen on the Fillyjonks house (abandoned because she’s in prison) which Snufkin and his twenty-four woodies have moved into. He announces he’ll take them to see a play. Thus Snufkin and his woodies, the Hemulen Policeman, and Moomintroll, the Snork maiden and the Fillyjonk all row out that evening to the theatre in Spruce Creek, along with lots of other little forest folk and watch the first half of the play from an armada of little boats. They gaze at Moominpappa’s masterpiece in blank verse in complete perplexity.

But when the (stage) lion starts chasing the Mymble’s daughter, Little My (not understanding it’s all pretend) leaps up on the stage and bites his leg. This leads the entire cast to stop acting and greet Little My with tears of relief – but the audience in the boats, in their simplicity, think this is all part of the play which has – thank goodness – stopped being performed in impenetrable verse and is suddenly being told in normal language. From what the audience can make out, the play seems to be about a family which has been split up and is now being tearfully reunited. Ah, isn’t that nice. They applaud.

This impression is all the more confirmed when Moomintroll rows up to the stage and climbs aboard. Tears, hugs, laughter, the audience of wood folk applauds wildly this happy ending, then starts getting up on stage and joining in themselves.

The Hemulen Policeman spots his prisoners and also climbs up on stage. Just as he is accusing Moomintroll et al of tearing down the signs, Snufkin announces that it was he who pulled up the forbidding notices and burned them all. In the ensuing dramatic pause, Snufkin evades the Policeman’s grasp, jumps into his boat – Moomintroll jumps into the creek and climbs into Snufkin’s boat – and they row off into the darkness leaving pandemonium behind them.

Snufkin hides his boat in an inlet and they hear the big heavy Hemulen Policeman row clean past, not spotting them. Snufkin tells Moomintroll to go back to the theatre and fetch the others, leave everything, meet him back here, he’ll take them home.

Next thing the entire family is in Snufkin’s rowing boat as he lazily rows them back into Moomin Valley. The flood waters are finally retreating, exposing all the well-loved landmarks. They’ve been rowing for three days. They left Misable and the Whomper at the theatre, she to act in grand tragedies where she’ll get to cry every night, and he to be the practical stage manager, which will suit him down to the ground. The little woodies will be looked after by the Fillyjonk who was very lonely before. The Little Hemulen is still cowering in the middle of Snufkin’s rowing boat.

Now Snufkin’s boat runs aground on grassy banks covered with summer flowers and they wade through the receding waters back to Moomin House. At the last moment there’s a police whistle and the Hemulen and several assistant constables corner them. But it turns out that the Little Hemulen had all this time been doing the ‘punishment’ which Snufkin would have been sentenced to, namely writing out ‘Strictly forbidden’ five thousand times!

She hands the punishment over to the Hemulen Policeman who is non-plussed. She also says that Snufkin apologises fulsomely (and when Snufkin goes to protest, sharlpy shuts him up). Well, hmmm, alright, the Hemulen Policeman grumpily admits he’ll have to let him go and whistles his men together. The Little Hemulen tells the Moomin family she’s going back with him. She thanks the Moomins for their kind suggestions about her crocheting, and all the hemulens leave.

And so the Moomins finally arrive home, after another satisfying adventure.

Everything felt right… It was if nothing had ever happened and as if no danger could ever threaten them again. (p.142)

Comments

I always felt that the intrusion of the Hobgoblin flying round the solar system broke the fourth wall of Finn Family Moomintroll. Basically a science fiction idea, it felt like it came from a different world than the cosy woods full of the snug little creatures of Moomin Valley.

Similarly, The Exploits of Moominpappa is a) a bit much about men and their pompous pretensions b) also has a kind of ex machina device – the enormous dragon, Edward the Booble – who is dragged in at key moments to sort out the plot.

These divagations in the scale of the plot didn’t seriously trouble me when I was a boy, maybe I liked them. But as an adult I find Moominsummer Madness has much more unity of tone: there are some striking coincidences but they are acceptable, they are part of the Moomin world, they don’t require giants or Hobgoblins from space to interfere. The whole thing feels much more of a piece, more unified, hugely more content and homely.

If you could bottle family love this is how it would taste.


Related links

The moomin books

1945 The Moomins and the Great Flood (translated into English 2005)
1946 Comet in Moominland (translated into English 1951)
1948 Finn Family Moomintroll (translated into English 1950)
1950 The Exploits of Moominpappa (translated into English 1969)
1954 Moominsummer Madness (translated into English 1954)
1957 Moominland Midwinter
1962 Tales from Moominvalley
1965 Moominpappa at Sea
1970 Moominvalley in November

The Exploits of Moominpappa by Tove Jansson (1950)

As a father of a family and owner of a house I look with sadness on the stormy youth I am about to describe. I feel a tremble of hesitation in my paw as I poise my memoir-pen! (p.7)

The tone and style of this, the fourth Moomintroll book, is notably different from the previous ones. It is, after all, told in the first person by Moominpappa himself and this is why it is cast in an entertainingly pompous and self-important style.

The characters we’re introduced to also speak less clearly, with more mannerisms and clipped adult speech, than the essentially childish dialogue of the earlier books. It is a children’s view of the silly mannerisms of adults. Hodgkins in particular has the style of speaking sometimes called ‘telegraphese’, which appeared in Dickens’s Mr Jingle or Jimmy in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. Would be interesting to know whether he speaks like this in the original or whether it is the translator’s idea of a stiff-upper lipped, English military type:

‘No dinghy,’ said Hodgkins. ‘Takes too long to weigh anchor. Motor’s tricky. Too late.’ (p.39)

‘Hattifattener,’ said Hodgkins, ‘Never seen one? No peace, no rest. Always travelling. Travel and travel without a word. Dumb.’ (p.50)

That said, almost all the chapters cut between two narrative voices: one part is Moominpappa’s memoirs (which, we learn, he is reading aloud as he writes them, to the young persons in the household), humorously pompous, self-important and moralising – and another voice, that of the familiar omniscient narrator, which shows the (generally humorous) reactions of the children he’s reading to, Moomintroll, Sniff, Snufkin et al.

It’s just as well because the style of the memoirs is very different from the norm; it’s funny for spells, but it’s a relief to come back to the familiar, warm tones of Tove.

The plot

Glorious times! Immortal deeds!

Baby Moominpappa is left wrapped in a newspaper on the steps of the Home for Moomin Foundlings. This is run by the stern Hemulen who believes in astrology. As soon as possible he runs away and walks through the scarey woods, until he reaches a clearing where he builds a Moomin house, you know, a good one, with lots of secret corners, balconies and towers.

Bored, he wanders down the stream and bumps into Hodgkins who shows him how to build a waterwheel (there’s an illustration to show how). Hodgkins takes him to the boat he’s built and introduces him to his nephew, the confused young thing with a saucepan on  his head, the Muddler. He has the brainwave of moving Moominpappa’s house onto his boat to create a houseboat.

Moominpappa and (the odd-looking) Hodgkins dandling their feet in the stream

It takes all three quite a lot of effort and when the house falls over on the way out tumbles the Joxter who was hiding inside. He becomes their friend. Now they are a foursome.

The key fact here is that each of the four turns out to be the father of one of the childish characters who accompany Moomintroll. Thus the Joxter is Snufkin’s father and the Muddler is Sniff’s father. As they realise this it makes the interjections and comments of the children animals pointed and comic as they comment on their daddies’ activities. Y ou can see that there’s a kind of practical requirement for this: if it had just been Moominpappa’s memoirs, only Moomintroll would really have been interested in them. By making his friends the fathers of Moomintroll’s friends, the net is widened to a) include everyone b) set up all kinds of comic comments and ironies.

They erect the Moominhouse on the deck of the boat and commission the Muddler to paint it and name it. In the process he paints everything a vivid red, including half the forest and himself. Hodgkins wanted the boat named the Ocean Orchestra which proves beyond the Muddler’s abilities, who writes Oshun Oxtra on the side. Oh well.

The Muddler painting Oshun Oxtra while the Joxter takes a nap

The Muddler makes a nice hot dinner but some of the bric-a-brac in his huge tin of bits and bobs get into it, specifically some cog wheels.Hodgkins isn’t upset, but delighted: the cogs are just what he needed to make the ship go (there’s an illustration to show how they fit into the boat). (The houseboat also has rubber wheels for driving over sandbanks. Hodgkins is that kind of a practical chap!)

Hodgkins, Moominpappa, the Joxter and the Muddler finding cogs in the meal the Muddler’s made

Now how to get it afloat out of the boatyard. Hodgkins takes Moominpappa to meet Edward the Booble. This is a huge, a truly enormous dragon. They persuade him to sit down in the stream, thereby blocking and flooding it. Away Oshun Oxtra speeds on the crest of a wave, down the stream and out towards the sea.

Here they anchor in a bay only to hear scarey sounds from the shore. It is the dreaded Groke out hunting and they can hear one of its victims shrieking for help. The others freeze but Moominpappa chucks in the ship’s kettle (the dinghy is tied up) and propels it to the shore where the victim jumps in and Moominpappa noses it back to the Oshun Oxtra

Glorious feat! Lonely deed! (p.40)

Only when she clambers out does everyone realise that Moominpappa has saved a prim and proper maiden Hemulen. Oh dear. She immediately starts telling them all how to behave, to wash and stand up straight and address her correctly. Suddenly a vast swarm of Niblings swim out to the boat, seize the Maiden Aunt Hemulen, chuck her over the side and swim off with her. The others look at each other shamefacedly but are relieved that she’s gone.

The Oshun Oxtra arrives at the sea and the crew disembark for a typical bit of Jansson exploration and cave-finding conveyed with some of her beautifully pellucid prose.

Now evening came, very slowly and carefully, to give the day ample time to go to bed. Small clouds lay strewn over the sky like dabs of pink whipped cream. They were reflected in the ocean that rested calm and smooth. (p.51)

Hodgkins tells Moominpappa about the Hattifatteners, who sail the ocean and travel the world, deaf and mute, staring with their big eyes, in search of who knows what, and Moominpappa is entranced by this image of eternal voyaging, eternal questing (p.52).

That night they discover everything is sticky including their beds. One of the Niblings was left behind and gnawed through the painter. Oh well. they welcome him onto the crew.

Three little clouds are passing overhead being chased by a black looking gale. They use a rope to lassoo the clouds and rescue them, bringing them down to the ship’s deck where they turn out to be soft and fluffy. This is lucky because an enormous storm blows up which threatens to sink the Oshun Oxtra, but the clouds come in handy as sails which help them run before the storm and weather it.

What joy when the storm has passed and the sun comes out again! It reveals that the Oshun Oxtra has been pretty beaten up and is covered in seaweed and a few sea spooks. Still Moominpappa is happy to have weathered it. They set sail towards an island with a tall spindly mountain sticking up. Too late, they realise it is Edward the Booble and he is not happy with them!

Characteristically the memoir reading stops there, to reveal that Moominpappa was reading this chapter to an enthralled Moomintroll, Sniff and Snufkin by the seaside. As they stroll around suddenly they see a shiny object bobbing in the waves. it is the very top knob of the Oshun Oxtra which must have been floating the seven seas all this time! Moominpappa clutches it tight and goes off alone to have a deep and spiritual moment!

Back in the memoirs, our crew quick-wittedly offer Edward the three soft clouds to soothe his sore bottom (scraped by the gnarly streambed they persuaded him to sit on earlier) and while he is nestling down on them, they make their escape to land and go exploring the island.

First they come across the naughty little Mymble’s daughter in her house of wood planks and leaves, who explains what all the dry stone walls are for and then that her mother (the Mymble) is at the King’s Surprise Garden Party. The Mymble’s daughter tells them he allows his subjects to call him Daddy Jones (though Moominpappa, a stern royalist, will insist on calling him Your Autocratic Highness).

So off they all set to the party which actually is full of surprises – first of all they have to cross a cleft in which is a giant spider (which turns out to be made of spring). On the other side is a big sign reading SCARED – WEREN’T YOU? Then they take to rowing boats to cross a lake but half way across huge water spouts erupt drenching them. There’s a sign on the other side reading WET – AREN’T YOU? and so on.

They take part in the lottery, picking up eggs with numbers painted on them and then Daddy Jones, who is a cheerful bald old man, hands out prizes to all his subjects who he addresses as ‘My dear muddle-headed, fuzzy and thoughtless subjects!’ The party ends with a mad go for all on a merry-go-round.

Next morning they set off to colonise an island in the name of his Autocratic Majesty. It is two miles north of Daddy Jones’s island. They land and unload the Moominhouse, placing it on a high promontory and split up to explore (as always, as in the best summer holidays by the sea).

That night Moominpappa is woken up by creepy footsteps creaking up the stairs. He  hides under the bed. But when the door opens it reveals a soggy ghost who sneezes and apologises. It becomes clear the ghost is full of the best intentions of scaring everyone’s pants off but is very bad at it. they invite him to a Council meeting where he tries to scare them but they end up becoming friends and he joins the gang. They make up a nice bed for him in a packing case, where he snuggles down and gets on with his knitting.

The Joxter, Moominpappa, Hodgkins, the Muddler and the Mymble’s daughter confront the island ghost

The Mymble (who has a vast array of children) gives birth to Little My, who is to go on and have a great career in the later books as a world-class irritant and naughty urchin. Hodgkins has been appointed Royal Surprise Inventor to His Royal Highness Daddy Jones and now unveils the Amphibian, a machine which can fly but is also a submarine.

There is a grand unveiling where all the people come from miles around, our heroes climb in and it flies up into the air. Then Hodgkins depresses the lever and it dives into the depths of the sea. As usual, the sea brings out the most poetic in Jansson as she describes the different shades of seawater as they dive deeper. We overhear the sea creatures discussing this new arrival and declaring it won’t last long when the Sea Hound appears.

The Sea Hound? It appears and all the fishes scarper in fear. The Sea Hound grabs the Amphibian by the tail and begins shaking it with predictable consequences for all our friends inside. Then everything is suddenly still and ominously silent. Until they hear the booming voice of their old friend, Edward the Booble. He has stepped on the Sea Hound by accident. Not only our friends rejoice but all the sea creatures who have lived in fear of the Sea Hound all their lives rejoice and all of them turn on the lamps and flashlights they all have but never turn on for fear of the monster. The entire sea is illuminated by a dazzling display of light!

The sea lit up by the Amphibian and all the other fish turn on their lights

They surface to see a dinghy carrying the eccentric Daddy Jones who tells them to come back to the mainland because the Muddler is getting married! To a Fuzzy!

At this point the excited children interrupt the narration and insist that Moominpappa clarifies their family relationships. So it turns out that the Muddle marries a Fuzzy and they are parents to Sniff – while the Joxter marries the Mymble and they have Snufkin. The children let this soak in. So Little My is Snufkin’s sister! Well, well.

The wedding is a great affair, the entire population turns out for it, the Hemulic Band plays the national anthem – ‘Save our silly people’ – fog horns blare and some kiddies fall into the sea from sheer excitement. It turns out the Muddler invited the Hemulen Aunt and all 7,000 Niblings and when a Packet Boat hoves into sight everyone thinks it must be them. But it turns out that boat is empty apart from one Nibling who delivers a message from the Hemulen Aunt declaring that she has never been happier than living in the Nibling kingdom where she is teaching them the joys of quizzes and multiplication contests.

Momminpappa tells the assembled audience that his memoirs are complete. He has finished.

I believe many of my readers will thoughtfully lift their snout from the pages of this book every once in a while to exclaim: ‘What a Moomin!’ or: ‘This indeed is life!’ (p.8)

All except for one tiny last detail. How he met his wife, the wonderful Moominmamma.

Well, it was Autumn and the gales had started and he was sitting in front of a cosy fire with the Island Ghost, the Mymble, the Muddler and the Fuzzy listening to the seas raging wilder and wilder down by the shore. On an impulse he goes down to confront the tumultuous waves and there, clinging to a spar, is the most perfect of Moomins, Moominmamma, being washed in and dragged out again by the roaring waves. Moominpappa bravely wades in and grabs her, hauling her to shore. ‘My handbag, my handbag,’ she cries. But it is in her hand. Alas her facepowder is all soggy, though. ‘You look beautiful without it,’ says Moominpappa, and a great romance is born.

