Young Bomberg and the Old Masters @ the National Gallery

The National Gallery regularly uses room to house interesting and quirky, FREE exhibitions. To get there, go up the grand main stairs, then left up a spur of the stairs and then, on the mezzanine, as you come to the shop, turn left into a relatively small exhibition room.

This one claims to be setting the early work of the radical Modernist, English painter David Bomberg (1890–1957) against some of the Old Master paintings in the National’s collection which we know inspired him. We know this because he recorded his enthusiasm for Old Masters at the National in letters and diaries and the exhibition quotes his sister and girlfriends who he would drag, at the drop of a hat, along to the National to show them his latest passion.

Young Bomberg and the Old Masters

Except that, surprisingly, and despite the explicit title, this isn’t what the exhibition actually does.

There are only two Old Master paintings in the exhibition: Sandro Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man in oil is hung next to Bomberg’s chalk self-portrait and they do indeed share a certain intensity, Bomberg’s confrontational direct gaze modelled on the Florentine’s.

Portrait of a Young Man by Sandro Botticelli (1480-5) © The National Gallery, London and Self Portrait by David Bomberg (1913-14) Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London / © The estate of David Bomberg

And a crucifixion from the studio of El Greco which is interesting, but mostly for the strange moulded nature of the background, which reminded me of the Surrealists.

As for the rest of the Old Masters, the final wall label has a list of precisely five other Renaissance paintings which apparently influenced Bomberg – but they’ve all been left in situ in their original rooms and you have to go on a treasure hunt through the National Gallery to find them:

  • Michelangelos The Entombment (room 8)
  • Veronese’s Unfaithfulness (room 11)
  • Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity (room 58)
  • Antonio Poliaullo’s Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian (room 59)
  • Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ (room 61)

Bomberg’s sketches and paintings

No, the real thing about this exhibition is much more interesting: they’ve brought together half a dozen of Bomberg’s greatest early paintings and Bomberg’s preparatory sketches for them. Setting them next to each other is fascinating.

Who was David Bomberg?

Bomberg’s early paintings were among the most excitingly dynamic and abstract created in the first flush of modernism just before the Great War. Visitors to his first solo show in 1914 thought he had completely rejected the entire existing tradition of painting in order to create dazzling abstract works like the justly famous Mud Bath, painted when he was just 23.

The Mud Bath by David Bomberg (1914) © Tate

Alongside Mud Bath are hung three masterpieces from his early, Modernist period and next to each one, a preparatory sketch:

  • Vision of Ezekiel (1912, Tate) inspired by the sudden death of his beloved mother Rebecca and the theme of the resurrection in the Old Testament
  • Ju-Jitsu (c.1913, Tate) a geometrical and fractured painting based on his brother’s East End gym
  • In the Hold (c.1913–14, Tate) where dockers appear to be unloading migrant adults and children from a ship

Take In The Hold. Here’s the preparatory sketch:

Study for In the Hold by David Bomberg (about 1914) © Tate

From this sketch you can clearly see that the objects ‘in the hold’ of the ship are human beings. You can see the ladder coming up out of the hold on the right, and two particularly obvious hands being waved up out of the hold in the centre middle. You can just about make out that the figure on the right is holding a horizontal child up over his head. The whole thing depicts the none-too-gentle removing of immigrants from the hold of an immigrant ship, maybe the kind of old steamer that brought Bomberg’s parents, Jewish immigrants, to London in the 1890s.

Already the curved human figures have been transformed into semi-abstract geometric patterns. Not only that but the clashes of angles and geometries powerfully convey a) the nervous energy and b) the sheer cramped claustrophobia of the ship’s belowdecks.

Now look at the painting he made from this sketch.

In the Hold by David Bomberg (1913-14) © Tate

A masterpiece, in my opinion.

The most fundamental aspect of it is the grid of 64 squares which make it seem like a kaleidoscope. Next that he has painted the rectangles and other angular shapes between the figures with as much power and brightness as the figures themselves. The result is that everything is presented on the same plane, with no depth or perspective, a wonderfully bright and brilliantly arranged puzzle.

It’s fascinating to keep referring back to the sketch, then coming back to the painting and seeing just how expertly he has elided, obscured and displaced what were already geometrised human figures, until they are barely legible.

I couldn’t ‘read’ the painting by itself at all, I had no real sense of it being a depiction of a scene. But looking at the preparatory sketch is like having the key to undo its secret. And then I found that switching from one to the other was like alternative points of view of a landscape, or like stereo – like seeing two aspects of the same view. There was a kind of visually dynamic pleasure to be had simply from turning from one version to the other and back again.

And you can do the same – compare the detailed sketch and then the final painting – of Ju-Jitsu and Vision of Ezekiel, two other powerful (if rather smaller) hyper-modernist works.

Conclusions

1. It’s a small room, but it contains four or five masterpieces which remind you how great 1914 Bomberg was. Mud Bath and In The Hold are enormous paintings which dominate the room. Amazing that so much energy and beauty can be contained in such a small space.

2. In small letters, the introduction wall label says this is a collaboration with Tate. When you look closely you realise that all bar two of the nine works by Bomberg are actually from the Tate collection. So it’s more than a collaboration, it’s an inventive way of airing and sharing some of their key Bomberg holdings, bringing them together with some of the sketches which are held at completely different collections. Well done to the curators!

3. Lastly, it is hard not to lament the way Bomberg abandoned his avant-garde style after the Great War, adopting a more figurative style and ‘rediscovering nature’ – sigh – just like many other artists did, contributing to the undistinguished blah of a lot of English art in the 20s and 30s. Hard not to see it as a sad falling-off.

Evening, The Old City and Cathedral, Ronda by David Bomberg (1935)


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Pornography, simile and surrealism in The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash

WARNING: This review contains quotations and images of an extremely brutal and/or sexually explicit nature.

The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) is packed with deviant sexual activity, described with a cold clinical detachment, and Crash (1973) is notorious for being one of the most pornographic ‘serious’ novels of the post-war period, not just pornographic but deliberately and studiedly perverse, in that the story is about how the lead characters – both men and women – become fixated on the erotic potential of car crashes.

All this can easily appear gratuitous, designed purely to shock, or to generate publicity and sales.

But apart from all the external arguments we can invoke to defend Ballard, there are arguments in the works themselves which go some way to explaining their extremity.

In particular, one of the recurring characters in The Atrocity Exhibition, the psychiatrist Dr Nathan, is given several speeches where he explains the reason behind the lead character’s obsession with sex – and with extreme, fetishistic sex of the kind Ballard describes in these two books. These two or three speeches explain Ballard’s motivation, contain interesting insights about modern society, and unwittingly shed light on Ballard’s broader approach and technique.

1. Perverse sex resists the trivialisation & commercialisation of sexuality

During the 1960s sex came out of the closet and into all forms of art and media, advertising, music and movies, the mini-skirt, the pill. Ballard’s shock novels both became possible because of this swift liberalisation of social attitudes, but they are also in some measure a reaction against the modern ubiquity of sex:

‘Now that sex is becoming more and more a conceptual act, an intellectualization divorced from affect and physiology alike, one has to bear in mind the positive merits of the sexual perversions. Talbert’s library of cheap photo-pornography is in fact a vital literature, a kindling of the few taste buds left in the jaded palates of our so-called sexuality.’

The argument is that, as the imagery of sex becomes more ubiquitous in advertising and popular culture, our personal enactments of it unavoidably repeat images, positions, postures, maybe even words and phrases, which we have all seen in the tide of increasingly ‘liberated’ movies and TV dramas. So how can we escape from the sense of simply going through motions done much better on the silver screen by glamorous movie stars, or detailed in a thousand ‘How To Have Better Sex’ books and magazine articles, or in the highly sexualised fiction that we can now read? How can we escape from the nagging feeling that our sex lives have been colonised and occupied by the mass media?

By doing things ‘normal people’ would never dream of.

Thus, at a basic level – level 1 – the characters’ obsession with perverse sex is to some extent justifiable as a rejection of the safe, tame, commercially packaged and sanitised sex lives which are increasingly pushed on us from all directions.

(The irony of David Cronenberg making a glossy movie out of Crash was that he was incorporating into film a glaring example of a work which was trying to rebel against being incorporated into film. Hollywood eats everything. Turns everything into two-hour glamorisation and trivialisation, converts the weird and uncanny into a tried and trusted set of gestural and facial clichés. Which is why I loathe film as a medium.)

2. Car crashes are sexually liberating

But not only is extreme fetishistic sex a way of escaping the stifling ‘norms’ of how-to guides in magazines and on daytime TV – Dr Nathan goes on to assert that there is something specifically exciting and arousing about car crashes.

‘Talbot’s belief – and this is confirmed by the logic of the scenario – is that automobile crashes play very different roles from the ones we assign them. Apart from its ontological function, redefining the elements of space and time in terms of our most potent consumer durable, the car crash may be perceived unconsciously as a fertilizing rather than a destructive event – a liberation of sexual energy – mediating the sexuality of those who have died with an intensity impossible in any other form: James Dean and Miss Mansfield, Camus and the late President.’

Think how vital car crashes are to Hollywood movies, both comedies and catastrophes. Think of the orgasmic pleasure it gave hundreds of millions of cinema-goers to watch the whole world blow up in an orgy of crashing cars, airplanes and tube trains in the blockbuster Armageddon movie 2012, and all the many others like it.

Disaster movies are just a shallow, celluloid re-enactment of something much darker and fiercer in human nature: that we revel in destruction. Ballard is just taking this meme – embedded in countless examples of the most popular popular culture – and pushing it to one absolute limit.

The notion that witnessing car crashes allows the release of sexual energy among onlookers lies behind the semi-satirical ‘survey’s which make up the last sections of The Atrocity Exhibition. These assure us, in the po-faced language of questionnaires and social science, that witnesses of car crashes experience a sharp increase in their libido and report marked increases of sexual activity with their partners in the weeks that follow. Car crashes are hot!

3. Car crash sex is one way into a new form of sexuality

If you combine the two ideas above – 1. that fetishistic sex is a way of avoiding the commercialisation of our own sex lives, and 2. that car crashes are exciting – then you move towards a conclusion, a third idea: that car crash sexual fetishisation may be the gateway into a brand new form of human sexuality.

The deformed body of the crippled young woman, like the deformed bodies of the crashed automobiles, revealed the possibilities of an entirely new sexuality.

This view is repeated again and again in Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, that humans are evolving new relationships with their brutal built environment and with each other, and that the combination of the two – of concrete motorways and shopping precincts and multi-story car parks – is creating a new, dissociated, alienated psychology which is giving rise to a new, hard-edge psychology of sex.

4. Car crashes are telling us something

But then there is a fourth level of meaning: beneath the (normally forbidden and repressed) sexual elements which are liberated (in Ballard’s view) by car crashes, there is another, much deeper level of significance. For while we consciously deplore the loss of life etc, we are nonetheless attracted, compulsively attracted, to the scene of car crashes and to re-enact them over and over again. Why?

For Ballard, the assassination of President Kennedy forms a kind of religious apotheosis of the theme: and God knows American culture, from Oliver Stone to Don DeLillo, has been compelled to replay that moment in Dealey Plaza over and over again, picking at the scar, endlessly hoping the psychological devastation of that one fateful moment can be forced to reveal its true secret, to unfold the real conspiracy which led to the president’s death.

The fruitless investigations and countless personal obsessions with the Kennedy assassination are all trying to do the same thing – to get to the bottom, to find the truth about the world. For it all to make sense.

This is a fourth way of interpreting the meaning of car crashes: they are a weird and perverse emblem of humanity’s obsessive need to make sense of the world.

Dr Nathan, in The Atrocity Exhibition, describes one of the other characters as attempting to restage the Kennedy assassination but this time ‘so it makes sense’, and in the annotations he later wrote for the book, Ballard is (as usual) totally candid about the importance of the JFK assassination to the entire book.

Kennedy’s assassination presides over The Atrocity Exhibition, and in many ways the book is directly inspired by his death, and represents a desperate attempt to make sense of the tragedy, with its huge hidden agenda. The mass media created the Kennedy we know, and his death represented a tectonic shift in the communications landscape, sending fissures deep into the popular psyche that have not yet closed.

For all the characters in Crash, the crashes they’ve been involved and the systems of scars and scar tissue left woven into their bodies are telling them something, are codes whose code books have been lost, ciphers of some meaning trembling just beyond reach.

If you think this sounds eccentric or exaggerated, just cast your mind back to the public reaction to Princess Diana’s death in a car crash: it was epic, it was awesome, the entire nation came to a halt, vast crowds gathered outside Kensington Palace and queued for days to sign the book of condolence. And then her funeral. Every commentator at the time highlighted the sense of excess, that the nation seemed to be traumatised far more than the facts of the matter seemed to justify. My own interpretation was that it was us we were grieving for, for all our lost illusions, dreams and hopes which this fairytale princess had come to symbolise.

And then consider the conspiracy theories about the role of the driver, and the pursuing cars, and the role of MI6 or the Royal Family in ‘assassinating’ her, or was it the Russians or… or… Anything, no matter how far-fetched, in order to give meaning, purpose, shape and coherence to what was, in fact, just a stupid pointless car crash, like so many hundreds of thousands of others.

Well, it is the same forlorn, doomed quest for the elusive meaning at the heart of the violent confrontation between man and machine, for the sense of any meaning at the heart of our lives, which the characters of Crash are condemned to pursue, right up to the book’s logical and senseless climax.

5. Car crashes are examples of Ballard’s obsession with junctures and juxtapositions

But these four interpretations of car crash sex – the sexual and the psychological and the ontological  – themselves overlay an even deeper level of meaning: for in The Atrocity Exhibition in particular we come to realise that the protagonist’s obsession with sex is in fact a sub-set of a much deeper obsession – an obsession with the way things are put together – with the modern world of junctions and conjunctions.

Seen from this perspective, sex is just the most garish and compelling avatar of a far deeper and more abstract structure which exists throughout the world as we know it, which is the joining together of disparate parts.

The Primary Act. As they entered the cinema, Dr Nathan confided to Captain Webster, ‘Talbert has accepted in absolute terms the logic of the sexual union. For him all junctions, whether of our own soft biologies or the hard geometries of these walls and ceilings, are equivalent to one another. What Talbert is searching for is the primary act of intercourse, the first apposition of the dimensions of time and space. In the multiplied body of the film actress – one of the few valid landscapes of our age – he finds what seems to be a neutral ground. For the most part the phenomenology of the world is a nightmarish excrescence. Our bodies, for example, are for him monstrous extensions of puffy tissue he can barely tolerate. The inventory of the young woman is in reality a death kit.’ Webster watched the images of the young woman on the screen, sections of her body intercut with pieces of modern architecture. All these buildings. What did Talbert want to do – sodomize the Festival Hall?

This passage explains in a flash the bizarre linkage of sex and architecture which runs throughout The Atrocity Exhibition and recurs in Crash, in its fetishisation of concrete motorways and multi-story car parks.

Modern brutalist architecture reveals the junctions of floors and ceilings, uprights and flats, struts and pillars, with crushing candour – and it is not altogether irrational to see the brutal slotting of concrete floors into concrete stanchions, stark geometric arrangements of prefabricated parts slotted together to create complicated cantilevered structures – with even the most basic sexual positions; even the missionary position, seen from outside, is quite an unwieldy network of limbs arranged in funny and strikingly geometric angles, four arms, four legs, bearing weights or bent at strange angles – all to arrange for the slotting of a vertical member into an oval orifice.

Seen – just seen – actually observed with no moral or sentimental framework whatsoever – sex is a complicated assemblage of moving parts for dubious ends.

Above all, the interest in angles, angles of entry or penetration, the rectilinear arrangements and poses of the human body, can be quite easily made to seem half-abstract.

The identification of splayed human bodies with the splayed metal plates of cars which have been in catastrophic crashes is not, in the end, that far-fetched.


Modern art and angles

This fetishistic approach seems less exceptional when taken out of the context of novels and literature altogether, and placed in the tradition of modern art.

Remember Ballard was very interested indeed in modern art, confessed in interviews to wanting to have been an artist, and litters his stories with art references. In these respects – exploring sexual perversion, and the geometric aspect of the human body – art was waaaaay ahead of written literature, having discovered the geometry beneath the skin of human beings fifty years before Ballard was writing his rude books.

Nude Descending a Staircase by Marcel Duchamp (1912)

Indeed, Duchamp’s famous painting Nude Descending a Staircase is directly referenced in The Atrocity Exhibition, in The Great American Nude chapter:

Koester parked the car outside the empty production offices. They walked through into the stage. An enormous geometric construction filled the hangar-like building, a maze of white plastic convolutions. Two painters were spraying pink lacquer over the bulbous curves. ‘What is this?’ Koester asked with irritation. ‘A model of A/ 3 1 ?’ Dr Nathan hummed to himself. ‘Almost,’ he replied coolly. ‘In fact, you’re looking at a famous face and body, an extension of Miss Taylor into a private dimension. The most tender act of love will take place in this bridal suite, the celebration of a unique nuptial occasion. And why not? Duchamp’s nude shivered her way downstairs, far more desirable to us than the Rokeby Venus, and for good reason.’

‘Far more desirable to us than the Rokeby Venus’? Discuss.

Bellmer and fetish dolls

Ballard was particularly attracted by the Surrealists, and The Atrocity Exhibition references a dozen or so Surrealist paintings and artists, and the idea of bodies regarded as weird fragments, taken to pieces and reassembled to make bizarre new biologies, was one of Surrealism’s basic strategies.

This is most crudely obvious in the obscene and disturbing mannequins made by the German Surrealist artist and photographer Hans Bellmer (1902-1975). Bellmer made his first recombined ‘dolls’ in 1933, was forced to flee to the Nazis, was welcomed to France by the Surrealists, and after the war continued to produce a stream of erotic drawings, etchings, sexually explicit photographs, paintings and prints, often – the transgressive little tinker – of pubescent girls.

Plate from La Poupée (1936) by Hans Bellmer

This is not just like Ballard, it virtually is the Ballard of The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, in which men fetishise parts of the female body, pose women in awkward and anti-romantic positions, imagine women’s bodies as multiple fragments or as specific zones blown up to the size of billboard hoardings.

Bellmer explained his thinking thus:

What is at stake here is a totally new unity of form, meaning and feeling: language-images that cannot simply be thought up or written up … They constitute new, multifaceted objects, resembling polyplanes made of mirrors … As if the illogical was relaxation, as if laughter was permitted while thinking, as if error was a way and chance, a proof of eternity.

This could be Ballard talking.

Or take the surprise final work by Marcel Duchamp, the notorious (for the tiny number of people who have heard of it) Étant donnés, which Duchamp laboured over (allegedly) from 1946 to 1966 in his Greenwich Village studio, and which was only discovered after his death.

It consists of a common-or-garden wooden door which contains a peephole through which you see a brutal photo of a nude woman lying on her back with her face hidden, legs spread, and one hand holding a gas lamp against a landscape backdrop.

Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau / 2° le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas) by Marcel Duchamp (1946-1966)

Shocked? You’re meant to be. Puzzled? Ditto.

Ballard and the French tradition of épatant la bourgeoisie

In fact, the more you think about it, the more ‘traditional’ Ballard’s two extreme books seem – just not in the well-mannered English tradition.

The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash have nothing in common with the polite and subtle novels about upper-middle-class life of an Anthony Powell from this period, or the works of the so-called Angry Young Men (Osborne, Amis), or the kitchen-sink dramas which came in in the early 60s (Saturday Night and Sunday morning et al).

But they are entirely in the tradition, the very long tradition, of French literary attempts to ‘épater la bourgeoisie’ or shock the middle classes.

This French tradition goes back at least as far as the self-consciously decadent poets and writers of the 1890s, or further back to Arthur Rimbaud writing in the 1870s or further back to Baudelaire’s poems about hashish and prostitutes, Les Fleurs du Mal in 1857, or maybe all the way back to the Marquis de Sade and works like The Hundred Days of Sodom (1785) which set out to scientifically catalogue every kind of sexual position and perversion conceivable to the mind of man.

By 1924 when André Breton published his Surrealist Manifesto France had had seventy years or so of ‘radical’ artists determined to use sex and obscenity to disrupt what they saw as the placid banality of bourgeois life.

Courbet scandalised the bourgeoisie with his Realism, Flaubert with the ‘immorality’ of Madame Bovary. Monet scandalised the bourgeoisie with his naked women at a picnic, the Impressionists with their shapeless ‘daubs’. Zola scandalised the bourgeoisie with his blunt Naturalism and frank depictions of Paris prostitutes (in Nana). The Decadents scandalised the bourgeoisie with their over-ripe dreams of drugs and unmentionable perversions. The Cubists scandalised the bourgeoisie with their collages and geometric shapes. The Surrealists shocked the bourgeoisie with their revelation of the sexual perversions lurking just beneath the surface of human consciousness. And so on…

In other words, in France, there is a very well-established and totally assimilated tradition of artists, novelists and playwrights doing their best to shock the bourgeoisie. Seen from this perspective Ballard is hardly a pioneer, more of a late-comer which, I think, sometimes explains the rather bloodless and placid feel of even his most ‘scandalous’ novels. Even when I first read them in the 1970s I had the sense that I’d somehow already read them and now, 40 years later, I think that’s because he was in fact channelling well-established tropes and notions (albeit from the Continental tradition) and simply updating them for the age of helicopters, napalm and multi-story car parks.

Surrealism, the art of juxtaposition and Ballard

At the core of Surrealist practice was the idea of the jarring juxtaposition of completely disparate elements.

It was while reading Les Chants de Maldoror, published in 1869 by Isidore-Lucien Ducasse under the pseudonym the Comte de Lautréamont, that the godfather of the French surrealists, André Breton, discovered the phrase that became foundational to the surrealist doctrine of objective chance:

as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.

Striking juxtapositions are a core element of the Surrealist aesthetic.

Thus when Ballard makes systematic, obsessive and repeated comparisons between the splayed bodies of naked women and a) the hard angles of brutalist concrete architecture, and b) the splayed metal and shattered windscreens of car crashes, he is following the Surrealist aesthetic to a T.

Although our imaginations are bombarded with adverts, films and novels encouraging us to think of sex as a smooth and sensual affair, not very different from eating a Cadburys Flake, anybody who’s actually had sex knows that it can also be quite energetic and brutal, that it contains elements of aggression and domination, compliance and submission which are hovering on the brink of possibility, waiting to be isolated and encouraged.

Since Fifty Shades of Grey became the fastest-selling novel of all time, we as a culture have become much more open about aspects of bondage or BDSM as it is now known and marketed in High Street sex shops, leading to a great deal more sexual experimentation of the kind Ballard describes in his books.

The identification of sex with car crashes was deeply shocking in the repressed 1960s, and upsets the simple-minded to this day, but both visually and conceptually, I am persuaded by Ballard that it is born of a deep, latent similarity between the two events.

Similes and Surreal juxtapositions

This gesture, the idea of the unexpected linking together of disparate elements, echoes some of the points I made in my essay about the importance of similes in Ballard’s writing.

Ballard uses similes a lot. So do other writers, but from his earliest novels Ballard as a writer is notable for the striking and outré comparisons he makes: a woman’s eyes are like dragonflies, wrecked cars look like Saurian lizards, high rise buildings tower overhead like glass coffins.

Ballard’s mind is always making comparisons and correlations, moving from the real concrete thing being described to often wild and unlikely analogies so that when you read a Ballard text you are not only reading about things themselves but are continually projected or flung into the full flood of his uncanny imaginarium.

This is another way to understand the obsession with geometry, planes and angles in The Atrocity Exhibition. It is like the technique of simile but converted into the language of geometry. You can think of all the references to angles and geometry as like being structural containers for similes, but without the actual content. Lines from the draft of a painting waiting to be filled in.

Looked at from this point of view, the linkage of porno sex to car crashes, and the various angles and shapes made by women’s bodies to the architectural shapes of concrete flyovers or modernist hotels, is in a sense only taking the metaphor-making tendency intrinsic in all Ballard’s fiction to extremes.

Ballard himself acknowledges the weirdness and extremity of some of his analogies at various points in the text:

This can be carried to remarkable lengths – for example, the jutting balconies of the Hilton Hotel have become identified with the lost gill-slits of the dying film actress, Elizabeth Taylor.

Extremes of disgust, in some critics’ minds; but extremes of delirious insight and extraordinary beauty, in my opinion. I am particularly haunted by his obsessive use of the idea that human faces contain implicit lines and planes which project outwards, forming complex three-dimensional geometries.

His eyes stared at Travis, their focus sustained only by a continuous effort. For some reason the planes of his face failed to intersect, as if their true resolution took place in some as yet invisible dimension

The planes of their lives interlocked at oblique angles, fragments of personal myths fusing with the commercial cosmologies.

The planes of his cheekbones and temples intersected with the slabs of rainwashed cement, together forming a strange sexual modulus.

For English readers in 1970 this was weird and revolutionary stuff and it still has the power to stun and disorient today. But deep down, is it anything more than a putting into words of the visual effects created by about ten thousand cubist portraits from fifty years earlier?

Young Man in a Gray Sweater (1914) by Diego Rivera

Ballard’s fundamental strategy in these two shattering books is to contrast the soft and (for most people) precious and sentimental idea of the human body, especially its most sensitive, erogenous and private zones – breast and pubis, penis and vulva – and juxtapose them with the most public, hard-edged, angular and manufactured objects of the modern world – cars, roads, brutalist buildings.

Although the books contain hundreds of individually brilliant similes and metaphors, I couldn’t help thinking that underlying most of them and the deeper structures of the books’ themes and ideas, were the profoundly disruptive and innovative strategies of early 20th century Modernist art.


Reviews of J.G. Ballard’s books

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Surrealism reviews

Exhibitions

Books

Marvellous and Mischievous: Literature’s Young Rebels @ the British Library

Next to the big Buddhism exhibition at the British Library (admission £14 for adults) is a smaller FREE exhibition for children titled Marvellous and Mischievous.

The British Library has a vast collection of children’s literature with examples from the distant past right up to the present day, and they’ve created this bright, inventive, fun exhibition to present a vivid selection of some of the more rebellious or naughty children’s characters from the past three hundred years or so, from a Latin textbook from 1680 containing doodles made by disgruntled schoolboys to The Boy at the Back of the Class, a story about a boy refugee which was winner of best story at the Blue Peter Book Awards 2019.

The exhibition has two elements:

1. A sequence of wall labels giving information about some 40 different heroes and heroines from children’s literature, from the Bash Street Kids to Angry Arthur via Oliver Twist, Matilda, Lizzie Dripping, Pippi Longstocking and many more. Each wall label is accompanied by one or two illustrations from the books the characters appear in, giving a vivid sense of how important good illustration is to the success of children’s books, and showcasing some masters and mistresses of the art, including Axel Scheffler (Zog), Quentin Blake (Matilda), Nick Sharratt (Tracy Beaker), Judith Kerr (When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit) and many more.

© Zog by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler 2010 (Alison Green Books)

So the main experience of the show is strolling past a series of deeply evocative pictures of children’s book ‘rebels’ old and new, each with an interesting and diverting factual accompaniment.

2. And there are three Activity Areas:

  • a reading corner where some mums were reading to small children
  • a wall mirror and some clothes and props where kids can dress up as a rebel character and take selfies in the modern style
  • and a table and chairs with loads of paper and pens, where slightly older children (8?) were creating their own comics, which can then be left on the string lines above for other visitors to read

Leo Baxendales of the future creating their own comics in the Marvellous and Mischievous exhibition at the British Library

So which characters from children’s literature are in included in the exhibition? (The sentences in speech marks are direct quotes from the exhibition wall labels.)