Moominpappa rescues Moominmamma from a raging storm

And at that, Moominpappa lays down his memoir pen. there remains only a brief epilogue in which, to everyone’s amazement, there’s a knock at the door and all Moominpappa’s old gang is there, not looking a day older than when he last saw them: Hodgkins, the Muddler and the Fuzzy, the Joxter and the Mymble. Never has the Moomin verandah held so many questions, exclamations and embraces. Hodgkins announces that the new, improved Amphibian is parked outside. Tomorrow they will all go for a flight. Why wait for tomorrow, cries Moomintroll. Let’s all go now!

And in the foggy dawn they all tumbled out in the garden. The eastern sky was a wonderful rose-petal pink, promising a fine clear August day. A new door to the Unbelievable, to the Possible, a new day that can always bring you anything if you have no objections to it. (p.130)


Related links

The moomin books

1945 The Moomins and the Great Flood (translated into English 2005)
1946 Comet in Moominland (translated into English 1951)
1948 Finn Family Moomintroll (translated into English 1950)
1950 The Exploits of Moominpappa (translated into English 1969)
1954 Moominsummer Madness
1957 Moominland Midwinter
1962 Tales from Moominvalley
1965 Moominpappa at Sea
1970 Moominvalley in November

Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson (1948)

This is the third of the Moomintroll books, published in 1948 and translated into English by Elizabeth Portch in 1950. All the Moomin books bring back lovely memories, the feelings of wonder, adventure and safety I had when I read them as a boy.

The plot

Winter comes and the Moomins eat a last meal before hibernating.

In the spring Moomintroll wakes up to find Snufkin has woken before him and is sitting on the bridge over the little river. They wake little Sniff and decide to go for an adventure, to climb to the top of the nearest mountain and make a cairn of stones there. Instead, when they get to the top they find a big black top hat, which they don’t realise is the Hobgoblin’s magic hat.

(In fact this, the centrepiece of the plot, gives its title to the original Swedish-language version of the book, Trollkarlens hatt, ‘The Magician’s Hat’. [Jansson was Finnish but spoke and wrote in Swedish.])

The first hint of the hat’s magic is when Moomintroll absent-mindedly throws the shell of his hard-boiled egg into it. A while later five fluffy clouds emerge from it and hover in the garden. They are soft as cotton wool so, one by one, Moomintroll, Sniff, Snufkin, the Snork and the Snork maiden climb up on them and discover you can make them move by moving your feet and leaning to either side. Soon they are playing bumper cars on the magic clouds!

They comfort the Hemulen who is crying because he has completed his life’s work of collecting every stamp in the world. After some thought they suggest he starts a new collection (Hemulens need a project to keep them going) of botany. Every plant in the world! Aha! He suddenly beams with happiness and goes off to collect samples.

The Hobgoblin’s Hat shows a darker side when Moomintroll goes to sleep under it and emerges in a completely different shape, as a skinny elf. The others are afraid and then disgusted when he keeps pretending to be their friend Moomintroll. In tears he begs Moominmamma to accept that it is he, Moomintroll. She looks long into the tearful eyes of the stranger and then decides, yes, it is him. Typical of her role as the accepting, comforting, all-wise Mother.

They decide to play a trick on the ant lion who lives on the beach. They capture him and throw him into the hat, which they cover with a Dictionary of Outlandish Words. After a while the hat starts flowing with water (which is what the sand has changed into) and a profusion of peculiar little creatures (which is what the Outlandish Words have changed into) and then a small, bedraggled hedgehog (which is what the ant lion has changed into).

Moominmamma and Moominpappa decide the hat is too dangerous to keep and throw it into the river. Late that night Snufkin wakes up Moomintroll and they go and find the hat has run aground on a little sand bank. Moomintroll wades out to rescue it and discovers that the river water flowing into it is coming out as raspberry juice, and that fish entering it fly out as canaries!

They decide to hide the hat in the cave by the sea which Sniff found in Comet in Moominland. Next morning the Muskrat is peacefully reading his big book, On The Uselessness of Everything when his hammock string breaks and he lands with a bump on the ground. He indignantly tells Moominpappa he can’t put up with the children’s pranks any more and announces he is going off to live in the cave. We follow him as he marches off to the cave, makes himself comfortable, and then settles down for a snooze, first putting his false teeth into the top hat for safekeeping.

Moominpappa only tells the rest of the family about all this at lunchtime, at which Moomintroll and Snufkin let out a squawk and go running towards the beach. On the way they hear a series of screams and pass the Muskrat running the other way. The cave is empty, though the sand is mightily disturbed. The Muskrat never tells anyone what had frightened him so much. We will have to use our imaginations!

Now everyone is down by the sea, they find a washed-up boat in fairly good condition. After some squabbling they name it The Adventure, pack lots of goodies and set sail. The first island they come to is the Lonely Island surrounded by reefs and combers. None of them know that this is the island where the legendary Hattifatteners congregate once a year before setting off on their mysterious odyssey no one knows where (or why).

They split up to go exploring. The Hemulen takes his magnifying glass botanising but stumbles across the clearing where the Hattifatteners hold their gatherings. Suddenly they are closing in on him and he retreats to the pole in the centre of the clearing, then scampers up it to find a barometer at the top.

His screams bring the others who suggest he rocks backwards and forwards to scare the Hattifatteners off. That does the trick but the Hemulen insists on bringing the barometer back to the tents Moominmamma and pappa have erected, as a souvenir.

A massive and dramatic storm batters the island. Moominmamma tucks everyone up in the safe and cosy tents she has prepared. In the middle of the night Moomintroll is woken up by strange spectral figures moving about in the tent. It is the Hattifatteners, who have been electrically charged by the storm and so are glowing slightly, looking for their barometer. They find it in the Hemulen’s corner, seize it but wake him up and there is much screaming and pandemonium before the Hattifatteners mae off.

The Snork maiden discovers to her woe that the electric buzz of the Hattifatteners has singed off her little fringe which she was so proud of. Moomintroll tries to tell her he never liked it really, but she is inconsolable.

Next morning they recover from all this excitement with breakfast and then split up to go swimming or sunbathing. The Snork finds a reef of gold inland, but the others find lots of wreck washed up by the sea – a life belt, a snow globe but most impressive of all is the big ship’s figurehead which the Snork maiden finds.

All the animals share their finds and the Snork maiden very graciously gives the big painted figurehead to Moomintroll. They pack all the discoveries onto a raft tied to the back of The Adventure and sail back towards the mainland. Moomintroll is in the middle of describing how beautiful the painted figurehead is when he becomes aware that the Snork maiden has gone quiet with unhappiness. Very sensitively, he then tells the maiden she is much more beautiful than any figurehead. He likes her much more. The Snork maiden blushes with pleasure.

A few weeks later it is boiling hot August. Moominmamma agrees to let the children go and set up a base in the seaside cave. They make themselves comfortable and Snufkin tells him stories he’s heard (from the Magpie) about the Hobgoblin, who collects rubies and rides about on a magic black panther.

But above all the Hobgoblin is consumed by a quest for the biggest ruby of all, the King of Rubies. He has travelled around the solar system looking for it on each of the planets. Currently he is searching the moon, and it is from there that his hat fell to earth and landed on the big mountain where Moomintroll, Sniff and Snufkin found it. All the creatures feel a thrill of fear and excitement go through them.

They wake next morning to find it is raining strong steady rain. Counter-intuitively they decide to go fishing. Meanwhile Moominmamma decides to tidy up Moominhouse. Among all the bric-a-brac she rolls up some of the Hemulen’s old botanical specimens and, without thinking, throws them into the hat in the corner – uh-oh – then goes for a well-earned nap.

The children have a fabulous adventure in the boat, and catch an enormous Mameluke fish which drags the small boat around like a whale until it eventually gives up the ghost. They sail it back to shore and then struggle to carry its huge carcass back to Moomin valley.

Where they discover that the whole house has become completely overgrown with vines and creepers and fruit trees which have all erupted from those botanical specimens Ommonmamma threw in the hat. They have to hack their way into the cellar to gain entrance, while Moominpappa is breaking Moominmamma free from the bedroom where she’s been blocked in by thick vines and creepers.

Once this is all sorted out, the children have a wild afternoon playing Tarzan and Jane, swinging from the creepers hanging from the drawing room ceiling.

Outside the Hemulen gets bored of guarding the fish in the rain. When it eases off a bit he gets some matches and starts a fire, initially to keep warm but then decides to roast the fish. So the family ends all its jungle adventures just in time to come outside for an open air, fresh fish barbecue!

Next morning Thigumy and Bob arrive, two little creatures who speak their own language and have brought a heavy suitcase. They are taken in by Moominmamma, like all other creatures, fed milk and soon find a corner of the Moominhouse to live in. They tell the Moomins the suitcase really belongs to the Groke and she’ll probably come looking for it. Sure enough that night the air goes chill and the big sad Groke appears on their doorstep. After staring morosely, she slips away without saying a word. (When I was a boy it gave me some kind of frisson that so many of the key characters are female; I can’t define it exactly, but it added to the books’ exoticism, compared to lots of English children’s stories which were more often than not about boys.)

The Snork is very pompous and bureaucratic. He tries to organise a court to prosecute Thingummy and Bob for stealing the Groke’s suitcase. Thingumy and Bob blow cherry stones at him through their peashooters. All the characters are allotted roles like prosecuting lawyer and jury. It is all great fun.

Suddenly there is a chill over the forest, the sun goes behind a cloud, all the colour leeches out of things. The Groke arrives. It’s not the suitcase its the contents she wants back. Thingumy and Bob refuse. Moominmamma has a brainwave and goes and gets the Hobgoblin’s Hat: will the Groke accept the hat instead of the contents of the suitcase? To prove its magic they put a couple of cherries into the hat and – luckily for everyone – these turns into rubies. The Groke is impressed, takes the hat, disappears and is never heard from again.

In the final chapter it is the end of August ‘when owls hoot at night and flurries of bats swoop noiselessly over the garden’. Moomintroll is woken by Snufkin and they go down to the bridge they sat on at the start of the book. Snufkin announces the time has come to be on his way. He is a restless soul. And he sets off that very moment, walking into the distance playing his mouth organ.

Moomintroll wanders sadly back to the house where Thingumy and Bob try to to cheer him up by taking him to the secret dell they’ve made in the bushes and revealing the contents of their suitcase. It is an enormous magical ruby which changes colour. Stunned, Moomintroll realises this must be the King of Rubies the Hobgoblin is seeking.

Back at the house disaster has struck – Moominmamma has lost her handbag. A Wanted advert is placed in the paper with a reward for the finder of a Huge Party in their honour. Word is spread. Soon every creature in Moomin Valley is searching for Moominmamma’s handbag. In fact, Thingumy and Bob had stolen it because its pockets were just the right size for sleeping in. Since everyone has been so kind to them they go and fetch it from its hiding place and present it to a delighted Moominmamma.

The scene is set for a vast August Party, with loads of food and drink to which all the creatures of the valley are invited.

At the height of the party an excited Thingumy and Bob present a big surprise, by opening their suitcase and revealing the King’s Ruby which lights up the entire valley with its wonderful red glow. It is even visible from the mountains of the moon where the Hobgoblin is still searching. Quick as anything he leaps onto his magic panther and flies back to earth, arriving in the heart of the party.

There is a stand-off in which the Hobgoblin asks for the ruby but Thingumy and Bob steadfastly refuse. Oh well, the Hobgoblin is consoled with a delicious plum jam pancake and then declares that, since it’s a party, he will grant everyone’s wish. One by one the characters ask for wishes which the big sad Hobgoblin grants – for example Moomintroll wishes for the feast table they’re sat at to be sent to his distant friend Snufkin and immediately it levitates and flies off. Moominmamma, with a mother’s wisdom, wishes that Moomintroll should cease pining for his friend, and immediately his heart is freed from sorrow.

The Hobgoblin can make everyone happy except himself. Thingumy and Bob ponder this, go into a corner to confer and then – say that their wish is for the Hobgoblin to have a ruby as big and dazzling as the King’s Ruby – and lo and behold, the valley is filled with twice as much red light, as a ruby of equal splendour – the Queen’s Ruby – appears!

And so the Hobgoblin spends the rest of the night making everyone’s wishes come true and, as dawn rises over the happy valley, everyone goes home to bed.

The illustrations

At least half the pleasure of reading the Moomin books is the sheer visual pleasure of the illustrations. There’s a major one on almost every page.

The appeal stems from:

  • the essentially humorous, baby-like conception of the characters themselves
  • the clarity of line, the precision and deftness of the drawings
  • in the more complex ones, the wonderfully evocative effect of the cross-hatching and shading
  • the Heath Robinsonian intricacy of the more detailed illustrations (like Sniff at the telescope in Comet)
  • or the childlike simplicity of some of the smaller, incidental illustrations

The illustrations are themselves just part of the whole visual apparatus which surrounds the text. This includes a map of Moomin Valley as well as an introductory letter to young readers from Moominmamma and the numerous incidental small illustrations.

In addition there are chapter headings which give detailed summaries of each chapter’s events – and, at the top of every page, a few words summarising the events on that page (as a boy I used to love checking these summaries to see how closely they matched up with what actually happened on each page, and spotting mistakes).

Thus the books are packed with incidental information and decoration so that every aspect of the book’s production helps create an all-enveloping, fascinating and transporting environment.

Moomin facts

In this book we learn that:

  • Pine needles are the best thing to eat last thing before hibernating for the winter.
  • Snufkin’s best tune on the mouth organ is ‘All small beasts should have bows in their tails’.
  • Moomins can’t sing but they are excellent at whistling.
  • Hemulens all wear dresses (even the male ones). So when they’re being polite, male Hemulens curtsey.
  • All the bedrooms in Moomin house have rope ladders on the windows – quicker than using the stairs.
  • If the first butterfly of the year you see is yellow, it will be a lovely summer.
  • The Hattifatteners congregate every June on the Lonely Island before setting off on their endless quest for nobody knows what. Hattifatteners can’t speak or hear.

Nature

Moominhouse is the only house in the valley. These are extremely rural stories, as close to nature as can be: no other houses or people at all, let alone cars or trains or any element of the modern world. Instead, the Moomins live right by nature, immersed in its rhythms (hibernating and waking with the seasons). Many of the chapters start by indicating the month and then describing the kind of weather to be expected, the heat or coolness, the state of leaves in the trees, the noisiness or subduedness of the forest creatures.

And a really strong feature is the way the Moomin world is teeming with life. When they go for walks in the woods the trees are rustling with little forest creatures, the seaside is bristling with crabs and shellfish – nature is alive with voices and creatures and sprites and spooks and tree spirits combing their long black hair.

And all these weird and wonderful creatures talk and wish you the time of day as you stroll past, or join in silly games, or reveal wonderful mysteries. Everything is not exactly enchanted but open and free and calm and happy. Nature is open and available.

Moomintroll kept close behind Snufkin as they went through the wood. There were rustlings and patterings on both sided of the path and it was almost a bit frightening. Sometimes small, glittering eyes stared at them from behind the trees, and now and then something called to them from the ground or from the branches. (p.48)

Having recently visited the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery about Tove Jansson I know that the lakes and seashore of Finland were extremely important to her, scene of many happy holidays with her family. The sea, in particular, is a recurrent subject, described very brilliantly in all its uncanny beauty. Here is the storm beginning to brew up on Lonely Island.

The sea had changed. It was dark green now with white-horses, and the rocks shone yellow with phosphorus. Rumbling solemnly the thunder-storm came up from the south. It spread its black sail over the sea; it spread over half the sky and the lightning flashed with an ominous gleam. (p.69)

And the characters’ response is the response of any adventurous 8- or 9-year-old.

‘It’s coming right over the island,’ thought Snufkin with a thrill of joy and excitement.

How wonderfully she captures the excitements and thrills of childhood.