Rebel girls (23)

  • Tilly and the Bookwanderers – One day Tilly realises that the characters in her favourite books are encouraging her to enter the pages of the books and join with them to solve the mystery of her mother’s disappearance.
  • Zog by Julia Donaldson – a dragon with a sore throat is treated by Pearl, a princess who lives in a castle but wants to escape and become a doctor! – ‘Pearl is heroic because she defies expectations and dares to be herself’
  • Northern Lights by Philip Pullman – ‘mischievous and disobedient Lyra’; ‘Lyra’s rebellious nature leads her to question her place in the world’
  • Howl’s Moving Castle by Hayao Miyazaki – In the land of Ingary, oldest children are destined to be least successful but Sophie rebels against her destiny, and sets off to have adventures
  • Billy and the Beast by Nadia Shireen – not only is Billy a girl, she is a ‘brown’ girl (as The Bookseller puts it) and she has to stand up to the Terrible Beast who is gathering ingredients for his Terrible Soup. ‘Have you ever confronted someone scary to stand up for what’s right?’
  • Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol – ‘Alice isn’t daunted: she’s forthright, inquisitive, courageous and truthful’.
  • Azzi in Between by Sarah Garland – the daughter of refugees, Azzi is ‘resilient and imaginative’
  • Mulan – in ancient China girls rarely went out in public but Mulan challenged convention. ‘Mulan was a courageous young girl who concealed her gender for 12 years in order to serve in the army. ‘Have you ever dreamt of being a storybook hero?’
  • When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr – the rise of the Nazis through the eyes of young Anna – ‘The story shows the importance of family’
  • The Rebel of the School by L.T. Meades – Kathleen finds the rules at Great Shirley School stifling and struggles to regain the freedom she had before starting school and refuses to conform
  • Matilda by Roald Dahl – strong, independent schoolgirl who stands up against bullies, namely the headteacher, the Trunchbull
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë – young Jane rebels against her strict schooling, refusing to be afraid and ‘her defiance is a lesson for her schoolmates, and the reader’
  • Jane, The Fox and me by Isabelle Arsenault – Hélène is bullied at school but finds inspiration in the character of Jane Eyre, which gives her hope and confidence
  • The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnet – Mary Lennox is a spoilt orphan who’s been raised in India and finds moving back to England difficult, but keeps her rebellious, rule-breaking nature
  • Witchfairy by Brigitte Minne – Rosemary doesn’t want to be a stupid fairy, she wants to be a witch so she goes and builds a new home in the forest, and makes friends with witches. ‘A story about growing up, accepting yourself and finding a place in the world.’
  • The Jolly Postman by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. ‘Is Goldilocks the most outrageous rule-breaker in fairy tales?… Here the Jolly Postman delivers Goldilocks’ apologies to the three bears.’
  • Wild by Emily Hughes – A little girl grows up wild in the woods, but is then captured and taken to the city where she she can’t understand manners and politeness. ‘Three cheers for misfits and outsiders!’
  • Dare by Lorna Gutierrez (Author), Polly Noakes (Illustrator) – ‘Taking risks, spotting the things others don’t see, supporting those in need, expressing yourself, speaking up for what is right’ – makes her sound like a Young Communist Youth Pioneer.
  • I Am Thunder by Muhammad Khan – Muzna dreams of becoming a writer but her controlling parents won’t let her. ‘This coming-of-age novel moves from everyday teenage rebellion to Muzna’s choice between protecting the person she cares about most, or betraying her beliefs.’
  • Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren has a healthy disrespect for unreasonable adults. ‘A powerful character who uses her strength for good and is often found protecting children from bullies.’
  • Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson – Tracy is a ten-year-old girl living in a children’s residential care home nicknamed the ‘Dumping Ground’. but is ‘determined to change her life and isn’t going to compromise!’
  • Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery – ‘an imaginative, impulsive character who changes those around her with the force of her personality’
  • What planet are you from, Clarice Bean? by Lauren Child – Clarice ‘navigates the complex ethical and social questions children deal with at school and at home’

What Planet Are You From, Clarice Bean? by Lauren Child © Lauren Child (Orchard Books, 2001)

Rebel boys (8)

  • Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak – sent to bed without his supper, Max imagines a wild island full of fierce beasts – ‘a celebration of mischief, anarchy and imaginative play’
  • Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie – ran away from his parents to a land where children never grow up. There he lives with the mischievous Lost Boys and has thrilling adventures.
  • The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Raúf – Ahmet is a refugee who’s become separated from his family. The children at his new school befriend him and ask the queen for her help – an adventure which shows ‘the power of friendship, standing up to bullies, and a little bit of bravery’
  • Angry Arthur by Hiawyn Oram – Arthur gets angry when his mum insists it’s time to turn the TV off and go to bed, so angry that he blows up the universe!
  • Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens – Oliver asks for more gruel in the poorhouse.
  • Wicked Walter by Catherine Storr – steals a cake from his mother only to discover it contains salt and pepper rather than sugar!
  • Dirty Bertie by David Roberts – Bertie is a likeable boy who tried very hard, generally without success!
  • Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love – young Julian wants to dress up as a mermaid. ‘An inspirational picture book that celebrates individuality, self-discovery, acceptance, gender identity, beauty and love.’

Julian Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love © 2018 Jessica Love

Rebel groups (4)

  • The Bash Street Kids from The Beano drawn by Leo Baxendale – ‘Easily one of the naughtiest groups of children in comic book history’
  • Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman – young adult book about race, set in a society where dark-skinned people have power and the friendship-love between a boy and girl across the colour divide
  • The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier – a group of older children are thrown together by the Nazi invasion of Poland – ‘The characters are brave and resilient’
  • The Midnight Gang by David Walliams – patients living in an unusual hospital with a terrifying matron and a porter who helps them live out their dreams.

1. What is a rebel?

Several trains of thought arise from carefully reading all these wall labels:

First, what is a rebel? The dictionary definition is:

a person who rises in opposition or armed resistance against an established government or leader

Well, not many of the characters in this exhibition are taking up arms against an oppressive government. Most of them are refusing to tidy their room or do their homework. And what emerges as you progress around the displays is that most of the ‘rebels’ who are featured represent values which the modern-day curators thoroughly endorse – standing up for yourself, being true to your beliefs, bucking convention, protecting the weak and vulnerable.

After all, what parent wants to read bedtime stories to their little children which actively encourage them to disobey their parents, smash up the furniture and torture the cat? Clearly the notion of ‘rebellion’, as applied to children, exists in a carefully delimited sense. Good children’s books must acknowledge every child’s wayward impulses, but subtly channel them into forms which are acceptable to adults, in which the characters are ‘naughty’ – but stay just this side of the really serious boundaries.

Thus (I’m suggesting) children’s fiction plays a role in indulging rebel impulses, but carefully controlling them and reshaping them into socially acceptable forms.

Matilda and Miss Trunchbull from Matilda by Roald Dahl 1988 © Roald Dahl Story Company Quentin Blake 2019

And it’s likely that children have a psychological need to read or hear about other children being naughty, misbehaving, getting into trouble but deep down being kind and wanting the best — so that the readers can identify with these naughty children, not feel they are lost, not feel they are alone, not feel they are the only ones who keep getting into trouble and that no-one understands them.

Children need to be shown that these kinds of tantrums, rule-breaking, misunderstandings or conscious disobediences have happened to generations of children before them who turned out alright. It is OK to get into trouble now and then, to be told off by parents or teachers. It is not the end of the world.

So in a way all these books redeem bad behaviour, or show that adults do understand naughtiness. The message is a fundamentally comforting, reassuring one: You can be naughty, break some of the rules – and still be a good person.

Lastly, there is the obvious point that – it’s just more fun reading about naughty characters, whether you’re a child or an adult.

The reading area at Marvellous and Mischievous at the British Library

2. What about boys?

The second thing which became fairly obvious as I read my way round the exhibition was the surprising under-representation of rebel boys.

The exhibition contains nearly three times as many books for girls as for boys, and it became increasingly clear that the curators (three women: Lucy Evans, Anna Lobbenberg, Nicola Pomery) are promoting a heavily feminist view of what a rebel is – namely a heroic girl who bucks society’s expectations and escapes from gender stereotypes, but is, deep down, kind and helpful to the weak and bullied – in other words, a feminist paragon.

It’s a narrative which is very on-trend and comfortably sits alongside the great tsunami of girl-supporting books and films and government initiatives which currently flood our culture. A quick search on Amazon suggests there is no shortage of books on the subject:

  • Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls
  • I Am a Rebel Girl: A Journal to Start Revolutions
  • Forgotten Fairy Tales of Brave and Brilliant Girls
  • Rebel Colouring For Girls: Motivating Messages & Marvellous Mantras To Colour & Create
  • ‘Rebel Girls Say…’ Positive Colouring For Girls age 7-10
  • Star Wars Feminist Princess Leia T-Shirt for Rebel Little Girls
  • Bad Girls: A History of Rebels and Renegades

I suppose all schoolchildren need help and support and encouragement – that’s a core element of education, in fact almost a definition of education. Pondering the obvious bias in this exhibition, though, I couldn’t help wondering why girls seem to need so much more encouragement than boys, especially in light of three well-known facts:

1. Boys read less than girls

2. Girls now outperform boys at every level of education

Girls are outperforming boys at every stage of the educational system. They do better than boys in National curriculum SAT tests.

Girls are more successful than boys in virtually every GCSE subject at 16 including traditional ‘male’ subjects like Maths and Physics.

In 2018 the gap in attainment between girls and boys at grades 4/C and above was 13.3%, with 73.8% of girls getting these grades compared to 64.6% of boys.

This pattern was repeated among the top grades (grade 7/A and above), where the gap was 30.4% with 24.6% of entries by girls compared to 18.1% for boys.

Girls also outperformed boys at the top grade 9 – Ofqual figures show 732 pupils who sat seven or more reformed GCSEs have managed to get straight 9s across those subjects – 68% of this group were female and 32% male.

In 2017 young women maintained a clear lead over young men despite the new linear exams. The gender gap of 10 percentage points – was wider than the 9% recorded in summer of 2016, despite the downgrading of coursework and a decisive move towards end-of-course exams.

A higher number of women stay on at school or go to college.

This year more women than men have been accepted for university than men.

Six out of 10 graduates today are women. 30 years ago, seven out 10 graduates were men.

And female students are more likely to get top degrees too.

(Further Education news)

3. White working class boys are the worst performing group in the UK

In the comprehensive list of books featured in the exhibition, where are the realistic role models for young boys? Peter Pan? Oliver Twist? Angry Arthur?

Why are there so many positive role models for girls and hardly any for boys? (In the press images for the exhibition, there are six images of rebel girls and none of rebel boys [with the exception of transgender Julian]. Why?)

In this exhibition, as in so much of British cultural life, white working class boys are written out of the story.

So it seemed to me that in so heavily promoting reading for girls this exhibition was pushing at an open door but, at the same time, sadly missing an opportunity to reach out to notoriously reluctant-to-read boys.

© Billy and the Beast by Nadia Shireen (2019) Jonathan Cape, Penguin Random House Children’s

3. Can children’s fiction ever be value-free?

And, finally, this exhibition made me wonder whether it’s possible to write a children’s story without filling it with positive, uplifting, socially approved messages.

Modern curators and academics tend to mock the Victorians and Edwardians for producing literature with ‘improving’ messages, or which crudely promoted the values needed to support the now-utterly-discredited British Empire – ‘Play up, play up, and play the game!’ etc.

But is the children’s literature of our day so very different, with its barrage of socially aware, woke messaging – with its gentle but persistent insistence that we must help girls break free of their gendered roles, and we must understand boys like Julian who want to dress up as mermaids, and we must be supportive of refugees like Ahmet?

I’m not querying these values. I’m just wondering whether modern children’s fiction isn’t every bit as nakedly propagandist for our contemporary social values as Victorian children’s books were for theirs. We live in our age and so find our values natural and inevitable. But then, so did the Victorians, and the Georgians, and every generation before them…

The merchandise

Lastly, all the books referenced in the exhibition are on sale in the bookshop by the exit. ‘Rebel as much as you like – so long as you keep on buying our products!’ The ultimate rebellion – the extinction rebellion – to cease consuming, to opt out of the planet-destroying compulsion to buy, buy, buy – is mentioned by the curators in their introduction but nowhere (surprisingly) by any of the authors they’ve chosen.

Children’s books on sale at Marvellous and Mischievous at the British Library

Summary

I’m vastly over-thinking an exhibition which is, after all, designed for infant and junior school-age children, designed to give them a selection of interesting characters to inspire them and get them reading, and asking interesting questions about fictional characters and about themselves.

The show is obviously designed to showcase highlights from the Library’s huge collection, to serve as a book-filled venue for school trips, and also just to provide an opportunity for kids to dress up and make their own comics. It’s meant to be fun and is predominantly aimed at the very young, as the introductory text clearly indicates:

In our exhibition you’ll meet all kinds of storybook rebels from the last 300 years – in their homes, at school, or on a journey.

Who’s your favourite and what would you stand up for?

And after all, these are valid questions: Who is your favourite children’s book character – and what would you stand up for?


Related links

Reviews of other British Library exhibitions

Buddhism @ the British Library

Buddhism is a major exhibition at the British Library, bringing together objects and artefacts, folding books and scrolls and manuscripts, paintings and pictures, wall hangings early printed works, along with not one but two displays of the tools which have been used to make precious Buddhist scriptures for centuries, interspersed with half a dozen films (interviews with practicing Buddhists, demonstrations of chanting and praying, how the ancient texts are preserved nowadays), plus an enchanting video installation of a contemporary Buddhist artist painting holy texts on pavements and walls.

It’s a lot of information to take in at once. My review is in four parts:

  1. The life of the Buddha and Buddhism
  2. Myths and legends, preachings and practices
  3. The importance of numbers in Buddhism
  4. The exhibition itself

The life of Buddha and Buddhism

A copy of the Lotus Sūtra in a lavishly decorated scroll from Japan, written in gold and silver ink on indigo-dyed paper in 1636, one of the most popular and most influential Buddhist texts of Mahayana Buddhism © British Library Board

A brief outline of the Buddha and his teachings is relatively simple. Born into a royal family in what is now Nepal 2,500 years ago, young Prince Siddhārtha Gautama lived a coddled protected wife, which included undergoing an arranged marriage, and living entirely within the palace walls. However, he grew restless and managed to make several journeys into the big wide world where he was shocked for the first time to encounter poverty, hunger, decrepit old age and squalor.

He finally broke free from his gilded life and spent years wandering India, pondering the human condition and one day, seated under a bodhi tree, he achieved enlightenment.

‘Buddha’ is a title, which means ‘one who is awake’ in the sense of ‘having woken up to reality’.

He realised that the world is a bubble of transient appearances. Nothing lasts. All of us die and are reincarnated (here he was basing himself on far more ancient Hindu beliefs) back into this world of woe.

What causes all the pain and suffering? It is attachment to things of this world, it is desire, want, letting our physiological urges drive us to try and own or achieve things which are themselves only passing and delusory, which most of the time we fail to attain anyway.

Therefore, the secret of enlightenment, is to strive for a condition of complete detachment from the things of this world. One should begin by observing The Middle Way, not going to extremes of self-deprivation or sensual indulgence. But the techniques of the Middle Way will lead, ultimately, to complete detachment from the things of the world.

Only then will the enlightened one break free of the endless cycle of Samsara – of rebirth, suffering, death, and more rebirth – and their soul achieve nirvana.

Myths and legends surrounding the Buddha

The most comprehensive woodblock-printed work depicting and describing scenes from the life of the Buddha, including 208 beautiful hand-coloured illustrations from China, created in 1808 © British Library Board

If this is all there were to it, Buddhism really would be a simple belief system. But one of the most fascinating things about it is not its teachings per se, it is that so many teachings can be generated from such a simple premise.

An enormous number of legends grew up about Prince Gautama:

  • stretching back in time (for it turns out that he had been reincarnated many times before, hundreds of times before and each of those previous incarnations had had numerous adventures which are described in the Birth Stories or Jatakas
  • that he would be reincarnated in the future, in the figure called the Maitreya, to bring us all back to the True Way
  • and, moving away from the Prince himself, it turns out that the world has contained other holy ones, boddhisatvas, people are able to reach nirvana but delay doing so through compassion for suffering beings

Many texts were written about the Buddha’s sayings and teachings. These included a steadily growing number of his wonderful deeds and miracles. Monuments were built, stupas, where the relics of the Buddha himself or the lesser enlightened ones – effectively Buddhist saints – are buried, chief among the holy sites being the very Bodhi tree under which Siddhartha achieved enlightenment (where a vast temple complex was built in the third century BC, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site).

There are four first-order holy sites related to the life of the Buddha (as there are a defined number of sites holy to the life of Mohamed and the life of Jesus) but countless others where various legendary events took place, as well as important events for the boddhisatvas, take the annual Procession of Buddha’s Tooth Relic in Sri Lanka.

The Hyakumantō darani or ‘One Million Pagoda Dharani,’ the oldest extant examples of printing in Japan and some of the earliest in the world, dating 764-770 CE © British Library Board

Monasteries were established, communal buildings for Buddhist monks. Elaborate ceremonies grew up to celebrate key dates in the Buddha’s life, and the monasteries required texts to guide and define the rituals as well as texts of teachings and doctrine for students to be taught and masters to meditate on (for example a long list of the Buddha’s many names which could be used for meditation). The monasteries also preserved and expanded on earlier written accounts of the Buddha’s life.

The exhibition includes a wall-sized animated map which shows the spread of Buddhism up into Afghanistan, east into China and then into south-east Asia. At the same time it developed into three major traditions which took flavour from the local cultures, and used the languages of the regions of Asia which they spread into:

  1. Theravada
  2. Mahayana
  3. Vajrayan

And by about this stage of the exhibition I had come a long way from the simple insight at the core of Buddhism and was beginning to feel overwhelmed by numbers.

The importance of numbers in Buddhism

A 7.6 metre-long 19th century Burmese illustrated manuscript detailing the early life of the Buddha, on display at the Library for the first time © British Library Board

The Buddha is one of the Three Jewels of Buddhism, the others being his teachings (Dharma) and the monastic order (Sangha).

The Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths:

  • life is unsatisfactory and there is suffering
  • the cause of suffering is desire
  • suffering can be overcome
  • this liberation is effected by following the Noble Eightfold Path

The Noble Eightfold Path consists of eight practices:

  • right view
  • right resolve
  • right speech
  • right conduct
  • right livelihood
  • right effort
  • right mindfulness
  • and right samadhi (meditative absorption)

The Noble Eightfold path is represented by the dharma wheel (dharmachakra) whose eight spokes represent the eight elements of the path (although a dharmachakra can also have 12, 24 or 31 spokes, representing other sets of holy values).

The Buddha’s first discourse was given in a deer park to five disciples who become the basis of the huge monastic orders which followed.

The Buddha had 547 previous lives all described in the Jataka tales.

The last ten Jatakas or Birth Stories about Buddha are popular in South-East Asia because they illustrate the ten perfections of a Buddha.

The Buddha’s footprint features 108 auspicious symbols such as royal insignia, mythical creatures, rivers, mountains and even continents.

Bodhisattva or Buddha-to-be is characterised by a set of paramita or perfections. The Pāli Canon, the Buddhavaṃsa of the Khuddaka Nikāya, lists ten perfections. Two of these virtues, mettā and upekkhā, also are brahmavihāras.

In Mahāyāna Buddhism, the Prajñapāramitā sūtras, the Lotus Sutra and a large number of other texts list a different list of six perfections.

The ‘pure illusory body’ is said to be endowed with six perfections (Sanskrit: ṣatpāramitā). The first four of these perfections are ‘skillful means’ practice while the last two are ‘wisdom’ practice.

In the Theravada tradition 28 Buddhas are believed to have appeared in the past and attained Nirvana. The Buddha we know about is the fourth Buddha of the present aeon.

Twenty four of these previous Buddhas gave advice to the Buddha we know about, and they are listed, quoted and depicted in countless manuscripts, illustrations and books.

Rebirths occur in the six realms of existence, three good realms (heavenly, demi-god, human) and three evil realms (animal, ghosts, hellish).

The six realms of rebirth are part of the 31 realms of existence. After death the soul passes through ten stages as described in the Sutra of the Ten Kings before entering the six realms of rebirth.

The mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ has six syllables, symbolising the six realms of rebirth.

There is a heavenly realm named Trayastrimsa with palaces, gardens and parks for the 33 gods who live there. Trayastrimsa is only one of the six heavens or celestial realms.

On Buddhist monasteries, of the Theravada tradition, a bhikkhu (male monk) is expected to follow all 227 rules of monastic disciple, while a bikkhuni (female monk) has to follow 311 rules.

The four dignities are ancient symbols that represent qualities of the windhorse, and are: Garuda, Dragon, Snow Lion, Tiger. Many prayer flags show the four dignities with a windhorse in the center.

The Pancharaksa identifies five female deities and includes spells and rituals to appease them. they are sometimes paired with the Five Wisdom Buddhas.

A monastic is allowed eight personal requisites: three robes in saffron or yellow, an alms bowl, a razor, a needle, a water strainer and a girdle.

Tibetan Buddhists make use of a particular set of eight auspicious symbols, ashtamangala, in household and public art, including the conch shell, the endless knot, a pair of fish, the lotus, the parasol, the vase, the Dharmachakra and the banner of victory.

Maybe you can appreciate why, by this point, I had begun to feel very confused. The basic idea of Buddhism, which I outlined at the top, had long gotten buried in a litter of legends and a bewildering variety of important numbers.

The exhibition itself

You have to like red. The high-ceilinged basement rooms of the Library’s gallery space have all been painted a deep blood red. It is like going down into a torture chamber or maybe a brothel in some red light district.

Installation view of Buddhism at the British Library. Very red

Except that the space is packed with display cases showing a very wide range of types of object – concertina books made of mulberry leaves and manuscripts and paintings and sculptures, bells and drinking bowls, manuscript writing tools and materials, a full calligraphy set, amulet boxes, offering bowls, manuscript cabinets, sacred scriptures written on tree bark, palm leaves, gold plates, illuminated texts and silk scrolls of the major sutras, a Buddhist protective jacket, a rare copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead – it’s a feast of Buddhist texts and textures.

A rare Buddhist manuscript in the shape of a bar of gold from Thailand dated 1917, known as Sankhara bhajani kyam, going on display for the first time © British Library Board

TV monitors dot the exhibition showing interviews with current practicing Buddhists, techniques of manuscript conservation and a contemporary artist painting Buddhist texts in what I took to be Japanese letters.

At one point hidden loudspeakers are playing a loop which includes traditional Buddhist monk chanting interspersed with the sound of streams and birdsong.

I didn’t realise that the lotus is the symbol of the Buddha because lotus flowers often grow in pretty muddy, dirty ponds. So they symbolise a state of complete purity and calm which can be achieved despite the mind’s origins in the messy realities of the physical body.

The section on the physical technique of creating, writing, preserving and storing monastic texts was fascinating and set above or apart from the rather oppressive barrage of sacred numbers, a specialist sub-set of the overall subject which gave you interest and respect for the ancient craftspeople who dedicated their lives to preserving and beautifying the holy scriptures.

The display of materials and tools used to make the earliest Buddhist texts, at Buddhism at the British Library

Conclusion

I went intending to like this exhibition but, if I’m honest, I found it a bit difficult.

a) There’s so much factual content to it, from the outline of the core story, to the incredible profusion of legendary events which have accrued to it; the actual history of its spread and development throughout Asia, to over 20 countries.

b) A long and complicated history which is reflected in the sheer variety of items on display, from paintings, manuscripts and scrolls, through to the displays showing the tools used to make manuscript chests and so on.

But c) I think the thing which overwhelmed me was the sheer profusion of Holy Numbers and Perfections and Jatakas and the Three Jewels and the Eightfold Path, and so on. I quickly got lost and confused in the mathematical maze of Buddhist doctrine.

I felt overwhelmed by stuff when, ironically, I thought the whole point of Buddhism is to clear your head of clutter, and focus on your own existence, cleared of all distractions.

Still, if you’re at all interested in the subject, it is beautifully laid out, with its biography and legends and explanation of the teachings, its maps of Buddhism’s spread, its history, the techniques used to make its manuscripts, as well as beautiful objects like the metal statues of bodhisattvas, a monastery bell, and some exquisite carved chests.

As long as you like red!

Installation view of Buddhism at the British Library

The promo video


Related links

  • Buddhism continues at the British Library until 23 February 2020

Reviews of other British Library exhibitions

Patrick Staff: On Venus @ Serpentine Sackler Gallery

Across the bridge over the Serpentine is the second Serpentine Gallery, the Serpentine Sackler Gallery converted from a 200-year-old former gunpowder store by legendary architect Zaha Hadid. For the time being the Serpentine Gallery seems to be retaining its link with the Sackler family who are under attack in the States for owning one of the largest manufacturers of addictive opioid drugs, although other British galleries are severing their links with the controversial family.

This knowledge adds a pleasing level of irony to the exhibition on show here, for the Serpentine Sackler Gallery is currently hosting a FREE exhibition of work by Patrick Staff (a young British artist born in 1987) which very much focuses on The Body. To quote the gallery introduction:

Through a varied and interdisciplinary body of work, Patrick Staff interrogates notion of discipline, dissent, labour and queer identity. Drawing on a wide range of sources, Staff examines the ways in which history, technology, capitalism and the law have fundamentally transformed the way we regard the body today, with a particular focus on gender, debility and biopolitics.

Oh, I thought, another contemporary artist kvetching about gender.

The corridors

The gunpowder store was originally at the core of the building, protected by double thickness walls, with a square walkway around the two inner, rectangular powder stores, each not much bigger than a long domestic living room.

By far the best thing in this installation is that the walkways around the central rooms have had their floors covered with a yellow metal and the fluorescent lights overhead given a yellowy-green tinge. The effect is to make you feel like you’re walking through the set of a science fiction film or maybe some kind of specialist industrial facility. This is pleasingly freaky.

Installation view of Patrick Staff: On Venus at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery

Note the two oil drums. Several of these are placed in each of the four corridors. If you look above the head of the woman in my photo you can see a latticework of very small-bore pipes suspended from the ceiling. This network carries on round all the corridors and where they pass over a drum, they have a tap which is set to allow a steady drip-drip of fluids down into each drum. What fluids?

A piping network suspended from the ceiling slowly drips a mixture of natural and synthetic acids into steel barrels, suggestive of sharing intimate fluids, or the trafficking of viruses or data.

It isn’t suggestive of bodily fluids, though, is it? It’s suggestive of offices or factories where the overhead air conditioning or other piping has sprung a leak and facilities management have put in a bucket or other container to catch the drips while they phone a plumber.

The Ian Huntley room

Remember Ian Huntley? He was convicted of murdering two 10-year-old girls in Soham, Cambridgeshire, in August 2002, hence the name the papers gave the case, The Soham Murders, and sentenced to a minimum term of 40 years in prison.

Anyway, in April 2018 the Daily Star newspaper reported that Huntley wanted to transition to a woman, wore a blonde wig in prison and insisted on being called Nicola. The story was picked up by other tabloids with a predictable hurricane of outrage from the highly-paid bigots who write for those papers.

Only nine months later did pressure from Huntley himself force the Star to retract the story and admit that it was entirely false in every detail. This led to a storm of comment from the other side, from queer activists, the Guardian and some left-wing politicians, lamenting the way the story was just one among a steady stream of stories designed to criticise, outlaw and ridicule trans people.