Moominmamma

As usual Moominmamma is the unheralded heroine of the books, the calm accepting practical centre around which the world revolves, anchoring the tremendously safe, secure, happy and loving Moomin household, ‘a place where everyone did what they liked and seldom worried about tomorrow’ (p.16).

Strange new guests and even stranger events are all calmly welcomed, room made for them at the big table, while the steady routines of domestic life continue with Moominmamma calmly and sensibly making jam and pancakes.

Good things

This is linked to the way that everything that happens is exactly the kind of things which a child would want to happen. Climbing a mountain, finding treasure, owning a Magic Hat, sailing to an unknown island, weathering a Big Storm, finding washed up booty, night-long parties with dancing and fireworks – it is all the ingredients of a kind of perfect summer adventure holiday, of ideal childhood fantasies, all brought to life in vivid prose which has a strange dreamlike inconsequentiality.

And food, the yummy scrummy children’s food which Moominmamma is always preparing and serving. For example, the provisions they take to the cave, much of which is exotically non-English – betraying their Scandinavian origins – but recognisably yummy-sounding: raisin-pudding, pumpkin jam, bananas, marzipan pigs, sweet maize and pancakes. Always pancakes. Lots of pancakes.

Same with the amazing-sounding punch Moominpappa makes for the Big Party, out of almonds and raisins, lotus juice, ginger, sugar and nutmeg flowers, one or two lemons and a couple of pints of strawberry liqueur (p.140). Wow. Make mine a double.

Good prose

And the prose style is so wonderfully straightforward, good humoured, taking the most amazing events and ideas completely in its stride, plain and simple but capable of awesomely pregnant meanings and significances.

Outside the snow fell, thick and soft. It already covered the steps and hung heavily from the roofs and eaves. Soon Moominhouse would be nothing but a big, round snowball. The clocks stopped ticking one by one. Winter had come. (p.13)

Isn’t the rhythm marvellous, the diminuendo towards the last three-word sentence. And the subtle use of alliteration (hung heavily) and assonance (roofs and eaves). The simple use of baby language (‘big, round’). The brevity heavy with symbolism and meaning – ‘The clocks stopped ticking one by one.’

You know you are in safe hands.


Related links

The moomin books

1945 The Moomins and the Great Flood (translated into English 2005)
1946 Comet in Moominland (translated into English 1951)
1948 Finn Family Moomintroll (translated into English 1950)
1950 The Exploits of Moominpappa
1954 Moominsummer Madness
1957 Moominland Midwinter
1962 Tales from Moominvalley
1965 Moominpappa at Sea
1970 Moominvalley in November

Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson (1946)

‘You must go on a long journey before you can really find out how wonderful home is.’
(Snufkin, page 93)

Inspired by the current exhibition about Tove Jansson at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, I am rereading the Moomin books. I’ve been meaning to for ages. I’m reading the old Puffin paperbacks my parents bought me back in the late 1960s when I was 8 or 9. Just handling them brings back memories, and immersing myself in the stories brings back a wonderful warm feeling of safety and adventure.

The plot

The Moomin family have settled into Moomin Valley after the great flood carried their house there. Moominpappa has built a little bridge over the river and Moominmamma is making jam. Moomintroll and his friend Sniff go exploring, make friends with the silk-monkey, then discover a wonderful cave by the sea, and Moomintroll goes diving for pearls. But everywhere they go secret signs have been laid out – carved in trees, marked in the sand, laid out in pearls – the sign of a circle with a flaring tail.

One dark and stormy night a bedraggled visitor knocks at the door. It is the muskrat who is welcomed in and made at home by Moompappa. The muskrat is a philosopher who lies around in a hammock all day contemplating the pointlessness of everything.

The muskrat tells Moomintroll and Sniff that a great comet is coming. To find out more they must go to the observatory high in the Lonely Mountains. So Moominmamma packs their bags and makes sandwiches and off they go on a raft down the river. They avoid an attack of crocodiles by throwing them a pair of Moomintroll’s woollen trousers (that’s the way to handle crocodiles). On a bare barren strand they hear the beguiling sound of a mouth organ and steer to the shore where they meet and befriend Snufkin, a wanderer over the land.

He takes them up into some hills. In a ravine they see garnets twinkling. Sniff loves jewels and clambers down to collect them but he is terrified by a large dragon and only just manages to scramble back up to safety!

Snufkin joins their expedition. Floating along on the raft, he tells them about the time a volcanic vent opened up right next to where he was sleeping and erupted a torrent of fire spirits. One of the weaker ones fell into a nearby stream and wailed for help so Snufkin scooped him out, though he got a bit burned in the process. The grateful fire spirit gave Snufkin a bottle of underground sun-oil.

He’s barely finished this story before the raft goes over a tumultuous waterfall and then into a long black tunnel which gets narrower and narrower.

Just as the river (and the raft) are about to plunge down a black hole, it gets jammed by the mast and, looking up through an opening in the tunnel roof, Moomintroll, Sniff and Snufkin are able to attract the attention of a Hemulen who is collecting butterflies up above. He is most surprised to pull up three little animals in his butterfly net. Hemulens are big and rather slow. They love collecting things.

The trio climb up into the mountains and are attacked by a massive eagle. But when the eagle misses the three little creatures cowering against the rockface, it goes off in a huff. Eagles are very proud creatures, you know. Up in the misty mountains they come across a gold ankle bracelet which Moomintroll retrieves from a ledge.

Then they come to the observatory on the Lonely Mountains and quiz the professors about the comet. The professors are irritated to be bothered,saying they’re not the first, they recently had a visit from a Snork maiden who mainly fussed about a lost bracelet. Sniff manages to get one of the professors to talk, who tells him the comet will collide with the earth on the seventh of October at 8.42pm. Possibly four seconds later. Well, there’s only one way to cope with the end of the world.

‘Then we must hurry home as fast as we can,’ said Moomintroll anxiously. ‘If only we can get home to mamma before it comes nothing can happen. She will know what to do.’ (p.76)

So they hurry home. When Snufkin explains the game of rolling boulders over mountain cliffs, Moomintroll accidentally falls over the cliff, too, and is only saved because they are all roped together. Moomintroll is becoming obsessed with rescuing the Snork maiden whose ankle bracelet he found.

They discover the Hemulen at the bottom of the mountain with a bump on his head from falling stones. They don’t tell him it was they who are responsible.

Then they hear screams and run to the rescue of the Snork and his sister, the Snork maiden, who is being attacked by a Snork-eating bush. Moomintroll fights the bush, rescues the Snork maiden and gives her back her ankle bracelet, at which she goes a fetching shade of pink and asks Moomintroll to go and collect blue flowers for her; they’ll set off her colour adorably. (She is rather a preening, beauty-obsessed young person.)

The Snork maiden makes a lovely fruit soup with some berries and the last of Sniff’s lemonade, and they all go to sleep in the forest on a mat she has woven under the baleful red glow of the comet which is looming larger and larger in the sky.

Next day they come across a little village store in the woods, where they buy more lemonade and the Snork buys an exercise book to write down what to do if a comet hits the earth. Moomintroll buys the Snork maiden a beautiful pocket glass. That evening there is a party in the forest, where Snufkin plays his mouth organ accompanied by a giant grasshopper on a fiddle. Tree-spirits and water-spooks come out and all the little forest creatures dance till the early hours and everyone falls asleep.

Next morning Moomintroll and Sniff, Snufkin, the Snork and the Snork maiden come to the sea and discover it has completely dried up, leaving a vast muddy basin littered with seaweed. So they find planks and poles and saplings and make stilts for themselves and stilt-walk across the abandoned sea bottom. They come to a ruined old hulk of a ship which contains treasure but also a huge octopus which tries to attack Moomintroll till the Snork maiden uses the pocket glass to shine light in its eyes and make it slope away in fear.

They come across some enormous sea shells, the biggest of which is singing softly to itself the age-old song of the sea.

‘Oh!’ sighed the Snork maiden. ‘I should like to live in that shell. I want to go inside and see who is whispering in there.’
‘It’s only the sea,’ said Moomintroll. ‘Every wave that dies on the beach sings a little song to the shell. But you mustn’t go inside because it’s a labyrinth and you may never come out again.’ (p.122)

Next day they climb back up out of the sea basin to dry land and approach Moomin Valley. Everyone is fleeing the comet, the paths are full of little forest folk pushing wheelbarrows full of belongings. They come across a very disgruntled Hemulen whose stamp collecting has been upset by all the bother. (He is a cousin on his father’s side of the butterfly-collecting Hemulen they left in the Lonely Mountains.)

They come across a fleet of Egyptian grasshoppers who are eating everything in their path. And then a tornado which originated in Egypt and has turned into a devastating wind comes blowing through Moomin valley. They persuade the Hemulen to take off his dress (Hemulens always wear dresses), all grab hold to the frills of the hem and are blown high into the sky, coming to rest in a tall plum tree.

Next day they finally arrive home at Moomin House to find Moonmamma putting the finishing touches to a lovely birthday cake for Moomintroll, with pale yellow lemon peel and slices of crystallised pear. Moominmamma rushes out to meet them and her son introduces her to all the newcomers, including the bashful Snork maiden. The Muskrat has already told Moominmamma that the comet is due to crash right in Moomin valley, which is very vexing because she has only just weeded the vegetable patch.

Now they tell Moominmamma and Moominpappa about Sniff’s cave and everyone decides it will be the best place to hide from the comet. They all run round gathering provisions to see them through. They hurry off to the cave with a wheelbarrow of belongings and also the house bath (of course) which they squeeze through the doorway and put Moomintroll’s cake into for safekeeping. At the last minute the Muskrat shows up, and withdraws into the shadows. After a few minutes they realise he has sat on the cake. Oh dear.

‘My cake too,’ groaned Moomintroll. ‘In my honour!’
‘Now I shall be sticky for the rest of my life I suppose,’ said the Muskrat bitterly. ‘I only hope I can bear it like a man and a philosopher.’ (p.149)

At the last last minute Moomintroll realises they’ve forgotten the silk-monkey and goes rushing back out into the woods to find her, managing to track her down and rushing with her back to the cave. Barely has he thrown himself through the curtain they’ve hung up over the entrance than there is a tremendous whooshing sound and the comet flies right through the valley, out the other side and flies clear of planet earth. A tiny bit closer and, well, none of us would be hear to read this. But all turned out OK.

Moominmamma reassures the terrified little creatures and tells them to cuddle up against her while she sings them a lullaby.

Snuggle up close, and shut your eyes tight,
And sleep without dreaming the whole of the night.
The comet is gone, and your mother is near
To keep you from harm till the morning is here. (p.155)

The next morning the sky is blue again – no longer the horrible red caused by the comet – and the sea is flooding back into its bed, gleaming like soft blue silk. All the little creatures of sea and land are coming out and frolicking and singing. Snufkin wakes up and starts playing his mouth organ. Moomintroll digs up the pearls he buried in the cave right at the start of the story and gives them to the Snork maiden.

But the last and biggest pearl he gives to his beloved Moominmamma.

The illustrations

Half the pleasure of a good children’s book is the illustrations, but in this case more than half. What is it about Jansson’s line drawings which are so airy, fantastical and yet so utterly charming? The preciseness of the line drawing (as opposed to the fuzzy style of, say, Edward Ardizzone). The vivid three-D effect of the cross-hatching and shading. Maybe the key is the essentially humorous, baby-like conception of the characters themselves, which have survived translation into film and animation and models and puppet form. Sometimes it’s the Heath Robinsonian intricacy of the more detailed illustrations (like Sniff at the telescope). Other times the big simplicity of awe-inspiring images, like the comet coming close.

The worldview

Jansson doodled the first Moomin characters into existence during the war. It is no coincidence that in these early books the Moomins represent stability, love and optimism in the face of great disasters (a flood, a comet rushing towards the earth).

What comes over for me, in the books, is their groundedness in the enormous sense of safety and security created by the Moomins’ loving parents. Whatever happens, the little ones – Moomintroll and Sniff – know they can be home in time for plum jam and tea. Nothing can ever be seriously wrong as long as Moominmamma is darning socks and decorating cakes. Moominmamma will know what to do.

Because Moominmamma is the central character. Moominpappa is a rather remote character, an eccentric handyman who builds bridges and fixes things, but is mostly in his study, puffing his pipe and writing memoirs about his adventures. It is Moominmamma the little ones go running to, who accepts all their adventures calmly, who packs bags full of practical items they’ll need on their journey (a frying pan, an umbrella) who never panics, who is calm and capable.

It is this wonderful warmth and all-accepting calmness of Moominmamma which sits at the centre of Moominworld, carrying on the quietest of domestic activities – arranging shells around the flower beds, making plum jam, arranging lemon peel on a cake – and in doing so, creating, securing and safeing a whole world.

In the kitchen Moominmamma found Moomintroll and Sniff curled up together in a corner, tired out by their adventures. She spread a blanket over them and sat down by the window to darn Moominpappa’s socks. (p.21)

Good things

Everything that happens is exactly the kind of thing which a child would want to happen. The book features a kind of greatest hits of childhood fantasies. Just to take the first 30 pages, Moomintroll and Sniff find a secret path in the woods, have an adventure with a new friend (the silk-monkey), discover a cave – and not just any old cave, but the perfect ideal cave, with rocky walls and a sandy floor – Moomintroll goes diving for pearls (and finds lots), they set off down a river on an adventure on a raft, fight crocodiles and fry pancakes on a camp fire amid the roots of an ancient tree. Wow. It’s like the best holiday ever.

It’s not just that some of these things are exciting: pretty much every single one of these events is a devout fantasy wish of any adventurous 6, 7 or 8 year old.

Good prose

And the style is so straightforward, so warm and good humoured, taking the most amazing events and ideas completely in its stride.

On the very top of the jagged peak above them stood the Observatory. Inside, scientists made thousands of remarkable observations, smoked thousands of cigarettes, and live alone among the stars. (p.71)

As with everything in the books, the child reader thinks ‘How wonderful!’ To be a grown up and smoke cigarettes and be a fascinating professor and live lonely and remote among the stars. God, what a dream!


Related links

The moomin books

1945 The Moomins and the Great Flood
1946 Comet in Moominland (translated into English 1951)
1948 Finn Family Moomintroll
1950 The Exploits of Moominpappa
1954 Moominsummer Madness
1957 Moominland Midwinter
1962 Tales from Moominvalley
1965 Moominpappa at Sea
1970 Moominvalley in November

Tove Jansson @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

Since their first appearance in the 1940s, the Moomins have grown to be a worldwide phenomenon. The books have been translated into over 50 languages, there are have been numerous TV series and movies, as well as plays and an opera, and there are currently several Moomin Worlds, all based on the slender tales of these harmless little cartoon characters who live in the remote and enchanted Moomin Valley.

Dulwich Picture Gallery is currently hosting a wonderful, beautifully staged and life-affirming exhibition which aims to set the phenomenal worldwide success of the Moomin characters in the broader context of the career of their creator, Finnish artist Tove Jansson (1914 – 2001).

The exhibition brings together 150 works to show how, as well as creating the Moomins, Jansson was also a successful painter – creating striking self-portraits as well as experimental landscapes – a caricaturist and a book illustrator.

Oil paintings

The exhibition opens with a room of Jansson’s oil paintings, portraits of lovers and of her family and some of the many self-portraits she painted of herself, striking various poses, exuding a rather unsmiling air of purpose and self-confidence.

Lynx Boa (Self-Portrait) (1942) by Tove Jansson. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Yehia Eweis © The Estate of Tove Jansson

Lynx Boa (Self-Portrait) (1942) by Tove Jansson. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Yehia Eweis © The Estate of Tove Jansson

She came from a family which understood and supported her artistic aims. Her mother was an illustrator, her father was a sculptor and her two brothers also became artists. She had a very thorough artistic training, studying at art schools in Stockholm, Helsinki, then Paris.

During this time she experimented with contemporary styles of oil painting – the portrait of Maya is an essay in Gauguin, while another self-portrait is all angles and shadows like a Vorticist work. But the core of her style is a kind of modern realism, epitomised by this group portrait of her family, featuring her two younger brothers playing chess.

Family (1942) Tove Jansson. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Hannu Aaltonen

Family (1942) Tove Jansson. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Hannu Aaltonen

She hoped this would be treated as a masterpiece but the critics weren’t that keen. It was a good thirty years since Picasso, Matisse and the rest had revolutionised western art. In this context, it’s a very conservative work, and also rather a mish-mash. The faces of the mother, father, older boy and Tove’s own face all seem like they’ve been done in different styles. (Also, I was slightly irritated that I couldn’t make out the position of the pieces in the chess game. What’s the point of painting a chess game if you can’t see the pieces?)

War and satire

Born in 1914, Jansson came to adulthood in the ominous atmosphere of the 1930s, and witnessed the Soviet attacks on Finland in 1939. When Hitler’s Germany invaded Soviet Russia in 1941, Finland allied with the Nazis, and Finnish troops took part in the 872-day siege of Leningrad.

As might be expected her family, and Jansson, were strongly pacifist and throughout this period she worked as a caricaturist for the Finnish satirical magazine, Garm. There is a good selection of the cover illustrations she drew for Garm in a display case. They are extremely good, well designed, well drawn, and, above all, funny. In this cover illustration from 1938, Hitler is the spoilt cry-baby being offered choice bits of Europe to try and stop his bawling.

Cover illustration of Garm No. 10 (1938) Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Jenni Nurminen

Cover illustration of Garm No. 10 (1938) Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Jenni Nurminen

It was handy that Jansson’s artist mother had herself worked for Garm since it was established in 1929. All through the exhibition we are told what a strong, independent woman Jansson was, but it certainly helps your ‘independence’ if you have well-connected, sympathetic, comfortably-off parents to get you jobs and support your career.

Still, the covers are not only hilarious, they get better, better drawn and more sophisticated, as they go on. There’s a good one from 1943: as the war turns against Germany, posh people in suits are all depicted rowing boats away from a swastika sinking in the sea. And a bitterly satirical one from after the war shows a Heath Robinson-style big industrial contraption, with black-faced evil Nazis entering at the bottom, passing through various cranks and cogs, and emerging as white-faced angels flying about the sky at the top!

The one below, published as the Germans were retreating on all fronts, shows Hitler looting Europe.

Cover illustration for Garm (1944) by Tove Jansson. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Yehia Eweis

Cover illustration for Garm (1944) by Tove Jansson. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Yehia Eweis

The clarity of line, and the stylisation of Hitler, remind me of the political cartoons of David Low, who published cartoons in the British press through the 1930s and 1940s.

David Low, Evening Standard (8th July, 1936)

David Low, Evening Standard (8th July, 1936)

I like cartoons so I loved these Garm covers. Jansson’s work should definitely be included in any books or collections about political cartoons of the 1930s and 40s.

The Moomins

If you look at the bottom right of the second Garm illustration, you can see Moomintroll hiding the ‘M’. Apparently Jansson sketched him as the result of losing a bet with her brothers. Initially he as called Snork. (Maybe this explains the similarity between the Snorks and the Moomins in the books.)

The Moomin story, the characters and their adventures, are so numerous and prolific that it is impossible to summarise. Briefly: they began as little extras in the Garm illustrations. Then Jansson developed comic strips, little sets of three or four pictures telling a story. These appeared in a Finnish left-wing newspaper for a while but it was only when the London Evening News (forerunner of today’s Evening Standard) signed a contract with Jansson after the war for a daily supply of cartoon strips, that they became famous. The exhibition devotes a lot of space to explaining how the Moomin characters evolved, and the commercial roots of them, giving examples of first drafts of the strips, sketches and rough workings.

The Evening News contract ran for seven years, being Jansson’s main source of income, and by the end the strip was being seen by twenty million people daily. The exhibition includes a wall full of fascinating of examples. What’s interesting is to see the Moomins – who in the books are targeted at pretty small children – taking part in grown-up comedy: it’s quite a shock!

Installation view of Tove Jansson at Dulwich Picture Gallery

Installation view of Tove Jansson at Dulwich Picture Gallery

And then, alongside the newspaper comic strips, Jansson began writing and illustrating book-length adventures for her cleanly-drawn, black and white biomorphic characters. The books, in order of their original publication, are:

1945 The Moomins and the Great Flood
1946 Comet in Moominland
1948 Finn Family Moomintroll
1950 The Exploits of Moominpappa
1954 Moominsummer Madness
1957 Moominland Midwinter
1962 Tales from Moominvalley
1965 Moominpappa at Sea
1970 Moominvalley in November

So, as you can see, there are 25 years between the first and the last book – a full generation – in which the tone and attitude of the books subtly changed, maturing and becoming more wistful.

The second half of the exhibition is predominantly about the Moomin characters (there is a display case of an early version of little figurines of the characters made by Jansson’s brother), their development, the premise and plotlines of each of the books, and wonderful evocative illustrations from each of them.

I read all the books when I was about 8 or 9 and every single book illustration is imprinted on my memory and carries me off into a lovely warm memories of childhood absorption in her wonderful fantasy land of Moomin valley, with its collection of eccentric and lovable characters.

It should be mentioned that the exhibition has been carefully designed to encourage younger visitors (there were loads of toddlers about when I visited). The walls of each room are painted vibrant primary colours (yellow, orange, green) and are dotted with large decals of Moomin characters, like Renaissance putti, watching over the visitors.

Installation view of Tove Jansson at Dulwich Picture Gallery

Installation view of Tove Jansson at Dulwich Picture Gallery

You can read about the Moomins elsewhere, there is no shortage of sites and sources for more information:

Moomin merch

Writing the books and the strips went alongside managing the increasing range of merchandise, which began appearing even in Jansson’s lifetime. As Andy Warhol said:

Business art is the step that comes after art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist. Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. During the hippie era people put down the idea of business. They’d say ‘money is bad’ and ‘working is bad’. But making money is art, and working is art – and good business is the best art.

And a lot of Jansson’s later energy was devoted to managing the growing Moomin empire, ensuring quality control for the various Moomin stage plays, operas, TV series, animations and spin-offs. This task has been taken over by her estate which keeps strict control of the Moomin images to this day.

Book illustrations

Coming off the back of this success as an illustrator of her own books, Jansson was invited to create illustrations for three children’s classics, Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1961) and Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark (1959) and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1966).

The commentary says Jansson made some effort to distinguish these works from her Moomin illustrations, but I’m not sure she succeeds. The Alice illustrations are the least convincing. The Hobbit ones are bizarre, as we see Jansson’s essentially warm comforting style deployed on dragons, orcs and giants. There are some brilliant examples, I liked the one of the three giants, but if you google it you can see scores more.

Best of the three in my opinion are the illustrations for The Hunting of the Snark.

Sea paintings, late oils

Jansson had more or less abandoned oil painting during the war for the Garm work, and then moved seamlessly on to produce the ever-growing Moomin universe. But in the 1960s she had the time and money to return to oil painting, her first love. The exhibition includes a room of later oil works, including three interesting abstract works designed to convey the sea.

Abstract Sea (1963) by Tove Jansson. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Hannu Aaltonen

Abstract Sea (1963) by Tove Jansson. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Hannu Aaltonen

They make heavy use of impasto or laying on the oil in thick wedges to create ridges and rifts of colour. They’re not really that great, that distinctive enough to really form a view. Three wasn’t really enough; a room of her landscapes would have been interesting and useful (the other works in this room were still lifes and portraits).

What they do convey, though, is the importance of the sea and lakes and water to Jansson. The audio guide includes a very useful 6 or 7 minute film summarising her entire life, and what this makes clear is what a happy, loving childhood she had. Every year her parents took her and her two brothers to the Finnish lakes where they played and frolicked all summer long. In adult life, Jansson rented a house on a remote island – Klovharun – among the Pellinge islands, and then built her own cabin where for the next three decades she and her partner, the graphic designer, Tuulikki Pietilä, lived and worked together. Her 1993 autobiography is titled Notes from an Island and is illustrated by Tuulikki.

This biographical film ends with a really wonderful bit of home film footage showing Jansson dancing on the top of a little ridge near the cabin, perfectly captured in silhouette. Just a normal person, not beautiful or thin and elegant, not a model or an actress, just a rather dumpy person like you or me who makes up her own Happy Dance and dances down towards the camera with a huge grin on her face.

It’s hard to imagine a more complete expression of contentedness and happiness. It’s wonderful.

For me the dominant theme of the Moomin books is tranquility and acceptance. They describe great marvels and wonders – a comet rushing towards the earth, a great flood, the spooky silence of snow-covered mid-winter – and the Moomin family keep meeting all sorts of odd and peculiar characters – but they are never really afraid. All the oddity and adventure is calmly accepted by the eccentric Moominpapa and the supremely calm and practical Moominmamma. They stories are redolent of a warm and loving family, and I think that in the books and illustrations what comes over with great force is her happy childhood and warm supportive family life.

Adult fiction

It comes as no surprise to learn, then, that after her mother died in 1970, Jansson found herself unable to write any more Moomin stories. The special closeness she shared with her mother was broken; the untroubled happiness of Moomin Valley fell into shadow. (In fact a few large-format Moomin picture books did appear later – The Dangerous Journey (1977) and An Unwanted Guest (1980) – but the five big picture books are the triumph of pictures and design over text; they don’t have the imaginative intensity of the novels.)

And that’s when she turned to writing stories for adults, short stories and short novels. These have only slowly been translated into English (not all of them are yet available) and have established yet another string to her bow, as the ‘painter’ of charming, winsome tales of girls, childhood and femininity.

Novels
1972 The Summer Book
1974 Sun City
1982 The True Deceiver
1984 The Field of Stones

Short story collections
1968  Sculptor’s Daughter
1971 The Listener
1978 Art in Nature
1987 Travelling Light
1989 Fair Play
1991 Letters from Klara and Other Stories

Comments

Bright and lovely This is a beautifully conceived and laid out exhibition, the bright colour of the walls and the Moomin decals lending it an innocence and charm entirely in tune with the subject matter.

The snug Half way along the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s six room exhibition space is an odd circular room off to one side, a dimly-lit mausoleum commemorating the gallery’s sponsors, Sir Francis Bourgeois, Noel and Margaret Desenfans. For most exhibitions you simply walk past, but for this one the curators have put rugs and beanbags into the Mausoleum along with several library book holders full of Moomin books. This is where I lay to watch the video about Jansson’s life before it began filling up with toddlers. My advice to the curators: Put many, many more beanbags and rugs into the Snug – and some kind of heater: make it really snug.

Be happy ‘As happy as Tove’ should be a new proverb. What an extraordinarily talented woman. And what a gift to be able to channel her sense of warmth and security into a series of wonderfully reassuring, imaginative and beautiful stories.

Tove Jansson swimming ©Per Olov Jansson

Tove Jansson swimming ©Per Olov Jansson

The video

Here is the show being previewed by Ian Dujardin.

For those who want more, BBC Scotland made an hour-long documentary about Jansson.

Moomin merch

There are over fifty items of Moomin merchandise for all your Christmas shopping needs.


Related links

The moomin books

1945 The Moomins and the Great Flood
1946 Comet in Moominland
1948 Finn Family Moomintroll
1950 The Exploits of Moominpappa
1954 Moominsummer Madness
1957 Moominland Midwinter
1962 Tales from Moominvalley
1965 Moominpappa at Sea
1970 Moominvalley in November

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

The extreme unsubversiveness of modern art

(Thoughts arising from visiting the Dali/Duchamp exhibition at the Royal Academy, then reading books about Surrealism, Dali and Duchamp.)

Straw men

I helped my son study for his philosophy A-level and one of the many interesting aspects was a handout his teachers gave him detailing 20 or so common fallacious arguments. The straw man fallacy is where you attribute to your opponent simplistic arguments which they don’t actually hold, in order to look good by easily demolishing them. You dodge their difficult questions by claiming they’ve asked easy ones which you can just blow over. You erect a straw man which is all-too-easy to demolish.

I have that straw man feeling when I read almost any critical book or exhibition guide about modern art. So many of them start from the premise that modern art ‘challenges’, ‘questions’, ‘subverts’ or ‘interrogates’ all our assumptions about art, the role of art, the future of art, the role of the artist and so on and so on.

But modern art doesn’t subvert anything, and no intelligent person thinks it does. Any educated person should know that Marcel Duchamp took a common-or-garden public urinal, signed it and put it in a Dada art exhibition in 1917. It was, in fact, ignored for a long time, but interest revived after the Second World War, and Duchamp’s select array of ‘anti-art’ activities and ‘provocations’ was widely copied in the let-it-all-hang-out 1960s – so much so that he found himself being hailed, right at the end of his life, as the godfather of conceptual art, arguably the leading art movement of our times.

So daring, darling

But every time I read another guide beginning to talk about the subversiveness, the revolutionariness and so on of the art under discussion, I am oppressed by how old so much of this art is and how old the entire idea of art being ‘subversive’ is.

It was 56 years ago that Piero Manzoni made cans of his own faeces and declared them art. Not just that, but sold them to Tate, which now proudly displays them with a po-faced explanatory label.

At the time Manzoni pointed out that by canning and arting it, he had made his shit worth more than its weight in gold. Of course it has shot up in value in the past decades, so a tin of Italian shit would nowadays buy you a swanky London house. Is this still ‘shocking’ and ‘subversive’? Maybe, to people who hadn’t heard about it before, but nowadays you quickly assimilate it and file it under ‘one more shocking piece of modern art’, along with thousands of other examples.

So: Are we shocked any longer by Duchamp putting a toilet, a bottle rack or a bicycle wheel on a stool into an art gallery? God, of course not! The 1960s took all his ideas, and the Surrealists’ and avant-garde 1920s composers, and took them much much further.

Yves Klein got naked women to cover themselves in blue paint and roll on canvases and called it art, Richard Long took photos of circles of rocks he’d built in the desert and called it art, Christo wrapped the Bundestag in foil and called it art, Carl André sold Tate a bunch of bricks and called it art. Countless ‘happenings’ where everyone got naked and danced to avant-garde music was art. Andy Warhol mass produced posters and called them art, Dali signed blank paper and called it art, Jasper Johns painted the American flag and called it art, Jackson POllock spattered oil paint over enormous canvases and called it art.

All this happened 40, 50, 60 years ago. The Duchamp urinal was 100 years ago this year. It is an antique. It is old news and the ‘issues’ it raised are dead and buried, too.

This kind of conceptual art is:

1. Potentially limitless. New examples of ‘schocking’ and ‘subversive’ conceptual art can go on being devised forever, vide Tracey Emin’s unmade bed (1998) or Martin Creed’s empty room with a light switching on and off every five seconds (2000). But just how ‘subversive’ are they? Both of these examples won the Turner Prize and were bought by Tate. Tracey’s bed is now a modern ‘classic’.

2. Completely assimilated in all histories of art, taught to Junior school kids, and covered in GCSE and A-level art courses as routinely as Rembrandt and Michelangelo. My daughter was taught about the urinal. There’s a BBC Bitesize web page about it. There are countless t-shirts, cartoons and merchandise showing its entire assimilation into contemporary culture.

Something taught to a country’s school children is not subversive; it is the opposite of subversive. In fact it is the working definition of a society’s current, fully accepted and State-sanctioned values.

Tate modern killed subversive art

You only have to visit London’s Tate Modern to see how thoroughly assimilated the entire tradition of ‘revolutionary’ and ‘subversive’ art has become.

This huge building is is stuffed with works in this lineage, with galleries devoted to Arte Povera (off-cuts of felt hanging from the wall), minimalism (Robert Morris’s cubes of reflecting glass), with Joseph Beuys’s sledges carrying rolls of felt and flashlamps, and the enormously popular annual display they have in the main atrium: a huge crack in the floor of the entrance hall, the floor covered with porcelain sunflower seeds, enormous helter skelters, a massive ‘sun’ illuminating the space with yellow light. Etc.