So Patrick Staff has taken front covers from the tabs who published the story, along with some of the later retractions and turned them into detailed etchings on metal, reminiscent to us old guys of the kind of heavy metal type that old-style newspapers were set in before the print revolution of the 1980.

Installation view of Patrick Staff at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Photo by Hugo Glenndinning

My reaction to this was:

1. I’m not that thrilled about being reminded of Huntley and his pointless stupid murder of two beautiful young girls and the awful, awful suffering their parents must have gone through, especially as Huntley lied his head off to the investigating police for two long weeks of one of the most intensive searches in British police history.

2. I am a little staggered that a grown man is telling us that tabloid newspapers make things up. I thought that was the most obvious thing about them, that the tabloids make things up and pander to the crudest prejudices and stereotypes, turn the complex world into a series of cartoons and clichés in order to cater to the basest instincts of their badly educated readers. I’ve known that for nearly fifty years.

If they are having a go at transgender people, now, they’re only the latest in a long line of groups who have been victimised and attacked on the basis of their gender (Page 3 girls) or race (blacks) or marital status (single mums) or disabilities (welfare scroungers) and so on. They are a poisonous blight on the country but they cannot be defeated because lots of people identify with their values and way of thinking. And that is because a lot of people in this country are pitifully badly educated, with not only the reading age but the immaturity and general stupidity of a nine-year-old.

Good luck changing that. Millions of left-wing intellectuals, politicians and activists have tried throughout my lifetime. That said, change can be achieved. The Sun in particular was virulently homophobic when I was a young man and nowadays reports on Elton John’s marriage to David Furnish or any other gay or lesbian marriage in more or less factual terms.

Social attitudes can be changed and liberalised. But I’m not sure how much impact an art installation like this can have.

On Venus

The work On Venus is in the other powder room and consists of a screen hanging from the ceiling on which two films are projected.

One consists of scratched, warped and overlapping footage of the most disgusting aspects of factory farming, showing the management of animal commodities such as urine, semen, skins and furs. I glimpsed a few shots of cows in cramped pens having their stretched udders brutally sucked dry by metal pumps so we can have the fresh milk to pour onto our organic porridge every morning.

If you didn’t realise that most livestock farming is disgusting and immoral, you are an idiot. That’s what vegetarians have been saying for fifty years or more, and countless books, articles and documentaries have revealed over and over again, with little practical effect.

Installation view of Patrick Staff at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Photo by Hugo Glenndinning

The second film is a poem describing life on the planet Venus, conceived as:

“a state of non-life or near-death, a queer state of being that is volatile and in constant metamorphosis, infused with the violence of pressure and heat, destructive winds and the disorienting lapse of day into night.”

Conclusion

These are big issues he’s taking on. After years and years of political engagement I have reached a stage of exhaustion and complete detachment. Maybe Trump will be re-elected, maybe he won’t. Maybe Boris’s crew will make a go of Brexit, maybe they won’t. So many things have happened during my life, that I have realised a kind of informed, observant detachment is the best way to preserve your sanity.

Otherwise you end up like my left-wing friends and all the columnists and commentators in the Guardian, Independent, London Review of Books, New York Review of Books, New Statesman, and all the curators of contemporary art, who ever since the referendum then election of Trump have lived in a state of permanent outrage and anger.

– I support the transgender movement, which has come out of nowhere in the past few years but does appear to be a genuine thing – not least because several of my daughter’s friends, and several of my middle-aged friends’ young adult children, wish to change gender. Fine.

– I support vegetarianism and would support any attempts to make farming less disgusting and less destructive of the environment.

– I’d sort of support banning all the tabloid media and their vicious, immoral, muck-raking, phone-hacking journalism – although that is never going to happen.

But Staff is clearly going beyond these specific topical issues, to ask bigger questions, or make interesting connections, or prompt more lateral thoughts – thoughts which you can sense but are just out of reach of the conscious mind, or the way we usually think about the world.

Something to do with what moral judgments are acceptable and unacceptable. Something to do with the power the tabloids exercise in defining reality for their audiences. But these are just sub-sets of the bigger question of how we define what is human and what is not, and apply treatments which are obviously inhumane and degrading to pretty much every other life form but ourselves – and even to ourselves as well.

How we long for an alien civilisation to come down from the stars and teach us how to live properly and run our societies like decent people. Quite clearly, we’re incapable of doing so ourselves.

Staff may be pushing towards some kind of change of attitudes and culture – but along with John Gray, I’ve come to believe that human nature doesn’t change. Cultural attitudes may, in some places, and for a while, be rerouted and redrawn – but the fundamental attributes of human nature don’t change.

Liberals castigate Trump and Johnson for their alleged racism or misogyny (defined as their supposed hatred of BAME people or women) but you only have to dip a little into left-wing print or social media to find equal or greater levels of anger vented against all conservatives or all republicans or all men or all white people.

Like Gray, I think a kind of informed detachment is the only practical attitude to exercise in our times, the only way to prevent yourself from being drawn into the steaming cesspit of anger which almost all political and public discourse seems to be becoming.

Patrick Staff talks about his Serpentine show

What I learned from Staff’s own introduction was a different take from actually visiting it.

I like his point that everyone lives as though everything is alright with the world when, in fact, it really isn’t. Seen from this perspective the topics he’s chosen here are just some of the things which have upset him or which he thinks lift the veil on our respectable passivity and reveal the intertwined horrors beneath.

Seen in this way, the four elements of the exhibition – factory corridor with leaking fluids, the tabloid lies about Ian Huntley which are also smears on trans people, factory farming, and the queer poem about Venus – become more like personal symbols than political statements – moments of horrified insight, from which he has constructed a personal mythology.

I find this a much more fruitful way of thinking about the installation, because it is the way many poets work, creating a network of everyday imagery which they manage to imbue with supercharged imaginative energy, and mould into a personal mythology.

The question then becomes why didn’t he or the curators explain this a bit more clearly on the one and only wall label by the front door which introduces the show and which was full of the usual curator boilerplate about bodies and gender and made Staff sound just like every other modern artist — when I had already begun to feel – and this video crystallises – the ways in which he’s not, in which he’s distinctive and interesting.

Having thought my way all around the issues and ideas and surrendered to the sensual impact of the installation, I ended up liking it much more than my initial negative impressions.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

Albert Oehlen @ the Serpentine Gallery

Albert Oehlen

Albert Oehlen (b. 1954) is a German painter based in Switzerland. He has been a key figure in contemporary art since the 1980s.

“By bringing together abstract, figurative, collaged and computer-generated elements on the canvas, he continues to explore an inventive diversity of artistic approaches. Through Expressionist brushwork, Surrealist gestures and deliberate amateurism, Oehlen engages with the history of painting, pushing the components of colour, gesture, motion and time to new extremes.”

John Graham

The absolutely vital piece of information you need to know in order to understand this FREE exhibition of Oehlen’s work at the Serpentine Gallery is that ALL the pieces reference a much older painting by American artist John Graham, titled Tramonto Spaventoso (‘Terrifying Sunset’) (1940-49).

Tramonto Spaventoso by John Graham (1940 – 49)

Graham is a fascinating figure, having been born Ivan Gratianovitch Dombrowsky in Kiev, fighting in Russian cavalry during the Great War, fleeing the Bolshevik revolution to Warsaw and then emigrating to America, where he took a new name, found a job and developed an experimental interest in art, trying out various forms of modernism and abstraction, and serving as a mentor to the young Abstract Expressionists, such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Arshile Gorky.

As you can see from Tramonto Spaventoso there was also a lot of Surrealism mixed up in his style, along with a refusal of being afraid to look amateurish and cack-handed. The terrifying sunset consists of a roughly drawn portrait of a man with eyeglasses and caricature moustache, the picture behind him divided into four quadrants showing (from top left) four golden circles which might be suns but also have lions’ faces drawn in them; two black classical pillars between which you can see a ploughed field leading off to the horizon and a sky with clouds; a mermaid with a curlicue tail whose breasts appear to be spurting milk at the central figure, and with blood pouring from a wound in her side; and at the bottom left another yellow lion face, this one with three legs appearing around its mane.

The John Graham remix

Oehlen has taken this obscure work by a now-largely-forgotten artist and subjected it to a whole series of remixes, mash-ups and distortions. He’s been doing this for at least ten years and this exhibition brings together about twenty of the results, small, medium-sized, large, and absolutely enormous in scale.

Sohn von Hundescheisse by Albert Oehlen (1999) Private Collection, Photo: Archive Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin | Paris © Albert Oehlen

So in each of the twenty or so mashups you are looking for those elements: face in the middle with a huge moustache; suns with faces; columns in the upper-right corner, with a series of lines going to the horizon, a mermaid at bottom right.

These figures or symbols are submitted to all kinds of distortions of shape and colour and position. The pain is applied in violent haphazard way, using extremely bright and vibrant colours with no regard for creating a consistent palette or tone (in real life the pink line along the top of this one looks almost fluorescent).

Oehlen’s aim is obviously to reference and recreate the original in the most random, attacked and disrespectful way possible, chucking out all guidelines of taste and decorum to see what happens. This makes it difficult to like. My initial reaction was visceral repulsion and anthropological amusement at what, nowadays, in the 2010s, comprises successful contemporary art.

However, once you have grasped that every single one of the works is referencing the Graham painting, it introduces a childish Where’s Wally aspect to trying to identify in each work the deeply buried mermaid and moustaches etc. And this activity ends up drawing you into his visual world, wild and deliberately scrappy, garish and amateurish though it is.

Vorfahrt für immer by Alber Oehlen (1998) Private Collection. Photo by the author

The Mark Rothko chapel

This is most obvious in the big central room of the Serpentine Gallery which has a circular cupola to let light in. Here Oehlen has created a new work especially for the Serpentine, a site-specific work which takes the remix approach to the Graham original to new heights and absurdities.

Installation view of Albert Oehlen at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Photo: readsreads.info

This space is now the location of two overlapping re-interpretations of other artists’ work, because the layout, the size and hang of these enormous Oehlen works is deliberately based on the layout and hang of the paintings which American Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko made for what became known as ‘the Rothko Chapel’ in Houston, Texas.

The Rothko Chapel, Texas

But whereas Rothko’s paintings are carefully composed and co-ordinated to create a shimmering meditative effect, and promote a spirit of serious meditation, Oehlen’s works rip up any idea of respect and decorum, consisting of wild hand-drawn cartoons, massive sketches, garish washes and caricature figures and faces.

It’s almost as if he’s doing everything he can think of to undermine the idea of ‘art’ as a serious activity worthy of respect. He has apparently given interviews throughout his career discussing the influence on him of Surrealism, but I think you have to go a step further back to DADA, with men on stage shouting nonsense poetry through megaphones while someone attacks a piano with a hammer to find artistic cognates of Oehlen’s works.

Installation view of Albert Oehlen at the Serpentine Gallery. Photo by the author

This resolutely iconoclastic approach explains a lot about what you’re actually seeing, but there’s a bit more going on as well. It was an excellent Serpentine visitor assistant who explained the importance of the John Graham original to me. But he then went on to explain other things Oehlen has done with these huge works.

  1. Charcoal is usually used by artists to do sketches and drawings. But some of these works are done in charcoal on canvas primed and painted white i.e. given the status of paintings. (See image on the left, above)
  2. By contrast, watercolour is usually employed in lightly figurative work to create delicate washes and effects, but here Oehlen uses it (or a very watery acrylic) to create huge and very rough lines or areas of pure colour (see image above, right)
  3. In other, smaller works you can also see that Oehlen has got a spraycan and simply sprayed reasonably crafted works with spatters of cheap, dayglo, spraycan colours, such as ginger.

Above and beyond these technical mashups, there are also two obvious visual references. One is to the notorious moustaches of Salvador Dalí, exaggerated into schoolboy cartoons (see above).

The other is the references to Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, which features heavily in the current Dora Maar exhibition at Tate Modern. Here’s Guernica: look at the heads at the far left and far right. In both instances the head is depicted side-on, face-up, at an unrealistic angle from the ‘neck’ supporting it.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso

Compare and contrast with this, one of the enormous panels in the Oehlen show. Clearly he is channeling the Guernica neck and head (along with the Dalí moustaches and the Graham composition).

Installation view of Albert Oehlen at the Serpentine Gallery. Photo by the author

Conclusion

So, it is good to be informed: having been told that the Graham painting underpins everything in this exhibition is crucial to understanding the show.

Knowing that the Graham painting itself showed heavy Surrealist influences, feeds through into feeling the Surrealist undertones of the Oehlen works, and you can have a laugh at the Dali moustaches, you can congratulate yourself at spotting the Picasso reference.

Knowing that the big central room is a parody or pastiche or riff on the Rothko Chapel also helps to explain its layout and the sheer scale of the paintings Oehlen has filled it with.

And I did like some of the images he’s come up with – like the one I opened this review with, whose sheer bloody-minded, cack-handed, over-coloured exuberance achieves a kind of Gestalt, a totality of awfulness which is sort of impressive.

But no, at the end of the day, despite all the extenuating circumstances, and the intellectual interest of all this background information, no, I found them horrible.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

WOW: City Lights and Woodland Shade @ Japan House

WOW is a visual arts studio based in Tokyo and Sendai, Japan. Their aim is ‘to reach beyond the boundaries of motion graphics, presenting installations which raise questions of how we interpret and express the modern world.’

WOW has been involved in a wide field of design work, including advertising and commercial works for brands including Sony, Suntory, Aston Martin, Dior, Chandon, Pokémon, Issey Miyake and Shiseido.

Until the end of March, Japan House in High Street Kensington is home to two installations by WOW studios, amounting to the company’s first UK solo exhibition.

Both installations are in the downstairs gallery space (although there is a display of the carved wooden dolls filling Japan House’s shop windows) and both are completely FREE. The one large gallery space has been partitioned in two.