Here is a photo of Ai Weiwei smashing a vase, there are some fluorescent tubes modelled into various shapes by Dan Flavin, and on the wall a video of Gilbert and George getting pissed.

All this is not only not subverting or undermining anything, it has not only been totally assimilated, but it is actively celebrated and promoted. Nearly 6 million visitors went to Tate Modern in 2016, making it the third most popular visitor attraction in London. Nobody is ‘troubled’, ‘challenged’, ‘subverted’, ‘shocked’ or ‘horrified’ by modern art; it is taught to school trips of children, marketed in every form you can imagine, and the subject of coach parties of pensioners. The members restaurant is a prime location for ladies who lunch.

Modern art is the most opposite entity to ‘subversion’ that I can imagine, as I reflect for the umpteenth time, as I push past the coach party of retired ladies from Burnley who have come down to see the exhibition of that famous ‘subversive’ and ‘revolutionary’, Marcel Duchamp at the Royal Academy.

(I got into quite a long chat with a retired lady from Nottingham who’d come all the way to London, with her husband, just to see it. She didn’t look shocked or subverted; the opposite; she was thrilled to see so many famous and classic ‘works of art’ in the flesh.)

The exhibition shop as death of subversion, birth of merchandise

By far the most ‘subversive’ part of any art exhibition is the exhibition shop, which is always placed at the exit of the show so you can’t avoid it.

These gallery shops comprehensively destroy any claims modern art could possibly have to be subversive and shocking. Here, the most ‘shocking’ examples of ‘revolutionary’ art have been adapted into fridge magnets, luxury books and catalogues, t-shirts, hats and handbags, jewellery, plates and mugs, table mats and coasters, shortbread tins, glasses cases, oyster card holders, posters, prints and postcards, shopping bags, lamp shades, wraps, rings and ear-rings, cushions and throws – all to buy and own and give as gifts, to prop on the mantlepiece, place on the coffee table, hang on the wall.

The sheer breadth of merchandise available at modern art exhibitions often makes me feel like I’m in John Lewis or Heal’s interior furnishing departments, browsing among bijou objects to brighten up the landing or hang in the loo next to the Vermeer print and the Dufy poster.

Why do art curators continue to deceive themselves and us?

So why do critics and curators keep on insisting, in show after show, in book after book, in dissertation after dissertation, that the art they’re discussing is ‘subversive’, ‘challenging’, ‘revolutionary’ and all the rest of it?

1. The need for academics to write

Well, they have to live. They have to have careers. They have to write something. They have to justify their jobs. They have to justify their profession as something which contributes to society, moves things forward, changes things. I began an English Literature PhD and was informed that in America about 100,000 PhDs on English Literature are published every year. PhD candidates and their supervisors are really scrabbling around to find new subjects, or new light to shed on old subjects, any subjects.

And casting your subject as forceful, vital, subversive and revolutionary adds significance and vitality to any writing.

2. It is the rhetoric of the age

Ironically and paradoxically, as society has become more right-wing, reactionary, and less meritocratic; as wealth has been redirected away from the squeezed lower and middle classes towards a global elite of the mega-rich, the tone of cultural rhetoric has become more universally revolutionary. Any of the twentieth century greats – Matisse, Picasso, Pollock, you name them – all of them have been presented as ‘revolutionaries’ subverting this, that or the other in recent art exhibitions of their work I’ve attended.

And the entire history of modern art is presented as a succession of revolutionary movements – as you can see from the huge timeline of modern art movements painted along the entire wall on the second floor of Tate Modern.

Possibly – probably – in their day, this was true. Cubism shocked the traditional art world. Pollock puzzled American art connoisseurs until he had been explained, mediated and assimilated. The Young British Artists exhibition ‘shocked’ and ‘scandalised’ philistine idiots as recently as 1997.

But now Tracey Emin is a national treasure and you can’t move for the cross-dressing ceramicist Grayson Perry winning prizes, delivering lectures, fronting BBC documentaries. Am I shocked by Jackson Pollock’s splatter paintings? Or Picasso putting both eyes on the same side of the nose? No.

3. Feeling like a revolutionary

I can imagine there is quite a lot of psychological pleasure to be gained by thinking that you are riding on the coat-tails of revolutionaries. Golly. That makes you a little bit of a revolutionary too. There must be quite a lot of psychological gratification to be derived from thinking you are working in the company of radicals and subversives — instead of being a civil servant-style functionary who goes into work every day like the rest of us and stares at a computer screen. It makes you stand out. It makes you special.

I recently read Czesław Miłosz’s classic The Captive Mind which goes into great detail about the psychological rewards to be gained from joining the Communist party in Eastern Europe – specifically Poland – after the Second World War. There were lots of motivations, but one of them was feeling that you were on the right side of history, on the side of the angels and against the stuffy, boring bourgeoisie.

That psychological appeal – of being on the side of the ‘radical’ and the ‘subversive’ and ‘challenging’ social norms – hasn’t gone away. Each new generation of art curators and critics discovers it all over again at art school.

4. Triumph of the rich

But this is 2017. The rich have won. The notion of a really coherent anti-capitalist ideology died with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Since then all political parties throughout the industrialised world have been various shades of liberalism masking the triumph of unfettered capitalism.

And this isn’t the result of some evil scheme by a cabal of wicked men. Global consumer capitalism has triumphed because it is what everyone wants. Everyone wants a car, a TV and a fridge, and if you’ve got a fridge, you need fridge magnets. If you’ve got walls you need something to hang on them. Which is where modern art comes in. To decorate, entertain, distract, inform and amuse our modern consumer lifestyles.

5. Modern art as fashion item for the super-rich

Some time ago (a generation ago? or right back to the post-war period?) modern art became fashionable for the rich to collect, specially rich Americans (it is no coincidence that Duchamp based himself in New York and that his key works are in a museum in Philadelphia).

That in itself undermines modern art’s claims to subvert anything – the fact that more often than not it was sponsored and only came into existence because of the active support of the rich: Duchamp was supported by the millionaire collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg who acquired 85 per cent of his output.

This alone shows that any ‘subverting’ that was going on in modern art didn’t in the least threaten the economic or cultural world in which these multi-millionaires moved; it was just ‘the latest thing, darling’, the latest fashion item from France, ‘soooooooooooo daring and chic, darling!’

Here is Marcel Duchamp’s major puzzling and ‘subversive’ work of art – The Bride stripped bare by her bachelors, even – on the front cover of Vogue magazine back in 1945.

Cover of Vogue (1945) Model posing with Marcel Duchamp's The Large Glass, photographed by Erwin Blumenfeld

Cover of Vogue (1945) Model posing with Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass, photographed by Erwin Blumenfeld

6. The grotesque over-valuations of modern art

This trend – the intimate relationship between modern ‘subversive’ art and people with more money that we can imagine – has gone into hyper-drive over the past 25 years (since the collapse of the Soviet Union, in fact) as a new super-rich global elite has emerged which likes to invest in modern art alongside oil wells, property in London and the rest of its portfolio.

Hence the really remarkable prices which ‘classic’ modern art sells for nowadays. Here’s a list of the top ten most valuable paintings sold on the open market.

  1. Interchange Willem de Kooning (1955) – $300 million
  2. The Card Players by Paul Cézanne (1892) – $266 million
  3. Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?) (1892) by Paul Gauguin $210 million
  4. Number 17A by Jackson Pollock (1948) – $200 million
  5. No. 6 (Violet, Green and Red) by Mark Rothko (1951) – $188 million
  6. Pendant portraits of Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit by Rembrandt (1634) – $180 million
  7. Les Femmes d’Alger (‘Version O’) by Pablo Picasso (1955) – $181.2 million
  8. Nu Couché by Modigliani (1917/18) – $172.2 million
  9. No. 5, 1948 by Jackson Pollock (1948) – $166.3 million
  10. Masterpiece by Roy Lichtenstein (1962) $165 million

(Source: Wikipedia)

Surely the ‘shocking’ thing about these works is not at all ‘the revolutionary refusal of the figurative tradition’ or ‘the exploration of the picture plane as an object in itself’ – it is the amount of money paid for them.

Note the artists and dates. Rembrandt is the only Old Master on the list; all the rest are ‘modern’ works and half of them are the work of post-war Abstract Expressionists – Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning – once ridiculed and scorned for their meaningless splats, now commanding the highest prices in art history.

You can invoke art theorists from Plato to Ruskin declaring that Art is the gateway to transcendent value of the soul or imagination; you can invoke all those ‘revolutionary’ manifestos declaring that Art is going to transform society – and, certainly all these theories and ideas help to understand how and why the art of their day was produced…

But to understand what Art means today, in 2017, you must fully take into account that Art is now a commodity traded by Russian billionaires and Arab investment funds (numbers 2 and 3 were sold to Qatar; numbers 1 and 4 to an American hedge fund manager; number 5 to a Russian oligarch; number 8 to a Chinese billionaire).

The taboo sub-text of modern Art isn’t Freudian secrets or anti-patriarchal subversion or post-colonial ‘interrogation of the imperial narrative’ – it is that Art has been bought lock, stock and two smoking barrels by the rich.

Feminist and black art

The effective defeat of modern art as a ‘radical’ political activity goes some way to explaining why art criticism – like progressive politics generally – has retreated into ‘identity politics’. Here it is on safer ground (sort of).

If it can’t change or subvert a society which has completely bought into consumer capitalism, which is in thrall to neo-liberal economic theory and which is run by vast, uncontrollable financial force fields working between America, the Gulf, Russia and China – well, it is on firmer ground when it addresses the historic wrongs done to black people and women.

If curators and critics are on a hiding to nothing describing as ‘world changing’ art which has, in our time, become a glorified investment vehicle for Yankee hedge fund managers and Chinese billionaires, they can still let rip with all the revolutionary rhetoric they want when it comes to exhibitions about women or black artists.

Here, the universal curatorial nostalgie pour le revolution is, for once, partly justified.

You can almost feel the relief in the curator catalogues, prose and wall labels about exhibitions of women or black artists or empire, because they are dealing with ideas which are still live issues. If all calls for a socialist revolution, for the overthrow of capitalism, are dead in the water (and look it and feel it and sound it), feminist artists can still be presented as genuine ‘revolutionaries’ in an ongoing struggle. And black artists, like the excellent Kara Walker, invoke social issues which really are still live, problematic and troubling.

So black and feminist criticism is where the revolutionary spirit – completely crushed and obliterated in wider industrial societies – has gone to hide and recuperate. This explains the its prevalence in the safe and privileged space of the academy and art gallery – and its vehemence. White male artists have given up even pretending they are ‘revolutionary’ (Damien Hirst, Anthony Gormley), but black and women artists (and their critics and curators) can still recite the old formulas, the old catch-phrases, about ‘subverting the patriarchy’ and ‘challenging institutional racism’, in the naive and optimistic belief that Art is still capable of changing anything.

The very social and political visibility of issues around racism and feminism means that artists working in these areas can still invoke the rhetoric of challenge and subversion which long ago gave up the ghost in the wider art world – and are certainly dead and buried when it comes to any discussion of the ‘revolutionariness’ of ‘mainstream’ 20th century art.

The curricularisation of radical feminist and black art

That said, is there the risk that ‘radical’ feminist art and ‘challenging’ black art is itself being assimilated – it’s just that nobody’s told the artists (or their curators)?

Every year Black History Month comes around and we have modern artists creating ‘challenging’ works around slavery, shackles, manacles, horrible pictures of lynching and torture. And this race-based or post-colonial attitude has broadened out into extended critiques of the British Empire.

Thus at Bristol Art Gallery recently I saw an exhibition about Empire Through the Lens. A year or so ago Tate Britain hosted a big exhibition about the British Empire. You will not be surprised that in both these shows, and countless others across the land, the message was and is rammed home that the British Empire was a cruel, ruthless and barbaric institution based on centuries of inhuman slavery.

Every exhibition about women artists nowadays has to include as many references as possible to the way they had to struggle against institutional sexism, against being banned from art school, excluded from the life drawing classes, forbidden from exhibiting, shunned by male artists and gallerists and collectors, and so on. Almost all women artists turn out to be strong, independent minded, arguing for equality in works which ‘challenge the patriarchy’ and ‘question heteronormative assumptions’, and raise ‘issues of gender, identity and sexuality’.

These have become the art critical clichés of our time. Walk into any art gallery in London, Bristol, Barcelona and New York (the extent of my travels in recent years) and read exactly the same opinions about exactly the same issues.

Both my kids were taught about slavery at school. It is pretty much all they know about the British Empire (when tested, neither of them knew who Nelson was or why there’s a statue to him in Trafalgar Square, but they both knew all about the Atlantic Slave Trade and why slavery was so wicked).

My daughter was taught feminism as part of her Sociology, Geography (population control), Biology (contraception), English Literature and Religious Studies GCSEs, and is continuing to learn about feminist theory in her Sociology and Psychology A-Levels.

Among the university educated (50% of the population) and the young, among bien-pensant Liberals of all ages, these ‘radical’, ‘challenging’ views are the intellectual truisms, clichés, stock opinions and banalities of our time. There is nothing ‘challenging’ or ‘subversive’ about them.

Imagine you get a promotional email from an art gallery announcing that:

A female artist is exhibiting her recent works about feminism and the patriarchy.

A black artist is exhibiting his recent works protesting against slavery.

Do you react with amazement? Do you spit your coffee out with astonishment? Or do you think, ‘Yeah, more of the same?’ The formal technique may be interesting and arresting (like Kara Walker’s black silhouettes), but the content… the ‘ideas’…?

The meaning of real ‘subversion’ and ‘challenge’

What would be subversive and genuinely shocking in this context, would be works that questioned or denied feminism and black rights. Imagine if an artist set out to make works of art which claimed that women really are second class citizens or blacks really are inferior to whites. Can you imagine the worldwide outcry. Twitter would explode. They would never work again or be able to leave the house. Even writing it here, as a purely hypothetical idea, makes me nervous.

Ideas like that really would shock and scandalise the art world. But it would be so genuinely dangerous to the artist – it would end their career to be branded misogynist or racist – that no one dare do it, even as a joke. I’m not saying they should. I’m just highlighting the fact that the supposedly ‘subversive’ and ‘revolutionary’ and ‘challenging’ mindset of the current art world has hardened and fossilised into a self-policing ideology which itself cannot be questioned or challenged or subverted.

Back on planet earth

Meanwhile, despite the outpourings of revolutionary art and radical rhetoric from a thousand art curators and scholars, the rich just carry on getting obscenely richer, and the poor getting screwed by the policies of Donald Trump and Theresa May. Nothing changes.

In fact – contrary to all the rhetoric about the radical empowering and subversive impact etc etc of contemporary Art – things outside the studio and the gallery have demonstrably got worse, a lot worse, in recent years.

If subversive political cartoons, challenging journalism, confrontational art, disruptive art installations, innovative art videos, radical paintings, petitions or outcries changed anything – don’t you think Donald Trump would have melted by now?

Instead of which, I am starting to read articles about his chances of winning a second term.

Marcel Duchamp by Dawn Ades, Neil Cox and David Hopkins (1999)

God, he was gorgeous!

Marcel Duchamp in New York (1917) by Edward Steichen

Marcel Duchamp in New York (1917) by Edward Steichen

This is a really thorough, scholarly and in-depth biography-plus-analysis of the life and works of the godfather of conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp, part of the Thames and Hudson ‘World of Art’ series.

We are told that it was ‘written with the enthusiastic support of Duchamp’s widow’, and sets out to ‘challenge received ideas, misunderstanding and misinformation.’ No doubt, But to the casual gallery-goer like myself Duchamp is a ‘problem’ because his oeuvre seems so scattered and random: its three main elements are the Futurist paintings (chief among them Nude descending a stair); the readymades (like the bicycle wheel (1913), wine rack (1914), snow shovel (1915), or urinal (1917)); and then the obscure late works, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors and the even more obscure, Etants donnés.

This is the first and only account I’ve ever read which shows how these apparently very diverse products all arose naturally and consecutively from Duchamp’s artistic and philosophical interests. It creates a consistent narrative which explains and makes sense of them.

1. A crowded context

A common error in thinking about history – in thinking about the past generally – is to pick out one or two highlights from history – or ‘major’ writers or artists – and focusing on them alone, Picasso, the Holocaust, whatever.

But of course the past was as densely populated and packed with myriads of competing people, ideas, headlines, events, political parties, issues, theories and ideas, was as contingent and accidental – as the present. These ‘events’, these ‘great artists’, were intricately involved in the life of their times. Duchamp’s career more than most benefits from the thorough explanation of his historical context which the authors provide, because his artistic output is so ‘bitty’ and fragmented.

Thus the book begins by locating Duchamp’s life within a large family itself made up of artists (his grandfather was a well-known artist in Rouen, two of his brothers and one sister became artists). I particularly enjoyed the account of the art world of Paris circa 1905, when young Marcel moved there to join his brothers. It was fascinating to learn about the various ‘movements’ or clubs of artists famous in their own day, who have now completely disappeared from the historical record. In particular, it was news to learn that young Marcel initially made his way as a caricaturist, a cartoonist and illustrator for magazines.

Regarding caricature and humour, the book goes to some length to describe the intellectual life of the age, dwelling at length on theories of humour developed by writers like the poet Charles Baudelaire (On the essence of laughter, 1855) and Henri Bergson (Le Rire, 1900). Baudelaire thought comedy stemmed from the abrupt undermining of humanity’s aspirations towards goodness and angelic grace by moments of earthy reality or brute clumsiness. Pratfalls. Laurel and Hardy. On a verbal level, this structure is enacted in the double entendre or double meaning, which nowadays has come to mean saying something ‘respectable’ which also has a sexual interpretation or undertone.

Bergson thought humour was the result of perceiving people as machines or types, rather than individuals. In his view, lots of humour comes from an expectation of someone behaving with mechanical routine which is somehow undermined, or continuing to behave with routine nonchalance after some disaster. The example given is of a boring office functionary who every day dips his quill in the inkpot until one day his naughty colleagues fill it with mud. Ha ha.

Freud wrote an entire book giving a psychoanalytic theory of humour (Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, 1905) speculating that they are socially acceptable ways of sharing socially unacceptable base drives, like sadism (cruel humour) or sex (dirty jokes).

The juxtaposition of the cerebral and the coarse; the role of mechanism in humour; the fundamental primacy of the erotic. These are contemporary ideas which the intellectual Duchamp would have been familiar with and fed into his work and worldview.

1. The authors are just warming up with these early theories of humour; later the book will bring together a mind-boggling array of references to explicate Duchamp’s mature works.

2. This sequence is an example of what you could call the teleological approach of so many biographies of great personages – the tendency to find the seeds of later works in the personage’s earliest experiences and sayings, a direct line from infant, childhood or earliest experiences/productions to the adult’s life and work.

One example among many: the authors relate the fact that one of his earliest surviving sketches is of a lamp (Hanging glass lamp, 1904) to the fact that a gas lamp appears in both of his monumental late works, The Bride Stripped Bare and Étant donnés. Maybe, who can say.  But it makes for an entertaining game of ‘sources and origins’.

2. Cubo-futurism

My favourite works of Duchamp’s, more than the readymades or the two big weird works, are his early semi-abstract paintings of walking human figures. I have always loved the energy of Italian Futurism and Wyndham Lewis’s Vorticism, so I love Duchamp’s masterly paintings of walking people turning into machines.

Nude descending a staircase number 2 (1912)

Nude descending a staircase number 2 (1912)

Or are they revealing the machine within the human; or showing the multiplicity of realities which the human mind converts into sequence but which, in an Einsteinian universe, may be permanently present; or his copying of the secrets of movement which in his day had only just been captured by pioneering photography. Or all four.

It’s fascinating to watch the progression in these paintings from the depiction of a kind of mechanised human through to full machine. It’s hard to see the last two of these paintings as human in any way.

And it’s here that the book makes the big link for me, because it shows in great detail how Duchamp, by 1913 completely disillusioned with painting, nonetheless used sketches and designs for the bride paintings as the basis of the strange, enigmatic and over-determined big work, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even which he would devote the next 15 years to creating, and tinker with for the rest of his life.

3. The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even

This is divided into two parts (top and bottom) with the top depicting the ‘bride’ in an extremely abstract, semi-mechanical form, and the bottom half originally showed the ‘bachelors’ competing for her favours. Apparently, at a very early stage, this was partly inspired by a fairground attraction where you could throw balls at puppets of a bride and groom, if you hit the bride she fell out of the bed stark naked (well, as naked as a puppet can be). Duchamp was attracted to the mechanical aspect, the puppet/mannequin aspect, the game aspect, and the sudden shock of nudity aspect. All four are recurrent themes.

By the time he painted the design onto this big glass sheet, the bride has evolved into a peculiar set of shapes in the top section, while the bachelors have evolved into a rack of male suits, now known – in the extensive mythology which Duchamp spun around the piece – as the ‘Malic Moulds’.

The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915-23) by Marcel Duchamp as reconstructed by Richard Hamilton

The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915-23) by Marcel Duchamp, as reconstructed by Richard Hamilton

But that makes it sound too rational and understandable. The authors devote tens of pages to analysing the slow evolution of his sketches and thinking. For example, the way the whole thing is painted onto a big sheet of glass undermines the idea of the canvas as an opaque object. Now it can be seen from both sides and changes aspect (and mood and meaning) depending on what it is placed in front of.

It’s really the steady abstraction and stylising of the images which takes some explaining. It’s part of Duchamp’s reaction against what he called retinal painting i.e. he lamented the way all painting from the impressionists onwards was made to be judged purely on its appearance, devoid of intellectual or symbolical meaning.

Duchamp found this retinal superficiality distressing and thought he could escape from the entire artistic trend of his day by moving towards a more scientific type of technical drawing (technical drawing having made up, as the authors point out in their thorough opening chapter, part of the school education of Duchamp’s generation).

Thus he made extensive preparatory sketches for all the different parts of the mechanism. Not only that, but he wrote an extensive set of notes, known as the The Green Box. Like T.S. Eliot’s contemporary Modernist poem, The Waste Land, The Bride Stripped Bare is designed to be read with its notes, the notes are an integral part of the understanding. In Duchamp’s case, the Green Box notes are more like a manual for understanding, a user’s guide. Thus the book includes a detailed analysis of every aspect of the mechanism, numbering and identifying all the parts, and explaining their derivations.

The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) Marcel Duchamp (1915-1923) with annotated parts

The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) by Marcel Duchamp (1915-1923) with annotated diagram of the parts

The authors go into rather mind-boggling detail in their analysis of the work. We learn the relevance of Einsteinian physics (is The Bride depicting a fourth dimension?), of medieval alchemy (note the design of the pipes and limbics of the mechanism), of Surreal theories of the erotic (for a start the way bride and bachelors are trapped in different quadrants of the work), and many other ideas and illusions. There is  he importance of engineering design, technical drawing, the influence of Hertz’s discoveries about radio frequency, and so on and so on.

For once this isn’t a case of critics over-analysing a work of art because Duchamp himself, in his notes and in numerous interviews throughout his life, invoked a wealth of ideas, sources, and ideas which all contributed to manufacturing The Bride. Here’s a sample paragraph from the hundred or so about The Bride which make such bewildering and strangely gripping reading.

Attempts have been made to construct a narrative of the implied mechanical functioning of the Glass: to make visible the ‘cinematic blossoming’, as Duchamp put it, of the Bride and her interaction with the Bachelors. However, to succeed, these attempts would require the application of a consistent logic to operations that remain notional, inconsistent or at least multiply determined. The erotic is not rational. It is, perhaps, only a sexual encounter in the terms in which Breton saw it, as an extra-terrestrial observation of the inconsistencies, non-reciprocities and ambiguities of human sexuality. (p.107)

But:

The fascination with kinetic energy and ‘fields of force’ in both visual and linguistic terms runs throughout the Large Glass and the notes,  which together form a fantastic catalogue of forms of propulsion and motion, and of the more invisible source of energy and modes of communication. For instance, the Bachelor Machine is powered by steam and is also an internal combustion engine; it includes gas and a waterfall, springs and buffers and a hook made of a substance of ‘oscillating density’. This was, Duchamp noted, a ‘sandow’, initially the name of a gymnastic apparatus made of extendable rubber, and by analogy a plane or glider launcher. The Bride runs on ‘love gasoline’; she is a car moving in slow gear; her stripping produces sparks; she is a 1-stroke engine, ‘desire-magneto’; the 2nd stroke controls the clockwork machinery (like ‘the throbbing jerk of the minute hand on electric clocks.’)

I began to find the authors’ extended investigation of the Bride, their exposition of Duchamp’s vast catalogue of ideas and interpretations, horribly addictive. Is the bride an avatar of Diana, Roman goddess of virginity? Or the Hindu goddess of destruction, Kali? Or is she the Virgin Mary, undergoing a secular apotheosis?

The discourse generated by this one intensely intellectualised piece will go on growing forever. It is a dizzying, terrifying and strangely reassuring thought…

4. Dada and the readymades

Once clear of the hermeneutic jungles of the Bride Stripped Bare, the book goes on to investigate Duchamp’s association with the anti-art movement, Dada, founded in Zurich in 1916 and which opened offices in Paris and even distant New York – and in his arm’s length relationship with Surrealism.

The key events of this period (1913 to 1923) is the invention of the readymade. At various points he selected a wine rack, a public urinal, a bicycle wheel on a stool, and a number of other everyday objects to exhibit in various art exhibitions in New York and Paris. The urinal is one of the most iconic works of the art of the century because thousands of conceptual artists have looked back to it for liberation, although the story of its exhibition is rather complicated (the way Duchamp signed the urinal R. Mutt, titled it Fountain, and anonymously submitted it to a art exhibition whose board of judges he himself was sitting on. When it was rejected by the others he resigned for the board and wrote a letter complaining about the outrageous treatment of Mr Mutt. And so on.)

Fountain (1917 / replica 1964) by Marcel Duchamp

Fountain (1917 / replica 1964) by Marcel Duchamp

The point was rather simple. What is art? When Duchamp posed this question, art theory was dominated by notions that the work of art had some kind of moral or spiritual or social purpose. The Victorians thought Art should portray The Beautiful. Mathew Arnold thought Art could protect and elevate the Imagination, protecting it from the brutal vulgarities of industrial society. Duchamp’s contemporaries in Soviet Russia thought Art could help bring about a new revolutionary society. The Surrealists’ leader, André Breton, thought Surrealism was a literary and artistic movement which would give people direct access to the unconscious mind and so liberate society from its repressions.

Everyone believed Art should do something.

Duchamp stands to the side of all this angsting and stressing. His readymades say that Art just is. One of the big things I’ve learned from this book, and from the Dali/Duchamp exhibition I recently visited, is the way Duchamp thought the key ingredient in a readymade was that it must not be beautiful. He was trying to get away from any idea whatsoever of ‘the aesthetic’.

While the nihilists of Dada tried to create a kind of anti-art, Duchamp spoke about creating an a-art, in the same sense as amorality doesn’t mean moral or immoral – it means having no morality at all. So a-art (or an-art, it doesn’t really work in English), means Art which has completely ceased to be Art. He wanted to evade the whole question of ‘aesthetics’ and ‘taste’, of ‘style’ of the special agency of the artist’s ‘touch’ – all of it. Hence:

  • a snow shovel (1915)
  • a ball of string between metal plates (1916)
  • a comb (1916)
  • Underwood typewriter cover (1916)
  • a urinal (1917)
  • a coat rack nailed to the floor (1917)
  • a hat rack (1917)
  • 50cc of Paris air in an ampoule (1919)

As regular readers of my blog know, I think all of these attitudes have been completely swallowed, subsumed and assimilated into our modern consumer capitalism. All art – whatever its original religious, spiritual or revolutionary intentions – is now just a range or series of decorative, ornamental and amusing brands in the Great Supermarket of life. Thus Duchamp’s great ‘revolutionary’ and ‘subversive’ icon is now available in any number of formats and channels, about as subversive as a Beatles T-shirt.

And as to ‘What is Art?’ Art is whatever art gallerists, art curators and art critics agree to call art. Simples.

5. Tinkering

By the mid-1920s Duchamp wasn’t painting and had finished The Bride. He was happy for word to go around that he had abandoned art for professional chess. Other Dada artists gave up altogether; it was the logical conclusion of their anti-Art stance.

But Duchamp in fact continued a career of low-level tinkering, especially in Surrealism (which he was never officially a member of. He:

  • served on the editorial boards of the Surreal magazine, Minotaure and the New York magazine VVV
  • designed the glass doors for Breton’s gallery Gradiva
  • arranged a New York exhibition for Breton
  • arranged the New York publication of Arcane 17 and Surrealism and painting
  • designed the cover of Breton’s volume of poetry, Young cherry trees secured against hares
  • served as ‘producer-arbitrator’ for the Exposition internationale de Surrealisme in 1938
  • decorated the ‘First Papers of Surrealism’ exhibition in 1942 with reams of string and suggested the contributors’ faces in the catalogue were replaced by random photographs from the papers
  • was co-presenter, with Breton, of Le Surrealisme en 1947 in Paris
  • hand-coloured 999 fake plastic breasts to be included in the catalogue
  • helped organise the 1959 Exposition internatoinale du Surréalisme with the theme of eroticism. Entry to one room was through a padded slit shaped like a vagina (Rrose Sélavy – Eros c’est la vie – was, after all, the punning meaning of the female drag identity Duchamp jokily created in the 1920s. Maybe Eros c’est mon oeuvre would have been more accurate.)

Retired from making, maybe, but quite obviously still involved with the art world.

6. Étant donnés

In fact, in secret, in the last twenty years of his life Duchamp was working on an even weirder piece, titled Étant donnés (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas, French: Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau / 2° le gaz d’éclairage).

The viewer has to look through two pinhole cracks in an old door to see a tableau of a nude woman lying on her back with her face hidden, her legs spread wide apart to reveal her hairless vulva, while one outstretched arm holds a gas lamp up against a landscape backdrop.

Étant donnés (1946-66) by Marcel Duchamp

The view inside Étant donnés (1946-66) by Marcel Duchamp

Duchamp prepared a ‘Manual of Instructions’ in a 4-ring binder explaining and illustrating how to assemble and disassemble the piece. It wasn’t displayed to the public until after Duchamp’s death in 1968 when it was installed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, also home to the Bride.

What on earth is it about, and how does it relate (if at all) to Duchamp’s earlier pieces?

Well, for a start, both rotate around naked women (hardly a very ‘revolutionary’ or ‘subversive’ subject – arguably the exact opposite). This takes us right back to the opening chapters where the authors had pointed out how many of Duchamp’s early cartoons and illustrations took the mickey out of the French feminist movement of 1905, and of women’s rights and aspirations, in general.

  • Femme Cocher (1907) Marcel Duchamp Women had recently been allowed to drive hansom cabs. This cartoon, showing the absence of a woman driver parked outside a hotel which could be rented by the hour, suggests the woman driver is picking up extra money by popping in to ‘service’ her customer. Misogyny?

Moreover, before he adopted the Cubo-Futurist style, many of Duchamp’s earliest paintings depicted women stripped bare (aha) as they will appear in The bride and Étant donnés – walking, stretching, sitting – all naked. What is happening in an early painting such as The Bush (1911)?

In the same year, Portrait (Dulcinea) is an early attempt at portraying movement, the same woman appearing five times, each time progressively more undressed (though admittedly, this is not easy to make out).

So, naked women were a recurrent theme of his career. Indeed, one of the more easily readable exhibits at the current Dali/Duchamp exhibition is a photo of Duchamp playing chess with a naked lady in the 1960s. Old man and naked young woman. Hmm.

But this is just the obvious place to start, with the shockingly crude image of a naked woman. As with The Bride the authors t go on to use Duchamp’s own writings to bring out the dizzying multiplicity of meanings and interpretations which this strange, unsettling piece is capable of, for example reviewing the fifteen ‘operations’ in the instruction manual he wrote, which explain how the object was to be assembled.