POPPO – part of the WOW: City Lights and Woodland Shade exhibition at Japan House London. Credit: Image by WOW

Room 1 – Tokyo Light Odyssey

You walk through curtains into a pitch-black space with curved walls shaped like a teardrop – you’ve walked into the pointed end and the walls curve away from you and then form a half circle at the far end, about ten yards way.

Onto the walls on both sides of you and facing you, in one seamless image, is projected a fantastic, five-and-a-half-minute long, 360-degree journey through Japan’s capital city by night. Remember the space travel ending of 2001 A Space Odyssey, or any footage you’ve seen of cars driving at speed through cityscapes? It’s like that, only better, and totally immersive. A lot of artists talk about immersive but this is a genuinely sensaround film experience.

Still from the Tokyo Light Odyssey installation at the WOW: City Lights and Woodland Shade exhibition at Japan House London. Credit: Image by WOW

The ‘camera’ moves seamlessly through the neon lights of a subway station, which morph into the lights of convenience stores, then down into a tube train of the Yamanote Line, moving forwards over the head of the strap-hangars then the camera’s point of view swivels through 180 degrees so it’s travelling back the way it came then bursts free of the train to fly through the night sky between skyscrapers which change shape as in a kaleidoscope before shooting through the window of a hotel, across a room, through a door and then through a sequence of corridors of numerous ‘capsule’ hotels, pausing for a view of the iconic Tokyo Tower which changes and distorts before your eyes and then shooting forward to confront a vision of the world as one watery orb on which a series of illuminated ocean liners are railing, before flying past their lit portholes.

Wow, indeed. The five minutes pass in a flash. I loved it so much I watched it three times, the third time actively walking round the room-sized space, experimenting on my own perception as I walked either towards or backwards away from the fast-moving imagery, adding a further level of dizziness to the vertiginous visual journey. It’s brilliant.

Room 2 – POPPO

The second room is a more conventional display, with a range of objects and few interactive activities. It introduces us to the wooden folk craft of Tohoku – a region in the north east of Japan damaged by the large scale 2011 earthquake and tsunami. There are three main parts to POPPO.

This digital display includes three different installations focusing on kokeshi – wooden dolls – and poppo – the popular word for small carved wooden toys.

Poppo woods

In the POPPO Woods section there is a wall where people (mainly children) can place magnetic ‘tree segments’ against the wall, and after they’ve built their tree stump, digital birds will come and land on them.

A child places a magnetic mat against the Poppo Woods projected graphic in order to build a tree which an animated bird will then come and land on, at WOW: City Lights and Woodland Shade exhibition at Japan House London. Credit: Image by WOW

The birds are native to Tohoku and there’s a display of half a dozen sweet, non-digital, carved birds, explaining that each one has a symbolic meaning, for example the hawk is an image of business success and prosperity, the owl is an image of happiness and good fortune, the wagtail a sign of fertility (!)

Bird poppo, small, hand-carved wooden toys made in the Tōhoku region of Japan, at WOW: City Lights and Woodland Shade exhibition at Japan House London. Photo by the author

Rokuro

In the second part, Rokuro, visitors are presented with a couple of digital screens. The screen prompts you to activate it and then a computer animation of a circular piece of wood appears spinning at high speed on a lathe. By touching the screen, you decide where the lathe-cutting instrument interacts with the spinning wood pole, carving rings into it – these can be deep or shallow, wide or narrow, just one or many. And so you carve your own digital kokeshi, or wooden doll.

After thirty seconds the process is complete and the program automatically colours in the curved shape you’ve made and then it appears on the wall-sized computer-generated screen behind the little screens, a wall-sized projected gallery of all the carvings visitors have made to the exhibition so far.

A child uses an interactive screen to ‘carve’ a kokeshi doll, which will then be coloured and appear on the shelves full of similar dolls projected on the wall. Part of WOW: City Lights and Woodland Shade exhibition at Japan House London. Credit: Image by WOW

Yadoru

In the final part, Yadoru, there are 130 unpainted kokeshi dolls which have the faces of 130 Tohoku residents (pulling a variety of faces) projected on to them. The body of the dolls are imbued with ‘auspicious meaning’ and have been decorated using designs from a veteran Japanese kokeshi maker based in Zao Onsen.

Some of the 130 kokeshi dolls with real faces projected onto them at the WOW: City Lights and Woodland Shade exhibition at Japan House London

To one side of this display is a screen and chair. You sit and line up your face with the cam above the screen, as in a passport photo machine, get is just so and click the button. The computer saves the image of your face and any silly expression you were making, then projects it onto the blank face of one of the half dozen dolls in a special display away from the main collection…. So that you have projected your own face onto the kokeshi to create their own unique doll.

Project your own face onto a kokeshi doll in the WOW: City Lights and Woodland Shade exhibition at Japan House London

It’s not an academic exhibition. It’s a small, fun, interactive display and, as the photos with kids suggest, it is probably one for people with kids below the age of about 11. But if you’re an adult with an interest in Japanese crafts, or know enough to be interested in kokeshi dolls, then it’s for you, too.


Related links

Other exhibitions at Japan House

Eco-Visionaries: Confronting a planet in a state of emergency @ the Royal Academy

This is an exhibition of art and architecture on the theme of climate change and environmental destruction. It begins with the usual alarming facts and figures, which any educated person who reads a newspaper or watches the news or listens to the radio, should already know almost off by heart:

  • the world is facing an ecological catastrophe
  • the ten warmest years ever recorded have all occurred since 1998
  • we must reduce CO2 emissions to zero by 2050 (at the very latest) to avoid catastrophic global warming
  • which is already resulting in melting ice caps, retreating glaciers, rising sea levels and more extreme weather events
  • humans have accelerated the ‘normal’ background rate of species extinctions 1,000-fold with the result that we are living during the Sixth Great Extinction
  • the world’s population is predicted to grow by 20% over the next three decades to reach 9.7 billion
  • yadda yadda yadda

21 works

Rather than editorialise, I will list the exhibitions 21 works, giving links to their websites, where available, for you to follow up and read about yourself.

Texts in single quotations marks are from the wall labels or the artist’s own explanations. My own occasional comments are in italics.

Introduction

The curators introduce the exhibition thus:

‘Eco-Visionaries examines humankind’s impact on the planet and presents innovative approaches that reframe our relationship with nature. Through film, installation, architectural models and photography, the works in this exhibition interrogate how architecture, art and design are reacting to a rapidly changing world, beyond mainstream notions of sustainability.’

In the corridor leading towards the show there’s a simple timeline of dates from the industrial revolution onwards, recording natural disasters, growing awareness of how human activity devastates the natural world, the first theorising about global warming, the setting up of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1988 (1988!) and so on down to this year.

1. Domestic Catastrophe No.3  by HeHe (2018)

“An aquarium containing a domestic globe, a motor to turn the globe and electronic valve or drip feed which releases a fluoresceine tracing dye onto the sphere. As the sphere turns, the green dye wraps itself around the sphere, enveloping it in what appears to be a thin gas or atmosphere that surrounds the planet Earth. The difference between emissions and atmosphere, the ‘man-influenced’ and the ‘natural’ climate cannot be easily defined.”

This is like a big cubic aquarium with a school-globe of the world-sized model of the world slowly turning within a thick liquid. On the bottom of the aquarium is a thin layer of sand and the slowly turning globe spins this sand into little dust devils and typhoons which is rather entrancing.

2. A Film, Reclaimed by Ana Vaz and Tristan Bera (2015)

“The ecologic crisis is a political, economic and social crisis. It is also cinematographic, as cinema coincides historically and in a critical and descriptive way with the development of the Anthropocene.”

The bit of the film I saw included clips from Hollywood movies, including some end-of-the-world film with buildings exploding and, soon after that, a clip from Blade Runner, a pleasingly random selection which could come from any one of thousands of art films, documentaries or even loops of movie clips you see played in nightclubs. As in, it didn’t convey any meaning whatsoever to me.

3. Tilapia by Tue Greenfort

A set of depictions of fish in black and white on paper, done to make them look like fossils. It’s based on human interference in the ecosystem of Lake Victoria which has led to the almost complete extermination of tilaplia fish. They were made by covering dead tilaplia specimens with inks and pressing them against the paper.

“A series of black-and-white prints arranged as a shoal of tilapia fish, one of the most consumed varieties of fish in the world but also one of the most invasive and predatory species.”

Tilapia by Tue Greenfort

4. Serpent River Book by Carolina Caycedo (2017)

“A 72-page accordion fold artist-book, that combines archival images, maps, poems, lyrics, satellite photos, with the artist’s own images and texts on river bio-cultural diversity, in a long and meandering collage. The fluctuating publication can frame many narratives. As a book it can be opened, pleated and read in many directions, and has a performatic potential to it, functioning as a score, or as a workshop tool. Serpent River Book gathers visual and written materials compiled by the artist while working in Colombian, Brazilian, and Mexican communities affected by the industrialization and privatization of river systems.”

5. Madrid in the air: 24 Hours by Nerea Calvillo (2019)

Madrid in the Air: 24 Hours monitors the skyline of Madrid over a 24-hour period, uncovering the almost invisible veil of pollutants in the air.”

In the Air is a visualization project which aims to make visible the microscopic and invisible agents of Madrid´s air (gases, particles, pollen, diseases, etc), to see how they perform, react and interact with the rest of the city. The visualization tool is a web-based dynamic model which builds up the space the components generate, where through data crossing behavior patterns emerge. The results of these data feed a physical prototype of what we have called a “diffuse façade”, a massive indicator of the air´s components through a changing cloud, blurring architecture with the atmosphere it has invaded and mediating the activity of the participants it envelops.”

“The project highlights the contamination of air in cities caused by vehicle engines, industry, factories and farming.”

It was a film of a camera fixed in a static position at roof level looking out over Madrid and a strange pink or green gauze-like veil hovering over the city, sometimes thickening or advancing – being a visualisation of the soup of pollution we all live in.

6. The ice melting series by Olafur Eliasson (2002)

A series of 20 black and white photos showing very small pieces of glacial ice (four to 10 inches long) melting into the black stones and rubble of a terminal moraine in Iceland.

The Ice Melting series by Olafur Eliasson (2002)

7. Alaska Chair by Virgil Abloh (2018)

“Originally designed as a wooden chair for IKEA, the Alaska Chair is a paradoxical commentary on the effects of our everyday lives and mass-consumption habits on the global rising sea levels and climate change. This work was inspired by the concept of acqua alta, an Italian term used to describe regular floods in Venice, caused by high tides and warm winds. The chair is partly submerged by the rising flood waters, with a doorstep wedge symbolically representing the short-term, makeshift solutions we have for tackling climate change. Yet by casting the work in bronze, a material intended to last, the work reflects on how environmental catastrophe is a tough, long-term problem that is not easily fixed by simple solutions.”

Alaska Chair by Virgil Abloh (2018)

I liked the ‘Do not touch’ sign. The environment is going up in flames but ‘Don’t you dare touch my lovely work of art with your grubby fingers!’

8. The Breast Milk of the Volcano by Unknown Fields (2017)

“Over half the world’s reserves of lithium, a key ingredient in rechargeable batteries in phones, laptops, electric cars and drone technology, is found in the salt flats of the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. This film poignantly examines how even the cleanest energy utopias can have dramatic consequences in material, resource and economic exploitation. Accompanying the film is a lithium battery designed by the artists. It refers to an Inca origin myth of the Salar de Uyuni in which the salt flats were formed by the breast milk and tears of a mother volcano mourning the loss of her child.”

(If you’re wondering why this sad and plaintive video appears to have the half-stoned voice of Elon Musk presenting Tesla Energy over it, you’re not the only one but it’s the same with all the versions of the video scattered across the internet.)

9. The Substitute by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg (2019)

The Substitute draws upon rare zoological archival footage as well as experimental data from artificial intelligence company DeepMind, will enable visitors to come faceto-face with a life-size digital reproduction of a northern white rhinoceros. The last male of the subspecies died in 2018.”

“On March 20, 2018, headlines announced the death of Sudan, the last male northern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni). We briefly mourned a subspecies lost to human desire for the imagined life-enhancing properties of its horn, comforted that it might be brought back using biotechnology, albeit gestated by a different subspecies. But would humans protect a resurrected rhino, having decimated an entire species? And would this new rhino be real?”

10. P-Plastoceptor: Organ for Sensing Plastic by Pinar Yoldas (2014)

“Polypropylene is the second most common plastic after polyethylene. P-Plasticeptor is a sense organ which can detect polypropylene polymers in the ocean. The organ takes its name from its sensing capabilities for polypropylene and its shape that almost resembles the letter P.”

An Ecosystem of Excess: P-Plastoceptor: Organ For Sensing Plastics by Pinar Yoldas (2019)

There are two works, the P-Plastoceptor, and another fictitious organ, Somaximums presented in vitrines as if in pickled alcohol specimen jars. I think they’ve both been invented, made up with rather arcane satirical intent.

11. Our Prehistoric Fate by Basim Magdy (2011)

“Our Prehistoric Fate, 2011 was commissioned by the 1st Time Machine Biennale of Contemporary Art. D-O ARK Underground in Konjic, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The biennale took place inside a massive nuclear bunker in the mountains 60 km. away from Sarajevo. The bunker was commissioned by Josip Broz Tito as a last refuge for him, his family and top Yugoslavian generals in case of a nuclear attack. It took almost 30 years to finish the project. Tito died a year after its completion without ever setting foot in it. Needless to say, the nuclear attack never happened. Two large Duraclear prints hang on Yugoslavian military lightbox displays with clamps in the war strategy room of the bunker where decisions were meant to be made and maps of the situation on the ground were meant to be evaluated. The first claims ‘The Future Belongs To Us’ in large bold letters, the second is an encyclopedia illustration from the 60s that captures an Ankylosaurus, a prehistoric creature we know very little about, as it approaches a pond to drink.”