As I read the densely written chapter about it, I realise that the detailed, hyper-precise instructions surrounding Étant Donnés, which all lead to a frustrating, flat, unemotional and profoundly disturbing outcome – all this reminds me of the detailed instructions which Samuel Beckett included in the texts of his carefully constructed artifice-plays. Same fanatical attention to detail for a similarly bleak and deliberately emotionally detached product.

Having finished the book and looking back in review of his career, the readymades seem almost the most accessible part of it. These two big works are genuinely subversive in the sense that, while invoking a kaleidoscope of interpretations, they continue to puzzle and baffle rational thought.

7. Duchamp cartoons

Which thought – possibly – brings us back to the very beginning of Duchamp’s career. His first exhibited works were shown at the 1907 Salon des Artistes Humoristes and his earliest paid work was as colleague to a gang of caricaturists and cartoonists who worked for Parisian magazines with titles like Cocorico, Le Rire (the Laugh) and Le Courrier français.

More than his interest in sex, or machines, or even chess, it is arguable that this taste for the drily humorous is the central spindle of his oeuvre.

Is the idea of the urinal not funny? Is he not, as thousands have pointed out before me, taking the piss out of the art world? Are not all his Surrealist interventions, ultimately, comical? And isn’t his last, great, puzzling work, in effect — a peep show of a naked lady? And the fact that so many critics have written about it with such po-faced seriousness, isn’t that itself comical?

You can’t help feeling all the way through, that Duchamp was having le dernier rire. After all, why shouldn’t modern art be itself funny, or the subject of humour?

Toilet humour

1950s revival

Lastly, in a very useful coda, the authors explain how Duchamp really had gone largely into retirement, living in a small New York apartment with the last of his many companions, when the 1950s dawned and with it the birth of an American avant-garde scene.

The Black Mountain College poets and writers and composers – John Cage the composer, Robert Rauschenberg the painter and Merce Cunningham the choreographer – took inspiration from Duchamp to oppose the intensely male and retinal work of the then dominant Abstract Expressionists, to kick back in the name of a dance and art and music which questioned its own premises, questioned its own ‘coherence’ and – in Cage’s music in particular – sought to escape the control and input of the composer completely, just as Duchamp had sought to escape the controlling influence of the artist in his readymades.

Rauschenberg’s close friend Jasper Johns used deliberately ‘found’ motifs like the American flag, numbers, letters, maps to depersonalise and demystify his art, and also combined it with readymade artefacts, just as Duchamp had. (As can be seen at the current Royal Academy exhibition about Johns.)

By 1960 his example was being quoted by all sorts of opponents of Abstract Expressionism, and his influence then spread across the outburst of new movements of the 60s – Fluxus, Arte Povera, Minimalism, Conceptualism, Land Art, Performance Art and so on. And is still very much with us today.

If the first half of the twentieth century belonged to the twin geniuses Matisse and Picasso, the second half belonged to this idiosyncratic, retiring but immensely intellectual and thought-provoking genius.

Conclusion

Duchamp’s greatest hits are summarised in the book’s promotional blurb:

  • The originally controversial Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 was a vital inspiration to the Futurists and remains a cubist classic.
  • Fountain (a ready-made urinal) continues to inspire conceptual artists of all stripes.
  • Large Glass (1915- 1923) continues to beguile.
  • Duchamp’s last work Étant Donnés (1946-1966) continues to disturb.

His achievement was to produce works and critical writings, ‘provocations and interventions’, which made innumerable artists, critics and curators reconsider their whole idea of what a work of art could be and mean. He opened up whole new vistas of the possible, and this is without listing some of the other ‘interventions’ the authors cover, like his half-serious financial ventures, his attempts to design and sell a rotorelief machine or – most teasingly of all – his teasing theory of the ‘infra-thin’.

It’s hard to imagine a one-volume book about Duchamp which could both cover the nuts and bolts of his biography and career, and also follow him out into the more vertiginous aspects of his relentless theorising about art in general and his own peculiar masterpieces in particular, better than this one.

Tu m' (1918) Duchamp's last work, painted as a commission to go above shelving in a New York apartment

Tu m’ (1918) Duchamp’s last work, painted as a commission to go above shelving in a New York apartment. In French the phrase requires a verb to complete it, so it’s unfinished. Pronounced in English it sounds like ‘tomb’ i.e. the summary and end of his painting career.


Related links

Surrealism-related books

Surrealism-related exhibitions

Impressionists in London @ Tate Britain

Mention ‘impressionism’ and the ears of a million grey-haired ladies across the Home Counties prick up. Coach parties are organised, lunch dates diarised and crowds descend. I got there ten minutes after opening time and this EY Exhibition of ‘Impressionists in London’ was already so packed you couldn’t see some of the exhibits.

Still, it’s a hugely enjoyable show, a chocolate box full of old favourites and new wonders, many loaned from private collections and so only available to view this once.

Disparate themes

The most striking thing is the way the curators have managed to pack into the eight and a bit rooms of the downstairs exhibition space at Tate Britain about four different themes or ideas, a good deal of which – maybe half – has nothing at all to do with impressionism.

First there’s a room entirely about the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), linking on to one about the early experiences of the French painters who fled to England.

Then there are three rooms about artists who are in no way impressionists: James Tissot, Alphonse Legros and Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux.

It’s only in room five that we finally get to see impressionists paintings in significant numbers, with depictions of London and surrounding suburbs by the likes of Monet, Pissarro and Sisley.

Room six is a small space devoted to Whistler, poet of London fogs.

Room seven is, from the impressionist addict’s point of view, the highlight, with eight big canvases by Monet at the height of his powers depicting the Thames and Houses of Parliament, through London fogs, with the shimmering orange sun at various heights and angles. Most of them appear to be on loan from private collections i.e. this is a unique opportunity to see them. This is the Room of Rooms.

The show could easily have ended there, but in an odd postscript, or ‘coda’ as the curators call it, they have hung three super-vibrant works by the Fauvist painter André Derain, who was commissioned in 1906 to paint London scenes.

Acknowledging his debt to Monet, Derain painted many of the same scenes as the master had in  his London series, but in a completely different style, using the wild vibrant colours of the Fauves.

The curators’ idea is to demonstrate how certain views in London – specifically the House of Parliament from the river – became a recurring motif in French art, and almost a kind of manifesto in which succeeding generations of artists declared their colours (literally) by doing their version of London.

Nice idea, maybe, but the small white room and wild colours were quite a change of gear after the mushroom-coloured walls and muted lighting of the Monet room.

So, let’s start at the beginning:

The Franco-Prussian War and the Commune

The Emperor Napoleon III of France was fool enough to let himself be goaded by Chancellor Bismarck of Prussia into declaring war in July 1870. All Europe thought the vast and gaily coloured French army would stomp the Germans, but the reverse happened. The Prussians slaughtered the French at a series of lightning strikes into France, demolishing their main army at the Battle of Sedan and eventually marching all the way to Paris. The Emperor abdicated and fled to England. The government fled to Versailles. The Second Empire was over. The Germans besieged Paris for three terrible months at the end of which the government (in exile in Versailles) surrendered. The Germans marched up and down the Champs Elysees then retired to positions surrounding the city. At which point a bloody uprising took place within Paris, led by proto-communists who set up a Commune. First they went on the warpath, trying and executing their political opponents. Then the French army set about recapturing Paris from the revolutionaries, a battle which descended into fierce street-to-street fighting, followed by summary reprisals and executions. In just one week some 20,000 civilians died. Nightmare.

The Rue de Rivoli in Paris after the suppression of the Commune in May 1871

The Rue de Rivoli in Paris after the suppression of the Commune in May 1871

I’ve described the events at length in reviews of two classic books on the subject.

The first room of the exhibition collects together illustrations of the war and of the Bloody Week at the end of the Commune during which some 3,000 Parisians were massacred. They include a haunting symbolic painting by Corot, a set of early photographs of the ruins (apparently, a book was published titled A Guide Through The Ruins of Paris). There are some excellent prints by James Tissot, who served as a stretcher bearer, of injured soldiers and makeshift hospitals.

The wounded soldier (1870) by James Tissot

The wounded soldier (1870) by James Tissot

There are some vivid sketches done in charcoal on paper by Manet who witnessed shooting squads at first hand. Apparently, he had a nervous breakdown.

Civil war by Édouard Manet

Civil war by Édouard Manet

Emigres and exiles in England

Thousands of French nationals fled to England, then, as later, a sanctuary from violent mayhem on the Continent. Among their number were many of the painters who would go on to form the core of the Impressionist movement.

(N.B. The impressionists got their name in 1874 when the satirical Parisian magazine Charivari singled out qualities of Monet’s painting Impression: Sunrise, to form the basis of a witheringly satirical view of the first joint exhibition which Degas, Monet et al, held in 1874. The name ‘impressionist’ stuck and spread to all the painters involved. I.e. at the time they fled to England and painted London, none of these painters were known as or thought of themselves as ‘impressionists’ and there was no such movement as ‘impressionism’).

The room explaining this includes the fairly well-known paintings Camille Pissarro did of Sydenham and Dulwich, familiar because they are owned by the National Gallery and are routinely trotted out for this kind of show. Poor Pissarro lost his entire life’s work in the war when his house was taken over by the Prussian army and ransacked, paintings used as kindling for fires or to wipe soldiers’ bottoms.

The exhibition is heavy on biography and anecdote. Besides the usual room introduction and wall labels for each painting, each room also includes biographical panels about specific artists, often very interesting.

Monet also moved to London, fleeing conscription with Mrs Monet, who he had only just married. He didn’t paint much because apparently he didn’t have enough money to buy materials.

Meditation, Madame Monet Sitting on a Sofa (1870 - 1871) Claude Monet

Meditation, Madame Monet Sitting on a Sofa (1870 – 1871) Claude Monet

The commentary picks up on the Japanese vase on the mantlepiece, hinting at the massive influence of Japanese decoration and design on this generation. I was more impressed by the rucked-up folds of the chintz sofa. God, you can smell the dust and mustiness.

James Tissot

To my immense surprise, room three is devoted to lots of wonderful works by James Tissot (with a Millais (The Huguenot) thrown in, because Millais was among the English artists who helped James) and several paintings by Giusseppe de Nittis, who I’d never heard of before. De Nittis was a friend of Tissot’s, like him, became a member of the select Arts Club in Hanover Square and, like him, painted large, super-realistic pictures of modern English life and urban landscapes, though Tissot tended to focus on River Thames-based scenes whereas de Nittis liked the grimy streets.

St Martin-in-the-Fields and the National Gallery (1846 – 1884) by Giuseppe De Nittis

St Martin-in-the-Fields and the National Gallery (1846 – 1884) by Giuseppe De Nittis

When I was a teenager I was mad about the Impressionists and rejected everything else – but over the years I’ve come to appreciate late-Victorian art, whether its anecdotal realism or pre-Raphaelite visions or the strain of high aestheticism which mutated into the Roman fantasies of the so-called ‘Olympian’ painters (Leighton, Alma-Tadema et al). And, despite being French, Tissot and de Nittis fit right into that world.

Tissot covered a range of subjects:

Tissot may well have been French, and he was certainly a refugee from the war, and I really enjoyed getting to see a dozen or so of his wonderfully naturalistic paintings, as well as some intriguing prints of the East End of the Thames – but he is no impressionist, almost the opposite. He was painting nin the highly naturalistic style of the Salon painters of his day, albeit of everyday folk, not heroes and historical figures.

And the same is even more true of the subjects of the next two rooms. They are not impressionists at all.

Alphonse Legros had settled in London in 1863 where he became friends with luminaries of the art world such as Whistler, Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Watts. He was appointed Slade Professor of Art in 1876 and so, as a well-established and well-connected artist he was a port of call for the impoverished young painters fleeing Paris. He was especially supportive of the Communard sculptor Jules Dalou and so this is a pretext for the room to feature a number of big sculptures by Dalou.

Thus every piece in this big room tells a story about Legros’ network of friends and connections in the London art world, which are all interesting, biographical snippets and anecdotes (the portrait Laurence Alma-Tadema did of Dalou, his wife and daughter which was reciprocated by a bust Dalou did of Alma-Tadema’s wife, Laura). Legros and Dalou were instrumental in introducing the work of the young Rodin to the British, and this justifies the presence of a rather wonderful portrait of Rodin.

Portrait of Rodin (1882) by Alphonse Legros

Portrait of Rodin (1882) by Alphonse Legros

All very interesting, but almost the opposite of impressionism – extremely realistic, figurative Salon art.

Which is even more true of the room about the most famous sculptor of the Second Empire (1853-1870), Jean-Baptiste Carpaux who arrived in England in March 1871, shortly before the defeated and overthrown French emperor Napoleon III.

Once again, we are given a lot of detail about the social networks he brought with him from France and the patrons and collectors he soon found in London. The biggest thing in this room is his sculpture of Flora.

Flora by Jean-Baptiste Carpaux (1873)

Flora by Jean-Baptiste Carpaux (1873)

When I saw that this statue is owned by Tate I had a strong sense of déjà vu, remembering the long line of exhibitions at Tate Britain (Ruin Lust, Folk Art) which have often seemed like excuses to dust off some of the more obscure and unfashionable items in their vast collection and find a pretext to put them on display.

Fair enough, in a way, since they do have a remit to show and display the collection. And it would explain what Carpeaux, Legros and Tissot are doing in an exhibition ostensibly about impressionism. The exhibitions sub-title, French Artists in Exile, is a far more accurate description of the central half of this show.

British society through outsiders’ eyes

After all this polite and decorous Salon art it is quite a shock to walk into the next room, which genuinely is filled with impressionist art, with painters like Monet, Sisley and Pissarro depicting scenes like Kew Gardens, Westminster bridge, Hampton Court and so on.

Pissarro rented a flat at Kew Green (I used to walk past the blue plaque on the wall on the way to work) which he used as a base to paint Kew Green, St Anne’s church and the environs.

Saint Anne’s Church at Kew (1892) by Camille Pissarro

Saint Anne’s Church at Kew (1892) by Camille Pissarro

Sisley painted rowers at Hampton Court bridge (the label points out that he avoided painting the historic Court whatsoever, but instead used the relatively new cast-iron bridge as a key element in the design. Despite their dreamy reputation today, it’s always worth remembering that the impressionists painted the contemporary world.)

Monet painted Hyde Park and the rhododendron walk at Kew Gardens.

But still mixed in among these authentic impressionist works, were a number of further hyper-realistic scenes by Tissot and de Nittis. We learn in this room that de Nittis, in particular, was commissioned to paint twelve large street scenes of London by his patron Kaye Knowles. They are highly evocative and totally naturalistic.

Piccadilly: Wintry Walk in London (1875) by Giuseppe De Nittis

Piccadilly: Wintry Walk in London (1875) by Giuseppe De Nittis

I doubt if it was the intention but putting the hyper-realism of de Nittis and Tissot in the same room as the soft impressionism of Sisley, Pissarro and Monet sort of prompts the visitor to choose: which vision of the world do you prefer?

Which do you prefer?

The fog master

Oscar Wilde asserted the primacy of art over life in his 1891 essay, The Decay of Lying:

At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say they were. But no one saw them. They did not exist until Art had invented them.

I laughed out loud when the audio guide claimed that the American expatriate artist in London, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, was the master of fogs, or the Fog Master. Thus this room shows a trio of Whistler’s nocturnes, the Thames through evening fogs.

Three Thames views by the Fog Master, James Whistler

Three Thames views by the Fog Master, James Whistler

I know they’re famous but I’ve never really liked them. I prefer Whistler’s women, like the Symphony in white, or his etchings of ramshackle London slums, which I saw in an exhibition some years ago. Again, the exhibition contrasted hard core impressionist works with the realist Tissot (surely there’s more Tissot here than any other painter).

I feel like I’m failing some kind of aesthetic test, but it was the realists I preferred.