Our Prehistoric Fate by Basim Magdy (2011)

12. Designs for an overpopulated planet by Dunne and Raby (2009)

“Based on United Nations predictions that at the current rate of ecological transformations there will not be enough food to feed the planet in 2050, Foragers, from the series Designs for an Overpopulated Planet, are speculative full-scale models proposing how to radically change the human diet and digestive system to ensure survival. These devices would allow humans to extract nutritional value from synthetic biology and develop new digestive systems like those of other mammals, birds, fish and insects which are able to digest and process barely edible resources such as tough roots and plant matter.”

Installation view of Designs for an overpopulated planet by Dunne and Raby (2009) Photograph by the author.

Two surreal ‘eating tubes’ along with a photo of how to use one out in the wild.

13. Pollutive Matter-s (three scenarios) by New Territories (S/he) (1997-2002)

14. The Dolphin Embassy by Ant Farm (1974-78)

“The Dolphin Embassy was a research project that never was built and that attempted to study the communication between the human being and the dolphins. It would have been built with asbestos cement and it moved with a solar panel and a motor. Besides the quality of the drawings, the interest of this proposal was in the social relations that the Dolphin Embassy was proposing between humans and the dolphins”

15. 3.C.City: Climate, Convention, Cruise by WORKac and Ant Farm (2015)

“3.C.City: Climate, Convention, Cruise is a speculative design for a floating city inspired by different architectural projects created by collective Ant Farm in the 1970s, including the drawings for The Dolphin Embassy. The city is designed to facilitate dialogue and debate between humans and other species, blurring the boundaries between ecology and infrastructure, public and private, the individual and the collective. Unbound by national allegiances, the design includes a vessel with housing, a research lab and an interspecies congress hall. The programme is completed with greenhouse and garden areas, an algae farm for biofuel production and a water-collection river, all covered by an inflatable wall and solar panel shingles.”

WORKac’s long section of Dolphin Embassy

“The idea is that it’s a floating city not bound by any national borders. People can come together to live in a different way and discuss important issues of the day.”

16. Biogas Power Plant by SKREI (2017)

“According to the London Assembly one year’s worth of the average urban borough’s food waste could generate enough electricity to power a local primary school for over ten years. Biogas Power Plant is a prototype for an individual biogas production unit which could use domestic waste to create and store energy to make houses self-sufficient. The unit is designed to be connected to the National Grid yet able to operate without relying on an external power supply or waste-management system.”

Biogas Power Plant by SKREI (2017) Photograph by the author.

17. Island House In Laguna Grande, Corpus Christi, Texas by Andres Jaque/Office for Political Innovation, with Patrick Craine (2015-ongoing)

“The fifty-island archipelago of Laguna Grande, on the south coast of Texas, is one of the biggest wild island-barriers of the world. This archipelago contains some of the most ancient animal and vegetal species adapted to saline aquatic ecosystems and protects the lagoon from the pollution resulting from the nearby presence of oil platforms. The islands are the habitats where mammals and other coastal species overnight, and they are endangered by the combined effects of climate change and the incremental increase in the acidity of the water. Island House in Laguna Grande is not designed as an architecture for humans, but built instead to empower the environmental diversity of Laguna Grande. The structure collects and preserves rainwater and, through the mediation of sensors on the ground, sprays water to dilute toxicity and combat drought.”

Andrés Jaque / Office for Political Innovation with Patrick Craine, Island House in Laguna Grande, Corpus Christi, Texas, 2015-ongoing © Courtesy of the artists

18. Soil Procession by Futurefarmers (2015)

“On June 13, 2015 a procession of farmers carried soil from their farms through the city of Oslo to its new home at Losæter. Soil Procession was a GROUND BUILDING ceremony that used the soil collected from over 50 Norwegian farms from as far north as Tromsø and as far south as Stokke, to build the foundation of the Flatbread Society Grain Field and Bakehouse. A procession of soil and people through Oslo drew attention to this historical, symbolic moment of the transition of a piece of land into a permanent stage for art and action related to food production. At high noon, farmers gathered at the Oslo Botanical Gardens joined by city dwellers. Tractors, horses, wagons, wheelbarrows, musical instruments, voices, sheep, boats, backpacks and bikes processed to Losæter where the farmers’ soil offerings were laid out upon the site and a Land Declaration was signed.”

Seed Procession 2016 by Futurefarmers. Part of Seed Journey (2016–ongoing). Photograph by Monica Lovdahl. Courtesy of Futurefarmers

19. The Meteorological Garden / Central Park, Taichung, Taiwan, 2012– 2019 by Philippe Rahm architectes, in collaboration with mosbach paysagistes and Ricky Liu & Associates

“The ambition of our project is to give back the outdoors to the inhabitants and visitors by proposing to create exterior spaces where the excesses of the subtropical warm and humid climate of Taichung are lessened. The exterior climate of the park is thus modulated so to propose spaces less hot (more cold, in the shade), less humid (by lowering humid air, sheltered from the rain and flood) and less polluted (by adding filtered air from gases and particle matters pollution, less noisy, less mosquitoes presence).”

Installation view of photos and models of The Meteorological Garden / Central Park, Taichung, Taiwan (2011 – 2019) by Philippe Rahm architectes in collaboration with mosbach paysagistes, Ricky Liu & Associates. Photograph by the author.

20. The Green Machine by Studio Malka Architecture (2014)

“The Green Machine is a mobile structure intended to regenerate and fertilise the ground of the Sahara Desert, one of the world’s most inhospitable climates. Resembling an oil platform that has been made redundant by dried-up seas, the project is a self-sufficient urban oasis able both to exploit the rich resources of the desert and to provide food, water, housing and energy for a local community. This concept resembles available technologies to generate a structure that could produce 20 million tonnes of crops each year in a hostile environment. Solar towers, wind turbines and balloons that capture water through condensation come together with the inventive use of modified caterpillar treads that plough, water and sow the soil as the autonomous structure slowly moves across the land.”

The Green Machine (2014) by Studio Malka Architecture. Courtesy of the artist

21. win >< win by Rimini Protokoll (Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel)

The last exhibit in the show requires you to wait in a queue to go through a sliding door. There’s a roped off queue stations, like in my local post office, and a big digital clock counting off the seconds till the next batch of visitors can go in. What are you queueing for?

Once through the sliding door, a small number of people (nine, I think) can sit on two low, shallow curved benches only a couple of yards away from a wall, and into that wall has been cut an enormous circle of glass. It is an aquarium! A massive aquarium in which are swimming quite a few, maybe as many as twenty beautiful jellyfish, about a foot in diameter, slowly wafting around what is clearly a large space behind the wall, lit by a gentle blue illumination.

There are headphones for each visitor and if you put them on you then listen to a 16-minute-long audiopiece about these jellyfish. You learn that they are Moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) and that they can be found in oceans around the world. And the audioguide goes on to give a dramatic description of the fight or survival which is coming, which has already started, among the world’s species as air and sea temperatures increase, CO2 levels increase, and ecosystems around the world are devastated.

And guess who many ecologists think are likely to win? As far as I can tell this video includes the entire audio track.

Exhibition participants

  • Virgil Abloh (Rockford, US)
  • Ant Farm (Chip Lord, Doug Michels and Curtis Schreier) (California, US)
  • Nerea Calvillo (Madrid, Spain)
  • Carolina Caycedo (London, UK)
  • Dunne & Raby (London, UK / New York City, US)
  • Olafur Eliasson Hon RA (Copenhagen, Denmark)
  • Futurefarmers (San Francisco, US and Gent, Belgium)
  • Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg (London, UK)
  • Tue Greenfort (Holbæk, Denmark)
  • HeHe (Le Havre, France)
  • Andrés Jaque / Office for Political Innovation (Madrid, Spain / New York City, US)
  • Basim Magdy (Asyut, Egypt)
  • Malka Architecture (Paris, France)
  • Philippe Rahm architectes (Paris, France)
  • Rimini Protokoll (Berlin, Germany)
  • SKREI (Porto, Portugal)
  • Unknown Fields (London, UK)
  • Ana Vaz and Tristan Bera (Brasília, Brazil / Paris, France)
  • WORKac (New York City, US)
  • Pinar Yoldas (Denizli, Turkey)

Thoughts

I laughed out loud when I read the wall label claiming that the exhibits are ‘provocative responses’ which amount to ‘a wake-up call – urging us to acknowledge and become conscious of our impact on our environment’.

A wake-up call to who? To the several thousand middle-aged, middle-class, well-educated types who visit the Royal Academy? They are already super-awake, over-awake. It’s not the behaviour of a few score thousand posh people in London you have to influence: it is the behaviour of billions and billions of poor people around the world.

As for us rich people, Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change 2010 to 2016, a few years ago gave a simple recipe:

  • become vegetarian
  • sell your car
  • never take another plane flight
  • review all your investments, pensions and savings and transfer them to carbon-free, environmentally friendly sectors

That’s the most basic, elementary steps which all of us should take. And will we? No.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Fairies in Vision @ the Heath Robinson Museum

It always amazes me how much factual information and how many beautiful pictures the Heath Robinson Museum manages to pack into such a relatively small space.

This exhibition manages to cover how the depiction of fairies, elves, sprites and goblins has changed and evolved over the past 200 years through some fifty drawings and illustrations hung on the walls and 17 or so antique illustrated books open in display cases. Over twenty illustrators are represented, from Sir Joseph Noel Paton RSA (1821-1902) to the contemporary illustrator and designed Brian Froud (b.1947).

The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania by Sir Joseph Noel Paton (1849)

Here were some of my highlights.

William Heath Robinson (1872-1944)

The great man is represented by seven drawings. In the first, Edwardian, part of his career, HR produced beautiful illustrations for luxury editions of classics. The most obvious source of fairies is his illustrated edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which has of course provided a pretext for artists down the ages to depict sprites and fairies) and five or so of the pictures here are from it.

I love Heath Robinson but I felt these black and white illustrations were just that – you needed to know what was going on in the story to really ‘get’ or understand them. Unlike the obvious highlight of his pictures here, and of the whole show, the wonderful Fairy’s Birthday, which just happens to be one of the most popular pictures in the permanent collection.

The Fairy’s Birthday (detail) by William Heath Robinson (1925)

The Fairy’s Birthday was one of a series of large, coloured ‘goblin’ pictures that Heath Robinson made for the Christmas editions of upmarket magazines such as The Graphic between 1919 and 1925. As the wall label suggests, the goblins and fairies have been given a ‘homely, bumbling’ appearance – look at the French pâtissier carrying the heavy cake, at the top.

Helen Jacobs (1888-1970)

Jacobs grew up in East London and studied at the West Ham School of Art. The four fairy pictures by her here are absolutely wonderful. What characterises them is the combination of extremely detailed depictions of the subject – with a very firm use of line and shade to create volume and drama – against wonderfully bright washes of background colour.

Look at the definition of the right arm and armpit of this fairy, but also revel in the midnight blue background. And note also the sprays of pearl-like baubles radiating out from the fairy’s diaphanous clothes. I like strong, defined outlines, so I loved all four of her pieces here for their clarity and dynamism.

A fairy on a bat by Helen Jacobs

Charles Robinson (1870-1937)

Robinson trained in lithography but began illustrating books from the mid-1890s and illustrated a trio of books with the collective title of The Annals of Fairyland (1900-1902). In 1911 Heinemann published an edition of Shelley’s poem The Sensitive Plant with 18 coloured plates and numerous vignettes.

Just one of these is included in the exhibition, and I found it one of the most haunting. In the centre is a baby with wings, more of a chubby Renaissance putto maybe, than a slender sprite. What I kept returning to enjoy was the way the delicate wash which created a fog, a mist, through which you can see the ghostly outlines of the autumn trees in the background. And the craggy, Gormenghast quality of the black branches, especially the one at the bottom. And then the wonderful spray of autumn leaves falling in a spray around the centre, behind the putto. I’m not sure how strictly fairylike this picture is, but I found it wonderfully wistful and evocative.

Illustration for The Sensitive Plant by Charles Robinson (1911)

Cicely Mary Barker (1895-1973)

The exhibition closes with a set of eight of the original watercolours for the Flower Fairy books by Cicely Mary Barker. Barker was born in Croydon and although she later attended the Croydon School of Art, she was largely self-taught. In 1922 she sent some of her flower fairy illustrations to Blackie and Son the publishers who published them as Flower Fairies of the Spring. She received just £25 for the 24 pictures in the book, but it sold well and she was able to secure a royalty for all its sequels.

The Hawthorn Fairy by Cicely Mary Barker (1926) © The Estate of Cicely Mary Barker

Eventually there were eight flower fairy books, containing 170 illustrations. The striking thing about them is their hyper-realism grounded in Barker’s immensely careful depictions of the flora each fairy is linked to. Her sketchbooks have survived and show what immense trouble she took to draw extremely accurate depictions of yew, sloe berries, horse chestnuts, elderberries and many, many more.

As someone who takes photos of English wild flowers, I was riveted by the accuracy of her botanical drawings. But she also used real children to model for each of the fairies. Hence the sense of super-reality.

And yet… There is something rather… cloying about her fairy paintings. Many of the previous fairy drawings and illustrations were notable for their whimsy and fantasy and lightness. There’s something in the very solidity and botanical accuracy of Cicely Mary Barker’s pictures which is a little… overwhelming, stifling almost. What do you think?

Brian Froud (b.1947)

In a display case there’s a copy of modern fantasy artist Brian Froud’s brilliantly inventive and funny book Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book, with a couple of framed original drawings hanging on the wall above it.

This is a very modern, disenchanted, cynical but hilarious view of fairies and, indeed, of human nature, purporting to be the book in which the fictional Lady Cottington has heartlessly captured and pressed to death a wide variety of fairies. The fairies are slender naked females with long dragonfly wings, each caught in a posture of terror and horror as the pages of the collecting book bang shut on them.

A pressed fairy from Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book by Brian Froud (1994)

A frolic of fairies

Those are just five of my personal highlights, but there are lots of other images, by lots of other artists.