Westminster (1878) by Giuseppe De Nittis

Westminster (1878) by Giuseppe De Nittis

Monet’s Thames series

Around his 60th birthday (1900) Monet expressed an interest in exploring earlier motifs ‘to sum up impressions and sensations of the past’. For three consecutive winters (1899, 1890, 1901) he took rooms in the Savoy Hotel and painted the River Thames. At one point he had some 100 canvases on the go at the same time. Imagine the visual sensation of walking into those rooms!

Eight of them are gathered here, many from private collections, hung in a room with dimmed lighting on mushroom-coloured walls and the effect is completely magical. What a genius. From the envelop of London fog the orange sun appears, in some paintings high and dominant, in others remote and wintry, in some not in vision but casting a refulgent light over the foggy silhouette of the House of Parliament.

It’s worth the admission price just to be able to walk round this room inspecting each painting carefully, and then sitting quietly, letting the achievement of the Impression Master, the luxe, calme et volupté, really sink in.

Derain

The show could easily have stopped at this climax, letting the dazed visitor stumble out into the cold light of day with visions of Monet swirling round their minds. Instead there is this odd ‘coda’, a white room displaying three vibrant, bright paintings by the Fauvist painter André Derain designed to make the point that London landscapes remained a kind of litmus test of the vision and style of French artists. Derain explicitly mentioned the Monet London series in correspondence about his set, but then goes on to defend his own very different style.

It’s a vivid if slightly odd end to an exhibition which feels like it has only intermittently been about the impressionists.

Again, I failed the impressionist test, by preferring the Derain to most of the Sisley and Pissarro, which I nowadays find a little washed-out and pallid.

Conclusion

Looking back, it’s an odd, uneven exhibition but:

  • it contains a whole load of sumptuous wonderful paintings, many many works of really stunning beauty
  • it does give a strong sense of the artistic networks among French exiles and emigres in England, before during and after the catastrophic Franco-Prussian War
  • and it allows you to compare and contrast a range of artistic styles and visions available around the 1870s, prompting you to decide which ones you like, and why
Installation view of the Tissot room

Installation view of the Tissot room (with Millais’s The Huguenot in the middle)

Impressionist merchandise

My daughter is 16. When she goes to gigs she and her friends always buy a few pieces of merchandise, or ‘merch’. As usual, I was staggered by the amount of merch you can get at art exhibitions these days. Just for Derain, one of his vibrant London scenes was available on a scarf, a bag, a glasses case, a jigsaw, you could buy a Derain coaster, table mat, fridge magnet, mug, print, shortbread tin, tea towel, key ring, book mark, oyster card holder, tea tray, post card or set of postcards. Same for Monet and Whistler, whose foggy bridge image was available as all the above plus lavender soap, a ring, a pair of ear rings, a pocket mirror, a diary and calendar.

I do find it funny that there is also a special Impressionist lunch available to accompany your visit, as well as a cheese and wine pop-up, and a one-off ‘Taste of France’ experience.

Desire

The audio guide by curator Caroline Corbeau-Parsons is admirably informative, clear and sensible. I thought I’d got right to the end of a contemporary exhibition without anyone mentioning sex, eroticism, bodies, gender or desire, but I see that, among all the talks and events to accompany the show, there is one on ‘Buildings and Bodies in France and London’: a ‘discussion on how gender and sexuality have shaped experiences of London and Paris’. Phew. They managed to squeeze it in.

Video

Here’s a BBC report on the show, featuring co-curator Caroline Corbeau-Parsons.


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Book reviews

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Dalí: Genius, obsession and lust by Ralf Schiebler (1996)

Sex sells. The first documented use of the phrase ‘sex appeal’ dates from 1924 in America, which just happens to be the same year the first Surrealist manifesto was published. Apparently, Dalí was among the first to use a French version of the phrase in France. He knew which way the cultural wind was blowing.

‘People are hard wired to notice sexually relevant information, so ads with sexual content get noticed.’ (Magazine trends study finds increase in advertisements using sex)

Dalí the showman harnessed his own sexual obsessions and fears into his earliest fully surreal paintings. Later, this declined into a habit of including breasts as one of his random design elements in his post-war works. Nonetheless, in puritan America, the inclusion of highly realistic sexual elements guaranteed his work notice, attention and ‘controversy’, keeping his brand in the public view. And, in our time, modern curators and art critics obsessed with bodies, gender, desire and eroticism have found in Dalí’s paintings a goldmine of ‘issues’.

So a book about Dalí which focuses on his use of sexual imagery plays to everyone’s worst instincts.

Small but with photos

Like Edmund Swinglehurst’s book on Dalí, this one has about 120 pages, but is significantly smaller, at 17.8 cm x 25.4 cm. This means the colour reproductions of Dalí’s work make a lot less impact and some of the fine detail, which characterises so many of his paintings, is all-but-indecipherable. In other words, go elsewhere if you want big reproductions of the paintings.

Where this book scores is in the inclusion of lots of photographs from all periods of Dalí’s life, from childhood to senescence. Newspaper and publicity photos from the 30s, 40s and 50s really bring out what a genius Dalí had for creating sensational pictures, objects, shop windows, opera sets and publicity stunts. You can be censorious about his ‘selling out’ or relaxed, seeing him as a precursor to later artist-publicists like Warhol, Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst all of whom, like their Dalí, made or are making fortunes from their ‘art’.

Business art is the step that comes after art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist. Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. During the hippie era people put down the idea of business. They’d say ‘money is bad’ and ‘working is bad’. But making money is art, and working is art – and good business is the best art. (Andy Warhol)

There’s nowhere to go after that. Warhol helped modern art disappear up its own fundament. Saying a work of art challenges anything is like saying the lastest novel by x, y or z challenges language and revolutionises society. Quite obviously it doesn’t, it just adds itself to the already vast, huge, teeming overwhelming plethora of entertainments and distractions which swamp the modern world.

It’s for every individual to make their own way through this overcrowded emporium of art music videos photos movies plays books TV shows and so on.

If I am reading a book about Salvador Dalí it isn’t to find secret channels into my unconscious or to be scandalised by his sexual imagery or to have my view of rational society overthrown; it’s to be informed, entertained and amused, just like all the other comfortably-off, middle-class white people I joined at the Royal Academy’s Dalí/Duchamp exhibition a few days ago.

Key photos

As I mentioned, one of the pleasures of the book is the range of photos covering the old showman’s life and times.

Psychoanalysis

This book is translated from the German and occasionally shows it. Its weakest feature is its highly speculative use of Freudian psychoanalysis to interpret the pictures. It seems to be biographical fact that Dalí masturbated a lot, felt guilty about it, had a powerful castration complex, hated his father, specially after he a) married his mother’s sister, soon after his mother’s death in 1921 b) threw him out of the family home for consorting with Gala (still married to Paul Eluard), and that his anxiety and panic attacks ceased as a result of the immense flood of relief, gratification and comfort he found with Gala.

Thus the early paintings give themselves up fairly easily to speculative readings: there are soft sexual symbols aplenty in these earliest works: lots of boobs, but also fingers representing phalluses, men turned towards walls symbolising solitary masturbation, a bearded figure who ‘might be’ Freud in The first days of spring, the lion with a big red tongue which is a sexual symbol, and so on.

Schiebler interprets one of Dalí’s most explicitly sexual paintings (i.e. it contains an actual penis) William Tell and Gradiva (1931) in Freudian terms. Obviously a man is masturbating over the exaggerated naked female form, but the point of the William Tell legend is that Tell almost kills his son by firing an arrow at an apple on his head i.e. it is a deflected version of Freud’s Oedipus Complex (the unconscious rivalry between father and son for possession of the mother).

The man’s beard is the giveaway. This is not Dalí masturbating over Gala, it is his father. Schiebler is quick to speculate that Dalí’s aggression against his father wasn’t based just on the fact that he remarried so soon after his mother’s death (like Hamlet’s surviving parent does) and that his father banned him from the family home – but a Freudian reading that his father was angry at him for dating another man’s wife (Gala) because he – his father – wanted her, sexually.

This example shows how psychoanalytic literary and art criticism can stretch small elements of a work of art, especially if it is actual sexual in nature, into almost indefinite layers of complexity. Thus Schiebler spends three pages going into great detail about the case of Gradiva, the 1902 novella about an archaeologist who has dreams and visions which eventually turn out to conceal a hidden love, which Freud dedicated a long, pioneering work of pychoanalytic interpretation to in 1907.

Dalí immediately recognised this story and projected it onto his love for Gala, his Gradiva, a long-lasting nickname he gave her and which explains its presence in many paintings of this period.

Schiebler uses the sketch and explanation given in the book co-authored by Gala, La femme visible, to focus attention on the complex family group tucked away in the bottom right of The invisibole man, bringing out how each figure is part of Dalí’s complex family romance – the two mothers, the dead older brother – and how the entire thing seems to depict the castration of the baby Dalí.

This is the tone of the book. It is most useful when covering psychoanalytic material directly invoked or quoted by Dalí himself, and also when it ties visual motifs in the paintings to Dalí’s complex life and personal obsessions, less useful the further it veers into psychoanalytic speculation.

Money

There’s a short (three pages) chapter about Dalí’s reputation for greed, for which the leader of the Surrealists, André Breton, famously satirised him, nicknaming Dalí ‘Avida Dollars’. Schiebler’s prose, or the translation, and the fatuous nonsensicality of the underlying thought, come to the fore.

Dalí’s ways with money were certainly chaotic and unfortunate. But the claims that he lusted after money are not convincing, particularly those made by people faring less well themselves and whose socialist options hold little hope for the future either. And in view of the current value of  his works – estimated with increasing objectivity thanks to the number and expertise of those who judge these matters one would have to rate as modest the prices that Dalí charged when he created those works. (p.72)

Science

In one of his countless later interviews Dalí said the two men who influenced him most were Freud and Einstein. The two can be allotted to two halves of Dalí’s career which splits neatly down the middle with the dividing line being the detonation of the atom bomb at Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. As Schiebler’s book makes abundantly clear, the works from the mid-1920s till well into the second World War are redolent of sex, sexual obsession, phobias and a range of imagery deriving from or nodding at Freud’s psychoanalytical theories.

But the advent of the nuclear age really struck Dalí to the core, and almost all his post-war works reference nuclear physics with its vision of an atomised universe, of matter broken down into multitudes of sub-atomic particles, of the stunning discovery that almost all of the observed world is in fact empty space – though, as with Freud, this vision is filtered though a peculiarly Dalí-esque vision. Hence:

Schiebler tells us that, as soon as he could really read English, Dalí took out a subscription to Scientific American and used the flood of post-war scientific discoveries as subject matter. Thus, DNA:

Ambition

Dalí was keen for approval from boyhood. He was convinced he was destined for great things. He was invincibly ambitious. No surprise that his cubist self portrait contains the word publicidad, publicity.

His first published writing (1919) was a series on the Great masters of painting. In 1944 he made a league table of painters based on criteria like originality and technique, leading to a table headed by Vermeer, Raphel, Velasquez, Leonardo da Vinci and… himself!

He was aware of his own staggering virtuosity at an early age. By 19, 20, 21 and still at art academy, he had mastered all existing styles:

What a prodigy!

He had an older brother, also named Salvador, who died aged just 21 months before he was born. His mother died in 1921 when he was 17.

His father was notary of Figueres, the head man of the town. His mother let the teenage Dalí take over the laundry ‘tower’ at the top of their house, overlooking the bay, to paint.

It is difficult to hold the world’s interest for more than half an hour at a time. I myself have done so successfully every day for twenty years.


Credit

Dalí: Genius, obsession and lust by Ralf Schiebler was published by Prestel as part of the Pegasus Art series in 1996.

Related links

Dalí-related blog posts

Surrealism-related book reviews

Surrealism-related exhibition reviews

Tracey Emin – My Bed and J.M.W. Turner @ Turner Contemporary

Down in Margate to visit Turner Contemporary, the main effort went into visiting the big retrospective of Surrealist painter and poet Jean Arp. But off to one side, in a big light exhibition room is a funny, wry and stimulating little ‘exhibition’ which consists of the famous ‘bed’ by local-girl-done-good, Tracey Emin, juxtaposed with three big oil paintings of the sea by the great 19th century painter J.M.W. Turner (Rough sea, Stormy sea with blazing wreck, Seascape).

My bed (1998) by Tracey Emin

My bed (1998) by Tracey Emin

Tracey Emin

The bed was part of the show which won her the 1999 Turner Prize and helped define the era of Young British Art. I didn’t need any explanation or background notes to immediately think it was a masterpiece.

  1. It adequately, eloquently, comprehensively depicts the life and manners of millions of young people in our times.
  2. It’s by a woman, so it isn’t a show-off depiction by some young stud of how much he drinks and how many women he’s bedded, but something altogether more vulnerable and candid.

Very much like the tent onto which Emin sewed the names of everyone she’d ever slept with which, if it had been by a man, would have been disturbingly like a list of notches on a bedpost – but which was instantly disarming because it included her gran, and her baby brother, and all her teddy bears and toys, all memorialised by name.

It has the immediate impact of being just right, just the right size (room size), just the right proportions, just the right amount of mess and carnage. A classic in every way.

The visitor assistants at Turner Contemporary were all extremely helpful and, more than that, happy to chat about the gallery, Margate, house prices, Tracey’s comings and goings, the art market, and so on. They told me that, each time Emin re-exhibits the bed, she re-arranges it. It’s never the same bed twice. This is as well as the obvious signs of wear and tear, such as the unknown substance which the contents of an opened bottle of Orangina have turned into over the past 20 years.

Now, Emin is quoted as saying:

‘It is a portrait of a younger woman and how times affects us all.’

J.M.W. Turner

Turner needs no introduction. All you need to know for this exhibition is that he visited Margate quite regularly to paint vast, visionary lightscapes looking across the grey Thames Estuary, and that the gallery itself is apparently built on the very spot – overlooking the sea – where once stood the boarding house where Turner stayed. The magnificent views from the gallery’s high windows are the same views Turner saw, and painted. Poignant thought.

View from Turner Contemporary over the Thames Estuary

View from Turner Contemporary over the Thames Estuary

Emin chose the three paintings by Turner (from the vast collection held by Tate) for their stormy turbulence. They are impactful works in their own right, depicting huge, powerful, grey and stormy skies with Turner’s characteristic hazy impressionism.

Rough sea (1840-45) by J.M.W. Turner

Rough sea (1840-45) by J.M.W. Turner

Strange meeting

According to the wall labels the bed represents a turning point in Emin’s life, after the collapse of a long-term relationship. It is intended to depict emotional turmoil. That, apparently, is the link, the secret sympathy which joins and jars these two very different works of art, for Turner’s seascapes are stormy and turbulent, too. Emin chose them for their echo of her emotions.

But I mentioned how chatty and informative the visitor assistants are. One of them told me a secret about this exhibition. She leaned forward, conspiratorially, and whispered – ‘You see the blue knickers in the middle of the bed?’ I looked, yes there they are. She said, ‘Now look at the Turner painting, the one nearest the bed.’ So I did – and in the middle of Turner’s massive white clouds – is a large patch of light blue. Same colour as the knickers adrift in the turbulent dirty cream colour of Emin’s sheets and duvet.

Seascape (1835-40) by J.M.W. Turner

Seascape (1835-40) by J.M.W. Turner

Aha! What mystical correspondence is here, what unknown meanings and messages abound in the universe, what alchemical ties of earth and air and sea and fire are hinted at, once the hooded thaumaturges have cast their runes.

My bed (1998) by Tracey Emin

My bed (1998) by Tracey Emin

Elemental correspondences

Turner – dishevelled white clouds
Tracey – dishevelled white bedding
Turner – wild seascapes
Tracey – wild vodkascapes
Turner – waves washing over the rugged brown land
Tracey – bedding washing over the wooden bed and sturdy little table
Turner – blazing wreck (in the third of the three paintings)
Tracey – fag packet and box of matches

Now it all makes sense.

Tracey Emin My Bed/J.M.W. Turner at Turner Contemporary. Photography by Manu Palomeque

Tracey Emin My Bed/J.M.W. Turner at Turner Contemporary. Photography by Manu Palomeque

The video

There is, of course, a video.


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