Some of them are well known (Rackham, Richard Doyle), many of them far less well-known – and it is fascinating to see just what a variety of imagery and mood can be sparked by ostensibly the same subject, some enchanting, some – frankly – grotesque:

  • from the stately Romantic paintings of Sir Joseph Paton (see above)
  • to the disturbing images of Charles Altamont Doyle who was hospitalised for alcoholism and depression
  • from the very Aubrey Beardsley-influenced, Decadent style of Harry Clarke
  • through to the big baby surrounded by little sprites and goblins painted by Mabel Lucie Attwell (Olive’s Night Time Vigil with the Fairies).

Get in touch with your inner child. Be transported back to all the fairy stories and fairy books of your earliest memories. Go and see this lovely exhibition.

Full list of illustrators and artists

  • Florence Mary Anderson
  • Mabel Lucy Attwell
  • Cicely Mary Barker
  • Harry Clarke
  • Walter Crane
  • Charles Altamont Doyle
  • Richard Doyle
  • Brian Froud
  • Florence Susan Harrison
  • Lawrence Housman
  • Reginald Knowles
  • Celia Levitus
  • Hilda T. Miller
  • William Heath Robinson
  • Helen Jacobs
  • Jessie King
  • Barrington MacGregor
  • Carton Moore Park
  • Sir Joseph Noel Paton
  • Arthur Rackham
  • Charles Robinson
  • Reginald Savage
  • Margaret Tarrant
  • Alice B. Woodward

Related links

Other exhibitions at the Heath Robinson Museum

Lucian Freud: The Self-portraits @ the Royal Academy

‘By the turn of the millennium, Freud was widely acknowledged to be Britain’s greatest living painter.’
(Alex Branczik, Head of Contemporary Art for Sotheby’s Europe)

Contrary to the implications of the title, this exhibition does not include all of Lucian Freud’s self-portraits, nowhere near. Given that Freud was interested in self portraiture throughout his long career, the selection here is a only relatively small percentage. Also, contrary to the title, the exhibition also includes a number of portraits not of himself, in fact arguably the best room is the one devoted to portraits of other people.

Lucian and me

I don’t like Lucian Freud. I associate him with Frank Auerbach and the other dreary, depressing post-war British artists, a kind of visual equivalent of Harold Pinter, who I was force-fed at school. Their dreary, depressed, rainy English miserabilism nearly put me off contemporary art and literature for life.

But this exhibition made me change my mind (a bit) for two reasons:

1. It is told in a straightforward chronological order, which allows us to see the quite remarkable evolution of his style over 60 years of painting. Stories are always interesting and, by stopping to investigate each stage along his journey, the exhibition does a good job of making his development interesting.

2. By luck I got into conversation with another visitor who happened to be an amateur painter and she, for the first time, made me understand how his journey had been one of technique. It dawned on me that, to use a cliché, he may be a painter’s painter. Certainly the last couple of rooms make you think that his paintings may well depict men or women, naked or clothed, including himself, as subjects – but the real subject is the adventure of painting itself.

And this made me go back and really examine the technique of the paintings in the last few rooms and come to respect, in fact to marvel, at the complex painterly effects of his mature style.

A brief outline

Freud was born in Berlin in 1922 and fled Nazi Germany with his family in 1933, coming to London. He held his first solo show as early as 1944. In the late 1940s he chose to make portraiture the focus of his practice.

Drawing

Drawing was central to Freud’s style from the late 30s through to the early 1950s. His drawings from this era are strikingly different from the later work. This is a rare opportunity to see a whole roomful of them together and they come from a different world. They have a graphic sharpness, an economy of line which makes them very like cartoons. Look at the careful shading in the ears and on the cheek, and the extraordinary attention he’s devoted to each individual hair. Critic Herbert Read called him ‘the Ingres of Existentialism’.

Startled Man: Self-portrait (1948) by Lucian Freud © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

This clear style lent itself to illustration so it’s no surprise to learn that he illustrated a number of books, several of which are in a display case here, Cards of Identity by Nigel Dennis (1955) and Two Plays and a Preface by Nigel Dennis (1958) and that Startled Man was one of five illustrations for a novella by William Sansmon titled The Equilibriad (1948).

Apart from the strikingly clean graphic style, what’s obvious is how performative these pictures are – the male head in them is always striking a pose, adopting an attitude, sometimes with props like a feather, in one dramatic case posing as Actaeon for a book on Greek myths.

Back to painting

Around the mid-1950s Freud turned his attention from drawing to painting and for a period of seven years or so stopped drawing altogether. Initially he painted sitting down using fine brushes. This enabled a smooth finished graphic style, very much in line with the clean defined outlines of his drawings, and the people in them share the same slightly distorted, rather frog-like faces as many of the drawings, more like caricatures than paintings.

Hotel Bedroom by Lucian Freud (1954) © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

The wall label tells us that Freud associated with fellow painters Frank Auerbach and Francis Bacon. Like him they were figurative painters working against the grain of Abstract Expressionism and, later on, ignoring experimental and conceptual art. That, in a sentence, explains precisely why I don’t like them.

Bigger brushes

Anyway, Bacon inspired Freud to switch from soft sable-hair brushes to hog’s hair brushes which are capable of carrying more paint. This, it seems, was the physical, technical spur for the decisive change in his style. Between the late 1950s and mid-1960s his painting left behind the draughtsmanlike precision, so close to drawing, of paintings like Hotel Bedroom, and became far looser, a matter of large looser brushstrokes, which create more angular images, images made out of clashing planes and angles with an almost modernist feel about them.

Man’s Head (Self-portrait III) by Lucian Freud (1963) © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

This is the third of three self-portraits which the exhibition reunites for the first time since they were shown together in 1963. You can see how the interest is now in structure more than likeness. There is no attempt to create a realistic background (his studio or a bedroom) which is now a plain matt surface. Similarly, his face has its familiar long, rather hawkish look, but here transformed into a semi-abstract mask.

Watercolours

Surprisingly, in 1961 he took up watercolours alongside paint. Both were ways of escaping from the linearity of pen-and-ink drawing. The exhibition includes a number of watercolours where he is obviously exploring the effect of broad washes, and the dynamic contrast that creates with more sharply defined faces.

In both types of work he drops the symbols and props which had abounded in the drawings. The subject matter is simpler and in a way starker. The paintings still feel pregnant with meaning but their force or charge is achieved by different means, purely by the arrangement of brushstrokes.

Mirrors

Mirrors have been used by artists since time immemorial to paint accurate self-portraits, and countless artists have gone one step further to include mirrors in their paintings to highlight the artifice and paradox or making images which, on one level, claim to be true, claim to be reality, but on another, are patent artifice.

Quite a few Freud self portraits include mirrors or depict himself from angles clearly designed to bring out the mirrorly artifice. When you learn that he did this increasingly from the mid-1960s it makes a kind of sense; you can see the echo of similar experiments going on in in contemporary film posters and album covers. This instance using a mirror on or near the floor is striking enough, but made disturbing by the inclusion of small portraits of two of his children perched ‘outside’ the main frame.

Reflection with Two Children (Self-portrait) by Lucian Freud (1965) © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

In the studio

The penultimate room is the best and it’s the one which has no self portraits. Instead there’s two massive portraits of naked women on sofas, a huge standing male nude (his son, Freddy), and an eerie portrait of two fully clothed Irish gentlemen.

The wall label emphasises that by the 1970s Freud had established a definite approach. He painted people he had some kind of connection with, himself, some members of his family and friends, and sometimes people he met through chance encounters but who held a special visual importance for him.

They are all painted indoors, in his studios, not outside, not at their houses or in a neutral space. They are always in the familiar space of his studio, whose props and space and dimensions he knows inside out. This allowed him to focus on what he stated in interviews was his aim, which was to recreate in paint a physical presence.

So the obvious things about the paintings you see as you walk into this room of late works is that:

  • they’re huge, compared to what came before
  • they’re of other people
  • they’re full length instead of face portraits
  • they’re (mostly) naked

But, among this surfeit of impressions, maybe the most striking is the extraordinary poses and postures he has put his naked subjects in. In his mature works, this became his trademark – the rather tortured and certainly uncomfortable poses of naked women, which creates an uncomfortable, unsettling psychological affect on the viewer.

Naked Portrait with Reflection by Lucian Freud (1980)

What is going on? Is he torturing and exploiting these naked women, demonstrating his male power, as feminist critics have it? Or is he twisting their bodies round to create symbols of his personal unhappiness or anguish, as psychological critics might have it? Or had he stumbled across a new kind of motif, which he realised he could make uniquely his own, a ‘look’ which he could use to consolidate his ‘brand’ in the highly competitive London art market, as a Marxist critic might have it? (It is rather staggering to learn that this painting fetched over £11 million at auction in 2008. God knows what it’s worth now.)

Cremnitz white

But the wall label draws attention another, more technical feature of his painting from this period.

In 1975 he began using Cremnitz white, a heavy paint which, when mixed with other paints, creates a thick granular affect. Armed with this information, look again at the sprawling nude above. Look at the white highlights on her body. Two things:

1. Identifying the area of pure white prompts you to look closely at how they relate to the other colours around them. Obviously there’s a lot of pink but, when you look closely, there’s a lot of yellow and, looking more closely, brown and grey and even green. In fact, the more you look, the more entranced you become by the interplay of colours which make up her flesh, a panoply of creams and ochres and bistre tones.

It dawns on you that maybe Freud posed his naked women (and men, he painted a lot of naked men, too) in this contorted sprawling style and lying down rather than sitting up, because this way he exposes the maximum amount of flesh. Maybe these distorted poses have nothing to do with misogynist exploitation or twisted sexuality or psychological symbolism. Maybe they simply create the largest possible expanse of human flesh for him to paint.

2. Go up close, right up to the painting, and what becomes strikingly obvious is the immensely contoured, nubbly, grainy nature of the surface of the work. It is as if someone has thrown small gravel or stones onto the surface which have got embedded in the paint. It is immensely grainy and rubbly and tactile.

Here’s a close-up of the shadow along the right-hand side of the model’s body. You can see:

1. the lumps and bobbles of solid matter in the paint of the darker shadow near the middle of the image

2. the grooves of the thick brushstrokes moving up out of that dark patch to form her tummy or, at the bottom left, the long smooth but very visible and ridged strokes which create her thigh

3. the tremendous variety of colours and tints: granted, they’re all from the same tonal range of brown: but when you look closely you can see the extraordinary dynamism and interplay of shades. There’s barely a square inch of the same colour, but a continual variety, and a tremendous interest and even excitement created by the plastic, three-dimensional, raised and very tactile way different areas of colours stroke and swadge and brush, and daub and paste and are modelled and placed over and against each other.

Detail from Naked Portrait with Reflection by Lucian Freud (1980)

As I mentioned above, this was partly the result of chatting to the painter I met at the show. It was her enthusiastic description of Freud as a painter as a handler of paint, as the creator of such drama on the canvas, which made me go back and look at these last paintings in more detail.

Same thing can be seen in the other big nude in the room, Flora with Blue Toenails. Armed with this new way of seeing, what I noticed about this painting were 1. that the surface is so granular and lumpy you can see it even in a reproduction 2. the striking difference in timbre between her light torso and her much darker, more shaded legs. The keynote seemed to me to be grey. Follow the lines of grey. A solid line of grey goes from her cleavage, down her sternum and snakes around the top of her tummy almost creating a circle, where it almost joins to another long serpent of the same grey which snakes across her left thigh and curls round at her knee before reappearing across her right shin.

Flora with Blue Toe Nails by Lucian Freud (2000-1)

My point is that, by this stage I was seeing these compositions as adventures in paint, as incredibly complex interplays of an astonishing range of colours, applied in a thick dense impasto, with heavy brushstrokes and entire regions raised and nubbled with grains and lumps of solid matter.

Here’s a close-up of Flora’s elbow, as transformed by Freud’s painterly prestidigitation. I found it quite thrilling to step right up to the painting and examine small areas in great detail, revelling in the adventures of the tones and surfaces – look at the myriad colours intermingling in the broad horizontal strokes at the top of her forearm, it’s almost like a rainbow, the multi-levelled mixing of colours is so advanced. And all this combined with the gnarly gritty, deliberately granular surface.

Detail of Flora with Blue Toe Nails by Lucian Freud (2000-1)

Which meant that by the time I entered the final room, a collection of self-portraits from his final years, I wasn’t at all interested in either the biographical or supposedly psychological elements to them (‘ruthlessly honest, apparently) but instead was riveted by the extraordinarily vibrant, confident, sweeping, dashing painterliness of the things.

Here’s a medium close-up of the 1985 work, Reflection (Self portrait) which is a prime example of his thickly-painted and complex technique. Note the green – green blodges either side of his nose and the pouches under his eyes.

Detail of Reflection (Self portrait) by Lucian Freud (1985)

I became irrationally fascinated by the patterned edge to the image, to his shoulders which is presumably created by a spatula of some kind to model the border between the figure and the background, and which created the kind of crimping effect you see around the edge of pies.

Detail of Reflection (Self portrait) by Lucian Freud (1985)

But everywhere you look in the painting you see the same supremely confident use of paint, applied in apparently slapdash thick strokes and in a blather and combo of colours which seems almost chaotic when seen from really close up…

Detail of Reflection (Self portrait) by Lucian Freud (1985)

… but you only have to step back a few paces to see how these thick, spattered applications meld, at the ideal viewing distance, into extremely powerful, and even haunting, images.

Reflection (Self-portrait) by Lucian Freud (1985) © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

So I’m still not sure that I particularly like Lucian Freud’s paintings, but now, thanks to this handy exhibition, I have a much better grasp of the shape of his career, and a completely different way of seeing and conceptualising his paintings – not as the grim and dreary products of a troubled claustrophobe with dubious psychosexual issues, but as thrilling and masterly exercises in painterly technique.

I am not very interested in him as a painter of portraits per se – I couldn’t care less about the various marriages or children which the wall labels tell us about. But this exhibition did help me see how Freud really was one of the greatest painters of human flesh who ever put brush to canvas.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

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